Sunday, 6 January 2019

Unusual Friends - #17 The Others

Ending the Unsual Friends series with #17 and all the others who may not be easy to classify.

I am fast coming to the conclusion that virtually everyone I know is perhaps Unusual. We are all individuals after all, and unique thanks to the 23 times 100 of millions of DNA data points that each of us carries in each cell. However diplomacy and decency dictates that I am discreet and do not offend anyone. You may have noticed that I have to keep personal details out of these stories, and where it was necessary I have asked for the blessing of the people involved. I apologise to anyone who may feel betrayed.
My Chromosome 1 - Self Portrait
To finish I will mention briefly 'friends' or acquaintances, who I came in contact with who were unusual in some way but could not classify. Take the example of one colleague who happened to be looking for a place to live after he arrived from Ireland to a new job in London. Marisol and I had moved to a house and had a spare room. He was very happy to accept our offer to have him stay with us. When I enquired if he needed any help with moving, he said 'Not necessary, I have been living in my car for the last two months'.
Then there was the American man who came to work in the company where I worked, and he had a small side business to make wiring circuits for American cars, which were difficult to obtain in England. So he set up a wiring board in our garage and would spend hours constructing the complex wiring bundles, and by way of compensation would bring an Indian takeaway meal for all of us to have. My son began to call this cuisine 'Max food'. This man was (perhaps still is) a books enthusiast, and introduced us to Hay on Wye, a small sleepy Welsh borders town, which is famous for about thirty book shops. Apart from the proper shops the town is littered with book shelves in the open where people can leave or take books as they wish. There is usually a box (with a lock) into which you can deposit the price of the book sometimes marked on the inside of the book (usually 10 pence or some such small number). These go by the name of 'Honesty Bookshops'. Most of the proper shops are cavernous with millions of books all arranged by categories, and bought  in bulk around the world. In one of these our friend disappeared in to the bowels of the shop and emerged with a specific book about the American student riots in California and showed me a picture in it, which showed him taking part in the riot.
Hay on Wye Bookshops
Moving on I would like to mention a couple of people who surprised us with their addresses. When we lived in Venezuela, a friend from London moved to Papua New Guinea. In 1982 there was no email and mostly we communicated by surface mail, so when December came we wanted to send him a New Year greeting. It took us a while to find the post office, but when we did get to it, it turned out that they had no stamps on that day. Usually it was a ploy to make some extra money, but we decided to come back the next day to find that some small denomination stamps were in. I showed the letter we wanted to post, and the woman at the counter looked at the address and said 'Where is that'?
They had absolutely no idea where PapuaNG was! The small denomination stamps covered the entire envelope with just a small window where the address was.
The other friend with a strange address turned out to be an American friend (who may well be reading this) who took a job working in IT for the American Embassies. Again, we asked him for his address which should have been in Germany, and it came as a bit of a surprise. It went something like:


We joked about it often with him, and he liked to give the impression that they were spies and that their mail was dropped off in the bushes outside their offices and they had to go and retrieve it after dark.
I think it will be amusing to share also a curious contact with an Indian young man, a flowers seller in the streets of Barcelona, who got very interested in finding out how I happened to be here in Spain. There appeared to be a lot of these, with sad faces and looking to make a Euro or two with these often wilted flowers. Cutting to the end of the conversation, after the usual 'where are you from' and all that, when he discovered that I was living here in retirement:
He: Do you get a Pension?
Me: Yes
He: How much do you get every month?
Me: So long (end of conversation) 
Ironing Man 
Another person that comes to mind was the 'Ironing man' who looked after the needs of the street where my parents lived in Delhi. This is a very carefully calculated and organised profession so that there are strict limits to the territory of each man. They usually erect a shack somewhere in a corner on the street, usually close to a lamp post, and proceed to carry out their service and perhaps live under the ironing board and the iron that is heated with live coals. He came every evening and took whatever needed ironing and returned the clothes ironed from the previous day. And he would time his visit every evening with the start of his favourite TV program, and would sit near the TV and watch the show.
And so the list goes on and I have to catch a plane. 
I should end here with a heartfelt thanks to all of the personalities who have contributed to the varied experiences and interacted with me at various levels. As they say, nothing in this life is by accident, of which I am not a firm believer, but perhaps.. perhaps all these people were put in my path by a grand design by the powers that be, to make me the person I am.
Here is looking forward to who I meet next!

Friday, 4 January 2019

Unusual Friends - #16 From the seventies in London

Continuing the Unusual friends series, this is #16 about the curious bunch of people from 70s London.

When I got to London in October of 1971, for the first time I had to fend for myself. One of my father's friends had got me a place to stay and I called him from Heathrow to get the address, which was in Sinclair Road. Fortunately for me this friend of my father has passed away and I can now reveal that the address to which I made my way turned out to be a thinly disguised brothel.
I was a naive young man and at night the girls would come and show you their catalogue of photos, and I realised that I had to find somewhere else to live.
After a week or so I moved out to a place up the same road at number 109, and there I spent the next five years, during which time I came across some interesting people.
Sinclair Road - London
In no particular order, let me first name Mr Jesus Christ who lived in the same building, a young man who dressed in flowing robes and long hair and called himself JC. He firmly believed that he was the reincarnation of JC himself and was to be seen often on TV or in public places handing out dry fruits and 'preaching' his philosophy. At home he often tried to engage me in conversation, but more often than not would depart in a fit of rage when I remained unconvinced or offered alternative theological arguments. What made me a sceptic had something to do with the way he treated women and how he tried to harass them in those very pre #metoo days.
Also in the same building lived several Philippine boys and they were a breed apart, because I don't think I ever saw them speak English, which is not to say that they could not, but it is possible. They were often to be seen shouting a word which sounded like 'seppo' from an upstairs window to all passers in the street, and I have yet to figure out what that might have meant after all these years. They were also pranksters and would play with the lights in the stairway at night by switching them off if anyone happened to turn them on while leaving or entering.
Another curiosity was the landlord, who came to collect the weekly rent, and I am pretty sure he accepted sexual favours from young girls in lieu of the money owed, since the walls in that building were pretty thin and you could pretty much hear everything that went on in about five of the adjoining rooms.
Jerry Garcia II (AKA Gerardo)
Then there is the story of three Spanish boys from Laredo, who showed up one day looking for a place to stay (one of them a spitting image of Jerry Garcia), and famously flushed Marisol out of her shower, when they sang 'Las chicas de Laredo' in her street, not knowing the number of the house where she lived. My 'room' measured about three square meters. I will be forever indebted to them because they brought Marisol with them (that makes five in case you are wondering) and we spent two months strolling the streets of 1973 London together.
Moving further, a young lady moved in next door who was from Barcelona, and we met her by pure coincidence when some friends of her came to visit and she was not at home. Someone told these folks that there was Spanish girl living next door, so we met the friends and entertained them while our neighbour returned. I wont name this lady because she knows who I mean and she is a very good friend of ours. She was (is) unusual in many respects. She introduced us to a young man who lived in the neighbourhood, who went by the name of Joaquin Sabina. The year was 1974 and Gen Franco still ruled Spain with an Iron fist. Joaquin and our friend worked in a Spanish bar where Joaquin also played guitar and sang. No one had heard of either of these two.
Came the wind of change in Spain in 1975 when Spain finally emerged from Franco's rule and these two returned to Spain to glittering careers. Joaquin became a rock star and our friend became a much sought after figure in Spanish cinema winning several Goyas (Spanish Oscars) in the process. Over the years we met our lady friend many times to visit film studios and special screenings, while we occasionally met Joaquin Sabina in Madrid while he was still trying to establish his music career.
Sometime around 1995, when we came to Spain on an annual visit in the summer, we were told that Sabina was going to do a concert in Laredo. We obtained tickets and at the entrance sent a message to Sabina. Suffice to say that he was spectacular, and at the end of his concert announced that the final song was dedicated to friends from London in the audience. Afterwards we spent some time with him back stage where a journalist from El Pais was feverishly taking notes. A couple of days later, we were woken early in the morning with phone calls to say that we had been mentioned in an article about Sabina's tour in the El Pais newspaper.
70s London - Portobello Road
There are two other groups of people who I can mention from the 70s London who were very unusual and the first of these were a bunch of men from the same University where I studied (London), of middle eastern origin, all with Masters and PhDs who introduced me to the curious world of Jazz and Poker. One of them made a hit with our Spanish friends (the second group) because his name was Khoder, which is awfully close to the Spanish word for F##k. The Spanish friends introduced me to a hazy smokey world full of marijuana and cigarettes (Gauloises, Gitanes and Ducados), and although I never smoked, I am convinced that my lungs suffered terribly by keeping their company, even if it was curiously liberating and enjoyable.
I arrived late in London and the 70s were for me what 60s were for many a Londoner.

Wednesday, 2 January 2019

Unusual friends - #15 People on the Camino de Santiago

Continuing with the series about unusual friends, this is #15 and the people I have met on the Camino de Santiago.

As many of you will be aware I have been slowly doing the Camino with a set of friends for the last few years, but in the course of the walking that this has involved, I have met a lot of interesting people.  The Camino is not everyone's cup of tea and it is a roller coaster experience, with many highs and a few lows. On the whole it is a remarkable spiritual experience and you find people of all races, religions and beliefs who do this centuries old walk for a variety of reasons. One thing is for sure. If you get to the end of your planned segment, in my case usually a 150 km segment, you are guaranteed to want to carry on, health and time permitting.
So, back to the people I met during my walks, there were so many that I had to go back through my notes to remember.
First I should mention the Sikh man from my own part of the world, who I met in Santiago. I have to say that earlier while we were walking, someone mentioned that they had seen another Sikh man who was ahead of us.
With Amrit at Santiago de Compostela
When we got to to the Cathedral, our group spotted him in the crowd. Indeed I met the man at the foot of the stairs leading up to the cathedral entrance. We felt like long lost friends, and had a long chat. He was also with fellow walkers including a seventy year old lady from San Antonio, Texas. I had been in San Antonio, since Manjeet lived at the time in Austin. Amrit and I exchanged contact details, as he was interested in doing the coastal Camino, which passes through Laredo, and we agreed to stay in touch and to meet in Laredo when he came by. However he has failed to show up in the six years which have now gone by.
I came across other Indians too, like the Young man from Bangalore who was with his Korean companion. He was walking fast, and as he went by he happened to say the customary 'Buen Camino', and he stopped to say 'You are Indian, right?' and we walked together for a while and I inquired how he came to be on the Camino. Like me, he was of the opinion that the pilgrimage was equally interesting for people of all faiths.
As much as I have enjoyed doing the Camino, I can imagine that for some people it can become quite difficult. One of the difficulty is the loneliness if you happen to do this alone, specially if you decide to do the entire Spanish part in one go, which can take as much as a month. At one point I came across an Italian lady who happened to be at a nearby table as we had breakfast at one of our overnight stops. She was on her own and as she got up to leave she came over and asked me if I was from India. She had been walking for two months having started in Zurich! She had been doing pilgrimages in India and told me that she found the Spanish pilgrimage much less spiritual. I disagreed.

 The Hindi speaking Russian

A lot of people come to mind when I play back my inner movie from the Camino. People like the man who had a donkey for a companion, played music on a guitar, and who shared the Camino with us for a while. The Russian who spoke several languages and who tried to impress me with his knowledge of Hindi. The rather large Australian who arrived totally unprepared with a friend and found that his friend had to depart after a couple of days when he twisted his ankle.
There was a Canadian retired professor of Engineering, an American lady from Charlotte, a Californian young lady recently graduated who was at the same hostel where we stayed, full of foreign pilgrims run by an enthusiastic Spaniard and his curious bunch of volunteers from all over, including an Israeli cook and a Californian yoga teacher.  At one point we met a group of cyclists from Mexico who were doing the Camino as part of a wider trip which included France, Germany and Italy. The owner of a hostel who had done the Camino eleven times with whom I had a long conversation and then the old man who wore two rings, his own and his recently departed wife's, with whom I shared a tear or two.
And many others who contributed to a feeling of shared happiness and well being who would be too numerous to mention, but let me say that one of the best experiences of doing the Camino is to be in the warm glow of people who want to share the peace and spirituality with all people they come into contact with. I have no recollection of anybody who might have wanted to annoy anyone or had any intention to cause any harm or steal or any kind of ill feeling towards fellow pilgrims.
My Camino fellow pilgrims at Santiago
One exception comes to mind. An old lady in a small town where we stayed, took a fancy to a young Dutchman who was being very polite but trying to evade the amorous advances. He decided to join us for dinner hoping that the woman would leave him alone, but she came over and carried on her quest at our table! Later we walked around the town, and she could not move as fast as us or the Dutchman and we lost her in the dark.
Our group of pilgrims still have about a hundred kilometres to complete the Camino.
Lets hope we can do that and meet more people in the process.