The Shoemakers and the Elves

On a recent autumn day, while water-laden clouds and sunshine displayed behaviour as erratic as a cardiogram of a person in grave danger, I found myself following my nose. For no particular reason. And my nose led me to a place I had been to several times in the not so distant past.

I heard my heart hammer, even as the memories of hammering came back to me. Here, deserted today, on a school day, my children and their friends, then aged between seven and twelve, had built castles in the air. They’d imagined themselves to be adept at the task, and we had encouraged them in the enjoyment of their fantasies. The structures stand to this day as evidence of a particularly relaxed approach to lending out hammers and nails to young kids to have a go at building. Signs warning of loose nails and planks are around, as well as the clear message that building here is at one’s own risk.












This is Amsterdam, and the place I am referring to has a name – ‘land of the young’. Over the years it’s been spruced up and the playground facilities have been vastly expanded, but some years ago, it had a fairly wild and untamed look and I loved going there with my children because of that. Building is just one of the many possibilities to occupy its target group. Others are swimming in open water on warm days, baking bread, shooting with bows and arrows, zip lining over water, observing farm animals, or ‘normally’ playing on swings, slides, monkey bars, climbing equipment and the like. All of this at no cost.

In a time when the X box, the Wii and the Play Station have pretty much conquered the hearts and minds of young and not so young alike, I begin to feel a wave of nostalgia for the land of the young. Obviously, some part of me tells me, it doesn’t have to be ‘either-or’. It can be ‘ and – and’. The Play Station and building castles in the air do not necessarily have to be mutually exclusive to each other.

Because, here in Amsterdam we can have it all.

Because here in Amsterdam, we can also pretend to be the shoemaker and go to bed, leaving the castles in the air behind. The inspectors, like the elves will appear at some point while we are at rest. They’ll get out their tools, climb and trod carefully, hammer nails here, and wrench them there, and, without messing about too much with the children’s fantasies, they’ll make sure those structures stand, and that no untoward sharp bits stick out. So that when the same little shoemakers or other ones are back, they can once more marvel at the workmanship, and choose either to improve or to build from scratch.








In the fairy tale, the shoemaker and his wife, poor people, won the sympathy of the elves who wanted to help them get rich and they did. When Mr. and Mrs. Shoemaker secretly discovered that their benefactors had no clothes or shoes, they decided to make these as Christmas presents and hid to watch what the elves would do. The elves, now suited and booted sang and danced: “Now we are boys so fine to see, why should we longer cobblers be?” But their help was not needed by then.

And here in the land of the young, the elves keep coming and the shoemakers should never get to see them.

The elves are there for folks like me, who want their children to enjoy building castles in the air.

Link to ‘Jeugdland’ (Land of the Young)


Catch of the day

‘Zwerver’! It means tramp, and that’s what my son said to me when I came home with my catch of the day. Call it another manifestation of middle age crisis, if you like, but I’ve begun to find it difficult to pass by garbage that I happen to catch out of the corner of my eye, without stepping off my bike. Middle-aged yes– but still quite able to bend, lean, sit on my haunches, balance, stretch to get my catch of the day.

That’s when one or the other member of my family comments. Or gets downright upset, while I try to separate plastic from tin, paper, cartons and silver foil in our back yard.

Plastic. Fluttering and dancing in the breeze. Crawling along, or embedded in the earth in the company of trees. On the forest floor, hugging reeds on edge of a lake. Glittering. Rolling along in silent midnight’s wake. Sticking out of earth, as if growing there. Bits and pieces everywhere. Flap flap flapping in rhythmic beat. Red. White. As black as peat. Plastic calling out to me. Like no other in the garbage family. Ducks cluck cluck clucking in the vicinity.

So I heed the call of plastic and stop in my tracks.

today’s catch

On one such collection spree, when I was trying to precariously balance myself on a slope leading to a canal, a twelve year old student of mine bicycled by, a bemused look on her face. I’ve seen different reactions, especially when on a walk, I hold my catch of the day in my hand. One lady recently, looked, smiled a bit, then suddenly bent down and picked up and discarded something she saw on the street in a bin. A wordless connection bound us together.



yesterday’s catch

What do I do with this catch of the day? Most often I dispose it with our private plastic collection, gathering day after day in an oversized bin in the kitchen. I lack the brilliance of Marius Smit – who came up with a foundation called ‘Plastic Whale’. This is what they do:

  1. They fish for plastic in the canals of Amsterdam and in Rotterdam
  2. They manufacture boats with the catch of several days
  3. They use the boats to fish out some more plastic from the canals of Amsterdam and in Rotterdam
  4. They also use the recycled plastic to make office furniture

And here’s the thing. We can all join them. We can row through Amsterdam or Rotterdam fishing for plastic. It’s a new concept in tourism, and its works.

You can find more information about ‘Plastic Whale’ here:

1. article in The Guardian

2. video plastic fishing

3. volunteers fishing plastic in amsterdam canals

Me immigrant. You….?

Tarzan was an immigrant in the jungle, and the apes that brought him up named him ‘Tarzan’ which means ‘white man’. Then Jane came along and soon after he had saved her from being attacked by a violent leopard, they had a conversation. This is how the conversation went.

Me Tarzan You Jane, scene 1932-8x6

JANE: “Thank you for protecting me.”


JANE: “I said, thank you for protecting me.”

TARZAN: (Pointing at her) “Me?”

JANE: “No. I’m only ‘Me’ for me.”

TARZAN: (Pointing at Jane again) “Me.”

JANE: “No. To you, I’m ‘You.’”

TARZAN: (Pointing at himself.) “You.”

JANE: “No. I’m Jane Parker. Understand? Jane. Jane.”

TARZAN: (Pointing at her.) “Jane. Jane. Jane.”

JANE: “Yes, Jane! (She points at him) And, you? (She points at herself again) Jane.”

TARZAN: (Pointing at her) “Jane.”

JANE: “And you? (Pointing at him) You?”

TARZAN: (Jabbing himself in the chest) “Tarzan! Tarzan!”

Tarzan had accidently landed in the jungle long before this conversation. Although he really was an immigrant, he considered the jungle home. Or more his than hers anyway. He taught himself English. Then Jane came along. His version of English became unfamiliar even to himself because he had to take Jane’s version of English into account. However, since she was very pretty, he didn’t get all worked up about it. Anyone who comes into the jungle and is pretty is welcome, as Tarzan felt that the jungle was sparse in preti-ness. And since he was brave and had just saved her from a ferocious leopard, she persisted in helping him by teaching him the difference between ‘me’ and ‘you’ and when one should use each of these words and how they are linked to one’s identity. So, me is me only for me. He got it. At the end of it all, he was able to jab himself in the chest and cry out in pleasure “Tarzan! Tarzan!”

Finally he knew who he was.

This is just one tale on the theme of immigration. There are many others.

Chewing on the intestines of Paris

Here’s a riddle: if the Paris metro lines are the arteries of that great city, then what are its intestines?

paris-centre-mapAnswer – its sewers.

And the intestines of Paris are offered up to visitors just as many of its other attractions. For adults there is a modest fee and for EU children there is none, to descend under the Place de la Résistance in the heart of the great, buzzing metropolis with its treasure troves in abundance.


To my wonder and surprise, I find that, like in India, the profession of the sewage worker is often passed down from father to son. Not so surprising too, that the board is one of the last, because it conveys this bit of information along with the emotion that sums up the entire exhibition. Pride. The son takes up the profession of his father with pride. And Paris reveals the workings of its intestines with pride, and wishes its visitors to know that by making its intestines available for public consumption, so to speak, it is also giving its sewage workers visibility.IMG_3608

Some random thoughts go through my head….

The Delhi metro, the Mumbai local trains, and the Indian Railways are impressive arteries but the intestines of India fail, in some cases appallingly. In the most ‘modern’ of cities, sewage and drinking water pipes can get mixed up, and the consequence on human health is lethal.


I remember the ‘out castes’ – the ‘untouchables’, the ’Harijans’ by other names – who don’t smell so sweet. They are often unprotected and use the most primitive of gear. It is seen as a natural birth-right, or more accurately put, a natural birth wrong. So much so that even the central government hires the same castes to take care of unclean jobs. The latter get a salary, and the employer gets a work force. It is seen as a ‘win-win’. A permanent government job is something to be proud of – anywhere.


It is hard to think with pride about most Indian cities, when it comes to infrastructure. Everyone I know is reeling under the weight of living in them. One insight this Parisian tourist site does give, is the number of years, centuries even, that it took to get its intestines to work as efficiently as they do. Many Indian cities simply do not have that luxury – as they burst at the seams, exploding….

But… I don’t really have the time to digest or absorb much of these intestines …as nausea drives me towards the big metal door with steps leading upwards – back onto the boulevard, allowing me the luxury of air that doesn’t smell like shit.IMG_3600

link to website page of the intestines of Paris



Bungle and the Jungle

Bungle jook, bungle jook, bungle jook.

It’s like a mantra that repeats itself voicelessly. But who said this, when and where. I don’t quite know any more. All I know is that I was a child then. And Bungle Jook was a child’s rendering of Jungle Book.

Bungle Jook wakes up the long ago and makes my heart ache. Childhood and youth are gone. And jungles too.

These days, when I am not busy conflating nature with environment, then I am taking walks or going on bicycle rides around the man made lake, along man made tulip fields or the man made canal or in the man made polder, or the man made woods or the man made botanical gardens. All of these are available at a stone’s throw from my home, and I consider myself extremely fortunate that they are there. Not everyone on the planet can claim such a privilege. Jungle Book in 3D puts the sublime back on the agenda, if for a couple of hours only.

Then, in the days of Bungle Jook, eyes wide open against utter darkIMG_2730ness, riding on a scooter, listening to sounds that emanated from the thick foliage, knowing that a herd of elephants was crossing the road ahead in their search for food from the fields of villagers, I felt the adrenalin flowing freely. Now as I listen to the wind in the trees in the darkness of the woods, my only fear is that a man may just be lying in wait for someone like me, and I try to connect to the breath that flows in and out of me to keep calm and carry on. Then, when the toilet was a mud hut, I almost squatted on a cobra in the process of digesting a frog, now I trip over puddles with the reflection of the clouds in them. Then, the leeches were picked off ankles, toes, legs and stomach, thick with the blood they had feasted on, now I feel the irritation of nettles on my skin. Then, when a million butterflies in myriad colours presented themselves on the blue catwalk in front of my nose, now the duck with the flashy green neck waddles across my path on her way to the water’s edge. Then, when the hundred-member cicada choir added to the feeling that I was slowly and surely being electrocuted as I sweated through each day, now I tell myself it will pass when a gust of wind slaps my face and threatens to fling me backwards.


Then in the time of Bungle Jook, I didn’t know, that many years later, I would be walking in a glass box in the botanical garden, my glasses misty from the moisture generated by a machine. A man, in uniform, would open a little cupboard, and take out one butterfly after another, to place each gently on the branch of flowering plants. I would peep into the cupboard to see eggs, larvae and pupae. In the mean time, the butterfly would fall off the branch. As if it has forgotten how to stand or fly. The man would pull up his trousers and place himself on the ledge to look for the butterfly, then he would pick it up and put it very carefully, back on the branch, holding on to the wings until he feels sure the butterfly has found its feet. He would tell me that the butterflies have come from Costa Rica.IMG_2722

They didn’t fly in. They were flow in, in the belly of another sort of bird.