Thursday, January 01, 2015

The Journey to the Center of the Earth


The 4 hour bus journey from Athens begins to get interesting only as it tails off towards its end, that’s when the hills make a first appearance, still a mere suggestion on the horizon but a promising one. And as we get near, the narrow winding road doesn't begin the climb straight off, it curls its way to the belly of the valley, like a mystery writer taking you deep within the story, wary of revealing the plot, keeping the big picture hidden out of sight. And then the slow and labored ascent begins. The bus, losing its momentum and breath, stretches towards its apogee, a distant town just below the peaks, revealed to us in glimpses, immeasurably beautiful. That is the sleepy little town of Arachova, famous for its wondrous ski slopes. But this is the beginning of summers, the chill may not have totally dissolved yet but the snow has. And that’s when action shifts further down the road. It’s early May and halfway into the valley ahead; Delphi is just waking up from the slumber of winters, like most of touristy Greece.

The Corinthian Gulf seen from our room balcony
The whole town is all but two streets which seem to exist more out of a modern-day necessity then slow organic growth of history which this quaint little town is famous for. The older one rises uphill hugging the towering mountain to the east, the Paranassus. It is a single lane which now serves the onward traffic and the more homely side of the town. It then declines into the road a few hundred meters down. The other one crawls downhill, clinging desperately, to the almost vertical cliff and eventually becomes the main road again. On this you would find the few tourists that have trickled in, downing their morning coffee in one of the many cafes.

Main street, Delphi
We chose to get our first taste of Greek coffee at the oddity on the main street, the Telescope Café. There’s a mild chill in the air, a tad too much for our Indian frames, but the bunch of school students out for an architectural tour seem to be least fussed about it. They merrily hog the multiple telescopes placed in the patio of the café, which looks down the cliff towards the valley and the harbor town of Itea. We get curious. Yes the telescopes did come first, the name followed. Even without the telescopes, the beautiful hills and the Gulf of Corinth in the distance are enough to take your breath away. “It snowed last night”, says Tom, our barista and the proud owner of the café. He has kind but melancholy eyes. “Not here, up there on Paranassus”. There is a certain quality to the way he says Paranassus, as if it were a person.

Centuries ago, it was Paranassus, the very heart of which was carved out by ancient Greeks to sculpt Delphi (or Pytho as it was known in those days). It was a city dedicated to Apollo himself (as the myth goes) and marked by Zeus, god of all things, as the center of the earth. Its trademark amphitheater played host to the Pythian Games, one of the four PanHellenic games that the modern day Olympics are born out of. It is this amphitheater that is first to emerge as you turn the corner on the main road. The sanctuary is made up of buildings set on terraces in tiers. A curling path crawls up the tiers right up to the temple, the stadia and the amphitheater. Along the way are numerous statues and buildings of varying purposes and importance. Such is the incline of the Paranassus, that the all the buildings are almost distinctly visible from the road at the bottom. 

The Treasury of Athens
The first buildings of importance you encounter as you make your way up are the many treasuries of the Greek City states, including Greek territories in the Seas. Used to store the bounty the states would dedicate to Apollo, five of the many treasuries have been distinctly identified. The city states would dedicate a part of the battle spoils after each battle, typically a tenth (a tithe) of their plunder. Only the Athenian Treasury survived neglect and vagaries of nature and has been reconstructed almost fully. Many other buildings dot the path as you rise further to reach the temple of Apollo. The most important building of the set, the temple of Apollo was reinvented many times, constructed thrice in the 7th, 6th and 4th Century BC, before finally being destroyed in 392 AD. 

One truly needs to climb halfway up this towering hill to the highest site in the sanctuary, the amphitheater, to even begin to imagine what a wondrous spectacle Delphi would have been. The Pythian Games, whose rise and fall was synonymous with that of the city, would showcase the glory of this sanctuary to all who came to bear witness. And, as if particularly to flaunt it, the amphitheater was designed to enable exactly that. The Koilon or the seating gallery not only offered a spectacular view of the Scena or the stage, but further down of the entire sanctuary of Delphi and even further of the valley of Delphi in its entirety and vastness. It was a view designed with a single purpose: to inspire awe. It does.

Such was the pre-eminence of Delphi and the Delphic Oracle that everyone from Kings to commoners would consult her, an anomalous religious and social female leader in a predominantly male society, for matters ranging from Law to Crime to Philosophy. It is said that it was the Delphic Oracle who set Socrates on his quest for knowledge by proclaiming his wisdom. But like all mighty cities of the past Delphi also fell prey to the rise of a belief system contrary to its creators. While Christianity continued its determined march through central and Eastern Europe, Theodosius I, lay waste to the temple to silence the iconic Oracle of Delphi for eternity. And Christians pillaged all of the remaining sites in a quest to wipe “Paganism”, leaving behind only ruins which stand to tell a broken story.

If you are a student of archaeology or a historian you could spend a lifetime reading that story in these ruins although most tourist resources and guides on Delphi term it a weekend trip, sometimes even a day trip from Athens. But if you are a traveler, give yourselves some time. Because time slows down when you enter this lovely town and the ease and calm of contentment takes over. As the night falls, the streets light up with sparkle, in a quiet beauty. Cafes advertise their Mediterranean flavors and lull you in with soft tunes of Greek music. Those valley-side patios offer a view filled with the eternal promise of distant lands and awaiting adventures that mesmerize every traveler. Itea is mere sparkle in the utter darkness of Pindus mountain range. And as you curl in on the couchettes, with a bracing cup of coffee and a book, the cozy warmth of the fireplace keeping away the mild chill; time, finally, comes to a complete standstill.

Getting to Delphi

Athens: The easiest and cheapest way is to catch one of the 6 buses that leave Athens daily from Bus Terminal B near the PRAKTORIA bus stop in Athens for Euro 15 a side.

Across Greece: The coastal town of Itea has regular buses from other towns across Greece from where a shuttle would leave you in Delphi in no time

Recommended: If you are the kinds, most global car rental companies have offices at the Athens airport and very reasonable rates. Fuel costs vary but remain below Euro 2 per liter and if you have plans to travel on to other destinations like Patras or Meteora, having a car makes your life much (MUCH) easier given that alternatives include multiple bus / train changes.

Get Out: As said before Delphi is very fulfilling if you are a traveller. Day trips or even overnighters to Arachova in its summary colourfulness will be worth the effort and time. If the valley views from Delphi are grand, ones from Arachova are nothing short of spectacular. And if you’re headed to Patra, consider stopping by at Itea for the warmth of the Corinthian Gulf enjoyed with a fresh cooler.

Eat: Telescope Café is a must visit. The kind owner fresh baked us a whole vegetarian pizza and insisted we only pay for the two slices my wife purchased. A bakery on the inner street opens early and has excellent cheap breakfast. Delphi is a small town, best is to walk around and check out the menus for what catches your fancy.

Sleep: Pan hotel, valley view rooms. It’s economical, lovely host and adequate rooms.

Best Time: Winters if you like Skiing and love sheer scintillating whiteness, summers if you are of a fragile construction like me.

Buy: Fresh Olives. The region is obviously famous for them. Reach out to the owner of Telescope Café, his grandfather’s hand-grown 100% organic olives were plain divine.

Pls feel free to write to
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Thursday, September 04, 2014

Painted in Stone. Cambodia.

Part 1: First Impressions

The quintessential Tuk-Tuk ambled through the last hints of prosperity. The tall white building in the distance stood mockingly, a swanky new casino in the No-Man’s Land between the two sister towns, visible long before the dingy one room border check post came to view. The sister towns share similar names and similar people, even customs. They stand across one continuous swath of indistinguishable land, divided by an imaginary line and a literal one. And what a monumental difference does the imaginary one make. One side of the line enjoys the spoils of a richer economy, a stable past and a cultural heritage which wasn't systematically chiseled off. The other…is in Cambodia.

We finished the relatively easy immigration at the border post between Thailand and Cambodia and were immediately surrounded by a multitude of people selling everything from clothes to the charms of a woman or the thing that most people land in Poipet seeking: a passage to Siem Reap, the site of the remnants of the legendary, pervasive and powerful Khmer Empire. It was around the year 802 that the Hindu king, Jayvarman II set about sculpting one of the most impressive empires of the world: Angkor, spread over most of what in modern times forms Thailand, Laos, Vitenam and even parts of Myanmar and Malaysia. The next 600 years would be the glorious years of Cambodia. They would witness prosperity of the kind never experienced before, or after and an important shift from Hinduism to Thervada Buddhism. They would also see the construction of the world’s largest single religious structure till date (larger than Mecca Masjid or the Vatican) and what was also world’s largest pre-industrial settlement complex.

As we trudge through the relatively green and vastly unoccupied countryside of southern Cambodia, it betrays no signs of its ancient glory. Tan, our driver, is fighting along the two lane freshly paved arterial highway which powers the country’s tourism capital and connects it to both the administrative capital and border towns of Thailand. He is too young to be ferrying tourists. But as you would invariably discover trundling through this stuck-in-time country, this is very much a way of life: juggling all the things one is supposed to do with what one has to do. His ageing Toyota Corolla offers one to and fro ride every day to the border, ferrying tourists for USD 55 a side or better if he can bargain. But he can’t. The foreign words in Cambodia are limited and functional…yet. Quite like the smiles. There is an eerie quality to the Khmer smile which runs across the face of even the bas reliefs and statues of Angkor, a calm knowing smile, polite but not ceremonial. Wry but not sad.

The 140 odd kilometres from Poitpet to Siem Reap get covered in relatively short time and the fabled city unfolds itself. Angkor is one of world’s most visited cities and contributes more than 10% of the total GDP of Cambodia via tourism alone.
Aptly branded The Water Kingdom, Cambodia envelopes a vast tropical plateau lined with multiple streams flowing in and out of the great Tonle Sap Lake. It also gets a fair share of the mighty Mekong, flowing at its prime as it enters and passes through. This combined with the relatively low population density and a primarily agrarian society meant all through the ride we enjoyed amazing vistas of contrasting green fields and azure skies stretching far into the horizon. And the rain-washed colours of Cambodia have a particular pureness about them leaving you refreshed rather than tired during journeys.

The brilliant drive meant that we immediately checked into our hotel and were raring to get a taste of the already building evening buzz of what is an unmistakably Asian city. A short walk from our hotel was the tourist centre wrapped between Sivatha Road and Pokambor Street. Pokambor runs parallel to the Siem Reap River and we started our day walking beside, taking in the sparkling lights on both sides, and their reflections. The temples of Angkor, put on the world travel map by Angelina Jolie’s Lara Croft, play host to travelers from all parts of the world. It is not uncommon to spot cafes playing football matches on large screen and serving European food and combined with the chalky smell of freshly brewing conversations, we were tempted to stop by for a beer. But our objective was to cover most of the massive Angkor Archaeological Park’s popular sites on Day 1 of the 3 day pass, making for a really early start the next day. So grudgingly, we cut short the charming walk and made our way back to Sivatha Road to tuck in early with a book I picked up on the street.

Part 2: Angkor to Angkar

I was wrapped in a warm blanket…but with the very first page, sleep would vanish from my eyes. It was between 1975 and 1979 that almost 25% of Cambodia’s population was systematically cleansed or succumbed to one of the worst genocides of modern times. Saloth Sar was born a peasant but brought up in the corridors of Cambodian royalty’s palace courtesy his sister, one of the many concubines of King Monivong.  And that coincidence brought with it the many privileges: an education at the elite Lycee Sisowath (Colonial French School) and a technical scholarship to a Paris bustling with an underground Communist movement. When Sar returned, he came back as Pol Pot, an impressionable young man with misinformed ideas of nationalism and communism with Cambodia in the throws conflict. A world war depleted France was rapidly withdrawing from Indochina and Cambodia hurtled towards a monarchical independence. Added to the mix were the territorial ambitions of the Viet Minh and violent communist movements supported by China. And somehow, caught between all of this, a perennial under-performer with a peasant background would become Angkar: the invisible lord of the Khmer Rouge, one of the deadliest despots of all times. Pol Pot hadn’t only killed millions of people; his interpretation of the communist ideal was an absolute retreat to peasant lifestyle. And therefore, anyone having any connection to elitism, culture, education, sciences would be summoned by Angkar, never to return; Teachers, doctors, managers, scientists, classical dancers, musicians…everyone.

I woke next day with a new-found empathy for Tan. And many other nameless faces I had crossed on the streets. The smirk that appeared on my face the day before on how any and every one had tried to manipulate the name Angkor for commercial success had disappeared. What other choice did the country have other than to cling to the only connection to a forgotten glory?

The hotels in Siem Reap understand your need for carbohydrates in the morning. Because if you need to walk miles (and miles), climb uneven steps of the temples of Angkor and rush back in time to witness the sunset from the top of the prime Wat, you need to tuck in. The lavish breakfast spread at Somadevi Angkor helped us prepare sufficiently for a bright and early start. Tan, our driver from Poipet had agreed to send his brother as our driver and guide for the day. And in a short while, passes to the park bought and punched, there we were, in the huge all-encompassing arms of Angkor.

The old Hindu myth goes like this. In the everlasting tussle for power between good and evil, following a curse, Hindu lords of heaven, the Devas had lost the heavens to Asuras or the balancing evil spirits. It was then that the wily Lord Vishnu, operator of the world came up with the idea of churning the mighty seas (Sagar Manthan). The churning would bring to fore the largess from the bounty of the oceans. Amongst them would be Elixir of life, a promise of eternal life to both the Devas and the Asuras. The catch? Either could not do it alone. The mighty Mt. Meru would serve as the churning rod and the great king of serpents, Vasuki as the rope. Both Devas and Asuras agreed. And when the Elixir finally did appear, Lord Vishnu, donning the form of a beautiful woman, charmed the Asuras away, leaving the Devas to have the Elixir all to themselves.

If you are born a Hindu, the fables first strike you when you see the familiar form of Devas and Asuras holding a serpentine rope on either side of the entrance of the great Angkor Wat.Mt. Meru, the moat around it, the great seas and the bridges across playing Vasuki. In that moment of realization…what was till moments before a mere building in stone came alive for me. The sheer imagination of their great architects immortalized their beliefs in such an indestructible way that nature in its strongest elements took control of the temple for 100s of years and failed to erase them. So indestructible that even 1000 years after a change of faith replaced the Hindu deity from the main chamber of the temple and still every part of the temple screams their intended stories in endless bas reliefs carved into stone. So indestructible, that the temples of Angkor remain the thin strand of roots, that connects this fragile country to its glorious past even after the Khmer Rouge attempted to wipe it off with the blood of 6 million innocent Khmers. Little did I know, that my wonder for this small dot on the massive Asian continent would continue to grow till the end of my journey?
The moat that surrounds the square Wat has four such entrances bridging over it, one on each side, each entrance sporting similar forms. Directly ahead, dead straight is the central dome of the Wat. You begin to walk in…and that’s when it hits you! Angkor Wat was a temple dedicated to Lord Vishnu. And the ancient Khmer chose that particular myth, that monumental moment in divine history which forever established the superiority of good over evil. The Angkor Wat is a living model of the churning of the great seas. The Wat itself represents the

So grand is the scale of Angkor that the 3 days we had there were woefully inadequate to visit only the important temples which include Baphuon, Preah Khan, Bantey Srei and Bayon apart from the Wat itself. But the more we saw, the more we got lost in these stories painted in stone.
Deriving childlike joy in decoding the familiar fables in unfamiliar faces, we went from temple to temple. And when we finally turned on our heels as the sun set in the distance on the last day of our trip, exhausted but content, fulfilled but hungry for more the characteristic smile on Tan’s face betrayed just a slight amusement. Siem Reap town and the sight of its cars and ugly resort buildings with overdone facades was like a jolt of rude reality and we quickly sought refuge in the swimming pool of our hotel. When the water had adequately infused us with enough energy to survive one more night of wandering about, we hit the streets.

Beside the Angkor night market, which sells exotic perfumes and clothes woven with the stunningly soft cotton along with its many trinkets, tucked in, there is a square where every night bicycle-carts driven by traditionally dressed Khmers assemble. Within minutes of the sun setting, the square quickly transforms from being part of the road to an eat-street. The aromas (or smells, depending on your food persuasion and palate) waft through the street promising exotic wonders of a relatively unknown cuisine. And in food to, the history of this puny nation trumps all. Khmer cuisine is also one of the world’s most ancient cuisines and celebrates simplicity to prove it. The balance of flavors and respect for natural ingredients shine through. But like any other Asian nation, it is not for those with a set palate.

And then…we hit pub-street.


After 9 days of traveling Cambodia had already shocked and awed me in many ways. Its history, culture and Hindu lineage made me relate with the Khmer even more than would most people. But one thing I was definitely not prepared for….was the Pub Street. Just when the intellectual maelstrom from understanding Cambodia had ensured adjusting back in the drudgery of a routine life would be difficult, we went to Pub Street. The Temple Bar plays music loud enough to rouse the sleeping gods of Angkor and considers selling anything smaller than a pitcher of alcohol a shame. The street is lined with these pubs and people simply spilling over so much so that the whole street turns into one single party. People of forty different nationalities and beliefs. One people.

As I sat there at the Phnom Penh airport, my whole perspective about Cambodia had changed. The road trip from Siem Reap, again arranged by the very kind Tan, had passed by in a drunken haze. A splash on the face and a quick shower later…there we were, about to catch our ride home. And we were all exhausted, humbled and silent. We had come to understand the mysterious smiles of God’s of Angkor and the almost mechanical, disenchanted way Khmers go about their work.

In 5 years Pot managed to uproot Cambodia, bringing a thousand year old glorious history to a complete standstill. The Cambodia that stands today, under its bustling night markets and throngs of tourist wowed by the sheer scale of the temples of Angkor is a ghost of the magnificence it was. Angkor itself is far removed from a city which was the largest pre-industrial town of the world sprawling over a 1000 square kilometers boasting of an elaborate infrastructure system across its urban wonders. Angkor also had the most impressive water management systems insulating it from the vagaries of unpredictable of the size of Angkor.
The only ancient city which came near this Khmer masterpiece was Mayan city of Tikal, a 10

And all of this, the Khmer managed when Paris was but a small hutment of 500 people. And here it was, more than 35 years after the Khmer Rouge…still struggling to find an identity, with only one constant witnessing it all: the Wat.

As the Khmer say…the boat sails by, the shore remains.

Sunday, June 08, 2014

IRCTC: On the Right Platform

Crazy that I all the election hoo-haa, I felt for poor souls trying to defend Rahul Gandhi. I wondered what it would feel like to be batting for something so miraculously incompetent. So here's my attempt at finding out. And the proxy I think fits the bill: IRCTC. Even Rahul Gandhi would rather get another round of electoral colonoscopy from a 12th pass (or graduate? can't really tell these days...) TV actress, then come up against IRCTC in a popularity war (or try and book a ticket on it, for that matter). The blue website tells the real men from chaff. The website that made "Tatkal" results the new sexy. Oh well.

But if you are a maniac for trains. If you spend your spare time randomly searching trains between destinations and still religiously buy a copy of "Trains at a Glance". If you know there are 16 Railway Zones and 4 Mountain Trains. If you can tell the difference between the Palace on Wheels and the Deccan Odyssey, you kinda sorta end up looking beneath the surface. And if you'll notice that while the world has been busy chanting "Death to IRCTC", the poor guys at Indian Railways and IRCTC have been slowly and surely chipping away at significant reforms. Baby steps which would build a platform for unlocking this ancient giant's true potential, whether it be removing barriers like lack of cleanliness / transparency in ticketing or mobilizing dormant assets (Railway Stations / booking offices) or increasing availability of seats or optimizing sales / increasing profits. Here are a few things that make you wonder:

1. IRCTC itself. Try booking a train at the Malaysian Railway website (KTM Antarabandar) or Thai Railway or Vietnam Railways. The first 2 allow bookings to be made online but are far less impressive than IRCTC either in detail or in convenience. The third.....doesn't even allow for it. Ranked amongst the top 500 sites in the world by traffic, IRCTC receives a staggering 2.6 million hits a day (freewebsitereport) with an average time spent on site of 12.4 minutes (alexa). Within the first 10 minutes of it opening (8AM) as many as 800,000 login attempts are made. The 70 servers, serving these 800,000 have roughly 50,000 tickets to issue (at an average of 2 passengers per ticket), which means irrespective of however much they try...about 700,000 passengers (or more) will HAVE to go dissatisfied. Even at its "inefficient" best, IRCTC issues about 100 Million tickets every year to its 25 million registered users, having witnessed a 11-fold increase in tickets booked per day in 2011-12 over 2009-2010. Those are insane numbers for any organization to manage perfectly smoothly, particularly when they don't really have enough of products to sell!

And now to the little innovations which I absolutely love...

2. Food: What once used to a delightful dip into the flavors of India has recently become a nightmare. Gone are the days of the fabled Ambala Cant Chicken Curry, Chittaurgarh Canteen Thali, Delhi Station's Puri Bhaji or Shoranur's Apam-Egg Curry. Modern day pantry operators have been accused of using every means possible for profiteering. In comes IRCTC with a food pre-order service piloted in Vadodara railway station for select trains. The food is sourced from a certified railway canteen, prepared in hygienic conditions and above all....served hot. While the idea may not have been a success with IRCTC, here's what it sparked off:

Unlocking IRCTC's and Railway's potential:

3. Traffic: The IRCTC's net-worth basis mobile and internet traffic is over five and half million USD. Which is why the modern day IRCTC offers everything from airline ticketing to shopping on their website. It is a significant step in what a future IRCTC would look like and it could become an amazingly integrated travel solution for everyone.

4. Railway's Real-Estate: Perhaps what is my most favorite move, IRCTC now offers Railway Retiring Rooms bookings online. For those who don't know, all mid-sized Railway Station ACROSS THE COUNTRY have a retiring room, or overnight accommodation for travelers at extremely competitive rates. Ranging from anywhere between Rs. 100/ Bed in the dorm to Rs. 2000/ ac Room, these rooms were the fiefdoms of babus or even peons who had complete control over whether you would get one or not. Which meant, they were either issued to the connected or the bribing. And only the strong willed (yours truly) would fight it out. Lack of patronage meant that most of these places were rotting unused. Opening them to public like this would mean a complete revival of this dead real-estate for the railways and a steady revenue stream. It would also mean a supremely convenient and pocket-friendly stay option for students, day travelers, families alike.

There are many more little things about safety, cleanliness etc that Railways has been chipping away at. Or the dynamic fare trains that IRCTC and Railways have recently thought up to boost both availability and profits. It is a window into the future of what IRCTC is on its way to becoming.

Imagine a day where all your travel problems were solved on one site. Tickets-check. Need an air-pillow for Sleeper-check. A cab to and fro station - check. Food delivered to your train - Check. Imagine a day where you reach a railway station, in the CENTER of a city and did not have to carry your baggage beyond the main platform. You walk into a very well maintained hotelish reception, greeted by a smartly dressed receptionist and are promptly guided into a perfectly appointed room. Maybe even managed by Ginger (Indian Hotels Company Ltd.) or Ibis (Accor). Imagine not having to rush to the Railway station from your hotel...simply walking across the platform. Where fresh food would be delivered right into your room at the station. Too much to imagine? Check this out...

IRCTC is on the right platform. The train's just a tad late.

UPDATE: Another lovely innovation by IRCTC. Now you can request for a specific coach while booking your ticket. Which means, not only do you reduce the risk of splitting a group to different parts of the train but also reduced the hassle of trying to exchange seats while on the train. In the process, reducing discomfort to fellow passengers and saving the poor TT another nightmare.

Tuesday, November 08, 2011

To my fellow Wanderers.

A friend of mine posted this picture on Facebook with a remark that brought back some cherished but distant memories gushing back...

I've often found it difficult to explain why two years in Kozhikode (Business School) left such an indelible, intense impression which would take some time to fade. It was like a bunch of 20 somethings had been given their teenage back but with the freedom that comes with your adulthood and for two incredible years stuffed with learning, fighting, drama and romance we got to pretend the world was all about today. So when it ended in a blur of confused days when I did not quite know how to react, a celebratory trip to Goa was a little too much to handle and I decided to cut it short. It was on the journey back to campus for one last time, in the sleeper class compartment of a train (a setting which we had spent two years preparing to earn our way out of) with two wanderers I'd never meet again, I finally found peace.

An American couple into their forties were sitting right across us with their Rough-Guide and a copy of Into The Wild and two small bags barely enough to hold a few clothes and essentials. Over the next few hours we had engulfed ourselves in a rich conversation about their experience in India and "that part" of the US which was wild and not quite New York, the part where nature was still your best friend. The couple, with income meager for an Indian family, had traveled around the world holding hands and setting off to one adventure after the other. But, as much as we admired them for this, it wasn't this but a simple gesture and an innocent little statement which would have the profound effect on me.

The husband offered us his copy of the book (Into The Wild) with a strong recommendation to read it. His willingness to simply give the book away (a book which sold to a second-hand vendor would have covered their trip from Goa to Kozhikode), for a person who was of visibly limited means giving it to two complete strangers struck me profoundly. It struck me so because it wasn't out of charity, it was a heartfelt gift by a fellow traveler to another, it mattered! It was a gesture to show, they understood and felt the same. 

A little further into the conversation which had careened into astrology somehow, we discovered that the woman was a Cancer. This surprised me because I recalled reading somewhere that the people from the sun-sign sought a sense of safety and traveling carefree like this was unusual. After musing for a while she replied.." I don't know...maybe its true...I guess I carry my safety in my purse." That remark, I guess sums up all travelers for me. That simple ability to be able to throw your stuff in a sack and just go, knowing that would suffice, no matter where you are or what you do. The ability and incorrigible desire to simply get up one day, dust off your jeans, haul your safety on to your back and move on. That's being a wanderer.

Tuesday, September 06, 2011


This post could have been about Bangkok perhaps as a tribute to its backstreets, vivid and eclectic in their flavors, scents and emotions that overwhelm your senses if you're willing to just open up a wee bit. For whoever you are a footloose wanderer searching for your life's mission or a barren artiste looking for inspiration, Bangkok truly has you.

I could also have spoken about Pattaya, that parallel world for which words fail me. The streets lined by people from the world, aged westerners struggling to stand, reeking of alcohol, supported by their young "Thai-lady" as they lurch around the umpteen streets. It leaves you wondering whether to feel pity for the young woman or for the sorry old man in search of a last refuge from his loneliness. The place questions your very conception of righteousness as your intellect struggles to wrap your brain around and comprehend, even accept and not judge what is pretty much a way of life.

I could have even started this with the whiff of emerald green waters of Koh Samui, the salty scent of which  lingers on in your senses. The umpteen beaches, and lavish margaritas in infinity pools while you caked yourself brown or the simple remark of a tourist-worn woman, running her own business whose honest trepidation thinly hidden behind hardened exterior was only too apparent, all of which leave you exhausted and fulfilled at the same time.

Young Khmer painter pouring over his English Learning Guide
But not the hustle bustle of Bangkok or what could may well be called a counterculture of Pattaya and even the green eternal serenity of Samui...nothing prepares you for Siem Reap. Spend your days walking around the temples of Angkor, awed by the imagination of our forefathers, the sheer geographical scale to which they sought to stretch the portrayal of this living paean to their mythological fathers.Or just sit by one of those umpteen moats with a book on the fascinating character of Pol Pot (Saloth Sar) and the horrible legacy he left in this fragile fledgling nation. Only then, when you have a backdrop of a glorious country with a lavish enviable history which had a few decades and a fourth of its population simply wiped out in a jingoistic 5 year rule of the Khmer rouge. Only then would you be able to comprehend the earnestness of a boy sitting amongst the ruins of one of them temples trying to sell his paintings. As you walk away, one of the umpteen tourists who is merely interested in looking at his amazing work, asking for the prices knowing full well you'd not buy them, he simply returns to his silent attempts at learning English from his guidebook. That look of silent determination and an untarnished humbling simplicity which leaves you rattled for days after. Coming from Thailand, where tourist-hardened hawkers struggle to hide their ill-will, most Cambodians are yet to discover their ugly side. Perhaps it is an illusion, but a happy one which leaves you contended when you leave.

And then there is pub-street. After 9 days of holidaying, just when you have slowly reduced the tempo so you can adjust back in the drudgery of a routine life....the last thing that you want to happen to yourself is the pub-street. With pubs that play music loud enough to rouse the sleeping gods of Angkor and consider selling anything smaller than a pitcher of alcohol a shame, a street that is lined with these pubs and people simply spilling over so much so that the whole street is filled with dancing hoards who simply revel as if there is no tomorrow. People of forty different nationalities and beliefs. Or simply one people. This post had to be about Kampuchea.

Monday, August 30, 2010

Rediscovering the Art

I love my car. In the past 10 days of driving I must have covered at least 3000 kilometers, what with two return trips to Delhi, Neemrana and one to Bhilwara from Jaipur. I love the freedom that a car provides, the simple ability to be able to go anywhere, without bothering about the rain or the sun. To park outside your favorite roadside coffee-shop and lean back and sip away relaxing in your seat, while reading on the book you simply didn’t want to get away from (yeah “Mumbai-kars” in some parts of the world that IS possible). Getting four nutcases to fit in instead of just the one as on a bike, dumping all the stuff in the boot instead of hauling it all the way on the local trains or juggling it on the fuel tank of your bike, the simple pleasures.

All the new-car charm had actually made me forget what it feels like to be on two wheels, why I revered so much, the empowering touch of a bike’s accelerator. The degree of control and confidence, your high stance from the ground and your legs fitted into fuel tank crevices give you. The exhilaration of a powerhouse thumping beneath you, waiting for the twitch of your wrist, yearning to be commanded yet desiring to be unleashed. And then you let go.

The mute acceleration of a car gives way to the raging, revving anger of the bike. And just like that, in a flash, the world becomes mute, everything else ceases to exist as your heart, your fingers and the pulsating music of the engine, beat in perfect rhythm, rising and falling with every hint of your desire. The wind sweeps through your hair, pushing with all its heart, failing against an iron grasp, you have on the bike. The road spread out in front of you forever, luring you into its tricky turns, urging you on to let go, daring you smell it on every wild curl, the scenery changing with every moment, displaying yet another human emotion, yet another whim of God, yet another moment, which will never ever occur quite like that again.

Ride hard. Or stay home.

Thursday, April 20, 2006

An Interviews with Udupi (part 1)

Prologue: A request to the reader. Don’t let this reach my mom. She’ll kill me if she knows I was sunbathing when I ought to have been worrying about my MBA interviews
I. Konkan Railway

"You have traveled through 31 hours of a grueling train journey, and have gone through a thousand questions you might be asked in an all important interview the next Day, each question as agonizing as only the next one. When you finally think you have made it to the last leg of the damn journey and thank God for that, just then, the train’s engine breaks down. How would YOU feel?" I shot at Chandan, out of frustration.
"Delightful. Blissful." says Chandan.

And I knew he was right as I stared down the lush green valley laden with vast spreads of Mango Trees. The morning sun made it look like one of those postcard dream-locations. Right down the valley a seasonal river curled through the mountains, like a sleek serpent disappearing into the bushes and rocks, the water in it, extremely placid. The only sound one could hear was the friendly banter of a group of friends in the next compartment, apart from that utter silence prevailed. No. Utter peace. We were in Ratnagiri, the Mango capital famous for its legendary Alphonso mangoes. It was only when I woke up this morning that I realized the place was not just about Mangoes. And the spot where our Engine, fortunately, chose to break down made it look even more fulfilling.

Chandan is a chap from Delhi. We met in the train the day before only, when he boarded from Godhra. We have been friends since. I am from Jaipur.

As the train finally moved after a wait of two hours, we started discussing the Konkan Railway. Chandan and I were going to Udupi, the temple town in Karnataka to appear for some educational interviews. And, well, at least for the moment we had forgotten all about careers and interview techniques. What would you do, after all, when you find yourself on a mountain top trek IN A TRAIN, where the tracks coil through a maze of more then 50 tunnels and over an equal number of valleys? Each time we relaxed feeling this one was the last of those tunnels another one engulfed us with its sudden ghoulish shriek. But it was not scary. It filled us with awe. It is a project one of the world’s leading consultancy firms declared unfeasible altogether. And we were watching it materialized and in fact were treading on it. We already felt this was a journey of a lifetime but as we later found out, this was only the beginning...

As we reached the southern borders of Maharashtra, the train began to descend. The high hillocks disappeared and the river (I really don’t know whether it was the same little stream or was it a web of small rivers) that seemed too distant and fearfully deep down the valley suddenly appeared within an arm’s reach. We hit the state of GOA. It was about 2:00 in the afternoon and we were wondering how late would we get because of that little snag with the engine that suddenly the whole train buzzed up with activity. Somebody told me we would soon reach Thivam, the first railway station in Goa. As soon as the train crawled into the station I understood why the entire buzz. The station was loaded with people battle ready. Clad in their best beachwear with surfboards and volleyballs, foreigners and Indians alike, got off the train as yet another hilltop station peered down a small countryside road disappearing into the horizon. Somewhere down there, I wondered, would be the legendary beach of Goa. And there it was, a signboard on the station told us as much. It mentioned several famous beauties and their distance in twenties (kilometers). "Twenties", my heart gave me a jolt. I was within walking distance (if you consider the 2200+ kms I had covered from Jaipur in the last 25 hours) of the best place on earth and was not going there. Well while I mused, and considered, seriously, making a move towards one of them beaches, the train started to move, solving the dilemma for me. I remembered the famous lines "The woods are lovely, dark and deep, but I have promises to keep and miles to go before I sleep", and wondered whether Robert Frost had considered my trip to Udupi before writing them.

Margoa or Margao as they call it there was uneventful, but it was easily the best-maintained station of India. The newly laid Skybus route could be seen from the station and assured us that the Delhi Metro and Konkan Railway (Incidentally architecture-d by the same person) are not flukes but a part of the nationwide infrastructure revolution.

The train halted for a frustrating forty minutes at Margoa. As it slowly edged its way out of the sleepy station, we got a glimpse of typical Goan structures. The influence of the colonial era has not been lost even now. The predominant Christianity is celebrated in every structure, as is the happy-go-lucky attitude of Goans. I did not know what it was, the image of Goa portrayed in all those movies and rumors, or reality, but Goa did seem like a happy place. With poor but cute modifications on antediluvian car models parked beside the newest and the trendiest sedans, Goa portrayed a happily contrasting picture.

We were on the move again, I realized. The much-awaited last leg of the journey was finally on. Udupi was less then two hours from now and we were beginning to get restless, yet again.

The sun went down on day two of our marathon. The breeze was cool and I was beginning to wonder, how beautiful can nature be? As the train cruised through lavish greens of coconut trees and stark browns of the series of hillocks, my amazement only grew. There were a few things about this leg of Konkan railway, which made it absolutely delightful. First, the momentary glimpses of the Arabian Sea, which filled us with childlike curiosity as we raised our necks to the highest window bar to take in as much of the delight as we could. Second the setting of the houses in the countryside, where, each one of them was surrounded by scores of coconut and other greens, with another placid serpent flowing beside. The rivers were wide enough in some parts to be navigated by boat steamers, while in some parts they were a maze of thin tributaries. I realized later that I was witnessing a typical river delta. That brought back the memories of the school geography classes and how they described the phenomenon. One thing was for sure; in books the deltas never looked anywhere close to as beautiful as in reality. In fact they looked terrible in the books.

The tracks are at a higher altitude providing a panoramic view of the beautiful civilization to the passengers of any train. As we watched, mesmerized, a sudden desire to jump out and settle there for till eternity overwhelmed us. I began to wonder how much civilization was good? Well certainly life would be better off without the eardrum shattering noises in any metro, not to mention the choking city air. Do we really need the fast cars and air-conditioners when we can afford to live in this virtual paradise? But the question felt heavy and hypocritical. After all, the reason for this visit of mine was to be a part of that very "civilization".

Somebody announced that Udupi was the next station, and the whole train transformed into a hub of activity like a swarm of bees. I was surprised to see how many people were Udupi bound. The fact that they were all my age told me that even their purpose was same as mine. Also it gave birth to an expectation. Right through the past few days and this journey we had pictured an image of how Manipal and Udupi would look? The Oxford of India as people called it, Manipal had a zing to its name, which portrayed a town with ultra-modern facilities and metro-like lifestyle. That obviously was until we reached the town.

As the trained entered a dimly lit petty little station, I was recalled of the one, which had its most celebrated guests in form of Jimmy Shergil and party in the introductory scene of the movie Mohabbatein. It could not have been more similar to that, however the beautiful Preeti was somehow missing. The whole station had about ten inhabitants, who all are pushed into motion at the very sight of the train, not unlike a beehive disturbed with a pelted stone. The trite sight of coconut trees failed to cheer us as we wondered about the "Oxford of India". Udupi was not at all what we imagined it to be, it in fact it looked like a small fishing community town on the first sight. Where were all the temples of the "Temple Town" and where was the Oxford, which, supposedly was only three kilometers from the Udupi railway station. I was beginning to consider my decision of going there and by the look on Chandan’s face he was doing the same. But, we were going to find out, as always we had jumped to conclusions too soon.

An Interviews with Udupi (Part 2)

2. Uppi and Maipal

By the time we reached the hotel, my "first impressions" had begun to dissolve. We took the ten-minute ride in an auto-rickshaw to our hotel where I had reservations; it was decided that Chandan would stay with me, as he did not have any reservations. I was surprised to know that all the hotels of both Udupi and Manipal were jam-packed. Our auto-walah informed us that this was a normal routine at this time of the year when students from all over the nation poured in. But I had perhaps lost the "student" bit in me for the moment. I was more engrossed with the small town.

There have been several love stories in the past, stories of substance and eternal love. Soni-Mahival, Romeo-Juliet, Heer-Ranjha and Laila-Majnu, but at least I never came across one so scintillating as Uppi and Maipal. While Uppi could be a town materialized right out of one of those settings of R.K. Narayan’s Malgudi Days, Maipal looks as if a chunk of Pune has been sliced off and placed on a small hammock in the middle of a jungle. This contrast makes the synchrony between the lifestyles of the two towns seem even more beautiful. How the typical Loongee clad fishermen and coconut traders had come to terms with modern Cappuccino drinking and fun-loving youth was heart warming to see.

Oh! For those who are wondering what are these Uppi and Maipal, welcome to Udupi and Manipal buswallah style. Actually, Chandan and I wanted to have a look at the venue of our interviews in advance because they were scheduled for early in the morning, the next day. After unpacking at our hotel, we asked around for a public transport. The receptionist at the hotel informed us that an auto-rickshaw would cost us a ferocious amount, about sixty Rupees for a ride of about three kilometers, so we better take a bus. So there we were wandering around the local bus stand looking for one, which goes to Manipal. It took us a while to realize that all the busses were Manipal bound only that we were actually supposed to be looking for Mai…Paaall, and while returning we were coming to Uppi-Uppi-Uppi-UPPI.

I would rather skip the process of interview and its outcome in this narrative. At about 4:30 PM we returned to Udupi. The past few hours had flown past leaving little imprints on my memory. In spite of a discouraging morning, my exuberance to visit around had not died out. As soon as I reached my hotel after finishing my interviews I got to the reception and asked for the tourist places. The receptionist, with that "another silly north Indian" look, gestured towards a printed guide to the hot spots. This was the second shock I had received on the trip (after the interview that is) but this one was a delight. The place was called Malpe, situated only seven kilometers outside Udupi and it was a BEACH! The last time I had been to a beach was in 1998. Somehow all my vacations and trips after that had either been to Metros or hill stations. My train was scheduled for midnight the next day and we had a full day with only a few formalities to finish with the institute by noontime.

Chandan informed that some of his friends had already visited Malpe and had been in Udupi since the evening before we arrived. We called over Divyendu, Aditya, another chap from Delhi and Vijay (he was staying in the same hotel as us) for a chat. Over some hot Chicken Hot and Sour, we shared our horrifying experiences in front of the interview board and realized that except for Vijay who was planning to leave earlier, all of us were Delhi bound on the same train. No, I was not the only loser, incidentally all four of us could not get through the interview stage; we were a whole army of losers. So, after a quick shower, good byes and good lucks were shared with Vijay as the other three, Divyendu, Chandan and I left for Manipal.

Manipal is as modern as any of the other up and coming cities of India. Right from the best coffee shops to great restaurants, from the best-branded casuals to Delhi style garments sales Manipal has everything. It feels as if God has forgotten to bless the town of Manipal with adult life. Those seldom few adults who are there are the teachers and faculties of the various institutes. I just got a sneaking feeling that even they made their level best efforts to look younger. The students here live it up. While on one hand the town has world class teaching facilities on the other it has the scope for some good weekend fun. It also enjoys students from quite a few countries. Overall, it can prove to be a lifetime for a student studying here. Sorry if I sound gluttonous but I guess the word food merits a mention here. Both Manipal and Udupi have great food to offer. I believe it offers the cheapest food in the world. A sumptuous Thali with Rassam, Sambhar, curd, buttermilk and two Sabzis, along with Chapati and Rice would cost you only rupees seventeen; spiral pasta in white sauce about rupees fifty. We ended our day with some good non-vegetarian food.

Udupi is a beautiful town. The temples, which we for a while presumed were a chimera, are actually there, and quite a few of those at that. Hence the religiousness of the town is apparent. Also visible is the town’s occupation. While, you would invariably always run into fisherwomen in each bus journey, the shops laden with beautiful handloom cloth tell another story. The specialty of the town would be clothes ranging from handloom made crafty men’s wear to the beautiful Sarees and Salwar Suits. The textures and colors being the specialty of these predominantly women’s clothing, apart from the fine fabric, the shops flaunt the brightest of the colors on their windows.

Next Morning, before the final interviews, we decided to visit the Shri Krishna Mutt, Udupi’s most celebrated temple. The Krishna Mutt is an ancient temple and one of the holiest places of pilgrimage in Southern India. It is said that Shri Madhwacharya, the founder of Dwaita philosophy found the idol of Shri Krishna on a ship he rescued from a storm in the waters of Malpe. The idol is placed inside an enclosed chamber and is worshiped through a window with nine holes, called Navagraha Kitiki. Men have to remove the clothing they wear on the upper half of their body before entering the premises of the temple. The experience was divine. The Prasada had two ingredients. Being the glutton I am I ate it all up in one go, however, the typical taste of the Prassada was explained when right after my throwing it in my mouth the Swami ji began, "Put the chandan on your forehead and the flower in you pocket for rakshan". Well I had to eat what I already had in my mouth and take some more for the real purpose. God always has ingenious ways to teach you, I realized.

Finally, I thought, "Beach!" We were aboard a fishermen-loaded bus from Uppi to Malpe. It was one in the afternoon. In spite of the acrid smell of the fishermen’s prize catch and the fact that they spoke in rapid syllables of an entirely alien tongue (Kannada perhaps) that I could not gather a word of, I was on the seventh moon. A twenty-minute drive from Udupi shall take one to Malpe, they told us in a broken mixture of Hindi and English. I kept popping my neck above all to have a glimpse of the waters. And there it was. Somehow the sight of sea has always enthralled me like nothing else. Perhaps it is the enigma it portrays or the lack of boundaries or the depth, I do not know what, but it is majestic, powerful.

It took me only a couple of minutes to drop the philosophy (and my clothes) and get ready for a nice little swim. Meanwhile, Divyendu and his local contact had also arrived. What followed was raw fun. For the next few hours we had given up being grown up adults and touched our childhood again. Right from swimming out into the sea to throwing sand balls at each other, from playing football with a group of local youngsters to eating the ever-so-tasty Gobhi-Manchurian and burying each other in the sand, we did it all. By the time the Sun went down we were all dead tired. At the sunset all of us were strolling by the seashore. The soft waves of the sea caressed my toes and went back, the cold breeze, everything, felt blissful. I knew it then that Malpe shall remain in my memories forever.

The only resort around the Malpe beach offers some good shower and locker facilities apart from the legendary good food. Also it has a comprehensive pub to add flavor to the party. As Malpe enjoys good weekend crowd, the general cleanliness and other facilities are fine. With luck you can catch an opportunity to visit one of the islands (The northern-most island is called Daria-Bahadurgad, the middle one Daria-Gadara-Kallu and the southern most Kari-Illada-Kallu) close to the shore. The local tourism authorities run a boat whenever there is an assortment of 30 to 40 people willing to go out. Unfortunately, we were there on a Monday so could not find enough company. Malpe is perhaps not very popular outside the region and that is what makes it a complete paradise.

We unwillingly made the return journey. It was eight in the evening when we reached the hotel. Chandan and I bid adieu to Divyendu and promised to meat again at the station. But suddenly I realized I had forgotten something. Well it was time for some power shopping as I gathered some artifacts and a Salwar Suit and had a quick dinner (that sumptuous Thali for one last time) and took an auto-rickshaw (another 50 rupees! Preposterous!). Somebody told us that we would not find any means of transport to the station after 9:30 PM.

It is 10:00 PM. and our train is 10 minutes late and scheduled for 0015 hrs. To be truthful even I am fed up of this narrative as you might be by now, but I had to preserve this memory and therefore I decided to write this. For the past hour or so Chandan has been chatting up with a girl he struck up a conversation with in the morning and has met again. Her name is Ashvini (she was one of the interviewees). So, obviously I must be looking a lot less appealing to him now. Sir Cliff Richards has taken refuge in my Walkman somewhere and as he sings "Summer Holiday" in my ears, I am wondering if and when shall I ever be able to listen to that delightful voice of Buswallahs again, calling Uppi-Uppi-Uppi-UPPI.