Monday, January 21, 2013

Taking on the granddaddy of 'em all

Phew, three and a half years since I last posted. I had even forgotten that this ancient blog of mine ever existed, until I recently got an appreciative comment on it from 'Kevin' in Hong Kong (his email later revealed that he was able and happy to sell me a whole range of electrical products, but especially switches, at a VERY competitive rate. But at least he started by praising the blog). I was wondering precisely why I stopped keeping the blog (beyond the very obvious 'been very busy' aspect). One plausible reason is that I have nothing to say. This is a serious point that deserves full consideration, but is rejected by the further realisation that having nothing to say has never stopped me before. Then, realisation struck as I looked at the date of my last post. It was three short months before that structural break in my life, Dhara, came along. Since then I've changed my address, my job, the city I work in, my nationality and a few hundred nappies. Enough reason then.

About that change of nationalities and its implications. I was an Indian citizen until two weeks ago, and as my numerous friends who hold Indian pasports will attest to, that means getting a visa EVERY time you venture out of the country. My trips in the last three years have included Austria, Brazil, the US, Malta, Thailand, Singapore, Italy, Spain, Mexico, Hungary, The Czech Republic, Portugal, Germany, Poland, China, Belgium, and a few others I cannot even remember now. I have stood in every conceivable visa queue and answered every conceivable, and sometimes inconceivable, question on visa forms. Over the longer horizon, I have been impounded in a basement in Brussels airport, and deported from Dhaka airport due to visa-related complications (interesting subjects for blog spots in their own right, some day). I finally decided I needed to shrug off this yoke, and duly acquired my shiny red British passport. This meant I had to give up my Indian passport, since India does not allow dual nationality.

Which should be the first country I needed to visit, then? It had to be India, of course - new project kicking off. Which means I need to get an India visa now, the one visa I never needed to get before (to clarify, that rumour - that Indians would now need a visa to enter India? that turned to  be only a rumour, albeit one that many of us half-believed). But the Indian visa is the hardest of them all, and a true test of my mettle. It is like that argument that Ricky Ponting could never claim the mantle of greatest batsman in the world simply because he never had to face the bowling of McGrath, Warne, etc, unlike Lara or Tendulkar. Will I emerge triumphant from this trial by fire? We shall see next week.

Example question on the online visa form: Have you ever been in India before? If I say yes, I HAVE to provide a visa number from the past (or it will not let me progress), which of course, I don't have since I was a citizen until now. So I have had to say I have never been in India before. The next question? Where were you born - to which my answer is, India. Of course.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Beijing Blog 3

Can’t leave China without doing the wall. Every guide book advises doing it via an organized tour. The conference has fixed one up for a fee. Which is all very convenient, except that I have a great loathing of organized tours. I’d rather not see the place than have a guy with a raised umbrella mechanically rattle off data and then shovel me back into a bus so he can take me to a jade factory.

Thankfully some research tells me there is a fast train to the Badaling wall. I get to Beijing North railway station and manage to buy a ticket even though the first clerk assures me there is no such train. Spotless platform, convenient though crowded train. Should have got the first class ticket. Anyway, friendly Beijingers make a bit of space for me, and I’m ok. Coming into Badaling, I count 200 tour buses, and that’s only what is visible to me. There is a public section to the wall, and there is a section reserved for officials and VIPs. I muse on the fact that with all the talk of power to the people, only a tiny political elite get all the jam. What’s better - Ration by willingness to pay or by political muscle? Either way, the common man is screwed. I do the obligatory walk up the wall to a few turrets and then return. First class on return and it is all very comfy and swishy.

The sun finally breaks through the sky. A kid wants to take his picture with me, and I oblige. I want to tell him that I am from a place where the people only slightly less numerous than they are, and so he would be impressing nobody. But perhaps he just wants a picture with a dunce who keeps leaving more money than asked for in the bill.

Beijing Blog 2

You can only call it the Forbidden City with a sense of irony anymore. Really, it could do with a lot more forbidding. At the moment, the mantra seems to be to pack ‘em in and pile ‘em high. I am in the middle of the Forbidden City, and the atmosphere is that of a vacuum-packed can of sardines. I have been to greatly crowded tourist spots like the Taj Mahal and Angkor Wat before, but this is something else entirely. Even growing up in India and working in Bangladesh did not prepare me for this. How could they possibly fit in so many people in an enclosed space?! Did I chance to come in on a day when they were preparing to enter the Guinness book, like those zillions squashing into Volkswagen Beetles in the sixties?

My day started in rather more tranquil fashion at Jing Shan park, directly north of the Forbidden City, and notable as an oasis of peace and greenery that the last Ming emperor decided would do as a place to hang himself in after disposing of his pesky family with a scythe. A plaque explains the murky details and is read with great interest by visitors. Something to do with enemies at the gate, palace intrigue, cheating wives and conniving eunuchs – a little bit for everyone, and a sure-fire magnet for crowds. The terraces atop the hill in Jing Shen afford great views of the layout of Forbidden City and I entered the City from the Jing Shen entrance, in reverse to the average visitor who enters from Tiannanmen Square.

The Forbidden City is stunning. Breathtaking. At least I think so, because between the Gate of Heavenly Purity and the Hall of Supreme Harmony, I enter a State of Incipient Panic owing to the thickness of the crowds. Either I am getting too old or have developed agoraphobia. But you do need the imagination of a Zhang Yimou to mentally erase the crowds from the Forbidden City and imagine it in its imperial splendour.

Late evening. I finally track down the Purple Bodhi, a vegetarian restaurant in Chaoyang where I am based. It is beautifully decorated but the waitresses seem surprised that anyone bothered to come in for a meal. The menu has been devised by a nature poet. I choose ‘Moonlight on the Lotus Pond’ (lotus root and button mushrooms in a clear soup) and ‘Eternal Happiness’ (medley of fresh green vegetables) with rice. How could I refuse dishes with these titles? You have to love the nature theme that runs through Chinese culture. A good meal, and and I leave a good tip, which is promptly returned to me by the uncomprehending waitress.

Beijing Blog 1

Fly in on the red-eye Air China flight from Bangkok to Beijing. As the plane hovers over Beijing capital airport at 6:00 am, things look murky, misty and rainy – I might as well be in the UK. We seem to have caught Beijing at the threshold between sleepy weekend lethargy and manic monday-morning explosion of activity. Terminal 3 is massive and gleaming. We are required to fill out a swine flu card requiring self-reporting of symptoms. I wonder which fool would confess to racking coughs and high fever and risk immediate quarantine and a battery of tests.

The taxi driver does not speak a word of English –none of the ones I have encountered so far do. Which is a darned inconvenience when trying to explain where you want to want to go. Without written details in Chinese or a map, you have no chance of getting anywhere in a hurry. But the lack of English can also be a blessing. I am no fan of chatty taxi-drivers. The way I see it, once the journey has started, the taxi driver and passenger should pretend the other does not exist. After negotiating a series of highways and ring-roads, we are finally at the hotel. I pay the exact metre fare and get a printed receipt – perfect.

Afternoon – decide to try out the metro system and get to Tiannanmen square. I tell the hotel receptionist I want to walk to the metro station, and she looks at me pityingly as she would a rank fool. Despite her exhortations, I decide to walk to the metro station. This is a European trait I seem to have picked up, choosing to walk whenever possible. Mental note – quickly discard this trait whilst outside Europe. Beijing is a bit like LA, it does not look kindly upon pedestrians. Nothing is within walking distance, and pedestrians are considered target-practice. You are the lowest being in the traffic food chain, and they are lining up to mow you down. The pedestrian green light is not a signal for YOU to cross safely, but rather a signal for THEM to prepare to squash you. After an eternity on foot, get to the metro station. The ticketing is easy to follow. One of the great advantages of being an Olympic city is that the infrastructure is designed to be visitor-friendly. I still manage to make a mess of the simple act of buying a ticket from the touch screen system, until a kindly local helps me out. Beijingers are curious about foreigners, but they just don’t like to acknowledge it. So you will get the briefest of flickers from curious eyes before they return to looking past you.

The metro train is packed to the gills. I try to hold my breath everytime someone coughs, and find out this is a cheap ticket to asphyxiation. There it is, Tiannanmen square, just like in the pictures. Except heaving with people exiting the Forbidden City. Chairman Mao keeps a stern eye from the gate of F City, no doubt marking me out as a trouble-making capitalist pig. The square is an impressive sight, flanked as it is by the Great Hall of the People where the legislature meets, the National Museum and the Forbidden City. I try to imagine 1989 and one man holding his arms out to a rolling tank, but find that it is difficult to think in a thick crowd. A couple of art students engage me in conversation. Their English is quite good, and they persuade me to take a look at their exhibition in a little annex to the museum. Quite good stuff – typical Chinese nature paintings along the lines of Qi Baishi’s, which I am quite fond of. They gently coax me into buying some of their stuff, and I eventually give in, buying a set of four season paintings in watercolour on scrolls. Exiting, I wonder if I have been scammed. If so, they are terrific actors. But I think not.

Monday, April 13, 2009

Here we go again

Ho hum, another day, another state of emergency in Thailand. Same place, different coloured shirts. Although I do have to say the mob looks a bit rougher this time around, and the news keeps showing clips of guys in the crowd firing automatic weapons in the air and crawling on top of the two tanks that seems to have rolled down Sukhumvit. Since the soldiers seem to have been given strict orders not to use force, the mob seems to be having their way with them. I can imagine Private Jack thinking quietly but furiously as a red shirter elbows and abuses him ‘You just wait, unknown rioter, once the signal to use force comes, and by heaven come it will, I’ll be shoving that same elbow, broken in three places, down your throat…’ For now, however, the soldiers seem to be displaying admirable restraint.

We have been located in Sukhumvit for the last couple of days, and I’ve been travelling freely up and down. I’ve had to duck a few times during my forays, but only to avoid being sprayed with water by early Songkhran revellers. Moving around today is going to be a bit more of a challenge, what with the emergency as well as Songkhran in full force. I may even have to default on my resolution to not sample the same cuisine twice during my stay in Sukhumvit. The real question is whether I will be able to get a taxi to the airport tomorrow afternoon. Only time will tell. Watch this space (if you have absolutely nothing else to do).

Sunday, November 09, 2008

Merits of the Middle

I'm as pleased as millions of others around the globe about the anointment of Obama. All those weeks of watching the polls anxiously whilst hissing at the perceived distortions of the right wing media. As I've been telling my colleagues, British politics is too boring simply because everyone has moved to the centre, and so you can't really tell the Tories much apart from Labour. It's polarization that makes politics fun, and American politics surely offers that. In life in general, I firmly believe that all truth lies generally somewhere in the middle, but then the truth ain't always much fun!

However, moving back to the merits of the middle, the race aspect that seems to please most people in the Obama case is that a black man made it to the presidency. Terrific as that is, I am more chuffed about the fact that a bi-racial person became president. I once took an ecological modelling class with a famous professor called Bruce Hannon, who firmly believed that human salvation lay in inter-racial relationships. I remember him marvelling at the genetic mix of a girl in our class who was half-Chinese and half-Mexican. I too silently cheer everytime I see a pale arm entwined with a dark one, or an oriental head resting on a latin shoulder. Whether it is inter-racial or inter-religious or simply inter-national, surely there is no better symbol of crumbling walls!

Saturday, October 04, 2008

In Bruges (and out quickly, thank god)

Ghent and Bruges, Belgium

A long gap since my last blog, but since I talk to myself all the time and this blog is just a variation on that theme, nothing much lost. The only difference is that the blog serves as a diary of sorts, and I'm sure it'll help me turn the nostalgia tap on down the road.

The highlight of August was a trip to Ghent, Belgium, with a detour to Bruges thrown in. What a relief to be able to take the Eurostar and not go through more tiresome airport routines. Ghent was charming, the sun was out, and Bee was with me, and so it was just splendid. All canals, cobbled streets and confectionery. We expected picture postcard in Bruges, and we got picture postcard, only with a zillion tourists flashing V signs at the camera. I for one was happy to beat a retreat to the less celebrated but surely more lovable Ghent.

And oh, there was the minor matter of attending a conference at Ghent. But that is always secondary to the town it is held in.

Friday, July 25, 2008

Going, going...

It seems that green spaces and black rhinos are not the only endangered things. Second-hand bookstores are quietly disappearing across the UK. I read of this somewhere, and had to restrain myself from weeping openly. For, if you're into books at all, there is no greater joy than stepping into the cool confines of a second-hand bookstore, delighting in the musty whiff of a thousand dog-eared old volumes, and proceeding to crane your neck for the next hour in search of a hidden gem or two. When the admirable Keegan's bookshop in Reading closed down a year ago, I felt genuine anguish given that three fourths of my books hail from there. I remember well the hardbound copy of 'Portnoy's Complaint' for 50 pence, and the terrific Rabbit trilogy by John Updike appealingly offered at a throw-down £1.50. Even in London, the former second-hand book haven at Charing Cross, the part near Leicester Square tube, seems to be shrinking. There are only three or four shops left, thankfully including my favourite, 'Any amount of books' (seen above). If, as foreshadowed by the arrival of twenty-twenty cricket, test cricket dwindles into endangered territory too, I have marked out a shop in Lambeth where I can buy a handgun (which, it seems, are definitely not endangered) to take care of the needful. That said, my recent discovery of the sensationally good 'Blossom book store' in Bangalore has somewhat restored my faith.

Saturday, July 05, 2008

Spleen venting

One of the readers of my blog (I am the other one) emailed me the other day to remark on how I seemed to display a uniformly sunny disposition in my jottings. Don' t you have any bile to expend, he queried. Fear not gentle reader, I only refrain from bilious outpourings because I am afraid that once started I will not be able to stop. So let me see, what are some of my least favourite things?

I have to start with something that riles me at every one of my gym visits - troglodytes who occupy pieces of exercise equipment for ages. A 10 second exercise burst, followed by an extended bout of relaxing on the machine, another 10 second burst and so on. I recall having to wait close to 30 minutes for a machine to free up during one visit. I came perilously close to hurling a dumbell in the general direction of the chap's head, only I couldn't lift one more than waist-high.

Ok, now that I have loosened up. House/Techno and most other forms of dance music. Night-clubs. DJs (I mean, who ARE these guys anyway; why do they get paid enormous amounts of money to spin records and mix bad music that they didn't even create themselves?). Mobile phones (although I do own one). Inconsiderate *@##& who use up seats on crowded trains by placing their briefcases on the seats next to them. Friends. I mean the TV show, and all the characters in it (I would love nothing more dearly than to watch a movie where Freddie from the Nightmare on Elm Street movies or Jason from Halloween takes a chainsaw to the occupants of the Friends house). Quentin Tarantino movies. The fact that it is considered cool to like Quentin Tarantino movies. Cars. Talking about car models and makes. Any dish that mixes sweet flavours with sour/spicy/salty ones. Pineapple on pizza (which genius thought of that one?). Pigeons. Spitters. Litter louts. Those who write in library books. Celebrities. Big Brother. Celebrity Big Brother.

Ok, I reckon I'd best turn the tap off now.