I woke up with the sudden stopping of the car. The quiet rhythmic crackling of the radio channel in some strange foreign language sounded like the persistent noise of an insect stridulating at night.
“The M25 looks bad today”, it was the grasshopper at the wheel.
I was now painfully awake as I realized that today I happened to be a Heathrow bound Uber passenger stuck in traffic.
Time for polite conversation.
“So how long have you been Uber-ing…”, I asked politely.
“Oh…ever since I escaped my country and came here as a refugee. You see this big bad dictator was hell bent on killing me and my whole family”, his large compound eyes were now focusing on me through the rear-view mirror.
“What an amazing story…how did you manage to escape…”, I asked incredulously, as the grasshopper steered dangerously towards an exit to beat the traffic and then calmly merged back again onto the highway, now ahead of the other drivers who were still stuck.
“We drove through the night for thousands of miles until we reached the sea. Then we sailed for days until we reached Algiers. It was rough. From there we took a flight to safety”, he continued without emotion.
A grasshopper can jump about twenty body lengths, without using its wings. I remembered reading somewhere. Their large and strong back legs extend and push against the surface to launch them into flight, catapulting with maximum escape velocity.
“What a jump to escape – really that’s a dramatic leap of faith…”, I murmured to myself.
“You will catch your flight, Sir”, assured the grasshopper as the vehicle accelerated almost uncontrollably under his strong feet.
The car came to a smooth halt on the shiny curb of the departing flights area at Terminal 5. The doors unlocked automatically. I turned my head to thank the driver as I limped out of the car, slinging the laptop bag on my back.
But there was no driver to be seen.
I had forgotten that it was a driver-less ride.
The grasshopper was just a customization of the car’s user interface. A “chauffeur as a service” provided by Uber to their highest tier of loyal customers.
You could have any driver you liked.
Any race, any gender, any religion, whatever…your favorite spiritual leader leading you through many obstacles on the figurative road of life…your favorite comedian star keeping you in splits while navigating the potholes…or even an imaginary character straight out of the comics.
It could be a laughing red Elmo from Sesame Street with a high-pitched voice, or an anthropomorphic aquatic creature of the species Aplysina fistularis, a.k.a. Sponge Bob SquarePants.
Or Captain Haddock from Tintin comics – as long as he was sober.
“But why did you choose a grasshopper…”, a half-annoyed co-passenger had asked once.
Oh well. This is a bit hard to explain.
A grasshopper is just a fuzzy placeholder.
Using deep learning, it mimics previous Uber drivers that I have experienced in the past, mixes them up a bit like a cocktail and produces a different fictional character each time I ride. I remembered adding this variant in the personalization of my user profile over ten years ago when I was visiting Cambridge. I was really impressed at that time by the Time Eater…
Uber’s Personal Archives had recorded my conversation with the “real” driver at that time. Let me share that memory from ten years ago.
Rewind. Get set. Go.
“Where are you now, Sir?” the Uber driver asked politely in a foreign accent.
I was standing right outside the oldest bookshop site in Britain, the Cambridge University Press Bookshop.
“I cannot drive to you Sir, because of a barricade, can you please walk up to the Corpus Clock?”
I looked around and realized I was indeed standing in a pedestrian only zone. My roller luggage was light, and I didn’t mind walking especially on a gorgeous June afternoon. But I didn’t know in which direction to start walking. Google Maps was profoundly slow. It was a 3-minute walk along King’s Parade.
I walked leisurely past the King’s College gazing at its majestic entrance, the alma mater of luminaries such as the brilliant mathematician Alan Turing, economist John Maynard Keynes and novelists E. M. Forster and Salman Rushdie, just to name a few. Cambridge has more than 30 colleges. The university is one of the oldest, claiming more Nobel prizes than any other institution.
32 Nobel prizes in Physics alone.
The most recent one in 2020 won by Roger Penrose for his work on singularities, such as black holes.
I almost ran into a group of tourists who had stopped suddenly at the barricade and were now busy taking photographs of the Corpus Clock. My Uber driver Umit was supposed to be in a black Vauxhall. But Umit was nowhere to be seen. Did he drive away already, I wondered. Typically, the Uber driver is supposed to wait for 2 minutes as a courtesy. But I must have taken at least 3 minutes to walk up to the Clock.
Would he wait an extra minute?
Since he had cheerily asked me to walk up to the Clock, I had to assume that he would wait. But it was a busy crossing and there was no room for idling.
I looked at the Uber app and it showed the car still far away and stationary. Sometimes the app did not refresh fast enough. I looked around patiently at all the car license plates - trying to decide whether to continue waiting or order a new ride. This was the time to act.
According to Stephen Hawking (another luminary from Cambridge) time slows down around a black hole. This happens because of the super gravitational force of the black hole that warps the space-time around it.
Astrophysicist Emma Osborne has hypothesized that standing on edge of the black hole Sagittarius A* (that has a mass four million times that of our Sun) would stretch out space-time to a point where time would almost come to a standstill. One minute on the edge of this massive black hole would see 700 years pass on Earth.
It did feel like half an eternity – when quite unexpectedly a car stopped right in front of me. But alas - he was not my driver.
The Uber app showed in graphic detail that my driver Umit had moved closer - but was still stuck in traffic.
Right in front of me there were tourists taking pictures of a funny looking clock. At first, I thought it looked more like an entrance to a building. Then I looked more closely at the large golden disc.
There was a giant “grasshopper” sitting on top.
I suddenly realized this was the famous Corpus Clock. Named one of the best inventions by Time magazine, the Corpus Clock was unveiled to the public by Stephen Hawking. It was conceived by John Taylor.
This clock has no hands or numerals. It displays time by opening slits in the clock face that are lit with blue light, and the slits are arranged in 3 concentric rings displaying hours, minutes and seconds.
A grasshopper sits on top of the clock - eating time. One second at a time.
This giant grasshopper stylishly called the “Chronophage” moves its mouth in a rhythmic motion - as if eating the seconds as they pass.
John Taylor was paying tribute to the inventor of a revolutionary concept in watchmaking called “escapement”.
But he was also reminding us of the inevitable passing of time.
After what seemed like an eternity, I saw a black car stop in front of me and the driver rolled down his window. It was Umit. He was not allowed to idle his car there so he had gone around the block in a wide circle and had got stuck in traffic.
As he apologized and spoke excitedly, I learnt he was a brave refugee of Jewish descent who had escaped from the clutches of a dictator and was now gainfully employed at one of the libraries at Cambridge. He did this Uber thing more as a side job.
As I witnessed him racing against time, my Uber driver took me to my destination in record time. But I was still late for dinner. A giant grasshopper had eaten up some of my precious time that evening.
Links to more blogs (UK theme):
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It is hard to get uninterrupted sleep these days.
Full disclosure - I have a bad stomach. Indigestion. A burning sensation at times.
Deep inside me there is this bloated gut wrenching feeling that keeps me awake at night. I try to catch some sleep during the day but then it is hard to do that nowadays with all the noise and footsteps around me.
This is a bit hard to explain. I am not a sociable being, in fact quite the opposite. I am reclusive. The opposite of gregarious – whatever. I stand firmly through the night in solitary silence. Deeply contemplative. Magnificently serene. And yet very remote and inaccessible. Splendidly alone I should add as I stand quietly over this stunning view of the Gulf.
People do not understand that strange and scary things can happen when I am disturbed. Even a small tremor can cause a huge outburst inside me. I keep waking up for a smoke occasionally and I shake things up just a bit, to let people know that they should not disturb my peace.
Many years ago, when I was a lot younger and full of fiery spirit, I remember blowing my top suddenly. It led to a huge disaster. This was so sudden and unexpected that it took everyone by surprise. Something inside me just broke loose and I started spewing huge amounts of hot material. I couldn’t stop myself. The top part of me literally collapsed. It felt as though rivers of fire were flowing down my sides. I could see people running for shelter. Women and children cried uncontrollably. But I couldn’t save anyone, let alone console them. Dogs barked their heads off. Horses started neighing and tried to break free. Some fell on their feet looking up at me and up at the skies praying for divine intervention. I didn’t know what to say to them. Everything inside and outside of me seemed to be burning.
Many people were killed in that eruption. The picture you see above is of the plaster cast of a girl caught in the tragic instant of her death.
It had continued for 3 days. The whole area was buried under 20 feet of ash. Including all the big private houses of the rich in the best-known residential district, all the majestic Temples, the Grand Theater, and the imposing Basilica with the ancient graffiti on its walls. It included the spacious Forum with its large rectangular plaza and arcade with columns, the luxuriously decorated baths for men and women, the swimming pools, the oil & sand massage rooms and the changing rooms. The pubs – including the famous Grande Taberna. The efficient bakeries with the millstones. And of course, the rooms in the 25 brothels, with all the decorative small paintings on the walls illustrating the services offered.
No one was spared from my wrath. This happened more than 2000 years ago. August 24, 79 AD to be precise. That is when people in Pompeii, Herculaneum and Stabia witnessed my most destructive self.
Anyway. I’m good now. Enjoying a peaceful nap until my next eruption...
The sun is out after a week of cloudy weather. The Gulf of Naples looks panoramic. The beautiful island of Capri eyes me coyly from the distance. The deep blue waters of the Tyrrhenian Sea blink at me. I think I hear the wind whisper my name.
My name is Vesuvius. Mount Vesuvius. They say I have the license to kill. But behind those clouds I’m just a weary volcano looking for a peaceful place to hide my guilt.
I have been coming to Manhattan often. At least once every century. Back then Manhattan was known as “Manahatta”. The island’s original residents, the Lenape (Delaware) called it Manahatta - meaning a place for gathering wood to make bows.
Even 500 years ago, you could find whatever you needed here. Forests filled with fruit. An abundance of trees. Waterways teeming with fish. But for all its enchantments today, the city’s exuberance remains ephemeral for me.
From a royal perspective there are at least SIX reasons I hate visiting Manhattan…
First, I hate the museums in this city. Especially those that do not feature appropriately the greatness of Tudor history. They focus more on the painful memories and not on the extraordinary wealth created by our family during the eventful rule of just over a hundred years.
The MET has over 2 million works of art, but not many of those feature my reign. The museum has more than 2000 European paintings, but I wonder how many of them are my portraits? I could easily hide behind one of the old paintings though – a Vermeer, Rembrandt, Caravaggio or a Raphael, and nobody would know there was a wicked king hiding behind them!
I also hate the libraries in Manhattan. Especially the New York Public Library. Its main branch building in Fifth Avenue boasts over 2.5 million volumes, but I wonder how many are about my monarchy?
The library’s majestic Rose Reading Room measures roughly the length of two city blocks, and with 52-foot-tall ceilings it displays murals of nature, but not a single portrait of me!
All members of the public are welcome to the library. In fact, they could even book the place for a wedding. As if everyone were equal and had the same access. No exclusivity, no royal privileges. I tell you this is just not the place for the King of England.
I hate the bright lights around Times Square and the crowds - especially around this time of the year. One could easily get lost here with not a ghost of a chance to be found.
More than a hundred years ago Times Square was called Longacre Square, and then the newspaper office moved here, changing the square’s name. 50 million people visit this place every year. Quite a busy place, I say. Hundreds of thousands of pedestrians pass through Times Square each day.
A bit too pedestrian for a king, I might add.
I hate the Central Park too. It is the first public park built in America. In the heart of the city, amidst all the concrete, glass, roads, and traffic this green landscaped patch attracts 25 million guests every year. It has many statues and monuments. But not even one is dedicated to me. Forget a full statue, there is not even a bust to remind people of my greatness.
How incompetent, inhospitable, and inconsiderate indeed…
I hate being around on July 4th in New York. They have the world’s largest fireworks show. A thousand shells burst per minute in the night sky. Precisely timed to fire with the beat of the music.
All this fanfare to celebrate independence from us…really?
Finally - I hate Broadway. Especially the Brooks Atkinson Theatre. This is an old theatre built almost a hundred years ago, the seats are tight, and the passages are narrow. Hardly worthy of a king’s visit, I say. But then I was told they are featuring a play to make fun of me, so I decided to pay them a visit.
It’s called “SIX The Musical”, and it is about my SIX wives. Each one of them competes to crib, criticize, and complain about me.
This highly rated play is an all-female cast including the musicians and band members.
Each queen sings a catchy song adopting a different musical style, inspired by the likes of Adele, Alicia, and Ariana to Beyonce and Britney. The show was shut down on opening night itself by the pandemic.
A bit ironic, I say. But after 18 months in quarantine, it is finally out.
I just can’t stand it.
I’m Henry the VIII. I had SIX sorry wives.
Some might say, I ruined their lives…
PS: If you have not heard the rhyme: Divorced, Beheaded and Died; Divorced, Beheaded, Survived, check this out:
“Which way is the Avanti ticket office please…”, I asked the gentleman standing outside the glass doors.
He didn’t seem to take notice at first.
I was standing just inside the glass doors of the station building. He was standing outside where people normally step out for a smoke, facing away from the doors. The doors kept opening and closing automatically due to the motion detector on top. I expected him to turn around, but he was looking down thoughtfully. He seemed smug.
I waited a few seconds. Wasn’t he thinking a bit too long? Is he going to respond? Was he secretly smirking at my question…was I at the wrong level or completely at the wrong end of the building or something. Anyway, since he was looking away from me, I couldn’t see the expression on his face in the dark. I now realized he was standing in line for something.
“Do you have any idea how many soldiers died in that bloody war…”, the man seemed to mumble suddenly without looking at me. Tired old raspy voice.
What does that have to do with anything, let alone my question about the location of the ticket office, I thought to myself. His remark was completely out of context. I was in a hurry, but I waited politely for him to complete whatever he was trying to say.
“Did you know that 30,000 British soldiers returned after the war with damaged eyesight…and 3000 of us returned permanently blind” he whispered.
Then it occurred to me that he was blind. But that seemed like a high number of casualties – which war was he talking about…
He seemed to have read my thoughts. He spoke softly now, barely audible. “Is any war worth it? Every war blinds soldiers like me. But the world turns a blind eye.”
He seemed to tap on the shoulder of the person in front. In front of the long line was a uniformed man in an admiral’s cap. He stood tall, despite his crutches. They all stood there quietly. Perhaps waiting patiently for their transport.
I stepped outside the glass doors into the balmy summer evening. Now when I looked at them with a bit more ambient light, I realized to my surprise that they were all blind.
There were seven of them. Each with their hand on the shoulder of the person in front. They started to speak slowly and solemnly like awakening one by one from the dead…
It was now starting to rain. I shook myself out of my reverie. Most shops had closed for the day. It was now past 9pm and I was standing outside the Manchester Piccadilly station.
Our hotel was steps away from the city center. I was trying to secure a seat reservation for the train journey back to London the next day by the high-speed Avanti West Coast Express. We had booked the tickets online and had realized quite late that there was no seat reservation confirmed. Given all the Covid travel precautions, we wanted reserved seats. I needed to get to the Avanti ticket office before it closed. I had no idea where the office of this newly formed train company was, whether it was inside the station building or outside in the city center.
Manchester Piccadilly is typically a very busy station. Over 30 million passengers pass through annually. There are several levels and many exits, and it can be a bit confusing. I had entered the station building from the familiar Fairfield street entrance that is used for taxis and buses. Then someone told me the ticket office was towards the main city center entrance - one level up via the escalators if one were to navigate there internally or up the approach road from the corner of Ducie Street and London Road.
It was perhaps a good thing after all that I got lost there for a while. At this hour, there were hardly any people around. Except this long line of people standing motionless in the dark.
Then I noticed a sign next to them.
This was a sculpture called "Victory over Blindness" to commemorate the hundredth anniversary of the end of the first World War.
Johanna Domke-Guyot conceived this whole exhibit. After being diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis (MS), she studied art to distract herself and it worked like therapy for her. Due to MS her fingers were quite numb which makes her sculpture even more amazing. Due to relapses, she lost sight in one of her eyes.
Johanna conceived this monument to be at eye level. The seven blind people stand quietly outside the station amid the day-to-day bustle. She wanted people to be able to touch the sculpture. No platform or plinth is in place, so that anyone including blind people can also touch it.
Johanna wanted people to interact with the soldiers in her sculpture who are on their path to rebuild their lives. I guess she has succeeded beyond imagination in this miraculous effort.
I don’t blink. At least not in public…
With a fixed gaze I looked on at the crowd gathered to celebrate the Fourth. The Petoskey Steel Drum Band was playing some catchy tunes. The jovial bunch of high school kids were with a dozen percussion drums on top of an open red bus. Hundreds of people cheered around them. It was good to see so many people around after a long hiatus.
From where I stand I can see the small but beautiful Little Traverse Bay, off Lake Michigan. The historic city of Harbor Springs is on the other side of the bay. Beautiful scenery here - full of trees and lots of parkland on the waterfront. Vacation communities enjoy boating, sailing, and swimming during summer. There are many beaches, although some are rocky.
Behind me is the City Park Grill. It is housed in one of Petoskey’s oldest buildings. When it was first constructed in 1875, it was a males-only billiard parlor that offered cigars and drinks. Its popularity seems to have not changed much. The restaurant is still overbooked. They say I used to come here frequently in the hey days.
Apparently, I used to sit at the second seat from the end of the 32-foot mahogany bar and wrote the stories that made me famous. Some critics who read my stories keep saying they are childish. Oh well. They don’t get it. I didn’t want to write about everything you see. Leave some for the imagination. Remember the iceberg theory…
It was a different time. Just after World War I. I have seen some nasty bar fights, where opponents go at each other like animals. Gouging out eyes. Don’t believe me?! Just read one of my stories. You know, they still teach my stories at school. They say my books shall never go out of print. Still don’t believe me?! Well check out Netflix or Prime…you will find a dozen movies inspired by my stories!
I see so many tourists come to me and take selfies. What is with these people…why this relentless drive to grin in front of the camera and post pictures on social media. Why can’t they just chill and take in the fresh air…enjoy the music. Why do they have to keep looking at their phones?
We were never so distracted. You see we didn’t have phones to be obsessed with taking selfies. We didn’t have much then. But we were doers. Strivers. Fighters.
An eastern towhee just flew from somewhere and sat on my head. I keep getting blessings all year round. This Michigan bird is known for its characteristic call which sounds like “drink-your-tea”. It is about 7-8 inches long. Red brown on the sides and a white belly. Long brown tail with a white tip. Short pointed bill. Red eyes. I can tell this one is a female, because the males are black in color, not brown.
“Where are you off to, Mr. Hemingway?” the towhee chirped.
I tipped my hat and said – You caught me at a busy time bird, I’m about to depart for a new job in Toronto.
Oh well. That’s what Ernie would have said anyway. I’m just his statue.
“So where can I get gas?” I asked the politely smiling elderly gentleman behind the store counter. He had brown eyes, wore heavy glasses and had a round moustache that drooped down almost all the way to his chin.
“I don’t know!” said the man in a pleasant sing song voice, as if he was trying to mock the whole world.
We were driving back from Munising in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan after a long day at the beautiful Pictured Rocks Lakeshore. I had run out of gas. It was past 8:30 pm. We still needed to drive another hour and a half to get to our vacation rental.
The sun sets late in this region and normally there is enough light until 10pm at this time in July, but the weather was getting bad and severe thunderstorms were expected. The phone reception was a bit patchy and it was hard to get the GPS to function reliably. We had found this store at the picturesque little town of Seney. But there was no gas at this gas station or the one on the other side of the intersection. In fact, we had already tried the other one before coming to this store.
“Is there a shortage of gas supply in this area?” I asked again, trying to understand the gravity of the situation. There was a long pause. The man was excruciatingly slow and measured with his responses.
“I don’t know!” said the man finally in the same sing song voice. His brown eyes looked at me kindly as if he was trying to pity me. His response was overly cryptic and honestly a bit annoying to me. Perhaps he was trying not to give me the bad news. He appeared to start closing the store for the day. I looked around to see if I could buy something just to get him to talk some more.
Animal furs, pelts and hides hung from the ceiling. Stuffed deer heads with antlers adorned the wall.
Suddenly there was a loud crack of thunder.
It was now getting darker and it had started to rain heavily. I shivered at the thought of spending the night in the car.
“Sir, when do you think you will have gas? I asked him respectfully - expecting to draw a less cryptic response this time. I could sense a hint of desperation in my own voice.
“I don’t know!” said the man again in the same voice. He now seemed to be gripping on to a wooden handle or something similar, while trying to move out of his place. I couldn’t see exactly what he was doing. I thought to myself he could be reaching for his gun. After all, this region had a lot of talented hunters, and he could be one of them.
That’s when I glanced at a little poster on the window that said: “An average 911 response here is 23 minutes. A gun shot travels at 1400 feet per second”. It’s just an ad for a gun, I consoled myself and tried to smile weakly.
The man seemed to read my thoughts. He cleared his throat and finally spoke very slowly: “How far do you need to go?”
I said we were going to Sault Ste. Marie.
He looked at me strangely.
Then he said: “You mean Soo Ste. Marie.”
I felt like an idiot.
I had said Sault as the word “salt”. It was a French word and had to be pronounced as “Soo”.
“Do you have at least a gallon left?” he asked quietly.
Now it was my turn to shrug my shoulders and say: “I don’t know!”.
All I knew was that the fuel indicator needle was almost approaching “E” on the dashboard, meaning the tank was running empty. There could be some reserve gas left, but I had no clue how much was left in the tank.
“What mileage do you get?” he continued to probe.
“I don’t know”, I shrugged again. I had not done such mental math for a long time. It could be anywhere between 10 miles per gallon to 40 miles per gallon depending on the road conditions.
He seemed to be thinking for a moment.
“Why do you ask”, I ventured.
“Well – you could drive to Newberry and try for gas there; it is 25 miles from here” he said looking out the window.
I was seriously weighing the uncertainty of the two alternatives in my mind. Either wait here until the gas truck arrived - for which there was no guarantee or venture out towards Newberry - where there was no guarantee of finding gas.
The clock ticked slowly towards the top of the hour. I think he wanted to close the store now.
“There’s my gas truck!” exclaimed the man suddenly, breaking my reverie.
He was now slowly shuffling towards the door. For the first time I realized that he was disabled and was walking slowly but steadily with his crutches.
“I have to ask you to move your car, so that the truck can come in”, he said while stepping out of the store to welcome the gas truck.
“Of course!” I mumbled with a huge sigh of relief.
When the gas truck arrived, the whole atmosphere changed. The young driver of the truck jumped out and greeted the store owner. Within minutes he had opened the main valve on the perimeter and was pumping gallons of the much awaited fuel underground, filling up all the thirsty pumps.
“Shall I go ahead and fill up now?” I asked the store person as soon as the refill was completed by the truck.
“Oh Yeah”, said the elderly man. He sounded cheerful and positive for a change.
I thanked him profusely and bowed out of his store. It was now pitch dark, but it had stopped raining. The road ahead glistened in the moonlight as I could hear several cars starting up in the neighborhood. The news of the arrival of the gas truck had spread like wildfire.
“Bapi-every-body-is-going-away! I just want to go back now…” wailed our 6 year old son as he kicked water from a puddle. We had just visited the tomb of “Pacal” - the greatest and longest living Maya King.
It was raining hard and everyone else had already gone back to the tour bus. I was trying to capture some final images of the Temple of the Inscriptions with my ancient video camera.
We were on a 10-day road trip in Mexico. It was raining as expected in Palenque, one of the most fascinating, beautiful and haunting cities that the Maya built. Surrounded by lush tropical forests this place hides some of the biggest architectural Maya monuments discovered so far.
It was a busy holiday period and the place was swarming with tourists. Despite the rain, there was a flurry of colorful but temporary raincoats passing us by. I started recording bits and pieces of what the guide was saying. It was hard to understand his accented voice above all the surrounding noise - including that emanating from our wailing kid.
“Only 4% of this region has been excavated…”, said the tour guide.
Ok so we don’t know what we don’t know. Many questions remain unanswered. But one thing is clear – this was a fascinating age and a talented tribe of people that built these pyramids.
It is evident from the tablets, steles and inscriptions that have been discovered and deciphered - the Maya civilization was an advanced civilization consisting of architects, engineers, mathematicians, artists and astronomers, with their own hieroglyphic writing system and their calendar system called the Long Count. A year was 360 days consisting of 18 months of 20 days each.
The Maya believed that time was circular. One could return to the same place in time and space by completing the circle. They plotted the movements of the sun, moon and planets with remarkable accuracy. The Temple of Inscriptions where the tomb of Pacal resides - is an example of the astronomical prowess of the Maya. This building is designed in such a way that a person standing on top of the nearby Palace Tower, on the day of the winter solstice can see the setting sun sink precisely into Pacal’s tomb, perhaps signifying it to be the gateway to the underworld.
During Pacal’s reign the Maya prospered economically due to flourishing trade and commerce. Magnificent palaces, temples and courts were built and decorated tablets were installed to record the wealth and progress of that era.
Suddenly after a thousand years of growth, the Maya civilization seems to have collapsed in the 9th century. The reasons are still not known to us.
It could have been an earthquake or a plague like disease that led to the sudden collapse. One of the theories is that the Maya deforested the region to serve their increasing needs and to produce more of their monuments. For instance in order to make stucco they had to burn stone, for which they needed to get more and more wood from the forests. This could mean a tipping point was reached to trigger a dramatic change in climate.
Another theory is that there was growing inequity between the elite and the masses and a tipping point was reached then revolution broke out, the workers and peasants massacred the ruling class and with their passing the key learnings disappeared and that led to a rapid decline.
There are many such theories, but none are proven to be true yet. I guess any civilization could come to an end - if it reaches some sort of tipping point with the environment or with the social or economic set up.
Perhaps an angry young God became very impatient with the Maya and kicked their entire civilization out of existence. I looked at my son who was impatiently kicking the water from the puddles. Hmmm.
As we ran back to the waiting tour bus, I wondered if as per their ancient beliefs the Maya shall return one day and occupy positions of power and prominence in the world. What a strange thing to believe in today’s day and age. But I guess it finally depends on what we as civilized and scientific minded yet fantasy loving humans ultimately want to believe in.
I looked up at the clear blue sky. It was a bright Monday morning at the end of August. We were at beautiful Cape Vincent in upstate New York.
Set against the backdrop of the blue sky and standing roughly 70 feet above the clear emerald green waters where Lake Ontario meets St Lawrence River, the white Tibbetts Point lighthouse stood in majestic silence. It has towered like a guiding light over the centuries and saved many a ship from getting lost on dark foggy nights. Just for the record - in 1913 it sounded the fog horn continuously for 300 hours.
The Tibbetts Point lighthouse built in 1827 is one of the rare lighthouses in America that still uses the Fresnel lens. This is a special type of lens that keeps the light focused like a laser beam so that it can be seen from a long distance. This is an invention that has saved a million ships.
The first lamps of the lighthouse used whale oil, and then they changed to lard oil. After a few decades it was 50 candle power lamps which were later upgraded to 61 candle power. In 1960 came a 500 watt Halogen lamp with 15,000 candle power.
Although the light has changed over the years, the lens has remained the same.
I feel as though the lens is like the “eye” of the lighthouse. It has seen everything from above. It keeps an eye on all the 1864 islands – nicknamed Thousand Islands. With thousands of miles of coastline. And breathtaking views.
The “eye” looks south and “sees” Grenadier Island, the scene of General James Wilkinson’s ill-fated expedition. Was he really a highly paid spy for the Spanish empire?!
The eye looks north and sees Carleton Island. This island came under British control in 1774. They built a fort there named Fort Haldimand. This fort played a critical role during the Revolutionary War, as a staging area for military actions against the Mohawk Valley.
One of the brave souls the eye saw there was Mary Brant - a member of the Mohawk tribe.
Mary cared deeply for her tribe. Her tribe had to decide their loyalty in favor of one of the military forces – British, French, American or Canadian. She convinced them to side with the British. The tribe had to leave the US due to their loyalty to the British. This is the time when they took refuge on Carleton Island, which was under the British. Later when the British were defeated, and the US took possession of the island, Mary helped her tribe get resettled in Canada. A Canadian postage stamp issued in 1986 commemorated the 250th anniversary of the birth of Mary Brant.
The eye looks a bit to the east and sees Heart Island. Yes it is shaped like a heart. This is the site of the Boldt Castle. It is named after George Boldt who came as a young immigrant from Germany at the age of 13 in the year 1864. He started by washing dishes at a hotel in Philadelphia, and rose to become the proprietor of the Waldorf Astoria hotel in New York City, the biggest hotel in the world at that time. He employed 300 workers to build a lavish castle for his wife Louise to present as a special gift to her on Valentine’s day, which was also her birthday.
But just over a month before Valentine’s day – tragedy struck. Louise died before the castle could be completed. She was only 42.
Boldt was heartbroken. He stopped all work at the castle. 300 workers dropped their tools and left the island. Boldt never set foot there again. Boldt died in 1916. His son sold off the castle in 1920. It became the ruins and a place for vandalism for several decades.
Just before World War I, an effort was made to purchase Boldt Castle for use as a summer White House for Woodrow Wilson. But the funding didn’t happen in time.
In 1977 the Thousand Islands Bridge Authority acquired the property and started work to resurrect the castle to its original grand vision. It is still work-in-process.
On some special Valentine ’s Day mornings, the lighthouse eye sees a certain couple dressed in 20th century attire walk the grounds of the Boldt Castle and slowly disappear into the mist.
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“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.