Monday, April 21, 2014

Sailboats and wishing wells

It’s not the saying goodbye. If you’re an expat, you already know how to do this; it’s one of the first things you learn and you get a lot of practice. It’s the not knowing if the relationships you send off with ceremony, celebration and the deepest good wishes will make it across time and space. You’ll only know a month or five later when you’re still Whatsapping every three days, or barely featuring on each other’s Facebook newsfeeds. And you can only hope that if it’s the latter, it will be an equal moving on on both sides, and nobody will be left with one hand stretched out awkwardly. Both parties will move on, find new connections, new rhythms. Whether the old ones will adapt and survive is anybody's guess. You take a chance on loving them, they take a chance on loving you*. And that’s about all you can do. Maybe that’s why expats seem to drink so much more than any other group of people.

*I didn’t invent the lovely line, Katie Melua did.

Friday, April 04, 2014

The other Phnom Penh

The lychee Caipiroska is excellent. The walls are a matte British racing green. The furniture is lightish wood and grainy leather. The music is hipster house, as is the clientele. I, in my glamorous solitude, fit right in. The manager, assuming resident not tourist, comes over to give me her card and express surprise at never having seen me before. I tell her it's because she doesn't have WiFi. Which may have been true if I lived here – we in Asia consider free WiFi our most important birthright. It seems as if the less free the government, the more freely available the Internet access. It’s all part of the complexity that makes it equal parts exhilarating and frustrating.

The next stop is European, in the Hollywood sense of the word. Ceilings vault upwards, walls are bare stone, furniture is sparse. The people are long, lean and effortlessly chic in tiny nondescript t-shirts, minimum make up, barely-there jewellery. Having done this sort of thing a lot in Saigon, I am completely at home, though sporting more shiny things on my person than everyone else here combined.

The one after that is at the other end of the scale, with a bar counter of the poshest concrete, and music of the kind that must have been on the Billboard charts this morning. My body language automatically changes - chin up, shoulders back, sweep in as if that velvet rope is an automatic door, before they bounce you for wearing the wrong shoes. At 9:30pm, I'm too early for a place like this, but there are some other early customers, clouds of perfume and clothes I saw in the Feb issue of Vogue go past me to the VIP area.

As the evening progresses, the crowd is exclusively Khmer, and exclusive by any standard. The “DJ booth" is a whole bank of them spinning as if the Earth's movement depended on it. Sparklers glitter at a surprising number of tables on bottles of Taittinger and Zapaca, making you wonder what on earth could possibly be in the VIP area. The Sambuca shot here is a multi-tier fireshow extravaganza. People are ordering Blue Frogs by the pitcher, absinthe shots by the dozen. It isn't long before I'm gathered into someone's girls' night out. One absinthe shot to Sho Cho’s in Dubai, one Blue Frog to a dive called Jimmy Dix, another drink to real friends, everywhere, and I'm off. Except... Timber comes on, my new companions are fun, and nobody has yet ordered the drink that requires the two-foot straw. When I finally do get out, I'm surprised to find no line of beige Dubai taxis. The tuk-tuks do the job just as efficiently but my confusion is a testimonial to the quality of the club.

My next stop is all brushed steel and silk. If the last club was about money, this one is about power, the patrons not needing sparklers to validate their importance. I end my Saturday Night pilgrimage at a place that can only be described as uber. I have no idea what sort of stuff it’s built of, place and people both, they’re all just… uber. I leave very soon, this kind of thing not being my scene. I like sparklers and fireshows.

This view of Phnom Penh was extended the next morning as I wandered through the designer boutiques on Street 240, sampled handmade chocolates, and discussed the Indian elections with a café owner over Sauvignon Blanc and baguettes.

But when I leave that night, I am – unnervingly – the only flight departing from an international airport. The runway is empty except for a solitary ATR in the distance. And since there are only 12 passengers, it feels a little bit like a secret witness relocation program.

I never did find out what the two-foot straws are for.

Monday, February 17, 2014

A Saturday night in Saigon

Growing older single has taken away the ability to do nothing without the sneaky feeling of being a social misfit. I’ve always enjoyed my own company – or that of characters in books and sitcoms – but now I can’t shake the feeling that it’s pathetic, and I should be out somewhere creating a fracas.

Every weekend I see Facebook photos of my peers taking their kids to the zoo, or watching TV with their partners, or having lunch with other couples. And I wish I was too. Until I found that several of them look at my weekend pictures and wish they were doing that. Clearly there’s a healthy amount of greener grass in the world at any given point in time. So that’s okay.

So I’m spending a Saturday night watching my friends make the mistakes I’ve already made, swallowing the wisdom I know they won’t hear, confining myself to light chaperonage that can perhaps steer them away from the worse bits. I’m drinking too, just like they are, but am hampered by a vague sense of responsibility, a very clear memory of what a hangover feels like, and an even greater desire to not lose my Sunday to one. (I’m also blessed with a harder head than most, which helps.) I seem to have moved seamlessly from eternal sister to eternal aunt. The fun kind, who you’re happy to hang out with. I do have a lot of good role models in that, so that’s okay too. As a cousin once said to me, we needed our young, single aunts; everyone needs that aunt.

I sit on the stairs, peacefully texting other friends in other time zones, while various characters from Leonard Cohen songs surge up and down, getting on with the serious business of bad decisions. I enjoy myself, as I usually do when left alone to do so. Clubs and noisy bars have never been my mileu in terms of social success, because I need conversation to click. I love the noise, the clubby music and the party vibe, but only as a spectator. If I’m allowed to just be the weird woman on the sidelines writing blog posts about it, I am deeply happy.

Now it’s two in the morning, still an hour away from the blinding lights of closing time. The evening is at the height of its fever. There are the young animals raising the roof with the sort of confidence you have to be born with. Around them, others are brandishing the kind that comes one shot at a time out of a tequila bottle. There are girls judging other girls for doing exactly the sort of thing they would like to be doing. Some girls for whom this is a working evening, many others who are so far down the tequila bottle that that line is not the only one that’s a bit blurred. Girls in tears, girls who will be in tears in the morning, boys getting into trouble, groups of friends unsteadily but doggedly holding one another back from one fate or the other.

Someone sits down on the stairs next to me saying “That’s the longest text message in the world”. I tell him it’s a blog post. He says I’d do better to rescue my friend. I look at him enquiringly, he points downstairs to the bar. I follow the pointing finger – and yes, it’s definitely aunty-time. I shelve the writer and get off the stairs. I have no trouble disentangling her, and getting her into a cab. I get into a cab myself, feeling like the oldest inhabitant of the world. It isn’t until I get home that I realize belatedly – for perhaps the five hundredth time in my life – that I’d misread an opportunity on the stairs. Could probably do with an aunt myself!

Monday, December 09, 2013

Silent Night, Noisy Night

At my Sunday lunch, someone played Silent Night from my playlist, and the boy who grew up in Darjeeling and the girl who grew up in Whitefield agreed with complete understanding that this song evokes greater nostalgia for our India than any number of Diwali lamps.

When I return home in December, the Whitefield in my mind is the one I grew up in, where it’s quiet enough to hear the church bells on Christmas Day. Where they play cricket in the Inner Circle ground on Sunday mornings and bring excitement into the lives of the dogs – sooner or later a ball would land inside the private gardens, the dogs would fetch it and then guard it ferociously in full view of helpless fielders outside. They’re all still at the gate, those dogs, tails wagging. The car is still a red Omni van. Traffic is thin on the roads. Jagriti is still a farm. The lake is unfenced, surrounded still by flower farms and vineyards. There are eucalyptus groves instead of housing developments with Balinese names. When I say Bangalore to people who ask where I’m from, the place in my mind is from the early nineties, when Whitefield was just the greener, quieter oasis on the outskirts of India’s Garden City.

No sign remains of either place, of course. The reality is an over-developed hellhole. I know there’ll be Facebook updates on the ride from the airport, from walks where I notice that yet another 100-year-old heritage cottage has been buried in the foundation of a block of flats, another signature raintree cut down. I might as well just schedule them now and save myself the 3G bill.

But the Sunday, with the windows open and the rooms full of the December sun, it seemed as if no time had passed at all. My parties are just like my parents’ many, many gatherings. My table looks exactly like my mother’s. My overreactions to others’ policy decisions regarding plates or cutlery are quite hereditary too.

And given all the changes in Whitefield, it’s amazing that my parents are still able to buy their coffee freshly ground from the same little coffee merchant, and their bread freshly baked in the same bakery that was there before I was born. The fact that the bakery now has two branches and has a snack bar has not changed the bread. (The coffee man has no such ambitions – I doubt even the grinder has been upgraded in the 30 years).

As I prepare for another family meet, count the people and the presents and wonder big suitcase or medium, it feels like this – perhaps the hundredth trip home of my adult life – is momentous. Last time I left from Singapore, the family meet being a transit stop on a much greater journey to Vietnam. I return now from that journey, refreshed to the point of transformation by the change. I’ll be home for Christmas.

Friday, December 06, 2013

Down the rabbit hole on a Friday afternoon

It suddenly came to me in the course of my regular morning catch-up that my entire career has been that of a guest star. And the longer I stay in one place, the less of a permanent place I have. Through six years in one agency, I wandered between three floors, with a new desk every year, always a major contributor, always welcome, but never fully affiliated anywhere. At other times, I have represented four separate companies in the space of one day, and was a credit to them all. Now I’ve been three years in the same organization, but have had six desks in five offices across two countries.

Because of this I’ve been “significantly up-skilled” almost every three months for 20 years. I’ve fetched up here creative-trained, Public Affairs trained, media-trained, analytics-trained, digitally savvy, equally able to manage a client, a team, a campaign or a Facebook page. I struggle to answer the question “what do you do?”. It doesn’t always help me sleep at night, but it does make the days fraught with excitement.

Now and then, the ghost routine makes me feel vulnerable, because your achievements can be equally felt-but-not-seen. And sometimes you can get slightly tangled up in all the dotted lines in an org chart. But mostly I know that that is how I work best – when there are no clear lines, when I can pass through fences, come and go as I please. I’m grateful that I work in an industry that thrives on it. My two-year foray into the corporate world didn’t work because I grew out of my box very fast, but had nowhere else to go, so I was stuck awkwardly in it. My most defeated days are the ones when I come up against those who see a broken fence as a problem rather than an opportunity.

The strangest part of this is the realization that my very first boss saw it in the first month of my working life. She was given two copy trainees but she made only one of them spend time in all the agency departments to get an all-round picture of how an agency worked. So here’s to my long line of bosses, all of whom expected – and still expect – more from me than my peers, who demand and get more than I think I have to give.

Even now, and perhaps forever, I will still reach for any random bottle I come across labelled “drink me”, will not able to resist the cake with the note saying “eat me” – branching off my career along another side road, just like that. But contrary to my lifelong belief, it’s not a bad thing, but actually quite an asset. And I've had the time of my life.

Tuesday, December 03, 2013

Counting down at Den & Trang

A violinist and guitarist duo play by themselves near the piano unacknowledged and not wanting to be. The lofty sentiments of the violin soar up to the old wooden rafters, but the earthier notes of the acoustic guitar flutter around the slatted wooden benches on the flagstones. The piano is available to anyone to play for 25 cents an hour, and someone will avail themselves of it at some point in the evening.

The coffee is good here, but the food takes forgettable to new heights, becoming almost inedible in parts. But then nobody comes here to eat. I don’t know how they make their money.

A boy sits at one table sketching. Elsewhere, a couple whispers to each other. A man lounges on the corner sofa reading (or checking Facebook) on his iPad. He’s stretched out in a space meant for a group of six, but nobody here will dream of doing anything so devastatingly practical as moving him to the armchair. The group of six is happily squashed around a small table, playing cards, with two members sitting on the floor. A girl takes endless photos of a bowl of flowers, checking, deleting, adjusting, clicking, over and over, unremarked and unremarkable here, among all the other square pegs whose edges are slowly being filed down to something approaching comfort. Smart groups are drinking dubious juice concoctions, having already made one dubious choice - to sit in the enclosed area rather than the rambling verandah. And at her favourite table under the wind chimes, a lapsed writer tries to remember how it’s done.

I return like a turtle to this, the first place I came to on my first day in Saigon, my café that I found first crack out of the box. It’s probably my answer to why I felt so instantly that I belonged here in this weird and wonderful city.

So here in my café – the latest in a long line of my Domes, French Connections, Koshys, Casa Piccolas, Costas and Coffee Clubs – one week from my 40th birthday, I try to work out what the 18-year-old me had wanted to have become by now. Two hours later, I am forced to admit that I don’t think the teenager ever conceived of such an advanced age.

I do remember an old Nescafe ad and a daydream of drinking coffee at a picture window in my own flat, looking out at boats on a storied river. I laugh as I think of my mornings now, standing at my kitchen window, spooning coffee into the cafetiere while the sun comes up over the water. The river in my mind then was almost certainly the Thames, the Danube, the Hudson or the Seine - and just a few years later, it must have become Humber River in Toronto or Sydney Harbour - but the Saigon River has stories enough.
Cafe Den & Trang, 47 Tu Xuong, District 3, Saigon

Friday, July 05, 2013

10 good things about first dates when you're over 39

1. You don't feel the need to apologise for your tastes - music, books, movies, anything.
2. Nor do you pretend to "interesting" tastes that you don't have.
3. You still agonise about what to wear but deep inside you know that it won't matter beyond the first two minutes.
4. And you don't worry beyond these two minutes about the four extra kilos you could have done without.
5. You understand that the fate of the date - or indeed, the planet - does not hang on whether your hair is frizzy.
6. In fact you have come to terms with the fact that the possibility of uncontrollable frizz is directly proportional to the importance of the date.
7. You worry that who you are won't match up to what you look like, rather than the other way round.
8. You don't ruin the whole evening for yourself by second guessing or playing games. You actually go out to have fun.
9. If you do something embarassing like spilling or breaking things, you laugh and move on. Again, you have accepted that the chance of these things happening is directly proportional to how much you want to make an impression.
10. It doesn't matter who pays for what. It's a non-subject. You do stuff and it gets paid for by one or the other. That's all there is to it.

Friday, June 28, 2013

Angkor Wat without photographs

Ornate gopurams rising into the sky and thousand-year-old lintels with dancing girls on them are not new to an Indian. Especially not if your school insisted on annual cultural excursions across the length and breadth of South India. I thought of the pretty staggering monuments of India and wondered uneasily whether I’d have to spent the rest of my life lying about how awesome I found Angkor.

I started with the Bayon Temple, and was not disappointed. I automatically went clockwise, in a ritual I have not participated in for at least 15 years, and questioned the faith of even as a child. I also hesitated instinctively when walking through what clearly used to be inner sanctums, though the deities are long gone. I walked up and down many flights of stairs, gave myself vertigo on rooftops. And then walked around the rest of Angkor Thom with growing interest, the laterite damp from humidity, grounds crunchy with fallen baby coconuts, the sun hot as hell.

The sheer scale of it registered slowly, as I explored with much delight many temples with trees growing out of them. Then I set off in the dark pre-dawn for Angkor Wat. Take the feeling of wonder when you first saw the famous Dravidian temples. The delicate, intricate beauty of Belur and Halebid, the awe with which you looked up at Sravanabelagola, the vastness of Hampi, the fastness of Chitradurga, the gloriousness of Tanjore and Madurai, the murals of Mahabalipuram, that tangible feeling of immortality in the dark corridors of many, many coastal temples – and multiply it all by several thousands. That's Angkor Wat. It’s huge.

I discovered along the way that my irreligiousness is fairly well-informed. Apparently, Hinduism is like cricket in India - you pick up the rules and lore anyway, whether you’re a fan or not. I see a random scene in a frame and I know which part of the Mahabharatha it refers to. I overhear a guide talk about the churning of the ocean, and remember my paternal grandmother telling it to me while walking to the ancestral temple through grounds very like these. I've forgotten how the story ended and what happened after the great nectar double-cross. The guide didn't know either, nor did the bas-reliefs. The stone-carvers were having too much fun sculpting crocodiles and sealions to bother with the end of the story. It was a good call. They also gave every elephant, monkey and horse in the battle of Lanka an individual character. Walking along that 600-meter mural is fascinating. The apsaras are Cambodian, but the rishis are Indian. In fact, there's a whole row of them with a distinct resemblance to Guru Nanak.

When you call Angkor Wat awesome, the word has a separate meaning all to itself. There are hundreds of thousands of photos of it - I took many of those myself - but nothing conveys the feeling of seeing it, being there. Stepping in the early morning light into the inner quadrangle of Angkor Wat, I completely forgot about work for the first time in at least three months. I had no chatter in my head.

As for the rest of Siem Reap, well, everything is always dimmed a little when you come from Vietnam, especially the food. The poverty here is abject, defeated, as if the shadow of all the ancient grandeur is too large to step out from under. But the children smile as they sell flutes in woven palm cylinders, and bracelets made of painted seeds. So do their parents, selling juice. Buddhism here is the cynical photo booth that Hinduism is in the historical temples of India: A blessing in an incense stick for a dollar, or the curse of a stranger's god if you choose not to.

But also, like Vietnam, something in the place reaches out and takes your hand. When I left, I wrote this in my notes. It was a Facebook status update that I decided not to post: “Goodbye Cambodia, I really don't want to leave, with my hat, my pirated Harry Potter (that freely mingles two books, the pirates checking page numbers not content), and the largest painting in the world.”

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

The curse of the bucket list

Who cares what someone else decides are the hundred things to do before you turn forty or fifty, or die?

I haven’t seen Petra or the Pyramids, but I’ve been to a Lebanese wedding in Beirut and dined in a mountain villa in Nabatieh. It’s a warm memory that returns unexpectedly now and then to brighten a dull day. I haven’t seen the Hagia Sophia but I’ve picked lavender growing wild in an orchard in Izmir. It was a sensory effusion that Crabtree & Evelyn can only dream of. I haven’t seen New York but I’ve seen a little snow in California. The feeling of standing at the foot of a hill covered with snow made me feel like a child seeing the world for the first time.

I haven’t seen Angkor Wat, but I’ve walked barefoot in a temple where a hundred oil lamps glowed in the walls and caparisoned elephants swayed to the beat of fifty temple drums. I’ve even fed one of them (elephant, not drummer). I’ve never seen the Taj Mahal, but I’ve seen Humayun’s tomb.

I’ve meditated in an ashram, done yoga on a mountain top, stayed in a Tibetan monastery. None of them is all it’s cracked up to be.

I’ve been in the tunnels of Vietnam. I’ve touched the Pacific, the Atlantic, the Antarctic Ocean, the Aegean Sea, the Mediterranean Sea, the Gulf of Thailand, the South China Sea, the Arabian Sea, the Bay of Bengal, the Indian Ocean.

I haven’t seen a purple Tahitian sunset but I’ve seen the sun rise over a field full of Zebras in Cape Town. The wonder wasn’t lessened because I was on my way to a conference.

I haven’t seen the Seine or the Danube, but I’ve floated in a wooden houseboat filled with the laughter of close family down the backwaters of Kumarakkom, taken water taxis in Bangkok, abras in Dubai and a fishing boat in the Mekong Delta. I have snorkelled in Mauritius, sailed with dolphins in Oman, slept in the desert, climbed a small mountain, had kahwa in an Arabian souk.

I haven’t seen the Cirque du Soleil but I have seen in concert Placido Domingo, Luciano Pavarotti, Alicia Keys, Burston Marsella, Robbie Williams, Bryan Adams, Vanessa Paradis, Deep Purple, Sepultura, The Darkness, UB40, Fifty Cent, James Blunt, Kylie Minogue, The Cranberries. I haven’t seen Cats but I’ve seen Wicked. I enjoyed it with a fullness of satisfaction that is hard to describe.

I lived long enough in both Dubai and Singapore to not sum it up in one glib sentence.

It’s not that I don’t want to go to the places I haven’t been (I very much do), but I don’t see why the things I’ve done must be rendered null and void by the things I haven’t.

If there’s someone out there who only had two things on their list for their whole life: 1. Stay alive. 2. Cure cancer, it wouldn’t exactly be a wasted life, would it? No, and nor would you have wasted your life if your list said: 1. Go out for lunch every Sunday 2. Get promoted 3. Buy house with garden 4. Buy car 5. Buy big TV, 6. Watch children graduate 7. Play with grandchildren 8. Celebrate silver wedding anniversary with current spouse, followed by 92 other points that make up your own definition of a good life.

People who compile bucket lists don’t change the world, discover gravity, cure polio or invent the light bulb – throughout history this has generally been done by people who don’t go on holiday, don’t want to try new food and wouldn’t go near a spa even if you gave them a voucher.

Why must we accept new reasons to feel inadequate and insecure just because someone’s offering them?

Sunday, July 22, 2012

The Saigon effect

Most shops in Saigon shut down by nine, but in the streets around Ben Thanh market, that’s when they start up. The night market vendors begin setting up around 7pm, placing poles, tarpaulin and merchandise, in precision order. Every night is carnival night, a wholehearted outpouring of light and sound and colour. I don’t know when they actually close – but when I've returned at 2:30 am from the occasional party, they’re doing this in the reverse order. These streets are never empty. When I’m going for my walk in the morning they’re serving noodles for breakfast on the pavements. When I return from work in the evening, they’re selling grilled shrimp.

Some vendors recognise me now. The cigarette lady knows not to charge me the tourist price because I simply won’t buy. In return, I wait politely until the tourists have finished congratulating themselves on how cheap it is, not knowing they’re paying two and a half times what they should be.
The fruit sellers have learnt that bent old beggars might get money out of me, but I take a firm stand on extortionate custard apples. The ones with cut fruit will only hail me if they have properly ripened jackfruit (they learnt very early on that I know what jackfruit is supposed to taste like). The phone card man knows I want to be let inside his shop to use the card rather than on the street where someone on a bike can snatch my phone. The shoe sellers know their shoes are too big for me, but I won’t be able to resist the neon platforms they’re waving, so I will come in hopefully anyway. The clothes people ignore me entirely because everything’s too small. The bag sellers know I won’t buy but something sufficiently colourful will bring me in. And then I will complain about weak seams and zips. Most of them are just amused by this, but one old man looked thoughtfully at my battered Hidesign sling bag and nodded in comprehension – and then said with a twinkle that I could get 10 of his bags for what I paid for that. I promptly asked him if that was his price and he said only if I was buying 10 – and we both laughed and went our cheery ways.

The souvenir shops stopped calling out to me two months ago. I went in today though, to buy a fridge magnet for my Dad, and the coconut seller outside asked me if I was leaving. The first time I bought from him, he wanted to know if my nose stud was diamonds. I prudently said no. He laughed and told me he used to be a goldsmith. I grinned back noncommittally, but neither of us had enough of the other’s language to pursue the interesting story of why a goldsmith was selling coconuts.

I nodded to him and continued on, picking my way through the clockwork bicycles and paper snakes skittering about on the pavement, skirting the pushcarts selling ice cream, dried fish or gooseberries, nodding to the old lady with the rambutans, the scooter mechanic and the cheerful beggar without a leg, smiling at the ever-optimistic cyclo guy and hammock man. When I reached the back entrance of my hotel, the doormen sprang to hold the door for me, looked thoughtfully at the fridge magnet in my hand and asked me if I was leaving.

As I added it to the pile of gifts that needed to somehow magically not add up to excess baggage, I suddenly realised I’d bought very little for myself, though I’d been living on the doorstep of Saigon’s most popular market.

I looked down from my window at this city that I’d wandered for three months, not a tourist or a resident, neither expat nor local. And I know I’m taking with me a heart and mind stuffed as full to bursting as my bags – unexpected friendships like I haven’t known since much younger days in Dubai and Muscat, equally unexpected sense of not just success (which I never really doubted), but appreciation, the sweetness of partnership at work, a reawakening of hope and ambition, a moving on from the baffling injustices of recent years, the return of the laughter and energy I’d feared were gone for good.

In the exhilarating chaos of life here, I’d got myself back. Merci, Saigon. Whatever happens next, that's one souvenir I will display with pride and pleasure.

PS: Most of the photos here are not mine but I don't know whose they are so cannot acknowledge.