A journey through a sliver of the Bible

 A passage through a sliver of the Bible-

Israel – As a first timer, its been a revelation and teaches why I should not listen to the media and other know-alls. Beautiful country and for a population of just over 8 million, the young country but biblical land has so much to offer. If not for the searing temperatures, it could just have been anywhere when you are in Tel Aviv. Then you turn south and go to the ancient port city of Jaffa (or Yafo, as its called), you start the time travel to times of Abraham.

A history of building, invasions, carnage, then the rebuild, development, time and again proves just how resilient the folks are. Tel Aviv is just barely 100, while Jerusalem is well over 4000 years old. Tel Aviv is just like any other modern city and still yearns to grow with its subway under construction and skyscrapers dotting the horizon. For an avid hiker, it’s a dream come true since everything in the city that is worth visiting can be covered on foot while savoring the ambience of the outdoor cafes.

An overwhelming experience to walk through the Biblical history in Jerusalem has to be the highlight. The east part of Jerusalem (Jeru for City and Shalom for Peace) was founded by King David (Of the David vs Goliath fame). The temple mount stands in the middle of the walled city which by the way has just over 40,000 denizens, Armenians, Jews, Muslims and Christians; A perfect harmony of cultures in this microcosm. The city is divided into these four quarters and underneath it all, lies the pathway over which Jesus was crucified and walked to his final destination. I got to see the place where he died, the place where he was anointed and the monument over his tomb. That is truly awe-inspiring.

Another sub highlight is the famous Wailing wall, that used to be a retaining wall of the temple structure. As you turn left of the wall, you see the minaret of the mosque that was built by the Muslim conquestors on the 7th century. The Al-Aqsa mosque also stands proud in the temple courtyard. Everyone from King David, Babylonians, Romans, Muslims, Ottomans, the British, The Jordanians and now the state of Israel has had something to do with this Biblical city.

Then the drive from 3000 m above sea level to 400 m below sea level passing through yet another slice of history and political turmoil, The West Bank to the Dead Sea. The Dead sea, where absolutely no life exists. Wading through it feels like wading through a barrel of oil, such viscosity made worse by the sulphates, bromides , chlorides and other mineral salts that keep it saturated. You could see Jordan on the other side of the Sea and its no picnic being at the beach here except to make sure you could actually float on water.

Visitors and Tourists- Just make sure you pick a cooler time to visit Israel if you can but if you are a sun worshipper, then by all means go for it any time. The Mediterranean beaches are just gorgeous and super lively.

One thing for sure – Never else have I seen a people with a more fierce national pride than the Israelis. They all go to public schools until they are 18, at which point all boys and girls have to compulsorily serve a 2-3 year stint in the military. There is a deep sense of belonging that exudes pride and patriotism.

 

 

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Planes, Trains, Horses & Automobiles- Peru Hike 2016

A journey that took me to the Andean valleys in Peru was a trip through the customs, a trip through the Quechua traditions, a trip through the vastness and remoteness of the countryside yet a supremely enriching experience. A trip that started with another plane ride evolved into all forms of transport; A locomotive engine, an automobile , horseback ride and of course my own two little feet.

As with most journeys in this land which I’d rather refer to as the Inka kingdom, it starts in Cusco, capital of the magnificent Inka empire. Cusco, at just over 11,000 ft does bring back some memories and feeling like Tintin in “Prisoners of the son” I bask in the warm winter sun feeling may be a little bit out of breath. However as the locals say, cocoa tea is that magic pill for altitude sickness and admittedly its a weak concoction and doesn’t do much for me. So I do what I do, get used to the altitude. Embarking in the week of the Peruvian independence day was a great feast for the eyes watching the schools, local fire and police units parading in the central Plaza de Armas, Sitting on the balcony on a lazy day sipping a Pisco sour watching the locals intermingle with the tourists in a rich colorful array of cultures was a treat.

Then the journey begins into the Lares valley. Our  group is typical of an international contingent with a Peruvian (Quechua Indian) guide and an assortment of French and  Polish folks. Traversing a village meat market where heads and hooves of cows are out on display before we headed out towards the Lares Valley while going over a 12,000 foot high mountain pass. Llamas and alpacas are a common sight and seem to have formed a special bond with humans, being the source of food and clothing for all around.

The first day hike goes up from the relatively low elevation of 10,500 ft to the camp 1 at 12,500 ft. The hike takes us through remote Indian villages where life is at complete peace unhindered by technology and simplicity is at its best.The hike is gradual yet tests out the endurance of the feet and heart; frequent rests become the norm as the altitude gets up to above 12,000 ft. The camp we get into as remote as it can get but yet close to the village of the horsemen, where womenfolk dressed in colorful bright red garb spread out their wares consisting of alpaca wool gloves and scarves. It becomes an instant flea market and you cannot help but admire their tenacity as they are fascinated by us and we in turn are fascinated by them. The camp tents are surrounded by the glorious Andes peaks and as the cold sets in, the silence of the darkness is only broken by the occasional barking of dogs and the soothing flowing of the nearby stream.

The second day hike starts fairly early and as the caravan departs towards the mountain pass the journey has to be made. We have to be at 15,000 feet in under 5 hours. The terrain is rocky, the slopes are steep yet we must march on. Tyros take frequent breaks while the seasoned hikers lead the trail. Passing other hikers, horses carrying supplies but what is most amazing is the endurance and strength of the men and boys that literally are seen jogging up at these elevations like it was a jog to the convenience store round the corner. After a steep climb and some assistance from the horses, we finally make it to the 15,000 ft point, the mountain pass overlooking a gorgeous lake that makes it all worth the effort. Then the rest of the day is about going downhill and hiking for over 4 hours like a billy goat takes us to the camp 2. A warmer place yet superb in its location where we “chill” for the night.The day 2 has probably got to be one of the most grueling days I have ever encountered in my life and turns out that I actually walked close to 25 miles!

The Day 3 is then decamoing, hopping on to a coach to get to Ollantaytambo and walking around this charming town before getting on the Perurail train to Aguas Calliente. Machu Pichu beckons.

Not just hiking in Machu Pichu, but what is absolutely rewarding are the hikes to the Inka bridge and the Sun Gate that makes it special. A must do, if you haven’t done it already! Then the final hike down the steps from Machu Pichu to our base camp in Aquas Callientes.

My highlights-

The valley hike, meeting the locals, great group of people, discovery of new lands and the sheer feeling of serendipity as we hiked some mind boggling trails around Machu Pichu.

Be prepared for high altitude effects; breathlessness, parched throats and remember its a marathon not a sprint.Hike light and let the horses carry that extra heavy hiking backpacks. Lots of water highly recommended alongwith sun protection. It may have been winter but when the sun gets out, it shines down hard.

And spare a thought for the village kids who wear smiles and go on about life with such verve and enthusiasm it is infectious. Consider contacting a local agency if you are keen on supporting their education and development, I am certain there are appropriate avenues.  What is it they say- “A good deed never goes unrewarded”.

The trip has put life in a different perspective and makes me want to do more of this; miles to go before I sleep !

 

The Journey of an immigrant- Part II

The Saudi feeling is starting to sink in; well you can never really get that feeling in you entirely. True to belief it felt like I had been sentenced to a one year rigorous imprisonment in a minimum security prison. The camp was a compound by the Red Sea, a set of box modular structures and I could imagine this to be another Gulag with less security. Have you ever been kicked in the mouth by a rampant horse?

The inner conditions do not get too better as days transition into weeks and weeks transition into months. I could never really come to grips with that life especially in those surroundings. I would actually thrive in these conditions decades later but in 1995 I left myself for dead. A few thing to write about would be the weekend trips to the port city of Jeddah which was trying its best to look like fast food America and the air conditioned malls I had not been in before. Jeddah is also the home to the infamous “Chop Chop Square” where convicted rapists and petty criminals have their heads or hands cut off.

Mecca the holy city for Moslems was not too far from the camp I was in, where the signs to the checkpost proclaiming “For Moslems Only” still stirs an ominous feeling inside me. The tranquility in midst of this temptest was the lucid turquoise waters of the Red Sea and I was even blessed to catch a few views of Flying Fish, which I had only seen in one of my favorite TinTin publication, “The Red Sea Sharks”. After all these years when I stop long enough to delve on my Saudi experience I am convinced it wasn’t Saudi, it was me that kicked myself into this baleful whirlpool of darkness.

And just as I reckoned, it was rock bottom and the only way after this episode was to lift myself and at least see the azure skies of hope.

Alexandria

My journey took me next on a teaser trip to which eventually was going to become my home eventually but that cold dark January evening when I landed at Dulles, Washington DC I wasn’t so sure. Just as I had experienced dealing with cabbies back home, I was sure the guy would cheat my precious $75 out of me.So of course as the taxi starts, the guy in all likelihood is attempting to be friendly and asked me if this was my first trip to the US. And me, in all my devious bent, say “Oh yeah, I have been here several times, in fact I love the east coast and of the west coast cities, Chicago is my favorite city.” Deathly silence and that was the last exchange we had for the rest of the journey. The names he may have called me under his breath, I don’t think I would have been able to repeat. However, being in the promised land sent a shiver of optimism through my veins. It was going to last, I hoped as I-495 beltway outside the taxi looked like a parade of pearls and rubies.

—To be continued…

Washington DC- An immigrant’s Diary-Part I

The Journey of an immigrant- 

I was not born in this county, I was not born in the State, I wasn’t even born in this country. Its been close to 17 years for me in this country. An immigrant with aspirations, dreams and looking to touch and feel that I had only seen through postcards, movies and commercial clips and Time magazine. A few decades back I would have made my way on a steamer across the Atlantic, processed at Ellis Island and made my way into the Big Apple.

The sheer romance of this journey, the awe inspiring narratives were what my dreams started to be spun around. It took a British writer,  Jeffrey Archer to vividly describe the success of an immigrant from small town Poland. “Kane and Abel” that is the book. The graphic and vivid portrayal of Abel Rosnowski and his rags to riches story was the recipe for several of the west bound aspirants. And as time rolled by, the dream seemed to get far and further away with each passing year.

And then you start to wonder- Opportunities do not come around if risks are not taken. Life definitely gives you lemons, but being served lemonade is completely unheard of. If the New York bound ship is not docked for you at the harbor, then you start to look at options. You could still set out west but you may have to have a few pit stops. Now that is something that clicked inside me. I am thinking, even the Arabian peninsula is west of where I grew up.

The journey begins- Jeddah, Saudi Arabia

It was an extremely sunny cloudless day in Oct 1995 (I later realized 364 of the 365 days are extremely sunny and cloudless) and I landed with a deep sense of foreboding, not sure what to expect but somehow fairly certain that I was a second class citizen. This is not fiction and the way the immigration officer waves me through I started to resent my own self, my seemingly impulsive decision to even set foot in the peninsula. And then the journey to a remote camp, 150 miles into the desert hugging the Red Sea was me slumped in the backseat, still unable to fathom the deep change that was happening right in front of me. Miles and miles of dunes, herds of camels, some of them on the back of Toyota pick ups and the relentless sun refusing to hide. Now I am starting to hallucinate- I am going to be asked to join a plethora of workers, whipped across my bare back and pull the huge pieces of rocks to create a pyramid like structure. Not entirely delirious but the projection of fears emanating into something evil.

I arrive at the camp and instead of running across the Bedoins or even hearing the Arabic dialect, I almost get run over by group of loudly chattering Filipinos. Then some Sri Lankans, some Indians then I spy some gringos. This was going to be my microcosm, a camp by the Red sea, by no means a resort but certainly not made up of stuff I had earlier imagined. Reality sinks in and the jet lag hits me. I am off to lala land.

To be continued……

 

Nostalgia – Overrated?

As traditional as it gets. A quick visit to my birthplace, Srirangam, Tamil Nadu, India after 25 years. Some things never quite change, like stuck in a time capsule. A place where time not only has stood still but every street every alley has retained its unique charisma. As nostalgic as it sounds, it certainly doesn’t appear that I will be back anytime soon. For those who grew up in cosmopolitan India, a place like Bhopal (Central India) is what I have always considered home. Just being born someplace doesn’t make it home.
I have seen people fawn over nostalgic things and true to spirit, nostalgia may not be related to a place but it could be old pictures, old books and other such forms.
I would be interested to hear what you think of this.

South Africa- Izwe imilingo

I have been meaning to write for a few days now. Now after finally having overcome the jet lag between Australia and South Africa, its good to be alive again. Coming to South Africa although for a short stint; I see this as an opportunity to see more of the world. Additionally some experience in the Aluminium smelter business is enriching.

This country is indeed interesting. Since the end of apartheid, it seems the country has exploded into chaos. While taking a drive around the countryside, the fields and meadows resemble India in so many ways. You see people walking along the road in the middle of wilderness, stark poverty evident everywhere. While this country is not a classic 3rd world country, it is more like a two and half! We have been asked by security experts not to be complacent or travel alone. Crime is quite prevalent and Johannesburg, the largest city is pretty overwhelming for first timers.

My next door neighbour at the apartment block is a South African of Indian origin. He was telling me how his forefathers travelled across the Indian Ocean in 1861 from India to work on the sugar cane plantations outside Durban.

 

Working 6 days a week leaves only Sunday to explore. Last Sunday 3 of us (Myself, a Canadian, a New Zealander) managed a trip to visit a Zulu village, where the Zulus still live as did way back at the turn of the 20th century. Very interesting to see how they go about their lives (I have attached a picture of me with a Zulu chief)

Few more weekends we plan to go see a crocodile farm and go on an African safari.

 

 

Another interesting day trip: Driving by the African savannah and entering the St Lucia estuary. This place is at the southern end of the Mozambiquan coastal plain and is classified as a World Heritage site (Inaugurated by Nelson Mandela “Madiba”) in 1995. Taking a boat on the river you can see the water is full of hippos and crocodiles. Lazing around in the sun, hanging out in water, these are abound. I was just over 200 k’s from the South African borders of Swaziland and Mozambique.

 

A little fact I found out that Nelson Mandela actually married the Mozambique strongman, Samora Machel’s widow. The lady has the unique distinction of being the first lady twice!

 

Tourism is the only industry that thrives here while locals make their livelihood on the cane and pineapple plantations. Poverty is very visible but for a person who grew up in India, its not all that shocking.

Europeans come to African not only to watch the big game but some of them have been known to indulge in game hunting. Game hunting primarily refers to hunting of the Big five (African elephant, Lion, Leaopard, Cape Buffalo and the White Rhino). Game hunting packages cost as much as $25,000 for a 12 day  trip.

 

While there is plenty of game to watch, I am not sure if some of the power hungry corrupt African dictators are not more dangerous. When you look north from South Africa, Zimbabwe (Mugabe) and the chronically tribal warfare infested countries of Burundi. Rwanda, Angola stand out. And with Western hired guns to add fuel to the fire, Africa continues to sustain its sobriquet of the “Dark Continent”.

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Talking to an Indian South African guy, he tells me how bad it was pre 1994 during the days of Apartheid. No right to vote, not allowed to enter white neighborhoods, running scared of the white man, eating in different sections in the same restaurant..Terrible..Wonder why they think its okay to treat a person of a darker color differently. Bloody shame!

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Just three weeks in this country and while my travels have not been extensive, the time still allows to get a fairly good perception of lifestyle and dynamics in the current South African society. I have had the opportunity to speak with several people from varying nationalities. Many non South Africans, primarily Europeans and Australians see the society and culture as backward and third- worldy. No surprises here, since over 90% of the populations consisting of native blacks and coloured were repressed for a prolonged period. Just lifting the restrictions and ending apartheid does not lead to the native development automatically. This seems like it is a process and may take a generation and a half. Meantime the economic situation amongst the previously underprivileged populace continues to worsen.

It used to an enforced segregation until 1994 and now almost two decades later, its more of a natural self segregation. So much so, that illiteracy and prevalent crimes have come to be associated with the blacks. And its conveniently forgotten that it is the minority who created this situation in the first place. This is an unfortunate stigma many South Africans will carry for the rest of their lives.

 

The repeatedly flashing pictures of people living in shanty towns on a bare subsistence are extremely visible throughout the country. The native folk are extremely friendly and take pride in what they do and graciously accept any kind of tips. The same is to be said of the White minority; nowhere do the common white people appear to be dictators or the despots they were made to be. The common folks have been fairly friendly to us foreigners ,I would say, more so than the Australians. So at a grass roots level, the true citizens are as integrated but cultural and economic differences do make it appear that society is stratified.

 

The leadership could be doing a lot more than soaking in corruption and polygamy. The basic tenet of leading by example is surely absent. The continuing paucity of power and the consequences faced by the government in terms of rioters and power line tappers does not look to be improving anytime soon. The presence of hired guns like ourselves is noticeable in almost all industries. Power, Aluminium smelting and other such core industries have a plethora of expatriate experts while the local talent is almost invisible. These expatriates could do a lot better by actually training the locals rather than earning a few quick rands and complaining about the lack of initiative on part of the local populace. The leadership may well treat this as a chronic problem and these issue be addressed before South Africa goes the way of its other fellow African nations.

 

The visit to the Umfolozi game reserve would be considered as a once in a lifetime opportunity. The massive 500 hectare wild life reserve opened up in 1895 to create a reserve for the great white southern Rhinoceros. The white hunters had been shooting them for game for several years and it took them a few years to realize the fun and games will cause the white rhinos to be extinct. This necessitated opening of the game reserve; subsequently followed by introduction of major wild life into the park. And one thing that surprised me immensely was the fact that the animals are not fed. They are in open country and are wild animals, pure and simple. Therefore they have to hunt their own food and survive the jungle and be part of the food chain.

Seeing these glorious animals in their natural splendour is an unbeatable sight, unparalled in its grace and memory. Soaking up the knowledge and nuances of many of animal behaviours was an added bonus.

We were fortunate enough to view the Elephant, the White Rhino, the Cape Buffalo, Giraffes, antelopes and zebras at close proximity.

 

Alaska- The land beyond

Travelogue, Alaska

Alaska is not in the US, it certainly doesn’t appear to be. It’s not even in this part of world. Its a million miles away from it all. When a state twice the size of Texas and with a population of just fewer than 700,000 is way up there, it’s hard to fathom what’s in there. What’s there is the sheer beauty and magnificence of nature. When you think of a painted landscape of flowing rivers, mountains, cascades, trails, that is in essence the microcosm of Alaska.

Reality strikes however when you fly into Fairbanks, the second largest city in Alaska and that reeks of being fairly ordinary and I overheard people calling it a crummy town. While that may be true, an ugly pit stop is hardly a deterrent to what lies to the north, south, east and west. Of all the wilderness area designated in America, over 60% lies in Alaska. Eskimos and the native Alaskans, the Athabascans still live off the land. Strewn in many remote outposts across the state, they do enjoy many of the benefits that the state has to offer. But when I met a few of them in Fairbanks, they didn’t exactly come off as people enjoying life. Far from it. May be these are the citizens who chose to leave the wilderness and chose the urban life. The whites I came across are the ones who came over for a brief stint from the upper northern states and never left.

The impressive thing is the attitude on how the locals perceive their state as a natural reserve and they are fiercely proud of what they have. They thrive in the winters too when temperatures dip 50- 6- F below zero. Dog mushing, sleds are the order of the season. How some of them live off the land and when we hear politicians bickering about taking guns away from people, I came away from Alaska thinking why would be paint everyone with the same brush and basically take away means of livelihood for these folks who hunt during the summer to provide for winter.

Wild life of course abounds and it would not be uncommon at all to see a big moose crossing the highways, big guys for sure and I am told, the best option is to run when confronted. And grizzly bears thrive in the lands here and finding their ways to eat the wild berries they are visible too. Denali looks like a safe haven for these guys and looking at how NPS maintains the reserve, there is hardly any doubt they will be disturbed. Speaking of the environment, there is a whole peninsula designated by the National Petroleum Service as a reserve. So this is the land many are after. Seemingly this will provide enough oil for generations and make us fully self-sufficient instead of dealing with not-so friendly nations. Drill! Drill! Drill! is the call from many quarters. I was convinced of this before but when you get to feel the fragile Tundra you may change your minds. Just inches below the surface, you actually feel the presence of perm-frost, a think sheet of ice even in the summer. Guess what happens when you start drilling, not only the obvious melting of the frost but imagine the species of flora and fauna it helps sustain. It’s a resort for sure for oil, but a last one at that. Prudhoe Bay, off the Arctic coast in the North West is where they discovered copious amounts of oil in 1968. BP and Exxon promptly got the license to build the 799 mile pipeline from the Bay all the way down to Valdez (Remember Exxon Valdez spill, 1989?). This sustains the state and the way the 140 deg oil is insulated from even getting close to the frigid ground is well kept. It’s a wonderful example of nature co-existing with mankind.

A trip up there may sound fairly touristy but if you bothered to go a little deeper, it may well change your prejudice and may be even some ill-conceived perceptions.