“Hmm…just plain regular please…”, I said to the massage therapist, looking at the pictures on the walls for any clues, and not exactly sure what Deep Tissue massage entailed.
I had a dinner meeting at the Legal Seafoods restaurant at the King of Prussia Mall in Pennsylvania. Having reached the venue quite early and not knowing what to do, I decided against waiting at the restaurant bar, and landed up at a massage shop in the Mall that specialized in Reflexology.
The King of Prussia Mall is the largest Mall in the US (in terms of retail space), with more than 400 shops ranging from huge department stores to small boutiques. This great Mall was named after Frederick II, the King “in” Prussia from 1740 to 1786, who was also known as Frederick the Great.
One wonders - how did one of the biggest malls in America get such a German name?!
Well, many Americans do hail from German ancestry. A little known fact is that the plurality (not majority) ethnic background of almost half the states in the US is held by Germans. And there are more than 25 cities called “Germantown” that were founded by German settlers.
I remember when we first visited the King of Prussia Mall 12 years ago, it had turned into one of our worst nightmares. We were looking to find the equivalent of the experience of the fancy malls in Singapore, a combination of shopping, dinner and entertainment. But there was a fundamental difference here. This experience was spread out "horizontally" over millions of square feet, offering with vastness of space, what is packaged "vertically" inside a multi-storeyed mall in Singapore.
A typical mall in Singapore has six levels above the ground for shops and four levels below the ground for parking. The entire shopping experience is effortless with the presence of elevators and escalators. When we first visited the King of Prussia Mall, we walked from one store to another, we crossed one plaza to another and kept walking till we were at such a distance from the car, that the long walk back with the weight of all the bags was quite an ordeal. Moreover I had forgotten where I had parked the car, leading to much unpleasantness.
“Just relax…” said the therapist as he applied pressure kneading the muscles around my stiff neck. I let out a small grunt of pleasure. In five minutes I had reached a state of relaxed stupor, and in ten minutes I was at peace with myself. This was a great way to relieve stress after a hard day’s work. The long hours in front of the computer was not good for the neck muscles. And the largely sedentary lifestyle did not help either.
I thought to myself - All the people who came up with the idea of massage as a form of therapy, have done great service to mankind. It seems massage therapy became popular in the US more than 100 years ago, it was first started by two physicians in New York based on techniques developed in Sweden. Americans spend billions of dollars on massage therapy and it is expected to grow each year.
I found later that massage therapy has a long history, and it was used for curing illnesses, well before we had medicines that can cure almost anything today. Massage techniques developed in China for more than 5000 years. A wall painting found in the Tomb of Akmanthor in Egypt that dates back to 2300 BC suggests that people practiced an early form of reflexology in the ancient times. Buddhist scriptures from 500 BC suggest Buddha had a physiotherapist who combined reflexology with acupressure and yoga!
There are dozens of massage techniques today, ranging from traditional Chinese massage focusing on acupressure points, to a Shiatsu technique where the therapist applies pressure with his feet on the receiver’s back, to Watsu where the practitioner and the client are both under water!
So what is a Deep Tissue massage after all?
Deep Tissue massage is an intense massage technique focusing on muscles below the top muscles. This is especially applicable for athletes. Basketball legend Michael Jordan is said to have a personal massage therapist who even travels with him. This technique could leave one sore with a new kind of pain due to the intense pressure applied.
“Ouch…” I winced with pain as the massage therapist used his elbow to put pressure on my back. Now, this was risky territory. Having once suffered from chronic back pain, I did not want to take any chances. I politely asked him to stop. Meanwhile I also remembered that I was running late for my dinner appointment. But stopping him was easier said than done!
I was 20 minutes into this massage, and he insisted on continuing for another 20 minutes. I had to firmly ask him to stop.
As I ran hurriedly to make it in time for my dinner appointment, I was reminded of the famous song from a 1957 Bollywood movie called “ Pyaasa” that has Johnny Walker playing a masseur, convincing reluctant customers for a “champi” (head massage). The song goes “Sar Jo Tera Chakraye…” (If your head spins and your heart feels sad, come my dear, do not fear…no matter what your troubles, try it out, massage your head, your fortune will shine!). I checked my messages to find that my guests were running late. Oh well, my fortunes were starting to shine already.
“Heyyy…Evora…Evora…Evora!” sang the bus driver as he tried to get more tourists to get on the bus. We were on a holiday trip to Portugal and Evora was a “must-see” destination. The trip to Evora was going to take between one and a half to two hours from Lisbon. It was around eight in the morning on a beautiful day in the month of June in 2007. Evora has been declared a World Heritage site. It is one of the most charming Portuguese cities, with its rich cultural heritage and its painstaking preservation of historical monuments. Old narrow streets from a distant era easily connect to open market squares with shops and amenities.
The day passed slowly. Several hours later and after many pictures of the city walls and the timeless ruins of the Roman temple (the temple of Diana) we were looking to return to the present, and find a place to try some "Caldeirada" (spicy fish stew and potatoes).
Portugal’s checkered history (wars, famines, earthquakes) has led to its melancholic character. The bittersweet “fado” songs flow with tears of joy.
Life in Portugal has always revolved around the sea. Portuguese explorers redefined the concept of the Earth, with the discovery of India and Brazil.
Vasco da Gama, the first European to reach India by sea, studied in Evora. He was the first to find a “route” that was completely by sea and one that did not need to cross the dangerous Arabian countries and the disputed Mediterranean. Getting to India was necessary to bring the popular spices like cinnamon and pepper. This came to be known as the “spice route”.
Vasco da Gama started from Lisbon in July of 1497 and after a long journey landed in Calicut, India. This was a world event of sorts, as it marked the first wave of global multiculturalism. He led 4 ships with 170 men from Portugal to India, around the Cape of Good Hope and back, a distance greater than a spin around the equator. How did Vasco da Gama find the directions?
The onward journey took more than 10 months. There were many challenges along the way, especially since they were not welcome anywhere in Africa. Once they had reached the eastern coast of Africa, Vasco da Gama was lucky to find an Indian pilot who knew the monsoon winds and guided them straight to the Indian coast. This was a journey “out of sight of land”, and required precise knowledge of nautical directions and local weather conditions.
Was the expedition successful?
The experience in India was not smooth. Vasco da Gama lacked negotiation skills. He led by force. Being a merciless torture expert he successfully avoided mutiny on the ship. But he was not a merchant. He could not establish a long-term trading relationship.
The return journey turned out to be more painful and more costly than he could ever imagine. They sailed “against” the monsoon winds. It took 132 days to cross the ocean from India to Africa (compared to 23 days for the same segment on the onward journey). Two ships were lost and more than half the crew died. Many of the surviving crew were terribly sick.
Vasco da Gama’s brother Paulo da Gama fell sick and died.
I guess it does not matter how glorious the onward journey is, if the return is a disaster. In a modern analogy it did not matter how quickly we were able to put a man on the moon, what mattered most was to bring the man back alive.
The loss of his brother must have devastated Vasco da Gama. He chose to stop en route for his brother’s funeral, and spent more than a month brooding. He let his deputy return to Portugal to inform the king of the news of the successful discovery of the sea route to India. When Vasco da Gama finally returned to Portugal he was given a hero’s welcome.
The next expedition to India was led by Pedro Alvares Cabral who led 13 ships and a thousand men. However, on the Atlantic ocean they went too far on the west and accidentally discovered Brazil! There were several expeditions to India after that and the investment into the expeditions was recouped many times over. But the loss of precious lives makes it hard to estimate the true costs of these ventures.
Back to present times, I would say without my spicy food - I am dead. And while we sat in the charming little restaurant in Evora, enjoying the delicious spicy food, I had to salute those brave explorers who actually died in the quest for these spices.
“So where are you from?” I asked the smartly dressed cab driver.
I wanted to start a polite conversation as he headed out of the airport and accelerated on the Bayshore Freeway towards downtown San Francisco. From experience, this kind of small talk fills the journey, but always gives insights about local geography, weather, football and politics. Cab drivers are like wikis.
“I’m from Eritrea”
“And where is that…?”
“Eritrea is a small country in East Africa”
“Aha…” I exclaimed with an appreciative tone.
“It is next to the Red Sea and surrounded by Sudan and Ethiopia on the other side. Ethiopia is actually 10 times bigger…but there was a war between the two countries.”
“Hmm…you are very lucky to have seen both worlds” I remarked.
“Yes, if I tell you my story, you would not believe it!”
“Really!” I encouraged him, looking outside as we passed the Bayview-Hunters Point.
“Eritrea has natural resources. It was a colony of Italy more than 100 years ago. Then it became a province of Ethiopia, becoming independent only 20 years ago. A war began with Ethiopia, where many people died. After the war things got worse…”
I looked at my phone to check the time. We were just crossing the Fallen Bridge Park area. The cab driver continued with his story.
“There is no freedom of religion in Eritrea. I had to escape to stay alive! I went to Sudan, and from there to Dubai, where I got a job, but they did not allow me to stay. I left for Peru, then to Bolivia, Columbia, and finally to Mexico…from where I ultimately came here. In most countries they would either ask me to go back to my country or go to jail!”.
We were in downtown San Francisco passing by the Moscone Center, named after George Moscone the famous Italian-American Mayor. I peered at the eye capturing SFMOMA, designed by a Swiss architect, one of the first museums dedicated to 20th century art.
Meanwhile it was quite amazing listening to the cab driver’s story. “How long did it take after you left Eritrea to arrive here in California?”
“It took me over 6 months, and it cost a lot of money. It was very dangerous. I crossed 15 countries before arriving here. It took time but finally I was granted residency and later I got my citizenship. This is my country now and it is a great country.”
“I am glad it has all worked out for you” I said in a congratulatory tone, as he processed my credit card payment using his sleek new iPhone.
What does it take to become a great country? I thought to myself as I headed to the 39th floor of the hotel to check out the breathtaking view of the penthouse restaurant called “The View”.
What role does the influx of fearless people play, in the development of a country?
I remembered reading somewhere that immigrants are twice as likely to start a new company. Apart from thousands of midsized companies that have created jobs, even some of the iconic companies in the US such as Google, eBay and AT&T have been founded by immigrants. It is reported that in the year 2006, the US accepted more immigrants as permanent residents than all other countries in the world combined.
Is “moving”, critical to evolution?
Later I read that the first anatomically modern humans probably expanded from the Eritrea region in Africa. According to a report in the Science magazine, the discovery of a 1.8 million year old skull has offered evidence that humanity’s early ancestors emerged from Africa, as a single adventurous species. Was there a risk of losing lives? Were they trying to escape from prowling saber-tooth tigers? Perhaps not much has changed even in modern times. There is still the “credible fear” of losing one’s life, but nowadays at the hands of human predators.
Here is another perspective on “moving” from the world of art. Italian-American artist Francesco Vezzoli has bought a church in Montegiordano, Italy. The church is without a roof, and almost in ruins. Francesco plans to "uproot" the entire 1500 sq ft church and reconstruct it brick-by-brick in the courtyard of the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) PS1, in New York. The MoMA is dedicated to turning abandoned structures into contemporary art.
In his own words, Francesco is destroying a church by tearing it down, but also “saving it” at the same time. Would this church remain the same old church as before? Perhaps not. Would it ever become like a true church that was built for worship? Perhaps yes, if you consider art to be like religion with a following.
Where do we move next?
Rupert Murdoch said famously: “I’m a digital immigrant…my daughters on the other hand are digital natives. They’ll never know a world without ubiquitous broadband internet access…We may never become true digital natives, but we can and must begin to assimilate to their culture and way of thinking.” Amen.
What does it take to have cities, lakes, cruise ships, railway stations and even horse drawn carriages named after you? Well, you have to be famous like Queen Victoria!
A state in Australia, a waterfall in Africa, and two provincial capitals in Canada, all are named after Queen Victoria. Pennies, Farthings, Shillings, Pounds and dozens of other types of coins, all have Queen Victoria’s design on them. Even the famous Bombay Sapphire Gin has Queen Victoria’s picture on its label!
What made Queen Victoria so ubiquitous? I thought to myself as I landed in Victoria, the capital of the British Columbia province in Canada.
“Welcome to the city for the newly wed and nearly dead” quipped the taxi driver as he slowed down at the crossing and grinned at me through the rear view mirror.
At first I thought it was a bad joke, and then I noticed a young chattering couple crossing the road, as well as a much older blinking couple on the side-walk. Roughly 1 in 5 people in Victoria is above 65 and it has the highest proportion of people in Canada who are above 80!
Known as the city of gardens, Victoria has everything needed to draw roughly 4 million tourists a year: sunshine, golf all year round, rich history, scenic inner harbor, mountains, a record number of restaurants, and an easy-going pace of life.
Within a few minutes of checking into my downtown hotel, I was out on the street walking towards the inner harbor, passing by the quaint looking shops and galleries, gazing at the old buildings and observing the multi-cultural people of modern Victoria.
Hundreds of people were strolling along the harbor, taking in the view of the boats on one side and the historic Empress Hotel on the other side. One of the restaurants in the Empress Hotel is The Bengal Lounge, decorated in Colonial Indian style, reminiscing the time when Queen Victoria was proclaimed Empress of India.
Located along the harbor is the Emily Carr house with its beautiful flower garden, the Royal BC museum with the IMAX and the tallest totem pole, the iconic British Columbia Parliament buildings with the statue of a young Queen Victoria… reminding one of a bygone era, transporting one back in time! I had first seen the statue of Queen Victoria when I was a kid, at the Victoria Memorial in Kolkata, the city which was once the capital of British India. Then later I had seen her statues in many other commonwealth countries. It didn’t strike me then, but now I wondered:
Why was Queen Victoria such a celebrated monarch?
For starters, she had the longest reign in history. She inherited the throne when she was 18 and reigned for more than 63 years until she died in 1901. She married her first cousin Prince Albert, had 9 children who married into various noble families across Europe, thus earning her the nickname “grandmother of Europe”. From Victoria and Albert descended the royal families of Germany, Russia, Spain, Denmark, Greece and Sweden!
There were at least four attempts to assassinate the young Queen. Prince Albert died at the young age of 42 but he influenced the Queen’s thinking and views greatly. She stabilized the British Empire against various threats. Britain became the first industrial power in the world. With industrialization came the mills, the mines and the railways. And this meant jobs for the rising middle class. It had a lasting impact in creating wealth and improving the life of the working class.
Queen Victoria was also a prolific writer. She wrote on average 2500 words each day in her diary, making up 122 volumes of memoirs.
The British Empire expanded under her rule. She was proclaimed Empress of India in 1876. During special occasions, she wore her diamond crown that had more than a thousand diamonds! With all the far flung colonies, the sun never set on the British Empire.
46 years after Queen Victoria died; the sun did set on the British Empire, as the British rule over India ended. Apart from economic reasons, there were many freedom struggles that forced the British to leave, a peaceful movement led by Gandhi, and an armed movement led by Subhash Chandra Bose.
During the last days of the British rule there were many love-hate relationships between the British rulers and the Indian people, as narrated by E M Forster in “A Passage to India” and by Paul Scott in “The Jewel in the Crown”.
India was figuratively one of the “jewels” in the British Crown.
In 1973, there was a super hit Hindi movie called “Victoria No. 203” that featured Saira Banu as the female Victoria carriage driver, disguised as a boy, while there is a mad hunt for stolen diamonds that were hidden in the lamp of the Victoria carriage. The movie is a riot of comedy, song and dance, and suspense.
In the movie, virtue is ultimately rewarded; the stolen diamonds are retrieved and returned to the rightful owners.
In an ironic twist of fate, the same thing happened to the “jewels” in the British Crown. The “jewels” that were stolen and hidden from the world, were rediscovered, and returned to the rightful heirs.
What goes on inside your mind, when an angry bull looks at you from a short distance, ready to gore you to death, with its pointed horns?
Ten thousand people gasped as the matador fell to the ground hit by its fierce bovine opponent. The matador had come too close to the horns of the angry wounded bull. Now the bull stood motionless, ready to make its next move. The stadium had gone very quiet. The bull weighed 1200 pounds and it was ready to charge at break-neck speed - any moment.
Was this going to be another tragic case of Manolete - the famous matador who was gored to death at age 30…
It was a beautiful Sunday in the summer of 1997 in Madrid. I was out for a stroll and had by sheer chance turned into the Calle de Alcala street, where the famous Bull Fighting Museum of Las Ventas stands. I could not resist going inside for a peek. The exhibits ranged from colorful paintings of past historic events, to embroidered costumes of famous matadors, to the long horns of dead bulls that had been killed in bull fighting events.
While viewing the various artifacts and memorabilia I had felt a sense of awe and wonder. Encouraged by the history of the ancient sport of bullfighting, I wanted to see the real event. Notwithstanding language barriers I had navigated my way to the ticket office of the nearby stadium and quite spontaneously bought myself a ticket for the day’s show.
The stadium looked empty at 9:30am. But within the next half an hour I noticed the seats getting filled up to almost full capacity. Vendors were weaving their way through the audience, selling snacks and drinks. I was surprised to notice the popularity of San Miguel, a Filipino brand of beer. This must be the Spanish connection.
Some vendors were selling cushions to be used as seats and seat rests. The whole atmosphere was one of celebration and camaraderie. Finally the president of the show arrived with his entourage, and there was a ceremonious start to the day’s sport with the sound of trumpets and the playing of a band of instruments.
Matadors wearing spectacularly fashioned costumes were introduced as they entered, followed by men on horseback and assistants carrying flags. They paraded the stadium in a circle and left after saluting the president of the show and the guests of honor.
An assistant entered holding a black board with writings in chalk. When he came closer I read the writing and interpreted it to signify the age and weight of the bull and the territory it was from.
A gate on the side opened and a giant bull entered the ring.
It was a huge animal jet black in color, with thick wide horns that extended horizontally from the side of its head and then turned pointedly upwards. It ran from one end to the other chasing the assistants who would wave red flags and then disappeared behind the enclosures.
Bulls are color blind. So it must be the rapid fluttering of the flags that attracted the bull. Little did it know that it was being observed keenly from the side of the ring by the matador and picadors (lancers) on horseback. They were observing its head movements, its bias for any particular side of the arena, and the energy level of the animal.
Two picadors rode into the arena on sturdy horses that were blindfolded and wore protective padding. One of the picadors came near the bull and stabbed it on its neck leading to immediate loss of blood and weakening of its muscles. The bull retaliated by attacking the horse, but the padding saved the horse from being gored. The two picadors encouraged the bull from attacking several times, and it did so repeatedly, predictably tiring itself out.
Three banderilleros entered with colorful little pointed flags and planted them on the bull’s shoulders, weakening it further, causing significant loss of blood.
Next, a young matador entered the scene. He encouraged the bull to charge towards him. And
when the bull came charging, he moved his body away at the very last minute, to the rhythm of music, like an artist performing on stage. A close shave indeed. Each such “close shave” would receive standing ovations from the crowd!
Until the point where the young matador was accidentally hit by the bull’s horns and fell unceremoniously to the ground…
The matador was now back on his feet looking carefully at the bull, waving his cape, inviting the wounded bull for the next charge.
I thought to myself - was the young matador wounded? Was he bleeding inside his finely embroidered jacket? Did he really need to go on with this blood sport…
It was a long moment before the bull charged again. This was “the” moment for the young matador to prove his courage, his machismo, and his worth in the eyes of his audience. Meanwhile the bull had lost significant amounts of blood, but it came wildly charging, and this time the matador moved away gracefully in a classical dance move that earned him thunderous applause!
I was standing there with thousands of people cheering the matador, clapping my hands, and shouting myself hoarse…
Suddenly the scene changed. It was as if someone had decided to pull the plug on this bloody game. The bull was worn out. Its suffering had to be ended. A fatal sword-thrust by another expert matador, through the aorta of the bull - killed it instantly!
A mule driven chariot arrived quickly, the bull’s corpse was hitched to it, and the chariot made one circle and speedily dragged the bull away from the ring in a matter of seconds.
Game over! I was stunned by the speed of the last action.
The same sequence was followed for the next bull. But I was not enjoying this game anymore. I had stopped cheering. And I waited for an opportune time to get out of that place.
I was thinking aloud when I asked an elderly gentleman on my way out – why do they have to fight the bulls? He answered matter-of-factly: “Because they are there!”
I tried to reason with myself but struggled with the whole idea of killing the bulls for sport. Obviously there was big revenue involved. We fight bulls because we have this innate need to overcome challenges?
I like the part about surmounting danger and overcoming fear. But why kill animals for sport?
All said and done, this was a brutal blood sport! Not worthy of being applauded in a civilized world.
Later, I learnt that bull fighting had probably risen from the ancient ritual of sacrificing bulls.
“Mithraism”, a rival of early Christianity, was a mystery religion practiced in the Roman Empire in the 1st century AD that featured slaughtering a bull, as being part of a ritual.
Many archaeological sites have uncovered hundreds of instances of tauroctony, the scene of killing a bull. Does ritual justify killing bulls at the present age, for fun?
Long after the trip to Madrid, when I reflected on the experience, in my mind, the “bull” stood for arrogance and stupidity. The invisible mental block that keeps entire civilizations from seeing the light of day - for ages. Like justifying the bull fight itself, for whatever reason.
Stupid arrogance is indeed the Bull of Life - insanity hurtling uncontrollably in a certain fixed direction – power and speed without any control.
Now this kind of dangerous “bull”, definitely needs to be eliminated. And when you do manage to bring it down – it is a bull’s eye!
“Sunset at Montmajour”, a work of Van Gogh was earlier called a fake. This week it has been proven to be real after all. I wonder how an original painting is continuously declared fake for more than 100 years, and that too by various internationally renowned experts! I mean how wrong can people be, in their judgment of real vs. fake?
One knows that Van Gogh was an abject failure in life. He was neither able to earn his own living, nor start a family, nor keep his friends. His talents were recognized only after he died at the young age of 37. Just like his long unrecognized painting, one wonders how the true genius remained unrecognized by his contemporary world, during his entire life. The artist himself was a priceless piece of art created by Eternity. But nobody found him worthy of any recognition during his time. Later he was recognized for what he had created - his own little world through paintings, which was full of color, life, movement and composition. With the help of sophisticated tools the pigments used for the painting were found to correspond with those belonging to the artist when he was in Arles in 1888! It goes without saying that this painting has multiplied in value overnight, given that Van Gogh’s paintings have sold for more than $50 million.
It seems to be a fairly common thing to mistake real for fake. I am reminded of our totally unplanned visit to the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam, almost 15 years ago…it was a fantastic experience…except for one little bit of unpleasantness…
“Sorry madam, we cannot grant you the 1-day visa” said the arrogant Dutch officer to my wife at the Amsterdam airport. “Why??” she asked in annoyance...and he replied matter of factly “You have the wrong passport”.
This incident occurred in the year 1998, when we were returning from Turkey and we had missed our connecting flight from Amsterdam to Singapore. It was clearly not because of any fault of ours. There had been a delay in the KLM flight leaving from Istanbul that morning. There was only one flight to Singapore… which meant the next available flight was the next day morning!
Now what do we do?! Would we have to spend the night at the airport?
Since we were carrying Indian passports at that time, we needed a visa to get out of the airport. I was a frequent traveler so I already had a long-term visa but my wife needed a 1-day visa.
The immigration officer had inspected my jumbo passport and had found so many visa stamps that he was mildly annoyed. During that time I was working in Singapore and had been travelling to many countries on business trips, and most countries required a visa, so the pages of my passport were filled with dozens of multiple-entry visa stamps. The officer diligently found the long-term multiple-entry Schengen States visa in my passport, stifled a yawn resulting from an obviously long shift, and stamped the passport without a word.
However when he looked at my wife’s passport, he noticed that her Schengen States visa had expired a year ago, so with his unsophisticated English, he declared that she could not be granted a visa.
“What do you mean Sir – wrong passport??” retaliated my wife with polite anger in her voice. A one-day visa was no big deal after all. And it would actually help their economy if tourists came and spent money. She tried to explain to him why Amsterdam desperately needed to learn how to become super-efficient like Singapore!
Anyhow he seemed tired, and it was no point arguing with him. I assured my wife that everything would be ok. We came back to the KLM office and asked a nice lady for help. She was immediately sympathetic to us, and asked us to relax, while she spoke in a magical tone to a higher ranked officer. Her magic worked and my wife got her 1-day visa in a matter of minutes after her conversation.
KLM had given us a free night’s stay at a decent hotel and also meal vouchers. So we decided to have a blast.
We visited the Van Gogh museum, schooled ourselves in Dutch Art 101, fed the pigeons outside the museum area, admired all the bike riders, ate crispy frites, and even took a train ride to the beautiful countryside.
The next day when we were again at the airport to catch our flight to Singapore, a very strange thing happened. My wife went through immigration smoothly but when it was my turn, the officer kept looking at my passport for a very long time.
Now this was painful, I was getting restless…
What was he looking at for so long?
After a while, I asked him politely if he needed help to find the page with the Schengen States visa. “No”, he said, and quietly left his seat to consult his colleague.
The more they talked to each other, the more worried I got. Am I going to miss my flight again??
My wife was already waiting for me impatiently on the other side. I assured her that it was just a matter of routine checks. She might even have spotted an iota of nervousness in my business-like demeanor.
After what seemed like an eternity, the officer came to me and asked me how I had been allowed to enter the country in the first place!
What do you mean? I have a Schengen States visa…and look…it was stamped here…by one of your colleagues yesterday, I said. He looked at me without emotion, and said – Your visa has expired, you could not enter this country with that.
Oh! Really…I looked at my passport…well…uh…yes, he was right…my long –term multiple-entry visa had actually expired a couple of days ago. I had not even checked the dates of validity, because it was not our intent to visit Europe in this trip anyway. And the previous day, the famously arrogant immigration officer who was obviously tired at the end of a long shift, had inadvertently overlooked the expiry date on my visa!
Meanwhile another immigration officer came by to see what was going on. A Dutch immigration mini-conference had begun. How could he have been let into the country with an expired visa…Who let him in…etc. etc. My passport had suddenly turned into a priceless specimen for group discussion and it was now being treated like a delicate case-study exhibit.
I had to eventually interrupt their quest by firmly asking for my passport back. They had to let me go. And I finally did catch my flight.
The whole experience had felt a bit like the fake painting waiting to be declared real. For one day I had been a really great tourist, but there was something unreal about the whole thing. Yesterday I was confident with this smug illusion that I had all I needed to enter any country. Today I was humbled by the realization that no matter how many stamps I had on my passport, I could still be stopped at any gate, in the most ordinary fashion.
Nobel Laureate Niels Bohr once declared that what we accept as real is based on the unreal. Nothing is what it seems after all.
Not to mention the awkward paradox in the family. I was the one with the most high flying experience in travelling, but I had got it wrong. And the one with the “wrong passport” had got it right after all.
“Mommy, look there is blood coming out of that suitcase!”, screamed the sweet little kid as he pointed his cute little finger directly towards my bag, while clutching onto his mother who was busy trying to get her luggage off the baggage carousel. The kid’s vocal cords were so strong that despite the noise level at the Philadelphia international airport, at least a dozen pair of eyes were suddenly focused on me. This must be the same kid who didn’t let me sleep at all during the flight, I thought to myself, and yet detecting the horrified look on some of the faces around me I knew something was wrong. I looked down at my black 4-wheeled business luggage and noticed a pool of “blood” on the shiny floor. Yes indeed, my bag was dripping “blood”.
My immediate reaction was disbelief. How could there be blood dripping from my suitcase? Did someone tamper with my luggage? Was this a set-up?
Then some self-pity. C’mon this couldn’t be happening to me. How on earth did I manage to get into this mess. Seconds later the cortex had taken over, I was overtaken by a sense of absolute panic. Fear propelled me to react immediately - drop the bag and run! But what if I got caught anyway?
We can deal with our fears through reason – right? I looked furtively around me, expecting the airport security staff with the highly trained sniffer dogs to descend on me any moment. There was a growing lump in my throat as I remembered reading somewhere that when our ancestors were threatened by wild animals, they went into a fight-or-flight mode. I heard the carillon bells play inside my head. What should I do now?
It had been a long 9 hour flight back from Frankfurt and a 3 hour drive from Saarbrucken prior to that. Oh beautiful Saarbrucken! This is a small German town along the French border that has a rich history. In the year 999, Emperor Otto gave the royal seat “Sarabrucca” to the bishops of Metz as a gift. Believe it or not, this place has frequently changed hands between France and Germany during the last 200 years. Perhaps because of this chequered history, a certain “savoir vivre” mentality permeates the region’s atmosphere.
It is always a treat to visit the St. Johann market square. Many restaurants have outdoor seating offering enchanting views of the market. Breweries more than 300 years old that brew fresh beer on site. One can get some really amazing fine wines here that are hard to find elsewhere.
Saarbrucken’s historic town hall stands at the center of the St. Johann market. From the 54 meter tall tower, a carillon sounds melodiously every day. A carillon is the heaviest of all medieval musical instruments consisting of bronze bells. The weight of the bells alone can be more than 100 tons. These bells are serially played to produce a melody, or sounded together to play a chord. In medieval times the bells were used to notify
people of fires, storms and wars. A ringing of bells from the lowest note to the highest note indicated that an attack had taken place.
“For connecting flights stay to your right! All passengers who want to exit the airport stay to your left! You must complete your customs declaration forms!” the harsh but rhythmical pronouncements of the airport staff interrupted the sound of the carillon bells that were reaching a crescendo by now inside my jet-lagged head.
It was with deep regret, remorse and remonstration, that I suddenly remembered packing 2 fine bottles of wine inside my bag. Fortunately the irrational fear of getting caught with a bleeding corpse inside my bag was gone. It had been replaced by this painful realization of having lost some perfectly beautiful wine steeped in pleasant memories and tasteful minerality.
Should have gone for white wines instead, I thought to myself. At least it wouldn’t create such a scene when the bottles broke! Curiosity around me had partly subsided after I shared that there was a “small” wine bottle inside my bag that broke due to the way the bags got beaten up on the carousel. Never mind the fact that one is not supposed to pack wine bottles inside check-in baggage, obviously it was ALL the carousel’s fault! Meanwhile I kept getting strange looks because the puddles were still forming. The more I stayed at one place, the more puddles I was creating. The exit hallway was full of queued up passengers. I tried to roll the bag in many different directions but the dripping wouldn’t stop.
An hour later I was at home unpacking the bag wearing gloves, carefully taking the pieces of broken glass away one tiny bit at a time. Fortunately one of the wine bottles had made it safe, so I was in a good mood after all. “That was an expensive tie…yeah…and an expensive white shirt…yeah…and an expensive suit…Uhhh…Ohhh…wait…that is my Tagore book…damn!”
As I tried to take stock of the entire episode I couldn’t help but imagine that wine bottles are just like people. They have a destiny too. I mean how is it possible that out of two equal wine bottles, both born and brought-up in exactly similar conditions, one pleases the palate and makes people feel romantic, while the other sacrifices itself, invokes panic and fear, spilling its bloody guts all over the airport floor?
One fine wine. Another one dying. One lucky dude. Another one dead. It's all in your fate, White or Red!
This little incident happened at Smith’s Grill near Paddington station in London. The restaurant is fairly ordinary, but it has a view of a lake with some boats plying during the summer season, and the neighborhood is ambitiously called "Little Venice". I wasn't really hungry as I was still trying to adjust to the local time, but the place offered WiFi, so I went in and grabbed a window seat, with the deadly precision and promptness of the good old days when I would artfully grab a window seat on a fast train leaving Borivali towards Churchgate, beating a dozen other passengers to the window seat. There was nobody here trying to grab the window seat ahead of me, which was kind of boring.
In looking at the 10-page menu, the least heavy main course was "Sausages & Mash", so I promptly ordered for the same, without indulging in a detailed analysis of carbs and calories. It would be like breakfast to my waking and aching body, and yet heavy enough to be suitable as a main course for lunch. The nice looking waitress seemed to be visibly impressed by my speed of decision-making. I patted my silk tie in quiet appreciation of the finely honed restaurant menu selection skills I had gathered over these years.
As I waited to log in to the slow WiFi, I thought about the rough start I had earlier in the morning......
Please choose the 15 minute window you would like to "die" in, I thought to myself, borrowing the idea from the breakfast card that needed to be hung outside the room door. 7:30 to 7:45am, 7:45 to 8:00am and so on. Wake-up breakfast didn’t have to be this morbid, I had consoled myself. Well, it was 3am in the morning my time, but it was 8am here in London. Bleary eyed I pushed the alarm by another half an hour. Why am I here? Why do I have to do this? What was the point? Why me...
Half an hour and a cup of Darjeeling tea later, I had successfully conned myself to go under the shower. Gawd it was 4:00 in the morning for Pete’s sake, what am I doing in the shower. Getting ready for an important meeting of course. Well I would rather skip this step. Nah, I need to feel good inside. Why do I need to feel good inside, argued my own belligerent self, I could use a lot of deodorant instead? No way, I need to wake up my whole body, before I can feel good about myself.
Another half an hour later I was dressed in a smart suit and tie, the remnants of the hairline gelled nicely to the side, the morning sun on my face, walking in step with the local traffic, towards the meeting venue.....
“English or French?” asked the nice looking waitress. Is this some kind of a joke. Which part of me did she think looked English or French. What could be the reason for such an insult. How could one miss my robust desi looks. Was it my receding hairline (English) or the expanding waistline (French)…
”Honey?” Now this was ridiculous…was she trying to get lucky with me?
Our gaze was locked for a few seconds. I felt as if I had accidentally boarded a slow local. Then I panicked with sudden and painful realization. She was asking me about the "mustard" I would like to take with the sausages and mash!
"French, of course", I said half-teasing her and trying to recover from the near faux-pas, but also because I was aware of the battle of supremacy between the French and English over who really discovered mustard as an edible thing. Apparently Dijon in France became recognized as the mustard capital, as early as the 13th century.
For a moment I thought of calling her again and asking for "Kasundi" instead. I would just have to say: Sorry I changed my mind, I would rather have the Bengali mustard, because it is the most pungent of all.
Apparently the delicious pungency in mustard is due to the presence of Allyl Isothiocyanate. When the mustard seeds are crushed and combined with water, they react and form these beautiful compounds. And these can be mind-blowing. Have a bit extra, and you could be experiencing a near-death experience! For anyone who has had fresh Kasundi (or the original strong Japanese wasabi) in one gulp, you know what I am talking about. The average American would either fall head over heels in love with it for life, or most definitely faint and fall off the chair, if Kasundi was put in place of the American yellow mustard, on top of the hot dogs.
Back in the hotel nine hours later after a busy day I had no energy left to plan any walking tour as earlier envisaged. The easiest thing seemed to be to just take the elevator to the skytower lounge and order a tall drink and just gaze at the tower of London bridge over the Thames. However a short powernap later, I started feeling the batteries recharge. I was alive again. Nah, a drink now sounds too easy, let’s earn it first. Rule number 1 for the pursuit of happiness – go to the gym. So I hit the gym. After a half an hour of brisk walking in the gym, while watching an old Bangla movie on Databazaar on the iPad, it was time to cool down with some water from the cooler, and a stinging hot shower. A good faucet can be the best tickle after a workout. A quick walk around the Trinity Gardens and 35 pictures later, I was finally at the same place where I had a nice meal earlier – the Perkin Reveller, a restaurant next to the old fort, the name inspired by Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. Apart from being one of history’s greatest poets, a little known fact is that he was also the man who oversaw the building of the Tower Wharf at the Tower of London in 1389. How interesting.
The Pale Ale was smooth, the basket was full of warm bread and the salmon was beautifully cooked and laid on a plate full of tasty potatoes and vegetables. Ah, the good life. Do you have WiFi here. Yes sir it is Perkin guest, one word all lower case. I felt the urge to email some pictures while having this nice dinner in this nice restaurant. I looked at the beautiful fort from the window in the light of the setting sun. Were the spirits of the people who were executed at the old fort still around the place. I stopped myself: morbid again.
In any given moment one has to be in either of those two pure states. The alive can be dead in a moment with that one stupid remark from a belligerent spouse, a horrible boss or a pissed employee. Nothing in between is really whole. A fraction of a life is no life.
Life and death are the binary values like the zeroes and the ones. If zero means death, one must mean life. By analogy, in any moment one is completely alive or completely dead. Anything in between is just a probability. Now go ahead and choose your mustard.
"Himachal Pradesh ki rajdhani Simla hai" repeated two dozen kids after their boisterous Hindi teacher. It was Friday evening, the makeshift Hindi school was in full swing in our basement. That meant I was neither allowed access to the theater room (it had been turned into a class room) nor the bar (which had been turned into a service station for harmless water and healthy snacks for the children). It didn't seem to matter that the now famous Hindi teacher of South Jersey happened to be of Bengali origin. Spouses can be more dangerous than you think.
The cooker whistled softly in the kitchen. The important thing about cooking mutton is that it has to turn out soft and tender, nicely blended with the large potatoes and tasting just right in terms of salt, spices and chilli. I was on to my third glass of wine as I tasted the semi-cooked mutton, looking outside the sun room at the setting sun and the happily chirping birds. The birds were really loud and finally sounded happy today. I think they were saying to each other: dude it's a Friday and spring is finally here!
The chanting about Simla (or Shimla) being the capital of Himachal shook me out of my dusk-dream. I never knew that Simla was the summer capital of British India, almost one hundred and fifty years ago. Nor did I know that it first became the capital of Punjab after independence, and was only later named the capital of Himachal after the reorganization of the districts of the state in 1972. Little did I know, that the name Simla was derived from the goddess Shyamala Devi, an incarnation of the Hindu
As a Bengali kid I grew up listening to "Shyama-sangeet", the devotional songs dedicated to the goddess Kali. Kali is the goddess of Time and Change. Hindu mythology has it that she is the supreme annihilator of evil forces. The name Kali means black, time, or death. Kali is Lord Shiva's consort, and is often seen standing on his body. Shiva laid in the path of Kali, whose foot on Shiva subdues her anger. Shiva is called Kala, the eternal time. In summary, dude finish your drink, your time has come.
I can't help but point out to my dear Punjabi friends that once upon a time we did have Bengali stud heroes, who were even studder than thorough-bred Punjabi heroes. Did you know that Dharmendra was keen to play the lead role in "Love in Simla" but the director R K Nayyar preferred Joy Mukherjee? By the way this was also the movie where Sadhana mader her Hindi movie lead debut and became a star. It was a hit at the box office.
The cooker whistled again. Hmmmm. This smelt good. I was turning into a chef after all! And thanks to the internet.
Tomorrow it is forecasted to be 68 degrees. Same as Simla weather. Good time to start swinging those clubs again. It is reported that Obama received a $7,750 golf bag as a gift from one of the foreign dignitaries (amongst the $250k of gifts) that are entitled as "circumstances justifying acceptance". Basically it means, non-acceptance would cause embarrassment to donor. Well, the Obamas won't be keeping the stunning blue mask sculpture worth $53,000, a gift from Ali Bongo Ondimba, president of the Gabonese Republic. It shall be going to the national archives. We can all sigh a big gabonese sigh of relief.
"My sister went to Columbia..." boasted our friendly neighbor to my wife, who pretended to be adequately impressed, while I fired up the grill and appeared to make myself busy placing the folding chairs neatly on the patio. It was 65 degrees on a beautiful Sunday afternoon. It would have been plain evil to sit inside in the comfort of the living room and search for Kevin Spacey in the second season of the "House of Cards". In this weather I preferred sitting outside in the sun, wearing goggles, sipping beer and listening to Ritche Blackmores Rainbow "One day in the year of the fox, came a time remembered well..."
I gulped down the whole bottle of 'Loose Cannon" while turning over the spicy chicken wings on the grill. This was a refreshingly nice gold colored fragrant beer which has a nickname of Hop3. I looked at the Heavy Seas bottle in respect and saluted the brewer in my mind. One would think it is supposed to be gulped down in 3 swigs, but later I figured that Hop3 means it is triple hopped. Hops are used in the brewing process for seasoning of the beer, and they put the "bitter" in the beer. This is an American IPA style beer. One wonders what American IPA stands for...I was told that this was more flavorful than the English IPA.
"Bapi, the trampoline has mud on it..." my 13 year old son was trying to install the 12 feet wide trampoline in the yard together with his equally naughty friend. They were waiting for weeks to climb on it. It had been gathering dust since last year. I wanted to get rid of it and had twice thought of calling the township to collect it as garbage. My friendly neighbor advised me to sell it on an "as-is" basis on eBay. But now I ran to help the kids to first stabilize the poles before they
started jumping on it. An hour later it was all fixed and firm on the ground. Then came the power wash. Washing all its dirt and sins away into posterity. It was invitingly squeaky clean now. All of a sudden, every kid in the neighborhood wanted to jump on our trampoline.
I gulped down another whole bottle of "Loose Cannon". Cool sala. Guess what, IPA stands for India Pale Ale. This is a strong, heavily hopped beer that was originally brewed in Britain to withstand long sea voyages to far-flung outposts of the British Empire. India Pale Ale developed in England around 1840 and became quite popular. Apparently the East India Company traders transported these beers to India. The beers benefited in taste from the long voyages that often lasted 18 months or more. In the late 19th century brewers dropped the term "India" and simply called the beer "Pale Ale".
"Yeah...next Saturday at our place" chirped one of our neighbors, as she reminded my wife of the chinese auction at her place. How could anyone buy so many handbags, I thought to myself.
After another bottle of "Loose Cannon" a chilling realization overtook me. I realized that beer is the ultimate social lubricant, especially when enjoyed sitting in the sun. Also amazing is the chequered and varied history of beer and the "culture" that it brings to the table. Take the Dos Equis for instance, a beer that a friend had introduced to me. This was first brewed in 1897 to commemorate the arrival of the new century, and the bottles are marked for 20 ("XX"). Dos Equis is Spanish for "two X".
As I savor the taste, fragrance and appearance of my beer, while writing this, I cannot help but remark that if "x" is the unknown, I dare not go any further into the "unknown beerdom" than Dos Equis.