The city of joy is how the locals repeatedly referred to their hometown as I was chatted up by friendly Kolkatans. Some refer to it as the city of firsts, for pioneering a number of achievements in India, or a city of palaces, for its wealth of architectural beauty. Kipling described it as a “city of dreadful night”, “magnificent”, “the many sided”. I can’t remember visiting a city with so much characterization attached to its name. Kolkata is probably all those things to different people.
During the day, its streets are filled with constant hustle and bustle, smells and car roars continuously compete for attention – often against the backdrop of architectural awe, creating a scene rarely replicated elsewhere. Buildings too, compete for attention. While some are nursed to withstand the perils of the city’s humid climate, others – full of history and culture – stand crumbling, waiting for better days. Some streets provide a moment’s rest before spitting you back out. Amidst chaos and the high-paced environment people always found ways to gracefully slow down, eager to strike a conversation – tell a story about a neighbourhood, their job, a cultural event, and of course, no conversation is complete without a mention of cricket. If couple of days is anything to judge by, Kolkata is all those things they call it.
Earlier this week I went on a work trip eastward to Kayin (Karen) State. A significant chunk of it was spent in a car, about 6 hours each way. Apart from being reminded of how big and diverse Myanmar is, traveling on land is also a good reminder of how dangerous roads can be. Myanmar is the only country I can think of where the majority of cars are right-hand drive (steering wheel on the right) driving in a right-hand traffic. So whenever someone attempts a takeover on a 2 lane highway, it isn’t really supported by the driver’s view of the oncoming traffic.
The drive nonetheless was scenic in parts, especially as we got closer to the capital Hpa-An. It’s surrounded by grandiose tall beautifully shaped mountains. We were crossing a bridge during sunset on the approach to the city when a view opened up with great colors and mountains stretching across the river. People weren’t allowed on the bridge, however, so I had to shoot out of a moving vehicle, across the seat through a window with the camera aimed in between window stickers and bridge support columns. To my own surprise a decently framed shot showed on my camera screen as I looked down expecting a picture of a blurry metal columns. Next time I hope for more time on foot.
Last week celebrations were on for the Thadingyut Festival (သီတင်းကျွတ်ပွဲတော်). It’s a Burmese Lighting Festival that takes place on the full moon of the Burmese Lunar month of Thadingyut. Celebrations are spread over a number of days with a downtown street blocked off from traffic and absorbed by a wave of people every evening. Vendors pay for a spot to set up shop offering all sorts of goods and services; from tattoos to underwear sale to a bucket of insects to munch on just a stall over.
I unfortunately, didn’t have much time out with my camera and would have to limit this post to a few random shots of some of the street vendors hard at work.
First of all, thank you to those who shared my previous posts on Bolivia as it did bring some new visitors to the site. I’m always happy to share photos with more people 🙂 For now I’ll take a little pause from Bolivia (I will get back to it with more). This one is from northern Chile. An alternative title to this could be “the dumb luck”. I arrived late to Antofagasta without a particular plan. The city wasn’t of particular interest to me and I wasn’t in the most energetic state to look for a bed in the middle of the night. Instead I went to the bus terminal to see what’s out there at night that goes along the coast. The bus to Arica presented itself with perfect timing.
Shortly upon arrival I overheard that there is a surfing championship taking place. I’ve rushed towards the southern part of the city to la península del Alacrán(or isla del Alacrán) where the better surfers ride the waves. I’ve only managed to catch the preliminaries of the event, which were still massively entertaining. Even more so given that none of this was planned and I stumbled upon all the fun thanks to some dumb luck.
My exposure to surfing doesn’t go beyond the occasional trips to gorgeous Tofino in British Columbia. Generally speaking, I don’t have a lot of experience with board sports beyond snowboarding. Looking at surfing with that reference point makes it an interestingly unique sport. What I find special is the dynamism and the fundamental need to respond to your environment. Mountains do vary and the conditions do change from day to day, from hour to hour. While it takes a lot of experience to be able to read the mountain and keep safe, the response to your environment is not as dynamic. Sure every part of the mountain presents a different obstacle and that’s part of the charm but in the moment the mountain is static (unless you get hit by an avalanche or something). This is not to say snowboarding isn’t dynamic (that would be wrong to say), different dynamism would maybe be a fairer description. Both sports present a rousing combination of patience and energy. Trying to read a wave is a challenge for me, it dictates the setting and prompts you to respond that very moment. It may not mean much coming from me, given how bad of a surfer I am. And surely reading waves becomes second nature to those who practice but I imagine the thrill of responding to them would still remain for many.
Watching the pros in real life has turned out to be a special experience. It’s an addicting environment and even in these cold rocky waters it’s easy to see how one can get sucked into this lifestyle. Waves in this particular spot break onto rocks which keeps beginners out of the waters. I thought they were large enough to keep a saneperson out. A week later towards the middle of the country I’ve met a guy from Arica. I showed him these photos and he partially unimpressed by the size of the waves replied that these aren’t all that special; that at times things get even more violent. He mentioned an incident a few years back when a brazilian surfer got sucked onto these rocks and seriously injured his head.
P.S. To end on a positive, I’ve come across this visually stunning surfing video that might be fitting with the post.
I love strolling around markets! Partly because I find them interesting as an economist and maybe partly because as a kid I’ve been constantly dragged to bazaars and various food markets all over my hometown. I’ve been lucky enough to wander around markets in many parts of the world. A big general market and a sunday animal market in Kashgar come to mind as something special. But they’re definitely not my favourites. The so called black market in Ulan Bator, small food markets in Bosnia and Croatia, various markets around Mexico are all a lot of fun. What differentiates them is not only what is being traded but of course the people who trade. I’m not the most chatty person and am often on a quiet side but depending on my mood and a place I do feel the need to integrate beyond the basics. I speak at least one language from each of the latin, slavic and turkic language families which allows for at least very basic communication with the locals. It’s amazing how far can basic knowledge of a language go and how similar two languages can be. For example, to my own amazement my crappy command of turkish was enough to hold an insightful conversation with a local music teacher in a shack in Kashgar (Uyghurs speak a turkic language). Though sometimes my rehearsed phrases in Croatia got me in trouble and made me appear more fluent than I actually am, so pretty quickly I couldn’t keep up with chatty locals.
These photos are from a market in La Paz, or El alto to be more precise. It’s the highest market I’ve ever been to at 4100 metres above sea level. It’s no doubt the market with the best view and sometimes that on its own was enough to consume all of my attention (maybe it’s also the lack of oxygen). It’s unbelievable what you could find that high in the mountains, from korean music to chips for your motherboard to Chevy camaros. Some things are legit, some are stolen and of course if you look in the right places you can find a bunch of illegal things too (I’ll let your imagination play here). The amount of things being traded is overwhelming, it’s Adam Smith’s invisible hand at play, and a free market advocates’ playground with no government intervention, regulations or taxes. Except it’s not … because It’s Bolivia. I’ve been lucky enough to stay with some of the most intelligent people in Bolivia (probably the most educated). They’ve interestingly pointed out that where the government is weak the civil society is pretty strong. So in a way it is a free market with Adam Smith’s invisible hand but (not so free after all) with Marxist defence of a class. Who gets into these markets is not always straight forward. The entrance of bigger electronic firms like Sony is a good example where they couldn’t just come and open shop, civil society had a say in it collectively as to what the terms would be and who is allowed to sell.
If you think about it even for a little bit it’s pretty amazing. This community organization doesn’t stop with economics. Though there is a country level judicial system a lot of judgement is passed without government involvement. What constitutes a crime, who and how is a person punished is decided by a community. I’ve heard of a story where a female foreign worker in a community was harassed by one of its members. It was decided to tie him to a tree and let insects have their way, I’ll let your imagination go wild again ! Passing through one other community there was a sign that said “The thief will be found and burnt as punishment”. Whether this was the “official” community announcement or unfounded threat I don’t know, but either way the organizational power and strength of civil society in Bolivia is truly incredible. If you factor in the cultural diversity (there are around 35 indigenous languages) it becomes a significant challenge to understand … but oh so interesting.
I broke my own little rule on my birthday. Over the years I’ve built a preference towards staying in one place longer rather than going to a new country for a very short time. Of course what makes time short varies by place and purpose, rendering this rule closer to a guideline than an actual rule. So few days before my birthday I had decided to swap Chile for Bolivia and flew north.
La Paz is like no other place. At first it appears similar to the same sized cities in developing economies around the world. But with a bit more time it’s easy to see it’s like no other (I’ve been to) with its geography, culture, civil society etc. You can ask 10 different people what they think of La Paz and chances are you’ll get close to 10 different answers. Primarily because it’s a city of extreme contrasts. It’s a city that is very hot and very cold (sometimes from second to second), big and in many ways very small, rich and poor, ugly and beautiful, boring and entertaining, modern and old fashioned. It’s all those things at the same time and it’s not very obvious why. La Paz (and Bolivia in general) is a very complicated place in terms of governance, economics, culture. In the short time I’ve spent there I’ve only scratched the surface leaving with more questions than answers. And looking through this perspective maybe the short trip was worth bending the guideline.
You can see a lot of the houses in the city aren’t painted and look like they’re in the middle of a construction with plain bricks covering the façade. I’ve been told that painted houses are faced with higher tax so many choose not to paint their houses. The view is plain incredible, the city carved itself onto every hill and slope. A number of these houses will be washed down from hills during the rainy season.
Pablo Neruda is Chile’s second Nobel laureate in literature. This is a view from his bedroom and office windows in his house in Valparaiso (1 of his 3 houses in Chile). Neruda had a habit of naming his furniture as well as his houses. This one’s called La Sebastiana. He described it as a “toy house” in a city that is “secretive, sinuous, winding”, “twitches like a wounded whale” and where “eccentric lives” played out as an “inseparable part of the heart-breaking life of the port”. Neruda dedicated a poem to this house and claimed that it gave him a unique perspective into the city, that the privileged view allowed him to see things others couldn’t. For example, he used to tell his friends that everyday at 9pm sharp in the blue house by the green one (don’t remember the actual description) a beautiful woman showed up in her bedroom, completely naked. No matter how hard his friends tried to find the house with the woman nobody ever did.
I was genuinely impressed with Valparaiso and was left with something I did not expect to find, likely because I knew nothing about the city in the first place. Neruda wrote “If we walk up and down Valparaiso’s stairs we will have made a trip around the world.”, though the times have changed there are little subtleties around the city that make it hard to disagree with him. But more on that later….
“Querida viejita: Qué es lo que se pierde al cruzar una frontera?
Cada momento parece partido en dos. Melancolía por lo que queda atrás y, por otro lado, todo el entusiasmo por entrar en tierras nuevas.”
Che wrote these words as he crossed the border into Chile from Argentina across this very mountain range (a bit south from Santiago) in 1952. It was his first border crossing on the famous motorcycle trip, I find these words to be true for many of my own border crossings. Santiago is my first city in the Americas south of Mexico, leaving me packed with plenty of enthusiasm. I had a burning desire to move here for school when I was 19-20 but it never came to be, I went to Europe instead. Years later I’ve finally made it and the first thing to spark my curiosity (entusiasmo por entrar) is the massive cordillera, steep and imposing. For the most part I grew up in a city by the mountains, so I’m no stranger to mountain views. However, mountains this massive next to a city this large is something special. Santiago, with its population of over 5 million is located in a valley surrounded by mountains trapping the pollution inside, making it one of the most polluted cities in South America. You can see the smog permanently hovering above the city. Yet the mountains tower above that too.
This is in the ejido of Canasayab in the state of Campeche in Mexico. Having visited dozens of villages in the state some are more memorable than others. It’s not always related to whether there was something interesting and fun to see/do. It often came down to the simple matter of time and whether I had enough of it to walk around and absorb the surroundings.
Luckily in this village I did and these coconut trees particularly come to mind. They were just behind the local school. I thought it was the coolest school “playground”.
I used to listen to Freakonomics podcasts in grad school and a segment from the show came up to mind the other day, about how people change their behaviour depending on their surroundings. It got me thinking about how our surroundings affect our daily lives, rhythm, lifestyle and the lessons we take from it all. Then I thought about one of the motorcycle trips I took years ago in northern British Columbia. Certainly feels like a world away today. What I now think I learnt from it is quite different from what I thought at the time. As silly as it may sound, one of the most recurring thoughts during the trip was about packing the bike as it affected the ride and is something I had to do every day, sometimes several times. I mean look at it, that mountain in the back of the bike looks pretty unwieldy. I felt quite pleased that the situation has been slowly improving day by day.
One of the things I now think I got out of the trip is a marginal lesson on how to enjoy myself. Let me explain 🙂 Such trips in northern Canada can get bumpy. It’s nothing to complain or write home about, but on some days with hands frozen to the handlebars, a numb face and sore body parts it’s easy to start to wonder “why am I doing this?”. Unlike the packing situation these thoughts have surfaced only once in a while. One day in particular comes to mind, a few days before I took this photo. Almost in Yukon the weather was woeful with a temperature around 0, rain and wind. At a much needed pit stop an RV driver came up and stated that my friend and I must be either very brave or very stupid. It’s probably a bit of both but my frozen face could only summon a smile in return. I didn’t really think much of his question as my mind had been fixed on a hot soup I was about to get. It’s quite fun to get surprised by a ready convenience at a gas station in the middle of nowhere. The attendant’s demeanour added to the whole atmosphere as she nervously and frantically rushed to serve the only 4 customers like she was serving a full house in lower manhattan 1000s of kms south. Maybe she wanted to hurry us out of the place to get back to peace and quite until the next pack of customers, whenever they might pass by.
What I’m trying to say is that it takes a certain mindset to smile and disregard every inch of your body screaming “get me out of here”. Then you stop wondering “why am I here?” and start thinking “isn’t this something!”