Ever since it was announced that Peter Jackson was going to bring ‘The Hobbit’ to life on the big screen, I had been waiting excitedly for it. I finally saw the first installment, ‘The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey’ a couple of weeks ago. And the verdict is… Good but not as enjoyable as the Lord of the Rings movies. Let me explain why.
I’ll start at the beginning. I got into the whole Tolkien fantasy world initially thanks to Led Zeppelin songs. Being a big fan of classic rock and Zeppelin in particular, I was intrigued by the fascinating, otherworldly lyrics in songs like ‘The Battle of Evermore’, ‘Stairway to Heaven’, ‘Misty Mountain Hop’ and ‘Ramble On’ among others. And then I picked up the book called ‘The Hobbit’. Initially, the peculiar style of storytelling seemed a bit childish for my taste (the funny names of the various dwarves didn’t make it any better) but I soon warmed up to it.
At around the same time, the Lord of the Rings movies started getting released in theatres one by one. Having just read The Hobbit, it was easy to follow these movies as a continuation of the story and I absolutely loved them all. Sure, I had my preferences. ‘The Fellowship of the Ring’ was wonderful as a visual introduction to middle earth. Before that, middle earth had only existed in my imagination. ‘The Two Towers’ was great for its excellently done battle scenes. And ‘Return of the King’ was a grand finale, albeit way too long and dragging towards the end. But anyway, I loved the setting, the characters, the lines… everything! This was the first big fantasy epic that I could relate to, having not grown up on Star Wars. Also, the LoTR movies seemed a lot more real to me with a sort of historical/mythological flavour to them, as opposed to Star Wars which I always felt had way too many weird looking characters that I could never relate to. Call it personal bias or opinion, whatever.
So my expectations were sky-high for ‘The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey’. But it didn’t quite wow me like the earlier movies did. The perfect way to describe it can be encapsulated in this solitary, classic Bilbo line “… like butter scraped over too much bread”. Compared to the very detailed Lord of the Rings books, The Hobbit is actually not a difficult read. To stretch just one third of that book into a 3 hour long movie seemed a bit too much. And I could tell that I was losing interest pretty early due to the ambling pace of the first half.
‘Riddles in the dark’ with Gollum was one of the first truly interesting portions in the movie. And I did enjoy the Misty Mountains song that the dwarves sing in unison before setting foot on their adventure. But I did not care at all for that weird forest wizard, Radagast and felt that this unnecessary character introduction only ended up slowing down the plot. Not to mention, the pointless discussion between Gandalf and the other ‘elders’ of middle earth at Rivendell. My wife had the funniest observation here… in some of the scenes she said it looked like Gandalf and Galadriel were having an affair! That in itself should give you an indication of how much they have stretched out this movie beyond what was needed for a Part I of III.
Nonetheless, it was still enjoyable overall because the original story is still close to my heart. And there is no doubt that I will ardently wait for and watch the next installment in this epic series.
It was a nice Diwali this year. Last year we had beautified the apartment with diyas, rangoli and lights but generally spent it low-key. Later we found out that many people gather at Shree Radheshyam Mandir in Sandton and even light fireworks there! So this year we were determined not to miss it.
Firstly, we had to go get firecrackers. At the annual Newtown Diwali festival that we attended at the beginning of the month, we had seen a flyer for a store in Lenasia selling fireworks. And since we hadn’t really seen Lenasia yet anyway, we decided to give it a try. So, on Saturday (which was coincidentally my birthday) we did the somewhat long-ish drive to Lenasia and went to this store called Milan’s. I don’t remember the last time I walked into a shop that was so filled to the brim with fireworks! It was a nice feeling, something I hadn’t experienced in maybe 15 years or more. As we started enquiring about crackers and bombs, we realized that it was a bit different here than in India. They did not understand what ‘flower pot’ or ‘anaar’ meant. Instead, we got something called ‘volcano’ which looked similar but much bigger. I noticed that these were Chinese fireworks, not the ones from Sivakasi, Tamilnadu that we used to get regularly in India. Anyway, we got all the basics – sparklers, flower pots, a few loose bombs etc. Didn’t want to go overboard… just wanted a handful to get that festive feeling.
The evening before Diwali (called ‘chhoti diwali’ in India) we put our string of led lights up. I tried my best to tape it on to a window in the form of a diya. Diwali day itself was a normal workday (no holiday here despite the significantly large Indian population!) so we quickly wished all our loved ones back home before heading to work. Late afternoon/evening some friends dropped by and we exchanged sweets. Got that nice feeling one gets in India when neighbourhood friends and relatives visit over a festive occasion. Then we made a few calls to our parents and siblings, wishing them once again. Before we knew it, it was time to get dressed and head out for the temple festivities.
There were a lot of people at the temple and it was interesting to see everybody dressed to the nines in their best Diwali garb. The Lakshmi Puja was supposed to start at 7 pm and the fireworks were scheduled to start at 8:30. We reached there on time, luckily found parking amidst the sea of cars and said our prayers in the busy hall. As we sat there doing a bit of people-watching, some had already started setting off crackers in the lawn and it was only 7:30 or so. Clearly, most people were there for the fireworks! To our pleasant surprise we also saw a couple who we knew and started chatting with them. Soon, we too headed into the large lawn to join in the celebrations. It was just like in India… people lighting fireworks all over the place, within hardly a few feet from each other. Of course, this being a foreign country, there were plenty of fire extinguishers strategically placed on the lawn should something untoward happen. There was originally a tape running across the lawn demarcating the safe viewing zone with the live firework zone. But Indians will be Indians, so that rule was soon broken and people were all over the place. It was also amusing to see a black guy who had come with his Indian buddies who tried their best to explain to him in detail about how people go nuts over these fireworks back home. All in all, it was so great to relive this experience after more than a decade! People were generally friendly too. Nothing like lighting your sparkler with the help of somebody else’s already lit sparkler – the perfect ice-breaker!
It was a weeknight though, so we had to return home at a decent time. After dinner, we had our own little party on the front patio with friendly light-emitting sparklers. Didn’t risk any sound-producing bombs, though my curiosity eventually got the better of me and I simply had to try out a tiny little ‘dancing cracker’, which at most would have woken up an alley cat nearby. Overall, it turned out be a really fun evening and I was happy to see so many Indians celebrating in an alien country.
Last weekend my wife dragged me to a Japanese movie and I have to say that I quite enjoyed watching it. She is learning Japanese and so naturally was overjoyed when the practically inactive Japanese embassy announced their annual film festival. The film that we decided to see was called ‘Shodo Girls’. Seemed like an interesting enough plot from the festival brochure, so thought we’d give it a try. What did we have to lose anyway? Entrance was free! I was praying for subtitles though.
The film is about a calligraphy club formed by a group of school girls in a small town on Shikoku island. The town is known for its paper mills, a fact drilled into the viewer’s brain by the oft-repeated dialogue in the film that ‘those paper mill chimneys can be seen from anywhere in town’! This particular line fits into the puzzle nicely later on by shaping the gist of the second half of the film. It starts off as a comedy. The girls are shown to be very serious about their kanji calligraphy but in their midst are 3 dorky boys who end up looking like the Japanese version of the 3 Stooges. They provide some much-needed entertainment to this club which is filled with its share of teenage girl drama and politics. Add to this, a new teacher/adviser whose quirky methods confuse and annoy the girls to no end, and you have an interesting movie.
The film is quite funny and enjoyable but does get saccharine and dramatic in parts. I greatly enjoyed seeing small-town Japan though.
I miss walking up and down the endless streets
I miss the train ride in
I miss the subway rumble underneath my feet
I miss 53rd and 6th
I miss hangin’ with my favourite tribute band
I miss the gigs at MSG
I miss the cab ride down to the Strand
I miss browsing used CDs
I miss the colourful faces of the crowded streets
I miss the calm of Central Park
I miss the neon glow of Radio City
I miss the blinding lights in the dark
I miss the Museum of Modern Art
I miss the view from the Brooklyn Pier
I miss staring at the big lit-up tree
With the wintry wind in my ears
I miss the Guinness pints at Connolly’s Pub
I miss the local pizzerias
I miss the early morning jazz at the station Penn
After missing the last train out
I miss, I miss, I miss, I miss,
Have you heard enough from me?
As if you wouldn’t have already guessed
It’s plain to see that I love NYC
I was really into the whole Brit Pop scene in the 90’s but it was Oasis and Blur that captured my attention the most and I apparently missed out on the band that started it all. I did know a handful of Suede singles but they were limited to ‘Animal Nitrate’, ‘Trash’ and ‘Beautiful Ones’ pretty much… oh, and ‘The Wild Ones’ although I couldn’t really recall how the song went but vaguely remembered the video. Anyway, a few days back I suddenly felt like discovering more of their music and so downloaded their ‘Singles’ compilation from 2003. I was briefly considering buying their much-hailed self-titled debut with a cover of the androgynous (but quite obviously lesbian) kissing couple.
But no matter what the so-called purists say about how Greatest Hits compilations and Best Ofs don’t really add true value to your music collection, I decided that the ‘Singles’ disc will give me a good overall view of Suede. What if I got the 1993 debut and didn’t like half the album or something?! It is possible. It has happened before. I never could, for the life of me, decipher the most praised alternative album of all time, My Bloody Valentine’s ‘Loveless’. Maybe I wasn’t listening hard enough amidst all the guitar distortion and shoegaze noise. But I digress.
Suede’s ‘Singles’ is a pretty damn good collection of their work. (Don’t ask me why they’re so obsessed with lesbians… I do not know!) It neatly encompasses highlights from all their albums including the last one in 2002. I am not a big fan of the haphazard order though. I prefer listening to a chronologically arranged selection from the artist’s first album all the way to the last one. But at least this collection starts with their best songs from the 90s. From the sleazy sounding ‘Film Star’ to the cheerful ‘Positivity’, the melodious ‘Everything Will Flow’ to the catchy riffs of ‘Can’t Get Enough’ and ‘Electricity’, there’s a lot of variety here. It’s not all Bowie-inspired neo-glam rock. ‘Film Star’ will always remind me of Eddie Izzard’s 1997 stage show ‘Glorious’. That’s where I heard it first. I still have to warm up to some of the songs here, especially ones from the late 90s and early 00s. But overall, it is a great single disc representation of this band.
Music doesn’t always have to be serious. The B52’s are a great example! For years I only knew their biggest hit ‘Love Shack’ thanks to constant rotation on MTV back in the early 90s. Around 2008 I discovered more of their music after suddenly deciding to buy their greatest hits CD titled ‘Time Capsule: Songs for a Future Generation’.
Take for example the lyrics of the song ‘Strobe Light’…
Is that you baby? Yeah!
Got something to tell ya. Oh, what?
I wanna see ya tonight.
I want you to walk in the door.
I want you to lay on the floor.
Cause tonight’s the night.
We make love under a strobe light.
Underneath the strobe light.
Wanna make love to you under the strobe light.
Wanna make love to you under the strobe light.
Strobe light, wooooooah, strobe light, wooooooah, yeah!
Here’s the YouTube link:
It is such a random, casual, quirky and crazy song and it nicely encapsulates what they’re about. So, contrary to what some people may think, rock music is not always about serious subjects and bone-crunching power chords or guitar solos! There’s a lot of fun stuff out there too.
Here’s another funny one of theirs called ‘Song for a Future Generation’:
Wanna be the ruler of the galaxy
Wanna be the king of the universe
Let’s meet and have a baby now!
Wanna be the empress of fashion
Wanna be the president of Moscow
Let’s meet and have a baby now!
La! La! La! La! La!
La! La! La! La! La!
La! La! La! La! La!
La! La! La! La! La!
One song that I really like of theirs, which is not featured on the Time Capsule hits collection is ‘Revolution Earth’ from the 1993 album ‘Good Stuff’. Sure, it sounds more like a Kate Pierson solo recording but it is just so divine. She has a lovely voice!
More proof of her great voice can be found on R.E.M. songs like ‘Shiny Happy People’ and ‘Me In Honey’. I love it! This is my kind of music.
The next morning we woke up to another constant drizzle outside. The rain simply was not in any mood of stopping. As we made our way out of the tent to see how it looked like outside, we heard some shouting and commotion in the far distance. Immediately our guide also got out to see what was going on. Later he explained what we had seen. Apparently some of the locals regularly smuggle a weed called Dagga from neighbouring country Lesotho through the mountains into South Africa. And they often mistake hikers and tourists for cops. So, the commotion we had heard was them spotting our tents and then making a run for it. They don’t come and attack or anything, they just run as far away from onlookers as possible. So we had a nice chuckle about this. The guide also showed us smoke billowing out from some sections in the mountains where this weed was being smoked.
Walking in the mountains is actually not as difficult as it appears to be when one stares at a mountain. All mountain slopes have wide enough paths that the locals have been using for years to cross. So we kept walking along the long and winding paths, up, down and around one mountain to the next. On the way we passed caves (where hikers usually take shelter and even stay the night), interesting rock formations, beautiful waterfalls, steep drops and lots of heavy mist floating up and down the valley, seemingly having a mind of its own. We were reminded of Tolkien’s misty mountains and many a Led Zeppelin song. The scenery was stunningly beautiful and the mist made it look even better, although we knew that the more the mist, the more the chance of the rain not stopping. But the rain did stop in the middle and we were actually somewhat hopeful of making it all the way to the summit.
Finally when we were not all that far from Rockeries pass, the guide showed us how the mist was very heavy around the pass and that it may not be safe to cross if it suddenly decided to rain again. We were a bit disappointed of course but we thought it is better to be safe than over-ambitious on our very first trek. So we stopped right there for about half an hour or so and had some boiled eggs, an apple and some fruit juice. After taking plenty of photos in all possible directions, we started on the journey back to the base camp.
The rain started steadily increasing again and we could hear some thunder too from time to time. As we made our way back, there were a few places where either the mud was very slippery or there was hardly a wide enough path in front of us. So at certain times we had to grab hold of as much grass as possible on the mountainside in order to not slip. Our shoes did a great job though! Just before this hike we had bought good quality hiking shoes and this return journey provided plenty of proof why it is so important to get hiking shoes and not try to manage using running shoes.
As we reached the camp site, our main guide said to us that a big storm was coming and that soon the whole area would be covered in snow! Originally we had planned to camp for one more night but we had to modify that plan. Otherwise we would be stranded in the snow for god knows how long. Also, we had some winter clothing but it was not quite enough for a storm of this size. And so almost immediately we started on the journey back to Mnweni Centre. Both guides folded up the tents and we packed our bags. The plan was to back-track the whole route and maybe stop briefly at the river where we had had our breakfast the previous day.
When we reached the river, it was overflowing. The rain was heavier now and the water flow was much stronger than before. So, instead of crossing the river and taking the same route as before, we took an alternate route. This route proved to be one of the most adventurous things in the whole trip! It went on and on forever and walking in the freezing rain was becoming harder and harder by the minute. To make things worse, we suddenly came to a part of the mountain where there was no distinct path at all in front of us. We literally had to grab hold of as much grass as possible on the mountain side and slide down to the next faintly visible path below. It felt like we were going to slide down the mountain in a free-fall.
After what felt like an eternity, we finally got to some relatively level ground not that far away from the homesteads that we had passed on our way here. My legs were killing me at this point! Thankfully I did not have any sprain or fracture, though I did slip and fall a couple of times. But my knees, especially the right one for some reason, were aching continuously with every step I took. I think what had happened was, we got no rest whatsoever from the time we came back from the higher mountains to the base camp. As soon as we reached the camp, we had to start walking again immediately because of the approaching storm. So all this took its toll on my legs and I basically limped the whole way back to the Centre. My wife surprisingly seemed fine compared to the state I was in. But both of us were clearly visibly exhausted from the hike, the freezing temperature and the endless rain. Meanwhile, we saw our guides happily walking back with the same 20 something kilos on their back as if nothing had happened. I suppose that is what regular hiking in the mountains does to you!
As we walked back, we turned around to see that the mountains were now completely covered in mist. As we got further and further away and back on the road to the Centre, snow started falling over the mountainous horizon. What a sight it was! Every time we turned around to look, more snow had fallen on the slopes. They were getting whiter by the minute and it was getting easier to distinguish the mist from the snow. The place where we had camped overnight was now covered in white! We were thankful to the guide for having good judgment and saving us from the storm. But a part of me still wished that we had camped in the snow. Nonetheless, a brown and green landscape with snow-capped mountains in the horizon was the image lingering in our minds as we reached the Mnweni Centre.
So that’s the story. Sorry for writing such a long account but I wanted to describe our first hiking experience in detail. There are still things that I have left out but I could go on and on if I wanted to. The bottom line is that, despite the fact that we ran into unexpected and unfriendly weather which cut short our hike from 2-1/2 days to 1-1/2 days, we still enjoyed it very much. Even if we don’t head back to the Drakensberg for a while now, we want to start doing more day hikes in our own area. After all, it is a great way to stay healthy at a reasonable cost while also catching some lovely scenery along the way.
We’d been wanting to hike in the Drakensberg mountains for quite some time, so we finally went and did it last weekend. This was our second time in the Berg. The first time though, was purely a tourist visit to Champagne Valley and Monk’s Cowl. My mom and sis were visiting at the time, so we did not want to attempt any hectic hikes. Ever since that first visit when we saw the stunning beauty of the area with our own eyes, we had been dying to come back for a proper hike. It finally happened in September 2012.
I took a Friday off from work and we set off on the road Thursday afternoon. It was roughly a 5 hour journey covering 450 km to the small town of Bergville. From there it was about 35 km to an area called Mnweni and this included 17 km of unpaved dirt road. After getting a bit lost (which seems like a normal occurrence now especially in the Drakensberg) we finally reached the Mnweni Centre where we met with our guide and porter. The plan was to stay the night there and then start on the hike the following morning. We had our dinner quickly, which consisted of sandwiches that my wife had packed for the evening and then went to bed in our rondavel (traditional African hut). Though there was no TV in the room and no plug points, it was good, basic, reasonably priced, self-catering accommodation.
The next morning we woke up early to get ready. A light drizzle had started outside. After having a quick breakfast of oats we started on the hike with our guide and porter. We had found the guide from the internet and he arranged the porter, a local from the area who also acted as a guide as well. Both my wife and I had backpacks weighing 5 kilos or so and these guys had huge backpacks weighing maybe 20 kilos each. They brought everything for us, food for the journey, cooking utensils, tents to sleep in, sleeping bags, air mattresses and so on. At around 8:30 am, we headed from the Centre on the dirt road towards the mountains.
This was my first time out on a proper hike. I had done a few runs and walks before but they were all on level ground. This was in the mountains. Makes a big difference! After walking about 5 km or so I was already tired from the weight of the backpack and the uphill road. Thankfully we stopped every now and then for 5 or 10 min and took photos and stuff. So it wasn’t too bad. The scenery got better and better as we reached closer to the foot of the mountains.
We passed several settlements and homesteads, all sporting the typically round huts, a rooster and some cattle. It was interesting to see how the locals lived in this area. One thing that was funny to see was that some of these homesteads, no matter how rural and impoverished they looked, had visible satellite dish connections. I guess that’s the scene in a country which is both developed and developing. Also, our guide explained that these people get utilities like water and electricity as well as other things like education and medicine all subsidized by the government.
After about 11 km or so of walking, we stopped for a quick brunch by the banks of the Ntonyelane river. The guide prepared some buns with cheese and tomato and gave us 2 hot mugs of coffee. That was a much needed break.
Then we headed on towards the area where we would camp for the night. The path was really interesting and the mountain scenery just kept getting better and better. Since it was in-between seasons, we saw plenty of brown and green. In a few areas in the mountains, the demarcation between dried brown grass and lush green grass was striking and this made it look beautiful from a distance.
Finally we reached a relatively flat area where our guide decided to put up the tents. It was a lovely spot with more scenic mountains ahead of us and a cliff to some distance to our right overlooking the same river that we had crossed earlier. Actually we were going to camp even further along the route but the ever increasing rain and the fact that we were inexperienced hikers made the guide decide to stop where we were, even though it was only around 2 pm now. For the rest of the afternoon and evening we spent our time in the tent, reading books, sipping on coffee or tea, having noodles and generally staring at the rain and wishing for it to stop.
Staying in a tent overnight was quite an experience! As the sun set, it got pitch dark outside with nothing but the sound of birds and the occasional growls of baboons high up in the mountains. Our guide assured us that these baboons do not come down the mountain towards humans, unless we specially attract them with fire or food. So we were not that scared or anything but it was still a bit unnerving sleeping on a grassy mountainside out in the wild. The one thing that we missed dearly was a starry night sky. The relentless rain had covered the sky up with clouds. That’s the thing with the weather in the Drakensberg. They say it can change in a matter of 5 min. Anyway, since we were in a well-protected tent, we did not get too wet or anything. Plus, we had raincoats. In the middle of the night if we had to pee, we had to go outside the tent in pitch dark, quickly finish the job and scurry back in. And of course, twisting and turning around on the thin air mattress did give us its share of back pain. But one can’t complain too much. That is what you get if you want to experience sleeping in the wild.
When people get nostalgic about music, they love talking about the pure carefree pop of the 50’s or the experimental psychedelic rock of the 60’s. While I do enjoy a lot of music from those eras, nothing beats the early 90’s for me. It was the start of my teenage years, the growing-up years. We got satellite television in 1991 and I was suddenly exposed to a ton of interesting music videos on MTV, back when it was still music television! So here’s a list of some of my favourite albums from the early 90’s…
U2 – Achtung Baby
Tori Amos – Little Earthquakes
R. E. M. – Out Of Time
Guns n’ Roses – Use Your Illusion I & II
Michael Jackson – Dangerous
Pearl Jam – Ten
Soundgarden – Badmotorfinger
Nirvana – Nevermind
Metallica – The Black Album
R. E. M. – Automatic For The People
Annie Lennox – Diva
Deep Forest – Deep Forest
Alice In Chains – Dirt
Bon Jovi – Keep The Faith
Smashing Pumpkins – Siamese Dream
U2 – Zooropa
Depeche Mode – Songs Of Faith And Devotion
Enigma – The Cross Of Changes
Alice In Chains – Jar Of Flies
Soundgarden – Superunknown
Tori Amos – Under The Pink
Live – Throwing Copper
Oasis – Definitely Maybe
Pink Floyd – The Division Bell
I love Tintin. I always have. It was my favourite comic book growing up! I remember our local library in Madras, India had loads of Tintin books that we used to borrow over and over again. I swear I have read through each of the 24 adventures numerous times. The thing that I love most about Herge’s art is the fact that his drawings are so realistic and vivid. Whether it is a night scene at a harbor showing a drug smuggling ring in operation or Tintin and his faithful dog Snowy hijacking a steam train across the Wild West, the stories really keep your attention. Reading a Tintin book to me is like watching a movie. I remember that I used to love Herge’s drawings so much that it inspired me to create my own comic book, though of course it was no way as good as the original. But I used to draw a lot as a kid, quite nicely if I may add. And it was largely inspired by Herge.
Last year when Steven Spielberg came out with a Tintin movie I was very excited. And it turned out to be a really entertaining watch, though it didn’t quite compare to the wondrous world showcased in the books. But nevertheless I was happy that characters like Tintin, Snowy, Captain Haddock and the Thompson twins were once again in the public eye after several years. Some people were discovering these characters for the first time and others like me were reliving their childhood memories. Watching the movie made me miss the books. So I went out to a local bookstore and bought a Tintin comic book, ‘Tintin In America’. I also chanced to notice this book titled ‘Tintin: Herge & His Creation’ by Harry Thompson. Quickly flipping through it, I saw that it had chapters on every single of the 24 adventures. It was not new… first published in 1991, but nonetheless I decided to buy it.
I have just finished reading this book and it is a fantastic read! The author starts at the very beginning in the early part of the 20th century and describes Herge’s childhood in a conservative family in Brussels. Georges Remi was his real name and he started drawing Tintin for the national newspaper Le Vingtieme Siecle and later a publication called Le Soir before bringing out the books that we know now. The book wonderfully chronicles his journey from the 1930’s to the 1970’s and talks in detail about what went behind the making of each and every adventure. The author also throws light on how major happenings like World War II, Nazi fascism and the Cold War influenced Herge’s thinking. The Shooting Star in particular is one book for which Herge was unfavorably judged after the war. The author even talks about how the characters developed as the stories went on. Tintin’s dog Snowy talks a lot in the early adventures but not so much later on. Captain Haddock’s personality also changes as the years go on. There are several other fascinating aspects concerning the attention to detail that Herge gives to each of the adventures. But I will not spoil it for future readers by discussing them here. All I can say is that for serious fans of Tintin, this book is a real treasure to read through.