“Do you need more Porota?” asked my daughter as I stood next to the car, gobbling up a quick tiffin lunch before we went on our long awaited hike at the Letchworth State Park in upstate New York.
It was the weekend after the Fourth of July in 2020 and it was this strange summer where we had been locked down for months due to the virus. Normally we would eat outside at a restaurant when we went hiking but this time we were so scared of catching the virus that we came prepared with our own food.
A “Porota” (as it is called in the eastern part of India – also known as “paratha” in Northern India) is like a flatbread that is a very popular preparation that is made by baking a whole wheat dough on a hot plate and it is often shallow fried to give it extra taste. A Porota is thicker than a Roti or Chapati, as it has been “layered” by coating with oil and it has been folded several times to give it a special laminated appearance. A Porota is often stuffed with mashed potatoes or vegetables to give it an extra dimension.
A Porota is a ready snack. A great addition to any meal. And a truly tasty treat indeed.
We stayed at the same place in Watkins Glen, New York last year during the Father’s Day weekend – but that was the “before time” as they say. Almost everything had changed this year. The roads were empty, the boats around the lake Seneca were stationary, there were hardly any crowds teeming inside the State parks and almost everyone we met was unrecognizable – due to the face masks.
The Letchworth State Park is voted America’s Number 1 State Park as per the public polls.
We parked the car near the “Inspiration Point” which has great views of the magnificent Middle Falls on the Genesee river, right next to the Glen Iris Inn. This Inn was part of the estate of William Pryor Letchworth who donated over a thousand acres to the state park. Today the Inn is a popular wedding destination, offering a historic atmosphere and a great outdoor experience.
This place is popularly known as “The Grand Canyon of the East”. The cliffs are upto 550 feet high. There are at least 3 popular viewing spots – Upper Falls, Middle Falls and the Lower Falls. 127 steps lead down to the Lower Falls – but this year they had closed those steps due to reasons of social distancing. Climbing down was fun but climbing back up was serious work. What a relief. We were forced to save our calories.
The canyon below is over 10,000 years old and yet it is called a youthful canyon. It is all relative you see. When you have an ancient valley right next to you that is millions of years old, ten thousand years sounds like yesterday.
We can see the ancient valley in the distance between Portageville and Nunda, it was carved by the Genesee river before the beginning of the Ice Age. Layers and layers of rocks hide the glacial history of millions of years.
The layers of rocks remind me of the “Porota”. The canyon a cosmic porota for the Gods? What a weird thought.
Glaciers crushed across this land several times. Each time the river changed course. And each time the landscape was transformed.
I wonder if the virus is like a huge glacier crushing through our planet – changing the landscape and our lives forever…
One feels small and insignificant gaping at the huge canyon.
We try to capture the immense and timeless beauty by clicking the camera endlessly. And then you realize it is futile – this beauty cannot be captured. You have to gaze with eyes wide open without focusing on anything. And then wait. All of a sudden, there is this moment of realization – this moment is all you have.
Nature at this scale has to be seen with our inner eyes. It has to be felt. You have to let it crush you - to become part of it.
A one-horned rhino slowly grazed past our jeep.
Head down. It seemed to be looking for something in the ground. Our driver had stopped the jeep for us to be able to take pictures. It was a beautiful morning with birds chirping loudly all around us. The rhino was around 20 to 30 feet away and walking parallel to the road. We hadn’t seen a rhino this close in the wild before. It had the unmistakable single horn bent upwards and positioned prominently on top of its nose.
At the end of the stretch was the gorgeous view of the vast Brahmaputra river. A long necked Great Egret with a black bill in contrast to its white plumage stood elegantly in the distance, ready to fly off at the slightest threat.
It was early January of 2019. We were at the Kaziranga National Park. The weather was very nice, although it could get chilly at night. We were on a 3 day jeep safari, including an elephant safari at 5am. The sun rises very early in this part of the world. By 5am it is actually quite bright. We had experienced an unforgettable elephant safari early in the morning the very first day of our arrival. Today we were on a jeep safari on the East side.
The Kaziranga Park is home to the world’s largest population of the Greater one-horned rhinos (Rhinoceros unicornis). After dwindling for many years, due to the greed of poachers, the number of rhinos had finally started to go up steadily, thanks to the hard work of the conservationists.
Meanwhile the rhino we had seen closely, had now walked out of sight. Rhinos weigh more than 4000 pounds on average and graze around quite slowly. It would not have walked that far but we could not see it anymore as it was blocked by the foliage. We asked our driver to move slowly along the narrow uphill sloping road. We hadn’t even driven for a quarter of a mile when we saw the rhino again in plain sight. It seemed to have found what it was looking for.
It was standing next to a dung heap.
We learnt from the driver that a rhino comes back to the same place to defecate. The pile of dung serves as a “message station”. The smell is apparently unique and acts as an identifier. Rhinos can be communal but they are also territorial. Together with urine left along trails, dung piles can act as an invisible border. If it finds the poop of another animal, this could signal a rival, and it would seek to chase that animal out of its territory.
Fresh poop could mean the animal is near. Old poop would mean the animal is no longer around. This kind of basic communication may not be too different from the current social media habits of human beings. And I’m not just referring to the posts that stink. If everyone were to use social media as a communication tool, a recent post or a recent tweet would convey in addition the basic message that the subject was alive and kicking.
The rhino we were following had done its business and was on the move again. Just like the sun rises early, it sets early in Kaziranga. As the sun was setting, I spotted a Little Cormorant with its short neck and rectangular shaped head perched on a branch. We were heading towards the exit when we took a few more pictures of the rhino’s horn.
The horn was its pride. And also the cause for its vulnerability.
The horn of the rhino is referred to as the “horn of despair”. It is often more costly than gold, for its supposed medicinal value. Increasing demand leads to higher prices. Powdered rhino horn fetches a high price in the illegal trade. As demand rises it causes more of the shameful poaching activities.
The safari experience for us was more thrilling and more rewarding than visiting man made tourist attractions. But for this experience to continue we need to come together before it is too late and take action to save the endangered species from extinction.
Once the horn is hacked off by a poacher it leads to the slow agonizing and certain death of the animal.
The existential threat from humans is the worst message for rhinos.
The US, the Soviet Union and other nations sign the Helsinki Accords. Estonia, Latvia & Lithuania are recognized under the Soviet Union. Communists capture Saigon ending the Vietnam war. The Suez Canal is reopened following an agreement between Israel and Egypt. King Faisal of Saudi Arabia is assassinated by his half brother. Emergency is declared in India by Indira Gandhi, the press is censored and over a 100,000 people are jailed. The first Indian satellite Aryabhata goes into earth’s orbit. Chasnala mining disaster happens. Miss Universe Sushmita Sen is born. Angelina Jolie is born. Hallelujah.
So are David Beckham and Bradley Cooper. Pittsburgh Steelers beat the Minnesota Vikings at Super Bowl IX. And the Cincinnati Reds beat the Boston Red Sox. Elton John sings “Lucy in the sky with diamonds” with John Lennon on the guitar, a remake of the Beatles classic that rivals the original. Marmalade skies! Listen to both and decide for yourself which one was crazier. And oh by the way the album covers of that time were so out of this world. Steven Spielberg directs the thriller movie “Jaws” one of the greatest films ever made and the first major movie to be shot on the ocean. Jack Nicholson wins an Academy award for “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest”. Dumas Malone wins a Pulitzer for “Jefferson and His Time”. Charles Berlitz writes “The Bermuda Triangle”. The hit song “Mandy” by Barry Manilow went gold.
India won the men’s hockey World Cup for the first time. In Bollywood super duper hit movie Sholay is released that remains the highest grossing Indian film for the next two decades! During this eventful year a little known movie called “Dharam Karam” is launched starring Raj Kapoor, Randhir and Rekha. Music is by R. D. Burman. Lyrics by Majrooh Sultanpuri. Mukesh is the playback singer for the hit song "Ek Din Bik Jayega Mati Ke Mol". Translated it means - one day you shall sell at the same price as clay, but your good deeds and your words shall remain.
Here is a humble attempt to revisit this meaningful song, especially in these trying times.
My son and I had a lot of fun with this little project during the lockdown. Take a listen:
1956. Eisenhower elected. IBM invents first hard disk. Non stick frying pans hit the market. Bo Derek is born. Hallelujah. Also David Copperfield the most successful magician ever. Elvis enters the music charts for the first time with “Heartbreak Hotel” the first of 170 hit singles. His first movie “Love Me Tender” opens in New York. Ian Fleming writes the classic spy thriller “Diamonds Are Forever” which is turned into a Bond movie later starring Sean Connery. The super hit musical comedy “My Fair Lady” based on George Bernard Shaw’s “Pygmalion” opens on Broadway to start a record run. 8 black students are refused entry at a high school in Kentucky. Pele joins the Brazilian soccer team at age 15. Summer olympics are held in Melbourne. Epic film “The Ten Commandments” premieres, shot in Egypt it was the most expensive film of that time. Who can forget Charlton Heston as Moses, Yul Brynner as Rameses and Anne Baxter as Nefretiri. Fidel Castro lands in Cuba to start a revolution. Oscar winning Philadelphia born Grace Kelly known as a classic Hitchcock blonde, marries the Prince of Monaco. Ok, all of the above is the context of the song “Aye Dil Mujhe Bata De” by the legendary singer Geeta Dutt (born as Geeta Ghosh Roy Chowdhuri, married the brooding thespian Guru Dutt, but died early at the age of 41). The movie is “Bhai Bhai” and it stars Ashok Kumar, Nimmi, Shyama and Kishore Kumar. Sit back, relax and enjoy this class act...
"Hello Old Man...!”
The old car had just turned onto the highway and was now accelerating to reach the speed at which the other cars were racing smoothly on the interstate highway connecting New Jersey to Delaware.
“Hello Old Man...!” The same childish and beseeching tone again.
More awkward silence. The car kept accelerating on the fast lane.
Another failed attempt by my 6 year old son to wake up the Old Man from his unnatural cosmic slumber.
I wasn’t surprised. I knew quite well that there were clear golden rules to be followed before the Old Man would wake up and talk. We were in violation of the third rule. Rule number 1 stated that no one from outside the immediate family could be present in the car. The second rule was that the car could not be stuck in traffic. The third and perhaps the most stringent rule was that the car should be moving at a constant speed. Any sudden acceleration or deceleration would not be entertained and would lead to immediate cancellation of his performance. These were the boundary conditions.
As soon as the car had crossed the Delaware Memorial Bridge and had reached a constant speed, we could hear a faint snoring sound coming from somewhere behind the dashboard.
And then suddenly a croaking old voice filled the car: “Hello Young man!”.
The voice sounded weak with age as if just woken up from the depths of slumber, quite hard to understand and sounding fragile, as if echoing from a distant bygone era.
My son Jit would get very excited by the Old Man’s voice. He knew the Old Man was talking to him when he said - Young man! Jit would be seated in the rear seats of the car since he was still a minor, and he would now look forward to a fun filled conversation for the rest of the journey.
No more stupid maths questions from his dad. No need to mentally calculate the time it would take to reach home given the distance and speed. No need to calculate the price of gas per gallon each time the car had to stop for refueling at a gas station.
The Old Man was a kind soul and far more interesting to talk to anyway. They could talk about anything under the sun, he could ask the Old Man any question and the Old Man would always respond with a funny, straight from the heart, feel good answer.
Jit (in his sweet and innocent voice): Where do you live Old Man?
Old Man (stuttering intentionally): Oh, I live here…right here, very close to you…I mean inside this car, right under your nose!
Jit (laughing): Right under my nose…no way!
The car was now cruising on the 202. The Old Man had our full attention now.
Jit: How old are you Old Man?
Old Man: I feel very old (coughs)…I am older than you think (coughs repeatedly)…older than you can count…(slowly clears his throat)…but you know sometimes I feel I am only as old as you!
This would go on until the car had to slow down or change lanes. During those odd times the Old Man would fall silent.
Most of the time the discussion between the Old Man and my son would sound ridiculously silly and make no sense at all. And while I would listen quietly to their conversation, I would also be worried about them spending too much time together in La La Land.
After all Jit needed to grow up.
One day as we were passing a Kentucky Fried Chicken restaurant, Jit jokingly asked the Old Man a serious sounding question: Hey Old Man – what is the meaning of life?
I wanted to chime in and give Jit a real wise crack answer like – Life has no meaning in itself but you can give meaning to it by your actions. But before I could open my mouth, the Old Man blurted out.
Old Man (in a very confident tone): The meaning of Life is hidden inside chicken nuggets.
Jit (laughing and looking at the KFC hoarding): What??? No way…what are you saying Old Man!
Old Man (now sounding less confident and more silly): Err…I mean if you are “chicken” in life, you are “nugget” get anything done.
Jit: Old Man you are crazy…
I didn’t like the way the discussion was going and wanted to intervene but the Old Man beat me to it.
Old Man (now whispering): You should “ketchup” with your inner chicken feelings, otherwise you are “nugget” like it in life.
Jit (recovering from this nonsensical exchange): I’m “nugget” talk to you!
The old man fell silent as soon as we took the exit and got off the highway. He went away as suddenly and swiftly as he came.
This kind of exchange between the two of them went on for a couple of years. Until Jit could sit in the front seat next to me. Now Jit could see me talking. While sitting on the rear seats Jit couldn’t see me speaking on behalf of the Old Man, from the corner of my mouth.
A poor ventriloquist act! At first croakingly and slowly but later with practice - steadily and confidently.
As time passed we heard less from the old man. It was a magical time together - while it lasted. Memories full of stories and full of humor. Moments full of laughter and full of love. A time to truly relax and unwind. And build a timeless bond that crossed generations. A bond that straddles the lives of all Old Men - past, current and future.
One day when Jit had grown taller than me and the old car was gone, he suddenly remembered the Old Man.
Jit: I wonder where the Old Man is. I miss him.
Me: Yeah. I don’t know either.
Jit: But why did you stop?
Me: What do you mean?
We were driving back from his music lesson. I looked at him sitting next to me, a head full of curly hair, a faint moustache beginning to form around his upper lip.
Jit: I always knew it was you!
Me: Then why didn’t you say anything…?!
Jit: Well then you would stop and the old man would never come back…
His voice sounded sad.
We were both quiet for a while.
I looked at the setting sun. The sky was turning a brilliant red.
It seemed to me that a certain Old Man and his voice were fast dissolving into the red firmament.
I had the displeasure of being invited to an important call at 5am in the morning on Monday. This single appointment on my calendar put so much stress on my Sunday lifestyle that I could hardly enjoy the weekend.
I ate a very light dinner. Didn’t imbibe at all, which is remarkable for the weekend. And went to bed at 9:30pm, 2 to 3 hours before I normally hit the sack on a Sunday, even giving up on watching a suspense thriller in the middle of it all.
I set three alarms - all to make sure that I am out of bed and ready to sing and dance at my desk by 4:45am. But as it turned out, I actually woke up at 3am with a start - imagining that I have slept through the alarms. And then I tossed and turned in bed for an hour imagining all sorts of weird end of life scenarios for all enemies, adversaries and foes. When it was clear that more sleep was not going to happen, I paced up and down the corridor, did some abbreviated stylized aerobics, prepared a cup of hot tea, and looked outside at the rain drenched deck filled with pitch darkness. Not a squirrel in sight.
The call was uneventful.
After the call was over, I stretched and relaxed for a few minutes and then sat upright watching the sunrise at eleven minutes past seven, nursing a nice steaming cup of Darjeeling tea. From the sunroom window I noted 3 squirrels chasing one another running down at breakneck speed around a big giant oak tree trunk. They finally jumped on to the wet grass and stopped suddenly as if they had detected an intruder. One of them caught hold of an acorn, stood on its two legs and started nibbling on it furiously. Squirrels can be very focused.
I suddenly remembered my paternal grand mother who used to wake up every day at 5am. One of the things she accomplished before anybody was awake was to prepare the large clay fire oven. She would top it up with fresh coal and prepare it for the day’s cooking. I still miss the fresh smell of rotis that are slowly baked and even partially burnt on a clay oven. Some foods just taste so good when cooked slowly in a traditional oven.
I went into my 8am call with the clearest mind and the sharpest sense of humor that I have had in a long time for a Monday early morning call. Normally it is more like cursing under the breath and dragging myself and my tired reluctant mind to work after a long night of heavy binge watching. But today I was in the moment. Almost enjoying it. All cylinders firing.
And then I had the most amazing epiphany. I am wondering if I should pretend there is a 5am call every once in a while and wake up early more often, perhaps just for fun. But more importantly - not to miss out on the sunrise, the quiet unhurried sip of Darjeeling tea, the heartwarming squirrel chase and the faint smell of freshly baked rotis floating down my memory lane.
“This place is a balance between edge and charm” said the young and cheerful bartender as I confided in him about not finding parking easily near this famous German bier garten in Fishtown in Philadelphia called Frankford Hall and ordered a half liter of Munich Gold without bothering to look at the menu.
It was one of those slow and lazy and sweaty summer weekends. One of those weekends when you realize that summer was fast getting over and you needed to move your center of gravity to another place once in a while to make it memorable. After sleeping through the entire morning I knew that there had to be more to Sunday life than just the intellectual battle of reading the weekend Review over a cup of Darjeeling tea. Someone said Frankford Hall was worth going to for fresh beer. But let’s think it over one more time. Living in Suburbia forces you to think over every decision deliberately in an unhurried fashion. Meanwhile I realized I had ran out of Marie biscuits to go with my tea. Darn it / that was another shopping trip. Hmmm. Now - did I really want to be like a young city slick person and drive to the city and go though the hassle of finding parking just to get a freshly brewed jug of beer. Hmmm. Decisions decisions. Besides there was a 30 percent chance of rain. Not to mention that it had rained cats and dogs yesterday. I made a mental note that I better carry my gustbuster large vented umbrella.
40 minutes later. There was no decent parking available at all in Fishtown. The only option seemed to be to park in one of those narrow mean lanes between the row of old dilapidated houses. This was the shad-fishing community of Philly. Shad - by the way - tastes almost like Hilsa (Hilsa or Ileesh - is the heart stopping delicacy fish for any Bong with a taste for the finer things in life). So anyway. This Fishtown place was very old and industrial but it was indeed trying to redefine itself as the epicenter of new cool artistic, culinary and musical action.
I finally did find parking - very far from the restaurant in one of those deserted automated lots where you have to pay a flat fee of $20. You could also park without paying anything but then your car would be towed and then you would pay a hefty fine plus the towing fee of $175. Hmmm. Decisions decisions.
So anyway. I paid the flat parking fee, looked up at the cloudy sky, collected my priceless umbrella from the trunk and marched towards Frankford Hall. This is quite the place. Industrial environment paired with original German food and beverage. Tents laid out like Octoberfest in Munich. A ping pong table. Loud music. Loud conversations. The beer and the food were to be ordered at different counters. I ordered the bratwurst as the appetizer and tried to impress the waitress by sharing with her that there are more than 40 different types of bratwurst one could find in Germany. She smiled sympathetically. “Are you from the city?” Err no, I’m from Jersey but I come here all the time. Liar. She left in a hurry.
I kept an eye on my umbrella which was nicely parked inside a beer drum at the entrance. And I gulped the half liter of gold in a few minutes while I wolfed through the bratwurst and sauerkraut. Man - this is the good life.
There was a noisy young trio right next to me. An innocent looking chap with two harmless young women. One of them highly inebriated and using swear words to gain attention. The other one seemed to be in deep thought, cheeky shorts, high heels, perched on the wooden bench like a female version of Rodin’s “The Thinker”.
As I ordered the next half liter, I asked the bartender for tips on where to find parking. As I put a couple of dollar bills on the table, the advice became more genuine. The other bar tender started offering advice as well. I thanked both of them and returned to my table as I promptly forgot all their advice.
Oh wow, there was this young German couple with a baby in a pram that just arrived on the table next to mine. The pram was conveniently put facing my side. I could see the baby. The baby was staring at me. I smiled back. But the baby was not so happy. It started making worried noises. The parents came around one by one to check on the baby, and politely smiled at me. I tried to smile again at the baby. But this time it started wailing. It must be the ambient noise. I gulped down another half liter of the gold.
All this while I kept an eye on my umbrella that was parked on the beer drum at the entrance as I waited for my Wiener Schnitzel. This one takes time to prepare. It is truly a German masterpiece of culinary perfection. Ah - the pleasures of German food. The baby was now smiling at me.
As I closed the tab I noticed that it was getting quite busy as I was preparing to leave. The really fashionable people were starting to show up now. Oh well. It was getting dark. I had to get out of the city now. Time to get back to the routine.
I walked back to the parking lot and was happy to see my car was still there. The car seemed to be happy as well as it chirped back and lit up in response. “Turn right on Callowhill road in one and a half mile” said the GPS. In just a few minutes I was sailing on the Ben Franklin bridge - leaving the city lights behind and racing back to the prized loneliness of the woods. A Sunday evening fast becoming a faint memory as I almost started to see a bright Monday morning on the horizon.
It was only when I was turning into my garage that it started pouring heavily and I realized that I had forgotten my prized possession- the gustbuster large vented umbrella inside a beer drum at the entrance to Frankford Hall.
The weekend is about to begin. It is mid November. We already had an Arctic blast last week. Didn’t get to see much of the sun for almost a week. But today it is sunny. A bright sunny Saturday morning. The deck is flooding with the precious golden warmth. It feels good. It must be the presence of “light” that changes everything. One could almost burst into joyous song.
Diwali is over but Christmas is coming. The lights lead to happiness. We need the slightest reason to celebrate the Light with the lights.
In Bengali - “baranday roddur” meaning sunny verandah has propelled many a poet into mind bending song and dance.
39 degrees now. It is already a couple of hours after sunrise which happens early these days, today our nearest star broke into the firmament precisely at 6:47am. The highest temperature today shall be 41 degrees so we are almost there, before it starts declining back to below 30 degrees. So you see it is deceptively sunny. Looking at the gleaming creek I want to go out for a walk or a run. But wait it is cold and windy today. 25 mph winds. I look outside again. There is not a soul in sight. But there is something that beckons from near the roadside. Something that comes packed in a thin transparent plastic cover. Almost like a present. But lying conspicuously on the driveway next to the mailbox. Fluttering enticingly in the wind. I need to go get that.
It is less than 50 yards to the mailbox but I need to dress up like an amateur Eskimo going on his first visit to the dentist. Where is my Point Zero jacket...ok here we go...Thick heavy jacket with a thick hood to protect against the wind. Full pants. Warm socks. Shoes? Nah I think I will just wear my flip flops. The entire expedition would not last more than 2 minutes anyway.
I step outside like Neil Armstrong stepping outside the Apollo. A gust of wind blows my hood and sends a whistle of cold air into my ear canal. The wind plays a little music sequence on my ear drum. Now my ears are beating to the same rhythm as my heart beat. I retreat back into Apollo. Should I abandon this expedition and forego this quest for knowledge? How would humanity judge me if I missed out on something historic, momentous and newsworthy. No I must do this. For the sake of world peace. I tighten my hood tightly around my chin, take a long deep breath and boldly take a step outside the house. It is a small step ostensibly but a giant step for my inner quest.
There are fallen leaves everywhere. It is actually quite pretty outside. The sidewalk is strewn with leaves dancing to a pattern known only to them. As the sun moves up there is a game of light and shade going on under the red oak tree. The leaves start rustling suddenly as if they have to go somewhere special and then they start going up in circles like a bunch of tiny tots dancing to the music of an invisible pied piper. I close my eyes and take a deep breath. I wish I could stand there longer to appreciate being immersed in this beautiful setting. But my knees start trembling meanwhile. I better start moving towards my real mission now.
As I half walk half run down the driveway holding on to my flying hood, I notice with pleasure that our lawn is finally greener than the neighbors’. It is truly a bit late now to appreciate the lawn at the end of the fall season but it took an entire summer of seeding and fertilizing and an army of people to fix the sprinklers but it seems we finally won. Hello Neighbor - please come out and take a good look now, will ya...
I snapped out of my reverie as I noticed from the corner of my eye the object of my little expedition slowly flying away in the wind towards the other end of the road. I took a desperate dive to catch the weekend edition of the Wall Street Journal, not unlike a brilliant fielder performing a flying dive to catch the cricket ball before it hits the boundary.
After a successful morning expedition as I sip some black tea and read about how Google shapes its search results, the social revolution in Saudi Arabia, the reasoning behind the death of Socrates, the epic afterlife of Troy and the review of a masterpiece by Stanley Kubrick, I can smell the sweet and savory spice flavors of cinnamon, cloves and ginger emanating from my cup of tea.
Have a great weekend everyone!
Click. Click. Click. There were more than two dozen people continuously clicking their phones in the darkness. Every click seemed to startle the night. And with every click I felt closer to a ghostly discovery.
“There is a limper that walks the east curtain wall at night. Then there is this woman who appears in the upper level window of the north barracks. There is a scratcher who hides under that staircase. I have seen ‘em all - but don’t take my word for it. Please do take a lot of pictures. You never know when you catch ‘em floating around” said the tour guide in his low-pitched monotonous voice.
It was clear that he knew his script by heart. He was looking in the distance and occasionally his eyes would light up as if seeing familiar things. Dressed in black his T-shirt read: Fort William Henry - Original Ghost Tour. He was standing next to the “original well” from 1756 at the Fort William Henry. This was Lake George in upstate New York.
Many had lost their lives inside that well.
There is a lot of bloody history surrounding this fort that has led to the belief - that the ghosts of those who died here more than 250 years ago are still floating around like disembodied spirits.
“One of the skeletons shown here doesn’t have a head. He was decapitated by a Huron Indian during the massacre in 1757, and his head was displayed as a trophy of war. He was buried in the fort’s eastern barracks and was discovered during the excavations in 1957”, the tour guide explained as he encouraged the group to walk down the steps and visit the Military Crypt.
Forensic anthropologists have been studying the bones found here to understand the cause of death of the soldiers. They try to assign an identity to the forgotten soldiers. Many soldiers were found to have herniated disks from carrying heavy loads. The forensic scientists have discovered evidence of trauma including decapitations, cut marks in the chest and stomach areas, and indications that a number of men had been shot in the knee.
The military cemetery is right behind the south east bastion.
The fort was constructed as a square with bastions at each corner. This was meant to be a launching point for military operations by the British against the French.
For nearly a 100 years, France and Britain had been at war for control of North America. The power struggle that originated in the European continent extended to the rest of the world. The imperial rivals used their colonies as footholds to enlarge their empires and to bring as many native tribes as possible under their influence.
The English were primarily after the land of the aboriginal inhabitants. The French on the other hand wanted to fraternize with the natives, they wanted to merge the two races. By inducing the Indians to become Christians, they wanted to have one law, one people and one master.
Whatever their ulterior motive, both the English and the French kept fighting one another to gain control over Lake George.
The British won in 1755. They constructed the original fort next to the lake, christening it Fort William Henry, in honor of the two royal grandsons of King George II.
But then the fort was bombarded and taken over by the French in 1757.
The French General Montcalm gathered a large force and surrounded the fort. He had support from 38 tribes of Indians. He also had more cannons. There were 8000 on the French side including French Regulars, Canadian Militia and the Indians.
The British on the other side were less than 2500, in both the fort and the camp.
The French had nearly 40 cannons, howitzers and mortars. The British had 17 rusty iron guns.
The commander of the fort Lt Colonel Monro tried to get reinforcements but failed. 11 of his cannons burst due to over-use and the British had to finally surrender after six days.
Montcalm was generous and allowed the British troops to keep their property but asked them to vacate the fort the next day and agree to not fight against the French for 18 months.
However - the French had little control over their Indian allies. Apart from language barriers, there was a misunderstanding regarding customs. The Indian allies of the French felt they had been cheated out of the spoils of war. They entered the fort at night and killed many soldiers. The next day when the British troops were being marched away, the Indians attacked them again. It is estimated that 185 British people lost their lives while numerous others were taken captive and brought north towards Canada.
As they prepared to march north, Montcalm ordered the fort to be burned to the ground.
What we see today is a reconstruction that was done 200 years later, based on the original.
The French and Indian War of 1757 was really the first “world war”. Apart from Europe and North America, the fighting between Britain and France also took place in India, Africa, the Caribbean and the Philippines.
In the year 1688 the French East India Company had established itself in Chandernagore in India. Soon after that, the British had established their Fort William in Calcutta.
1757 was a fatal year...
The same year that the British lost the Fort William Henry in North America to the French, they captured Chandernagore by defeating the French in India.
The power struggle continues to this day on both sides of the “divide”. Even after more than 250 years, nothing seems to have changed for us - on this side. It feels like yesterday.
“I think I got one of them!” whispered a young lady excitedly. She had a heavy camera, perhaps a modern DSLR and was carrying a black bag that had a lot of fancy equipment. She proudly showed the picture of a green apparition on her large glowing camera screen to the curious people around her. People were nodding their heads in growing belief.
Even the tour guide was now looking at the picture seriously.
I chuckled to myself. Catching a ghost couldn’t be so easy. That was most probably just the light reflecting from the top of the bastions, creating an image that was hard to distinguish from the rest of the picture.
The group was now headed to the Arms & Artillery exhibit. A sign on top read “Powder Magazine”. One by one the visitors entered the dark corridor that led to the dimly lit exhibit room at the end.
Smartphones lit up the old corridor.
The sound of shuffling feet echoed in the narrow space. Some people had both their arms outstretched in the darkness, marching forward like soldiers - holding their phones like a modern weapon. I quickly stepped aside to let them go. There was this quiet space behind one of the old log shelves. I wanted to lean against the shelf but then I slipped noiselessly into the darkness. I think I might have stepped on some mold by accident. As the group marched past me like a bunch of giant shadows, I could see their enlarged pupils and smell their bated breath.
What a committed group of paranormal enthusiasts, I thought to myself.
All of a sudden - the young lady with the heavy camera stopped right in front of the log shelf and flashed a bright light at me. Before I could move, she clicked. The shutter speed was faster than one eight thousandth of a second. It felt like a blur.
What a sudden exposure.
I love my darkness.
“So – do you believe in ghosts now?!”, the young lady was now boasting to her companions in a spirited voice, repeatedly zooming in and out of the picture and showing off her camera screen like a trophy.
The picture showed a nebulous image standing in front of the log shelf.
Some believed her immediately. Others couldn’t see a thing.
I believe her.
After all - I am one of 'em.
I can see behind my head. As I am walking on the cobble stone square in front of the 350 year old Royal Palace of Amsterdam, I see this kid walking right behind me. You see I have a 340-degree field of view. The kid is floating soap bubbles in the air. The bubbles keep expanding and going up towards the summer sky. There is a wind blowing. The bubbles are now flying away fast with the wind. One of the bubbles is growing really big. I can see through my orange eyes that the kid is chasing the bubble excitedly. The bubble is growing bigger and bigger. The kid gets more and more excited. And then all of a sudden the bubble bursts.
Well - all bubbles finally do burst. The Tulip mania was one such bubble. It happened in the seventeenth century right here. It was around the time the Royal Palace was going to be built. The prices of tulips kept rising due to speculation. Suddenly you could become very rich. At its peak 40 bulbs of the high quality tulips were worth as much as a thousand tons of butter! It was complete madness. Some tulip bulbs changed hands ten times in a day. And then the bubble burst quite abruptly.
Crowds can go mad. I try to stay away from crowds, especially mad crowds.
I don’t need bubbles for excitement. My heart beats 700 times per minute.
I can fly 600 miles per day at an average of 50 miles per hour. My bones are hollow. They say I am more agile than a shark. I am now flying above the Madame Tussaud building. I can see everything clearly. There are two wax figures standing outside on the 4th floor. I know they are not human since they are not moving. There are two red colored trucks parked on the square. They are selling hot dogs, meatballs and hamburgers. There is a big line of people waiting next to the trucks.
I can smell the hot dogs from a distance. I also smell weed. The unhealthy stinking smell of weed pervades the air. I see young teenagers smoking. I think this is another bubble. But this bubble is more dangerous – it is going to burst people’s lungs.
The square is very busy in summer. Tourists come from all parts of the world. They take pictures of the old buildings. I know each one of these buildings. I have sat on top of each one of them gazing down at the square for hours. The ABN AMRO building on one edge has a lighted sign on top. There is a Rabobank in another corner. The Royal Palace stands in the middle. There is symmetry in front of the palace. Four light stands are in front, equally spaced.
The square gets lit up as evening approaches. A Swarovski shop has shiny crystal lights. The H&M shop has mannequins wearing the latest fashionable dresses. In the middle of the square there is a dude with painted face, dressed like an Indian god with a “trishool” in hand. He stands motionless like a statue as people drop coins in amusement.
There are kids running around. There is music playing everywhere. I can hear every sound. In fact I can hear sounds that are 200 times lower than what ordinary humans can hear. I can tell if a storm is approaching.
Sometimes I fly all the way up to the Central Station. I like that place. It is always busy with commuters and tourists. Behind the Central Station is the Ferry terminal. And across the waterfront is the tall building with swings on top. It is called A’dam Lookout. The view is fantastic from the sky deck. The swings go a 100 feet over the edge. They say these are the highest swings in Europe.
The Dutch way to get around the city is on a bike. Amsterdam is bicycle friendly. People say there are about as many bikes as the number of residents in Amsterdam, perhaps even more. Around 15000 bikes are salvaged from the canals annually.
I like to fly along the canals. Amsterdam has 165 canals that run for more than 30 miles. There are over 1200 bridges connecting the islands. Technically the city is 6 feet below sea level. The canals were dug up in the 17th century during the expansion of commerce that required transportation of goods. The wealthy built beautiful houses along the canals. I like to sit on top of some of these beautiful old houses. The canals are a very popular tourist attraction.
Fortunately I don’t need a bike or boat to get back home. I have an internal navigation system in my head. I can sense my position relative to the position of the sun and the stars. I can sense the earth’s magnetic field.
I never get lost. I always find my way back home. Home sweet home.
I am a city pigeon. Amsterdam is home for me.