A Life That Laughs Last Laughs Loudest

fate, free will, future, Life, Oddities, philosophy, Reflections, Travel, Uncategorized

What does a man do with his life while he’s waiting for the real thing to get underway? He can start by picturing all the different scenarios of how it’s going to be, this life he envisages. He might take stock of where he is, what he’s got, where he’s going. He can even look around asking himself was I really meant for this? Did fate get the wrong man?

I never thought for one solitary moment it would cut this way. Never did I imagine I’d end up here by accident, far less on the permanent basis that it actually is. I remember seeing this land ten years back now. I was en route at the time to somewhere else, some place so unimaginably different, in every conceivable way, that I did not know that such a place as this one i was merely transiting through could exist on such a hot, barren and dusty land. When I set foot on that baking tarmac at that fast-expanding international airport it must have been for no more than a hour of getting off one big bird and onto the back of another. It seemed fitting that this place be the staging post and not the destination, for who would choose a destiny as this?

I can still see it now in the backroom of my mind. I visualize taxiing down that apron. The size and scale, not just of the surface area of the airport itself but of the ambitions that had gripped the powers-that-be in that young nation, were such that the bus from the jet to the terminal felt about as long as the flight from England to the airport had been. Even though there buzzed a certain energy to the place, I was not faintly interested in sharing their vision. To think of human history in an accelerated phase, the town was gripped in a frenzy of development, development of the kind that reminds you of a new pharaonic Egypt, built with hot haste and grandiosity by a vast army of freemen slaves under the discreet and watchful gaze of those city fathers plump with fabulous wealth and riches beyond the comprehension of the average Joe. Still, they could keep their gilded city at the edge of the empty quarter as far as i was concerned.

Distinctly unimpressed, I vowed not to miss that connecting flight. This transit town, although abuzz with the bold ambition of a late arrival eager to impress, would never be revisited by me as I saw it then. I and it were just too incompatible for a lengthier reunion. This place left its calling card alright. That card most closely resembled the king of diamonds, glittering the crassness that unlimited amounts of money can buy. That stench of ephemera. Even then I could see that it wouldn’t end well. Ozymandias writ large. What was now about to shine on the world stage would in the nearness of time (while London and Paris held on into a graceful senescence) be reduced to Shelley’s ‘colossal wreck, boundless and bare.

Nothing besides remains, not in a desert at any rate. When sand is ground down there is only dust.

The high entropy of all that sand would eventually rearrange the cosmetic face of this transit town, erasing all trace that we were once here. Nature’s infinite crystals would bring down man’s vanity, his attempts at immortality. At least, in my fertile, jet-lagged mind, that’s how I saw it. Fast forward ten years and those grand human designs were for the most part realised. That army of hired labour has been busy in the decade that intervened. The skyline is now a bric-a-brac effort of borrowed personality and epic proportions. My prophesy of never returning to a place so at odds with what I valued and how I saw the course of my own life rang hollow. But blown on the wind of globalization I did come back to that transit town to work and live. Oh the irony of it. Maybe if I vow never to set foot in the Redwoods of Northern California, I will end up there, too.

Well maybe it is just the time of year, Or maybe it’s the time of man, I don’t know who l am, But ya know life is for learning. Praise be, Joni, for sparing me the effort of summing it all up. Never knowing where the wind will blow us, we float. From place to place, time to time. And life is for learning. Look at me now sitting in this fancy apartment, not sixty miles from that transit town. Those cranes like derricks engorged with oil, I see them now as I was climbing the steps to board that plane. It could have been all my yesterdays ago. Like giant mantises praying on the far edges of the desert under a shimmering, jaundiced sky, I witnessed with fleetingness the birth of a nation. I am its age which, given the immortal life of the rock and sand on which it stands, sounds somewhat absurd.

So, the staging post became the destination. And the destination continues to elude. Life is funny that way. Not making its intentions clear until often it is too late to disagree.


You Couldn’t Make This Up


Three stories from around our oddball planet, where things are rarely what they seem:

Where else to start fittingly on the subject of the weird and wonderful but the US of A. Reports have surfaced that no longer is the humble pack of smokes the unofficial currency in America’s not-to-be-trifled-with prisons. The new gold standard in barter and exchange is none other than the unofficial dish of Japan: Ramen noodles. After more than a century of trading cigarettes for favours, prisoners have now promoted the humble bowl of ramen – beloved of America’a WW2 foe, Japan – to the rank of preferred currency.

In India, where sleeping on a bed of nails has always outdone the memory foam matress for comfort, a man checks in to a hospital complaining of stomach cramps only to have 40 – not 38 or 26 – folding knives surgically removed from his stomach. When asked, ‘why on Earth?’, he answers that he felt like it. A psychopathological disorder known as pica, his taste in metallic edges brings new meaning to the term peckish. 

And finally, in the Gulf, the influential Indian press bemoan the abject performance and lean medal haul of athletes from the populous sub-continent with the headline, 2 winners, 1.48 billion whiners

Sums up the mood of this strange world indeed.

Not even the great Tolstoy, tsar of the yarn, could have made these stories up. Truth is stranger than fiction. 

Where Mountains Let Off Steam

Iceland, Reflections, Travel, Uncategorized

There’s a place high in the North Atlantic where day by day America and Europe grow further apart in matters unrelated to politics. It’s no fun being the subject of a custody battle between mother Eurasia and father America.

Tectonic limbs all wrenched and popped from sockets by the selfish jostling of parents who should know better, this ‘kid’ is a work in geological progress. Only Hawaii experiences growth spurts like this.

There but for the grace of an ever-widening Atlantic goes it. It, of course, is Iceland. It, in its physical manifestation, looks like a green and white lesion on the skin of the Earth when seen from space. As lesions go, this one’s made of tough stuff: of gabbro, rhyolite, andesite and all the inanimate stuff of inner Earth, stuff whose quality reassures in both its lastingness and the sure-footing it provides our little feet on these hair-raising trips around our parent star.

When least expected, the lesion seeps hot puss onto Earth’s skin in the form of hot mantle rock. By night glowing rivulets of lava channel down from the frigid heights to where nature spins this rarely seen material on the loom of time. What spent aeons riding the currents of the hot, viscous ocean under the earth’s crust is now cooled under grey skies in these sub-polar environs. Evidence of it lies strewn everywhere, petrified fragments of magma now little charcoal-coloured sponges dissolved full of holes.

Iceland is rightly known as the land of fire and ice. There, hot geothermic forces that on most landmasses remain under a 70 km cap of insulating crust bring the insanely-hot upper mantle so close to the surface that green mountains blow jets of steam from their flanks. The sight is akin to seeing the smouldering embers of dozens of hillside campfires, except water is the fuel, and not the smouldering remains of firewood. Correspondingly, in rural Iceland, which is practically all of Iceland, drainage trenches cut into the roadside verge create curtains of hot vapour steaming up, making the driver feels he’s driving on a whistling kettle made of tarmac.

Known as Thule to the ancient Greeks, this place of black sand, ice-capped highland, stunted trees and primeval lime moss below the Arctic Circle is by no means mythical in spite of a temptation to deem it so. For to be mythical is to be ancient, and compared with granny Scotland to the south, Iceland is a geological laddie. Plus, its status is real enough to have a runway on its southwest peninsula bringing in an ever-increasing number of people curious to see what all the fuss is about. Not far out of the airport, and one can see why. A volcano, constructed by nature only yesterday so perfect is its conical shape, stamps the country’s character almost immediately.

The south cape of Iceland is a sight like no other. Giving the savage beauty of the cape a human face is the village of Vik. Man, this is one cape that makes Superman’s look pointless. With its super-cooled hexagonal columns of basalt (think Fingal’s Cave in Iona, Scotland) propping up grass-coated cliffs that double as high rise apartments for legions of fulmars, puffins, terns and other tenants, the magic oozes right from the word go. Then there’s the headland that juts fearlessly into the freezing Atlantic. The sea stack at the outer perimeter of the headland is carved into the perfect stone arch which reaches high into the sky and through which a ship could pass unhindered. Pushing south into the North Atlantic, this point is the nearest Iceland will be to warmer waters, that is until it spews more submarine eruptions that give it that extra-territorial reach. No other island can undergo geology’s answer to a cosmetic makeover quite like this one. Stay alive long enough and you’ll see it morph into something else.

The innards of the earth ground down to grains, its black sand beaches stretch away into the past one way and into the future the other. We’re standing on a convergence point of time as it was, as it is, as it will be. All a bit disconcerting, in the nicest possible way. Behind it all looms the presence of the same Eyjafjallajokull volcano that belched thousands of transatlantic flights to a standstill five years ago. Iceland’s famed ponies stand in a huddle against the sheet rain. An endless supply of fresh grass is their only recompense for finding themselves stuck shivering in steel-grey of the mid-Atlantic.

All is not what it seems. Unlike most other places, where heat originates from above, Iceland feels it from below. A skein of hydro-thermal pipes run over old lava fields turned to moss. Blink and the pipes could be running oil. Denuded of trees, this place could be the hellish twin of the Persian Gulf, with its crude oil pipes running over equally barren lands. And like the deserts where winds blow sands into new arrangements, in Iceland it’s the restlessness of what lurks beneath that ensures that timelessness is no more than a cruel illusion. At least, Tolstoy would back me on that one if he were still around.

(The photograph was taken in Vik, on Iceland’s magnificent south cape).

Finding Dark Matter

humour, Oddities, Uncategorized

Mise-en-scène: A party in full swing in a wild riverside wood by the banks of the Rhône in central Geneva. Being night, not much light radiates other than the fading embers of a campfire. A reluctant party-goer, the plan is to stand there, do nothing, and let the laws of attraction do its work. Those physical laws are no more ably demonstrated than by particle physicists. And this being Geneva, home to the world’s greatest particle accelerator, look who we have here at the party down by the river. We have none other than a rabble of scientists from the quasi-mystical kingdom of CERN. I fall into talking with a couple of them. They seem about as ill at ease with their sociable surroundings as me. Geekiness is alive and well on the banks of the Rhône.

One is Italian and bashfully claims to be doing the role of ‘standard model’ photocopying while the other is Mexican and claims to be brewing electrical currents so that the Atlas project can get up to full-speed smashing protons with evermore TeVs.

‘CERN?’ I explete.

‘Woah! Do you boys know Brian Cox?’

‘No. Should we?’

‘Well, yeah. Professor Brian Cox. He’s a playboy particle physicist in Britain. Man, he’s all over the TV popularizing the subject. I ask because he’s at CERN, too.’

The Italian delves deep into pockets and draws his weapon of choice, a smart phone. Busily he starts to type.

‘How do you spell that?’

I spellcheck his effort.

‘No, no. Not with a c-k-s. It’s Cox with the letter x.’

He might be au fait with quantum mechanics, but the mysteries of Engligh phonetics needs working on. Duly, i take the Italian’s phone and type in the famous physicist’s name. He and the Mexican buzz with eagerness.

For reasons unknown, it is the risqué keyword ‘C-O-C-K-S’ and not C-O-X that leads the google image search. Low and behold a montage of photos illuminates the night sky, making my face glow with humiliation. They are all of gay porn actors posing in various states of explicit gay sex.

These scientists from the world’s greatest lab are not impressed. In fact, they couldn’t be more vexed if two WWF wrestlers were put in the Large Hadron Collider and sent crashing belly on belly at fractionally near the speed of light.

An awkward wait for something cosmic to happen ensues, but them being CERN boys they’ll be used to that peculiar phenomenon.

Busy protesting my innocence, I fumble to rectify (rectum-fy?) my mistake only to hit the wrong note again. This time a picture flashes up on google images of a gay porn actor’s anus looking ripe for the taking.

I am mortified.

My attempts at unpicking this mess are looking desperate by the second. What must they think of this stranger with mind full of smut and intentions of malevalence and sodomy?

A tussle for the phone ensues. I win. This time there will be no accidental touch of the recent history list. Cox – C-O-X. No mistaking it this time.

After a tense pause while the image montage loads, up flashes the face of CERN’s most photographed son. I stare at his perma-smile with a mixture of relief and anger. Something impish in that grin suggests Prof Brian was in on the joke all along. Caught red-handed browsing male butts, It is hapless I who is the real big butt of Brian’s joke.

By the blackened banks of the river Rhone in Geneva, my CERN acquaintances and myself have discovered dark matter. But we didn’t need the hadron collider to make that scientific breakthrough. It was the hard-on collider, in this case.