Friday, July 18, 2014

Trysts with a Real Person: Half Full/Half Empty Half Done/Half Left

And lo we have arrived at the halfway mark.

Much has unfolded over the last few weeks, not the least of which is that wrong number phone call in German when the voice at the other end demanded to fix my unbroken WC. Thankfully that ended with laughter and not a plunger. 

What a time it has been to be in Germany. Last Sunday, the new Weltmeister were crowned. I stood in attendance at a local biergarten, watching the celebrations unfold and then perish in about two hours, with not much of a mention of it barely two days later. I contrasted that with what happened when India won the cricket world cup in 2011. 

My friend M visited that same weekend. M and I paid Hamburg a short visit, which was infested with bachelorette parties. There seems to be this strange tradition here of wearing a uniform when visiting a city as part of a to-be bride's entourage. Hamburg ended up being a rather charming city, with a lovely river and my favourite attraction - the Miniature Wonderland. To put it mildly, if Sheldon Cooper commits himself to good deeds for the rest of his life, that's where he's going after he dies. Miniature Wonderland amongst other marvels, has the world's largest toy train set. I think I'd refuse to ever leave that place if I was a few years younger. It's hard to explain the place in words, so I'm going to let a couple of pictures do the explaining.   


M promptly returned home to England right before the game began, leaving me to quietly support Argentina in a singularly German-supporting crowd. I was careful to wear white - both neutral and also the colour of peace. My bluff was called though because I didn't look as excited as the rest of the jumping crowd when Germany scored that lone goal. I had a lot of explaining to do, part of which was "I'm Indian, we don't really get to play in the world cup, so I'm neutral". I strongly believe that the better team won, though. So I wasn't terribly unhappy and the joy and celebration afterward was rather contagious. So was work the next morning.

In the midst of all this joy and celebration came the news at half time, which served as a stark reminder of all the violence and bloodshed unfolding in Ukraine, Iraq and the Holy Land without the slightest care for whether Messi would end the night on a happy note. Unfortunately, I don't think many around me were in the mood to care. I hope they cared after their hangovers subsided the next morning. 

Seriously though, world, what is wrong with your people? What is with this mindless bloodshed? You'd better get your act together before I leave this town. You only have half my stay left.

Sunday, June 29, 2014

Trysts with a Real Person: Familiarity Fetish

Done. Finished. Funtoosh. Lo and behold, the second week is over. I think I'm starting to get more accustomed to and familiar with this place, the weather included (which has been the exact opposite of what I am used to in California).

That was a terrible segue into this whole familiarity business. Growing up, my life was very steady and practically unchanging. I lived in the same locality for seventeen years (there's that running joke amongst my friends about me being upset about a new Mother Dairy outlet when I moved, but let's not go into that), went to the same school for about thirteen, lived in the same city for about twenty three. While I enjoyed that sort of stability, I think it also bred some sort of an affinity for constants. Sometimes that fish out of water feeling when I just move to a new place becomes somewhat challenging. It's also something I've tried to fight repeatedly by putting myself into situations where I feel like a fish out of water. It happened to me when I moved to California after all those years in Delhi (faithfully documented on the blog), and still happens to me every time I leave the familiar spaces and faces in India and head to the US (also faithfully complained about on the blog). Little things I carry from home, like my packet of Bru coffee (way better than the crap they export) help shore up the familiarity walls till I settle back in. For weeks before coming to Bremen, I was nervous and I agonized about moving to a new city (even for a short while) where I knew no one and didn't really speak the language. Fortunately, I discovered old friends here and made a couple of new ones even before I got here. Things have been great these last two weeks.

The point is, it's all new - including the part where I have to look presentable for work every day, which is a far cry from my PhD student life (where I probably look public-viewing-worthy once every three days or so). I reclaim that part of my fetish for familiarity by not shaving and taking afternoon naps on weekends. 

So, everything is new. It's exciting and intimidating, frustrating and educational, all at the same time. 

Getting to meet new people is sometimes challenging. The part that I've found most challenging is the hesitation I feel in striking a random conversation with people, and language is playing a huge role. The fact that I have to translate whatever little German I understand into English or Hindi for my brain to comprehend it means that I have to plan entire conversations in my head prior to having them. Just a few days ago, I walked past a guy on bicycle going the other way and he kept saying "Wie Spät" as he rode past, looking more and more disappointed with each time. It wasn't until he well past me that my brain finally completed the translation process to figure out he was asking for the time. There are also these funny things I've noticed about having a "native" language, and how English (or Hinglish, perhaps) is somewhat "native" to the people around me in India. The French, who are usually notorious for their opposition to English also find themselves in a "non-native" situation like English speakers and there a bond seems to grow out of nowhere. Last week I found an Indian grocery store, which I was pretty pleasantly surprised to find. Named the "Punjabi Store", it is owned and run by a couple from North India. I was most amused by how happy I left that store, just because I was able to have a very Delhi-like conversation with the owners about their time in Bremen without having to first play out the conversation in my own head.  My desk neighbour also happens to be Indian, and conversations steeped in familiarity and nativity have given me great joy over the last week. All this surprises me sometimes because I've never really been the sort of person who congregates only with his kind. However, in the absence of any real communication skills in the local language, I think my "kind" is currently the group of people who speak a language I think in.

Perhaps I need to use that "Mein Deutsch ist nicht so gut aber ich versuche, mehr Deutsch zu lernen" (My German is not so good, but I am trying to learn more German) a little more.  

Here's to more fruitful interactions in the coming weeks...

Monday, June 23, 2014

Trysts with a Real Person: Nature Says Fuck You

It's the end of my first full week in Bremen, and that's definitely the first thing I learned on my job. Nature is complex, and turbulence is nature's way of saying "fuck you" to anyone who ever tried to understand it. Try hard as you might, and have fun while doing it, it's a near-hopeless task. After about 40 hours of reading multiple papers I arrived at this line in one of the very last ones I read (written by a humbled smart man called Stetson) -

"The reality of the current prediction situation is that it is not possible to make a confident prediction..."

That was a fun ride though, and I guess that's the nature of science of the science of nature - you're never quite there but that still doesn't stop you from appreciating it. 

That included, Bremen's been fun so far. I went grocery shopping in foreign language. The case of "which oil to buy" in particular was amusing. I actually had to look and identify the kind of flower printed on the oil bottle to make sure I bought sunflower instead of mustard - that could have ended badly. 

The sky has threatened to pour water all week, to see if I flinch. I flinched every day and then the one day I stuck my chest out and walked to explore the city out without an umbrella, and that was the day the threat was acted upon. Still, rain here never seems to last more than fifteen minutes. After those fifteen minutes were done, the sun managed to come back out and I got a chance to explore the city, which took all of two hours cover completely. I also visited some of the green spaces I spoke about which was nice. It's nice to have these places to relax in a town, where you can be left alone with your thoughts, or a book. The city, like other European cities, has also entertained my love for rivers. There was also that lonely midnight stroll through the city's empty centre one night. Little towns acquire a quiet life of their own after the sun has set (at 11pm) , the hordes of tourists and cameras have left and buildings are now only visible by the twinkling of lights outline them. Very good for the soul. 

The German language has been fun to deal with as well. I know just enough to pretend like I know it, and that has consistently gotten me into trouble. I refuse to give up though. The other day I was in a bar, watching the game by myself and I ordered a beer in German - except after that, my answer to any question was "half litre". Normally, German is also not associated with cute sounds or things. However, the German word for "exactly", as they say it - "Ja, genau" has a very lovely child-like ring to it. 

Here's to understanding people and nature and everything that goes with it a little better in week two.

Friday, June 20, 2014

Trysts with a Real Person: Communication

*What sounded like gibberish with a few familiar words*

*Confused expression* Bitte?

*Apparent gibberish repeated with fewer familiar words*

Bitte? 'tschuldigung, mein Deutsch ist nicht so gut (sentence practiced very often this week)

Mein Englisch ist nicht so gut

*More apparent gibberish*

*Confused expression* Um...key? Aus?

And then we both just grinned for the next minute and said bye :-) 

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Trysts with a Real Person: Dispatch 1

It's the end of my third day in Bremen, my first day at the first real job I've ever had, really speaking. At age 27, that's quite a love affair I've had with being in school. My body is still trying to figure out which part of the world it is in, after being taken 13 time zones forward and then 4 back in the space of a week. Coincidentally today is also the day Portugal, to put it mildly, got whipped by Germany. Therefore I have been surrounded by the sound of celebration. 

It's probably the perfect time to be in Europe - in the summer, while the greatest show on earth unfolds many miles away (its sketchy conscience notwithstanding). I've been watching cars driving around, proudly flying flags in support of various countries. I returned from work today and was working on the mountain of paperwork that I need to file to live here in peace for just a few months (they love their rules here), and I could tell each one of the four times Germany scored a goal just from the roar I heard.

Bremen has stood with its arms wide open for the first three days I have known it. The Germans, the (surprisingly large number of) French, the Brit, the Indian have all been nothing but downright lovely and hospitable. In under a day since I got here, I had new friends who I discovered knew my old friends. Throw a bunch of aerospace engineers in a small town and you can definitely call the world a small place. This real-person life feels rather different from the one I've temporarily left behind. I don't think I can complain. The city itself has all the trappings of a European town not the least of which is the signature river running underneath the cobbled bridge with rail tracks.  I've also noticed a lovely smattering of lawns and parks across the city - in plain sight and hidden away in nooks and corners. I hope to visit each one of them over the next couple of months.

Plenty of exploration to be done. Lots of writing to go with it. 

Sunday, December 29, 2013

Year of the Astronaut

No, you will not find that on the Chinese Lunar calendar. Having said that, given the success they've had lately, they should probably legitimize the year of the astronaut.

It's that time of the year again. Another cycle of twelve months draw to a close. A couple of days before I left Stanford for home, I pulled out a small sheet of paper on which I had scribbled on goals for the year - a ritual I have followed for many years now; I even save each year's sheet so that some day in the distant future I can look back and see how my priorities in life have changed - to check how many of those items can be scratched off. Some of those goals end up taking many years to accomplish and as a result, find themselves repeated year after year. 

The cycle of twelve months has had its usual ups and downs, dotted with a few remarkable once-in-a-lifetime experiences. I found myself down in the dumps at the beginning of the year, and found joy and upliftment through two great projects that I wrote about earlier. It's strange what a fleeting sense of accomplishment can do for the soul. Somewhere near the end of the year, my friend J gifted me a book - "An Astronaut's Guide to Life on Earth" by Col. Chris Hadfield. I'm quite the astronaut groupie, and even if you're not one, Chris Hadfield is one of those inspirational people you just have to know. The world first came to know him through his remarkable outreach videos from the ISS. I was looking forward to reading the book, but I never expected it to be such a life-transforming experience. I have now bored most of my near and dear ones with accounts of how the book is fundamentally affecting my outlook on things in my life. I want to be an astronaut myself some day (I think this is my first public admission in writing), which is probably why the book is affecting me even more. While it has been really fun reading about Hadfield's experiences during his years of training as fighter pilot, in the astronaut core and then three times on the ISS, there are some fundamental life lessons I have learned from the book. Hadfield discusses his thought process in handling any problem he faces in real life and how it has been affected by his astronaut training. Perhaps the biggest lesson I've picked up is to develop the mind of an astronaut, whether or not I actually become one - to be mentally prepared for (almost) any eventuality, to be disciplined and to work the problem at hand rather than frantically hurling the kitchen sink at it. I've decided to adopt this as my theme for the next year - the first item on my little piece of paper. The words "think like an astronaut" have slowly begun to take center stage in my head, whilst slowly getting on the nerves of everyone around me.

I'm preparing for what's going to be a glorious end to another difficult yet rewarding year, and I'm hoping my new philosophy will hold me in good stead for the coming year. 

Good bye 2013, and I think I'm going to be happy to see you, 2014.

Happy new year, everyone!

Sunday, August 25, 2013

Climbing Concepcion

I got back from yet another summer of travel two weeks ago. The beginning of the summer of travel saw my friend K and I embark on an adventure in Central America. Armed with all of hundred words in Spanish between the two of us (98 mine, his being only "si" and "gracias"), we set out for the beautiful countries of Nicaragua and Costa Rica. The trip itself will be remembered for the grace and kindness of the locals who we encountered, who were exceedingly friendly and cordial, even as we struggled to communicate with them. It made me realize the importance of the locals of a country being on your side when you find yourself in deep water, linguistically speaking. About a month after that, when I landed in Delhi, I vowed to actively spot and help any foreigners in distress. It so happened that I spotted no foreigners in distress. That may be because they were perfectly capable of taking care of themselves, or they were getting taken advantage of at a different point in space-time.

We challenged many of our fears in Central America - a pact that K and I had agreed upon at some point. I challenged my fear of drowning by going snorkeling (the third time in my life, getting better with every time) and scuba-diving in Corn Island, while he challenged his fear of heights while ziplining in Costa Rica. Perhaps the most fulfilling experience I had, though, was climbing the Concepcion Volcano on Ometepe Island in Nicaragua. 

It was love at first sight. We arrived at the port in Rivas after a series of confused mutterings of "¿Bus para Rivas?" at Granada. Right there, across the Lago Nicaragua was Ometepe Island, with its active twin volcanoes - Concepcion and Madeiras, towering above anything nearby, their blunted tops shrouded in cloud and smoke. As our ferry slowly rumbled towards the island, I repeatedly told K, "If there's any way that can be climbed, please let's climb it!". At the end of the day, it was going to be a choice between climbing Concepcion and visiting the San Ramon waterfall. We had all of two days at Ometepe and both couldn't be done. However, as the mountain loomed closer with all its magnificence, and the decision was made. We went to a local guide centre right after we checked in to our hotel and requested a guide to take us up the morning after (it is illegal to go up without a guide). This was it - bright and early, a 24km round trip hike, 5000 feet of elevation gain, all in the same day. I had been watching an unhealthy excess of mountaineering documentaries (I still do), and the running theme was that you never conquer a mountain, the mountain lets you climb it. So I requested Volcan Concepcion to allow me to climb it the next day.

Above: Approaching Ometepe Island

The next day began on the wrong foot. At 5 am, we had a knock on our door. Somewhere in the gaps in communication, our guide had misunderstood 7 to mean 5, and was obviously rather disappointed to find a foggy-eyed me opening the door and explaining to him that there was no way aside from the volcano erupting that I would agree to step out of bed. And so it was that two hours later, we met our jovial guide Luis, who was a surprisingly happy camper for someone who had been woken up mistakenly at an unearthly hour. Luis informed us (and repeated this fact many times over as the day progressed) that as of three days ago he had climbed the mountain 18 times in three weeks. Luis was also one of the Nahua people, native to the island. A very good start, we thought. A short bus ride later, we were dropped off at the trail head along with a few other groups, one of them consisting of people who were staying at our hotel. On the hour's hike to the base of the volcano through dense tropical forest, K and I pressed home our height advantage on the flat trail. Luis was left yelling "stop, Speedy Gonzales!" a few times. On the hardest section of the climb a few hours later, he would show us who was boss. We'd be the ones asking him to slow down very soon. 

An hour later, we began our ascent up the volcano. We climbed slowly through the lush forest; the water vapour under the canopy made the air soupy with moisture. We couldn't just look up and walk. On the ground below, an entirely different biological order was flourishing. Scores of ants of different kinds were busy at work, and we had to be mindful to not disrupt their routine. As I sweated and panted up the mountain, I was amazed at the variety of life forms that called the rainforest home. We also made some friends of the non-fluttering kind along the way, who we chatted with as we headed up the mountain. Just when the trail seemed never-ending, the trees suddenly gave way to grass. A short traverse across the mountain face led us to a flat shoulder on the mountain at 1000 meters called El Floral. It was surprising how quickly the mountain's behaviour changed. From the hot, soupy atmosphere in the forest below, we transitioned to a chilly, windy shoulder where it was hard to stand out it in the open and resist the wind. The view from El Floral was breathtaking - one could see the entire Northern side of the island and the Lake beyond that. I was glad that the base of the mountain was roughly at sea level which ensured that there was a lot of breath to take, failing which this would have been an excruciating climb.

Above: The view from El Floral
El Floral is a bifurcation point for groups heading up the volcano. Most groups decided to head back from this point. We bid farewell to our existing friends and acquired a new set of climbing partners. Of the roughly 50 people who left that morning, it was 6 of us (4 tourists and 2 guides) who would go beyond El Floral to attempt to reach the peak. It was immediately obvious to me that the climb was going to become a lot more difficult. Within minutes of leaving El Floral, the grass gave way to loose volcanic gravel and rock. The grade of the mountain became a lot steeper and K and I were now climbing on all fours to prevent toppling backward down the mountain, while Luis the new Speedy Gonzales was practically racing up the mountain. I was made increasingly hesitant by every one of the few times we would step on something and it would slip under our weight. We somehow struggled up the next 100 metres when we hit another roadblock - a gully had been partially washed away by rain the previous night, leaving about a 5 foot wall with a sheer drop on the other side. It was at this point that one half of the six that headed up turned back. K was one of them. Later he would describe his return using a once-famous sentence on his Orkut profile - "I am obese and I can't climb walls". He's nowhere near obese now, but I guess he still can't climb walls. So it was my friend J (who was living at the same hotel as K and I), myself and Luis who headed up the final stretch. The terrain became somewhat worse as we went up. As I went up, I started to wonder about coming back down. Six weeks ago I had taken a terrible tumble during descent which had cartwheeled me two hundred feet down the face of another mountain. I had surprisingly escaped with just minor injuries but the ghosts of that fall were definitely playing on my mind as I climbed up. To worsen the situation, the clouds around the peak started to become dark and dense. By this time, the sulphur spewing from the crater had also started to mingle with the water vapour, so our eyes would burn every time a drop of water in the form of rain or sweat would come in contact. 

Above: J and I at 1500 metres
On two or three occasions as we slowly laboured up the mountain, it showed us what it was capable of. There was a sharp shower for about 15 to 20 seconds and then it stopped. The few seconds were enough to make us realize the trouble we would be in if it started to rain - the rocks would become slippery, the lava gullies would turn into rivers, the gravel would wash away, and the thunder from any storm would literally surround us. An important aspect of climbing a mountain is to know what you value more - your ego or your life. J and I both agreed to turn back when Luis felt it was unsafe to go ahead any more. We finally reached 1500 metres - which was the highest reachable point on our side. A traverse across a bare cliff face would follow which would take us to the other side, and the access point to 1610 metres - the peak of the volcano, but we decided that it was too unsafe to do this with the impending rain. We decided to descend after a few photographs, before rain came down and decided to play havoc with our plans to get back alive. It never rained that day. As we descended, I was constantly reminded of my fall. But we descended very slowly and carefully, taking support from the mountainside, and a painstaking hour and a half and a few minor falls later, we were reunited with the other half our six member team that had headed up. 

Above: Luis and I at 1500 metres

Above: A treacherous descent
The descent from that point on was easy. We enjoyed the breeze that had picked up since morning. Our legs hurt from the effort of the climb, but we were happy to have life and limb intact as we sped off the volcano. Almost as if to make up for not allowing us to summit, the volcano offered up a nice, rare sight - a pair of howler monkeys swinging and hollering at each other. In a few hours we found our way back to civilization and as we drove in the back of a truck to our hotel, I turned around to look back at the mountain. The clouds had cleared almost completely from the peak and we could see the  the point at which we had turned back. Somewhere between our descent and arriving at our hotel, K also earned the nickname "El Largo" - the Large One. We eventually reached our hotel, extremely tired and very ready for a nap, followed by lots of beer in the evening. We also bid farewell to Luis, and thanked him for his support, without which we perhaps would not have managed any of this. 

We bid farewell to Ometepe island and Nicaragua the next day. Concepcion towered over the entire island as always. The rest of our trip was just as memorable, but the experience of climbing an active volcano is one I will not forget for a long time to come.

Above: Concepcion shortly after we descended