Why great blogging is like good exercising

I posted a lot on this blog all across 2008 & 2009 and for various reasons slowed it down to a trickle in 2010. And in so doing committed a cardinal sin of blogging. Inconsistency. A number of regular readers made a few quiet comments on the falling rate of posts. And when nothing changed, left.

Blogging, like exercising should be a sustainable activity. The simplest way to assess whether you are doing too much or too little exercise is to ask yourself the simple question : ‘how much exercise can I expect to reasonably do when I am 65 years old?”. Whatever the answer is, is  how much you should do today. And so with blogging.

I think my sustainable limit is 1 to 3  posts a week. I shall try to adhere to it.

Another travel scam?

HolidayIQ got this email recently…

Hello,

How are you doing! I hope you are fine? I’m sorry i didn’t inform you
about my trip to Scotland for a program, I’m presently in Scotland and
got mugged at a gun point by some armed robbers on my way to the hotel
where my money and other valuable things were kept including my
passport. I would like you to assist me with a loan of 1620Pounds to
sort-out my hotel bills and get myself back home.

I have spoken to the embassy here but they are not responding to the
matter effectively,I will appreciate whatever you can afford to assist
me with,I’ll Refund the money back to you as soon as i return, let me
know if you can be of any help. I don’t have a phone where i can be
reached.

Please let me know immediately.
Regards

DR.THAMMAN

Arun Veembur

I will never meet Arun Veembur – and it is very much my loss. Arun was an intrepid traveller who died earlier this week in a tragic accident while trekking near the remote city of Dali in the Yunan province of China. He was just 28.

Arun started out as a journalist with an english newspaper in Bangalore. On a trip to India’s north-east, he came across the story of the Stilwell road (Ledo road), the tough mountainous road that the british built in the backdrop of WWII. And was hooked. Soon he gave up his job and went to Kuming the chinese outpost where he spent the next few years. He was researching for a book on the Ledo road and in the years that he was there became a bit of an institution.

More on Arun:

http://www.deccanherald.com/content/35518/bangalorean-dies-china.html

http://newshyderabad.wordpress.com/2009/11/11/young-writer-and-intrepid-traveller-dies-in-china/

http://www.dalichina.info/

From the Economist to Intelligent Life

I dimly remember it as sometime around my 13th year of life that I saw the first copy of The Economist magazine. To a boy brought up in India’s starvation-style socialism of the 60s & the 70s, the paper used looked appropriately ‘foreign’ (read : western & rich). But on glancing inside found it completely unintelligible and therefore grossly boring. Not an auspicious start.

But like most inauspicious starts of my life, this too turned out to be an enduring relationship and I read the densely printed, mostly grey magazine over an unbroken period of 25 years. In 2003, I stopped reading the Economist and took up GQ & the Conde Nast Traveller in as sure a sign of a mid-life crisis as a London stockbroker running off to Tahiti to paint nude women.

But before I stopped, The Economist taught me the following important life-lessons:

that  consistent sticking to an idealogy can result in a cogent explantion for practically everything

that it is possible to explain science in a way that is understood by well-educated and intelligent human beings and that a good Science Writer is a man of Science who can write, not a writer who knows Science.

that the British intellecutual aristocracy is worthy of admiration & respect

that quality of content can triumph extravagance of design 

So, it was with joy that I bought a copy of Intelligent Life at a bookstore at Larnaca airport about a year ago. It seemed to meet my yearning for the familiar of the Economist with my newfound libertine tendency towards Leisure & Lifestyle (incidentally, I actually named the company I founded ‘Leisure & Lifestyle Information Services’ which should give armchair Freuds enough chuckles for a week).

Intelligent Life is a quarterly magazine from the Economist group. It’s tag line is Life.Culture.Style, which presumably means that there are many Tahiti-seeking stockbrokers around to form what the bean-counters at Pearson Media would call a Market.

I liked the first issue I found so much that I subscribed for it. And I must admit. Being back in the warm embrace of an Economist sister is a nice feeling.

The Business of Life in the Mint Newspaper

livemint

Even though the formula is a bit too pat, I am a fan. The Mint is a business newspaper; a joint venture between our own Hindustan Times and the Wall Street Journal. It has a nice middle section called the “Business of Life’ which as the name suggests is less about business and more about ‘life’.

Elizabeth Eapen, the editor of this section in the paper called me the other day for a small piece. And since Elsa is a charming combination of wheedler, cajoler and a girl-school headmistress, I quickly complied. It has finally made it to the paper today in a Q&A avatar. Here is the link:

http://www.livemint.com/2009/05/14203600/Hari-Nair–Take-off-your-shoe.html

Sudheer the lafunga…

…is up there along with kalidasa’s Nala & Damayanti as a great Indian fictional character. That he appears sporadically in books written by an Anglo-Indian about life in India’s hills just after the British raj, does not make it any less so.

Sudheer the lafunga hangs about the market in a little hill town in India and seems to have a ball. A small-time swindler and a man of rakish charms, his greatest strength lies in his ability to invoke jealous passions in two of the town’s well known prostitutes. Who then ply him with money, so that he does not defect to the other. As you can see, it is a bit of a win-win for the lafunga.

In addition to the obvious charm of such a character, I am also captivated by the spelling of ‘lafunga’. In more modern times, where the presence of the British is just a faint whiff in the air inside old colonial buildings, we would have referred to ol’ Sudheer as the ‘Lafanga’. And in that one little alphabet passed a whole way of life.

I quite like the lafunga – with a U.

Bruce Lee and Me by Brian Preston

And, as is usual with life, I have just read another travel book that forces me to contradict the position I took in my last post. I now realise that there is another way to get a good travel book. Which is to have a good travel theme (plus of course, the obligatory, good writer).

Preston explores the world of oriental Martial Arts in this book. Which is a cool subject to write about, since it probably meets all of the criteria of your average avaricious publisher. The subject is of interest to many people across the world (“more people interested means more people buy the book, you dummy”), it involves travelling to ‘exotic’ places, has multiple situations that allow the writer, and therefore the reader vicariously, to careen from undisguised scepticism to wide-eyed wonder within the same page and offers the writer numerous opportunities to take digs at himself (a travel-book staple these days, methinks).

And for all of those reasons, it works. Read it.

Travels in Transoxiana by Jaswant Singh

After reading a fairly large number of books of the genre, good Travel writing I have concluded, is mostly about how well you get to know the author while she recounts experiences of far away places. And to get good travel writing to become great, the only additional ingredient necessary (other than the obvious pre-requisite of the writer having reasonably felicity with language) is an interesting author.

Jaswant Singh’s ‘Travels in Transoxiana’ is about his visits to various places in Central Asia, mostly as a commoner, except in one or two trips where his official status as one of India’s leading politicians does get about (after all he was India’s foreign minister for almost a full term and by most accounts a pretty good one).

Central Asia is the stuff of legend. And for most Indians with a sense of history, the region is particulary interesting since most of our invaders came from there in waves throughout history. And also because, as the eastern edge of the old Soviet Union, it was fairly inaccesible to most people for a long time.

The sweep of history is very much the primary fodder for this book. Babur & Akbar. Changez & Taimur. The Eastern Moghulistan & Chaghatayid Khanate. All of these are woven into the early pages, setting this book right in the middle of Central Asia’s most alluring feature – its violent, nomadic, ‘alive’ history. But it goes beyond.

The author’s visceral dislike (and indeed disdain) of the soviet state is one of the most obvious threads running through this book. And since I cannot bring myself to like the State under most circumstances, I can empathise with this view. Interestingly, in some of the writing clearly pre-dating the momentous events of 9/11, jaswant Singh speculates that the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan would have big consequences for the Soviet state as well as as for the wider world – a perceptive man. As we know, Jaswant Singh (along with Strobe Talbott of the US) was the prime architect of a new dynamic of co-operation between India & the United States. After reading this book, one understands the convictions in the man that shaped this substantial transformation in Indian foreign policy.

And soon the book elevates itself to become a good travel book – for every so often, the man inside the statesman shines through. A wicked sense of humour peeks out at various points. I have often wondered what goes on behind the facade of the  grave, baritone of impeccably argued speech that  one saw from Mr Singh on TV. And now that I have read this book – a gurgling laugh, welling up inside, chortling at the absurdity of things, is what I suspect it was.

The book starts a bit stilted – other travel writers I am sure have been better at the craftsmanship of writing. But in spite of that, I think this is an example of pretty good travel writing. For in the end, this book has clearly been an account of the travels to far away places of a very interesting man. And that is not something one can say of a lot of travel writing.

Sedentary know-it-alls

(The No 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency)

An interesting slipstream that I have discovered in my inexhaustible interest in pulp-fiction is the sedentary detective. The sedentary detective does not move about much and certainly never ‘travels’. In spite of living their life in a quiet corner of the world, these guys know seem to everything about human nature needed to crack open mysteries that defy their more well-travelled (and therefore presumably more discerning) peers. Three characters jump out.

Mycroft Holmes is 7 years elder to Sherlock Homes and is the lazy but scarily brighter sibling. Sherlock Holmes mentions how Mycroft is able to sit in one room of the Diogenes club in London and solve puzzling cases that Sherlock has to energetically run hither & thither to crack.

Another such character is Miss Marple. Agatha Christie’s other detective, Miss Marple lives all her life in the little village of St Mary Mead and regularly solves substantial mysteries. As Miss Marple notes in practically all the novels, everything she needs to know about human beings she has learnt from within the little world of St Mary Mead. And there is nothing about human beings she has’nt learnt.

Which now brings me to Precious Ramotswe of The No 1 Ladies Detective Agency. She too has spent all her life in the environs of a village, Mochudi near Gaborone in Botswana. And yet, knows everything she needs to dissect human beings and solve cases.

They say travel helps you understand more. But, looks like if you are born with the right stuff up there, you dont need to travel to understand.

But of course, if your life’s ambition is to eat the ultimate dim-sum or talk to an inuit making yak milk cheese, you will need to travel.

Yossi Ghinsberg & HolidayIQ

With almost 150,000 travel maniacs as members, HolidayIQ has been bombarded with the question of organising some kind of a get-together for members. So, finally we decided to take a small step and have a cocktails & dinner evening in Mumbai. We also got Yossi Ghinsberg, one of the better known international motivation speakers to be a focal point of the evening. Not as a motivational speaker, but as a traveller and a nomad which is what Yossi’s true passion is.

So, a couple of Fridays ago, about 50 of us trooped into a room at the Leela Kempinski in Mumbai and had a great time.

Yossi spoke of his travels worldwide. About his longstanding love affair with the Bedouins. And how he went to the remotest island in the Pacific. And many more. While each story stuck in my mind, a couple of points he made about travel really resonated with me.

He said he always travels alone, since that is the only way to connect with the place and the people. I find this absolutely true and this is what I do every time I ‘travel’ (ie. when I am not taking a vacation with my family). Incidentally, Paul Theroux mentioned something similar in a recent talk – read related posts here & here.

Yossi also said he uses the Lonely Planet each time he travels – and he uses it in a pretty unique way. He decides on a country to go and then looks up the Lonely Planet and reads it from cover to cover . Then he finds a place on the map of the country that is NOT covered in the Lonely Planet. He goes there. The idea, he said, was to go to places that even backpackers don’t get to. That is when you see the real country.

Yossi lives in Byron Bay in Australia, a place I went to about a year ago. Of course, I didn’t know Yossi then and so didn’t meet him. But I now have an invite from him to visit Byron Bay & since it is one of the more beautiful places I have been to, I just might take him up on it sometime.

Trekking guide to Africa’s highest mountain – the Kilimanjaro

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(Photo : http://www.climbmountkilimanjaro.com/)

“Like a herd of elephants on the African plains, the subject of tipping is a bit of a grey area..”

Henry Stedman has written a well-researched, comprehensive and easy to understand guide book to climbing Kilimanjaro. But it is the ocassional quirky comment (as above) that somehow transports this book from being another good guide-book to an interesting read.

The book published by Trailblazer, has sections that cover all of the must-knows including excellent detail on planning the trip such as whom to book the trek with, budgeting for the trek, route options and what to take. It also has good sections on the natural history of Kilimanjaro, its flora & fauna and its people. The hand-drawn maps that give a good deal of information on trek routes and topography will obviously help prepare the trekker well. All in all, a good book to buy, if you want to climb Kilimanjaro.

Of course, the book is primarily for a British audience – so if you happen to be travelling from India (as I imagine many of the readers here would be), there are gaps in information that will have to be filled in. For instance, Continue reading

Travel writing & the art of writing about Food

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“we counted fourteen separate hors d’oeuvres – artichoke hearts, tiny sardines fried in batter, perfumed tabouleh, creamed salt cod, marinated mushrooms, baby calamari, tapenade, small onions in a fresh tomato sauce, celery and chick-peas, radishes and cherry tomatoes, cold mussels. Balanced on top of the loaded tray were thick slices of pate and gherkins, saucers of olives and cold peppers. The bread had a fine crisp crust. There was white wine in the ice bucket, and a bottle of Chateauneauf-du-Pape left to breathe in the shade”

” The main course arrived – rosy slices of lamb cooked with whole cloves of garlic, young green beans and a golden potato-and-onion galette

“The cheese was from Banon, moist in its wrapping of vine leaves, then came the triple flavours and textures of the desserts – lemon sorbet, chocolate tart, and creme angalise all sharing a plate. A coffee. A glass of marc from Gigondas. A sigh of contentment.”

Peter Mayle can be irritating. Here I had just finished what most observers would call a sumptuous Sunday lunch and settled down to read his “A year in Provence” and before you know it, I am panting for more food. I must say this for the man. He can bring food alive . Continue reading

Google searches to find me..

Google – the ominpotent & ominpresent, brings a lot of people to my blog. A few of them get there searching for, shall I say, rather refreshingly different phrases. Here are a few such search phrases that got in this month (yes, they do find me somehow), all of which gave me a few minutes of innocent fun.

  • ‘best indian food for seduction’
  • ‘kid’s map of serengeti’
  • ‘who went with vasco da gama to explore india’
  • ‘thy booking’
  • ‘saar on map’
  • ‘in bottoms up’
  • ‘i am looking recipies of gobi manjoori’
  • ‘fuk in the beach’
  • ‘famous kids in london’
  • ‘tiger pet india’
  • ‘coorg woman in usa’
  • ‘pav vada’

A small game I play by myself is to try to imagine the searchers face when they search on these words and reach my blog.

Nature

I was brought up on a plot of land about a sixth of an acre. Born to a man who had left the embrace of land, but whose father was both a village teacher and a farmer. So land and by extension Nature was always around in my childhood.

Nature entranced me as a child. As I look back, I can trace many of my skills back to the days when I used wander across the compound on Saturday afternoons with nothing much to do other than climb trees, poke into warrens and eat a lot of fruit.

Nature taught me to See.  For the two qualities most required for observation are the qualities that nature absolutely forces on you. The first is a keen appreciation of scale. The second, patience.

As a child you soon learn to appreciate that Nature operates at all sizes. From tiny little bugs that make concentric circles as they burrow in the tropical earth to large trees that groan with the lashing rain, our little plot had the whole spectrum of scale. And for a kid, this is pretty cool – one minute allowing you to rub your nose deep into the mud closely monitoring the intricacies of the earthworm and the next to swinging high on the branches of a monstrous mango tree.

But, you need patience with Nature – as all kids who have tried to catch a dragonfly to tie a knot on its tail will testify. (Incidentally, I tried to find a youtube video showing a real dragonfly and failed. All the videos are of rock bands, toy helicopters, Japanese Animes or even the odd nightclub. Does seem to say a bit about our current relationship with Nature).

Penguin has recently published this extraordinary book by Ruskin Bond on Nature. If you are a lover of nature, run to get your copy. If not, well, my sympathies are with you.

Click here to see my posts on Gardens.

Hippies and the overland Asian journey of the 60s

(An old clip of a part of the hippie overland Asia route)

As I set out for another trip to Goa, albeit for work this time, I am once again reminded of Roy’s narrative of the arrival of the first Hippies to Goa. Roy was all of 15 then and he was thrust into the roller-coaster world of ‘flower power’ Goa. By 1967, Goa was the final destination in what Rory Maclean calls the ‘weirdest procession of unroadworthy vehicles ever to roll and rock across the face of the earth’ – the great overland trek by western youngsters turning their face to the two Cs that dominated their lives, Capitalism and Christianity.

As Goa gets overrun with an increasing array of tourists – a heady mix of Indo-gangetic plainsmen meeting the walrus moustaches from the Russian steppes, it is easy to forget that this land has an interesting claim to contemporary history.

(Another interesting clip from Rory Maclean on the overland route : this time in Afghanistan)

Click here for an earlier post featuring hippies.

And here for all my Goa posts.

1931 AD

American movies were having a good year. Top releases included Frankenstein, Mata Hari, Chaplin’s City Lights and James Cagney’s Public Enemy in addition to Dracula and Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde.

Other world events too were apace. Thomas Edison was filing his last patent application. New Delhi became India’s capital. The Empire State Building was being completed. Mao Zedong proclaimed the Chinese Soviet Republic and Haile Selassie signed Ethiopia’s first Constitution.

And in that year, a young man from the backwoods country in the southern tip of India set sail for England to pursue the dream of higher education. Along with 5 other Indians, he would be among the first batch of St Catherine’s College in Oxford University. And would later be immortalised as ‘Lost Alumni‘.

I haven’t as yet informed the Dons at St Catherine’s; but if ever there was a person who was not lost, it was this young man. He went on to do a lot of stuff in life, none of which could be characterised as ‘lost’. I know it, because I knew this young man very well.

But in that world, where telephony was an idea and long distance transport was rudimentary, such displacement was probably the equivalent of ‘lost’.

All of this came to me while listening to Paul Theroux the other day. Continue reading

Listening to Paul Theroux

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I was in Mumbai earlier this week and happened to notice that Paul Theroux had been in town and had given a talk. And then got to know that he was in Bangalore the next day evening. So I sacrificed an additional 750 bucks to Jet Airways, changed my ticket to an earlier flight, braved traffic to Koramangala and made it about 30 minutes late to hear Mr Theroux.

I really do not consider myself a writer-groupie and so have never really attended one of these sessions. But the chance to hear some stuff from a travel writer was definitely tempting (confession : I want to be a travel writer one day. Who does’nt?). And Theroux is pretty big in the game.

He spoke engagingly and with wit. Continue reading

A year on with The Long Hol..

It was exactly a year ago, on the 15th of Jan 2007 that I started this blog. It been fun. Much travel has got documented. Even more of my thoughts around travel have been recorded. I have hopefully moved closer to creating a personal style for my writing. It has certainly improved my understanding of that holy grail of the internet – Search Engine Optimisation. All in all, a nice journey so far. Except, it is starting to take up a fair bit of my early morning everyday.

Very surprisingly for me, this blog is starting to get some serious momentum. Its 3 month Alexa ranking stands at close to 300,000 and the rank for the last one week is 230,000; so it is clearly on a growth path. Alexa also ranks it as India’s 5667th most visited website, which is way cool for a blog started on a whim. I think all the stats seem to suggest that my little blog is probably India’s most visited travel blog. So, someone is reading this stuff I write – actually, more than someone, quite a lot of people. Crazy, isn’t it? Continue reading

Kindling your travel reading

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(Kindle photo from Engadget)

Jeff Bezos of Amazon has just announced details of Kindle, the e-book reader. The general idea of e-books is that they will replace current physical books. With one e-book reader we can read any number of books and life will be good. This is indeed good news for travellers. I for one lug around a lot of books when I travel, so a single e-reader is probably good medicine. But of course, my futurist hat tells me that things could be a quite different.

My firm conviction is that books are passe, done for. It seems to me that mankind’s method of absorbing information, which was revolutionised by books a few centuries ago, will now go though another change on the back of unlimited and costless virtual storage & delivery. In fact, ‘information’ itself will possibly change from primarily the written word to an amalgam of sound, moving images and maybe some bit of the written word. In which sense, we are reverting to an earlier mode, where the spoken word – legends & ballads – was the primary source of information.

So, as much as I mourn my own statement (I wouldn’t know what to do with myself if I couldn’t read books), I think this is where it is going. And I am certain that all evidence to the contrary, the current unprecedented popularity of books is just the last dying embers of an era we were familiar with. Changes are always like that. As Malcolm Gladwell so evocatively explained, underlying trends build up and suddenly they ‘tip over’.

I hope I am wrong; but I think I am not. So, Kindle might not be the revolutionary thingummy for the new century. In the meantime, I suspect it will be useful to travellers for the next few years. For just USD 400, enjoy it while it lasts.

My Dateless Dairy

dateless_diary.jpg

I am in the middle of reading R K Narayan’s My Dateless Diary which is a book on his trip to America. As the name suggests Narayan does does not reveal the date of his journey, but one can make out this is early 1960s – interestingly Narayan is 50 years old & this is the first time that he has gone out of India. Obviously much has changed in America since. But the real surprise of the book is the enormity of change in India that it reflects. Narayan muses about various things in America in relation to how they are in India. And many of his observations on how things are in India are no more true.

Funnily enough for a book written about America, the book reminds me of my childhood in the late sixties and early seventies in a small town in the deep south of India. Life was ordered, with predictable values and even more predictable events. Other than my neighbour, a boy who had moved to India from the US, my only touch with a wider world was ‘Span’, a thinly-veiled propaganda magazine produced by the US Information Service which they circulated to all bureaucrats (among others) across the country. My dad having been in the Indian Administrative Service got a copy and my view of the world is now forever colored by that. I discovered many things of great beauty and interest in that magazine. The most lasting impression was of an artist they profiled who did abstract paintings in oil. I have forgotten everything about that artist; but, the colours of those paintings were so alive in the glossy paper of Span, they remain with me to this day and continue to fuel my interest in abstracts in oil. The magazine closed down with budget cuts in the Reagan years (I think). They should have continued it. It did more for American super-powerdom than all the nukes they have combined. And maybe there would still be little kids across the globe who would look at those glossy sheets and wonder at the American way of life.

Interestingly, there was another book I got in my childhood that came from the Russians. It was a large coffee table kind of book called “This is my native land” and I remember buying it from a bus-converted-to-a-bookshop, run by the USSR cultural centre, which was the communist propoganda wing. Much less slicker than Span, but very intriguing too. Covering various parts of the vast expanse of the old Soviet Union, the book brought alive another kind of wonder, that of a vast and untamed land.

If India wants to have more influence in the wider world over the coming years, I would suggest our very own ‘Span’ equivalent. Even in today’s world of hyper-communication, bound glossy sheets in the hands of a curious child is still an extraordinary device of influence. And, of course, there are many little children across the world.

Click here for all my posts on Travel Writing.

Click here for my posts on North America.