Monthly Archives: October 2008

the spice of life, Singapore Sluggish, bali-nale film fest, and India reaches for the moon!!

Spice is the pulse of life in Cochin, and it is certainly the orientation that Eveready marketing people here have seemed to cottoned on to…img_0374.jpgBimg_0358.jpgbut seriously, if you are looking for spices in Cochin, and a proper shopping experience you can forget about Jew-town. The Jewish quarter is exotic, and fun to see, but if it’s shopping you want it is trap. It is worth the trip into hot and muggy Ernakulam to Broadway (“a very narrow street” our taxi driver dryly quipped) – people are more real, the prices are pretty much realistic, surprisingly enough even the locals claim that prices are pretty fixed, and it is altogether a more pleasant and fruitful shopping experience. img_0365.jpgFrom Cochin we catch the red eye to Singapore. It is pretty impossible to sleep: I have my AudioTechnica noise cancellation earphones in, but when I gallantly offer them to Monica I discover the nightmare that has kept her tossing and turning. The gentlemen next to her, behind us and in front of us seem to have sinus problems, sniffling and snorting literally every 5 minutes. It is an amazing concert, and think a great opportunity for Kleenex, to er, um, clean up. The poor stewardesses on this wretched Silk Air flight do a turnaround from Singapore: something like 11 hours on deck – mildly wild, but imagine doing it every other day. Anyway Singapore airport at six am offers little more than Starbucks. Monica heads off to her Bangkok flight, I head into town. Already my main meeting has been cancelled but I figure I can get my lens fixed and a new power supply for my Mac. In the long wait at the check in counter at the Orchard Hotel’s reception desk I run into Paul Ropp, who has just blown (no typo) in from Delhi. We have breakfast, and he tells me that he is town for a gall bladder operation. Never had an operation before and a tad nervous. I must sympathize. But funny how everyone in my sphere is getting gall bladder problems lately! I finally get my room, and I have to say its just like a little cupboard with amenities, many of which end up getting charged to your bill. A nice relaxing dinner with friends takes the edge off my travel discombulation. The next day I discover that Nikon can’t fix my lens in less than 4 weeks (how’s that for service) and I decide to blow the joint (Singapore). I spend more than an hour trying to get thru to a human being at Singapore airlines (“for english press 1, for reservartions press 2, for… etc etc, then finally please hold”) after 8 minutes of computer sprach I am told to ring again (yes by the computer). I am ready to wring alright, and it wouldn’t be a computer’s neck. World’s worst Buddhist I am at that moment. Then last minute lunch appointment with old pal Peter Schoppert gets cancelled as it has been raining and the traffic in Singapore gets totally glutinous at the slightest drop.. I can’t wait to get to the airport: what has become of that efficient Singapore of legend? BALI: Galleria the next evening is the venue for the opening night of Balinale, an international film festival which is the brainchild of Debbie Gabenatti (seen her with volunteer Kelly Marciano on the left)img_0384.jpg and there is a full crowd in attendance. My old favorites Rima Melati and Christine Hakim, two jewels of the Indonesian film industry and who are warm inside out, are there, and it gladdens the heart. It turns out that the people I shared a row with on the plane are there, and Kate is from the Chaplin films outfit – what a small world. Debbie and her team have been working hard, there are 50 odd films to be seen, many are award winners. The opener is a bit of an insider’s film, it is a doco about Pierre Rissient which is a tad long, and there are a few walkouts, but I am glued to my seat . It is a fascinating look at a man, a kingmaker behind the scenes, who helped to shape the careers of many in the west and in the east – Clint Eastwood, Sydney Pollack, King Hu, etc, and of course Christine too. She introduces the film along with Pierre’s assistant, as Pierre is in hospital in Paris with a broken ankle. I am intrigued to see my photograph being used at every opportunity by the festival, even as the projected backdrop in the theatre. Fame at last…img_0395.jpg There are some great films on, and if you are in Bali at least check out the program here: Meanwhile, from Andra Pradesh not so very far from where I was lazing on a house boat last week drifting through backwaters where most people live a pretty basic life without plumbing (they have the whole river…), India has just launched it’s first moon (unmanned) mission. This is supposed to make it less of a third world country, despite it’s impoverished millions. There is a huge pro and contra debate going on but one thing is for sure is that there is a huge amount of nationalist pride going on. img_0400.jpg

backwaters, Christianity, Cochin, Islam, Kashmiris, and Crows

The highlight of the whole vacation is a two night boathouse trip drifting through the backwaters of Kerala. It’s very dreamy, slow pace going along canals as people come out to do their washing, or simply gaze back at as and wave as we go by. The name Kerala (ké-rla) is a bit of a no brainer: kera= coconut, ‘la’= land. We luck out at one point in Champakulam and run into the church ritual marking the beginning of a Syrian Christian religious period (didn’t quite catch what it was, Keralans have a tendency to speak English like they do Malayam, fast staccato, and clipped – there are enough syllables in the average Keralan proper noun to fill an dsc_0729.jpgalphabet). But what is interesting is how early Christianity came to Kerala – some say around the time of St Thomas. So there are all manner of Christians, living side by side with Hindus and Muslims in peace. More on that later. But the richness of the Syrian Christian colors here is uniquely local.dsc_0417.jpgsyrian-chucrch2.jpg_d3b9508.jpgBut for sure, as in most religious traditions of India, one feels the strength of people’s faith here. There is of course still much stronger conservative social elements which form part of the drive, but again as in all religious traditions in India there is much personal conviction and devotion. dsc_1760.jpg_d3b8836.jpgdsc_9547.jpgKerala, so slow and sleepy, seems to allow that faith in all its variety to create a harmony, (for example, one sees Muslims tourists visiting churches) and all go about their ways quietly side by side. But there are shadows of the India’s flip side, the senseless communal riots which are mostly the creations of politicians eager to exploit this massive reserve of energy locked up within the faith that Indians have to their respective religions: many Keralans believe that some of the new Indian bred Muslim terrorists (as opposed to the previous bogey, Pakistani terrorists, or for that matter even the Hindu descendants of the assassins of Mahatma Gandhi) use Kerala as a meeting place, and that there are training camps in the forests. It’s a typical India “probable” but there is yet little published evidence to substantiate it. But on another ‘front’ what is clear is that the merchant Kashmiri’s, India’s pushiest tourist ‘operators’ who seem to own shops anywhere a foreign tourist sets foot, have established a very strong foothold in the local tourist industry. After our slow boat ride, it is really rankling to be continuously assaulted as we walk down what were once very charming streets in Jewtown. There are now only maybe four Jewish families (as I mentoned earlier in the blog) but there are scores of Kashmiri shops. TheKashmiri vendors’ smooth talking, pushy style really contrasts with the laid back Keralan politesse, and I become irritable at my own lack of patience with them and my own prejudice. Our autorickshaw driver pushes me to a snap by continuously trying to take us to different shops run by his friends, and I get grumpy. Later, poor Monica, who herself has a passion for photography, cops it from me when she inadvertently steps into my frame at the fish market. I feel like I am grasping at straws, and later on am so out of sorts that I mistakenly format a card full of images – half of my last days take on the boat ride with some of the best images. So they are all lost. I go into a funk, and much later really regretting being so mean. I realize how great my attachment to images is, and how it in turn gets in the way. When my companion points out that I seem to value these images more than human relationships I feel ashamed, and feel like giving up photography if I continue to have this manic attachment. I remember René Burri of Magnum telling me that he tries to remind his fellow photogs that we are humans first, and photographers second. I must remember this advice. It is perhaps one of the most important things I have learnt in sleepy Cochin, (which incidentally is so full of crows, considered to be messengers of the wrathful Tibetan protector Mahakala).dsc_1442.jpg

holiday in kerala

In more than thirty years of visiting India I am ashamed to say I have never really explored the south, so now I have decided to rectify this. Prodded on by my keen explorer friend and intrepid travel companion Monica, I am trying out a vacation in Kerala (both time off and Kerala are new to me!). In Dharamsala though, on my second to last day, I get a shock. My trusted 24-70mm nikkor lens, designed for the full frame D3, falls apart – the mount screws have somehow come loose, and no amount of my fiddling can put this egg back together again. I realize I have left my 60mm back home, and a slow burn panic sets in. Three cheers for my good old friend photograher Raghu Rai for saving the day, he arranged for his trusted supplier to sell me a top condition second hand 24-85 (older lens but works ok for full frame D3) in Delhi. I am a bit wary of this older model lens, as it does have a reputation its helicoid slipping as it ages but so far so good. And Raghu, who is certaily one of the most brilliant photogs I have ever known, insists that he has taken most of his best shots with this lens. Hmm ok, if its good enough for Raghu it should be good enough for me – but could I just borrow his eyes too for a while???? Raghu’s loyal helper Nanden, who has been working for him for years delivers it to me at the guest house. Nanden has a motorbike, looks well fed and prospering – here he is at 40!nanden.jpg . A 3 hour plane ride down from Delhi brings me into Cochin (Kochi), and on the way I am again, for the umpteenth time, struck by the sheer physicality of the vastness of India. dsc_9305.jpgMonica comes in from Singapore direct on Silk Air. As Raghu Rai exclaimed over the phone when he heard this: “Isn’t India incredible now: you can fly anywhere from anywhere!” In fact many in India are prospering, as is evidenced by the number of middle class Indian tourists travelling abroad and througho9ut their own country. But the Kerala seems to be doing especially well. With a 100% literacy rate amongst Keralans and a reasonably healthy economy, hats off to the communist governments of Kerala of the past decades. But of course local travel agents and other tourist industry operators are holding their breath to see what happens with the world financial melt down. And as always in India, the contrasts can be startling – between the billboard dreams and reality,dsc_9354.jpg and the luxuries of 5 star resorts like the ex-colonial Burnton Boatyard in Cochin.dsc_9359.jpg

dsc_9424.jpgHere we go a little over budget and splurge on a couple of nights of waterfront luxury, fishing boats go by our window, and the staff are just dying to serve us. Dangerously addictive. Anyhow Cochin overflows with its colonial past, ghosts of Dutch, Portuguese and English competition for control of the spice trade, and their subsequent Christian legacy is felt everywhere here. But there are also Syrian Orthodox churches, Muslims, (Hindus of course) and the odd Jew – apparently only 4 families left in the old Jewish quarter of Cochin. Cochin is certainly a melting pot. Rev P.J. Jacob, vicar of St Francis Church in Fort Cochin oversees a flock of some 200 families, and tends to the registrars in a church which is the oldest standing Christian church here. _d3b8560.jpgVasco da Gama was buried here for a decade or so before being disinterred and returned to Europe. (looking at the rather small grave site, a guide wrily remarks that da Gama was “quite a short man, barely 5 ft”). On Sunday churches are all overflowing. Our driver Raj Kumar, a portly Keralan who looks like pirate but is extremely considerate and a great driver/guide, tries to sound bland as he remarks that “Sunday mass is compulsory. If don’t go to mass, then later difficult to get married in church. !” But color is everywhere, bright and rich.dsc_9569.jpg dsc_9602.jpgThere is no fear of going overboard. One slightly lonely Durga temple, where the goddess is being dressed up by a Brahmin, reminds me we are still in Hindu India.That and a slightly touristy daily Kathakali show we catch in a nearly empty airconditioned theater. Next morning we head off to the hills, we will do a final tour of Cochin on our way back._d3b8639.jpg For now it is up to the hills to Munar, around 5000 feet above sea level and most definitely tea country. There are masses of domestic tourists about, many down from booming Bangalore (though Kerala aspires to compete in the internatonal IT biz, now might not be the time?) all enjoying themselves immensely._d3b9103.jpg In the tea plantations it is mainly Tamil workers, apparently Keralans aren’t interested in the low wage scale. So the Tamils have migrated here for generations, some have married into local families. _d3b9098.jpgMeanwhile on the roadsides one sees fantasy mansions built with money earned by Keralans who have gone to the gulf states to find their fortunes (and they did!), so everyone seems to be happy. But it is a tiny state in India, and doesn’t necessarily reflect the whole picture, I am sure.

mcleod grunge

Back in Dharamsala/McLeod Ganj for the first time in years, and can only say that it has somehow managed to get more crowded (it’s gone vertical) filthier in town (though the garbage pick up seems to work overtime, and the huge hillsides full of aqua bottles have gone). The drivers are all certifiable. Dinner at the hotel tibet, once the fancy place in town was barely do-able as the toilets reeked right up the stair well to the top floor. But the jewel in this muddy lotus is of course being able to attend the teachings HH the Dalai Lama gave last week to a huge group of Taiwanese, Singaporean and Malaysian Chinese. Very organized bunch, with flags and roating schedules for who sits in the temple. Loads of Indian tourists as usual, but must say I find most of them very devotional and are thrilled to see HHDL live. It’s quite touching how un-artificial their sense of veneration is. HHDL was in pretty good form, recovered from his bout of exhaustion but all the attendants keeping a watchful eye that he doesn’t overdo it, regular medical check ups are pretty much in order for the next few months. haven’t really done too much photographydsc_9149.jpgand these shots are pretty much classic. but for those who haven’t been, well this is what one set of views look like (from the balcony of the Ashoka guest house.mcleodpan1.jpgThe mixture of languages and people that now inhabit the Dharmasala circuit is mindboggling, there are tuvans in Thai fishermen pants, Latvians talking to Icelanders, half Tibetan-and- anything-else kids running around. Just about anything. It’s a cool world in that way – I flew in from singapore next to a Polish Bolivian (swedish national) who spoke English like an office worker from London, and on the flight up chatted with a Latvian-American photographer – not to mention the tall, radiant Finnish-Bengali girl at Delhi airport we both chatted up (relax, she was married and off to a meditation retreat). Well now that there are more of us mix ups, being Turkish Indonesian doesn’t feel so strange anymore. Anyhow India has always had a history of tribes floating through. How it copes with modernity in the future is anyone’s guess, but there ae plenty of entrepreneurs who try. In delhi just outside the monastery guest house where I stay, there is a an electric car dealership – not quite the sleek look GM is looking for, but in Delhi’s crowded streets and parking spot battles these make sense. But I won’t buy one just yet.img_0295.jpgimg_0294.jpgnothing like straight talk I say. More later!