Tuesday, December 07, 2004

Lamu (part 2)


We reached Makowe, the final stop on main land, late in the afternoon. From here a ferry would take us to the Lamu island. The island is not very far- at the most about 3 kms into the sea - but the town of Lamu is on one side of the island and it is a 6 km ferry ride. Since the buses came in a convoy, the ferry had to make multiple trips to transfer the crowd to Lamu. So that fewer trips could be made, more passengers than what was safe, were taken inside the boat.

Kieron and I thought it is best to be at the edge of the ferry since one can jump out easily lest the ferry sinks. So we pushed ouselves closer to the edge, where a wooden bench ran all along the ferry. I could get a place to sit but Kieron couldnt. He, however, found a pole to lean on. In a short while the whole ferry was filled with people. Most of the women were wearing brightly coloured kangas and kikois . K and K are batik printed fabric that women wear. These are usually sold in pairs: one for wearing and the other to carry a baby on the back. Kangas have a swahili proverb printed on it and is usually made up of a thinner fabric. As Lamu is predominanty Islamic, few women were also wearing Bui Bui (Burkha). Some of the people in the ferry were of african/arab descent, indicative of the rich trading past these areas had with Arabia.

Once the ferry was deemed full, loud shouts were exchanged between various 'crew' on board and on the land. Ropes were thrown into the ferry and slowly the it edged into the water with the engine groaning to break the inertia. My eyes then fell on a wooden box in the middle of the ferry; I presumed this to be a cover for a part of the motor, so that either the hot or the moving parts would not get into contact with the commuters. However, hone by thousands of years of survival instincts, my brain quickly replaced these thoughts by thoughts of my swimming capability. Alarmingly, I realised that after the boat travels for about 15 meters, the shore is certainly out of my swimming reach and so quickly tried to recall the back float lesson, that would enable me to float till help arrives.

With my mind completely filled with harrowing thoughts of drowning, I did not notice the scenery around until i could see the 'skyline' of the town of Lamu. As the image of the town started getting larger, Kieron and I gave a sigh of relief and understanding glances that kind of indicated, we made it! Just as our understanding glances were giving way to understanding smiles, the wooden box that was to protect the commuters from getting burnt, started to emanate smoke. I guess, it must have taken a long time for it to get to this stage but no one noticed until thick smoke started to come from it. With some quick shouts, the engine was quickly shut off and the box was taken out and the fire was douced. However, the then engine refused to start again. Just refused. All this happened when the ferry was within 200 meters to the jetty. The island is a bit rectangular in shape and the town is along one of the smaller sides of it. So for the last 100 meters or so, we were moving parallel to the edge of the town and island. All along the edge were cement cubes that was used to protect the edge from getting eroded into the sea. Just after the cement cubes was the main lane of the town.

The main lane was now filling up with people. I saw a small bunch of chaps pointing out to people in the boat, saying something and giving each other friendly slaps. I thought they must be wagering bets as to who would make it to the shore and who wouldnt after the ferry sinks. After a short while attempts to start the engine were given up and with some loud shouts, help was sought to tug us to the jetty. These shouts yielded help in form of a small motorised boat that brought us to the land.

The jetty was filled with beach boys 'hunting' for the tourists. Since Kieron spoke swahili and since most people in Kenya assumed I was a resident, we werent troubled too much.

The beach front of the town had some shacks which I assumed to be hanging spots for the tourists and many quaint swahili houses with large carved wooden doors. The number of donkeys on the streets is too large to be normal. Later on I came to know that Lamu has only three motorised vehicles. So the alternate means of transport to walking are either cycles or donkeys (as our old school books say: beasts of burden). Itseems that Lamu even has a home for the aged donkeys.

The first spot we went to was Hotel Hapa Hapa: an open fronted shack that had plastic chairs and tables. We went in, plonked ourselves in the chairs on the same side of the table to see the sea as we sipped our juices....

[more about the charming town of Lamu in the next part]

Thursday, November 04, 2004

In the land of "hakuna matata"

With the talk of the sea few days ago, I was reminded of my lone trip on the sea. I made a three day dhow trip visiting few islands around Lamu. Lamu is a small island off the Kenyan coast close to Somali border. Before I start with the blog, some admin issues: I would do this writing in part. The first part will be about getting to Lamu, the second one will be about Lamu itself and the third one will be about the sea trip. (so long way off before you could get to my sea story). Atleast that's the plan as things stand now. (Anyway, before you start reading let me warn you, this first part is long, real long. Now that it has turned out like this, I will shorten the other two)

I was in Nairobi researching for my Masters thesis and for a while, I was not distracted by the touristy attraction all around. I had too many things to do. Doing research on a shoe string budget in a foreign county with the institute that was to play the host going bankrupt was not easy. This non touristy nature was also due to other reasons. First, I did not have the money to go on a safari (the cheapest was US$ 80 a night and this was “peel your own potatoes and make your own bed” kind of deal and the most expensive was US 250/hour of safari-ing on a hot air balloon; included within this price was a glass of champagne after the ‘tiring’ ride over animals). I also felt guilty going ga-ga over wild life there when I did not visit a single national park in India. Alternatively, I could have had a good time visiting nice urban watering holes but I too scared to move around in the night on the streets of Nairobi. However, this non tourist status existed until I met Kieron.

I was at one of the seminars being conducted by ILO on the 'informal sector'. Informal sector, is a single term that represents all the tiny manufacturing and servicing activities that one mostly get to see in the slum in urban areas all over lesser developed countries. I did not know of this ‘informal sector’ studies until I went to Kenya. Anyway, Kieron is from the Royal College of Design in London and is Irish (so did not tower over me). Since the attendance to the seminar was less than what ILO expected which in turn meant that the budget was in excess of the expenses. The bloke who was in charge of this meet, an Englishman, was a sport and allowed the booze to flow. This gave opportunity for many of us to interact with one and another. Since I was on a 'passion fruit juice' trip then, I was ordering fresh juice. I could buy booze anywhere but sipping fresh fruit juice in a star hotel is something I cannot afford. Another reason why I did not drinking was that I did not want to display my poor alcohol holding capacity especially on a near empty stomach. In hindsight this was a good decision for those professional could really drink.

It was in this seminar that I met Kieron, he was experimenting on cheap communication systems to disseminate innovative designs to metal workers. We got talking and then he was shocked that I was in Nairobi for over 5 weeks and have never been anyplace except to the Indian restaurant close to River Road, YMCA close to Uhuru park, and to the Iskon temple in Ngara (where free desi food was given every sunday including ghee filled sweet dish).

So few days later he was at my workplace in Westlands. Ngara and Westlands are filled with Indians. Westland with the ultra-rich and Ngara with middle-class (I was staying as a paying guest in Ngara). He had a small piki-piki (motor cycle) this meant that I could visit many interesting places around the city. (It was in one interesting place that a woman friend of Kieron had asked me out. Actually he only time in my entire existence until now, a woman asked me if we could meet. Heck I was married. So for a moment I was sad for myself. Actually for a long moment)

Since Christmas was not far away, Kieron asked me if I wanted to go out of Nairobi. I sure was. He said we could go to Lamu. Lamu is a small island close to Somalia. It was between Lamu, Mombasa and Zanzibar that the Swahili culture was born. Since I could not afford the airticket, Kieron said that we could take the night bus to Mombasa, spend a few hours, take another bus to Malindi and stop for that night. Next day we could take another bus that will take us to the point from where the ferry would take us to Lamu. However, there have been some cases of Somali gun men stopping the buses to Lamu and looting them but these days, the buses move in a convoy and each one would carry a gunman. As it sounded exciting, I was all game for it.

I did not remember much of the night bus to Mombasa except that we stopped somewhere to eat and drink some tea. We arrived in Mombasa at dawn and many men were returning from the mosque. Kieron was all excited since at this time of the day, around the local cafes, one can find old women selling spicy chick peas with coconut and can be eaten with a ‘cripy puri like bread’. This, he said, is very special and is only available at this time of the day. It was something not too different from our chat but then it was different and very nice. Perhaps it is the time and place that made the significant difference to the taste. So we had this kenyan variation of puri-channa for breakfast. and soon headed for Malindi. Mombasa has fort Jesus built by Portuguese, a nice old harbour and some lovely bazaars but we decided to do a bit of sight seeing on our way back.

Malindi, Kieron told me was the hide-out for the mafia. So in middle of know where, one can find huge hotels, bars and other such interesting places where the mafia would like to cool their heels. (Folks, Mombasa also featured in the movie 'Company'. Maybe Malindi-Mombasa is the area where goons from all over the world sip booze in coconuts and put up their feet for a while). Malinidi is also the place from where Vasco da gama was given a guide, who then helped him navigate to India. First thing we did after reaching Malindi was to shower and crash. We were too tired. Woke up hungry in the afternoon to the calls of the meuzzin. We then went out into the town to eat. I remember Malindi to be a hot and dusty place. We found a nice cool place near the market next to the bus stop. ‘Found’ because I was looking for a place that served passion fruit juice.

We went back and slept until the evening. Then went around looked some trinket shops and went to the beach where a memorial for Vasco da Gama was built. For dinner we went to this huge Indian restaurant where we two were the only customers. Maybe the actual ‘customers’ arrive latter in the night. The owners were out in the front porch and did not even say hello to me. They sure must be in cahoots with the Mafioso.

Next morning took our bus that took us to Lamu as we ate brightly coloured (with carcinogenic colour for sure) boabad seeds and gaped at the alien landscape with Baobab tree that looked as if they are growing upside down and twin headed palm tree and fields of sharp sisal hemp.

End of part I

Wednesday, October 27, 2004

A Random rant on myself, my travels and some travelogues

I have always been interested in travel. Travel not to get into (or get some) kodak moments but to look around, meet people, understand how the life on the other side of the mountain organises itself and expand my horizons of wonder. I did not own a camera or click a single snap in the first four countries I visited. One of these four includes Switzerland. I have three photos in Zurich and two photos in St.Gallen, for they were group photos. Then I thought that was macho but now I realise that was stupid. So, these days, I do indulge in Kodak moments and enjoy taking pictures. Digital life is so easy. However I have only two pictures of myself here in Amsterdam! Not macho but too shy to ask people to take my picture. What will I do with pictures of myself, a not-so-tall (how can I call myself short?), grey-haired, double-chinned man with a tiny potbelly!

Though not bestowed with a head turning charima or jaw droping intelligence, I have, however been fortunate with my travels thus far. Fortunate because I have been to 14 countries with a minimum stay of a day and a maximum stay of 27 months, not counting the day spent at a illegal immigrant's detention centre in Rome Airport for entering the country without a transit visa. Fortunate because I did not pay for most of this travel. Fortunate because I neighter had a high flying job or a software job that makes it more or less mandatory to travel overseas these days. Fortunate because I did most of this travel while still pursuing my academics. Now you would understand why I am still on the student side of the univ, while I am about to complete 36 years of existence!!! Now you know why my bank balance is still not even a lakh of rupees even after having 9 years of work experience!! Heck I am more or less happy and thats what counts though I have to confess I am trifle sad with my bank balance.

My urge to travel, of late, has been increasing and so is my craving to fill myself up with the experiences of other travellers. Since I dont have much time to travel, I am indulging on the latter. In the last six months I have purchased 33 travelogues. I have read four thus far. Havent been able to complete four others (two Paul Theroux's, one Somerset Maugham and one Eric Newby). The rest is for the near future.

I have not been able to finish Paul Theroux coz I find him to be too obnoxious, condesending and gloomy (SSM, you may disagree but I will tell you why in one of my subsequents blogs). Eric newby since it is at the bottom of the pile (also because it is about his trip through USSR on a trans siberian train and he got permission to get out only at few stops en route. So how exciting can the trip be? Although he has done a good job). Maugham coz I want to savour every sentence he writes. Until I get my hands onto another account of his trips, I will continue to read a few lines of his book describing his travels (mostly over rivers) from Rangoon to Haipong through Bangkok, Phnom Phen and Saigon. Maugham, like R.K.Narayan constructs simple sentences, does not use very difficult words but manage to convey deep meanings. Boy, I will never ever tire of these two authors. As Narayan writes, there are two kinds of authors: those whome you can read and those whom you cannot. Authors I cannot read are Arundati Roy (her language was too flowery), Robert Prisig (sorry Asuph, he is too heavy for me)

Coming back to the four travelogues that I read, these are John Steinbeck's Travel with Charlie (actually re-read), Shiva Naipaul's North of South, Norman Lewis's Voices of the Old Sea and Redmond O'Hanlon's In Touble Again.

Steinbeck's book is a classic. Look at the start! I am going to keying in every single word of it since I just love the start. Many of you may have read this book but I will still key in the start. It is worth reading it again. :)
When I was very young and the urge to be someplace else was on me. I was assured by mature people that maturity would cure this itch. When years described me as mature, the remedy prescribed was middle age. In middle age I was assured that greater age would calm my fever and now that I am fifty-eight perhaps senility will do the job. Nothing has worked. Four hoarse blasts of a ship's whistle still raise the hair on my neck and set my feet to tapping. The sound of a jet, an engine warming up, even the clopping of shod hooves on pavement brings on the ancient shudder, the dry mouth and vacant eye, the hot palms and the churn of stomach high up under the rib cage. In other words, I don't improve; in further words, once a bum always a bum. I fear the disease is incurable. I set this matter down not to instruct others but to inform myself
With this kind of a start the book can only get better and it does. He was already famous by the time he made this trip across America on a custom made truck that carried a cabin like small house. Though many people adviced against the trip that he would be recognised, he says that over 10,000 miles through 34 states he was not recognised even once. Since his "old french gentleman poodle" named Charlie was his sole companion through the journey, hence the name of the book. The book is never boring, never funny and never thrilling. It is a contemplative narration of an extremly thoughtful man in extremely simple language. Those tiny few of you who have not read this book, I would certainly recommend it.

I have already reviewed Shiva Naipaul's North of South

The rest of the two books am going to review in my next blog. A proper review not a random rant.

Tuesday, October 26, 2004

Public squares in Amsterdam

it is exciting to be in a land so far from home. however, running through the heart as a tiny stream is the loneliness of being away from home. sometime this tiny stream can become a bit too much to handle. however, such times are few and far between.
i like being around people. where ever i am. i do like to visit parks and other beautiful places but then it is quite rare. i would like to sit in a square with people walking all around me. i seek solace in the fact that there is humanity around and it never lets me down.

for instance the best place to sit and watch humanity go by is the dam square in amsterdam. it is one of the most important landmarks in the city centre. with nice buildings around it. there are tourists milling around all the time.

amsterdam centre is for the tourists. americans in great number. followed by japanese and then there are some from rest of the world. american, perhaps, come more to smoke legal joints. and in between the joints go out to see the museums. including the privately run sex museum.

coming back to the dam square, there are always some event taking place. sometimes there is music being played. another time a juggler was having a great show. yet another time there was a stage with some jazz music being played and on the stage were three young girls shaking their legs while singing the chorus. i quite like the youngest, barely in her teens, trying to swing. few weeks ago there was a huge religious book sale. representative of religious organisations of all kinds were selling thier books. the time when i pass by, the largest stall was the one selling satya sai baba's teaching. iskon also had a stall but nothing compared to one representing prashati nilayam. iskon, may have realised that religion, like fashion, moves in fads. perhaps iskon, feels that like fashion which is cyclic, their time may come again.

the only place to sit at the square is around the war memorial or on the steps of the palace. both are not the best places to be. there are always some wild and boisterous american youth group around the memorial. the steps of the palace is littered with food and drink packs. usually, some shaky hands spill large quantities of sticky drink that renders large part of the step unsuitable to sit. i should perhaps take my own chair and watch the people mill by.

last weekend, i woke up early and went to sit in another square called 'spui' (said spow). this is nice small place that has various kinds of markets. on friday it is second hand books, on sunday it is art. though there are lot of cafes around spui, it is quite noisy with trams going up and down. however, on the singel that runs perpendicular to spui and parallel to the canal, there are many nice cafes. i have been one called just '404', indicating the house number. it is a nice cafe that sells fruityogurt drinks. one can also find some german beers like warsteiner here. it is a nice small place and is quite frequented by the students of university of amsterdam.

two other popular squares are rembrantsplein and leidseplein. these two are completely filled with tourists right up to the brim. naturally, cafes here are all expensive. i never sat at any of the cafes here. though i do purchase icecream from 'australian' and watch some artist paint psychedelic painting that are snapped up by eager americans. perhaps to kind of help them remember the state their were mostly in, when they are back home.

around nieuw markt, where the red light area is, there are many cheap cafes. as one comes out of the metro one enters the Waag area. this is a small tower from where people were hanged, years ago. it was a place where freight from ships were weighed. some of the cafe here nice and also sells draught belguim beer: lefe, duvel, palm, etc. because of the prices and the area, it is frequented by students.

i still havent been to the jordaan area as yet. but then my stay in amsterdam hasnt come to an end yet.

Monday, October 25, 2004

Review of the book "North of South"

I started to write a review of Shiva Naipaul's book this morning. First I have never written about a book that I have read. Second, the realisation that I should be writing my thesis chapters instead of blogs, was blocking my line of thoughts. So a unhealthy mix of these two reason made me decide that I should list out some books by few author and write a short reviews about them. Here goes my first one...

Shiva Naipaul was the younger brother of V.S.Naipaul. He was 16 year younger but died when he was 40.

The book North of South, is about his travel in Kenya, Tanzania and Zambia. Like any travel writer, he wrote of his experiences. However, unlike a normal travelogue , he filtered his experiences into two different sociological themes. One theme is the relationship between the Africans, Europeans and Asians. The other is about the experiences of common people.

At the time when SN was travelling, it was few years of independence for each of these countries. Each of them was in turn being subjected to the pet ideas of their leaders. Kenya was being subjected to Harambee (self help) concept of Jomo Kenyatta and Tanzania was being subjected to paternal socialism concept of Julius Nyerere. So, SN wanted to find out what the commers thought and felt about these ideas.

He also wanted to find out why the Africans hated Asians? Especially, when they did not harm Africans like Europeans did. They just ran shops and businesses. Whereas Europeans exploited the Africans in every possible manner but no African hates them (then). SN wanted to know why it was so.

While analysing these two themes, he does not use sociological/anthropological jargon. He does not analyse like an academician at all. Instead, he goes about like a normal person who wanted to find out why certain things are the way they are but unlike a normal person he uses simple words to explain the situation as well his answers very well.

In short this is a book that will interest readers interested in Africa/how commeners experience the pet concepts of their leaders/Indian diaspora.

I quite liked this book. In addition to the content, I also liked it for other reasons: it brought me back memories of my experiences in Kenya; it answered some of the questions that I had while I was experiences the country.

Some of his other books are Fireflies and Chipchip Gatherers. Where he wove stories among the Indian diaspora in Trinidad.

Historical fiction

These are some of the books that I have read. Instead of reviewing the books myself, I give links to reviews or to the publisher's sites.

Kiran Nagarkar wrote a book called Cuckold. The book is set in 16th century Mewar, Rajasthan. Meera Bai's unrelenting vow to remain celibate in her marriage as she considered only Lord Krishna as her lover/husband, is the core part of the book. The 'Cuckold' refers to the actual husband of Meera Bai. However, the book is also about the power struggle within the Mewar family and with the muslim rulers of Delhi. Here is a link to a Review of it

A book originally in Gujarati but translated into English called Master of Gujarat by K.K.Munshi. I quite liked this book. I purchased it without knowing that it is a classic in Gujarati. My friend later told me of this fact. The original one is called 'Gujarat no nath' (or something like that). Publisher's Link

Sunil Gangopadhaya wrote two books that are set in 19th century Calcutta. The first book starts after the first war of independence and is woven around people like Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar, Micheal Madhusudan Dutt, etc. The second one has people from Rabindra Nath Tagore's family, Ramakrishna Paramhansa, Vivekananda, etc. The first one is called Those Days and second one is called First Light. I read the book First Light and quite liked it. These two books capture the golden age of Calcutta. Publisher's Link

Chikkaveera Rajendra is a book written by Masti Venkatesha Iyengar. This book is set in early 19th century Kodagu (Coorg). Rajendra was the last king whose power was taken over by the British in 1834. Review

Girl with a pearl earring etc.

It was after reading Girl with a Pearl Earring, that my interest in Vermeer was rekindled. Many years ago, at Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam, I purchased a poster of the 'Little Street'. Somehow, the picture was so real that it almost seemed like a photograph. I was also attracted to LS due to that common architecture of Europe it depicts.

In LS, Vermeer depicts two houses, each shown partially. Running between these two houses and onto the street and perhaps into the canal, is a tiny drain. The two building, one of which is larger than the other, has a small passage between them. In the passage there is a woman bending over a broom. At the entrance of the next building sits a woman doing needle work. On the street in front of these two house and between these two houses sits a woman/child playing with another one, who is underneath a platform. In the painting, the facades of few buildings behind these houses can be seen. All the buildings are made out of exposed brick and hence are red in colour. However, the lower parts of the first two buildings are painted white, until the height a man could reach. The top edges of the white wash are irregular perhaps because one had to be on the toe to reach out to this height. Between these buildings is the typical dutch sky - patches of blue between white clouds. One gets to see these kinds of buildings at many common places in Europe, especially in the low income areas. The gables of the houses, tapering in steps instead of a straight line. This poster of LS has been languishing as a roll in some corner of our home. In the light of my new Vermeer interest, I should perhaps do something about it. Here is a picture of LS

Girl with a pearl earring , as a book was quite fascinating. The author Tracy Chevaliers took perhaps the most simple of Vermeers painting and wove, between facts of Vermeers life, a lovely story around it. Perhaps it is the most intriguing of all his painting that survived. Which incidentally are only 35 plus a recent find. When I saw the painting it was not at all that impressive. There were hardly any details on it. Actually, I peered hard to see that lock of hair which the author have given quite some significance to. In the book, the girl due to difficulties at home, is working as a maid in Vermeers house. Unlike his wife, she is extremely fascinated by his 'ways of seeing' and has a feel for the way Vermeer depicts his subjects. There is an attraction and respect between these two souls. V gives the task of mixing colour to her. A task that he has never entrusted anyone with. Soon, he wants to paint her with a large pearl earring of his wife. Without the wife's knowledge. All along the girl has her hair covered in white cloth but for this painting, he gives her some coloured cloth. As she was trying these head covers, he bursts into her corner of living to see her hair. The book says that, he then paints a tiny lock sticking out from the the blue and yellow headgear. So I peered hard at the painting to look for that lock of hair. Couldnt find it. I went very close to the painting only to have the security around me!

The other significant aspect of this painting is the pout. The book says that the girl has been asked to look over her left shoulder and part her lips. Kind of indicating her latent feeling of giving a 'wanting look' at the artist.
However, the electronic museum guide that was given free of charge tells me, that this 'girl' is a fictional character. No such person existed. It was quite frequent for artisits in those days to paints objects of interests from the mind without having any living models in the front of them. I even knew the french term for it, only for a second though. The book I think captures lot more from the painting than the actual painting itself.

What facinated me more was Vermeer's depiction of Delfts, called 'The View of Delfts' . In the museum, this paintin hangs right in the front of GwPE. Vermeer lived in Delfts. In days before Vermeer, Rotterdam was actually called Delft's Haven - harbour of Delfts. For many years, Delfts was the capital city of this area. The actual painting is much more interesting that what one sees in pictures. This painting depticts the view of the city as he sits from the other side of the river. In the foreground are few people and a boat. Because of the distance from the city, the sky forms a large part of the painting. The city is shown with the Rotterdam gate on the right side of the painting. One can also see the canals going into the city from the river. What is facsinating is that right over the front part of the depicted city is a cloud that block the sunlight. However, the city shown behind is still lit by the sun. So when on stands in front of the painting though the front part is well depicted with details, it is the well lit hinterground, devoid of any details that strikes the eye.

It is at times like this, in front of interesting paintings, that I wish I studied art history. I did not know such a faculty existed until I came to Europe in my mid twenties. Art history, in a way, also deals with sociology, architecture, psychology, and other aspects of human lifes that sensitive eys froze for us to feel and relive what they saw in their minds-eye. Sure, the reality is moulded into a figment of imagination by the artist. That, I think is the interesting part. Weaving a story around the forces that made the artist depict the reality in a way he see it. For me, no one seem to have done it as well as Tracy Chevaliars in her book. She took a tiny painting, which in fact was not even a reality and wove a good story around it. It certainly is a nice way of getting introduced to art. Those who have not read it and those who are interested in the seventeeth century life or art, should read it. I wonder how the movie was?