Tuesday, 28 December 2010

Real Magic

I'm in an airplane leaving Atlanta, on my way to Boston. The stewardess is getting ready to do an in-flight safety briefing that no one will pay the least attention to. In order to avoid eye contact with her I stare at the carpet. Suddenly it strikes me that I am looking at a magic carpet. This carpet, on which sits my chair, on which in turn sit I, this carpet is about to fly and take me far away.

At a given moment there are about half a million human beings up in the sky. They are in pointy cylinders of various sizes. They are all going from point A to point B (sometimes with an onward connection to point C). They are the beneficiaries of a miracle whether they know it or not, whether they appreciate it or not.

How else would you describe flight, if not as a miracle?

When I was younger I often had dreams in which I flew. Sometimes if I tried very hard I could make myself have a flying dream. Unexpectedly I had such a dream last week. I floated effortlessly in the air. I could glide to wherever I wished to go. It seemed the most natural thing in the world to do.

It surprises me that we don't all fall on our knees in wonder at our magical ability to fly. We complain about missed connections and mislaid bags. We don't give thanks that we can vault over mountains, cross vast oceans and speed across endless plains. We don't give thanks that we can nonchalantly complete journeys which just a few generations ago men would embark on not knowing if they would reach the other end alive. How did we become so jaded?

I've noticed that people become very quiet in an airplane. The same people who talk loudly in an airport become strangely subdued once their plane takes off. They start talking in undertones and subdued whispers. I don't think it's deliberate. I think their bodies know that they are doing something amazing and that to ruin the experience with loud voices would be uncouth. Of course, babies are an exception. Babies have no qualms about being loud in an airplane. But then nobody expects any better from babies.

I once flew in a helicopter. I imagine it was a little like being a bee in a flower garden. We hovered and flew, hovered and flew. We savoured the sight of the landscape below us like nectar. We would swoop down close to drink our fill, then flit away to another spot, then swoop down again.

What makes flying special is that it involves transcending our limitations as mere wingless earthbound humans. When we fly, we become like angels. Oh, it's easy to lose sight of that amidst the minutiae of visas and boarding passes. But visas and boarding passes have everything to do with airlines and nothing to do with flight.

Because this is what flying is about...

It's when the you feel the airplane accelerate. It's when you feel the gentle pressure on your body that molds your back to your seat. It's when you feel the rumble of the runway transmitted to you through the wheels. That rumble becomes more and more insistent until it turns into a shock of silence as your plane throws off the yoke of gravity and rises joyfully into the sky.

And that's when you know you've experienced a miracle once again.

Friday, 24 December 2010

Another Time, Another Place

I love the thrill of going to a new country for the very first time. Even when you think you know what to expect, you know that you will be surprised. And this, my first visit to Mexico, is extra special because it's more than my introduction to a new country. It's also my introduction to a new civilization.

I've read about the Maya since I was a child. I've been fascinated by the New Age theories that they were the beneficiaries of instruction by an advanced, alien race. I've watched the movie Apocalypto (a rather visceral film, but one I would still recommend). And now I have seen the Maya with my own eyes.

I went to Chichen Itza today. I'd heard that it's one of the most impressive of all the Maya sites that still exist. I was impressed all right.

I was impressed by this pyramid.

This is not like the Pharaonic pyramids in Egypt, which were either built to be over-elaborate tombs or as landing beacons for alien spacecraft (depending on whom you believe). Instead, the Maya pyramid of Chichen Itza had the supremely pedestrian function of being a calendar. Each step represents a day of the year, the orientation is designed around the solstices and equinoxes, and so on. In other words, the gigantic object in the picture is a 3-dimensional mother-of-all-calendars.

But perhaps dismissing it as a mere calendar is unfair. After all, the Mayan calendar is undeniably dramatic. It ends in two years. That's right, under one popular interpretation of the Maya calendar, the 21st of December 2012 will mark the end of Time. You might want to reconsider your retirement plan.

One of the few things more dramatic than the Mayan calendar is the Mayan version of ball sports. The ball court at Chichen Itza is the biggest of all the ball courts in Central America.

And the ball games played here were played for the highest possible stakes: the captain of the losing team would forfeit his head.

Just behind the ball court is a wall with grisly images of death.

This is where the skulls of the decapitated were kept. The sight brings to mind something said by Bill Shankly, the late manager of Liverpool Football Club: "Some people think football is a matter of life and death. I assure you, it's much more serious than that."

It was odd for me to see that many of the souvenir vendors at the archaeological site were wearing replica t-shirts of European soccer clubs. I saw Barcelona and Inter-Milan and Juventus, to name a few. These vendors looked like they could be Maya, and they had clearly adopted a far less lethal version of ball sports than their late ancestors.

Later that night I was back in my hotel. I had smoothly switched back from the Maya to a far more familiar civilization, that of the international traveler in a chain hotel. I thought about the Spanish conquistadors who came here half a millenium ago and who thought their Christian European civilization must engage the pagan Maya in a fight to the death. I thought of their compatriots who similarly strove against the Inca to the south. I thought of the Mayan souvenir vendors and the Spanish and Italian soccer teams that they support from thousands of miles away. I thought of the dinner I had had, with Italian food, Argentinian wine and Mexican coffee. And I realized something I had not paid attention to before.

There is no such thing as a clash of civilizations. People can and do clash violently. But civilizations simply cannot. Civilization is in food and drink, in art and music and literature, in civility and finesse, and it comes alive through people living with other people. A clash of civilizations makes as little sense as a battle of desserts.

Some of us are privileged to have the means to travel and encounter other civilizations at first hand. And all of us are privileged to live in a time when encounters with other civilizations are not just possible, they are commonplace. I'm going to be reminded of that now every time I eat a gyro sandwich, or watch a kung-fu movie, or listen to music that samples African drums. And I'm going to be very grateful.

Wednesday, 24 November 2010

The Secret Language

The English that is spoken in India is no longer the language that the British empire left behind. In fact it's not even one language anymore.

There is a straightforward (if slightly odd) version of Indian English that gets everyday tasks done. This is the English where you reschedule an event to an earlier time by 'pre-poning' it instead of by advancing it, or where you politely request someone to introduce themselves by asking for their 'good name'.

But lurking behind this functional language is a second underground language that sounds deceptively similar. To truly understand this second language you have to appreciate that it is a language of fantasies.

Pradeep lives in a slum across the street from one of Mumbai's newer shopping malls. I was with a small group of people who met with him in the course of our work. To get to where he lives we stopped at a street fronted by small stores. In front of the stores there were three live goats that had been decorated for the upcoming Id festival when they would be ritually slaughtered. Flies buzzed idly around us as we found a little corridor that we had to walk through to get to the one-room home where Pradeep would meet us.

This wasn't his home. In fact we never figured out whose home it was. But Pradeep insisted on meeting us there instead of in his own home, which he was worried was not presentable. Soon it became obvious that he wanted to dissociate himself from his home and his family. At one point he made a telling comment when he talked about the things he did to cultivate a 'funky look' to fit in with his friends at college. He made it clear that his parents approved of neither his friends nor their contagious funkiness. And he implied with unspoken eloquence that their funkiness symbolized their relative affluence; an affluence that he keenly wanted to partake of.

We heard the phrase 'funky style' used by many different people. And every time it carried the same undertones: a funky style is one that allows you to make an uncompromising statement that you are an individual distinct from the family and the community that you have come from. It is a signal that you are brave and flexible enough to fit into an exciting, demanding, competitive world where sometimes style is substance. (And it's a gentle hint to your parents that you have a little bit of a rebel inside you.)

Vinay already knows he fits into the exciting, competitive world around him. He hasn't made his mark in it yet. He still takes a train and bus to work, which means that he commutes for 3 hours everyday. But he is confident that he will work his way up the corporate ladder and buy a car so that he can drive to work instead. That's not his fantasy; it's his plan.

He reserves his fantasizing for a different sort of escape. He wants to go bungee jumping in Australia or New Zealand. In his words, he has been 'passionating' about it for two years. In truth, I don't think he really cares where he jumps off a bridge as long as it's in a place far away from home.

"Passionating" is a word that is as vividly expressive as it is hideously ugly. When Vinay said he had been passionating for 2 years I just knew that for those 2 years he had been playing and replaying in his head a movie of what he thought bungee jumping would look and feel like.

Ryan was the driver who took us to meet both Pradeep and Vinay. While negotiating a particularly bumpy road he turned to me and said wistfully half in Hindi and half in fantasy-English "The roads in 'Foreign' must be very smooth, not like what we have in Mumbai."

To him, the word 'Foreign' was not an adjective. It described a specific place. It's a place he has seen on TV and in the movies and which probably exists in his mind as a unique mash-up of New York City, Interstate highways in the US, airports in Europe, and other such internationalized images of life in richer countries. For Ryan the word 'Foreign' does not describe all the places that are outside India. Instead, it describes his idea of the place that is not India.

'Funky', 'passionating', 'Foreign' - these are all part of the vocabulary of a language that linguists have not yet discovered because it impersonates English so well. The words seem deceptively familiar but if you listen carefully you can hear the dreams of men and women who yearn for a whiff of the extraordinary to come into their lives.

If you could have heard Pradeep and Vinay and Ryan whisper their dreams in their secret language, I think you would have had the same wish as me: that they would experience the fantasies that they had thus far only imagined. And that what they experienced would be everything that they had hoped for.

Sunday, 17 October 2010

Um Provérbio Português

Two weeks ago I was in Sao Paulo. I was talking to Roberto, a 22-year-old with spiky hair and a passion for playing Farmville. Somewhere in the middle of a rather mundane conversation he quoted an old Portuguese proverb that made me sit bolt upright:
God writes straight with crooked lines.

The instant I heard it, I knew that there was something magical in its simplicity. But then it took me a few days to really appreciate just how much had been said in those few words.

Perhaps I got distracted by the word 'God'. As an atheist, I am sometimes a bit slow to absorb ideas that refer to Him. (And no, I am not such a rabid atheist that I would de-capitalize God or His pronoun.) But the more I thought about it, the more I realized that whether or not He exists, He does indeed write straight with crooked lines.

I can think of times when something happened in my life that made me stop dead in my tracks and ask Why me? Why do I deserve this? And somehow, unexpectedly, that bad thing led to something good. I'm not suggesting for even a second that whenever something bad happens, something good will follow to compensate. It's not as if the universe would try to compensate us, like some retail chain threatened by a lawsuit.

But I am beginning to believe that sometimes bad things have a way of mysteriously begetting good things. The gestation period can be so long that the connection is really, really hard to see. And if you are in the middle of the bad thing (and if you are a normal person with normal emotions!) it's probably impossible to imagine that anything good could come from what you're going through.

But if you think about something that happened years and years ago that angered and saddened you, and then you take a step back and another and maybe a few hundred more, you just might be able to see the straight line that connects that bad thing to something else that's good and that you can be grateful for.

And if you can do that, then maybe you can also believe in my other favourite piece of practical wisdom from Brazil:
It'll all be okay in the end. And if it's not okay, then it's not yet the end.

I'll leave the last words for Scot James, a man who is living proof that God writes straight with crooked lines.

Sunday, 26 September 2010

Life and Motion

I have two arduous projects underway. I've already mentioned in an earlier post that one of them is to write a novel. The other is to run a marathon.

To my surprise, I've been training regularly. One of the unexpected benefits of that is that I get lots of time to listen to music while I run. That's given me the opportunity to rediscover some truly brilliant lyrics. The one I came accross this morning was from Dreamline, by Rush:

We are young
Wandering the face of the earth
Wondering what our dreams might be worth
Knowing that we're only immortal for a limited time

There was something eerily appropriate about the fact that I listened to this today, just a couple of hours after landing in Rio de Janeiro, five thousand miles away from home. It's my third visit to Brazil. The first one was back in 2008, and it taught me about living in the moment. The second one was in May this year, and that one taught me that every single day can bring a delightful surprise - you just have to be ready to embrace it. I wonder what I will learn this week.

I've already had my first unusual conversation of this trip, and that was while I was still in the US. I was eating dinner while waiting for my connecting flight. Tyler, the waiter who was serving me, noticed I was reading a book about human intelligence. He asked to read the back cover and saw that it made mention of dreams and myths. For some reason that reminded him of the spiritual journey that he was on. He told me that his wife had just bought him a very similar book as a present for their anniversary, which was on the following day

To appreciate the unexpectedness of that statement, you need to know what Tyler looks like. He is thin as a rake. He has a sparse billy-goat growth of thin curls on his chin. He speaks with the confident earnestness of someone who has never had a difficult conversation with a policeman. He doesn't look a day older than seventeen. I could accept that even at a tender age he had spiritual yearnings. But there is no way he is old enough to be legally married.

Nevertheless, I hid my disbelief and encouraged him to tell me more. He recommended a site called www.nohoax.com. Obviously, with a name like that I was intensely suspicious and looked it up immediately. I was not disappointed. The site is run by a a guy called George Green who claims that God was the leader of an extra-terrestrial race and that more recently the aliens contacted George himself to get him to spread their message. I tried to read what that message was, and swiftly concluded it was just page after page of polysyllabic rambling.

I guess spirituality is like ice cream. It comes in many flavors and we are all entitled to choose the one that comforts us best. I can judge George Green - in fact I already have. But it's not for me to judge Tyler's willingness to hear what Green has to say. I don't understand why, but Green's ideas help Tyler feel connected with his world, they reassure him that there is more to life than collecting tips in an airport restaurant and they give his (probably illegal) wife a reason to buy him an anniversary present. So I have to concede that something good has happened.

It's part of the gift of human intelligence that we can search for ideas, we can try them on, we can live through them for as long as they work. And when they no longer improve our lives we can discard them and move on to new, richer, more fulfilling ideas. Maybe Tyler will follow Green's ideas for years. Or maybe he will move on to something new next week. But as long as he's thinking about what's around him, eventually he will move on. That's why it's a spiritual journey, not a quest. A journey continues, a quest eventually ends.

As long as we're searching for new ideas, we're still thinking. And as long as we're still thinking, we're still alive. Whether or not we travel from place to place we can still wander the face of our inner world, weighing the weight of our dreams. We may only be immortal for a limited time, but it's up to us to make that time last as long as we want it to. It only ends when the wandering stops.

Tuesday, 24 August 2010

Open Your Nose

Sometimes when you travel you are lucky enough to get the feeling that you have a personal connection to the place that you're in. It's a feeling that comes very rarely. But when it does, you look around and say to yourself "I could live here. I really could!"

I had that feeling on Saturday night. I was in Lincoln, a small town (population 1300) in New Hampshire. During the day I had already been charmed by the New England Ski Museum. There, in a building smaller than the average McDonalds, I saw Olympic medals for the first time in my life. There was a gold, three silvers and a bronze. All had been won by Bode Miller, who was raised nearby and grew up to be one of the greatest Alpine skiers ever. A few feet to the left I saw a sword that had belonged to Benito Mussolini. Yes, that's the same Mussolini who led Italy into an ill-fated embrace with Nazi Germany. How his sword found it's way here is a story for another time. The point is, I was instantly captivated by the quirkiness of the place.

So I was already in a good mood by the time dinner was eaten. My companions were friends from Boston, each with a son the same age as mine. After the children were asleep we started talking over mojitos and red wine. As the conversation grew more animated I felt a strong urge to step outside by myself.

It was a warm night. I walked barefoot accross the grass and sat down on a rock. A drop of water fell on the back of my neck. I looked up at the overcast sky but no more water fell.

I closed my eyes. As I had recently explained to a friend, to be fully present inside a moment you need all your senses. And sometimes you need to close your eyes so that you can hear and smell and taste and feel.

I heard a river. It was rushing over a bed of stones with a sound like white noise. It always amazes me that running water sounds so busy yet it's the most relaxing thing to listen to.

I felt the grass under my feet and between my toes. I moved them around, gently massaging my soles with the wet stalks underneath. Then, on a whim I got up from the rock I was sitting on and stood on it instead. I could feel every inch of the grained surface that I was standing on.

I breathed deeply. The air was cool and clean except for a faint trace of woodsmoke. I breathed again and caught a delicately sweet whiff of something familiar but unindentifiable.

I stood like that for several minutes. I was soaking in all the sensations, imprinting them on my mind. Then I opened my eyes. I looked around. And I whispered to myself "I could live here."

Sunday, 25 July 2010

More Than I Can Chew?

A few days ago I decided to begin a serious attempt at writing fiction. The last time I tried, I was 10 years old. So I'm just a little rusty.

I rather like the idea of writing a novel. I actually wrote that into my bucket list when I made one a couple of years ago. But at that time I had no idea when I would get around to making a beginning. There were a few other things in the list that seemed easier, so I figured I would focus on them first. There would be time enough to write a novel after I went to Machu Picchu and after I got my hair colored purple.

But for a few different reasons I've decided that the time to begin the novel is now. And I am discovering that I have taken on an even bigger challenge than I had realized.

I had assumed that the hard part of writing a novel would be the mechanics involved in telling a long story. Things like keeping track of characters and chrolonolgy, avoiding plot inconsistencies, and maintaining a consistent writing style. It turns out I had over looked the biggest challenge of all: finding a story to tell that people would be interested in reading!

I now realize how easy blogging can be. All I have to do is find something interesting, and then describe it. There is no real creation involved, it's simply a matter of telling it like it is.

The trouble with fiction is that it is all about telling it like it isn't. It's got to be a story that is not an ordinary everyday story, because that would be boring. But it also has to be within the realms of believability otherwise it won't be credible enough to be engaging. It has to have characters that are interesting enough that you care about what happens to them. But they also have to be relatable otherwise the reader would not empathize with them. And so the art of creating a story for a novel turns out to be a phenomenal balancing act between the believable and the fantastic.

One of the great things about this adventure is that it has made me much more aware as a reader. I am currently reading the Girl Who Played With Fire. It's a crime thriller by a Swedish author named Stieg Larsson. I already knew it was a great book. But now I have become more conscious of what makes it a great book. I am now able to appreciate the care that went into creating Lisbeth Salander, the title character. She is obviously totally different from me or anyone I know. And yet Mr. Larsson tells me just enough about her that I feel like I know her, that I have known people who had glimmers of the characteristics that Lisbeth has, and that I can understand her well enough that I give a damn about her fate. And this is for a character who is clearly disturbed, somewhat sociopathic, given to intense violent rage, and is absolutely brilliant.

I now have an urge to go back and re-read my favorite books, the ones that had the most lasting impact on me. I want to read them simultaneously at two levels, the reader who just cares for the story and the apprentice who gazes in awe at a master craftsman at work.

It's going to be a hard and painful road, writing a novel, and I'm looking forward to every bit of it!

Monday, 5 July 2010

About Once Every Twenty Years

It was a Hollywood moment. The one where you're in a cafe on a summer evening with a girl in your arms. You look into her eyes and the sounds around you fade away into a soft murmur. She looks into your eyes with complete, unquestioning trust.

And then, softly fluttering her tiny eyelids, she falls asleep cradled against your chest.

I looked up from little Sofi to her parents and said defensively "This never happens to me!"

You see, I don't like other people's children. I avoid their babies. They're ugly. Last week a colleague offered to show me a picture of her baby. I looked at her (I have a special look for moments like these). "There's no good way to say this", I explained, "so I'll just say it. I don't like to look at baby pictures. They're all the same to me." She tried to explain that was impossible, that everyone loves babies and thinks they're cute. Finally, in desperation, she said it must be because I'm a man. And I thought to myself No, it's because that's a baby and one day she may be gorgeous but right now she's mostly fat with limbs attached. I didn't say it, but I thought it.

I did once meet a child who was irresistibly charming. I think she was around 5 years old and her name was Kati. She lived in a tribal village in central India where I spent a summer. She had a smile that would very slowly spread across her face until it was brighter than the sun. That was the summer of 1991; I still remember her vividly.

But she was the one enchanting exception to prove the rule that if you're too young to drive, your parents should keep you away from me.

I don't make funny faces at babies. I don't lisp at toddlers. I don't ask 6-year-olds what they're doing at school because I don't give a damn. And if you've just delivered a baby I'm really happy for you but I will not visit you in hospital. I actually like hospitals, I've had some incongruously funny experiences in them! But newborns give me the creeps.

And no, I don't want to hold your baby. You made it, you keep it! That's what I should have said in response to the question "Sofi seems to like you; do you want to hold her?"

But Spain had just won their quarter-final in the World Cup, I was drinking Sangria, it was a lovely sunny day, and I wanted to be nice.

And that's how Sofi ended up with her head against my chest and my arms around her. That's how she fell asleep with her fingers loosely curled around my thumb. That's how... Gah! Never mind. It's no use trying to deny it. I like Sofi.

This could be the beginning of the end of me as I know him.

Monday, 28 June 2010

My Best Friend

28th of June. It's my birthday. lt's the day I reaffirn my status as a 24-year-old.

I'm alone.

A neighbourhood bar. 3 friends. Alright, 1 friend and 2 aquaintances. And an aquiantace of an aquaintance. But we can still drink beers and be polite and pretend that we care.

Two beers and a shot later our patience is wearing thin. Let's get the check, let's shake hands.

Start the engine. Stop the engine. Open the door.

What's that sound? Feet shuffling on the wooden floor. A snort turns into a bark. A small golden object hurtles towards me.

She licks me, she loves me. She's my best friend. Ever.


Saturday, 19 June 2010

Ten Things

Looking out through an open window.
Wearing flip-flops to walk the dog.
Chipmunks everywhere. And I mean everywhere.
Eating dinner on the patio.
Sunglasses at 8pm.
White wine, not red.
Ice in the coffee.
The sound of cicadas at dusk.
Grass under your toes.

And ice cream in the car with the windows rolled down.

That's what summer is all about.

Tuesday, 15 June 2010


When I got into the waiting taxi, the driver was talking on his cellphone. I listened to him murmuring into his handset and I hazarded a guess. "Is that your girlfriend?". He put her on speakerphone and passed the conversational baton to her. "Are you my girlfriend?"

A pause. Then an amused voice spoke up from the palm of his hand "I guess I am."

That settled, I suggested to Curtis (that was the driver's name) that we pass through a McDonalds drivethrough. I was hungry and there's nothing like Maccers after drinks at 2am. He let me buy him a fizzy orange soda. With the ice thus broken, I indulged my curiosity.

He said it was his first day driving a taxi since his return. Return from where?, I asked. From away, he said. Away where?, I probed. My hunch was right. He had just got out of prison.

How he got into prison was quite a tale. He had been driving an NFL player who was with the Bengals. He'd been doing it for a while and thought they had become friends. Until the day they got hit by a car. Curtis got hurt and missed an appointment with a probation officer (so clearly he'd been in trouble before). For missing the meeting he had to go to jail. His NFL buddy turned out to be no friend and no help.

While in jail, Curtis' girlfriend told him that she had delivered their baby. And that the baby was now his problem. So when he came out, he had to take charge of the child as well as two other children from two other relationships.

And so here he was, driving a taxi through Cincinnati early in the morning, telling his story to a complete stranger.

How much of what he'd told me was true, I wondered. And what were the things that he had left out?

Monday, 4 January 2010

Howdy, Neighbour!

I touched a piece of the moon yesterday and I am unashamedly giddy about it. I was at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida, home of the space shuttles. There, on display and available for visitors to touch, is a square inch of rock that's been brought back from the moon.

There's something staggering about touching an object that's come from another world nearly half a million kilometers away. And something sobering about knowing what went into bringing it back. The moon rock is displayed a few meters away from a Saturn V rocket, which was the sort of rocket used for lunar missions. The moon rock is a few centimeters long and weighs a few hundred grams. The rocket is 110 meters long and weighs over 3,000 tons. That means it's about as big as a 35-storey building. It took the efforts of tens of thousands of men and women to build. And it claimed at least three lives.

Astronaut Eugene Cernan stepped off the moon's surface in 1972. He didn't know it then, but he was about to become 'the last man on the moon'. He still holds that unfortunate title, nearly forty years later.

A lot happened in those forty years. Wars were fought. Smallpox was eliminated. Our world became digital. And uncomfortably warmer. But nothing, simply nothing, came close to firing our imaginations like the grainy images of men in white spacesuits clumsily bouncing off a desolate lunar landscape. I touched a fragment of that landscape yesterday. I could not feel more pleased, or more privileged.