ALLORA….

Italia, here I come.

Rome, we know was not built in a day, but where are the Gladiators? There are carabiniere – armoured vehicles only. Forget about strutting, these chaps don’t like being photographed.

 

A ‘Night by Rome’ tour was a great idea. It was semi walking through city sights via narrow lanes & by lanes with little or no traffic & small crowds. The historic places – brilliantly lit up – appeared to have better visibility too.

So also a boat ride down the Tiber, music, food & wine included. We started at the bridge near Castel Sant Angelo & finished at Isola Tibertina near another historic bridge, the Ponte Cesare.

 

On the go, meet – eat –shop one must & no place better than the newly opened ‘Mercato Centrale’ (Roma Termini) Its size & scale will astound. What absolutely caught the fancy was a leisurely day out in Trastevere. Absolutely enjoyable wandering aimlessly – gelato in hand –scouting the Sunday Flea market & riding a tram back to the train station.

Trastevere: Steps                                                 And the tram

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Ponte Cesare

Most people visiting Italy make it a point to include Pisa & Pompei in their itinerary but they make day trips, basing themselves elsewhere. That, I think is a mistake for both towns deserve better as they have much to offer. Sleeping – awaking in a place is in any case an entirely different experience. Little things like having a cappuccino – croissant at an outdoor café as the town comes alive. Or watching the streets swept & washed. In Pisa they did it everyday.

A word about ‘M Gorkij’. Having checked in I was handed a set of 3 keys – entrance, corridor, room – & shown around before Elena vanished never to be seen again. Neither she nor any other hotel staff, all the days I was there. Not even when I finally checked out. I simply deposited the keys & whamooshed. But, who’s complaining. It was a nice, quiet place. Room cleaned & linen changed every day.

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Doors, Florence

                         Roof tops, Pisa                                               River Arno, Pisa

Pisa, was my base for day trips to Chianti /Tuscany & Cinque Terre. The small towns of Siena, Luca, Castellani & Monteriggone were a delight, more so with generous amounts of Chianti red wine, cheese, salami, olives & balsamic. All of it, followed by more wine & 3 course meal at a country resort.

Luca, with its old Renaissance walls is especially memorable. It was a lovely day. I had missed the 10.20, it was an empty platform & I had it all to myself so, a few yogic stretches & bends seemed perfectly in order.

(Luca to Pisa is a mere 30 minutes & the train brings you right inside the ancient walls.)

Monterosso, Cinque Terre

Renaissance walls, Luca                 Monterigione

Chianti, wine country

Traveling solo is ideal but a little company gives variety. We were a group of 7 doing Cinque Terre along with Amy, our young, vivacious guide & we ended up using every mode of transport – minivan, train & ferry. Starting at La Spezia, a port town from where the hill climb begins ( also famous for the white Caracas stone used by Michelangelo) & onwards to the 5 picturesque towns wedged between mountain & sea. The first of these was Riomaggiore where we switched from van to train, journeying along the Tyrrhenian coast to Vernazza & Monterosso with brief halts everywhere. Monterosso is the largest in the region but Riomaggiore, with its quaint little train station & murals is special. A break for lunch, some souvenir shopping & a ferry, to Porto Venere, going past Lord Byron’s alcove (he liked swimming there), bidding goodbye to the gorgeous coastline. Cinque Terre or the Italian riviera is stunning, the landscape more real & authentic than its counterpart on the French side which, comes across as a cluster of ultra rich towns & designer villages. 5 Terre is a UNESCO heritage site hence any new construction or alteration is forbidden. Consequently, there are no lifts or elevators. Flights of stairs that look like gateways to heaven lead to precarious homes atop cliff hanging villages. The inhabitants, all old, retired fishermen continue to toil up & down,visiting friends & neighbours et al.

 

A small, mixed group is also jolly good fun. And Americans are outrageous fun. Naïve, simple, generous, Robert hated walking. He was, quite obviously there on account of his wife who nagged him – sweetly & constantly.

“ Rob – Bert. Where arrrr U Rob-Bert,” she’d drawl, looking around.

“O, F—k off”, he’d respond.

Robert was of Italian origin & mouthed aphorisms like – “a happy wife is a happy life,” & “water for lungs/wine for the heart.”

Said with a straight face, his favourite was, “ Italians never divorce their wives. They simply murder them”

There was this other wearing flimsy, skimpy clothes & fanning herself on a cold windy day.

“you must be cold?” I say.

“No Dear” she replies. “I have the hot flushes”

 

Cinque Terre

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Train station, Riomaggiore

Pompei can only be described as picture perfect. Mute witness to the splendour of the Roman empire, a smoking volcano in the background, it has the most spectacular ruins anywhere in the world. And Iside, the lovely family owned property was precisely 10 minutes away from the Scavi. It was a boutique hotel, gave personalised service & breakfast that included an assortment of fresh fruit, juice, home-made cakes & jam.

Pompei Scavi

The pleasures of strolling in traffic free Venice – best place ‘tween earth & sky – can only be experienced not described. One easily gets lost, then miraculously finds the way again. I soon got a hang of it, which was that Venice essentially revolved around 3 major pivots – VSL station, San Marco Square & Rialto bridge – One simply followed clearly marked arrows leading to either of these places. Venice is in any case too small. Getting lost is therefore an impossibility. It is quaint, it is strange, it is above all like none other.

I did a Chichetti /wine, walking tour of the Jewish ghettos walking from Osteria to Osteria & Bacaro to Bacaro tasting wine & small eats that can hardly be termed small.

Venice: San Marco, Bridge of Sighs & Rialto

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Capri’s iconic swimmer

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Murano:  glass blower in action

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Burano

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Torcello

Naples, a city I hardly researched or expected anything from turned out to be full of surprises. From the moment of setting foot all & sundry warned – ‘do be careful’. Total strangers even, setting off a panic scare but the reality was something different. Anything untoward can happen anywhere. Lets just say that Napoli is as safe or unsafe as any other city. It is vibrant & full of energy, with fair amounts of noise, speeding & honking. It has, to top it all, Mt Vesuvius – the best view by far. There are other memorable vignettes, like the eye-catching metro at via Toledo & the balcony singer on via Trebunale who had every passer-by enthralled. There definitely is something in the air that spells music, soft breezes, romance, abandon & laughter. No surprise therefore that it was the scene of movies like ‘Yesterday,Today, Tomorrow’ & ‘Scent of a woman.‘

My one big regret? I did the unthinkable. I did not have a Neapolitan. This, in the birthplace of pizza is an unforgivable sacrilege. ‘Antica’ Trattoria, Pizzeria & Frigettoria inundate the place, so what was I thinking?

 

Naples cannot be signed off without a big thank you to Gabrielo, Cristina & the team at ‘B & B Sweet Sleep.’ Go for it guys! This B&B is money’s worth. Not just the breakfast & service but rooms on the top floor with balconies overlooking Piazza Garibaldi. The terrace with a roof top garden had a jacuzzi, restaurant & bar & a tantalising glimpse of Vesuvius.

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Mt Vesuvius from Naples sea front

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via Toledo, Naples – adjudged best metro station in Europe

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Naples, Balcony singer

I arrived at Salerno on a feast day – the feast of St Mathew, patron saint of the city. There were marching bands, firework displays, tableau, crowds & an entire city decked up to witness the saints taken out in procession.

Salerno was meant to be a spring-board to Amalfi, because of its proximity & because it was budget friendly. It is a city of churches & fountains & has a long, arching promenade. There is a ferry to Amalfi, Positano & Capri by the hour. Avoiding hair pin bends & traffic jams this is the best & least tiring way to enjoy the beauty of the coastline.

Sorrento, Amalfi, Positano –  all lovely, albeit touristy & overwhelming. The real steal is Ravello. Gem of a mountain town Ravello assaults the senses. The bus from Amalfi climbs steeply up the sea-coast offering sudden & breath taking views. It boasts a beautiful Duomo, castle & square & has cafes, bars & ceramic shops along with quiet corners & walks. Only 30 minutes from Amalfi, it is neither crowded nor touristy.

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Salerno

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Positano

Ravello: Ceramics galore

Hotel vs Air B&B vs Home Stay, what should it be? What would Salerno have been without Annarossa?. She met me on arrival, hauled luggage up 40 stairs, served a bountiful Feast day lunch & opened hearth & home in the most generous of ways. Anna was bohemian & care free & spread good cheer much like Amelie who gave every visitor a friendly ‘meow’ before settling on the sofa. Anna was like, ‘ prego…….make yourself at home…. all yours….’

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Amelie on her perch

21 days in Italia. What does one make of it?

May or may not make sense but Sophia says it best

                                     “ Everything you see I owe to spaghetti”

 

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Single Jingle

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Travel we all. Except that some of us enjoy doing it alone. But the strange thing about going solo is that one is never really quite alone. You are single & by yourself, not alone. As for fears of getting lonely, don’t even think about it, for there is no such thing.

 

Wandering off on your own allows freedom ‘to be’. To be completely & honestly yourself. Nobody knows you. Nobody judges you. Which is also to say that, you are not carrying any ‘baggage’. Meet people at will or shun them altogether. Talk if you must. Walk the streets or join a local tour. The choice is yours. There is no one you must humour, or pander or make compromises with. You are your own.

 

All I ever need is a room with a view, a journal to scribble upon & a book, related to the place – no matter how remotely. Preferably, a work of fiction.

 

After months of research, sifting through facts & details & sorting out travel nitty-gritty it is well to loosen up & relax. Therefore fiction. A book of your choice. Always the perfect companion.

 

My trip to Cameron Highlands, Malaysia would surely not have been the same without Tan Twan Eng & ‘The Garden of Evening Mists.’ Tan turned out to be the perfect soulmate & that greatly enhanced the experience.

 

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Take F Fitzgerald Scott & ‘Tender is the Night.’ A light, frivolous companion to anyone traversing the playgrounds of the rich & famous – the French Riviera. It was amusing to hear two characters argue the merits & demerits of Paris vs Rome. Which was more crime infested? The story plays out in the first decades of the last century & here am I  – France 2015 – robbed & taken to the cleaners over a 100 years later.  Clearly some things never change.

 

At another, more sober level is Graham Greene’s ‘The Quiet American’. A novel set in French Indo-China. A different matter though that Vietnam (2016) does not care about wars long past & forgotten. Buddha-like almost. Talk of living in the present!

 

Closer home, if visiting Kerala, I suggest taking along Arundhati Roy, if you can stomach her or Salman Rushdie. ‘God of small things’ & ‘The Moor’s last sigh’ are both excellent reads & will give that extra zing & flavour.

Amitav Ghosh did just that to Gangasagar – Sunderbans – 2013.

‘The Hungry Tide:’  Boy O Buoy, did it shore up EQ! (emotion quotient)

 

Where to next? You may ask. And, with whom?

Italy this Fall. With Buzzati.

Dino Buzzati & his “strange & haunting novel” ‘The Tartar Steppe’ that has been described as “an eccentric classic”.

Eccentric?  Let me read it first.

 

Note: Russia is in the pipeline for 2018. I have heard of a Russian tale where the protagonist collects water from the major rivers of the world & stores it in little bottles, all kept in a row. Book, author, story writer – unfortunately unknown.

But it’s what I have set my heart upon & will take along to read.

Help! Anyone out there? Would be ever so grateful.

 

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Down in a Valley

IMG_3445Lambadi tribesman

IMG_3428IMG_3461IMG_3460Maniappan : Tribal King

 

IMG_3455Karpanna : Black brother temple

Sittilingi is approachable by train, bus & car from both Chennai & Bangalore. It is 220 kms from Bangalore & takes about 5 hours via Hosur, Krishnagiri, (take a left from the highway here) Kariamangalam, Morappur, Harur,Theerthamala & Kotapatti, the closest town, a mere 8 km away, where a last hot cup of stimulating coffee may be had. The forest begins soon after, a 5 – 6 km stretch of parched jungle. Enter & drive right through giant bamboo whodunits of mind boggling scale & size – mile after withering mile. Tall, sapped & dying stalks interspersed with bushes of keekar & lantana.The very forest seems asleep. Or dead. There is not a living creature anywhere around. Still & soundless the forest suddenly vanishes & makes way for a valley. Green, as far as the eye can see. Emerald green & wedged between low, blue hills – the Kalrayan range.

It has been a therapeutic drive in many different ways. Past little towns & tiny hamlets with tongue twister names, temples to powerful tribal kings, small ornate churches, an abundance of roadside mango stalls, elephant crossings, swaying palms, outlandish outcrops of rock & boulder.

Cruising along the highway to the strains of old Bollywood numbers the 5 hours have gone by in a flash.

‘You understand any of this’? I ask in shocked surprise.

‘Yes’ replies Murugesh.

‘I must congratulate you then. This is poetry. Ek dum high brow”.

Never imagined I would live to see a young Tamil, a driver, rock to Zafar & Azmi – “ na kisi ki aankh ka noor hoon……../   yeh duniya agar mil bhi jaye to kya hai?”

Sittilingi valley, is greenest of things green. Rural, pastoral, agrarian. It is idyllic. (17 villages in all, 1 Dalit, 2 Lambadi, rest tribal)

Dr Regi George & his gynecologist wife Lalitha moved here in 1992 & set up ‘Tribal Health Initiatives’ an organization that promotes tribal health & addresses societal & environmental concerns. This dedicated duo have over the years given fully of themselves, with positive results while, managing to keep their work both secular & apolitical.

The ‘Farmers Initiative’ introduced farmers to organic methods of farming, the crops being several varieties of rice, ragi, lentils, corn, millet, turmeric & vegetables. This is marketed under the brand name SVAD, mainly in the south.

There is a fully equipped medical facility with trained staff where every contingency involving in/out patients is attended to. Everything from surgery, to ICU, to Lab tests, to medicines & health care. Even yoga & meditation. Not only that, THI trains & employs nursing & support staff from the general area. As for the sprawling hospital complex – it is like none other in that it is aesthetically designed using local material, keeping tradition in mind. Man & nature in harmony.

I quiz Lalitha about ‘Porgai’ the pet project she manages after hospital hours. ( ‘Porgai’ translates to ‘pride’ in the Lambadi dialect.) How does she reconcile the two? Her medical profession with managing an art & design store.

“Isn’t it one & the same,” she avers with a smile. “The sick & ailing have to be healed so there is a hospital. The healthy require sustenance & work to stay healthy & happy. So we have ‘Porgai’. Creative work is health/preventive care – you will agree”

Centuries ago the Lambadis came here from north west India, bringing with them their distinct culture, language & art. Lifestyles changed over time and with it was lost the elusive ‘stitch,’ a heritage of Harappan origin. Caught in the whirlpool of daily toil there was no time for beauty or art, hence the craft began to die a slow natural death.

Until it was revived by the Regis with the help of older Lambadi women who remembered a stitch or two from their childhood. Collective memory took over, the endeavor paid off & ‘Porgai’ is a witness. It not only provides sustenance but empowers the women folk, restoring dignity & pride in their craft. It keeps families together preventing forced migrations to ugly urban centers. Above all, it keeps them healthy for in the valley the air is pure & clean with no shortage of either food or water.

(Sittilingi boasts excellent roads, school, health facilities, electricity, connectivity – you name it.

And ‘Porgai’ sells exquisite clothes & linen woven with organic cotton & embellished with Lambadi embroidery. It has a tie up with a young designer from Bangalore who incorporates the traditional to create the modern & trendy.)

Murugesh, makes a keen observation.

“ You must be bored” I console him. “ Bear with me for just another day”

“ No”, says he. “Not bored.

How clean everyone looks. How happy.

Also. No religion. No politics”.

That’s it. No religion. No politics.

No wonder!

(The entire valley had only one church & a temple.)

 

 

 

 

 

IMG_3449PorgaiIMG_3453IMG_3426IMG_3435IMG_3441Down the village street

IMG_3454Clean air  longevity

Along an Eastern Seaboard

 

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Going by bucket lists this was a long time coming. My Lai, Gulf of Tonkin & a terrified little girl running naked under a shower of napalm bombs. Remember? And, Bob Dylan singing ‘Blowin’ in the wind’?

So, to the land of the Dragon, the Tortoise, Unicorn & Phoenix.

Sen Chiao Vietnam. Hello, how do you do?

It is a casual, rhetorical greeting that need not be answered. But what follows in rapid, quick fire succession does & must be answered. Namely –

How old are you?

Are you married?

Yes? Do you have children? How many?

If not. Why not? And, Holy of Holies –

How much do you earn?

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Poor language skills can be a hindrance anywhere but can never deter a keen, avid traveler. Communication therefore never really breaks down, for the Vietnamese are a friendly chatting people. Engage in banter and conversation that is in any case going nowhere, dissolves in laughter. There is no Vietnamese script, yet reading road signs is simple & easy – not only because of ‘Translate’. Mind your words though for each takes on a different meaning depending upon the scale – high, low, flat.

My ‘Umbrella Hat’ is an instant hit, inviting friendly smiles & stares. The reason I am certain, is to do with the traditional concept of beauty where girls must be very fair (Yellow race?) & have long black hair. Which is why you see so many peering eyes from beneath the body,hands & face ,all swaddled up against the sun.

A typical Vietnamese home will have one large bed in every room. It is used both for eating & sleeping. The toilet is the ‘happy’ place. Ask me why? Because, everyone goes in unhappy & come out relieved.

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Local Beauty

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World heritage site, Halong Bay.Volcanic outcrops rising 250 meters above sea level

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Elephant Eye Fish

One can survive on the great variety of tropical fruits but this is a food paradise. Vietnamese eat everything that walks, crawls, flies or swims. The menu at ‘Diem Phuong’ a restaurant on the Mekong had – among other things – a rice paper wrap with filling of Elephant Eye Fish, pineapple, salad & dip. The pancake had duck eggs & pork. Not much of a Foodie I was the only one asking probing questions until someone shut me up with a ‘ never mind. Just eat’. And  I did & it was delicious.

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railway platform, Hue

An overnight journey by train is highly recommended. I did Hanoi – Hue/ Hue – Saigon with a halt at Hue, most charming of medieval cities, steeped in culture & history.

Train stations/ GA are clean & orderly. There is a waiting area as gates to the platform open half an hour before the train arrives. You simply show your ticket & board. No rush, no porters, no fuss. I didn’t know what to expect & ended up having a great time. A food trolley would come by every now & then laden with everything from meat, chicken & fish to beer & wine. And there was 24 hour cold/ hot water for coffee, tea, instant noodles.

The two & half-hour ride from Hue to Danang  is stunning & can be ranked among the most spectacular in the world especially, the 21 km segment where the train goes through seven long tunnels & crosses the Hai Van or the Ocean Cloud pass. So named as it evokes the mist that rises from the sea. The landscape alternates between mountain & sea, at times both on either side, mountain on the right, ocean to the left. It is magical.

Low hills & rolling plains with men & women in non lai, (traditional conical hat) working fields & vegetable patches. Dense forests, orchards, picturesque homesteads, paddy fields,  family tombs whiz by. There’s  never a dull moment. Gazing long hours out of the window has never been such a real & simple pleasure.

The train arrives at Ho Chi Minh City early next morning – to the strains of loud revolutionary music. A rude wake up call that is in itself an experience.

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Entrance, District Halong

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French era bridge across the Red river, Hanoi

Vietnam has moved on after the ravage of war. It has world class infrastructure, super highways, roads, water & electricity. There are coffee shops, bars, massage parlors, gardens & parks with varied gym equipment for free public use.

Sets one wondering on the significance of the lotus in  national psyche. It is found abundantly & has a Buddhist connect, but the reason for it holding prime importance in local culture is because it motivates. Mired in slime & muck it inspires to rise above circumstance.

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Flower Seller, on a Cyclo

The young are not religious. Mammon is God & most homes have altars where incense is lit, for prosperity. The government, no less, runs ‘Humanity’ Centers that are located  along the tourist trail. These showcase hand made weaves, arts & crafts created by the physically & mentally challenged – victims of American aggression, chemical warfare that maimed & killed over 3 million. The products are beautiful but smacks of rank commercialization. One comes away feeling sad at the crass milking of human misery.

A bus ride into the countryside has us gawking at a church like structure with a Swastika on top. It turns out to be a Cay Di place of worship. Cay Di, being a new faith that purports to combine the best from all religions.

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The Museum

And what of the ugly war that continues to fascinate & attract? There is little talk about it for though it belongs to the recent past, the past is history. The world however loves to remember, the only country to have defeated three super powers. Is it now gearing up for another round, in the South China Sea, perhaps. “That’s not what we call it”, says an official correcting me. “It is our Eastern Sea”

A motorcycle ride through the broad, tree lined streets of Saigon brings us to the war museum. It is on three floors & is an unabashed no – holds- barred display of the futility & ugliness of war. Heavy duty, full on stuff with documentation that makes one cringe. Unspeakably moving, there is pathos, real politic, heroism, tragedy, crime & bestiality. Along with lessons – on patriotism, the necessity of peace & respect for the tradition of war (when an absolute must)

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Cu Chi tunnels

And so, to the Cu Chi tunnels. In the middle of thick green woods it owes its inventiveness to the inhabitants of Cu Chi itself & to the genius of Ho Chi Minh. Constructed at three levels, underground, it is an over 200 km labyrinthine. A network of design both intricate & simple, like a spider web. Only the puny can enter; which is what an average Vietnamese in any case is. (Also noticed: puny bees that do not sting & a historic obsession with Bonsai)

The day ends with a drink at the ‘Gecko’ a backpacker favorite in the Old Quarter. I order ‘Sorrows of the War’ – a cocktail of Cointreau, gin, lemon, sugar, cinnamon, aniseed, cardamom – that is priced at a whopping 88,000 Dong. (Don’t be aghast, works out to very little.)

Maggie loves it all. I encounter her in the back lanes of a Saigon alley, sitting on an armchair, reading a novel, unmindful of the hurly burly surrounding her. At 70 plus, this old lady from New Zealand has been here for 5 years.

How did she like it?

“ Love it”

Learn Vietnamese?

“No need to. A snap of the fingers & everything’s there”

 

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Eastern Sea/ South China Sea: view from the train

 

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Punky Funky Monk: Thien Mu Pagoda, Hue

Roady Toady

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national highway

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Bombay – believe it or not

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Heritage train Matheran

Vroom, vroom…… off we go, full throttle. The car surges onto NH 22 which becomes a 6 lane a short distance further. Hazy mountain outlines hover into view then become large, dark looming shapes.The first glimpse of approaching destination is always an adrenaline rush. Strange as it sounds, this to me is love of country. Gripping patriotic mania. Nothing quite like a road trip to bring it on.

Needless to provoke & annoy with forced vande matarams & bharat mata jais? Do a ‘Bharat Darshan’ instead. The countryside is beautiful.

“Vindhya, Himachal, Yamuna, Ganga……

Punjab, Sindh, Gujarat, Maratha

Dravid, Utkal, Banga”

I could be on the road forever. Taking in colour & sound, meeting ‘real’ people – away from it all.

Whoever called us lazy? We are most industrious. Seriously. Imagine another country with our kind of weather & see if they could slog it like us.

I have seen Biharis break stones on the heights of Ladakh. Sleeping out in the cold, eating ‘khichri’, laying roads. Stretches of highway with milestones marking the distance to the farther most posts.

Mana:100 miles

500 miles to Mana

Mana:1000 miles.

In the cities traffic is chaotic. Adding to the cacophony is dust, heat, noise, pollution & people. Hordes of them. Men & women, full of zest, energy & drive.

Trust an outsider, a foreigner to point this out & who better than Kristoff, a third time visitor who revels in the chaos.

After getting his fill of madness he will return to the dreary orderliness of existence back home. The soap opera meanwhile…….

(He was outside an ATM, patiently waiting his turn, knowing fully well that the machine may soon run out of cash, as it had, all over Goa that season. Sundance, X’mas, New Year, peak holiday time – no matter.)

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inside a restaurant – no kidding

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India: could be anywhere

 

Step out of the national capital & notice the stark rural – urban, agro – industrial divide where Bharat, not India wins.

Ever seen a Maruti 800 or an aircraft upon a rooftop? You never will until you begin to stir out, for both these are prestige & décor items in rural Punjab. So is the truck parked inside a restaurant with headlights on. Free interior decoration tips, anyone?

Never heard of ‘Maruta’?

A contraption used by farmers, it is in effect, a cross between tractor & car – the ubiquitous Maruti once again.

Make no mistake both Bharat & India are changing –  fast. Hop on to the bandwagon, join the roadshow, take a trip – physical & metaphorical & witness the change.

There is a new cockiness in the air.

A Rabari woman in Gujarat, begging for alms, gives up with a disgusted “eh, mara Babo ne chocolate aapo na”. Don’t miss ‘Babo’ – her darling son. And what does Babo want? Chocolates. Not milk.

In Chakrata, I go scouting for a medicine the lone chemist does not have. He cannot provide a substitute, nor does he think it’s available anywhere up in those hills.

Try Dr. Joshi, instead.

I walk down the road & ask for Rosave 20 or anything else the doctor can recommend.

“You won’t find it ”, says he.

Why not?

“Because nobody here has high cholesterol. Take my word. ‘chiknai kam karo’.

And yet. Some things never change.

In the Prime Ministers constituency there is round the clock activity involving infra structure. All day one hears, the roar of engines going up & down the river, dredging & cleaning the Ganga & the ghats.

Getting off a rickshaw at Assi ghat, I ask, “ how much’?

Adjusting a mouthful of swish n swim saliva, he answers ——

“Don’t spit,“ I yell, seeing the intent “ you are not to spit”.

Yes, he nods in agreement & smiles.

And out comes the spittle. Jet like. Right there, next to me. Juicy red stains on the floor.

Kya karein!

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time on my hands

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Homestay

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still hoping

Journeys in time

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Honors for ruthless efficiency must go to El Al. Despite before – hand warnings we were shell shocked. Gawd, what a grilling!

A Moshe Dayan look alike, on that Delhi – Tel Aviv flight added to the mystique. He was curious about everything including my reason for not flying my national carrier & went on to explain his country’s focus on ‘terror’ & ‘security’. This was pre 9/11. Early days, yet Israel was all on edge. We touched down at Ben Gurion to loud claps & cheers. Unfamiliar & a bit unnerving but quite the norm apparently. Glad to be home safe, I guess.

Two hostesses met us with placards & food coupons, escorting us to the transit lounge, to rest until the onward flight to Cairo that evening.

But. But. But.

Was there a problem? With multi entry visas, we had no intention hanging around the airport. There was a full day in hand with plans for Jaffa.

Exiting the terminal taking a precise number of steps (as instructed by “Lets Go”, our bible on the move) before us lay ‘this’ ‘that’ & the other. Everything as described – exactly. To our right, was a bus stop, from where we could take Egged bus no: 495/ 3.90 Shekels/ 40 minutes to Jaffa. The landmarks along the way came as mentioned, the lighthouse our ‘get off ’ point.

Wandering around Andromeda fort, St Peter’s monastery & Museum of Antiquities we were back at the airport in time for the flight to Egypt.

Yafo, as the Israelis called it, was a gem. What a beautiful sight, watching young artists sitting & sketching on the stone steps leading down to the waters. Digging into fresh tuna sandwich and the sea, a perfect blue.

Flying El Al was a mistake. It was a pain, entering Israel or exiting. If latter the question sternly asked was whether one had visited Palestinian areas. If yes, the next question was why?

Israel’s a remarkable country notwithstanding. I shall forever carry memories of Yad Vashim, the youthful zest & energy of Tel Aviv, Ein Geidi the perfect relax by the Dead Sea & soul stirring Masada.

Not to forget Jerusalem. It touches like none other. The pinkish hue of your stones Jerusalem – early morning, late evening & into the night.

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Zion Square Jerusalem

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Ein Geidi

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There was no such fuss at Cairo International. Touch down at midnight & Zafar, to meet & escort us to our hotel – ‘The President’

Egypt was tremendous. The size & scale of monuments truly mind boggling. But there was something strangely out of sync too. A kind of historical disconnect. As if the present didn’t quite flow from the past. This, said with the benefit of hindsight no doubt but the feeling was constantly there.

A pity we didn’t make it to Alexandria but lucky we did to Cairo, Aswan & Luxor.

Cairo to Aswan by train is an overnight, 15 hour journey. The smiling attendant on board could not figure out temperature control; hence we were left freezing or stewing to death, depending upon whether the AC was switched on or off. The matter was resolved by keeping it permanently on. Sleeping bags were rolled out (shivering Sahara) and we went silently to sleep.

There is something fascinating about rivers. A kind of magic that uplifts & delights, be it the Mekong, Ganges or the Nile. We did the mandatory Nile cruise of course, though it was disappointing to see a placid & tame river. The Nubians along the banks invited us to their home – invitation declined as intentions suspect.

Tall, handsome & appealing they looked splendid in plain white attire.

And the children with the donkeys, ambling along playfully, calling out to toss them a coin.

 

On ‘Captains Night’, I slipped into a Gallabiya, to surface as queen of ancient Egypt. My prize? A queen. No less. A hand crafted, long necked, elegant Nefertiti.

Sailing into Luxor billboards exhorted us to smile.

“ Smile – you are now in Luxor”. Big, broad, tree lined streets. Houses with ivory white exteriors & colonnaded verandahs. A wind – surf swept promenade along the bend of the river. It was a typical colonial town.

Think Egypt & one thinks Giza, Sphinx, Pyramids – naturally

And Amal, our gorgeous guide – if I may.

On the way to the airport, there was a sudden, fierce & sinister darkening of the sky with winds at over 60 miles blowing sand into the face & eyes. Uprooting everything along its path. We are lucky we discover, for this is the infamous khamaseen – desert storm,  not to be missed phenomenon.

My one lingering memory remains the taste of fresh Hibiscus juice that was served by the gallon, day & night.

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Cyprus happened for one reason alone. AKG. The entire 5 country trip in fact was courtesy him. Rather late in the day for an acknowledgement but a ‘thank you’ is in order, so thank you, Ashok Kumar Ganapaty. Out on a lark for a month & a half, without credit card or insurance, one wonders today at the audacity. What if ? ….. Such ignorance! It turned out was bliss.

Arriving at Larnaca past midnight, my friend Denise breezes past immigration while I am asked to step out of line & wait. The fault is in my stars. The snag, in the passport, where I am ‘male’. How come nobody had noticed? Not even all knowing – all seeing El Al? The joke on them, finally. It was nice to get even.

The moon is up as we hit the 4 lane from Larnaca to Nicosia, Ashok’s brand new BMW adding to the exhilaration. We have three nights in Cyprus with Ashok & Mo who show us around the little isle, everything from Kykkos monastery up in the Troodos to beach resorts at Limassol & Agia Napa.

Cyprus is pristine, pure, and idyllic. A country with zero pollution (UN statistics). State of the art roadways with miniature orange trees planted as road dividers. Does nobody ever pluck the fruit? Or is it mere ornamental?

What surprised one most were the number of Philipinos working as maids, in every second household almost.

Also, the large number of hunchbacks. What could possibly be the reason?

Any guesses, anyone?

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With Mo & Denise: Amphitheatre Cyprus

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As the aircraft began its  descent the outline of the Greek archipelago hovered into view. It was like an atlas laid out before the eyes. The waters of the Aegean & the Mediterranean mingling into a dramatic expanse of blue. Athens – 1997 was an exciting place & time to be.

An airport taxi brought us to 75 Damareus Street. The number 75 emblazoned boldly on the door & Yannis there to open it. He did so with a little Anthony Quinn style flourish.

To find our bearings –  first a recce by tram & bus before exploring the city on foot. In the next 10 days we were to cover every inch of ground almost, much as a local would have done.

Greece is  gorgeously hedonistic. A place where one feels no embarrassment. Where Epicurus thrives & survives. It was once a Phallocentric society & though it has long moved on to several denominations of Christianity, one does not feel the kind of disconnect that one does in Egypt.The Greeks know how to live it up. Athens is alive & bustling with musicians, dancers, street performers, theatre & festival. What to say about finding a real life Organ Grinder on the streets – never expected to see one, ever.

The 70 kms drive to Cape Sounion runs entirely along the coastline. Low hills descend to pine groves on the beach. It is spectacular.

Sixteen Doric columns of the Temple of Poseidon {6BC) is all that remains on the promontory. Sitting on the rock jutting out into the sea there is the Aegean deep down below, blue skies & howling winds above. Did Shelley actually drown here? Or is it, as some believe the site of lost Atlantis? Clearly visible in the far distance is the Bay of Corinth. Breath taking!

Timeless beauty marred as usual by the mundane. The last few days saw strikes & demonstrations. Demonstrations outside parliament & random strikes as buses went off roads & garbage piled high. Greece was in turmoil. It was a mess.

As were we.

After that many days of being on the road, a day was set aside for general admin. Yannis allowed us the use of his antiquated washing machine in which a coin had to be dropped for it to take off with a roar. There was no washing powder but we managed a bar of soap that was grated & used. This, from Maria’s shop. ‘Namaste Maria’, as we called her. Having lived some months in Delhi she knew a smattering of Hindi & always loved to greet us with a ‘namaste’

At 75 Damareus meanwhile, Yannis continued to regale. On May 15, Denise’s birthday, he danced a ‘Zorba the Greek’, offering to teach us the steps. But we were off, to a celebratory dinner at ‘La Bonita’ where Poulos would serve the choicest wine & cuts.

And what of Yannis? One didn’t quite know what to make of him. Much like the graffiti on the walls. The zaniest ever:

“create your own space”

“ forget the housework, come to Greece”

“the same shit – another day”

“no girl, no job, no money – no problem”

and ……..most intriguing –  “Greek men made easy”

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Gay Pari – s

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On the face of it

let’s admit

Paris is

dour

arrogant

stand offish

Oui Monsieur

young & old hesitate

step back afraid

of a handshake.

You smile madame?

“Sorry, no English,

je me parle pas l’anglais”

Ah yes,

I quite forgot

your problem is

historic.

Never mind the

linguistically challenged

traveler aboard

Menton – Nice super fast

waiting to disembark

as stations whistle past.

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The Romanian

 begging

along the sidewalk

Algerian – Tunisian

 nursing

a hare

grateful for sanctuary

Euro to spare.

Make no mistake

Paris

scintillates

clean air

drinking water

everything in perfect order

until the

Unions suddenly

strike, but why

why are there

cigarette butts

‘neath

the sky?

Youth & beauty

go hand in hand

along the Seine

lip locked

padlocked

sworn unto ……….

prised open

recalls

Café de Flore’s

Berthillon

‘lil doggies

neutered clones

streaked, powdered,

groomed, to match

mistresses

walking alone,

obediently in line

passing

each other

without a sigh

no bark nor cry

inside out

allowed

everywhere

salon, café, bar

as vexed as

mademoiselle’s brow,

with never a boo

boogie woogie do

for gawd’s sake

at least

clean up the poo.

The French nation has

a strange

fixation –

all things feline

hence

black cat Noir

prowls the night

alleys, – alone

sneak previews

Moulin Rouge.

Cat burglars

lurk

the streets

picking pockets

by the hour

shutting down

Eiffle Tower

You may well ask

the cause

for such fuss

malign

harking on

downsides,

honey you’ll agree

it is unexpected

quite unprecedented

a revelation indeed

for a first time

third world traveler

like me.

So

let’s just say

there never was

never will be

a city

like

gay Pari

But

one simply cannot

leave it at that.

I’d rather have

London instead

So

 London it shall be

3 cheers!

hurray!

give me London

any day.

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