Saturday, October 10, 2020

From ‘Road to Mekong. Four Women. Six Countries. 17,000 kilometres-an adventure of a lifetime’ by Piya Bahadur

  

……..we drove 300 kilometres into the Odisha countryside before I realized we had seen no woman out on her own. Not a single woman driver nor a dhaba-owner. The women we saw were either in groups or accompanied by men. The only unaccompanied women were the prostitutes at the truck stops……….

During my years in the US, I had seen almost an equal number of drivers of either gender. In Telangana, I had seen women working at toll booths and running dhabas…..

 

……the rural hinterland of West Bengal is relatively free of plastic because people here are too poor to buy packaged rubbish……..

 

The gods of the Indian highways are not our usual Krishnas and Ramas who resides in palaces and rule over a world with ghar sansar and domesticity as the central themes. ……The gods revered along the highways are the remote, rugged Shivji and the effervescent Hanuman……Though we see a smattering of Devi temples, it is her consort Shiva who is ever-present.

 

……as we were entering India’s northeastern states, that we began to see roads in real disrepair and highways getting more crowded. It was on this stretch that we met some of the worst roads one might see in India. But the silver lining was that there was road construction activity everywhere. ……people told us that these were the first roadworks they were seeing in almost a decade. The new government was bringing about changes that we in other parts of India do not hear about ………

 

…….Assam………..i was awestruck by the clean mountain air and relieved at the clean toilets and the spotless dhabas.

 

Motorcycling is one of the most gender-free passions……the average biker….questions are gender-neutral and completely unbiased…..

 

Under the India-Myanmar Friendship Treaty unrestricted entry is permitted within a 16-kilometre belt on either side. This may mean little to people living elsewhere, but to those living along the border it opens up possibilities.

 

…….on the Indian side, the villagers speak Hindi, English, and Manipuri; and just 30 kilometres into Myanmar, the English is broken and the Hindi absent.

 

…..Burmese women who caught my envious attention. I marveled at their slight build, fine features, skin to die for, and glossy black hair.

 

Rural Myanmar, much like India’s northeast, was refreshingly clean. The dhabas we stopped at and the toilets we used, whether attached to the dhabas or in people’s homes, were invariably impeccably clean……humblest of the houses, toilets would always have a bucket of water and a dustbin…….Mandalay, on the banks of the Irrawaddy, is a city of golden spires glistening in the sun, with charming people who do not honk on the roads. Even their vehicles were gentler: no sound and fury, no fume-spewing autos and carriers (apparently their fuel is of better quality), no overloaded trucks and buses……….Orderliness and a quiet discipline is the hallmark of the Burmese. From all reports, Myanmar has average levels of literacy. Yet, the country is kept scrupulously clean with regularly swept streets, ubiquitous garbage cans, covered food, no standing water, or visible piles of garbage. ……..The cows were familiar though. They had the same lovely eyes, the same colours of coat, and the same placid manner of cud-chewing and little care for traffic as the ones back home……..density in Myanmar is only abut 82 persons per square kilometer compared to 457 persons per square kilometer …….Driving through the mountain passes and cutting through the country on the approach to Thailand took us through pristine forests. Every time I thought that this was easily the most picturesque place we had crossed so far, we would turn a corner to a yet more charming view.

 

………Keng Tung, a small town surrounded by mountains about 150 kilometres from Tachilet on the Myanmar-Thai border…..selling….even Bollywood movie CDs dubbed in Burmese! Akshay Kumar seemed to be the local favourite.

 

Thailand announced itself with its smooth roads, far higher traffic speeds, and strict lane discipline ……..The pleasure of driving through Myanmar’s pristine silence was replaced by the boisterous vivacity of Chiang Rai’s urban landscape…….Unlike the more demure Burmese, the Thai motorists engaged with us more readily at traffic signals. ………Our motorcycles were also not the largest vehicles on the road any more. The Thai are known to be fond of heavy two-wheelers…….on their fabulous roads.

 

Laos was a surprise……..our ingress from the north……the country’s seductively virginal landscape – population density of 27 persons per square kilometre – captivated us: mountainous roads winding through unspoilt jungles, lush paddy fields, picturesque villages. Every turn on the wondrous mountain ranges, plains, and plateaus revealed a surprise……this country of myriad ethnicities in the gentle heart of the Southeast Asian peninsula……..the bloody history of the country in the recent past. Between 1964 and 1973, the US dropped 2 million tons of bombs on Laos, nearly equal to the 2.1 million tons it dropped on Europe and Asia during World War II. Up to a third of those bombs failed to explode and today remain scattered throughout the country, rendering vast swathes of land impossible to cultivate. They kill or maim close to a hundred Laotians every year.

 

While western Myanmar felt remote and unconnected, traditional and vernacular, Mandalay seemed to be turning cautiously modern. Thailand was a visibly exuberant and glamorous economy, and Laos, hauntingly desolate with an austere beauty.

 

………how the Chinese, the Thais, and the Vietnamese migrated, warred, plundered, settled, and finally became Laos as we know today.

 

……….Myanmar had been pristine, Laos had seemed at peace, and Thailand very sophisticated. But Vietnam was ruins, the result of tens of thousands of bombs and several gallons of Agent Orange and napalm dropped by the Americans to strip the forest cover. It left the rivers and farm land poisoned and gifted the next generation with birth defects. The unexploded landmines still kill a thousand people every year. The need to rebuild had cast Vietnam in a state of terrifying industriousness. Every structure looked like it was designed to be a sweatshop. This was a nation in a hurry to make up for the time and work lost to war.

Almost nothing in the cities, towns and villages we passed was made beautifully – except the tombstones. The Vietnamese carve stone and wood well………….they had become a factory for the world. There were few gardens or interesting houses. There were no pleasant touches that impart a certain warmth to a country; instead there was a focused, frowning earnestness.

While the highways so far had been scrupulously clean, the road to Hanoi was conspicuously not so. Almost all the roads we drove along now were lined with industries, and the air smelt of chemicals. Vietnam had given itself over to industry in order to manufacture a new future……the effects of an extended war, pollution and landmines strewn over all of North Vietnam and large parts of the rest of the country have lasted three generations. It was a tragedy long enough for a people to lose large chunks of their tradition.

 

The traffic in Hanoi was a fantastic mess of two-wheelers. The roads were swarmed by petite people on petite two-wheelers. Industrious, sincere, determined they looked.

 

The Land of Million Elephants is what they call Laos. ……….Laos has been a memorable experience. The least westernized of the countries we had travelled through, its laid-back approach to life, the beautiful scenery dotted with pagodas, its comfortable pace of life…..

 

Images of the twelfth-century temple Angkor Wat could be seen anywhere – on the national flag.………The only country other than Cambodia to have the image of a building – a mosque – on its flag is Afghanistan. Cambodia wanted the word to recognize its identity through a living, ancient monument……

 

Thailand is clearly the most dynamic economy in the Southeast Asian peninsula. It thrives on individual business enterprise, which imparts to the country the vibrancy of a bustling marketplace…….its consumption-led economy, strong middle class, and vibrant society were immediately evident. It’s a complete contrast with the other countries in the region. War-torn Vietnam, having a larger manufacturing base, was dotted with sweatshops. Cambodia seemed to have only two classes: the rich and the just-above-subsistence class. The middle class……..is significantly missing…….despite their economic limitations, Cambodia and Vietnam afforded us great riding conditions. We made great time on the fantastic Cambodian roads, averaging 130 kilometres per hour to the Thai border…….Vietnam had even better roads: even the curves could be handled easily at speeds greater than 100 kilometres per hour.

Movement across the borders for local people is seamless.

 

…….Thailand………..western style toilets are clean and aplenty……..There were well-appointed toilets at every gas stations……the roads too were smooth and lined with trees.

 

Once again in Myanmar I marveled at how clean the country was, the abundance of usable simple toilets, and the pristine mountains.

 

Back on our side of the border, we saw not a trace of fish oil and vinegar. How strange that a man-made border could wall off cooking ingredients from foreign lands. In the Southeast Asian countries we rode through, we found eating establishments mainly using soya sauce for seasoning. Salt was a tough ask.

 

We had several cups of the strong, sweet tea so native to all Indian roadsides. In no other country does one get this kind of tea, boiled to death with milk and sugar.

 

What we need is more women on the streets engaged in livelihood activities. Six weeks ago, I had felt their absence on the highway through Odisha. But through our northeastern states and the South East neighbours, I had seen women thronging the streets, markets and public places. I had seen the confidence in their eyes and in the self-assured flick of their wrists – handling vehicles, babies, and money with equal aplomb.

 

The filthy toilets we saw in Bihar and Uttar Pradesh were a sharp reminder of the absence of women on the highways. They are absent because they have very little work that requires them to travel…….In our travels all across India’s northeast and Southeast Asia, we saw efficient, clean toilets and confident women. We had seen women filling our fuel tanks in Myanmar, handling dhabas in Manipur, collecting toll in Telangana. In Uttar Pradesh and Bihar such women were conspicuous by their absence.

 

From ‘Bending over backwards. A journey to the end of the world to find a cure for a chronic backache’ by Carlo Pizzati

  

When you walk out in the streets in India, you will always find a meaningful experience. There’s an intensity of life here that you can’t find anywhere else……….

 

I remember a Neapolitan friend’s quip as soon as he came back from India ………. ‘Can you picture the streets of Naples near the San Paolo stadium after the Sunday soccer game? All those little flags and the noise in the streets, with the traffic all stuck? India is like that, but 24/7’


Sunday, August 2, 2020

From ‘Land of the Midnight Sun. My Arctic Adventures’ by Alexander Armstrong



The Lofoten Islands themselves are famous for many things, chiefly their beauty. You’ll never find a more pleasing rugged-coastline-and-soaring-mountains combination……..the celebrated Lofoten fish. The islands are a kind of lush Eden for the codfish ……..every year the world’s largest cod shoal (indeed the planet’s only growing cod stock) drops by for the famous ‘skrei’ season. By virtue of the happy confluence of the Gulf Stream and inch-perfect submarine direction-finding, each February millions of these wonderful fish swim here all the way from the Barents Sea, over a thousand kilometres away……thanks to the Norwegians’ innate knack for practical forward thinking, they have never fished the things to extinction – au contraire, they have caught them through patient line fishing, always being particularly strict on themselves to respect their quotas, never taking more than is sustainable.
The way the shoal has grown and grown over the centuries remains an exquisite if rare example of man and nature living in per-fect har-mo-nee.

Driving in the Arctic……..is a good deal less perilous than you might expect. Yes, the road surface is invariably compacted snow and ice, but all the tyres are fitted with studs and this makes an astonishing difference

Strangely, even as you drive through the most mountaineous passes of Northern Norway, the radio signal stays remarkably constant…….I find that eerily impressive.

Narvik is the northernmost port in Norway – and famously the only deep-sea port in the Scandinavian Arctic to remain ice free throughout the year. This distinction has made Narvik strategically vital to the Norwegians …….as it means that the colossal iron-ore extraction just over the border at Kiruna in Sweden can be shipped from there all year round. Such useful attributes can come at a terrible price, though. Poor Narvik was the scene of vicious fighting in 1940 as Hitler went all out to bring Norway to heel…….the old town was completely destroyed by a series of battles that raged between April and June that year.
We travel by train along the iron-ore line over the Swedish border to Kiruna. This is said to be one of the most beautiful train journeys in the world

Kiruna……is on the site of an ancient Sami settlement, but the modern town wasn’t founded till 1900. The Samis are the indigenous people of that area of Norway, Sweden, Finland and the Kola peninsula of Russia ………The Samis, who’ve been living in this region semi-nomadically for over twelve thousand years …….have been bullied terribly one way or the other by the dominant cultures of mainland Europe over the centuries, suffering the worst kinds of ethnic cleansing right up to the middle of the twentieth century…….At the first sniff of heavy industry and its riches the Samis seem to get shunted fairly unceremoniously to one side……..iron ore has been dug out of what is now called Kiruna since the seventeenth century…….It was only when the railway came along in 1903 that the output rose to anything like its current levels and the town expanded vastly. The Kiruna mine produces over 26 million tonnes of iron ore a year, which is exported all over the world……..To put that in context, the annual iron-ore output of the US is 47.5 million tonnes……..

Polar bear training is mandatory for anyone visiting Svalbard and involves a lesson in rifle shooting…….Its a sobering fact that on Svalbard all front doors have to remain unlocked so that people fleeing polar bears can run in and take shelter. That’s how often people run from polar bears, and presumably how a great many Svalbardian romances start……..One thing you see an awful lot of in the Arctic is stuffed polar bears…….

….Norway ….I have fallen heads over heels in love with it. The countryside is so heartbreakingly beautiful……Best of all, though, are the people…… I have come across such humanity and decency in Norway, such intelligence, such advanced social ideas (I haven’t even touched on their revolutionary penal system, which has all but eliminated reoffending), such entrenched contentedness and warmth. It turns out its not an act at all, they’re just wonderful, wonderful people.

Norway poses for photographs from the minute you arrive……..The tiny little bit of Iceland we’ve seen so far doesn’t seem to do this so much, or at least not in February…..

In Norway and Sweden they are aware of – and celebrate – their Viking past but it seems to survive more as a sort of colourful historic sideshow…..Iceland’s Viking heritage, on the other hand, is a chapter that hasn’t closed – they are still Vikings – its all around you all the time….its culture is proudly held up as the origin of all Icelandic life, its politics, even its religion. Until fifteen years ago, when outsiders started coming here to live and work, every single person on the island knew exactly what their Viking origins were, which branch of which clan they belonged to.

Its not just the people who are still Vikings – every species on the island seems to have some sort of Viking pedigree….Apparently there are also Viking sheep.

Ilulissat – formerly Jacobshaven – is a small town of just under 5,000 people (which still makes it the ‘third-largest city’ in Greenland)…..

He seems to have that thing that people on second marriages often have of being very careful to be fair and even-tempered at all times…….

You have got to say this for Fairbanks; five minutes out of town and you’re in some of the finest and most majestic scenery on earth.


Saturday, April 11, 2020

From ‘To the Baltic with Bob’ by Griff Rhys Jones



[on a boat] Sometimes, the fainter light was closer than the brighter. Sometimes a small and distant light would suddenly rush upon you and pass close by, the light itself rocking on what was now a black cone, speeding by a few yards away and back into the night. Sometimes the light that had begun to worry you, seemingly hovering aboard an obstacle and about to collide, gradually resolved itself into a star, millions of miles away and hanging low in the sky.
So at night, on a boat, you stare. You stare ahead, opening your eyelids wider, frowning hard……….peering into the black. After a while, your forehead hurts and your eyeballs ache and the back of your neck goes tense. And, you remember the chilling fact that a large boat can charge up from its hidden place on the other side of the horizon to be on top of you in seven minutes.

The Kiel Canal was built in the nineteenth century for strategic reasons. Germany wanted to be able to get her battleships into the Baltic. It was designed for, and still took, big ships, but of course the canal was largely redundant now. Real big ships were too big for it in the modern world. In fact real big ships could no longer enter the Baltic at all. The waters of the Kattegat were too shallow for ocean-going bulk carriers to pass through the Danish entrance and the canal was now far too small.

‘Why do you think, Griff, that I drive that battered old thing?’…………’Here, in Denmark, I could not be seen driving in a top-of-the-range Porsche or Ferrari, even though I could easily afford one. Danish people don’t like anybody to show off.’ ………The Danes do have an enormous social conscience and they pay massive taxes to support it. It is part of the fabric of their society. After the Napoleonic Wars, when they backed the wrong side and were mercilessly punished, losing Norway, bombed by Congreve rockets and shot to pieces by Admiral Nelson the Danes became a small nation and the conscience of Europe. …….Danes are very proud of their tolerant history……Hence the flags, and the patriotism. …..Spare, modern, practical and uncomfortable, that was Danish: nothing frilly or ornamental, please.

Danes are immensely proud of Denmark. This is because they are the most sophisticated of the Baltic nations. I was told this not only by the Danish, but also in Estonia, Sweden and Finland, without a trace of irony. Nobody said, ‘They think they’re the most sophisticated’, as we British might about the French. It was taken as a matter of course. Denmark looked south. A Finnish sound engineer solemnly told me that the Danish had much more in common with Italy than the Arctic circle. ‘They even drink more espresso coffee.’

At the beginning of the last millennium, the woods and bogs of Pomerania cut off the wilderness of Estonia and Latvia. There was no settled government up there. The fjords and bays were populated by individual pagan tribes. Russian hunters had come out of the east, via Byzantium, working their way to Novgorod. The Vikings came from the west by boat. Close behind them, the Teutonic Knights roved up from the south. These particular, ruthless crusaders helped establish trading posts, and a dominant class of expatriate merchants to rule them, but outside their walls it remained every man for himself. It was a lawless wild west of northern Europe. The Russians, the Germans and the Swedes have fought for control of the area ever since. Estonia and Latvia achieved their independence only in 1991.

The history of Russian involvement with the Baltic is the history of Russia’s urge to move west, to become European. St Petersburg was built by Peter the Great to modernize his country, to leave the exotic, Boyar Moscow behind, in the past…… But it only ever became an outpost. The real Russia stretched away across the steppes to the edge of Japan.

In the eighteenth century foreign visitors were struck by Russian stoicism. St Petersburg was a city of appalling disease and grinding poverty. Sixty out of every 1,000 people were expected to die every year, because they lived on top of a festering cesspit. Crime was inevitable and punishments were draconian. Things got considerably worse in the nineteenth century. Dostoyevsky himself was thrown into the dungeons on the island …………He was kept in solitary confinement in a cell that regularly flooded with the sewage-laden waters of the Neva.
Executions were so commonplace that the people on one side of the town could hardly be bothered with the beheadings taking place on the other. The visitor from London, used to high levels of public interest in this sort of thing, put it down to the Russian ability to absorb suffering. And, by any account, St Petersburg has been a city of suffering.

We were passing through by far the most exquisite scenery we had yet seen on the journey…….The southern coast of Finland, the northern coast of the Gulf, was dotted with over 80,000 islands. And every one was beautiful.
The border had moved back and forth along this fragmented shore many times in the last 1,000 years. The Swedes had been beaten back home by Peter the Great. For 300 years Finland had been part of Russia…..Russia had only let go of this wonderland, where the tsar had yachted, in 1917, where the Finns negotiated their independence with Lenin.

Finland’s entire history, like that of so many of the small countries of the area, had been driven by a wholly justified fear of its neighbours. The disputes, the civil wars, the blood-letting, even the internal political geography were caused by the aggressive policies of Russia, Germany and, before them, Sweden.

He [said] ….. ‘The Danes look down on the Swedes, who look down on the Finns, and the Finns look down on the Estonians, and the Estonians look down on the Latvians. And the Lithuanians, I’m afraid, are right at the bottom.’
And everybody still feared the Russians, if not for their military intentions, then most certainly for their criminal intentions ………..[gangs coming over]


Monday, March 9, 2020

From ‘How to Ikigai. The ancient Japanese secret. Lessons for finding happiness and living your life's purpose’ by Tim Tamashiro



“I did not ask for success; I asked for wonder.”
-          Abraham Joshua Heschel

The Ikigai map has four simple directions to follow:
1.      Do what you love
2.      Do what you’re good at
3.      Do what the world needs
4.      Do what you can be rewarded for

……iki translates to life, gai means worth. Ikigai = life’s worth.

Dr.Santos demonstrates that studies show you can improve your well-being through regular efforts at eight things
1.      Acts of kindness
2.      Exercise
3.      Social connection
4.      Meditation
5.      Time affluence
6.      Good sleep
7.      Gratitude
8.      Goalsetting

“Mindfulness is the basic human ability to be fully present, aware of where we are and what we’re doing, and not overly reactive or overwhelmed by what’s going on around us.”

Kara means empty + te means hand. So karate ……translates to empty hand.

…..Angela Duckworth…… “grit is about having a goal you care about so much that it organizes and gives meaning to almost everything you do.”

Start with a list of the things that you love to do and what you’re good at. Take action to do something from your list each day.

Your true Ikigai is something that you would do for free if you were given the chance.

Start a list of things that you’re good at……..Look for a thread that connects your strengths.


Thursday, January 16, 2020

From ‘Love and War in the Apennines’ by Eric Newby



It was very difficult to get out of a prison camp in Italy. Italian soldiers might be figures of fun to us, but some of them were extraordinarily observant and very suspicious and far better at guarding prisoners than the Germans were. It was also very difficult to travel in Italy if you did get out. The Italians were fascinated by minutiae of dress and the behavior of their fellow men, and the ingenious subterfuges and disguises which escaping prisoners of war habitually resorted to and which were enough to take in the Germans …………were hardly ever sufficiently genuine-looking to fool even the most myopic Italian ticket collector and get the owner past the barrier, let alone survive the scrutiny of the occupants of a compartment on an Italian train……unless he was a professional actor or spoke fluent Italian. And in Italy, before the Armistice, there were no members of the Resistance or railway employees of the Left, as there were in France, to help escaping prisoners out of the country along an organized route.


Wednesday, January 1, 2020

From ‘Perhaps Tomorrow. The Memoir of a Sri Lankan housemaid in the Middle East’ by Pooranam Elayathamby with Richard Anderson



Egyptians were known to be especially cheap when it came to paying for services. How many Sri Lankan housemaids before me had spent months doing arduous work in the Gulf States only to return home empty-handed.

As the days wore on, I asked if I could have some time off to look about the neighbourhood and city……….. “I really wouldn’t mind going by myself”……… “I don’t think you understand your contract. You work for me. You can only leave the home with either Sayed or me. You’re here to work. You’re not here in Kuwait to be a tourist. This is why we keep the door locked. If you want to contact any of your family, you can write letters, and I will post them.”
I was shocked. What kind of country was this? No one had said anything about this kind of treatment. Who would know if anything should happen to me? ……..Several weeks of retrictions made my time in the house very monotonous.

I also noticed that very few of the clerks and general market help were Kuwaitis – most were Egyptians, Iranian, Bangladeshi or Indian. The men who collected the money or attended the sales were usually Lebanese or Palestinians.

Unlike Kuwaitis, Saudi men tended to show far greater respect to women.

As Saudi Arabia is primarily a Sunni nation, the abaya is the preferred covering that most women choose. Hannan further explained to me that women who favored western dress and did not cover were frequently insulted by nasty sexual comments or sometimes even assaulted.    

Except for recent generations, Kuwaiti are primarily the descendants of Iraqis, Iranians, and Saudis, as people from these countries were the firsts to occupy this area of western Iraq.

For the most part, it was largely the Bedouins in Saudi Arabia who gave from their hearts to help people in need. Their life in the desert had made them that way, and it was a wonderful thing. Recent generations of Bedouins liked to trumpet this stereotype, but for them it was largely a myth.

Arabs abhor manual labor, and with the new constitution guaranteeing every Kuwaiti a government job, there is virtually no incentive for anyone to accept a menial job until a middle management position opens in some ministry, agency, or local bureaucracy. However, there are many Kuwaitis who do own private companies, but most manage to start them through deals with foreign corporations that are required to turn over majority ownership of their local business operations to them. An enterprising Kuwaiti who starts and builds a business totally on his or her own is a rare exception.

People from northern India invariably looked down their noses on Tamils from South India as well as on Indians from places such as Hyderabad, Kerala and Goa.

An occasional policeman would notice me and ask to see my bataka, but it was largely a ruse as he, like many others, just wanted to flirt with me. The Kuwaiti policeman seemed to take a great interest in a woman’s appearance, but unlike foreign workers who just made catcalls or whistled, they were somewhat constrained as they were in uniform, so they would use a ploy of gratuitous ID checking just to meet girls ………It was all just part of the routine for foreign women working in Kuwait.