When a Paradise Was Nearly Lost, Then Saved by a Forbidden Fruit

This is a story about a Garden of Eden run by a supreme ruler. It also involves a forbidden fruit. This tale is a bit more recent than the biblical version. And it has a happier ending.

The year was 1981. The Cold War was raging. A man by the name of Albert Rene was running a tiny nation called the Seychelles, an archipelago of 115 separate islands scattered in the Indian Ocean, just below the equator.

It is a beautiful place, maybe one of the most idyllic I have had the good fortune to visit. The islands are unique in that they are carved out of granite. The only ones in the world. Where other islands are borne of volcanic lava or from coral reefs, these came to life as remnants of a great continental split of a land mass known as Gondwana that was an aggregate of what is now Africa, South America, Australia and India. About 140 millions years ago (give or take a few months), things started splitting apart. India did a 90-degree turn, headed northeast and eventually crashed into Asia with enough force to create the Himalayas.

Remnants of India were littered (and maybe loitered?) in the Indian Ocean of today to become the Seychelles. They couldn’t have picked a better place. Temperatures in the region — on both land and in the sea — hover around the 80-degree mark Fahrenheit, all year long. Unlike other tropical paradises, it is free from typhoons, cyclones and other stormy phenomena.

Now, back (or maybe ahead, geologically speaking) to the Cold War days. The United States, which had a satellite tracking station on the island of Mahe, the main island in the Seychelles, apparently wasn’t too fond of Rene, a benign dictator who favored socialism.

The U.S. government, always interested in protecting its property and often all too eager to conflate social democracy with outright communism to justify its interests, decided Rene had to go.

And so, with the help of the United Kingdom and South Africa, the U.S. put together a rag tag team of mercenaries to oust the Seychellois leader.

(In the grand scheme of clandestine operations in the Indian Ocean, this was small potatoes when compared with what the U.S. and the U.K. did to the peoples and island of Diego Garcia.)

The plan was simple. The mercenaries would pose as some sort of fraternal organization out on a goodwill tour. They would be bringing gifts for the little Seychellois children. In the bottom of their bags would be gifts of another kind: Kalishnikov automatics and other weaponry.

Getting through customs would be a breeze. Then they would wait a day or two and take over the key government buildings, the airport and the radio station to announce the coup d’etat. They aspired to use as little force as necessary and figured that would not be a problem, given the meager defenses in the country.

But they would be armed and would do what was necessary, even if that meant lethal force, including assassinating Rene.

Now, about that fruit.

Lychees are an Asian delicacy that are part of the soapberry family of fruits, which includes Longans. These fleshy morsels are about the size of a walnut. They have a rather hard, spiky shell that, when peeled, reveals a fleshy texture that tastes, to me anyway, like a cross between a peach and pear. The flesh hugs a pitted seed like a peach, too.

One of the mercenaries, the story goes, was very fond of lychees. He had a bag of them on the commercial flight that he was taking into Mahe. He was advised — strongly — that he should not attempt to bring the fruit through customs.

The Seychellois culture, like many tropical island paradises, is somewhat laissez-faire about a lot of rules and regulations, but when it comes to protecting its indigenous flora and fauna, it is a zero-tolerance kind of place.

Apparently, the mercenary really, really liked this fruit. And so he went rogue (a rogue mercenary is an oxymoron if ever there was one). He was caught at customs. And once the customs officer discovered the fruit, he decided to do a more thorough examination of the soldier’s belongings.

It didn’t take long for the customs agent to find the AK-47 hidden in the bottom of the bag of toys. Ironically, the agent didn’t know it was an automatic weapon. He thought it was something worse: a spear-gun. If the agent didn’t like the fruit, he was apoplectic about an illegal fishing device. Flora and fauna first.

The mercenary panicked, grabbed the weapon and — as they say — shots were fired. It was mayhem for a few days. Some of soldiers managed to escape by hijacking a commercial jet to South Africa. Others were caught and imprisoned.

For those incarcerated, it was not a pleasant time. They were beaten and tortured for months and then put on trial. They were convicted, and sentenced to death.

The story got out and became something of an international sensation. Then, one day, the prisoners were summoned and sent to a rather grand home in the hills of Mahe. There, they were greeted by none other than President Rene. They figured this was the last gesture before execution, but they were (no doubt, pleasantly) surprised to learn they were wrong.

Rene told them he was commuting their sentences. He didn’t need the bad publicity. They were to serve out some time on a remote island — under much more gentile conditions — until the story subsided. Then they would be released.

Before sending them to the island, though, Rene delivered a little lecture to the soldiers, explaining the difference between socialism and communism, and providing examples of the work he and his government had done in building schools, hospitals and roads and bridges.

(This story is laid out in the book: Deathrow in Paradise by Aubrey Brooks, one of the mercenaries who understandably had a political change of heart right there and then.)

Rene ruled the Seychelles until 2004. It has been one of the fastest growing countries in the Indian Ocean and African regions. He did build a solid infrastructure of schools, hospitals and government programs for the people of the Seychelles. How benign a dictator he actually was is open to interpretation. There are allegations of civil rights abuses.

Rene died this week after a long career in shaping his country’s future.

Things might have turned out quite differently, had it not been for that little piece of forbidden fruit.


A Self-Made Man

He never made it to high school. At 12 years old, during the Great Depression, he lost his father. His formal education ended then as he took on any odd job he could find to help support his mother and the family.

Despite that inauspicious start in life, he taught himself mechanical, civil and hydraulic engineering. Among projects he would be involved in during his career: Niagara Falls Hydroelectric Power Plant, Pratt & Whitney’s factory for the first Boeing 747 engines, the MX Missile System.

He was a survivor of the 1918 flu pandemic. His twin brother, Albert, did not make it.

Claude Albert Paolini would be 100 years old today, Feb. 18, 2018.

He was a first-generation son of immigrants. He spoke only Italian until the age of five. He learned English in school and in the process learned to defend himself against the bullies who ridiculed his accent and ethnic origins.

He grew up in New York State but identified with the cowboy. And he wasn’t half bad as one himself. Sharpshooter, gunsmith, horseman, rancher. He could even lasso a steer. He brewed a mean cup of coffee. He played guitar and sang old cowboy songs with gusto. And nobody wore a Stetson with more authenticity.

Wedding day, June 1949.

He was a WW II vet who survived a plane crash. He spent three months in the hospital undergoing reconstructive surgery. It was there while recuperating that he received a letter from a young woman who — like many of her generation — was doing her patriotic duty by writing to soldiers. His new pen pal was Antoinette Vespalec from Milwaukee, Wisconsin. They would eventually meet, fall in love, marry and raise a family of 10 children.

He was a skilled sketch artist. If you got up early enough, you could find him most mornings at the kitchen table with a cup of coffee, a mechanical pencil and graphing paper. He’d draw little cartoon characters just for your amusement.

He was a jack-of-all trades — electrical, mechanical, plumbing, carpentry, welding — to name of few of the crafts in which he had more than a passing proficiency.

He was an inventor and relentless tinkerer. His prototype for a drafting device hung in his shop for years. Just before he died, he had designed and was building — from scratch — his own steam engine.

Plans for a steam engine.

He could make anything and usually out of nothing. As with many of his generation who survived the Depression, he was resourceful. Old scrap wood and recycled screws and nails could be transformed into a stylish desk, or table, or set of drawers.

He could fix anything. One summer we rented a beach house that had an old, broken piano in the parlor. He took the thing apart and essentially rebuilt it. This was — as always — amazing. But then he sat down and began playing a tune, revealing another of his myriad talents.

His repairs weren’t limited to inanimate objects. He was our field medic, patching up bruises and cuts of every kind. With so many kids, this was practically a daily duty. He even reset our cat’s broken leg, using a plastic doll’s leg as a cast. That animal followed him everywhere from then on.

He was a man of precision. He had an engineer’s appreciation for measuring and analyzing the world around him. As his kid, you learned your cold-rolled steel from cast steel, ferrous from nonferrous metals (and all of their melting points), hardwood from softwood. You knew the linear feet in a mile and the square feet in an acre.

He could calculate anything, using only a slide rule. Not that he needed it. Once, while on our weekly jaunt to the dump, we asked him to estimate the number of gallons in the nearby reservoir. (We loved to quiz him and he relished the challenge.) He explained, while negotiating the steep, curving road and while shifting the gears in the station wagon, that he had to multiply width by length by height, but that he also had to discount the sloping sides. He came up with the cubic volume and multiplied that by the number of gallons in a cubic foot (7.48 in case you have forgotten). His estimate: 100 million gallons.

A few years ago I dug up a newspaper article on that reservoir. At full capacity it holds: 100 million gallons. (Side note: it was built between 1906 and 1911 by Italian immigrants who used draft horses to haul the stone and to compact the earthen dam.)

He was a man of action and punctual to a fault. Except for a pocketwatch on Sundays, he did not wear a timepiece. But he was never late, usually early, and always impatient to get on to the next thing. He did not like to sit still.

He was a man of few words but profound thoughts. When he was feeling conversational, usually over a cup of coffee, he would preface a sentence with: “I imagine that …” What followed could be a theory about anything from the pyramids to time travel.

He had a great sense of humor. (His favorite joke: “Last year I couldn’t spell engineer, now I are one.”)

He was a man of his word. A handshake sealed the deal. He kept up his end of the bargain and more often than not went the extra mile.

He was generous. What he had, he had earned for himself. But without hesitation he was willing to share anything to help you out.

He was a man of principle. Despite threats and intimidation, he testified in an FBI investigation when an employer was embezzling federal funds intended for the Interstate system. He spent more than a few sleepless nights keeping vigil over his family, but his skills acquired as a child standing up to bullies came in handy. He did not back down.

His signature doodle.

He was a devoted husband. He and Antoinette were equal and supportive partners in virtually everything they did. The couple were routinely off on adventures, trying new businesses, pursuing new hobbies.

You did not want to make him mad. He would remind his kids daily. But he was (to borrow a line) “soft as smoke and tough as nails.”

After his kids were grown and gone, he would invite the whole tribe home. We would find ourselves in the kitchen and we would look around for him. But we knew where we’d find him: out in his workshop. He had things to do. He didn’t say he wanted to talk to us. He just wanted us nearby.

Oh, and he was a pretty good dancer.

Happy 100th Birthday, “Pop.” Luv ya.

Keep the customer satisfied

“Is your last name Italian?” says the amiable tech support guy, whose youthful intonation leads me to believe he might be still be in high school.

Look, kid, I’m thinking to myself, I have been on the phone with umpteen of your colleagues today trying to solve this Internet problem. I don’t at the moment care to engage in idle chit chat.

“Yes,” I say.

“That’s really cool,” he says, with infectious enthusiasm. “I thought it looked Italian, but I can’t tell why.”

“A lot of vowels,” I volunteer, half sardonically.

“Oh, wow!” he says, as though he has just discovered a solution to global warming.

“How much longer?” I inquire, in my best baritone radio voice to indicate, not so subtly, that I am still irritated.

TomTom Go Confidently

He explains that he needs to text me a file for me to approve and we’ll be up and running in no time.

I wait, with as much patience as I can muster at this point. But he will not allow the wait go in silence.

“So, have you been to Italy?” he asked.

I can’t believe I’m having this conversation. But before I can even muster an answer, he is rambling.

“I’ve been watching all these documentaries,” he says. “It looks so cool. I’m saving up. It’s on my bucket list. I live in Portland. It looks like the weather is really different there. I was thinking of Venice but maybe Rome?”

A lot of thoughts are going through my head. Is this a new training technique for tech support people? Is this really a kid who wants to go to Italy or a trained actor of some sort? Is he really in Portland or is he in Bangalore?

The text file comes through and I click the approvals.

“I see it on my end and you’re good to go!” he says.

“OK,” I respond. “And good luck with your trip to Italy. I highly recommend going. It’s a beautiful place.”

“Oh, hey, thanks a lot!” he says, as though as he has made a new best friend for life.

And we disconnect.

I shake my head, wondering if that conversation really just happened. Maybe the kid is high-fiving his colleagues, having pulled it off again: turning a disgruntled customer into a satisfied one with an Oscar-worthy performance.

On the other hand, if I get a postcard of the Basilica di San Marco one of these days, I will not be surprised.


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A reluctant act of kindness

I was leaving the post office and in a bit of a hurry since I was late to a phone call and I still had one more errand to run. I was just slipping my bike helmet on for the ride to my next destination when I heard someone say: “Excuse me sir. Excuse me, sir?”

I turned around to see a young woman, mid-20s probably, on the platform of a U-Haul moving truck, the metal ramp extended to the pavement of the parking lot.

She jumped down and jogged over to me. “Do you think you could help me?”

“What do you need?” I asked, reticently, all the while thinking that I had better things to do.

“I need to move a table. I’m donating it to the Cancer Society Thrift Store,” she said, pointing to the back door of the shop.

I spied a little end table on the back of the truck.

“That?” I inquired, hopefully.

“No, it’s over here,” she said, waving me on in an attempt to secure some level of commitment for her moving project. “It’s too big for me and there’s just three little old ladies working in the thrift store today.”

“But I’m a little old man,” I said.

She laughed, and nervously flitted her straight, bright red hair. I’m pretty sure she was thinking that I sounded just like her dad, and dads always tell lame jokes.

“You look pretty fit to me,” she said. She regained her composure and persisted with her mission. “Can you help?”

Apparently there was no way of getting out of this. I parked my bike along side the truck and looked inside. The piece of furniture in question was an antique, round pedestal dining table. It was solid oak. It was big. It was, no doubt, heavy.

Reluctantly, I agreed to help and climbed into the moving van. We dragged the table toward the back of the truck and more or less slid it down the ramp. It was unwieldy, at best. We each took a side and lugged it across the parking lot to the back of the thrift store, only to discover that there was no way it was fitting through the door at any angle.

I was hoping this would be the extent of my generosity for the morning. Perhaps we could just leave it on the sidewalk. But then one of the three aforementioned ladies came out of the store.

“Oh, so you found this nice man to help you!”

Clearly my exit strategy was not going to work. Discussions about geometry ensued. But there was simply no way the round object was fitting through the rectangular space. I looked underneath the table. Only six screws held the top to the base.

“Do you have a Philips head screwdriver?” I asked.

The Cancer Society volunteer enthusiastically replied in the affirmative and went to retrieve the tool.

To pass the time, I asked the young woman about the piece of antique furniture that was now at the center of my morning. She explained that it was her ex-boyfriend’s grandparent’s table, which he had somehow inherited. I did not ask for any more information as to what happened to the boyfriend or how the table was bequeathed to her. She was here making a donation for a good cause and that was all I needed or for that matter wanted to know.

The volunteer returned with the tool and I went to work. As anyone who has ever tried disassembling any antique knows, it’s a huge gamble. The screws are usually entombed in the wood, the wood having swelled and then dried repeatedly over years of fluctuation in humidity. And the screws can rust and become brittle with age, snapping at the first suggestion of movement. Remarkably, maybe even miraculously, the six screws complied with the twisting effort with only a slight squeaking complaint now and then.

While I was toiling away at manual labor, I attempted another “dad” joke along the lines of my hourly rate. But the comment went unnoticed as the young woman and the elderly lady engaged in a discussion regarding the need for more acts of kindness in the world. This was a subject of which the more senior of the two felt quite passionate. She relayed that she had called the local newspaper to do articles in an effort to raise awareness for this just cause.

“Really,” she said, “the world just needs more people to do things like this.”

I let my joke slide and agreed with the two of them, making the sentiment unanimous.

With the table top off, the rest of the move was quite easy. I grabbed the base and the two women rolled the top in to the store.

“Is this the man on the bike?” I heard. It was one of the other three Little Old Ladies, apparently, and she was referring to me. In the span of a few minutes, I had gone from an anonymous cyclist just minding his own business to the most famous person in the thrift store.

I reassembled the table and, as I was putting in the last screw, a couple walked in through the front door. The man was looking at the table.

“You want to buy it?” I asked. “Because if you do, maybe I shouldn’t put it all together so you can move it.”

He laughed. “No, just admiring your work.” He helped me flip the table upright and as he did, the Little Old Ladies brought him up to speed on the now famous cyclist’s act of kindness. I considered basking in the glory of the rest of my 15 minutes of fame, but remembered my more pressing engagements.

I shook hands with the young woman and the Little Old Lady № 1. I did not get their names nor did they get mine. But as I was walking out the door, I heard a snippet of conversation between another of the volunteers and a customer.

“How’s Sarah doing?” said one.

“Fingers crossed. In remission,” said the other.

And it was then that it hit me. Yes, I was late to my phone call. But an act of kindness, even one administered begrudgingly, was time better spent.

My breakfast with Elon

On Jan. 1 of 1962, four lads from Liverpool auditioned at Decca Records, but they didn’t get the gig. The Decca executive at the time opted to sign another band: Brian Poole and the Tremeloes. (You remember them, right?)

The Beatles pre-Ringo days.

The Beatles climbed the charts in 1963 and to this day remain the best selling artists of all time.

How would you like to have been that Decca exec? Well, I might be able to lay claim to a similar flub in the tech industry.

About 20 years ago, while working at Sun Microsystems in the JavaSoft group, I received a call. I caught the last name (Musk) but not the first and understood he had a business called Zip2 and he would like to partner with Sun. At the time, my job including running JavaSoft’s developer programs and so I met with dozens, if not hundreds of ISV (independent software vendor) start-ups.

I decided to hear him out. A few weeks later we sat down at a little cafe on California Avenue in Palo Alto. Elon was accompanied by his brother, Kimbal. Elon did all the talking. The South African accent at the time was thick and it didn’t help that he spoke a mile a minute.

I was able to glean that the company was developing online directories for newspapers. The business personally intrigued me; I had not long before that time left a career in journalism and part of my reason for leaving was a frustration that newspapers weren’t moving quickly enough to go digital. I was also able to read between the lines during Elon’s pitch: he was shopping the company.

I do remember my mind wandering during the meeting as to what all of this had to do with naming the company Zip2, which I inferred was some sort of digitized version of the postal code acronym. But I didn’t get a chance to ask the question.

I was accustomed to meeting with bright, young, energetic entrepreneurs. Elon fit the bill, except that the energy level was an order of magnitude above the others.

We parted company after I paid for breakfast, which, as I recall, Elon never touched. I don’t recall what happened next, except that I did not pursue working with the Zip2 team. I might have passed the information along to the Sun hardware group, which was supporting other fledgling startups such as Yahoo by supplying gear and technical support.

It was the last time I spoke with Mr. Musk. He sold the business not long after to Compaq, went on to create Paypal and … well, you know the rest of the story.

I just hope when I turned him down I didn’t make up a lame excuse. According to legend, the Beatles were told that “guitar music was on its way out.”

Greaser, Bro and Godot

“I’m telling you it’s not like him. Maybe something happened to him.”

“No, Bro. Nothin’ happened to him. He just didn’t show. I mean he didn’t show all day. I waited for nothin’.”

The two middle-aged men generating this conversation are walking toward a park bench overlooking the shores of Waikiki.

One is wiry, of compacted frame with salt and pepper hair, haphazardly shorn into a crew cut. This is Bro. He is missing a few front teeth. He is wearing what appears to be a basketball uniform made for an NBA center. The silky bright red shorts come down almost to his ankles. He has a tattoo on each bicep. The design appears to be a floral pattern, but nothing recognizable.

The other man, also of the same lean build and about the same height, is beyond tanned. His skin is cracked, darkened and etched by many hard years and exposure to the sun and the elements.

His hair is slicked back with a little duck’s tail reminiscent of the greasers in the ’50s. Greaser is wearing a short-sleeved white shirt with the sleeves rolled just a bit — also in the style of the era, and revealing a tattoo on his left arm. The inked image appears to be a classic sailor’s anchor. He is wearing knock-off designer jeans and flip flops.

“I’m telling you, Bro,” he says, “I’ve been waiting all fuckin’ day. What time is it, like 5?”

There are two park benches ensconced comfortably underneath a scraggly Banyan tree. One bench is unoccupied. The other has an unassuming occupant, an elderly man who could play the part of a scholar right out of central casting. He has a white goatee, he is wearing round spectacles and he is reading a very thick book.

Greaser and Bro decide to sit with the scholar. Now we have, from left to right, Greaser, Bro and Scholar. Scholar is doing his best to remain consumed in his literature, but undoubtedly he knows that as long as these two are accompanying him, his task will be all the more difficult, if not impossible.

If Scholar is listening to the conversation — and how could he not — he is probably smirking at the irony of Greaser and Bro enacting a variation on the theme of Beckett’s masterpiece, Waiting for Godot.

Greaser’s speech is slurred and slow and it becomes clear why when he pulls a 16-ounce can of Pabst Blue Ribbon out of a plastic grocery bag.

Greaser stands up, apparently to negotiate opening his liquid refreshment, and then he sits down. He is fidgeting until he takes the first swig.

All is quiet for a moment and then Bro re-ignites the conversation.

“Maybe something happened. It’s not like him to not even call.”

“I called HIM!” says Greaser. “And all I got was an answering machine. Didn’t even sound like him. “

“What did it say?” asks Bro, plaintively.

“I dunno. Couldn’t even tell,” says Greaser. He takes another gulp of his beverage. “Maybe it was a wrong number or something.”

Behind Greaser, Bro, the Scholar and the Banyan tree, the sun appears to be negotiating its descent with a puff of clouds hugging the horizon. Surfers and swimmers are basking in the amber light and the waves are gently lapping the shore. The waves are inaudible, overpowered by the din of traffic on Kalakaua Avenue.

Tour buses are gunning their engines and spewing diesel exhaust. They seem to be competing with myriad motorcycles, apparently designed for two purposes: to make a lot of noise and add more fumes to the air. Delivery trucks of every kind make impossible (and no doubt illegal) turns, while street vendors with monotonous tones chirp their offerings, amplified by tinny speakers. A pan flutist attempts to compete with a spin class that has the windows to the studio wide open, blasting a thumping bass beat that seems to suck the oxygen out of mid-air.

Greaser and Bro seem oblivious to it all, consumed in being either insulted by or concerned for their no-show friend.

“He’s a creature of habit,” says Greaser. “It’s not like him.”

“Did you call?” asks Bro.

“Of course, I called. And all I got was a busy signal. Not even a message.“

“All day?” asks Bro.

“All fuckin’ day,” says Greaser. “All I got was a busy signal. No message.”

“Whataya goin’ do?” asks Bro, who seems more upset than Greaser.

“Go home,” says Greaser.

“Fuckin’ ruins the day, though,” says Bro.

“Gone from bad to worse,” says Greaser, who bends down to pull something from his backpack. As he leans downward, a lanyard — the type conference-goers wear to identify themselves in a crowd, swings from his neck.

Greaser pulls the backpack on and gestures to Bro to get moving, probably to the nearest establishment serving alcohol. As they leave, Scholar seems to sigh in relief.

Until next time …

A time to reflect …


Good-bye and thanks for stopping by. Hope you enjoyed reading this as much as I did writing it. Heading “Down Under” for the first day of spring. And then I’ll see you all  you all back home.


Hindu Times photo of downtown Bangalore
during rush hour.
On the one hand, it’s mind boggling how bad the traffic is. You inch along along as every conceivable type of vehicle juts in and around, jockeying for position. The potholes are large enough to swallow small animals and the roads in many places give way to gravel. The traffic lighting and sign system is rudimentary at best. Many four- and five-way intersections don’t have as much as a yield sign as a guide for who goes first.  And horns are constantly blaring. 
On the hand, however, it’s actually a marvel how it works.  You realize after a day or so that there is some method to the madness. Horns are not used out of a sense of frustration but instead to provide an audible cue as to what you are trying to do. I can’t say I have figured it out completely; it seems like an undocumented Morse-code like system. A couple of short blasts as you are approaching a vehicle indicates you plan to pass. A couple of long blasts as you are approaching an intersection means you are going through. There are visual cues as well. When approaching a car with a few short blasts, you make eye contact via his rear view mirror, then you point which way you will pass, and he moves to the other side.
Motorcycles crowd together in one lane
 during the morning commute
We keep hearing about the coming autonomous vehicles, when  cars will operate at a much closer proximity to one another, thanks to modern technology. India has already figured this out using a bit of human ingenuity and maybe a collective “consciousness” (they are not only awake but laser-focused on the task at hand). Drivers operate within inches of other vehicles and often split two-lanes with three and sometimes even four vehicles. Using the horn, the subtlest of visual cues and what seems like some sort of mind meld, they decide who gets the right of way and who will yield.
Only once did I see a driver shake a fist and yell; otherwise everyone appears stoic, complacent and even cooperative. No surprise, I guess; when you are all in it together, you work together.


Shivaganga, site of a sacred Hindu temple.
Crawling in traffic through the sprawling megalopolis, it seems the choking dust, the din of honking horns and jack hammers, and the stench of body odor, urine and rotting refuse will never end. And then, just when I’m beginning to wonder if this trek is even worth it, the first promising sign appears as the Shivaganga mountain peak juts up over the horizon. This is the site of an ancient temple in rural India, about 70 kilometers outside Bangalore. The traffic begins to thin as we enter what is known as the Hardware section of town, where many goods such as textiles and furniture and other necessities of everyday life are manufactured. 
One of many hand-carved statues of Shiva
Things really pick up (literally) when you connect with National Highway 4, a modern thoroughfare that originates on the southeast corner of India in Chennai on the Bay of Bengal, runs due west through Bangalore and then shoots northwest up to Pune (another high tech center) and eventually terminates in Mumbai on the Arabian Sea. Once on the highway, the chaos and cacophony of the city yields to a landscape of flowers and greenery, flowing in a light, pleasant breeze. Lush green fields of rice, corn and other crops seem to go on forever. And a beautiful, endless row of purple and white flowering bushes adorns the median strip of the turnpike.
We eventually take an exit and Mahadev, my driver, tour guide and sometimes impromptu bodyguard, who has impressed me repeatedly with his ability to maneuver the vehicle through the most harrowing of obstacles, really begins to show his stuff. On a winding, twisted little farm road, he skillfully navigates around meandering cattle, potholes the size of a small swimming pools, makeshift farm tractors, and bicyclists and pedestrians weighted down with bananas, mangos, coconuts, sugar cane and cotton that they are taking to market. 
Granite columns, hand-carved and fitted
Mahadev happens to know this road well, since he spent 12 years as a tour bus driver on this route, which ends at the foot of the mountain. Hindus from around the world make the pilgrimage to the ancient shrine at the peak, to pay homage and pray.
And he knows rural India well, too. He explains that he grew up in a village not much different than the ones we are passing through. Every region like this, he says, is made up of a group of villages. They will surround one larger village or town center, where  all the services such as utilities are administered and commerce is conducted. Today is a market day and everyone is making the trip into the central village to buy, sell and trade.
Mahadev’s parents and two brothers still work their farm, where they grow ragi (a millet that the southern Indians prefer over rice) mangos and coconuts and where they harvest silkworms cocoons. He did not explain how he came to leave the village, but did share that his marriage to his wife was arranged (this is still common for “uneducated” people, he says), and that he learned afterwords that the two are distantly related (also not uncommon, he says).
The village at the base of the mountain is nothing more than a little corner store and a few stands set up to sell trinkets and soft drinks for the tourists. Goats wander aimlessly and rhesus macaque monkeys descend from telephone poles, aggressively approaching to see whether you are packing anything edible. (Tourists are warned to keep your hands open; the monkeys are not shy and will attack, as they did one tourist who was carrying a plastic bag with snacks.) 
It’s unclear who has the right of way …

We walk through town and the locals approach Mahadev and ask him questions in Hindi. I hear him say “America” and realize they are asking about me. I get looks and comments in the city and people are not shy about talking to me directly. But here, they are more deferential. Mahadev, in his neat uniform with epaulets, brocade cuffs and smart driver’s cap, commands authority, but at least he is approachable.
We climb the interminable number of steps that lead up the mountain, passing more monkeys and goats and beggars.  A pipe runs parallel to the steps and Mahadev notes that it carries water from a spring down to the village and that is why the mountain is called Shivaganga, or water of Shiva.  It’s hard not to marvel at the output of buildings, monuments, shrines and statues that we pass along the way, all carved and hand-fitted out of granite and reminiscent, albeit on a smaller scale, of Stonehenge and the works of the Aztecs.
Some of the steps have pictogram stories chiseled in them and Mahadev points to one. “Shiva,” he says, “a strong warrior,” and he flexes his bicep to make the point.
We reach the top, winded and a bit light headed. As if on cue black clouds darken the sky and Mahadev points. “Going to rain,” he says, and we descend quickly to beat the weather. We make it back to the car just as the first drops begin to fall and close the doors, narrowly escaping the torrent that follows.
“I think Shiva showed us who’s boss,” I say, and Mahadev smiles. He appears pleased that I learned something.

On the half hour

At its widest point, India is about 2,000 miles, which
equals 2 time zones (The math: earth is 24,000 or so miles
 in circumference and there’s 24 hours in a day …).
In the north and south, as you can see, it tapers off.
Splitting the country into 2 times zones would
make things confusing for the north and south
where people living right next to each other
would be in a different zone. Hence, the decision
to split the difference and put everybody on
one time zone.