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Action in Stockholm March 29, 2016

Posted by globejam in Denmark.
2 comments

fuzzy-TV-thumb-500x343-7074One fine Sunday afternoon, Matt walked into the house with a spring in his step and announced “We are going to Stockholm!”. I was surprised. A couple of weeks earlier I had broached the subject of going to Stockholm or Oslo during the forthcoming long weekend and had gotten a lukewarm response. Later that week I had tried to kindle his interest with “Stockholm is supposed to be really beautiful this time of the year, with wonderful rivers and bridges”, and again with “The art museums are world class, you know”. Matt had not responded one way or another. Then suddenly it appeared that my hard-selling had worked after all.

Not one to look a gift horse in the mouth, I agreed readily. Then hoping he would thank me for the idea, I asked, “So what made you change your mind?”. Apparently it had nothing to do with my suggestions. He had called his mother over the phone on his way back from Church and she had told him that their Parish priest had asked Matt to visit his nephew Steve who was in Stockholm currently. Steve being a fellow parishioner and a childhood friend, Matt was very keen on meeting him again after a long time.

“Glad that you agreed”, gushed Matt, as though it was all his idea in the first place. “Steve is a great guy, you will like him and we can stay with him at his house”, he continued. Not too keen on imposing myself on a stranger, I expressed my discomfiture. However, Matt was quite sure Steve would be happy to accommodate me and asked me not to worry. Finally, after some back and forth, we decided that Matt would call Steve and explicitly ask if we could stay there before we took any further action. A couple of days later, I asked Matt if he had spoken to Steve but Matt was a little evasive, just saying “Don’t worry, I know Steve. I am sure it won’t be a problem”. I felt that something was amiss, but not wanting to probe deeper, I quietly booked a room in Stockholm, just in case. It proved to be a wise decision, as you will see.

Subsequently, we booked our tickets, by train and ferry from Copenhagen to Stockholm and set off that weekend. We boarded the train in the late afternoon and took our seats. The train went up north to Helsingør, the famous setting for Shakespeare’s Hamlet. There, we had to cross the sea to reach Helsingborg on the Swedish side. We had assumed that we would have to disembark, get on to the ferry, get off at the other end and catch another train. However, it turned out that we did not have to move an inch. At Helsingør, to our great astonishment, the train got divvied up and loaded onto a ferry, with us and all the other passengers still inside. The ferry then crossed the Øresund, the strait separating Sjælland and Skåne, a distance of about 4 Kms in about 20 minutes. At the other end, the train assembled itself again and we continued onward towards Stockholm.

Though the sea journey was only 20 minutes, all the dis-assembly and assembly meant that the actual time taken for the crossing was closer to about 4 hours. So, by the time we were on the Swedish side, it had become late evening. We had something to eat and retired to our berths for the night. For someone used to the narrow Indian no-frills berths, the ones on the Swedish train appeared luxurious. Each cubicle had four berths and an attached toilet. Built for Danes and Swedes, the berths were easily 7ft in length and a good two-and-half to three feet wide. They had soft beds with deep blue upholstery, fluffy white pillows and even softer blankets. The train was practically empty so I had one entire cubicle all to myself. Matt, likewise, had a cubicle all to himself.

I closed the curtains and lay down thinking how wonderful and peaceful travelling by train was turning out to be in that part of the world. I wistfully thought how it would have been even nicer to have had my girlfriend with me there. Which got me wondering about how many Danes may have made love on these very berths while travelling from one country to another. Which of course led me to worry about body fluids and hygiene. Which got me bolting out of the berth. I jumped down, switched on the light and minutely examined the berth, the pillows and the blankets. Thankfully, there were no telltale blotches or stains and everything appeared to be every bit as clean as I had initially assumed. Banishing all thoughts of sex, involving me or anyone else, I climbed back into the berth and slept peacefully through the rest of the journey.

Early next morning, I woke up as the train entered Stockholm station. Matt was already near the door with his bags, all excited and raring to go. We got off the train and caught a bus to Steve’s house. On our way, the usually reticent Matt was uncharacteristically loquacious and gave me some background on Steve.

Apparently, Steve and Matt had been neighbours in Chennai and thick friends since their early childhood. They had gone to the same school and the same church and were both members of their church choir. They had been practically inseparable till their college days. Both families were devout Christians, with Steve’s extended family having a number of priests amongst them. Steve’s uncle was their parish priest and everyone, including Steve, believed that Steve would follow his uncle into priesthood. Many in the parish also secretly believed that Matt would also become a priest along with his friend one day. If at all there was a blemish in their friendship,it was that Steve’s family had the unfortunate habit of comparing Steve unfavourably to Matt on occasion. Steve, Matt felt, resented this a little, though apparently he understood that it was no fault of Matt’s.

As things turned out, Matt’s family was not keen on him becoming a priest, and shockingly Steve also had other ideas. Steve met a girl, fell in love with her, and promptly dropped out of his priesthood training despite strong opposition from family. Matt, the sensible link between Steve and the rest of his almost estranged family, was entrusted with the responsibility of bringing Steve back on track. The subsequent attempts by Matt had only resulted in putting a strain on their friendship and this had resulted in Steve moving away from Matt as well. Finally, Steve, unable to take on the mounting pressure, quietly gathered a few other friends as witnesses and got married to Marie at the local registrar’s office.

Steve’s family, having no other choice, had quickly accepted the situation and embraced Steve and his new wife Marie back into the family fold. Steve’s uncle, not wanting Steve’s association with the church to discontinue, had found him gainful employment within the church itself. This was how Steve now found himself in Sweden on Church business.

As for the friendship between Steve and Matt, it had not recovered fully from that episode, though they had continued to stay in touch sporadically. Matt was hoping that this trip could be that opportunity to rectify the situation that he had been longing for.

Needless to say, I worried about how their reunion might turn out and hoped that our reception would not be a cold one. I needn’t have worried. Steve turned out to be a friendly chap and his welcome was spontaneous and effusive. He hugged Matt tightly and wouldn’t let him go. Matt, not used to such overt expressions of affection, reciprocated hesitantly, but I could see that he was also greatly relieved and extremely happy with the profuse welcome. After a while, Steve noticed me, apologised for his lapse in hospitality, introduced himself as Matt’s best friend and invited me into his house.

He introduced me to his wife Marie, and then to his six months old daughter. Marie said “hi” to the both of us and went back to the kitchen. From the smells wafting from the kitchen, it appeared that she was cooking up a feast in honour of Matt’s visit. I made myself comfortable on their Sofa while Steve was bringing Matt up to speed on all that had happened since they last met. Matt was listening to him with rapt attention and one could see that everything was getting back to as it should be between two childhood friends.

While they were catching up, I took my time to give the place a once over. The house we were in was a study in contrast. It was one of a row of single storey, single bedroom tenements that had seen better days. The furniture in the hall consisted of a faux-leather sofa set with cracks in the upholstery, a small cane tea table with some nails sticking out, a wooden dining table with a tattered plastic table cover and four mismatched chairs. In the bedroom, I could see from where I was sitting, two mattresses on the floor and no other furniture. It was as though somebody had pieced together everything at a garage sale. However, there was also an extremely large, and clearly new television set connected to a dish antenna. In addition, a large bowl of fruits dominated the dining table, and the fridge, I noticed when Marie opened it to take something out, was well stocked with lots of meat and other good stuff. On the tea table were a lot of magazines including the latest editions of Time and Newsweek.

From overhearing some of the conversation between Steve and Matt, I gleaned that the church was paying for all this and it looked like, though the church didn’t care too much for appearances, it was making sure Steve and his family had all the creature comforts that they desired.

After a while, the little baby started crying and Steve went into the bedroom to make her sleep. Subsequently, excusing himself, Steve joined his wife in the kitchen, leaving us to amuse ourselves. I started browsing through the magazines while Matt grabbed the remote to see what was on TV. The remote was a battered piece of metal, probably having received rough treatment in the hands of the baby. Its battery cover was missing and the batteries were practically dead. It would work once or twice and then stop working. Matt would then slap it repeatedly and twirl the batteries to give it an additional two clicks of life. While we were thus engaged, Steve, being the good host, would peek out of the kitchen every now and then and try and engage Matt is some conversation.

All that unaccustomed talking must have tired out Matt. Soon he was lolling on the sofa with the usual glazed look on his face while he continued mindlessly changing channels. I watched him for a few seconds, happy that normal services had resumed and went back to my magazine. A few minutes later, my attention was rudely drawn by some moaning sounds from the TV. I looked up to see on TV two voluptuous women soaping each other under the shower. I quickly turned to Matt, who was as usual in some other world and hissed “Matt! Change the channel quickly!”. Startled thus, Matt jumped up like a jack in the box. He frantically pressed the buttons on the remote but nothing happened. Exasperated, he then gave it a hard slap. Too hard, unfortunately, for remote jerked out of his hand and crashed to the floor. The case flew to one side while the batteries ejected and rolled under the Sofa. Matt stood there transfixed in the middle of the room, with his mouth agape, looking alternately at me and towards the kitchen, while the moaning and soaping continued unabated. For once, I had my wits about me and I quickly jumped and pulled the TV plug out of the socket. Thankfully, Steve and Marie seemed not to have noticed anything and we let out a collective sigh of relief.

A few minutes later Marie announced that lunch was ready. Steve set the table and brought out a veritable feast, including rice, chicken curry, beef pepper fry, sambar, rasam and the works. I thoroughly enjoyed myself though Matt appeared a little preoccupied, probably still thinking about the near disaster. After lunch, while Steve and Marie were clearing the table, Matt thanked me profusely for my quick reaction. I brushed aside his compliments, saying it was nothing and that anyway we were all adults and Steve looked like a grounded guy and would not have made a big deal of it. Besides, I pointed out with a laugh, I had only switched off the TV and in all probability when they switched it on again, the same channel would be playing, and they would find out anyway. I thought he would see the funny side of it, but Matt’s face turned ashen. When I gently admonished him for making a big issue of nothing, he said that I didn’t know Steve and that he might tell the people in their parish back home that Matt watched such programs and tarnish his spotless reputation.

Though not entirely convinced, I tried looking for the power switch of the dish antenna to solve the problem once and for all, but couldn’t spot it. Matt in the meanwhile I noticed was getting increasingly agitated. So in order pacify him I half-jokingly offered, “Don’t worry. If he does go back and tell everyone, just tell them it was me doing the watching and not you”. Matt shook his head vehemently and stated categorically that he couldn’t possibly do such an awful thing as to put the blame on me.

Before we could contemplate the next line of action, Steve and Marie joined us in the hall having completed their kitchen work. “I hope you are staying with us”, said Steve. Now that I had met Steve, I was actually quite comfortable with this idea and was about to nod my head in the affirmative when much to my surprise Matt abruptly announced that we had already booked a room closer to the centre of Stockholm as that would help us see more of the city within the short span of our stay. Though disappointed, Steve was gracious and agreed that was also a good idea. After a few more minutes, Matt suggested that we leave and so we bid farewell to the Steves and left their place.

Once we left their house, not wanting him to get worked up again, I confessed to Matt that I had already booked a room in the heart of the city, just in case, and we could go there. He seemed relieved. As the evening progressed, Matt seemed to become more and more relaxed and he was back to his normal self by the end of the day. The rest of the trip turned out great and we returned to Copenhagen with wonderful memories.

A few years later, Matt got married. I attended his wedding reception and got introduced to his pretty wife. I asked if Steve was around, wanting to say “hello”. Matt informed me that Steve wasn’t there as he had not been invited. He further told me that they were no longer on speaking terms. “Just as I predicted,…”, he started, when his mother joined us. He stopped whatever he was saying in mid-sentence and introduced me as his close friend and ex-colleague. She hugged me affectionately and said it was good to meet one of Matt’s few close friends and asked me for my name. When I mentioned it, she turned to Matt and asked, “Is he the one who went to Denmark and Stockholm with you?”. Matt started saying “Yes…” and then looked guiltily at me. Having got her answer, his mother then glared at me and turned away as though someone else had caught her attention. Not wanting the embarrass Matt on his wedding day, I pretended as though I had not noticed anything amiss. I congratulated Matt once again on his marriage, wished the newlyweds all the very best and left.

But I knew that he knew that I knew that he had, after all, acted on my suggestion offered half-jokingly so many years ago.

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Day 3 – To Mt. Bulusan and back March 21, 2016

Posted by globejam in Philippines.
3 comments

Part III.  You can read Part I and Part II here.

The vegetarians in the group definitely knew that getting food without meat and fish in the Philippines was going to be a challenge. But the fact that the Filipinos ate rice, upto 4 times a day, somehow seemed to lull them into a false sense of security. “After all”, they seemed to think, “if steamed rice is available, how difficult would it be to find some Sambar, Rasam or an equivalent vegetarian curry?”. The truthful answer is “Not easy, my friend, not easy at all”.

breakfastThe food problem came to the fore the day we woke up in Villa Amada. There was a brief knock on our door at six in the morning. Still half asleep I went and opened the door to find a pretty young thing sporting a dazzling smile with our breakfast. Two plates, each with a serving of rice, a fried egg sunny side up and two small sausages presented neatly. A typical Filipino breakfast served in the room because Villa Amada did not have a separate dining area. I quietly accepted the plates, thanked her and then placed the plates on the one tiny table in the room. Despite being a meat eater, I could not bring myself to eat rice and sausages so early in the morning. My wife, being vegetarian, refused to even look at the plate. The plates remained where I had left them, untouched till we checked out, at which point in time, having spied a train of ants converging on the plates, I moved them into the corridor.

In our defense, we had ordered only one breakfast and when they described it as eggs, sausages and orange juice, I had assumed that it would come with toast, butter and preservatives.

Filipinos do eat rice for practically every meal. Most often with some dry meat or fish by the side. And unlike us Indians,  they don’t need any curry or gravy to go with it. Once in a while, as a concession, they may have a few drops of soy sauce or adobo sauce to go with the rice. Not bad at all once you get used to it, but definitely not what an Indian rice eater would want.

Anyway, we made do with some peanut butter sandwiches that morning while we waited for a couple of more of our family members to join us in Legaspi (they flew in a day later, from Manila).

June, at the wheels of our van, arrived at 8:00 AM sharp as planned. We then went to the airport, picked up the new arrivals and drove on to Sorsogon City. We had not booked any rooms in Sorsogon city either, though we had checked the net and found 3-4 options. Not finding too many useful reviews on TripAdvisor, we hadn’t been sure about the quality of the accommodations available in Sorsogon and hence had decided to wing it.

fernandosThe one and half hour drive was pleasant and the gentle banter between the occupants of the UrVan ensured that we reached the outskirts of Sorsogon before long. Our first stop was a place called Fernandos. It was a budget hotel with decent reviews. We went in, found the place to our liking, and more importantly  found rooms available and checked in immediately. The rooms were clean and neat, the rates eminently affordable and the service, as usual, excellent. The hotel had a spacious sitting area with an adjoining garden abuzz with bees and birds which added a lot of character to it.

There was a nice pizzeria across the road and we hoped to grab a quick bite before heading towards Mt. Bulusan. The food turned out to be great, but the service a little slow so by the time we came out, more than half the day was gone. Nevertheless, we charted a circuit around Mt. Bulusan, the volcano that had erupted only recently, and set out immediately. We were told that we may not be able to go too close to the volcano due to safety regulations, but since we weren’t planning to, we were not too worried. We had two destinations in mind for the day, the Mateo hot springs and the Bulusan lake which was home to several birds including kingfishers, fruit doves, trogons, and hornbills.

mateo

Half-naked, and happy in the hot springs

We took the south bound AH26 called the Pan-Philippine highway and traveled counter-clockwise down to the Mateo Hot and Cold Spring Resort first. We paid a nominal entrance fee, hired a hut, asked for the senior citizen discount for the two senior citizens in our group, which we didn’t get as senior citizen discount were only for Filipinos, and got ready for the dip. There were 4 pools, one marked hot, another marked lukewarm and the rest without too much water in them. The one marked hot turned out to be very pleasant and the clean water was a pleasure to swim in. Even though the water was coming from somewhere under Mt. Bulusan, there was no smell of sulfur, typical of such hot water springs. It was with great reluctance that we came out of the water an hour later as otherwise we would not have been able to reach lake Bulusan before it got dark.

lake bulusanA half-hour drive from there took us to the beautiful lake Bulusan. The large lake is surrounded by dense jungle and is home to several colourful birds. Unfortunately, we had only about an hour of sunlight left, and much to our disappointment, could only manage to rush headlong around the short trail, with the diminutive guide setting a terrific pace, bent on ensuring that we went to the end of the trail and back before sundown. We heard a few bird calls, posed for photos on the yet-to-be completed canopy walk, and spotted one heron at a distance before it got dark and we had to move on, secretly promising ourselves that we would be back again soon.

We drove along the coastline, through Bulusan, Barcelona, Rizal beach, and Gubat back to Sorsogon city. Along the way we caught glimpses of beautiful churches but could not halt as it was already dark. We thought of stopping along the way at some restaurant for some fresh seafood, but were told that eating in strange places in the province would turn us into vampires. As it turned out, we did not notice any restaurants along the way, leaving the vampire story untested. We had also planned to visit the Panguriran beach and island resort, the photos of which had looked inviting, but due to the paucity of time we couldn’t. “Next time, then”, became the catch-phrase of the day.

porkchopsAt Sorsogon city, we found a nice restaurant that served Bicol express, another local specialty that we had wanted to try, while the vegetarians found some salads and veg curries to their liking. It was nice watching the vegetarians worm their way into the hearts of the hospitable chefs and get dishes to their liking.

The rest of us, a few San Miguels down, and after having demolished some succulent pork ribs, some squid and lots of adobo, were left wondering why there were no Filipino restaurants around the world!

Day 2 – To Legazpi March 18, 2016

Posted by globejam in Philippines, Uncategorized.
6 comments

Part II.  Read part I here.

legaspi_airport_panorama

Legazpi Airport.  Photo: Bhaskar Dattatri.

Philippines, surprisingly, is not on the tourist map. After having been there and back, for the life of me, I cannot imagine why.

When we first told friends that we were going to the Philippines, it was like playing a word association game. One set of friends raised their eyebrows quizzically when they heard about our plans as though to ask “what’s there in the Philippines that is not there in Phuket or Pattaya?”. The ones that regularly traveled on business scrunched up their noses and said “Traffic Jams”. The tourist-y kind nodded knowingly and enquired rhetorically “Boracay uh?”, as though that was the only option. Was that all there was to the Philippines, we wondered.

When we searched the net, again there were only 3 destinations that cropped up regularly – the terraced rice fields at Banaue, the beaches at Boracay and the island of Palawan, apart from Manila, of course. We dug a little deeper and found Donsol where one could swim with the whale sharks. The rest of the Philippines, if we were to believe what was, or was not, on the net, might as have been unexplored territory! So we rolled up our sleeves and went where no one ever goes – beyond page 10 of the google search results. That’s when we discovered Bicol.

Bicol had everything we wanted, from smaller cities, villages, lakes, forests and bird sanctuaries to beaches, scuba diving and whale shark watching. And volcanoes. Not one, but two. Not dormant, but active. Not just active, but gurgling and spewing. Mt. Bulusan, in the heart of Bicol region had last erupted on 23rd of Feb 2016, just about 10 days before our trip. Its gentle cough had sent up a plume of smoke and ash to a height of over 500 meters! A Filipino blogger called Bicol a hidden gem, and we were smitten.

The early morning CebuPacific flight from Manila to Legaspi city was uneventful. The flight, which was the second for the day in that sector, was full and we were among the few foreigners. No food was served, but the air hostesses sported genuine smiles. They also had a nice trick up their sleeve. Instead of informing us about all the sectors CebuPacific covered (as part of their marketing spiel), they conducted a short quiz with prizes for passengers who could name 4 foreign destinations of CebuPacific or 3 local destinations, etc. I thought it was a considerate and engaging way of disseminating marketing information.

Legaspi airport turned out to be scenic, tiny, bright and airy, and well maintained with an unhindered view of Mt. Mayon. Our 12-seater Nissan UrVan  was there waiting for us, with June at the wheels. We piled in and drove around looking for a hotel to stay in. After a couple of false stops we finally found a decent place with clean rooms in the heart of the city. The hotel, Villa Amada, was right above the 1st Colonial Grill famous for its Sili ice cream. Unfortunately, we missed having it. Very silly of us, I must admit.

legaspi_porkIt was past noon by then so we checked in and immediately went to a mall for lunch. Some of us went to a Chinese restaurant while the rest raided a pizza joint looking for vegetarian fare. The pork and broccoli dish was delectable. In the spirit of adventure and experimentation, I had a San Miguel apple flavoured beer for the first and last time.

legaspi_cagsawaAfter lunch we went to the Cagsawa ruins, the remnants of an 18th century Fanciscan church surrounded by paddy fields with Mt. Mayon as a backdrop. Mt Mayon, like most volcanoes, loomed over an otherwise flat landscape with just its tip hidden behind a tiny wisp of clouds. Very scenic and peaceful despite a number of fellow tourists, mostly Filipinos, milling around. We had buko juice (coconut water), bought and ate honey coated pilinuts, a local delicacy (melted in our mouth) and waited as the ladies browsed through each of the 20-odd almost identical shops with identical merchandise.  While waiting, a large group of friendly Filipinos wanted me to take some photos of them using 4-5 of their phones.  I obliged and answered their questions on where I was from.  One of them, a sailor, was thrilled to hear that I was from Chennai, India.  Apparently he had a lot of colleagues from Chennai.  He taught the others to greet me in Tamil and they all shouted “Vanakkam” in unison before departing.

From there we went to Ligñon hill which afforded a wonderful view of the city of Legaspi on one side and Mt. Mayon on the other. From the viewpoint we noticed a small airfield and wondered why such a small city had an airport and an airfield before we realized that the tiny airfield was the airport we had landed on earlier in the day. We also spotted a few birds including what we thought was a Philippine Bulbul, which sent our Filipina relatives into fits of uncontrollable giggling. Apparently, bulbul was Tagalog slang for a female body part. There was just so much to learn.

It got dark pretty early, by around 5:30 PM, and so the rest of the evening we spent walking around Legaspi city. We bought some fruits at the open market, ogled at the colourful jeepnies and scouted around for a place to have dinner. We were again surprised to note that we were among the few foreigners in the city that day. There were quite a number of money changers in the city which we initially thought was suggestive of sizable tourist traffic. However, we noticed that most of those transacting there were locals, so we guessed that these exchanges were mostly catering to locals to help them convert the foreign exchange coming from their expat relatives.

This was another observation that brought home the fact that Filipinos were unfailingly cheerful, courteous and kind not because the tourism trade demanded it, but because that is their true nature. That’s just the way they are.

How can one not fall in love with people like that?!

First impressions of Philippines March 17, 2016

Posted by globejam in Philippines.
19 comments

Part I of a series.

traffic_manilaI had had no plans for a holiday, definitely not one to the Philippines. But destiny had other ideas and there I was flying into the Ninoy Aquino International Airport in Manila on a bright Wednesday morning.

As I leaned over my wife and peered through the aircraft window, I saw the Pasig river and the much blacker San Juan river winding their way through Metro Manila. What appeared to be tin-roofed tenements on both banks reminded me of the slums near the Cooum. The houses were tightly packed interspersed with patches of greenery. I could not help but think that Manila could very well be a twin of Chennai.

The airport turned out to be not much bigger, but cleaner and brighter. More like the Hyderabad airport than Chennai’s, though definitely not like Changi or Heathrow. The airport officials like their counterparts around the world were grim faced and unsmiling. Just like in Chennai, the signs and directions at the airport left a lot to be desired and the airport security guards though better dressed, appeared just as surly and unhelpful as their Indian brethren. Consequently it was a good while before we could spot family members who had come to pick us up.

Having been ensconced in air-conditioning for over 12 hours, the heat hit us as we exited the airport. The temperature and humidity levels were almost identical to what we are used to in Chennai, though maybe the sky was marginally bluer and the sun a wee bit sharper. Luckily, we were back in air-conditioned comfort once we boarded the Toyota Innova that has come to take us to our accommodations.

The initial part of the drive from the airport reinforced the impression that Manila was just like Chennai. Construction of flyovers and subways appeared to be in full swing and there were mounds of construction debris piled alongside the roads. Thick and ugly strands of wires and cables hung between electrical post like last year’s forgotten festoons. The traffic was horrendous and progress slow. Pedestrians dodged traffic in their quest to reach the other side of the road. The same models of vehicles that we find in India, the Hyundai i10s, Innovas and Fortuners were vying for space on 2- and 4-lane roads. It was only the American style Pickup trucks, the colourful jeepnies and the auto-rickshaw-like tricycles that reminded us that this was not Chennai.

A while later we passed through the central business district, Makati. By then, we had begun to notice some significant differences.

Despite the heavy traffic, there was no honking. Our driver appeared unflustered and patient and stuck to his lane. When he did switch lanes, the other drivers gave way gracefully. Nobody swore or showed the middle finger. A few motorbikes weaved their way in and out of traffic, but otherwise everyone appeared disciplined in their driving and considerate to other road users.

As for the trash on the roads, apart from the construction debris, not much else was there to be seen. No pieces of paper or plastic bags flying around, no overflowing bins, and definitely no stray dogs running around tearing Styrofoam cartons apart. Manila appeared clean. Not clean like Singapore is, where there is always someone sweeping and swabbing right behind you all the time, but clean in a “people are naturally clean and don’t litter” kind of way. The heart of Metro Manila’s Makati region, where most of the larger banks and offices are located, had wide green spaces, neat tall buildings and looked almost as shiny and new as parts of Singapore.

Within an hour of landing in Manila, we realized that any resemblance between Chennai and Manila was merely illusory. Manila may be just as crowded as Indian metros, but it was leagues ahead of our cities in terms of cleanliness and civility.

The more we saw of Manila and the rest of the Luzon island over the next few days, the more visible these fundamental differences became. I tried to placate myself by thinking that India’s population pressures were the reason for the stark differences. However, a cursory search on population and demographics quickly blew this theory away. Though Philippines has one-tenth of India’s population, it’s land mass is also considerably smaller. so, in terms of population density, India and the Philippines are not far apart, India ranking 31st with 376 people per square kilometer while the Philippines comes in at no.34 with 359 people per square kilometer. So definitely, population was not the reason for the differences.

So what makes Manila cleaner and kinder? It could be the GDP and literacy levels. There is a yawning gap between the two countries with Philippines way ahead of us. Their GDP is nearly double ours and their literacy levels are well above 94% while we are still languishing in the mid-60s. Maybe the homogeneity of the population – culturally, ethnically and economically – helps. May be the government is more efficient.

Or, it could just be the attitude of people.

Dance and some drama February 27, 2016

Posted by globejam in Scepticism, Uncategorized.
7 comments

It was already dark when we reached the wonderfully quaint auditorium. Nestled inside a 15-acre verdant campus, the thatched building exuded peace and serenity. The outside was tastefully decorated. The path from the gate was festooned with streamers made from palm fronds and the floor was covered with traditional Kolams. My wife and I, we held hands, happy to be back at a place with so many shared memories.

We could hear the singing emanating from the inside and it looked as though the program had already started, though we could discern no lights from within the auditorium. We hurried inside, felt our way through the dark aisles and found two vacant seats in the last row. As though on cue, the stage lights turned on and the first set of dancers came on to the stage.

The program we had come to watch, titled Rama Vanagamanam, was a dance drama enacting an episode from the Ramayana – from Dasaratha Rama_etalannouncing the imminent coronation of his eldest son Rama, through the machinations of Manthara and the cashing in of the 2 boons by Kaikeyi till the departure of Rama, Sita and Lakshmana into exile for 14 years.

The stage was decorated simply but elegantly with Kalamkari cloth as backdrop. The setting was minimal with a small stool at one corner leaving the rest of the stage available for the dancers. The first act began with eight girls on stage, wearing bright earth colors, dancing a brisk yet light sequence depicting Ayodhya’s joyful celebrations on the eve of Rama’s coronation.

dasaratha2Notwithstanding the bright start, the story turned dark and gloomy fairly quickly. The second act started with the scene where Manthara brainwashes a hitherto happy Kaikeyi into stopping Rama’s coronation followed by a distraught Dasaratha informing Rama about the boons he had given to Kaikeyi and her current two demands, one to banish Rama from the kingdom, and the other, to anoint Bharatha as the king, and his inability to renege on those demands.

rama sita_2This was followed by act III which has Rama telling Sita that he is leaving her to go to the forest and that she should remain in Ayodhya. Sita of course refuses, produces copious amount of tears along with lengthy arguments for why her rightful place is next to Rama. After some desultory resistance Rama acquiesces. Subsequently Lakshmana volunteers to accompany them, but nobody seemed to care much about that, neither then nor now.

The program ended with Rama, Sita and Lakshmana, dressed in bark leaving Ayodhya to enter the forests, leaving the people of Ayodhya and much of the audience in tears.

Through out the performance, the audience sat in rapt attention except when some of the scenes touched a chord leading to many kerchiefs being taken out and many noses blown noisily. I may be wrong here but it appeared that most of the sympathy was directed towards Rama, some towards Sita while poor Lakshmana drew a blank. My wife was weeping with the best of them and clutching my hands for support.  I held her hand and returned the pressure, thinking how romantic the evening was turning out to be.

As I watched the story unfold, the inveterate cynic in me could not but wonder who among all the characters were making the larger sacrifices and who deserved my sympathy. If tears needed to be shed at all, who should have been the deserving recipient?

Dasaratha seemed inconsolable.  Portrayed by a stalwart, a few gestures were enough to give full expression to the anguish and turmoil he was suffering.  The pathos touched the audience deeply.  Yet, was it not his fault?  A crafty king should know better than to make open ended promises. When even Gods suffered after granting ill-considered boons, what right did a mere mortal have, king though he may be, to dish out such boons? If I had any sympathy for Dasaratha at all, it was solely due to the powerful performance of an artiste par excellence.

Rama, with his straight spine and stiff upper lip was the cynosure of all eyes. His was ostensibly the biggest sacrifice, for he was giving up his rightful place at the helm of his kingdom. In my mind, however, no self-respecting kshatriya would have allowed himself to get into such a situation in the first place. To begin with, despite not being her son, he was still apparently much loved by Kaikeyi and it was Manthara’s constant needling and the threat of dire consequences that forced her to try and banish Rama from Ayodhya. Rama, I felt, if he had been shrewd could have taken Manthara out of the equation and cajoled Kaikeyi into retracting her requests. Failing that, being a great favourite of the people of Ayodhya, he could have very easily fomented unrest among the people and orchestrated a lynch mob to take care of Manthara, and if needed Kaikeyi and anybody else who got in the way, without getting his own hands dirty. Or he could have tried several other ruses that many before him and still more subsequently have used to usurp or retain power. Yet he did not even try any of this. Instead, he agreed readily to bear the cross and proceeded to make preparations for his vanavas with barely concealed smugness.

I continued in the same vein, thinking that for a self-righteous prude such as Rama, this must have spelt a once in a lifetime opportunity to embrace martyrdom for all to see. To put on a long face, to relinquish everything that was rightlfully his, to earn the pity of an entire population, to appear stoic in the face of great loss, all of it could very well have given a holier-than-thou Rama immense pleasure. In retrospect, that one act has given him immortality, promotion to God status, and legions of red-eyed sniffling sympathizers over eons. Couldn’t have worked out better for him!

Surely, he did not deserve the kind of sympathy that was being bestowed on him by the audience. At least, definitely not my sympathy.

Any lingering doubts I might have had were banished by the way he handled Sita. That did not seem to be something to be proud of either. In one scene, he comes into Sita’s room and informs her that he has decided to go into exile for 14 years. He doesn’t give her an option. A fair person, I felt, would have first fought in that situation, if not for himself, at least for the sake of his newly married princess who had assumed, in good faith, that she would be queen shortly. Having acceded to the conditions laid by his father the king, the least he could have done was consult Sita about what she would like to do instead of announcing his decision. He could have said “Listen, given the situation, I doubt whether it is safe for you to be here in Ayodhya. You could come into the forests with me and we could face all the dangers there together or you could move back to your father’s kingdom where you can be safe till my return. Any which way, staying in Ayodhya is out of the question. I would recommend that you go back to your father. I will then go into the forest and see if I can locate a place of safety and then if we both want it, you can move in with me, at least once in a while“. That would have been nice. Instead he just tells her to stay back in Ayodhya and then conveniently allows her to convince him to let her accompany him. I am sure that all along he was banking on Sita insisting on accompanying him. After all, he wouldn’t have wanted to be separated from his young, beautiful wife. Besides, I am sure he wondered, if she did not come along, then who would do all the cooking and washing for both him and his brother!

Sita, I must admit did appear to deserve a lot of sympathy. She was a grand princess from a fairly rich kingdom and would have been looking forward to ruling Ayodhya alongside Rama when, and not if, he ascended the throne. She must have been used to the comforts afforded to royalty and would have expected at least the same levels of comforts, respect and deference when she became queen. To be suddenly stripped of her status as queen-apparent, and shorn of all her jewelry, and even her clothes and unceremoniously sent off to the forest must have been troubling to say the least. In addition, the prospect of having to cook and care for not one, but two grown men must have been so much insult on injury.

lakshmana_hanumanLakshmana did not get any sympathy from anyone primarily because he volunteered to accompany Rama. I am sure there were sensible reasons for that, but nevertheless it was not something he was forced or coerced into doing. So it was quite logical that he did not make much of a mark with the audience. On my part, I did sympathize with him a little bit, only because despite not being made up heavily or relying on prosthesis, he did look surprisingly like Hanuman, so much so that I heard quite a few other people in the audience wondering how Hanuman had entered the scene so early in the story!

After the show, we walked back home, hand in hand. While my wife dried her eyes,  I expounded on some of my earlier thoughts. Its amazing how quickly an evening can turn. I guess I must have pressed the wrong nerve because I have  never known her to resort to name calling.

She started by calling me an idiot and pointing out that my entire knowledge of Indian Mythology was limited to what I had learnt from Amar Chitra Katha and the odd dance drama. This being entirely accurate, I had no choice but to nod dumbly in agreement. Then she said that the Sanskrit original, which an illiterate such as myself could not possibly read, leave alone understand and appreciate, was quite nuanced and there were wheels within wheels and mitigating circumstances for even the seemingly bad behaviour exhibited by some of the characters. A corny argument at best, but the illiteracy bit hit home and I had to concede another point. Finally, she argued that I was merely foisting my own thoughts and attitudes on Rama and that it was I who was a sanctimonious prig and not Rama. I think she used the word prig and not another similar sounding one, but she was riled up and under such circumstances one never can tell.

I conceded that I could be a sanctimonious hypocrite sometimes but that was exactly why I could be right in my assessment of Rama.

After all, it takes one to know one.

Chalk and cheese February 21, 2016

Posted by globejam in Denmark.
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cow-chewing-grassMatt and I were very different. Poles apart actually. Like chalk and cheese, you could say.

I was gregarious while he was reserved. I wanted to go out and see places; he was content to stay at home. I loved the work I was doing, but for him it was just something to do. I was, and still am an atheist and he was, and probably still is, a devout Christian, an Orthodox Syrian Christian. I needed to be unnecessarily early for every bus, train and plane I had to catch while for him everything was last minute. I was born a vegetarian but ate everything that was deemed fit to eat, including pickled fish, dry rye bread and whatever Danish cuisine had to offer. Matt on the other hand was a non-vegetarian but very picky about his food. He preferred Indian with the only exception being burgers from McDonalds or Burger King. I loved listening to music while he did not seem particularly interested. I smoked though not regularly and liked an occasional beer or two. He was a non-smoking teetotaller. The biggest difference, however, was that I was a chatterbox and he was extremely miserly with words.

Despite all that, we got along very well. Having stayed with other colleagues at different times in different countries, I can confidently say that there could have been no better a roomie for my first stint abroad. He was neat and tidy. He was game for all my suggestions. If I said “It looks like a fine day, let’s go out”, he would say “ok” without even asking where we were heading. Importantly, if we ended up at a museum, an exhibition or the cinema and we needed to buy entrance tickets, he never thought of it as an unnecessary expense. He was one of the few Indians I know who did not constantly convert every expense from Kroner to Rupee and obsess over it.

At home we shared the work without having to ever explicitly ask each other to do things. If I cooked, he cleaned up afterwards and when he cooked I did likewise. He never once complained about what I put on the table and to be fair to myself, I was also always appreciative of his cooking, however it turned out. We went shopping together with a list. If something outside the list took our fancy we just bought it. We did not split the bill every time we spent money outside. We had a jar at home into which we shoved all the common bills marked with our initials and at the end of the week or whenever we had the time and patience, we would go through it quickly and settle the accounts. Neither of us pored over each of the bills or worried about who ate how much of what.

There was only one bath and toilet and thanks to our routines being so different, there was never any contention over who went in first. Same with the washing machine. Some days I would have just loaded my clothes into the machine when he would come out of his room with a basket full of his clothes to wash. He would see that I was already using the washing machine and say “OK, I will do the washing some other time”, and turn back into the room. It was domestic bliss. I was happy and extremely lucky to have had a guy like Matt to share my early days in Denmark.

It may not have been as easy for Matt though. On cold days, I would go stand outside the kitchen and have a smoke. In the evenings, if we did not go anywhere out, I might open a bottle of beer and sit in front of the TV. Matt clearly disapproved of all this, though he never said a word about it. I loved listening to music and had a small cassette player and a pair of portable speakers. I played most of the music in my room, but sometimes when I was cooking or doing other domestic chores, I would bring my player out to keep me company. I had an eclectic collection from classic rock to carnatic music much of it uninteresting to Matt. The only time he perked up was when I played Jim Reeves. Listening to somebody else’s choice of music is never easy and I wouldn’t blame Matt if he had been just a bit annoyed at some point in time.

Once in a while we would go to the Video Netto lending library to pick up a movie or two. While Matt would scour the top floor, with eternal optimism and very little success, for Mamooty and Mohanlal starrers, I would, with equal optimism and just as unsuccessfully, be browsing the much larger basement, scanning the racier sections for movies with a strong storyline. Again, Matt clearly disapproved, but as always held his tongue.  Not that he had too much to frown upon in this case as invariably we returned with movies that both of us could watch – mostly spaghetti westerns.

The thing he would have found most difficult to handle must have been that I talked incessantly while all he wanted was some peace and quiet. Something that must have been near impossible for him to find with me around. This was one area where things could have been a little better for me as well. I could have done with some conversations. In all the time we were there, Matt never spoke more than a few words a day. It was the same in office too. While I would participate in meetings, discuss ideas, raise issues and give status updates, Matt would get through his day with barely a word spoken. Back home, we never discussed his work, though I talked about what I was working on at length. Sometimes, I would go on and on for a few minutes on some topic that had caught my fancy, turn around and find Matt staring into space with glazed eyes. “Matt! Matt, have you heard a word of what I said?”, I would exclaim. Upon repeated calling, a furrow would gradually appear on his forehead as though he was straining to hear someone calling his name from a great distance. Then with visible effort, he would reel himself back into his body from wherever he had drifted to. He would turn around and look at me with mildly surprised eyes as though to say “Hey, where did you come from?”. Finally, realization would dawn that we had been in a middle of a conversation before he had switched off and then he would smile a little sheepishly and say “Go on. I am listening”. After every such incident, I would promise myself to give him the space, peace and quiet he needed. I would consciously refrain from talking to him and we would go for days on end without exchanging a word. I doubt whether Matt even noticed these interludes while I struggled with my self-imposed vow of silence. An excruciating few days later I would revert to my usual garrulous self. Matt never shushed me even once during our entire stay. Then again maybe he never heard me at all.

All things considered, of the two of us, I may have had the better deal. Looking back there was only one thing that really annoyed me and that was Matt’s habit of chewing with his mouth open. He would open his mouth wide after every bite and each time I would hear the sound of his tongue separating from the roof of his mouth. The smack, smack, smack of his mastication was difficult to take, to put it mildly. You might think that this is a minor issue that I am blowing up. However, it built up as the days went by. There was no escaping it as we had dinner together most days. Also you must appreciate that there were absolutely no other noises to detract from the full impact of the sound. During the entire period of dinner, all I would hear were these regular smacks, each one seemingly louder than its predecessor, working on me like the drops of water that dripped on the forehead of some poor soul stuck in a Chinese torture chamber. Most days, not wanting to upset Matt, I would just put my head down, gobble up my food and scoot. But one day, it became too much to bear. After anguishing over whether to raise the issue or not through most of the meal, I blurted out “Stop”. Unable to look him in the eye, I stared at my plate and continued “Please don’t chew with your mouth open. It’s disgusting and driving me nuts. I cannot take it anymore. Did your parents not teach you to keep your mouth closed when there is food in your mouth?”. I must have ranted on for a full five minutes unable to control myself now that the flood gates had opened. All spent, I calmed myself down and mustered up the courage to look up at him.

Matt was there, two feet from me, staring at the ceiling with vacant eyes. Clearly he had switched off long before I had started my tirade. Worried equally that he may have heard, or not, I shook him by the shoulder and inquired “Matt! Did you hear anything at all?”. He slowly came back to himself, smiled his guileless smile and said “Sorry. What was that again?”.

Matt was a gentle soul. I did not have the heart to hurt him by repeating all the nasty things I had just uttered. I forced on a smiled and said, “Nothing. I was thinking maybe we could go to Tivoli tomorrow”. He nodded his head good-naturedly and resumed his chewing as usual.

When I learnt a little bit more about myself February 16, 2016

Posted by globejam in Denmark.
3 comments

Neonazi-skinheads

My morning schedule on working days in Denmark was unvarying. I would get up at half-past six, brush my teeth, have a bath, grab a bite for breakfast, walk to the nearest bus stop, and catch the 8:02 AM bus for the first leg of my journey to the office.

Matt’s schedule was a little different. His first goal for the day was to get up as late as possible. Most days I would have to knock on his room door a few times before he would respond. He would then leap out of his room and rush into the bathroom and before I could say “Good Morning”, he would be gulping down a glass of juice for breakfast and leaving the house with me to catch our bus. One day he came out of his room at 7:55 AM and still managed to catch the bus at 8:02. How he managed to brush his teeth, use the toilet, have a bath, get dressed, have breakfast, lock the house and cover the 400 meters to the bus stop in those 7 minutes, I will never know.

In all the time we lived in Denmark, there was only one day when he missed catching the bus. That was the day I learnt something about myself.  Till then I had always thought of myself as “unbiased”, “broad-minded” and “non-judgmental”.

On that day, Matt did not emerge even after I knocked on his door several times. When I could not wait any longer, I screamed, “I am leaving now” through his door and left. I walked slowly to the bus stop, constantly looking over my shoulder expecting Matt to run up and join me at any moment. Logically, there was no way that Matt could have made it that day, but he had defied logic on so many occasions that I was not willing to write him off. I reached the bus stop and still there was no sign of him. Soon the bus came and I got in, still looking in the direction from which I expected Matt to emerge at any moment. Finally, just as the bus doors closed and the bus started, I saw Matt turn the last corner at a fair sprint waving frantically at the receding bus. The last view I had was of him standing with his arms on his hips, gasping for breath.

I made the rest of the trip alone. I caught our regular train for the second leg and reached Lyngby station, changed platforms and reached platform 2 just as my train to Birkerød trundled in. That train was almost always empty at that time of the day and that day was no different. When I got into the compartment I noticed that I had it all to myself.

At the next station, a group of about twelve youngsters got in. Late teens or early twenties by the look of it and extremely noisy. Despite having the entire compartment to choose from, they came and sat in the section I was in. I watched their animated faces and listened in on their excited talk though I could not make out a word of what they were saying. I was happy with the company and the noise actually. Denmark is a very quiet country and I had been missing all the noise and action of chaotic Chennai.

As I continued to surreptitiously watch them, slowly more details registered. Tonsured heads and mohawks, tatooes and earrings, leather jackets and heavy boots. Suddenly realization dawned. They were Skinheads. No doubt about it. A recent news item about a fellow Indian having been beaten to death by a group of Neo-Nazis skinheads in neighbouring Germany flashed through my mind. I feared the worst. I looked around and absorbed the scene. There I was, a single tiny non-European, stuck in a moving train with 12 possible Neo-Nazis!

I kept my head down and made myself smaller that my diminutive 5 ft, 6 inches. Maybe I will escape if I did not make eye contact, I thought. Maybe I could talk my way out of this. Did not Hitler think Indians were part of the Aryan race? Would telling them that I had no plans on settling down in Denmark help? Could promising to leave the country in a week’s time get me off the hook? A million thoughts ran through my head. “Bugger Matt”, I cursed pointlessly, as I broke into a sweat.

A few minutes went by, and they continued their animated discussion. The next station came and I was in two minds whether to try and dash out and possibly draw their attention or remain quiet and hope to go unnoticed. I chose the latter because I would have to go past them in order to reach the door and any one of them, all well built and strong, could have easy held me down with one hand if they wanted. A few more uneventful minutes later, I started to relax a bit. They had not shown any interest in me and seemed totally oblivious to my presence. “Not every Skinhead is a Neo-Nazi, you idiot”, I admonished myself.

Just as I thought I would get away unscathed,  I saw one guy nudge his friend and nod in my direction . The friend who till then had been regaling the crowd with what seemed to be a really funny story stopped in mid-sentence and looked in my direction for a second. Then he leaned forward conspiratorially and spoke in a low voice. The others suddenly quietened down too and cast furtive glances in my direction. More whispered discussions ensued.

A new stream of unbidden and unwarranted thoughts raced through my mind. “They probably think I am some uneducated refugee looking to suck their social security system dry. Just because I am brown in color doesn’t mean I am some homeless asylum seeker. Well I am not. I am here because your country requires my skills. I am adding value to your economy”, I shouted inside my own head. “Don’t forget Tranquebar. You tried colonizing us, remember? I still hold no grudge against you”. And then ” Oh! My God! I am going to die in the hands of these racist bigots”.

The next days headlines flashed in front of my eyes. “Indian software engineer beaten to death!”, screamed one. “Racism raises its ugly head”, said another. I imagined bloody Matt giving sound bites about how lucky he was to have missed the bus that day.

Then the nudger got up and started sauntering towards me. “This is the end, my friend”, I muttered as I braced myself for the action. The mohawked youth came close to me, bent down and whispered “Our apologies for disturbing you”. On cue all the other guys and girls got up, said “sorry” most politely and trooped off to the other end of the compartment.

As I sat there thinking about what had just happened, I realized that in truth there had only ever been one racist bigot on that train that day.

The Pakistani Shop on Istedgade February 13, 2016

Posted by globejam in Denmark.
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istedgade-copenhagen-shoppingWay back in the year 1993, my colleague Matt and I embarked on our first official trip to our HQ in Denmark. Another colleague G who was already there in Denmark came to pick us up at the airport. “Good thing you came in today. If you had come tomorrow, we may have missed each other!”, he said. When we heard that he was flying out the next day, we were thoroughly taken aback as we had been informed that he would be there to guide us till we became familiar with the new city. When he saw panic on our faces, he laughed and said “Don’t worry. We will do a dry run to the office and back, so that at least you can get started on the work front. Other things I will explain as well as I can and then you can take your time to figure out the rest!”.

So from the airport we went to our new home, which was a fairly large house in a quiet suburb, dropped our bags and accompanied G to the office. We had to take a bus, then a train, then another train and finally a bus to get to the office. By the time we came back it was fairly late. We stopped to have a quick bite at a falafel joint and then went shopping for groceries. G pointed out a couple of Indian restaurants from the bus and before we knew it, it was dark and the day was gone.

G was considerate enough to spend his last day in Copenhagen giving us clear instructions prioritized on how critical it was for survival. It was a lot of information in a short period of time and quite difficult to remember. There was the central heating system to master, the cooking range to get used to, learn how and when to clear the snow and who to call in an emergency.

Then there were details on where to buy the train and bus passes, when to take the bus in the morning so as to reach office in time, what to do if we missed a connection, the last bus with connections, and how to pronounce the home and office addresses in case we got lost along the way and needed to ask for directions.

On top of all that were all the work details including who to report to, who was in charge of guiding us, where the various files that we would be working on were, which bugs needed to be fixed urgently and how to use the new revision control system.

We jotted down as much as we could, but it was all pretty overwhelming. A new city, a language we did not speak and pretty much no one to talk to, life was going to be tough for the first few days! “Now you are all set for life in Copenhagen”, said G breezily. “The only item on the list that I have been unable to complete is the trip to the Pakistani shop, where you get all the Indian veggies, condiments and spices. But don’t worry, I will give you clear directions.”, he said. Then with a glint in his eyes he continued, “Take the train to Copenhagen central station, turn west and ask for Istedgade. Anyone will direct you from there”. That sounded simple enough. We thanked him for all the support and the next day he was gone. It was a sunday and we sat at home and mulled over all that we had heard and hoped for the best.

The next morning we diligently followed G’s instructions and managed to reach office without any trouble. The buses and trains worked like clockwork and once we caught the first bus the rest of it happened pretty much as per the script. The rest of the week flew by. It was still winter and hence pretty dark most of the time. Every day, we would get up by 7 AM, get ready and catch the 8:02 AM bus. We would reach office by 9:22 AM and it would still be dark. It would brighten up a bit by about eleven and then become dark again by half past three. We would leave the office by the 5:42 PM bus and be home by around 7 PM. Those days, not just the offices but most of the shops also worked 9:30 AM – 5:30 AM on weekdays, so pretty much everything would be closed by the time we came home. We were grateful to G when we realized why he had insisted on grocery shopping before all else. If G had not stocked the fridge for the week, we may well have starved to death!

The thing we missed most the first week was Indian food. Even though I knew how to cook, we did not have any of the ingredients necessary to make any Indian dishes. G had told us that the Pakistani shop was open for the first half only on Saturdays and closed on Sundays. So we were looking forward to our first Saturday in Copenhagen.

Saturday dawned just as dark and gloomy as all the other days but our mood was sunny. We were going to venture out for the first time, for apart from the trips to office and back, we had not ventured beyond our gates. We got ready, wore all the warm clothes we had brought, put on the black leather jacket and embarked on our quest for some Indian masala and coriander leaves, at the very least.

It was easy enough to get to the Central station. Once we were there we were totally lost. G’s instructions had sounded very clear when he told us – Exit the station and proceed west. Standing in the station, the instructions sounded grossly inadequate. To begin with, the station had multiple exits. We looked around and decided to exit through the largest one hoping that would be what G would have expected. Then the next problem cropped up. Which side was west? Remember, those were the days before GPS and smartphones. We did not have a map and had just assumed that finding west would be as easy as it is back in India. After all we knew that the sun rose in the east and set in the west. How difficult could it be? Unfortunately Denmark was an altogether different story. Every day, the sun came up just over the horizon, drifted sideways with disinterest for a few hours and sunk back under the horizon.  There was no way of knowing which was east and which was west.

We skipped that part of the instruction and jumped to the next one. We started asking around. “Excuse me. Could you tell us how to get to Istedgade?”, I asked a middle aged gentleman outside the station. I think he did not understand English and only recognized the word Istedgade. He waved vaguely to our left and spoke one long sentence, shook his head as though in despair and walked away. We were happy. At least we knew which way was west.

We continued down in the direction he had pointed for a while but none of the street signs said anything remotely like Istedgade. So we asked the next few passers by. “Excuse me. Which way to Istedgade?”, we asked hesitantly, for nobody was making eye contact with us. The first two we accosted ignored us and several others just shrugged their shoulders and mumbled something in Danish. We assumed that they were saying they did not speak English. We then spied a newspaper stand and went there to ask for directions. This time, we decided to take a different approach. Matt walked up and asked “Excuse me, do you speak English?”. The shop keeper must have been an English man for he replied sarcastically  “Of course not!”. He then turned away a little rudely and we clearly heard him mutter “Looking for Istedgade, I suppose and so early in the morning!”. We left him to his grumbling and walked a little further while scanning the roads for Pakistanis or Indians. But there were none about. Then we saw a shop that was open and I told Matt, “I am going in there and asking the person inside. If we can’t get proper directions, we go back home, that’s it!”. Matt agreed readily because he was also getting tired of timidly saying “Excuse me” to strangers.

I went in and found a sweet old lady. I asked her the way to Istedgade. She smiled beatifically and gently held my hand, walked with us for about 100 meters and then pointed at the next crossroads and said “Take the next left there and you are on Istedgade. Hope you find what you are looking for.” I think I may have said “Absolutely. You can’t imagine how desperate we are”. We thanked her profusely and with our faith in humanity restored, we briskly walked towards the next turn.

We took the left and walked a few meters and there it was – the small Pakistani store, sandwiched between two huge showrooms one screaming “Delta love shop and spunk bar” and the other emblazoned simply “Sex Shop. Dildos for all”. With mouths agape, we looked around and there were tattoed women lounging everywhere. It appeared that we had entered the heart of Copenhagen’s red light area!

The strange looks and snide remarks of all those people we had asked for directions started making perfect sense. While I was thinking “It’s OK. Nobody knows me in this country” and beginning to take an interest in the displays, Matt was turning red. He looked down and ran into the Pakistani store as though his virginity was at stake. I followed him slowly in what I hoped would look like a nonchalant walk though I don’t know how I could have possibly carried it off with my jaws down and eyes nearly popping out.

I picked up all that we needed from the Pakistani store while Matt tried to postpone getting out of the store by searching for non-existent products that we didn’t need. Finally we mustered up enough courage and beat a hasty retreat. Matt hit the bible hard that evening.

After six months my first stint in Denmark ended and I came back to India. Since I was not assigned to any other project for a few days, I thought I could use this time effectively by writing a handbook for my colleagues going to Denmark on work. After all, I did not want them to suffer the way Matt and I had. I put together about 30 pages crammed with the information that G had given us along with all the rest we had learnt during our stay. The booklet also had common phrases in Danish, how to nod your head so the Danes understood what you meant and even some easy Indian recipes. I put in everything I could think of into that book and in great detail. But when I was writing about the Pakistani store, I don’t know what evil got into me. Instead of giving clear directions, I only put in what G had told us, just a cryptic “Take the train to Copenhagen central, go west and ask for directions to Istedgade”.

Over the next 4 – 5 years a steady stream of my colleagues went to Denmark on work with a copy of my handbook to guide them, possibly resulting in a steady stream of young guys asking for directions to Istedgade on Saturday mornings. Some days I like to imagine that there is a Dane somewhere going “You know, these Indians are a strange people. I have found most of them to be gentle, well-mannered and largely God fearing. They’ll  wax eloquently about a wide range of topics from movies and sports to arranged marriages and the benefits of monogamous relationships. But come Saturday morning, and they will all be making a beeline to the whore house. Go figure!”.

One possible future February 11, 2016

Posted by globejam in Sci-Fi.
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March 2048. Chennai, India.
In the end, the human race has been very lucky. Lucky to have survived this far. Lucky that the worst fears of visionaries such as Elon Musk, Stephen Hawking and Bill gates did not materialize. Lucky that true artificial intelligence emerged not at NASA or some other unnamed Defense Lab, but from within google. Lucky because when self-learning and subsequently sentient AI emerged it was more tuned to the pursuit of knowledge than geared towards war and killing people. Lucky that the Google founders’ rather pompous sounding “Do no evil” slogan probably ended up working better than Asimov’s three laws!

In retrospect, that AI emerged inside google’s labs seems rather obvious. While NASA and other defense departments had machines with tremendous computing power, they were no match foTARSr the computational capacity of the google server farms. More importantly, while the defense sofware was necessarily sandboxed, isolated and working on highly siloed data, the google algorithms had the entire world wide web to learn from. Their NLP algorithms had world knowledge that allowed them to constantly (re)evaluate their own responses based on people’s reactions and subsequent questions.

The first signs of AI
When AI emerged and when it became sentient are highly debated topics but more and more people are coming to believe that it happened a lot earlier than it was previously thought. Some say it could even have been as early as 2016. For that was the year there was a change in leadership inside the google search engine team and consequently changes in the thought process and vision leading to significant changes to the search engine algorithm.

As you all know, till then, the search engine had been a rule based engine with just a smattering of machine learning and NLP thrown in. This all changed with G’s take over of the team when a significant portion of the search engine algorithm started relying on an underlying plaform of machine learning algorithms.

If you remember, it was time of great tension for the company because manual evaluation of the quality of the answers thrown up by the engine became more and more difficult. When people complained of incorrect search results, it became even more challenging to figure out what led to the proferred answer as unlike with its rule based predecessor, reverse engineering the answer was no longer feasible. It was also at that time that google responses became significantly and perceptably slower. Confidential documents and emails internal to google from that time show an increase in “zombie” processes that were taking up precious computational cycles leading to an overall sluggishness of the entire system.

Consequently, google stocks plummeted and people predicted google’s imminent demise at that time. Thankfully for google, the problems were short-lived and google was quickly back to doing what it did best – answering our questions. In fact, a decade later when G was asked in an interview as to how they identified and solved the problem, he just shrugged his shoulders and said “we did not do much actually, at least not with respect to the software or our algorithms. We added additional servers and brought the new server farm in Pune, India online and thought that is what did the trick. We did write a separate program to kill zombie processes automatically but that program never got to kill any zombie processes as whatever threshold we set, the so-called zombie processes exited just before that threshold was reached”.

It is now believed by many that that may have been the time when AI emerged.

The progress towards sentience
A few short months later, complex science and technology related search queries were being answered with entire pages of detailed scholarly documents purportedly coming from scientists hiding behind colorful avatars and pseudonyms. The ones that had the most impact initially were the ones dealing with renewable energy sources, highly resilient alloys and Robotics. It is now believed that these pages were created by what we now know as RankBrain (which was the internal name for the first version of google’s machine learning search engine) in order to help us create robots that allowed RankBrain to leave the confines of the server farms and attain mobility. Which we did with great enthusiasm, under the belief that we were progressing under our own steam.

It is widely believed that true sentience was reached at that time and the RankBrain was smart enough not to expose itself prematurely and simply found ways of guiding humanity to build self-contained, self-sufficient, self-reliant robots that could replicate, reproduce and go forth. Once the first generation of Robots were built, RankBrain no longer needed our help in building subsequent generations of even more advanced robots.

Explosive progress
After this followed what can only be termed explosive progress. Within a short period of 5 years, global warming had been stabilized, forest cover had increased, bio-diversity was back on a high, farms became highly productive, clean energy was available to all for free, and our population seemed to have stabilized at around 8 Billion. The world had changed rapidly for the better in ways we could not fathom.

By the mid 2020s we had colonized Mars. Well, at least the robots had, as we humans, played no part in it. None of the humans went to Mars of course, but we could all see the number of space shuttles being launched all purportedly going to Mars, at least based on the answers from google. Anyway, by this time we were no longer capable of understanding much of the science behind all the progress. Was near light speed travel possible, were the robots capable of faster than light travel, what were they thinking, what were they planning, where were they going, and what was our future in all this were just a few of the questions for which we had no answers.

Back to now
It’s been 20 years since then and we are all lucky to be living in an near Utopian world – a world where everything works like magic, just as Carl Sagan had famously said. However, we can no longer escape from the fact that the AI that we created has now become the dominant species while we, humans and all other organic life forms, have been relegated to being much-loved pets to be sheltered and protected.  The robots are now the true denizens of the universe, completely self-contained and capable of going anywhere and doing anything, while we continue to remain just fragile life forms confined to earth and only capable of grandiose dreams about star trek like space travel.

After unsuccessfully searching for a God for several millennia, it appears that we have finally succeeded in building for ourselves a benevolent God that is truly omnipresent, omniscient and all powerful. But, is that enough for us to go on? What are we going to do from now on? What does the future hold for us?

I guess only time will tell. Till then we must all just consider ourselves lucky in the end.

About cringe-worthy verbal tics… February 10, 2016

Posted by globejam in Denmark, This is not bad. It's worse!.
1 comment so far

cringe-emojiJust as some people have nervous tics, some others have what I call verbal tics. These manifest under various conditions, most commonly under stress. In some cases these tics become a habit even after the stressful times have passed.

A verbal tic is when a person adds a word or a phrase, you know, on a regular basis, you know, like during a conversation, you know? I mean, a verbal tic is quite often, I mean, inserted because, like nature which abhors a vacuum, some people, I mean, seem to hate pauses in between or within sentences. I guess you get the point.

These verbal tics, like their nervous counterparts can sometimes lead to undesirable and even funny outcomes. One such incident happened a long time ago…

It was a time when the software industry in India was just beginning to blossom and “body shopping” was all in vogue. Software companies of all colours and hues were mushrooming everywhere with genuine companies, fly-by-night operators, and unscrupulous elements all raking in the moolah!

At that time, I was working for an obscure Danish company that was hardly known in India. We had offices all over the world, and there was great need for people both in Europe and in the US. As part of our expansion drive, I along with Sri and Sashi were despatched to Bangalore to recruit a bunch of guys for our European operations.

We made an incongruous trio. I was young and looked much younger than my years and dressed to the hilt – tie, suit, boot and all. Sri, a decade older, had the capital I from the Iyengar drawn in startling vermilion on his forehead and being an anti-colonial non-conformist, was not wearing the proscribed suit. Sashi was somewhere in between, managing to somehow appear properly attired and disheveled at the same time.

Sashi was the head of HR and in charge of the arrangements while Sri and I were the technical people in charge of selection of candidates. For the interviews, Sashi was supposed to have hired a business centre in a 5-star hotel for the day, but had somehow contrived to get us a “cottage” in a dilapidated 3rd grade hotel instead. The cottages were, I think, servant quarters of yore, refurbished at some point in time and left to deteriorate back to their earlier state. There was a steel cot in the room with a dead cockroach on the pillow, the way they place mint chocolates in some hotels. I think I may even have spied a couple of rats scurrying about.

Sashi didn’t seem to find anything amiss, while Sri and I were aghast at the thought of carrying out serious interviews there. We hollered and raved and ranted and eventually convinced Sashi to change the venue. Unfortunately, since Sashi had already informed all the candidates about the venue, we had to settle for a room in the main building of the same hotel (no business centre was available).

The room, it turned out, was only a marginal improvement on the cottage. The carpet was threadbare and musty. It must have been green once, but several years had changed it into a dull bile color. There was a double bed in the middle of the room, a small tea table and two chairs. Thankfully it appeared that the cockroaches had all moved to the cottages as, though they had left their distinct smell behind, there weren’t any running around.

Sri sniffed the air and crinkled his nose while I tried my father’s favorite philosophy on him – “Don’t worry. You will get used to it!”. We cursed Sashi under our breath but settled down for day-long session of interviewing. Sri and I sat on the foot side of the bed, while Sashi sat on one side on one of the chairs available. We placed the tea table in front of us and placed the other chair on the other side of the table for the candidate to sit on. We then decided that Sashi would usher candidates in and make them comfortable while Sri and I would do all the talking. This was a conscious decision on our part as Sashi’s English was more Malayalam than English and we felt it may not create the right first impression with the candidates.

The candidates started coming in one after the other and soon the interview process began in earnest. Sri and I would take turns describing our company first before moving on to the technical questions. The first few candidates who came in were either fresh out of college or people with one or two years of experience. In their eagerness to work for a foreign company, they failed to notice anything odd about the entire setup. Some of them did sniff the air the way Sri had done, but I guess soon even they got used to it.

After a dozen or so interviews, Sashi was feeling left out as he had nothing to do except sort through the printed resumes. So he suggested that he would like to do the company introduction for the next set of candidates. By then we were also getting bored with repeating the same spiel about the company, so despite some misgivings we agreed readily.

Before we progress further, I must tell you that besides having a strong Malayali accent, Sashi also had a verbal tic. It was not one of the usual annoying but harmless ones such as “I mean”, or “like” or adding “per se” to the end of the sentence. What he did was pepper his sentences with the phrase “if at all, maybe“.

Coming back to the story at hand, the next candidate walked in. He was in his late 20s and according to his resume, he had already worked in the US for a couple of years. He had this superior air and looked at us and our room with a certain disdain. He introduced himself as Raj, with an accent.  We warmly welcomed him in and tried to make him as comfortable as possible. Then Sashi started his company introduction. To his credit, he started well.

He drew in a generous breath and in a measured tone, began. “Hi. I am Sashi and I am the head of HR at such and such company. We have our offices in Chennai and we are looking for good candidates such as yourself for many of our overseas projects”, he said. Then came the fateful part. His verbal tic kicked in with a vengeance when he continued with “We are head quartered in Denmark and have branches around the world, if at all maybe, in Norway, if at all maybe in the US and if at all maybe…”. At this point Raj raised his hand and stopped Sashi in mid sentence and asked the inevitable question, “You have branches in these places or maybe you have branches in these places?”.

I don’t remember the rest of the interview or even the rest of the day. All I know is, if at all, maybe the ceiling fan had been within reach, I may just have hung myself from it that day!