Blogus Interruptus

We are in the second day of a tropical depression that is supposed to last a couple of days more. Occasional torrential downpours dump enormous amounts of water on an already soaked city. The streets are flooded. It is still dark outside in the early morning as I listen to the sounds of the rain, not a gentle rain, but a pouring deluge – as the water rushes out of the downspouts that are the only means of preventing the rooftops from filling up with the H2O. There is the occasional sound of thunder. There is lightning. The frogs continue their cacophony of sounds all through the night enjoying themselves in the water that has collected behind the house – you cannot hear yourself in certain parts of the house! Later in the morning, as the rising sun somehow manages to bring light to the streets, somehow penetrating the shroud of thick clouds that envelope the city, the streets will fill with people and vehicles – in all shapes and sizes – splashing through these water-filled streets.

This is the welcome rainy season that brings relief to this normally dry part of the world.

I would never have imagined being here a month ago, just after our return from Morocco. I was looking forward to sitting back and catching my breath, to spending some time quietly reliving the days of Morocco in the peace of the home, waiting to celebrate the impending holidays with friends and family – before embarking on the next adventure. But duty called – soon! So I jumped into action, not knowing where the next step would take me – a feeling similar to how I felt in the situation I wrote about in this blog – but on steroids. The situation was more urgent.

I found myself on a Qatar Airways jet heading east, not exactly sure where the fates would take me. A gin-and-tonic, served by the friendly flight attendant, coursed through my systems, numbing me pleasantly for the moment. I could either try to get some sleep or watch a movie. I drifted in and out of consciousness.

I am in Chennai right now, trying to help my parents. Thankfully, the immediate issue that brought me here seems to have been addressed successfully. We have to see if I am successful in getting a system in place for their longer term care and comfort. My siblings are with me in spirit. I feel comfortable at the moment leaving my parents to fend by themselves in the home for short periods of time – with the new helper we have found, through the kindness of caring friends. Mahesh is his name. I can perhaps go out into the city to meet my friends now. There are still issues to be worked out, but we are surrounded by awesome people who help.

If all goes right, I should be able to head back home at the end of the month – leaving my parents in good hands.

Morocco seems a long time ago, but I do intend to return to its spirit.

Sorry, no pictures today!

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!

Places Of My Youth

I spent a few hours walking around the IIT Madras campus yesterday reliving some of the memories of my youth. My dad used to be a professor there at one time. I grew up on campus. Later on, I also went on to get my undergraduate degree from the university. I am a true child of IITM.

This is one of the houses that I grew up in on campus.The approach to the house looked somewhat overgrown. Perhaps nobody lives there these days. These set of homes were called the Wardens Quarters. My dad was the warden of Tapti Hostel when we used to live at No. 8. It must have been towards the end of the sixties. I used to go to elementary school at that time. I remember one day not getting on the bus that I normally took when returning home from school. I walked home instead, taking a shortcut through the stadium. My brother might have also been with me. I do not remember why we did that. Perhaps I had lost the money that I had been given for the bus ride.

The campus looks as green and lush as ever these days, but there are so many new buildings. The banyan trees still catch your attention and retain their places of prominence along the roadways.

The monkeys are everywhere.They were not as aggressive as I expected them to be. I remember the times when I was growing up when they would enter the house to steal food. They would destroy things and create havoc when you chased them away. Some of them would make threatening faces at you and make a move towards you when you tried to scare them. We had screens on the windows of the house to prevent the monkeys from getting in, and you had to make sure that the external doors of the house were closed when you were not around.

And then there are the deer. They are still plentiful, and there are spaces on campus now where they are left alone and protected. The two deer in the picture below are the spotted deer and the blackbuck.

This picture was taken at the campus stadium. One of the deer is an albino.

The Gajendra Circle is a familiar landmark of the campus.My old high school grounds are next to Gajendra Circle. The place looked a little unfamiliar. The small outdoor theater space where we used to have our school gatherings was no longer visible. But there were some kids out there playing cricket – just like we used to do when we were young. Three cricket stumps stood by themselves in the middle of the grounds while the kids played in a corner of the field.

I walked past the Open Air Theater, also called the OAT.Many a weekend of my youth was spent in the evening in this open space watching English movies out in the open under the stars. The well-built screen that you see to the right of the picture did not exist during my times. Instead, three metal frames would be rolled to the front of the stage and placed next to each other, and a white screen made up of some flexible material (cloth or canvas, I do not know) pulled up and tied to the edges of the overall framework of metal for the duration of the movie. The movie was projected on to the screen from a room above the entrance on the left side of the picture. When watching a movie, the celluloid reel could rip and tear apart once in a while. You could hear the collective groan of the audience – the students and the faculty and staff of the college. There would be delay while the projectionist patched the reel back together. And then the show continued under the stars.

I was hoping to do some birding while on campus. The place has apparently become well known for this activity since I left. I got a recommendation from a friend to go to a swampy area next to the Social Activity Center. I saw a few birds that were less familiar to me.

Here is Blue-tailed Bee-eater,

and this is a White-browed Wagtail.

I did cover only a portion of the campus during this walk. I don’t know if I will make it back to visit the rest of it.

It occurs to me that I might be repeating stories of my youth from past blogs which were written during previous trips to the IIT Madras campus in years past. That’s the way it goes!

The Place Of The Gathering Of The Crows

My only company this early in the morning was the dog that kept barking at me when I stepped out on to the street. I promptly retreated back into the compound.The dog’s compadres on the nearby streets also joined in the noise making. They might have been passing messages to each other. The only other person who was up was the owner of the store across the road. She will soon start washing out her store front, a ritual that she has probably been doing for most of the years of her life. The Kolam will be the final step in the process that gets her store ready for the day’s business.

I never really overcame the jet lag of the trip completely. I am up very early in the morning with almost no exception. But it is OK. I try to make up for the early start with a nap during the day. The early start for the day gives me an opportunity to clean out the house before the rest of the neighborhood comes alive. Chennai dust is special. You just have to wait a couple of days for a layer of the dark stuff to collect on any untouched surface. The dust is relentless. It is fine enough to enter the house through the screens covering the doors and windows. You find yourself cleaning the place regularly. And then there are the fallen leaves that need to be swept up from the yard every other day.

Early mornings also give me the opportunity to go up to the terrace – before the sun is up.

The crows are the most common birds that you will see in these parts.Crows are said to be very social animals. I sometimes see them gathering in large numbers on the cellphone towers that are close by.I have noticed that some of these birds clean and preen themselves excessively in the mornings.

This is a White-throated Kingfisher that visited the yard,
and this is probably a Shikra.

There was surprise guest in this picture I took at the time of the sunset. I do not know what it is.

I was talking to a friend over the phone while in the house when the rain began. I heard the sound of a loud thunderclap. The power went out. I lost my phone connection. Pretty soon it was coming down in buckets. The rains did not last too long but it was enough to cause the street to flood. Here are a couple of shots taken from the front gate of the house after it stopped raining.

Today is another hot and sunny day. That is what you usually expect in Chennai!

The Return

We are back home from our trip to India.  Truth be told, the travel involved, this time, created more of a feeling of tiredness and disorder in the brain than I ever felt before. Waiting in the middle of the night at the airport to board the flight, at a time when you are normally in bed – amidst the crowd, the lights, the noise, and the nonstop activity all around you – it all disturbs the mind.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAStanding in a long and disorderly line in the middle of the night, a line that was moving slowly, among a crowd of people, many of whom were in the same zombie-like state of mind as myself, waiting to board the massive aircraft, find your seat, and fall asleep, it numbs the mind.  You just want to be done with it.  A few of our fellow-travelers were wearing masks, a sign of these troubled times.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe flights back home were themselves long but unremarkable otherwise.  But, the act of passing through multiple time zones in a short amount of time while regularly forcing the body to behave as if it were experiencing a different time of day than it has become used to – it added to the weariness.

I spent my time on the flights watching movies, taking pictures out the window,OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAand taking catnaps.

Being pulled over for additional scrutiny at the security checkpoint at the transit airport made things worse.  I went through the process like a automaton, just hoping that it would be over soon.  My boarding pass had apparently been marked for the additional security check at my initial boarding point in Bangalore.

It was raining in Frankfurt by the time our flight departed for Washington, DC.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAI spent the early part of this second flight watching a movie and trying to fight off the sleep that hit me at the wrong time, a sleep that could interfere with my attempt to fight of jet-lag after getting back home.  Later on in the flight, I opened the shade beside my seat to find that we were flying over the icy waters of the North Atlantic.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERASoon we had reached the eastern shores of Canada.  During this part of the trip, I kept a lookout for the other aircraft that seemed to be flying with us across the ocean.  I could see its contrails just below us for a very long time. The aircraft finally came into view after we finally caught up with it when crossing the Canadian shoreline.  Here is a picture.  At this point, the path of this second aircraft was beginning to diverge from ours.  It was another Lufthansa aircraft, a Boeing 747-400, which was probably headed for Philadelphia. OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAI will end this blog with a couple of pictures of the sunrise taken in Bangalore.  These pictures were taken on different days from the 12th floor (according to the European and Indian system of counting floors, this would be considered the 11th floor!).OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe smoke in the first picture, and the color of the sun in the second one, were interesting. I believe that these could actually be a result of pollution and smog!

Now that I am back home, I have to catch up on a month’s backlog of things to do!  Did I  mention that I am already tired?

Still adjusting in Gaithersburg…