All pics courtesy 2 Chimneys

Once you have been to Two Chimneys, the otherworldly boutique hotel, designed and run by Geetan Batra, and set in Gethia, a hill station in India’s Uttarakhand’s Nainital district, it will live in your heart forever.  Ever since we had first met, my friend Geetan and I had talked about the prospect of visiting Gethia and staying at Two Chimneys, her mountain resort. When she heard that I was traveling to India for a month of business, she demanded that I add Nainital to my ‘cities to visit list’ when applying for my Indian visa. One of the tit-for-tat diplomatic absurdities between the Pakistani and Indian states is the requirement of city-specific visas.

Before work could begin, two days after I landed in Delhi, Geetan and I jumped into her red four-wheel-drive with destination Gethia on our minds. As I left the capital city, I had no sense of what was to come ahead.

While Delhi is historic, rich in culture and lush with foliage, it is also continually being reshaped, its bowels distending, rending, to reveal new bridges, buildings and subways. In the city, shopping malls and subway stations stand beside colonial architecture. The pace of development was more obvious in the outskirts as the haze of pollution from too many cars cleared from the midday sun to expose the scars and stains of progress in the shape of tenements, silos and factories. It looked like Karachi’s industrial area at first glance, but there was no Urdu script on the walls declaring political slogans, upcoming rallies or the ubiquitous deterrent to public urination in a country where there are no public toilets, “Dekho Kutta Paishaab Kar Raha Hai (Look, a dog is peeing here).”

Squat mud houses in fragrant, yellow mustard fields replaced high-rise homes. I was reminded of the Grand Trunk Road cutting across Pakistan’s Punjab, but here, the steel structures expelling ribbons of grey into the sky were unrelenting for the first half of the five-hour car journey. The traffic was constant, consisting largely of trucks, the back of each reading two words, Horn Please, which is what they did incessantly, calling to mind a gaggle of honking geese. Women in royal blue, fuchsia pink and acid green worked the fields; I noticed that they were not singing like they do in the movies. There was another commonality — while the women tilled, the men sat in lazy circles, playing cards and smoking beedi. It may have been familiar, but it was not particularly reassuring.

And then, just as the Dev Anand CD came to an end and we slipped in Geeta Dutt, as we relished our evening snack of potato patties with milky cold coffee, followed by sticky-sweet, fluorescent pink coconut barfi melting in the mouth, the poplar plantations came into sight. Human beings have a knack for debasing the most sublime things and the poplar tree exemplifies this. When I saw the rows of spindly trunks rising out of clouds of mist hovering over the wintry soil, bare branches as frail as whiffs of smoke against the setting sun, I could not imagine that these statuesque trees were used mostly for plywood and boxes for packaging.

Pic courtesy: pppsinpakistan.wordpress.com

A railroad crossing allowed us to stretch our legs. The crawling blue (not green like the ones at Karachi Cantt Station) train crammed with people made me lament the state of Pakistan Railways. I wondered at the seemingly inconceivable prospect of the Pakistan Railways shutting down; luckily a few days later, it pulled back from the edge of ruin to drag its tired old bogeys along.

The next hour was spent passing through more towns before we hit the forest reserve where the temperature dropped by ten degrees. All eyes were intent upon spotting the elusive leopard that at least one person in the car claimed to have seen. But the shimmering spots across us were those of a deer, and my gaze was locked with its shining eyes until the car swerved, and the animal leapt into the trees.  The forest gave way to a winding road that revealed hills dotted with lights, a cluster of which at the highest point marked Nainital. Some distance below that, two warm yellow lights that are the beacons of Two Chimneys beckoned, making me sit at the edge of my seat in anticipation. I almost fell off it as we came face to face with a gigantic, garishly painted Hanuman placed incongruously in the midst of all that natural beauty by an ashram. To me, it didn’t seem very far from the Tariq Road roundabout and its centrepiece of a 20-foot-high, white, Pepsi-sponsored concrete monument that spells Allah — its hay pointing in a last flourish to one of the oldest and greenest graveyards in Karachi. Needless to say, both are dwarfed in comparison to the 120-feet-high Christ the Redeemer statue in Rio de Janeiro or the over 1200-feet-high Empire State Building in New York. Yet, it is also true that the border between India and Pakistan is now so hard, so lit that it can be seen from space.

The path we were on was, given the frequency of travel on it, remarkably smooth and flat, even if it was spiraling in a (to me) particularly stomach-churning way. Geetan quietly rolled down her window a sliver out of consideration for my susceptibility to carsickness, claiming she needed the fresh air. Given that it was a chilly six degrees, I recognised the little white lie, and my faith in humanity was restored.

A few minutes later, it was positively revivified. For the moment that you see Two Chimneys, it fills you with a sense of the profound.

It is the silence. Coming from the city, I’ll admit that my craving for quietude is in equal measure to my fear of it. It could go either way. Here, it embraced me, and unquestioning, I gave myself to it.

It is the setting — placed at the edge of a cliff in the lower Himalayas, the property looks majestically down on valleys, slopes and steps climbing up mountains to reach peaks. Further up, the night sky was so covered in stars that I could scarcely see the black, it was silver, white, aglow, shifting, losing bits of itself, and expanding to pull you into itself. Looking up at the constellations from a balcony at Two Chimneys, I had never been more acutely aware of my physical self, wanting to endlessly live in it in that moment, and also, longing more than ever to be lifted out of myself. After all, if you follow the etymology of the word, desire, it comes from the early 13th century, desirer, which in turn finds its roots in the Latin desiderare defined as “long for, wish for,” or in its original sense as “await what the stars will bring” from the phrase de sidere. I could see why the resort is so popular with couples.

It is the space. The inward and outward quality of the lodge is much commented on, and it struck me instantly with its window walls, drawing you into the liquid gold warmth of gleaming wood floors, lights and log fires without breaking the thread that binds you to the mountains, the night. You become a microcosm of your surroundings as they evoke a similar interiority in you, albeit my inner self may not have been quite as serene, while making you want to open yourself to the potentiality of the outside, the other. Meta-conversations come easier in Gethia.

It is the story. If you have read Tarun Tejpal’s The Alchemy of Desire set in Two Chimneys, the story may precede the space for you, although the space is what greets you from the cover of the book. Unknowingly, I chose the Willow Suite for its loft, its wide windows that face the fountain below and the swimming pool above, its door that opens onto the deck and the skylight over the bed. Each of the seven rooms has a wonderful view and, what is more difficult to achieve, its own distinctive character.

I later discovered that my room was the one in which the author had created night after night of erotic pleasure between the character, Catherine and her lover, Gaj Singh. There is also the other ‘true’ story of the European woman who built the original structure and, apparently, inhabited it even in death. As the tale goes, resentful of the new occupants, she beset renovation and construction with various obstacles until her name was engraved on a wooden plaque — Mme Durel’s Lodge, 1899 — and hung over the entrance. Her proprietary rights established, the spirit was appeased. I can tell you that my sleep in the bed of Mme Durel/Catherine was filled with dream, and I awoke with a sense of restless urgency.

And then there was the day. Geetan’s design of Two Chimneys with its decks, terraces, balconies, perches, levels, nooks, water bodies (swimming pool, fountain and pond), gardens and trees is ingenious. It reflects the landscape in its organic growth and preserves the integrity of the setting in ways that I did not immediately absorb — as layered as the place is — but discovered turn by turn, with every step I took. As the mountains took on ever-changing facades — splendid in sunbeam, shrouded in mist, rugged when overcast — so too did Two Chimneys offer itself anew in exploration.

The Machaan

All sections of Two Chimneys’ exterior are named — every name, each area worthy of comment. Watching the sun come up from the highest point, the Machaan, the sky reddening, then paling, the silence filling with birdsong, a lone tractor ploughing the green-gold earth of the valley, the crisp air fluttering up butterflies of ash from a dying wood fire, the silver oak shimmering true to its name, I recognise it to be trite, but I felt overwhelmed, infinitesimal — in a good way. I also felt inexplicably nostalgic — my ears searched for a familiar song, I was gripped by a missing of my parents, past and present loves drifted through my mind. Like I said, trite.

At the farthest point is Land’s End. I was told that during the monsoon months, you can see the mist rolling in as the bowl below fills to form a lake. On this winter’s day, I saw the young men of the town playing cricket. The words ‘Shabash, Shabash’ traveled up the mountainside much the same way they would have climbed up the two floors of my seaside apartment back in Karachi.

Charbagh

The front upper terrace named Charbagh has a fountain in its centre, a cosy sitting area and lush green trees — most planted personally by Geetan. Watching her plant a cluster of tomato saplings with tender yet strong hands, patting away at the soil with a kind of tough love, I was not surprised at how tall and firm those trees stand.

And they too nurture; the verdant borders of Two Chimneys host the most spectacular birdlife from the Woodpecker to Sebia, Nuthatch, Warbler, Yellownape and the one you’ll see in the Two Chimneys logo, the Red-billed Blue Magpie.

There are always levels at the lodge, and a few steps up from the terrace took me to an herb garden and a surface perfectly sized for two. The owners fondly refer to this nook as ‘Majnu ka Teela’ (Majnu’s Mound) for the pinkish light that slants across it at sunset, making it the perfect kissing spot.

The pool and The Deck beyond

The counterpart of Charbagh at the opposing end is The Deck, a large terrace split in two with table settings, spectacular views of the mountains all around, a swimming pool running through it, and the sound of water falling from a fountain into a pond accentuating the serenity of the spot. In the day, this sound mingles with the chirping of birds and at night with the chirring of cicadas.

Land's End

Land's End

Day flows into night and night into day at Two Chimneys, and I floated along for the two days and three nights that I was there. On the third morning as the sun was coming up over Gethia, Delhi and Karachi too, the sky bringing in the blue, the birds beginning to sing, Kishore Kumar writing letters of love, I breathed in great big gulps partly out of sentimentality for the clean air and in some part to keep the carsickness down as we made our way down the winding road back to the city.

A version of this was first published under the title, The Road Less Travelled, as the cover story in The Express Tribune’s Sunday magazine, T.


Paradise found

01Jun11

If you are looking for paradise on Earth, I could give you directions, for I found it in Brazil. It goes by the unassuming name of the Instituto Cultural Inhotim (Inhotim Cultural Institute — Inhotim is pronounced In-yo-tcheem)*, Brazil’s gardens of art. In the unlikely setting of a tropical rainforest, lush hills, sculpted lawns and human-made ponds and lakes, there are strewn art galleries in the shapes of blocks and bubbles, immense sculptures in the open air and interactive installations. I believe it needs to be declared one of the wonders of the world, but for the moment, it appears to be the best kept secret of the Brazilian people and those in the know in the art world.

Between the two usual suspects of Brazilian tourism, São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro, there sat a location on our agenda — Belo Horizonte. I did a bit of research on it, and found that it was the bar capital of the country. Why would the Embassy of Brazil in Islamabad want to send a group of Pakistanis there, I wondered. Well…

But when we — my travel companions, Noshi Qadir, Kamiar Rokni, Arsalan Khan and I — mentioned the destination to the two owners of the Fortes Vilaça Gallery, they exchanged glances, and spoke almost reverently: Ah, Inhotim, it’s a special place. Special. It is a word also used by Ana Carmen Foschini to describe Inhotim. Our curiosity was piqued.

The flight from São Paulo  to Belo Horizonte was short at 40 minutes, making it possible to drive to the third-largest city in the country. We were received at the airport by the lovely, soft-spoken Manuela, our guide for this particular leg of the journey. As almost through the entire trip, we were struggling with jet lag, and retired right away despite the somewhat surreal discovery that our hotel was host to the contestants of a local beauty pageant, and the restaurant was packed with young Brazilian beauties complete with sashes around their torsos.

Belo Horizonte Palacio dos Tiradentes | Photo credit: Noshi Qadir

Belo Horizonte Palacio dos Tridentes | Photo credit: Trekearth.com

We set out by ten in the morning, looking and feeling a little worse for the wear, even though breakfast consisted of some of the most delectable fruit I have eaten in my life. For four days, Kami and I argued over what appeared to be papaya, but tasted nothing like the fruit as we know it, and was more like manna from the heavens. In the end, Arsalan won, and I vowed never to argue with him over his knowledge of fruit and vegetables.

The drive out of  Belo Horizonte takes you through car workshops, wholesale outlets and an industrial area. The winding route then traverses hillsides with Mediterranean-style cottages but distinctly Brazilian as the multicolored theme continues. The vegetation grows thicker, greener as you carry on with bananas and coconut lining the road.

But nothing prepares you for the foliage you find when you cross the armed guards who protect the boundaries of Inhotim Cultural Center. Or the art in the midst of the gardens. Or the story behind it all.

Inhotim is the creation of 59-year old Brazilian mining tycoon, Bernardo Paz, who after years of plundering his lands for iron, decided to give back to the earth and the environment. His gift is this otherworldly property of 3000 acres of park and art space, which he opened to the public in 2006 as a nonprofit organisation. (Imagine anyone from our agricultural or industrial elite doing something like that.) It houses 17 art galleries, over 500 artworks and botanical gardens initially designed in collaboration with renowned Brazilian landscape artist, Roberto Burle Marx. The tropical park has one of the largest botanical collections in the world, with rare tropical species and a forest reserve which is part of the Atlantic Forest biome, and one of the world’s largest palm collections at 1300 specimens. Think ‘The Island’ from Lost…but more.

On the beautiful bright day of our visit, under blue skies and white cotton clouds, our first guide was the intuitive Maria Eugenia Salcedo Repolês, whose impressive knowledge extends across art and nature, and she is the Art and Education Supervisor at the Institute. She told us that when Bernardo — everyone at Inhotim refers to the founder by his first name — took over the lands we saw, miners had uprooted the native vegetation, and left nothing but Eucalyptus. It was Bernardo who set about replanting the fields, and as the foliage grew, so did the population of visiting birds and butterflies of which we saw many varieties.

That was the tropical park aspect. Then there is the art. Although, the environment is always present with the two coexisting in perfect harmony. What we saw was this:

Cildo Meireles, Inmensa | Photo credit: Inhotim official site

Cildo Meireles, Inmensa | Photo credit: Inhotim official site

At first, we could not grasp the immensity of it, to be literal. Kami, Noshi, Arsalan and I looked at it, gaped at each other, thought — at least I did — this is insane. We made an inside joke: You’re not in Canvas* anymore, Dorothy… I guess that when you give an artist complete freedom and an enormous amount of space, this is what happens.

From the official site:

Featured in the collection are contemporary artworks by celebrated names such as Adriana Varejão, Arthur Barrios, Chris Burden, Cildo Meireles, Doug Aitken, Hélio Oiticica, Larry Clark, Matthew Barney, Michel Majerus, Olafur Eliasson, Rirkrit Tiravanija & Navin Rawanchaikul, Rivane Neuenschwander, Tunga, Vik Muniz, among others.

A major part of the works in the collection was installed after an intense process of commissioning, making the work at Inhotim substantially different from what takes place in other museums. Spaces for housing the works are designed by means of a close dialogue with artists, curators, architects, and landscapers, respecting the specificity of each work and the interests of the author, always preserving the connection with the surroundings.”

Matthew Barney's De Lama Lamina | Photo credit: Pedro Motta for Inhotim

Some of these works were created for the institute such as Matthew Barney’s incredible piece, “De Lama Lamina” that was started in 2004, and was only completed in 2009. I can only imagine that in this unique — can you think of any other like this? — museum, the space frequently determines the work.  Another example of this is the “Sonic Pavilion” created by Doug Aitken in 2009.

Through dense woods, we were taken to a clearing that showed a trail leading up to a glass pavilion atop a mountain. As we entered, we walked up a wooden ramp that became a bench encircling the space. A few people lay on the bench, wide enough to allow for a person of average height to recline diagonally. An older man was lying on his belly over a hole in the floor. All around the vista was the rainforest, and resounding in the “Pavilion” was a low hum. I was pulled to the hole in the floor where there was not much to see but the earth through a plate of glass. A loud boom. We all jumped. It gave to the a sound that expanded and contracted like the vocals of chants emerging from a Buddhist monastery. It was the sound of the Earth. Doug Aitken told Bernardo that he wished to drill a hole into the earth, place microphones along the length of the column, and bring the innermost rants, whispers and silences — at times there is a pregnant pause — to the surface. Bernardo Paz gave Aitken a mountain.

We spent hours walking about, and were treated by the museum to one of the most sumptuous meals of our trip, sitting on a terrace overlooking a lake and the hills.

Photo credit: Inhotim official site | Hover your mouse over the picture

Photo credit: Noshi Qadir | Hover over the picture for details

Photo credit: Noshi Qadir | Hover over the pic with your mouse for details

Please hover over the picture to read more

An important part of Inhotim Cultural Institute is its educational programs. Even when we were on our tour, we saw children from several schools being taken around the gardens and the art installations. From stomping on glass crunching under their feet in the installation by Cieldo Meireles

Cieldo Meireles, Atraves | Photo credit: Inhotim

to floating, bouncing through the dips and highs of the Cosmococas,

Pavilhão Cosmococas by Hélio Oiticica and Neville D'Almeida | Photo credit: Pedro Motta for Inhotim. For details, hover with your mouse.

those kids were having the time of their lives.

As were we.

Me through Olafur Eliasson's kaleidoscope | Photo credit: Noshi Qadir

Inhotim is as alive as its surrounding and its art, for it is ever-expanding, and plans are already afoot to add on a resort hotel, a convention center, and of course, always more art. As the space evolves, so too does the visitor, who cannot leave unmoved by the transformative experience that is Inhotim. I know that our small group from Pakistan felt changed in some way, and also, found this to be that definitively bonding moment of our trip when we had together laughed, cried, gasped, been awestruck, and above all else, had felt not just faith but even (dare I go so far as to say) pride in humanity.

*According to GoBrazil.com, ‘the institute’s name comes from the original landowner, a foreign miner known as Senhor Tim (or Nhô Tim, in rural expression).’

*Canvas is the name of one of the best known art galleries in Karachi, and is made inside a renovated house in the neighborhood of Clifton.

If you are visiting Brazil, I highly recommend a day at Inhotim. I would go so far as to say, you cannot go to the country, and not see this spectacle. Here are some tips:

Rua B, 20, Inhotim, Brumadinho, MG, Brasil  35460-000 +55 31 3227 0001   info@inhotim.org.br
Time: Wednesday, Thursday and Friday 9:30 to 16:30. On Saturdays, Sundays and holidays from 9:30 to 17:30.

Entrance fee: R$ 20,00. Half fee for seniors over 60 and for students (with valid student card). Subscribers to the newspaper Estado de Minas and Hoje em dia receive a 50% discount upon  buying two tickets. No charge for children under six.

Hiring transportation is recommended, and arrangements can be made through Inhotim. Guided tours of the art installations, galleries, and botanical gardens are available.


 or my house is your house

Before I headed out to Brazil, I was given the option by the Brazilian Embassy in Islamabad to connect with people that might interest me on my trip. I jumped at the opportunity, and googled “brazil citizen journalism.” I found the name of a Brazilian professional journalist who was committed to citizen journalism. This was my introduction to Ana Carmen Foschini, who made my trip all the more exciting, and whom I called the ‘Godmother of Brazil’s citizen journalism scene.’ (Much to her horror, for she thought I was calling her the grandmother of Brazil’s Internet scene, and trust me, she’s nowhere near it!)

Ana Carmen along with Roberto Romano Taddei, also a professional journalist, has written four books on the subject; the set is called ‘Conquiste a Rede’ or ‘Conquer the Web.’ She told me that she and Taddei were thinking about not just blogs but vlogs before a platform like YouTube came around. After an email exchange with Ana Carmen in which I explained to her what I was looking to do, she mentioned the Casa da Cultura Digital. I was intrigued by the concept of the space and the people, and knew I had to go. So muito obrigadas to her for making it possible. (Showing off a bit of my vocabulary of five and a half words of Portuguese there… :))

Casa da Cultura Digital site

Casa da Cultura Digital or House of Digital Culture is in their own words ‘a project that begins with the counterculture of 60-70 years, and has culminated in the cyberculture of the 21st century here at Barra Funda, São Paulo,’ which is where they are based. There are 40 people who make the CCD, but the number is fluid as it is always increasing. As Pedro Markun said to me, “If you know of any bloggers or hackers who want to come to Brazil, and are looking for a place to crash, there’s room here for them.”

Casa Cultura Digital facade | Photo credit: Noshi Qadir

The CCD is situated in a beautiful antique villa called Parque Savóia or Park Savoy in central São Paulo. The neighborhood is reminiscent of Gulshan-e-Iqbal of Karachi or the Melody Market area of Islamabad, and the drive there was through some of the heaviest traffic we saw in the city.

In the three/four cities of Brazil that I visited, I noticed that the traffic could be harrowing in certain areas on weekdays even though, there is an excellent road network. Some lanes and alleys may have been narrow, but I did not notice one pothole during our many and very long drives. It makes me think that as in the urban centers of Pakistan, there are too many cars on the road. It could not be so due to the public transport system, which is extraordinary with a subway that I did not have the chance to experience. (This was not for lack of trying, but I was told by our São Paulo guide, Carlos, that it ran through the middle to lower middle class areas, and not where we were. Apparently, the Brazilian elite did not want the metro functioning in the more affluent neighborhoods.) However, the buses are plentiful, and often, have a lane of their own in which I, at least, saw them moving bumper to bumper with passengers sitting in ease.

To return to the Casa, in the midst of narrow streets where kids play outdoors, and an empty plot houses a makeshift hut, there is this Italian-style complex. It was, in fact, constructed by an Italian who immigrated to Brazil in the 1920s, and now, rents out the various apartments as office space.

The fountain, the courtyard, CCD
Fountain in CCD courtyard | Photo credit: Ana Carmen Foschini
CCD courtyard | Photo credit: Ana Carmen Foschini

The fountain complete with cherubs in the center of the courtyard and mural of the Italian countryside speak volumes on the nostalgia of the landlord. A couple of black cats are kept communally by those who live and work in the compound. As I set up my camera, one of them sidled up to me, expecting a treat, and soon ran off when a fresh bowl of milk appeared outside a doorway. Suffice it to say that this was not a place where one would expect to find some of the prominent bloggers and hackers of Brazil.

But then that is Brazil. Things are not always as they seem, and frequently, exceed your expectations. It was what I experienced when I met the lively, dynamic bunch that afternoon. Driven by different causes (but always driven), they have all managed to find each other to work collectively and individually at the CCD. To find out more about the work they are doing at CCD, keep a look out on Gawaahi.com.

Interview with Raphael Tsavkko Garcia | Photo credit: Ana Carmen Foschini

I did interviews with them for a new segment we are starting on the site called ‘Global Gawaahi.’ Under this tab, we would host our international interviews/submissions. To be honest, the idea of the section only came to be because of the Brazil visit and the on-camera chats with the bloggers. As I said to Ana Carmen in my email to her,

I’m seeing this as an excellent opportunity for Gawaahi.com to host international material. We would like to expand our base, but to fellow countries of the South as there is enough accessibility and dialogue with the North. Maybe with Brazilian bloggers featured on Gawaahi.com, there could be the initiation of a conversation between the people of the two countries.”

Pao de quieja

After and before the interviews, we sat and chatted. Laid out on the cheerful yellow tablecloth were snacks like Pao de Quiejo, Brazilian cheese bread, which are gooey bite-size cheese dough balls that melt in your mouth. They had put together some of the strongest, richest coffee I had — I tell you my hands were trembling after one shot of espresso. Or maybe, it was the conversation.

It is exhilarating to be around young people who feel and talk passionately about their environment, society, people and country, who believe that change is possible, and that they are the vessels of change. It is true that they have much to be hopeful for, given the Brazil of today has emerged from a dark time of inward and outward struggle.* I guess you don’t get to be one of the world’s fastest growing economies without that. Also, Brazil is preparing for two major events — in 2014, the country is hosting the FIFA World Cup, and it has been chosen for the 2016 Olympics. There are concerns that infrastructure projects may be lagging, but Brazilians want to go beyond themselves. Due to this, renovations are taking place at full throttle.

As Ana Carmen says:

I believe that Brazil is experiencing a special moment right now. Free from a dictatorship and an economic crisis that lasted for generations, we now have prosperity and a chance to solve some critical problems, such as education. It is still a long way to go, we have a lot to do, but the difference between the scene I met when I graduated in the 80s, and now is gigantic.”

She is right, of course, and it is not all perfect. Diego Casaes talked to me about the problem of the disproportionate distribution of wealth, how there are some who live in the outskirts of the metropolis of São Paulo in conditions that resemble the country’s rural areas. Raphael Tsavkko Garcia spoke about the problems with religion (Roman Catholicism is the main religion, and the Church is both orthodox and influential, but that has not stopped Rousseff’s government from progressive policies such as legalizing gay union) and homophobia. He also highlighted the extreme poverty and ensuing gang warfare of the favelas of Rio de Janeiro, his hometown. Bianca Santana had stories to tell of inefficient and lacking neonatal care that results in death and permanent disease. Thiago Carrapatoso spoke about the environment, and how there are huge holes in the system to protect it. Daniela Silva and Pedro Markun told me about the corruption that exists in their government and the urgent need for transparency. (As their interviews go up on Gawaahi.com, you will be able to find more links for them there, so please check in on the site for that.)

But see, here’s the thing. They are all doing something about it, and the fact that they all spoke in English (in a place where only the privileged speak anything but Portuguese) tells me something about their economic backgrounds. Yet, they are not apathetic; they are engaged. (In my conversations in Rio, which I shall write about in later posts, I found that many of the revolutionaries of the past generations were from the privileged classes.) Despite being from the educated middle and upper middle class, I did not find them to be blasé or indeed, paralyzed as can be the case. They were not contemptuous of political activity, action and agitation. The years of military dictatorship had not depoliticized them, and left them without a culture of political thought. On the contrary, the CCD crew are committed, open, vocal, looking to challenge norms, and are successful (not by the conventional measure of success but yes, by that measure too) in their own right.*

There is something to be said about that, and important lessons to be learnt there.

Favela graffiti | Photo credit: Skyscraperpage.com

Footnotes:

*In parentheses, my own italics and opinion not of HRW.

*The Brazilian armed forces are the largest in South America at over 300, 000 personnel. In an astute move, they were placed under presidential authority in the 1980s, and not without reason. For Brazil has had issues of military dictatorship, civil-military imbalance and power tussles — much like Pakistan. As stated by Human Rights Watch, ‘the Brazilian military regime from 1964 to 1985 was responsible for systematic human rights violations, including extrajudicial killings, forced disappearances *(again reminding one of Pakistan, specifically, Balochistan), torture, arbitrary detention, and the curtailment of free expression.’ But in Brazil, there was a left-wing movement by the previous generation, and it has given the country leaders like Lula (Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, a unionist who came from a poor background, and only learned to read at age 10) and the current President Dilma Rousseff (as mentioned in my earlier post, Rousseff was an urban guerilla).

*Did I mention they are also incredibly warm, friendly and generous?

Some changes were made in this piece on May 28, 2011 at 12:30pm.


I know I promised a daily post from our travels, but we just did not stop for a breath. Not that any of us were complaining! I can tell you that Brazilians really know how to take care of you.

As many of you know, we arrived in São Paulo on the evening of the 15th. In my jet lagged state, I managed to give you some initial thoughts. What came after that was a whirlwind visit of which dreams are made. I’ll start with São Paulo where we went for a walkabout in our neighborhood of Jardims, to an incredible art fair in a lush green park, a stunning art museum, a piano recital in a beautifully restored and renovated building, two great restaurants for lunch and dinner, an ultramodern hotel that houses a bar with a view, an uber-hip art gallery, an art museum on stilt-like pillars, and I, by my lonesome, went to the wonderful Casa da Cultura Digital (this last space and people, to whom I spoke at length about their work and ours at Gawaahi.com, will get a post of their own). And that was all done in three days!

Top shot of SP-Arte 2011, Brazil

Top shot of SP-Arte 2011, Brazil

SP-Arte 2011, the art fair we visited in São Paulo is an annual commercial event, which was held this year in the space you see in these photographs I took with my phone camera. It is called the Pavilhão (Pavilion) Ciccillo Matarazzo, and is located in the lush Parque do Ibirapuera (Ibirapuera Park).

This is what it looks like when not hosting the exhibition:

From the official site of SP-Arte

In this mammoth event, known to be the largest art fair in Latin America, 87 galleries participated, and 15 of those were international. I could not possibly show you even a small portion of the building and the work — a lot of pop art and op art (optical art) it carried, but I hope you can get some sense of the space through these pictures.

SP-Arte 2011

SP-Arte 2011, Brazil

Next we visited the Pinacoteca do Estado de Sao Paulo in the old city where they were exhibiting the work of contemporary Portuguese artist, Paula Rego. Pinacoteca — as it is informally known — was built in 1900, and used to be the secret police’s barracks in which dissidents were tortured. Fittingly (and I noticed a lot of that in Brazil — wrongs being put right through art and creativity), it has been converted to a beautiful gallery. Rego’s work was intensely disturbing, dealing with themes centered on women, abuse, sexuality, violence and the dysfunctionality of family.

If you thought the day was over, it was not. For an hour or so later, we were zooming away (it was only possible to navigate the streets at a high speed because it was a Sunday; otherwise, the traffic can be daunting) a couple of blocks down to the Sala Sao Paulo to hear a recital by Stephen Hough, a British-born pianist, composer and writer. This impressive structure from the early 20th century with its large hall built in the style of nineteenth century European concert halls, is inside the  Julio Prestes Railway Station. After taking great pains not to harm the integrity of the structure and yet, meet modern technological requirements, it was in 1999 that it was launched as a concert hall. (I have found repeated examples of the Brazilian respect for their culture, history and pride in their identity, and always expressed in the truest form — art.)

Photo credit: Hotel Unique

Next up was a visit to the Bar & Restaurant Skye at the Unique Hotel. Meant to look like a cruise ship or a slice of a watermelon, the concrete, copper and wood building that stands on four pillars, making it appear to be hovering in the air  — a recurring theme in Brazilian architecture — is designed by Ruy Ohtake, apprentice to Brazil’s foremost architect, Oscar Niemeyer. The Modernist Niemeyer’s work from the 1940s, 50s and 60s has been described as “infusing stark abstract forms with a beguiling tropical hedonism that reshaped Brazil’s identity in the popular imagination and mesmerized architects around the globe.” The interior is minimalist and expansive with exaggerated ceilings and doors, an endless foyer with the occasional seating arrangement and long, tall walls of glass. The rooftop restaurant has a stunning terrace along the length of which runs a dramatic red swimming pool, steam rising off its surface on the ten-degree winter night we visited. It has one of the most spectacular views of the city with its skyscrapers, high rise buildings and hillside villas. As an aside, I should mention that we noticed many teenagers hanging about the hotel, and it was only after we exited that we noticed a crowd of excited teeny boppers calling out for Miley Cyrus, who was apparently a guest at the hotel.

Photo credit: DestinationsinBrazil.com

On our final day in the city of nearly 20 million, we were invited to the São Paulo Museum of Art or MASP (pronounced “MASPÉ”), where we were presented with a 3-book catalogue of the museum’s entire collection. Here our guide, Fernando Burjato (an artist himself) showed us the permanent collection, which boasts the works of many of the old masters. He explained that Brazil had acquired many of the paintings from Europe during and after the Second World War when it was possible for a poor country to buy the masterpieces. Later, many European countries attempted to buy back some of the work at huge profits, but the Brazilians, to whom art clearly means a great deal, were not interested in selling.

Another interesting piece of information I discovered in my travels is that Brazil has been quite a haven for immigrants — the largest Japanese population outside of Japan; there are more Lebanese in Brazil than there are in Lebanon; a huge Italian community that emigrated in the 1920s after the war. Many, if not most, of these arrivals were in São Paulo. It is then not hard to understand why the city has a preoccupation with otherness. I found one manifestation of this at MASP, where I saw an exhibition titled 6 bilhões de Outros or Six billion Others. The video project that is created by Yann Arthus-Bertrand is on display at MASP till July 10, 2011.

6 billion Others tents shot | Photo credit: Nuno Pires

6 billion Others wall at MASP | Photo credit: Nuno Pires

In the project, ‘5, 600 video portraits were recorded in 78 countries by reporters who traveled the world to meet the Others. [...] all answered the same questions: “What did you learn from your parents? What do you wish to pass on to your children? What ordeals have you lived through? What does love mean to you?”’ Arthus-Bertrand says: “Today, the only way forward is to seek out the Other, to understand him.” I loved this idea, especially given what we are trying to do with Gawaahi.com.

The exhibition consisted of eight tents each one with a different theme, meaning the participants of the video portraits were asked a similar line of questions. The tent/theme that intrigued me the most (not a great shocker if you have read my post from New York) was one that considered the meaning of progress.

Some of the testimonies I loved were

From a Frenchman: “Progress makes more enemies, more adversaries. This progress is not real. It is only progress when it makes us more human.”

From a woman of an African country: “They talk about going to Mars when people are eating out of dumpsters. This is not progress. There are things more urgent.”

From an Algerian: “Modernity was meant to free us. [...] Instead it has boxed us in.”

São Paulo is a city where one turn could potentially take you from the rainbow rows of townhouses in Jardims to the midtown-New-York-style Avenida Paulista to the Saddaresque downtown area. A question that my travel companions and I asked ourselves during our stay and as we left was: What is São Paulo? We searched for the one word that describes a city, the one feeling that it evokes, the one distinctive feature that is most memorable, or that distinguishes it from the other.

It’s a complicated city — São Paulo — a city that should not be so simply defined, I feel.

For São Paulo is diversity.

View of Sao Paulo - the clouds are real | Photo credit: Noshi Qadir

It is grit.

Streets of Sao Paulo | Photo credit: Kamiar Rokni

It is old.

Photo credit: TravelersTrails.com

It is modern.

Streets of Sao Paulo | Photo credit: Noshi Qadir

It is the modern within the old.

Casa da Cultura Digital | Photo credit: Noshi Qadir | Hover over the picture with your mouse to see the text

It is colour.

Galeria Melissa | Photo credit: Noshi Qadir | Hover over the picture with your mouse to see the text

It is exploring itself, questioning, rejecting, evolving, devolving. It is otherness. It is embracing the other. It is human. Put all of that to a Bossa Nova tune, and that is São Paulo.


Blogging Brazil

15May11

After a 15-hour flight from Dubai, arrival in Brazil could not have been any sooner. Even in exhaustion, the sunset was striking, one of the most spectacular I’ve seen, and this isn’t even meant to be the pretty part of the country. The immigration process took a while but only because of the length of the queue. When I got to the counter, I must confess that I was slightly unnerved to see a very young woman wearing braces, checking through my documents. However, she was quick and efficient, and that helped! The security check was unusual, as it took place while I waited in line for immigration. Two men wearing their badges around their necks approached, asked the purpose of my visit, and that was that. It was the same for everyone as far as I could see.

We were met by Carlos, who works in the government, and is here from Brasilia especially for us. As it is the beginning of winter in Brazil, days are short, and so at 7 in the evening, it was already nighttime. Our van moved smoothly through a highway that could have been anywhere in the developed world, which gave way to narrow streets with cobblestoned sidewalks that wound up and down the hilly city.

Having gone straight to the hotel, I don’t have much else to report, but here’s a bit of a backgrounder.

Photo credit: Paul Roth's Music Liner Notes

A far cry from Hollywoodised symbols of ‘Latinness’ such as Carmen Miranda*, the woman that represents Brazil is its president, Dilma Rousseff. Handpicked by Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, her predecessor and the country’s most popular leader ever, she ‘became involved in leftwing organisations opposed to the military dictatorship in power at the time, activity which led to her being imprisoned for three years. After this country of over 200 million returned to democracy, she made her name in politics.’ In other words, this rising economy’s leader — a woman, if I may reiterate — was an urban guerilla and that too, in her teen years, during which time she was tortured for fighting a Western-backed military dictatorship. Not too bad, eh? At 63, she’s being touted as the world’s most powerful woman. Not bad at all.

She may not have the bluster and charisma of Lula, but domestically, she is known for her quiet diligience. As my guide told me, “She does not talk all the time. She is not traveling all over the place, but she spends long nights in her office, working very hard.”

According to the CIA Factbook, as last seen in 2004, literacy is at over 88% with female literacy higher by .4%. My guide explains that in the days of the military’s rule, education was low on the list of things-to-do, which is why it has been a top priority with the democratically elected government. (A government of the people correcting the wrongs of military dictators past — these things do happen…Sigh!)  The Guardian tells us that one of the greatest problems faced by the country right now is a shortage of skilled labour.  The Brazilian government is tackling this not by importing from third world countries as many states do, but by launching a training scheme for its own youth.

The shortage is particularly acute in high-growth industries: building, boosted by an ambitious programme of social housing and infrastructure projects linked to the football World Cup in 2014 ; mining, encouraged by rising world prices; and energy, powered by deepwater oil and gas. [...] One temporary solution would be to take more well qualified foreigners, but public opinion opposes this option. In an Economist Intelligence Unit study of the market openness of 30 countries Brazil placed 23rd: it has only 1 million legal immigrants (0.5% of the population, compared with 2% in Chile).

Last month Rousseff announced massive state funding for a nationwide technical training scheme to produce 3.5 million new workers by 2014, including 500,000 this year.”

In a twist of fate, poetic justice or just plain irony, after raising ‘several tens of millions of people out of poverty in the last few years,’ Brazil is now contemplating pulling its former colonizer, Portugal, out of the mire of financial debt. It’s a postcolonial country’s wildest fantasy come true. It’s better than Lagaan’s cricket match.

Needless to say, it’s not Utopia. Disproportionate distribution of wealth is a problem that everyone talks about, and we, as Pakistanis can certainly understand as one of my party, the designer, Kamiar Rokni commented. Interestingly, a gentleman I met on the flight mentioned that his company has just landed a project to make millions of prefabricated houses for the Brazilian government in an elaborate project called My house, my life.  The program ‘aims to reduce the housing deficit in the poorest strata of society, [...and] will include greater protection of women who are the heads of households, who will be able to sign contracts without their husbands’ approval.’ [sic] This scheme would be in answer to the much talked about favelas or shanty towns of Brazil that were also featured in the award-winning, critically acclaimed film, City of God.

One of the most public issues is the deforestation of the Amazon to grow soya, which feeds much of Europe, American companies like Cargill and China to name a few markets. Landowners like the charming agriculture tycoon, Blairo Maggi, have defended cutting and burning trees that sustain indigenous peoples and animal life in the interest of ‘solving’ global food crises. (In 2005, Maggi was famously voted winner of environmental group Greenpeace’s first Golden Chainsaw award for being responsible for up to 48% of Amazon destruction. Here’s what he said to Reuters: I did not rape the forest.)

However, as the BBC reports, ‘environmental groups have warned that Brazil’s soaring economic growth, as well as growing global demand for agricultural produce, could increase pressure on the Amazon rainforest in the coming years.’ It must be said that since around 2009, deforestation has been gradually reducing to the lowest rates for 22 years.

In conclusion, if you’d ask my take in a sentence: There are problems, but they are being confronted and tackled.

*In case you don’t know who she is, and couldn’t be bothered to google her, Carmen Miranda was a Portuguese-born Brazilian Broadway actor and Hollywood movie star of the 1940s. She was best known for wearing endlessly high headdresses of fruit, an image for which she was popular in the US but criticised in Brazil as ‘feeding American commercialism’ and negatively projecting her culture. Despite the tough love between her homeland and the ‘lady in the tutti-frutti hat,’ Miranda was buried in Rio de Janeiro where the government declared a period of national mourning. Sixty-thousand people attended her mourning ceremony at the Rio town hall, and more than half a million Brazilians escorted the funeral cortège to her resting place.


Off to Brazil

10May11

I am honoured, humbled, delighted and excited to share that I am off to Brazil – yay! One of four Pakistanis invited by the Embassy of Brazil in Islamabad, I should be heading to one of the most spectacular destinations in the world by the end of this week. Did I mention that I was excited? :)

As reported in The News, the trip is in ‘keeping with the resolve to further cultural exchanges between Pakistan and Brazil.’ My traveling companions are Noshi Qadir (Tanzara Gallery, Islamabad), Arsalan Ahmad Khan (Event Manager, Islamabad)  and Kamiar Rokni (designer, Lahore). The visit lasts nine days, and covers three cities — Sao Paulo, Rio de Janeiro and Belo Horizonte.

Some of you may know that I was in Islamabad over the weekend. It was to attend a dinner hosted by the Ambassador of Brazil, Alfredo Leoni, to bid us bon voyage.  Much fun was had! Judging by the incredible hospitality of our host and the wonderful João Carlos Belloc, the trip should be a great experience.

Our itinerary is packed with visits to art galleries, museums and theaters. I’m planning to take lots of pictures, and to keep a journal that you can follow here on my blog if you’re interested in the sort of writing I did after my Delhi trip, a personal visit. With all that, I suspect that I may still find a bit of time to do some Gawaahi-ing. Please do keep the submissions coming!

For now, if I may be allowed a moment of chhichhorpana/cheapnass, I’ve got Duran Duran’s Rio in my head. :)


I’ll be running a journalism workshop at The Second Floor (T2F). There are five sessions starting on Saturday, the 2nd of April. If you’re interested in learning the basics of broadcast journalism, or if you are a citizen journalist striving to meet professional standards, you may want to look into this. Thanks!




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