Rise of the Mangalyaan

Festooned with a dazzling array of technological gadgetry including precision photometers, meticulous mass analyzers, thermal imaging devices, multi-spectral cameras and glitzy gas sensors, a shiny new spacecraft elegantly entered Martian orbit in late September 2014. Intended as a tiny baby step in planning for future interplanetary travel, the first attempt for this rapidly developing democracy is a ship that would likely enthuse my demanding satellite specialist friend, Kevin Ginley, if indeed it is possible to excite him with anything not involving Fairport Convention (the auld English folk band). By most standards, the astronomical mission execution was flawless and it cost less than a run-of-the-mill Adam Sandler B Movie, such as 50 First Dates.

Launched by the Indian Space Research Organization the spacecraft is named Mangalyaan, from the Sanskrit combination of “Mars” and “craft.” So proud is the hopeful Indian nation that, among other things, they commemorated this memorable celestial event by featuring the launch on the new 2,000 Rupee note. Probably, much of the Indian population is not familiar with their country’s new spaceship, and likewise the 2,000 Rupee bill, which at $35, is twice the average daily wage: Comparable to a hypothetical $200 bill in the States. However, since November 8th, when Prime Minister Narendra Modi suddenly banned the 500 and 1,000 Rupee denominations, many Indians and others have had to become very familiar with their purple-hued, two-large Mangalyaan. So too have the tourists.

Now, the very popular President Modi was merely following up on one of his tough election promises to carve out a huge black chunk out of India’s economy, which is estimated to be over 20% of GDP (Gross Domestic Product). He did this by suddenly delegitimizing the very popular 500 and 1,000 Rupee bills, and on Wednesday November 9th, these were all but worthless: No longer legal tender—as useful as a Zimbabwean Two Billion Dollar note. So that certainly made some inroads into the ill-gotten, under-the-counter, black marketeering crowd. All the Samosa-stained black money stashed away in tatty suitcases inside and outside of the country no longer had value. Brilliant said the pundits; he sure stopped the criminals in their stride.

However, for the rest of us it was a real pain in the arse. Firstly, any 500 and 1,000 bills in our possession were instantaneously worthless, and secondly, legal tender now consisted of scarce 100 Rupee bills and plentiful purple 2,000 Mangalyaans. Certainly it was not Modi’s intention to make everyone go broke, so his plan allowed for folks to go to banks retroactively to deposit or exchange the newly illegalized currency, up to a certain, extremely modest daily stipend. This, in theory, would allow authorities to give traceable credit back to legitimate hard working citizens, and disenfranchise the criminal with ill-gotten dough-filled portmanteaus. Furthermore, folks were allowed to withdraw modest daily amounts of 100 Rupee paper, for which demand now vastly exceeded supply—much like Superbowl tickets.

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Possible indication of nearby ATM.

At this juncture I’d like to point out there are over one billion citizens in India, many of whom now had to go urgently to the banks and ATMs every single day to surrender, exchange or get their hard working hands on cash. For those living in highly organized countries, like Denmark, India may seem disorganized at the best of times: But now there were Justin Bieber lines around hot and sweaty, dusty, dingy blocks for every ATM and Bank of Maharaja. I think lines formed on an inkling that there might be an cash machine around the corner.

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Mahatma Gandhi famously didn’t need much in the way of cash, but I’m sure he’d feel the pain of his fellow citizens.

For touristy types, like moi, it was a novel challenge worthy of a one-season over-hyped reality TV show featuring William Shatner and Henry Winkler. I am somewhat tempted make a poor taste joke about begging in India, but I shall refrain and just say that I had to work really hard to get a few hundred Rups out of the hotel cashier’s tight little mitts. Even then, as a cashed-up, pumped-up traveler I was walking around with a handful of hundreds and two-grand Mangalyaans. That’s like walking around in the States with only quarters and Benjamin Franklins. Try getting an ice cream or a taxi with that and NO ONE has change, so don’t even ask. Perhaps, and only perhaps, if you spend 1900 you can break a Mangalyaan. Also, NO ONE has change. NO. ONE.

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Thinking here that if I only have a 2,000 note I’m going to have to hire this guy for a week.

Now having observed this firsthand, the Indian people were very gracious with an amazingly patient and understanding populous waiting in lines for hours each day for days and days and weeks to come. I can’t image that discipline in the USA—I just read an article about some guy losing it big-time back in the States because his Latte took too long at Starbucks.

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Hoping he appreciates the foreign currency detritus I snuck in the collection box.

So that was how I finished writing up this little adventure on my laptop on an airplane, ending with an ode to overpopulated humanity based on my experiences in Mumbai. Unfortunately, when I next logged on the Internet the story in the Times was all about chaos and near riots in New Delhi. Oh dear.

See the Delhi link here – http://www.nytimes.com/aponline/2016/11/12/world/asia/ap-as-india-currency-chaos.html?smprod=nytcore-iphone&smid=nytcore-iphone-share

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The Book of Kells

Ireland’s indisputable finest national treasure deceivingly looks like a small stack of tatty old hardbacks. But within those tomes is a vibrant and colorful monked-up retelling of the teachings of the Gospel. Written in the eight century, the four calligraphic volumes of the Book of Kells have survived the pillages of Vikings and the wanton destruction of all things considered Catholic by Oliver Cromwell and his Roundheads.

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After twelve hundred years, the Kells continue to present their spiritual teachings within the scholarly confines of Dublin’s Trinity College library.

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Dublin’s nearby magnificent castle displays an impressive array of period architecture dating from the twelfth century.

 

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Many rivers including the Liffey and the Dodder greet the Irish Sea at Dublin Bay.

The Home of Golf

The magnificence of St. Andrews in Scotland is reflected not least through the largest public golf complex in the whole of Europe, and is frequently home to the famous British Open Championship. The charming town also features the oldest university in Scotland, dating all the way back to 1411.

About one hundred years earlier, in 1318, the shrining cathedral of St Andrew was consecrated by none other than King Robert the Bruce, only to be later sacked by a mob of drunken Rangers supporters in the late 1500s. Next door to the cathedral rests the imposing medieval castle, still standing guard against the powerful North Sea after seven or so centuries.

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Notable alumni of the university include Alex Salmond, Kate Middleton, Prince William, John Cleese and Chris Hoy.

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St Andrews Cathedral was Scotland’s largest and most magnificent in its heyday.

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During the Scottish wars of independence the fortified castle changed hands several times.

 

Precision Pairing

While traveling recently, I found the Manzanita restaurant in the Lake Tahoe Ritz Carlton Hotel to be an entertaining, warm respite for tired and awestruck hikers and skiers. Sitting atop one of the many peaks surrounding the beautiful Lake Tahoe, the restaurant offers great food, drinks, and a preponderance of modern, effective, glass bead-laden fires—a very cozy, smart-but-casual atmosphere.

At these higher-end eateries, I’ve always found recommended food and drink pairings to be a strange concoction. Generally, I usually accepted, without as much as a question, the validity and appropriateness of feast and tipple unions proffered to me. My thinking was that someone, qualified and well-trained, had anticipated my nourishment and imbibing needs, well in advance of my emerging appetite, saving me the trouble and bother of picking from an interminable catalog of permutations and combinations, which might otherwise result in some gastronomic catastrophe or other recipe for disaster. Or worse, social shaming and peer belittlement. For example, should one happen to like Merlot and artichokes, or Chianti and tuna salad and have the audacity and impudence to desire them outside the privacy of one’s own home.

There are, undoubtedly, numerous rational merits to pairing appropriately, such as avoiding potential hangovers or unforgiving acid reflux, but other than circumventing biological imbalance some matching suggestions vex me. Certainly, cuisiniers, culinary artistes and gourmet virtuosos have the ability and skillset to match foods, sauces, preparation methods and beverages for concurrent consumption. In a gallant quest for palatable perfection, Ritz-Carltons use a pre-defined matrix to match foods with wine based on a variety of factors such as sweetness, spices, acidity and bitterness.

Over time, however, while I have in part come to appreciate the aptness of precision pairing, my gut tells me that restaurateurs could perhaps think a bit bigger than mere chow compatibility or other half-baked ideas. Instead of matching drinks to food, why not to other mood modifying stimuli, such as the weather?

Take my old favorite, Scotch, for example, which after many years of personal research, I have come to conclude is best served with rain. Blended whiskies generally tend to go well in light dreary drizzle, while the stronger single malts hold up better in a disheartening deluge. One of my favorite smoother blends, the Famous Grouse, matured in oak casks for six months, is fabulous for the palate when balanced with a somber sprinkle. Best served in a soaking downpour, the trademark of the glorious ten year old Macallan is the misty aftertaste of handpicked sherry seasoned oak. Ultimately though, during a marauding monsoon, I find that there is nothing quite so soothing and aromatic as a sip of full-bodied sixteen year old peaty Lagavulin. Best enjoyed with wellies.

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Contemplating the evening’s potential pairings.

The Beekeepers

The Beekeepers realized rapidly that they were daunted by the large, complex honeycombed hive of dust-covered canvas encampments, in this particular full-sized colony of over sixty thousand. Sixty five thousand, four hundred and twenty one of these social insects to be exact, all cross-pollinating twenty four seven, to the likes of Billy Idol in the house. Thump, thump, thump, “hey little sister what have you done?” Ambient keyboard swell, thump, thump, thump, and repeat to coda: Day and night humming raucously into the following sunrise.

Not that we had intended to manage busy bees or to produce conventional honey: We had come masquerading as great European twentieth century explorers, presumably along the crisp white linen lines of Dr. Livingstone. But it was not to be, as the first comment on the coordinated attire from a bumbling, dirty looking Italian-ish thirty something extra from Mad Max was, “buon giorno seniors, where are zee bees?” That stung. And so for the duration of the burn my wingmen and I were the keepers of bees. Fantasy names and titles were apparently the norm at the infamous Burning Man as we realized fairly quickly upon making introductions to fellow burners. “Hi I’m Chris,” with a broad smile and hand extended was reciprocated with, “hi I’m Violet Shooting Star.”

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The workers were super friendly, all sixty-some thousand of them, the costumes were amusingly rich and varied and the art structures and thunderdome-esque mutant vehicles were entirely impressive. For a trio of old WASPs wearing all-white safari suits and pith helmets we seemed to get way more attention than we thought deserved. Why would these fabulous-looking, young, post-apocalyptic honeys swarm the Beekeepers? Not because we looked like the Bee-Gees we guessed, but because of our advanced planning and well-organized, coordinated formation. Any drone can sport a yellow jacket, mohawk, kilt, face-paint, doc martens, safety pins, faux fur and other haberdashery, but three pristine white figures contrasted with anarchy gets the nectar. The challenge next year is to create as much buzz.

The Golden Medusa

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Golden Medusa. 2016. Oil on Canvas. 79cm x 99cm.

Beautiful and repulsive, mysterious and menacing, I find jellyfish to be impossibly constructed and hard to fathom. Even Spongebob fears them. Beached, they look like some large ungodly snotter cast asunder for all to see, like the sad remnants of a rotting, over-ripened combination of mangos, shredded Victoria Secrets undergarments, and torn Safeway plastic bags.

However, just below the surface, gently bobbing in our oceans, these lingeriel leftovers appear to glide deliberatively with the grace of angels. When you look a little deeper into the subject you realize that these gelatinous globs are all individually, ever so slightly, different in color, shade, texture, construction and pattern, which amazes me given that they swarm in the millions like some briny, morphing mushroom pea soup. The variations are diminutive but discernable, and this is from a guy who still can’t tell Matt and Ben apart—my six-foot three twin first cousins once removed.

In this medium-sized oil treatment, the cautious diver is shown respectfully avoiding the deadly touch of the Mastigias papua—the Papauan Jellyfish, or as it is known commonly throughout the Indo-Pacific, the Golden Medusa. In an oblique nod to the artist’s hero and luminary, Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio, the aquanaut’s hair drifts chaotically in the ocean current, much like the serpent-laden head of the feared Gorgon, Medusa.

 

On the Road to Burning Man

The Residence Inn, in colorful South Reno, seemed like the perfect staging post for the long-awaited reunion of the three amigos. The low-key comfort of generic beige and mauve-hued décor in a functional two-bedroom suite offered the opportunity for a casual catch up on what’s been happening in our lives over the past decade. There are times for me when the Residence Inn is simply ideal for a stopover or a longer break: the breakfast is simply no nonsense but allows you to make your own pancakes if you are feeling adventurous or the desire to be more directly involved in your own breakfast.

We had come in from an eclectic mishmash of points east: Nashville Tennessee, Washington DC, and Durango, Colorado, to meet up and head out to the highly-touted Burning Man Festival in the searing Nevada desert, a couple hundred miles to the north east. To endure the arid affair for a week, Chris left his new home by the Animas River in the craggy mountainous area south west of Denver while Jay traveled from his magnificent contemporary home on Tennessee’s winding Cumberland River. Leaving my home in a leafy Greater Washington DC suburb, I pondered the lure of natural waterways and why many of my friends and family felt the need to have them in their backyard. Certainly I love to swim as often as possible—it feels good and is easy exercise, but I don’t think my friends go for a dip in their adjacent aqua, though I’ll have to ask them. They certainly have boats and other leisurely means of aquatic conveyance, which looks like a lot of fun. I guess I never really got into sailing: I did take a few lessons on Hogganfield Loch in Glasgow, Scotland when I was a teenager, but all I remember is my wet clingy anorak, numb cold hands and a yearning for a hot sausage roll from the café afterwards—and then there was that George Clooney movie.

Anyways, It will be good to catch up with the River Monsters over the next week as we head into the hot ‘n hazy desert for the barren blowout with our dazzlingly decorated bicycles and coordinated festival fashion, though I have no idea why I’m doing this, other than as a celebratory scenic backdrop to my ongoing quarter-century friendship with these guys.

Reno Hotel

 

My Modern-Day Molotov Cocktail

I never ate shrimp on any regular basis when I was a kid. I really don’t remember having prawns as part of any childhood meal, certainly before man landed on the moon, the commercial introduction of the jumbo jet, and probably not until after Elvis’s untimely death. In the ‘70s a shrimp cocktail was the fancy appetizer of choice when you could afford to take a girl out on one of those rare real dates that included nourishment—also if she was fortunate enough to be allowed a starter. Nevertheless I found that I loved the stuff: At corporate functions a few years later in the ‘80s I could usually be found, drink in hand, in prawn proximity. Ah the lure of that bitter, crimson, horse-radished glop, complemented by freshly sliced lemons.

Since then, it seems that I’ve been living in shrimptopia, with large circular aluminum plates festooned with magnificent pink swirls of marine decapod crustaceans on a bed of smashed ice, continually within arm’s reach. Even when I find myself occasionally and inexplicably in a supermarket, there are shrimper dishes apparently everywhere: little blue or white rectangular plastic-wrapped polystyrene plates, packed with tiny anemic de-shelled prawns, identifiable only by their naturally convenient little red finger-food tails. Furthermore, the small frozen ones are dead cheap and they taste ok with a splosh of lemon and a dollop of magic sauce.

Sadly, I’ve never really thought to question the sheer abundance, availability, affordability and wholesomeness of this agreeable source of sustenance. I read online newspapers daily, I’m generally curious by nature and I travel a lot; heck I’m even a fairly avid diver and snorkeler. I always thought that shrimp was a good thing all around: nutritious, copiously available, and harvested honestly, in all weather by solid guys like Lieutenant Dan. Yet only now has it come to my full attention that I have been instrumental in helping to build the Death Star, one prawn at a time: One big modern-day Molotov cocktail.

Staying recently at the fabulous Tangalooma resort on Australia’s Moreton Island, I was engaging in various aquatic and other healthy outdoor activities: snorkeling the wrecks, whale watching, feeding the wild dolphins and so on. Between these marvelous activities I spent an hour in Tangalooma’s marine education center, which was fairly rudimentary though informative on ocean-saving topics ranging from turtle troubles to shark suffering. However, one small laminated flyer on the center’s window really caught my attention, and had the elevator speech on shrimp farming.

As I was now to understand, prawns were not good for my cholesterol, were processed by Asian slaves, and ultimately responsible for ongoing decimation of the world’s mangrove forests. Say what? Well I had read about the Thailand slavery issue a few months earlier and the European Union’s import ban threats, but the tropical shrubbery destruction was news to me, and since then I’ve read up on it a bit, and basically Asian shrimp farming appears to be responsible for obliterating large tracts of mangrove forest. I won’t repeat all the stats as they are a few clicks away for anyone, but those that jumped out at me are: five square miles of mangrove devastation yields only a few pounds of shrimp, after ten years the depleted land is useless for another forty, and twenty percent of the world’s mangrove forests are now lost to this inefficient practice (many sources including treehugger.com). Furthermore, when compared to the carbon footprint of beef raised to the detriment of tropical rainforest, shrimping is ten times worse! That’s ten times worse than pretty darn bad already. To me, these inefficiencies and collateral damage are truly staggering in any reasonable analysis of twenty-first century agriculture practices. The stats are also ugly for wild catch: For every two pounds of prawns that make it to your table, there are twenty-six pounds of ill-fated, unused by-catch.

So that’s it, I’m afraid. Deal me out on prawn Provencal and Szechwan shrimp and I must apologize to mother earth for unwittingly treating her like dirt these past few decades. I may be one step closer to veganism, but certainly slightly closer towards more responsible global citizenry. I thought I was doing my part already with all the recycling, energy efficient practices, and blacklisting other dodgy food sources, but the Cajun shrimp casserole came at me out of nowhere.

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The German Channel

When first I heard mention of the German Channel I immediately thought of Das Boot reruns: The 1980’s subtitled epic adventure of a motley bunch of ruggedly handsome Deutsche submariners scuttling assorted allied ships in the Mediterranean and Atlantic during World War II. My second thought was that of a pant-suited Chancellor Angela Merkel giving some long and detailed speech on the state of the European economy in the Bundestag.

But this was a markedly different German channel, more sound than vision: A massive, manmade water passage joining two remote islands in faraway Micronesia. Created over one hundred years ago, this fritzian furrow is an underwater gully flowing with color in an otherwise monotonic and unimpressive shallow sandy sea. Turns out that the corralled crevasse, originally dredged for commerce, von den Deutschen, has become a fabulous, world-class Scuba diving site.

The walls of the manmade trench appear to have created a near-perfect environment for coral colonies to prosper, and as we know, with healthy, vibrant coral comes almost everything else we want to thrive in our waters. Furthermore, strong ocean currents funnel the water through the trench like a burgeoning monsoon river. This curious combination of rush and reef makes for an aquatic adventure that would impress and excite even Squidward. Never mind the Scuba, just float on the surface with snorkel gear and fly like Eddie the Eagle ray over large diverse coral colonies, shivers of reef sharks, balls of parrotfish, groupies of grouper and regiments of Napoleon wrasse: And some of these fish are pretty darn big. Importantly, have your knowledgeable boat operator drop you at the starting line and follow you all the way to the end so that you can focus exclusively on taking in the world class views below.

My Korean Barbecue

Awareness gradually nears as my mind flickers erratically back and forth between alternate realities, until the present context and situation presents itself. Coming out of sleep is always a little weirder and takes just a little more time for me to find myself when I’m on travel. However, this morning I feel oddly different as awareness ripples gently from my mind throughout my musculoskeletal system towards my extremities. My neck feels strange and there’s an unusual indication coming from my left scapula. Further down I start sensing additional scattered alarms here and there, including my right wrist, my left bicep, both shins, and miscellaneous toes. Brusquely, I realize it’s pain. Ouch, I think to myself and I’m now starting to hurt all over.

As full consciousness approaches I wonder: Have I been running with the bulls in Pamplona? Sitting near the Russians at a Euro Soccer match? No—suddenly it all comes back to me: I had a massage at the Foot Shop in Dongdaemun, Seoul, in South Korea. Two unremarkable little women with naturally formed boney knuckledusters: Kneading, rolling, compressing, squishing, and tenderizing my flesh. It’s not like I didn’t try to give them feedback—I was groaning like a multi-car accident, but to no avail as they continued to pound away, mechanically, as though they were basting pork for a Korean barbecue.

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This was the best part: At the beginning in our jim-jams and so full of hope.

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Still a lot of expectant hope here …

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.. and the shattering of illusions ..

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