Drivers

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The driver was an elderly man, probably in his seventies. He opened the boot and I hauled the suitcase into it. Sit wherever you like, he said. I chose the passenger seat in front.

He used to be a travel agent, he said. Now it was a part-time job. Recently he had designed a one-month tour to Greece for retirees. The itinerary was ready, the negotiations with hotels almost complete — the tour would begin in November, when winter-weary Germans traveled south.

I told him about my visit to Greece some years ago. When asked where I’m from, my usual response is: from India, but I live in Germany. On that trip to Athens, I omitted the Germany bit. Except once, in an antique shop, where a middle-aged Greek did not hide his contempt. Why do you work in Germany of all places, he asked. Can’t you find work someplace else?

The German austerity measures were infamous there. In Athens I had spotted graffiti ridiculing the Germans, Merkel in particular.

Hearing all this the driver reacted as though I’d touched a nerve. The rest of the drive was a rant I didn’t follow entirely. What I caught were bits and pieces about the ungrateful Greeks.

He drove faster as he vented. Frankfurt airport arrived sooner.

* * *

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August in Bangalore

Signs

 

1. The foreigner

My visit to Bangalore is part business-trip part vacation. Traveling with me on business is a German colleague whose eyes reveal a side of the city I usually gloss over. On the first day, he is puzzled by the security measures at the hotel entrance. Our bags are scanned, the contents of our pockets verified, and we pass through a metal detector. The shopping mall attached to the Marriott has another checkpoint. Why so many security checks here, he asks, when everything seems normal outside?

It is his first visit to the country. On the afternoon he arrives, he takes an auto-rickshaw to Bangalore Palace, and later sends me a picture of the rickshaw on WhatsApp. He is curious about Indian food, but soon runs into “stomach issues due to the spice.” At the restaurant, he tries to make sense of the waiters in the scene, some flitting from table to table, others hanging around doing nothing, and a few just giving orders to others. In the evening he goes looking for mineral water — the bottles in his room are exorbitantly priced — but the nearby BigBasket outlet has no stock. In another supermarket at another mall he picks up four water bottles — it is all they have. Why do supermarkets here not stock water? he asks. I am equally puzzled.

But I am not puzzled when the security guards ignore me and wish him Good Morning. And it is no surprise to see the Crossword bookstore attendant approach him with a greeting and ask if he needs help. Why didn’t he ask you, my colleague wants to know. Because I’m not white, I tell him.

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Africa for beginners

Deneuve was the first Namibian I spoke with. He was also the last. On the first occasion, he came up to me as I exited the Hosea Kutako International airport, asked if I wanted a taxi, and ushered me into his Volkswagen Jetta. He was in his late twenties, a coloured man of medium height and build, with a chin strip goatee beneath a pencil moustache. He was not a chatty driver. When I commented that his English was excellent, he smiled, and returned the compliment. On the forty-minute drive to Windhoek he answered my questions perfunctorily: his father lived in Cape Town, his mother in Windhoek; he could surely earn more with a desk job, but preferred to work outdoors and be on the move; on weekends he shopped at the mall, spent time with his girlfriend, and watched football; he was a Liverpool fan.

On the second instance, as he drove me to the airport for my flight back to Germany, he spoke of the kudu’s habit of charging at cars when caught in the headlights. Once, when he met a herd beside the road, he slowed to a crawling pace, turned off the headlights, and held his breath as he passed the antelopes. These days there were fewer animals along this stretch to the airport. A lone fox trotting across the road was our only sighting.

A fortnight and two days separated these conversations, a time I spent — with my wife P, who joined me after a brief halt in South Africa — driving in the desert and along the coast. I left Namibia with a full notebook, a camera carrying something of the vast nothingness, and sand in my ears, under my fingernails, all over my shoes.


* * *


For most travelers venturing into the interior, Windhoek is only a stopover, an entry-exit port and little more. But we had planned a couple of days here, to slow down and absorb something of the city’s character.

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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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