The rift where man was born

While planning a visit to the East African savanna, I thought I would read up on how old this landscape was. This led me down an exciting path of discovery through articles which connected geology, weather, and human evolution, and told me about how much more there is to see than just the Big Five. In the featured map you can see a long valley down the center of Ethiopia, ending somewhere a little south of Nairobi. Equally visible is a line of lakes along the border of Uganda and Tanzania. These are the eastern and western East African Rift Valleys.

45 million years ago, soon after India crashed into the still forming Eurasian continent, a massive plume of magma welled up from deep inside the earth near where Djibouti is today. This cracked the continential plate of Africa into three: the present day Arabian plate, and the still separating Somalian and Nubian plates. Signs of this immense geological change are visible in the creation of the Gulf of Aden, and the 30 million years old lava fields and highlands of Eritrea and Ethiopia. In geological time, this is not long before the split between monkeys and apes (hominoids). It is now believed that the geographical changes due to this initial rifting may have cause climate changes that favoured the rise of the hominoids.

The magma plume later created two bubbles below the African plate and pushed up the highlands of Kenya and Ethiopia (clearly visible in the map). About 7-10 million years ago, the heated rocks of the African continental plate began separating out, with the Nubian plate pulling west and the Somalian plate moving eastward. The land between them subsided, and the Walls of Africa rose up 3 to 4 kilometers high. The high walls blocked off wet air from the oceans, changing the climate locally, and converting forests to grasslands. This is also the time at which the split between apes and humans (hominin) took place.

Darwin thought that modern humans had arisen in the grasslands of Africa. The discovery of hominin fossils along the rift valley seemed to agree with this theory. But modern thinking is that the savanna of the rift valley and hominins evolved together as a response to geology and weather. Humans evolved in this land, and then left to settle in far corners of the world. When I go to see the annual migration in the Serengeti, or to look at the dormant volcano called Mount Kilimanjaro, or even to taste the wine grown high in Kenya’s rift valley, I will be a migrant’s child come back to marvel at the homeland that his ancestors left.

Ecology destroyed for an “Eco Park”

In Sohra one morning five years ago, The Family went off on a trek down a steep slope to see a living root bridge. I gave up on that walk quickly and asked Raju to suggest an alternative. He suggested a short drive to a point where there was a good view of Bangladesh. We parked on the road, and then followed a narrow track through overgrown bushes and around a thicket of trees to reach the edge of a cliff.

The Shillong plateau fell into the plains of Bangladesh below us. There was a sturdy fence at the edge of the cliff. Raju and I leaned on it and looked down at the enchanting landscape of the country of shifting waters. British imperialism had created a disaster here, and, in ebbing, left a permanent scar in the form of borders which cut off both Raju and me from our ancestral homes. Neither of us knew Bangladesh as anything more than grandmothers’ tales and old songs, genocide in a generation-old war, and tales of floods and natural calamities. It was a typical early winter morning in Sohra, overcast and foggy one moment, clear ten minutes later. In the hazy distance we could see a braiding of rivers, and no sign of humanity except for forests cleared for agriculture.

Before we left I spotted several species of butterflies. The common sailer (Neptis hylas, featured photo) was everywhere in this area, as were several species of tigers. I took my first photo of a red lacewing, Cethosia biblis, here (photo above). I did not realize then that the part I paid little attention to, the trees and the tumble of bushes, would not be here when I came back. My only record of that ecosystem full of butterflies, insects, and the birds which feed on them, are the few photos where the vegetation is the background.

Five years later, after some of the clan had left for the same trek that took The Family away that long-ago morning, the rest of us piled into the Rath of the Clan and the driver took us to an “Eco Park”. This was exactly the same place. The vegetation had been totally cleared. Now there was a large parking lot full of vehicles, a gate and tickets to see a leveled field of bare earth at the edge of which was the same fence where Raju and I had stood and tried to spot villages in Bangladesh. There was a desultory attempt to make a garden here with marigold and rose bushes. There were no trees, no butterflies, no birds, but an amazingly large number of humans and shops.

A fellow blogger who grew up in Shillong has been shadowing the blogs of my trip through Meghalaya, and, through her comments, adding a very welcome perspective. In one of her comments she said that she hoped that Meghalaya would follow Sikkim in developing tourism, not Darjeeling. Unfortunately, this “Eco park” was Darjeeling transplanted to Sohra, destroying precisely what people earlier came here to see. Five years ago, as we walked back to the car, Raju pointed out to me an underground stream which you could see through an opening in the rocks. He recommended the water for its taste and coolness. The opening was now covered with an iron grille, and the rocks around it were littered with empty packaging, the detritus of civilization.

Cranes of Mumbai

The two-day long monsoon shower ended around the middle of Sunday. I took this as an opportunity to walk through the back streets around the stock market. Even on a Sunday there’s usually something interesting going on here. I walked past the very busy street vendors and looked up at the tower of the stock exchange. I’d not noticed before how many data cables cross at all angles above the street. It looks like a safety net against the eventuality of a stock market crash. Poking up through this street-wide-web was a crane.

One of these old buildings had been pulled down and a new and unexciting concrete box was coming up in its place. The crane was parked right in front of it. The young man operating it looked really relaxed, feet up on his seat, moving the crane with a delicate touch of his left hand. I’ve seen people play arcade games with the same nonchalant elan. The cabin door was open and I thought that bright blue splash against the yellow cabin made a good picture.

This was a duplex crane! In the rear cabin someone was asleep, head resting on the disabled steering. I guess the operators were internal immigrants. Their work place is where they live most of the time. Usually workers who immigrate to the city share a rented room where they sleep in shifts. This man was either too tired to go back, or had decided that it was more efficient to sleep at work. I hope he is properly rested by the time his shift starts. A little inattention while manipulating the crane probably would not damage the neighbouring buildings, but could play havoc with the overhead cables.

Kottbusser Tor

The sun was setting when we walked up to Kotti. It has been known as one of Berlin’s most dangerous areas for decades. A recent police list ranked it seventh, behind Alexanderplatz and Warschauer Bruecke. We were there to look at the 10 years old Cosmonaut mural by Victor Ash. But we got distracted.

As soon as we emerged we saw a minaret of the Mevlana mosque, and its shallow Turkish dome, silhouetted against the golden sky (photo above). The Family said, “This looks interesting”. Behind us was a traffic island which seemed to have turned into a fruit and vegetable market. We walked into it and eyed the produce. It looked fresh.

We walked past it into Reichenberger Strasse, and immediately saw an alley with shops looking out into it. A few steps in, an underpass brought us to Dresdner Strasse. Right at the corner here was an interesting mural outside Kremanski Cafe (featured photo). We peered into the big window and saw people peering into their laptops (photo above). Just a regular cafe then. Disappointed, we moved on to the next window: Cafe am Kotti, which also looked ordinary.

The area has been considered less than safe for decades; first it was the Turks in the ’70s, then the squatters in the ’80s and the fights between skinheads and Turkish gangs, in the ’90s the druggies evicted from Berlin Zoo, East Europeans in the oughts. This decade was summed up nicely in a sentence by a resident quoted in a magazine: “The idea of Kotti as a cool neighbourhood attracts young people, and young people attract drug dealers.” The idea of Kotti as less safe than Alexanderplatz or parts of Friedrichshain may be coloured a little by the shades of skin you see around you.

We walked through the little streets of Kotti for a short while, looking for street art. There was not too much visible in the places we walked through. The mural which you can see in the photo above was the biggest we saw. The area was shabby and run-down, but full of interesting-looking restaurants. It did not seem to have an edge of danger. Crime statistics show that Berlin is safer than Brussels or Amsterdam, and Europe in general is safer than the US. When The Family said, “Should we have dinner here?” our conversation was about the time of the day and where else we needed to go rather than safety.

Down in the Battery

New York City: Battery park monumentWhen you go downtown to the Battery park in New York, you are reminded quite strongly that the history of the US is a history of immigration. At the entrance to the park is a memorial to the purchase of Manhattan from the local tribes by the Dutch. As far as we know, the ancestors of the tribes arrived in the land now called the Americas during a previous ice age, and spread over the continents in the same time that humans took to spread over the old world.

As you pass that monument you see a large expanse of grass and a circular structure behind it (see the featured photo). I think that beautifully green patch of grass was where Fort Amsterdam, and later Fort George, stood since 1626. New York City: Bowling Green The departure of the last British soldiers, and their freed slaves, is commemorated in the small plaque above the statue of the charging bull in Bowling Green. If you look carefully along the top edge of the photo here, you will see a plaque which reads Evacuation Day. After Britain lost the Americas to the new settlers, the fort, and the battery which gave its name to the park, was demolished.

The circular building, Clinton Castle, was erected in 1811. The army moved out of it in a few years, and leased it to the city. Jenny Lind, another immigrant, gave her first concert in this expanse of green in 1850. From 1855 to 1892, Castle Clinton was the place where immigrants landed and were processed. I did not enter the castle. I was distracted by a monumental sculptural group near it called The Immigrants (photo below). The sculpture by Luis Sanguino commemorates this period of history.

New York City: The Immigrants, a sculptural group

After this, the Ellis Island facility was started. From the pier here you can see the statue by Bertholdi, possibly the most famous statue in today’s world, which looms over the entrance to the harbour. The connection of the Statue of Liberty and immigration is so strong that it serves all over the world as the symbol of the freedom of human movement. I took a long shot of this statue, and then turned to leave through the East Coast Memorial.

New York City: East Coast Memorial

This is a memorial to the US soldiers who died in the West Atlantic during the second world war. I walked up the central aisle of the memorial, with four tall granite slabs on each side with the names of soldiers engraved on them, past the bronze statue of an eagle, and turned to take a last shot of the harbour through which waves of immigrants once arrived.

The story of Dinesh

Coincidentally, today is the 9th anniversary of the day we started our trip through Bhutan. So it is also nine years since the six of us met up with Dinesh, the man who would drive the car for us. He met us at the airport in Paro with a Toyota Innova which he’d driven up from Hashimara,Russet sparrow, Passer rutilans, Paro airport, Bhutan the Indian railhead for road trips to Bhutan.

Dinesh was quiet and reserved when we met. The youngest in our party was The Joy, a bubbly birder, stopping at every sparrow (Passer rutilans). We halted thrice before we left the airport, and The Parent of Joy wondered how Dinesh would cope with this.

I sat in the seat next to the driver’s and tried to chat with him. He was from Bihar, and had left home to look for work immediately after he passed school. He learnt to drive, although he left the details vague, and soon found employment with a travel agent, driving in Bihar and Bengal. A few jobs later he was in Hashimara working for the travel agent I’d dealt with.

He opened up when I told him that I’d grown up in Bihar. It turned out that his parents were in their village, and his wife and children lived with him in Hashimara. "And school?" The Family asked. He would usually direct the answers to me, even when questions came from others. His older child, a girl, was going to school in Hashimara. "So she knows Bengali", I guessed. He said that he did too.

A decade ago few people would have thought of Dinesh as a migrant. After all, The Parent of Joy was a Tamil speaker who grew up in Kolkata and now worked in Mumbai. The Sullen Celt had family in Goa and grew up in Mumbai. Over the last decade, a new political story has grown to separate the seven of us who drove through Bhutan then. The six urban middle class professionals are seen as pan-Indian by some political parties, and are therefore invisible to their bigotry. Dinesh, unfortunately, is seen as an immigrant by the same parties, and reviled for taking away jobs from locals.

As we travelled through Bhutan, Dinesh began to take an interest in birds, and started spotting them very efficiently. The featured photo was taken soon after he spotted his first scarlet minivet (Pericrocotus speciosus) on the road from Mebar Tsho to Ura.Scrlet minivet, Pericrocotus speciosus, Bhutan I remember The Family trying to get him to smile as I took this photo.

The six of us were on a holiday, enjoying the ten days-long break, but Dinesh was at work. He had not elected to stay away from his family. Sometimes, when we met in the mornings, he would remark on the bad mobile reception. This meant that he had not managed to talk to his wife and children at night. At the end of the trip The Family asked him how long he would stay at home. Dinesh said he would be off on another trip after one night at home.

He was a very good driver, and I could see why his services would be in demand. One afternoon we decided to go off-road for a picnic lunch by a stream. It started raining hard soon after we’d opened up our backpacks. We ran back to the car. It continued to rain hard. Dinesh decided to drive back to the road, before we were stranded. The mud was so slippery that the tyres would not get a good grip. We helped him to ballast the car with rocks, and he drove slowly upwards over the undulating terrain until we got to the road. Later when The Father of Joy and I discussed this, we were both sure that this kind of driving was beyond us. When we got back to the road and congratulated him on his driving, he smiled.

As we left the usual tourist route of Paro, Thimphu and Punakha, he began to suggest little detours, interesting things to see on the way, and hotels which we could try out. He had us figured out, because his suggestions always appealed to us. He remained in this relaxed mood when we drove to Phuentsholing, crossed back to India, and he dropped us at the railway station in Hashimara. We shook hands, and never saw him again. Sometimes, The Family and I say to each other, "I hope Dinesh is doing well"

A foreigner in the US

I entered the US at the end of the week which was full of rancorous controversy over immigrants. My plane arrived in O’Hare airport at the same time as a flight from Brazil. The immigration queues moved fast. I picked up my luggage and exited to find banners welcoming immigrants, and people ready to give legal aid to travellers in distress. Right at the point of entry, I saw the best of the US: both in terms of efficient officials and a participatory democracy.

On a short visit for a meeting, one sees little of the hurt that many people feel since 2008, in terms of jobs and incomes. The people I’d come to meet included native Americans as well as later arrivals (but, as far as I knew, none descended from the Pilgrim Fathers). All of us, legal US residents, as well as foreigners on short trips, were lucky people, because we had steady jobs and medical insurance.

When you are in a country for a week on work, the immigrants you get to meet are usually those in the hospitality industry and transport. I had interesting conversations with four taxi drivers, one from Bulgaria, one from Benin, one from Nigeria, and another from Ethiopia. The last person drove me to the airport as I left the US. His opening statement was that I was leaving on a nice day. I said the whole week had been nice, and I’d liked being in Chicago. He replied, "Yes, I guess we will pay for it later." I laughed, and asked "Nothing comes free, eh?" He burst into laughter and said, "That’s the US for you. You think you’ll earn a lot, but it all disappears."

There, just as I was leaving, I got the distilled essence of the immigrant experience. This echoes what I’ve heard from immigrants in India and China, Europe and the US: they all arrive thinking they will lead a much better life; it is better, of course, than what they left behind, but it isn’t as easy as they thought it would be.

The Indian Diaspora in Myanmar

Although Hindi film songs seem to be popular in Myanmar, Hindi is not a language anyone seems to be familiar with. So when you hear Hindi, Bengali, or Gujarati on the road you know for sure that the speaker has some connection with India. As I rushed through a market in Mandalay, I passed the eatery you can see in the featured photo. I’d just lost track of The Family, and peeped in to see whether she was sitting in this unlikely place. The man at the far counter greeted me in Hindi, letting me know that he was of Indian origin.

A Bihari migrant in Pyin Oo Lwin in MyanmarI’d run into another Hindi speaker in Myanmar before this. A happy young man driving a horse carriage in Pyin Oo Lwin called out to me in Hindi. As I turned, I saw he was wearing a big grin. We introduced ourselves; his name was Mahesh. He said that his grandfather had come to Myanmar as a groom in the British army and never went back to his village. Mahesh knew that a town near his ancestral village was called Arrah. This is in the western part of Bihar. His father succumbed to the charms of a Burmese girl, and now Mahesh is married to one as well. His family speaks Hindi at home, and, of course, they watch movies. He’s never been to India.

I’d also had a similar run in with Abdul, who owns a grocery store in Pyin Oo Lwin. He called out to me in Hindi. He is also a third generation resident of Myanmar.A shopkeeper from Uttar Pradesh in Pyin Oo Lwin in Myanmar He was not very clear about why his grandfather had left India. During the years of British Raj people were uprooted from their villages in India and sent across the world for many different reasons. Abdul’s grandfather may have been one of these victims of imperialism. Abdul knew that his ancestral home was near a town called Faizabad. This is in present day Uttar Pradesh in India. His grandfather and father married other Indian immigrants, as did he. They spoke Hindi at home, and he’s never been to India.

Bengali mosque next to the Sule Pagoda in Yangon in MyanmarI guess there is a concentration of immigrants in the region around Mandalay. I met another pocket of immigrants in Yangon. The mosque which you see in this photo stands right next to the Sule pagoda in the centre of Yangon. Large friendly letters across the front say that it is a Bengali mosque. I suppose that many of the people who come here have ancestral homes in present day Bangladesh. I did not meet any of them, but it is conceivable that there is a small number of Indian Bengali muslims in the same jamaat.

I ran into many Indians at the mosque of Bahadur Shah Zafar. We wanted to see the grave of the last Mughal emperor which is inside this structure. Prayers at the Bahadur Shah mosque in Yangon in Myanmar We arrived when prayers were on, and had to wait for a while. As I waited I noticed a boy wearing a white and gold cap which looked like it could belong to a Bohra of Gujarat. Next to him was a gentleman in a dark shirt who looked Indian. I looked more carefully at the jamaat (congregation) and thought that several of the faces could be from parts of India: some Bengali, some Gujarati and maybe a few from other parts of North India. This kind of guessing is terribly error-prone in Myanmar with its incredible human variety. After the prayers finished I chatted with several of the people. Most were businessmen, and several were of Gujarati origin. They are better off; some have travelled to India, but think of themselves as Myanmarese. While I talked to the Gujaratis I could hear a little Bengali in the background, but they were gone by the time I finished.

Apparently there are many Tamil and Telugu immigrants to Myanmar as well, but I did not run into any. I found later that many Indians were expelled from Myanmar by the military government. They were barred from holding administrative posts or joining the military, and are not considered to be citizens of Myanmar. I understand that the current civilian government has not changed these policies as yet.

Two wonderful things about Portugal

We loved Portugal so much that I want to write down every last detail that I can remember. But it is time to move on. So I’ll end with two of the best things about Portugal.

Travesseiro at Piriquita in SintraOne comes with pictures. The memory of the lovely cakes that we had with coffee or tea will stay with us for a long time. Right from my first experience with queque while waiting for The Family to arrive at the Lisbon airport, on to the ubiquitous custard filled Pasteis da Nata, toasted almond cruezeiro in Coimbra, coconut in the Pao Deus or the Bolo-Rei in Porto, the Travesseiro with its egg and almond filling in A Piriquita in Sintra (photo alongside), to the interesting looking Coelhino back in Lisbon (featured image), the cakes and breads were amazing. This was a discovery, because nothing we read prepared us for this.

Nor were we prepared for the amazingly open Portuguese society. We travel because we enjoy the company of strangers, and like to learn how they live their lives. In every country we come across unexpected warmth and openness from strangers, but sadly, occasional suspicion or even hostility. Portugal is different. There was not a single interaction where we felt unwelcome. The warmth was not only towards tourists. We were also pleasantly surprised by the acceptance of new immigrants. In a world that seems to be slowly turning xenophobic, contemporary Portugal reaffirmed for us what humanity can be.

The story of Lem the singer

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Lawrence of China is going slow on the Baijiu and is the first to notice that the bar has live music. Kind of; the singer has karaoke backing. Next to her a piano is covered in red velvet. A few of us keep aside the shots of sorghum liquor and listen. She has a good voice. It inspires several people in the party to do a Karaoke. During this I realize that she’s not Chinese.

China is a new magnet: even with its economic swings, even as skilled Chinese learn English and dream of settling in the US. The economic growth and the accumulation of money means that there are new opportunities for workers as well as entertainers. Some years ago Tash Aw came close to the Booker Prize with a novel about immigrant workers in China. Some are illegal factory workers, others relatively well-paid entertainers, and then there are the academics and stratospheric bankers. I’ve only met the high-earning Shanghai Pudong expats before. They are different, their backs rest briefly in China, their legs straddle continents. I have no idea what it is to be an immigrant struggling to make it in China.

Her name is Lem. She is from the Philippines. She’s happy to talk about her work and her experience of China. I learn that she always wanted to do music. Lem says that she was part of a band, all members of which have been in China for a while. They could not get a job together initially. She got a contract with this hotel in Wuhan, others in her band found work in Chongqing. Lem looks at me questioningly as she mentions this town. I nod. Although I’ve heard of it, I can’t recall how far away it is.

I ask how it is to live in China. She says, obliquely, that she liked her job in the hotel; it helped her to get experience in a smaller place in China. Wuhan has a population of 10 million; more than New York City holds. But I can see that for her it would be a small place. Bangalore has a similar population, but has more music pubs.

Outside of work? Lem evades this question. She says she has a room in the hotel, so she does not have to try to rent a place on her own. She has visited her band members several times in the year. They now have a contract to play together.

She perks up. Her contract here has ended and she will leave Wuhan after the weekend. She and her band have a contract to play together in Nanjing. She looks a question at me again. Yes, I know about Nanjing. Never been there. Is it better than Wuhan? She nods vigorously. I know that it is closer to Shanghai. She agrees. She eventually wants to go to Shanghai. I know how lively the music scene is in Shanghai. I wish her luck. Lem smiles broadly and thanks me.

I run into her in the lobby the next morning. She’s dressed for a sunny day, her last in Wuhan. She is bubbling and happy, ready for the next year of her life. I wish her luck. China, like India, is a hard and competitive place. She’ll need luck.