Thursday, March 25, 2010

Life's Short Says Seneca

Now that we've reached India, and are in the warm protective embrace of family, the questions have started. So what are your plans? The truth is, our plans are none -- we are simply out of life plans right now. I feel like I've been on a very long road trip, and not the literal one we were just on, but the metaphorical life journey, and we've managed to pull over into a rest area to have a look around, eat some warm paranthas, and flip through the atlas. I had one goal for this trip, and it is being met. My goal was simply that our lives would slow down -- that time itself would slow -- that a great life divider would appear: before the trip, and after. Back home, we have a wonderful life; we're blessed with loving friends and family, a beautiful city, a lovely neighborhood, and work that I love. All this is such great fortune, and I strive to be thankful every day, but the one thought that couldn't escape me, is that our life is simply racing by. I would blink and a new holiday season would be upon me. Mondays would appear as if I had just taken another breath. My 10th anniversary appeared and it was only moments before we were completing our final lavan. I was chatting with a good friend about this, and he suggested I read a classic philosophical work by Lucius Annaeus Seneca titled On the Shortness of Life. It was great advice. Here is a short but poignant snippet:

Though all the brilliant intellects of the ages were to concentrate upon this one theme, never could they adequately express their wonder at this dense darkness of the human mind. Men do not suffer anyone to seize their estates, and they rush to stones and arms if there is even the slightest dispute about the limit of their lands, yet they allow others to trespass upon their life—nay, they themselves even lead in those who will eventually possess it. No one is to be found who is willing to distribute his money, yet among how many does each one of us distribute his life! In guarding their fortune men are often closefisted, yet, when it comes to the matter of wasting time, in the case of the one thing in which it is right to be miserly, they show themselves most prodigal. And so I should like to lay hold upon someone from the company of older men and say: "I see that you have reached the farthest limit of human life, you are pressing hard upon your hundredth year, or are even beyond it; come now, recall your life and make a reckoning. Consider how much of your time was taken up with a moneylender, how much with a mistress, how much with a patron, how much with a client, how much in wrangling with your wife, how much in punishing your slaves, how much in rushing about the city on social duties. Add the diseases which we have caused by our own acts, add, too, the time that has lain idle and unused; you will see that you have fewer years to your credit than you count. Look back in memory and consider when you ever had a fixed plan, how few days have passed as you had intended, when you were ever at your own disposal, when your face ever wore its natural expression, when your mind was ever unperturbed, what work you have achieved in so long a life, how many have robbed you of life when you were not aware of what you were losing, how much was taken up in useless sorrow, in foolish joy, in greedy desire, in the allurements of society, how little of yourself was left to you; you will perceive that you are dying before your season!"7 What, then, is the reason of this? You live as if you were destined to live forever, no thought of your frailty ever enters your head, of how much time has already gone by you take no heed. You squander time as if you drew from a full and abundant supply, though all the while that day which you bestow on some person or thing is perhaps your last. You have all the fears of mortals and all the desires of immortals. You will hear many men saying: "After my fiftieth year I shall retire into leisure, my sixtieth year shall release me from public duties." And what guarantee, pray, have you that your life will last longer? Who will suffer your course to be just as you plan it? Are you not ashamed to reserve for yourself only the remnant of life, and to set apart for wisdom only that time which cannot be devoted to any business? How late it is to begin to live just when we must cease to live! What foolish forgetfulness of mortality to postpone wholesome plans to the fiftieth and sixtieth year, and to intend to begin life at a point to which few have attained!

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Addo Elephant National Park

One of the highlights of our road trip in South Africa was Addo Elephant National Park. We decided to pass on Kruger Park, the largest and most well known of the wildlife refuges in South Africa, primarily because we wanted to avoid the malaria zone with the kids. We burned a bunch of time trying to find an organized safari to go to. We went to all the usual suspect web sites like and found the packaged safari thing didn't work for us, as we initially suspected. Neither Ameen nor I have ever been interested in organized group tours, for multiple reasons, but mostly because we don't like having a rigid predetermined travel schedule. We also love chatting with folks we meet on the way and asking them where the best places they've been. So we chatted with well traveled locals in Cape Town who assured us that our rental car in Addo and Mountain Zebra parks would fill our game viewing fix. They were right, Addo's an amazing park, and not obnoxiously overpriced like all the tours and game parks we researched.

In the 120,000+ hectare park, I felt like I was in Jurassic Park, the movie. The main rest camp is surrounded by large electrified fencing, inside of which are humans, outside of which lie many very large beasts including but not limited to: elephants, lions, hyenas, rhinos, zebras, wart hogs, and lots of cool African deer-like creatures. Some of the oddest areas were the "picnic" spots deep in the gaming area. One we considered entering was wrapped in multiple layers of 8 foot tall fencing topped off with layers of electrified wires. Multiple dents about the size of an elephant head could be seen. Next to a skinny gate were a few more warning signs. It felt like voluntarily entering a massive jail cell. Needless to say, we chose to picnic in the car.

The sign next to Ameen reads: "Beware of Lions, Alight from Vehicle at Own Risk." Instinctively and laughing, we hopped out of the car to shoot this photo. Once out of the vehicle, we were quickly overcome with paranoia. Ameen was looking for lions over her shoulder, I was looking behind us. The bush is very thick, so you can't visually be certain there are no predators for more than a few feet. We rushed the photo (hence the lack of focus) and quickly hopped back into our car. A few minutes later we drove by this not so lucky critter.

There are a number of sneaky areas called hides, where you can hang out and watch the animals undetected. The hides are usually located near a watering hole. Its an amazing way to spend a few hours.

By far the most fascinating part of the park for us, was watching the elephants in their natural habitat. Back home, we have a rather nice zoo, but it is a zoo, and it lies in a cramped urban setting. The elephants there have such a depressed look in their eyes. To see elephants living in the wild, albeit managed, but with vast space and their family structures intact was a real treat. Elephants are such social animals; we observed for hours how the adults treat the children, the teen interactions with each other, the assistance elephants gave to one another, and the discipline ( a baby was pestering her mother, and the mother slapped her trunk into the baby launching it off into the water).

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Indian Club, Left. Pakistan Club, Right.

I look forward to my first impression of a country, in part because the contrast between my cartoon-like first impression, and richer departing impression is so stark. In Dubai, the first sign I noticed once out of the airport was at our hotel, and it read:

Indian club, left. Pakistan club, right. Arabic club, straight.

I started laughing as soon as I saw it, and the hotel owner asked what I was laughing about. Many things hit me at once about the message a sign like that conveys -- I chose one; I said something in Punjabi to the effect of, "well I understand we can't live in the same country, but I'd think we could at least visit the same club in a far off country." He laughed -- a portly Indian gentleman bald with a few hairs combed over. Needless to say, Dubai is not too bothered about social integration, another lesson from the sign. Beneath the sign was a photograph of the Indian club featuring the hotel owner and 12 women smiling -- all looking rather fashionable in a village-girl-visits-Manila sort of way.

Later in the evening, my wife said I had to go check out the club and report back to her. She was dying to find out what went on inside. My wife had been in the hotel lobby and saw some colorful characters disappear down the dark hall. I was curious, especially since it sounded a bit like the socially fascinating Bombay dancer bar joints Sukhita Mehta describes in one of my favorite books of all time, Maximum City. I assured her, I'd spin in, but needed to go out and grab us some dinner first. We were bushed after our 9 hour red eye flight from Capetown, and a rather bizarre time at the Emirates Mall, home of the world's only giant indoor ski mountain which is so kooky in concept that I absolutely had to check it out. I wandered down the street in search of some hummus and lubne. I passed 3 herculean muscle men with black tank tops, rubbery sandals, extremely well coifed facial hair, standing next to 3 cherry red Bollywood motorcycles. One of the gang had odd looking tennis ball shaped lumps shooting out of his shoulders. While standing out front of the hummus joint waiting for my meal, the manager and a couple guys interrupted their chats to cat call women. I have no idea what they were saying, but they made squeezing gestures with their finger tips each time a woman passed by.

So after eating dinner, I held up my promise, and wandered near the club corridor. I was immediately herded into the Indian club. "Yes sir, yes sir, please sir, come this way only." I wonder how often the shepards get it wrong and drag a Pakistani into the Indian club, or vice versa. It was definitely bizarre inside -- 4 of the woman from the photograph, fully attired in club gear, dancing on stage and singing karaoke to American pop songs. The audience had one dude and about 15 worker guys tasked with getting me to sit down next to the other dude. I stayed only a few seconds, long enough to scan the surroundings and provide a decent report back to my wife. So first impressions of Dubai: a giant kooky mall of a city full of steroided looking muscle men gawking over imported Geisha-like dancer girls.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Kooky Characters in the Karoo

One of the most interesting things about traveling is the people you meet. We've met all sorts of interesting characters. Last night was a classic example of the social outliers you meet while backpacking around in the middle of no where. We are currently in Nieu Bethesda, a tiny town located at the end of a long dirt road connected to a paved road which is a long way from just about anywhere. Last night Nayan and I were lounging on some plywood benches out front, when an elderly gentleman appeared wearing one very old sandal and one large hiking boot, neither the laces on the boot, nor the straps on his sandals, were done. He had a neatly trimmed white beard, and looked about 65 years of age. We started chatting and he described himself as retired and permanently in a state of travel with his shortest travels to his homeland of England. The gentleman described his 50+ year career as that of a "bureaucrat serving bureaucrats bureaucratically." Something about a now disbanded office of government real estate assistance related services. He has been traveling non-stop for over 7 years now, having been to any country I could think to name for many months on end. The town we're in is infested with mosquitos right now, so I was making small talk about the annoying creatures. He said he had no idea there were any, saying, "they don't bother me any more." When I asked him about his shoe, he related this story, "A few weeks ago I was in a very rural area in the Northern Cape camping in a backpackers place surrounded by the usual razor wire and ADT signs. In the middle of the night I awoke and 2 thieves demanded I give them my wallet. I started shouting and yelling and raising quite a ruckus. The thieves were annoyed I wouldn't give them anything so they stole one of each of my shoes which were outside my tent. They did this just to spite me." He laughed and then said, "fortunately for me they took one right and one left shoe, so I am hardly affected. I refuse to buy new shoes just to show them that they did not win."
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