Deadpanner

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(Part 3 of a series that began here. P and I have just arrived at Sacha, a lodge in the Ecuadorian rainforest; we are part of a group led by our guide Daniel.)

The room safe was locked when we checked in. Eduardo, the barman who came to unlock it, looked Indian. American Indian, not Indian Indian. The staff was mostly Indian, and while our skin tones matched theirs, P and I were the only real Indians.

Next day, on the safe’s display, 4 appeared when 1 was pressed. Summoned again, Eduardo laughed like a boy seeing the errant display. It’s the humidity, he said; use only the last column of digits — that will work! It probably would, but the reduced attack vector would also render the safe useless. This did not enter Eduardo’s calculations. The safe had a symbolic purpose: to calm down tourists used to seeing them in their rooms. We left it open.

That first afternoon, not long after we arrived, Daniel led our group (Pierre, Dominique, Julie, and us) on a short canoe ride around the lake. We spotted flycatchers, oropendolas, and hoatzins. The hoatzin, whom Daniel called a stinky turkey, flew between trees in an ungainly fashion, cawing like a sick crow. A bizarre bird with reptilian features, it looked like a prehistoric creature.

In the evening, over dinner, we learned Pierre was a retired lawyer.

I put people behind bars, he said.

Used to put, said Dominique, his daughter, a sports instructor.

Don’t challenge me, Pierre said, lifting his fork.

They lived in Zurich. Both looked French, had French names, but they spoke Swiss German. Which meant I could not understand most of what they said to each other. (Swiss German is what you get when a regular German has an upset stomach.) Earlier on this trip to Ecuador, they’d been to the Galapagos for a week.

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Journeying to Ecuador

Our baggage did not arrive in Quito. One suitcase did, the other was orphaned in Houston. The United Airlines agent who traced the missing piece said their policy offers no compensation for delays shorter than 48 hours. The suitcase would arrive exactly a day later, on the same flight from Houston to Quito. And United would deliver it anywhere in Ecuador.

We were leaving for the Amazon rainforest next morning. The agent, a short woman with a soft voice and reassuring manner, took down details of our lodge. Then she handed us two complimentary packets, each containing a toothbrush, toothpaste, a shaving kit, and a sachet of laundry granules.

Missing baggage isn’t much cause for worry these days. Airlines trace the items with ease, and a formal process oversees such incidents. (I can imagine a meeting of United employees, sitting around a table in a room, defining such a process. One of them proposes a complimentary toiletries pack in lieu of compensation. Another one adds: with laundry granules.) It can be inconvenient of course, but P had packed some of her clothes into my suitcase. She coped, without the granules.

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Entrepreneurs, Cricket, and Mangoes

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In April, a business trip to Bangalore led me to extend my stay in the city by a week. I spent it at home, with my parents and sister, eating mangoes and watching IPL on the television (often both at the same time). I met friends at their homes or outside. There was a Kannada play, a Kannada movie, a classical concert, a visit to the National Gallery of Modern Art, and even a live IPL game at the Chinnaswamy stadium.

The city felt more familiar than before. I put this to my previous two visits (less than eight months apart) and to the writing, about the city, I had been engaged in the previous year. Bangalore was changing, but I now had a frame to place the changes in and understand them. Nonetheless, there were surprises.

The gated community my parents lived in now had a system of verifying visitors via an app, MyGate. The app notified you about the visitor at the gate, and also triggered an automated call to your landline. You could approve the visitor either by clicking on the app or by pressing a key on the landline, but one did not exclude the other. The security folks at the gate still relied on the old system of directly calling the apartment: so instead of one simple call from the gate to the apartment, we now had two calls and one app notification. You could ignore the app, but the automated call was persistent. My father, eager for conversation, always responded verbally, trying to engage the automated voice asking the listener to “Press 1 to approve, 2 to reject.” He gave up soon, and these calls were picked up by someone else at home.

The apartment’s monthly maintenance fee had recently been hiked to eight thousand rupees. Water, delivered to the apartment in water tankers, was the culprit. Bangalore’s water crisis and the water-tanker ‘mafia’ has been widely reported, and on each visit I read more descriptions of the alarming water situation in the city. But the most common response from the middle-class is to buy water from private operators.

“We wanted flying cars, instead we got 140 characters”: this is Peter Thiel, a Silicon Valley entrepreneur, bemoaning the nature of present-day innovation. In Bangalore, one wishes for things more basic: water, clean air, good public transportation, garbage-free neighbourhoods. Bangaloreans complain about these matters, but (like people everywhere) they go on with their lives, few engaging in attempts to address them. What excites the young middle-class though is the next new app in town, or the cool new venture of a serial entrepreneur.

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Postcards from Tanzania – 3

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Inside the Ngorongoro crater, as we stopped to photograph the elephants, Gerald told us about the Elephant Graveyard. A marshy area with tall and soft grass, it attracted ageing elephants seeking easy access to food and water during their last days. Although Gerald did not directly say this, we left with the notion that ‘elephants came here to die’: poignant but misleading.




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Postcards from Tanzania – 2

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On our drive to Serengeti and back, we passed small towns with a thriving roadside economy bound to this passing traffic. The bigger and more permanent shops were set a little away from the street: Mobile ‘Wakalas’ (agencies), bike repair shops, car washing centers, groceries, medical stores, and others whose purpose you could only guess at: Lelo shop, Joh Mix shop, Mama Soni shop, Dogo shop.  Closer to the road we saw motorcycle taxis, autorickshaws (called “Bajaj” by the locals), and pushcart vendors selling all manner of things from bananas, corn, and cassavas, to handicrafts, shoes, and clothing. Hilary Clinton Shop and Michelle Obama Mobile Shop were labelled to attract the attention of tourists who fall for such tricks, and it worked on us to a point. We slowed down to take a photo.

At a fuel station nearby, hawkers peddling handicrafts drifted towards our jeep.

“Hello mister, are you from India?”

The boy — he was fourteen or fifteen — had a backpack strapped to his stomach and a smaller bag on his shoulders with wooden figurines peeping out. His left hand was obscured beneath a thicket of bracelets.

“Yes we are!”

“My name is Krishna.” He held out his hand towards my window.

“Then I’m Rama,” I said, shaking his hand, and before I could withdraw it he had placed an elephant on my palm.

“It is made of ebony — really good.”

“This is too light,” I said. “It can’t be ebony.”

“It is ebony! Anyway, try this one.”

The giraffe was no heavier than the elephant.

“No thank you.”

“Try these!” he persisted, untangling a few bracelets. A man wearing dark glasses and carrying similar odds and ends arrived at my window. On instinct I began to close it.

“No close mister,” the boy said. “Friendship is more important than money. You don’t buy, no problem.”

I left the window open and indulged in my curiosity, asking about this or that object. Krishna continued to maintain it was all ebony. When we were done fuelling, I thanked him and shook his hand.

“Asante!” I said.

“Karibu!” came the reply.

 

Postcards from Tanzania – 1

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Our first day in Serengeti. We had just seen a leopard descend from a tree and walk away into the savannah — a rare sighting, in the opinion of Gerald, our driver-guide. Leopards were shy, and often the only glimpse they offered visitors was a faint flicker of a spotted coat behind a foliage. We were lucky.

Gerald drove further from that kopje into the vast emptiness. Some minutes later we saw, in a flash that lasted perhaps two or three seconds, a cheetah chase an impala. The impala got away. And in the instant the chase ended the cheetah lay down on the grass, a manoeuvre whose speed and grace was as stunning as the chase itself. Gerald said she was staying low to stay out of sight, to seek another chance, another prey. And he said it was our vehicle that had distracted the cheetah from the kill.

We had saved a life; we felt happy. Then the cheetah’s young one appeared, following the mother. That young cheetah will probably go hungry today, Gerald said. He felt sorry for it. Our happiness was short-lived.

Gerald stopped our 4×4 some meters from the pair. On the opposite side, a few hundred meters away, the impala stood looking in this direction, alert to any move by the cheetahs. But they stayed put, and we moved on.

Janus-faced

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(Part 6 of the Bangalore Days series that began here.)

We moved to Germany in late 2000, and our first visit to Bangalore came two and half years later, in 2003. I was curious to see how Bangalore had changed. I was also uncertain, after this period abroad, what to expect, and unsure of my response to the city.

On that first visit I began to notice the differences between the privileged and the poor, an evident trait that had escaped my attention in the past. The inequality was striking, and I wondered what might be done to change this Janus-faced society. But by the end of the third week the gap bothered me a lot less than it had on the first day. The juxtaposition of luxury and poverty was a common feature here, and I had relearned to take it for granted. This conditioned indifference seemed natural and puzzling at the same time. It occupied my mind after I returned, but not for long: life in my immediate surroundings in Germany held a power those distant scenes lacked.

The thoughts and emotions surfaced again on following visits to Bangalore. I saw that while some had grown visibly richer, things had barely changed for others; and what the streets conveyed was at variance with the growth statistics I’d seen. These observations were followed by a sense of helplessness, and later, indifference. On each visit the cycle was similar. Noticing the contrast, worrying about it, then ignoring it: after a decade this pattern was so well set that scenes in Bangalore (and my response to them) stopped bothering me as much as they once did. On every following visit I noticed less than I had before.

It happened again in 2013, beginning with an incident the day I landed in Bangalore.

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Comedians and students

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Go abroad to study, pursue an MBA at one of the Indian Institutes of Management, or find a job in a Bangalore-based IT company: In the nineties, during the college years I spent studying Computer Science, we saw our futures following one of these paths. The options are now passé; the “cool” thing nowadays is to start a company or join a startup. On this visit to Bangalore I met six people, cousins and friends, engaged with a startup. Two of those startups were financially sound; the others were passing through a rough patch, their future uncertain. But success seemed to matter less to these people than the experience, the thrill of “doing your own thing”.

The entrepreneurial fever had spread beyond business and technology. I had read about it earlier, but saw it only this visit at an evening with eight standup comedians in bFlat, a bar in Indiranagar. Set on the 2nd floor of a commercial building, the cavernous bar was crammed with sixty to eighty people, young men and women mostly in their twenties. The standup artists were also young. Their themes — race, gender, the IT worker, language and accents, porn, relationships — were unsurprising, and so was their Western influence: Russel Peters, Aziz Ansari, Chris Rock. But the jokes gathered an original quality from the setting they used — the Indian context, rich with material waiting to be picked apart. This crowd was a fairly new class, young liberal urbanites at ease in the global culture and sharing its attitudes, and they had to deal with others who had grown up at a different time with another set of values. The gap proved a good source for humour, tapped with skill by the artists.

Bangalore of the early nineties had no such place. Serious pub culture in the city began around the mid-nineties, so we missed the wave by a year or two. (I do not recall anyone from my college going to a pub; our idea of fun was dinner in a North Indian restaurant.) We were also an awkward bunch in public, showing little of the easy-going confidence one sees in urban teenagers nowadays. And we did not have the kind of money the middle-class now flaunts. A scene like the one in bFlat — with young adults displaying an easy familiarity with the opposite sex and with alcohol — would have seemed to us like fiction, or like a setting from the West.

The comedians in bFlat stayed away from politics, mostly. When one of them compared a neighbouring state leader to a baby elephant, he quickly added he could hear the sirens already — the police were on their way. Among the artists were two women. Their jokes were often self-deprecatory — touching, for instance, on her weight and figure (another baby elephant), on the way women drive cars, on how she only had to stop “shaving” for a week to grow a moustache and be seen as a man — which lent these women a soft charm lacking in the postures the men adopted.

“Other than the exchange rate, what brings you to India?”

It was a question to a foreigner in the audience, a Dutchman. When the laughter subsided, the comedian, a young man with a goatee, continued:

“So are you and your friends going Dutch today?”

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The first days

The flight from Frankfurt lands in Bangalore a little before 2:00 a.m., an unearthly hour for residents here, but ideal for a visitor like me. Riding home in an Airport Taxi, I wonder what it would be like to land during the day and plunge headlong into the manic intensity on the city’s streets. This nocturnal arrival is less invasive, almost soothing.

At home an unusual inertia sets in. I’m meeting my parents and sister after a year, and staying home is all I want to do. We exchange recent and not-so-recent happenings, then retreat into our routines. There’s a pleasure of simply being in each other’s company again: the four of us under the same roof, like those days of childhood.

I stay indoors, in this sixth-floor apartment, and slowly an awareness of a new order of things emerges. Sounds seep in: impatient cars, restless dogs, a rasping generator nearby, a colicky child upstairs. Intrusions are routine: the maid, the deliveryman, the plumber, the garbage collector, the neighbour. Television, running in the background, brings news of murder, rape, scandal; newspaper headlines feature traffic troubles and instances of intolerance. Mother’s South Indian dishes revive childhood memories; cockroaches scurry at late hours for the same food. An inoperative shower forces a bucket bath. And the balcony reveals a sea of low, flat-roofed houses, interrupted by clumps of dull high-rises dividing the horizon.

Three days after my arrival, Germany seems like a place on another planet.

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Sutherland and the moons of Jupiter


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[ Part 4 of the South Africa series that began with Cape Town Weekend, continued in Clanwilliam, and had last stopped at Tankwa Karoo. ]


In Cape Town and later, when I spoke of my plan to visit Sutherland, eyes always lit up. It was a place most wanted to visit but few had, and their pupils revealed something of the reputation the town carried. I knew nothing of this character when I included it in my itinerary, relying solely on town’s proximity to the South African Large Telescope (SALT), “the largest single optical telescope in the southern hemisphere”, where visitors on a guided tour look through the instrument’s eye at the night sky. I planned one night in Sutherland, and prayed silently for a clear sky.

The sky was clear when I left Gannaga Lodge on Thursday morning. The evening before, Johann had suggested I follow the Ouberg Pass to Sutherland: this route was more difficult, he said, but the scenery was spectacular. At breakfast that morning Louis had seconded this view, and he gave me directions to get on the route. Following the Gannaga pass into the veld I had crossed the previous day, I turned east after the park office. The gravel track curved toward another arm of the Roggeveld mountains, and soon the track turned narrow and steep. I drove slowly, halting, at one bend, to watch a small pack of springboks saunter downhill.

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