Tuesday, October 1, 2013

The Tales Begin


I have a quaint way of marking my birthdays, I write. I write about the the year past and how it affected me and what I did, things of that sort in ways that only I understand, in other words, people rarely ever get named in those pieces, not for the fear that someone may come across them and start snooping around, many of those pieces are probably lost forever. It's just that putting names often starts messing things up. I like puzzles, sometimes my writings puzzle me too.

So this year, I am writing a blog. One because it's quite convenient and I can track it out from almost anywhere in the world but Two and probably the most important part, I think I will be writing quite a bit now. I have seen quite some crazy things, weird things, things which have led me onto many different strands of thought. A blog not only provides a convenient, more or less, long lasting way of putting those things down, but it's also a way of interacting with you, the reader, who may or may not agree with me. If you do, if you don't, keep telling me why or why not, I may get back sometimes, we may argue, but I believe we will be the better for it.

Now to get back to birthdays.

Today is my first birthday in Europe, the Netherlands to be particular.

Last year I was in a land far, far away.

I was in Africa.

Africa is a magical place, yes it's a tricky place, yes there's a lot of crime, lots of violence, suffering, disease, even man eating wild animals.

But Africa is Africa.

Do you know that it snows in Africa ? That it gets bloody cold in Johannesburg and a large part of the country is blanketed by snow ? Have you heard of the Mountains of the Dragon ?

I went to some magical places in South Africa, but two places which really stand out are the Drakensberg Mountains and the St. Lucia coast.

The Drakensberg is a huge range of mountains, when I saw it, awe inspiring was too mild a word. The journey to our cottage, the nearest place to eat was 12 kms away. There was only electricity for a light bulb in the cottage. It was green, damn it was green, and it rained, and the clouds.

And we went walking in the Drakensberg, the path I walked on, the twists and turns, such things are seen only in documentaries. I saw San rock art, 800 years old, and the guide told us that this is nothing compared to the thousands of other sites which are classified from the public in the Ukhalamba. Zulu for Drakensberg.

There were once great animals in those mountains, there were black lions on Table Mountain too, not anymore.

A village where hippos graze in the night, instead of beware of dogs, a beware of hippos sign. Hippos kill more people than any other animal, apart from man, in Africa, even today. An adult hippo can run at a speed of 40 km/hr on land, two tonnes, at 40 km/hr, you can figure out the rest.

An adult hippo tooth can be more than a foot in length, their bite is so powerful that they can cut off the head of an adult crocodile. This was in St. Lucia. There was more, sand dunes more than a 100 ft high on the seashore. Rhinos drinking sea water, leopards trying to catch fish from the sea. No house or shop in the village needed security, crime was unheard of.

The road to St. Lucia is no less magical, but I set out to describe a year.

Coming back to Johannesburg, it's a wonderful city, a lot of things can be said for it. Joburg is Joburg. A walk in the inner city can be a great teaching experience, provided you return alive. A ride in the metro, especially at night, walking through the streets of Hillbrow, navigating the crowd on Bree street, to an outsider it would seem that the city center of Johannesburg and Pretoria like it are lost, hopelessly lost.

And yet there's Braamfontein, there's Melville East. To think that the student center of Braamfontein retains it's vitality despite being surrounded by crime and despair on all sides, with no security is a tribute to the human spirit. It's what makes Africa, Africa.

I miss Africa.

The Netherlands is wonderful, yes there are natural and aritificial wonders here such as nowhere else on Earth, but 6 months on, I feel more African than Dutch, in fact, I feel more African than Indian.

Maybe it is because Africa isn't pretentious.

Yes, Africa has a lot of problems, but there's no denial, apart from the political kind. There's no cosmetics or PR going on to sell an image which is not. That is what jars me the most about my European sojourn so far, it was not what I expected.

I expected a squeaky clean country where people live by the clock and where everything is done to a T.

I find litter even on the streets of Amsterdam, in the city center, people will keep you waiting sometimes more than a hour, and no, things are far from perfect.

Agreed, Africa, India would be a lot better if we could incorporate punctuality and work ethics but despite all the fests and safety, that certain human element is missing, it was there, in Africa.

I won't keep complaining here, there is a lot of good too. Imagine moving gates which can shut off a river wide and deep enough for huge ships to sail, a dam across the sea, a bridge for ships, yes a bridge, not for cars, for ships.

These things have to be seen to be believed. Outside the Netherlands, people think that it's all Amsterdam, there's a lot outside it. In fact, all the marvellous, really wonderful things I have seen about this country so far were not in Amsterdam.

A bookshop in Alkmaar which is so chock full of books that you have to squeeze in between piles of books, most of them over 40 years old. There are books on the steps, on the landings, above you, below you, everywhere.

A castle, surrounded by fields. I picked out Croy Castle for a visit because it intrigued me, there was no description anywhere on the net, but it seemes, so fairy-talish. It was just what you would expect in those stories.

Funny thin is few of the big tourist draws impressed me. I found people from all over the globe in Volendam but the one thing that struck me about that place was the PR.

The Netherlands is on constant vigil against water, Volendam's touristy haven is on the lakeshore. On a strip of rocks there is a solitary looking shed, just right for sheltering a guard probably. It does shelter a guard, of the mechanical kind, a pump.

I learnt a lot about myself in this country.

I learnt that if one has faith on oneself, anything can be achieved, I cam back, almost from the brink of death, I was assisted by many good people but the will to go on was mine alone. I had too and so I did, it was not an easy trial and I don't wish to live through it again but the lesson was invaluable.

Which brings me to Rotterdam.

It is Netherlands' bread winner, the largest port outside China and Singapore, home to marvels of architecture and engineering, and yet it is little known outside the country.

The Nazis conquered the Netherlands for Rotterdam, they wanted complete control over the port. They bombed the city centre. Today Rotterdam is the most modern city in the Netherlands and it's motto is : Sterker door Strijd. Stronger thorugh Battle.

It's only when troubles are taken, when adversities are faced that anything, leave alone great things, are achieved.

And that's the same thing which I saw all around me in South Africa. Black and White alike shouldered the hardships, many of them inhuman, and worked to keep their lives, to keep the show going. The training regimen of the South African Special Forces is called Vasbyt, Bite Hard, born out of the tale of the Voortrekkers, it embodies all the struggles the residents of the veld had to face, and still have to face.

Which reminds me of Jerry Beauchamp, and here I have taken a name.

He drove me all over Mahe Island during my stopover from Joburg to Mumbai. Within a span of 6 hours, he not only showed me many beautiful and wonderful sights on Mahe, but also gave me a running commentary on the history, society, culture and society of the Seychelles.

For example Russians are crazy about the islands and Seychellois men think Russian women are hot. The Chinese are pouring money into the islands building schools, colleges and hospitals. Sheikhs and Emirs own palatial villas. The BBC has a huge transmitting facility on Mahe. The island nation has to import virtually everything, it's only exports being coconuts. Mr. Beauchamp was in the Army and visited Lucknow for training some 30 years ago, he remembered eating roti.

And there was also a coup by the military some 20 years ago, which failed. Mr. Beauchamp said he was not in the army then.

 So what have I learnt ? Did the past year make me a better person ? Did it enrich me materially, physically, mentally, spiritually etc etc etc ?

I learnt that the greatest mistake is to have preconceptions.

I learnt that there is great beauty and joy in what seems all gloom and doom. I learnt that what looks like paradise is often a mask for great troubles underneath. I learnt we more often than not, we expect too much and that disappoints.

Yes, I miss home, I miss my parents, I miss the company of my friends from school, KGP and work.

And yet, it's a big, big world.

I have been to places, seen things, done things which are only seen and done on TV and movies. I have seen stuff  up close whose pics were mass mailed once and are now posted, liked, commented and shared on Facebook.

And I don't want the journeys to stop.

At my age, my friends have either settled down or are planning to do so, many are already parents. Sometimes I think, things could have been different, it would be nice to have children of one's own, to have a famiy.

And then I think of the child inside me. Of all the things he still has to see, to do, to experience.

I want to visit Antarctica, I want to visit the Sahara, I want to visit Tibet, I want to visit the Amazon, the Congo, Mongolia, Kalahari, Andes, Altiplano.

It's a tall list, I don't know whether I will be able to do it all. When I was a child I would watch documentaries on Discovery and National Geographic with wide eyes.

Now I am living a documentary, no turn in the road, no journey is insignificant, instead, the surprises keep coming.

May the journeys continue until I have no more birthdays to mark.

Happy Birthday to me :)

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