From the Promised Land to La-La Land

Since I landed here in June last year, everything in India has been in ‘calm before the storm’ mode.  All the ideas in the social, economic, educational or any other sphere of life have been put on hold due to the impending Central Government elections.  Everyone wants to see which way India is headed after the elections before they make their next move.

That calm before the storm was disturbed one December evening when the results of the Delhi state assembly started pouring in.  Nobody had given the Aam Aadmi Party’s (AAP) Arvind Kejriwal a chance.  But the party came in a close second in the 70-member assembly.  Kejriwal, who had gone from being a formidable force in the India Against Corruption (IAC) campaign in 2011/12 to being a daily mud-slinger, had managed to resurrect himself.  All of a sudden, media were highlighting the vibrancy of the Indian democracy by gloating over the fact that a one-year-old political ‘start-up’ had managed to virtually wipe out Congress, the oldest political party of India, from the Delhi state assembly.

Everyday Indians, who are by equal measures politically shrewd and jaded, suddenly found a messiah in Kejriwal.  Even cynics like me started hoping against hope that this experiment might succeed.  After all, in a loud, boisterous and hopelessly fragmented electorate of India that runs on corruption, money and deeply entrenched interests, how often does an upstart like AAP even get a chance to demonstrate its governance skills?  I would have liked it if they had gone straight back to the Delhi voters and asked for a clear majority.  However, in spite of their late decision to shake hands with the Devil they had vanquished, I was willing to be the optimistic bystander and see how far they go.

And then, all hell broke loose.  Other than a handful of populist measures and giving power back in the hands of people through ‘Mohalla Sabhas,’ AAP hadn’t articulated any consistent philosophy of governance.  Lofty idealism and wishful thinking.  It was a bit of both.  There is the American constitution, which puts almost all of its trust in its presumably rational citizenry.  And then there is AAP, which tried to combine that with extremely intrusive social and economic measures without realizing the irony inherent in the approach.  Even before they could trumpet the benefits of their water and power policies to the thousands of Delhi residents, Somnath Bharti and Rakhi Birla, two of AAPs ministers, tried to take the law in their own hands by barging into the homes of alleged lawbreakers.  Mr. Bharti is a lawyer and Ms. Birla has a Masters in Mass Communication, but apparently nobody had told them the difference between a lawmaker and a law enforcement agent.

The fact that one of the raids was based on neighbors’ complaints against an alleged sex-and-drugs racket run by Ugandans (and other Africans) was already proving to be a foreign relations headache for the Central Government.  As if that was not enough, Kejriwal went on a reputed news show and claimed (paraphrasing him) ‘These people (meaning Africans) consume drugs and rape others’ and ‘The women who were forced to go to the hospital (without a warrant) only underwent urine tests, but they didn’t undergo a blood test.’  Shouldn’t the well-educated supporters of AAP be shocked by the fact that the Chief Minister was spreading lies and implicitly condoning the act of forcing the women to take urine tests without a warrant?  Somnath Bharti went a step further.  In his vigilante zeal, he released a handful of videos to ‘prove’ that Africans indulge in drug trading.  I am no expert on illegal drug trading in India, but did anyone in the AAP government tell him that such acts smack of racism?  What was he trying to suggest?  That Africans are the only people in India indulging in drug trafficking? Or that all the Africans living in India are drug dealers? Either way, it was appaling, to say the least.

Kejriwal was lucky that he got a face-saver from Lieutenant Governor Najeeb Jung in the ensuing street protests.  But he didn’t learn his lesson.  Instead of reading the rulebook and trying to fight the system from within by following the rules, he decided to go for broke in trying to pass the Jan Lokpal Bill.  I am no constitutional expert.  However, a quick reading of opinions of legal luminaries would have told Kejriwal that Delhi was established as a different kind of state for several reasons.  Nobody was arguing that it was the best possible way to establish that state and several of the provisions can be challenged all the way to the Supreme Court.  In a way, the status of the state of Delhi is akin to Washington D.C., the capital region of the United States of America, where D.C. residents openly lament ‘taxation without representation.’  But that doesn’t mean that D.C. residents disrupt daily life on a regular basis or that the D.C. administration resigns over every single issue.  They are still fighting the cause of D.C. residents by being well within the boundaries of the constitution.

On the other hand, without even trying the constitutional channels to challenge the unique status of Delhi, Kejriwal started blaming all and sundry for the possibility that he may not get what he wants.  He might have gotten addicted to power already and might have started dreaming about a bigger role on the national stage.  And hence, it was probably a convenient way for him to get himself out of the daily grind of running a government to focus exclusively on the national election campaign.  Whatever his motives, it makes me ask him ‘How old are you?’

As a democracy, India is perplexing as well as awe-inspiring.  Through the tremendous hard work of some visionaries and a few strokes of sheer luck, India has come a long way in making sure that the most critical democratic institutions are fairly deep rooted in this mind bogglingly diverse country.  No matter what your views are about Gandhi, Nehru, Sardar Patel, Ambedkar and a few others, these people would go toe-to-toe with the Founding Fathers of the United States in terms of their vision for India.  Arvind Kejriwal probably had a shot at being named alongside these luminaries.  After seeing his antics for 49 days, I am not so sure anymore. 

If state elections in Delhi are held tomorrow, AAP might win with a clear majority. But I hope Arvind Kejriwal doesn’t become the next Prime Minister of India. Not with his current frame of mind and understanding of the Indian constitution. Greece was the first country to experiment with direct democracy.  If Kejriwal doesn’t learn to respect Indian democratic institutions and the constitution, his demise will probably be the greatest Greek tragedy in the world’s largest democracy.

Categories: Arvind Kejriwal, India, Politics | Tags: , , , , , , | 2 Comments

The irrational mind

And so it is, the end of an era. It’s been a while since I have had a chance to sit down and write anything. Life has been so busy for the past couple of months that I haven’t even had a moment to sit back and take stock of my feelings. But over the last week, I have felt them building up, slowly but steadily. And today is the day of catharsis. In India, it can’t be anything other than Sachin’s impending retirement. Sachin, SRT, Tendlya, Tendulkar, Master Blaster, Little Master – whatever you call him affectionately – will never bat for India in cricket again.

Any kind of sport or art is an evolutionary paradox. How does dancing or opera singing help in human survival? What does being good at tennis or football have to do with reproduction? Sure, artists and sportspersons probably sleep with more partners than an Average Joe. But the role of their endeavors in the advancement of the human species is questionable, at best. As a female friend of mine once noted wryly about basketball, it is a bunch of people putting a man-made ball into a man-made hole a million times.

And yet, as a society, we spend millions of dollars on arts and sports. Being good at any form of art obviously demonstrates creative thinking, dexterity, or a sense of balance that is a cut above everyone else. Being a top athlete entails physical superiority, mental toughness, a sense of anticipation, and a host of other attributes that arguably establish genetic superiority. For spectators, a virtuoso art performance can bring happiness or reduce stress levels. And sports, after all, act as surrogates for war. A physical, yet non-lethal way of establishing superiority over other tribes or nations. But every once in a while, a Pavarotti comes along and gives you goose bumps. Michael Jackson walks up to the stage and the girls in the front rows faint. Jordan leaps to dunk the ball and you stop breathing. And Sachin walks back to the pavilion, probably for the last time in his life, and a nation starts weeping. Maybe not tears down the cheeks, but on a Friday morning, a country of a billion people sets aside all its work and doesn’t blink its misty eyes until he disappears in the pavilion.

I am not a devotee of the God of cricket to the extent that I would not find flaws in him. Professionally, Fannie de Villiers always had his number. Tendulkar clearly dominated Shane Warne throughout his career, but McGrath always enjoyed a slight upper hand in test matches. In the famous ball tampering controversy, it is impossible to imagine that he felt the need to cheat, but he was clearly doing something unusual with the ball. As a finisher of matches, he is not in the league of Dhoni. Even personally, when he was gifted a Ferrari by Fiat, he apparently requested the Indian government to waive the hefty customs duty on it. When Fiat stepped in to kill the controversy by agreeing to pay the customs duty on his behalf, he could have come forward and paid it himself. When it comes to cricket, the game he so loves and respects, he has rarely weighed in – like a statesman would – on the match-fixing or other controversies of the day.

But what these observations lack is context. The statistics speak for themselves. They call them lies, damn lies, and statistics; except when we are talking about sports! That’s not the whole story, though. He set his standards pretty high through incredible consistency over a span of 24 years. After the first few years, though, those standards took a life of their own. A billion people started expecting, and the opposing teams started fearing, centuries from him every time he would come out to bat. Still, he managed to carry the weight of all those expectations effortlessly with his boyish charm. His commitment to the game and his legendary work ethic made his fans bestow superhuman abilities on him. But instead of all the fame and love, the only thing he seemed completely focused on was the next ball. That’s it.

Others came and went. The other day, I read that Sachin debuted with Salil Ankola. That guy, a fast bowler, left cricket, tried his hand at acting, and faded out of public memory before he could even enter public consciousness. His contemporaries that Sachin is sometimes compared to – Lara and Ponting – debuted after him and retired before him. Rahul Dravid, another contemporary legend-turned-commentator, who was putting things in perspective on TV, had a 16-year international career; a full 8 years less than Sachin. Sachin joined a bad team in which he used to be the savior and is leaving a team of kids behind who all grew up idolizing him. Metaphorically, at least, he made this team happen. If I don’t have the team I deserve, I’ll inspire an entire generation and win the World Cup with that generation. That is why, when India won the World Cup in 2011, instead of picking up the captain on their shoulders during the lap of honor, they picked up Sachin Tendulkar. That is why, even after getting the bad news that he had cancer, Yuvraj Singh carried on, became the Man of the Tournament in the World Cup, and dedicated it to Sachin. Words fail to congratulate you on a career well-executed. You may not have been the statesman. You may have been shy or tight-lipped. That was ok. We just never wanted you to stop playing.

And yet, none of that explains why every mother wants a son like him. Or every kid wants a father like him. Or everyone my age would love to have a brother or a friend like him. Given his studied silence about his personal life and lack of any scandals in it, we really don’t know much about him. But we never want him to go away. If my dad would make a mistake in recalling his score from the previous day, my mom used to correct him. My dad, an oncologist who has maintained a stoic face through the demise of several friends and family members, cried when he walked away for the last time. And I had misty eyes in a not-so-crowded coffee shop. Please don’t go! Please don’t go! But like your ailing grandmother, or your first love, he walks away for the last time. For a moment, he turns around, raises his helmet and his bat to acknowledge the standing ovation, and flashes a wistful smile. You wonder whether he is trying to hold back his tears. He just turns around, puts his head down, and walks up the stairs to the dressing room, with a piece of your heart secure in him.

The Little Master

The Little Master

Categories: Cricket, Dhoni, India, Tendulkar | Tags: , , , , | 8 Comments

May Hinglish be immortal!

Now that the crowd funding blitz is over, I can move that post back a little bit. Sure, there are hundreds of things that need to be sorted out before we embark on the documentary shoot (By the way, I just fixed the YouTube video in the last post). But what’s backpacking without some uncertainty? If you cross all the t’s and dot all the i’s, it’s not backpacking anymore. So, I’ll procrastinate a bit and catch up on some writing to talk about one of my favorite topics: Language!

There are a million languages in India. Well, not literally! But we have 20-odd official languages here; all of them beautiful in their own ways. Bengali is like Brazilian Portuguese. It is such a sweet language that I don’t know if you can use it to fight with anyone. Punjabi is like Spanish. It has the oomph and romance and charm and some phrases like ‘Oy, chak de fatte!’ that remind me of ‘Cabron!’ in Spanish. You cannot translate it. Marathi is probably like French. A beautiful language, no doubt, with incredibly rich literature, cinema, and a theater culture. But Marathi speakers tend to be laid-back, philosophical, prefer endless debates over action, and seem to have a misplaced sense of pride in their language. Then there is Tamil (and other Southern Indian languages). A touch harsher on your ears compared to the Northern Indian language family and is like the present-day Russian. The Russians still want to be considered a superpower and want others to learn their language. But, sadly, the world has moved on. Tamil people didn’t like the fact that Hindi was chosen as the national language of post-independence India and still don’t like to speak in Hindi. Oh well! It’s been about sixty-five years now and even Hindi speakers have moved on to Hinglish! Sanskrit reminds me of German. Very rule driven with virtually no room for confusion. You memorize the rules and you’re done. No room for mispronouncing words, either. Urdu? Not officially an Indian language, but easily the most beautiful of the subcontinental languages. Urdu can only remind me of Urdu!

In spite of this buffet of languages to choose from, the language of choice in India seems to be English. The British are long gone, but just like their bureaucracy, their language lives on. In true Indian tradition, we have managed to Indianize it to create Hinglish. When I was traveling around the world, I noticed a lot of people saying ‘Oh you Indians, you are all good at English.’ And I had to correct them all the time with ‘You know, I don’t know the official stats, but I think only about 10-15% of Indians speak English. It’s just that 10% of India is slightly more people than all of Germany! And almost all the Indians you meet are probably from that 10%.’

Having spent three months or so in India now, I think the percentage of people speaking proper English is even lower. The irony of discussing the beauty of Indian languages in English is not lost on me. But when I meet fellow Indians, I at least start the conversation in Hindi or Marathi. After 12-13 years in the US, I am kind of tired of speaking in English all the time. Plus, English is not my favorite language. Sure, it’s easy to learn and flexible. At the same time, I think it lacks charm or seductiveness. But in India, English, er, Hinglish is the language of prestige; the language of the elite! Sprinkled with all sorts of Indian mannerisms, it’s a language in its own league. If you speak Hindi (or any other regional Indian language), you can understand exactly what they are trying to say. But if you are an outsider – a British, Aussie, Kiwi, or a Yankee – you will invariably end up asking ‘Pardon me?’ or ‘Huh?’ or ‘I’m sorry!’ or ‘Say what now?’ So, here is a sampling of my favorite Hinglish quotes from the past few months:

“You have been there, no?”
Indian’s response: “Yes, several times.”
Outsider’s response: “You mean to say ‘yes’? Or ‘no’?”

“We went to Switzerland. What scenery, yaar!”
Indian’s response: “Wow! I’m so jealous!”
Outsider’s response: “What scenery? Would you mind elaborating a bit? And what is this ‘yaar’ business?”

“Can you put on that light switch?”
Indian’s response: “It’s not dark yet.”
Outsider’s response: “No, I prefer clothes.”

“I was standing right there only.”
Indian’s response: “Oh yaar, don’t know how I didn’t see you there.”
Outsider’s response: “You mean to say that you can actually stand in two places at the same time and still chose just one? That’s so modest of you! How the hell do you do it? Yoga? Meditation?”

“Kindly revert back.”
Indian’s response: “Let me finish this and I’ll get back to you right away.”
Outsider’s response: “I’m not in the mood to revert back. How about just reverting? And who cares if I do it kindly or violently? It’s none of your business.”

“Where where we went and who all we met!”
Indian’s response: “Looks like it was a pretty busy day for you.”
Outsider’s response: “I’m all ears!”

“She’s doing some timepass, nuh? Let’s go join her”
Indian’s response: “I’ll see you guys in five minutes.”
Outsider’s response: “I’m not sure what it is, but I think I’ll pass.”

“He was putting some fight on her.”
Indian’s response: “So, did he get lucky?”
Outsider’s response: “Is ‘fight’ some new kind of make-up that I haven’t heard of? Maybe I’m missing something here.”

“Where do you stay?”
Indian’s response: “On M.G. Road.”
Outsider’s response: “I think I have overstayed a bit and it can qualify as living now.”

“Shit!”
Indian’s response: “Shit!”
Outsider’s response: “Did you just say that? I thought we were in a business meeting.”

“That he will have to do in any case. I’ll see how he doesn’t do it.”
Indian response: “I just hope you’re not setting yourself up for disappointment.”
Outsider response: “Here is a Flipkart.com coupon worth 500/-. Why don’t you buy a Webster’s dictionary and start afresh?”

PS: Samantha Jo Fitzsimons, the female protagonist of our upcoming documentary with national-award-winning director Brahmanand Singh, has started a crowd-funding campaign of her own. Please check out the YouTube promo and contribute if you can. With your help, we can make it happen!

http://igg.me/at/ridingonasunbeam/x/3858038

And feel free to join the Facebook group to follow the documentary project ‘Riding on a Sunbeam’:

https://www.facebook.com/groups/118658161641320/

Categories: Culture, English, Grammar, Hinglish, India, Indian Languages, Language, linguaphile, Marathi, Sanskrit, Tamil, Travel | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Voila! Making a documentary.

And finally, I am getting an opportunity to switch media to share the joys of traveling. After moving back to India, I got in touch with a national-award-winning documentary director named Brahmanand Singh. It is pretty uncommon in India for people to pack their bags and travel solo in South America on a motorcycle for 8000 kilometers. Or to buy a round-the-world ticket and spend a year going to all corners of the world. Brahmanand saw a story in it that needs to be told…to the youth of India.

There is a palpable reserve of energy among the Indian youth, which has nowhere to go. Over time, it gets eaten up by the forces of nature. Aging, rigid cultural norms, societal expectations, herd mentality; you name it. With this documentary, we will try to convince them – and youth around the world – that the plunge into the unknown is not always easy, but there is always something beautiful waiting for you at the end of it. The key is to learn to enjoy the free fall.

Our plan is to travel through India for 3-to-4 weeks to highlight the contradictions of life in India and that will certainly excite the backpacking crowd looking to do off-the-beaten-path adventures. The overarching idea is to use travel as a metaphor to embrace the uncertainty, let the waves of time take you where they want to go, and bring the kind of excitement to life that a 9-to-5 job can never bring.

Given Brahmanand’s reputation and credentials, I am sure the documentary will be done professionally. The adventures we will capture? As a reader of this blog, you can make your own judgment about what kinds of crazy, insightful, or downright stupid situations we will get into!

Here is the YouTube video:

And yes, feel free to share it with your family and friends by reblogging, e-mailing, or through social media. We have already gotten some investors and a UK-based travel company has pledged logistical support for the trip. But we need some more support from you. Let’s see where this new adventure takes me.

Categories: Brahmanand Singh, Crowdfunding, Culture, Documentary, Film, India, National award, Travel, Travel documentary | 6 Comments

Gotta love sweet taste of India – The land of Chotus, Rajus, Bosses, and Sirjis

There are 1.2 billion people in India and at least half of them are male. It is safe to say that in spite of the rich tradition of digging out interesting names from Indian mythology for their kids, every Indian male is either a Chotu, Raju, Boss, or a Sirji. Not just Sir, but Sirji.

After thirteen long years overseas, chasing all kinds of things, I have moved back to India. I left this country in 2000, just when the IT and telecom revolution was gaining a foothold in India. And I am happy to say that things have changed a lot in India. It is tempting to say that the more things change, the more they look the same, but here are some anecdotes from my first month of re-learning India.

I landed in India just a couple of days before the arrival of monsoon, the 3-4 month rainy season. I was riding a rickshaw in Pune and the road was riddled with potholes. The driver noticed a huge pool of water in front of us and slowed down, but the guy coming from the other side, riding a big SUV, didn’t slow down and splashed muddy water all over us. Within a few hundred meters, it happened again. I was trying to protect my wallet and cellphone, but the driver was not bothered. He calmly cleared his windshield with his manual wiper. The Indian rickshaw (or tuk-tuk) is probably the only motorized vehicle in the world that is still manufactured with manually operated wipers. Welcome to India!

I walked into the local office of the biggest Indian bank (by far) to figure out why my ATM card and checkbook hadn’t shown up. The guy showed me all the paperwork he had done, gave me an 800 number, a new concept in India (at least for me), and asked me to inquire about the status of the application. I called them up and they said they could not locate my application in the system! The 800 guy asked me to contact the local branch and send the information again.

Things got more interesting when I asked about the status of my checkbook application. I wanted it shipped to an address different than the one that was on file. I e-mailed them the new address, but it never showed up. When I asked the bank guy, he repeated the address he had entered into the system. Sure enough, they had omitted the name of the building from the address, one of the most important parts of it. When I asked why it was eliminated, he said it wasn’t fitting in the online application form.

At some level, given the size of this bank, it is astonishing that they have computerized the whole system. It is doubly astonishing since it is a nationalized bank, which had virtually no incentive to keep customers happy until a decade ago. But now those pesky private banks have entered the market and they have to keep up with the competition…and the rest of the world.

So, this teller I was talking to had to put his thumb on a fingerprint scanner to access my account information. While he was reading out the address to me, another customer coolly walked past me, went to the other side of the window, and started staring at the computer screen. As I was correcting the shipping address by dictating it again to him, this random dude looked at me and told me in the local language that the teller takes a lot of short-cuts when working. I wasn’t sure whether I should be happy or sad about this whole situation. Should I be happy that computerization and fingerprint scanners have made banking more secure? Should I be sad that a key part of the shipping address was eliminated without asking me? Should I join this random dude and laugh at the teller’s shoddy work? Or should I be sad that, in spite of installing fingerprint scanners, this random dude is staring at all my bank account information while pointing out the teller’s incompetence? In India, privacy is still an alien concept and everything is everybody’s business.

Then again, a lot of things have been computerized. More so than this nationalized, largest Indian bank, computerization of the Indian Railway ticketing system should qualify as the eighth wonder of the world. The Indian Railway system is as vast as, if not bigger than, the Chinese train network. And given the number of crisscrossing train tracks, a touch more complicated. But they have somehow managed to put the entire booking system online. And now, they have even started train bookings through SMS. The Chinese system is nowhere near that. I still had to go to the train station and stand in line to book all my train tickets in China. Kudos to Indian software engineers!

But this train network is perpetually playing catch-up. There is never enough room for everyone. Train tickets get booked two months in advance. Almost as soon as they are available. Local metros are even worse. Mumbai, the city I have to reluctantly call my home for a few months, is the worst in terms of public transportation. Sure, there are lots of buses and trains and a lot of them run roughly on time. That doesn’t mean there are enough of them to go around. The rush hours, which last 2-3 hours in the mornings and evenings, are not meant for the fainthearted. You walk in and walk out touching and smelling fellow commuters’ sweaty elbows, hair, armpits, legs, and pretty much every other body part.

I was talking to another rickshaw driver about the inauguration date of a new metro line to ease some of the traffic and commuter congestion. With a voice dripping with sarcasm, he said “They have just started trial runs. People still have to die. If it opens to public without people dying, they will think that something is amiss.” Human life in India doesn’t have a whole lotta value…still.

This one takes the cake: I was visiting my hometown and I was driving with my family to visit an old family friend’s house for dinner. We stopped by to pick up some sweets at one of the best stores in town. My dad pointed at a few of the sweets on display and asked the vendor if he could mix them all up and make it 250 grams. While the vendor was packing it, my dad noticed a swarm of ants (pretty big ones) at the bottom of the display rack. He pointed them out to the vendor while he was pulling out our sweets from the same rack. The vendor said “Yeah, it’s that baalushaahi (a type of Indian sweet) that always attracts ants.” My dad, the vendor, and another guy behind the counter all nodded in agreement. Even my dad, a doctor who has spent 15-odd years in the United States, didn’t find anything wrong with the levels for hygiene in the store. We packed our sweets, had dinner at our family friend’s house, and all had the sweets. This is how you build a strong stomach. Gotta love…sweet taste of India!

Categories: Culture, India, Travel, tuk-tuk | Leave a comment

The Morsi remorse

It has been a month now since I landed in India and it has been an incredibly interesting month. Relearning the old ways of India – “boss,” “Raaju,” “Chotu” – and learning the new ways of India – everyday sticker shocks and culture shocks – will be documented in another post soon. But what prompts me, or my fingers, today is the sad turn of events in Egypt.

This is the country in which I started my search for the unknown last May. I landed in Cairo, took a bus from the airport to Ramsi square, another train to Tahrir square, and then walked down to my hostel to start my backpacking adventure, only to find out that 10-15 people were killed in the same neighborhood just a few hours before I checked into that hostel. If that wasn’t enough, I met a young Egyptian writer in that hostel who had spent all the seventeen days of the Egyptian revolution at Tahrir square. Having felt the bumps on his skin left behind – or up – by the rubber bullets shot during the revolution, I feel a certain sense of solidarity toward his yearning for freedom. He didn’t even have the money to take those bullets out from under his skin! And there I was; a jobless backpacker trying to convince him that it is his grandkids or great grandkids who will enjoy the fruits of those bullets lodged under his skin. Or maybe the infections!

Today, I starkly, and somewhat sadly, remember the long conversation we had regarding democracy. The United States, Russian, India, Pakistan, China; you name it. We talked not just about the pros and cons of democracy, but the treacherous and somewhat uncertain path toward true democracy. With the virtue, or vice, of having spent half of my life in the United States and half in India, I perhaps talked about democracy in abstract terms. A romantic goal, without knowing how to get there or even why.

But therein lies the beauty of democracy. With the Snowden revelations demonstrating the limits of any free society, it is perfectly legitimate to ask what the Land of the Free and the Home of the Brave truly stands for. After all, without necessarily looking up to the United States, countries like India, China, and Russia have accepted government intrusions in their private lives as a way of life. It can be argued that, in some ways, due to the forces of globalization and the advent of stateless enemies, the United States is catching up with other countries. When it comes to privacy against security, people are willing to trade privacy to stay alive. After all, as religious leaders know all too well, fear of death reigns supreme.

What surprises me the most about the ouster of Morsi is not the manner in which he was ousted or even the events that led up to it, but the reaction in the American media. On the one hand, there are conservative pundits who immediately smelt another opportunity to pounce on the Obama administration and its stoic or back-seat or passive reaction. Take your pick. But when commentators like Fareed Zakaria start calling the chain of events as a lost opportunity for Egypt, it makes me wonder whether something is wrong in our discourse on Egypt in particular and democracy in general. Here is a guy with (mostly) impeccable credentials as a journalist, who was a Reagan democrat, and a strong supporter of the policies of the Obama administration during the Egyptian revolution in 2011. How can he call it a lost opportunity in a matter of two years?

Don’t get me wrong. A military coup was perhaps a bad way to resolve the crisis in Egypt. But what other options did the country have? The opposition was a rag-tag coalition of secularists, Coptic Christians, moderate Islamists, Dastoor party loyalists, and God knows who else. These guys were ready to pour out into Tahrir square and oppose the status quo. But was there anyone there to lead the mob to a better future? The Muslim Brotherhood made a mess of the one-year opportunity they had to point them toward a better future, but was there anyone else among the protestors to show them the right direction? Whatever its own ulterior motives, the military even gave Morsi the time to negotiate with the opposition. One would have to be incredibly naïve to believe that Morsi didn’t know what the demands of the opposition were or whom to negotiate with. What options does the country have? Let the fledgling democratic institutions slowly decay into oblivion?

It is a tough argument to take sides on. As someone who has experienced Indian and American democratic institutions fail on different scales, it is hard to say what is right and what is wrong about Egypt. The most interesting aspect about the whole situation, though, is the studied silence of Israel. It is one of the worst kept secrets in foreign policy that the Israeli officials keep telling American officials that it doesn’t make sense to criticize Israeli aggression from the comfort of their Foggy Bottom or Langley offices. Much in the same vein, it doesn’t make sense to criticize American response to Egyptian turmoil – or even the Egyptian military response to Egyptian turmoil – from the comfort of their Washington offices. Go to Jerusalem and see why the Israelis are so tight-lipped about the whole affair.

The most likely reason for their silence is their understanding of democracy and, perhaps more importantly, human nature. If you are an atheist and a staunch believer in evolution, it is easy to understand that democracy is not the natural way of things. For human brains, because of their mature prefrontal cortex and other mental faculties, democracy is an acquired taste. For the Jewish people, maybe the yearning for democracy and rule of law came out of centuries of persecution and the tenacity and determination to work toward the Promised Land. No pun intended. Perhaps that is why Israel became a functioning democracy from the get go. But it is naïve to expect people who have perennially lived in autocratic societies to wake up one fine day and choose religiously and socially moderate leaders as defined by the Western world. It took the United States more than a decade after independence to ratify a viable, and perhaps the shortest, constitution in the democratic world, which has been amended a handful of times. And it took India three years after independence to ratify the longest constitution in the world, which has been amended more than a hundred times. Egypt is still a baby. Let her kick and scream and mumble a few incomprehensible words before she stands on her own feet. Just be happy that nobody is choking her voice. The people have woken up and the Egyptian street is alive and kicking. Sooner or later, they will find their own way.

This is not an attempt to criticize the Egyptian people, question their tenacity, dismiss their sufferings, or doubt their yearning for freedom. But I hope the critics of the Obama administration take a deep breath and read some texts about social psychology and the history of democracy. And I hope that Obama is on a four-way conference call with Henry Kissinger, Bibi Netanyahu, and General Abdel Fatah al-Sisi. Make it five by getting a historian on the line.

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What is in a Starbucks?

Thirty six hours to go. A quick drive back to my home base to pack my bags and I’m off to India. A little over a year ago, I bid goodbye to the United States. Kinda. I knew that my round-the-world trip would end in the United States. I would have to finish my soul searching, come back, do some job searching, and then leave the United States for good. And now, that day is just one night away.

Most of my family and friends in the United States think that this is gonna be a temporary move. They all think that the chaos, corruption, rigid social structure, and the corporate culture of India will be more than enough to override my love for the people, food, and the unmistakable sense of irony and amazement that is everyday India. They have a point. More than anything else, I’m worried about the barrage of marriage questions that I will have to handle on a daily basis. But I know that the chances of me returning to the United States are less than 50%. Given the kind of work that I do, I guess I will keep visiting America. Those will mostly be business trips or vacations, though.

The ramp to the expressway is the second right, but I reluctantly take the first right. I have some unfinished business to take care of. I know this street as the back of my hand. I have driven up and down this stretch a million times. It’s a pretty upscale neighborhood; the kind that still supports the quaint bike shop on the corner. A twist of fate made me live here for a couple of years, but I rarely took the left turn I was about to take. It is the turn for Whole Foods, a florist, a mom-and-pop bakery, and a Starbucks. What the hell is a guy’s guy like me gonna do there? Buy flowers? Health food? Overpriced coffee?

On that day more than ten years ago, the reason why I came here was pure convenience. I was new to the city and didn’t know any better. I took that left turn once again, perhaps for the last time. The Whole Foods was still there. On this uneventful weekday morning, housewives were driving their Beatles and Mercedes convertibles in and out of the parking lots; their brown bags full of flowers and organic goodies. In rich American suburbia, these things rarely change.

I parked my car, but the spot was now reserved for Whole Foods customers. Well, something has changed! I drove around and found an unreserved parking spot. Walked up the four-five stairs and noticed that the railing against which I was leaning on that day was gone. They had built a tiny patio and arranged some tables and chairs for customers to enjoy the sun. I stepped in and noticed that the table I was looking for was gone. In fact, all the small tables were replaced by two big tables in the middle. The comfy sofas and Laz-e-Boy type chairs had also gotten upgrades. The coffee counter had doubled in size. I took a deep breath and walked to the counter.

“A green tea, please.”

“- Sure, what flavor, sir?”

“How about, ummmm………..zen?”

“- Sure, what size?”

“Small is fine.”

“- We don’t have small, sir.”

“Yeah, give me a tall.” You stupid Starbucks!

I paid for it, waited for it, looked around, grabbed my tea, and sat down at one of the two big tables, facing the small table that used to be next to the window. I took a sip of the steaming tea. It cleared my sinuses a bit and I wiped off my runny nose for the millionth time. In the last ten years, even my physiology had changed from not having any allergies to being allergic to almost all the Spring-time pollen. But mentally, I was still hanging on to something.

That non-existent table is where I had met the only girl I have fallen in love with…yet. Over the past decade, almost everything was gone. Sure, I probably won’t fall out of love. I have a million things to say. And I think I always will. At the same time, I know there is nothing left to say. That realization came a few years ago, but this irrational fear remained. I kept thinking that I would never be able to go back to this coffee shop again. Utterly stupid. After traveling around the world, this must be doable.

It was nothing, really. I looked around. A young girl looking like a student was working on her assignment. Two men and a woman in business attire were discussing some business. Two Asian women were playing with their kids and catching up. For everyone around me, it seemed like just another day at work. For me, it was a small, yet important milestone in my personal journey.

If there was a moment that I could trace my craziness back to, it would be that moment on that table that has disappeared. Once you fail in love, you lose your fear of failure. And so it began, my journey toward risk-taking. Other than a vague sense of longing, there is not much left of my first love. But after such a long time, it is an interesting dilemma for me now. If anything had come out of it, in all probability, I would’ve followed the standard path of getting a fat salary in some big corporation. I wouldn’t have thrown caution to the wind to travel the world. I wouldn’t have written that damn book so early. I would’ve been risk averse. I would’ve procrastinated. In hindsight, it is almost impossible to choose one path over the other. Perhaps it is fine the way it is.

In a few minutes, I realized the stupidity of it all. I never drink tea or coffee. I go to Starbucks once in two years, or maybe even less frequently. I have to pack up my life and move out of this country in less than thirty six hours. This country and this Starbucks, in particular, have given me a lot. A can-do spirit, a never-say-die attitude, rejection of dogmas, a non-judgmental worldview, skepticism about traditional institutions like marriage, friends from all around the world; there are a million things I can thank this country and this Starbucks for, but it was time to move on and embrace the next chapter of my life. Every once in a while, time teaches you lessons you don’t want to learn. All you can do is be thankful for it.

I got in my car and turned up the radio. The first time I had left this Starbucks, I blasted Raspberry Jam Delta by Joe Satriani for its heady rush. This time, the Spanish radio channel was playing a mix of mellow mariachi songs and Latin power ballads. My last few hours of enjoying Spanish music on a radio. I am a changed man. For better or wore? Time will tell.

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Return to non-innocence

After almost one year on the road, I landed in the United States two hours after the Boston Marathon bombing. As I was standing in the long immigration line, all I could see on the TV was CNN reporters hammering in the early details over and over again. My first thoughts turned to a Pakistani-American friend who was running the marathon that day. Within a few hours, I found out that she had finished the marathon just a half hour before the bombings and was just 2-3 blocks away from the finish line. Last May, my trip started in Egypt on a day which saw the death of 10-15 protesters in Cairo. And this April, my trip ends with the death of innocent athletes in Boston.

Life back in the United States has been fine so far. The first thing I had to worry about immediately after landing was filing my tax returns. Talk about excitement! Navigating that maze meant that catching up with family had to wait for the next day. It was great to see them after such a long time, specially my niece who can engage in proper yet completely nonsensical conversations. It is adorable in its own way. In one year, she has learned to make up stories on the fly; an indication that she is a fiction writer in the making. Other than that, it felt like we had all said goodbye just yesterday. After a day or two of storytelling, we were back to our old ways; pulling each other’s legs and digging up the same old funny stories about each other. That sense of familiarity felt good.

Almost everyone I meet keeps saying that nothing has changed. I look the same and act the same way. And yet, so much has changed! Sure, it was nice to sleep in the same, comfortable bed, take the same shower, and eat some healthy, home cooked food after such a long time. But within a week, I realized that I don’t like driving and traffic as much as I used to. In the whole year that I was on the road, I drove a car only for the ten days I was in New Zealand. The rest was public transportation, flights, and a whole lotta walking. On the other hand, I have learned to enjoy walking. I remember the first month of my trip when I used to get anxious waiting for buses and trains, or walking a couple of miles to get to my destination. I used to feel like I was wasting time. Slowly but surely, I convinced myself that waiting and walking were an integral part of the experience. Walk along, smell the roses, talk to people, learn how wide or narrow the sidewalks are and what the local people throw on it, peek into people’s homes, take in the smells of the side alleys; in the sterilized American suburbia, I miss all that.

In a way, I still haven’t finished my trip because I haven’t started working again. It is still fun to meet old friends and catch up with them. The real test is going to be the first few weeks of my next job. Maybe that is the reason why I am looking for something that will keep me outside of my office and in the middle of the chaos called humanity. But for a few weeks, at least, it is fun to renew all the old friendships. People have moved up the corporate ladder. Some have gotten promoted, others have starter their own businesses, some have completely switched tracks, some have gotten married, some have kids now, and some have them on the way. Then again, just like my fellow travelers had predicted, the things they complain about haven’t changed much. And I haven’t changed my habit of being a patient listener and nodding away. After this trip, I find myself so far removed from the day-to-day struggles of everyone around me that I don’t even know what to say. What should I say? Go pack your bags and see the world. Learn about all the horrific things our parents, grandparents, and great grandparents have endured. Climb Kilimanjaro, scuba dive in the great barrier reef, go shark cage diving, breathe in the fresh air of Norway, enjoy the serenity of sitting by the lakes of New Zealand, talk to the young revolutionaries of Egypt, meet random strangers and fall in love with them. Just go out, embrace the world, and find out what you enjoy doing.

But I know they will all look at me with a fake smile and say “You’re funny.” Not really. Life is only as complicated as you want it to be. What if you are an innocent bystander who unfortunately meets his death tomorrow? Do you want to die happy? Or die complaining?

Categories: Boston, Culture, Travel, United States | 3 Comments

Sometimes, truth is stranger than fiction

Medellin. My last stop of this crazy journey. Three nights here, a quick stopover in Bogota and then fly back to the United States. No matter how many times I think about it, I still find it hard to believe that I’ve seen and done so much in one year. I guess every good thing has to come to an end.

Medellin is everything that the Amazon jungle is not. A bustling city with chaotic traffic, charming nightlife, and beautiful women, which would beat Buenos Aires and Rio any day. There is a reason why Colombia keeps winning international beauty pageants and it’s called Medellin. But what makes Medellin intriguing is its notorious son, Pablo Escobar.

There are other tours in the city that take you to the city center, the nearby mountains, the churches, and the historic towns. As a foreigner, though, I found the Pablo Escobar tour as the eeriest and the most mind-boggling one. While I had heard about Colombia being the center of the drug universe and Medellin as the cocaine capital of the world, I hadn’t spent enough time reading about Pablo Escobar, the undisputed king of cocaine during the 70’s and 80’s. For the handful of locals that I talked to, the suffering has been too close for comfort. Plus, nobody really wants their country to be associated with drug lords and drug trafficking. Even more so when you’re a proud Colombian because in the 20th century, this is one of the few countries in South America that hasn’t had its democratic institutions trampled on by dictators. Former president Uribe came close to it, but never succeeded in it.

Nonetheless, as a foreigner, Pablo Escobar’s story is a classic rags-to-riches story full of failure of democratic institutions, a twisted sense of morality, grandeur, pomp, unbelievable power, outsized egos, gruesome violence, and everything in between. There is a reason why, regardless of our sense of morality, we find Godfather-like personalities enigmatic and charming. To quote a line from a Hindi movie, these guys engage in illegitimate businesses with a sense of fairness that is sometimes hard to find in the world of legal businesses. Pablo was no exception.

As we started the tour, they started playing the documentary “The two Escobars.” For the uninitiated, this is a good place to start. His rise from a petty thief in the poor neighborhoods of Medellin to one of FBI’s most wanted criminals selling $500 million of cocaine a day is astonishing on a lot of levels. At one point, he was making so much cash that he didn’t know what to do with it or even how to store it! Legend has it that rats were eating away the piles of cash he had. He was schmoozing with prime ministers, presidents, and celebrities from around the world and had 80 airplanes at his disposal. Frank Sinatra visited his ranch in Colombia and when FBI had a $10 million bounty on his name, he visited the United States, took pictures standing in front of the White House, and released them just to rub it in. At the height of his empire, when he started feeling the noose tightening around him, he was still so powerful that he elected himself to the Colombian parliament and ensured the passage of a constitutional amendment to abolish the extradition treaty with the US before he decided to surrender. Surrender he did. And how. When he eventually decided to surrender, he engaged in protracted negotiations with the government to ensure that they would build a five-star prison just for him. As someone who was angry at the government’s neglect of the poor, he perfected the art of greasing the entire democratic machinery to build a criminal empire that set a new benchmark in terms of its size and scope and influence.

And yet, in spite of all this outsized power, he never forgot where he came from. He built hundreds of football fields in the poor neighborhoods of Colombia and acted as the godfather for a whole generation of Colombian football players. He built schools for poor Colombians and, ironically, kept telling young kids to stay away from cocaine. When one of the slums in Medellin burnt down, he rebuilt the entire neighborhood, giving away homes to 300 devastated families. The neighborhood is called Pablo Escobar. To politicians and criminals all over the world, Pablo’s word was Pablo’s word. The guy who brought so much embarrassment to Colombian citizens also gave them a sense of pride and put Colombia on the international football map when the Colombian national football team qualified for the US World Cup in 1994 and started as one of the favorites.

In the end, he got what he deserved. When the Colombian special operations teams came looking for him, he escaped his five-star prison and, after a few weeks of hot pursuit, was killed in broad daylight. Or maybe committed suicide, depending on what version you want to believe. Even after death, visiting his grave gives us glimpses of his split personality. His inflated ego didn’t change his desire to be buried in a simple grave in the community that he grew up in. This entire story sounds more like a fast-paced Robert Ludlum or a John le Carré thriller, except for the fact that as you are taking the tour, they stop by some of the buildings that are still bombed out and stand as witnesses to the carnage that was a result of his wars against the rival Cali cartel and then against the Colombian government.

But the real kicker on this tour is the last stop. After climbing one of the hills surrounding the city, you get to the house of Pablo Escobar’s mother. She is long gone, but Pablo’s brother Roberto still lives there. Roberto was a gifted athlete and won several cycling medals as a teenager, but was sucked into his brother’s thriving business. He was the finance guy of the cartel and handled all the cash flow for their worldwide business. He managed to escape the five-star prison with Pablo, but apparently Pablo convinced him to turn himself in and escape near-certain death at the hands of the Colombian government. He got 22 years in prison and according to the tour guide, learned medicine while in prison and was released after 11 years because of his good conduct. When he was in prison, someone sent him a letter bomb and it blew up in his face. He somehow survived the bomb blast, but it disfigured and disabled him for life. They say multiple plastic surgeries have restored his face, but he has lost almost all of his vision and can’t hear well, either.

Seeing him in flesh and blood is a strange experience. He seems to be cordial and welcoming. He has been claiming for some time now that the money he makes by selling Pablo’s memorabilia and souvenirs goes toward a charity helping HIV research. He also claims that the research has led to development of a vaccine that has already cured 15-20 patients and that they are waiting for approval by regulatory agencies.

I have no way of verifying all these claims, but unlike my fellow backpackers on the tour, I didn’t feel the burning desire to buy any posters or bumper stickers of someone I consider to be a bad guy with a few shades of virtue in him. Roberto, on the other hand, turned out to be a bit of a moral dilemma for me. As someone who handled the money of the cartel, does he have a shot at redemption? Does spending 11 years in prison and partially losing his sight and hearing count as enough repentance? What if his claims about the HIV vaccine are true? Does that count for anything? After all, the difference between arguably morally defensible collateral damage and a cold-blooded murder is the larger context. If the death of an innocent bystander is a part of a larger war to liberate an oppressed society, we are more likely to condone it. Then, what if Roberto’s presumably charitable causes end up saving more people than Pablo’s cartel killed?

As we were getting ready to leave his house, I asked him if he had the chance to change one thing in his life, what, if anything, he would change. Without even a second’s worth of pondering, he said “Toda la vida.” He would change his whole life. If you have to live the rest of your life thinking that you would like to change everything in your past, is there any bigger punishment than that?

I have no clear answers to these questions, but on my way back to the United States, my mind kept going back to this improbable story of two brothers. Drug addiction, money laundering, murders, dizzying amounts of money, unchecked power and its corrupting influence, a sense of justice, and perhaps eventual redemption. Some stories have no clear winners and losers; just a bunch of characters that evoke tough moral and ethical questions. And in a larger context, that is what my round the world trip has taught me. It is easy to sit in one corner of the world and pontificate about good and evil. When you actually visit different countries and try to understand the historic and cultural contexts, the situation gets a lot murkier and you learn to accept the world the way it is. The world is morally too complex for one person or one society to impose its vision on the rest of the world.

It’s not all that hopeless, though. Beyond history, culture, and everything that plagues today’s world, there is the individual. You, me, and every other person in the world. Taking a break from life as usual has taught me to find happiness within. Sure, you can keep striving for a better world, whichever way you want to define “better.” And like MLK famously said “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” However, it is important to not get disillusioned and disheartened by the world around you or the setbacks you might face in your pursuit of a better world. As Hindu philosophy says, true happiness lies inside. The world around you is just “Maayaa,” an illusion. If you’re looking for happiness in things around you, you are looking in the wrong place. Look inside and it is right there.

Some nice photos from around Medellin

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The Escobar story begins. A destroyed building.

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Graves of Pablo and his family members.

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Some people still come and leave fresh flowers at his grave.

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Pablo’s toys.

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His famous photo after he surrendered, hanging outside his brother’s house.

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A few years ago, some gang attempted to kill Roberto. A bullet hole from that raid.

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Roberto’s trophies and such.

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Roberto with the tour guide.

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The dinner table where Pablo celebrated his last birthday.

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A place to stash his money.

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One more hidden location in the house.

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Roberto signing some Pablo souvenirs.

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Roberto next to the poster announcing a $10 million bounty on him and his brother. Amen!

Categories: Colombia, Culture, Drug Cartel, Hinduism, medellin, Pablo Escobar, Roberto Escobar, Travel | Leave a comment

Amazon.rvr/neversayneveragain.ASAP

Bogota was like San Francisco or Melbourne. The weather can change here so quickly that you can get all four seasons in one day. A beautiful, sunny day with 20-25 degree temperature can suddenly turn into a cold, cloudy, and rainy afternoon. But all that cold weather was gone as soon as I landed in Leticia. This small town is at the southern tip of Colombia, but it’s bang in the middle of the Amazon jungle. In this part of the world, it’s just hot and humid. Nonstop.

At first glance, the Amazon river and the jungle seemed like some sort of a combination of the wide open Nile in Egypt and the thick forests of northern Thailand. After a week in the Amazon jungle, it’s safe to say that it’s much, much more than that. On my last crazy trip, the motorcycle adventure, I had kept the best for the last. Macchu Picchu! This trip is no different. I couldn’t have found a better country to end my trip. The Amazon jungle is so magical that it is impossible to describe it in words. But to experience it, you have to challenge yourself physically and mentally. It’s all about mind over matter.

The heat and humidity are just the start. I didn’t grow up on the coasts. 35-40 degree temperatures and almost 100% humidity is my worst nightmare. On our first morning in the jungle, we walked about 2-3 kilometers in exactly that kinda weather. The backpack was around 5 kilograms and wasn’t a big deal, but we had to cover our bodies to save ourselves from mosquitos. A pullover and slacks. Yep, in 40 degree heat and near 100% humidity. It reminded me of my younger days when I was still playing competitive sports. Going to badminton practice with three t-shirts and returning with two of them so wet that it felt like I had just dipped them in a bucket of water. Except for one difference. There was no point in changing clothes in the Amazon. The weather is such that you’ll have to carry 10-15 pullovers to keep yourself sweat-free. And the more weight you carry, the more you’ll sweat. Good luck!

The battle with my own body resumed as soon as we reached the first stop, which was a Malloca; a hut of one of the indigenous people. By backpacking standards, these stops are a bit touristy in the sense that they prepare food for you and they have designated spots where you set up your hammock and sleep. Or at least try to sleep. The guide served us lunch in the military-style bowls and plates we were carrying with us. When we were done eating, it was our job to wash them. There was no tap water in the middle of the jungle and the mineral water we were carrying was just enough for drinking. So, the guide led us to a nearby pond with still water. I could see a nice layer of algae crowding the lakeshore. Diarrhoea? Dysentery? Ha! For the first time on my trip, I regretted not finishing my Hepatitis A and B vaccination. Wash your dishes, wish your body good luck, eat in the same dish again, and don’t forget to wish your body good luck again!

After lunch, it was time for a nap. How do you take a nap in this kinda weather, inside a hammock with a mosquito net, while your entire body is covered with sweat and full-sleeved clothes? I laid down in the hammock and started breathing the heavy air. With the mosquito net killing whatever little breeze was around, I started sweating even more profusely; my body trying to adjust to the temperature. There was no way I was gonna fall asleep! Sure enough, within 20 minutes or so, my body had gotten used to the weather, I was mentally exhausted, and I dozed off!

When I visited Baja California in Mexico – my introduction to backpacking – I told myself that pit toilets – with a cockroach or two crawling out – would be the low bar. I would never do it again. And there I was, walking into another one. No cockroaches this time, but plenty of fruit flies and mosquitos flying around. How much insect spray are you going to use?

As if pit toilets weren’t enough, I also had to deal with my fear of heights. For the past few years, I’ve slowly been trying to overcome it. Amazon, though, was like a pop-quiz meant to shock me to the core. Before we left, the tour guide had told us that we would be sleeping in a tree house one night. Sounded like fun. What he didn’t tell us was the way we were going to get up there. If they had shown us photos, I would’ve said no way! As we were standing under the 45 meter tree (135 feet), one of the guides held the rope tied to a branch at the top of the tree, wrapped up the climbing gear around his waist, and went straight up. Wait a minute. We’re not gonna go up like that, are we? I thought we were gonna hold on to the tree trunk…or something! No, the tree trunk is 3-4 meters away. You can’t even touch it. No, dude!

I decided to take the bull by the horns and went first. I took the two clamps, wrapped the harness around my waist, and started going up. Don’t look down, don’t look down, don’t look down. I went up 5-6 meters and click-swoop, click-swoop. Once again, click-swoop. One of the clamps wasn’t working. Damn it! This should qualify as poetic injustice. I was suspended in mid-air, hanging onto a rope tied to some random branch 45 meters above ground, I had a million mosquitoes hovering all around me, and then, I had to look down. In that state, I had to wait 10-15 minutes for one of the guides to come replace my clamp so that I could continue my inane adventure.

When I finally reached up, there was no tree house. It was a 5mX5m bamboo platform with rickety rails, supported by the branches of the tree. Sleeping here had never crossed my mind. Not even my dreams. Not even my nightmares! These branches better be strong. We have to sleep here!

And then, the mosquitoes. These are my mortal enemies. If there is even one mosquito in the room, it will manage to sniff me out like a needle in a haystack. And if it starts buzzing around me, I can’t even fall asleep. For someone like me, going to the Amazon is like raising your hand to be a sacrificial lamb. I heard that if you take vitamin B tablets for a week or so, mosquitoes don’t bother you because they don’t like your body odor. The only problem was that I found out about it a day before I started the jungle trip. Oh well!

In spite of keeping my hands and legs covered at all times, and pouring a bottle of insect spray on my palms, neck, ears, and face, I started scratching my whole body like never before. I never signed up for that! One of the guys took a photo of my back as a souvenir and told me that the next time he goes to a jungle, he will take me with him. I was like a good insurance policy for him. Ironically enough, after a day or two in the Amazon, I actually started admiring them. These mosquitoes are so good that they can bite you through your clothes. And they’ve gotten so used to navigating mosquito sprays that they can easily locate that one pore on your skin that you missed. How many times have you had a mosquito bite on the inside of your palm? Or where your fingernail meets the skin? Welcome to the Amazon!

I know I’m making it sound like it’s a Herculean task to go hiking and camping in the Amazon jungle. It’s really not that bad. Hundreds of travelers go to the Amazon every year, walk the same trails, and sleep in the same “tree-houses.” That’s how I played the mind-over-matter game. If so many people can do it, so can I. The reward makes it all worth it. Attempting Kilimanjaro was exhilarating. Shark cage diving was thrilling. The sight of Whitehaven beach was soothing. Perito Moreno was awe-inspiring. The Amazon jungle was just pure magic.

For most of the time, you walk through either layers upon layers of dry, rotting leaves or knee-deep mud; the stench of it mixing seamlessly with the aromas of the flowers to create a unique, heavenly blend. In the middle of the muddy trail, the guide somehow notices fresh pug marks of a puma. Less than 24-hours old. What the hell am I doing here again? Then he picks up a tiny frog and puts it on your nail. It’s called a crystal frog because it is almost transparent and you can see its heart beating. It seems to be a bit scared and holding onto your nail like it is holding onto dear life. How the hell does this species survive? How does this tiny frog find its brethren in this seemingly endless jungle? It’s not really about spotting animals, though. Other than some species of monkeys, spiders, insects, and birds, you don’t see much. It’s more about feeling like a stray dog or a cat walking through a city. You are the stranger and all those animals invisible to you are looking at you. In the city, it’s the honking in the morning and the street lights in the evening. In the thickness of Amazonia, it’s the million birds in the morning and a billion other creatures in the evening. As soon as the sun goes down, the frogs set the tone. But it’s like jazz. They improvise all the time. Sometimes, they get tired and the critters pick it up. Some distant monkey plays the lead screeching for a while, then the howling owls do the aria, and the frogs pick it up again. In the middle of it all, your guide takes you to a night walk to see tarantulas and you start walking to the beat of the frogs. I don’t have arachnophobia, but when you see one as big as your palm crawling 2-3 meters away, and the guide picks up a stick and starts nagging it after telling you that it’s a jumping black tarantula, you ask yourself one more time what the hell am I doing here? You come back, lay down in the hammock, and it starts pouring. All of a sudden, the symphony dies down and you can hear a million small little creeks flowing around you, desperately searching for the river. Listen to Ma Rewa by Indian Ocean, hear the rain pick up as the music reaches its crescendo, and you will experience ecstasy! No pills needed.

As we were cruising our way on the Amazon river and out of the jungle, I told myself for the millionth time that this was the spirit of traveling. It’s fun to see the pyramids, the leaning tower, the terra cotta warriors, and go on top of the empire state building to enjoy the view. But every once in a while, you get the opportunity to immerse yourself in nature and understand where you come from. Become one with the trees, the animals, the birds, the river, the mud, the morning sky, and yes, the mosquitoes. Not to see any sights or to admire feats of human engineering; just to go back to your roots. If the indigenous tribes living here do it everyday, and if our explorer ancestors have done it with means far less sophisticated, so can you. Leaving the creature comforts behind and enduring the minor discomfort is our little tribute to them, certainly more fulfilling than visiting the graves of James Cook or Marco Polo!

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Monkeying around. Monkey island near Leticia.

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One of the indigenous tribes. Bit touristy, but interesting.

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Weaving baskets…or something.

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It’s rainy season, which means the water level goes up significantly.

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First glimpse of the Amazon.

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Leave the motorboat and do some kayaking.

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Huge leaves of water lilies.

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Parrots, in their original habitat.

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Whatever this is, in its original habitat.

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Night walk. Spider time.

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Jumping black tarantula.

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A brown tarantula.

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Or maybe three.

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A nice close-up.

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A road less traveled.

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Fresh pug mark of a puma.

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Interesting fruit.

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Froggy!

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All different kinds o trees.

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Guest for dinner.

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Sunset over the Amazon.

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View from the hammock.

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And then it starts pouring. Let it rain, let it rain, let it rain!

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Time to say goodbye!

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Flying out of Leticia. The mighty river, thick jungle, and do you see the edge of rain?

Categories: Amazon jungle, amazon river, Colombia, Travel | Leave a comment

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