Nomological Net

Stray thoughts from here and there. The occasional concern for construct validity. No more logic. Fish.


faults in the clouds of delusion

Saturday, March 31, 2007

Good things

Sometimes they come out of the blue, knock you on the side of the head, leave you with a vacant grin, an emptiness born of relief, wondering why life just keeps getting more complicated, whether it's okay to leave work at 2 o'clock to source a beer by the seaside, and the knowledge that this too shall pass.

A leaf of all colors plays
a golden string fiddle
to a double-e waterfall over my back
Comic book colors on a violin river
crying Leonardo words
from out a silk trombone
I rang a silent bell
beneath a shower of pearls
in the eagle wing palace
of the Queen Chinee

Thursday, March 29, 2007


And in the middle of negotiations
You break down.

Damn the bastard. Nothing left to do but get back to the roots and tear out a mind-bending set and more.

Good Morning Little Schoolgirl, Morning Dew, Dark Star, China Cat Sunflower, The Eleven, Turn On Your Lovelight Cryptical Envelopment-> The Other One-> Cryptical Envelopment-> New Potato Caboose-> Born Cross-Eyed-> Spanish Jam, Alligator-> Drums-> Alligator-> Caution (Do Not Stop on Tracks), E: Midnight Hour

GD at the Carousel 2/14/68 (stream here).

No funny Valentine, this. Worth the price of admission for the Caution alone.

Oh I'm so mad. Asshole.

Sunday, March 25, 2007

Winking up like shining eyes

Wheel gull spin and glide -- you've no place to hide
Cause you don't need one
All along the Lee shore
Shells lie scattered in the sand
Winking up like shining eyes - at me, from the sea
Here is one like sunrise
Older than you know
It's still lying there where some careless wave
Forgot it long ago
When I woke this morning
Dove beneath my floating home
Down below my graceful side
In the turning tide
To watch the sea fish roam
There I heard a story
From the sailors of the Sandra Marie
There's another island a day's run away from here
Empty and free
From here to Venezuela nothing more than to see
Than a hundred thousand islands
Flung out like jewels upon the sea
For you and me
Sunset smells of dinner
Women are calling at me to end my tales
But perhaps I'll see you the next quiet place
I unfurl my sails.



Play it with the volume up. Then compare that version with these other two -- one Crosby and Nash from 1971, and the other CSN in 1991.

Personally I prefer the version on my Carry On disk to all three -- just for the way he delivers the jewels upon the sea line.


Been listening to this song all morning. It came up on the poodle while I was in a cab yesterday, eyes fortuitously closed. Took me back to a Dosa Hut in Long Island some years ago, where walking in to pick up a take-away order, I came across a late-middle-aged guy in an old CSNY t-shirt. I asked him if he was planning to go for their reunion tour; he said yes. He asked me back, and I said with my limited budget I'd rather go to the Phil and Friends show since I knew they were a real live band who wouldn't just be playing covers from thirty years ago.

He said yeah, but you can always see them again -- these guys, who knows if they'll tour again.

I thought he was being a little sentimental.

But yesterday afternoon in the cab I found myself wishing I'd gone instead.


Wisdom that comes with years? Last week as part of one of my in-class stunts I broke off from the Theory Of Reasoned Action to elicit the name of a concert performer that someone in the class would really like to go see. (Previous years I've mainly gotten names of local acts, due to which i can now drop names like Kelly Chen and Eason Chan. This year, funnily enough, I heard first Justin Timberlake and then Madonna. Is the East Being Won?) In the last section, a Chinese-American exchange student piped up: "Roger Waters!"

["Ah, Roger Waters!" I said, "That's one that I'd consider going to myself." Then I asked the rest of the class if they'd heard of Roger Waters. Turned out no one had, so we had to change the example. The exchange student graciously amended his response to 'Britney Spears'; I said, "Woo, Britney Spears! Let's party like it's 1999!"; so everyone was happy and the Theory of Reasoned Action had its moment in the sun.]

After class the exchange student, along with a couple of Canadians, approached me tentatively and with a quaver in his voice asked me if I really did like Roger Waters. I told him that well I don't really like his solo stuff, not any more anyway [cue nods and understanding noises], but there was a time when I wouldn't think very highly of you if you weren't able to name all the Floyd albums in chronological order. "Really?!" one of them said. "You're a rock fan?" "A card-carrying one," I replied, and I flashed my GD keychain at them. (How freaking corny!)

We talked briefly about the Roger Waters concert in HK the previous month, and then they *seriously* staggered out of the room. On Wednesday, the same kid came to me before class and showed me a photo of Roger Waters he'd snapped on his camera phone during the concert (they'd busted through to the rails). I asked him if he liked reggae. He replied, uncertainly, that he did. I told him about the Dub Side of the Moon CD. Thursday I lent it to him.

He's due to return it tomorrow. I wonder what he thinks of it.

Are you living
In reality?
I left years ago, it quite nearly killed me

Monday, March 19, 2007

Dropping Angkor (II): The Trip

The Prelude

It all began some time in December, when the Power That Be’s and I decided that March would be a good time to visit Cambodia. We were thinking of a four day trip, leaving Hong Kong early on a Thursday morning and flying back in on a Sunday night. Given the short distances, we estimated that this would give us almost four full days in Cambodia.

The plan gathered momentum when, during my visit to New York in January, I broached the topic to a person who is my Friend, Philosopher, and Guide. It turned out FPG was also very keen on visiting Cambodia, since her previous plan to visit in 2002 had been scuppered by the onset of SARS (the Zeigarnik effect, again). Of course, this meant that FPG would have to visit HK as well—a contingency ably covered by my research budget. All looked good.

The plan gathered hiccups when we realized that there were no direct flights between Hong Kong and Siem Reap (the closest airport to the Angkor Wat). Rather, there was a direct flight from Siem Reap to Hong Kong, but not the other way, and that too, only on certain days of the week. So we had to look around for other, indirect, means of getting there and back again, and this job wasn’t really helped by the fact that most of the airlines that do this circuit don’t seem to have functioning websites. Anyway, we finally fixed on a plan. FPG to arrive in HK on Thursday night. The three of us to leave for Siem Reap via Bangkok on Friday morning. Retrace steps Tuesday. Cost: a five hour layover on the return leg. FPG rationalized it by saying we’d work at the airport, of course. Just like we had worked over 10 am glasses of wine in Paris cafes in 2001.

FPG’s flight into Hong Kong – reliable old Continental – was delayed by two hours. She reached home at 11 pm. Our cab the next morning was due at 5. We shook jaw for a bit, then retired for a brief night—she and I both wielding throat infections. I’d seen the doctor for mine and he’d given me painkillers and anti-inflammatories, and antibiotics to not use unless in dire need.


The alarm clocks did not let us down. 6 am we were at the airport. They offered to check our bags in, but we said we’d carry them on since our stopover was very short. They said we’d have to get boarding passes for the second leg in Bangkok anyway. A new outlet at the food court contained two bright sparks who didn’t quite know how to serve coffee. The flight to Bangkok was uneventful, except for my realization that flying with two vegetarians can lead to a surplus of chicken sausages on ones plate. Always a new experience.

At Bangkok airport, we looked for the counter for our connecting flight, Bangkok Airlines. Styled as “Asia’s Boutique Airline”, we finally located it flaunting a sign that said CLOSED, with a bob of black hair behind the sign giving it the lie. We scored our boarding passes and made tracks for a currency exchange counter. We found one. They did not stock Cambodian Rials. We found another one. They were closed. We headed to the gate.

Asia’s Boutique Airline was over an hour late to take off, on this occasion. When we finally saw some action, it consisted of us being herded through a departure gate onto a bus, and thence planeside. Stepping off the bus into bright blinding sunshine, more than one passenger was befuddled by the sight of the plane—labeled DRUK AIRWAYS in bright orange. Were we en route to Bhutan, perchance? Every other person who ascended the steps took care to ask the attendant at the top—and her head almost fell off with the nodding and the smiling.

The big bright side of the flight was despite its short duration, about 45 minutes, there was a full meal service (but with no meal choices). My selection of traveling companions again ensured I landed up with over a dozen tasty pieces of duck. A late but filling lunch—albeit only for me.

We arrived at the pretty Siem Reap airport, tripping down the steps and into a charming single-storey structure with canals flowing around. Immigration was a breeze, and on the way out we spotted the currency exchange counter. One US dollar translated to 3800 rials at this place. The ladies suggested changing all our dollars into rials, rather than having to hunt around for banks in the city. A Rough Guide we had, dating from 2005, said there were no ATMs in the city. (The Bangkok Airlines inflight magazine had debunked this claim.) Either way, we went to change a couple of hundred dollars—I ducked out the moment the smiling lady behind the counter started telling us we were getting a million plus rials. Later, a Siem Reap bartender (more about him anon) told us a joke about a welcome sign at Djakarta airport: “Welcome to Indonesia, where everyone is a millionaire.”

We took a prepaid taxi to our hotel. The driver tried to convince us to book him for our rounds of the temples the following day. His argument was that hotels always recommend their affiliated drivers. He said it as if it were a bad thing, but the rate he quoted was just the same as theirs. I felt sorry for the guy but I took his card nevertheless.

The approach road to Siem Reap town was littered with recently-constructed monstrosities. All of them were hotels. In sharp contrast, our hotel, which FPG had had her eyes on back in 2003, was absolutely charming. It was laid out like an idealized little Cambodian village, with each room a little hut. The rooms had wooden planks for floors and walls, and simple wooden furnishings. It was all full of character.

We had a quick lunch, rather, the vegetarians did, and FPG then retired to sleep off her jet lag for a bit. TPB and I, in a first act of indulgence, booked ourselves massages. A van shipped us uptown to the hotel’s resort branch, which has a spa attached. They made us fill out a couple of forms, querying us on our preferences for oil and tea, and any diseases we may be carrying. I wrote SORE THROAT and BACKACHE. Full disclosure.

We were escorted to a double room by a couple of young masseuses. Fortunately or otherwise, TPB got the cute one. However, that didn’t really matter, since my eyes were shut the moment the massage started. I wouldn’t say the aches all just melted away, or I was cured as if by magic, but it felt really, really great. Somewhere along the line, I fell asleep. TPB claims I snored. All I know is that the masseuses giggled to themselves after they left the room.

It was after 7 by the time we returned to our hotel. FPG was awake, having slept for a refreshing three hours. We decided to head out for dinner to the Psar Chas (Old Market) area—known as the local hot spot. A common friend had recommended the Khmer Kitchen on Pub Street. Said eatery was located without any trouble (except for an extensive detour through an arty-farty store across the street, but hey, that’s democracy). We enjoyed a subtle dinner featuring three types of Cambodian food. The bor-bor was good, even if vegetarian, and I really enjoyed my subtle amok fish curry. The local beer wasn’t so bad, either.


The 6:30 wake up call came at 7, but we were well in time for our 8 am car. We had also hired a guide for the day. Mr. Thim Sothea was a quiet, pleasant person, whose only failing was in his seeming impatience to walk from one point on his itinerary to the next. On entrance, we had to stop to buy 3-day passes. They need a passport photo, but are kind enough to shoot them on the spot, free of charge. The only drawback is if there’s a long line of people waiting to get photographed – the wait can get quite painful, I imagine. As it happened, our relative tardiness meant that we had to suffer no waiting time at all. Instead, we were hit with a rude shock regarding the exchange rate. You pay 40 US$ if you pay in US$; the exchange rate is 4200 if you want to pay in rials. We lost a straight twelve dollars in transaction there itself. In general, we discovered that dollars are accepted everywhere in Cambodia—rials are used mainly as change. And most people will give you 4000 rials for a dollar. So you lose money if you use the national currency. That was a learning experience.

Once inside, Mr. Sothea took us first to Angkor Thom—the massive complex right next to Angkor Wat. (There are several temples in the Angkor Wat area, ranging in vintage from ~800 AD to ~1200 AD, which is when temple-building reached its peak with the Angkor Wat.) There we had our first glimpse of (a) the hordes of tourists, (b) the hordes of people trying to sell you stuff, and (c) the absolutely incredible carvings and architecture. Right through our visit, at almost every single place we visited, we were accosted by little children chanting “Sir! One daa-lah!” and carrying kramars (scarves), flutes, books, postcards, and a range of other memorabilia. The poverty there was heart-breaking anyway, and to add to that some of the kids were heart-breakingly pretty (such as this one we met at Kbal Spean). Others were heart-breakingly charming. "Please buy something, sir! Good for you, good for me." One chased me, asking: “Where are you from, sir?” I said, “Hong Kong.” “What is the capital, sir?” “Also Hong Kong!” “Hong Kong capital of Hong Kong!” The kid broke off from the chase to giggle about this new discovery to himself.

We spent a few hours walking around the Angkor Thom area—-taking in the magnificent Bayon temple with its iconic faces, the royal palace, the Terrace of the Elephants, and the statue of the Leper King. We had our first exposure to the disaster that was Cambodia’s recent history, as en route to the royal palace we walked past a field that was strewn with ancient building blocks. I asked the guide why these were just lying around. He said that a French team had been renovating the Baphuon temple structure when they were expelled by the Khmer Rouge. Each block had been catalogued by the team, and its location recorded. However, the Khmer Rouge had destroyed all records. And so all that’s left today is a field full of ancient stones.

A tiny smidgen of the disaster, but that’s how it started coming home to me. In other places it was clear to see how statues had been left standing, surgically decapitated. And everywhere, there were people without legs.

Around noon, we headed back into town, to Les Artisans d’Angkor – a school dedicated to preserving the ancient arts, in other words, to making replicas of old stuff. We took a brief tour of the workshops, where the local guide paused in front of a sculpture of an apsara and asked us if we could dance Bollywood style. (After two drinks, said I, to much approval.) FPG and TPB then spent a half hour at the shop. To my intense surprise I found a Khmer-jazz fusion CD. It’s good.

We then headed to the FCC – Foreign Correspondents’ Club – for lunch. Also recommended by a friend, this one had a great ambience, with wide open balconies, broad cane chairs, and slow swirling ceiling fans. My lunch was great but the vegetarians again complained. The highlight of this meal came when we asked whether we could move to the adjacent lounge for coffee. This lounge had big stuffed leather armchairs that looked very inviting. Moreover, it was empty. However, to our bemusement, the staff didn’t let us. “The lounge is reserved,” they said. So we had our coffee on the balcony where we were.

After lunch it was back to the temples—-this time, to Angkor Wat. We headed in past the outer moat, where, just off to the right of the main gate, is a chamber with a statue of Lord Vishnu. You go inside past this statue and get your first untrammeled view of Angkor Wat. Our guide took us round the back of the Vishnu hutlet, to a broad ledge running from the back of the enclosure towards the main walkway. “You watch sunrise here tomorrow,” he said. We thanked him for the pointer and walked on. Sunrise is great here, he said, since unlike most of the other temples in the area, this structure faces west. So the sun rises from just behind it.

On the other, northern, side of the walkway approaching Angkor Wat, a little further along, there’s a little pool. This is a key sunset spot, since it’s here that one can capture the beautiful reflections as the monument changes color as the light drops. We skirted this pool and entered the structure from the north-western corner. The Angkor Wat consists of three levels, the first of which has galleries on all four sides. The first gallery we saw, the western one, contains bas reliefs in incredible detail of the Ramayana on the northern side, and the Mahabharata war on the southern side. Going round the corner is heaven, earth, and hell, with a delightful depiction of evildoers being pushed through a trapdoor into hell, under the watchful eye of Yama. The next set contains a massive depiction of the gods and demons churning the ocean of milk—-a theme one sees on reliefs and statues in many places, such as flanking the approach gates to the Angkor Thom.

After one finishes the circuit, one climbs to the higher levels. The ascent to the third level is really quite steep, and all four limbs are required to make it up. (The idea being that you can't just saunter up to God.) It was a little unpleasant up there, however, since by the time we reached it was close to closing time and there were huge crowds jostling each other to get back down. I don’t mention the beautiful carvings. They are everywhere, and words cannot do them justice.

Once back down, we made tracks for the pond with the reflections. Got some great shots. And that was the day.

We had dinner at a restaurant called Chivit Thai in the northern part of town. The food wasn’t bad but the place was absolutely empty—-a very sharp contrast to the bustling Psar Chas area we’d been at the previous night. We resolved to stay downtown for dinner.


The plan was for a 5 am car to take us to Angkor Wat for sunrise. (No guide any more -- too unhip.) The wake-up call never came. FPG found the front desk napping on the front couch and woke him up and made him call the driver. Turned out to be the driver’s wake-up call. By the time he showed up it was 5:30, and everyone was anxiously looking at the sky, hoping day didn’t break.

It didn’t. It was still dark by the time we reached Angkor Wat and felt our way to the ledge our guide had shown us the previous day. A few people were already there, hushed as the light slowly broke. More people arrived steadily—-the ubiquitous Korean and Japanese tour groups laughing and chattering loudly to each other, shattering the sanctity of the moment. As it brightened, we looked at each other. There was light, but no sun. Too cloudy? Annoyed by the crowds and the noise, all three of us decided that that was it. We got up and started walking out.

Somewhere on the last stretch while crossing the big moat outside, two people raced madly past us heading inside. We turned to look, and saw a big red sun floating just above the temple wall. Instantly, I sprinted in the opposite direction and was rewarded with several beautiful shots of the sun reflected in the moat, hanging next to the Angkor Wat, with barely a soul in sight. Everyone was inside the complex. Serendipity.

We had a quick breakfast of omelettes and baguettes at a shack across the road, where we learned Khmer for thank you (“orkun!”). We then drove to Ta Prohm. This was my absolute favorite of a mind-blowing set of temples. This temple consists of a basic structure like many of the others, over-run by the hugest of trees. When we walked in, there was no one there—just us three, the eerily beautiful ruins, the enormous trees with roots twining over and around the stone structures ("attacking" the temple, as our guide had described it), and the shrill screeches of a thousand parrots. The spookiest, most characterful place I have ever been. What more can I say?

The spell was broken by the sound of TPB’s astonished voice. “You did *that*? That wasn’t very smart of you, was it?” I turned to look—-a young Korean idiot had detached himself from his tour group and gone round the corner for a smoke... and stubbed his cigarette out on a carving on the temple wall.

Walking out of Ta Prohm we heard some sweet music that grew louder as we walked away. There was a group of five musicians sitting and playing on traditional Khmer instruments by the side of the exit path. Drawing closer, we saw the sign in front of them – they were all land mine victims. I got TPB to drop a note into their bucket. Later on, I found a CD recorded by them, and also one recorded by a similar group who sat outside another temple. That one, which I bought, says on the front cover, “Khmer Traditional Music. A group of the cripple musians at the east Prasat Preah Khan. Buy one CD of the cripple is that you have supported the cripple musians projested in Cambodia.” The music was good enough to buy – it wasn’t just the guilt. I shot a little video as well.

The next stop was the aforementioned Preah Khan. No Bollywood starlet this – far older and prettier by far as well. Preah Khan in Khmer means Sacred Sword – dig that. This temple complex is like a companion to Ta Prohm, but much larger, and without the trees. Its distinctive characteristic is the number of doorways and open passages, long unending corridors offering infinite possibilities for shots with framing and perspective. I narrowly missed taking a classic picture of a Caucasian woman wearing a Rolling Stones t-shirt with the iconic lips and tongue emblem... walking past a lingam.

From Preah Khan we drove twenty kilometers northwards away from the temple complexes to Kbal Spean. This place features a 45 minute hike to a stream and waterfall with a thousand (or so) lingams carved on the river bed. Don’t ask me why. It was quite an experience to see dignified-looking old French people walking around pointing and shouting, “Lingam! Yoni!” We trudged the 45 minutes back and had lunch at one of the restaurant shacks next to the parking lot, actually, the last one. At the recommendation of our driver.

We then drove to the Banteay Srei temple (different because of its beautiful pink sandstone, and incredibly deep carvings), which lent itself to the appellation Bantasri (and thence, Santasri). We encountered three arty looking Bengalis standing in the midday heat. They were standing around wielding fancy cameras, and saying, “I wonder where the South Library is.” I turned around and pointed to a building ten yards away, and said (also in Bong), “There it is. That’s the South Library, and the one facing it is the North Library.” The guy looked at me as if I were a ghost or something. Maybe he’d been looking for matching libraries all his life. “You’re Bengali?!” “Yes.” Well, maybe not.

A few words here about our intellectual looking yet recalcitrant driver. He claimed to be a guide (“my uniform is in the trunk”) but never answered any of our questions at any great length. Indeed, his responses never really went beyond the “this tempole, Ta Prohm tempole” level. The only two times he opened out were first when recommending that restaurant (which actually turned out to be very good, and the lady was very nice – she even gave us a bunch of bananas to take home), and the second time on the drive back to Siem Reap from Kbal Spean, when he started offering us his services for the following day. I tried to fob him off by saying that we might not take a car the next day, just a tuk-tuk (a carriage yoked to a motorcycle); he replied by offering the services of his brother, whose English he claimed was good but not as good as his. He then gave me his card. His name according to the card was Madonna Hun. I silently passed the card to the back seat. TPB, voice all a-quaver, piped up: “Is this *your* name? Or your... brother’s?”)

Mr. Hun dropped us back to Siem Reap. As per our plan, all three of us repaired to the spa in a bit. A minor sideshow en route. The van that was supposed to take us from ‘our’ hotel to the spa was delayed. The guy at the front desk was apologetic. FPG suggested we simply take a tuk-tuk instead. His response was one I’ve never seen at a hotel before. “No.”

We had to wait till the van got there.

Not wanting the repeat the massage from two days ago (variety-seeking, more than anything else), I found myself having been talked into my first-ever facial. TPB got her laughs for the decade when she broke off conversation at one point to innocently remind me to not scream too loudly if anything hurt. She’s pasted my face with mud once (when I was barely twenty, and a friend walked in to the house just then), and my nose with white gunk, so I’m pretty jumpy when it comes to these things. I can’t say I wasn’t apprehensive about my facial.

Turned out we were in the same room again. However, this time I was assigned to the pretty masseuse (who I guessed also did facials). TPB was assigned to a hefty young weight-lifter type—-who was later found to possess the girliest of giggles.

I was made to lie down on the same bed as before. A sushi plate was placed next to the bed, containing something that looked like wasabi, something that looked like green ginger, and three types of white gunk. I was then made to close my eyes as various things were rubbed into and onto my face, throat, shoulders, and arms (for a facial?). I made sure I didn’t snore this time. But it was hard. After the shortest eternity ever, I heard the masseuse’s voice. “Sir?” “Yes?”




I didn’t know what she was talking about. I said, again, “Sorry?” She repeated herself a few times in tones of increasing desperation, then pulled my arm out from under the sheet and pressed my hand to my face. I opened my eyes and looked over at TPB. “She’s saying you’re looking beautiful.” “Yayyys! Yayyyys! Beeyuttifool!”

I staggered over to the mirror. I could see no difference. TPB claimed my face was glowing. On our way out, we passed the two girls. “Thank you!” they said. “Orkun!” I replied, full of manly charm. They collapsed in giggles. We sat and drank our complimentary flavored tea. FPG had emerged from her massage, herself glowing in no small measure. On our way out, the girls again smiled and waved goodbye. “Beautiful!” I said, sealing my place in their hearts. (Or so I hoped.)

Dinner was back at the Psar Chas, at this Vietnamese joint called the Soup Dragon. Everyone seemed to be ordering hotpots, so maybe that was the way to go. We just had normal food. The “Cambodian” green mango salad looked very similar on the menu to the “Vietnamese” green mango salad. When I ordered it, the waitress said, "One mango salad." Either way, it wasn’t bad.


Monday morning we headed south on a tuk-tuk (owner: Mr. Sophat) towards Tonle Sap. This is the biggest freshwater lake in Southeast Asia, and contains a ‘floating village’ – bunches of boats with people living on them. While the ride was very interesting, and picturesque at times, unfortunately much of what we saw at the lake was pretty commercialized. Our boat docked at a little curio stand, and again, other boats flocked round with merchandize. Cutest, saddest, most bitter-sweet of these was the boy in the bubble—-floating along in a little aluminum basin, trying to hawk bananas.

Back in town, we stopped by the House of Peace Institution, which makes and sells traditional leather puppets. I wandered around outside, looking at monks hanging out. Then we had lunch in Psar Chas, at the Red Piano. Good stuff. We then slept off the hot afternoon hours at the hotel before heading back for one last stab at the temples—-the ten minute walk up the hill to Phnom Bakheng, scrambling up to the top of this 1100 year old structure for glorious views of the sunset to the west and Angkor Wat to the east. Right among the madding crowds.

We signed off the four wonderful days with a drink and a bit at the Angkor What? bar in Psar Chas. Sitting outside watching the nightlife build up, we saw a big-set dude with a handlebar moustache ride up in a motorcycle. The waiters jumped forward to help him off, and he swaggered into the bar like he owned it. Ten minutes later, he sauntered out to our table and asked in a thick Scots accent where we’re from. We gave him the easy answer – India. Turned out he was from India too. Bombay. Mazagaon. He almost blushed with happiness when I said “docks”. His father was Tamil and mother Portuguese. He lived and worked in Scotland for a dozen years. Came to Siem Reap for three days three years ago and never left. “How long have you been here,” he asked. “Four days,” we said. “So far.”

We asked him to recommend a restaurant. He told us about “Tell” – a joint we’d not seen mention of in any of the guide books. It was south-west of Psar Chas, and he was right—-it was the best meal we had in Cambodia.

We walked back to the hotel through the merrymakers of Siem Reap’s party district.


I'm not at all a religious person and I cannot remember when last I visited a house of worship. So in retrospect I'm quite amazed when I realize that I spent the best part of three days visiting temple after temple after temple. (I even woke at 4:30 to go see the sun rising over the greatest existing Hindu monument -- FPG commented that we should have talked a little research while we were there, just for the karma. Hopefully the karma will get to us anyway.) I have to admit that towards the end of the trip I was getting pretty "templed out and sculptured out", as TPB put it, but in all fairness that was due as much to sensory overload as anything else. I really enjoyed viewing some of the carvings -- it was a great thrill to see Bhishma, one of my favorite characters from all forms of narrative, feature on a panel all to himself. (And I have to confess I didn't get corresponding thrills from seeing Rama or Vishnu, but I did enjoy the panel where Yamaraj was presiding over the cringing souls being pushed down to hell. Maybe there's no salvation for me after all, or am I beyond it?)

There's an air of eternal peace about the temples of Cambodia -- if one can ignore the hordes of package tourists, that is. Is it something about the place, the structures, or the people? As Mr. Madonna Hun, our laconic driver put it (in this little chant that we formed from his utterances, a chant that became the refrain for our trip) --

Camm-bodyan pippole
Like to go to tempole
Because dey Boodist,
Dat-min also believe Hindew

Yes, they are a very pleasant pippole, gentle, smiling, bowing, courteous. Hindu and Buddhist monuments co-exist, and have done so for over a thousand years. Rulers of different faiths did not pull down their predecessors' temples, at worst they defaced them -- turning Buddhas into lingams and vice versa. Yet it's stunning to think that less than thirty years ago, some of these very same Cambodians killed off over one in five of their countrymen. Thousands of them are crippled to this day, and millions of landmines remain strewn over their fields and forests. The country is one of the poorest in the world. We talk about India as a land of contrasts, but this contrast, between the cruelty of the country's present and recent past, and the patina provided by the serenity of its heritage, could not have been starker for me. Whence the beauty, whence the horror? My mind is enmeshed in this contradiction, and I'll try and post my thoughts about it in a few days.

Till then, here's to beautiful.

Friday, March 16, 2007

Dropping Angkor

Bayon -- Angkor Thom

Angkor Wat

Bhishma -- Angkor Wat

Ascending Angkor Wat

Angkor sunset

Angkor sunrise

Angkor sunrise

Angkor sunrise

Ta Prohm

Ta Prohm

Ta Prohm

Self-portrait in a thousand years -- Preah Khan

Preah Khan

Tonle Sap


Sunset at Phnom Bakheng

Size does matter

Thursday, March 08, 2007

Art, in three sizes

The Annual Hong Kong Arts Festival is in town.

This year, I chose to restrict myself to two shows, and then a third one got added on by diktat of the Power That Be's. As it happened, the three shows were all within a few days of each other.

The first of these was last Friday. I was in pretty bad shape due to an attack of food poisoning, but it's not that often that good music comes round this way. So skipping Friday's show wasn't even an option. It was a jazz show, the performers were called the San Francisco Jazz Collective. Going into the show, the only thing I remembered about this gig was that the brochure had said they'd be playing an evening of Monk covers and Monk-inspired tunes. What more does one need to know, anyway? As Manuel would have put it, I knew naaathing.

Our tickets were excellent -- just a dozen rows from the stage. Taking my seat and picking up the program, I was pleasantly shocked to see that Joshua Redman was headlining. I've never had the privilege of seeing him perform, but he's definitely up there with the best these days. So that was good. The other thing I learned was that this Collective was an annual coming-together of band-leaders, each one a composer in their own right. This is the fourth year they've been playing together, and each year they pick on a different ATG whose work they build on. Sounded good.

The band came on stage. It truly was an all-star cast. As this review from the Arborweb puts it --

Redman is the front man, but the Collective is a multigenerational mix of first-class musicians, most of whom are leaders in their own right. Redman shares the front line with the majestic trumpet player Nicholas Payton, trombonist Andre Hayward, and Miguel Zenón on alto sax and flute. ... Payton seems able to fit in any style without sacrificing his individuality. Hayward, who also plays with the Lincoln Center orchestra, is a rising star on his instrument. Zenón is a fiery soloist with a distinctive cutting saxophone sound who combines modern jazz with Latin elements to great advantage. They are joined by vibraphonist Bobby Hutcherson, a leader in the experimental movements of the 1960s and one of the most original instrumentalists in jazz. Indeed, Herbie Hancock was a sideman on some of Hutcherson's classic late-1960s Blue Note albums.

The rhythm section ... consist[s] of Renee Rosnes on piano, Matt Penman on bass, and Eric Harland on drums. Rosnes has established herself as a powerful modern jazz pianist with a fabulous technique, but she's also a distinctive composer. In sum, this is an all-star group of top-notch soloists, but it has a collective identity that is defined by the arrangements of older material mixed with wonderful new compositions.

And that's exactly how it was. For two hours they transported us to a different place, which is exactly how great music should be. They played a number of Monk classics (of which my favorite was their take on Bright Mississippi) interspersed with their own compositions. The highlight of the whole show for me came right at the end -- with a piece called Union, written by the drummer. It started off with a wonderful long snaky duet between Redman on tenor and Zenon on alto. They played long winding lines that twirled above, beneath, around, and between each other, mirroring ideas, bouncing, lines, completing phrases. This was like Garcia and Lesh, and that's the highest praise I can give. Eventually, the rest of the band came in, one by one, and built to a thundering climax. (At least, that's how I remember it.) It was great.


The next show was the very next evening. Same venue, almost the same seats -- just one row ahead. Youssou N'Dour -- I knew we were in for a very different kind of treat. His band, the Super Stars of Dakar, consisted of three percussionists -- a regular drummer, a gent wielding a djembe flanked by bongos, and a magician with a talking drum. There was also a bassist who double on keyboards, a rhythm guitarist, a lead guitarist, and a female backing vocalist.

My first exposure to Youssou's music had been way back in 1988 when he'd visited Delhi on that Amnesty International tour, with Peter Gabriel, Tracy Chapman, and that crowd. Even back then, his searing crescendos had burned into me, and I remember that sound clearly all these years later. At my parents' place in Delhi last month I'd come upon a CD of his, which my mother had picked up in Dakar recently. I played it, but the sound had seemed different. Going into the hall on Saturday, I was hoping for a screaming hot performance.

We got one. If the drum solos, duets, and trios didn't get you out of your seat, nothing ever will. The band was tight and they knew how to put on a show. Youssou took a few songs to warm up, then opened his throat and let it soar. And to top it all off, there was a dancer -- an extroverted gent who bounced onto the stage at various random points and pulled off running backflips and somersaults for fun and profit. It was a riot.

The capstone performance again came at the end, but it was a solo. Youssou introduced the song by saying -- "When people (I love the way the accent makes it go "peepol") think of Africa, they normally think of three things. 1. Poverty. 2. AIDS. 3. War. This song says that there's more to Africa than just that. Africa is also for happiness." With that, he launched into this slow, haunting melody which stretched out and built up to a spine-tingling climax. I caught a couple of the last few words. They were -- Kwame Nkrumah! Steven Biko!

I clapped.

The only downer of the whole show came after I returned home and found this clip online. It showcases an excellent performance -- a teeny little worse than the one we'd just seen. What bothered me was that the two were almost identical in every sense.
Oh well.


The third evening -- Tuesday -- was an unmitigated disaster. It was a Cantonese play, called Tian Gong Kai Wu, or The Practical Guide to Imaginary Inventions. Sounds good enough, I daresay. (I mean, I'd almost definitely never go to a play on my own steam any more. I used to be such a huge theater freak, but the thrill is gone.) I allowed myself to be taken there. The brochure had said there would be subtitles. Actually, they flash them on a little screen above the stage, so they're called "surtitles". Anyway, no kicking, no screaming.

It started off a little strangely, with the set consisting of ten footstools arranged in a row downstage, and three women who came out and sat along the left wing, reading from identical white books, even as the lights were up and the masses settling in. Eventually the lights dimmed and they started talking -- to the audience. Each woman said one line in turn, and each line started with the words, "I, Hui-Hui, ..." The essence of the message being conveyed was pretty much, "I, Hui-Hui, don't know if I exist."

We realized it was an avant garde play. Not just regular avant garde, but what we used to call a-vantt, garr-dee.

A single light-bulb came on upstage. A man sat at a table, typing on a laptop. The voiceover-track sounded like a typewriter. The man was typing sentiments that were similar.

Eventually the story started getting a move on. It was set in the 1930s, and featured a young man whose passion it was to make radios, and a young woman he met by virtue of the fact that she could hear the frequencies at which he transmitted his Morse code. She was wilful, but that didn't stop him from marrying her. Even in those days, presumably, it was hard to find a receptive wife.

The story meandered on at the pace of a bullock cart (an entire scene featuring a bullock cart journey where the newlyweds pointed out landmarks in the middle distance). Every once in a while, a random cast member would walk onstage and place something - such as a sheaf of hay, or a typewriter - on one of the footstools that were lying there. Meanwhile the man continued being passionate about radios. The woman developed a crooked spine due to a genetic disorder that none of her descendants seemed to suffer from. Most of the plot development came at moments when all the characters stood to attention and one of them spoke to the audience, telling them about things that had happened. Eventually the World War started and the woman died.

That was pretty much the first act. As the lights went up, we checked our watches and realised an hour and a half had passed. We stretched and were preparing to make sarcastic comments about pointless plays, when we heard the numbing announcement: "There will now be an intermission of fifteen minutes."

The second half of the play has to be the worst performance I have ever seen. It started with a "robot" -- a woman dressed like C3PO, perched on a footstool upstage (the old-fashioned one had now been replaced by modern folding stools). The robot spent about fifteen minutes discovering how to move its limbs in modern dance manner, while sitting and then standing on its footstool. It then went and did its modern dance thing around the rest of the stage, which had now gotten filled up with 1960s style bric-a-brac -- sewing machines, a 12" b&w television in a cabinet, and so on. Several people stood around, frozen.

We realized that some years had passed, and we were now looking at the son and daughter-in-law of the couple featured in Act 1. The son was crazy about a lathe; the daughter-in-law was a myopic typist. They told us about their life, just as their parents had. Suddenly everyone came to life and presented a bunch of advertisements -- for hair gel, clothes, sewing machines, and a couple of other things.

Then everyone froze again and C3PO came back onstage and danced around. At some point the grandson of the original couple indulged in some eve-teasing. At which the girl he was chasing vomited into a trash can she'd been carrying, and then everyone else also vomited in sympathy. Then (forgive me if this is sounding sketchy, my food poisoning misery had been supplanted by a badly infected throat, so I might have been blanking out in bits) all the cast members started coming out and putting more footstools on the stage, randomly. After a while, they'd put a stool, sit on it for a few seconds, then get up and walk off. Eventually, when the stage had over a hundred stools on it, eight of them appeared and stood on random stools and sang a song. Then everyone walked all over stage, sometimes stepping up on a stool, sometimes walking on the stage surface. Meanwhile the screen flashed Chinese characters that the surtitles translated as: "Man creates the Past". "The Past creates Man." "The Future creates Objects." "Objects create the Future." "The Future creates the Present." "The Present Creates the Future."

Finally, three and a half bewildering hours later, it ended. All I could say was that I was glad it hadn't been my choice.

Monday, March 05, 2007

A Home of Peace

All the rough-and-tumble described in the previous post was due to just one reason -- a family vacation that was way overdue. My parents, my uncle, aunt, cousin, and I, were going to spend a few days in Santiniketan.

My flight into Cal being as delayed as it was, a day's worth of vacation was scuppered. We set out the next morning. Although I'd been looking forward to this for a long while, and my expectations were high, I soon had an intimation that this was going to be even better than expected. Pulling out of Kolkata, I found our car faced with a spanking new highway. It was absolutely excellent -- speeds of a 100 km/h were easy right through, way beyond anything I'd seen before in these parts.

But of course, the "user fee" had to be paid by us, the "users". And perhaps the road signs weren't quite all right...

Anyway, we zipped right through going due northwest for a couple of hours, and then made a pit stop at Shaktigarh -- a town en route renowned for its langchas.
Langchas are a type of sweet that look like elongated gulab jamuns. The roadside shop we stopped at offered them in four varieties dished out of big old steel tubs -- sizes small or big, and made out of paneer or kheer. I sampled both, using those little icecream sticks, and the kheer one was absolutely divine. We had them with tea, served in little clay cups, just like I remembered from train trips way back when. In fact, right through the trip, we consumed milky sweet tea every once in a while from these little cups. Drink up and toss by the side of the road -- natural recycle. As a special bonus, our langchas were served on a little foil plate that said "French Brandy". The highway was lined on both sides with these langcha outlets -- Langcha House, Langcha Home, Langcha Bhavan, Langcha Niketan, Langcha Palace, even Langcha Museum, all featured a gent or two bouncing about outside, flapping arms at every car that zipped by, inviting them on in. Outside, I found an old gent who had, evidently, seen it all.

So we drove by open fields with paddy farms stretching to the horizon. It being the dry season we crossed a few bridges with thinned out rivers snaking underneath. The soil around, now that we were in the district of Birbhum, was a bright hearty red. I wondered how angry it might look in summer. We reached our destination - a charming little villa - about five hours after we'd started, stops and all. Lunch was an indigenous affair -- the vegetables had been grown in the kitchen garden outside the window, the chicken was a broiler from the shack down the road. They were out of desi.

The remainder of that day was spent hanging around. We drove into town for a bit, but more about that later. The evening featured a welcome guest from Scotland. The next morning I was up before dawn -- greeted by this magnificent sight. This photograph was shot looking due east from the upstairs balcony. I went a little crazy shooting photographs from that balcony, including one of a little assembly being conducted outside the neighbors' main gate. Eventually better sense prevailed and I realized that there was no real need for me to stay up there on my artificial machan, so I clambered downstairs and spent a happy hour traipsing around the garden photographing the villa. (Unfortunately, I'm not at liberty to post any of those really pretty shots. However, I can give you this idiosyncratic one of the kitchen garden. What you see is a phlegmatic little mango tree that has been repressed - in a way - by an ambitious and upwardly-mobile lau / lauki / ghia / gourd creeper. Only in the State of Bengal, folks. But fear not -- sources tell me that the mango tree produces some sweet fruit of its own; the local monkeys have voted with their paws.)

By seven-ish most of the others were up, so it was decided to take a stroll down to the railway station, about ten minutes away, to pick up a newspaper and see what's happening. The railway station, featuring a few shack-shops, a couple of tea joints, and a long, bright, spanking-new platform, is the prominent local gathering spot. People go there for their morning walks, to take trains into / out of town, buy the newspaper, catch up on the morning gossip, whatever. As we walked by, a rooster greeted us heartily. This rooster was different from the one who lived near our place -- that one, poor thing, did most of its crowing between lunchtime and early evening. A terrible case of jet lag, or is it an allegorical reflection of the pace of the place?

At the station we also found a fisherman laying out his morning catch. Three medium-sized katlas and a little heap of their younguns -- fresh from a pond nearby. Lunch arrangements were made at once, with a minimum of haggling. It really was so cheap, compared to Kolkata prices. The Anandabazar Patrika informed us of the atrocity the previous day on the Samjhauta Express -- dozens of innocents murdered for no reason at all in a world far far away. How far, I wondered? How far was the rioting during Partition, just a few decades ago? Behind us, a train came and went peacefully, leaving a solitary denizen rousting for breakfast.

We went back home, then, after breakfast (featuring luchi with mangsher jhol, in case you must know), we went on a little drive round town. I loved the feel of the place -- a laid back small town that lives life at its own pace. This local hero sort of summed up the local color for me. Of course, Santiniketan is famous for Visvabharati University, founded by a much greater local hero -- Rabindranath Tagore. The university is in the town of Bolpur, about four kilometers from where we were holed up. However, the influence of the Poet was everywhere -- witness the drapes in the shop to the right ("Where the mind is without fear..."). I didn't spend any time at the university itself, but I did take a quick spin of the Tagore museum -- small but very informative and well kept. An exchange between Tagore and Gandhi caught my eye. The latter had sent a telegram on the eightieth birthday of the former, words to the effect of: "Four-score not enough, may you finish five". The laconic reply: "Four-score is impertinence, five-score intolerable." It thrilled me greatly that such a productive, prolific, yet ineffably *serious* personage could have dashed off this flippant one-liner.

I bought a few local objets d'art, but more than those, I found the people so interesting. A young rapscallion followed us for a bit with his trinkets, saying to my mother, "Didi, niye jan, Santiniketan-er ekti chinnho!" ("Sister, carry with you a memory of Santiniketan!") Our car was parked for a while across from this local tailor's joint, and I watched him at his work -- customers and friends coming and going, in rhythm with his machine.

The whole experience was all so *different* from everything that I live. I'm not saying it's better, or worse. But the two days passed in a langorous flash and soon it was time to go home. We drove past the paddy fields again, stopping for a delicious set lunch at an ashram en route. There we saw the most enormous banyan tree, of which this particular root was the most remarkable feature. The food there was so good -- can you say sukto, musurir dal, dhokar dalna, ar machher jhol -- one lusted for it even before getting to the table. As evidenced by this particular root.

We paused for langchas again on the way back. It turned out the shack we'd stopped at this time was nothing but a branch of the one we'd stopped at on the way going in -- even the gent waving his arms was the same. He informed us he did morning shifts on *that* side, and afternoons on *this* side. He then proceeded to tell his life story to my mother -- starting from his salary, to his previous experience as an insurance salesman (which gives him competencies that aren't quite compensated by his present wage), to the amount he had to pay at his daughter's wedding -- a sum he'd never have managed without his American-resident niece's help.

Around him, the late afternoon tightened its chador round our shoulders, and the tireless yet doubtless tiring tillers plugged away at their paddy. We drove past leaving them all behind -- how will they be when I visit them next, I wonder.

When will I return?

Saturday, March 03, 2007

Helpless, Helpless, Ho-opeless

Okay, I'd typed out half a long post about my recent travails with the airline ironically known as Sahara, but I lost it. So I'm afraid you only get to see the highlights of my adventure, getting there and getting back. Next time, Pictures from A Heavenly Place in the Boondocks.


- 3:30 am, Indira Gandhi International Airport, Arrivals Hall.
"Pyaar ke maidaan par hum kho-kho nahin khelte." -- Jackie Shroff

Getting There

- 6:30 am, inside Sahara Air plane to Calcutta
"We regret to announce we're delayed by fifteen minutes due to fog."

- 10:45 am, same plane
"We're sorry, this flight is cancelled."

- 10:47 am, milling about in mottled morning sunshine on tarmac next to plane
"Well actually the conditions are okay for flying now, but the pilot's shift is over and there are no other pilots."

- 11:00 am, Sahara desk, Domestic Arrivals hall
"The next flight is at 4:15 pm. We can put you on that, but it may be delayed. Meanwhile please collect your bag from the carousel and depart through *that* gate."

- 11:25 am, Domestic Departures entrance
"Aapki flight to chaar baje hai. Abhi kaise andar jaane de sakte hain?" (Your flight is at 4 o'clock -- how can we let you go inside now?)

- 11:26 am, Domestic Departures entrance
"HAHAHAHAHA chaar ghante pehle andar jaana chahte hain. Aap aisa kariye, kahin aur jaiye" (HAHAHAHAHA Wants to go in four hours early. Tell you what, mate, you go cool your heels elsewhere.)

... time elapse four hours spent sitting outside the departure hall -- alternately on a ledge with my back to a light pole, and in the shade on my suitcase ...

- 3:30 pm, Sahara Airlines check in counter
"Yes your seat is confirmed, sir, but the 4:30 flight is indefinitely delayed. Would you like to be put on the 7 pm flight?"

- 8:00 pm, Sahara Airlines 7 pm flight to Calcutta
"We apologise for the delay. We have not been able to take off due to overloading. We will now remove 2 tons of fuel from the aircraft. We expect to be able to take off in half an hour."

Getting Back (i.e., a Few Days Later)

- 4:45 am, Calcutta Airport, Domestic Departures, Sahara check-in counter
"Yes sir, there are three seats booked for you. 1D-1E-1F. I'll just print out your boarding passes."

- 4:55 am, Calcutta Airport, Domestic Departures, Sahara check-in counter
"Sorry sir. Just two more minutes."

- 5:05 am, Calcutta Airport, Domestic Departures, Sahara check-in counter
"Very sorry sir. Just *two* more minutes."

- 5:06 am, Calcutta Airport, Domestic Departures, Sahara check-in counter
"Well actually sir, the system is not recognising that you have an e-ticket sir."

- 5:07 am, Calcutta Airport, Domestic Departures, Sahara check-in counter
"Yes I know you flew from Delhi on the same e-ticket sir. Maybe that's because you bought the ticket in Delhi, sir."

- 5:26 am, Calcutta Airport, Domestic Departures, Sahara check-in counter
"Really sorry sir. Just *two* more minutes."

- 5:46 am, Calcutta Airport, Domestic Departures, Sahara check-in counter
"What can we do, sir? The system isn't recognising, sir."

- 5:56 am, Calcutta Airport, Domestic Departures, Sahara check-in counter
"L-PAD lagao, yaar, L-PAD!"

- 5:57 am, Calcutta Airport, Domestic Departures, Sahara check-in counter
"Hair you go, sir."

- Approximately 7 am, in-flight, inside the restroom. (The inside of the restroom looks like a chassis that one sees in a junkyard. I observe that all the signs are in two languages -- English and Portuguese. The only sign in an Indian language is in Hindi. It says:)
Taaylet flush

- Approximately 7:30 am, in-flight. The guy across the aisle from me -- looks like a kirana shop-owner dressed in an excellent grey suit -- is staring at me. I look at him. He continues to stare. I realize he's looking past me. I turn and follow his gaze. Out the window, seated on a bed of glorious white cloud, is a stunning, breathtaking panorama of the majestic Himalayas. I turn back to the man, to comment on the view. But before I can say anything, he pre-empts me:
"The view is not changing, is it? We're not moving."