Showing posts with label Travel. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Travel. Show all posts

Friday, September 08, 2023


Jis wajah se fasaad hote hain, uska koi ataa-pataa hi nahin
(The reasons for strife, they are nowhere to be found)

— Krishn Bihari ‘Noor’, 1926-2003 (Uttar Pradesh, India)
[A delightful rendition available here.]

The Berlin wall, built in 1960s, was a concrete barrier that separated West Berlin of the Federal Republic of Germany from East Berlin of the German Democratic Republic. It was about 155 Km long, and 13 feet tall. The Separation Barrier, under construction since 2002, is partly an electronic fence, and partly a concrete wall in urban areas that separates Israel and West Bank in Palestine. It is about 750 Km long (approximately 10 percent of it being concrete), and 30 feet tall in some places.

I was greeted by a series of murals, mostly pro-Palestine messages and symbolism, on the West Bank side of the Separation Barrier near Bethlehem. These are beautiful pieces of art, including many inspired by Banksy’s works (there is also a hotel claiming that the artist stayed with them), amidst one of the most contested regions of the world. I couldn’t see the other side of the barrier, but a reasonable assumption is that murals there would depict the alternate side of this ethnoreligious conflict. The vocabulary changes based on where you stand and what you read (in my case, based on the VPN gateway): liberation for one is occupation for the other, someone’s resistance is another’s terrorism, aggression for me could be security response for you, and what one calls as settlements could be annexation for another. Amidst this exchange of words and gunpowder that arbitrate the nuances of power and hierarchies, hangs precariously the lives and livelihoods of the ‘common’ millions who are frightfully present throughout the unforgiving wheels of history.

The spectacle of barriers continues in the Old City of Jerusalem: they are there, inside and outside, shifting over centuries, determining who is welcome – or not – in different neighborhoods. Modern day Jerusalem consists of an urban sprawl that developed largely after the creation of Israel in 1948, and a medieval Old City enclosed by 16th-century walls and gates built by the Ottomans. The Old City is constructed in white, using picturesque “Jerusalem Limestone” (meleke) whose sun-kissed photographs are splashed across travel magazines, goading visitors to soak-in the culture and beauty of the holy land. The city could be a treat to the eyes, with its medieval bazaar bursting with smell of spices, and its narrow alleyways lined with restaurants and souvenir shops buzzing with tourists and pilgrims and guides. But with all its beauty, it is probably difficult to find another parcel on earth that is such a startling juxtaposition of tribal instincts of humans reflected in organized religion, of political opportunism that feeds it, and of military/militancy that enforces it.

(Image courtesy: israeltourism, CC BY-SA 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons)

A walk through the Old City in Jerusalem is a distinctly unsettling experience; it feels like an exhausting drag through a viscous, thick concoction of faith and religion, traditions and orthodoxy, rules and checkpoints, and an unnerving feeling of being watched. There are points where one may be asked about one’s religion or nationality, and accordingly granted or denied access. The present day nomenclature of the territorial fragmentation of the Old City introduced in the mid-nineteenth century by the British – the Armenian Quarter, the Christian Quarter, the Jewish Quarter, and the Muslim Quarter – perpetuates the city’s history tainted by perennial disappointment.

Jerusalem’s tag as the “land of creation” derives from its veneration as a holy city by the three Abrahamic religions of Judaism, Islam, and Christianity whose believers constitute more than half of humans on the planet. The Temple Mount, a large compound on a hill in Jerusalem, contains the religious sites for all three. In Jewish scripture, this spot is where Abraham nearly sacrificed his son Isaac, and this was also the location of the first temple (Temple of Solomon around 950 BCE) and the second Temple (around 500 BCE). Both temples were destroyed in conquests, but a large section of one of the retaining walls from the second Temple remains, and is known as the Western Wall, the holiest site for the Jews. After Islamic conquest, a shrine called the Dome of the Rock was built in the 7th-century on the site of the destroyed second Temple, and is believed to be the site of the prophet Muhammad’s ascent to heaven. After Mecca and Medina, this is the third holiest site of Islam. The Al-Aqsa mosque, located adjacent to the Dome of the Rock on the same compound, is also holy to Muslims. Christians also believe that this is the same site mentioned by the prophets in the Old Testament of the Bible, and was visited by Jesus according to the New Testament.

“Poets and storytellers are in error in matters of the greatest human importance,” wrote Plato, lamenting the pervasive legends of gods and heroes. On Good Friday, pilgrims walk the Via Dolorosa (“the way of grief”), through the 14 “stations of the cross” representing the path that Christians believe Jesus walked on the way to his crucifixion. As a tourist, one is bombarded with ‘facts’ and ‘counter-facts’ as promulgated by different Christian sects at various stations. The route ends at the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, believed to be the site where Jesus was crucified and buried, and where his resurrection occurred. The church itself has continued to witness scuffles between Greek Orthodox, Roman Catholic, Franciscans, Armenians, Coptic, Ethiopian and Syriac sects. In Bethlehem, a little south of Jerusalem, lies the Church of the Nativity, believed to be the birthplace of Jesus. It’s also where Greek Orthodox and Armenian priests have often attacked each other. Amidst brawls over stories and contests for the ownership of God, lessons on how to live with tolerance and righteousness were lost, replaced with an all-pervasive ennui of existence, and God being reduced to a refuge. In a book I read recently, truth was laid bare: “For two thousand years, Jerusalem has brought out the least attractive qualities in every race that has lived there.”

Outside the Old City walls, political drama of the last century has been playing out. It started with the British troops entering Jerusalem in 1917 under Edmund Allenby, who directed the Palestine campaign in World War I. My crossing into Israel from Jordan was through the Allenby bridge – the current land border between the two countries that came later – where immigration for a solo male traveler, arguably suspicious, was a predictable four-hour process. This was also the point at which the Arab hospitality, optimism, and smiles, largely disappeared and a palpable unease settled-in for the rest of my journey, until I reached Tel Aviv. Since the end of the British Mandate and subsequent wars and peace talks, Southern Levant has been a land perforated with political greed, false hopes, lost identities, and claims over resources. The last failed attempt at peace, Oslo Accords, turns 30 on Sep 13, 2023, marking yet another generation lost.  

Unless one is able to find repose in the Kotel, or the Dome of the Rock, or the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, Jerusalem will batter the soul and bludgeon the most stout of optimists. And while hope in general might be in short supply in Jerusalem, as one listens to the sound of the shofar, the muezzin, and the church bells, one is at least ‘hopeful’ of the judgment day that everyone here agrees upon. It’s dangerous, and ignorant, to be taking sides when witnessing the world’s most intractable, divisive, and perhaps the oldest conflict. Meanwhile, a taxi driver who drove me between Israel and West Bank said: “no mother will ever send her child to war either for the temple, or for the mosque, or for the church.” I did not ask his religion, or nationality.

Monday, September 04, 2023


Then the Lord said to him, “This is the land I promised on oath to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob when I said, ‘I will give it to your descendants.’ I have let you see it with your eyes, but you will not cross over into it.”

This was apparently a pronouncement made to Moses, a prophet revered by three monotheistic religions, at the top of Mount Nebo, about 30 km south of modern Amman. Since three-thousand years, this pronouncement of the ‘Promised Land’ has united a horde of believers, continually reshaped the geopolitics of this region (and the world by extension), and left a long trail of beauty, art, faith, hope, belief, and often, violence in its wake.

Geography is a great tool to understand history, and tracing the Jordan river was helpful for me to gain a basic comprehension of the Southern Levant. On the map, the Jordan valley bisects the region from north to south, with the 250 km long Jordan river flowing roughly from the Lake of Tiberias (Sea of Galilee) into the Dead Sea. There is desert all around it: Syrian desert to the east, Arabian desert to the southeast, and Sinai desert to the southwest. The valley is amongst the oldest inhabited parts of Eurasia, and possibly a route through which early humans migrated out of Africa into Europe and Asia two million years ago. Northern portion of the valley has a higher population density, and more than 90 percent of Jordan’s population is concentrated here.

On a clear September day, I could see a good panorama of the southern portion of the valley (including the Dead Sea), and the national borders that currently encompass it from the summit of Mount Nebo, close to the city of Madaba about 30 km south of Amman. And on another day, I could see a good panorama of the northern portion of the valley (including Lake Tiberias), and the national borders encompassing it from the city of Umm Qais, situated on a high plateau about 25 km northwest of Irbid.

(Image courtesy: Google Earth)

A crude way to divide the better-recorded history of the valley is into the Nabataeans from the 3rd century BC (who built the beautiful capital of Petra), their alliance and cultural merger into ancient Romans who ruled until about the 4th century (a period which also saw the crushing of three Jewish revolts, altering the fate of Jews forever and ending their dominance from Southern Levant for the next 1800 years), followed by the Byzantine rule for about two centuries, until the rise of Islam and the Muslim conquest of the Levant in the 7th century and establishment of the Caliphate. It gave way to the Crusaders who established the Kingdom of Jerusalem and other Crusader states in the 11th century. Then came the Mamluks during the mid-13th to early 16th centuries, who were in turn defeated by the Ottomans in the early 16th century. The Ottoman rule lasted until World War I, when the British took over the region to the west of the river under the Mandate for Palestine, and established Transjordan as a protectorate on the east of the river. This forms the backdrop of the present-day conflict. Amidst all this churning, there were a plethora of cultures and people, tribes and nomads, customs and traditions, crafts and fabric, and arts and cuisines, that greet modern-day travelers with a maelstrom of a ‘Middle Eastern’ experience which is almost impossible to fully comprehend, and yet a delightful concoction to stimulate the senses.

Remnants of this complex tapestry of history and religion can be seen, in parts, through a narrow, serpentine road winding down the ridges, gorges, ravines, plateaus, and edges of the desert in modern day Jordan: the King’s Highway, believed to be one of the world’s oldest continuously used roads. This route has served as a vital artery connecting ancient kingdoms and empires for millennia, and warriors, merchants, and pilgrims have used it as a thoroughfare. In ancient times, it was an important trade route connecting Arabia, the Fertile Crescent, the Red Sea and Egypt. It was also an important pilgrimage route, for Christians during the Byzantine period visiting the Holy Land and for Muslims in early Islamic period traveling to Mecca. Ottomans also constructed the magnificent Hejaz railway in the late 1800s roughly along this route from Damascus to Medina, and I could see a refurbished Ottoman locomotive on display at the Wadi Rum Train Station near Shakaria.

The modern Highway 35, which I used, is a tarmac atop its ancient ancestor, running south from Syria and passing through Roman ruins, Byzantine churches and mosaics, Crusader castles, the ancient city of Petra, natural wonders of Wadi Rum, before reaching Aqaba with its Mamluk castle. It traverses the most fertile part of Jordan – through the country’s springs, water sources, olive orchards, and other agricultural land – and therefore is its backbone. In my itinerary, this highway took me north from Amman to the cities of Jerash and Umm Qais, and south from Amman to the cities of Madaba (with detours to Mount Nebo and Umm ar-Rasas), Shobak, Wadi Musa (where Petra is located), and Wadi Rum. A road westward from Wadi Rum connects to the Dead Sea Highway near Aqaba, from where I drove up north almost parallel to the King’s Highway, to Wadi Mujib and Sweimeh, before crossing over to Israel.

Traveling through the country, the first thing one notices is the kindness, generosity, and conviviality of the people in this land. Jordan shares the cultural traditions common to the Arab world, and their hospitality to strangers is exceptional. Long handshakes and conversations, cups of tea being offered everywhere, and faith in everything being ‘God willing’ lends an almost mystical elegance to the inhabitants, and a comfortable serenity to the visitors. A vocabulary of exactly one Arabic word – šukran – was sufficient to be felt accepted and welcomed everywhere. Jordan’s cuisine is rich, sumptuous, and a means to express hospitality and generosity, which also implies that one is always stuffed, and happily so. The dishes primarily feature beans, olives, yogurt, garlic, za'atar, rice, meat, khubz (flatbread), salads, and an umpteen variety of spices and dips; lavish breakfasts give way to even grandiose meals, interspersed with countless servings of tea and coffee through the day. For inexplicable reasons, I was stuck for days with everything that started with the letter ‘M’ – mansaf, maqluba, musakhan, and mezze – until the Bedouins fed me Zarb in the Wadi Rum desert, apparently a delicacy cooked in a large underground pit for several hours. Smoking is prevalent, and by some estimates, Jordan has the highest smoking rate in the world. It feels strange to find officials and civilians smoking inside most buildings and office rooms, something usually associated with days of monochrome cinema. Alcohol, on the other hand, is scarce.

Jerash (Image courtesy: John Romano D'OrazioCC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons)

Jordan has a lot to offer to tourists. Ruins from the Roman times are scattered throughout the country, most notably in Jerash, Jordan’s best preserved Roman ruins often dubbed the ‘Pompeii of the Middle East,’ and in Umm Qais, both cities located in the northwestern corner of the country. These cities were part of The Decapolis, believed to be a league of ten cities that were allowed significant political autonomy within Roman protection. Jerash (originally Gerasa) is imposing, with its paved and colonnaded streets, largely-intact temples, theatres, public squares and plazas, baths, fountains, and city walls – a marvel of human achievement from more than two thousand years ago. The vastness of the site made it a challenging walk for me; even the milder early-autumn sun seems to sizzle amidst the rocks and the sand, and lack of shade anywhere in the city can be tough on visitors. Umm Qais (originally Gadara) is similar, though less vast and more picturesque due to the use of black basalt stones conferring a dramatic hue to its structures. Another highlight of Umm Qais is its tremendous vantage point at a crossroads between three countries; I could see the Golan Heights, northern Palestine, and Lake Tiberias, but not southern Lebanon (Mount Hebron) which is also visible on clearer days. There are some Roman ruins in Amman itself, and a garrison for Roman military in Umm ar-Rasas. Many of these sites also have Byzantine-era churches with well-preserved mosaics and carvings, and are well-shaded for visitors, with large signboards describing the international agencies that paid for preserving the heritage. International aid often bends to divine influences of select variety.

The crown jewel of Jordan is Petra, a city spread over more than 250 square kilometers. It perhaps represents the pinnacle of human quest, and dedication of a people to shape rocks, over a hundred years or more, resulting in a city entirely carved out of red sandstone in the middle of a desert. Petra was built in 4th-century BCE by the Nabataeans, a civilization of ancient Arabic peoples. There are more than 500 buildings in Petra today, mostly tombs and mausoleums, in addition to the famed Treasury and the Monastery. Large, majestic rooms were created by scooping out rocks, often with colorful walls of red, orange, and grey hues. The city also has a unique system of conduits and cisterns to harvest, store and distribute rainwater, and a dam that must have bent a creek to the will of its inhabitants. Petra shows the essence of industry in our species, and sitting inside any of its numerous caves, there is a mysteriously tender feeling of not being alone, but being in the company of those who are buried here, everywhere, and continue to live on.

Another allure for tourists is the Dead Sea, a quirk of nature with waters containing 34% salt, almost 10 times that in oceans, increasing its buoyancy sufficiently to make a human body float. It was originally a much larger lake that extended to the Lake of Tiberias, but its outlet to the sea evaporated around 18,000 years ago, leaving a salty residue in a desert basin at the lowest point on earth, 1300 feet below sea level. Until the 1950s, the flow of fresh water from Jordan river and a few other tributaries balanced the surface evaporation, holding water levels steady. However, water inflow has since reduced due to large-scale irrigation and generally low rainfall. In addition, an Israeli dam collects significant water from the Sea of Galilee, further reducing the flow. And finally, there is Arab Potash Company that has been pumping Dead Sea’s water on the Jordanian side since the last 40 years into solar evaporation ponds to manufacture potash, a key ingredient in fertilizers. On the Israel side, the Dead Sea Works operates even larger evaporation ponds for a similar purpose. Over the past 50 years, the level of the Dead Sea has dropped by 45 meters, and water levels are falling at an average rate of 1.2 meters per year. Visiting the Dead Sea is more dystopian than delightful – abandoned resorts, receding shoreline, and rampant use of freshwater and energy to keep this place on life-support is distressing.

 Wadi Rum from a balloon (Image courtesy: Jedesto, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons)

And yet there is hope, and an eternity to the universe that remains untouched by the human hand. The moonrise in Wadi Rum, the ‘Valley of the Moon,’ is as exquisite as it perhaps was millions of years ago, when this sandstone desert was still under the sea. Its spectacular landscapes, stretching forever, and dotted with mountains, monoliths, canyons, and sand dunes, mirror the alien landscapes of the infinite stars and planets visible in the unpolluted night sky above. As I stand in the cold sand gazing through telescopes, the moon’s surface comes into view – a familiar landscape of craters and rocks, and Saturn appears – its rings smaller and monochrome than those in pictures. And there is the Milky Way, and the Andromeda, and a supernova explosion somewhere thousands of light years away. As I stand, I know that I am looking at all these events in the past, stuff that has already happened, in a perplexing ‘timeless’ reality that is incomprehensible to the unidirectional human mind that cannot comprehend time. And it’s the surest sign that in the grand scheme of things, we are inconsequential.

Sunday, April 30, 2023


About 200 km northwest of Las Vegas lies the Death Valley, the hottest place on earth. About 75 km northeast of the city lies the Valley of Fire, a vast expanse of bright red Aztec sandstones from the Jurassic period. And at about 375 km further ahead in that direction begins the Grand Staircase, a sequence of sedimentary rocks stretching south, starting from Bryce Canyon at the top, Zion Canyon in between, and Grand Canyon at the bottom. To travel through these lands is to witness a snapshot of nature’s long dance that continuously shapes and reshapes the flying rock we call home. In these lands, swathes of earth get bent, lifted, tilted, carved, and eroded over millions of years to form mountains, cliffs, basins, canyons, valleys, ridges, plateaus, mesas, deserts, badlands, and every other phrase in geology that humans have coined in their attempts to comprehend the mystery and grand spectacle of physical existence. Wind operates as the conductor of this grand orchestra, moving earth and sand into shapes and patterns that inspire awe, and compacting them into rocks that stay to tell the story. Water flows and meanders through rivers that drain out plateaus; streams that cut through mountains like sandpaper; waterfalls that churn silt, sand, and cobbles sending them downstream; abrasive narrows that carve rocks into canyons; lakes that feed life as we know it; and snow that wedges apart rocks as it forms in its crevices, and caps everything at the top to complete nature’s perfection. Fire appears, once in a while, spewing out the innards of the planet, bedazzling the landscape with new colors, shapes, and patterns that will keep redefining these lands that represent ‘forever’ more meaningfully than anything humans ever accomplished. And all these elements – earth, wind, water, fire – at the inconsequential moment of human observation, come together to reveal more than 200 million years of the planet’s history meticulously stored layer by layer in the rocks – a timespan that dwarfs the existence of humans by a distance and some more. This region in the southwestern United States is one of the finest productions of nature’s drama. Its extremes of climate and geography make it the ultimate showcase of our insignificance in space and time, and our absurd attempts at ‘reality distortion’. Being here proffers something priceless to us: perspective (a word that, ironically, betrays our sense of self-importance).

Death Valley, straddling the California-Nevada border, is the largest US National Park outside Alaska and is a land of striking contrast and extremes. Despite its forbidding and gloomy name, there are parts of the valley with lush green oases teeming with mammals and birds and reptiles, fields of wildflowers, peaks frosted with snow, occasional rainstorms, and a tremendous diversity of life. There are mountains as high as 3300 meters, deep and winding canyons, and rolling sand dunes. And there are barren salt flats, devoid of soil and vegetation, and covered largely with table salt (along with calcite, gypsum, and borax). A drive from the aptly named Furnace Creek Visitor Center to the Badwater Basin (and nearby Devils Golf Course, and Salt Creek) transports one to the second-lowest point in the western hemisphere at 86 m below sea level. Air trapped in this basin surrounded by the mountains recirculates the heat without being able to escape and sucking out most humidity. A colloquial story of the basin’s naming is about a surveyor’s mule refusing to drink the ‘bad water’ – high in salinity – from the spring-fed pool near the present-day boardwalk. The basin must have had ancient names, presumably vanished amidst the prejudice of recorded history and its narrators.

(Image courtesy: NPS)

At a slightly higher altitude in the Death Valley, short walks from the Zabriskie Point towards the Golden Canyon seem easy at first, but quickly remind one about the fragility of human bodies to withstand the forces of nature. Unforgiving terrain in this part of the valley, mostly made of yellow and brown stripped hills shaped by water, offers no shade and makes walking difficult. Humans have, nonetheless, lived here for thousands of years and sophisticated native American cultures have hunted and gathered in these lands. The first European descendants arriving in this area were lost travelers originally headed towards the California Gold Rush, who might also have lent the valley its present name – rather harsh for a land that accommodates such diversity of life. Motorable roads within the valley form a surprisingly dense network to access its different parts, and a pleasant drive to the Dantes View is a great way to soak-in the panorama of the swirling white salt flats and surrounding mountains from 1700 meters above the ground. Arguably, the most scenic drive in the valley is the Artist’s Drive where the generosity of creation is resplendent in the colorful rocks. Presence of different compounds (iron oxides and chlorite from volcanic deposits) adorns the hills with diverse hues – shades of red, orange, yellow, blue, pink, green, and grey – perhaps prompting the name of the road. For visitors with more time at hand, there are several locations to explore where Star Wars was filmed, and the mysterious Racetrack playa (a dry lakebed) to see, which is known for its strange moving rocks that seem to have been dragged across the ground.

Death Valley is a masterclass in adaptation: of bushes and mesquite plants that survive with long roots, beautiful Joshua trees that grow in the desert, bighorn sheep that can eat almost any plant, toughened snails and pickleweed plants that survive even the hostile salt flats, and generations of humans who thrived through vertical migration patterns moving from valley bottoms in winter to higher altitudes in summers. There is a stark and lonely vastness in this valley – a place that juxtaposes scenic views, multiple climates, insignificance of life, and yet, life’s sheer tenacity.

(Image courtesy: Lana Law)

A worthy detour while driving northeast from Las Vegas towards Zion is the Valley of Fire – a place where time appears to stand still, with the past and present fused under the beating heart of the sun. Located in the Mojave Desert, its name derives from 150 million years old brilliant rock formations that illuminate the sky with a fiery red color. These Aztec sandstones with their rough floors and jagged walls are what’s left after the compaction and extensive erosion of sand dunes – a constant process of natural transformation over an incomprehensible timescale. The Valley of Fire Road traversing through the park – yet another example of America’s focus on automobiles to reach the inaccessible – takes one through some of the most famous rock formations such as the elephant rock, arch rock, and the fire wave. Humans inhabited this region too, and there is rock art (petroglyphs) by the ancient peoples that can be seen at the Atlatl Rock. Witnessing this juxtaposition of humankind’s eternal quest to mark ‘we were here’, and the nature’s slow but assured dominance over it, is humbling.

Driving northeast for another 2.5 hours from the Valley of Fire gets one to Zion, the middle layer of the Grand Staircase and arguably, its finest composition for human exploration. Zion is charming, spectacular, imposing, and domineering, all at once. It offers something for everyone – leisurely strolls, moderate to strenuous climbs, cliffs and rivers and waterfalls, vivid imagery, plants and wildlife, and fascinating stories of the land and its people. The story of Zion’s topography, and of most of the Grand Staircase, is extraordinary. A long time ago, when dinosaurs were evolving, Zion was a flat basin near sea level. Over time, streams in surrounding mountains deposited so much sand, gravel, and mud eroded from those mountains, that the entire basin sunk. More layers of sediments continued to be deposited and solidified into rocks. At some point, the earth very slowly pushed the entire surface up, hoisting huge blocks of the crust creating the Colorado Plateau and mountains as high as 3000 meters, and giving speed to rivers that flowed rapidly down a steep gradient, cutting through rock layers, and forming deep and narrow canyons. The layers of rock across the Grand Staircase today are a magnificent tableau documenting the fascinating story of these geological processes that are still underway amidst the stunning but transient landscape of the region. Grasping the passage of geological time with the perception of a human mind is futile, and reinforces, yet again, how miniscule our lives are amidst the extravaganza of the universe.

(Image courtesy: Grotto by Tom Morris)

The term Zion was used by Mormons who settled in this region only during the mid-nineteenth century, even though the land has been inhabited since more than 8000 years. The last of native tribes, the Paiute Indians, receive a share of recognition today through odd jobs in managing the national park, even though most of their culture appears to be largely lost. This recent history of substitution of cultures, mostly described as ‘exploration by European American fur trappers’, ‘pioneers settling into the area’, and ‘increased economic activity’ is perhaps the familiar archetype of the complex human conflicts and power struggles that have existed around the world for centuries and narrated by those who survived to tell the story, and yet inconsequential and frivolous when viewed from the prism of nature’s endurance.

A lot of breathtaking scenery of the Zion National Park today is accessible through motorable roads that lead to several trailheads for hikes and climbs and canyoneering, campgrounds that allow spending time in the wilderness, accommodation both inside the park and the town of Springdale just outside, and facilities for river trips and use of stock animals for exploring trails. One of the oldest sections of these roads – the Zion Mount Carmel Highway connecting Springdale with the east side of the park – consists of a 1.8 km tunnel with six large windows cut through massive sandstone cliffs to provide light and ventilation through the canyon wall. Constructed more than ninety years ago, a drive through this engineering marvel is a showcase of human ambition that blasted through rocks and made way, however temporarily, in the grand scheme of things. A few kms north of the tunnel lies one of Zion’s star attractions – “Angels Landing” – a 9-km roundtrip hike that gets one to the top where, as put by a Methodist Minister a century ago, only an angel could land. The last 1 km of the hike requires a permit, though the non-permit parts allow equally majestic views. Shorter jaunts from the Zion Canyon Scenic Drive, such as to the Weeping Rock, or the riverside walk, divulge more of nature’s artistry and interplay of imposing cliffs and glistening rivers. Zion, the middle child in the Grand Staircase, and closer to the earth’s surface than other two, is a happy place; somewhere where the fickle human heart doesn’t feel lost and forlorn amidst the vastness of nature, but is more at ease in the latter’s abundance.

(Image courtesy: NPS)

At the top of the Grand Staircase lies the Bryce Canyon National Park, famous for its surreal hoodoos, the red spindly rock formations collectively creating the park’s ‘Amphitheater’. The story behind the creation of hoodoos as narrated by the native Indians is more refreshing than the tedious geological explanation. Once upon a time, before the Paiute people, lived the to-when-an-ung-wa, the Legend People, who took too much from the land and used to drink all the streams and rivers in spring. They were punished by the coyote God of the Paiute, the Sinawava, and turned into stones. When the sun shines on these red, snow-capped formations casting long shadows, the Legend People appear to look back at us, creatures of dust ourselves, with a calm serenity, telling us a story. At the bottom of the Staircase, is the Grand Canyon, the more acclaimed of the three layers. Standing at the rim during the day, the canyon below is a vast tapestry of colors, patterns, rocks, and water smelting into each other on earth, stretching infinitely in time. At night, the spectacle is reversed, twinkling as stars overhead, a vast tapestry of colors, patterns, rocks, and unknown elements smelting into each other in the sky, stretching infinitely in time.

There is no perspective, other than the cold hard truth of the eternal existence of space and time, and of life that flickers in it like fireflies.

Saturday, April 29, 2023


The protagonist

Uttering the words Las Vegas in any conversation usually evokes a smile. A smile not of the innocuous variety, the type that could be passed along with pleasantries and in situations of ease; but a gravid smile, one that withholds a reflex, an opinion, a judgment, or perhaps a memory that instantly flashed in the mind of the one who decided to bestow that smile to the utterer. On the face of it, Las Vegas is merely a city, slightly more than a century old, but it has a reputation preceding it. Once upon a time in the middle of a desert, humans dared to replace the oppressive heat and glittering sand with neon lights, excitement, and entertainment. The result was an opulent skyline dotted with some of the most grandiose experiments of a civilization, creating lavish structures that emerged from the surrounding desert like a mirage.

Everything in Las Vegas is by design, meticulously crafted to pump a potent mixture of light and sound, frolic and feast, celebration and sensation, channeled through swishing alcohol and fluttering dollar bills. The energy here is palpable, and with some extravagance, it is possible to witness and indulge in the finest accomplishments of the modern civilization – art, cuisine, fashion, wellness, spectacles, and nightlife. The Las Vegas Strip – a 7 km long arterial road through the city – is organized as a series of mega resorts, each as grand as a mini-city with its distinct architecture and theme, casinos, restaurants, hotels, and entertainment venues. The old ones such as Flamingo, Caesars Palace, or Mirage, or the more recent ones such as Bellagio, Venetian, Palazzo, Wynn, or Encore – each resort offers an endless array of unique experiences and adventures in the comfort of precisely conditioned buildings that never sleep. These luxurious buildings are the beating hearts of the multi-billion-dollar economy that helped catapult Las Vegas as the entertainment capital of the world.

The gravid smile that appears at the mention of Las Vegas usually originates from its erstwhile hedonistic reputation – “What happens here, stays here,” was a famous credo for marketing the city until four years ago. The new slogan is a subtle variation – “What happens here, only happens here,” and perhaps a more befitting ode to its glut of entertainment options that are increasingly family friendly. The city was dreamed as a bold destination, with its own Rialto Bridge, and Eiffel Tower, and Colosseum, and Statue of Liberty, and Egyptian Sphinx – different resorts attempt to replicate Venice, New York, Rome, Paris, Cairo, Marrakesh, et al within their compounds, offering an unmatched spectacle.

While gambling in the city’s endless casinos is its most common stereotype, the allure of Vegas as a panoply of human expression and arts is less recognized. Music forms the city’s soul, both with big name shows (Las Vegas is host to some of the biggest music festivals) as well as intimate performances. And it can also be found in astonishing settings, such as the Bellagio fountain featuring more than a thousand water fountains choreographed to music. A highly recommended experience is to visit one of the performances of Cirque du Soleil, the Canadian contemporary circus that hosts multiple permanent shows in the city: productions that defy what human bodies are capable of.

Las Vegas is a place with something for everyone. It's easy to take the route of casuistry in drafting one’s narrative, and fixate on the city’s history of crime, adult industry, and other vices. However, it might be more prudent to assess Vegas as a city of contrasts, where luxury and excess meet history and culture, where glamour and glitz often collide with continence and fortitude, and where foundational questions of philosophy about rights, wrongs, and justice appear both substantial and frivolous at once. When the bleak judgments are stripped off, what remains is a city of possibilities even for the most cautious of visitors, and a delightful escape from the mundanity of everyday life.

(Image courtesy:

The antagonist

The first thing one might notice after landing at LAS is the odious smell of fries. It is yet another unremarkable American airport, replete with fried potatoes, fried chicken, fried bacon, fried patties, sugary drinks, and coffee, interspersed between flight gates used by thousands of souls each day queuing up to be projected into the sky inside pressurized metal tubes. There is a swarm of humanity; humans in different shapes, sizes, and colors; babies, often crying; old people, lurching their way through; all attempting to escape the place they are at, to get somewhere else, quickly, right now. The precise point in history when fortunes such as ubiquitous food, and wonders such as flying, gave way to an all-pervasive ennui in human minds is unknown. On the other hand, it’s downstream effect – of unfettered consumption – is well known.

Nearing the exit of LAS, the welcome signs adorned on walls are all too familiar gateways into the Sin City. Most narratives of the city’s history would describe Vegas as a twentieth century invention – of progressive government policies that transformed a land in the Mojave Desert into the entertainment capital of the world. It’s convenient: history is often too complex to fit into a text message, and usually unpleasant to indulge-in over fine dining. The Paiutes (the natives) who lived here for thousands of years since before the ‘common era’ began, and the story of their displacement by Europeans (the settlers, usually Mormon missionaries) and Americans (who fought with Mexicans to annex the entire region) is somber, complicated, and bears all hues of grey depending on the narrator. The history of these Native Americans isn’t obliterated either, it’s merely commoditized with casinos and hotels decorated with stereotypical imagery, where the tribal traditions are lost, and what remains is the vulgar cultural appropriation that could be exchanged for cash.

On Vegas’ streets, bright LED signboards, each the size of a church’s graveyard, display towering humans in front of garish graphics screaming for attention, goading other humans to consume something – a loud concert, some greasy food, a comic show, a place to gamble, clothes, or shoes, or women – anything with a promise of instant gratification, anything that can stoke concupiscence. The city's adult entertainment industry is a multi-billion-dollar business, built on the exploitation of women's bodies. Debauchery needs celebration, because when everything is available aplenty to the human race, there is little left that can satiate its forever quench for more. 

Las Vegas is affluence in-your-face, a desert where one walks more on carpets than on sand, expensive cars and limousines line up in garages, energy burns at twice the average rate for America with thousands of slot machines whirring inside every building, a giant water fountain uses millions of litres of desert water outside one, a mega beacon of light catapults a beam up into the night sky from the top of one, and other absurdities that are as imaginative as they are an assault on senses. And like any other affluent parcel on the planet, the city successfully hides the have-nots amidst its sheen – the homeless parked on every pedestrian bridge, the trash collectors, the men and women in asinine costumes coercing you for pictures, the casino workers with their unforgiving jobs, the pole dancers, and the drummers of empty plastic buckets attempting to be heard over the din of overlapping amplified music from every corner. The extravagant resorts and towering hotels on the Strip manufacture a world of illusions, where reality could be distorted and stowed away amidst glitz and glamour, and a lewd fantasy could be created by exploiting people and nature.

The frenzied swarm of humanity continuously flows through the city like murky sewage in its drainage system of walkways, bridges, elevators, and escalators. People balancing ‘yard drinks’ in their hands drift aimlessly through buildings of glass and concrete that eclipse the sky, and gape at crass recreations of Rome and Venice replete with plastic plants and artificial skies inside those buildings. Here, the present presents a sneak peek into an eerily dystopian future when the most predatory species on earth will perhaps get permanently relegated underground after the remaining flesh on the planet’s cadaver has also been scorched.

Las Vegas is synonymous with casinos. And it’s those opulent gigantic spaces with their stationary air mixed with smoke and sweat and nonstop fluttering screens and beeping machines that truly represent a generation lost – where the innate beauty of the most intelligent life on this planet got substituted with sparkling machines of chance, where the profundity of human experience got bartered away for mindless ‘recreation’, and where the most intimate and authentic human feelings perished forever in a seductive trap of life behind screens and alcohol. And all this while, dreary crowds continued to queue up at 5100, Las Vegas Boulevard South to get their pictures taken under a signboard. It said: Welcome to Fabulous Las Vegas.

Monday, June 03, 2019


The cat jumped out with a sputter. Perhaps it was getting stuffy inside the basement. The stolid midnight air on the sidewalk arduously stands at its place, choked within a dazzling confusion of serpentine alleys, windows, and crevices beginning somewhere, but mostly ending nowhere. There is a hint of a waning moon; it’s the month of Ramadan and Eid al-Fitr is only a few nights away. A closer look under the signage “Express Laundry”, whereupon the feline emerged, reveals an array of plastic tubs, strewn fabric, clunky machines, and at least five more cats in the dimly lit enclosure meant to serve human needs if and when it would be the latter’s turn; one can never be sure of the next event in this part of the world. Observing the diversity of color and size of the pack, one safely concludes that these cats don’t form a litter, but somehow, they belong together. The rest of old Istanbul, which they seem to own, displays similar characteristics. An emerald green house intercedes a rich mahogany and an azure one, flint colored cobblestones reflect the soft ochre of incandescent bulbs, and a pewter midnight sky interspersed with festively lit charcoal minarets is somehow all coalesced into this city of exquisite contradictions.

The feline of our interest has taken a good look around, stretched, yawned, and started uphill with a haughty gait. It walks in the middle of the street at this hour; during the day it will occupy crannies by the sidewalk, undersides of restaurant tables and parked cars, and even mosques. It is said that old Istanbul is built on seven hills. But this is as inconsequential as saying that the solar system has nine planets. The appropriate thing to say is that there are hills everywhere in Istanbul, since nothing here comes in numbers or measured installments. There are streets everywhere, merging into each other, overlapping, banding together, waving like the ocean, and many a times showing one a tiny postcard-sized glimpse of the sea neatly framed by rows of wood and glass and cement structures descending into the sea itself. There are tram lines crisscrossing everywhere, riding atop waves of streets, allowing modern and slender tram designs to be pulled by a mesh of overhead wires through swarms of people, bursting from and into them. There is smell everywhere, distinct, and yet blending together, changing every ten yards. Smell of flowers; crocus, jasmine, petunia, pansies, and roses. Smell of spices and dry fruits; saffron, pepper, tea, corn, dates, dried apricots, walnuts. Smell of leather, and paper, and soaps, and foliage, and car and boat exhausts. Meat and grills, shawarmas, and fish and shrimp. Attar and colognes. Fruits; ananas, apples, oranges, berries. And sweets and confectionery; baklavas and Turkish delights and kunefes, şerbet and helva, dondurma, even güllaç in this month of Ramadan. Each distinct, plentiful, and exhaustive. 

And that’s just the physical world. Istanbul is metaphysical at the same time, that rumination of dervishes – mystical and esoteric.

“Bu dünyada gördüğün her şey görünmeyenin gölgeleridir.”
Everything you see in this world is an apparition of the unseen.
– Rumi 

Istanbul smells of purity, devotion and providence when one stands insignificantly in front of the minbar at the Hagia Sophia or the Sultanahmet. It smells of opulence when one observes the vaulted cellars, decorated columns, stone arches, gardens, and the ornate pavilions of Topkapı and Dolmabahçe. It smells of the unparalleled elegance of human enterprise inside the Yerebatan Sarnıcı (the Basilica Cistern), or in the tomb of Sultan Ahmet I with its hand-painted İznik tiles, and window shutters and cabinet doors made of ebony with mother-of-pearl, turtle shell, and ivory. It smells of the sea everywhere, without the salt-laden air reaching the nostrils, because the sea here is not restricted to Bosphorus and Golden Horn, it is everywhere.

It is almost seven in the morning. An entire civilization is waking up. Burly men around Kapalıçarşı (Grand Bazaar) are scurrying from the truck to their shops, smoking, transferring cartons and bottles and papers. Many of them will be fasting through the rest of the day until iftar, but will spend their day calling tourists to feast at restaurants or peddling knick-knacks in street-side shops. Shawarma stands on İstiklal Caddesi and elsewhere are being cleaned up. A vendor is hauling his red-white cart that will sell Kestane Kebabs (roasted chestnuts) well past midnight. A man is still sleeping under a tree at the square besides a cat. Seagulls are flying skillfully in between houses constructed on top of each other and ducks are lazily wandering on the beaches. The sun is well above the horizon; days during this time of the year are long and sultry by Istanbul standards, and the sun is already burning the skin.

By the time sun travels to the other side, a carnival is building up at the squares. Strings of colored lights festoon trees, buildings, and mosques. Iftar tents, ready with pidesi bread, soup, pickled vegetables, olives and other edibles for the faithful are coming to life. Large families arranging their utensils and babies and food on the grass for the feast are visibly joyous with anticipation. The graceful voice of the prayer reverberates across the city from all its minarets, and the bustling life slows down for a few moments. The din is insignificant, so is the human breath, for, this is when humanity bows down to the unknown. And where else could this be any more mystical, if not right here? Rumi must have said something about this too.

Elsewhere in the city, far away from the mosques, a kitten is licking its paws inside a self-service café. There is no sound, except for a coffee machine’s diminishing whirr; someone inside this café, run by an art collective, just brewed a cup. The kitten tries to repeatedly scratch the leg of a chair. After a few attempts, either the purpose of the act, or the results of the effort, or both lose their utility and the kitten moves on to its next crusade. It will chew on a few wires – lose ends of a network cable, phone charger, and numerous other props that must be worked upon by this creature that perhaps comes from the same unknown as the rest of us. It moves around softly, purposefully, but not hurriedly. Life is expected to take its own course, and perhaps the meaning of this elaborate enterprise will emerge only in retrospect, if only one could learn the virtue of patience.

The sea is about a quarter of a mile away. A local ferry is gliding on it with the soft sputter of its old, fatigued engine that billows puffs of smoke just where the sky meets the water. At a distance, a school of dolphins is bobbling in the water. A cool breeze blows across the faces of the men, women, and children riding the boat; their faces display a mélange of expressions – anxious, melancholic, loving, tranquil. A man stands on the lower deck with his back facing the hull and plays a saxophone. The open case of his instrument lies in front him as a collection box. A couple, perhaps in their early 50s, gets up and starts to dance. Some people look away in astonishment, some with indifference, and yet a few others look at these two and smile. Our musician nods at them; perhaps recognizing that no amount of money in his collection box will match the fulfillment of witnessing his act transform into this most treasured moment of life, unfolding right here, out of nowhere, on an inconsequential boat between Asia and Europe.

Some cities are too much for a continent.

Thursday, June 23, 2016


"Das war ein Vorspiel nur, dort wo man Bücher
Verbrennt, verbrennt man auch am Ende Menschen"
(That was but a prelude; where they burn books, they will in the end also burn people.)

– Heinrich Heine, 1821

These stirring words stare from a brass plaque placed near the memorial on Bebelplatz, a large square in the middle of Berlin. This memorial consisting of empty bookshelves under the ground was built as a poignant reminder of the day when student groups collected more than 20,000 books from different libraries in the city and burnt them in this very square on 10 May, 1933, apparently as “Action against the Un-German Spirit" and “cleansing” by fire. When Heine wrote these words, Germany was yet to witness its most historic decades that completely altered the fabric of its society. And his words, like those of all those genius littérateurs in history who could accurately discern the metaphysical human tissue with their pens, came as true in Germany as anywhere else in the world.

Remnants of the World Wars present themselves as stoically in Berlin as in most of the historic cities in the European subcontinent that suffered the ravages of battles fought by men at this historically unprecedented scale. A major part of Berlin was destroyed in the 1945 battle, following which the city was butchered horizontally and vertically into four. The local populace, largely homogenous as left over by the Nazis, suddenly found itself being ruled by US, UK, and French capitalists on every street in the west, and by the Soviet socialists on the east. And when they tried to choose one over the other, Moscow erected the 150 Km concrete wall with shoot-at-sight orders for anyone trying to cross over. Taking a walk on the East Side Gallery, the 1.3 Km stretch of the Berlin Wall that survives today makes one wonder how drastically life would have changed overnight for the residents of this land: waking up one fine day, and suddenly finding oneself unable to walk to the other side of town where your aunt lives. For thirty years.

Modern day Berlin is the most startling city I have seen in Europe. A sprawling young metropolis, Berlin clocks time as if it were an unpredictable, but endearing orchestra, playing symbolically from its Philharmonie. It preserves its classical notes of history, both old and recent, as much as it can. There are those tenors conveying the grandiose of the German Empire, as well as those sombre basses of the Nazi atrocities. And then it also offers the cheerful baritone and an infectious energy that is constantly discovering and defining the character of a merely 25-year old city.

On one hand are the castles at Potsdam and Schwerin, not too far from Berlin, which present a glimpse into the royal past. Most of the monuments in Potsdam are from the times of the much revered King Frederick the Great of Prussia, a ruler fond of music and arts. In his Sanssouci palace I saw magnificent rooms with different themes, decorated with paintings, silk hangings, sculptures, furniture, porcelain vases, and every possible piece of beauty brought from different parts of the world or created by some of the finest craftsmen of their time. Schwerin palace, situated on an island in the Schweriner See lake, was a feast for the eyes - a beautiful example of revival architecture. Within Berlin itself lies the museum island, a world heritage site consisting of four museums, the Lustgarten park and the Berlin Cathedral that offer a soothing area for a stroll.

On the other hand are the impressions of numerous known and unknown artists who paint the ruins as well as the underbellies of Berlin's modern structures with the world's most famous graffiti. On a beautiful sunny evening, I climbed up to the Teufelsberg hill with a beer in hand, a location that once was the base of a spy station used by the US National Security Agency (NSA) during the cold war (thanks to the Germans that one can drink in public). The dark leftovers of the abandoned station today host brilliant graffiti work - some more poignant than the images painted on the Berlin Wall itself. It is here where the world can feel both doomed and resurrected at the same time: there are artworks that scream out to save the world from war and destruction, and ones that show the brighter side of a life of freedom. The almost teenaged quirkiness of Berlin doesn't end here. What's even more alluring is a whole airport from the Nazi era replete with a passenger terminal and runways at Tempelhof in the middle of the city that Berlin just decided to abandon. Today, Tempelhof could easily be the largest possible public recreation area in the world where summer evenings see a horde of cyclists, picnickers, couples, and often barbecues and concerts on the flat grass and runways.

Berlin's tryst with rediscovery is most visible in the upcoming areas of Kreuzberg that host modern eateries, bars and sheesha places and where its young often hang out. I sampled what could classify as the most authentic Neapolitan pizza at Zola, courtesy my generous host at Berlin who rightly claims that hers is a city like no other and it's impossible to understand Berlin's evolving culture even after staying here for months. An evening at a local bar with a bunch of young city dwellers reinforces this feeling of permanent transience in Berlin's air.

My previous destinations in the Baltics and Poland seemed to boldly offer a platter of symbolism depicting the cruel destructions of the war and almost forcibly eliciting an instant empathy. Berlin, on the contrary, seems to constantly struggle in dealing with its vicissitudes of the previous century, like a teenager struggling to make peace with herself. Nationalism is subdued in Germany, visible only occasionally and diffidently, such as in the Germany vs Northern Ireland football game of the 2016 UEFA European Championship that happened this week. It's probably one of the fewer instances when cries of "Deutschland!" roar amongst the rambunctious young who gather for the live public screening of the game at Brandenburger Tor. It feels like history is available in Berlin for the tourist-mind to see and infer, not force-fed like elsewhere. The Berlin Wall exists, and the stark difference between the buildings on both sides of the wall also exists for one to notice. But there is no old town with cobbled streets thrusting history and European charm in your face, until you leave Berlin and go to one of its historic suburbs. The reminders of the Nazi history also exist, as a poignant Holocaust memorial in the center of Berlin, as well as the dreadful remains of the Sachsenhausen concentration camp 35 km away. But one is free to choose: to either get burdened by the sins of the past, or to look forward to the effusive creation of a city by its young.

On a cheerful note, I thoroughly enjoyed the bratwurst curry, probably the only food item that can be called 'German', consisting of sausages sliced and topped with a generous portion of mildly spicy ketchup and curry powder. Berlin also has a large population of Turks, and the ubiquitous street-side 'Kebap' shops sell, amongst other things, the delectable dürüm döner; essentially a shawarma wrap with veggies and meat. A day trip to the beautiful port of Rostock offered me further gastronomic explorations, specifically into fresh seafood coupled with beach-side beer.

Moving around Berlin is fairly easy with a highly dense public transport network consisting of regional trains, S and U Bahns, trams, metros, and buses. It is on one of these train stations that I was discreetly asked - "hey, you want some weed?" I later found out that legality of cannabis smoking in Germany falls under grey areas of the law, and possession of “small amounts” for personal use generally does not lead to prosecution (thanks to the Germans once again). Relics of the soviet era are another delight to watch in the city. There are a bunch of tourists driving around the Trabant, arguably one of the worsts cars in the world designed by the former East Germany that's now offered painted with bright colorful stripes by the Trabi museum for a self-drive. Tourists still pay to get fake visas of the erstwhile German Democratic Republic on their passports at Berlin's Checkpoint Charlie, the infamous gate where fully armed US and Soviet tanks had a weeklong stand-off during the cold war; one cannon even mistakenly fired would have escalated the world into a third war of absolute annihilation. And then there is Markthalle Neun, one of the thirteen city markets of Berlin that survives until today after 125 years. I visited the market on a Wednesday only to get disappointed; apparently it's not the day of the week when this market is setup as a warehouse of street food stalls with culinary delicacies and freshly brewed beer.

I could see today's Berlin as a pliant teenager with one foot planted on each side of its own symbolic wall - on one side is its difficult past, and on the other side is the cautiously optimistic mêlée of the present. The city itself is hesitantly taking strides, as if drifting away from both its past and the present to an altogether new identity whose demarcations are unknown. And it is precisely this celebration of transience that makes it so desirous a city to actually live in, instead of merely traveling to.

Saturday, June 18, 2016


"It's interesting how we use the land, you see", continued Loco, my host at Vilnius who is a seafarer working as a salvage man when ships sink anywhere in the world, and a farmer who loves driving combine harvesters when he isn't out into the seas. "When you are in the Baltics, you would see these farms on both sides of the road, and the farmers will cultivate maybe just a circular portion at the center of the land they have. All the corners will be left untouched. It's like f*** it, I don't care. I have enough. It works in these countries that literally have just about 6 million people combined who don't need too much grains." For a man whose three generations have been sailors, his cussing is remarkably non-existent; maybe his German origins make him a polite and engaging conversationalist. His entire sense of orientation revolves around the seas though: what's there when one drives south from the Baltic Sea towards the Mediterranean Sea, or how the world changes when one goes west towards the Atlantic Ocean, or, even more peculiarly during a board-game we were playing about identifying countries from their flags, his hint was - this country is between the Mediterranean Sea and the Red Sea. Talking more about the land use, he continues - "once you get into Poland from here, you will see that the fields on both sides still have some corners untouched, but it ain't as careless as the Baltics. The Poles utilize the land better than here. And if you were to drive west into my country, you will see how every square inch of a German farm is used. Germany is tough, you can't eat if you have no money, it's as simple as that. At least in Lithuania, you won't go hungry. And my dear friend, go to Netherlands to see how they use their land! I think if it was permitted, those guys would grow crops even in the tiny spaces between the sidewalk and the fields and chop off all the trees there!"

Riding into Poland from Lithuania, I immediately notice the lack of smoothness of roads; the bus ride gets noticeably bumpy and one can feel the vibrations that were non-existent up north. The onboard WiFi service stops working, and I need to put a lid on the free cup of hot chocolate I take from the vending machine - it might spill otherwise. On a closer scrutiny of the farms, I do notice what Loco said about the fields: the human settlements in the Polish countryside start to appear more frequently, and there is somewhat ominous air of impoverishment hung all over, especially noticeable when one is traveling from the Baltics. The landscape itself is pretty flat and seems devoid of emotions, and by the time my bus is in the suburbs of Warsaw, traffic jams start appearing and reduce the speed to a crawl, further prolonging the 8 hour journey from Vilnius.

My first impressions of Warsaw are that of any massive city with concrete, coal-tar, and crowd. After much struggle, I manage to find the local bus stop from where I need to get another ride to the old town. Unlike Lithuania, where English speakers aren't as difficult to find, Poland is almost exclusively Polish, the language that probably hosts the hardest tongue twisters in the world of languages and everything from street names to last names of people are impossible to pronounce correctly. Lack of an area map even at the Warsaw Central station coupled with my non-existent local language skills made me spend an hour walking all around the station to find the correct bus stop. Twenty minutes later, I was in the old town - a small and crowded quarter by the Vistula river in the north-eastern part of the city.

The old town is filled to the brink with tourists, and it felt almost repulsive to be here: an old town that seems rather a recent urban concoction of wide roads, however cobbled, arcades, manicured gardens, a few statues, and buildings that seem desperately attempting to belong to historic Europe one sees on postcards. Roaming around amidst the hordes of people, salesmen, Romanian gypsies seeking alms, and vehicles that never stop for pedestrians, Warsaw's old town made me feel almost similar to what one experiences in China Towns in the US or Little India in Singapore: a sense of superfluity, something artificial and decidedly fake; a town desperately trying to belong, and a motley of visitors equally trying hard to justify that they are in Europe mostly by drinking what could be the cheapest alcohol in the sub-continent. I wasn't surprised to learn later that almost the entire city was razed to the ground during the second world war, and what we see today in the old town are all buildings that have been rebuilt over the last 50 years (many as recently as in the last decade) just the way they were in the past. The fact hit me hard, as if it were almost vulgar; something as disgraceful as recreating a dead man's body using a plastic mold, and displaying it to the world as a story of death, tragedy, and resilience of the descendants. I am sure the intentions must have been right, and several visitors love Warsaw just for its rather hip old town, but to me, it was a rather nauseating realization.

Poland is one of the countries that bore the brunt of wartime destruction. In fact, it was oppressed much before the war started: the flourishing land of its glorious kings which was one of the first countries to declare democracy as early as 16th century was 2 centuries later cut up into three by the Prussians, Austrians, and Russians, and ceased to exist on the world map for almost 120 years. The first world war gave the Poles an opportunity to declare themselves as a country once again in 1918, but the Nazi forces soon unleashed a reign of horror on Poles, and particularly their Jews, that has been well documented. Warsaw was the epicenter of the assault, and most of its cultural symbols were targeted and decimated. What remains today is not much: a few remains of old walls (on top of which the reconstructions happened), two or three statues that were spared probably because the Nazis thought they could use their copper later for making weapons, and some pictures from the old, prosperous Warsaw that the underground resistance managed to save. I had a chance to flip through "Yesterday's Warsaw", a coffee table book with a curated collection of pre-war photographs of Warsaw by Andrzej Sołtan that I found in a local eatery. Sipping on their Żurek, the traditional meaty soup, and snacking on Pierogi, boiled Polish dumplings filled with meat, the pictures in the book seemed more endearing and authentic than the actual old town.

Amongst the few notable people that stand out through various memorabilia dedicated to them throughout town are the first female Nobel laureate Marie Curie - the genius who escaped to France to study science against all odds and ended up inventing radioactivity and polonium, an element she named after her homeland. The city also dedicates lots of space to Frédéric Chopin, the legendary composer and virtuoso pianist who, like most gifted musicians, ended up having several scandalous affairs, drank too much, and died young. The best Warsaw has to offer probably lies outside of the old town. I met a local friend online who took me out of the old town to the library of Warsaw University - a library that consists of one of the largest botanical gardens on the roof and might just be the prettiest library in the world. We also went to grab a couple of beers from the makeshift summertime pubs besides the Vistula river. This is where I saw the jubilant local students enthused with energy and cries of "Pólska!" - Poland's football team is playing against Germany tonight in the 2016 UEFA European Championship making the environment electric. And this is where I am quietly told: locals hate the old town; too many tourists, too much noise, and there is hardly anything good about it.

My next destination in Poland is somewhat better: Krakow, a town which apparently has a friendly rivalry with Warsaw, and which used to be the original capital of Poland. Krakow survived the wartime destruction, and is the starkest reminder of World War II brutalities through its museums, and the Auschwitz concentration camp nearby. The deadly history is presented to visitors in its full force through preserved ghetto corners, and several objects and documents from the deadly era. The Krakow old town itself is so old that its 11th century buildings, some of which are still preserved, have seen remodeling from various periods - gothic, baroque, renaissance, and a tour guide pointed out patterns from each era in the same church, a field that I do not particularly understand.

I think visiting the twin cities of Warsaw and Krakow doesn't do justice to Poland. To appreciate the country, maybe one needs to at least visit the mountains of Tatras at Zakopane in the south, and the Baltic coast at Gdańsk in the north. Meanwhile, visiting the cities leaves a lasting impact on one's thoughts about humans and war. How do humans achieve such powerful cohesion and form large collective, often destructive, masses? How can human brains, the most advanced biological machines on the planet, get shaped through speeches, molded through propaganda, and made to act through persuasion as well as coercion? How do we, each of which are such fantastic individuals with unique thoughts and conscience, develop a collective thinking of abstract ideas such as nation, patriotism, purity of blood, etc. at all?

Wednesday, June 15, 2016


Today, let me start with making a case for potatoes. The beloved staple of my childhood, the humble tuber, the vegetable of euphoria. Bad press for potatoes started in my early childhood by the unscientific, clamorous in-house media departments, the ramparts of which are staunchly held by legions of relatives in any typical Indian family represented principally by their viragoes. The sloganeering that was perpetuated in those days of my early childhood development, when the brain apparently creates more than 500 new neural connections every second, went as the following: eat a potato, be a potato. To a developing brain, this worked like a Goebbelsian lie - repeat it enough, and it will become the truth. The most versatile entity of the eatable diaspora, at least for my pure vegetarian family, thus, ended up being the black sheep of the refrigerator's green compartment. This also meant that for me as a child, demanding quick fixes such as mashed potatoes with salt, fried potato wedges, or the quintessential Bihari chokha with my otherwise tasteless meals was considered an act of disobedience ('defiance' hadn't even evolved as a word or a concept until I attained post-graduation, which is when Indian males are expected to reach puberty so as to be married off) and one could lose precious brownie points for it. These brownie points were essential to gain permission for the Sunday evening 4 pm movies on our Bush black and white television set, telecast on the Doordarshan channel. And so goes the potato story: the nutrient-rich, cost-effective, high shelf-life, versatile delicacy remained vilified forever in the household.

"Eat a potato, be a potato" is a lie. I am in Trakų (pronounced Trakai), a small village surrounded by picturesque lakes in the Lithuanian countryside, and can witness the love for potato the local populace has. My hearty dinner consisting of a local delicacy, the Cepelinai, is essentially potato dumplings filled with minced meat. It's the largest portion of potatoes I have seen so far in the Baltics, and with a large mug of home-brewed local lager, it is impossible to finish. Potato dumplings are not all; in Lithuania, I have tried potato pancakes, the usual potato wedges and fries, mashed potatoes, and just boiled potatoes on the side of everything, including Lithuanian herring that consists of raw, pickled fish. Lithuanians have perfected the art of combining potatoes with cheese, meat, onions, and spices, and have truly demonstrated the versatility afforded by this king of vegetables. And if one indulges in people-watching at Trakų, observing the local men (and particularly women), one knows how we have been living the 'eat a potato, be a potato' lie!

For the love of potato, go to the Baltic countries. Put Trakų on your travel plan. Try the Cepelinai and drink beer. Eat Kibinai too. Smoke a cigarette on the numerous jetties protruding in the lake. Listen to Stephan Micus after you are satisfied with the sound of the waves and the ducks. Sleep under a tree. Soak in the life when the slow button is hit, if not the rewind one. For some time, forget the horror the Lithuanians went through at the hands of Germans and the Soviets around the time of the world wars, and countless oppressors before that. When you spot a beautiful Tatar girl in the townhall square of Vilnius, remember to etch that beauty in your mind for later. This is probably the best Europe can get.

And on a sidenote, a majority of us in India don't know where Lithuania is on the map. A souvenir being sold on the streets here in Trakų says "Yes, we exist." And a tiny group of people in JNU are researching how the Lithuanian language, one of the only surviving Indo-European languages, has so many words from Sanskrit. Surprised? This country has closer ties to us than we would imagine. And it has potatoes.

Sunday, June 12, 2016


Here is a small exercise: search the Internet for "Prague quotes". Chances are, you will end up with praises of the city from Franz Kafka, Milan Kundera, and, if you ever looked for Hindi literature in the past, maybe a personalized result with Nirmal Verma in it. Now repeat this search replacing Prague with Rīga. It is highly unlikely that you will find anything of note. At this point, let me propose something seemingly preposterous: if I were to choose, I would choose Rīga over Prague.

Rīga, the only city in Latvia, is so underrated that it doesn't even elicit an obscure mention in European travel diaries. And I think the miscarriage of justice meted out to this pearl of a city is of criminal proportions. Rīga is a city of cobblestones and culture as much as any other destination on the European subcontinent, and then much more. Rīga is charming, for starters: consider walking around a picturesque old town with street-side cafés, cathedrals, frescoed porticos and ceilings, town squares, and shops selling spurious objects of virtu. Add to it the wistfulness of chiming trams and the charismatic inflorescence of public gardens wrapped around manually dredged canals channelized from the Daugava river: you get Rīga. Rīga is historic: two UNESCO World Heritage sites, a number of exquisite cathedrals and museums, incredibly preserved Hanseatic buildings, and its status as the seat of Art Nouveau movement in Europe - a movement in early 20th century that stressed on creative freedom and dynamic, flowing lines unlike the stiffer sensibilities of the old Victorian style. And Rīga is surprisingly unspoilt and pocket-friendly. It doesn't get the sheer number of camera-toting humanity from all over, it isn't dotted with an excess of loud pubs and nightclubs (though there are just enough of them), and a meal and a drink at an elegant street-side café will not plunder your pockets to reconsider the next one. It is possible to drink, shop, and have day trips out of Rīga to beaches and castles (Jūrmala and Sigulda respectively, for instance) without facing issues of ticket unavailability or unaffordability. 

Yes, Rīga is the only city in Latvia and over one third of the Latvian population lives here (a large proportion of the rest work here). And after visiting Rīga, I only wish there was a way for me to discover much more of the Latvian countryside. If there were a country for introverts, I think it would be Latvia. With just about 2 million Latvians in all, it's a nation of 'personal space' - to put it mildly - and what I earlier perceived as the sternness of Estonians was explained better to me in Latvia: people in this part of the world aren't cold or uncommunicative, they just take ages to open up. It's possible to be neighbors in the countryside for years without knowing each other's names. But every Latvian still belongs to the countryside at large, where people farm, grow berries and mushrooms, grill meat, and have holidays that involve long walks in the forest.

I spent most of my time in the Rīga old town, visiting the usual sites listed in the travel maps: old town square, St. Peter's Church, freedom monument, national opera, and a few museums. However, stepping out of the old town throws some real surprises. It's a treat to visit the Central Market - five imposing structures incorporating the frames of World War I-era dirigible hangars that today host the largest bazaar in Europe. People-watching here is a delight, from babushka women to high-heeled ladies, all descend to the Central Market for buying vegetables, meat, and spices. It is here that I bought my bottle of Rīgas Melnais Balzams, the traditional Latvian herbal liqueur I have begun to love.

There are several events lined up at Rīga for the summers; things as grand as an International Jazz Festival, and things as small as the Night of the Churches, and there is never going to be a dull moment. For the sake of my childhood love for potato - and there is a Reddit thread of jokes on Latvians' love for potato - I think I am in love with this European pearl. And if there was one city I would want to come back to, it is Rīga!

Friday, June 10, 2016


"Viisakas Linn" - Estonian for "Polite City" - is how the Mayor of the town likes to promote Pärnu. And for good reason: his hometown has no traces of the sternness of the Estonian north, and happens to be a beach paradise. Located on the south-western seaside, Pärnu is a 13th century town that happens to be modern Estonia's summer capital. On bright sunny days, it has an infectious atmosphere with mostly Finns, Russians, and Estonians from other parts of the country zooming into town for its peaceful beach promenade, famous spas, shopping, and planned exhibitions and festivals throughout the summer. They call it white nights - the timeless summers of Estonia with 20 hours of daylight. I chose Pärnu for its annual Grillfest - a 2 day festival that takes place in June on the scenic meadow of Pärnu Moat. During the festival, more than 250 food vendors from Estonia and abroad offer their delicacies in open-air restaurants and cafeterias and the town sees a lot of visitors.

I am staying in a cheap dormitory right opposite to the Pärnu Moat, and arriving a day before the weekend festival, I was a little taken aback to notice no one else on my entire floor. The very next day, the dormitory is a full house - the summer has arrived!

Pärnu happens to be historic in more ways than one. It got populated after the Ice Age itself, and much later in the 13th century, developed as the only major sea port in Livonia - a term used in those times for the eastern shores of the Baltic Sea. That's when it joined the Hanseatic League and became a seat of medieval trade. Amongst others, Russians and Swedes ruled the town in various phases until it came under the Soviet occupation - the phase depicted as "red terror" in most of Estonia I have seen so far. In between, after the World War I, the Republic of Estonia was declared in Pärnu, though the joy was short-lived. Russians withdrew from Estonia only in 1995, and the country has been an EU member State since last 12 years.

The city of Pärnu has been carefully nurtured with walking and biking paths, numerous parks, hiking and fitness trails, outdoor gyms, and basically anything that can promote movement. The beach itself has shallow waters and limited waves considering Pärnu's coast being located at an inlet of the Baltic Sea, making it ideal for swimming during summer days. Pärnu is also famous for its spas, water centres, and health resorts. One of the oldest spas is the Pärnu Mud Bath that can be traced back to 1838 that was burnt and reconstructed in the early 20th century. It now houses a slick modern hotel and spa, and I was pleasantly surprised to notice how it promotes several treatments that are 'aligned with principles of ancient Indian ayurveda' that may lead to self-healing. The description of the treatments were tempting, but the right hand column desisted me from indulgence!

The weather was unlucky enough for me in Pärnu - after the highs of 20 degree temperatures last week, the mercury has plummeted to sub-10 degrees this week, and walking too much outside in the wind was difficult for my rather equator-adjusted body of New Delhi. Carrying no headgear other than a women's scarf, I did brave the weather to visit some of the notable sites in the city. One of them is a 1747 built Lutheran Church: the St. Elizabeth's Church where I again reached at the 6 pm evening prayers, sat through the priests' singing of the rosary, and ate the bread and wine offered after the mass. Renting a bicycle and exploring wider wasn't an option in the wind-chill, and I covered most of the old town on foot. On arterial streets such as the Rüütli, shops alternate with cafés, and there are a number of bars all along to eat and drink pork, potatoes and beer. The beach promenade itself was deserted, and stacked sunroofs and closed kiosks were the biggest disappointment for someone who carried swimming and running gear from 6,300 Kilometers away! Rains washed away the evening, and are predicted to continue tomorrow - a bummer for the locals considering its impact on the Grillfest. Luckily for me, though, I spent 3 hours at the Moat this morning, sampling the traditional roasted pork, baked potatoes, handmade chocolates infused with Vana Tallinn, and Estonian craft beer. Despite the cloudy skies, the festival kept up its tempo with revelling music, hordes of people, and savory aroma of fresh meat and vegetables all around.

With Pärnu, I am bidding farewell to Estonia and moving further south in the Baltics. However, some part of me believes this is the best of the three States with its rich seafaring life, food, and amalgamation of the new and the old. Until next time, and hopefully in better weather, hüvasti!

Wednesday, June 08, 2016

Estonian Countryside

When there are about 5 hours between a sunset and a sunrise, the term 'nightlife' essentially loses its relevance. Thus happens with Estonian summers, though the light doesn't deter the revelling of pub-hoppers through the night in cities. The countryside, however, is a different story.

About 200 Kms southwest of Tallinn lies the island of Saaremaa, the biggest island of Estonia situated between the Baltic Sea and the Gulf of Riga. The journey from Tallinn to Kuressaare, the island's capital, is one of the most picturesque routes in this part of the world. Buses from Tallinn drive southwest to Virtsu, a small port town on mainland Estonia. The route passes through a number of small, pretty villages where the buses make stops. They then ride straight on to a ferry at the Virtsu port. The ferries, carrying people and vehicles, take about 30 minutes to cross the Suur Strait to reach Kuivastu on the Muhu island. The buses get off the ferry and ride on to Saaremaa on a bridge that connects Muhu and Saaremaa islands. The journey from Muhu to Saaremaa is densely forested and is even more enchanting than the mainland. The buses themselves, operated by the Lux Express Group, are an ultra-modern fleet replete with television screens for every seat, a collection of movies and songs, and an on-board WiFi throughout the route validating Estonia's claim to be one of the most wired countries in the world. Estonia, just to mention, serves as a model country for free internet access mostly throughout its land area.

Saaremaa island retains its old world charm of having villages with stone fences, houses with thatched roofs, and windmills from the days of yore. Products and artifacts made of juniper wood are common all across, and the island also hosts two nature reserves that protect its rich flora and fauna. Kuressaare itself is probably one of the sleepiest island towns that has little in terms of tourist attractions and activities. There are very few tourists at this time of the year, and probably the lack of any budget accommodation further deters solo travelers and backpackers. The only sight worth visiting is the Kuressaare Castle dating from the 13th century, one of the best preserved medieval fortifications in Estonia. It is now a museum that hosts a permanent exhibition on the history of Saaremaa: a history chequered with wars, and especially the much detested Soviet occupation. The museum dedicates a floor to the Cult of Communism, the destruction brought about by collectivism, and the propaganda tools used during the occupation.

Walking around Kuressaare is difficult as the wind makes it extremely chilly to stay outdoors for long, and awkwardly enough, most places seem to be closed for the good part of the day. Kuressaare might appear dead for those with expectations of a beach-side liveliness. A breakfast at my hotel surrounded by septuagenarians reaffirmed the profile of visitors the island attracts. There isn't much to do while being here other than enjoying the overdose of cheese in local dishes (the islanders love cheese), building a taste for the tangy black bread made of rye, sipping home-brewed beer available almost everywhere, and resting at peace.

Two things stayed with me at the end of today: the drive through the Muhu island, and this quote from the Saaremaa museum - "Capitalism is the exploitation of man by man, socialism is the other way round."