How to slow down time?

Dear Readers,

It has been a long time since I wrote anything and we last got in touch. There was so much to write about but I never got around to doing it. There are so many Liberia stories which still need to be told. In addition, my life has seen lot of change in the 2.5 years since the last post. I have had a beautiful daughter who is a source of eternal joy to me and my wife and I left my job to start a new company. Changing diapers while trying to figure out the nuts & bolts of building a company and while steadily going bankrupt is a highly fun, stressful and chaotic activity. It has been fun to do conference calls discussing plans for world conquest with a wailing baby in one hand providing background soundtrack. I feel that I can legitimately claim to have some idea of the life of a single mom. In short, life in the last 2 years has not been short of drama and things to write about but the mental space has certainly been in short supply.

Anyhow, I am hoping to change it and start writing more. The posts now are going to be more diverse in character and draw upon my experiences as an entrepreneur and a dad. They are going to be less about far away places and more about the far away states of mind that lie within us. With that long backgrounder, let us get started.

As I spend my days running after my daughter, Kamakshi, it is fun to notice and think about the differences between the life of an adult and a child. We, the adults, keep talking about meditation and esoteric terms like ‘mindful living’ as ways to deal with daily stresses. Most often we don’t really know what ‘mindful living’ actually means or how to go about it. When I look at my child, I suddenly understand what ‘mindful living’ is. She has no conception of yesterday or tomorrow and spends no time thinking about what happened yesterday or what might happen tomorrow. She is fully engaged in the world around her right now, be it the Northern Cardinal or Koel cooing in the background or the fire brigade passing by. Running after a fluttering butterfly or watching a caterpillar eat a leaf is a source of tremendous joy. A few days ago when we went out in our backyard in Florida, she showed me a black & yellow grasshopper. I had never seen that grasshopper before and after she showed me one, I suddenly realized that our backyard was full of them. http://entnemdept.ufl.edu/creatures/orn/lubber.htm. It actually shocked me and I realized how much life is around us, living right under our nose, but we never even see it. That is when I realized that the child actually lives in this world while we, the adults, live in our minds. ‘Mindful living’ is nothing but beginning to live like a child and engage with our natural world and the here and now and disengage with our incessant chattering mind.

The engagement of Kamakshi with the world led me to think about the paradox of how long and vivid our childhood seems to be and how life suddenly speeds up when we become adults. Growing up from 5 to 15 feels like forever but you go from 30 to 40 in the blink of an eye. (I admit to crossing the 40 mark and am still surprised how quickly i got there). Every year from 5-15 is etched in memory but 30-40 is an indistinguishable blur. Again, looking at my child, I realized that everything in the world is new and exciting for her. We were taking a plane to come to India and she was agog with excitement all day. Everything in the airport, the train and the plane was a source of wonder and joy. She kept observing every single detail – the colors, the metallic birds hanging in the terminal, the seats , the sizes of various planes and kept exclaiming, ‘we will sit in the plane and go shooon to India’. I don’t remember the last time I was so excited about anything. And, I wonder if that is the key to the paradox.

When we were young, everything was new, there was a sense of wonder and the thrill of discovery. We didn’t know what to expect and paid attention when something was happening. We didn’t have fixed ideas, instead learnt as new things came up. But, as adults we lose that sense of wonder and behave as if we already know everything.  I have a hunch that it is the loss of this sense of wonder and the lack of attention which makes the time speed up. When I came to US 13 years ago, it was completely new to me. Me and my wife were broke graduate students but just the simple act of walking through town and discovering new streets was a joy. It was like a second childhood and we have very vivid memories of simple things like taking a bus to the Middlesex Fells just outside Boston. The memories of those first 2 years are much stronger compared to the memories of next 10 years when we got a car and had more money to go to far off places.

So, coming to the question in the title of the post, how do we make the time slow down? I think that it is easy – be more like children, learn new things, do things which you have never done before, things which interest you and, more than anything else, pay attention and the time will slow down and we will make some memories that will last a lifetime.

Thanks,

Kapil

P:S – I think that it is the same thing which makes entrepreneurship exciting. Contrary to what most entrepreneurs outwardly say, the reality is that you actually don’t know what you are doing. Trying to figure out your path in the fog of ambiguity is what actually makes entrepreneurship fun. If you already knew everything before you started, it would be so boring.

 

Traveling Like A Liberian

It was February of 2012. The rains had ended 2 months earlier and the dirt roads had dried out by now. Travel was now possible and I decided to take advantage of the situation to go and check out the port in Buchanan. (Buchanan is Liberia’s 3rd largest city and lies nearly 80 miles (125 km) south-east of Monrovia.)

Come Saturday morning, I called our office driver, Jeff, to take me to the taxi stand from where the ‘bush taxis’ leave for Buchanan. As I got ready, I realized that I had only 950 Liberian Dollars (LD) in my pocket (the equivalent of  13 USD. 1 USD was roughly 75 LD). ‘It would have to be the bank first’, I thought as I waited for Jeff to arrive. Jeff dutifully took me to the bank but when we got there, we found out that it was the Armed Forces day, a national holiday, and all the banks were closed.

Jeff is a tall, middle-aged guy with a pot belly. He can be a bit gruff at times, not very communicative and somewhat lost in his world. He turned to me and said, ‘Kapil, looks like, you have not planned your trip well.’ ‘What’s there to plan?’, I replied, ‘I take the taxi, get to Buchanan, take the taxi and get back’. ‘So, you want to go?’ ‘Yes, It takes 400 LD to get to Buchanan and 400 to get back. I have 150LD spare. I got plenty money’. ‘As you wish’, said Jeff with a short laugh. He dropped me at the taxi stand and left.

ELWA junction (named after ‘Eternal Love Winning Africa’ ministry) is not really a taxi stand. It is a busy junction between Monrovia and Paynesville cities where ‘bush taxis’ wait for their passengers by the side of the double lane road. The taxis, their aggressive drivers and handlers and the passengers jostle for space with roasted cow meat sellers, bread stalls, currency exchange traders with their small blue kiosks and sundry other roadside vendors. The road is flanked on both sides by hardware and building material shops and small, make shift restaurants. The ‘bush taxis’ themselves are yellow colored Toyota and Nissan hatchback models that have been used, beaten down and discarded by the rest of the world.

As I neared the taxis, multiple handlers accosted me, ‘Boss-man, My car goo, goo one.’ The fare turned out to be 450 LD, more than what I had expected. I picked the taxi which was almost full and ready to go. Immediately after we started, the taxi pulled into a local ‘gas station’. The gas station had an array of jars filled with gasoline, displayed on a wooden plank, ready for dispensing. As the driver and ‘gas station’ owner haggled over price, the gas station attendant put a funnel into the fuel tank and poured the gasoline into the tank.

With fuel in the tank, the taxi set off. There were 6 of us in the taxi besides the driver – 2 guys on the passenger seat in the front, 2 women, myself and another guy crunched together on the back seat. The woman next to me had a baby on her lap. The trunk was full of goods and barely able to close. As we gradually moved out of the city, the houses thinned and the greenery began to take over. We passed the army barracks, then the airport and through the Firestone rubber plantation.

The guy next to me was Mohammed and he was the owner of a small packaged water business, ‘Prosperity Water’. Monrovia does not have drinking water supply and packaged water is big business. Mohammed, like many other packaged water businesses, sold water in 500 ml pouches which were being drank by practically everyone on the streets of Monrovia. Every pouch sells for 5 LD and Mohammed told me that it is a very profitable business with almost 100% margin. A short while later, the baby on my left got hungry and started to cry. Her mother very nonchalantly lifted her blouse and started breast-feeding the baby, all in full view. Soon, we reached a police checkpoint and were asked to stop next to the ‘Liberia-Bangladesh Friendship Shed’ erected by UN peacekeepers from Bangladesh. A policeman in a deep blue uniform and beret approached the driver. They shook hands, money exchanged hands during the handshake and we got waved past the checkpoint.

The road from Monrovia to Buchanan was being laid by a Chinese company and the portion after the checkpoint was still being graded. As soon as the taxi reached the un-metaled road, it started going sideways and sputtered to a stop. The passengers burst forth in fury at the driver. ‘I knew he does not know how to drive by the way he was pressing the clutch and the brake’, opined the man in front.

Now, I was in a fix. We were half way to Buchanan and I had practically no money to spare. A wiser guy than me would have turned back but not me. The driver started flagging down passing taxis to off-load his passengers. The woman with the baby found a seat in a passing taxi and left. One guy decided to turn back and hailed a passing motorbike. Finally, the driver handed us over to a passing pickup truck. The back of the pickup truck had multiple tyres and other stuff strewn in it. I perched myself on a tire and held on for dear life to the two sides of the truck as the truck sped on the dirt road. It must have been an amusing sight as a passing villager shouted, “OOO, white man in the back-ohh”.

I finally made it to Buchanan around 2 pm. The last taxi back to Monrovia left around 4:30 pm. Time was short. I asked my way around and hastened towards the port. I walked and walked along the winding dirt road by the side of Arcelor Mittal area but even after 1 hour of walking, the port was nowhere in sight. At 3:30 pm, I decided to turn back. By this time, I was feeling hungry too. A passing taxi had a bumper slogan – ‘No Money, No Respect’. ‘No Money, No Food’, thought I. I came across a coconut seller and found to my pleasant surprise that coconut in Buchanan was cheaper than Monrovia, only 10LD apiece. I promptly ate 2. Now, I was at risk of missing the last taxi back. ‘Should I make a run for it or Can I afford a motorbike’? I eventually hailed a pen-pen driver and made it to the taxi stand just in time with 455 LD still in my pocket. The return fare turned out to be 425 LD, leaving me a princely 30LD still in my pocket.

On the way back, as we crossed the St. John river, we came up a small roadside market where children and market women were selling bananas, plantains, sweet potatos and other food stuff. I splurged 20LD on roasted corn, which tasted heavenly. Later, as we passed a village, a villager hailed the taxi. ‘Ma mein, you got space?’, he asked. ‘Yes, my VIP is empty’, replied the driver. The villager promptly went to the back of the taxi, opened the hatch and made himself comfortable in the trunk. Surprises never cease !!

As Ab, our driver, picked me up from the taxi stand in Monrovia, he laughed, ‘Kapil, I heard you went to Buchanan with no money.’ ‘Yes,’ I replied, ‘I wanted to experience how it is to travel like a Liberian.’

Kapil

Lunch in Sinje

Last year, end of March, 2012, I found myself in Sinje, training health workers in the new tools that the Ministry of Health was rolling out. Sinje is a small ‘town’ in Grand Cape Mount county roughly 75 km from Monrovia and maybe 15 km from the border with Sierra Leon. The training was being held at one end of the town, which really is a village, in a community hall by the side of the school. As I finished my section, I started thinking about lunch. For a vegetarian like me, food outside Monrovia can be a big problem. Most of the time the only thing I can eat is bread, fried plantain, roasted corn, roasted cassava, coconut or maybe boiled rice with ‘peppe’ sauce (peppe is the West African hot pepper. It really is hot). Sometimes, I eat boiled egg because I can not find anything else. So, this bright and sunny, beautiful day in March, I found myself wondering what am I going to eat for lunch today. I figured that I should go into the town and talk to the lady who is preparing lunch. So, I set off to do just that.

The school recess was on and children were playing in the clearing next to the school. The school and the ground were surrounded by lush green forest (‘Bush’ as they call it in Liberia) –  tall bamboo plants, some palm trees, cassava plants and a host of other trees the names of which I will never know. Under a tree, by the side of the ground, sat two frail women with toothy grins. In front of them were reed baskets from which they were selling some badly shaped cookies, peanut & sesame strips and some more eatables. I bought some roasted peanuts from them. As the children lined up to buy things from them, they chatted with each other but I could not understand a single word of what they said. So I asked, ‘Which language is that?’. They replied , ‘Vai’ and I suddenly realized that I am in an area populated by Vai tribe and just 75 km away from Monrovia the language has already changed completely.

As I ventured further, the children ran ahead of me shouting ‘white man, white man’.  Reaching close to the cluster of mud huts which constituted the ‘town’, I didn’t know which way to go. So I just followed the children and took a left turn on a small dirt path which seemed to go through the middle of the cluster of mud huts. I came across a veranda which had a mango tree around which children were playing (mango is called plum in Liberia). I asked one of the children, ‘Can I get a plum from the tree?’ He asked me,”white man, you eat plum, eh?”. I said, ‘Yes, I do’. All the children got excited, started shouting, running around to get sticks to get a plum. A few minutes later there were 5/6 plums being offered to me. I took one and distributed the rest back amongst them.

A couple of huts later, I came across a small ‘shop’. There was a sort of elevated table made of bamboos nailed together,  maybe a foot above the ground, on which a cloth was spread and few items kept for sale. The seller was a cheerful, stocky, young girl maybe in her late teens. As I bought bananas from her, I asked, ‘what is your name?’ She said – ‘My nee is Patience’. I was struck by the name, ‘Really’. ‘Yes’, she said, ‘there is lot of patience in Liberia’. Her mother came around and I chatted with the mother & daughter for a while. They wanted me to buy some more and I said that I will buy when I come back next time. ‘You will come back?’, she asked. I said, ‘Yes’. She said, ‘Next time you come back, you will marry me and take me away?’ and started laughing. We shared a laugh and as I started to go, she said, ‘Remember my name’.  ‘I will’, I replied.

Not knowing which way to go, I took a right turn, passing through the narrow space between two huts, and as I came to the front of the hut, I saw 3 women busy cooking in the veranda. There was a big pot on a charcoal stove in which some meat was stewing.  A wisp of smoke arose from the stove and curling past the zinc roof of the veranda it got lost in the branches of the breadfruit tree. One of the women was chopping onions while another one was cutting a big bunch of ‘potato greens’ (potato green are the leaves of the sweet potato plant). I asked them if they were the ones supplying lunch for the training. One of them replied, ‘Yes, I am’. She was a big, burly woman of substantial girth and a round, friendly face. I asked, ‘ I am a vegetarian. Do you have something for me?’ “No one told me ooo, everything has meat in it”, she replied. ‘Do you have egg?” “Yes” “Can you make omelet for me?” She didn’t know what an omelet is. So, I said, ‘I will tell you. Fry an egg and put small onion, small peppe and small salt in it’ (Small, Small in Liberian English means a little bit). She said, “I can do that”. Feeling better, I asked, ‘Do you have bread?’ She didn’t have any bread. So, I set off again.

I continued straight, passing right by the huts and came on to the main road connecting Sinje with Monrovia on one side and Sierra Leone on other. There was a small shop on the road, basically a cube made of wooden panels supported by bamboo. There were two men listening intently to the radio. I asked, ‘How is the day?’ One of them replied, ‘Trying small small, Thank god for life.’ They didn’t have the bread either. The other man kept listening intently to the radio. On the radio was BBC news world service, broadcasting from Sierra Leone. A reporter was interviewing a woman outside the ICC special court in Freetown. I suddenly realized that today was the day when verdict was going to be passed on Charles Taylor. The woman was happy that Charles Taylor had been found guilty of war crimes. ‘Justice has been done’, she exclaimed. The other guy, who was quite till now, suddenly spoke, “Ma Mein, what is da woman talking about? I want to slap her. Ghankay is like father to us. He is like Jesus.” I was taken aback by this utterance and decided to find out more about such sentiments for Charles Taylor. That, my dear readers, is the topic for the next post.

Kapil

Opening and Closing Prayers

Hello everyone and a happy new year to all of you. Hope that 2013 brings happy tidings for you and fills your hearth and home with warmth and joy. As the end of my time in Liberia comes closer and I start looking forward to rejoining my wife, it is time for me to discard my laziness and capture all the interesting tidbits and observations I have made before I forget them all. In that vein, here comes this post.

Liberia is a fairly religious country and like India, you can find a religious institution on almost every street corner. Between 8th street and 10th street in Sinkor where I live, there are at least 4 churches that I know of. When I go for a Sunday morning run, I get to listen to all the loud devotional singing coming from all the churches on my route. Off course, since I live in a church myself, often it is the church music which wakes me up on Sunday mornings. My church has two services on Sunday and one on Thursday evening and all the services are very well attended.

Jesus plays a big role in professional life as well. It is very common to see names of shops like ‘Born Overcomer Auto Shop’ or, my favorite, ‘God’s Anointed Barber Shop’. Almost all official as well as personal meetings start and end with a prayer. (on a side note, I once attended a ‘Wedding Planning Meeting’ which, in addition to the prayers, had a written agenda which was distributed to all attendees.) Even in the ministry where I work, almost all meetings start and end with a prayer. Coming from India and US, where the church and state are ‘religiously’ separated, it is striking for me. It is striking also because 20% of Liberians are Muslims and another 30-40 % follow their tribal practices. Christians are not even in a majority !!!

The opening and closing prayers said at these official meetings are often offered by a reverend himself and go something like this :

Opening Prayer

Our Eternal Father, we thank you for bringing us from near and far and for gathering us here today. As we discuss today, we invite you in our midst and pray that you lead us through. With this, we commit the meeting to you. In Jesus name, Amen !

Closing Prayer

Our father, thank you for all the ideas that have been brought forth today. Help us to follow-up on what we have discussed today. May the meeting have its impact. Carry us back safe & sound and guide us until we meet again. In Jesus name,  Amen !

Till we meet again, may the lord be with you,

Kapil

Liberian English

It has been a long while. Hope everyone has been doing well in the interim. Let us start again.

The topic for today is Liberian English. The official language in Liberia is English and is the language most often spoken on the street. However, if you come from India, US or Europe and think you can straightaway understand what is being said, then you are sadly mistaken. As a Liberian once said to me,’ I can sell you right in front of you and you wouldn’t even know’. You have to develop Liberian ears to follow the conversation.

Liberians speak with a very thick tongue and keep dropping the last part of the word. It is as if you are in Texas or as if people have marbles in their mouth. With their heavy tongue, ‘this’ becomes ‘dis’ and ‘that’ becomes ‘da’. There is a popular song going around here , ‘Da ma era’ which in plain english means ‘ That is my area’. (In the song, this phrase ‘da ma era’ is being uttered by a street vendor pointing to a particular spot and claiming ownership of the spot). Similarly, ‘pepper’ becomes ‘peppe’. And, when I say you have to develop liberian ears, I mean that you have to distinguish between ‘peppe’, ‘pepe’ and ‘pen pen’, all of which have completely different meanings. ‘pepe’ refers to ‘urinating’ or ‘passing water’ while ‘pen pen’ refers to the motorcyclists rushing by on the road making the sound ‘peeeen peeen’ with their blaring horns. (Interesting tidbits: Like India, you can find signs on the walls saying – ‘ Only dogs can pepe here’. And, the ‘Pen Pen’ drivers drive so recklessly that they have a second name as well – ‘suicide bombers’.)

In addition to the thick tongue, Liberians also have their own usage of terms and way of saying things. They don’t say ‘please’, they ‘beg you’.  They don’t get ‘angry’, they get ‘vexed’ and they don’t ‘quarrel with each other’, there is ‘confusion between them’. When they like what you are doing, they say ‘ goo goo’ and the ‘good’ is almost pushed out of the mouth to create emphasis.   It is as if the head goes back and then jerked forward to create the emphasis. Once I gave a banana to a child I met on the street. Next time he saw me, his eyes twinkled, and he arched his body like children do and said, ‘I enjoyed the banana you gave me’. He didn’t just ‘like’ the banana or ‘the banana was good’, he ‘enjoyed’ it. Hearing him say that warmed the cockles of my heart. It was so sweet.

With that background, here are some more snippets of Liberian english for you to ‘enjoy’.

Liberian English                       Plain English

  • Go                                     Gold
  • Lego, Lego                     Let us go
  • Cocona                            Coconut
  • Motoba                            Motor bike
  • Daee, Daee                     That is it
  • Howzit                             How is it
  • Ho                                     Hole
  • Aaho                                 Asshole
  • Cowata                             Cold water
  • damn bah                        damn bad
  • damn bi fi                        damn big fish
  • goo, goo                           good
  • gu plae                              good play
  • mamein                            my man

Later,

Kapil