A Blot in the Sea

The oil spill off the coast of Mauritius has been in the news recently. MV Wakashio, a Japanese oil tanker, ran aground in late July. A week later the stranded vessel started leaking oil. It all sounded painfully familiar, and I’d seen the bleak images before: coastal ecosystems devastated by the oil spill, aerial views of blue-green waters turning black, workers and volunteers in oil-drenched suits. This time, though, a personal connection turned this into more than just another news item. In 2016 my wife and I had spent a week in Mauritius, staying on the eastern coast not far from where the oil is currently ruining the coral reefs. 

It was the end of May, the beginning of the off-season. Driving around in a small car, we explored parts of the island that spoke to us in the Lonely Planet guide: Markets, temples, colonial houses, unremarkable towns, the remains of a crater, a tea plantation. Beaches were not what we were after. What had drawn us to Mauritius was the fact that about half its population, descended from indentured labourers brought here from early to late nineteenth century, is of Indian origin. 

And what we found was a time capsule, a parallel universe of sorts. This was India, but from the eighties. The people looked Indian but spoke a tongue that made no sense to us. They bore unrecognizable names: Seebaluck, Ramgoolam, Ringadoo, Bissoondoyal. The radio played Bollywood songs from the eighties; their programme hosts spoke Hindi with a French accent. Vegetable markets carried the buzz of markets in India, but they were too clean, and their chatter undecipherable.  In one restaurant – more of a dhaba, full of local workers – all eyes were glued to a wall-mounted TV playing Namak Halal. Temples featured a mix of idols – Hanuman, Shirdi Sai Baba, Buddha – we’d never seen together, and the priests performed rituals foreign to us. Like the Indians in Trinidad Naipaul has written about, the Indians here were a species apart. And observing them I found myself slipping into an anthropologist’s role, trying to unearth the roots of a custom or a quirk, studying what changes a century and half of isolation had led to. 

Some did speak Hindi, haltingly, in the diffident manner of someone learning a new language. They were curious about our origins, and shared stories of their visits to India (not to see relatives – they’d lost the connection long ago – but to shop.) They carried the innocence and unsophistication of Indians we see in Hindi movies from the seventies or eighties; Amol Palekar and Farooq Sheik come to mind. And there were some who, although unmistakably Indian in appearance, revealed no other traits tying them to the land of their ancestors, and showed no curiosity in our Indianness; they had moved on. 

I couldn’t get over the feeling that we were traveling in India, although something in this picture was amiss. Driving through the interiors, with sugarcane fields on either side and green mountains in the distance, we crossed small towns that typically crop up on such a road trip in India. But these towns and villages seemed different. There were far fewer people, the streets were cleaner, and while some people we saw were poor, we didn’t see the kind of poverty common in India. In the cities we saw no one begging on the streets, and there were no slums. 

Modernity wasn’t really absent, of course.  Fast food restaurants, shopping malls, chic hotels and lodges, the occasional Audi or Mercedes: from time to time they broke the “India in the eighties” spell. But we were happiest in parts far removed from such scenes. 

What also broke the spell was the water. I’d seen that magical blue in pictures of tropical island resorts, and here it was, glinting under a mild sun, lapping against the soft sand. It created a spell of its own. Beach time was not in the plan, but we ended up spending half a day exploring one near our hotel. It was a sunny, windless morning. A handful of tourists were snorkelling nearby. Some local teenage boys had come on a picnic. An old man sat on a rock teaching a boy how to fish. We sauntered around, looking at the ugly beachfront houses, endlessly taking pictures of the beach, and staring at the unreal blue expanse. 

The day before we left, we visited Ile Aux Aigrettes, a tiny coral island near the south-eastern corner of Mauritius. As a nature reserve managed by the Mauritian Wildlife Foundation, the island can be reached only via a guided tour. From Pointe Jerome, a ten-minute ride on a speedboat took us across the clearest waters I’d ever seen. On the island, our guide led us through narrow forest paths, talking to us about rare plant and bird species found on the island. We spotted pink pigeons and fruit bats. Behind an enclosure we saw young conservationists labelling tiny tortoises. The foundation’s conservation efforts had managed to recreate the flora and fauna that existed here four-hundred years ago, an accomplishment our guide was visibly proud of. 

The Wakashio now sits splintered not far from Ile Aux Aigrettes. The sea around this island, burnt in my mind as a transparent blue pool, is now clouded black. A thousand tonnes of fuel have leaked out of the tanker, and the spillage presently surrounds Ile Aux Aigrettes on all sides. It has also reached Blue Bay, a pristine lagoon at the south-eastern corner of Mauritius. The coral reefs in that region, already under threat from bleaching caused by the warming and acidification of the ocean, are now facing great damage. 

“Crystal Clear” is how I found myself describing those waters to friends after we returned from Mauritius. A trite simile perhaps, but right now the phrase seems not cliched but simply inappropriate. We need new ways to describe the degradation we are bringing about to our world.  At this moment, as I stare at the unbelievable images reaching us from Mauritius, words fail me. 


Sofia 2

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.

* * *

Continue reading “Drivers”

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.

Continue reading “Africa for beginners”

Clanwilliam and the rock art trail

Clanwilliam Route

When I began to consider places to stopover on my road trip after Cape Town, Clanwilliam turned up on the map as a good option. It fell on the route to Tankwa Karoo, the national park I wanted to visit, and its attractions were not of the sort that draw scores of tourists. There was a dam nearby, a wilderness area ideal for hiking, and a few rock art sites. Clanwilliam’s modest size caught my attention too: I was curious for a glimpse of small-town life in South Africa.

The rental car, a 4×4 Nissan X-Trail, was delivered to my hotel on Monday morning. Waiting for the car in the hotel lobby, I read in a book guidelines for driving in South Africa:

  • The faster you drive through a red light, the smaller the chance you have of getting hit.
  • Indicators will give away your next move. A real motorist never uses them.
  • On average, at least three cars can still go through an intersection after the light has turned red. It’s people not adhering to this basic principle that cause the big traffic jams during rush hour.
  • Under no circumstance should you leave a safe distance between you and a car in front, or the space will be filled by two Golfs, a BMW and a Getz, putting you in an even more dangerous situation.
  • Never, ever come to a complete stop at a stop sign. No one expects it and it will only result in you being rear ended.

I had noticed that South Africans drive on the wrong side of the road (in Germany we do the right side), so I stayed alert within city limits. After Cape Town, driving north on the N7, factories and barns and small settlements gave way to a flat, dry, and mostly uncultivated landscape. Two hours later the road climbed over a line of hills and wriggled back into a valley. I stopped at a service area to withdraw cash, and in the shop, which stacked unfamiliar biscuits, chocolates, fizzy drinks, and newspapers, I asked for a map of the area. At first the lady at the counter seemed not to understand. I repeated myself.

“We do not have maps here,” she said.

She meant the shop, but it could have been the country: after Cape Town I did not find a map anywhere.

Continue reading “Clanwilliam and the rock art trail”

The Woods, again

The woods had changed character when I visited them again last week.  The colours of Winter, which were dominating just a few weeks previously, were now invisible: all around was lush greenery.


It was a perfect evening for photographs – the light was just right – and I did not realize the hours go by. After a while, traversing the meandering paths and enveloped by a strangely soothing breeze among the trees, everything around me seemed to acquire an aura of beauty. If this sounds abstract, have a look at this album – even a piece of wood lying in the grass has so much beauty, wouldn’t you agree?


Welcome to WordPress

I’ve moved from Typepad to WordPress for a simple reason: paying for a blogging service  didn’t seem to make sense when something as flexible and user-friendly as WordPress was available for free.

I have been thinking about this move for some time now, but could not get over the inertia mostly due to lack of time. Until now, that is. I’m presently on a vacation in India, and this seemed a good time to take up the project. I’m happy not to have lost any of the comments – they are an important part of this journal – and I’ve additionally added category information to most of the posts dating back to 2003.

Welcome. I look forward to more posts, and more discussions.



We’ve had very little snow this year, which is a pity.  This picture, taken some weeks back on a drive to Brussels, is currently set as my desktop wallpaper.  Each morning when I login I am reminded how beautiful a snow-covered landscape is.  But what is gradually fading from memory is the texture of snow, and no picture can bring it back.

What are you thinking?

I got a short email from B today:

"Am I right in thinking that you did not enjoy your India trip as much this time as you usually do? Your posts on the subject have both sounded terribly irritated."

It made me smile, those lines. And it occurred to me that others must have felt similarly, reading the posts.

My mind wandered to some lines I had recently read. It was by an Indian writing about his experience trying to settle back in India:

"This fucking city. The sea should rush in over these islands in one great tidal wave and obliterate it, cover it underwater. It should be bombed from the air. Every morning I get angry. It is the only way to get anything done; people respond to anger, are afraid of it. In the absence of money or connections, anger will do…….

Any nostalgia I felt about my childhood has been erased. Given the chance to live again in the territory of childhood, I am coming to detest it. Why do I put myself through this? I was comfortable and happy and praised in New York; I had two places, one to live and one to work. I have given all that up for this fool’s errand, looking for silhouettes in the mist of the ghost time. Now I can’t wait to go back, to the place I once longed to get away from: New York. I miss the cold weather and white people. I see pictures of blizzards on TV and remember the warmth inside when it’s cold outside and you open the window just a crack and the air outside slices in like a solid wedge. How it reaches your nostrils and you take a deep breath. How you go outside on a bad night and the cold clears your head and makes everything better."

That’s Suketu Mehta, in Maximum City

I looked back at the email.  I sounded irritated? Yes, I was irritated and angry in those moments.  It seems like I did not enjoy my trip? No, not true. Any experience of India after a gap of two years is exhilarating, intense, and provokes a mix of positive and negative emotions. I’ve only just started (and time has not been on my side these last weeks, so progress has been slow, and the writing has just skimmed the surface) – there are many more episodes to come:  the Basti; the Passport Officer; Cochin to Bangalore; Hyderabad to Cochin; the ATM; the night watchman…

Let us see what emotions they bring out, what patterns emerge.