The Baby Farm in the Sky

No one writes about business class travel except business people – Richard Quest (CNN) for example, considers it quite a grunt—speed, efficiency, and a secure computer connection being the main ingredients of a good flight.

Well, roll over business people, there is a more mature crowd moving in. Those of us who have paid top bucks for economy tickets all our working lives and have amassed an Everest of flier miles are taking over. We call ourselves the Hot Rolled Towel Generation.

And we deserve it. Bum knees, rotten eyesight, sore backs, occasional disorientation, and the imperative of sleeping lying flat all medically indicate that we are no longer fit for slum class. Who wants a rather rotund, occasionally drooling, rheumy-eyed old geezer sitting beside them? And the worst: he might even start telling stories about how things used to be—better/worse/different.

Shakespeare, as usual, was right. In his “All the world’s a stage” speech, the last stage of human development circles back to the first, and the old man becomes a baby again. Never has this been truer than on a good 10-hour business class flight.

You are cocooned like a papoose in a plastic cubicle. You are back in a roomy womb. (It is the same idea in coach class, but there it is more like being triplets.)  You are nurtured, cleaned, and looked after.

The impeccably groomed young lady comes and kneels in front of you (just like a kindergarten teacher), addresses you by name, and in a clear voice that you can actually hear assures you that she is your personal slave for the duration of the flight. You can eat and drink what you want, when you want. They give you chocolates and champagne and green tea and then ask if you would like more.

When you lower your mechanical seat into sleeping position you can snore, snort, drool, burp and fart to your heart’s content inside the comforting roar of the jets. Under the light-weight duvet, with your reading light adjusted just-so, you could even be forgiven for sucking your thumb.

Your clothes becomes crinkled, spotty and messy if you have chosen not to change into the complimentary pyjamas. Turbulence can result in a surprising little vomit in the handy vomit bag. You are not scolded, but comforted and protected. Macho is out. Maternal is in.

The washrooms are close-by, smell like roses, and usually empty. The toilet paper is constantly folded into peak ends for easy roll-offs. There is a button to call a cabin crew member in case of washroom emergencies.

Upon landing, you re-enter the cold cruel world. Your time of no-control, no-responsibility is over. You are heartlessly thrown back into the earthly morass of immigration line-ups, taxi swindles, and stultifying heat. You wonder where your next meal is coming from.

Again, you become a player in the Shakespeare monologue as you turn into the (tourist) soldier “full of strange oaths … sudden and quick in quarrel.”

The flight is over.

 

 

 

 

Donald Trump’s Inner Gandhi

I have just visited the Gandhi Museum in Madurai, Tamil Nadu, and have made the startling discovery that Mahatma (The Great Soul) Gandhi and Donald (Make America Great Again!) Trump are political soul-mates. I hope you are reading this, Mr President, as I doubt that many people will have noticed your inner Gandhi.

It came to me as I was standing in front of a black and white photo of Gandhi wearing a loincloth seated at a spinning wheel. A master of media imagery, his message was clear – Indians must spin and weave their own cloth in the traditional manner. Imported British cloth must be boycotted.

Foreigners Out! Foreign Products Out! Make India Great!

Imagine if, some 85 years later, there had been a video clip (was there?) of candidate Trump in his red cap and a pair of worker’s overalls on a Ford assembly line in Michigan helping a robot mount an engine in the latest model of a (red) Ford Mustang. Every guy in the whole of the US would have voted for him (did they?).

Gandhi, vastly popular, devoted the last 30 years of his life to achieving Indian Independence. His thoughts, his dreams, his aspirations, his daily life became a purposefully open book. He slept little, rose at 3:30 a.m. and then filled the rest of the night with letter writing. This was followed by days of interviews, meetings, hunger strikes, long marches, spells in jail, and speeches. He was always doing something to maintain and increase attention and contact.

The shining example of mediatic brilliance was Gandhi’s wearing his loin-cloth to visit England in 1931. This skinny, ugly, old guy with a towel wrapped around his privates was much-criticised for his lack of disrespect to the king. Bald and toothless, he must have been cold as he cheerfully commented: “The king wears enough clothes for both of us.”

Sound familiar? A popular reality TV show? The 3 a.m. Tweets? The odd hair? The shambolic suits and clown ties? The unnaturally white 70-year old teeth? Criticising the establishment? The pre-fuss about the possibility of the Ugly American meeting Her Majesty?

Just as Gandhi was a product of India, so Donald is a product of America. Gandhi was a cliché of poverty. Trump is a cliché of wealth. They are the two extremities of our pretend/wished-for/normal middle-class, middle-of-the-road world; and as such they both disturb.

Gandhi was outrageous taking on the British Empire; just as Trump is outrageous taking on the world. Gandhi’s dream that the untouchable/Dalit caste be abolished did not happen. Similarly, Trump’s promise that every American worker will have job in America making products for Americans will not be filled.

However, Gandhi’s wish for the independence of India did come about, and in the initial act—the 1947 partition—it is estimated that up to 2,000,000 people died in the religious genocide that followed and 14,000,000 people were displaced.

So, Mr President, living alone in your great white elephant ashram in Washington, be very careful what you wish for.

Buddha is my Airbag

Having arisen from my New Year’s sick bed and adjusted my drug combination accordingly, I now find myself in deepest darkest Tamil Nadu.

It is a relief to have missed the hysteria surrounding the new American president’s inauguration. Searching hard, I did find a small article on page 16 of The Hindu which reported that Mr Trump has replaced the red curtains of the Oval Office with some drapes of his favourite colour – gold. There was even a picture to prove it. VERY Great Gatsbyand we all know what happened to him.

However, here we do not rely on international news for second-hand frissons and thrills. It’s happening all around.

The days do have their gracious moments – strolling the windy sea-front, admiring the sparkling saris and the police in their red képis. And there are also exciting protests against the attempted banning of the temple sport of bull “taming”. These feature bands of shouting/chanting young men throwing beer and coke bottles up in the air to smash back down on the sidewalks. They look and sound fierce and are filmed by a moving wagon full of TV cameramen. Together they are making tonight’s news.

Strikes are called and all shops shut under the threat of official strike enforcers with badges and big sticks knocking out their windows. Broken glass seems to be a leitmotif.

A group of ladies – dressed in red and pink and orange – march along the seafront under the slogan “We Will Go Out” claiming their right to non-harassment in public places.

The nights are long sleepless affairs. The music that drifts along the Bay of Bengal, pushed by the north wind loses very few of its decibels and reaches our room in pristine tone and volume. In the very early morning Allah calls and the church bells ring.

The street dogs that sleep placidly in the sun all day awake when the sun goes down and howl the night away. Likewise the cars, tuk-tuks, and motorbikes honk ceaselessly as they ply the streets communicating to each other like a flock of Canada geese on speed.

The little baffed-out Tata car that is driving us to the great temples of the south has a Ganesh on the dashboard, lots of dents and scrapes on all doors, and a driver with the three good-luck ash lines of Shiva on his forehead. We wear our frayed seat-belts on as we bash our way through the villages skirting trucks, buses, dogs, cows, goats, and humans. The driver sticks, cannily, to the centre of the road. There are no air-bags.

The birds are flocking. The music is rising. Evening is falling. Time now to check out the toilet paper situation in the thunder-box; turn on the geyser for a spot of hot water; find some fresh innerwear; and pour myself a chhota-peg.

Forget the Mindfulness Massage

I hate massages, so one good thing about living in the Swiss countryside is that this is not considered a social or mental shortcoming. However, having recently been in a town where every second person on the street offers you a massage (the other half offers transport) I eventually got snared.

Now this wasn’t your normally nasty sandy beach massage, or your cheap and cheerful downtown flea-pit massage. It took place in a respectable spa on the top of a windy ridge in central Bali.

massagemindfulnessThe oils and lotions were smartly-packaged and you could choose your flavour. The delicate jasmine body oil was a far cry from an extremely unpleasant experience some years back involving a tar-like product from a bucket that was an indelible mixture of shoe polish and petroleum jelly.

The sarong on the massage table was clean, and the subtly-muscled staff was dressed in matching business-like polo shirts. Before beginning, you had to fill out an official form on a clip-board indicating the strength of massage desired, and pointing out any areas that needed special attention. You naturally slip into your “fooling the doctor” mode and give nothing away.

We chose the Intuitive Heart Massage during which you are encouraged to drift off into a slumber-like state of peaceful bliss for 90 minutes, and to awake refreshed and reinvigorated. (My sister has since pointed out that they only give heart massages to dead people such as Princess Diana in the Paris tunnel.)

It started badly. As the nice young lady was wiping invisible specks of dust off the soles of my feet, my tickle-reflex kicked in. Fortunately, no lasting damage was done, but the next 89 minutes were doomed.

She intuitively started with my bad knee finding all the most painful acupuncture points. The Swedish-style hammering did not help. Her intuition held, and she moved right along to my bad back and turned her arms into rolling pins.

A good massage certainly takes your mind off things outside your skin. You become a ball of anticipation worrying about what painful thing is going to happen next. You mull over the possibility of actually dying on the massage table. You try to think Zen thoughts as the thunder crashes and the rain pours down – such as why you didn’t bring an umbrella, or why you didn’t wear your lucky purple underpants, or which is worse—here or at the dentist’s? You try to breathe calmly and quietly without gasping.

Leaving the massage table in a state of euphoria and mental confusion, you have to teach yourself to walk again.

As you sip your post-massage organic ginger tea, you notice that the people around you seem bouncy and liberated. They have probably slept through their dreamy massages and remembered their umbrellas. Perhaps they have even had the post-massage Singing Bowl Healing Vibration 30-minute treatment which sooths and heals.

They probably even love massages.

Depending on the Kindness of Strangers

As a tourist you are perpetually dependent on the competence and the kindness of strangers—the drivers, the restaurant and hotel staff, your fellow passengers—all become part of a public puddle of general cooperation.

Usually, if your attitude is correct, and your luck holds, you swim about in a pond of congenial getting-by. Tips play a big part in this. In New York my sister taught me the fine art of pre-tipping the house-keeping staff, for example.  And writing bad reviews on an appropriate website also used to be an incentive for a reasonable standard of goods and service.

When the kindness puddle gets too polluted, though, it’s important to get to dry land as soon as possible. Everyone knows you can drown in an inch of muddy water.

Take the recent case of the Wild Boar Goulash Soup.

In one of Budapest’s best restaurants this local speciality featured as a course between the warm goose liver and the meat and dumplings. It was not even your ordinary goulash soup, but a special variety made with wild boar. (Query: is there such a thing as domestic boar?)

goulashsoupfeaAnyway, it consisted of tinned cubed vegetables and meat. I know this as a true fact, as I grew up eating tinned soup and loved it. Like a gourmet who can separate a single pearl of Beluga Caviar from a crystal bowl full of lesser eggs, I can distinguish a rubbery cube of tinned beef from any carefully-boiled home-made product. And tinned vegetables have their own texture that simply cannot be reproduced no matter how long you boil a carrot.

By my reckoning, a spoonful of canned meat and veg had been ladled into each bowl, a spoonful of paprika had been added, and it was all topped up with hot water. I wolfed down as much as I could of the solid bits before stopping to reflect, and then left the rest. My more fastidious dining-companion left all of his.

The waiter refused to take our almost-full bowls away, and a rather large lady came to enquire what our problem was. She was not exactly confrontational, but the musician playing the zither definitely stepped on the damper pedal so he could follow the interesting conversation that was about to take place.

It was not to our taste perhaps? We were not used to the paprika? Ah, but, exceptionally, her husband-the-chef had not made the delicious soup today and a sous-chef had made it. She would check with the kitchen ….

She never returned to our table. Much like the Lobster Newburg in Aswan (no lobster and the shells smelled of bleach) or the fennel soup in Istanbul (fennel had been replaced by chopped grass) yet another tourist restaurant had cut the final corner.

When this happens, it is our duty to gird up our tourist loins and send the simple, yet brave, message to the kitchen to tell the chef that it’s not good.

The puddle of cooperation (and the soup) might be better tomorrow.

PS  We left a big tip for the zither man.

The Bell of Torment

Well, I’ve just got back from a few days of wellbeing (the Long Life formula for guaranteed benessere) at the Italian spa of Castrocaro Terme. Completely shattered.

The problem wasn’t really with the mud mask treatment. I had thought that after it was over the girl would have come back to get me and show me the way out. Fortunately, the doors are only locked very late at night.

And it also wasn’t the dagger glares that we received as we slid gracefully into the spa’s hot mineral pool. No one had handed us the obligatory shower cap, and, anyway, you would never dream of putting your head anywhere near the green sulphur water with its icing of brown froth.

And it certainly wasn’t the reserved breakfast tables in the most convenient and beautiful spots. We were fine down the corridor behind the pillars.

No. It was the clock tower bell.

clocktower2During the daytime, I swear, it was silent as a tomb. However, there were a few hints around town that things were not quite right. For example, there were ashtrays on all flat surfaces.

There was also a suspiciously well-attended thé-dancant in the hotel gardens. Couples danced their afternoons away to Italian versions of gentle nostalgic songs.

And the fruit and vegetable lady shut her shop firmly for the day at 9:30 a.m.

What happens, is that starting at about 11 in the evening, the clock bell begins to chime. It chimes the hour, and then it also informs you of every 15 minutes that pass.

For example, at 12:45 there are a grand total of 15 loud resonating gongs and you have exactly 14 ½ minutes to firmly doze off before the single chime at 1 a.m.

The stress is enormous. If you can get enough of the Long Life rosso under your belt, then you might have a chance of some refreshing slumber. However, if you accidentally wake up any time in the night you’ve had it. Willing myself into deep sleep within 15 minutes was beyond me.

You think of the pleasant things that have filled your day: the cobbler who has repaired your unstuck sandal for 1 euro; the delicious meal of fresh greens and porcini mushrooms up in the hills; your excellent purchase of a big blue glass Murano bowl. And then you start to think about smoking (for your nerves) dancing (to tire yourself out) or a double espresso (to sharpen up).

Leaning out the window at first light (6:15 a.m.) you see the fruit and vegetable lady open her doors, and her customers immediately start to flock in. The bar in the corner of the square opens with instantaneous clientele. All these people are not up early, they have been up all night.

Purchases made, coffee drunk, and dolce eaten, the town inhabitants will sleep the day away, until it’s time for the dance in the park and the night starts again.

 

 

Hectic Holidays in the Alps

It used to be that a summer in the French Alps in your old farmhouse was a time of mythic tranquillity: very Pagnol with shades of Manon des Sources. Oh yes. In the old days there were really fights about water—but that’s another story.

Only the seriously un-cool used to come here to this dead-end valley on vacation: the pudgy summer-camp kids from the suburbs of Paris, the national workers spending their two-week holiday in their government-built apartments, the tall Dutchmen swinging a gallon jug of rosé from one hand and rouge from the other strolling contentedly back to their campsites.

These days, though, the place is popping and the excitement of the valley is squeezing up the mountain sides. Down at the bottom to provide evening entertainment there are many exciting choices. The Zavatta Circus is in town for three days and this year features Tarzan (the real one).  You can buy tickets at the bakery but it is, sadly, already sold out.

zavatta tarzanThere is also the Hell Drivers Show—Le Festival des Cascadeurs—with their Road Monsters – truck cabins mounted on wheels as high as the ceiling. The poster pictures show them squishing normal cars flat. As this is all taking place down in the ski-lift parking lot, I suppose the most prudent of spectators walk to the show.

During the day the mountains have become a huge open-air fitness centre. Paths are filled with members of the millennium-generation—now approaching their 40’s—that we made the mistake of raising on orange juice rather than water.

They indulge in power-walking, trailing, racing, rock-climbing, parapenting, horse riding, canyoning, and mountain biking. They carry maps in special water-proof cases, wield high-technology walking sticks, sport athletic outfits that breathe, and wear expensive shoes filled with air. They are full of beans and power-drinks and vitamins and carry water on their backs like camels. In deep-sea diver-mode they actually suck on plastic tubes while asking directions. This is extremely disconcerting as one’s mind goes back to dusty hookahs in old Istanbul cafés.

They are determined to bend the mountains to their individual will. They pass their holidays in a whirl of self-centred physical exertion and emerge at the end stronger, better, fitter–more of themselves than they were before.

They have become holiday consumers and Brave New World-like have lost the idea of the holiday as a time of looking outwards and considering a completely different world. A holiday, at its best, makes you forget yourself along with your quotidian concerns and activities. It can make huge chunks of time and organization simply disappear. It is refreshing rather than exhausting.

I did, though, see one young man, walking up alone in rather ordinary clothes with only his smart phone in his hand. He kept stopping and looking at things strangely. I realized that he might have been wandering around inside Pokémon Go. If so, he had at least found a parallel world.

The Queen of Switzerland

There is a canton in Switzerland called the Valais. I once had a female colleague who came from there, and she went back to “her country” every single Friday afternoon. Having just spent a weekend in the Val d’Hérens, I am thinking of emigrating myself.

It’s all about attitude, of course. The real people of the Valais have perfected a potent mixture somewhere between a cowgirl and a Hummer: courage, independence, pride, strength, a grouchy exterior, an ironic interior and, often, a glass of génépi define a true Valaisan.

The landscape of the Valais is mixture of the Himalayas (now that there are yaks and this summer’s huge outdoor walking path photo exposition of Zanskar*) and The Sound of Music. You snuggle into the wild and the gentle, the rough and the soft and, amazingly, feel right at home.

You’re scared to leave a crumb on your plate of steak and cheese-rösti (with rinds), as the chignoned-madam-owner of the Vieux Mazot would be sure to openly disparage your finicky appetite and picky town ways. Packed tight into her Valaisan dress you’re greeted with a hauteur bordering on disgust. Having proved your appetite and your manners, you are given a handshake anCowDSC_0036d a half-smile on the way out.

You want to belong to the Valais. You want to be part of them. But you need credentials. Being a city slicker foreigner does not endear you to the crusty old men with morning wine-breath and sturdy cow-sticks.

You explain your presence at the foggy Inalp (the early-summer migration of the cows up to the high alpine pasturages) by telling the story that you once, some 35 years back, tended a herd of cows up in the Val de Réchy. It snowed in July. Food had to be helicoptered in. There were holes between the stones of the hut where you stayed. The cat caught and ate a mountain rabbit. It left the ears. The child had to be rescued from a mountain stream. Another ear (with identification tag) had to lopped off a cow who had fallen off the rocks to her death.

This cinches matters, of course, and once your Canadian identity is established you’re part of the gang of pipes and caps and canes. An ancient one pulls out his list of cow owners and points out #2 who is Queen of the fighting cows. Proud, and strong, and still, and black. Much like a Hummer with horns. You don’t want to look her in the eye.

In the evening from the hotel balcony you view the night-lit church steeple across the road. The doors are not locked, and the pub-girl waters the flowers. There is a single village shop which the hotel lady calls a souk. She says you can buy anything there: rumour has it, even a bride.

We bought a corkscrew and a bottle of Heida. Next time I’m going to buy a Valais passport because I want to live next door to the Queen of Switzerland and keep a baby yak in my garden.

*check it all out at www.rigzen-zanskar.org/  or  www.evolene-region.ch

 

Toothless Heroes

I subscribe to an important international American newspaper. I have even written for them. However, in the past couple of weeks they have run some questionable articles on the triste affaire of not one single Canadian team being in the Stanley Cup playoffs this year.

We’re talking hockey here, of course, and it’s a scandal.

The seven Canada-based teams in the National Hockey League are (in alphabetical order): Toronto Maple Leafs, Calgary Flames, Edmonton Oilers, Montreal Canadiens, Ottawa Senators, Vancouver Canucks, and the Winnipeg Jets.

It’s not my fault that I’m a Maple Leafs fan. I came of hockey-awareness age in the 1960s in southern Ontario, and Hockey Night in Canada was a Saturday evening ritual of intense physical and emotional pleasure.

Those winter evenings are firmly and forever engraved in my mind. Our father, the village minister, having finished his sermon preparations customarily went over to Simpkins General Store and brought home a 6-bottle cardboard case of soda pop. One tiny little glass bottle each.

After Saturday supper, we then bathed, arranged our hair in rollers or pin curls, put on our flannel pyjamas, and opened the doors of the arborite-encased black and white TV.

We followed our favourite team with fervour. Our father’s repeated expression “The ref must be blind!” was incomprehensible, but we all shouted it with gusto whenever one of our team got sent to the penalty box.

We learned to spot an off-side; knew all about icing, tripping, boarding and checking; and suffered nail-biting agonies during a power-play by the enemy.

The players were mostly helmetless, and had no front teeth.  The goalies had faces full of scars. We loved them all.

Toronto Leafs 1964The great challenge was to try to make your soda pop last through the whole game. Or at least the first period. This was almost impossible, and with the thick green glass clinking against our front teeth the lukewarm dredges at the bottom usually disappeared before the first goal.

During the school-week hockey was kept alive with hockey coins (in packages of chips) and hockey cards (in bubble gum envelopes). There was Red Kelly, a Toronto MP when not on the ice and, thus, forgiven for being a wimp and wearing a helmet; Tim Horton, of doughnut fame; and the goal-rich Frank Mahovlich.

Indoor recesses (when the weather was too cold and icy to go out) revolved around tossing hockey coins against the wall.  I once possessed a most coveted and the very rare goalie coin (Johnny Bower) and enjoyed great popularity with the boys for a brief period of time until the inevitable happened.

My inner hockey-player was conceived during those exciting times and was born when the Leafs won their third successive Stanley Cup in 1964.

And, so, important international American paper, just shove that mouth protector back in and go sit in the penalty box for a few months.

I’ve got much better things to do than read your snarky hockey articles or waste my time watching trivial games played by unimportant teams.  I’m going to Niagara Falls.

 

 

 

 

Disaster Survival Manual

I’m thinking of getting a fish. Browsing through the complex set of rules that define life here at the International House in Tokyo, I see that the only pet that we are allowed to keep is one that does not soil the room or disturb neighbours. A fish in an aquarium is suggested. This plan also matches both the food and the weather.

However, underneath this heavy rule-filled binder I’ve come across a 50-page brochure entitled Disaster Survival Manual. It was printed in 2009, and is in pristine condition.

It is an entirely altruistic document with a foreword by the Mayor of Meguro and written in perfect English. Following an earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear reactor scare of 2008, its aim is to support the elderly, disabled, infants and foreign residents to evacuate. Like Blanche in A Streetcar Named Desire, in case of catastrophe we will all be depending greatly on the kindness of strangers.

There are four Tokyo earthquakes that demand attention.

  • The first is the Tokyo Inland Earthquake. This is called “unsettling” as no prediction is possible.
  • The second is the Tokai trench-type earthquake and will only reach a magnitude of 5 in Tokyo, so is unimportant.
  • The third is the Kanagawa Quake which is of great concern.
  • And the fourth is the Kanto Earthquake which destroyed the city in 1923, so is presumably over and done with.

But I am now seriously worried, as I see that I am not prepared at all.

japan_rescue_team_pgbAccording to instructions, the bathtub should be filled with water at all times. A crowbar, shovel, saw and automobile jack should all be to hand. Food (alfa rice and sea biscuits) and bottled water for three days should be prepared. First aid kit, helmets, cotton work gloves, flashlights and candles should be at the ready. And a portable toilet and a stock of toilet paper, heating stove, portable gas stove are all essential.

On a more whimsical note a sewing kit, waterless shampoo and writing materials should also be in the backpack at the door and ready to go. Well, not exactly go. If there is a serious tremor, you should stay inside under a table with a cushion on your head. (Note: there are no cushions.)

To take away the shock factor of an earthquake arriving out of the blue, there exists a Mobile Earthquake Simulation Truck (called GRUUTT) which visits the locality.  This, I imagine, is similar to the simulator for space travel.  You enter perky, keen, and cracking jokes. You exit confused, nauseous, and possibly injured. There is also a local smoke simulation house which you can also visit. These two earthquake-related events should probably not be undertaken on the same day.

You must help everyone around you in case of disaster and also prepare your pet for possible catastrophe.

I’m off to the 100-Yen shop to see what I can pick up—perhaps a pencil, a candle, a toilet roll and a small package of sea biscuits. I’ve crossed the fish off the list.