Saturday, June 28, 2014

Patagonian Worms

There has just been a shoot-out in the FIFA World Cup. Brazil has squeaked past Chile in a tournament that is now almost completely dominated by the South Americans.

Over the past few days, my mind too has been dominated by a book on the same region -- Bruce Chatwin's classic 1977 travelogue: In Patagonia.

It is the sort of book that makes you want to take the first available ship across the oceans to the "New World". The book begins with one man's quest for fossils and prehistoric civilizations but soon
swerves into the  age in which migrants, pirates, gold-hunters and farmers - most of them fleeing Europe - dislodged and decimated the Indians to make themselves home in a cold, hostile region.

The story of John Davis, in particular, caught my attention. He was the captain of a bunch of mutineers, abroad a ship called the "Desire". Off the coast of Patagonia (now S. Argentina and S. Chile), he came came across an island full of Jackass Penguins. The crewimmediately set about clubbing more than 20,000 of these penguins to death.

Davis and his comrades then stuffed as many of these carcases as possible into into their ship's hold and set sail again. As they approached the warm tropics, certain worms appeared from the decaying penguin flesh.

"There was nothing they did not devour," wrote Davis. "They destroyed shoes, clothing and then they began to eat the ship's timbers, threatening to gnaw through the sides. The more we laboured to kill them, the more they increased. At last we could not sleep for them; they would eat our flesh and bite like mosquitoes."

Out of a crew of 75 men, just 16 managed to reach Ireland.

What were these maggots or worms? has anybody studied them?


Miller, Mara (): DRESSED TO KILL

Wiki --

Life of John Davis --

Patagonia - A Cultural History -- English Mariners: Cavendish, Davis and Byron -- Google Books

Saturday, June 14, 2014

Up & Away: Para-gliding in Himachal Pradesh

"It is quite easy....just lean, put your weight forward and run."

In any other place this seemed like an easy instruction to follow, but I was standing on a cliff 2500m high in the Himalayan foothills, preparing for tandem para-gliding jump, with an instructor standing behind me.

A few minutes earlier, we had driven up from a Tibetan settlement called Bir, near Palampur, Himachal Pradesh. A friend had called up a people she knew and were now waiting for our turn to jump. On the barren hilltop called Billing, a young woman was screaming that she did not want to jump while her boyfriend giggled nervously, putting on a brave face.

While the couple sorted out their nerves, our instructors quickly laid out parachutes on the hilltop, strapped us to the bucket-like suits, and before we knew it, our family of three had 'leaned forward' and found our feet feet suddenly dangling limp as the parachute soared into the skies.

It was an amazing experience. Each of us swirled over the hilltops in gentle circles and slowly glided over thick forests, monasteries, villages and wheat-fields before touching down at Bir.

As soon as we landed, the pilots gathered up the billowing parachutes, folded them back into their bags and guided us back to our starting point.

We had a  hearty lunch, picked up a few bottles of fruit wine and drove back to Palampur, stopping for a few minutes at the picturesque Binsar temple.

A few days after got back home we got a bit of news that rattled us. Our friend in Palampur had jumped off the same cliff and his parachute had developed a snag. Both the instructor and the student had plunged into the forest below and had been lucky to get their parachute tangled on an oak tree. It took more than two hours for them to disentangle themselves and clamber down the 60ft tree.

Considering  the fact there there were plenty of bald, deforested hills in the Bir-Billing area, this had been a close shave indeed!

Now, looking back, we realized that there had been absolutely no paperwork involved in our little adventure. We had not registered ourselves with any adventure company, we did not know if our instructors and pilots were adequately qualified for tandem flying and we had not received any receipts for the Rs.1500 each of us paid for the jump.

Was there any accountability in this line of adventure tourism?

As always, there are two sides to the story. The entrepreneurs who organize these adventure camps are quite wary of government oversight. The tourism-department 'inspectors' have neither the stomach nor the aptitude to handle the outdoors. Most of them would just be interested in squeezing the entrepreneurs for handing out permits and clearance certificates.

So, as of now, it appears that the para-gliding entrepreneurs just "insure" themselves offering free para-gliding trips to friends and families of the local decision-makers.  If you want a free-ride, all you have to do is turn up at Bir and flaunt your 'connections'.

In the long run, we all lose. Fewer people will try out this amazing sport. The total absence of paperwork or any form of oversight also guarantees we will not learn the right lessons when para-gliders suddenly drop off the skies.

Listen Up!

I just discovered an entirely new dimension to "reading books".

You can be washing the dishes, ironing the clothes or just pacing up and down on the terrace, while your mind is far-far away -- on a steamer chugging down the Congo river in Africa, or a strange hotel room in Sapporo-Japan or on a chilled pina-colada on the sun-kissed beaches of Hawaii. Audio books are just amazing.

All you have to do is to download the MP3 files on to your mobile phone, keep a set of earphones handy, and plug in whenever you have a few minutes to spare during the day.

My first audio book "Arabian Days and Nights" by Naguib Mahfouz,  the second, VS Napaul's "A Bend in the River". Today I finished my third book - Haruki Murakami's "Dance, Dance, Dance".

The two were quite distinct from each other. Naipaul's book was set in Africa and narrated by a person who seem to have really put himself into the shoes of Salim, the main protagonist, an ethnic Indian trader trying to make a name for himself in the dark interiors of Africa, at a town located at the 'bend of a river'. The book was fairly straightforward and so was the narrative.

Murakami's book was far more complex. It had almost all the usual ingredients - complex emotions, gourmet food, wine, sex, music, mysterious women, and surreal experiences. Cats were conspicuously absent. However, in narrator here is just not able to do justice to the women characters, all of whom uniformly sounded like transvestites.

Yet, this is just a minor quibble.

The convenience - and the advantages - of having interesting books readily available in your mobile helps you squeeze out much more out of your 24-hours, than ever before. You can give your eyes too some rest, for good measure!

Sunday, June 01, 2014

Behind the Optic Fibre Networks

A hot summer afternoon in New Delhi. Next to a roadside manhole sit three youngsters under a rainbow colored umbrella. Clouds of dust swirling around them as they worked on dozens of strands of optic-fiber, each almost as thin as human hair.

Sweaty hand were deftly picking the strands one by one. They would be clipped using a small machine, wiped with a piece of tissue paper and then inserted into another unusual piece of equipment. Readings were being taken on a screen and then the process would start all over again with the next slender fiber.

The workers were apparently from Tata Telecom. They were just checking on a customer complaint on slow internet speeds. The equipment had come from "Fujikura" - 'Fuji's warehouse'. 

Fujiwara's equipment had customer-focus written all over it. Here was a semi-literate worker working in a dusty ditch in Delhi, using a sturdy piece of equipment made a company located 6000km away in Japan.

The wonders of technology -- and human ingenuity!



* Fujikura Fusion Splicer --