Sunday, April 19, 2009

Adventure sports - where failure was success

All blog postings are ultimately about oneself, but this one will be explicitly so. It deals with my encounters with sports, and specifically adventure sports.

My sporting life at school was not merely a failure, it was nonexistent. I did not like a single game and avoided cricket, football, hockey and any other ghastly activity that the school would occasionally dream up, such as boxing. In Physical Training class a mutual hatred grew up between me and my teachers. It almost felt like a double life, being ridiculed and sometimes publicly humiliated at P.T., only to move on to the Maths (or English or History or any other) class where the teacher would be all sugar and honey to me and often use my example to ridicule the other boys. Well, it wasn't my fault, either way.

At home things were not much better. My uncles and cousins, with whom I would try to play basic lawn cricket, mocked me for my "slow reflexes". When intra-family matches were held, I got accustomed to the look of horror on the face of the captain who discovered I was to be on his team.

With this background, today at the age of 52 plus I look back on the last 15 years and am struck by the fact that, though I have still not attempted to play - or even watch - cricket, football, hockey or tennis (not to mention boxing!), I have tried out many of the major adventure sports, including (but not limited to) para-sailing, scuba diving, skiing, river rafting, volcano-climbing, snorkelling and -- this is the really adventurous one -- riding a 125cc motorbike on Koh Samui. And though this is not an "adventure sport" (is it a sport at all?), I also go to the gym regularly.

There's a lesson in this, perhaps several lessons. The obvious one is that my reflexes aren't that bad and I actually do love physical activity. Apparently I just don't like the ritualistic aspects of "spectator sports" and probably avoided them because I hated being under a spotlight and judged for my poor performance. But it's more complex than that. Despite the impressive list of adventure sports in which I've participated, I actually failed miserably at all of them -- sometimes more than one in a single day, as you'll see below! So, failure-aversion is apparently not the issue. In fact I'm rather "proud" of my failures at adventure sports and I maintain that I enjoyed all of them and would do them all again (except perhaps riding that bike on Koh Samui!!).

If you've read this far then you want to know the details of my failures. Poor you. Here they come.

First, about para-sailing, I lied. There isn't any such thing as success or failure in that particular sport, which - in my case - went by the following route: (i) go to Santa Barbara for a physics workshop, (ii) have a friend induce you to go para-sailing, (iii) pay 20 US dollars, (iv) get strapped into a parachute harness atop a speedboat, (v) watch bemused as the boat accelerates and the parachute starts to rise, obeying laws of physics, (vi) fight a growing feeling of panic at being high in the air with nothing (not even an aeroplane floor) below you. Once you get this far there's not much to do except enjoy it and hope your friend is getting good photos.

So now about scuba diving. This happened in Phuket in 2005. It works as follows: (i) in a foolish moment you ask your hotel to book you on a scuba diving trip, (ii) a jeep collects you in the morning. It's full of tense and generally unfriendly white folks, (iii) you are decanted onto a launch that serves a gigantic breakfast of eggs, bacon, ham, fruits and so on, (iv) you are lectured on scuba diving for about an hour, the key point apparently being that you should NOT BREATHE TOO SLOWLY, (v) you suddenly find you are at the edge of a moored boat wearing a 10kg oxygen cylinder on your back, flippers on your feet, a mask through which you can't see much and some plastic stuff between your teeth. You're also wearing a rubber outfit from which four different tubes protrude like tentacles from an octopus (quadrupus??). At this stage you are asked to JUMP IN THE WATER! Which is at least 15 metres deep. (vi) convinced that this is the last thing you'll ever do, you obey, (vii) now you are underwater and seeing groupers, butterfly fish, anemones, squid and star-shaped objects, (viii) however your instructor is unhappy about something and keeps gesturing to you underwater, (ix) after about 15 minutes, i.e. half-way into the dive, he drags you up out of the water and, in the open sea, starts shouting at you. Apparently I was breathing TOO FAST!!

If you're waiting for the story of how I failed twice in one day, here it comes. Venue: Pucón, Chile. The two popular adventure sports here are: climbing the neighbourhood volcano, called Villarica, and going river-rafting. I signed on for volcano climbing. No less an authority than Juan Maldacena had assured me it was an "easy four-hour climb". For him, I'm sure it was easy (as easy as discovering the AdS/CFT correspondence!). For me, the anxiety grew steadily as I was fitted out in some kind of climbing suit, made to wear bulky boots and carry an ice-pick. About three minutes into the trek I realised I was not made for this. At the same moment that the leader of the expedition was yelling at me for lagging behind, I took a decision, namely to call it off. Luckily the friend who was with me felt the same way. We walked away humiliated, and, after a beer at the hotel, signed on for river-rafting the same afternoon.

Now here was a sport, much like para-sailing, where you had to basically do nothing. As long as you stayed on the raft, with your feet anchored behind a safety rope, you were fine. We were given helmets and life jackets. And off we went. Now the photo record shows the following. As the boat successfully negotiated a Class IV rapid, the leader stood up and cheered for our success. BUT I AM NOT IN THE PHOTO! Not that I had exactly fallen out. What happened is that the upper half of my body fell out of the boat. My lower body remained on the boat, with my feet anchored behind the safety rope. So I negotiated the rapids with my head in the water and upside-down, a position that was not just uncomfortable and causing me to inhale water in lieu of oxygen, but downright dangerous as I could have smashed my head on the rocks. That didn't happen, of course.

I'm nearly at the end of the story now. Last week we went snorkelling on the island of Samui in Thailand. The sea was rough and I didn't last more than 15 minutes in the water. Saw about four yellow striped fish.

So now about that bike. You're thinking that riding a bike in Thailand is dangerous because Thai people dart in and out of the road and drive in a generally indisciplined and chaotic way. Bad guess. Maybe you were thinking about Indians! Thai people are very very disciplined for the most part and the roads are perfectly orderly. The problem is that Koh Samui has hills and they are very very very steep. The road leading to my hotel had segments that appeared to be at 45 degrees. So one could make it up the hill only at top speed. Anything less and your bike would slow down to a complete stop. Then you would have to offload your passenger and things would become easier. Except that coming to a complete stop on a 45 degree slope means your bike instantly starts to roll down...

The record is as follows (i) the first time, in broad daylight, we make it all the way up, (ii) the second time, in darkness, and with down-going traffic to avoid, I lurch from side to side, almost come to a stop and then zoom away leaving my passenger on the verge of falling off, his legs in the air..., (iii) the third time we are foiled by a little kid and three dogs. We slow down to avoid this crowd but the hill there is very steep, we slowly come to a halt, fall over sideways... and I have a 3-inch bruise on my leg. My friend got a "Samui Tattoo", a burn from the exhaust pipe of the bike.

I didn't describe my skiing experiences. Maybe another day. I think I've made my point though. Adventure sports are just the greatest fun there is, as long as you don't suffer from any illusions that you will succeed at them. As for reflexes, you should have seen how fast I returned that bike to the rental agency!!

Friday, April 3, 2009

In a blue mood

The thing about KLM aircraft is that they are blue. Not just blue in parts, but solidly, obsessively, Dutchly (if I may) blue. And so are the crew, or at least their clothes.

Nothing wrong with blue per se, it's my favourite colour actually. But flying from Taipei to Bangkok today on an ancient decrepit blue KLM 747 aircraft staffed with ancient decrepit blue KLM staff brought home to me how the world is changing. I've already pointed it out on this blog before, but this put the lid on it. At a bargain-basement price of US $ 225 for the Bangkok-Taipei return ticket one can hardly complain, so this is probably not a complaint. But contrast today's KLM with any Far-Eastern airline (Singapore, Cathay, Malaysian, Thai, China Airlines..) and it's an out and out loser. Where the East has gracious service to go with gleaming equipment, the West increasingly offers surly, hostile crew members on its aging fleet of planes. Even the food looked sort of hostile. The seat cushions were falling off and when I pried under one of them looking for a misplaced spectacle case, I discovered a pair of earphones and a knife from some long bygone meal service lodged in the gaps. And Bangkok's Suvarnabhumi Airport (and Taipei and Beijing and Osaka and Hongkong and...) all make the once-famous Schiphol airport look like Dharavi in comparison. (Note how I'm studiously avoiding all mention of Indian airports here!!).

On boarding the geriatric KLM plane I discovered that my "window seat" simply had a wall in place of a window! So I asked the stewardess to tell me when boarding was complete so I could change my seat. Incredibly, she said I should do so only after take-off, since the balance of the plane was important. I looked at her in disbelief. "I could unbalance a Boeing 747?" I asked, but she stuck to her guns and gave me a sort of decrepit, blue, hostile look (I desisted from telling her the joke about a Lot Polish aircraft having too many Poles in the left half-plane! Sorry, this one is only for people who've studied complex analysis!!).

Anyway the fact that I could potentially destabilise a KLM Boeing 747 just by changing my seat suggests that either I'm a lot fatter than I think, or the plane truly is as withered as it looks. I'm just hoping it's the latter.

Thursday, April 2, 2009

Stinky tofu

You think you've seen everything, but in these parts there's always a surprise lurking round the next corner. Last night our hosts took a bunch of us to the famous Feng Chia night market in Taichung. It's a bustling (and utterly clean and safe) open-air market selling mostly snacks, clothes and shoes. As we walked along, I noticed an unpleasant sewage smell and was surprised, given how incredibly clean and sanitary everything is over here. It turned out to be a stall advertising "stinky tofu" in Chinese and English (I presume the English is a literal translation of the Chinese). This unexpected food product is basically tofu (soybean curd), normally one of the most bland, nutritious and otherwise harmless ingredients of Chinese food. But then it's fermented in a special way. And then fried and covered in a spicy sauce largely to hide the fact that, once fermented, it really really really stinks.

I find it hard to describe the smell but it's largely like having a sealed sewer pipe suddenly opened and the gases blasted into your face. Evidently just for this reason, it's rather popular in these parts. One member of our group, a German physicist who had not previously given any indication of such rashness, actually bought himself a helping and I was brave enough to taste a large piece. Turned out it was relatively harmless to eat, most of the "kick" being in the smell, though while I was eating it a whiff would occasionally and without warning punch me in the nostrils.

Five minutes later I had forgotten about it, but on our way back to the car we encountered another stinky tofu stall and the smell quite literally came back to me. It almost made me feel like getting sick, but at the same slowly fascinated me with its complexity. Today when talking to a bunch of young Japanese scientists at the Particle Physics School where I'm lecturing, I discovered they were all fans of stinky tofu and had observations to make about its potency, one of them claiming that in Taipei it was detectable only upto 5 metres from the stall but at Taichung it was much stronger and tended to spread as far as 10 metres!

I don't know why I'm blogging about it, but I can't seem to get the smell out of my head. I feel a certain desire to experience it again despite knowing it won't be pleasant. Seems like a metaphor for so many things in life!!