Tommy Emmanuel, middle age crisis, touristy stuff

When we met at the Esplanade to watch Tommy Emmanuel play, I learnt that C had a friend circle so extensive, it would fill up an entire row in the hall. I asked him if they were all rabid Tommy Emmanuel fans like he was. He replied dismissively saying, “None of us are fans, lah. We just here to have fun. He’s good but not ‘that’ good also.”

But I, on the other hand, thought he was quite good. Emmanuel played with no back-up band or metronome and used the entire body of his guitar to create both the music and the percussion to go with. It was electrifying to watch as he launched into dazzlingly fast arpeggios to go with speedy percussive rhythms. In the middle of his gig, he had an impromptu workshop where he showed how a novice could learn to play The Beatles and spoke about how he would want everyone to pick up a musical instrument and play because that’s the most positive change one could make in a life, an idea I vehemently disagree with having spent large chunks of my teens hanging out with terrible guitar players. After this little digression, he went back to shredding his fingers off and I was going to turn to C to thank him for introducing me to such a good musician when I found C turning to me and whispering, “Hey, we’re getting out of here. Do you want to go have some fun?”

“But isn’t this already fun?”, I said.

“No, this is getting boring now. Come with us. We’re getting late.”

“Can’t it wait after the gig? I’m guessing it’ll be over in less than an hour.”

“No, we’ll be late. Come fast”, he said.

I was angry at my concentration being snapped out of the gig. But I was also curious to know what these guys were up to. So, highly reluctantly, I joined them outside where once we’d assembled, we had to run to the metro to catch a train to Tanah Merah.

Inside the train, I asked C where we were going in such a hurry.

“Pulau Ubin”, he said, excitedly, “It’s an island in Singapore. We have to hurry because if we don’t, we’ll miss the last boat. We go there to camp on the beach all night.”

“But I have all my things in the hostel”, I said, “I can’t just leave it there.”

“It’s okay, lah. Only one night. Do you have anything important? You go back tomorrow.”

“What about food? We haven’t eaten anything.”

“Haha, we just hunt for something, lah”, he said mirthfully, with a pat on my back.

There were 25 people other than myself, with three girls from South Korea, two guys from Kenya, four American dudes, half a dozen Malaysian boys and girls, three Indonesians, a guy and a girl from Australia, two Indian boys, a girl from England and the two Singaporean friends of C that I had already met earlier that week. All of them studied at different Singaporean universities. Until I met this bunch, I had considered myself young but surrounded by college going kids talking about their espadrilles and fizzy hairstyles and Justin Biebers, I felt like an elder statesman with grey hair and arthritis watching his grandkids talk about stuff beyond his understanding. I was also on a different plane of consciousness altogether because most of them were already high on alcohol and I felt like a sober elder gent trying to keep up with their non-stop rickety rack.

C then justifiably got bored of my company and went over to go talk to the girls and I was left all alone to fend for myself. I’m ordinarily quite uptight and terrible at non-nerdy small talk but this crowd of people was so strange, unfamiliar and out of my league that I felt even more alienated and awkward than I would otherwise. I hated myself for ditching a perfectly good gig for some kind of impromptu Spring Break party with tweens. I thought, if I felt so out of my depth at the very outset, an entire night on a beach with these kids was only going to make me even more depressive and lonesome. So I ditched the group by getting off at the next station and took the train that went back to Raffles Place.

I walked down to Esplanade Bridge and Marina Bay to get over the mildly depressive blues I had been feeling. Here, Chinese tourists were faking pictures of themselves drinking water pouring from the mouth of the Merlion, the Singapore flyer was gleaming in the distance with tourists taking overpriced rides on its giant wheel, the Singapore River Cruise was floating daintily in the waters with the people inside flashing their cameras at the skyscraper ship of the Marina Bay Sands.

These scenes felt familiar and comforting and I felt, at that moment, that however much an “outsider” may try to “blend in” and have an “authentic” experience, it’s never possible to see a city one doesn’t belong to like the people who live there do, especially not in the short amount of time one is allowed to spend in a foreign city. Arguably, going with the kids to a part of Singapore a lot of people don’t travel to might have given me an insight into the lives of college going kids in the city but I doubt I would have learnt any more than what I already had from my conversations with C. I consoled myself with the thought that it would have largely been a long night of alcohol and partying where, knowing myself, I would have felt too awkward to get a word in edgewise.

So, to perhaps compensate for this aborted trip, I chose to be an ordinary tourist in Singapore for the next 3 days. I went to the Asian Civilizations Museum to have a look at the spectacularly organized ancient artifacts from all over Asia where I learnt more about Indian art than I did in Indian museums, I walked around the Botanical Gardens for a slice of peace and tranquility, I walked up and down the electronic malls at Sim Lim Square and Funan to shop for electronic gadgets, I visited the Peranakan Museum housed in an old, sprawling Peranakan house with two Chinese dudes from my hostel where the Singaporean guide who took us around was highly curious to know how what he was showing me compared to what I had seen in India, I fought vertigo and the humid heat to walk the 11 km trail in the MacRitchie reservoir over the canopy of the tropical rainforest to the mighty suspension bridge dangling hundreds of meters above the ground and of course, I wasted my money at the Raffles Hotel doing that much maligned touristy thing of having a sugary sweet Singapore Sling in its colonial garden on a warm afternoon.

The more you did in a capitalist construct like Singapore, the more you felt you had to do. And it was only a conversation with an Australian backpacker who was staying in the same dorm as I was and who had travelled on a bicycle all the way from Japan via Taiwan, Hong Kong, Vietnam, Laos etc. that I realised there were other places I wished to see and that if I wanted to do so, I had to get the hell out of Singapore. The next morning, I packed my bags and took a bus to the border at Johor Bahru to cross over to Malaysia. Although it’s undoubtedly a city made of and for money, I had a terrific time in Singapore. It wasn’t as cold and sterile as some travel literature led me to believe (I’m looking at you Paul Theroux) with a true cosmopolitan core that gave it diversity and life, a place I could easily go back when I needed some comfort and order.

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Onwards to Pindari

I opened the door of my little cell at Hotel Annapoorna in Bageshwar to find a face staring at me in utter torpor. So complete was the shock writ in its contours that I was about to ask the boy who owned the face if he wanted to sit down and if everything was okay and who the hell died? The face then regained its composure somewhat and said, “Aap Pindari jaa rahe hai?” (Are you going to Pindari?) I replied in the affirmative and the face sank again. The eyes sized me up and then looked at me like they were looking at a cat wanting to learn how to ride a bicycle.

Earlier that day, I had gone to the KMVN office to casually enquire if they had someone who could accompany me to the Pindari Glacier. The man at the reception said I didn’t need a guide for this particular trek as the path was easy to navigate and that I could find my way easily. But I was terrified of walking on my own after the disastrous trek to Vriddha Jageshwar a week ago when I had lost my way on the widest and clearest trail one could find. So I told him I’d rather go with a guide if he knew someone who could take me. He said he knew nobody who could and I walked back to my dank little room at Hotel Annapoorna dejectedly.

Hence, I didn’t expect this dismayed figure to show up at 9 pm in the night. After D had recovered from his shock where the wars going on his head about whether it was wise to take up this “assignment” was clearly apparent and the business end of his brain had ended up triumphant, he invited me over to where he was staying so he could go over the route with me. He generously ordered dinner for both of us while he took me through all the possible routes in the area, the trails to Pindari, Kafni, Sunderdhunga. Soon his apprehensions about my ability appeared to have evaporated as he made an itinerary for a 20 day long walk through remote Himalayan terrain much of which would involve walking through dangerous terrain, camping in the wildernesses and the use of porters to carry food supplies.

But I had to depressingly remind both of us that I was not some millionaire with a bottomless pool of money to spend on people who would carry my luggage, cook my food and take me around. Even D was a luxury I was permitting myself because I didn’t want to take stupid risks and it would be a crying shame to come all the way to the Himalaya and not walk its mountains. D looked crestfallen but he was in no mood to give up. He tried to convince me to go the whole distance by pulling out pictures of a 24 year old French guy who worked as a waiter and who had gone with him on a 2 month long sojourn through the remotest parts of the Kumaon Himalaya. Such was the bond they struck during that journey that the Frenchman still wrote letters to him. If I did this, my mind would become clear and I was certain to be successful in whatever I chose to do with my life after. It all sounded very exciting, I said, but we’ll take it as it comes and see how the body and the wallet feels after I finish the 4 day hike to Pindari. My only instruction to him was, KEEP IT CHEAP!

Which is why I found it particularly vexing when he turned up at my hotel the next morning on a jeep that belonged to his friend and coyly informed me that I’ll have to pay 1000 rupees to get to the trailhead at Loharkhet. I had done some investigation of my own the day before and found that a local shared jeep went to Loharkhet from Bageshwar which would cost me a measly 100 Rs. I couldn’t afford a private jeep for myself, I said, and it would be better for both of us if we found the shared jeep that took us to the trailhead. D was puzzled at my anger. “This is for your own good,” he said, “It’s a lot more comfortable. They cram 15 people into those sumos and people even ride on the roof. Where are we going to find space for all the things we are shopping for?”

“What are we shopping for?”, I asked, my anger rising with every heartbeat. D then brandished a shopping list which included a feather jacket, a down jacket, a sleeping bag rated to -20 degrees, snow shoes, carabiniers, woollen caps, gaiters, a 2 man tent, ropes, thermal inners, walking sticks, cooking stove, utensils, rice, potatoes, a kilo of oats, tea, 10 packs of maggi and a dozen other items. He smiled and said he knew a place in Kapkote run by a friend that could get us all of this in just a little over 15000 Rs. The Pindari was a teahouse trek with conveniently set rest houses on the way that provided food and shelter so you didn’t have to carry any tents or food. So I dropped my bags and told him I wasn’t going with him and would walk alone if I had to. D was again perplexed at my reaction and when I explained why I felt his shopping list was extortionate, he said we would need all of these if we were going to Sunderdhunga and the other remote routes he had told me about and that supplies would be a lot more expensive if we had to shop for those in the villages on the way.

“Look at me”, I said, “do I look like a guy who could walk up and down mountains for weeks on end?” D laughed and said, “Baat toh sahi hai lekin hum aap se pachaas kilo zyada logon se bhi trekking karwa lete hain”. (You’re probably right but I can make people 50 kilos heavier than you trek in the mountains) I told him that I will go with him on two conditions. One, that we go there in a local shared jeep and two, we won’t be shopping for anything for the Pindari trek as I already had all the woollens and shoes that I needed. D nodded dejectedly and got rid of his friend who had some choice words to say to him for having wasted his time.

So we went to the jeep stand, found a jeep that went to the trailhead at Loharkhet and rode on the roof with sacks of onions and chickens because all the seats inside were taken.

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Hawker centers, rock bands, conversations

Having blown the budget on my first day in this expensive city-state, I had to find ways to be frugal for the rest of my time here. What made this possible was that most splendid Singaporean thing, the hawker center. They came in all shapes and forms, from the upmarket Makansutras to the 3 dollar meals in a corner in Chinatown. The cheaper my hawker center was the better I felt and the more authentic I thought the food tasted.

One day, while I was gobbling up a plate of chicken rice at the Maxwell Road center, I saw a guy in a Steve Vai “Alive in an Ultra World” T-shirt sitting with two of his friends on an adjacent table. I hadn’t spoken to anybody outside of my hostel in the 3 days I had spent in the country and I was yearning for some genuine interaction in Singapore. So I popped over, said hi and asked him where he got his t-shirt. He invited me to join the table and said he could take me to the place if I wanted.

C, the guy in the Steve Vai tee, and his friends, T and S, were studying Computer Science at the National University of Singapore (NUS). He was learning to play the guitar in his spare time, he said, and was a big fan of Joe Satriani, Steve Vai, Rage Against the Machine and Limp Bizkit.

“Why Limp Bizkit?”, I asked disapprovingly.

“Because they have a lot of energy”, he said, “Anyway, I like all kinds of music. Jazz, hip-hop, country, dance. It’s all good. Sometimes it’s good to like dance music to get the girls.”

Did he have a girlfriend who listened to a lot of dance music?

“I did until one month before but we broke off. Life isn’t so easy in Singapore. I go to college, study, work 2 part-time jobs to make ends meet. My parents live in Ipoh in Malaysia and they don’t send me a lot of money. So I have to work hard if I want to drink beer and have some fun. But some girls don’t understand that.”

Where did he live in Singapore?

“We live together”, he said pointing his finger at T and S, “We have a small one room apartment that we share between the three of us. It’s cheap, only 500$ a month for the three of us and bang in the center of Chinatown.”

Didn’t they get sick of living in such a cramped space for so long?

“We’re hardly home, lah. Always outside. Either in college, or work or drinking beers. No time for sleep. You’re old so may be you sleep a lot. But sometimes, if we want to sleep, we go to college or walk to Pulau Ubin on a holiday and sleep on the beach.”

Where did they work?

“I work all night at a 7/11 in Tiong Bahru and go to a hawker center at Changi in the morning where I work for 4 hours in a noodle shop. Then I go to college where I sleep a little. After college, practise the guitar a little bit. T also works with me at the noodle shop. S is a rich man. His parents give him a lot of money so he doesn’t have to work.”

If his parents were so rich, why was he living with them in a cramped apartment?

“Who wants to live with family, lah? It’s no fun.

C and his friends then asked me to tag along with them to Lau Pa Sat, one of Singapore’s more legendary hawker centers where a band they knew was playing in the evening. Lau Pa Sat was housed in a building that was over a 100 years old and furnished with an elegant clock tower. It was a rusty old architectural marvel. There weren’t a lot of people when we went and a small stage hung above the stalls where a band was churning out amateur grade versions of classic rock hits.

When I asked the group if they wanted to eat or drink something, they wondered if I was mad. The food at Lau Pa Sat wasn’t very good, they said, and it was expensive on account of its location in the Central Business District. The only people who ate there were tourists who read about it on the Lonely Planet and later complained  of stomach upsets.

The band chugged along perfunctorily and the only people listening to the music was our group. After a while, even C and his friends got bored and we left the place and got some beers from a 7-11. They took me to a secluded riverside promenade north of Raffles quay where we sat quietly sipping our beers staring at the disco light of the Singaporean glitz reflected in the waters.

I asked C if he planned to settle down in Singapore.

“I don’t know,” he said, “if I find a rich girl to marry me, yeah, why not? But no, it’s too expensive here. I like the life in Singapore. It’s very easy and comfortable if you have the money. But I have no bank balance. If I want to run out of money I would like to go to a place bigger and more interesting than here. My dream is to go to Japan and Canada after graduation.”

It was getting late and I thought I would rush back to the hostel before the last train left. As I was leaving C said, “Hey, listen, there’s a guitarist coming to Singapore this weekend. His name’s Tommy Emmanuel. He’s really good and plays in Singapore every year. Join us if you want to see a nice gig at the Esplanade.”

So we met at the Esplanade that weekend to see Tommy Emmanuel play.

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Katarmal

This is a continuation of my Almora post.

“Tell me, how much money do you need to stay happy?”

“I don’t know, the more the better”, I said.

“Why do you need more? If you have a place to sleep, some food to eat and clothes to wear, why do you need more? Happiness is to be content with what you have no?”

“I don’t know. What if I get sick? Get cancer or something? That could be an expensive blow.“

“But if you get cancer, your life is fucked anyway. So why not live a happy life till then and just die when you get really sick? That’s how humans lived until the Industrial Revolution. Today, because of good medicine, there are too many humans. Maybe we should just die when we can’t live anymore instead of using up resources that healthier people need. Animals live that way no? We are animals too. Only we forgot somewhere who we really are.”

As P continued his anthropological thesis on the evils of the institution of money, we had climbed the steep flight of stairs to the ancient Sun Temple complex at Katarmal. This largely barebones cluster of ruins at the top of a forested hill was a ghostly sight with wind-battered carvings on its stony walls. Built in the 9th century by the Katyuri kings, it’s now a largely forgotten, unknown yet monumentally important temple, a rare ode to the Lord Surya (Sun) set deep in a Himalayan kingdom. Far down below the Kosi river wound about the pine forested valley. A lone pujari sat underneath a crumpled door staring at the mountains beyond. It was a truly tranquil spot with only the ruminations of P and the cooing of the birds filling the air.

This tranquillity would soon be rudely disturbed by the arrival of a group of noisy school kids. P was thrilled at this sight and went across to talk to them. When two of the kids saw that I was being awkward and aloof, they came around to troll me.

One of them pointed at P and asked, ‘Woh kaun hai?” (Who is he?)

 “Mera dost hai”, I said.  (He’s my friend)

The other boy said, “Tum kaun ho?” (Who are you?)

“Uska dost.” (His friend)

“Tumhara naam kya hai?” (What’s your name?)

“Bala”, I said.

The kid, disappointed with the straight answer, “Bala kya hota hai? Tum mote ho. Aaj se tumhara naam Motu Ram hai.” (What the hell is Bala? You’re fat. From today, your name is Fat Man.)

The other kid pointed at me, laughed and yelled, “Motu Ram hahaha Motu Ram. Tumhara naam Motu Ram.”

I became deeply annoyed at having to endure this when I was having such a peaceful time. So I went over to P and asked him if he wanted to get out of there. P wondered if I was crazy. “Why do you want to go? These children are so beautiful!” The children saw that I was unhappy and resolved make me unhappier by screaming “Motu Ram” in a chorus. P became curious about what the children were yelling.

‘What is Motu Ram?”, he asked in puzzlement.

“He’s a comicbook superhero from India”, I said.

“How interesting? What does he do?”

“He could change his shape and size to fit any situation.”

“Amazing. And they call you this? Why?”

“Because they think I’m cool I guess”, I said, trying to hide the mental torture I was going through.

“So that’s good no? Why you look so sad?”

I made up an excuse about feeling somewhat sick and wanting to take a crap. P nodded sympathetically and continued playing with the kids with the sort of joyful glee that made him so disarmingly amiable. He walked on his hands, juggled balls, made coins disappear, pulled faces, all of which kept the kids thoroughly enthralled. P’s repertoire of tricks was so extensive that this would have continued all day but the lone pujari sitting underneath the crumpled doorway thought he had had enough and yelled at the kids to go back home. P looked dejected at this rude turn of events and we quietly made our way down to the riverside town of Kosi.

When we reached the town, P said he had checked out of our hotel in Almora and was moving to a little hut in Kasar Devi. I looked at his little day pack and asked when he was going to pick up the rest of his luggage. P ripped open his bag to reveal 2 t-shirts, a pyjama, a towel, some undies, a bar of soap, toothbrush and toothpaste.

“This is all I have”, he said, “I don’t need anything more.”

He invited me to stop by at his placei to see if I too wished to make the move. It was a 5 km walk from Kosi and P insisted we walk all the way. We cut through steep pine-forested slopes, passed many flocks of sheep, walked through perilously precipitous trails and came to a clearing with a few huts strewn about.

His hut was as bare as they come, an empty concrete shell with a hole in the wall to let in some air and light and zero furnishings. There was no bed, no place to keep your things, no bathroom and the floor was dusty and covered with a mossy mould.

“Where are you going to sleep?”, I asked.

“On the floor”, he said with a smile.

“And where are you going to shit?”

“In the woods.”

“How much are you paying for this place?”

“I don’t pay anything. The only thing you give here is love. Isn’t that great?”

A tall, lanky American guy with a long beard, grey rastafarian hair, saffron robes and a benevolent smile entered the scene and gave P a long bear hug.

“Hare Krishna! How are you, my man? So good to see you!”, he said, “I see you have brought some guests.” Then he turned to me and said, “Welcome, brother, to our humble abode. I see this is your first day here. You’ll love it. Here, you’re only gonna hear the birds sing, the winds blow, the leaves rustle and the sounds of peace and tranquillity. You’re gonna love it.”

P looked at me expectantly in the hope that I would grab this opportunity wholeheartedly. But all this talk of love and cheer was making me nauseous and there was no way in hell that I was going to shit in the woods or sleep on a mossy floor when I could afford the 250 Rs. at the Bansal Hotel in Almora which was a mere 6 kms away.

So I declined the offer as politely as I could and bid adieu to P and his rastafarian friend who were both a bit puzzled at my decision. P was sad to see me go back to a more materialistic world but he gave me a long hug perhaps to suggest all was forgiven.

“I hope you remember all we talked about. You’re smart. Don’t be a slave”, he said, as a parting shot. I nodded and walked down to the road to hail a taxi back to Almora.

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