December 14, 2004

the view from serendip



Spacey mood right now.
Have dispatched stealth robot death ninjaspostcards to all appropriate addresses. Had to scramble to beat Colombo-post-office-closure so don't expect a whole lot of verbiage.


Wandering around Mumbai today, I kept passing places with elaborate wrought-iron gates and Devanagari-script banners above - temples? don't think so, Hindu temples tend to be a lot more colourful and decorated - which, on the banners, featured very large scarlet Om symbols next to very large scarlet swastikas. Talk about your semiotic dissonance.

(I was going to insert a picture of each into this post, to let you experience it yourself, but, um, context being king and all, maybe not such a good idea.)


Was reading my Rough Guide India today, in prep for exchanging it tomorrow, and came upon the fact that there are still uncontacted1 tribes in the Andaman Islands, as in the Peruvian jungle. I'm weirdly fascinated by this notion, that there are people right now, in this satellite Internet cell-phone age, living Stone Age lives. I wonder where else.

One of the things the Andaman and Peruvian tribes have in common, and probably the main reason they remain uncontacted1, is that they tend to greet visitors with a lethal hail of arrows. Things you gotta do to keep their privacy.

There are probably other truly-uncontacted tribes out there. The Congo, if anywhere. Haven't been, but I've flown over it, and it's like flying over a very green ocean; and between malaria, Mobutu, blood and bullets, no roads, and unnavigable rivers, it's probably the least explored patch of territory on earth. Borneo, maybe.

New Guinea, maybe, although it's rich enough in minerals that prospectors might have found them already. Did you know that film of first contact exists? Australian prospectors in the 1930s brought a cameraman along on the first expedition into the New Guinea highlands, and their encounter was immortalized. I've seen it. It's pretty amazing, as are the two sequels to the documentary in which it features. (I don't know if Netflix stocks them or not.)

And a mere decade later, the Japanese, the Australians, and the Americans were fighting pitched and bloody battles over, around, and on that very same land, which is still riddled by relics, bullets, shattered aircraft. Weird synchronicity. Like how General Custer died the same month the first American phone exchange started up.

1well, we know they exist, so maybe "unintroduced" is more accurate.

Anyways.

Serendibity.

Sri Lanka is, outside of its ugly cities, an achingly pretty country, both the glorious golden coconut-palms-and-coral-reefs beaches of its exterior and the thick wet green-on-green-on-green tropical-rainforest interior. It's hard to believe that this idyllic paradise is also the site of a vicious civil war. An ongoing war, although a ceasefire has mostly held for three years now, and a war which puts paid to notions such as "Buddhists don't fight wars" and "Most suicide bombers are Islamic".

Michael Ondaatje sums it up in Anil's Ghost: "The bodies turn up weekly now. The height of the terror was 'eighty-eight and 'eighty-nine, but of course it was going on long before that. Every side was killing and hiding the evidence. Every side. This is an unofficial war, no one wants to alienate the foreign powers. So it's secret gangs and squads. Not like Central America. The government was not the only one doing the killing. You had, and still have, three camps of enemies--one in the north, two in the south--using weapons, propaganda, fear, sophisticated posters, censorship. Importing state-of-the-art weapons from the West, or manufacturing homemade weapons. A couple of years ago people just started disappearing. Or bodies kept being found burned beyond recognition. There's no hope for affixing blame. And no one can tell who the victims are."

There's a heavy military presence in Colombo, sandbagged pillboxes, barbed wire, fenced-off streets, loads of sullen kids in uniform wielding AK-47s, but in the rest of the country - well, the parts I went to, which didn't include anywhere near the front line - you'd hardly know. Peace, beauty, loads of bikini-clad tourists and friendly smiling locals.

I flew in and immediately hopped the train from Colombo to Galle, once a massive (34-hectare, or like 60 acres I think) Dutch fort, colonial architecture walled with massive stone ramparts and sea walls, a huge old lighthouse overlooking dramatic rocky bays on either side - and, just south, a bustling modern city, with a cricket ground as the no-man's-land between old and new. I stayed in the old fort, which was creepy, not least because the street lighting is highly insufficient (unless you rely on the fireflies) and I got there after dark, as lightning flickered over the sea. At night, the crumbling and peeling ancient stone colonial architecture looks half-unreal, and the modern businesses, banks and shops and restaurants, that have set up within them seem temporary and insubstantial, like birds' nests in the Pyramids. It's an easy place to believe in ghosts.

Not so Uwanatuna, five kilometres to the south, a big steep U-shaped beach where the main attractions consist of surfing (the shape of the bay, and the rocks jutting out of the ocean on one side, guarantee huge breaking waves pretty much all day), scuba diving (more in a bit), and sitting on the beach eating and drinking. I went there to dive but only got two dives in, partly because a severe hangover ate up one day, partly because the diving was only OK. The sites were fine, but conditions were crap. The ocean, like the sky, has its weather, and while I was there the surge was massive, even ten and twenty metres deep, swooping you back and forth regardless how how hard you kicked, so you had to keep a wise eye out to avoid being blown into rocky ridges.

I did see, on the first dive, lots of colourful fish, one school numbering in the thousands, and a moray eel. The second was a 25-metre wreck dive with visibility of maybe 2 metres. The effect was actually kind of interesting; instead of seeing the whole wreck, I could only make out elements, superstructure girders, or a huge propeller, or a massive rent where the deck had been torn by rocks, all of it encrusted and barnacled and slimed and patrolled by hundreds of fish. My dive shop was kind of cowboy-y - my first depth gauge didn't work, which is bad, and my second was five metres short, which is probably worse, and I think the divemaster cut our time mighty fine on the second dive - but hey, at $30 all inclusive per dive, risking your life is cheap at the price, and I lived to tell the tale, even though technically you're not supposed to dive while taking Lariam. (It did seem to accentuate its psychoactive effects; I spent the 24 hours after the deep dive in a most-unlike-me anxious-hypochondrical-hands-wringing mood.)

Still, overall thumbs up, and my appetite is definitely whetted for a serious dive trip one of these years. I know there's a coupla divers who read this - hey, , , wanna go on an expedition to Truk Lagoon or Rabaul one of these years? Pricey, but man, look at them.


From Galle to Kandy via Sri Lanka Railways' really-cheap-and-with-reason trains: "our motto, unexpected delays and sardine-packed crowds!" Kandy was, as I've said, kind of disappointing. An ugly city has grown up on one side of a pretty lake. On the other side is the massive Temple of the Tooth, who claim to have a tooth of Buddha himself, and celebrate this fact by massive drumming and chanting festivals several times a day which are played to the whole city via massively distorting amplifiers. Call me a heretic, but I liked Buddhism better as a religion of quiet contemplation. There are a couple of tame elephants and loads of monkeys, if that's your thing. Call me an elephant snob, but I like the African ones better. The rainforest around Kandy looks a lot more inviting, but the one full day I spent there was torpedoed by constant pelting rain, so meh. Train back to Colombo yesterday, viewing of Mean Girls there (weird place for it, but it was surprisingly good), midnight "teleportation" flight - as in, I remember taking off, and being woken for the landing, but nothing in between - here to Mumbai, and here I am, my gifts all purchased, and heavy enough that the recipients better bloody well appreciate them. Tomorrow night at 4AM, Paris via Dubai; Friday night, homeward bound.

More book reviews. Includes mocking spoilers of The Da Vinci Code.

Books since:

Dan Brown, The Da Vinci Code. Badly written but brilliantly constructed thriller. Easy to resent for having sold more copies than the Bible, and for Brown's apparent actual belief in its wonky conspiracies, but if you treat it as just another book, the beginning and end suck, but the middle 250 pages are extremely entertaining. The whole thing is basically one long chase scene, it all takes place in about 12 hours, and it's written in many little chapters, each of which ends in a mini-cliffhanger - this sort of thing is really hard to do, and is done well here, and I respect it. And if you weren't already familiar with the Knights-Templar ancient-conspiracy-theory Evil-Catholic-Secrets tropes from Foucault's Pendulum (a book whose hem The Da Vinci Code is not worthy to touch) or Holy Blood, Holy Grail (shamlessly reused, but at least Brown cites it by name in the story), they're probably really cool. Unfortunately the actual writing and characterization waffles between "mediocre" and "bad".

Its biggest flaw is that it's completely unbelievable. Spoiler-laden fact checks:
  • No matter how lovingly the route is described early on in the book, trust me, you cannot drive from Opera, down Place Vendome, through - yes, through - the Tuileries, and into the Louvre.
  • Leonardo da Vinci, while a genius, did not invent public key cryptography. Incidentally, if you're going to needlessly use the phrase "public key cryptography" in a book, you should not do so in a way which makes it clear you have no idea what it means.
  • Interpol is an information-sharing bureaucracy, not, repeat not, a pan-European secret police force with Gestapo-like efficiency who knows where everyone in Europe is sleeping at any given moment.
  • There is no such thing as "the most direct bloodline" of a single individual who died 2000 years ago, and if the bloodline exists at all, the odds are compelling that it now includes a significant fraction of the human race.
  • Men and women did not live together around the world in peace, harmony, and perfect gender equality before Emperor Constantine. Also, societies who worship the Sacred Feminine have a very sad record of treating women with anything like equality. (Take Hinduism: Kali, Durga, Saraswati, Lakshmi, etc, all seriously kick-ass goddesses. Women? Chattel to be burned on their husband's funeral pyre if he dies before she.)
  • If the French police actually did call police in England and demanded that they impound an incoming vehicle, they would be very lucky to meet with anything as respectful as belly laughter.
  • One of the central backstory points is that a Frenchwoman accidentally walked in on her grandfather performing a public sex ritual and was so shocked that she cut off all contact with him for the rest of his life. Dude. She's French. Parisienne no less. She'd politely excuse herself and say no more about it.
  • No matter how you much and how fast you wave your hands, making the final twist be "the protagonist's staunch ally for the last two hundred pages is really the bad guy!" is ludicrously stupid and makes no sense whatsoever.
  • Presumably his religious history and iconography is just as bad, but not my area of expertise.

Alexander McCall Smith, The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency. Delightful and deservedly acclaimed sort-of-novel sort-of-collection about the adventures of Precious Ramotswe, Botswana's only woman private detective. Compellingly written, vividly and accurately Africa. I worried at first it was going to be a little too much a rose-coloured-window of Africa - Botswana is the dark continent's most prosperous country, but still - but oh no, there's plenty of darkness to balance its light.

Anthony Trollope, Barchester Towers. 's fault. Except I'm enjoying it far more than I ought to given that this is the kind of novel I usually hate. The best characterization since Dickens. I still have 150 pages to go, so that's all I'm saying for now.