Saturday, September 15, 2007

I'm in a trough

Having grown up near the sea, I was always attracted to the beach, the air with the salty tinge to it, the waves. Oh yeah the beautiful waves. So elegant and yet so powerful, with curves as fine as a sexy woman yet within her the power to devour.
Waves have always fascinated me and as a student of the physical sciences I learnt certain intricacies related to its motion and during my days as a teacher I've lectured on waves to many a bored soul, trying to make them understand the crests and troughs of the lady.
I was teaching them life actually. Now I know. After finding out own my own that life moves in waves - with crests and troughs. Crests of happiness, elation and troughs of sadness, depression, of anxiety and of fears.
Right now am stuck in a trough trying desperately to get out. With friends and family throwing in life lines which I am scared to grab. The swells are high but I have to overcome it. To reach a crest riding which I should move on. Happiness is a state of high, a crest, and when the moment pass you are bound to slide to the trough filled with the longing to get back to what had been. That's what greats have spoken of in metaphoric terms. Like Night and Day, Yin and Yang. Everything has a down side to it in this world. What makes it so?
Maybe the fact that man is not an ideal engine is the reason. Ideal engines are just a theoretical state not possible in real world where friction, un-burnt fuel and other factors create wastage. I am talking physics here but the subject is so much related to real life. May be much more than biology.
My mom, though not much of a thinker, once said to me: "You shouldn't be too happy or too sad in life son. We are just ordinary people and we are not supposed to be ecstatic or depressed over things. Just be moderate in your celebrations as well as your tears."
Now I know the wisdom behind it all. The more we are happy the higher will the crest be and deeper will be the trough. If we enjoy life in moderation then the swells will be manageable for ordinary swimmers like us.
Right now I am in a trough and I am trying to piece together the events of the past two weeks to find out what put me here in the first place. What was the wave I rode so high that has trapped me in between huge swells I can't swim over?

Flight to the Isles

Literally I flew to the isles - the Indonesian archipelago to be exact. That’s the start of my journey which ended me in this temporary prison.

Here it was. My first reporting assignment and it’s my damn luck that it was an overseas one. Indonesian is no ultimate destination like the US or UK, the general destination of the high fliers. But it of course is a country with an identity of its own and a history that dates back beyond renaissance, unlike the Americas. Not that the Americas didn’t have history before Columbus. The only thing is it wasn’t recorded. The hell with it whatever it is.
To the Pacific ring it is for me. Suddenly I have this brainstorm. Could Indonesians have visited America before Columbus? Maybe the Apaches have Asian roots. Definitely some features seem to be common. Well the other thing is that Columbus didn’t discover America. The big guys did. The real big guys. The Vikings.
That’s another story. For now the point is I am stuck in Chennai traffic on my way to the airport to catch the Malaysian Airlines flight to Kuala Lumpur from where I would hop on to another one of the flying miracles to Bali. Great. My first flight. Feel like a small bird that’s flapping its wings in front of its mother yelling “I am ready to fly mama”.
That’s exactly what I did. Called up home, after which I though I would call Abdusalam who is the other reporter from Chennai coming to Makassar to cover the Gudang Garam International Rally Indonesia 2007. Rather a long name. But sponsors have their say I guess. And I think Gudang Garam must be one Garam (hot) company in Indonesia. Later I had a first hand experience of how hot Gudang Garam is. It’s a cigarette company and it burns from your tongue to your tummy when you smoke it.
I called Abdus and it seems he hasn’t even started from home. Must be a cool customer and a regular flier. That’s why he is taking the trip in a relaxed manner. But I am a rookie and I am as excited as my first steps some 26 odd years back.
Anyway Abdus suggested that I may check in if I reach the port before him. But I said no. Mainly because I am bit scared to do it alone. Like I said I haven’t flown before and I don’t know how to check in. Damn I am a journalist. I can talk my way out of any situation. At least that’s what my mom says all the time. But why waste words when you can just follow suit. Abdus must be a mature elder guy. At least a year older than me.
After about three quarter of an hour’s wait in front of the international terminal at Chennai Airport I finally meet him and my first jolt. Well he’s a kid. Only as old as my brother. None the less he is definitely more mature and experienced than me. His brother and sis in law dropped him and we exchanged pleasantries. Then we slowly walked in. That’s it I guess. One small step from Chennai and a giant leap for Leslie. A leap that will take me to Malaysia first and then to Indonesia. That is if the plane doesn’t crash in some Island, where the passengers will be stranded just like the ones in the series “Lost”.
That would be great right. I have already made up my mind as to which character I would adopt. Jack of course. I need a Kate too. I hope beautiful chicks are there on board. But the Idea didn’t amuse my mom. Which mom would be happy hearing her son is wishing for a plane crash?
I got on to the plane. My excitement rising. I even got the window seat with Abdus sitting right next to me. I called home from the flight, Everyone’s happy. I guess the waves were rising above the ideal mark even then.
I was sitting on the left side of the plane right above the wings. I can see the wings and the engine and after lift off I could see the beautiful Chennai lights. I said to my buddy Abdus. “Chennai is so beautiful from up above.” He just smiled. Guess he is not much of a talker.
The plane was filled up with celebrities I guess. No, I am not talking about the two media personalities on board. Hey talking of personalities I am thinking now. Do I have a personality? I guess I need to sort my P word or I will end up as another brick in the wall like what Pink Floyd predicted.
The flight was filled with film stars. Tamil or rather Kollywood film stars. I changed the word Tamil as the stars who would most probably be shooting some romantic sequences in Malaysia or Indonesia were Mallus. Damn these Mallus. It seems they are everywhere. The actor was Prithviraj and the actress, well I still don’t know her name. I keep referring to her as the girl who acted in the movie For the People.
Some movie it would be. And I think the producer or director is another Tamil actor Prakash Raj. He’s a good actor I think. Don’t know. I have seen him in action one or two times and from what I saw he is OK.
So maybe if the plane crashes I can get the actress to play the part of Kate with me. But she won’t be good. Kate is really a free spirit I think. But I am sure this actress won’t be. Even if she is the Lindsay Lohan type, she won’t be free. Lohan I am sure is tied up by commitments and pressured down by expectations too, though the act that she plays everyday for the media and the paparazzi, portraying herself as a wild spirit, is pretty good. Guess she is a natural. Who won’t be natural if your tummy is filled with booze and your lungs with grass smoke.
Back to the plane now. Dinner is served. I had a glass of beer. Then they stopped giving it. Turbulent weather is the culprit according to the pilot. Good. I wouldn’t have asked for more though. So it doesn’t matter. Anyway one thing I have decided. I am not going to let tiredness or sleep tie me down the next four days. Like the old Yankee saying, I’m a gonna kick ass, fully enjoy my trip and enjoy it the max.
My first landing and what a site it was. KL Airport. Very beautiful I would say. One of man’s attempt to compete with nature and I would say man is pretty close to beating nature, the only shortcoming being that nature’s creations more or less don’t harm itself. But man’s does.
Beautiful structure though, Kuala Lumpur airport is. My buddy was saying it was the best in its class and one of the most energy efficient, close to nature airport in the world. I just had my hand baggage with me. So I had no problem with collecting and checking in baggage and all. But Abdus had made a mistake of not checking in his baggage till Indonesia. So we had to get out, collect his baggage and then check back in for out flight.
I was smiling to myself now. My initial assessment of Abdus was wrong. He is not a cool customer. He is as jittery as me if not more. But he is a good guy. I know that. And I am mostly right in judging people.
So we went to the immigration counter to stamp a transit visa so that we can go and get the baggage. The clerk there at the counter was one of those` my ass has a mole in it - kind of a guy’. The bugger was rude. Well I would have retaliated if it wasn’t for the small technicality that I was in his country and he was holding the cards. So I filled up the forms. The clerk, I am calling him `Ass in Pain’ for convenience, stamped the visa and we collected the baggage and went up stairs for the main lobby of KL.
It was 4am in the morning Malaysia time. I hadn’t slept one bit. But strangely I was not feeling sleepy or tired at all. But I noticed Abdus was.
What can I say about the main lobby of KL other than that it is quite beautiful. And we were standing just one step away from the doors to the city. Taxis waiting outside to take us to the capital of Malaysia. I tried to tempt Abdus to take the plunge and go out for a tour. Our flight was six hours away. He said no and frankly I would also have said no. I don’t have that much of a hard gut you see.
Abdus sat down to rest. Behind us there was a TV screen and the news was flashing. The tenor is dead. Yes The Tenor – Lucciano Pavarotti, the great Italian singer.
I was walking all the time my eyes capturing everything there is to capture form the vistas on offer at KL. Then we slowly made our way to the terminal where, hopefully, we would meet the rest of the media contingent from India.
And we meet up. Well the exchange of pleasantries with the others were not that warm. I guess it’s because journalists tend to be vary about each other. I don’t know. I am new in this field. But like I said at my job interview for this post a year before, I have good interpersonal skills and by the time this trip ends I would be friendly with every single one of them. We fly from KL. Next port Bali.
Lunch time in my flight to Bali was rather funny. First of all I could here the hoarse voice of Vikram Gour, a photo journalist from a car magazine complaining about the special vegetarian meal that he is supposed to have on board. It was the travel agent who had made the blunder of entering Vikram’s choice of food as vegetarian. That too special vegetarian. Now he has to endure roots. Well airline food is tasteless I would say and to add to it the insult of just eating uncooked veggies. I can only sympathise with him.
One of the hostess came to me and showed her artificial but sweet smile asking me what would I like to have. Well this girl was of Indian origin. Probably a Malaysian Indian. Many are there in Malaysia as a result of the migrations two generations before. Her grand parents would have been farm workers. But she was cute too. Anyway she offered me chicken and beef. I asked for beef like any red blooded mallu Christian would have. And she was surprised.
That’s when I knew that Indians are not supposed to eat beef. She might have learnt that in her history books or something. But India has changed baby. She is an expanding market according to economists. She is shining according to Bharathiya Janatha Party leaders. Ask me, she is still the same old lady. Beautiful as ever. Sexy as ever. `Sare Jahan Se Acha, Hindusthan Hamara.’

Is it Kochi

Am I landing in Kochi, My birth place, my home. That was exactly my thought when the flight was approaching Dempasar Bali airport. The airport is near the ocean and the skyline with the coconut trees and all looks exactly like the Queen of Arabian Sea. Wait a minute. I am over the Pacific. So this won’t be the queen - my beloved Kochi. Not even a day has passed since I left Indian shores and here I am feeling homesick.
Bali airport is small. Real small I would say. That’s good as we don’t have to walk miles to reach the check in counter and again walk to reach the other counter which would take us to Makassar or Ujung Padang.
We were greeted by a grinning face at the airport. He was holding a board with mine and some other reporters’ name written in it. He was arranged by our travel agent back home. Great. Now this guy would sort out all the formalities in Bali. As we don’t have visa we have to get everything done here.
And the fellow was saying that he initially thought I was a Russian. What is so Russian about my name – Leslie Xavier? Now I know that these Indonesians think in crazy ways. Just kidding.
But the grinning fellow was only good smiling. We had to spend a hell of a lot of time and money to get out of the international terminal and reach the domestic terminal, where we were greeted by the good news that the Garuda Indonesian flight to Makassar is a little delayed. Someone from out group was saying the flight could also get cancelled in this part of the world without much of a notice.
Kind reminded me of Air Deccan back home. But I don’t mind the delay either. It doesn’t matter if I reach Makassar a day late. I had already filed my preview from Chennai using the press releases and a little internet research. Kinda make me think. What’s the point in catching three flights and reaching this remote island in the Pacific when we could have just filed the reports from our comfortable offices.
But the experience of being at the event is something different. I believe it inspires us to write better reports. Some others may disagree with me. Well disagreements are good as long as it is productive.
The flight to Makassar was uneventful with the most noticeable change being that it was not as well furnished as the Malaysian one and the hostess being considerable older. I was tempted to call her aunty.
Two cars were waiting for us at the airport with the drivers not knowing a word in English. They were just supposed to take us from the airport and en route we stopped at a gas station and filled our cars with gas worth five million Indonesian Ruppiahs. The currency is so devalued that 10,000 Indonesian bucks will fetch you just $1 in the exchange market.
I found it rather amusing and at the same time disturbing. How and why should a dollar have more value than other currencies including the Indian Rupee? Why? India is such a great country compared to the US. We are morally, socially and spiritually in a higher plane than America.
It is disturbing that countries are now measured in terms of economics. Good old days are gone and will never come again.

Clarion hotel

We reached Clarion, out base for the next four days and met Anthony Rodricks, our media coordinator and the guy who spends the bucks for us.
I have to share my room with Abdus. A natural choice - we being from the same city and all. I started making friends from among the group. Subash Rajta from Hindustan Times, Chandigargh; Vikram Gour the vegetarian; another Vikram from Pune, among many others.
The first day was uneventful other than a small change in my report and a round of beer with Gour, Rodricks and Sarath the cameraman, the most experienced guy among us and a real kick ass fellow I think.
I went to bed only at three in the morning and woke up at five as we were supposed to leave at 6.30. So my schedule starts and I am heading into the unknown as I don’t know what to expect and the excitement was on the rise. The crest now way above the permissible limit. In tsunami land, a tidal wave was building inside me.
From the previous day’s experience with the drivers, we managed to get ourselves a guide and an interpreter so that we don’t face any problems communicating. So off we went to the rally grounds where the stages were already underway, on the way stopping at a mall to collect the life savers - chocolates, chips and lots of bottled water.

Sugar sugar all around...

History of Makassar has some parallels with my home-town Kochi. The Queen (Kochi) was once a port ruled by the Dutch and so was Makassar. But Indonesia has many more things borrowed from India.
On our way to the hotel yesterday I noticed a shopping mall called Ramayana. And the name Bali also rings a bell in me reminding me of the great king. Rama’s fame has crossed the seven seas, just like Valmiki had written.
The thing is there was some sort of trade between ancient India and Indonesia. Maybe the name Indonesia was given to the Island Nation because of its Indian roots. Hinduism was the dominant religion here at one point in history. Now as we all know, the country is the biggest Muslim Nation.
The roads taking me to the rally zone called Takallar in Makassar reminds me of the ones in Kerala. Narrow winding ones. Apart from the humidity or rather the lack of it, the air is so like Kerala. I wanna go home now.
Takallar is a farming village and its sugar plantations everywhere we look. And driving through the village roads we could see first hand how the life of real Indonesians are. It’s a far cry from the tourist brochures or the welcome masquerade we got at the airport and our hotel.
One thing I noticed in the city of Makassar was the Americanisation that has happened in this supposedly third world country.
Everywhere I could see McDonald’s and KFCs. Every junction the chain joints are open it seems. One of my colleagues was saying that the country has no choice but to welcome America or else Japan would have invaded or some other country would have taken over. I would say Japanese occupation would have been better.
At least the culture would have been in tact. And then there is this little observation. The places where Americans had set foot have become hot beds for terrorism, be it Afghanistan, the Gulf region, and Indonesia is no way behind with some of the most radical of organisations present here. Some damn influence these Yankees have on our world. They are the ones who promote terrorism and in the end they fight terrorism. So who are the real terrorists? You decide.
Anyway back to Makassar. Our car is nearing Takallar and we saw a couple of rally cars speeding past us. The houses of farm workers by the roadside give us a fair bit of idea of how the life of these people here are.
The houses are on stills. That means the region sees a lot of flooding. And the roofs and tiled and slanting. It’s by no means a surprise to me. It rains like anything over here just like it is in Kerala.
Rally was the same as I had expected, cars zooming past kicking up a lot of dust from the soft mud roads in and around the sugar plantations. We move from one stage to another watching the action from media access points strategically placed around the stages. We reporters needn’t work when the actual rally is taking place. It’s the photographers who are having a ball at that time. Their life is hard. They have to be in the middle of the action trying to capture the moment so to speak.
Our work begins only after the race is over. That’s when we start to write or rather type our stories and I got my angle during the first service break. I am not much of a questioner. But I am a good listener and I got some quotes from Cody Crocker who is the championship leader and also from drivers of our trip sponsor MRF, Jussi Valimaki and Katsu Taguchi.
Earlier I was talking about Valmiki writing about King Ram. I guess now Leslie has to write about Valimaki in Indonesia.
So using those quotes I got a feel of the race and the direction it is heading for and wrote my first day’s report. To make matters easy for us, for the first time this season, Cody has faltered and it is Valimaki and Taguchi who are leading the race. Our sponsors are happy. I would say we brought the luck for them. Just kidding.
Anyway after a hard day, sitting in the AC car driving around the sugar plantations, we come back to out hotel and now I start to envy the photographers. Now it’s their time to relax while we start working.
I finished my job fast enough and after that I went to the hotel resta and had a shot of screwdriver. I kept saying. I did a great job and I have earned my drink. It’s time to party and the hotel we are staying has a happening night joint. My damn luck I would say. So off to the dance floor.
I guess the lack of sleep and the entire excitement of partying coupled with the booze and the satisfaction of a good day’s writing created in me such a high that the crest in me was as high as the Himalayas.
My day ended at 3.a.m. That’s when I crashed into my bed after a hot water shower. My buddy Abdus was fast asleep. As I slipped into my dream land I was thinking what would the next day be like. One thing I was sure. It would be exciting too. And looking back to the first day in the sugar plantation I am thinking of the small girls I met there, who took snaps with me thinking I am a celebrity. Well I was friendly with them and none including the drivers were having any time to spare for the young fans. I went to them and spoke with them. That made them happy. I was a teacher before and I like being with kids. Not a professional habit I would say. It’s my nature.
The sugar plantations made me think of another glaring fact in life. Either be useful to yourself in this world or end up being used by others for their growth.
I shall explain. The harvest was over at the plantations and they say the sugar plants eat up the minerals of the soil like anything. So the field is practically dead after one harvest. But what the ingenious farmers do is that they burn the wasted leaves and the standing shoots at the field itself instead of removing them. This gives some minerals back to the soil. Another lesson in life for me I guess.

Shopping spree

Not for me though. I am not a great shopper as I have trouble selecting what to buy. I am unsure. But the last day of the race was a Sunday and we decided that after the race we would go for shopping in the city. Our guide was also happy at this prospect.
We didn’t wait for the race to finish instead we went straight to Ramayana mall. I was not gonna buy anything. One reason I had mentioned earlier and the other was that I didn’t have any Indonesian Ruppiahs with me. The ones I had, I had spent at the night club.
I purposely split from the other guys at the mall. I like walking alone in a mall as I have done so often in Chennai. It allows you to observe much better and in my personal case it spiritually enlightens me. Funny evolution of man don’t you think. Now he finds spiritual enlightenment in material stuff at a mall. Earlier it was nature which inspired man to nirvana.
Malls are the same everywhere. Only difference is that here the people have mostly Mongol features. No, am not being a racist here. I was just explaining the real situation that’s all. And one thing really surprised me.
I met and spoke with a lot of girls at the mall. Indonesian girls. They all think I am handsome. Actually the same comment I had received from the hotel waitresses. But I dismissed them thinking it was a ploy to get better tips. But I know they were really telling the truth. I am really handsome. In my whole 27yrs in this world, no girl in India has said to me that I am handsome.... Maybe I should move to Indonesia to spice up my love life.....
After the mall we went to the beach to collect some traditional curios. On the way I saw a church. It was closed but the architecture was so similar to the Dutch church in Kochi – St. Francis Church – where Vasco da Gama was buried initially.
The race had already finished and we had to file our reports. So the beach trip was abruptly ended and we went straight to the hotel. We reporters skipped the ceremonial finish which didn’t amuse our coordinator Mr. Rodricks. His team had won but the journalists he brought refused to attend the finish ceremony. Naturally he would be pissed.
But dude we shall do out job and write a big report for your team, don’t worry. Anyway the fact that we refused to attend the ceremony might have played in his mind when he cancelled the night boat party which was organised for us. The reason he gave was that there was no time.
Who cares. There’s a bigger party at the hotel night club tonight and one Indonesian pop diva, Cindy B, is the main feature. It’s gonna be rocking tonight...........
Dances with the star

Have you seen the movie Dances with the Wolves. Well it was a Kevin Costner masterpiece and was a winner at the academy awards. Came out in the early 90s I think. It is the age old story of a white taking sides with the underdogs, in this case, the Apache or Cheyenne Indians- dont’t clearly remember whom. He fights along side the tribe which had seen great chiefs life Cochees, Juronim0h and countless fierce warriors whom the pioneering Yankees killed like they were mere pests. Was it not a holocaust.
Now back to the night club. And rocking it was. Danced like anything and finally danced with a star - me and Vikram - on stage with Cindy herself after she had put an invitation to the crowd welcoming someone to do a jig with her.
The party finished at three in the morning. Me and the two Vikrams were literally thrown out of the floor and we had barely enough time to pack out bags and rush to the airport to catch out flight back.
The trip, if I sum up in a single sentence, was on ride to hell in the happy sense of it. I was on a ‘HIGHWAY TO HELL, HIGHWAY TO HELL’.
And no wonder I am having such pronounced withdrawal symptoms after reaching Chennai and back on the desk and the daily grind of editing crap and making pages. I want to do reporting often. That’s really me I feel. I am basically an outgoing person and this desk job is killing my spirit, I fear.
It is this fear and the longing to fly like a free bird that has made me fall into the dark recess (trough) I am in right now. I rode a big surf just a day back. Now I am stuck in between swells.
The only thing left for me is to wait out the rough sea till the waves become manageable and then swim over. But the wait is filled with agony and despair. Oh God......

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