Tuesday, September 09, 2014

Over to Thirty Something

Trivia: The average life expectancy in India is about 66 years. (Ha!)

(Photo Courtesy 96dpi)

While growing up, mostly as a student of science (and otherwise as a forced student of moral science in the bada-sanskaari-ladka-hai alluding Indian society that, amongst other quirky things, prohibits questioning the worship of phallic symbols), I studied radioactivity about the same time as the songs of Kha-La-Tiranga variety gained popularity; both events, rather symbolically, shaping my adolescent, inquisitive mind towards exploring newer vistas of learning. Radioactivity taught us that there exist these curious little things, such as radium, with half-lives, and that they keep reducing by half on their own and that those glow-in-the-dark stickers of stars and moons were really radioactive radium diminishing in brightness through the night. The songs, on the other hand, taught us that our puberty wasn’t that strange after all, and lasciviously led us towards the exploration of better visual art materials juxtaposing specific forms of copulating humans – the most advanced species on planet earth.

Nevertheless. I am reminded of radioactive decay after arriving at the thirtieth ‘milestone’ of my life, so to speak, since I imagine that birthdays after a point are really about how much more is left; I certainly don’t see myself dancing the funky chick on my seventy-fifth wedding anniversary, nor do I expect to significantly beat the average lifespan in my country and live long on savings which I don’t foresee accruing. The law of radioactive decay, however, promulgates that a radioactive material technically never exhausts, and accordingly, I would like to believe the romantic notion that after reaching this somewhat middle point in life, and then after going through some more trips around the sun in future, a bit of me would live on forever. It is also tempting to jot down how much wisdom I have collected over the past years in a thirty-things-I-learnt-by-the-time-I-was-thirty list; however, when one knows that the real progression of wisdom, as a matter of fact, has been akin to the progress Bollywood made between Aaja-Meri-Gaadi-Me-Baith-Ja to Baby-Baith-Pajero-Mein, the hypocrisy of creating just another list may perhaps be given a pass as well. I can rather gleefully reminisce the acts of virtue and turpitude in equal measures that, in the past, kept me shifting between schools, cities, workplaces, and friends, and are likely to continue doing so.

I was born in a North Indian village that was one of the upscale grain mandis in the district. It had a narrow gauge train line, a post office of its own, and a panchayat building. After thirty years, it still is one of the upscale villages in the district – it has a narrow gauge train line, a post office of its own, and a panchayat building. Thereafter, I spent more than a decade struggling my way from elementary through higher secondary schooling in another part of the country, studying in four different schools with two different mediums of instruction: two of the schools used the national language that we will celebrate in another five days as “Hindi Diwas”, while the other two used a foreign language that is more helpful than the former when it comes to arranged marriages, and can also be used as a qualifier with proper nouns (e.g. angrezi weed).

The time spent in these schools was a concoction of getting beaten up by teachers, sitting in classrooms where men and women were segregated in neatly bifurcated columns representing Indian society’s respect for women and general social order, reciting vedic mantras and patriotic songs in morning assemblies, getting almost impaled in select subjects, watching Govinda movies in addition to Doordarshan serials on a black and white TV, being miserable at all forms of sports, and being eulogized in yearbooks by people who, during their journey from yearbooks to Orkut to Facebook later in life, progressively became fatter, uglier, and mostly unrecognizable. Taking morning walks had not picked up as a fashion in my hometown in the 90s, but an evening walk where one could roam around the muhalla with friends and observe the minutiae of everyday lives, including those of the other column from school in their respective verandas, was quite established for its health benefits. In terms of learning, the school days also helped me build a solid foundation of the symbolic words, phrases, and gestures that were useful in bearing through later travails in life, especially the Delhi roads.

After moving out of my hometown about 12 years ago for ‘higher education’ and shifting to a place later epitomized in a certain Anurag Kashyap movie, my learning took to new heights in consonance with my 4-feet-11 to 5-feet-7 growth in the Freshman year. Getting introduced to Kumar Sanu in jhankar beats was just the beginning when life seemed all up for taking; I moved on to Bryan Adams and Linkin Park when romance and anger started creeping in the Sophomore and Juniors, followed by Bob Dylan in the Seniors when it was apparently clear that The Times They Are a-Changin’ was required to sustain any semblance of hope that the society falsely promised when one got to the University in the first place. On its part, the University, by offering a place more or less insulated from poking noses of the neighbours and galling remarks of the family, did help in forging excellent friendships that stood the test of time and Gunda haters, reading and writing things that could be outside the purview of what was then referred to as academics, and understanding the power and beauty of one’s youth, especially manifested as after-effects of cheap alcohol and marijuana. The biggest contribution, however, was the realization that the world is full of lies, some as harmless as bhai-aaj-sirf-ek-peg, while some as serious as tu-mera-bhai-hai. Some of these learnings got further reinforced at the grad school, where the quality of alcohol had improved by a notch, and the level of academic attainment had shifted to Machiavellian techniques of writing assessments. The grad school, however, helped me in gaining some bit of finesse in speaking the language which hitherto was limited to Norman Lewis’ word power, or to my aunt telling her neighbour that my class 12 was from ‘English medium’.

Over the last several years, I worked, saw many lands and cultures in the world, got rejected by employers and women, lived independently, changed cities several times, made bucket lists and chalked off a few, put on weight and ran-off some of it, tried hard to keep friendships and lost a lot of them to marriages, got many haters, read a few books and got shaped by some, drank occasionally and expensively, co-existed and survived a world that produced Housefull and Golmaal series, and increasingly thought that I have matured more than the past, before reality brought me back to the ground time and again. I can say that the past thirty years have convinced me that what they call experience is either nostalgia, or an expectation from the future that is coloured by one’s biases and prejudices from successes and failures of the past. For instance, if Rohit Shetty decides to make another film, I know it doesn’t deserve wasting internet bandwidth provided by those rapacious Airtel folks. And oh, age is just a number!


Saturday, June 07, 2014

The Sound of Silence

Both of them knew those two kinds of silences extremely well – over several years of having known each other, they had been through them often.

The first one was of the good kind; the type that is observed when a person sits by the sea and there isn't really a need or an urge to spew words into the air – they both liked this silent intimacy where the other would perform the function of being the sea; neither one needed to know whether the sea was thinking about the ordeals it has been through to transport its waves to this shore, or whether it was thinking of numerous ships and trawlers and submarines churning over and under its belly constantly vying to divert its attention from the tranquil above, or whether it was not thinking anything at all and was merely basking contentedly in the sunrise and sunset simultaneously occurring at different points of its expanded mind and soul. Both of them could be mutually content by the fact that the other, the sea, was merely there, in close proximity to be touched and felt, that it didn't mind how many times you walked away from the shore and came back, or what is going through your mind, if anything at all, or till when everything will last. Sometimes there was music – like winds on the shore – which they both could feel, but not necessarily discern; after all, there was no need to tax their minds amidst the prevailing tranquillity. Music has a strange property of latching on to memories, like sunflowers latching on to the sun – different forms and compositions of music almost always end up pointing to specific, distant memories. Both of them never needed to discern the vowels and consonants or the artists and albums when familiar music played; the sound itself could take them back to their cherished memories from the past, good or bad. And so this silence used to continue – irrespective of how long it lingered for, both never thought about the actual span of time in minutes and seconds, or about who will break it; there never was a discomforting feeling in its existence or disappearance.

The other silence was of the terrible kind; the type that would probably ensue if two people were made to sit in a confession box, not knowing who plays the sinner and who plays the priest, or whether there was a sin involved at all. Voluntarily playing either one implied acknowledging that there was really something wrong, making the silence even more awkward. It also had its other inherent dangers – both of them were reclusive enough to hide inside some sort of invisible shells when they had actually decided to either play the sinner or the priest; talking it out as the sinner was not their forte, nor extracting it out as the priest. Hiding behind these invisible shells, they had mastered the art of behaving as if everything was normal, and still leaving the environment non-intimate and uncomfortable enough for the other. And so, if only one of them would decide to play the sinner or the priest, the other was perpetually left confused, guessing if there was a sin involved at all. The resulting silence was rather ominous, raging a strange tension between the two minds, each struggling to break-away from it. When music played in such moments, the silence would become uglier, almost mocking the state of their mute, repressed presence. And so this silence used to continue – either one, or both of them would be in their invisible shells, and the mere passage of time would become an ordeal.

And they understood these silences, because they understood each other fairly well. When they met after a rather long gap on a hot, sultry evening, the initial chirrups didn't take much time to settle into a comfortable silence interspersed with their memory-latched playlist. The tiny traces of alcohol and smoke in the air probably aided in alleviating this silence to mystical proportions – after all, it wasn't often that life or destiny offered them such leisure, or luxury, or both. The past, rather, had been generous in offering their relationship a plethora of emotions to deal with – friendship, love, hatred, and more often than not, a cruel mixture of more than one of those. They had often felt exposed to the other; either their flaws or their virtues obscenely appearing in some odd, fragile moments, leading them to clumsily fidget their way through. However, through all of those moments, they had tried and tested the other, to generally no specific conclusions, other than, maybe, attributing more human qualities to the other.

And so the comfortable silence of the evening lingered on. At one point, they were sitting close enough and, if they were lovers, they might even have kissed each other; at another point, they were lying down far apart, the sound of some familiar guitar strings from the speakers transporting them to a distant land in their common memories where they were once again close enough. The silence itself was familiar to them; it led them, not necessarily or particularly in that order, into reminiscing the past, analyzing the present, or just staring contentedly in space to respect the moment, and one could say that time flowed like poetry, waiting to be penned down in words.

And it so happened that in another moment, one of them detected an oddity. It was a familiar one, of noticing the invisible shell on the other, slowly transforming the universe into a nauseating silence – the one that required guessing if something was wrong. And past experiences were evidence enough that probity was as ineffective between the two of them as using paper scissors to cut through metal. One couldn't pin-point exactly what the silence conveyed about the other's thoughts – probably a memory rising from the ashes and disturbingly invading the brain, or one of the numerous possible futures crassly conjuring itself as an ominous prediction, or just the abstractness of the present suddenly evoking a distaste, or maybe nothing at all.

And so the comfortable silence of the evening had managed to alter itself into a repugnant stillness that both knew so well, and detested to the core. And yet, it lingered on – one knew that there was no way to break past the shell of the other, and that playing the sinner or the priest will only make the silence more awkward. The fluidity of their brains as a result of the intoxication of previous several hours probably caused their cells to overwork, and one could say that time stopped flowing, and a poetry was killed. One of them probably had a reason for the shell, and the other probably thought of this strange juxtaposition of the two silences rolled into the same evening, and the vagaries of life.



Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Ibiza

"Grande pescado!" — he whistles to me, and makes a calling gesture. It's midnight, and we are sitting at the base of the lighthouse at Puerto de Eivissa — a rather small lighthouse on a jetty protruding into the Mediterranean Sea. "Tuna?" I ask, looking at about the two-feet long fish swimming in the clear waters below which he is pointing at. "No no, Barracuda" is his response. We have been communicating with either single or two-word sentences, or just sitting in silence for about an hour now.

After rejecting the idea of "dude, you definitely want to be at the opening party of Space tonight" put forward by an Australian traveler in my hostel, I had taken a leisurely walk to the harbour, and reached the end of the jetty to this lighthouse. He was busy attaching bait to the end of his fishing hook, and was about to throw the line when I reached. His response to my greeting was "no hablo Inglés, only Español", and since then, the number of spoken words between us have been minimal. "What's that? Pollo? Trenera? Carnes?" I ask, pointing at the bait, using whatever Spanish vocabulary I can muster. He says something, and points at the box of live snails from which he meticulously picks out the bugs and puts the hook through their mouths. On the other side of the port, music is bursting out from the white roofs of a club — one of the numerous ones that have made the island of Ibiza infamous — the silhouettes of young people dancing on the techno sound seem to be moving like banished souls of graveyards stuck on the white walls with black glue. The noise, to me, seems to be tearing apart the tranquility of this beautiful night, drowning the sweet whispers of the ocean waves caressing the shores of this island.

"No party?" he asks, pointing towards the club. "No no, no me gusta party" is my response, to which he laughs heartily. The fishing rod has been stuck in the ground for quite a while now, and we haven't been able to see any to-and-fro movement of the string so far as he had demonstrated a while ago, a sign of a catch stuck on the hooks. "Gitano. Gypsy" he says pointing at himself, almost baring his life to me with that single word. Gypsies are equated, almost generically, as evil people in at least the Europe I have seen so far — just another easy generalization humanity is so accustomed to in every corner of the world. "Ibiza?" he asks, probably trying to understand who I am and what I am doing here. "Me Indien", I say, and make a swooshing gesture through the air to demonstrate that I flew here for travel. "Muy bien, Ibiza" I add, hoping he would understand I like this island so far. He smiles at this. I have not been quite lucky for him — he did catch a few different types of sea-creatures I can see deposited in a box — but over the last hour, there has been no success. But I guess he likes my company, as do I.

Just after I said "buenas noches, adios señor" and started walking back at about 1:30 am, he whistles again. He has caught a round shaped creature I can't identify, and is excited to show it to me. The creature is flapping itself on the ground, apparently gasping for air. He deposits it in a polythene bag and says "restaurant, bien moneda" suggesting that he hopes to get good money selling it. I decide to sit for a while longer — we have walked to a different spot on the jetty which is more lit up, and it's nicer to see different fish and other creatures swimming in the clear waters below. He has changed the type of hook at the end of his rod, probably to catch something different.

The polythene bag is still flapping, it has been several minutes but the creature inside it hasn't probably given up on life as yet. The music at the club hasn't given up either, though the tone seems to have diluted — I can now distinctly identify Celine Dion's "My heart will go on", a stark departure from the electronic noise that was blasting a while ago. I walk back at about 2 am — the previous night was long for me at Rome, and the early morning flight to Ibiza had been tiring.

I meet Phillipe, Leo, and Karen the next morning - the Brazilian guy, the Mexican guy, and the Austrian girl, respectively, who are my roommates, and who returned at different times this morning from Space. Ibiza has a number of nightclubs — gigantic in size that boast of being the biggest in the world — and most of them open at midnight, admitting people who love music, drinks, and dance. Clubbing is definitely expensive, and might not be suitable for every palate — for instance, if you are not into hard drugs, you really need to be a mad music lover to pay and get inside the clubs.

Phillipe and Leo, even after a hard night of partying, are up for a trip to Formentera during the day, and we head off to the Figuretas port to catch an Aquabus, a ferry which gets to the island of Formentera from Ibiza in about an hour. Formentera is an unspoilt piece of land amidst the sea, slightly south of Ibiza, which is famous for its numerous pristine beaches and lakes. We rent a bike and pedal our way to Playa de Ses Illetes, a beach on the north coast of the island replete with nude and semi-nude people sunbathing on the clear sands on the shores of crystal clear, perfectly turquoise waters of the Mediterranean Sea. Taking our clothes off, we jump into the cold, transparent waters and swim across. Formentera is breathtaking; the beaches are shallow for at least 200-300 meters into the sea, and one can easily wade through the waters to the tiny islands surrounding Formentera when the tide is low. It's definitely a place for the wealthy, though, and the skyline is full of numerous yachts floating in the sea with backdrop of white walls of Ibiza's Platja d'en Bossa beach hotels visible afar. As the evening approaches, we pedal back to La Savina to catch the 5 pm ferry back to Ibiza. On realizing that we still have 30 minutes before departure, we once again jump into the sea near the port itself - this part of the island has rocky beaches and needs a little effort to get a foothold beneath the water on algae covered rocks, but the lack of sand on the shores makes the swim even more enticing.

On getting back at Ibiza, me and Phillipe are interested in catching the sunset from Café del Mar, the iconic bar at Sant Antoni de Portmany, and after a quick shower, manage to catch the 7:30 pm bus to San Antonio on the western coast of the island, a thirty minute ride from Ibiza town. The Sunset Strip consists of numerous western facing cafés apart from Café del Mar, the oldest establishment that started the tradition of playing ambient, balearic music, often called chill-out music during sunset. Every evening, numerous tourists and locals gather on this strip sipping wine and beer in a festive atmosphere of golden sun slanting across the horizon with smooth music playing in the background. Phillipe and I wrap up the evening with a sumptuous dinner and beer, talking about India and Brazil.

The next day I meet Israel Ponce, a Mexican man living in Ibiza since two-and-a-half years building beautiful houses across the island in his profession of being an architect. He has promised me a visit through Ibiza's inland villages — the island's countryside which generally remains unexplored during tourist visits. Deftly mixing his work with my tour, he drives me to Santa Gertrudis de Fruitera, a village right in the middle of Ibiza where he is building a small house in the hills for one of his clients. The inland villages in Ibiza are quaint and small — each village consisting of a small church, one or two restaurants, and a handful of houses. I take a stroll in the church at Santa Gertrudis, followed by a tea with Israel in the small market plaza opposite to the church. Our next stop is Sant Joan de Labritja, another village in the north of the island, where Israel is working on a grand villa of another client. The beauty of this house in the hills enamors me — spread over several acres of land, this white structure is resplendent in the sun with a perfect design of porticos, gardens, pool, and the house itself. There is a separate area which looked like a place for a barbeque, and I asked Israel the purpose of the same. "To hang clothes for drying in the sun" he responded, and looking at the astonishment on my face implying my lack of comprehension for why this big space at all, he added — "when you own thousand dollar bikinis, you better have a space like this to hang them!"

We drive back to Ibiza town passing through the countryside consisting of pastures, sheep, and numerous trees dotting the hilly landscape, and decide to walk up the Dalt Vila, a historical esplanade which is a world heritage site. Walking up the narrow, winding, steep cobbled streets flanked by Mediterranean style houses, Israel explains a bit about architecture, and the principles behind designing buildings over different ages. The top of Dalt Vila offers wonderful panoramic views of the island and its main port. There are many fine dining restaurants in the main plaza of Dalt Vila, offering romantic candlelit dinners to tourists. Ignoring these expensive destinations, Israel takes me to an interior street in the Ibiza town itself into a traditional restaurant, and I deliciously gorge myself on some mushroom croquettes on his recommendation. The goodness of food for the price I pay makes me regret the expensive salmon I had eaten by the port-side touristy restaurants earlier. We wrap up our meeting after a lengthy conversation on Mexico, India, the house he was building, and the purpose of life — the last topic being the one which generally pops up after alcohol goes into the system of any human being irrespective of which part of the world he / she belongs to!

It's time for me to bid farewell to Ibiza. The anchors have just been retracted, and the ropes unfastened from the port — heavy motors have turned the spindles that just gobbled up the ropes into the hull. The gigantic vessel makes a creaking noise as it pushes against the dock with a start. It's exceptionally quiet at the front deck where I stand to witness this giant of a ship that will carve its way in the Balearic Sea from Ibiza to Barcelona in the next nine hours. The only sound here is that of winds hissing through the ears and flapping the small flag in the front, and a mute rumble of the engines as they churn the ocean underneath. My fears of being sea-sick by the end of this journey are alleviating, as I notice that this vessel is rather stable with non-discernible wobbling, unlike the smaller ferries that I took around the island and to Formentera, impatiently swaying me sideways. As it starts getting colder, I get back inside to explore the rest of the ship. The map tells me I am on Deck 8, on the fourth storey of this five storeyed structure. The bottom two storeys are reserved for cargo, including numerous cars, while the third storey has sleeping cabins. My floor has a restaurant, a cinema, a luggage room, a shopping area, a few slot machines in a casino-ish corner which also has dart boards and a kids' play area, and a number of viewing areas to sit on the sofas and soak-in the vistas of the sea. None of these seem much interesting, and I am vicariously hoping to find a corner at the front somewhere that could be THE point for me, had I been Leo DiCaprio, and had there been a Kate Winslet traveling to Barcelona on this ship. I climb up the next level, which happens to be the top storey of the vessel, and find a swimming pool with people sunbathing by it, a gymnasium, and a bar by the poolside. As I walk to the far end of this floor, I see a long white streak in the ocean behind our ship, as the landmass of Ibiza is fading in the background. The gigantic size of the ship suddenly, and humbly starts appearing small as it delves deeper into the vastness of the ocean beyond. I decide to settle here, grabbing a drink from the bar and sprawling myself on a poolside chair perched up in a corner lit by the sun and peppy music. Barcelona is several hours away, and there is a lot to write in this beautiful spot somewhere in the waters which is unspoilt by GPS coordinates.


Saturday, May 17, 2014

Prague

The first thing that a solo traveller will notice about Prague is beer. A beer bottle for 29 crowns is cheaper than water, and says a lot about the love of the Czech for their beer.

However, judging this city by its drinking habits and fervent nightlife is probably an injustice to its great Bohemian past. Founded about 1100 years ago, Prague was the seat of Bohemian kings who also ruled as emperors of the Holy Roman Empire. Considered one of the most charming and beautiful cities in Europe, Prague is dotted with numerous bridges, cathedrals, and churches.

For me, revisiting the city after 9 years is like walking inside a fading memory. With some new friends I met in the train to Praha, I walk back to the historic Charles Bridge on the Vltava River — named after the 14th Century emperor Charles IV, who personally designed most of the medieval quarters of the city that have inspired countless artists over the ages.

Fortunately, Prague remained largely undamaged during the World Wars, and its cobbled streets replete with walled courtyards and gold-tipped towers proudly reflect its enviable Gothic charm to this day. We continue our walk towards the majestic 9th century castle, and pass by the Old Town Square, where the Prague Astronomical Clock of the Old Town Hall installed in 1410 is still working, and announces the time with its own magical parade of apostles and a bell-ringing skeleton every hour. Looking at a bird's eyeview of the city from the castle, I recount the words of Milan Kundera and Franz Kafka who probably gained inspiration from this beautiful skyline.

"And therein lies the whole of man's plight. Human time does not turn in a circle; it runs ahead in a straight line. That is why man cannot be happy: happiness is the longing for repetition."

Today, Prague is a modern and vibrant city full of energy, music, cultural art, fine dining, and nightlife that can cater to the burgeoning tourist influx. Drinking through the night to modern music and numerous people in a rather unknown pub in a basement with unplastered walls and extreme graffiti, I reminisce on my fortune of being here a second time. In the same lifetime.



Thursday, May 15, 2014

Amsterdam


Doe gewoon, dan doe je gek genoeg.
(Just act normally, that's crazy enough.)
- Dutch saying

Amsterdam is a quintessential Dutch city – a small historical town with a rustic charm. There is a lot in Amsterdam that might not appear normal at first, but once you start pedaling your bicycle in its numerous narrow streets by the canals and waterways, the city unfolds its secrets one-by-one and doesn't take very long to absorb you as a local. Here, pretty much similar to the rest of Netherlands, you won't find those luxury cars that roll their way through wealthy European towns – Amsterdam is limited to standard BMWs or Benzs, and is proud commuting on its bicycles. There is no glamour or glitter of big money, and the city itself is quite small – a characteristic feature of the land of the Dutch. Entire Netherlands has a number of small urban communities, rather than large metropolises like Paris, Berlin, New York or Tokyo. If Amsterdam is the destination for arts, the national government and the parliament are in the Hague, the broadcasting media is in Hilversum, the world's largest port is in Rotterdam, and all major conferences and large-scale events are held at Utrecht.

The first thing one notices about Amsterdam is what, according to folklore, a Brazilian had told his daughter who had moved to the city – "You should not stay here, the sky is too low." And remarkably so – the land throughout the city is extremely flat, shedding some light on the interesting topography of about one-third of Netherlands. It's said that the God created Heaven and Earth, but the Dutch created the Netherlands. The reference is to the ingenuity of the Dutch in hydraulic engineering, leading to what is often termed as 'living on land that has been snatched from the sea'. Majority of the country lives on marshy land, sometimes even below the mean sea level, protected from the sea by elaborately planned dunes and dykes constructed ages ago. After the Middle Ages, the country saw the advent of wind mills – an invention from the Islamic world. These windmills were used to drain out excess water from low-lying areas which were protected by the dykes, and to keep them dry. Several windmills were often linked together in parallel for deriving more power – some of these are still seen at Kinderdijk (near Rotterdam) – a visual treat for window seat passengers in the flights landing at Schiphol. Since the nineteenth century, the windmills have gradually been replaced by pumps, but the basic principle remains the same.

Amsterdam is built on a marshy meadowland surrounded by lakes and riddled by waterways and canals that were mostly constructed in the 17th century. My host at Amsterdam is Ramón Ster, a thorough-bred media professional who is the most hospitable person I have ever met. Ramon's apartment is one of the typical Dutch dwellings that take pride upon the idea conveyed by a local saying – Over Smaak valt niet te twisten, meaning "there's no accounting for taste." Like other apartments in the neighbourhood, this house is also full of bric-à-brac, has minimal, but solid oak furniture, and numerous lights. Roaming around in the city, one can notice the Dutch characteristic of having living room windows and doors made of glass facing the roads – showcasing the lives and tastes of their inhabitants. We are living in an area called the Oud-West, which Ramón says is about 4.5 meters below sea level – protected by schutsluis, or water-locks made as part of the Delta Project.

Spending some time in the city, one quickly gets attuned to the Dutch way of life marked by clear agreements and firm commitments. The Dutch are perfect with time management – the accuracy of trains and buses to the second is surprising at first, but as a book on Dutch culture in Ramón's library says, firm commitments have become second nature in a country where decision-making is always a compromise between equal partners and where you have to be able to rely on each other if the water level rises too high. Apparently, the reference is to the fundamental tenet of cooperation which evolved this society into fighting the gigantic forces of nature together.

My days in Amsterdam are limited, and Ramón gives me a 15 minute crash-course on the parks, museums, food places, and cycling areas that can be explored. Cycling is a way of life in the city, and all streets have earmarked cycle tracks replete with dedicated signalling systems for two-wheeler traffic. I take some time adjusting to Ramón's guest bicycle with its pedal brakes, but quickly realize that there is no better way to be in Amsterdam than being on two wheels. Ramón does pass on a word of caution though – it's tough to find vacant bicycle parking posts in prominent areas, and not parking in designated spots might lead to them being stolen; the statistics of stolen bikes in Amsterdam is staggering.

Armed with a bicycle, I spend a day visiting the Van Gogh Museum and the Stedelijk Museum. The Van Gogh Museum has the world's greatest collection of Van Gogh's masterpieces, including the Sunflower and the Bedroom, and presents a great story of the painter's short, ten year career in arts. It also has a section on paints and tools used by artists over the ages, and an intriguing section on modern technologies being used to analyze works of art from two centuries ago. The Stedelijk is dedicated to modern and contemporary art and design, and also houses the Beanery – a three-dimensional collage created by Edward Kienholz in which visitors can enter. My favorite museum ends up being the Rijks Museum that I visit the next day. Re-opened last year after 10 years of renovation, it showcases 800 years of Dutch culture, as well as the works of Rembrandt – including his masterpieces the Night Watch, and the Milkmaid. On one of the days, I also visit the Anne Frank House – a poignant reminder of the two years spent by the Frank family in hiding where the diaries of Anne Frank were written before the Nazis raided the house.

Apart from its museums, Amserdam has some great areas to walk around, such as the Vondelpark and the Westerdoks, or the Veemkade – a pleasant street by the river IJ. In addition to a number of squares and market places where locals and tourists hang out for food and drinks, Amsterdam also boasts of the infamous Red Light District, a set of prominent streets in the heart of the city where sex, sleaze, and drugs flow uninhibited, and are almost celebrated. Prostitution is legal here, and so is cannabis – a feature which probably attracts numerous tourists from all over the world for indulgence. Walking around the district, one can witness scantily clad women standing behind the typical Dutch house windows, looking for their next visitors. Ramón tells me about the trafficking issue as well – similar to any other prostitution market in the world, this market also has a number of women forced into the flesh trade, and it's extremely difficult for the authorities to differentiate between women who are willingly into the trade and the ones who have been trafficked and threateningly silenced. The market itself is lively with the cheerful bars and coffee shops where a pure weed joint can be ordered for about 8, enough to knock one out for hours. The area is, contrary to intuition, not male dominated at all, and women stroll around in the evenings in equal numbers, roaming through the lively streets and indulging in the intoxication on offer. Damark Street even has a sex museum, replete with the history of this oldest act of mankind, artifacts and objects with erotic engravings excavated from various historic sites, and a history of pornographic literature and cinema.

However, the best parts of Amsterdam lie away from the hustle-bustle and the sleaze that take the largest mindshare when thinking about this city. Walking on the peaceful streets by the canal, Prinsengracht being my favorite, could be more enlivening to the soul than anything else. Amsterdam is the place that inspired numerous artists and creative minds, and understanding them requires understanding the Dutch way of life – of constant, friendly social interaction or the 'gezelligheid,' something that can be taken as a souvenir back home.

Amsterdam is a city of beauty and art, simplicity and taste, love and life, and is concluded best by another Dutch poem I located in Ramón's library -

"I wish my life to be grand and dramatic
But not today. I think I'll wait a while."



Monday, May 12, 2014

Norway – A Pilgrimage to Nature

Sticking out as a rather imposing and easily identifiable landmass in the northern hemisphere on a world map is the amazing country of Norway – a land so pristine and one with nature that it almost makes it impossible to believe that vikings once made this place their home. The hinterlands of the country are a jigsaw of various elements combined into one – earth, air, and water – coexisting with humans who have lived here since time immemorial. Its fjords – those magnificent land formations caused by the sea making inroads into the mainlands all over, offer delectable sights of mountains, rivers, waterfalls, and forests, interspersed with long tunnels, wooden cottages, green pastures, and slow, peaceful lives of humans who built them. The fjords were carved by glaciers during the ice ages. They started as small cracks in the mountains which ice and water gradually gouged out, and they became deep enough to come in contact with the outside sea.

My journey from the port city of Bergen in Western Norway to the city of Voss on the scenic local train run by NSB takes me through Osterfjord – a fjord surrounding the island of Osterøy, Northern Europe's biggest inland island. The train crosses several villages, such as Dale, the house of famous Dale Fabrikkar knitwear factory, and Bolstadøyri, the village where Osterfjord ends and moving further east, gives way to only fresh-water rivers and lakes. Bolstad has a history of being a trading post – before the railways came, Bergen to Voss journey on boats and horses started at this place. The train climbs up the valleys from Bolstad into several tunnels carved into the mountains towards Upsete and Myrdal. It also crosses the Vossavassdraget river system – a regulated and conserved ecological system consisting of three rivers, some of which are known for their great salmon population. Further up is the town of Evanger, a place known for its production of cured meat from various animals. The train comes to a halt at Voss, one of the biggest municipalities in the Hordaland County, and one of the most important tourist and skiing destinations.

From Voss, I take a bus to Gudvangen, a steep descent down from the mountains to the head of the Nærøyfjord – a World Heritage Site which is the narrowest and the best known arm of Sognefjord. The bus to Gudvangen climbs down a 20% steep gradient from Stalheim, a farm area that sits atop the end of the Nærøydalen valley which is famous for its location atop an almost vertical cliff. The steep gradient stretch of Stalheimskleiva ensures that this road is open to traffic only one way – downwards. This road has numerous hairpin bends with scenic views of the valley and numerous waterfalls, and used to be the mainstay for traffic between Oslo and Bergen after it was built in the mid-nineteenth century. With the opening up of the railway and several road tunnels, this stretch now opens one-way only in summers and is usually frequented by tourist traffic. From Stalheim to the fjord along the entire length of the Nærøydalen valley flows the river Nærøyelva, also known for its great stock of salmon. The beautiful waterfall of Kjelsfossen high above Gudvangen on the south-eastern side of the valley comes into view a little later. It is said that drinking the fresh waters of this waterfall increases the human lifespan – the driver of our bus chuckles that he is already 150 years old, and probably a ghost. We finally arrive at Gudvangen, a small village in the Aurland Municipality consisting of just 120 people.

I take a ferry from Gudvangen to Flåm, a journey through the narrow Nærøyfjord and Aurlandsfjord offering some dramatic and spectacular scenery. On the way are small villages and hamlets on both sides along the coast, such as that of Bakka, Styvi, Dyrdal, and Stigen. The village of Undredal on the western shore of the fjord that inhabits about 100 people, comes into view. This village also houses the Undredal church, the smallest "stave church" in Scandinavia built in 1147, visible to us as a small white hut in the center of the village. The ferry edges its way through more such hamlets, accompanied throughout its journey by noisy seagulls trying to grab pieces of bread and other food thrown by people on the deck. The winds can get strong, and add a handsome chill to the summer sun – sometimes it does get very cold to even stay on the front deck. I jealously peek into the captain's den – a wonderful glasshouse on the top where two gentlemen are comfortably sitting sipping on a cup of coffee, observing the scenic cruising path through their sunglasses. One of the best jobs on this earth, I must add!

The ferry docks at Flåm, a beautiful village of roughly 400 people, known specifically as a popular cruise harbour during summers. It became a tourist destination sometime during the end of the 19th century, when British "salmon lords"  came to fish in the rivers here. I have around two hours in Flåm, before taking the Flåmsbana to Myrdal, and I decide to go by the recommendations of a local storekeeper on utilizing my time. The guy has convinced me for a two hour roundtrip hike to the Brekkefossen waterfalls – a risky proposition for a very limited stay. The hike up Brekkefossen is an extremely steep climb up the fjord face through a rough and rocky terrain and isn't an easy thing to attempt wearing loafers and trousers. However, the majestic view of the waterfall itself, together with the magnificent vistas of farmland and huts of the village including the Flåm church of 1668 below make this climb totally worthwhile.

From Flåm, I take the famous Flåmsbana, the Flåm-Myrdal railway which is considered a masterpiece of engineering. The train climbs from 2 meters above MSL (Flåm) to 866 meters above MSL (Myrdal) with a gradient of 1 in 18, the steepest normal gauge line in Northern Europe. Completed over 20 years in the year 1944, the train passes through 20 tunnels in its one hour of journey from the wild and beautiful Flåm valley to the high-mountain plateau of Myrdal. Eighteen of these tunnels were built by hand, including the hairpin tunnel – a tunnel which makes a 180 degrees turn inside the mountains itself. The longest tunnel in the line is the Nåli tunnel running to almost 1.4 kilometers. The train also stops at several hamlets along the way, including a station by the Kjosfossen waterfall, the one I visited earlier during the bus journey from Voss to Gudvangen, albeit at a much lower altitude. The train platform is at about 670 meters above MSL right next to the 94 meters high waterfall, and is a magnificent site for tourists' selfies. Further up after Kjosfossen, there is a fantastic view of the oppoite side of the valley showing three different levels of Flåmsbana up the mountainside, the train itself being on the fourth level. The scenery also shows the Rallarvegen, or the Navvies' Road, pasted like a ribbon on the mountain face. It's a twisting and turning road with twenty one bends all the way up to Myrdal that was used during the construction of the Bergen Railway.

The Flåmsbana journey ends at Myrdal, from where I take the main Bergen Railway back to Bergen with its own scenic views of the countryside along the way.

Visiting Norway is a pilgrimage to the nature at its best. It's a country where the conquest between man and nature seems to have neutralized into a trance-like beauty. The humans here haven't encroached upon the majestic, beyond humbly registering their mere presence, and the nature has offered its  unadulterated treats in full glory along the colourful land and waterways and snow-capped peaks throughout the countryside. One word which could sum up the feeling of being here? It's Takk!


Saturday, May 10, 2014

Bergen – The City of Seven Mountains

Straight from the blistering 42 degrees May heat of New Delhi, landing at Oslo several latitudes up on the globe can cause a steep, unexpected drop in mercury levels of those old thermometers of yore which used to signal something drastically different not necessarily for bad reasons though.

The wind outside the Oslo airport from where I need to take a train to Oslo Sentralstasjon is predictably chilly for my Delhi skin, and there seems to be a nip in the air exacerbating the effect. I am not well prepared for this climate a voice in the brain tells me, evaluating the contents of the small backpack which is the only luggage I have. I am on my way to Bergen, a 6 hour ride from Oslo on the Bergen Railway that runs from Oslo to the Western Coast of Norway, crossing the Langfjellene mountains and the Hardangervidda mountain plateau.

After spending 5-6 hours in downtown Oslo shivering through its most popular attractions and getting the usual tourist clicks at the Royal Palace and the Vigeland Park, I am ready to ride the Bergen Railway arguably one of the most scenic train routes on the planet. Completed in 1909, this 500 kilometers line is Northern Europe's highest stretch of railway with almost 100 kilometers of tracks running through the wild mountain country. The train crosses several areas of open countryside, wooded valleys, lakes, and snow-capped mountains to reach the western fjords of Norway. The route also passes through Finse, the highest railway station in Norway (1222 meters above MSL) located above the ridge of Hardangervidda. Between Finse and Myrdal, the train runs atop a relatively flat mountain-plateau covered with thick snow even at this time of the year a treat for the eyes. The Bergen Railway route is known for its several tunnels dug through the mountains, the longest of which is more than 5 kilometers in length (the Gravhalstunnel).

Soaking in the the artistic beauty of the countryside all through the train journey, I get into Bergen a city surrounded by many mountains whose numbers is arguable. It is Norway's second largest city and even served as Norway's capital in the 12th and 13th centuries. The old name for Bergen was Bjørgvin, meaning 'the meadow among the mountains'. It was one of the trading posts (kontors) founded by North German merchants (Hanseatic merchants) who traded in cod and stokfish with fishermen from northern Norway in the 13th century. The area of Bryggen, a World Heritage Site, is a medieval style reconstruction of the old warehouses used centuries ago by the Hanseatic merchants. The city has seen numerous fires and in one of them in 1702, almost entire Bergen burned. Most of the old buildings of Bergen, including Bryggen, were rebuilt after the fire. The area around Bryggen is a lovely walk in the evening, offering great views of the numerous yachts and cruises parked along the bay. There's a small market on the harbour that sells local culinary preparations of the day's catch the prices, however, like the rest of Norway, could be steep for what's on offer.

Another must-do on the list in Bergen is the hike up to Fløyen, a plateau in the mountain massif north-east of the city center offering some great views of the city. It is also served by a funicular (Fløibanen); however, it's advisable to take it only one way, and walk down the other way through the numerous alleys and beautiful hillside houses of the city. The view up at Fløyen is magnificent on a clear day such as the one coinciding with my trip, the top offers a bird's eye view of the main fjord. Bergen could be notorious about weather, though; clear sunny days switch to rains in less than 10 minutes (it rains almost 260 days a year in Bergen), and not carrying an umbrella or a poncho could lead to scampering into the souvenir shops. The sunlight itself during summers is generous it's a treat to visit these areas in the summer having almost 18-20 hours of daylight.

My host at Bergen is Eugene, a student from Belarus working towards his Masters degree in computer algorithms at the local University. The city has numerous student accommodations, the biggest one being at Fantoft a suburban locality to the south of Bergen served by the city's modern tram called Bergen Light Rail (Bybanen). I meet Eugene in his hostel room at Fantoft, and amongst other things, learn about one of the quaint urban traditions of the students here "diving."  About once a week, Eugene and his friends (all postgraduate students) leave on foot or bicycles at about 11 in the night to various supermarkets, grocery chains and other food stores, scourge the trash of the day, and rescue eatables. It might sound repulsive at first, but considering how easily the supermarkets throw away stuff, it becomes increasingly easier to "digest" the novelty of this method. Most of the bigger chains discard food which do not conform to the highest levels of quality checks a little mark in the skin of fruits, just day old packs of bread, coffee and packed groceries with damaged packaging due to manhandling, several products which are nearing their stated expiration dates strict Norwegian laws constraint the chains to give-away these items directly as charity lest someone sues them for feeding stuff gone bad, and it's always easier to just trash them. The rescued food is distributed amongst the gang, and students wash and store them for consumption over the next few days. Eugene tells me he hasn't bought any food except oil over the last several months. The process also makes him a great experimenting cook based on what he finds after a dive, he generally tries to cook something out of it. During the night, we try to make a pancake from some bananas, chocolate milk, and semolina, all 'dived' during the previous week! Eugene introduces me to Stephan Micus' music, a music so beautiful that it seems to reflect the beauty and magnificence of the world outside the hostel windows. I am lost in the thoughts of exploring a bit of Norwegian countryside from Bergen, and Eugene's experienced hands over the Jew's Harp produce a beautiful trance music at this midnight hour curing me of the tiredness of day's walking and putting me to sleep.