I was inspecting Nano protective glass coating work at The Torch Hotel of The Aspire Tower in Doha. I was also photographing the work in progress. Talk about being at the right place at the right time with a camera, this was one such day. Even though I was wearing a Safety Hard Hat, I often kept looking up for workers above me – a falling object could seriously injure my colleagues and I.
Standing on terra firma, I caught sight of Cleaning Spidermen scaling down the Torch Hotel Tower. Never took my finger away from the shutter release, as I recorded and visually devoured the rare spectacle before me. The men, who were brushing dust from the exterior surface, suddenly started rappelling down, as if in a rush. (Rappelling is a descent on a vertical surface, such as a cliff or wall, by sliding down a rope that is passed under ones thigh and over the opposite shoulder or through a device that provides friction, typically while facing the surface and performing a series of short backward leaps to control the descent). Talking to some of them, I learned that they had to rush down, as the wind up there was unbearable and surely not safe.
Shivlal is one of the Spiderman I befriended. He hails from Nepal and has been in Qatar for the last 4 years. Within a few month of his wedding, he had to come overseas searching for better pastures. He is an ordinary unskilled worker who joined a cleaning company in Qatar, not knowing that his simple occupation would lead him on to taking this perilous job. Within a few months, the company listed him for a training program for high-rise building cleaning – by a French trainer. During the first few weeks fear continuously gripped him throughout the day, but soon he improved his skills, which helped him gain confidence, and overcome his fear. According to him, now it is just another day at work. His wife does not know that he is involved in this perilous job, he added.
Spidermen start their day early and work throughout the day, sometimes even at night – throughout the year. Shivlal and his Spidermen friends work at least 10 hours a day, which includes 2-3 hours of preparation. They have to plan their day well because nature’s call and lunch breaks are hard to make when they are outdoors and 70-stories high.
Though the Aspire Tower (Torch Hotel) is not the only building Shivlal cleans, it is the most challenging one. The outer metal steel mesh of the building traps dusts; therefore requires cleaning throughout the year. Shivla cleans both the steel mesh as well as the glass – from both inside and outside.
Spidermen window cleaners are experts with knots, ropes, safety harnesses and rappelling. It’s a lot like being an urban mountaineer when a window washer anchors in and rappels off a roof with cleaning supplies like pressure sprayers, brush, water, soap, squeegees, and safety equipment.
Being a Spiderman is a highly challenging and dangerous profession. They can never cut corners and must always look out for themselves. Accidents happen – scaffolding breaks, ropes wear thin, rigging mistakes occur. Some things can’t be helped – dangerous gusts of winds, tilting platforms and scaffolding, seasonal bugs crashing into faces, or peregrine falcons attacking scalps. There are no safety nets and falls are often deadly.
Shivlal starts his day with a prayer before he sets for work, and trusts his life to his God who resides above the heights he works everyday. To keep his fear in check, Shivlal says, he only looks at the windows and the steel mesh required to be cleaned, and seldom at the ground, and he is thankful when he reaches the end of his rope each day.
Shivlal started his job for US$ 220 per month and now earns around US$ 560 per month.
25 April 2009.
The Torch Hotel – (Aspire Tower)
At 300m (984 ft), Aspire Tower is currently the tallest building in Qatar, its design symbolizing a hand grasping the torch – build for the December 2006 Asian Games.
Located in the Aspire Zone (Doha Sports City) complex in Doha, Qatar. Designed by architect Hadi Simaan and AREP and engineer Ove Arup and Partners, the tower served as the focal point for the 15th Asian Games hosted by Qatar in 2006.
The tower housed the Asian Games flame during the games and holds the record for tallest ever games flame and highest positioning of a games flame, which was visible throughout Doha for the duration of the games. The design employs a concrete core, which acts as the primary support. The remainder of the building is a steel structure that cantilevers out from the concrete core. The exterior of the building is glass, which is in turn covered in a steel mesh.
Today this structure with its 360° panoramic views across the whole of Doha, Qatar is The Torch hotel.
Construction began in 2005 and completed in 2006. Costs at completion: 133,395,000 EUR / 174,387,000 USD. As well as functioning as a support for major games, the Torch Hotel includes a large reception and public area on two floors for 3000 guests; restaurants and business center; 17 floors of five-star hotel accommodation; a health club on three floors with a cantilevered swimming pool 80m above ground; presidential suites; and a revolving restaurant and observation deck about 240m above ground. A 62m high lattice shell structure on top of the reinforced concrete central core frames the 15MW flame cauldron.
February 20, 2012. Qatar.
“This is a special farmhouse you should visit”, said my good friend. Not knowing what to expect, I joined a small gang of photographers to stay at this farmhouse. It was cold. We slept the night, and went out touring and photographing the farmhouse. Among a wide variety of domesticated animals was this section of the farmhouse where they reared goats. I have never seen so many varieties of goats in my life – rows and rows of fenced sections housing goats from ‘God knows where ‘.
While the rest of my friends were busy elsewhere, I stood watching some goats. This particular variety of goat had a very thick coat of fleece. Wondered whether these were ‘Cashemere goats’. I have some special attraction to goats; my parents at some point in my childhood used to rear goats, and I clearly remember feeding and taking care of goats. Once I even witnessed the birth of a goat (kid).
It was feeding time. I was leaning precariously against the fence, with my head, both hands and camera going past the permitted level of proximity. I spotted one big goat sitting, while the rest of the goats were all standing. When I got a good sight of this seated goat, a chill ran down my spine. This was the ‘Alpha Male’ (the leader of the pack). His eyes met mine, and they were locked focused on me. He was so huge, powerful and majestic looking, and certainly the biggest of them all. He looked like he was annoyed at my encroachment, and I thought he could be charging at me anytime soon, burying his powerful big horns into my gut. I gathered courage and did not move. Or was it that his stare was so mesmerizing that he got me fixed in a trance.
I am rescued. The shepherd arrived with the feed. All the goats were in frenzy, making all sorts of bleating sound, eager to feed their hungry stomachs. To my surprise, dragging the sack of goat feed, the shepherd went to the Alpha Male goat first. Why the Alpha Male goat first, I wondered? He spent a few minutes in front of the big guy, sort of speaking to the goat first, before he moved to the further end to fill several containers with goat feed.
With a mixed concoction of sadness and grief I saw that the Alpha Male goat was too weak to move to get to his food. His legs were too frail to support his massive weight. Sorrow and compassion engulfed me, as I witnessed the end times of a fully-grown animal, unable to get its body move where its mind wanted to. The shepherd then came back to the Alpha Male, and tried to assist the goat to get up and walk. Futile. Here is a compassionate man giving his heart and strength to assist an animal in need. Unable to watch this episode anymore, I left the scene after watching for a minute or more.
Later that evening, as the sun was deciding to retire for the day, I came by the same goat enclosure to see if the goat had made it to his feed. What I saw was something that I was unable to bear.
A truck with three men arrived. Their job was to pick up dead bodies.
My Alpha Male had breathed its last!
The men put in their best effort to lift the Alpha Male and swing him up into the truck. My dear goat joined two other dead ones to a journey that I too someday will go. I went over to see the lifeless goat up-close. The once tough, powerful and majestic male was reduced to a lump of waste bone and meat. His head was turned heavenward, as if it had said its last prayer before its final minutes. I looked into the eyes that a few hours ago had stared at me – not with venom, but with something else that I still am unable to describe. Now those blurry eyes were looking into space and oblivion. I wished those eyes could look at me once again, just once more.
Whenever opportunity arrives, I take the chance to revisit these photographs I took, and use these photographs to attempt to understand the meaning of life and death. One day I discovered something else in the photographs. I failed to notice then that a female goat and its kid were always there in the midst of the dying Alpha Male, even during the last moments.
17 September, 2012
All sights are possible on a train journey in India, but not this one. Grooming was essential for this railway staff, who would not want to face a new day with unruly stubbles. A generous application of shaving foam was more for a facial massage than for a smooth shave, I thought. The shaving brush must have moved up and down his face a thousand times; not in the next thousand train journey would I get to witness such a rare spectacle, I guessed. The best part was his shaving tool – the age old type where one loads a razor blade – in most countries these are now museum pieces.
Picking up conversation with a Train Ticket Examiner the following day, I was told that Indian Military men who travel by train are able to shave holding naked blade in their hand, and that too without any mirror. I may be able to take courage and attempt a similar feat. But not on a moving train.
5 Aug 2012. Train journey from Goa to Mangalore. Poorna Express.
Sitting precariously near the fast moving train, i have been waiting for more than an hour to freeze a good moving scene. The train was fast. The sun was calling it a day. My patience was fading. Just as i decided to wind up waiting, unexpectedly this train staff’s rictual caught my attention. Click, said my Nikon. Wow, said I.
28 Aug 2012
Making kites and scarecrow was something I learned well, while growing up in Borneo. Creating scarecrows was more of sculpture to me than anything else. Some of the scarecrows I made were so beautiful that I found birds enjoying sitting on them!
A scarecrow is nothing but a decoy. Traditionally, it is a mannequin dressed in old clothes and placed in fields by farmers to discourage (shoooo) birds such as crows or sparrows from disturbing and feeding on recently cast seed and growing crops.
The first scarecrows in recorded history were made along the Nile River to protect wheat fields from flocks of quail. Egyptian farmers put wooden frames in their fields and covered them with nets. The farmers hid in the fields and scared the quail into the nets. Then they took them home and ate them for dinner!
Twenty-five hundred years ago Greek farmers carved wooden scarecrows to look like ‘Priapus’, the son of the god ‘Dionysus and the goddess ‘Aphrodite’. Priapus lived with some vineyard keepers and it is said that he was very ugly. The vineyard keepers noticed that when Priapus played in the vineyards the birds stayed away from the grapes and the harvest was the best ever. Other farmers decided to make statues that looked like Priapus to use in their vineyards. They painted the figures purple and put a club in one hand to make the statue look more dangerous and a sickle in the other for a good harvest.
9th August 2012. Travelling to Moonar (Kerala, India), we stopped for nature’s call and tea. While rest of the family was busy with their tea, I took a walk to find a spot to ease my bladder. What I spotted was this scarecrow like I never have seen before – with a crash helmet. Smiles escaped from me as I spotted yet another one with a metal pot that served as the head. Even funnier was the fact that all the scarecrows wore ‘nighties’.
Dubbed as the Scotland of India, Coorg (state of Karnataka, India) is a hill station 4000 feet above sea level, is also a paradise for adventure junkies. Forget for a moment that Coorg contributes to 30% of India’s coffee production. Its hills are perfect for adventure activities like trekking, rock climbing, biking and white water rafting. Yes, white water rafting we did at the river Cauveri.
August 7, 2012. They say it is the journey and not the destination that should be more enjoyed. What we remember most is rather the destination. When we completed the thrill, the organisers guided us to a small house by the river bank to have our clothes changed to fresh and dry ones. This family makes some extra money from allowing adventure seekers to use their modest toilets.
It was raining. As soon as some of us changed, the lady of the house brought us tea. The best tasting tea I should say. Freshly brewed tea, soothing aroma, the right amount of sugar, and plenty of love were the combinations that warmed our hearts. We took an instant liking to this modest and warmhearted family.
Muslims they were, we guessed from the lady’s headscarf. There were two kids inside, a girl and a young lad, who made brief and shy appearances, and greeted their ephemeral guests with even warmer smiles than their tea. Even more cautiously shy was the man of the house, who made fleeting appearances, like a bird testing its safety amidst strange visitors. We returned smiles and ‘Assalamualaikum’, and soon Mr. A.A. Mohamed came out into the verandah and offered his warm handshakes, albeit with timid reluctance. Soon enough we all became friends. We introduced ourselves and furnished everyone with our background and history.
Mr Mohammed’s family, who have come originally from the state of Kerala, have been living in this same house for 80 long years, and the house has been renovated three times ever since. Mohammed got married and lives in the same house that had sheltered three generations. He makes his income from the Autorikshaw that he rides. Sometimes a bountiful catch of fish from the river Cauveri also gives the family some financial relief. Overall, this was a happy family with limited wants and desires. They had the best thing in the world – Love.
We took photographs. Exchanged more smiles. We talked more.
I took down the postal address of the family. I would want to send them the photographs I took. Some years down the road, I like to visit this family, drink more warming tea, and take photographs.
My parting thoughts: A simple meal with my family, a good book on a rainy day, a walk in the park, time with friends, playing with my kids, making tea for uninvited visitors; these are the things that are peaceful and fulfilling. These are the things that bring joy, or as the French say, ‘joie de vivre’ (joy of life.)
Should you visit Coorg during the monsoon, take the rafting trip and alight for some warm tea and plenty of love at this address:
s/o B.K. Abdulla,
26 Aug 2012
Tibet, the name itself conjures up exotic images and tales; this country is least explored by outsiders, and is surprisingly, still out of bounds for most of the world! Fortunately however, one does not need to travel all the way to Tibet to get a taste of what it is like. Close to Kushalnagar in Coorg (Karnataka) is Bylakuppe, the second largest Tibetan settlement in India.
Bylakuppe comprises of two Tibetan refugee settlements that were setup – Lugsum Samdupling in 1961 and Dickyi Larsoe in 1969, both of which has now grown into a full-fledged town housing the largest Tibetan population outside of Dharamsala in India. These peaceful Tibetans are no more refugees, for they have become part and parcel of the Indian society and history.
Golden Temple is the main tourist attraction in Bylakuppe. Tourists are welcomed to visit the monasteries and temples. Photography is allowed even inside the temple.
On 7th Aug 2012, together with my family and friend Sunil Crasto, I visited this settlement and spend some valuable time at the Golden Temple. Though I went trigger-happy with my camera, I felt a sense of guilt photographing the monks. Though tourists are welcome and photography is allowed, vacationers (including me) were insatiably aiming our cameras at these monks, as if they were some zoo creatures. I could see a sense of discomfort in some of the faces of the young monks. As a solace, can we all then take back these photographs and in return leave behind our respect and admiration for these Tibetans and their way of life.
One final thought. When some nations occupied neighboring countries, or civil disturbances occurred, the world cried foul. They banded together and sent armies and tanks to ‘bring peace’, while tactfully taking care of their personal interest. What did the world do when China occupied Tibet in 1949? An estimated 1.2 million Tibetans have perished as a result of more than 40 years of occupation and the cultural genocide in Tibet continues unabated, as the world’s governments stand by, virtually without action. Why oh why? Because the Tibetans are peace loving people, or is it because there is no oil in Tibet?
15 August 2012