Thursday, September 24, 2009

... and let dive

You know when we were growing up, and getting from 6th standard to 7th standard was a big deal. It was like something to be conquered. As I read somewhere, a three and a half year old knows the difference between being three and being four. I am three-and-a-half  years old. Ever seen a kid who is not proud saying that?

Sometimes I feel that I need that metric just to experience the ecstasy of taking a number down. Floating around aimlessly with little joys and without tangible milestones simply won't do. I guess that's why people run marathons. 42 becomes that number to run for, to say I've been-there-done-that. 
Does one need milestones to find happiness? 

Now I am being all scatty. This is right after Cyn called my blog a sleek minimalistic condo. I wonder why she would say that. Must be true. This is where the dirt is under-the-fancy-rug-swept, there is no storage space, and money-plants grow, ironically, in empty wine bottles. Plus, though this place impresses others, the truth is that however long I live here, I never seem to belong. 

But I digress. As always, I digress.

"Collect your thoughts", a friend in college used to say, "collect your thoughts before you dive into the middle of it all"

There you go, back to the point.

Diving is something that has given my life some semblance of that structure. From a non-swimmer who struggles in the choppy waters, and panics, I transform underwater and move around somewhat elegantly, somewhat effortlessly. Somewhat, I said. Don't push the limits of that somewhat. It would sound trite to say I belong, but I really do enjoy the water above my head and nothing but my equipment to trust. Such a heady feeling swimming among the fish above the corals. And the addictive silence. There is absolute peace and quiet for noone can talk. You communicate with signs and symbols, and commit what you see to memory, so you can come to the surface, and check the name of that brightly coloured fish which held your attention for that little bit.

When I started, I was into the star spotting- the stingrays, the turtles, the sharks. Hard to find, and always the lone rangers, it can make ones dive trip worth bragging about.  That was then. Now I am content and much more confident identifying the gorgonian fans and batfish and spotting the odd clownfish moving in and out of anemone. It is always full of odd surprises. Sometimes you find the jellyfish being eaten by small fish. Sometimes you find yourself engulfed in a school of barracuda. Sometimes a rabbitfish comes and befriends you. Sometimes you squint your eyes to spot a pufferfish. Sometimes you make up names for the redfish bluefish yellowfish

Such joy!

Don't get me wrong, as much as I pretend to be good, I am far from it. There are many people who have clocked many more dives and are much better divers. I barely started.

So, why am I writing all this? 

Good question.


Monday, September 21, 2009

Saigon kick -2

Due to the brilliant response of the first part, I have decided to post part two. You people are very kind.


The day after we went to Cu chi, we woke up early and made our way for another tour - to the Mekong delta, which is also a two hour ride from the city. I wasn't very sleep deprived, so I decided to listen to Romeo who was nearly bleeding with songs and information about the superstitions about birth and death in Vietnam. For instance - farmers would ask to be buried in the farmland to prevent the wayward sons from selling the farmland.

On the way, we visited a temple of the Cao Dai (Pronounced: cow dye) religion. Primarily monotheistic, they have symbols from all religions placed inside the sanctum. God is symbolized by the left eye as it's supposedly closer to the heart.

From there, it took us about twenty minutes to get to the Mekong Delta. "The waters in the delta are not dirty, but red because of all the alluvium in the soil", Romeo informed me, reminding me of the word "alluvium" which I hadn't heard for many years. Needless to say, the area is very fertile, and has a lot of rice fields. Vietnam is (was?) third after Thailand and India in rice export (of course, that could be related to the consumption, but still..).

The delta tour itself can be not very high energy and exciting, save for the ride in a canoe, through a canal, where you wear those hats, and the arms of strong women render your years of gym useless.. Oh yes, we did visit a couple of "staged" villages - you know the kind where everything is how a village is in our imagination, where we were served snacks, and fruit and tea and chewy coconut candy, which got stuck to my teeth and prevented me from speaking for a full 15 minutes.

For me, the best part of the trip was identifying different fruit trees. I, for one, had never seen a grapefruit or a dragonfruit tree. (Yes, many of you haven't seen a dragon fruit, but it's alright.)

I slept through the two hour return trip finally finding comfort in the singsong voice, while A indulged in a conversation about Mooncakes and ricefields and the city.

We made our way to the Ben Thanh market in the evening assuming it would be a handicraft af-fair with loads of local made stuff, but it turned out to be a night market with the original duplicate (read:Chinatown type) stuff, which I wasn't too keen on looking at, because I had no patience to bargain. Bargaining needs not heart, not liver but powered up lungs. I gave up and decided to get fleeced by one of the tourist shops instead. Vietnamese lacquerware paintings are unique but almost all the shops sell identical stuff, and are affordable.

Then someone recommended us to see the water puppet show, and trust me, it turned out to be more enjoyable than I could've ever imagined. Mostly depicting life of farmers in Vietnam, the deft hands of the puppeteers standing in chest deep water tell folk tales and mythology. They are accompanied by musicians with banter in their voices. The puppets are language by itself. A and I still laugh about some of the jokes moving our hands about and jumping around.

The city is best seen on foot. One is better off staying in District 1, and then walking around and getting lost on the map. It is the best way to get by and to spot the life as it passes by. You see a swarm of 80cc motorbikes coming at you as you cross the road. You see the mess of overhead cables as they mark the corner of the streets. You see scared lady drivers swinging their handlebars left-right left-right to dodge you till you make up your mind and stay still. You see old ladies with the traditional baskets on a pole doing the hop-walk. You see the joy on people's faces as they dig their teeth into scrumptious street food. Walking is the only way to enjoy the vibe.

Which brings us to the food. One of us couldn't stop drinking coffee (Ha, gotcha, wasn't me!). It smells of coconut and tastes like Vanilla and does random things to your tastebuds, giving a weird caffeine kick. I, on the other hand, was addicted to the food. I have always been a huge fan of fresh rice paper rolls (Summer rolls) and prawn on sugarcane but now I am willing to cheat on my love for any other cuisine and start a torrid affair with Vietnamese food.

Banh Mi is this sandwich type thing, which is made of baguettes, and has meat and a gooey vietnamese style sauce making it delisshhus.

Pho, or noodle soup has beef pieces, soft noodles and broth. I don't eat beef, so carefully picked the beef pieces out, and drank the broth anyway.

Vietnamese are of the habit of putting fresh herbs in their food as opposed to cooking and cooking with a whole lot of unidentified powders and pastes like we Indians are used to, and hence leads to flavours where every note is identifiable and hence comforting. I am told there are a lot more vegetarian options in Vietnam, because of the strong Buddhist roots, but I would be wary since though there are more than enough Vegetables in the food, the fish sauce and condiments may contain some stuff they don't want to admit.

Food is religion, I have converted.

Beer, umm, there is 333 (Ba ba ba) and Sai Gon, both palatable, drinkable, and muuuuuch better than Fosters (which is my rock bottom for beer and gives me the rash). I have a rule of drinking only the local beer when in any new town. Rice wine is worth a try I guess, I didn't try any, since beer is cheaper, and closer to my belly. Many pubs and clubs with live bands use random number generators to price their beer, so it's better to be cautious.

There is this atrocious drink called snake wine, where you see rice wine bottles with snakes and scorpions and weird things. Booze is already poisonous, why adulterate it with more? Plus, I read that the venom is denatured by ethanol, so what's the point anyway. And with that I end my carefully crafted justification of chickening out.


PS: Apologize for the delay in posting. I have another trip to write about now.

Wednesday, September 09, 2009

Saigon kick -1

As expected, this thing begins at the very end of the trip. One always thinks about what one has seen and done at the very end, mostly while sitting at the airport. One can't help it. So as my travel companion struts away to a much needed foot massage at the airport, I trudge to what I think I need most - quiet time with my computer. Just so you know, I can see the "spa" from the corner of my eye, and can spot more men walking to the place than women. Women are always blamed for their indulgence, but I love the way men manage to peddle their indulgences as "need". "I *neeeeed* this" doesn't quite sound the same as "Oh well, maybe I should buy myself a new bag". You would find a guy wistfully staring at a piece of art which doubles up as a gym trainer and a rocket launcher (a.k.a an iPhone) he so badly *needs*, when you know and I know it doesn't even match the furniture.

Anyway, one is attempting a travelogue about their recent trip to Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam. And all you kind people should encourage me. For info, it's logical, not chronological.


Ho Chi Minh City nestles in a spot in the south of Vietnam which if you stare at the map long enough, looks like its wrist. Formerly officially known Saigon, it was named HCMC after the city was captured by the North Vietnamese forces at the end of Vietnam war. It is still informally called Saigon by the locals. All on that in wiki, if you're keen.

I was ashamed of how ignorant I was about the intricacies of Vietnam war till I actually visited the city and felt the vibe of a place which can perhaps never forget. The words "War veterans" and "Agent Orange" is thrown around a lot for anyone's comfort, and yet the details seem to have slipped right through my history lessons. For those who don't know and don't care, and to cut a very long story short-

Vietnam was occupied by French after the Second world war. The Geneva Accord of 1954 which kicked the French out and essentially divided it into two states ("pending national elections"): - The North ( Democratic Republic of Vietnam controlled by the communists) and the South ( Republic of Vietnam controlled by, well, what the vietnamese call a puppet govt placed there by the US). To prevent the communist forces from rising to power (and to harness the mineral resources in the area) US entered Vietnam.. The North vietnamese army (Viet Minh) led a conventional war, however there was a guerrilla operation run by VietCong against the anti-communist forces in the south.

If you find me a little biased in the above paragraph, it's only because it is hard not to emote after seeing a city which has assimilated war into its identity. I will try to sound more indifferent from now on.

Hold on!
Back to the beginning -

So, soon after we landed, after an early morning budget flight which made toast out of us, we had to bite into the morning traffic jam. As expected, despite what we thought was smart bargaining, we got nearly looted by the taxi driver, like tourists often do. It's the fate of a tourist - however cautious one is, however much one reads the stuff online and prepares - printouts et al -- one almost always gets cheated on the first ride from the Airport to the hotel.

Once we reached the hotel, we realized that time travel had given us an extra hour that day, we asked the kind lady at the tour desk downstairs, to take us to the Cu Chi tunnels.
Soon enough our friendly tour guide arrived, shoved us into a van, handed us a bottle of mineral water each, and decided to give us our money's worth by not letting us sleep through the ride. Going by the name Romeo, he spoke good English, and gave us, the clueless two, trivia about the country and her people and their superstitions. He didn't stop till the van did.

The Cu chi tunnels, which are roughly two hours away from the heart of the city, were built by the VietCong during the war, and are work of wonder. Up to 10 metres underground, and having upto three levels these were mostly dug using shovels. The tunnels are for the petite and small ( read: size XS) "because they knew that it is impossible for the westerners to fit". It's hard to imagine how people lived down these rabbit holes for years, and how kids were born inside those tunnels which barely have any light, and were often infested with poisonous ants and scorpions. Sectors have been widened to fit the tourists, and lights been installed, but one still needs to crawl and it is still too dark and narrow and can get claustrophobic. It's barely a treasure hunt as you would imagine it to be.

The other highlights of the tour are the booby traps and other ingenious methods used by them using mostly the scraps from the enemy - scrap from shells used to make the weapons, rubber tyres used to make slippers, soldiers' uniforms to throw the "German" dogs off-track. There are B52 craters, unexploded bomb shells and broken tanks which were damaged by the land-mines. One does realize the uselessness of such massive brute-force type tanks and weapons (?) in a war, when they were up against short and quick and agile people using common sense and intelligence.

A day later we made our way to the Reunification Palace. A little after the US withdrawl from the Vietnam war, a tank of the North Vietnamese Army (dramatically) bulldozed through the main gate, ending the Vietnam War -- an event recorded as Fall of Saigon (wiki, if you please) and reunified the country under Communist rule. The p(a)lace itself is full of rooms full of furniture, which can best be described as regal or imperial, and collects all things stinking of affluence (read:wastefulness) of the (then South vietnamese) govt. It can get boring, but I guess it holds a lot of importance for the Vietnamese people. The interesting part here is the basement under metres of concrete which is like one of those "War bunkers" you see in movies - full of maps and old communication devices where the generals point with those long pointer things and plan their attacks.

A final stop on the War trail was the War Remnants museum (formerly known as "Museum of American War Crimes"). The "American" bit was dropped sometime in 1995 (and they perhaps had no choice but to) after they normalized the relationship with the United States. There are tanks and bombs and missiles and all tangible war remnants kept outside, and one can't help but wonder about the amount of money spent in shipping those things over halfway across the world. The inside of the museum tells us the tale of the war, and is replete with pictures. There is an temporary exhibition about the true remnants of the war -- pictures of victims of Agent Orange. It was a defoliant used by the American army containing a toxic (and banned) agent dioxin which poisoned their food chain and resulted in innumerable birth defects. Indifferent as I may sound while telling you what it is, the exhibition is not for the faint hearted. A gave up after walking through ten pics. I saw around twenty, and stepped outside as if closing my eyes and getting away would prevent all things bad from happening in the world. How I wish. All around me, people were walking with their mouths covered, in disbelief perhaps, that the most celebrated war veterans, the most celebrated presidents were party to such damage, such carnage, such mutilation of life.

Nothing, I repeat, nothing ever justifies war and a war like this. Nothing justifies death of people, even if it is masquerading as nationalism. The entire vietnam war left millions dead, (including ~50,000 americans, if you please). In Cu Chi area, of the 16000 people living in the tunnels only 6000 survived [to be verified], I am told. I don't even want to get to the amount of money which could've been put to better use, perhaps. Was it even worth it?

PPS: If there is one person who has read till the end of this post, and hence I get one comment on it, I will write the part two. Else, you miss the best parts.
PS: Art work -- my own.

Breathe and be

There are days when I miss you. You were the one full of dreams and ambition and need to kill the world, or make the world keel. You are not the same anymore. Full of doubt, full of need to validate yourself against what others have to say, dwelling on the words, quotes, pulling notes out of your hidden pocket, insecure as you can be.

There was a time when you were quiet, not saying anything for you were afraid, measuring words, deleting them, controlling them, shifting them, spacing them as need be. Now, vocal as you are, it seems futile, for you can't tap your feet with the times, eschewing nails (for they are a pain when you type) as you have walked too far down a path which seems to be familiar to others, and yet is not remotely what you are, on a road better as less travelled as it can be.

The dreams and hopes and flights seem to evaporate into the cumulus, a cumulative accumulation of what you've learnt, they cloud your judgement, trap you into your future, rain doubts, drain hope. And it's not a future less traveled, it's as done to death as it could be.

Sometimes I wonder how you became so emotionless. Sometimes I wonder how you can go through the motions. Once upon, the very notion of a motion put you into a fit of love or rage or hunger or anger. Now you look straight through life and death, guiltless or wallowing as the case may be.

As I said, though double the size, you're not half the person you used to be.

Thursday, September 03, 2009

Face of things to come.

In a near dystopian future, mutant fortune cookies take over the world, they save your personal information, oozing venomous messages to all those who dare challenge their supremacy - "Make all you can, save all you can, give all you can". All the helpless people can really do is give in to the oddball addiction. 

Human beings are constantly monitored, being accountable for every single stray thought that steps into the frame - "So, update us, what's on your mind?"  Their colleagues, friends, fathers, mothers and big brother silently watch. Humans feed, humans read, lapping up every bit of information thrown at them.
There is no such thing left as free will. Every decision taken through a series of questions to the one, tap of a finger, click of a button -  "What is my purpose in life?" "What should I have for dinner?"

People rub their eyes in the morning, wake up into a world where they can't dis-like things - they can only "like" the stuff. People compare people, rate them, order them, hand out superlatives. Flick of a wrist, click of a button. "Friend-unfriend", "Accept-ignore" "Red-pill, blue-pill"- they make their choices, the screen flashes in protest and they become a part of the system.  

The farmers become the herds -- some 11 million of them. They grow cash-crops - eggplant and strawberries. Somewhere, a lonely black sheep strays into their neighbour's farm. She feels very sad and needs a new home. There is no one to help them out.

While the farmer toils on, the soldier fights the new enemy. The mafia slowly takes over the city.  The war wages on, as the pawns in the battle lose their energy, health, and stamina by the minute.
Then there are the guerilla warriors who form the resistance, fighting the cookies and the mafia. They have no weapons -- they fight with their bare hands -- poking and throwing snowballs as they find spots to hide in a box.

Somewhere my taste buds protest, overwhelmed at all the force-fed information. Somewhere my cause to ignore a protest kicks in. Somewhere, I ride the nightmare where Facebook is skynet, and resistance is futile.
Somewhere I give up hope, somewhere I get bored of it all.

Gah, I really got bored writing this post, but decided to post it nonetheless, so don't complain about the abruptness of it all. kthxbai.