Sunday, March 11, 2018

From ‘The Living Road. A motorcycle journey to Bhutan’ by Ajit Harisinghani

Octobers are a good month to be riding a motorcycle across India for reasons of weather too. The blistering heat of the summer has been subdued by three months of rain. Its still hot but not uncomfortably so. Trees have fresh foliage so roads have grottos of shade, ideal for those short halts. The rivers and lakes are full. Harvests have been reaped and festivity and abundance is in the air. The major festivals of Durga Puja and Dussera are just around the corner and Diwali is coming up. October signals the beginning of the happy season in India.

I tell her that no one is really alone on the roads of India – at least on the ones I’ll be riding on this time. Experience has taught me, help is always available on an Indian highway, sometimes even when you don’t want it.

My first impression of modern day Nagpur is of friendliness. The people here are polite and helpful and seem to love their food.

He informs me that traditionally, hijras move in groups of six, the reason they are called ‘chakkas’ (‘sixes’)

I discover a PWD guest house – a government property built to house visiting engineers and staff of the Public Works Department. Such PWD guest houses dot the length and breadth of India and are usually located on the outskirts of a town. Many have been built in the early 1950s and possess the old-world charm of long gone times.

……..entered Kharagpur, which at first sight looks like an unkempt shabbily dressed child with a runny nose.

Indian currency is accepted all over Bhutan at par with their own Ngultrum.

Bhutanese people talk ever so softly with each other and their speech is punctuated by sounds of genuine mirth.

…….I ask him about tobacco and liquor laws in Bhutan. No one can sell tobacco, but alcohol? ‘No problem finding booze here. Very popular!’ he says………..

The immaculately dressed guards are polite and wish me a happy journey. Nobody seems to abuse their authority here.

….I walk over to them and say, ‘Hi’. Americans are easy people to talk to.

When I return to my bike I see it is surrounded by a group of men in the blue uniform of Bhutan police. They smile at me as I approach ……….They are not carrying guns. Not even batons. ……talk to me in broken Hindi. There is not even a hint of condescension or discourtesy in their manner. They seem happy to chit-chat.

No horns honk on the central street of Thimpu and traffic seems to move smoothly without a single traffic light. Only one crossing has a traffic island where a policeman……directs the flow of traffic with the grace of a music composer conducting his orchestra.

Like most people here, he too constantly ends each sentence with a laugh.

Bhutan is a biker’s paradise and the road I’m on today is picture postcard perfect.

There are only a few people around, and they are walking around as if they had all the time in the world. No one is rushing about in business suits and briefcases here. No advertising, no neon lights, no policemen, no designer shops, and no beggars.

‘We also meditate on playing with various feelings – because all feelings are fun to experience if we become their masters and they our slaves. If we don’t go overboard when we are happy, our sadnesses also don’t seem so sad. We learn how to be not-serious about emotions. Only then can one play with them and enjoy them’

I like the unabashed manner in which everyone in Bhutan asks me for a cigarette. From the policemen…… these glamorous TV stars, they all seem to enjoy smoking…….

Like all of his countrymen that I have met……this giant of a man has an air of gentle pleasantness about him.

The Bhutanese are aware that they are a happy people. You can see it in their eyes. You can hear it in their speech. Compassion, laughter, empathy and gentleness pervade the air here. There is love and respect for their king. There is no strife between groups of any kind. They all seem to agree with each other and their king. There are no religion-oriented conflicts. Corruption doesn’t exist. There is no security-phobia in either the government or the people, no video cameras monitoring everyone. The Police are friendly and helpful. Crime is rare. Smiling seems to be everyone’s favourite activity.
On the roads in India one is always on guard against conmen and various other hazards, but in Bhutan there were no such challenges. …..I could leave the back-pack hanging from the handle of my unlocked bike as I walked the streets of Thimpu and Paro……….
Bhutan makes it easy to be happy and I basked in this liberating ambience for ten days……..

Monday, March 5, 2018

From ‘Bed, Breakfast & Drunken Threats. Dispatches from the Margins of Europe’ by Dave Seminara

……….65% of Hungarians speak only Hungarian, a remarkably difficult language to learn.

Europe is roughly the same size as America but it has 56 countries, depending on who’s counting and more than 80 languages (23 of them are officially recognized). In America, one can drive for many hours, even days only to arrive in a new place that feels eerily similar to the one you’ve left. The topography changes, and we have regional cuisines and dialects, but the trend is toward homogenization.
Big box chains and other aspects of our consumer culture are creeping into Europe as well. But you never have to travel very far to arrive in a place where the language, customs, and culture are completely different. When I lived in Macedonia, I could be in Kosovo, Serbia or Bulgaria within an hour. Greece was just two hours away. …….There is no place else in the world with more cultural treasures concentrated in a relatively small area. Four of the five countries with the most UNESCO World Heritage sites are in Europe, and seven of the ten countries that receive the most foreign tourists are on the Continent.

As we entered Kazakhstan, we left the greenery of Russia behind, chugging into a barren desert landscape of abandoned prison camps and the occasional nomad.

Macedonian mechanics see a car with diplomatic plates being driven by a caretaker from the embassy and start to think about retiring young.

She explained that in Malta, people have the charming habit of listing their degrees ……in the telephone book…..

Liechtenstein, ………has the highest gross domestic product per person in the world when adjusted by purchasing power parity and an unemployment rate of about 2%. While Liechtensteiners once had to walk to jobs in Switzerland, now some 20,000 Swiss and Austrians commute into Liechtenstein for work each weekday. Many live outside the country because land is scarce in Liechtenstein and prices are high. Others simply cannot get residency permits, let alone citizenship…………in Liechtenstein, voters cast ballots to approve or deny citizenship and not everyone is voted in…………From 2011-2014, only 18 people gained citizenship in this manner………..

We arose to the din of maniacally gonging church bells at 5:30 a.m. Liechtenstein is about 76% Catholic………it must lead the world in church bell gonging. You hear them all day and throughout the night. Its all the more startling because they make a hell of a racquet in a peaceful country where half the people who want to get drunk drive up to Feldkirch, Austria, twenty minutes north of Vaduz, where beer costs half the price.

“My dad says, ‘If you aren’t five minutes early, you’re late!’”

Someone once said that you can tell a lot about a country by the state of its public toilets. By this token, Liechtenstein might be the most developed country in the world.

….. Liechtenstein  in Figures 2015……….. Liechtenstein is 41% wooded. There are 109 farms, 1,655 pigs, 3,522 sheep. 977 bee colonies, 36 hotels and guesthouses, 6,161 houses. 2,135 apartments, 635 unemployed persons. 37,878 motor vehicles……..12 people who died due to an accident or from a violent death in 2013……… The army was abolished in 1868 (they essentially farm out border controls to the Swiss)…….. it is one of just two double-landlocked countries in the world (The other is Uzbekistan.) …….Like Switzerland, the country was officially neutral in WW2. ……..The Swiss are nominally in charge of border control but apparently there are only spot checks and no manned border posts. Austria and Switzerland have scores of migrants but few bother to try their luck in Liechtenstein, which has a reputation for being a rather difficult place to migrate to………It is essentially a nation with 11 small towns, no real cities, no highways, no Starbucks and few tourists ………

Liechtenstein is 24.8 kilometers at its longest and 12.4 kilometers at its wildest. The meandering Rhine River marks the western border with Switzerland, while 5,000-foot peaks mark the southern (Swiss) and eastern (Austrian) borders.

One could ride public buses for a lifetime in France and not encounter a friendly driver who proactively offered directions in English. But this was already the second time this had happened in a weekend of travel around Liechtenstein, which surely has the best bus drivers in the world.

….Essad Bey’s 1931 tome, Twelve Secrets of the Caucasus….. “Almost every tenth Caucasian is involved in some affair that has to do with a blood feud…..Intercourse with animals-an abuse which is very widely practiced in the mountains-also demands blood vengeance.”

In the Balkans, breathing fresh air is seen as a danger to one’s health…..

Belgrade may have the world’s most beautiful women.

………the Serbs [said] ……….Montenegrins were lazy and would cheat you. Macedonians were country bumpkins and really shouldn’t even exist as a nation. Albanians were sub-human and prone to crime. Bulgarians smelled bad and were ugly….

It is never advisable to approach someone in France and immediately start speaking English.

I speak basic Spanish, but I don’t speak German, Portugese or Norwegian. And yet, in each of these places, I felt like I was welcome, whereas in France, I often felt like I was nothing more than an annoyance, an unwelcome visitor. In France, I………was ….constantly worrying that I was going to offend someone. Everywhere else, I could relax and not feel ashamed of my linguistic shortcomings.
Did we encounter any nice people in France? Actually, yes we did. Every negative encounter we had was with someone who was at work, whereas many of the random people we encountered on buses, at beaches, or even in the Paris metro, were quite nice. ….nearly all of our positive customer service experiences in France involved young persons under the age of 30.

Eatwell reports that in the 17th and 18th centuries, the French set the standard for manners and etiquette. But after the French revolution, there was a “revolt against the rules of politeness.” Eatwell notes that the French – particularly the working class – tends to equate politeness, especially politeness to foreign tourists, with subservience.
In France, nearly half the country takes the whole month of August off. Many shops and restaurants are closed and some places, like Dijon, feel like ghost towns. But the other half – those who still have to work – are often resentful. By the middle of August, many are fed up after a long summer of coping with tourists who don’t speak French. Its entirely possible that someone visiting France off-season might encounter far less rudeness.

“In France, you always believe you will be assisted by the government,” he said. “Unions are strong, so it is very hard to fire someone. If you work in a restaurant, you don’t get the tips like in the States, so if you do a good job or a bad job, at the end of the day, you make the same money. This is the mentality in France.”
He said that in France, if someone is successful, their peer group will be jealous and resent them; whereas, in the States, most people assume that those who are successful worked hard to get where they are.
“This is why customer service is so much better in the States,” he said. “There is a belief that working hard can lead to success.”

He shook his head yes, meaning no, in that odd, counterintuitive way Bulgarians are famous for.

Where can you have a world-class meal at hole-in-the-wall prices, see six islands from one stunning vantage point and hear a tune played on a goatskin tsabouna by half the town’s total population? Welcome to San Michalis, on the island of Syros, population: two. ……Syros has a substantial Catholic minority, an oddity in a country that is 98% Greek Orthodox.

……the distinctive Basque language, Euskara, said to be the oldest living language in Europe.

‘In every Basque town, you will find three things,’ said a man sitting next to us…….. “A church, a bar and a pelota court. This is our most important game”

Stone lifting evolved into a sport over the last hundred years or so because Basque farms tend to be rocky, and farmers needed to move big boulders to work their land.

Even during the dark days of the Franco dictatorship, when it was dangerous to speak the Basque language, rural Basque sports flourished as an important part of the Basque culture, even though no one could call them “Basque sports.” And mountaineering became popular because Basques felt free to speak their own language only when there was no risk of being reported to the authorities.

The Basques are a proud yet somewhat reserved people.

From ‘Heart of Asia’ by Nicholas Roerich

The Pemayangtse monastery is the official center of religion in Sikkim …….Every traveler should visit this remarkable place, despite the difficult path by a bamboo bridge over a wild torrent.

As in Sikkim, the Ladaki lamas turned out to be kind, tolerant of other faiths and hospitable to travelers, as Buddhists should be.

Often we saw bales of goods, left behind, unguarded, by unknown owners. Perhaps the animals fell or became too fatigued to carry the goods, which were left for another occasion. And nobody would touch this property. Nobody would dare to transgress this ethic of the caravan. …….Nobody knows exactly where is the frontier between Ladak and Chinese Turkestan. It is there, somewhere between Karakorum and Kurul! In Kurul is the first Chinese outpost……….The most dissimilar and varied people meet in this way: Ladaki, Kashmiris, Afghans, Tibetans, Astoris, Baltis, Dards, Mongols, Sarts, Chinese, and everyone has their own tale ………………Kurul is the first Chinese outpost on the Yarungkashdarya, the river of black nephrite.

Old Khotan was about six miles away, where the village Yotkan, stands to-day. The old Buddhist sites have now been covered by mosques, mazars and Moslem dwellings, so that further excavations in these places are quite out of question.

One often has cause to resent the actions of European explorers, who have removed whole parts of architectural ensembles to museums………Of course, there is this consideration: The majority of Buddhist monuments on Moslem lands have been and still are, exposed to iconoclastic fanaticism. In order to destroy the images, fires are built in the caves, and as high as the hand can reach, the faces of the images have been scratched with knives. We have seen traces of such destruction. The labors of such distinguished scholars as Sir Aurel Stein, Pelliot, Le Coq, Oldenburg, have safeguarded many of the monuments, which otherwise would have suffered the greatest danger of destruction, because of the carelessness of the Chinese administration.

………is it not possible that the word “Shaman” is a depraved form of the Sanskrit “Shraman”, just as “Bokhara” is nothing but the altered Buddhist word “Vihara”?

Mentioning the Mongols, it is necessary to point out some signs of an ancient physical bond between America and Asia. In 1921, when I became acquainted with the Red Indian Pueblos of New Mexico and Arizona, I was forced to exclaim repeatedly: “But those are real Mongols!” Their features, details of their dress, their way of riding, and the character of some of their songs, all carried me away in imagination across the ocean. And now, having the opportunity to study the Mongols of outer and inner Mongolia, I was involuntarily reminded of the Pueblo Indian. Something inexplicable, fundamental, beyond all superficial theories, unites these nations.

Changthang – the northern upland of Tibet – truly deserves its fame as the coldest spot in Asia. Terrific storms increase to a tremendous degree the effect of the frost, and the rare atmosphere at fifteen to sixteen thousand feet, make the conditions exceptionally severe.

Tibet offers the most astonishing combination of contradictions.
On one side, we saw profound knowledge and remarkably developed psychic energy. On the other, complete ignorance and limitless darkness.
On one side, there is devotion to religion, even in its limited form. On the other side, we noticed how the money donated to monasteries was concealed and how false oaths were given …….We saw neither gold nor silver, either in the dzongs, or in the hands of the people. ……..We saw ancient dzongs, monasteries and villages. If from afar, the silhouettes at times looked good, on approach we were grieved to see the poverty and shoddiness of Tibetan structures. …….It is prohibited to kill animals. This is splendid. But the storerooms of the monasteries are filled with carcasses of mutton and yak. We were told of the sinless method of killing cattle, - driving the animals to the edge of steep cliffs, where they fall down and kill themselves. …….Not far from Lhasa is a place where corpses are hacked apart and thrown to vultures, dogs and pigs to be devoured. It is customary to roll naked on these remains to preserve one’s good health. The Buriat Tsibikoff, in his book on Tibet, assures his readers that His Holiness the Dalai-Lama has himself performed this absurd ritual. ……. “Why do our people lie so much?” worries a Tibetan on the banks of the Brahmaputra ……….

In general the Tibetan dialects are a problem, for besides the basic Lhasa dialect, every region retains its own dialect, and these are so different that the Tibetans of Lhasa at times cannot understand their own people.

Tibet has presumed for itself spiritual supremacy over its neighbors. The Tibetans look aloofly on Sikkimese, Ladakis, Kalmucks and call the Mongols their own bondsmen.