Into The Fire

I am back in the United States. As with all of the previous trips that I have made back from India, the transitions that I experienced while traveling were quite abrupt and significant, but this time it was less jarring. For one thing, I left my parent’s home for the airport at a reasonable hour of the day – in the evening, and not at some unearthly hour around midnight as is usually the case. Life was in full swing on the streets of Madipakkam when I left. I am used to unexpectedly quiet departures for the US. I did not have the opportunity to get into a contemplative and brooding state of mind on the way to airport itself.

The other reason why my departure from India might have been less painful than it usually is was because I was leaving my also-visiting sister behind at home. Things would be taken care of at home for at least a little while longer after my departure.

The Uber driver gently, quietly, and quickly negotiated and navigated his way through the crowds and the chaos of the streets of Madipakkam and Nanganallur, then on to the crowded highway to Tambaram, and finally got me to the airport – well before the scheduled departure time.

The airport experience was an intense one in its initial stages. First, I had to fight my way through the crowd that was blocking the entrance to the airport itself. Most of the people were just hanging out and not intending to enter the airport. Then, a long line to check in my baggage, thankfully managed somewhat professionally by the airline staff. Security was a total mess. They had a sophisticated system to handle the carry-on luggage, but the security staff seemed to have not been trained in the proper use of the equipment. People, both official and unofficial, who were clueless, felt the need to pass along advice to others on what they were supposed to do. I found that my laptop computer had made its way through the scanning machine while I was stuck on the other side desperately trying to find a way to pass my other hand luggage through. And then they ran out of trays! Fortunately, I was able to team up with another person who was in a similar situation as I was in – to interrupt the flow of trays and insert mine in the way. I had to even grab a tray that an officer was holding out in her hand for somebody else! In the end, my computer might have been in the open on the other side of the scanner for anybody to grab for over 10 minutes!

The first flight from Chennai to Dubai was uneventful and quick. A double gin and tonic helped me to digest the late dinner and to relax for the rest of the flight. I did get some shuteye. On arrival at Dubai, I had just about enough time to make it to my departure gate. I had only 2 hours between flights. The 14 hour flight to Washington DC was uneventful. I would say that more than 80 percent of the passengers on this flight must have originated their travel in India.

It was strange to begin this part of the trip with dinner once again. Traveling across time zones leads to strange happenings. Thankfully, I was able to snooze in fits and starts during this flight. The only two movies I caught were classics. The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, with Humphrey Bogart, includes a classic line that has made it into the current popular lingo. We don’t need no stinkin’ badges! The other movie I saw was Alfred Hitchcock’s North by Northwest. I have seen this movie several times, and it never ceases to entertain! These old movies have a great charm which is completely lacking in new releases. It is clear that the acting and staging in these movies comes out of a theatrical background. And the performances are compelling.

I was also able to continue reading the book by Tom Clancy that I was carrying with me during other times of the flight. This is my first exposure to the author. I find the attitudes expressed in the book to be rather dated – jingoistic, a little racist, and definitely full of stereotypes – but I will finish the book nonetheless. Then, I think I will be done with the author.

All of my book reading and movie watching during the flight were interrupted by episodes of sleep. I would pause the movie or put away the book whenever the urge to snooze hit me. No use fighting it. This strategy seemed to work rather nicely. I felt fine after the long flight, on arrival at Dulles International Airport. I was finally able to head home from the airport after a long wait for my luggage at the baggage carousel. It was chaotic. When a massive A380 aircraft unloads its full complement of passengers, most of whom are carrying the maximum luggage they are allowed, there is not even enough space on the carousel for all of the luggage being unloaded. The measures taken to mitigate this situation added to the confusion.

Thankfully, I was able to sleep the next day, but I was back in action in the field the day after that. My chorus is singing at the agricultural fair once again, and I had to go out to support the troops. Due to the difference in time zones, it was nighttime in India while I was out singing in the summer sun of Gaithersburg the last couple of days. I go out to sing once again this evening. The contrast between the nature of the crowd at the fair here in the US and the nature of the crowds on the streets in India is beyond description. I will not every try! We are truly living in many different realities on this planet. And the challenge of singing barbershop harmonies after having been out of it for more than a month is significant. Into the fire…

The great thing that has happened is that I have not fallen ill so far after my return. I am keeping my fingers crossed!

Hopefully, I am able to pursue further adventures that are in the works once again starting next weekend! Meanwhile, I need to make sure that I am able to recover from the efforts of these travels more completely.

Perhaps Under Control

The only way for me to maintain sanity during a period of whirlwind activity is to slowdown (not shutdown), and, perhaps, in my mind, to try to retreat from the potential chaos of the situation – to take the happenings one element at a time, each at its own pace. The idea is to try to calm the mind by simply addressing only what is in front of me at that moment. There is a time for planning, and there is a time for making sure I do not lose my sanity.

It all started with an early morning arrival, well before the hours of the dawn. The yellow and black taxi puttered its way towards the house on the dark and empty street. A voice, surprisingly cheerful after about 24 hours of travel, announced her arrival. Hello brother! A sincere hug loosened up the tension from the night of waiting, a night of disturbed sleep.

I had been scheduled for a last-minute trip to Bangalore the next day – to take care of matters for the girls. The process of booking the tickets had provided its own challenges, with the airline now not accepting my credit card because it was not issued by a domestic bank. Fortunately, I could come up with a work-around by booking through an international agency, a process that created its own additional element of uncertainty and tension.

Then it was the trip itself: very lightly packed – expecting to only stay two nights; first the craziness of the taxi ride – including the fact that the driver took a route I was not familiar with; the tension of airport procedures – security and boarding. I was glad to be finally seated in the aircraft. At the other end of the flight, the taxi ride takes longer than expected. The usual route to my destination was apparently waterlogged due to heavy rainfall. Finally arrived at Brigade Altamont, my home away from home, a place where I could relax – a returning guest who was in danger overstaying his welcome visiting too frequently. But disturbing news awaited. There was a chance that my trip could have been in vain. There were still open issues being worked on that could derail the purpose of my trip. Would I be willing to extend my stay? Yikes!

A flurry of activity the next morning to try to ensure that events could go ahead that day as originally hoped for – each step of the process that morning involving hard decision making and all kinds of coordination between the parties involved. Finally, after some uncertainty, the trip to the sub-registrar’s office for signing the papers – and the process continues over there. Documents are scrutinized, hurdles overcome on the fly, and finally signatures applied. The documents are complete and the agreement is done. Mission accomplished! I can go back home declaring success.

A visit to the Karnataka Golf Association follows – drinks and dinner to relax the mind – perhaps a little too much of the drinks, but thankfully not enough to prevent me from managing the moment. Back to my home away from home, the drinks amplifying and intensifying my experience of the drive – absorbing the vibes of the street and its chaos. Automobiles and two-wheelers moving in all directions competing for every inch of space, hundreds of close calls involving folks who have to always be on high alert – all senses of all involved in the madness and mayhem on high alert – on the lookout for opportunities to get ahead and manage the situations which, to me, seem to be fraught with danger. Folks making their way across the crowded streets on foot in the middle of the vehicular chaos, dodging the traffic, sometimes putting their arms out in the direction of a vehicle moving their direction to try to call attention to themselves, trying to slow down the already slow moving vehicles further. The streets are really alive at this time of the evening and my brain seems to be absorbing everything that is happening in its fullness. You can feel the heartbeat and vibrancy of the big city. Life in our suburbs in the western world is completely boring and sanitized by comparison.

Arrived at Brigade Altamont after the ride to get the very sad news of a good friend’s passing. In somewhat of a shock now – a fitful night’s sleep later that night, mourning the loss of a warm, kind, and loving soul – my friend Ramnath. He always had a smile on this face. He managed his MS with good cheer, grace, and dignity for over 30 years. His heart finally gave up. A time for some tears…

Calmness in the morning and a hearty breakfast to get me on my way home. I am finally in the car on my way back to the airport – following the process of the day before yesterday, the day of my arrival this time in Bangalore, in the reverse direction – taking things one step at a time once again. There is very little traffic on the road at this time of the morning. Everything goes smoothly. There are no surprises.

Finally, I am back home. I can retreat to my usual frame of mind.

Encounters On Nandi Hills

Nandi Hills is a hill station located about sixty miles north of Bangalore. Although it is a well-known place for people to visit, I had not been there in spite of my many trips to the city.

We were hoping to do a hike up the hill, an endeavor that would attempt to mimic the training experience of our recent Camino walkers. Instead, we inadvertently ended up driving on a road that took us to the top of the hill. We decided to try to start the walk from the top of the hill instead.

We had left Bangalore very early, hoping to avoid crowds. We were surprised to find the parking lot full – and on a weekday.What we had not realized was that people come here to try to catch the sunrise. Unfortunately for these folks, this particular morning turned out to be quite foggy.We explored the spaces at the top of the hill for a little while.There were many lookouts from which we could not see much because of the mist.

There was a temple closer to the top of the hill.

This particular place that is considered the source of the Arkavathi river.

Tipu Sultan used the hills as his summer retreat. You can still see some of the remains of his summer palace, including the structure seen in the picture below.There is a spot called Tipu Drop from which prisoners used to be thrown off the cliff.

The presence of the many monkeys on the hill was notable.There were families of monkeys wandering around, including many mothers with babies hanging on to them, underneath their bellies.Some of the monkeys were aggressive, and we were subject to attacks on two occasions. The first time, one of them made a grab for a smartphone that was being pulled out of a pocket. (We were told that the monkeys may barter these items back for food!) The second time, a monkey jumped on to a backpack on a person’s back, its attention having been drawn by some colorful objects sitting in a netted pouch on the side of the backpack. It might have thought it was food. Thankfully, we were able to shoo them away and nobody was hurt. Some of them do make angry faces and growl at you when you are engaged with them.

We eventually found our way to the beginning of the trail that went all the way down to the bottom of the hill. We started our descent.

The upper section of the trail was decently maintained. Along the way we could see buildings like the one in the picture below were people could stay overnight in order to experience the views from the hills directly from their rooms.We were led by our fearless leader, John. His long and quick strides could have left us behind in the dust, but he adjusted his pace to match us, the laggards. (The picture below was taken much later in the hike when we were returning.)

We eventually ended up at a temple on the side of the hill.

As we approached, John asked the priest of the temple who was hanging around about the chaiwalla he had encountered at that location the previous time he had done the trail. The priest told him that the chaiwalla was not there that particular day of the week, but he offered to make us tea himself. He disappeared into a room and came back after a few minutes with piping hot cups of fresh tea that we thoroughly enjoyed. When we were done and asked him how much the cups of tea cost, he said that it was free. He did not want to take money from us! John offered some money as a donation to the temple, and the priest finally accepted. This encounter was a reminder to us that there a good people everywhere. We only have to keep our eyes open. The priest saw us on our way with a namaskar and a smile. He even tried to return the money back on our way back to the top of the hill.

The quality of the trail fell apart soon after we left the temple. There was an area just beyond the temple where the path was barely visible.

We plunged into the foliage after a moment’s hesitation. We had been warned beforehand about the possible presence of various different kinds of snakes on the hill.

Thankfully, this section of the trail went on for only a short distance, and the path opened up beyond that section.

There were hardly any people on the trail from the point where we left the area of the temple. We might have encountered one or two folks, one of whom was a worker headed for a pump house located next to the trail.

At this point, we were walking on steps cut into the stone, or steps built of stone. The overall slope was quite steep. It was not easy on the muscles. We had to pay attention to each step because of the uneven nature of the stones. Unfortunately, this section of the trail also did appear to be poorly maintained.

It was a pity, since the path of the trail itself was absolutely stunning and a very nice challenge for hikers! The trail itself could have been a great attraction for people from all over the world.

At this point our views were still obscured by mist and fog, but things were also getting better in this regard.

We had to make a few stops along the way to catch our breath and also hydrate. We eventually reached a point before reaching the bottom of the hill where we decided to turn back. It was beginning to warm up, and we were feeling the heat. We were also feeling the impact of the downhill descent on our muscles.

Going back up the stairs involved use of muscles that had not been put into use on our way down. It was also tougher on the lungs. Within a short distance of climbing, every step that we took up each of the stairs began to take an extra effort. We took it slow and steady.

The views were beginning to open up some more by now.

The walk back to the top of the hill seemed to go quicker than the time it took to go down the mountainside. I am not sure if this was real or my imagination.

We made sure to stay clear of the monkeys on the way back to the parking lot. When we got back, we found that the parking lot itself was not as full as it had been when we got there in the morning.But there were still a significant number of visitors who were hanging around.

I thought we we had done some good exercise for the day, but we negated some of the good effort by indulging in substantial food consumption the rest of the afternoon – parathas on the way home, and Thai food after that when we got home. I am OK with that. We are on holiday after all.

The Resident Geckos

I was seated in the verandah, enjoying my view of the garden, when I first sighted one of the resident geckos. It sat perfectly still on the side of the trunk of the tree beside the small gate in front of the house. It would have been very easy to miss. It was perfectly camouflaged against the brown background, and the only reason I had noticed it was because it had made a movement that had caught my attention. The gecko stayed perfectly still most of the time. Unfortunately, I was caught unprepared, without my camera in hand.

I made sure that I kept the camera with me when on the verandah from that time onward. And I waited patiently for a few days. Sure enough, a gecko made made its appearance close to the location of my original sighting. It was clear that the lizard considered the place to be familiar territory. Perhaps it had its home somewhere in that space. I managed to get a few pictures over a period of time, once even following the gecko as it made its way across the garden, hiding from me within the branches of a shrub, and then rapidly withdrawing further away from me. If you have not seen one of the Indian geckos before, this is your opportunity to do so!

From the length of the tails, I think we are looking at two different geckos in these pictures.

The Mangoes In Season

This stuff is seriously addictive! From the moment that you slice into the giant fruit to break it up into manageable pieces (when the juices begin to flow down your arm and drip from your elbow without your knowledge), to the moment you sink your teeth joyfully into the juicy pulp (some of which flows uncontrollably down to your chin, perhaps again without your knowledge!), you are experiencing a version of heaven on earth. These fruits are nothing like the blander varieties of the fruit imported in bulk to the United States from other parts of the world. I could go for a Banganapalle or a Rumani any time.

Another reason for me to come home!

Of Returns and Beginnings And Endings

I am in the middle of a familiar trip once again. I am back in my hometown, the place where I grew up, the place that I departed many years ago when I was still a young laddie. It is a place I departed without a second thought, without hesitation. I am back to visit the folks I left behind, my parents.

Last time I came to India, I fell quite sick on my way back home. One might ask: why is one silly enough to take a risk once again, so soon after the previous experience. Perhaps only the heart knows,

But this is also a different kind of trip – a meeting once again of the generations. It is the determination of the young people – my children who are traveling with me – to visit the grandparents who are in their fading years, to show them that there are people in distant lands who remember them fondly and care for them. One does not forget. These young people – from the distant lands – are old enough to have memories of their own, memories of their visits with their grandparents when they were younger still. They are determined to demonstrate their love by their mere presence. Remember that there are people who care, do not despair. Love is in the air. I am asked – is it too much to come out and explicitly state that we are here because we love you. But it is not in the nature of this family to go there.

Yeah, it is certainly turning into a different kind of trip. And my role this time may only to be a guide and chauffeur. And I would be glad of it.

Charging Through The July 4th Weekend

Out on the trail very early in the morn,
Tearing through the cobwebs that the biking paths adorn,
We are the first riders of the day in these parts it would seem,
Pedaling through the quiet of the cool woods as if in a dream.

We have been biking regularly the last few weeks, including a ride yesterday that will in all likelihood be the last one in a long while. I even took my bike back to the store for some adjustments during this regular spell of exercise, and we also did a complete tuneup of the old bike. A few parts ended up needing replacement on the old bike. It turns out that I had worn out the inside of the back tire of the old bike and did not even know it!

It has been a eventful few weeks recently, about to culminate in a trip to India next week. There have perhaps been plenty of things to write about, but the opportunities for introspection and access to a creative space have been few and fleeting. There are the distractions that do not allow me to stay in a quiet space for too long. The attentive motivation for writing has been lacking, and that is still the case today. So, I am going to keep this sweet and short.

Here is a picture taken during a hike with visiting family to Maryland Heights during the July 4th weekend. The view is of Harpers Ferry, a favorite place for us to visit.The Shenandoah river (on the left side of the picture) meets up with the Potomac at this river junction. It was a good day for recreation on the rivers. Perhaps you can even sight some rafts and tubes in the expanded picture.