A Magical dreamland

I was recently thumbing through an old copy of a book entitled “1000 places to see before you die” . Buenos Aires seemed to have more places in that book than the rest of Argentina combined but fortunately it did mention the Southern hemisphere’s version of a Glacier  park , Parque Nacional Los Glaciares . The park is not merely a national treasure but a treasure for the world . It is located in the Patagonian part of Argentina (though the locals might say that it located in Argentinian part of Patagonia) . If you are coming from Puerto Natales in Chile , they have a number of buses which frequently ply between El Calafate (of the Berry fame) and Puerto Natales . It was amusing for me to watch one of the immigration officials drinking mate . Our bus driver and the other bus driver joined him and to my surprise , one of the passengers from my bus also joined in. I watched in quiet morbid fascination as the cup with the straw went from hand to hand , mouth to mouth.  The border crossing was painful where the Argentine guards come in and pick anybody who looks even remotely unkempt for a random check , in this case I found that if one had dreads they were subjected to a random search. Once the bus crosses into Argentina , we soon end up on the famed Patagonian highway Ruta 40. Ruta 40 covers over 3000 miles across high desert,  highlands , rivers , national parks . I could not help but notice that in the bus stations , there are prominent signs displaying the various attractions , be it parks or cities but almost all of them feature Ruta 40 as an attraction . To get to the Los Glaciares , one needs to go first to El Calafate . El Calafate has a small airport and is a decent sized town . Los Glaciares is huge national park with El Calafate at the southern tip of the park and El Chalten giving you access to the northern side of the park .As soon as I landed in El Calafate , I booked tickets to the Perito Moreno Glacier for the next morning, El Chalten right after I returned from the Glacier, the return from El Chalten to El Calafate a day later and the return to Puerto Natales the next day

El Calafate is beautiful in its own right , this was the view from my AirBnB of Lago Argentino when I woke up the next morning .

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They have planted lavender everywhere , smells yummy .I noticed a fascinating thing about the tea pot , it had a mate setting !!!

I was excited to see the Perito Moreno Glacier  .The glacier is the only one that is actually growing . Considering that the South Patagonian icefield feeds dozens of glaciers in both Argentina and Chile and this is the only glacier that is actually growing , I imagine it has more to do with some hydraulic and geological pressure that we are not privy too .

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They have a boat that takes you pretty close to the Glacier and you can actually see huge chunks of the glacier calving off and floating around

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There are also options to actually put on crampons and hike on the Glacier(it is 6.2 miles and considered strenuous by AllTrails) but I had to get back to El Calafate and get on the bus to El Chalten so I did a quick 2 mile hike on a trail that lets you view the glacier from multiple angles .

I reached El Calafate and I was surprised to find some compadres from the O circuit in Torres Del Paine . They were couple of young kids and I had never chatted with them before but here we recognized each other as fellow sufferers on the great O circuit , they talked with me in almost flawless English , they were Danish , just graduated high school , decided to take a year off hiking across South America and then go to University . I wish I had these ideas at their age!!! Just amazing!!! explore the world when you are fit , without responsibilities and young enough to let the experience mould you effectively . They told me they were going to to the base of Fitzroy the next day and were also planning on doing the Huemul circuit.

El Chalten is a magical place , it is extraordinarily beautiful . It reminds one of the fairy tale villages that we saw in our books which as we get older seems to join the realm of the imaginary . The tourism folks helping out tourists at the bus station are fantastic . They switch between so many different languages that it boggled my head . Finally when it was my turn, I fumbled in broken Spanish about Fitzroy and he smoothly switched to flawless English and told me what my options were, given that I had to be back here by 7 PM the next day. He advised me on a couple of hikes and then when I told him I wanted to go up to Fitzroy ,he tried to dissuade me because it would be too dark but I insisted so he then informed me about two camps and I could set up camp at either place and I could not use open fire but could use my stove  and told me that I don’t need to take any water. I started walking across town to get to the trailhead and once I go there , I started climbing  . The first camp was 4 KM away and the second was 8 KM away , in town I thought I could do 8 KM before dark , once I started ascending (I realized I could not do 8 KM) , I decided to stop at the first campsite . Unfortunately in Argentina , nobody tells you when you should be off the trail  . In Chile , Rangers patrol and get people off the trail , in part due to safety concerns and in part so as to not disturb the nighttime fauna.  I kept going until I found the first camp . It was by a large lake and it was remarkably creepy for me when my flashlight shone onto the dark lake , the lake beckoning like a dark void. The camp was right next to the lake , so I pitched my tent , set my alarm for 3 AM and drifted off to sleep instantly .

Once I woke up at 3 , I wondered if I should sleep but finally I got up , broke camp and headed off into the cold trail . Made steady speed but if I had planned on getting up to sunrise on the Fitzroy, I overestimated myself . I was very far when I managed to capture this

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It is a long tiring slog uphill

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At the top , it is hard to believe that a place as beautiful can actually exist.

 

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and walking around the ridge provides more opportunities like this

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It had just snowed but the radiance of sun was warm enough to put me into a deep slumber . I woke up after what seemed like forever and the place had become real busy, time to head back to town and maybe get a bite to eat before heading to El Calafate. Again descent is hard on your knees so get hiking poles or sticks (and good hiking shoes with a lot of cushion) . It took an inordinate amount of time for me to get down the first KM , then I ran into a girl from Colorado who was a Cisco Engineer but she had decided to take a break , she had just finished the O circuit but she had taken 15 days to do it . I was taken aback , I thought I was too slow with 7 days and would like to do it in 5 .

Finally I took leave and headed on down

The landscape never ceases to amaze me !!

One of my favorite activities in a new town is to walk into the super market and look at the various edible items on sale . El Chalten’s supermercados are picked clean!!! At one supermarket , I found oil , water ,soft drinks,  onions and one solitary apple!!! I got luckier at the next one , I found some granola bars , candy bars , a bag of yerba mate (yes , I am a caffeine addict!!) and I also ended up buying a calabash which is the cup that you drink mate from , it is so hard that the owner just bounced it on the counter and it bounced right back . I also had to get a bombilla or a steel straw . The owner was used to dealing with foreigners , he spoke fluent English and informed me that his son had spent some time in India . There is an excellent bakery next door where I picked up cheesy bread balls , several pieces of what looked like dulce de leche pie and also some El Calafate jam cookies . Interestingly I am yet to find a single place where I had seen the berry in Argentina.

I love this town and love those mountains in the back . I will be back !!!

I have no memory of the bus ride to El Calafate, I can only speculate that I must have passed out .

Once back in El Calafate , this was my day to chill , get candy and stuff and also find some fine Argentinian steakhouse . In El Calafate , they have this restaurant called El Viejo and lot of folks recommended that I go there . I got a rib eye and a half portion of lamb and bottle of local cabernet . I cannot remember the last time I had a steak this delicious!!! They also have this relish which seems to have pickles , onions , sweet peppers and vinegar that was simply amazing . The meat and the relish is a delightful combo and I cannot recommend it enough!!!

The next day was my trip back to Punta Arenas . Now I was expecting that it would take me all of 3 hours to get to Puerto Natales , I had booked the ticket for the 7 AM bus. However instead of reaching Puerto Natales at 10 or 11 as I was expecting , we reached at 2:00 PM and I squarely blame the Chilean immigration authorities!!! Compared to this , my ‘painful’ trip coming over from Chile was a dream!!! I did not get back to Punta Arenas until past 7 PM that day . I had spent 12 hours for a journey that should not have taken more than 6 hours.

I was in a rush to get to Punta Arenas because I had scheduled a 12 hour cruise through the straits of Magellan looking for humpback whales , penguins , seals the next morning. The bus sets off at 4 AM and before sunrise , we are on the boat , cruising through . This is the southern cross

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The southern cross is the end of the continent of South America , only islands south of here until we reach Antartica . In South American nobody mentions the albatross but for us in the northern hemisphere , especially if one was acquainted with the rime of the ancient mariner (and also popularized by Iron Maiden in their longest song for 30 years) , the bird has achieved mythical proportions for me.  I was fortunate to capture this

It reminded me of a sea plane taking flight except the albatross is much more elegant to watch .

The humpback whales are always a treat to watch

The interesting thing about whales is that once they have come to the surface , they take many short breaths before one long breath and then they go back to the bottom . When you see their tail , this is when they have taken their long breath and will be down for up to 15 minutes before coming back up for air.

and the seals / sea lions

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And finally the big prize , penguins (the Magellanic kind)!!!!

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And my last glacier for now

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The biggest surprise was the cormorants , they look more like penguins than cormorants.

 

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Around 3 PM or so , I was tired enough that I was ready to beat it . The cruise lasts another hour and then the bus drove us back to Punta Arenas .

To my great surprise , I found a Hindu temple in Punta Arenas.

with statues of Mahatma Gandhi ,

Rabindranath Tagore (who was idolized by Pablo Neruda)

and Mother Teresa

This year is the 500th anniversary of Ferdinand Magellan circumnavigating the world. And in Punta Arenas which is the biggest city located in the straits  ,there is a lot of ongoing work to celebrate this monumental event.

Magellan did not survive the voyage, he was killed in a battle with natives in the Philippines  . Eventually only two ships reached the spice islands , loaded up with spices and tried to come back home only to find out that only one was sea worthy. Magellan started with 270 men , it returned with less than 20 men . But the booty that they had loaded in the one remaining ship was apparently enough to turn a profit . The booty was cloves . I went to a supermarket in Punta Arenas and went to the spice aisle and bought myself a commemorative packet of cloves , 5 gms for 350 chilean pesos, roughly 40 cents. Amazing to think that so many men died for something as small and trivial as cloves .

A Glorious “Paineful” Trek

Preamble

Flights from the bay area to Patagonia seem far and in between . I started my trip with a long layover in Mexico city and two red eyes , one to Mexico city and the other from Mexico city to Santiago . I debated visiting Santiago but I was more in a rush to get to Punta Arenas and start my trek . The only odd thing that I did was when the Chilean immigration official required my address for the duration of the stay , I simply put in Torres Del Paine and the Immigration officer did not even blink when he saw that .

Having researched Patagonia in terms of treks , I had conjured up an aggressive plan to finish my O Circuit in 5 days and then go to El Chalten for the Huemul circuit so that required me to start the O in Torres Del Paine as soon as possible . So I ended up in Punta Arenas a day earlier and dropped off clean clothes at the AirBnB that I was going to stay before I came back home .  This AirBnB turned out to be an extraordinarily convenient location because it was located two blocks from Buses Fernandez and 4 blocks from Bus Sur , both of which make frequent runs to Puerto Natales , the gateway to Torres Del Paines . As I walked into the Bus Fernandez office and asked for a ticket to Puerto Natales , they had a bus leaving in 5 minutes so off I go . The buses are extremely comfortable and it was a 3 hour trip where I kept seeing guanacos but it never occurred to me to click any pictures , primarily because I was expecting to see them inside the park and I could not take my eyes off the trees .  I do not think I have ever seen trees grow in such an odd and misshapen manner .They were so bent as if almost beaten to the ground , probably the famous south winds that I had always heard of but would now experience .

Day 0

Puerto Natales is a small town and I made quick inquiries after landing at the bus stand and found out that all the buses leave for Torres Del Paine at 7 AM . Apparently that is the only time of the day that they leave (I am not convinced that is true based on my latter experiences but I don’t speak Spanish and they dont speak English and I can only get so far with a phrase book and Google Translate) so lot of scope for miscommunication.  I booked an 7 AM ticket and decided to go find food given that it was almost 11 PM and everything in Puerto Natales is shut down . I was in a mild panic because I need alcohol for my alcohol stove , I had bought two small bottles of hand sanitizer which I could use in a pinch but I needed alcohol or gasoline or anything that was portable and could burn , fortunately I found one store who seemed open and could speak a little English .It seemed to be a general store with fruits and confections and an enormous amount of liquor . I looked around and did find Bacardi  151 which could be used if I could not find anything else but fortunately after I explained what I needed , he had exactly two small 250 ml bottles of cleaning alcohol both of which I purchased immediately!!! Luck was definitely on my side , I land at an unknown place at 11 PM and found the one thing that I desperately needed for this trip . He also directed me to a Cantina nearby where I could eat . I found the cantina deserted and asked for a burger with a fried egg and onions on top . The burger was oddly reminiscent of what I am used to in India  . The bread is flat and enormous , so is the patty . I gobbled it down and started looking for my hostel and again turns out that my hostel was a mere 2 blocks away and crashed after a shower , no idea when I am destined to have another shower.

Day 1 – From Paine Grande to Mirador Valle Frances ~10 miles

The next morning , I find a bunch of people in the breakfast area including a girl and her dad who were speaking English . I introduced myself and found out that the girl Talia was from Oakland and her dad was from Harrisburg,PA . Not even a few days have passed and I am already running into folks from the Bay area.

The bus ride to the park from Puerto Natales was uneventful and we reached Park HQ after what seemed liked an eternity . The Park ranger  grilled me in English as to what my plans were and asked me what camps I had booked . Fortunately I had read on blogs previously that you need to print all your camp permits and take it with you so I showed him my stack of papers . He then asked me how many days was I planning to stay and the camps that I had the permits for (he did not want to look at my permits after seeing the size of the stack), but as soon as I pointed them out on the map , he was satisfied and asked me to go the Fee counter and pay the park dues . The park had multiple choices 1 day  and 3 days or more . I ended up choosing the more than 3 days option and the fee was 35000 CLP . I was also told to bring cash but they were accepting credit cards as well as US dollars but I paid in pesos  . They also have a bunch of rules especially “no fires except in designated spots inside the camps”

My plan was based on the 7 day trek from this site . So I had to take the Pudeto boat ride  across Lago Pehoe to Paine Grande which is my starting point . The boat was crowded !!!  and everybody wanted to take pictures of the gorgeous scenery . This was also where I first set eyes on the famed Cuernos de Paine ( Horns of Paine).

Apparently the W also starts around here and there are a lot of chartered group hikes , majority of which happen on the W which actually gets almost 60-70% of the highlights of the O trek . As soon as the boat docked , I made a beeline for the trail head and found a guide who told me to look for the French valley and always keep that to my left . Turned out to be a lot easier , the trek was beautiful with gorgeous views of  Lago Skottsberg .

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I walked by several people but then I ended up pacing myself with a local guide who kept talking in English, pointed out an enormous spider to everybody around and some edible berries called Murta , I needed no further invitation . Asked for advice as to what I should go and see . She asked me how far I was going, on finding out that I was doing the O , she recommended that I either go to Central or Chilleno and definitely not Seron (which is what I told her mistakenly) . She told me in no uncertain terms that I would be crazy to miss the Base Torres which is actually the climax of the park (that was the whole purpose of my trip so I had no intention of missing that). She also suggested that I should drop off my backpack , take a water bottle and go up to Mirador Britanico . The entrance to Italiano is quite dramatic , you cross a hanging bridge across a rather gusty river. Only one person is allowed on the bridge at one time . It is a series of 2×4 tied together with metal cables and the bridge tends to sway precariously at times so definitely a fun crossing .

I registered with the ranger (very very important !! they take this too seriously so don’t mess with their rules) and headed off with my bottle towards the Mirador Valle Frances and the Mirador Britanico . The views at the Mirador Valle Frances are spectacular , it is a massive glacier and if you are lucky , you can witness an avalanche every now and then.

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It was essentially my first glacier in the park , my first in Patagonia . One of the things that I realized that I forgot to bring was my dayback or a fanny pack so I had to carry my water bottle which meant no hiking poles . The trail is extremely rocky so painful on the knees , poles would have helped greatly . After the Mirador Valle French , Mirador Britanico is a mere 0.5 miles away but for reasons that I am not sure , the ranger was quite insistent that I do not have time for it (it was about 3 PM and the sun does not set until past 10.00 PM). And to add to the confusion , I lost my way on the trail , my AllTrails app failed to load , so after a few frustrated detours in the wood , I chanced upon a familar part of the trail in the distance and made a beeline for it and headed back to Campamento Italiano.  I set up my tent and made my way to the designated area for cooking . It turned out to be a pile of stones and sheets of wet wood covering it from 3 sides . I lit my alcohol stove and heated water for my dehydrated meal and tea . I promptly turned in for the night and drifted off to a tired sleep.

Day 2 – Italiano to Chilleno ~10 miles

The next morning , I woke up to cold winds and rain , I decided to sleep in and wait out the rain , eventually I decided that I needed coffee and ventured out in the cold windy rain and heated up more water for a Starbucks Mocha and proceeded to pack up my tent and head on towards Campamento Frances which was about 3 miles away . I decided to set down my pack and look around , they had some odd offerings like an entree “Salmon and hummus” for what seemed like an exorbitant price . They were selling Peanut Snickers for 2000 CLP (~$3 ) but then I found they were selling internet access , I paid $5 for 30 minutes of internet access and managed to start up AllTrails . Rest of the trek to Campamento Chilleno was a long tiring uphill slog .

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This was the most spectacular visual treat of the day , though it was actually quite disheartening to actually have to descend all the way to the river and then climb back up!!

Once I reached Chilleno , I was grateful to use their pre setup tents rather than set up mine one one of these platforms .

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The clerk who was checking me in was named Alejandro Arun and turns out that his mom was infatuated with all things Indian and had named him Arun . He also informed me that after I checked out in the morning , I could leave my backpack in the restaurant and head on to Base Torres and pick up my backpack on the way out , a fabulous piece of advice that nobody should neglect.

Day 3 – Chilleno to Mirador Base Torres to Seron ~20 miles

My sole regret is that I did not get up at 3 AM and go see the sunrise on the towers . But otherwise it is a magnificent (and extraordinarily strenuous) trek and the top is a visual treat nonpareil. These are the famous Towers of Paine (Torres Del Paine)

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The hike back from the towers to Central and then to Seron is a painfully long one and I quickly realized why the majority of people start from Central , this is perhaps the most mundane portion of the trip and here I was  on this section after having experienced the ultimate spectacle of the trip. The highlight of this part of the trip was running into a father and son duo,  Don and Peter . I also ran into a Ukranian hiker who will feature again in a rather dramatic fashion .  Thankfully after about 6 or 7 miles, things started looking spectacular again, ‘Torres Del Paine’ style.  Campamento Seron had a warm shower option with a line of folks lining up for both the western style potty and the shower . The shower lasts exactly 5 minutes after which the water turns freezing cold but this was my first shower after 40 miles and 3 days , needless to say I was delighted!! There were strange hawks that seemed to hang around the camp the whole time , looking for food.

I could not help but reflect that animals and birds seem to develop a sense of danger or safety fairly quickly . The geese around the bay area have no trouble chasing away humans who venture too close to them but any other place they would take off in an instant . Ditto with the seals and sea lions in the bay area , thundering trucks overhead on the Bay Bridge don’t even elicit a sleepy eyebrow raise.  These hawks seem to know that they are the center of attention and revel in it. I ended up eating dinner with Don and Peter and I noticed a block of Tilamook cheese with Don, Don saw my look and proceeded to tell me that when he had done a section of the Pacific Crest trail , one of the staples was Tillamook cheese and Summer sausage . It sounded  very yummy to my very hungry tummy .

Day 4 – Seron to Dickson ~12 miles

Starting from Seron , the sights do not disappoint .

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Something that changed about halfway through the trek , lot of signs on the trail that warned hikers to turn back if they did not have reservations . It was definitely puzzling but I did not pay much attention until I stopped at the CONAF ranger station at Coiron which explicitly stated that I had to register before proceeding and the ranger came out and attempted to chat with me in broken English and me attempting to respond in broken Spanish. By this time my Brazilian buddies Roberto and Ariel also reached and Roberto pulls out a flask and a packet of Yerba Mate and proceeds to make Mate , all the time chatting with the Ranger in fluent Spanish . The ritual is an interesting one , Roberto prepared the mate and set the bombilla (steel straw) inside the mate gourd in a particular spot and then poured hot water from his thermos and proceed to hand it to Ariel who drinks it and hands it back to Roberto who calmly proceeds to fill it with hot water again and give it to me. I did exactly what Ariel did but also proceeded to adjust the straw which is when I was informed that if I attempted to do this in Argentina , they would cut my hand off !!! Suitably chastened , I finished the drink and handed it back to Roberto who proceeded to fill it again and hand it to the ranger who by now had managed to attract a second ranger . The ritual continued until we had emptied the thermos . I also learned that to say Gracias in this scenario was an indication that you do not want mate any more so I asked how do I say Thanks . I was informed that you do not .  The idea of sharing a straw among 6 random people seemed like a recipe for getting sick . but I knew better than to bring that up right now. Suitably refreshed , we got up and proceeded to head on towards Dickson which was still another 9 KM away. As I kept walking , I keep eating the Murta berries every opportunity I got but I could not stop fantasizing about the block of Tillamook cheese.

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Rest of the trip to Dickson was a slog and I started realizing that my big plan of going from Dickson to Grey the next day might not materialize . The terrain is not easy and what makes it harder is that there are no switchbacks here . I have not figured out why there are no switchbacks , I can only speculate that it has been a conscious decision to forego switchbacks because creating switchbacks takes a far greater toll on the landscape and is definitely more expensive . Once I reached Dickson , I promptly registered with the ranger and then proceeded to the Vertice Patagonia office where I had to show my reservation . Apparently my reservations for Dickson , Los Perros and Grey  were all off by a day (I arrived a day earlier) which caused them no small amount of consternation. But they told me to go ahead and get my tent set up and I could come back in 30 minutes to get details . I did as instructed and by the time I was done setting up my tent , I was starving and decided that I was going to treat myself to an Almond snickers that I had seen and also a pound cake and maybe even some chocolate cream cookies . As I walked back to the store/registration , I saw the Ukranian hiker who looked despondent , I waved but he seemed too distracted .  The almond snickers was 2000 CLP (~$2.50) , the pound cake was 5000 CLP (~$7) . I presume there are two reasons for the extraordinary premium that we are paying , a) They have a captive audience , I am not going to find a supermercado (super market ) in a radius of 50 miles and b) the cost of bringing in these goods by mule . I have experienced the same issue in Phantom Ranch at the bottom of the Grand Canyon and in Glen Aulin in Tuolomne Meadows , Yosemite where they were charging $4 for a Clif bar. I shared the pound cake with my Brazilian buddies and I mentioned the Ukranian hiker which is when Bruno , the third Brazilian who had been hiking with him mentioned that apparently the Ukranian had not reserved any camps except for Seron so they had confiscated his passport and told him to collect it from park headquarters near Central , a distance of almost 31 km (~20 miles) and thats when I also found out that the Ukranian had not packed any food or tent or sleeping bag . How does one embark on a 7-11 day hike without bringing any of these ? I was astounded !!! My alcohol stove now seemed to have caught everybody’s attention , I have to thank Andrew Skurka for that idea . Finished another tasteless dehydrated meal and went back to my tent and ate my Almond Snickers for dessert and promptly went to sleep

Day 5 – Dickson to Los Perros ~9 miles

I woke up to a beautiful morning , I had two choices , either I follow everybody to Los Perros or I continue onwards to Grey . If I wanted to make it to Grey , I should have woken up a lot sooner , it did not take too long for me to talk myself out of that option and then somebody mentioned that there was a beach behind the camp . Curious I decided to go check it out . I was mesmerized , I was all alone on this gorgeous beach , the lake was an inviting turquoise teal that all Glacier melt lakes seem to have , with mountains and glaciers in the background . After about an hour of delightful reverie,  the Huemul circuit all but forgotten,  my Brazilian buddy Ariel joined me and kindly agreed to take my picture.

I could not believe that I could actually be here taking all this in . I swore to myself that the next time I am here , I am going to spend two nights at this camp , this is one of the most beautiful , serene places that I have ever seen.  Finally I decided to leave and head for Los Perros , no way was I going to make it to Grey , the rangers shut down the trail at a certain time and they will not let you proceed once they have closed the trail . The trail is beautiful and can be treacherous at times , I crossed a hanging bridge , went through some interesting micro eco systems before I encountered the famous southern winds . I saw people lose their backpack raincovers , even ones that were clipped in . The wind was so dreadful at one point that I was forced to take shelter behind a rock, I cannot recall ever encountering winds like this . I cannot imagine being on a ridge trying to fight these winds which is exactly what happens near the Paso John Gardner , now I also understand why the rangers will not let you pass if the winds are too high . Once it calmed down , I hurried and finally reached the Los Perros Glacier which is another beautiful lake crowned by the Glacier, spent some time admiring the lake and the chunks of ice floating around and some wild birds nearby who seemed oblivious to the humans around who were gawking at them.

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I tried in vain to see the dog(s) (Los Perros) in the glacier form but failed .

Dinner at Los Perros was a quiet affair , everybody knew that we had to get up early and cross the pass as early as possible since winds pick up later in the day. So after a quick dinner , everybody retired to their tent.

Day 6 – From Los Perros to Grey ~12 miles

The day started off with a rambling trail in the woods on rocky ground , finally after a couple of miles , it leveled off but that was only a brief respite .

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Before too long , we started climbing on rocky terrain , on the way I met a doctor from Pensacola, FL. Spending extended time in a country where one does not understand the local language renders you extra sensitive to any familiar language and when I hear English with an American accent , I do not need an invitation to pepper them with questions  as to where they are from . I have always found it fascinating that when I am abroad  ( England , Italy , Japan ) people know where I am from based on my accent , however Americans in general seem oblivious and they would invariably respond “I am from the US” but this gentleman recognized my accent  and responded with “Pensacola” .

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Trekking across an ice field!!!

And then as we got closer and closer to the summit, we started seeing the Grey Glacier . It is a magnificent sight .

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I cannot get over how blue the ice is

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Lago Grey and Grey Glacier. The Grey glacier melts into lago Grey , big chunks of blue glacial ice float around . I could sit here and watch this for hours .

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Lago Grey

And then the descent starts ,  in typical Torres Del Paine fashion , it is brutal on your knees . I was grateful for my hiking poles. At some point , I ended up being solo again and then I entered Campamento Paso which is the second camp that CONAF manages so it is free but it has no facilities . But you have to register so do not forget to register even though you are merely passing through. The cooking area was a shed where I found another bay area buddy , Adrian who had been hiking for the last several months and was heading north to Argentina and then onto Brazil and eventually Bolivia, he planned to get back to Oakland around May or June . After exchanging pleasantries , I wished him all the best and hurried on towards Campamento Grey which is still a good 8-10 KM away . As I was walking , I suddenly felt an eye on me and startled I looked up to see an Andean condor not a 100 feet away ,gliding and giving me the eye . I was in such rapture that it took me a few seconds to gather my wits and grab my camera and take a picture of his rapidly disappearing form .

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Having lived in California for 6 years , I have vainly tried to see if I could locate Condors but have never seen them , 6 days in Chile and I see this amazingly graceful bird  , what a treat!!  If I could pat myself on the back , I would!!! Every mirador sign that I saw , I made it a point to check it out , at one mirador I ran into a bunch of  CONAF rangers , one of them was cordial and even though I could not speak Spanish and he could not speak English , we managed to have a fairly long interesting conversation about the South Patagonian Ice field, the Dickson Glacier , the Grey glacier and he even identified several of the berries that I had been chomping down , most notably the El Calafate berry .

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Legend has it that once somebody eats a Calafate berry , he will come back to Patagonia . Just for good measure , I grabbed a few more handfuls and gobbled it up just in case the superstition has some truth to it. It is quite tart and tasty . There were some ripe Murta bushes nearby and I helped myself to those as well and then proceeded onwards to Grey . This was the first time since the towers that I would be venturing back into the W territory and I was in for a rude shock . It was so crowded (at this point 20 people is a crowd) , I saw a sign for the ranger station and I started walking towards it even though it was taking me away from the camp . When I reached it , there was no ranger in sight and some helpful women told me that I do not need to register at the ranger station here so feeling a little grouchy (that extra 10 minutes was painful!!) . When I entered Campamento Grey , I was awestruck at the number of people and tents . I went in to register at the Vertice Patagonia store / register . They checked me in and told me to pitch my tent within the camping area and there were showers next door . At this point , I ran into Peter and his dad Don who informed me that they were doing dinner at the Cafe . Sounded like a great idea but the need for a shower seemed to precipitate every other instinct in me so I decided to take care of business first . Along with showering , I also washed my clothes . The winds in Patagonia ensure that all your clothes will be dry in a few hours , and you also have to make sure that your clothes do not fly away so I ended up using duct tape which worked admirably well . I had made some new friends , Kendall and her brother Stephen and I ate dinner with them . Dinner was a treat , a 3 course meal with soup , steak and potatoes and a lemon cake dessert . The service crew were very conscientious , checking constantly if everything was ok and anybody had food restrictions or allergies. 

Day 7 – Grey to Paine Grande ~8 miles

A slow start , generally reluctant to get moving and I ended up skipping breakfast and got coffee from the cafe and then bidding adieu to my new friends , headed on to Paine Grande .

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One last wistful look at Lago Grey and the Grey Glacier

It is a short trek with some of the scenery reminiscent of what I am used to in the bay area . Saw several condors and then finally laid eyes on the turquoise teal of lago Pehoe.

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When I reached the lake , I saw a sign that had an arrow sign with “Italiano” , I was puzzled and looked around and realized that I had almost walked past Paine Grande and I was seized by an intense emotion , just sadness swelled up inside me  . I am done with my trek and I am going to leave this beautiful park!!

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I decided to go inside the cafe and celebrate . The cafe had a deal where you could get two beers with a pizza , sounded too good to pass up . The pizza was made fresh but tasteless so I asked the clerk if he had any spices , he pulled out a tray that had 3 sets of spices , I promptly dumped a spoonful of what seemed like the spiciest onto my pizza , his eyebrows rose , I took another bite and ended up dumping another spoonful and it still tasted bland!!! A very anti-climatic celebration to what was easily one of best trekking experiences of my life.

I could not help but reflect that the sole reason why the trip turned out to be so much easier than expected was the fact that I did not carry any water (for the Grand Canyon, I carried 3 liters and had to be replenished at the bottom , an extra 6.6 lbs!!!) . I drank water unfiltered from streams (always get it upstream) , glacier melt is delicious!! Almost decadent!!! Never pass up a chance to drink Glacier melt.

The boat finally showed up and I sailed off to Puerto Natales and onwards to Argentina (just to clarify , the boat takes you across the lake , rest of the trip is on buses) .

Once I got back to Puerto Natales , I promptly booked a ticket for the next morning to go on to El Calafate , gateway to Parque Nacional Los Glaciares , reconciled to the fact that I am coming back to Patagonia to do the Huemul circuit.

Week 2

Crown of the continent

The best care-killing scenery on the continent – beautiful lakes derived straight from glaciers, lofty mountains steeped in lovely nemophila-blue skies and clad with forests and glaciers, mossy ferny waterfalls in their hollows, nameless and numberless, and meadowy gardens abounding in the best of everything ….

John Muir

When I watched the National Geographic video on Glacier National Park. I was griped with a sense of urgency almost akin to that of answering nature’s call except this was a call of the wild, from the depths of the soul. As the commentary ran toward the unnerving statistic that the park had over 150 glaciers in 1910 when the park was formed, but there are only 20+ left today , there is a sense of impending doom and foreboding, the days of the glaciers in Glacier National Park are clearly numbered. While one does have a tendency to show a marked bias towards Yosemite when one is living in Northern California as can be evidenced by the last several names of the Mac OS releases, I was overwhelmed by the sheer beauty of the Rockies . It has always been a little disappointing that the name of one of the most spectacular mountain ranges should be so unimaginative(Did the first man who looked at them look and mumble to his woman , “it does look a little Rocky?”) but then life is full of little disappointments .  Being a road warrior at times , I had managed to spend enormous amounts of time on the road in the eastern part of the US , never had the chance for that in the western US and this was a great opportunity to view the western US . The alternative was to fly to Kalispell which is interestingly an international airport though a really small one.

 

It took me the better part of the day to cross Washington State and Idaho , it was late afternoon when I entered Montana  .For the majority of the last 20 years , I had been hearing this myth that Montana has no speed limits . Here is evidence to finally put that stupid myth to rest

I was struck by the isolation that one encounters as soon as one enters Idaho and Montana , I had never seen anything like it . But things were about to get worse as I exited I 90 to get on the state roads . It was already dark and I could not see any evidence of any civilization . I realized if I hit an animal or had a breakdown , I was in deep doo doo.  MT 135  is  a windy road , passing over several rivers and letting us peek at scenic vistas , so no fun to drive after dark but I did not want to camp outside and I definitely was not about to park my car on the side of a road with no shoulder. After what seemed like eternity , I saw some lights . Coming closer I realized quickly that it was a tiny town with one bar and just a few houses. I imagine I must have driven through over 150 miles in the dark before I finally came upon Kalispell . The last part of the drive into Glacier included a drive on Going to the Sun road which promises to induce motion sickness into the most hardened road warrior and definitely meant to be seen during the day.

Kalispell (my Indian origins made me wonder if I was meant to be under the spell of Kali , the fearsome goddess that chomps up demons and other undesirables ) but it is just a sedentary little town whose name actually means “Flat land above the lake” . For an outsider , its sole claim to fame is Glacier National park. The town is utterly forgettable , it has the all the usual suspects that make up a small American town including the motley crew of fast food chains, motels and  all other amenities which leave every small town indistinguishable from every other small town.Grabbing a quick breakfast and coffee , I romped on . Before too long , I entered the Western entrance of Glacier National Park which housed an incredibly large number of curio shops , a small store selling sundaes and milkshakes , I keep seeing references to Huckleberry everywhere  however I do not spy any Huckleberry with my little eye!! After eyeing everything , I take off and before too long I end up on going to the Sun road , it is a two lane road with lot of traffic which means I have to drive at the speed limit of 30 MPH!!! Before too long the pain vanished as I was lost in the scenery around me, the road winds up through a series of switchbacks  and I managed to pick up some hitchhikers before too long and it turned out to be one of the more fortuitous decisions that I made . I found out that my hitch hikers were a married couple from Missoula and they came here at least 5-6 times a year , I chatted with both of them about Glacier , the wife had been coming here since she was 5 or 6 , and her mother was still working up at the Sperry Chalet and last year was the first time she had laid eyes on a Pika . Needless to say I was a little jealous and concerned , wondering if I could be so lucky as to lay eyes on one. I was to drop them off at Logan Pass which is on the continental divide and the highest point passable by a car. But I was also thinking that I would try some quick hikes . The husband asked me if I was planning to hike, I promptly said “Yes” to which he responded that there would be an enormous number of people trying to park so I should take up his spot as soon as he pulled out . Needless to say I was extremely gratified when we did get to Logan pass and saw all the vehicles trying to get a parking spot. I took him on his offer and went off to my sojourn . The views from the Hidden Lake trail were spectacular to say the least

Little can this picture depict the tumult of gushing emotions that envelopes one so completely when one looks upon the sheer majesty of these mountains , the glaciers and the lakes that are fed by the glacier melt.  After I came back down from my 3 mile hike , I was suddenly accosted by a car as I was walking to my car in the parking lot , this woman asked me if I was leaving , I nodded and she promptly got down from the car and started walking along . So far I did not find anything odd , she is just staying close to me so she does not lose me . But then after I got in the car , I realized she was not about to let me leave until her son had bought their car over to park , I had to wait for a good 10 minutes during which time I started making conversation and found out that she had been driving around in a big gas guzzling SUV for the last 45 minutes waiting for a parking spot . I wanted to tell her that she was one of the reasons why glaciers are melting at the rate that they are but good old fashioned courtesy and manners can be a handicap in matters like these. She was apparently moving her son from Seattle to Washington DC so they were taking the scenic route . Finally she let me escape and I took off driving through going to the Sun road . The road is extremely narrow in spots and if I happened to see a SUV or a truck barreling down the other way , I would wait until they passed before I proceeded through one of these narrow spots. One is inclined to be extremely prudent in cases like these simply because you are between a cliff and a ravine.

I then proceeded to a short trail which had Mary Falls

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and then onto Virginia Falls

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On the way I saw a lot of burnt trees , victims of an old forest fire and here I could see evidence of a how a fire causes sap to heat up, at some point the life giving sap becomes akin to napalm and the tree can explode or in cases like the one I found , it splits the tree vertically and kills it. I kept wondering if the parks service simply did not have funds to clear the forest of this extremely flammable tinder in case of another forest fire , so convinced was I of this hypotheses that I could not imagine any other scenario.

After exiting the trail I found several scenic spots on going up the Sun road

Finally reached St Marys and then proceeded onto Many Glacier

Needless to say the sheer beauty of the Montana landscape was bewitching to say the least , a taste that is enough to get one addicted for life.

The following day was a walk with a ranger to Two Medicine and she told us that Huckleberries grow no higher than 8 inches off the ground so knee level but Fool’s huckleberry spreads tall and wide. The most interesting part of this was learning that the dead trees that I had so wanted to get rid of , plays an extremely important part in the forest ecosystem , providing shelter to some , food to others , organic material back to the soil , definitely not the reason that I had in mind .

Two medicine lake is a blissful view

Another interesting aspect that I learnt was about geology

Blithely unaware , I was admiring the colors but the colors tell a story of a time long ago when Earth was covered in acid rain and the predecessors to the Rockies were broken down by acid rain . The colors themselves reveal what geological age they belong too . Red colored rocks indicate the existence of rust and thereby the presence of oxygen ,a relative new comer to the game but the green precedes the red by several millennia. But nonetheless all of these rocks predate us , they predate any creature on earth that needs oxygen to survive and so the ranger made a joke by pointing to the rock and saying that these are our ancestors .

The third day was a trip to the Grinnell Complex /  Glacier .

It is a round trip hike of 7.6 miles with some elevation gain  . In the picture above , one sees the Salamander glacier at the top , it is called a salamander due to the crevasse that shows up in the middle which makes it look like a line on the salamander.  The other is the Grinnell glacier named after George Grinnell.  The glacier melt is amazing to drink ( filter it), works as a wonderful ice pack too as I decided to soak my injured calf

The return hike back and rides back over lake Josephine and lake Swiftcurrent passed by and I could not have been more happy to pay a visit to the famed Two Sisters cafe , ready to take in everything Huckleberry . The huckleberry milkshake was delicious beyond belief , my sole regret is that my appetite did not allow me to partake of a Huckleberry pie as well.

The return sojourn from Glacier back to California took me through the beautiful flathead valley and the home of myriad rivers . The scenery is so bewitching that I had to stop at regular intervals just to take more pictures

With a heavy heart , I finally commenced on the long drive back but Montana keeps pull at my heart strings, I even stopped at a lot sale to inquire about the price . Stopping at a Jiffy Lube just outside Glacier National park in Columbia Falls , I struck up a conversation with the local pastor who had come for an oil change as well. He was curious as to where I was from , after he found out that I was from California , somehow the conversation seamlessly moved to politics though Politics and religion tend to be two subjects that I rarely converse about . He wanted to explain to me why Montana was red , it was everything to do with guns . I looked at him in mute surprise . He explained to me that the average salary is about $30,000 which means for most people , to be able to provide meat for the family is synonymous with hunting.  I nodded sagely , my old boss in Ohio who had imported me long long ago informed me that the salary that he was paying me (which was not quite subsistence level) was more than what an average American family made so I believed it without ever bothering to verify the same. Further more he proceeded to educate me, guns are like investments to folks out here , I looked puzzled so he proceeded to educate me “Buy low, sell high” with a querying brow. I grinned and he proceeded “Hunters buy these guns at the beginning of the season and once they had hunted for the seasons, they would sell them and gun prospectors buy them on the cheap so essentially they have had their meat for nothing”  . I listened quietly , he seems to have forgotten about the investment credo that he was preaching a few minutes ago or perhaps he is just an amazing good salesman. Regardless of whether he is peddling god or peddling guns to his brothers, he is turning a profit whichever way he looks. He certainly tried his damnedest on Montana and their need for weapons that I would never acquiesce for , in most other places.

As for selling me on Montana , he need not have bothered

Glacier National park is indeed a magical place , a Disneyland for kids and adults alike

A sojourn through Ancient , Roman, Saxon , Norman , Medieval and Modern England

In 54 or 55 BC , Julius Caesar long before he said “Et Tu Brute” landed in Britain to punish them for their collaboration of the Gauls . He said “Imagine the gaul!!” and that phrase has caught on with us . He decided that since there was no name for the island , he would name it Britannia (whose biscuits are still sold and consumed in India and the Indian diaspora) . Some years later , a small village called Londonium was set up on the banks of the river Thames . Apparently the city was so popular with the Romans that they built a wall around the city to keep out the riff raff . They got this idea after they had their first fracas with Boadica , Queen of the Iceni who insisted on equal rights for women and gave them a good ol whooping . Embarrassed they put up a wall whose fragments survive to this day , one can be seen just outside the Tower hill tube station even today . However soon the Romans got tired of the cold English weather and found out that all roads lead to Rome except for the one in Britain which led to wet pants and shoes so promptly left . This was followed by was general good cheer among the natives who said “Mr Caesar ,tear down that wall”  .They liked the name of their little village except that they decided to expunge all roman influences like “ium” and called their city London instead.  Centuries later , the state of California and the city of Berkeley would do something similar , they would take their names from the elements called Californium and Berkeleyium and drop the oldish “ium” to sound totally modern and hip . Fast forward today London is a bustling metropolis of 9 million people.

Preparations

Other than the customary plane ticket , I decided that I needed more help so I asked some of the folks around , watched several videos by Rick Stevens (most of which I dont remember except for a admonition not to visit the strip clubs) , finally I decided to pose the question on Facebook to a group called Medieval British History and while they offered excellent suggestions as to places I should visit and places that I should skip , the most valuable suggestion turned out to be to get a British rail pass and a English Heritage Overseas visitor card . Somebody also suggested that I read 1066 and all that which turned out to be a hysterical summary of English history. I had decided to stay in a YHA and I ended up finding one at Earls court which is on the District line of the underground which connects all the sites in London as well as to the locations which serve the National Rail services. Avoid getting the mobile pass , most locations outside of London do not have a reader that can read a 2D barcode off your phone , so there is a lot of grumbling from the rail employees about their inability to read a 2D barcode from a phone when I would show them the pass to allow me to pass through their pearly gates.It costs an extra 2 pounds to have the ticket in paper form mailed to your home , I would gladly pay just so that that I would not have to listen to all the grumbling.

Day 1 at St Pauls , Westminister and Tower of London

I decided that I would do the big attractions today , namely St Pauls Cathedral , Westminister Abbey , Tower of London and Benjamin Franklin’s house on Craven St (the last is a big one for me personally) . Scheduling them turned out to be an ordeal , finally I settled in on going to St Pauls first since it opened at 8:30 AM and went to the crypt which hosts a number of luminaries in their after life . The Napoleonic battle heroes like Wellington and Nelson are accorded honor here and of course the Architect himself , Sir Christopher Wren himself. There is an exhausting climb to the top which not only narrows to very tight proportions (especially for us Americans) but also seems extremely short but you are rewarded once you get to the top with an amazing panaroma. St Pauls was built in 604 AD and the current building was rebuilt by Sir Christopher Wren after the great London Fire of 1666.  It is a remarkably beautiful building even to my uneducated eyes

 

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Then it was a 20 minute trip to Westminister Abbey on the underground from St Pauls .

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Westminister Abbey was started by Edward the Confessor and has been the site of every coronation since 1066 i.e starting with Duke William of Normandy or William the conqueror as he is known today and there are several monarchs buried here including Edward the Confessor who is accorded a place of honor. But as I walked around there are an amazing number of luminaries buried here including Geoffrey Chaucer , Charles Dickens , Thomas Hardy, Laurence Olivier in what is called the Poets corner . Everywhere that you walk, you seem to be walking on the graves of great men and women , I saw Charles Darwin , Isaac Newton , Ben Jonson . It is literally a whos who of British greats. Between the architecture and the people buried here , it is a remarkably humbling experience to walk through here.

And finally another short ride via the underground to the Tower of London .

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The Tower was built by William the conqueror and is witness to countless executions including 3 queens , two of whom had the misfortune of marrying Henry VIII who was always looking for a reason to divorce. The most tragic of all the murders is actually a mystery , the murder of two young princes  aged 12 and 9, sons of Edward IV . It is suspected that Richard III , their uncle was behind these murders but never proved. There is a part of the tower that is dedicated to them

 

The biggest attraction inside the Tower was for the Crown Jewels ,the lines snake impossibly and quite frankly it was a letdown for me . Growing up in India , I had read about the KohiNoor diamond . But after seeing it I realized that somebody could give me a kohinoor and I would not know the difference from a cubic zirconium.  The one thing that I did not expect to encounter inside was the famed Ravens , they are fed a ration of 150 gms of meat along with biscuits every day. Talk about pampered Ravens!!

 

The amount of walking that was involved seemed like a lot but according to Google , I had only walked about 2 miles but I have a sneaking suspicion that if I had started my Strava , I would have had a far more accurate number .

Day 2 at Covent Garden

I started off with visiting the Royal institution where Michael Faraday worked for the majority of his life . Michael Faraday along with Benjamin Franklin are two auto didacts that I admire immensely

 

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Saville Row is the street for expensive London tailors . I found out that if I worked my whole life in Silicon Valley then maybe I could afford to pay for one Saville Row suit , like the ones that James Bond wears.

 

Bond street has a similar reputation for fine jewelers and similarly if I work two jobs in Silicon valley , I might be able to get myself a decent watch from this place.

 

It is a short hop to Covent garden which has a massive market and a Freemasons Lodge

Along with being a shopper’s paradise , I was told to check out the Apple store , it was a little novel compared to other Apple stores .

John Soanes Museum is a hidden treasure around here . Sir John Soanes was an architect who collected antiques , paintings , books and then managed to get Parliament to pass an act where it is guaranteed to maintain the house as a museum with free access to the public . Unfortunately though it was the first time I saw a Sarcophagus , one of the early editions of Shakespeare’s 1st Folio and a ton of amazing stuff , it is not allowed to take any pictures inside this marvelous place so nothing to share except a recommendation that this is a must visit spot. IMHO it is far more interesting than the London Zoo, London Eye, Madame Tussaud’s and hordes of other popular tourist destinations.

Day 3 in Oxford

It was a sedate trip to Oxford

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Anybody who has seen Yes Minister or Yes Prime Minister , this is the Bailey college that Humphrey went to

Day 4 at the British Library and the British Museum

It was quick stop at the British Library where I got to see one of the 4 surviving copies of the Magna Carta . There were several other treasures including Shakespeare’s first folio , a Gutenberg bible , an original of Alice in Wonderland , recordings of James Joyce reciting passages from Finnegans Wake , one of Da Vinci’s notebooks .

I moved onto the British Museum where I spent all day until they closed at 8:30 PM . One gets to see so many artifacts from so many places around the world that it becomes very easy for comparative analysis . The British Musuem is a treasure trove for folks who enjoy Greek epics , there is so much pottery depicting scenes from the Iliad and the Odyssey and various other Greek plays and mythology .There was one memorable one depicting the murder of Priam by Neoptolemus using the baby Astanyax as a weapon , that was horribly gruesome by any standards , to kill the grandfather using the dead body of his infant grandson .

On a happier note there were sections that shows you clearly how a mechanical watch works which was truly fascinating . Amazing things that I had always heard about and got to see were the Rosetta Stone , the Parthenon Frieze , the Elgin Marbles , Easter island statues , Sarcophaguses , bust of Rameses the Great , an actual mummy

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Day 5 at the Museum of Natural History

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After umpteen trips to the Smithsonian and NYC , I had yet to make a trip to the Museum of Natural History so I had go across the pond to view a museum of Natural History . It was an auspicious start given that Charles Darwin argued his case here . The amount of information presented becomes overwhelming even though they have taken great pains to present the information in small easily digestible formats . I suspect that they spent a lot of time with psychologists to reduce information fatigue.

I went over to the Science Museum next door but was quickly disappointed , they have one wing for Information Technology , I am spoilt by the Computer History Museum in Mountain View . I was expecting more mechanical marvels , I got to see a giant steam engine but very little details on how things work .

Day 6 in Hastings and Battle

I went over to Hastings which is a long train ride from Charing Cross. Hastings is the location where William the conqueror landed and quickly setup a fort.

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When I posted on the Facebook group for Medieval British history that I was going to Hastings , several people frankly asked me if I was planning on feeding chips to the sea gulls . I was appalled at the time. But having visited it now  , I have to agree . The ruins are present but give you absolutely no idea . For a 5 pound fee , you are allowed to go into a dungeon which is about 10 steps deep and then watch a movie which briefly shows the motivations of the characters involved . King Harold who was a powerful man and took an opportunity to take the throne for himself or William the conqueror who claimed that promises were made on account of the fact that he was Emma’s (mother of Edward the confessor) nephew.  Tragically for Harold who was incidentally the last native English king of England, he got stuck with an arrow in the eye . This also ended the Anglo Saxon rule in England

This is the scene showing Harold with an arrow in his eye . It is a scene from the Bayeux Tapestry which was commissioned by William’s half brother Odo.

On 14th Oct , barely 3 weeks after landing in England  William  marched 8 miles north to meet King Harold’s men in a place that is known today as Battle.

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Battle is far more interesting than Hastings. This is a well maintained historical place and the ruined abbey inside it. The abbey was built by William who apparently did it as penitence for the blood that was shed on this ground . The high altar of the abbey was the place where King Harold fell.

Day 7 in Canterbury and Dover

This was a sojourn to Canterbury . In a way visiting Canterbury was as important to me as visiting Battle . To see the place where Becket was killed ,

to see the street where Henry II walked on his bare feet. To contemplate and marvel at the monks who having watched Becket get murdered helplessly flogged their penitent King.

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After visiting Canterbury Cathedral , I walked out to see the ruins of Abbey of St Augustine (no relation to the St Augustine of Hippo who wrote the City of God) . Legend has it that the pope Gregory saw some fair haired slaves who looked like Angels or Angles (which is the root of the word English ). After he learnt where they came from, he sent the Benedictine monk Augustine in 595 AD to convert this pagan nation to Christianity and save all their souls from eternal damnation.  There is a statue dedicated to Geoffrey Chaucer and another dedicated to Ben Jonson

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It is a 20 minute train ride to Dover from Canterbury . Unfortunately I did not get enough time to view the Castle which is a magnificent piece of work ,  built by Henry II. Dover is also home to the best preserved Roman built structures shown below

This was the best shot that I could get of the White cliffs of Dover

 

Dover castle has been gateway to the realm for almost a millennium. During WWII It  was home to Operation Dynamo which saw the safe evacuation of 400,000 British and French troops from Dunkirk . There are wartime tunnels which also served as hospitals for the wounded . Unfortunately I reached too late to actually do the full rounds of Dover Castle and go all the way to the top. The only solace was that I had a full English breakfast with two pints of bitter for dinner. While I could identify most items , there was one in particular that I could not identify at all so I made brave to ask the owner /bartender and he burst out laughing . He told me it was black pudding. The texture is closer to a granola bar and the taste is extremely savory not sweet . I have no idea why it is called pudding . He proceeded to inform me it was pigs blood .

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Day 8 at the Imperial War Museum

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Day 9 at the National Gallery

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This is my first Da Vinci , The Virgin of the Rocks

It has Monet , Cezanne, Rubens, Michelangelo , Murillo , Van Gogh and more paintings and artists than I could remember . One of the paintings on my to see list was the Wilton Diptych

Day 10 in Bath and Stonehenge

Visited the city of Bath which was highly developed by the Romans who believed that this was a sacred place and dedicated it to Athena or Minerva

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Then onto Stonehenge . Words fail me as I try to understand how they set up these stones 4500 years ago . It is an elaborate site , amongst other purposes it is known to identify the Summer and Winter Solstice just by viewing the sun from particular locations around the stones.

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Unfortunately I missed going to Salisbury cathedral , I was too late coming back from Stone Henge . Next time I will drive rather than take the trains for long distance journeys. The cathedral is beautiful , it is the tallest spire in the United Kingdom . It houses the best surviving copy of the Magna Carta . There is an interesting anecdote about the Cathedral from World War II . During the battle of Britain , every part of England was bombed but not Salisbury . After the war, the interrogators asked the Luftwaffe pilots as  to why Salisbury was spared . The German high command had issued strict orders that Salisbury was not to be bombed . The spire was so tall and so distinct that German pilots would use that as their landmark and once they reached Salisbury then they could proceed to their respective destinations comfortable with the knowledge that their bearings were correct.

Day 11 at The Victoria and Albert Museum

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Day 12 in Greenwich on the Prime Meridian

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Majority of the museums are free , these museums are magnificent houses of creations of humanity over the centuries , they take exceptional care of these artifacts , far more than these great pieces would have received in their homeland . One only needs to look at the Parthenon pieces which are preserved here or remember the Babri Masjid incident in India or the Bamiyan Buddha destruction by the Taliban or listen to fundamentalist regimes talk about destroying parts of their heritage which preceded their particular sets of beliefs  . So I was grateful to see these beautiful sculptures , carvings , paintings preserved and available to see for free . I dropped 5 pounds every time I entered these museums , bought books , bought over priced scones with butter and jam and cream tea or cakes . The experience of watching this was priceless so I would recommend everybody who has an opportunity should see it and if you can donate , please do so . We need to keep this alive for the sake of future generations

An alcoholic epiphany

Long long ago once upon a time there lived a ….. . Oops, wrong story . I am always astounded by folks who say “This is what the founding fathers would have wanted” and interestingly I have known quite a few of these well meaning folks , one of the most vehement “This is what the federalists fought for”er was a 3 time divorcee who had never heard of Benjamin Franklin’s first rule for happiness

1. “TEMPERANCE. Eat not to dullness; drink not to elevation.”

One might argue that he was blissfully aware of the chastity rule as well but nature being what it is, it rarely allows us to indulge in both with equanimity so it had spared him of the temptation of violating that particular one, nonetheless he would kid the hapless waitresses or the secretarial staff until they blushed red, after which he would turn to me and wink and say ” she wants me” . I was spared further details of his exploits but this remarkable gem of the human species has many more qualities , one of which that profoundly affected me was a direct hotline to the founding fathers. He must have had telepathic communion  with the founding fathers in their after life to project the kind of confidence that he showed. For a while I was baffled and convinced that there was a ouija board.

Lest you believe that I come up with random hypothesis; what actually led me to this conclusion was a logical process that Sherlock Holmes would have approvingly nodded at . Whenever I asked him a question about his code , he would go into a deep trance akin to those wiccans that my ex wife spent so much time with . So I looked in vain , alas one of those unsolved mysteries that seem to surround me all the time . I marvel at these folks because most days , I barely know what I want , let alone try to figure out what men living 200 years ago would want me to do . Personally I do hold our founding fathers in the same vein as demi gods , some of the smartest people to walk the earth and I am grateful for their wisdom and foresight but nonetheless these are men who lived in a different zeitgeist , so how they could have predicted before the advent of all the magical things that we have today is a mystery to me . As in the case of these magical creatures living amongst us with a direct telepathic hotline through the land of the dead to our founding fathers , they simply amaze me .  But my epiphany is far simpler.  It is also more tasty , increases productivity and generally invigorating , so much so that one would not hesitate to call it the temporary fountain of youth.

I was informed recently by a mind no less than P.G.Wodehouse that while the duty of the chronicler is to inform , he must go to great lengths to ensure that the reader is never left in suspense for too long. So it is with a tinge of nervousness that I am proceeding down this route . I promise not to hold you in suspense for so long , the duty of a chronicler is that one should lay his groundwork well before he sets out on his argument . After all ,confusion is poison to the mind . We are an extremely inventive species . We have created  various processes of brewing different forms of alcoholic beverages .For example Beer is made by malting barley . Malting is just a fancy word invented by idle English professors to increase the highly inefficient vocabulary of the English language. It means  germinating the grain and then hot air drying  using coke / coal or peat ( form of coal found in marshes and is highly inefficient to burn hence smoky) . This is then fermented using yeast and later filtered .It is an well known secret that sprouting grains increases the nutritive value of foods , so much so that we have a store chain called Sprouts which seeks to anchor this idea in our minds every time we go grocery shopping . Another well known idea is that fermentation greatly increases the nutritional value of foods as well , and indeed one need look no further than yogurt , idlis , tempeh , Kefir , Kombucha , Kimchi , Sauerkraut to verify the truth of the same . So what we have here is a super mixture of sprouty fermented goodness to start with . At this point , this super nourishing mixture is filtered and hops are added to provide some spice and a natural preservative and voila , we have beer , a highly concentrated form of organic goodness in a bottle  . If that is not nutrition on the go , I dont know what is . Indeed Mothers looking for providing quick , natural and easy nourishment to their young need look no further than the familiar 6 pack in the grocery store. Grapes follow a somehow simpler route .They are just mashed but in this case it makes for a even greater compelling argument because no less a distinguished figure than the Surgeon General insists that we take in 5 servings of fruit a day. Even a confirmed fruit lover like myself loses that struggle daily , can you imagine having to eat 5 water melons every single day?  I tried that and spent so time in the bathroom but I digress .  Crushed grapes are fermented thereby increasing their nutritional value multi fold again and filtered to provide us with wine . And in this case , this has the additional benefit of having naturally occurring sugars , there by satisfying our natural craving for sugar. Indeed this might be a even better option for harried mothers looking for quick , easy and natural nutrition. Breast feeding mothers can pass on this nutritive storehouse in small quantities to their babies , a double win if ever there was one . Not only is this a nutritional powerhouse but it is a quick aid for restorative sleep , an argument so powerful that I doubt any new parent could find faults with this.

At this point if one decides to distill the beer mixture to concentrate this nutrition , one gets whisky or moonshine or ever clear . This is then aged in Oak barrels for umpteen years to remove the acerbic taste and give it a pleasant tang . Grapes follow the same fate to wine and then distilled to Brandy , potatoes to Vodka , corn to sour mash and so on . For reasons of sanity , I have ignored those magical processes where corn is actually turned into Bourbon in Kentucky , grapes turn themselves into Armagnac in the Armagnac province of France or cognac if it finds itself in the Cognac province of France where as in the rest of the world the fickle grape is content to be just ordinary brandy . I will call out to corn here ,Corn  is particularly interesting because it is generally considered to be indigestible , so it is a miracle that we have even perfected a process of secreting concentrated nutrition out of indigestible corn .

Indeed in my humble opinion, these distillation processes are merely a way to save on space while concentrating all the nutritious goodness in a smaller package .We were told by the first law of thermodynamics that the amount of energy in the universe stays constant . By this highly revered and respected theory, it is obviously evident that what we have here is an enormously effective way of concentrating the energy content of a large amount of grain into a small amount of alcohol so goes to reason that the nutritive value of alcohol in terms of energy is astronomically high . Indeed it is so high that it provides jolts of instant nourishment for the soul and the brain . The cells in the brain used to the normal reticent and reluctant  energy in grain becomes unusually lubricated by this sudden abundance and normally reticent men are known to burst in song after a couple of swigs of this delightful nutritious stuff.

Not too long ago , I was in a bar devouring a BLT . This was no ordinary BLT but the kind that stays with you. Indeed It was so memorable that I can see myself telling my grandchildren and all posterity so that we could all marvel together at it’s fine qualities and lip smacking goodness. But my worshipful reverie was interrupted by the picture of this young man who was quietly sipping cranberry juice . His was the kind of unhappiness that sours everything that is good in a place and it lost no time in creeping in on my scrumptious fare and while one generally prefers to mind their own business and devour the splendor that God wants us to, in this case  I decided to make an exception in the light of bonhomie and helping a fellow human in seemingly acute distress. I sidled up to him and greeted him

“Hi bro” , I said

“Ho ” , he jumped up like a cat that was lost in existential reverie suddenly confronted by the neighboring pit bull.

“Everything OK?” , I ignored the transition of  panic to annoyance followed by disinterest. The transition was so masterful and quick that it would have turned most werewolves green with envy and even kick started  a transition Olympics among them .

“Yes , everything is fine” . The tone told me to mind my own business , I wanted to punch the tone but things being what they are, I merely ignored it and continued on my altruistic struggle to better the sour mood of my fellow man.

“Why the sour face?” , he glared at me and looked away .

I am normally a reticent man who can take a hint so I did but I kept a close eye on him, pretty soon the reason was his acute depression was clear to me. It was in the form of a beautiful petite red head who seemed to be the life of the party two tables down.

Always the altruist , I promptly poured a shot of my vodka into his cranberry juice while his attention was still captivated by the bewitching red head.

The effect that it had seemed to perk him up . If an English longbow archer from the fields of Agincourt had happened to pass by, he would have recognized the effect as similar to that of his longbow . My pensive friend no longer seemed pensive, a light had come upon him. He knew that the world was for his taking , I imagine that he felt the same about the redhead , walked up to her and asked to dance with her. There was no dance floor but I cannot imagine that a normal happy go lucky girl would not be flattered by the attentions of so original a mind . Alas duty called me away so I had to leave before the credits rolled in and I got to see the young couple living happily ever after.

But I could not but reflect on the merits of this empowering and nutritious life giving fluids. I had seen a shy man who could barely look at a girl and the miracle of a small snifter had him leaping tall buildings in a single leap.

If the aforementioned psychic telepaths had lived in the 20s , they would known instantly that our founding fathers loved this fine tipple and we could have happily avoided the disastrous experiment known as Prohibition which caused no end of misery to all sorts of gentle folk including Al Capone (who was so sensitive that he would cry at operas) .

An inspiring tale of courage

For some bizarre reason , my library dashboard showed me this book and curiosity killed the proverbial cat and I put it on my list to read .

 

After I got it home , idle curiosity made me peruse it (I have a rather large list of books that I am currently reading and by no means was this even top of my list) but as I browsed through a few pages , everything was forgotten and I devoured the book in a few hours.

In an age where we have watched countless innocent journalists such as Daniel Pearl , James Foley and so many brave journalists and humanitarian workers murdered brutally and senselessly , it was inspiring to read about a journalist talking with these people , often going alone without her phone or any tracking devices . These fundamentalists are incidentally the same people who had to release a rape handbook for its members  because their atrocities against women made even these battle hardened veterans squeamish . I also found that Human Trafficking is also a lucrative source of income for these folks . So it was all the more laudable to read about her travails through these interesting times and places.

I have always been puzzled by the incidents of British born citizens who end up becoming part of these fundamentalist groups and commit abhorrent acts of terrorism. She offers interesting and disturbing explanations which I found perfectly plausible (though having never lived or visited Europe , I can neither confirm nor deny) .

Her brilliant and painstaking analysis of the Middle East itself is eye opening , a region that not only seems to be  at odds with the foreign policies of Western nations (AKA oil and Israel) but also the intense and horrific struggle between the two sects of Islam , Shia and Sunni . Henry VIII initiated the English Reformation (perhaps inspired by Anne Boleyn) and the results were near catastrophic for the masses . Today the struggle in the Middle East between the two sects seems oddly reminiscent of those horrifying massacres  .

When Arab spring happened in 2011 , I imagined that this was to be the flowering of democracy that people clamored for , instead we saw chaos . Again she tries to go into depth and explain why that was a very naive expectation .

The most inspiring piece for me was where she wrote eloquently about her own experiences growing up as a minority and working harder than everybody to shine and be noticed rather than play the victim.

I cannot do justice to the book because words fail me , it left a deep and poignant impression

History teaches us that those who forget history are damned to repeat it

 

Helen of Sparta … of Troy …of Sparta

Characters

Helen of Sparta .. of Troy … of Sparta

Teucer – Greek hero and brother of Ajax the greater

Menelaus – Husband of Helen

Theoclymenus

Servant of Menelaus

 

Helen is sitting in front of the Tomb of Proteous muttering . It looks as though she is praying. We go closer until we can hear her

Helen : I wonder how I can fool the son of Proteous ,Theoclymenus. He wants to marry me , but I am bored of these sappy doting Egyptian eyes .Long ago I was tired of Menelaus too which is why I eloped with Paris in the first place. I wonder why all these men are so boring  (she pauses) But I do prefer Menelaus , he is a strong man and the father of my daughter, I also miss my daughter that I have not seen in so long. But I was not sure if he has forgiven me and would spare my life; after all he did try to kill me once before and only stopped after he gazed upon my face . Regardless of what men like to claim about wealth and principles , he is obviously hurt about the fact that I , his wife left him for another man and though he is still smitten with my beauty , it is obvious he is hurt.  A cuckolded man will always bear a grudge so I need to convince him that I stayed true to him.

(she pauses again , this time much longer and muses thoughtfully)

Helen : The ship wreck is a blessing in disguise . The idiot that he left to guard me was certainly a blessing , all I had to do was blow some of the magic powder and he fell fast asleep. Now  maybe I can convince Menelaus that the gods were indeed playing tricks on him .

Teucer rushes in and looks upon with shock at Helen .

Teucer : What is this? I thought you were with Menelaus

Helen : Who are you, my brother ? Who is Menelaus?

Teucer : You look so much like Helen of Troy that I mistook you. Forgive me but I am trying to find the prophetess who is going to show me the way to my new home .

Helen : Brother, you best get out of here as soon as you can , her brother is slaughtering all the greeks that he can get his hands on.

Teucer – Thank you , my lady . You look like Helen but dont act like her . May you prosper unlike her .

Teucer leaves

Helen (muses thoughtfully) : I could certainly pull this off

Menelaus comes in and stops and looks at Helen in shock .

Menelaus: How is this possible ? I left you with my servant , how could you possibly be here?

Helen : Alas , Menelaus my one true lord , is that really you or are the gods playing a trick on me ?

Menelaus : What is the meaning of this ? I left you up on the mountains a week ago and now you claim to not recognize me ?

Helen : Alas my lord, the gods are playing a trick upon your eyes . They kidnapped me all those years ago and left me here , chaste and true to you but they created a fake Helen that they sent to Troy with Paris . I dont know what terrible deeds I have done to cause so much hatred among the gods that they seem this as a fair punishment for me.

Menelaus : How is this even possible ? You are lying

Servant of Menelaus enters ; he has not seen Helen yet .

Servant : My lord Menelaus , your wife , the queen vanished in a puff of smoke before our very eyes

Helen (turns towards us and smirks) : Thank god for fools, they are sorely needed.

Menelaus dismisses him pensively ,

Chorus – Menelaus , surely you have to wonder if that is truly the case . Had this beautiful wife of yours always been true to you and the gods just playing a vicious game with you . Surely a woman this beautiful and delicate not capable of causing the mayhem that was attributed to her.

Menelaus looked at her , her beautiful eyes welling with tears .

Chorus – Women’s tears fuel men’s emotions . The more beautiful the woman, the greater the impact

Menelaus : I believe you , my beautiful wife . I never ever doubted you but when the gods are bent upon making a fool of you, the best of us don’t stand a chance .

Helen (turns to us and smirks again) : I cant believe it was so easy

Helen turns to Menelaus and weeps : Yes my lord , accursed am I , to lead you into such perils

Menelaus : surely all is well that ends well now . Shall we get out of here ?

Helen : No my lord , the ruler of Egypt is in love with me and he has sworn to kill all Greeks

Menelaus : Maybe I can challenge him to a duel and fight him in single combat

Helen: No my lord, this needs us to out think him not out fight him. He is not a civilized Greek to honor your challenge

Menelaus : Let us run away , surely if he does not know where we are going, he wont know where to search

Helen (turning towards us): This dreadful world, things that I could have done if I was a man. Now I have to rely on an idiot

Helen (to Menelaus) : My lord, we need to convince him to give us his fastest boat so that he wont be able to chase us.

Menelaus : How on earth do you propose to do that?

Helen : Leave it to me . (rings for the servant of Theoclymenus)

Helen: Please ask your master to come here . I have received some dreadful news from the Greeks , this man who is my husband’s servant just told me that my husband drowned at sea. (Menelaus’s eyes widen)

The servant leaves to fetch Theoclymenus

Helen: My lord , with your rags it is easy to believe that you are a servant . You need to tell Theoclymenus that you drowned at sea and it is the Greek custom to have the burial rites at sea for people who are lost at sea . You also have to agree with me that until the burial rites are complete , I am not free to marry another man

Theoclymenus: My love , have you decided to marry me ? Your beauty is stupefying , I fail to see why you keep refusing to marry me.

Helen : My lord , I am already married but I have good news for you. My lord , Menelaus has drowned , this is his servant who just bought me the terrible news .

Theoclymenus : So you can marry me now ?

Helen : My lord, I have to perform the last rites for my husband, only then will I be free.

Theoclymenus : Why does he not do it?

Helen : My lord , it has to be done by near and dear ones

Theoclymenus : Fine , let us do it and get married as soon as you are done

Helen : My lord , this has to be done out at sea. He was lost at sea so the burial rites must be done at sea. Otherwise the gods will not deem me a free woman

Theoclymenus : ok , what do you need ?

Helen : My lord , I know I have made you wait too long , now I want to make it up to you and want to marry you as soon as I can . Would you not lend me your fastest trireme so I can perform this dreadful ritual and come back to start our life of happiness

Menelaus looks at her agog

Theoclymenus (eyes brimming with tears of happiness) : My love , you shall have it . I will instruct my chief commander to give you his fastest trireme . (he hugs Menelaus) Thank you for bringing me this wonderful news

Menelaus stares at the back of the departing king in bewilderment and turns to Helen

Menelaus : But dont we need 60 men for a trireme ?

Helen : Where are the soldiers who came with you?

Menelaus : Oh they are around .

Helen : Well in that case , we are going to get aboard that, get your soldiers on board , as soon as we are out at sea . We slaughter everyone who is not Greek and head to Sparta .

Menelaus (stares in admiration at Helen ): My love , you are so wise

Helen (smiles) : Hurry my lord

Menelaus leaves

Helen turns to the audience

Helen : Sometimes life is indeed too much of a bore for a woman of intelligence.Add some tears and a beautiful face and men are like putty , willingly acquiesce to be abused and treated like sheep. And now my choice is between two fools , Menelaus and Theoclymenus but Menelaus is a known fool and he has already swallowed the story that the gods had put a different woman in Paris’s bed and so I have always been true to him. (she stops ) He was a good lover, pity he is dead.

Menelaus enters

Menelaus : My love , let us leave now

Helen and Menelaus board the trireme , followed by his soldiers . The trireme commandant having received orders to do everything as ordered by Helen, followed all the orders

We finally see Helen and Menelaus on board the deck of the Trireme . Menelaus looking at her adoringly ,Helen looking out at the sunset

 


This has been inspired by the play Helen by Euripides . While the play is actually a comedy , I found it dreadful . A satirization seemed so much more satisfying

 

Hecuba

Hecuba was a short quick gripping read .  Quick primarily because the timeline seems so dreadfully short .The time frame is after the fall of Troy and men have been murdered , most of the women raped and taken as concubines .The agony of Hecuba seems to be something so poignant that though  we have a hard time relating to her pain , our own desire for the macabre insists on continuing , that is the genius of Euripides ; he starts off with an ingenious device ; our fore-knowledge of her son Polydorus’s death. So while we ,the audience are aware of this dreadful knowledge ,Hecuba is not and that provides for some of the excitement that curiosity fuels to see how she would react.

The ghost of Polydorus  informs us that he has been murdered by his host , King Polymestor of Thrace who was a close friend of Priam, King of Troy and was responsible for safe guarding him and the treasure that Priam sends along. Polydorus informs us that as long as Troy was safe and Hector was alive ,he was safe but as soon as the slaughter commenced after the fall of Troy, his host . Polymestor murdered him and threw him into the sea and usurped the treasure.

So full of foreboding we meet Hecuba at  this point . The ghost of Achilles has come to the dreams of the Greeks and demanded the blood of Polyxena, one of her last surviving daughters . So Odysseus has marched in with a contingent of soldiers to take Polyxena away . This is quite a dramatic shift in the points of view for viewing Odysseus . At some point in the past, Hecuba has spared his life but he shows no intention of repaying her kindness . He is depicted as a cruel ingrate who is very conscious about his power and reputation in the Greek army . Polyxena is the innocent pure tragic heroine who prefers death to slavery and leaves willingly after telling her poor mother that she pities her mother because she will actually be going off to Hades , a far better place than the fate that the Greeks have in store for them . When the Neoptolemus , son of Achilles is about to murder her on the grave of Achilles , she willingly offers herself without a fight insisting that she will not die as a slave and will not be bound. After her heroic death , we come back to Hecuba who is recounted the brave last moments of her daughter’s life who will now be given an honorable burial by the Greeks who were touched by the girl’s bravery.

Hecuba is inconsolable and tells her slave girl to fetch water from the sea for the last rites of her daughter . her voyage as the bride of Hades . And it is here that the slave girl finds the body of Polydorus . There is some brief confusion when Hecuba thinks that the body of Polydorus is the body of Polyxena and she chides the slave girl for bringing it here. But once she finds out that it is her son and he was murdered by Polymestor, she conceives of a dreadful plan and it is at this point that we see Agamemnon , King of Mycenae and leader of the Trojan expedition . Again , the great hero is shown in a very different perspective , he knows that the murder of Polyxena was an unrequited tragedy forced upon a suffering old woman , he worries about his reputation and does not stop the murder because he is afraid of the gossip that will ensue . His soldiers will reason that due to his affair with Cassandra , another of Priam and Hecuba’s daughter  , Agamemnon is weak and unwilling to sacrifice Polyxena. But unlike Odysseus , his private moral sense of honor does compel him to go along with Hecuba’s plan for revenge after he is told of Polydorus’s untimely death at the hands of his host.

Hecuba invites Polymestor with his young sons with the pretext of telling him a precious secret which must be told to him alone . When Polymestor comes over , she tells him that she will reveal the cache of gold that Priam had hidden , this cache of gold belongs to Polydorus and Polymestor is the custodian until the Greeks leave . Greedy Polymestor agrees and asks his contingent of bodyguards to leave . We are spared the morbid details of the actual murders but instead given a beautiful couplet

Life is held on loan,

the price of life is death

Those who take a life 

repay it with their own

Justice and the gods 

exact the loan at last

Hands which never held a sword

shall wrench your twisted life away

Polymestor  is blinded and both his young children are murdered by the women of Troy.

Hearing the uproar , Agamemnon who pretends to be unaware of Hecuba’s plan for revenge listens to both sides . It is a trial of sorts where Polymestor claims that the murder of Polydorus was a political necessity else the Greeks would have invaded Thrace and if the boy grew up, there would be a resurgence of Troy and more trouble for Troy’s neighbors but Hecuba claims that Polymestor’s speech is pure sophistry because he is not related to the civilized Greeks nor had any prior relations with them and the murder was driven exclusively by his greed. If he was truly a friend then he would have not waited until the sack of Troy to offer his services to Agamemnon . She finishes with a flourish  forcing Agamemnon’s hand by claiming that if he passed the verdict on Polymestor’s behalf then he would go down in history as an unjust man .Agamemnon does come down on her side and prosecutes Polymestor for murder. The play ends with two dreadful prophecies by the blind Polymestor , one that Hecuba will die by drowning and that Agamemnon will be murdered by his own wife .

If ever there was a play that can show us what depths we can plunge to , driven by circumstances , Hecuba would certainly qualify .  Hecuba starts off as a grieving mother but ends up performing the most dastardly inhuman acts  ; the murder of innocent children. She is driven by her circumstances , driven by her captors to lose the last shreds of humanity, compassion and kindness .

Democracy or Free Press!!!

Growing up  I assumed that everybody knew the importance of a free press to a democracy . As I read about the horrors perpetrated by governments and those in power and the efforts by the free press to reel them in (Watergate , The Pentagon papers and the press in India during the Emergency readily come to mind ), I cannot help but believe that journalists are replaying the same role that Brutus played in ancient Rome when he assassinated Julius Caesar . Regardless of personal motivations , at the heart of the treachery was a love for Rome that overwhelmed his affection and loyalty to Caesar (the anti-Antigone behavior where the state comes before the self)  . To me this symbiosis of democracy and free press is as essential to democracy as oxygen to living creatures; even to a democracy as venerable as ours or especially to one as venerable as ours .

I love change.org and have support several of their initiatives including the brutal butchery of sharks for their fins , puppy mills , blood lions, human trafficking, dog fighting and even supported one initiative which recommended that we deport the lion killing dentist back to Zimbabwe to face trial (given the quick disappearance of that particular incident from the collective memory, I imagine life is back to normal for him). But the one that I remember the most is one that I did not vote for , it was so audacious that it has stuck with me. It was an initiative where they wanted  Facebook and Google to verify the authenticity of news that was being spread on their platforms . I love Facebook which I use to keep in touch with my family in India as well as friends in India and Ohio and it also serves as my online scrapbook for all the pictures that I take .But while Facebook is a luxury , Google is a necessity . I would starve to death without Google , every day I search for dozens and dozens of resolutions to issues that I cannot resolve and given the diversity of platforms , languages and libraries that software engineers have to deal with , Google is a life saver . So needless to say , I am grateful for both of them but I do not expect them to vet my news for me . Portals of free information on the internet cannot  be expected to be held to the same standards of reputable news papers.

Recently I listened in mute fascination to an associate who was reciting to me her total faith in the FDA.  Sometime back I was working for a giant pharmaceutical company in Philadelphia and I was part of the engineering team which comprised of mechanical , electronics , electrical , instrumentation and software engineers and on the pharmaceutical side was an army of PhDs . We had to document everything as was required by the FDA , my software was the glue that triggered the syringe to squirt the drug  , measure the volume of the drop , weigh the pill and send all this information to the central data repository that was a write once read many (WORM) database . Awesome stuff !! Great lengths to prevent tampering. Admirable except there was nobody who could audit what I had written , little to prevent a bug in my calculations (an implementation of Integration by parts; mention of calculus would have most software engineers in tears) , little to prevent an overestimation in the amount of drug in the drop and I certainly do not expect a FDA employee or even an army to go through the mechanical design, the electrical design , the software and the vagaries of organic chemistry to understand the drug . So we had to produce voluminous amount of documentation that they keep as part of their records .  What does this have to do with a free press ? a free press keeps everybody on their toes , some thing that is common to all Pharma companies is their fear of negative publicity , anybody remember Vioxx?  The FDA was bought into existence by Theodore Roosevelt who read Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle and was horrified to learn that it was not unusual for lard to have human remains .The vats were massive and it was extremely difficult and expensive to stop them . So if the odd Lithuanian immigrant happened to fall in , it was cheaper to pay money to his non English speaking family and if some nosy government agent started asking questions (as did happen after TR read “The Jungle” ), ship them back to Lithuania or Latvia . While the FDA is essential , it is the free press that keeps the Pharma companies in line . The particular process that I worked on was for a painkiller , the machine was first of its kind but once they found that the drug was causing cancer in rats , not only did they have to abandon the drug but also the machine , it was mandated as part of the FDA process which is overkill but it is due to the fact that they are seriously under equipped to deal with the technology and rapid innovation. At the other extreme are FDA agents who visit Joel Salatin’s grass farm in Virginia . They are hampered by his concepts like the open air abattoir which obviously do not require adherence to regulations that are in place to protect the McDonalds customer . If I buy a chicken from the Salatin farm , they slaughter the chicken in front of you if desired or the same day that you buy it alleviating the need to protect yourself from E-Coli or Salmonella. The McDonalds meat comes from some mystery farm in Kansas raised on a diet of who knows what . If interested ,read the Omnivore’s Dilemma by Michael Pollan , a delightful book. In light of all this , it is easy to see that while we need the FDA , they are inundated and under equipped . Therefore our biggest defense is a free press that is not afraid to print and hold our businesses to high standards.

Cleveland ,OH is home to the Great lakes Brewery , the beer is delicious enough to almost claim it to be a micro brewery. I meet quite a few North East Ohio expats in the bay area and almost invariably the conversation becomes rueful once The Great Lakes brewery is mentioned because we don’t get it here. They have a delightful collection but the one that stands out for me is called Burning River. I wish it was just the amazing imagination of the brewer but unfortunately it is inspired by the Cuyahoga river which caught fire in June 1969 . I will let you digest that for a minute , the river caught fire!!! It was caused by the  chemicals that were being dumped by the companies who had nothing to stop them . President Nixon created the EPA to deal with issues like these . I have had zero dealings with the EPA but I imagine the same issues that plague the FDA plague the EPA as well and again it is only the free press which is our last defense against companies who would go to great lengths to avoid negative publicity and therefore try to hold themselves to higher standards.

I reserve my last argument for the financial regulations especially the Dodd-Frank Act. I have read almost all of Michael Lewis’s books where he details Wall Street’s antics  , the Wolf of Wall Street did little to assuage my growing anxiety and anger reserved at Wall Street. The Dodd-Frank act was created after the gigantic cluster f*#@ that was the 2008 financial crisis. The Big Short clearly details how many in Big Finance knew but did nothing to stop it quite the contrary.Around 2015 , one of my closest friends got a call from one of his drunk classmates who happens to work in Wall Street. This fellow had just received a huge bonus for creating a enticing financial product.  Being drunk , he could not help bragging about the fact that he had 7-8 $10000/hour hookers and proceeds to tell my friend that this product will be a poison pill in about 10 years but right now it is extremely profitable for his employer and hence the bonus. It was a scene right out of the Wolf of Wall Street. This is obviously after the Dodd-Frank act and under President Obama’s so called age of regulations . So the Wall Street analysts are still having a gala time . About 2 weeks ago another close friend and his wife go to their financial planner for advice , he was all agog with excitement because President Trump had promised to dismantle all of these regulations which was crippling the financial industry and he could offer them much better products . All I could think of was Bernie Madoff!!! The financial crisis caused trillions of dollars to vanish and yet nobody went to jail . Not too long after the rescue of Citibank in 2009, I remember reading an article in the Wall Street Journal about a Citi stock broker getting a bonus of $340 million. Here is another interesting article. All of this happened in spite of extensive news coverage so I am convinced that we need every weapon possible to protect us from them including government regulations and investigative reporters.

Growing up , I was of a libertarian bent of mind which believes in less government but the more I read of businesses that hire armies of lawyers and accountants to seek loopholes , engineer financial products that is engineered to swindle us out of our hard earned money, I am convinced that regulators are needed , they don’t exist to provide jobs to incompetent government bureaucrats but to protect us.I don’t know what is going to happen to these government regulatory bodies or regulations which are in place to protect us, the common man and woman . What I do know is that our only defense against big businesses or politicians running amuck at this point is a free press which is not afraid to print what they see . Regardless of  right or left leanings, Republican or Democrat or Libertarian beliefs, we need a free press to thrive in order to have a thriving democracy , to protect the land we love.

A free press cannot survive without its subscribers . I started my annual subscription to the Washington Post and the Wall Street Journal . I urge every one of you to do the same , whether the subscription is to your local newspaper or a national one.