August 25, 2006
Lost — and found — in Ladakh
Back in 2001 Fionnuala McHugh, a Hong Kong-based journalist, was looking for a place "where I could disappear from time to time."
She journeyed to Ladakh — a Tibetan Buddhist corner of Muslim-majority Kashmir — and "stepped into a new life."
Here is her haunting July 29 account of her transformation, as it appeared in the Financial Times.
- Views from a found horizon
The first time, I went to Ladakh out of curiosity. It's one of those places that travellers want to see because for decades they couldn't: it only opened to tourists in 1974 and it's an anomaly — a Tibetan Buddhist corner of Muslim-majority Kashmir, a lonely crow's-nest sailing high above the babble and chaos of India.
I flew up from Delhi in August 2001 and I can still remember the disappointment of landing in the quarry that is Leh's military airfield. We were escorted off the plane by soldiers. Ladakh sits on the apex of Pakistan, India and China and so Leh, the capital, is a vast garrison town. The air, what there was of it at 3,500m, was filled with dust and the landscape looked arid and denuded as if it had been scraped raw by a vicious giant.
"Ugly," I wrote in my notebook, and next to that I scribbled that there was a Ladakhi driver outside the airport holding up a sign waiting for "Mr Proust". Of such ironies do remembrances of things past consist. Breathless and dizzy, I took a taxi to the Oriental Guest House, which a Delhi friend had recommended, and with that stepped into a new life.
In 2001, I'd been living in Asia for eight years and what I was looking for, though I didn't know it then, was a pocket of a place where I could fold myself up and disappear from time to time, as remote from my other life in Hong Kong but as close to my heart as it is possible to be in this cycle of existence.
That first summer at the Oriental consisted of exploring Ladakh's monasteries on afternoons of white heat and dark, juniper-scented interiors: you had to adjust your vision between the outside sun and the inner flame. In the early evenings, I would lie on my bed with the windows open, looking over at the pink snowline of the Stok range on the opposite side of the valley. In summer, the wind always rises at that hour and you hear the poplars and the willows rustling, the magpies screeching like football rattles and the unlocked glacial water pouring down from the mountains into Ladakh's streams. The wind blows over villages called Chiling and Snout and Egoo and, on the two-day road trip back down, I stopped at Pang and felt it.
"You should see Ladakh in winter," Nawang, who owns the Oriental, had told me. So cold, said fastidious friends in Delhi, shuddering. But four months later, in December 2001, I was back. The timing was not auspicious. In the interim, the World Trade Center had been destroyed in New York and India's parliament buildings had come under terrorist attack the previous week and its army had mobilised along the border with Pakistan. ("Madam, it is do or die," explained a Delhi waiter. "And we must do.") On the Jet Airways 737 from Delhi to Leh, there were six passengers - four Indians from the plains, huddled down at the back; Mr Yamada, who had a noodle shop in Tokyo and cheerfully planned to go trekking, and me.
Winter Ladakh was so different, it was another universe. Gone were the lacquered garden flowers of summer and the leaves quivering on the trees; gone was the sound of water; gone were the tourists and the Kashmiri traders flogging pashminas and dope; gone were the masseurs and pizza-sellers and New Age rebirthers. When I walked with cows and donkeys along the Changspa road from the Oriental into Leh, all I could hear was the ghostly sigh of last summer's posters ("Anyone fancy sharing a Jeep to Manali?") shredding in the winter wind. The Trans-Himalayan land had locked itself away behind a high wall of extreme cold and impermeable passes — you had to trade some hardship to get in. And, once you did, it was so beautiful in its isolation that the summer's lingering half-sense of a personal Shangri-la was gone. Now I knew for certain, when I looked out of my window at the dazzling Stok range, that this was a found horizon.
I couldn't — and still can't, even after my seventh trip in May with an eighth one planned in September — explain exactly why. In winter, there is no running water (washing is carried out at midday in a makeshift plastic greenhouse Nawang constructs in the denuded garden — I use a tin, labelled Ajanta Sterilised Paneer, to break the ice in a bucket of cold water, add it to a bucket of boiling water and then douse myself), everything stinks of kerosene, the electricity supply is erratic and, usually, the outside world generates only madness. One bright winter's afternoon, Nawang squatted outside next to me and drew a map of Kashmir's border with Pakistan in the dust and said that if there was war, he and his brother Dorj and his son Dawa would have to report to the army.
But war has not come, although the summer of 2002 had its moments of concern over a potential nuclear conflict. That previous February, I'd gone to hear the oracles at the Stok festival. When the fields fasten themselves up in winter, the local people are released from their rural duties so true Ladakhi gatherings are held in sub-zero temperatures. The oracles spoke in their own language, amid a stupendous whirling frenzy of cymbals and drums and dancers wearing skull-masks, but apparently their predictions only concerned rainfall. Nothing about, say, happenings in nearby Afghanistan? "You are not thinking locally," said a Ladakhi scholar, smiling. "Testing them is a foreign attitude. They don't like to be tested."
So I do not put Ladakh to the test. I do not question my own response. All I know is that, in the summer, the Indus is like turbulent chai, the fields are bright with mustard and barley, and the ramparts of the mountains are darkly watchful. I once stood at a monastery in Stok and saw a man below, standing waist-high in a pond, hurling logs into the air, and when I asked why, Nawang replied: "Cleaning the wood-smoke from his roof." And that is a summer memory — a glittering dot of water and the man exuberantly flinging his ceiling into the sky, up on the roof of the world.
In winter, the Indus is jade-green, frigidly clear, with daggers of ice in its heart. The chill is so sharp that it heightens your perceptions. I've felt the ground grow beneath my feet on this youngest part of the earth's surface, and it wasn't until I came to Ladakh that I finally understood the urge to prostrate oneself, in overwhelmed spiritual ecstasy, as the Tibetans do. The mountains jostle and ring in your head, until you feel you might burst with a sense of their magnificence. The dry air crackles with electricity. At night, in my sleeping bag, thousands of miles from any shore, there are so many sparks that I feel I'm swimming in a shoal of phosphorescent fish. I always have anxiety dreams about leaving or that I can't get back.
In the freezing mornings, it's a relief to get up and run downstairs to the kitchen where there is no man-made electricity but Dorje is watching the sun rise while revolving his prayer-wheel (Om Mani Padme Hum!), and butter-tea is being churned in the corner, and Nawang and Dawa call out "Jullay!", the all-purpose Ladakhi greeting, and another day in Ladakh begins. When I put my hands into my pockets to warm them, there's usually a dried apricot inside that someone has given me on the road. I know exactly what it will taste like: hard and unyielding at first, then a sudden softness, then a sweet, sweet surprise.
I love cereal.
Now I can retreat to my little cubby of an office behind all the X-ray equipment in the O.R. storage area and sneak in a bowl between cases.
Sometimes your Rice Krispies have much more to offer than "Snap, Crackle and Pop."
But you've got to listen very carefully.
From the website:
Cereal-N-Milk — Anytime!
Cereal-on-the-Go includes a 12-oz. cereal bowl with a spoon tucked into its lid.
Spillproof 5.7 oz. milk jug keeps its cool thanks to a freezer pack sandwiched in-between.
Assorted colors — we'll choose.
6''H x 4''Diam.
Sure hope they choose the one up top.
Ralph Lauren TV
Anyone can have their own TV network now.
Next thing you know joeTV'll be in ultra-stealth beta.
Might already be.
You just never know around here.
From the website:
- Peacock Percale
The bold, majestic beauty of peacock feathers creates a striking theme for our cotton percale bedding.
Reproduced from hand-painted watercolor artwork exclusively for Garnet Hill.
200 thread count.
Made in Portugal.
When I was in college I made a discovery that has served me well since.
Though I couldn't afford beautiful sheets, I noticed that pillowcases in the same pattern were a fraction of the price of larger bedding pieces.
And, after all, you see an awful lot more of the pillow cases than the sheets, especially if you make your bed the way I make mine, with the covers folded neatly back right at the base of the pillows.
And if you're as lazy as I am — though I sincerely doubt that's possible — you find changing your sheets to be a big pain in the butt.
Putting new pillowcases on is a snap and immediately makes sleep nicer.
Cheap, fast, and under control — hey, two out of three's not bad — I'll take it!
Two of these lovely peacock pillowcases cost $25.
Hide in plain sight — Relakks
Andrew LaVallee's story in today's Wall Street Journal about a new company that cloaks your computer's activity and identity behind Sweden's über-powerful privacy laws will get the attention of those who believe the recent AOL contretemps is only the tip of the proverbial iceberg.
Long story short: For $6.50 a month Relakks will set itself up as a gateway between your computer and the outside world. You connect your existing internet connection to Relakks, following which any internet traffic — email, web browsing and online file sharing, you name it — is routed through the company's computers in Sweden.
Anyone hoping to gain access to what you've been up to has to show Swedish authorities that you've been using the internet to commit a crime that could result in a [Swedish] prison sentence of two years or more.
That's a seriously high bar: downloading movies or music, for example, won't qualify.
The company has clearly hit a sweet spot: It's "attracted 21,000 users — with two-thirds of them coming from the U.S. — since its debut last week."
Here's the article.
- Service Aims to Cloak Internet Use By Routing Traffic Through Sweden
In the wake of AOL's recent leak of search queries from 650,000 customers, a new service has launched that says it masks computer users' online activities. But unlike other so-called anonymizer tools, which have been around for some time, the Relakks service comes with a twist: The service and the company behind it are based in Sweden, where backers say stiff privacy laws make it more difficult for law-enforcement authorities and others to gain access to customer information.
Relakks, which costs €5 ($6.44) a month, has attracted about 21,000 customers — with two-thirds of them coming from the U.S. — since its debut last week, according to Labs2 Group AB, the Lund, Sweden-based broadband company that runs the service. "To be quite frank, we did not anticipate the hornet's nest we stirred up," said Jonas Birgersson, Labs2's 34-year-old chief executive, who rose to prominence in Sweden during the dot-com boom when he founded Framfab, a large Internet consulting firm. That company has since been broken up; Labs2 is a remnant.
Many anonymization tools are aimed at helping users avoid being tracked as they surf from one Web site to another. Relakks takes a more comprehensive approach, setting itself up as the gateway for all communication between a user's computer and the outside world.
Subscribers use their existing Internet connections to access Relakks's encrypted network. Once connected, any Internet traffic, including email, Web browsing and online file sharing, is routed through the company's computers in Sweden. The user's local Internet service provider would see only the connection to Relakks, and wouldn't have any record of the user's online activities beyond that, according to Labs2.
News of the service's launch spread quickly on blogs and technology-news sites like Digg and Slashdot, where the comments reflected both optimism ("this is a good thing, we need services like this," one Digg member wrote) and skepticism ("using this is essentially advertising that you're up to no good," wrote another).
In advertising its service, the company touts Sweden's laws protecting access to consumer data. Indeed, the company's location in Sweden adds "an extra layer of privacy protection" compared with similar services, said Marc Rotenberg, an attorney and executive director of the Electronic Privacy Information Center in Washington. He said European privacy laws are generally tougher than those in the U.S. when it comes to gaining access to customer data, and noted that countries there have been generally supportive of anonymizing services.
Traditional Internet service providers can store a tremendous amount of data about their users' online habits, such as lists of Web sites that have been visited. The data can be key to investigating online crimes. The Recording Industry Association of America, for instance, has used subpoenas to force ISPs to turn over such data when users are suspected of violating copyright laws.
Relakks is designed so that even if it were forced to open up its records, it would have little personal information on hand to turn over. Users must provide credit-card information when they sign up in order to get a username and password, but the company said billing details (which include a user's real name and address) are deleted after the transaction is processed. Users have to return and provide the information each month if they want to renew. "Because we created Relakks as a prepaid service, there's no need to store any [consumer] data," said Mr. Birgersson. The company said it doesn't retain any information about what its users do online.
Further, the company said Web sites visited by Relakks users would believe the users were located in Sweden, because of the way the service routes traffic.
More important, if a Relakks customer was under investigation in his home country, authorities would have to work with Swedish law enforcement to obtain Internet usage records, legal experts said. Labs2 said it won't hand over information about Relakks users to anyone outside law enforcement. Under Sweden's privacy laws, authorities may only demand Internet traffic data if they can show someone appears to be using the Internet to commit a crime that could result in a prison sentence of two years or more. Mr. Birgersson said a case would need to involve something like violence or child pornography to reach that threshold.
Critics of anonymizing services argue that they can be used to abet illegal Internet use (such as trading copyrighted songs). But Mr. Birgersson said that the goal of the service is not to aid criminals. "It's not a safe haven for anybody," he said, adding that the company won't hesitate to turn over what little information it has on users if the legal requirements are met.
The privacy protections promised by Relakks appealed to Martin Brinkmann, a student at the University of Essen in Germany who has signed up for the service. The AOL leak was "a massive privacy breach," he said, and added that he is concerned about other companies that store information about their users. "Google and other search engines, as well, are collecting [data] which poses a risk" that online privacy can be compromised.
Ray Everett-Church, an attorney and privacy consultant who has worked with companies such as Microsoft, AOL and Napster, disputed the notion that anonymization tools would only be of interest to those engaged in breaking the law. "There are lots of things that we all do on the Internet, I'm sure, that may not be illegal, but are not something we want other people knowing about," he said.
That the identities of thousands of AOL members were hinted at through that company's data leak, he said, "alerted consumers to just how much information can be gleaned from even just your search records. A lot of people got a wake-up call." But he warned that even Relakks can't provide complete secrecy, since a Web user's privacy could still be compromised by providing personal information to the Web sites he or she visits.
Relakks has benefited not only from the AOL controversy but also from an upstart political party in Stockholm that is helping to promote the service. The Pirate Party is focused on protecting privacy rights as well as reforming copyright law and ending the patent system, said its head, Rick Falkvinge. Labs2 is donating a portion of the revenue from Relakks to the group.
"We need to determine whether communication in private is allowed to exist as a concept at all," said Mr. Falkvinge, a software developer who founded the political party in January. "It's a clear signal to say that, okay, for all your efforts to add monitoring and surveillance, this is how easy it is to sidestep, to be private. So what is it all good for?"
New Wave File Tote
From the website:
- Audrey Expanding Five-file Tote
The Five-file Tote bears a pile of work without being a burden, carrying folders and documents in five durable pockets.
Available in glossy, patent leather-esque White or Black with a choice of four types of leather handles: Mustard [top], White, Black or Brown.
• Detachable straps
• Coated and debossed exterior
• Durable construction
• Five wide pockets and interior pattern
• 11-1/4" x 12-3/4" x 2-1/2".
Hey, joe — what's with all this "New Wave" crapola this morning?
Yeah — whatever happened to "old school?"
[via Holly E. Thomas and Michelle Thomas's "Sunday Shopper" feature in the August 20 Washington Post]
Who's that girl?
I almost fell off my treadmill just now when I espied the picture (above) accompanying Cheryl Lu-Lien Tan's story in today's Wall Street Journal about how the fragrance industry is dusting off old favorites, repackaging and sending them out as the new new thing.
If I hadn't read the model's name in the caption I never would have known whom it was.
I just decided to have a contest: first person to guess the identity of the mystery girl wins a free one-year subscription to bookofjoe.
Being the generous person I am, everyone else — right or wrong — gets the same prize.
Who said life's a zero-sum game?
New Wave Pizza Cutter
From out back in the OXO skunk works comes their latest rethinking of a long-established kitchen tool.
From the website:
- Pizza Wheel for Nonstick Pans
Sharp metal pizza wheels are terrific but they can sometimes damage pans.
This 4" diameter clear plastic pizza wheel from Oxo cuts smoothly but won't harm nonstick pans or other surfaces.
Soft-grip handle and thumb guard protect your hand.
Official Pizza Cutter of the Tour de France.