Thursday, June 30, 2011

Wings of fire

Seletar Flying Club is at the end of a long drive, some of it on roads that are also runways. There, among the hangar-like offices of airplane companies, around the corner from a casual parking lot for private planes, on a grassy verge by the fence that runs along the airfield you’ll find the Sunset Grill, a bunch of scarred tables and chairs under a yellow plastic awning, where you go prepared to get your hands dirty. And your nerve-endings mauled.

When I say chicken wings, don’t think of those little stubs shiny with sauce. These are whacking great pieces of chicken. That come in 36 levels of spiciness. We ordered Level 3 (we chose Level 4, but the waitress’s eyes widened with alarm so we hastily dialled it down). The first bite was a shock, the second one a recurring nightmare. From the third on it was really an adventure sport. The spice was sharp, with a tangy aftertaste, quite unlike Indian spiciness, which has a sort of rounded edge to it, perhaps from the turmeric, tamarind or curry leaves. The chicken was crisp on the outside, wonderfully juicy on the inside. It was brilliant. It should be listed in the tourist brochures along with the chilli crab. I must mention, though, that the other things on the menu we tried were uniformly execrable, except for the brownie, which was excellent.

The wings rounded off a day at the Sungei Buloh Wetland Reserve. Singapore distinguishes the natural reserves from the parks by a rigorous lack of gift shops, rides and food courts. It could be because fewer tourists go there but it also serves to centre all your attention on the reserve itself. On one viewing platform, my niece suddenly said “look there’s a fishy”. We started to explain there wasn’t enough water for one, when we spotted a slimy thing flapping about in the mud. While giving her inordinate credit for the discovery, we were riffling through the trivia in our brains, trying to place it. A fish that lived in mud. Jumping from puddle to puddle. Hopping. Skipping. Mudskipper, we said almost simultaneously. There turned out to be hundreds of them, looking like something out of Dune. There were also black crabs, grey lizards, brown birds, unbelievably noisy insects. And crocodiles. There were warning signs everywhere.

In the part where you could walk on the ground, we suddenly spotted a long, low, grey shadow coming steadily towards us with that peculiar menacing gait, short, thick legs swinging purposefully. Worse, it was approaching in a direction that would cut us off from the boardwalk. We were stuck on a narrow path, with water on either side. This time my brain’s trivia archive had no trouble offering myths and facts in rapid succession: Crocodiles can run faster than a horse. I can run faster than a tortoise. They can jump 20 feet. The trees around us were not that high, or even climbable. They react to movement, not smell or sight. I didn’t know what to do with that particular fact. Given a choice between a shark and a crocodile, I would take the shark. I didn’t know what to do with that fact either. And I wished my brain would shut the hell up and let me think.

Meanwhile my brother had noticed it was a large water monitor. We relieved our sheepish feelings by laughing at another group that didn’t notice it until they were almost on top of it. They must have cleared 20 feet easily. But since we’d scared ourselves silly, we couldn’t quite do the water path anymore. So we went hunting for chicken wings.

It was a good day. And I only just got the clever bit about serving wings at an airfield!

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

The cars that drove us

My Dad’s first car was a 1958 Standard Super 10. The previous owner was a senior police officer, so my Dad tended to get waved through checkpoints and suchlike on his frequent road trips. A few years later, KLT 9006 became MEO 5860 when he moved to Bangalore, got a wife and a brace of kids. It also changed from black to white. “The Standard”, as my Dad refers to it, remained our car until I was sixteen. In and around Whitefield, it was iconic, practically a surname.

It’s gone everywhere and ferried everyone – long-distance journeys, school runs, doctor and vet runs, birthday parties, picnics, railways stations, bus terminals and airports at all times of the day and night (it got its windshield broken in a riot on one of these trips), social occasions in all corners of Bangalore,. And of course the mechanic. As our best friend said (they had a Standard Herald of similar vintage): “Until the Maruti came we didn’t even know that cars were supposed to run continuously, without needing constant tending.”

We knew how and when to pour water in the radiator before we were tall enough to see into the engine. We knew about batteries and distilled water and fan belts. We knew how cars worked; we saw it with our own eyes. And where today’s cars have a neat package of basic tools, my dad had a whacking great toolbox and a pile of rags that was essentially bandages and plaster. “Palani’s workshop” in Ulsoor where we had gold-card, frequent-flyer status is now a Diagnostic Centre.

The next car was The Tank, a granduncle’s 1978 Ambassador that we bought after he died. My brother and dad drove it from Calicut to Bangalore in pouring rain, the trip immortalised by my brother’s article in Autocar India. In between, there were assorted hard-bitten Mahindra Jeeps and a Hindustan Trekker that came via my Dad’s job. One of these was my first driving experience. I had to practically stand on the clutch to get it to move.

In 1999, my Dad got his first new, straight-out-of-showroom car – a Maruti Omni. This one did a lot of long-distance trips, too. A second Omni came with air-conditioning and power windows. Now there’s a Hyundai Santro, his first automatic, which I think is the favourite car after the Standard. He certainly treats it like a pet dog.

He learnt to drive in government jeeps on the treacherous hill and forest roads of the Nilgiris. He has fascinating stories of rogue elephants and stray horses. Cashew farming in southern Kerala, fish farming in paddy fields, potato projects in Kodaikanal (“doesn’t taste like my potatoes”), oranges in Kotagiri (“not as sweet as my oranges”). At the time, the agriculture department was also responsible for the welfare of tribal villages – this consisted of giving them the benefit of agricultural research, cultivation methods, seeds and conservation, but also seemed to include wider, less defined support services including rescue from and/or condolences for marauding elephants. I wonder what happened to all this. It seems more desirable than turning forest tribes into handicraft factories or tourist attractions, but I suppose time marches on and all that.

The “Super 10”, as my brother and I call it, had been running for 31 years when we sold it. Apparently it still is, there has been the occasional sighting. My Dad is 73 and has been roadworthy (more or less) for about 47 years. At the end of this month, he needs to get his license renewed. We all have our fingers crossed - his driving license is not just necessary to him, it's also in some fundamental way important to us.

Photos: One is our car, as you might have guessed. The other is the original brochure for a 1958 Standard Super 10.

The House That Built Me, Miranda Lambert, 2010

Thursday, June 23, 2011

We wish them tailwinds

Samim Rizvi is the first Indian and the third Asian in the Race Across America (RAAM), "the world's toughest bicycle race". I'm told the 3000-mile distance is a third longer than the Tour de France, but the cyclists need to finish it in half the time. It runs from the west coast to the east, the route offering several hills to climb towards the end of the race, and mountains in the middle.

I'm following the official team blog for Samim, and I read each day's update with disbelief and awe. The level of endurance and sheer mind-over-matter-ness required is incredible. They - rider and crew - are snatching two or four hours of sleep on roadsides, in the back of cars and only the occasional motel bed. They're cold, uncomfortable and disturbed by trucks going by. Then they wake up and carry on, appreciating sunrises, updating blogs, being energetic and discussing larger issues of water scarcity. Samim's recent average speed was 10.58 mph over the Rockies. It's been six days and he's still going.

Where does it come from, this "ultra endurance"? How does that mind work? A passing volunteer told Samim's crew that it was spiritual, not physical. I suppose that's one way to put it. It's a feat, in the full sense of the term. I first met him on the inaugural Tour of Nilgiris (TFN), where I was deeply impressed by his grit. But now that daily 100km that he used to finish long before the rest seems like a little ride in the park. He considered TFN part of his training.

The RAAM cyclists are approaching the Mississippi river as we speak, which is the two-third mark and considered the deciding point for the cyclists. Some have already passed it. The lead rider - Christoph Strasser - is doing an average of 15.6 mph. So far, he's cycled 2675 miles in seven days. This is how he's feeling about it: “Ah yes. Good, good. I feel good. Everything is good.” And: “A little bit sore, yeah... the legs, the knees of course, the feet... Everything is within the normal range for such an event.”

Yes, RAAM is a race with winners and prizes, but it's mostly a race against yourself. Just completing it within the specified nine days or less is undisputed victory. I have no doubt that Samim will get there, saddle sores, taped-up ankle and all. Meanwhile, Christoph, who seems most likely to get the prize, has 300-odd miles to the chequered flag. I guess in horse-racing terms, he's in the final straight, though his is rather hilly. Am reading a Dick Francis racing-world mystery. At home, in bed, resting and drinking soup because I'm feeling a bit under the weather.

Monday, June 13, 2011

The secret meadows of Singapore

Singapore Zoo: 69 acres
Jurong Bird Park: 50 acres
Labrador Nature Reserve: 25 acres
Admiralty Park: 66 acres
Singapore Botanic Garden: 155 acres
Sungei Buloh Wetland Reserve: 214 acres
East Coast Park: 450 acres

400 acres of primary rainforest. Four nature reserves. 17 reservoirs. A ridiculous number of rivers. In short, field and fountain, moor and mountain are all present in abundance. Side by side with skyscrapers, housing estates, malls, restaurants, hotels, roller coasters, the metro, one of Asia’s largest airports, and of course the residences, offices and tool storage spaces of the 21000 people employed by the Parks Authority. When you’re freshly expatriated to Singapore, your most frequently asked question is “Where do they find the space for it”?

In the time it takes you to reach your local supermarket in Mumbai, you could get to Indonesia. You could be wandering casually in the bird park of a morning when you’ll discover that your phone is on international roaming because Malaysia's that close. And Singapore's that small. How does a tiny island have so much luxury of land? The official greenery alone covers almost half of Singapore, and then there’s the stuff that’s just lying by the roadside.

Turn off a thoroughfare in the city centre and you're likely to find yourself on quiet, Top-Gear-style roads winding through little green hills dotted with venerable black and white mansions lolling about in acres of their own. Walk casually through a cobbled passageway in busy, touristy Chinatown and you’re wrapped in silence, on a path lined with the gardens of quiet homes. You could be walking purposefully past the imposing edifices of banks at the centre of Asia’s financial hub or in the glass-walled places where the purveyors of finance are eating steak, and suddenly you’ll be opposite a cricket green, where people in white are playing a gentle game to languid applause from a white verandah. Take a different route to the supermarket and you’ll come upon a stand of prehistoric creepers with leaves so large, they hold puddles, not raindrops. It’s all very Harry Potter. And quite delightful.

Why can’t other places do it? Life is so much better when it’s tree-lined. It’s not that there’s no development here – you notice the occasional ominous board on a patch of wild green announcing an apartment building or “community” in the making – but there are clear tree-and-garden rules that make all the difference.

Saturday, June 11, 2011

Half a day in the life of a copywriter

Today I was required to “come up with” a children’s story to explain investments, stocks and shares to three-to-eight-year-olds. My response was that the request was outstandingly loopy even for a generally crazy industry, but a brief is a brief and it had to be done. It was also urgent, of course - rule of thumb is that the more difficult a thing is, the less time you have to do it in.

I sat there muttering at my monitor for a while, thinking how stupid to have to explain investments to my niece, for example. Then I remembered that her level of comprehension startled me on a regular basis so the enterprise stopped looking crazy, but I still had no idea how to explain the stuff so it might interest someone that age.

I spent the next hour exploring one route after another and rejecting them on the basis of boring me to tears. It ended with me feeling monumentally crabby so I went out for lunch. While I was struggling to get myself to want salad instead of penne carbonara, there suddenly popped into my head the sweet voice of an animated piggy saying “I’m Peppa Pig”. It’s one of the shows my niece watches all the time (and my favourite among them). By the time the announcement in my head had completed its litany of “This is my little brother George, this is Mummy Pig and this is Daddy Pig”, I had cancelled lunch and was racing back to my computer. Over the next two hours I wrote a happy Peppa Pig episode of my own, with the names of the characters changed to the ones I was supposed to use and sent it off. It went on to break platinum records with the client and everyone lived happily ever after for the rest of the day, only slightly inconvenienced by a gnawing in the stomach region.

Thursday, June 09, 2011

In the essence of time

To write something for myself (includes personal emails because mine always end up being fat novels), I need what I think of as pure time.

First, a little while to slow down and quieten, wander aimlessly, watch YouTube videos, daydream or otherwise lie fallow. Then uninterrupted time to start writing. This needs to come in at least one-hour blocks to be of any practical use. And just one innocuous interruption sets me back extravagantly. Then there’s the editing. And sometimes you don’t like what you wrote so it has to start all over again. So much quality time is hard to find in the week, let alone a day.

I’ve been uncomfortably aware that if I didn't want to change the name of my blog permanently to "Things I haven't blogged about", I was going to have to find a way. So I decided to write on my commute, on my phone. (The notes function on the iPhone looks like a ruled, yellow notebook, has comfortable writing space and an effusively user- friendly keypad. It can be emailed to yourself when you're done. There is no end to the magical mystery rewards of this phone.) In fact, I’m doing that right now – I'm standing in a crowded train, typing comfortably with both hands, having amused myself in the pre-blogpost-writing days by learning how to ride without holding on to anything. Unfortunately it’s not that long a commute, nor does it always coincide with my wanting to write. But it’s something to put on my blog until I finish the many real posts that have been in the making for a while!

The title is one of the priceless things that appear in ad agency briefs from time to time. In my spare time – when the work I have is so boring I don’t want to do it – I compile them. New ones are added much oftener than you’d think, but none has so far topped this from a long-ago brief: “Tone of voice: Enchanting and mysterious”. It was for a sale ad announcing massive discounts on printers and scanners.

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