Saturday, May 31, 2008

A view over Arizona

Well I always wanted to travel to Vancouver - today work obliges me.

Another long flight, across the US from Houston to Phoenix, then up the Pacific coast, over the border into Canada.

If I compared the flatness of East Texas plains to that of Iraq, then the dry desert of Arizona reminds me of the flight over Iran and Pakistan to Kandahar.

Here too there's a slice of territory that favorably compares to the pictures coming in from Mars from the robot explorers sent there. Anyone for another Capricorn One conspiracy, hehe ? (That was a story about NASA pretending to sent guys to the moon, only it was Arizona).

There are ranches down there, and farms cultivating their crops in great irrigated circles like those I saw when flying over Iran and Jordan recently. The land is arid; the water comes from aquifers deep under ground and the concern is that these are consumed faster than refreshed.

Otherwise you can look at all this unused land and ask, where are the new farm businesses that can take advantage of the higher food prices?

Phoenix is this great city built in the desert and still fringed by it. Every so often a Hopi Indian design is imprinted in a highway ramp or public building. Large residential blocks are carved from the dust, laid out, built up, greened and sprinkled. Most houses have their own swimming pool, even if it is only two strokes long.

I was in Scottsdale once, 10 years ago, so I know what this all looks like on the ground, and its very beautiful. Looking at is from the air, it looks more like the isolated town of Gladstone in Queensland my father almost took us to live in when I was a child. I always wonder what my lie would have been or become has I been raised in such a place.

Ninety minutes stop over and I'm on the leg to Vancouver.

Friday, May 30, 2008

Liberty, Texas

I'm in Liberty, Texas, about 45 km north east of Houston. This is where a company in which the US operation I collaborate with has their base.

Liberty was founded in 1831, third oldest city in the state, I suppose as a village to supply local ranchers or something. Just under 200 years later its a classic two street town, one of which is called Main St (couldn't find Elm) strung out on Highway 90 leading from Houston to Port Arthur.

The scenery around here is quite flat - almost like the plains of Mesopotamia but with more vegetation thanks to the constant humidity. The Hispanic influence is there, not in the towns or the buildings but in some of the people and the so-called Mexican restaurants.

Went into one last night to pick up some food (its TexMex, not Mexican, but this I know already) and said few words in Spanish to the Latino waiter. He can't speak or understand it. Now that surprised me. The room cleaners in hotel can; they look like square-faced Olmeca, so either they are from Guatemala or northern Mexico and their living style has fallen into American ways.

I though I might spend a weekend in San Antonio de Bejar, but its not to be. Saturday I have to fly to Vancouver instead to conclude something.

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Down the Hudson

Tuesday morning I had a meeting in Albany. To get there from Boston, the easiest way is to take the Greyhound/PeterPan coach. That meant getting up early to grab the 07:10 departure of course.

The trip itself was easy and comfortable, the rolling countryside and small towns passing us by as we sped along the freeway. I didn’t see much of the places and still less of Albany, the capital of New York, other than the riverside by the Hudson and Mohawk rivers. Through this valley the history of America’s development began – the Anglo part of it at least.

I was called to go back to New York, so after meeting and lunch I grabbed the train from Rensslaer. Here the Hudson is a winding, brown water river, with great sweeps and bays as we head southwards. The river is full, not much of a bank so easy to overflow. To either side of the river are broad fields of lilies, rushes and wild grasses.

Brick farmsteads, stone grey wharves and the occasional warehouse or small factory break up the great stands of trees, with their bright leaves and somber trunks.

Just past the town of Hudson there is an island in the middle of river with small brick house that serves as lighthouse. Here the river valley is broad, the river losing itself its edges in fields of water lilies, which lie by the banks and aside the low islands in the middle of the channel. Over to the west I can see the bulk of the Adirondacks beyond the line of the river plain.

Some way on and road bridges soar over the Hudson as it narrows, with high hills on the right bank that run down to edge. Here gentrified mansions appear, sunk into the woods on the slopes and the water’s edge. There, on a bluff, a large institution glowers, built like an old Babylonian fortress with its many stepped terraces and parapets.

A great bend, the train rolling over a causeway where a smaller river joins the Hudson’s flow. It feels almost like the Bosphorus, with cargos and tankers plying the broad stream. In a way this was the Bosphorus for New England, a back channel from the Great Lakes to the great port of New York that powered the regional economy for many decades – and is still important by the looks of things.

For first time the train cuts away from the river. It has been raining heavily here, the dark clouds just having cleared away. We catch up with the rain at Croton, so intense I can no longer see the other bank of the river, which now we come up against only intermittently.

Near Hastings a washed sun breaks out over the still angry clouds, leaving the sky a pallid, misty yellow. I can now see the rolling hills and high bluffs on the west shore of the Hudson, which has widened considerably at this point.

At Yonkers the sun breaks out completely and the clouds dissolve, leaving a hazy blue. Almost immediately after the train disappears into long tunnels so I can see no more. Within a short while the train pulls in to Penn Station.

I am once more in Manhattan.

Monday, May 26, 2008

Weekend in Boston

Saturday morning I took the train from New York up to Boston. I enjoy traveling by train in the States – even coach class compares favorably to first class in most European train services. Power sockets in every seat for those who want/need to work on their computers. This time I’m just happy to see New England through the window and occasionally read the latest Economist.

What’s so beautiful about New England is the elegance of the timber frame buildings, many of which remind me of Norway – and not a few that look like the houses my grandfather lived in.

All up the coast there are small bays, inlets and creeks; clean painted houses set in lawns that stretch to the water and lead to piers and pontoons to which all manner of craft are moored.

The small villages are now weekend retreats and dormitory towns for people working in New York. Even Providence in Rhode Island is only 45 minutes away by train, so it’s easy for people to commute, and probably the best alternative to living in Manhattan. Part of me would so like to live in a place like this. It must be the Scandinavian part of me…

Then I remember in the wintertime it’s like Scandinavia here too – snow and ice. No thanks! Summer living sounds OK though.

I’ve come to Boston to see a school friend of mine (hi Mary!) whom I hadn’t see since she visited me in Mexico in 1992. Houseguested with her and basically just enjoyed wandering around the Harvard end of Cambridge, just like I did 20 years ago when I last visited her here. That time it was wintertime, blustery and cold. The weather over this weekend was an absolute delight – cloudless blue skies, strong sun and a soft dry breeze. Just like a summer’s day in Norway.

We mostly walked around Harvard Square, did a little window-shopping, met up with some friends of hers to eat pancakes, and talked about what we’ve both done these last sixteen years. We went to see a movie too – the latest (I’m sure not the last), Indiana Jones movie. A couple of fun scenes, but that’s it. Silly storyline. See it on DVD rental: it isn’t worth the price of a ticket.

Sunday Mary wanted to go to her church in Boston to attend service. This is St. Trinity’s, an Episcopalian church. Its ages since I went to a church service, let alone a Protestant one. Episcopalians are Anglicans; when I was in boarding school in England (I was 10 at the time) I used to sing in their church choir. The music is always a pleasure, but this day it sounded more complicated and somehow more stilted than the hymns I (very vaguely) remember.

As to the structure of the service, it seems most Christian denominations follow the same pattern – procession, liturgy, hymn, liturgy, sermon, community announcements, liturgy, commercial break for collecting money, hymn, procession. Here the service ends with a flourish. As everyone is still standing a guy goes round and extinguishes the candles on the altar as though to say “store closed, God will be back later”.

The whole episode felt formal and procedural. There isn’t the celebratory shaking of hands and embracing of neighbor as there is in the Catholic Mass. There isn’t the spontaneous sense of community you see in Evangelical gatherings. There isn’t the fantastic rhetoric of the Baptists, though the (female) bishop pitched her sermon in the same style of wonder and wow.

Her sermon was such a convolution of images and logic I forbore trying to follow it. But think - all over the world, the priests of many religions have to come up with a theme to digress on at least once a week. That’s quite a creative challenge. With a deadline too.

I couldn’t repeat the litanies, although they were all neatly printed out. I recalled fractured slices of them, but I looked on them as curiosities from another time. I’ve gone beyond/away from all this, and it would be hypocritical of me to word things I don’t believe.

But I was happy to be there to provide some company to Mary and, just as importantly, honor the US armed forces on Memorial Weekend.

Afterwards we walked up to Boston Common, a most beautiful park with a small lake and many varieties of trees and flowers. With the warm sun, this is a great place to sit and sunbathe, eat a snack, play a game, read a book and watch people passing by. It feels more like one of the parks in London than Central Park in New York or the parks in Paris. Maybe it’s because of the lake and the boats cruising around on it.

Later in the afternoon we walked around Harvard and the Yard. There are many parks and open areas here too; great to lie down on the well-tended lawns, soak in the sun and read a book.

Something about the academic surroundings always appeals to me. Professors certainly know how to create a beautiful environment, even if they earn relatively little and can spend entire lives vainly searching for one insight, one truth, one immortality.

In the early afternoon of Monday we took a ferry to visit one of the islands in Boston Harbor. This one is called Spectacle Island as its original shape looked like the type of specs Benjamin Franklin would have worn. Through the centuries it came to be used as Boston’s trash dump. This was closed down eventually and the ruinous heap of eroding garbage was cased in the earth dug out of Boston’s (in)famous infrastructure project, the “Big Dig”.

Now the island more properly resembles wraparound sunglasses (Carrera Island?) and is a wonderfully tranquil nature reserve. The old buildings that once stood here are long gone, their foundations buried under the island’s new profile.

The wind is stiff and you can feel the salt spray even as high as the top of North Dumbril, where you can sit and see the planes taking off from Logan Airport. From here, the highest point in the bay, you can see nearly all the other islands – skerries left after the ice retreated and seas rose millennia ago. I didn’t know there were so many.

Sailing into the bay must have been a great delight to the early settlers and fishing fleets. Safe home at last. Today it’s a delight to the yachtsmen, windsurfers and parasailers. Wouldn’t it be great if I could ….

We had a late lunch in the square by Faneuil Hall, the place I hang out in whenever I’m in Boston. In the square a street entertainer enthralled the crowd with his performance, pulling people into the show and done in the joking style that has been so popular in recent years. Everyone enjoyed it.

Thursday, May 22, 2008

Flight to New York

Yesterday I flew from Nice (yes its in France but its the nearest big airport to my home) by way of Frankfurt to Newark, New Jersey.

Easy flight all the way. The wait in Frankfurt was not too long, the flight was reasonably OK, the views over Europe almost non-existent thanks to heavy cloud cover.

Once over the Atlantic the flight cut inland, so this time I got to see the St Laurence River and all the communities in Upper Canada and upstate New York.

The pilot took a big loop around New York to avoid some really low, heavy clouds. Everything was fine until the landing, which was a bit rough thanks to the crosswind. 747s really don't like croswinds ...

I was supposed to meet with some people on arrival - the meeting got moved so I went direct to the hotel and dumped everything. This looks a pretty good deal.

Saturday, May 17, 2008

Independence Day

It's Norwegian Independence Day!

And my birthday too, of course ...

I'm at home in Andora, where it's cooler then it should be, with dark clouds glowering over the hills just above me and the occasional spattering of rain.

The flag is the same flag my Grandfather flew from his house when he lived in Trieste, on the other side of Italy, back in the 1930s.

The foto on the right was also taken on Norwegian Independence Day - exactly 70 years ago in 1938.

The old royal Italian flag is flying as well - that's my father with his hands on it just out of shot.

The women next to the Norwegian flag are, from left to right, Aunt Reidun, Grandmother Mabel and Aunt Gerd.

Here's a couple more fotos for the occasions! The usual bubbly and candles. The cake came separately ...
Visual proof I've got this far, hehe!

Saturday, May 03, 2008

A Day in Bombay

The last time I was in Bombay/Mumbai I was nine years old. We were on a ship from Australia to Italy and it was January 1966.

That time we moored at one of the docks in the great bay and were taken on a tour of the old part of the city. The sun was setting as the ship's crew threw down the gangway, so by the time we disembarked it was night. I still remember the warm, dark air, the bright colors subdued by shadows, the riot of people, children (I was a child too remember) running in the streets and squatting in what looked like cages but I suppose now must have been in the space between open windows and their protective iron railings. And the delightfully different coins - squared with rounded corners and holes, others with edges so indented they looked like pressed flowers.

Forty-two years later I’m back. This time its by air, having just flown in from Hyderabad. I have a few hours between flights so I dump my bag at the left luggage and grab a taxi to go straight to the Gateway of India, the triumphal arch the British built to celebrate their conquest of the subcontinent, and the last thing I remember of Bombay from the first time here.

The trip in from the airport showed me much of what has changed in all these years, and much of what has not. The city is so much bigger of course, and its local official name is Mumbai, no longer Bombay. The traffic still tilts in its crazy course but nothing like that of Hyderabad. The roads are large and mostly well maintained. The city has been around a while and development is more structured, I suppose.

There is still the grinding poverty, brutally evidenced by the families living on the sidewalks, children running naked, men showering themselves from buckets next to trash heaps and women cooking meals between bricks. Several times people came up to the taxi window to ask for money – which I gave them in exchange for a foto. From that point of view the city doesn’t seem that different from the images in “Salaam Bombay”.

The square and monument are both under refurbishment. No longer can cars go around the Gateway as I remembered. The boats still pull up at the wharf. Tourists from all over the world come to stand at the parapet and look at the Bay and ocean beyond. Vendors still hawk their wares – this time the proposition is for water inflatable balls of jell, soft colored marbles glistening in glass beakers. “Twenty rupees? No way!”

Having done my quick tour I went to visit one of Ganesh’s friends, Krsna Mehta. Krsna (pronounced Krisna) designs and manufactures beautiful soft furnishings that are sold around the world. His studio is a double loft in an old warehouse complex; great beams of warm teak standing between heaps of multi-hued cushions and fabrics. Good environment and I’m sure one reason many graduates from fashion schools look to work at Zeba as their first professional job.

Krsna very kindly gave me an autographed copy of his book on Mumbai – a spirited and imaginative collection of photographs and digital collages similar to those I’ve seen in the US and UK. In fact I’m sure I’ve seen a few by Krsna there too.

Too soon it was time to fly from India, first to Bahrain and after a long stay there, on to London, where I waited yet again for the connecting flight to Nice – and home.

India 11

The fotoshoot

The principal reason for my going to Hyderabad was to do a fotoshoot for Ganesh so that we can create a really good look for the catalog, web site and image in general.

I’ve done some friends’ weddings and a couple of model shoots before, and last year I set up a mini studio in my house in Andora, so a few things I know. Here I already knew there was a good terrace I could work with/on, so I was already thinking of doing an outdoor studio before arriving.

The fotoshoot was originally planned to be done in the houses of two of Ganesh’s friends; in the end this didn’t happen so we shot in the living room of his apartment. Which was good in one sense because everything was to hand.

In the days before the model shoot I designed and built the outdoor studio with PVC piping, making it capable of being disassembled and reassembled because I was planning on using parts of it “on location”. This took a while, partly because I was dependent on Ganesh to take me everywhere, partly for the novel way I was going to use household supplies and this meant dealing with the supply stores, the managers of which spoke mostly Telugu.

The experience was frustrating for Ganesh because that meant he had to drive me everywhere so he wasn’t in his studio working, and frustrating for me because I’m used to being quite independent and autonomous - and time driven, American style. Ganesh was awesomely patient with my impatience. Thanks mate!

Ganesh lined up two friends of his as models, both extremely attractive college graduates who offered to pose for the shoots. Soon after Maria dropped out, leaving just Purnimah. We also learned that the person who had bought sarees from Ganesh for her daughter’s wedding, and who had very kindly said he could borrow them for the shoot, didn’t want anyone to wear them before her daughter did. Very understandable.

That meant, of course, that the sarees could only be shot on a mannequin. So, before we did the model shots, we did the wedding saree shots in my white-tented, outdoor studio. Which was absolutely great, except when the wind blew or it got too hot under the sun. We also shot some fabrics so that the catalog is more complete.

The model shots we did indoors in the living area. Purnimah was a delight. She wore some of Ganesh’s western styled apparel, so the look was quite distinct from the saree shots. The biggest challenge was her Julia Roberts smile. As a portrait shooter I wanted to capture her personality, which meant capturing that fantastic smile; Ganesh (and Purnimah’s mother (who was there out of curiosity and as chaperone) desperately kept on telling her not to smile – correctly of course, given the objective of the shoot, which is to draw the viewer's attention to the clothes, not the person. Which meant I kept trying to crack jokes to get her to break up. Worked a few times, hehe.

The flash units worked almost perfectly every time, which was really good because until then I had worked exclusively with hot lights. Now I’m hooked on flash.

India 09

Indian Food!

Well I’ve always liked Indian cooking.

Siddiq Rafiq was a family friend of my parents. He migrated twice in his life, the first time as a child on a dark night from India to Pakistan, the second from Pakistan to Scotland, where he married Marjorie, a friend of my mother’s. When my brother was born, Siddiq was co-opted as Paul’s godfather. So we all grew up with the taste of his curries, which he also taught my mother to make.

I learned from her, and then when at business school in Durham bought a cook book and learned how to make the curries from scratch (sorry, Mr. Sharwood). I’ve cooked curries ever since. So I’ve always liked Indian cooking.

Of course, the guys here didn’t know that. In the three weeks plus I was here, you have no idea how many times people were concerned that I might not like it, might find it too spicy, too hot, too intense, too strange. I’d shock them every time.

“No, please don’t try that one, it’s very hot.”

“Really? Then I must!” I said, as I heaped a big spoon’s worth onto my plate. It was just right. Even a little less hot than the ones I can cook up (to the horror of my family’s palates). “Hey, I lived in Mexico – I love chile!”

I’m sure I’m one weird dude to these guys. Bad enough I like the hot weather and sunshine, but this! They can’t figure me out. “Remember I was raised as a child in tropical countries”, I would say, “I actually feel at home with this”. Yep, one weird dude.

Anyway, I’m houseguesting with Ganesh and his parents, so his mother is doing most of the cooking. They are Hindu; Ganesh and his father eat some meat but his mother is vegetarian. Most of the food, therefore, is vegetarian. And it’s absolutely delicious! Man, I like this stuff.

I tried going vegetarian before, when at university in Durham. I gave up after three weeks, as I couldn’t fill the hole in the middle of the plate. Indian cuisine is exquisitely attuned to using and mixing vegetables imaginatively. Never was there that famous hole. They were worried I was eating little, but the fact is I was trying to lose weight and if I had let myself rip I would have eaten them out of house and home (and gained a whole bunch more kilos).

Occasionally they would buy in tandoori chicken so the males could do their carnivore thing. Other times we would go out to the restaurants (all very good), all offering “veg and non-veg” menus. Frankly I didn’t eat much meat, and I didn’t miss it either, until I got to the end of the third week. Then I began dreaming of a juicy beefsteak sizzling on a grill …..

I tried to learn the traditional eating style of eating with fingers. I’m a clumsy klutz most of the time; I’ve already tried Indian style eating before and made a mess of it. Sure enough….. Well after a bit of practice I improved, but not much.

Now I know why there is almost always a bowl of dhal (a loose lentil soup) – it provides liquidity so that the drier curries can be “mashed” with the rice into a sticky ball that fingers can raise to the mouth. I also found out that the trick is to mix everything together in one heap, then eat picking from the heap. The other trick is to use chappatis (unleaven bread) to swab up the heap.

Having got that far, I went back to the fork. Mostly I wanted to keep the tastes separate: each one is so good (try eating fragrant steamed basmati rice by itself) that I didn’t want to lose the individual flavors. Plus I was eating a whole bunch of delicious chappatis, which are fattening. Losing battle here ….

Meals are the same whatever time of day. What is served for lunch could equally be served for dinner or breakfast. This is just like the old, old style of eating in the West before breakfast became a different type of meal. Curry for breakfast isn’t at all bad – the spiciness really wakens the mouth.

India is nothing if not traditional (still). What there isn’t, at home at least, is variety outside the local cuisine. Rather like Italians, in fact. Great variety in the local cooking, equally excellent, but not very adaptive to including other cuisine into home cooking. Since the local food is so good, just like in Italy, you can almost forget other styles, but then it comes back to hit you – I’d like to eat something other than curry every meal.

Ganesh’s parents were great. They let me introduce fresh fruit into the breakfast meal, not least because it was the start of the mango season. I found out there are over 300 varieties of mango – I thought there was only one! Then there are papayas, melons - and “fruta da conde”, as I know them from Brasil, which here are called custard apples (now I know what that means – I had never figured what Kipling was taking about before).

Eating out – well the food is just plain superb, whether it’s a sizzler at 100 Degrees, Szechuan prawns at Bowl o’ China or samosas at the outdoor food stall just by the theater. Just excellent.

Especially the biryani (ok guys, I know you would kill me if I didn’t mention the biryani).

India 08

The road to Machulipatnam

Late in 2007 I met up with an English guy living in Italy. Paul Finch had proposed to Livio Rodighiero, the owner of an Italian manufacturer of potable water systems whom I knew, the installation of a small system in a school his group was sponsoring in India. Livio asked me, if ever I planned to go to India, to see what was there on the ground so he could put together a unit for them. I said “sure”, thinking it would be a good thing to do and a great thing to see if ever I got there.

Well I was in India and it turned out that I wasn’t very far away from them – in fact the Indian arm of Paul’s support group was based in Hyderabad and the school was in a village near Machulipatnam, some six hours away by car. I called them and they arranged to pick me up one morning.

So a few mornings later four guys in a station wagon turned up to take me to the village. XX and YY are brothers and leaders of the support group; Ashok was their architect/builder and ZZ the driver. Their support group turned out to be a religious community, Pilgrim Brethren no less.

XX and YY are the sons of a local tax inspector who converted to Christianity back in the 1930s or 1940s. That must not have been an easy step in the India of the time – I suspect it still isn’t. Anyway, their father died while the boys were relatively young; their mother encouraged their faith, so after several years in conventional life XX decided to dedicate himself to communicating his faith to others through work by helping needy communities and by teaching others to promote the Pilgrim version of the Christian faith. His faith was reinforced after surviving a stroke that would have felled another man. YY, the elder brother, once retired, came to help XX. In fact, as I discovered later, it’s almost a family business – even nephews are involved.

I’m not religious and, frankly, I suffer from the standard West European ailment of feeling acutely embarrassed when finding myself confronted by people who wear their religion on their sleeves. Still, these guys are going all out to rebuild a school that was wiped out by a massive flooding of the Krishna River a couple of years ago. And that meant helping children get ahead in life.

So while we bantered about miters, mystics and myths, I kept my judgment firmly focused on the actual good they are doing.

The drive took us along a four lane highway for the most part, through relatively flat countryside for the first half of the journey. So many trucks, like the roads in Italy. Here they are mostly loaded with construction materials bound for Hyderabad – cement, bricks, metal re-bar and timber. I always find it thrilling when I see a people on the move like this, beginning to realize the potential that is in all of us.

A breakfast stop in a roadside cafĂ© – and a respite from the air conditioning that’s keeping the car kissing cousin to a freezer and my throat raw. Mango juice (my eternal favorite), black coffee (“yes, please, black, thank you, yes, I know that means without milk), some of those rice and chickpea flour patties, and a stiff crepe wrapped around some vegetable curry. Actually quite good!

Further on, as we passed the villages and strips jammed against the side of the road, to provide way stations and eating houses for the passers-by, it reminded me of the trip I took from Nairobi to Mombasa. The same red earth, the same white stucco temples, chapels and mosques, streaked dark by the same heat and humidity. The exuberant advertizements in English and the same hole-in-the-wall stores.

We stopped once to buy some “toddies”, which here turn out to be the lychee-like fruit of a variety of palm tree, the one I know as the Imperial palms from the Emperor’s Botanical Garden in Rio de Janeiro. YY cracked them open for me (an operation a little like cracking open eggs and not letting anything spill out). We slurped the soft pellets of liquid flesh right down. XX told me that the juice from these fruits is fermented and made into a palm wine. The original toddy. Another connection! I adore learning about connections.

YY laughed as the youths selling them quoted the prices – double what they normally pay. It’s thanks to me again. See a white guy and the price goes up. Ganesh lamented the same whenever he took me shopping for supplies too …
After about four hours we reached a large city wrapped around steep hills. This is AAA, where the Krishna River is dammed and used to generate hydroelectric power. The river is very wide here, and shallow, except for a channel running close to the city’s old center that probably was its original course. Above the city, high up on the hills, are strings of monasteries, temples and other sacred venues, all brightly painted.

I would have loved to stop the car, get out and explore, but of course the village was our goal. Lots of colored streamers and posters decked the streets, advertizing one politico or another. Here apparently the son of an actor famous for portraying a god in the movies is making his move. The actor made a subsequent career as a politician trading on his godly face; his son is doing likewise with his. Politics is very dynastic here.

We pass a temple complex on the right hand side, white plastered stupas rising steeply into the sky. Standing amongst them, an enormous white plaster statue of Hanuman, the monkey god. And my favorite, coz I’m born in the Year of the Monkey. He’s the guy who can do anything he wants to do, so long as he wants to do it. That’s me.

On we go. The scenery becomes quite flat as we approach the Bay of Bengal. The countryside is now filled with rice paddies. Just like in the Po Valley, a flat river basin is used to irrigate and grow a staple crop. Here they get to raise two crops a year though.

I can smell the soft warmth of the Bay ahead of me, but before we get to Machulipatnam we turn right off the main road, go through a village, and drive along ridge separating the paddy fields.

We are in the village of the Ratcatchers.

Dance and Theater

Ganesh was invited, and so invited me, to see a novel Indian dance group. Among his many talents Ganesh is himself trained in traditional dancing, so many of the audience were friends and colleagues. Of course I accepted (I don’t think he finished inviting me before I said yes).

The theme of the dance sequences was more in the Twyla Tharp modern Western style. In this case, a woman is searching for her daughter and asking the elements and gods of India where she can find her. The mother runs from element to element, connecting them in a context of women’s liberation and power. While the eyes of the guys around me rolled in disdain, I found the shrill hysterical cries of “where is she?” a little too much. That said, I found the plot entertaining in its concept. The dancing was absolutely wonderful and easily overcame the defects of the script.

There were the five elements (earth, water, air, fire and ether) and a succession of the major gods of the Indian pantheon. When the elements danced the backdrop turned color to represent that element (green, blue, gold, red, black). When the one dancer who represented each of the gods danced, a beautifully painted panel in the background depicted the god’s formal, classical image.

The music was south Indian - Telugu. Quite different from the music familiar to most, with more emphasis on rhythm beaten on a drum. Almost African. Anyway, the dance was really, really good and I enjoyed it immensely.

Ganesh was also invited to a play, a light comedy by Alan Beckett, an English playwright, in part because he designed a couple of costumes for the play. This invitation I was much more ambivalent about accepting, not least because most of Beckett’s work I find way too localized to carry across cultures. I suspected it would be a boring, English middle class farce involving class differences and sexually challenged vicars. Sure enough …. And worse, it was so dated.

First performed in 1971, the script looked like it was developed in the late 1950s. I just don’t see how today’s (Indian or any other) audience could relate to it. I for sure couldn’t. The actors tried their best, but any levity was crushed by the abysmal direction. Didn’t deserve any fotos being taken – enjoy those of the dance.

India 05

Getting Around Hyderabad

The roads in Hyderabad betray the fast growth of the city – the few main roads that were ever asphalted are big construction works as flyovers are being built to carry the ever growing traffic through the city. The other roads were always overlooked and it feels it.

The press of traffic is immense. And incredibly noisy, like being in Napoli. For the same reason too – everyone hoots their horns when overtaking. But here they also hoot to squeeze by in the jams, ward of others and, I suspect, as a vocal talisman to ward off ‘attacks’ by other vehicles.

The best way to get around Hyderabad is by motorino (scooter). Most everyone has one – its almost like being in southern Italy. Using helmets is discretional. Ganesh has one, which, since I was passenger, left me enjoying the wind blowing through my hair – first time I’ve done that on a bike since I was 25. All I could think about was avoiding a crash…

The second best way of getting around is by auto rickshaw – a motorized trike with the driver up front and the passengers sitting on a bench covered by a black vinyl hood. Thousands of them. Great way to go when doing some shopping. 

Then again, you can always drive, lacing your way between the motorini, rickshaws, taxis, cars, vans, trucks and buses. Best yet, get a professional driver to do it for you. 

As you all know, I’ve been to many places and I’ve driven in most of them. So I’m used to all styles, standards and systems of getting around by bike and car. There are some special places in the world where it’s a wonder how there are no pile-ups at every corner. Cairo, Casablanca and Cebu come to mind.

Hyderabad takes the prize for being the most challenging. Not just because India, like many British ex-colonies, drives on the not-right side of the road. It’s the sheer oblivion that possesses a driver that stuns me. Nowhere else have I ever seen a more complete disregard for other people on the road. Other cars, trucks, vans, bikes and even pedestrians are apparently just don’t register. 

One night, riding on the motorino with Ganesh, just in front of us one guy decided to cross the front. The only problem was that there was another motorbiker in front of us too. Neither of them was aware of the other until it was almost too late. Did either of them react? Did the biker, not going particularly fast in any case, stop or swerve? Did the pedestrian run for his life? No, on both accounts. Result: one pedestrian found himself over the handlebars of the bike in the chest of the biker. The biker lost control and both went flying – hard. I think they made it, but for sure they were knocked out. Too many people came rushing from the sidewalks for Ganesh to feel it to be useful to stop. He was right.

People just pull out of side roads in the middle of the main traffic. Others go the wrong way up a divided highway (one truck managed to skewer itself on the divider itself, stopping 20 meters in with its entire underside ripped out). Careful drivers like Ganesh find themselves overtaken on all sides – and crossways for good measure. And the bigger the vehicle, the more abrupt in just pulling out, changing lanes, stopping, whatever. I thought I’d seen everything till I came here.

The showstopper was being driven by night. One day I went down to Machulipatnam, near the Gulf of Madras (see other blog). This was a long voyage down and an equally long voyage up to Hyderabad. The morning trip had all the ‘normal’ stuff. The night trip was a nightmare. Most vehicles are badly maintained (correction: erratically maintained). Which means no lights. Or worse, no guarantee of lights. Now put it all together. The oblivion of daytime driving - in the oblivion of the night. Terrifying.

This part of India is booming, so the roads are full of trucks: mechanical matadors overtaking slower vehicles and challenging every oncomer. I had to close my eyes and simply seek my own oblivion by sleeping with half an eye on the traffic, fully expecting not to make it back. Thank goodness for the professional driver. Never, never, will I drive or be driven by night in India again. Never.

Mumbai’s traffic felt positively civilized by compar-ison. Manic driving as always but done by ‘city folk’ so there is some logic in it at least.

Hyderabad's traffic beggars description.

India 02

Impressions of Hyderabad

I flew in to Hyderabad in the evening of April 8th. My friend Ganesh picked me up at the impressively new airport in his new car, driver attached. Since it was almost dark and we were talking most of the time I didn’t really see much of the city – that had to wait until the following day.

Looking down as we were landing, what struck me the most was how similar the scenery from above looked like the flatter region around Sao Paulo in Brasil, where I had been only the month before. Same greenness, same small towns splattered around a large metropolis, same red earth, same air pollution – that tobacco colored air I’ve seen in too many places now not to be convinced most air pollution comes from vehicles.

During all my stay here I kept coming back to the similarities between the India I was seeing and the Brasil I know. Not for the culture – that’s totally different – but for the way people were building and dealing with their new world. There’s a considerable difference in the degree of sophistication of living too (Brasil is way ahead), but the basics are the same: small, fast growing, youthful middle class showing off their success through material acquisitions, living off a much larger base of poor people.

All of which shows in the construction of new houses and developments (called “colonies” in the old style here), the press of new SUVs and town cars, the (re)building of the road network – and the new airport.

I didn’t actually see much of Hyderabad and Secunderabad. Well I did, but I didn’t get to see the “sights” as Ganesh couldn’t really find the time and, with time running out for the fotoshoot I was going to do for him, I didn’t get the time either. The amount of time it takes to get the simplest things done reminded me of Brasil too – like buying office goods, some DIY materials, stationery etc.

One thing that stands out is the big lake that separates Secunderabad from Hyderabad. A ring road around it (called the “necklace”) takes you past a Hindu temple, a Christian church, a mosque and a giant statue of Buddha that floats on a pontoon just offshore and which is lit up at night. Rounding that you come to a luna park, a strip of eateries and a garden park where people stroll around in the evening. Then you pass a settlement populated mostly by some cattle and their tenders, some up-scale restaurants (very good too) and the back quarters of Hyderabad that merge into the back quarters of Secunderabad.

One other things stands out in my memory: the wonderfully ludicrous gilded statues of local politicians. I don't mean the painted plaster statues of past national leaders. I mean the delightfully gauche, literally self-aggrandizing statues of the local bunch that are planted in the middle of roundabouts. Evidently you have made it if you can get your political supporters to set one up for you. And the more powerful you get, the bigger your statue will be. These are today's Pharaohs, to borrow another civilization for a moment. One day I'm sure someone will challenge the Buddha for pre-eminence.

When you read travel accounts from India, most people talk about it being dirty. Well what I saw isn’t clean, that’s for sure, at least not for the most part. But I know that in tropical climates it is almost impossible to keep things with the aspect of fresh paint – the humidity and the power of the sun speckles every building surface with a patina of age and wear within a week.

What I noticed was something else – an almost complete lack of maintenance of anything. Hardly anything seems finished (and I don’t mean its obviously in the process of being finished). That which is seems badly finished – like the paint on the wall that also covers the skirting board when it shouldn’t.

The office and house cleaners are supposed to clean, right? Well, they sweep, but I never saw anyone washing anything. There is an accumulation of grime that almost matches the dirt of English and Italian trains. And everyone seems to live in this without a murmur.

Is there trash in the streets? Yes there is, but the street sweepers are out every night at midnight to keep the roads clean. The problem is I don’t remember seeing the trash collectors. So, beside the entrance to many a building, there is a heap of road detritus. Nothing I haven’t seen in many a fast growing city in the developing world – and less than the mountains of uncollected trash in Napoli. The logistical challenges the mayor of such a city faces must be almost insurmountable.

There is a high-tech area of semi high-rise and office buildings assembled from kits. These are where the call centers and programming companies are located, either side of a four lane highway rushing on to who knows where. Dotted around the strip, in isolated clusters of “colonies”, the new middle class is building their apartment complexes and villas. Most are in a modern pseudo Latin style, without the style. The more imaginative few I saw have a deep overhang to shade terraces from the fierce sun, a slightly kitsch Indian flourish. The property market, need to say is booming to the point of bubble.

There are no squares here, no obvious sense of being in the center of somewhere. In Secunderabad there is Gandhi Square, but its really an intersection of three rods with a barricaded strip of once-green with a statue of Mohandas Gandhi in it. I don’t know if the lack of squares is thanks to English influence (Secunderabad was their “cantonment”, built to keep a watch on the Nizam of Hyderabad) or Moslem one (Hyderabad being built by Shia Mughal conquerors). Neither of those cultures ever much thought about building plaza and piazzas. Maybe original Indian culture didn’t either – I don’t know and no-one could tell me.

There are the beginnings of shopping malls, but nothing like in the West or in Latin America as there are no well-established suburban areas yet that stimulate such developments. Here, from what I saw, there are some mini-malls, mostly consisting of clothing stores (Van Heusen and Louis Philippe seem to be the most popular) and restaurants. These malls are almost totally disconnected from other shopping areas – more the fruit of an individual developer than anything else.

In fact there are no “high streets” in the sense of streets with sidewalks and stores at all. As anyone who has traveled or lived in other tropical countries knows, this has nothing to do with the climate, intensely hot though it is. It has everything to do with history.

I get the impression that, here at least, the English did not attempt to create a city. There are a few remnants of stores and townhouses built in the 1920s through 1950s, now abandoned or crumbled by successive occupants. God knows that the original conquerors of most of these parts never even thought of the idea. And, once independent, India crippled itself economically with going anti-capitalist as a reaction to its English overlords.

But ironically, the Englishness still remains, beyond driving on the left. I was invited to party in Hyderabad’s most exclusive club. It’s the old British military club, green lawns and all. The bricks are red, the arches are pitched just so; the pillars of the covered passageways are of timber, the roofs of wooden shingle with a pointed cut. All rigorously painted cricket green. I couldn’t resist looking for the orange squash and lime (they served Pepsi). The “last call” for ordering alcohol in the restaurants and bars is 10:45pm – just as in England until recently. The bars close at midnight. So, stupidly, do the discos. When people leave home, they go “off station”. The books of accounts are printed in a style I haven’t seen since I was a child at school in Australia. Society stills reflects Englishisms too, but I’ll come to that later.

Incredible. The history of India before the arrival of the English was all about trade and commerce. And it made the country rich (well, some of its people anyway). Then the English arrived and hijacked the Indian economy to make themselves the richest nation on earth. And when they were forced out, what did the Indians do? They threw away the bases of wealth creation and kept the frivolous, irrelevant outward trappings instead.

Sixty years on, it shows in how much they have to do to recover their lost position of privilege and power. They are on their way. Good for the Indians!