Thursday, 21 December 2006

“I’d like a table outside, please.”

I love coffee and I love great places to drink it. I think any city that wants to make a claim to greatness needs to have at least a couple of places where you can have a memorable cup.

Take Hong Kong, for example. It’s a polarizing city that evokes love and loathing in equal measure, often from the same people. But on the whole I think it is a great city because of two reasons. The first is the Pacific Coffee Company in Pacific Place. I went there the first time I was traveling alone. After a day of tramping through the city I was tired and bored. But the café was warm and friendly and their checkered red tablecloths were just what I needed to see on a rainy December evening. Sadly they have since been displaced by Starbucks.

The second reason is a coffee shop on Hong Kong peak. I still remember spending a winter evening on the terrace with friends eight years ago. We huddled against a stiff cold wind and admired the cityscape as we sipped from giant yellow mugs of steaming coffee and nibbled on mango cheesecake.

Talking of Pacific Coffee, one of my favorite places for coffee in Singapore is their café at the airport. They have the comfiest sofas and it’s just the perfect place to curl up with a thick book and a large latte. Who says flight delays are a bad thing?

Somehow Starbucks isn’t one of my favorite destinations in Singapore. But Manila is a different story altogether. I used to work in Manila for a while, in a building that is host to possibly the hippest Starbucks café anywhere. I’ve ended many a long lunch sitting on one of their sidewalk tables with a friend. We would nurse our iced black coffees and exchange commentary on an eclectic mixture of expatriates, truant school-kids, cigarette vendors and hipsters as we watched the world walk by.

Don’t mistake me – I don’t only patronize up-market franchise brands in prime locations. One of my all-time favorites is Sassi, a roadside shack in Delhi that I used to frequent from the time I was a student. I used to go there with friends on a lazy afternoon. We’d sit on the pavement (not at a pavement table, just on the pavement) and count the cars that whizzed past as we drank thick milky coffee with generous sprinklings of chocolate powder. Sassi, the eponymous shack-owner was also kind enough to give us credit, which didn’t hurt our loyalty to him at all. One of our occasional companions was the world’s happiest stray dog. He was well-fed on scraps from the food stalls, and he had found a depression in the ground that fit him perfectly. He would curl up in it and look at us lazily through one half-open eye and we would gaze back at him enviously. If we all had such lifestyles that would spell an end to all the war and strife in the world.

Interestingly, Sassi’s earthiness is of a piece with Delhi itself. And conversely Mumbai, which is altogether a more sophisticated city (but far less pretty) has a correspondingly sophisticated (and very pretty) coffee haven at the Prithvi theater. After watching a play you can relax at night among the trees in their open-air café. As you drink a perfectly blended Irish coffee from a tall, graceful curved glass, you can either choose to make conversation yourself, or else eavesdrop on your neighbors as they talk knowingly about anything under the sun.

If coffee shops reflect the spirit of the place they are in, probably none does so better than a small breakfast café in Boracay, in the Philippines. Boracay is a delightful island resort. It is small and charming, yet remarkably cosmopolitan; it has an utterly unexpected range of international restaurants. And along the beach, right next to the surfboard and jet-ski rental, is a kiosk run by two friendly American ladies. Every morning they serve enormous slices of freshly baked bread with honey, or jam, or butter. After you have wolfed down the food you can sit on a bench or a tree stump with your mug of coffee, and watch the crystal clear water lap against clean white sands.

As I look out the window at home and watch the rain drizzle down, as I let the smell of cappuccino drift up out of my mug, I raise a silent cheer to the two ladies on the beach, to all the other great cups of coffee I’ve enjoyed, and to all the wonderful cafés where I’ve enjoyed them.

Saturday, 16 December 2006

December Remembers

December is meant to be a festive month but it has always seemed a little sad to me. When I was growing up in Delhi it was a time of cold weather, sunless days, and sometimes bitter rain. It was a time of year that invited poignant reflections. Now I live in Singapore and the sun is never gone for long. But I can still sense a melancholy trace underneath the holiday cheer.

I was reminded of this earlier today at the football pitch (of all places!). Going for my weekly game I was struck by how few people there were at the ground. It's the same in the office. People are going away, and it's starting to feel emptier. Soon it will feel empty.

It's been a strange year at the office. So many people have resigned and gone away. Too many of them were people I liked. I must admit I am surprised to realize how much I've been affected by their departures. Very few were people I would call friends; I don't really have that many close friends. But each person who left, left behind a small empty space that I cannot help but notice if I just take the time to look.

The calendar counts down to the end of the year and invites us to remember endings, to count partings, to notice what is no longer there and consider what else may soon be gone.

December still feels sad to me.

Monday, 11 December 2006

At Dawn They Sleep

This weekend saw me at Zoukout, the annual dance music festival at Sentosa beach. Two words. It rocks.

The first thing I noticed was a live performance by Electrico, a Singaporean indie-rock group. It was an unexpected gem of a performance. The singer was frantic, the guitars were stuttering and the combined effect was electric. After a long time resigning myself to synthetic Top 40 songs performed by talented but ultimately predictable nightclub bands, it was a stunning surprise. Later I was to listen to another great local band, Plain Sunset. The music was great, and went down nicely with the frontman's self-deprecating humor.

The next thing that hit me was the prices of the drinks. The boys and girls at Zouk had clearly decided that they were not going to poop the party. At $6 a pop, they were out to give everyone a full opportunity to get wet in the throat. Which was just as well, because it was going to be a night that would call for a lot of Red Bull.

After that I spent time going from one sound stage to the other (they had four of them). The hip-hop stage was a disappointment. I was looking forward to DJ Jazzy Jeff (he of Fresh Prince a.k.a. Will Smith fame), but he turned out to have run out of invention. Velvet was mostly good and occasionally great. And the live stage was, as I mentioned above, a delightful Easter egg.

But it was the main stage that blew me away.

When I got there the headline set by Ferry Corsten had already begun.

Listening to him work the mixing table was a sensory delight. It wasn't just that he had a brilliant ear for beat or that he struck just the right balance of melody and noise. What was truly amazing was his sense of timing. He controlled the tempo of the set with delicacy and assurance. He was pulling strings and our neighborhood of thousands could only follow. And then there was the light.

It was mesmerizing.

We stood under a ceiling of electric green clouds a foot above our heads. We moved between lasers that lanced amongst us where we pounded the sand under our feet. We watched as a wall of red and yellow light erupted in incandescent bursts.

Until finally dawn crept in, first purple, then grey, then bright blue. So we blinked our eyes and gathered our feet and went softly to bed.

Wednesday, 6 December 2006

Best Anarchist in a Motion Picture

Back in 1999 I saw a stunning film. It made the Simpsons look like Sunday School, and Beavis and Butthead like mouthpieces of the establishment. The movie I'm talking about is South Park. In case you have not seen it, you must. And if you are wondering what it was about, all I'll say is that it featured a homosexual relationship between Saddam Hussein and the Devil. And that was just one of the sub-plots. Before you ask, Saddam was the outer spoon :-)

Tonight I saw South Park's spiritual sequel, Lil' Pimp. (The rest of this paragraph needs to be read in a movie-trailer Hollywood baritone.) This is the story of a boy and his struggle to redeem his friends. To bring salvation to the role model he worshipped as a father. To rediscover his mother. This is the story of the Lil' Pimp.

Lil' Pimp is a fatherless schoolkid. While not doing his homework he befriends a pimp, has a lock-picking pet rat, and talks his mom into dressing up as a hooker. Simply magical.

I think there should be awards for the most evil, subversive movies. For best actor in a leading role, the award goes to Sacha Baron Cohen (for the title role in Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan). Best actress is probably Cristina Ricci as Wednesday in The Addams Family. And best original song would have to go to the much-decorated South Park for the timeless classic Kyle's Mom Is A Bitch. Sing with me:
Kyle's mom's a bitch, she's a big fat bitch,
She's the biggest bitch in the whole wide world

...and so on.

But coming back to Borat, not only is the film hilarious, so is the controversy surrounding it. The American media has been in a tizzy about the film's apparent denigration of Kazakhstan. What they have totally missed is that it takes the mickey out of America! Cohen is a master at acting stupid to make other people look like morons. A few years ago he made a movie called "Ali G in da house". In which he kept a straight face while debating with an FBI officer whether an old couple were terrorists who were using an elaborate sign language code, or whether they were using sign language because they were mute. And now as Borat he gets an American hunter to say "It's a great feeling to consummate a hunt". Only in America, home of the NRA.

Monday, 4 December 2006

Tartan in the Tropics

I now know where to go in Singapore to eat kipper toasties and haggis. There's a new bar in town, it's called the Highlander, and it's Scottish.

Of course, it still has to deal with the fact that it is in Singapore, which makes for some interesting juxtapositions. Like the twenty Chinese bagpipers who marched in double file in a circle, before a drum and pipe performance by a quartet of authentic Scots called Clann An Drumma. That's Gaelic, so it is pronounced "Coit On Drim" and it means "Pass the Salt". And then there were the staff, all Malay and Chinese, and all obligingly attired in tartan kilts.

(Question : If it is worn by a girl is it called a kilt or just a skirt?).

Incongruity aside, it's a friendly joint, and with two hundred whiskies to choose from, they might get a bit more of my custom.

I love these geographically themed bars. A couple of doors down from Highlander is Cuba Libre. And across a paved courtyard is Marrakesh. It's brilliant how the names leave nothing to the imagination, least of all the staff uniforms. The guys at Cuba Libre had the inevitable sleeveless jackets and hats. And the ones at Marrakesh were dressed like Sam, the black pianist in Casablanca.

One day I'll open a bar called Antarctica and dress my waiters up as penguins.

Wednesday, 29 November 2006

Come on, we gotta run to the choppers!

The reason that I haven't posted for nearly a week is that I've been exhausted. You see, I've been running.

In case it was not obvious from my last post, I'd been trying to psyche myself into running. It finally worked - last Saturday I went for my first run. And boy did it turn out to be everything I had expected!


7 minutes after breaking into a jog, I braked. For the next quarter of an hour I alternated between walking and jogging before giving up for the day. Then I took stock of what I had felt: no endorphin rush, no sense of superiority, and none of the tragic nobility that I had signed up for. All I had experienced was a mad frenzy of muscle fibres twitching and spasming in a desperate struggle to coil and uncoil without snapping like so many baked rubber bands.

Things got better over the next few hours thanks to generous amounts of sushi, the odd glass of whisky, and a house-warming party featuring an Irish hostess and a karaoke mike. (But an unfortunate detour involving an intensely anise liqueur and good old Vacillus Pendulus brought matters to an abrupt end).

Sunday morning dawned and I felt only slightly sore in the legs. Or so I thought until the soreness in my head faded and I realized just how much damage I had sustained. But I am proud to say that on Tuesday I was back pounding the road and this time I conducted myself with a dash more dignity. I've since gone through Wednesday feeling used but not ill-used.

And tomorrow will find me in my running shoes again.

Thursday, 23 November 2006

Marathon envy

The Singapore Marathon is coming up in a few days and it's reminded me that I've always been envious of long-distance runners. I envy their tragic nobility. I think it comes from the fact that they run alone.

Have you ever looked at a picture of the starting pack of a marathon race? At first glance it looks like a dense crowd, rush-hour on the race track. But look at the face of every runner and you can sense an envelope of separateness around him. It's unlike any other sport.

It's not just that distance running is an individual sport. There are plenty of other individual sports and in all of them the athlete is intensely aware of his competitors. If you've watched middle-distance runners in action you'll know that even those guys run with their eyes open and their minds directed outwards at the pack sharing the track with them. But tell a guy he's got to start running and not stop for 42 kilometers and then some, and he starts shrinking into himself. What's going on here?

Some of it is probably an extended endorphin rush. I guess anyone would drift with half-glazed eyes and relaxed shoulders once their heart started pumping some of that feel-good stuff into their brain, and then kept it going for a few hours. And some of it is probably the loathsome sense of superiority that comes form knowing that you are leaner and meaner than the well-fed guy picking up after his dog on the sidewalk and looking at you thoughtfully while you glide past with your rhythmic footfall and easy breathing.

But I can put aside my resentment at my own lack of self-discipline and appreciate that there must be more. I can imagine what it might be like to be wrapped in a world inside yourself. A world where every stride you take is a deliberate decision to not stop just yet. Where every stride is a decision to not let yourself down. There must be perfect honesty in the act of distance running. You can't keep going just by pretending that you're man enough to handle it. And if you stop because your mind has given up before your body is truly spent, any excuse you make to yourself would be unmistakably hollow.

So here's to the marathon runner. Maybe I'll be one some day.

Tuesday, 21 November 2006

How to become a rich, despicable author

Some things, it seems, can only happen in real life.

In 1994 OJ Simpson was arrested after a low-speed chase (how's that for a turn of phrase). He was charged with the murder of his ex-wife and her boyfriend. Then he was acquitted. Then he was found liable for wrongful death, which means he probably killed the boyfriend but they couldn't prove it beyond doubt.

But here's the kicker. He tried to release a book about how, if he were the real culprit, he would have killed his wife. We're talking about him describing how to murder his wife and the mother of 2 of his children.

What's scary about this is that he found a publisher who was willing to pay him $3.5 million to write the book. Which means they expected a few million people would want to buy the book. Worse, they were right. The book made it to the top 20 of the Amazon bestseller list based on pre-orders alone. Still worse, Fox made a TV show about it. Thankfully, as of this writing they shelved it under public pressure.

What, if any, is the moral of this story? There are potentially several:
1. If you are famous, you can make money out of anything that you do. But we already knew that thanks to Paris Hilton and Jack Osborne.
2. Fox is a blight on the airwaves. But we already knew that thanks to Fox News.
3. Once the TV camera turns on to you, you're either going to be a perpetrator or you'll end up as a victim. But we already knew that thanks to "Survivor".

But I think the primary moral in this tale of mercenary amorality is this: avoid the news, stick to the cartoons.

I like to think of myself as am upbeat person but stuff like this reminds me that there is some serious ugliness in the world. And the only sane response is to pretend it doesn't exist.

Sunday, 19 November 2006

Five words that define rock music

As promised I went out partying again last night. It looked like we'd hit the high point of the evening when my buddy and I stumbled into live Mandarin rock at Dragonfly. But things got better when we went to the Mariott and the band played Another Brick In The Wall.

Has there ever been a more powerful lyric than "We don't need no education"? All the energy, rebellion and pointless anarchy of rock music are balled up with unmatched economy in those five words.

Sure there are others who could have contended for the crown. There's the Sex Pistols (God save the Queen / she ain't no human being); the Eagles (you can check out any time you like but you can never leave); the Who (why don't you all just fu-fffade away); Garbage (I'm only happy when it rains) and a host of other honourable mentions. But none of them really comes within touching distance of Pink Floyd's masterpiece.

And when the guitar chords start their swirling, crashing intrusion, then erupt in a shattering efflorescence of distortion, then take a short breath before the vocals begin their remorseless litany of things we don't need, I just want to go still and let the music wash through me. Or better still, yell along with everyone else in the bar.

Not too long ago I was playing a game with a friend where we were telling each other which were the bands who, if the came to town, we would go to their show no matter what the ticket price was. Pink Floyd were first on my list then, and they still are.

Hey! Teacher! Leave us kids alone!

Friday, 17 November 2006

Highlights from the high life

Well, moderately high life. Lets call it waist-high, shall we?

Last night I got to go the Singapore launch party for Channel V at Zouk. With a VIP pass no less, thanks to my friend Vacillus Pendulus. Of course that's not his real name. But last night he wanted his real name to be used but now he doesn't so... Vacillus it is. Anyway, armed (quite literally) with a green tape strapped around the wrist we hit the bar for 3 hours of free drinks, some amazing salmon canapes and others assorted snacks.

So what did I learn? Rivermaya is as good as ever. Ryan Star (of Supernova fame - sort of) is a genuinely powerful singer. He sounded a lot more like a rock singer last night than he ever did on TV. And he is big. Like, surprisingly large.

Most eye-opening of all was the pre-show pre-parations. We got to see them because we arrived really early on the scene. Here's a sampler:
1. Crowd scenes are fake! They kept people outside the club just so that they could force a long line to form so they could record footage of people standing in long lines.
2. Crowd scenes are really fake! They had a bunch of college kids shipped in to record scenes of wild cheering for the performances before the performers ever appeared.
3. Crowd scened are just totally fake! To make sure that the crowd response during the performances would look good, they coached the kids on how to wave their arms in sync with each other, what to yell, and so forth.

I did also learn a new respect for the MCs. It looks like a cushy job, but these boys really did work at it. They were rehearsing their lines over and over again before the show. They must have done the "....please give a warm Channel V welcome for ...." routine at least 20 times just in front of us, and each time they did it with the same unbridled enthusiasm as when they did it for real in front of the full audience. I would never be able to keep up that kind of energy. Respect.

So anyway, after the performances we took a short detour to MOS where I showed my friends around. Amazingly they had never been there before. So it was my turn to feel cool for no good reason. And then to Velvet for the after-party. What a phrase, 'after-party'. Redolent with insinuations of excessive uncontrolled hedonism. This one was rather tame and well-behaved, though. Probably because it was in a public area of the club. At least that's what I'd like to think so as not to shatter my image of what a real after-party is like.

In any case, we did not stay there long, maybe an hour or so. Then it was time for a late supper (sting-ray! Newton hawker center is sooooo back in business!) and then to bed. After the obligatory half-litre of water as insurance against hangover.

But here's the best part: I'm going out again tonight :-)

Thursday, 16 November 2006

The death of cool and birth of slick?

On my flight back from Mumbai to Singapore I watched 'The Devil Wears Prada'. Not the sort of movie I would have expected to affect me but unaccountably it did.

You see, I grew up with a fine disdain for dressing up. I figured that there is no occasion for which denim is unsuitable. I used to sleep in my jeans (and occasionally still do). I thought dressing up was for victims of society's expectations.

But I watched this movie and really realized for the first time that when people wear fine clothes, they look good. Really good. And for the first time, I wanted some of that stuff for my own closet. I'm still in shock. Will my blue jeans ever feel the same again?

Maybe I was swayed by Meryl Streep's icy exposition on the antecedents of a cerulean sweater. Maybe it was the contrast between Anne Hathaway (who spends the movie becoming increasingly stylish) and Adrian Grenier (who spends it getting steadily grungier). Maybe it was the wine I was drinking. Whatever it was, I ended the movie with an odd urge to shop.

Simply posting this is a strange and humbling experience. I thought this blog would be funny, or profound, or caustic commentary on stuff that I really care about. Turns out I now care about clothes. I better stop typing before I embarass myself. Or is it already too late?

Tuesday, 14 November 2006

Taking Off

Hello, world.

So, with a nod to the most-used phrase in computer programming, I enter the wonderful world of exhibitionism that is blogging.

I have no idea what this is going to turn into except that it will be punctuated by travel. Hopefully lots of it. As I write this, I am in a hotel in Mumbai not 5 minutes from the international airport, where I will catch a flight to go home.

But before that I hope to meet Y, author of yonearthnot, and the person who inspired me to follow her onto blogger. More will follow. But now I need to vamoose. There are friends to meet and beers to drink before I eventually leave on a jet plane (and yes the song is the inspiration for the name of this blog; more on that later).