Friday, May 30

Parallel Universe

Before I came to Cambodia, the thought crossed my mind that this trip would provide an excellent bit of impetus to my blogging. That is, I dreamed of writing posts furiously through the night... posts which had breathtaking detail in every line, startling observations, eye-catching photos, insightful observations and so on and so forth. For a time, as I made my way from Birmingham to Phnom Penh, there were plenty of the above resulting in an update every few days. The wheels came off that literary wagon the day I landed here.

Ironic, I know. However, as I wrote and deleted words, lines and paragraphs time and again over the last 2 weeks, I decided one thing - the next post would not be the typical read comparing different worlds, talking about culture shock and whatnot. What will I be writing about then ? Hmm...

One thing I did notice... it's easier to find and move into a new house the second time around. After having gone through that circus in the U.S, finding an apartment and dealing with the logistics of moving in came very naturally. Fate was on my side as far as finding a place was concerned. When a very dehydrated moi visited the apartment building of one of the other interns, a house was being vacated at the time. Not wanting to look a gift horse in the mouth (to be translated as: after Self bargained hard and furiously with the landlady over the rent, amenities & utilities) I moved in to Apt. 2, 206 Norodom Blvd. Great location i.e. close to work and not far from Sisowath Quay which is the riverside, which in turn means pubs and restaurants literally fighting each other for space along the banks of the Sap River. Pub-hopping is the easiest thing here; just exit from one and literally just step through the next door. Repeat till drunk.

Sipping on an Angkor beer on the balcony of the Foreign Correspondents Club (FCC) at Happy Hour, watching the sun set at the intersection of the Sap and Mekong rivers... is a nice way to realize that you actually have arrived in Cambodia. The FCC, by the way, has a lovely collection of photos taken by journalists from years ago. Rather putting-off maybe, to be reminded of savagery, brutality and the loss of innocence as you are tucking into a nice meal, but I personally liked it. There are good and bad realizations... and gentle reminders of our own good fortune never hurt anyone.

Cambodia is 'Development Central' as far as the world is concerned. I have never seen such a hodge-podge of international aid organizations and NGO's comfortably resting against each other (figuratively speaking) in any other country. Foreign aid contributes 50% of the National Budget... yes, you read that right. Thanks to this state of affairs, political power is indescribably important. Whomsoever is in power controls the development of the country, and so the funds. And also the bribes.

Working for the UNODC has been interesting so far & I got thrown into the deep end of the pool from day one. The work has been non-stop, which I appreciate and today has been the first slow day since I got here. What have I learned so far ?

That the title United Nations does not necessarily translate into a glamorous setup a.ka. the Secretariat Building in NYC. That is an altogether different world. There's plenty to explore here, though.

Song for the moment: Eye of the tiger - Survivor

Thursday, May 8

Transit tales - 3

A small observation.

On multiple occasions, I've looked nay stared at what passes for vegetarian food during flights. There's some dubious looking salad consisting chiefly of lettuce leaves. There's the coffee cream. There's the cold noodles. And there's the jello. I will look at the said menu, look at the stewardess who will look back at me challengingly and ask me what I'd like to drink. Ahem...

So, while I'm gloomily masticating on a combination of jello & coffee cream, the matriarch sitting a few seats to the left is ploughing her way through the 'asian' veg menu. From what I've seen in the past, this sacrifices taste for recognizability i.e. you can swear to the fact that there is a roti, some rice and chole on your plate, but a bite of any of them will make you pause, chew slowly and thoughtfully and eventually swallow.

But it sure beats eating the jello + coffee cream, let me tell you.

So, this time I was determined. Come what may, I was going to at least have them serve me the asian veg food and specified so very emphatically when booking my flights. And believe you me, I got it.

I got the rice.
I got the roti.

& I got potatoes and rajma with a vengeance. On every flight.

Why, I don't know. And, like a certain Mr. Butler I don't give a flying f***.

However, there was one pleasant surprise waiting for me on the flight from HK to Phnom Penh. The potatoes were there but it was vada. Yes, yes one half of the vada-paav. And the square white lump next to it turned out to be upma.

The smallest things in the strangest places can make one smile.

Song for the moment: Maximum Consumption - The Kinks

Transit tales - 2

Gate 46, Terminal E2, HKG Airport:

Landing at an airport betwixt the mountains and the sea should conjure up an atmosphere of wistful romanticism & it would have done so, were it not for one trivial detail.

Hong Kong (HK) airport at 5:30 am is enveloped in a pea-soup blanket of fog effectively obscuring practically all of the coast and most of the mountains. Still, I'm here; HK, China, South Asia - legendary lands of Oriental mystery and pizazz (okay, so I just wanted that word in there). After the drabness of LAX, this airport albeit an airport, is almost incomparably better. It's cheery looking, seemingly efficient and no, I am not being paid to write this.

I read somewhere that it's the largest airport in the world and it occurred to me that money has been well spent. Of course, the constant sombre reminders about the colour of the national security threat level (you figure it out) have now been replaced by the repeated squawks imploring all and sundry to watch their step on the escalators (finally!!). There's even some people doing Tai Chi in a quite corner... as if to accentuate the geographic location of HK.

I'd have been posting this live from the airport but my laptop battery is dead and there's not a plug-point in sight. This one is coming to you the old fashioned way; I'm sprawled on a couple of chairs at Gate 46, sipping my Café Mocha & scribbling on scraps of paper, to be transferred to the blog whenever possible. The coffee, by the way, is courtesy of Starbucks, which is a blunt reminder that American brands, like the foreign policy, are everywhere. Except Cambodia. I did find out that that the 'Big Mac' is reaching even these distant parts via Hanoi... or was it Saigon ? The point is, I have to grudgingly admit the Starbucks coupled with the 2 United airlines planes parked some distance away, was a comfortingly familiar landmark.

While I cannot do this now, I would like to take in the HK sights on my return through from Phnom thanks to a long layover. But, that is more than 4 months away and the rudimentary plan is tucked away to the back of the closet. For now, I will continue to sprawl, sip my coffee and wait for my next flight. Largest modern airport it may be but I can already feel the first, tentative tendrils of humidity at HK. A portent, I believe.

All I hope is that my bags will have made the convoluted journey from Phoenix - L.A - Hong Kong to Phnom Penh.

Like me.

Song for the moment:
I get around - The Beach Boys

Wednesday, May 7

Transit tales - 1

LAX, Tom Bradley International Terminal:

Readers, the horse before the cart as it were. This piece was born as I finally managed to catch my breath at the Cathay Pacific departure lounge at LAX, awaiting my flight to Hong Kong. An eyebrow may just have been delicately raised as you question my need to ‘catch my breath’. After all, how taxing is checking in for a flight? And this is where, on cue, I introduce you to Los Angeles International Airport or LAX as it is popularly abbreviated.

As I make my way to S.E Asia, I’ve understandably seen quite a few airports on my way. And I haven’t left the U.S.A yet. Birmingham has a nice, small, no hassle airport. Houston seems to follow that accepted dictate about all things Texan – it’s huge. And, this in itself was no problem, but the bright boys who designed it decided, for some inexplicable reason to completely abandon the idea of escalators… you know, those moving paths / thingummys. Astute reader, you have guessed correctly. Long, tiring plods trying to find the right terminal to board my connecting flight to Phoenix, Arizona after which I get to the stated terminal only to be told that the gate has been shifted. Of course. More sentry-go marching of the type the father of our dear nation would have beamingly approved.

The Phoenix sun (I can see how that name became common) hung low in the western sky, bathing the swaying palms, red hills, prim streets and plate-glass buildings in a golden light. The scene seemed to suggest peace, bonhomie and that, for an instant, all was right with the world. I felt only intense melancholia. My cousin had just dropped me off at the airport and headed back home. I envied him, his life. He was going back to a wife and kid, to parents and a regular job. Basically, to a life that is the end result of making all the right moves. Seems to me, most of the people I know now-a-days have made the right moves.

I’m heading to an endemic-malaria zone, to live by myself for the first time in my life. Yes, completely alone… which, as I sit here, at what has to be the biggest and the worst terminal I have ever seen (yes, including Sahar in the latter category), seems to be a very stupid idea. And on a side note, for the love of all that is holy people, Cambodia is in South East Asia. Not Africa. Not South America. Not even in South Africa. It is next to Thailand… and everyone knows where Thailand is. Dirty-minded sods, the lot of you. Anyway, Cambodia… I know I’m determined to enjoy myself there. I know that very few people ever do something like this. I know no one I know ever has. I know that, come what may, this will be an ‘experience’. A real one and not those prissy ones we like to drawl on about after one too many glasses of tipple. I know that, bottom line, this is cool. Knowing all this, why the palpable sense of anxiety?

I was watching the T.V show ‘House’ where the main character says something along the lines of living life as one wants to. He of course, has been portrayed as living it to the fullest, indulging his every whim and fancy. Helps that he’s portrayed as a genius, methinks. Segue apart, the above sentiment lead me to some very interesting albeit squirm-worthy questions.

As usual though, am I thinking too far ahead?

Song for the moment: Holiday in Cambodia – The Dead Kennedys


Copyright: Bill Watterson

Next post, from Phnom Penh, Cambodia...

Song for the moment: Further to fly - Simon and Garfunkel

Saturday, May 3

The big crash

There are moments in life when a resigned shrug of the shoulders is just about all you can come up with.

For example, I cannot help but wonder what I'm getting myself into when I realize my anti-malarial medication dose (21 tablets over 5 months) costs more than my digital camera.

And my car, now that I think of it.

Copyright: Bill Watterson
Song for the moment: Heebie Jeebies - Louis Armstrong

Thursday, May 1

Don't look back in anger

Some time last month, we guys noticed a few wisps of dried grass and twigs on the porch-light outside our front door. It was attributed to some messy bird and we left it at that. As the days went by, those random blades of grass began to take shape and before the week was out, the builder of what was now a very pretty nest, had settled down to do whatever birds do in nests. Initially, the spot she chose seemed to be a terrible decision; people would waltz in and out at all hours & the bird naturally flew off every time the door was opened. Which was often, so I'm rather surprised she didn't attack anyone out of sheer exasperation.

Eventually (yes, yes Pavlov... you have been vindicated. Stop with the victory jig, already!!) she was convinced that none of the shady looking specimens approaching were interested either in her or anything else that may be in the nest (we haven't checked). These days, the bird doesn't even bother to move when anyone shows up, preferring to regard us with a baleful eye, leaving even the most thick-skinned chap with a few stirrings of guilt for even considering the sacrilegious deed of door-opening. Where is this story going, you ask ? Well...

It's the last hour of my final day at work before I push off to Cambodia for my internship during which time I'll be away from UAB and the U.S for more than half a year. Two complete seasons.

While past posts may have indicated my lack of enthusiasm for this sort of employment and my life here, today I am left with ambivalent feelings. I have worked here for over a year, which is a sort of record among the Indian students here at UAB. In this time, there have been days when the amount and type of work has left me muttering expletives under my breath and days when I have fallen asleep in deference to the somnolent air around this place. I have not been a fan of coming to work at 8:00 am, still drowsy and dishevelled and neither have I appreciated the idea of my room mates and friends enjoying impromptu games of afternoon-cricket whilst I watch the coffee in the pot evaporate.

However, the fact of the matter is that this job saved me. At the time I applied to work here, I was desperate for funds (that scourge of the Indian grad student) and after a few travails, I was hired. Little did I know how many charming, witty, hilarious, eccentric and importantly, friendly people I'd meet. It helped that I worked hard and sincerely whenever required. But the faculty & staff did not have to go out of their way to be as chummy & amicable as they have been.

My room mates and friends - the ones referred to locally as the 'headquarter gang'... I'll miss some of them too, even though they can be and often are, quite infuriating. I remember writing a long time ago that room mates are important because they take the place of family. That seems never more true than it does today when I am almost overwhelmed by stray memories and incidents that are forever part of me. And I know with utter conviction that there had to be something else in the air in August 2006 that brought us together...the looniest of the lot of Indian students that live in the Southside of Birmingham.

Ultimately, it is not just the job, colleagues, friends or the other people that I'm sad to be leaving behind. It is that feeling of regularity, of continuity... that rhythm. It may seem monotonous to the precious few readers of this blog, but I value it and appreciate it, especially in contrast to the professional and personal uncertainty that looms over me now. Mind you, I'm not doing a U-turn on my opinions about Birmingham; its a boring city and there have been many occasions when I wondered what twisted fate brought me here. Room mates and friends have given plenty of angst amidst the jamboree. Still, I'm not exactly mortified by the experiences of the last two years.

The people, my house, the university... everything will continue to exist, even after I'm on that flight to Phnom Penh. Time will leave its mark and the headquarter gang will split up forever, each individual pursuing their destiny, scattering away like a handful of marbles. Someone new will be hired to work at the department of Communication Studies. The Justice Sciences department will have new students enrolling in a few months.

For the last couple of days I have slowed down as I approached the front door to my house and spent a few moments contemplating that nest and its occupant. At this instant, I envy that bird, the sangfroid with which she knows she does not have to fly off anymore.

All I'll be left with are the memories. And packed bags.

And will fly off just when the nest I built here seemed to be getting cozy.


Song for the moment: Bittersweet Symphony - The Verve