Sunday, 2 December 2012

Lviv and its mixed heritage

There’s something peculiar about Lviv. I sensed it from the time I entered the town. It almost felt as if for good measure, Cyrillic alphabets had been stuck onto the board of a building which houses a McDonald’s restaurant along Shevchenko Prospekt, where my hostel is located. A walk around the city over the 4 days I spent there returned me to Poland, Austria, and to a much lesser extent, Kyiv. In fact, I would go as far as to say that Lviv felt less Ukrainian, or even Russian, than Kyiv. It almost seemed as if I had slipped into some other territory without passing through immigration.

Take the city’s historic heart for example. This part of Lviv survived the bombings of the Second World War and the ensuing occupations by the Nazis and Soviets. It has since been designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The many arteries reveal several architectural styles that embellish Lviv. Neglect has however raised concerns, as I found out at an outdoor exhibition. Having read the detailed text and walked around the smaller alleys I came face to face with a city whose facades have grown wrinkly, windows peeled, and courtyards pimpled by loose stones. But awareness is growing and the people are making the effort to reverse this trend.

Before I reached Lviv, I was told that the town is a bite-sized version of Krakow in Poland. This should not come as a surprise, considering Lviv breathed Polish air for much of its history up till the mid-1940s. A stroll in the Lychakiv Cemetery confirms this, as one would find many Polish graves (on a related note, this cemetery is part of the tourist trail and is worth your while if you have time to spare). In the early 1940s, Lviv, which is also known as Lwów in Polish, fell under Nazi control. In 1944 it was captured by the Soviet Red Army. Subsequently, it was subsumed into Ukraine following the Yalta Conference. Poles living in Lviv were relocated, and Lviv was populated by Ukrainians with a Russian minority.  

It is little wonder then that pro-Ukrainian sentiments are the strongest in this part of the country. But this doesn’t mean to say that Lviv has totally shed its Soviet past. Look around and you will find Ladas plying the roads; hidden in some small street on the outskirt of the centre is that Stalinist building; there on another street you find a Soviet-style cafe (e.g. Kabinet Cafe) – perhaps for the tourists, or simply the nostalgic. Yet another reminder of the Soviet past is the absence of some houses on Chornomorska Street. In 1956, as Soviet tanks rumbled through the area, several houses came tumbling down. That space is now a playground.

Nevertheless, while Kyiv seems to turn east towards Moscow, Lviv prefers to assert its own identity and, if at all, lean West. The city claims to be the least Soviet in Ukraine, and its cafe culture is but one testament of its Central European credentials. I had firsthand experience in the form of the Lviv Coffee Festival. It was perhaps the highest form of tribute I have witnessed to a beverage that courses through tens of millions of veins every morning and indeed throughout the day. But how did coffee become synonymous with Lviv? Some say it was during its time under the Habsburg Empire that coffee made its debut in Lviv. Other sources say that it was in fact a son of Lviv who opened one of the first coffeehouses in Europe, even if his version of the drink was referred to as ‘coffee, Vienna style’ (with sugar and milk).

As I was winding up my visit to the city, I met a fellow tourist who arrived from Kyiv: a Russian from the city of St Petersburg who was visiting for the weekend. Several times he lamented the fact that the people refused to speak Russian even though they probably could. ‘They’re different from the Ukrainians in Kyiv’, he swore, ’they won’t even speak English!’ I listened and took his observation into account. My own experience suggested otherwise, because the Ukrainians were more than happy to accommodate an outsider (except Russians, perhaps?). Still, I couldn’t understand why the Ukrainians should be speaking anything other than their own mother tongue. I read somewhere that the Cold War ended over 20 years ago...

p/s I'd like to add that the entire Rus (including a much younger Moscow) originated from Kyiv. This is in relation to my point that Kyiv seems to look east to Moscow -- which refers to the Cold War/post-Cold War era. 

Tuesday, 27 November 2012

the elephant in the room

When you meet a local in Poland, it is likely that they will speak to you about one of two subjects: the partition of their country, or the Holocaust. The latter figured more prominently in my conversations with the various people I met for obvious reasons—one of which was simply the fact that it happened just 70 years ago.  

Poland once had one of the biggest Jewish populations in Europe. The Second World War and their calculated extermination by the Nazis reduced this number to a mere fraction. Since the fall of communism, it seems there has been some sort of a Jewish revival in the country. The construction of the Museum of the History of the Polish Jews in Warsaw is but one testament to this.

Nevertheless, the Holocaust weighs heavily on the Polish psyche. During the Communist era, the government preferred not to discuss the Jewish question because it was simply uncomfortable. Properties abandoned in the process of Jewish expulsion were redistributed after 1945. But the fall of the Communist government did not make things any easier. Jews who had left started coming back, partly to reclaim what was theirs. In Krakow, Maciek showed me some of the apartment blocks that had been occupied before they had been ghettoised. He added that many of the descendants have since engaged good lawyers in a bid to set things right. But what about the communities that have sprung up in those areas since the late 1940s and early 1950s?  

Beyond the legal tussle, it is the fate of the Jews during the Holocaust that remains a difficult subject. The Nazis built six concentration camps in Poland. Some were used as transit points, others had death written all over them. I visited Auschwitz-Birkenau though initially I had decided against it. The experience was not an easy one, even if I did not get particularly emotional.

I spoke about my visit to the camps with Przemek the next night. I told him how there have been times when I questioned the Holocaust – did it really happen? Why was it necessary to keep reminding the world? Haven’t there been other genocides before and after? Think Rwanda, Armenia, Ukraine, etc. I personally believe no statistic or duration of an atrocity makes one more grave than the other. But perhaps the systematic manner and the scale with which it happened, and the world’s preference to ignore the elephant in the room, offer some answers.

A recent documentary on the History Channel deals with the ghosts of the Third Reich, as does Daša Drndić’s novel, Trieste. Both touch on the descendants of the Nazis and Jews whose lives have been shaped by the events of the Second World War. A common thread that binds them is guilt: the Germans, for what their parents or grandparents did, and the Jews for having survived the Holocaust. One German woman found out about her grandfather’s involvement at a concentration camp. Another sterilised herself for fear of passing down the poison of hate. Elsewhere, the theme of survivor’s guilt is brilliantly explored in the 2010 French film Sarah’s Key. While talking to Przemek and other people I met in Poland, I couldn’t help but wonder if they were trying hard not to betray a personal link, albeit a very distant one, to the Holocaust.  

One link they definitely were distancing themselves from was the one established by US President Barack Obama sometime before his re-election. He described the concentration camps in Poland as ‘Polish’. To say this statement ruffled feathers barely scratches the surface. ‘It suggests that we had something to do with it,’ Przemek told me. ‘It was a Nazi camp, not Polish.’ I believe as much. But in this generation of bite-sized information, who takes notice? All that matters is that Poland is where a physical manifestation of Nazism stands. It is indeed unfortunate that geography was assaulted by politics and produced a history that the Poles continue to negotiate with.

Saturday, 17 November 2012

Four days in Kyiv

Statue under the
Friendship of Nations Arch
(Арка Дружби Народів)
Kyiv (kee-uhv) is the capital of Ukraine and the birthplace of the Eastern Slavic civilisation. It was part of Russia for much of about 200 years from 1775. The city underwent intensive Russification before finally becoming the capital of independent Ukraine in 1991, following the collapse of the Soviet Union.
Someone told me that Kyiv is the most Russian city, even if it's no longer in that country. Why not find out for yourself? :)

Kyiv's Top Sights (in my opinion at least)

St Sophia's Cathedral (right): This is the oldest remaining church in the city and is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Photography in the Cathedral itself is not permitted, but you're free to snap to your heart's content from the wedding cake of a belltower at the entrance. Note however that separate fees apply to climb the tower.

Khreshchatyk (Хрещатик) Street (left): The main street in Kyiv is where you'll find Stalinist-era buildings and several international brands. The street is closed off to traffic on weekends. 
a painting on one of the walls of
the Chornobyl Museum

Chornobyl Museum: Don't worry if you can't make it to the site itself (tours can be pretty pricey, depending on how many people are in your group), this museum in Kyiv provides a decent insight into the events surrounding the accident in April 1986. There are some signs in English, but the photographs should speak for themselves.

Andriyivsky Uzviz (Андріївський узвіз) or Andrew's Descent (left): At the top stands the baroque St Andrew's Church, while the street itself is lined with souvenir sellers, restaurants and galleries. There are a couple of museums here too including one for internationally acclaimed  author, Mikhail Bulgakov (it was closed for renovations at the time of my visit).

one of the churches at the
Upper Lavra
Kiev Pechersk Lavra (Cave Monastery--Печерська лавра): This is the most popular tourist site in the city and arguably the spiritual heart of the country. The site is divided into two sections: the Upper Lavra (museums and churches for which there's an entrance fee), and the Lower Lavra (where the cave is located) which is free. The cave houses the mummified remains of monks. You'll need to purchase a candle to light your way down there. It's a pretty short walk, and in that time you'll see pilgrims kneeling and praying at the coffins. There's also an underground church but it's accessible only to believers (don't bother trying to sneak in). Do note that it gets pretty crowded on weekends so it'd be best to visit the cave during the week, especially if you're claustrophobic. Oh, and please dress conservatively.

Further down from the Lavra are the Motherland Statue and War memorials. The Museum to the Great Patriotic War is a must if events related to the Second World War are your thing. Right above museum stands the 62-metre tall Rodina Mat or Defence of the Motherland Monument (right), which is visible even as you enter the city from across the Dnipro River.

Maidan Nezalezhnosti (Майдан Незалежності) or Independence Square (left), located on Khreshchatyk Street. The area is now famous as the place where supporters of the Orange Revolution gathered and camped in October 2004. It is a central meeting place and all around are cafes, souvenir stalls and the post office. Get off at either the Maidan Nezalezhnosti or Kreshchatyk metro stations.

Open-Air Museum of Folk Architecture and Rural Life (Музей народної архітектури та побуту - Muzey narodnoyi arkhitektury ta pobutu): Find out how rural Ukrainians in different parts of the country used to live in the 18th and 19th centuries in this sprawling complex. You'll find restored villages, mills (as shown on the left) and churches , as well as thousands of household and traditional artefacts. To get here, take the metro to Vystavkovy Tsentr station and hop onto bus number 172 at the bus station right above the station. You might have to ask around for the line for the bus because there's no indication as such where the pickup point is. It would be best to have the bus number and your destination penned down for someone to direct you to the pickup point.

Other museums that may be of interest

National Art Museum of Ukraine - dedicated to Ukrainian art ranging from medieval icons to portraits
Mikhail Bulgakov Museum - located at No. 13 Andriyivsky Descent, this museum is a collection of things belonging to the writer
The National Museum of Taras Shevchenko - dedicated to Ukraine's best known poet/writer, this one has 24 halls containing original artworks by Shevchenko, documents about his life and work and rare photographs.

Recommended duration of stay

4 days

Getting In

Flights: Several major airlines fly into Kyiv, including Turkish Airlines, Lufthansa and KLM. There's also AeroSvit, a national carrier, and LOT Polish Airlines.
Trains: There are good international connections from Central Europe and Russia.

Things to take note of

Money: You can exchange some grivna (гривня) at the airport for the bus/taxi into the city, and the rest once you're in the city centre. Money changers are available in many places such as supermarkets. Do have your passport on hand though because some places require identification.

Language: Don't worry too much about the Cyrillic alphabet. There are English signs on the streets, metro stations and most major establishments. Staff at cafes generally speak/understand English as well. But having said that, it won't do you harm to familiarise yourself with some Cyrillic and Ukrainian, both spoken and written. It might seem like hard work but at least you'll know what you're looking for. Plus, it would amuse the locals.

Racism: Much has been said about racism in Ukraine against people of colour. One guidebook I referred to even mentioned how an African guy was stabbed several times at a metro station. But rest assured that Kyiv is as safe or as dangerous as the next European city. In fact, most Ukrainians I encountered were more curious about why I'd chosen to visit their country than to cause any form of harm. As in any other city you visit, exercise common sense and you'll be fine (e.g. stay away from dark alleys, etc).

Thursday, 1 November 2012

Pop Patriotism

This article was first written on the 28th of October 2008

The car ride to the Wagah border was symptomatic of several South Asian, and in fact most developing, countries. We were on a narrow two lane road where might is right. Our driver, however, was on a mission to prove that he had what it takes to show the huge TATA lorries who’s boss.

In the backseat, Sanyam’s mother was not too amused. ‘Bhaiyya, we’re not in that much of a hurry,’ she said as she leaned forward. He did not care to respond although I noticed an imperceptible acknowledgement on his part. I turned back to give her an assuring smile: I, the visitor to this chaotic country, the one more accustomed to orderly driving. My eyes were largely unperturbed by the horns whistling past us and the risk of smashing into oncoming traffic. My gaze was fixed on the fields on both sides of the road. On the left, the sun was suspended well above the trees and fields of sugarcane and the like. I was a tad nervous, but overwhelmingly excited: this was the closest I was going to get to Pakistan. 

 I got out of the car and looked around. There were fields stretching beyond the limits of my sight. In the direction of the setting sun, I saw fences and barbed wires separated by a few metres of earth – no man’s land. We walked away from the parking area on to the main road. Most of it was occupied by colourful goods trucks waiting to cross the border. I was told dried fruits and other eatables change hands in these parts. Not too far away from the parking lot was an area that served as a dhaba, a roadside eatery. There were also stalls selling items with the Indian flag emblazoned on them – pins, caps, etc. Others were crowded with candy floss, drinks, and samosas. At some point a group of men in saffron robes starting singing to the beat of a dhol as they walked towards the border. They were joined by a small group who sang and danced along. The guide books were not exaggerating when they said there’s a carnival atmosphere here. But this was only scratching the surface.

About a hundred metres ahead we reached the beginnings of the road into Pakistan. On the left were the stands where spectators could sit and watch the border closing ceremony every evening. We found a spot about six rows from the front. Not too bad, I thought to myself. I could see, fairly well, the soldiers standing at attention in front of me, and beyond them the gates that separated the two countries. On this side was a festival in full swing. People were waving flags and clapping and singing along to patriotic songs being blasted from loudspeakers all around us. As if on cue, some of the girls in the first row climbed over to the side of the road and began dancing. The crowd went wild, as did flashing cameras.

‘You don’t seem impressed,’ I said to Sanyam who was hiding behind his shades.
‘It’s pop patriotism. It’ll die out once the evening is over.’
‘You really think so?’
‘Listen to the song selection. Where does Dil Chahta Hai’s Koi Kahe fit into nationalism? It’s only about sounding better and louder than them.’
He had a point. Every now and then afterwards, a voice would boom over the loudspeaker with pro-India chants: Hindustan, Zindabad! Vande Mataram! The crowd naturally responded with gusto.

On the Pakistani side, things were more subdued. I could faintly hear a song being played, but the spectators seemed more solemn. Perhaps one flag was flying over the crowd’s head. They look just like us on this side, I thought to myself.

The speakers on this side blared a song from the 1955 film, Naya Daur. It was about the land of Punjab: it was romanticism of the kind that Yash Chopra later sought to repeat in his films, most recently with the 2004 Veer-Zaara, about a love that transcends the difficult border. It was his attempt at healing wounds that have divided the subcontinent. 

My thoughts drifted to my grandma. She was born in a Punjab that breathed under an undivided India. The country was born again in 1947, but that independence indirectly forced her out of the country. I don’t remember when my throat began feeling lumpy. As the crowd rose to its feet in patriotic fervour, their fists punching the sky, I quickly wiped away the tears that had slid past almost undetected.

Tuesday, 30 October 2012

random thoughts: northern india

This entry was first written on the 4th of March 2010

the colours of Holi
in a coffeeshop, before gunpoint
1. Why do so many people I speak Hindi to think I'm the foreigner? (They’re right of course, but my mum gets away without saying anything)
2. An usher at the Agra Fort, together with the ticketing officers/attendants, are probably the only ones who think I'm an Indian national.
3. A guy I bought water from assumed I was from Punjab (rightly so since I was rambling away in Punjabi; does that mean I speak it well enough?).
4. I'm amused, still, by the sales assistant in Amritsar who sharply said 'no way!' when I held up a kurta set I was interested in (he meant to say it wouldn't fit me) just before I asked if it'd be available in my size.
5. I don't get why so many people have to spit virtually everywhere.
6. People I've met or come across complain that India's dirty. Aren't they contributing as well?
7. I've been 'to' gunpoint -- not a very lovely place, I assure you (we were trying to get to the West Gate of the Taj Mahal from the South one after the monument had closed for the day. the guards quickly raised their rifles at us and went 'OYE!' before telling us to take another route)
8. 1984 remains relevant in Delhi it seems (evident in a t-shirt I saw).
9. Bhindranwale still has fans too, as I overheard in a shop today (and it's something that shouldn't be discussed openly too it seems).

10. I wonder when people will stop reproducing like there's no tomorrow and instead think about feeding and educating those that are already here.
Salim Chishti shrine at Fatehpur Sikri
Shimla on a winter's night
 11. Malay is not so foreign a language in Amritsar.
12. Humans are so easily amused by monkeys..the primates must be equally puzzled.
13. I finally saw a cat in Amritsar, disproving my sister's theory that there are none in Punjab.
14. I think the French guy at Gulshan restaurant (in Agra) is rather dubious..and his intentions may involve the children working there.
15. As much as I wish the kids at the restaurant were studying and not working, I think it's better that they're earning a living 'properly' instead of roaming on the streets or doing something dodgy.
16. The Taj Mahal felt over-rated when I visited it (then again, that's because I've been there before)
17. Maybe it was good that there was no snow in Shimla, cold as it already was.
18. I wonder where all of India's wealth is going.
19. I hope Delhi will be ready for the Commonwealth Games.

the Taj Mahal
20. Holi is not meant for the faint-hearted.
21. Visiting the shrine of Sufi saint Salim Chishti was an emotional experience.

22. Walking from India Gate to Paharganj is quite do-able.
23. It's always possible to decide, at the last minute, not to visit relatives (just don't inform them of your arrival).
24. It's a wonderful feeling to be asked for directions in a city that is alien to you.
25. Does cheating someone and then feeling bad about it make it less wrong?


Thursday, 25 October 2012


I set out for Auschwitz on Tuesday morning with a relatively heavy heart. I was anxious. What do I expect of this place? Will I be moved? Will I cry?

There were huge crowds already present at the entrance: groups of students, a trickle of individual tourists. Squeezing past them, I entered the blocks one by one. The first few explained the history of hte camp with pictures, some documents. You meet the eyes of anxious Jews frozen on a canvas. This did not move me though, in part I suppose because we've seen such images before. What added to the disconnect was the large groups shuffling in and out of the rooms of each block. There were too many of them being lectured by tour guides. I was glad to be rid of them in some rooms.

Then the goosebumps formed on my skin. When Fei told me about the human hair in one of the rooms, I was expecting a rectangular glass display of some strands. I found myself facing an entire wall filled with plaited dark hair weighing at least a thousand kilogrammes. The had been collected by the Nazis to make nets. Those on display had not made it to German territory for production. Another room had a model of a gas chamber and an incinerator. In Daša Drndić's Trieste, she describes how people would have struggled to fight for survival -- she etched into the mind's eye images of broken skulls, a stampede, people screaming. I tried to find that in the model. I know I never will. 

In Birkenau, images from the Holocaust-related films came to life. The train lines terminating in front of the gas chambers, the barracks. I walked into one. As I stood there, I knew there would be no words to fittingly described how I felt. The gas chambers here are in ruins, as they were destroyed by the retreating Nazis. But skeletons remain as far as the eye can see. On my way out, I saw a man visibly distressed by what he had seen. 


My bus for Krakow was supposed to have arrived. There was yet no sign of it. I started pacing up and down, looking this way and that, not wandering too far from the bus stop. Sitting on the grass and pavement around me were those students who had been broken into smaller groups earlier. They were chatting and having sandwiches and drinks.

At some point a man comes up to me. 
'How are you?' he asked.
'Sorry?' I look at him, puzzled. He repeats his question. 
'I'm good,' I finally say.
'Where are you from?' 
'Oh! Beautiful city!'
'It's alright.'
He smiles.
'Where are you from?' It was my turn to ask.
'This group is from Israel.' He said before quickly turning away to respond to instructions via his earpiece.
'I figured as much,' I said. Their hooded jackets in Israel's national colours left little to the imagination.  

Across the small road I saw another security personnel, speaking into his device. The man who spoke to me added distance between us as he started herding the students to the safety of their waiting buses. 

Note: This entry was first written on 5th Oct '12

Night train to Lviv

Hurried steps. Ivan's at least. At some point I wonder who's the one travelling out of the city.
'We have 20 minutes. To reach the station, get the ticket, and find the platform,' he said to me as we waited for the metro.
'I hope we have time to buy some bread,' is all I can offer.

At the station we find a mass of people at the main entrance. They have left a huge rectangle empty in front of the building. Long queue, I think to myself. Ivan turns around and hurries in the direction we came from. I swing my trolley and follow as closely as possible.
'What happened?'
'They're saying there's a bomb in the station.'
How exciting is that, I think to myself.

We find the platform, I catch my breath. I am reminded of Geet and Aditya from Jab We Met (2007), after they chased down a train in the opening sequence of the film. And just like the two of them, more running is in order. I am buying some bread from a kiosk when an announcement turns heads and ears. As suddenly as the voice drowns all other sounds, the space around me empties of passengers: my train is at another platform.

Ivan is walking very fast. He's not dragging a trolley bag, of course he can move like that, I think to myself. He turns around from time to time to check on my progress. Then he asks for the e-receipt and as I dig for it in my haversack, he grabs the trolley bag and looks for the fastest way to the platform. Even without the load, I am still trying to catch up.

At the platform, the ticket inspector asks for my ticket. I've only got an e-receipt of my purchase. It won't do, she tells Ivan smugly. 'Wait for me here, please'. Ivan runs off towards the station. I look at the clock above us. 10 minutes. A lot could happen in 10 minutes. Or maybe not.

I see Ivan in the distance. He waves me over. I'm now face-to-face with someone of a higher rank. He sounds like he's barking something at me and I try to appear as if I understand every word of Ukrainian. We are marched back to the ticket inspector. He growls at her too, and she becomes a meek little thing. She finally relents and invites me to board. I walk down the corridor lined with a lovely red carpet of Ukrainian design past other compartments, which fills up with families split in pairs. As it turns out, I was not going to be alone in my compartment for two.


This entry was first written on 26th Sep '12.

Monday, 22 October 2012


High time to visit Ukraine, so said a series of ads on TV. And considering the country co-hosted Euro 2012 in June, it has never been a better time. Vitaliy told me that before the football tournament, one would more likely than not be scratching one’s head trying to make sense of the strange looking alphabets on street signs and buildings. Some guide books suggest learning the Cyrillic alphabet, so that you can familiarise yourself with your surroundings. And they were right. It made me feel that much smarter too when I could show it off, which I wasted no time in doing. In fact, the first word I learned before getting to Kyiv was ‘kurka’ – chicke – and for a very simple reason. I need to know what meat I might put in my mouth (since I don’t eat beef). 

But if all you have is a couple of seconds before the words flash past you on bus displays, it might prove to be virtually pointless. Thankfully, Euro 2012 meant the addition of signs in English in all metro stations and most streets. People are generally helpful too so getting lost is a temporary state of mind. 

I was trying to find my way to Pyrohovo (home to an outdoor Museum of Folk Architecture and Life of Ukraine) but had little luck finding the bus. Asking around didn’t seem to help either. Ivan and a girl at the bus stop where I was loitering around delivered me to my destination: Ivan told her over the phone where I had to go, and she walked me to my specific stop. Stay here, she gestured. Bus number 172. A couple in front of me confirmed the information. But soon enough, they left me standing there alone (I’d told the nice girl to continue on her way). Minutes later, a woman walked up to me and started rattling something in a mix of Ukrainian and Russian. I look at her, puzzled. She realised I don’t speak the language. And while realisation dawned upon her, a bus sluggishly pulled up and my attention is diverted. That looks like my bus, I thought to myself.

Jumping into the bus, I asked anyone who would care to give me an answer: ‘Pyrohovo?'
‘Da, da.’ A woman with a group of children answered and waved me in.  

I never thought I would one day be glad to be able to read Ukrainian.

Sunday, 21 October 2012

where's the front line?

‘I wish that for just five minutes, that man gets to experience the war..then I’ll ask him.’
Majda was visibly upset. The couple she’d brought to her home-hostel from the bus station had made the drive back an unpleasant one.

He was asking so many questions, she said to me. ‘Is the city (Mostar) still divided? Where’s the Muslim section? Is this the former front line? Are the Muslims and Croats still unhappy with one another?’

Majda told me that together with his questions, the man (who’s apparently a researcher/historian) was reaching conclusions of his own—it’s as if he had come to the city only to prove his own hypotheses about how people were living after the war. For many of us, that’s the easiest thing to do: watch a conflict unravel on TV and decide that that entire country has gone to the dogs, it’s unsafe to go there, people living within its borders are ‘so sad’, we’re so lucky not to be there, etc. And then we switch to a cooking show or something mind-numbing on one of the channels on cable.

Indeed, colleagues who found out I was going to Sarajevo looked at me in horror: that place is a war-torn city, they told me. Never mind the fact that the war took place 20 years ago. But Sarajevo was for me a city to be devoured with wonderment. Its name itself is exotic, and it was here that an assassin got the wheels of the First World War turning.

 I’ve lost count of the number of times people asked me why I’d chosen to visit their city. All the same, they could not hide the fact that they were thrilled to have a visitor, that too from a faraway little place they may not have heard of. And while I answered their queries, I could not help but wonder how this city lived through 44 months of terror, and how it has bounced back.

Much of Sarajevo has been cleaned up and reconstructed: cafes once again fill with people having their daily dose of tea and ćevapi, the streets are filled with Sarajevans going about their routine. Nevertheless, people have their stories to tell about the conflict of the 1990s. Meris recounted how his grandmother cheated death twice when mortars struck the Old Town. The first time round he thought he had lost her; turns out she was hiding in an apartment block not too far away. Across from BBI Centar, the modern steel and glass mall, is a park where a monument commemorates the children who were killed during the war. The green spaces behind the monument are still green, unlike similar spaces in Mostar. The high death toll meant every available space had to be turned into a grave for another family member, another friend. I remember walking through one such park where hundreds lay buried.

When I spoke to Meris over the phone some time after the trip, I asked him if it bothers him that the war is a main draw for tourists to his city. I was, after all, a part of this dark tourism (visiting places associated with tragedy and/or death). Not at all, he said. In fact, Meris was pleased that people are returning to his city. There’s more to Sarajevo than the war of the 1990s, and tourists need to know that we’re a people who want to move past that episode, he said. At the same time, it is imperative that people learn of the causes of the war and learn from those mistakes.

Still, while some of us have decoupled Sarajevo from the war, others will find it difficult to do so. I suppose some people who live there, and in fact in other parts of Bosnia and Hercegovina, will continue to negotiate with their memories. The people I met during my trip to the region acknowledge that all sides suffered, no thanks to greedy politicians. Yet some are uncomfortable with the thought of repairing broken relationships. For some, the perceived Other is really not that different after all. Yet there are those who still think that in their midst live people who continue to remain a source of worry: they threatened our way of living before, they might do it again.  

Thursday, 18 October 2012

Delightful Istanbul

The name itself conjures images of the exotic, of the East meeting the West. But Istanbul turned out to be more than just a confluence of these two spheres as I was to find out in September 2010. At some point it gives you a sense of belonging, yet being apart from the two, to anchor itself onto an identity all of its own.

Things to do/Places to see (most of which are on the European side)

Inside the library at Topkapı Palace

Visit the Dolmabahçe Palace (above right) in the Beşiktaş district. You'll need to join a guided tour to explore the grounds. Note that photography in the premises is not allowed. Once you're done here, walk along Dolmabahçe Caddesi (to the right of the Palace) up towards Ortaköy. On the jetty of Ortaköy sits the neo-baroque style Ortaköy Mosque. It borders the waters of the Bosphorus and makes for a good photograph against the backdrop of the Bosphorus Bridge. There's also a Sunday flea market around here.

Another palace worth visiting (and in my opinion, a must) is Topkapı Palace (above left). It was the primary residence of the Ottomans Sultans after they moved from Dolmabahçe Palace. Allow at least 3 hours here.

Head to Istiklal Caddesi/Taksim where those who want to see and be seen strut their stuff. This pedestrian street is filled with eateries, cafes, booshops and several boutiques.

Visit one of Istanbul's many museums. I went to the Turkish and Islamic Arts Museum and Istanbul Archaeology Museum. The former has a sizable collection of, among other things, carpets and copies of the Quran. But if you prefer to be overwhelmed by the weight of history, pick the latter which has three wings. Among the most famous pieces of ancient art you'll find here is the Alexander Sarcophagus, once believed to be prepared for Alexander the Great.

I suppose a visit to Istanbul wouldn't be complete without going to the Sultanahmet Mosque (better known as the Blue Mosque). It incorporates some Byzantine elements with traditional Islamic architecture. Do note that the mosque is closed to visitors during prayer time and women are required to cover their heads with a scarf. Next door is Hagia Sophia (left) which some consider to be architecturally more superior to the Blue Mosque, largely because the latter's domes are supported by elephantine pillars.

Go up the 66.9 metre Galata Tower (right) for gorgeous views of the city. Note though that it can get pretty crowded up there and there's enough space for traffic in each direction.

Take a cruise along the Bosphorus (left) for a different look at the city. There are cruises of several durations, with some of them stopping along the northern parts of the river. I took one that cost 10 TL; it was a shorter ride and a good option for those who may get seasick or simply bored.

Bite into a fish sandwich at Eminönü, on the waterfront by the ferry docks. Choose from one of several vendors here. Mind the bones though.

Shop till you get sick of it (if that's possible) at the Grand Bazaar. There are 3,000 shops lined along 61 covered streets. We went in thinking we'd hang around for 4 hours or so. We got out in less than one. The other bazaar to check out is Spice Bazaar near the Yeni Mosque where you'll find, well, spices, and lots of traditional Turkish sweets. Give yourself a sugar rush with pieces of baklava from one of the shops in the Spice Bazaar. For the best Turkish delights (or lokum), make a beeline for Hacı Bekir at Hamidiye Caddesi 83. These guys know their stuff -- they've been churning out the sweet goodies since the 19th century.
Some of the restaurants in the Sultanahmet area stage performances by Whirling Dervishes. Naturally, these are targeted at tourists. Walk around to pick one with the price that suits your pocket.
Check out Basilica Cistern (left) which is the largest of several hundred ancient cisterns that lie beneath the city. It's across the street from Hagia Sophia and the tram line.

Slip away from the main streets and wander around some of Istanbul's neighbourhoods, such as Cihangir. It has many narrow streets, a park and street cafes. The area is quite the fashionable spot for the creative types. Cihangir is located Taksim Square and Kabataş. 

Coffee and pieces of chocolate at Coffee To Go
 at the foot of Istiklal Caddesi

Princes' Islands: Set in the Marmara Sea off Istanbul's Asian shore. They are popular destinations for day trips from Istanbul. There is no traffic here, and you'll have to get around on horse carriages. Ferries leave from both the European and Asian sides of Istanbul.

Süleymaniye Mosque: the largest one in the city, it was closed for renovations at the time of my visit.

Get a scrub in a hamam (Turkish bath). There is at least one in each neighbourhood. Sultanahmet has many historical hamams. Some are very extravagant and cater mainly to tourists.

Duration of my stay
8 days

4-5 (if you want to get a decent feel of the city without having to linger for too long)

Turkish Lira though hotels (charge in and) accept Euros

Getting In
Several airlines fly into Istanbul including Qatar Airways, Emirates, Turkish Airlines, Thai Airways, Lufthansa and Air France.
Alternatively, you could take a train into Istanbul from cities such as Belgrade, Sofia and Bucharest.

Thursday, 23 August 2012

Plitvička National Park

The oldest national park in Southeast Europe and the largest in Croatia. I would go as far to say that no trip to the country would be complete without a stop to this UNESCO World Heritage listed site. I present to you Plitvička National Park in pictures.

Getting In

The best way to get to the Park is from Zadar or Zagreb. In the high season, buses are more regular throughout the day. I went in late April, which is the low season. Connections from Zadar were not very favourable (first bus out was 1430hrs). Considering the ride takes about 2.5 hours, i would only have gotten to see the entrance to the park and make a mental note for another day's visit.
Which means i made the trip to the park from Zagreb (i had to go to the capital anyway). My bus out was at 0730hrs from the main bus station. It was a comfortable 2 and a half hours before the bus stopped us along the main road outside the entrance to the park.

There are several routes one can take in the park. These range from the 2-hour to an eight to 10 hour trek around the area. Don't worry about walking around in circles though. The paths are marked clearly with the different routes one can take so you won't get lost. I took route that's supposed to take you 5-6 hours (i think it was route C) and finished it in a cool 4 hours at a leisurely pace.
Getting Out
Buses for Zadar and Zagreb pass the main road from 1630hrs onwards. There are several connections to each city. Alternatively, minibuses ply the routes to get you to your destination in almost half the time. I was waiting for my bus to Zagreb when a minibus came along, charged me just about the amount the bus would have cost, and brought me to Zagreb about an hour before the bus would have. It's a pretty good option especially if you're alone.

Oh, one more thing: temperatures might be slightly lower at the park so be sure to check the weather chart before going. :)

Monday, 16 July 2012

to travel or not to travel..

Every time I come back from a vacation, I wish I could pack my bags and leave once again. Where I would take off to would almost not matter. My whole being would simply desire a taste of another road untravelled, another city/town unexperienced.

Countless times I have told friends of the longing to just drop work and hit the road for that next bit of adventure that will add to my repository. But alas, this is not always immediately possible. Life loves to quickly sink its teeth into you like a crazy dog and not let go. Yes, life’s a bitch that way. But it loosens its grip every now and then. In the interim, there’s work to return to, obligations and responsibilities to continue fulfilling.

So often you read about people who talk about travelling for 3, 6, 12 months at a stretch. They come back with bagpacks full of dirty clothes, torn underwear, and more importantly, a treasure trove of memories and experience. They describe their time away as ‘awesome’, ‘mindblowing’, ‘life-changing’. Of course, I’m thrilled when people get to travel and sometimes I even suggest places they should go to, things they should see/visit. But I’m only human, and have to admit that these gap travellers do make me jealous sometimes. And that’s only because I wish I could do that too.

Of course you can, someone once told me. Everyone only says they want to do this and do that but choose not to. Yes, he pinned it down to ‘choice’. I agree to some extent. Some of my friends say they are envious that I’m always (in relative terms) jetsetting. And I’m usually puzzled by such comments. A number of them easily earn more than me. How is it that they cannot afford to travel then? I’ve got a car, I need to save up for my condo, etc, they tell me. So there. People have priorities. Some they don’t want to give up (like a car), others they simply cannot. And it is this latter group that I come from as well.

It’s not as if I’ve always been able to afford to travel. My mum’s not rich, and she spent most of my growing up years struggling to raise my sister and I. At the same time, I used to be in awe of my youngest aunt who would slip out the door with her sleek trolley bag for her next flight as a flight attendant. For a long time, I was happy enough receiving postcards from her jaunts.

Then until 2011, I could only dream of ever stepping foot into Europe, given the cost involved. But I managed to save up and cut back on expenses (not like I spend a lot to begin with). It also helps that the euro has weakened dramatically against the Singapore dollar. The arrival of certain airlines also meant I did not have to pay a foot and an arm for a seat on the plane.

But not everyone is able to do this. I once thought of moving to India for work. A friend there said I had lost my mind: how do you think you’re going to travel if you move here? Well, there’s always India, isn’t there? I’ve not been to every part of the country. But his point did not fall on deaf ears: there are people who struggle to make ends meet. Their main concern is putting food on the table for themselves, for their families. To hop into a plane to some faraway destination is something that’s better left to characters in a film.

For some people, getting visas is a nightmare. I had a glimpse of this problem when I tried applying for my visa to Bangladesh in late 2009. Some people wait for months for their visas to be approved, only to be rejected. A Pakistani friend of mine has not been allowed entry into Indonesia for the longest time. They’re probably worried that I’m some militant, he joked (all he wanted to do was to soak up the sun in Bali). The other problem is one of high-level politics: your country and mine are not buddies.

Travelling is no doubt an experience like no other. It teaches you so much about the world, about life, about yourself. It reminds you that no matter how much you think you know, there’s so much more that you will never fully grasp. This includes the reasons other people cannot travel.

Those who choose not to...well, that’s their loss.

Monday, 9 July 2012

In the city of "Before Sunrise"

Soon after returning from my trip, I remember watching "Before Sunrise" (starring Julie Delpy and Ethan Hawke) again just to catch glimpses of the places the characters left their footprints. 'I was there too!', I exclaimed to whoever was watching the film with me. Maybe it's just me, but there is something about seeing images of the same spots you've visited on the big (or small) screen. Strange as it may sound, for me there is a sense of childlike pride for having been there, having seen the city. The image on the screen affirms the city/town's worth and beauty which your own words may not convey. Then again, maybe it's your own images that make people sit up and pay attention to a city/town they would have otherwise not thought of as a travel destination. Here then are some of my own images of the Austrian capital. Hopefully they inspire you too. :)

Start off in the west of the historic city-centre where you will find the Schönbrunn Palace (left). It is the former imperial summer residence of the Habsburgs and has just over 1,440 rooms. Of these, 40 rooms are open to the public. Audio guides are provided for a more comprehensive tour. Before or after you wander in the rooms, take a stroll around the gardens and walk up to the Gloriette, a structure that houses a cafe and offers generous views of the city. In the historic district itself, you can wander around the Hofburg Palace. The area here has been the documented seat of government since 1279 for various empires (including the Austro-Hungarian) and republics. It now serves as the residence of the President of Austria.

Walking around the many parks in the city centre might bring you face-to-face with this statue on the left. That's
The conductor expects some level of audience participation too
Mozart in Burggarten. Loitering around here you should find a couple of modern day 'Mozarts' selling tickets to classical concerts. I paid 42 euros for my ticket (in June 2011) and it was quite worth the price. The best part is that you don't have to be fancily dressed for the event because it caters specifically to tourists. So go on, let your ears feel music as it once was.
View from Leopold

Vienna is also home to many museums (the lady at the hostel told me there are at least 100). Chief among them is the MuseumsQuartier in the historic city-centre, where you will find the Leopold Museum (showcases the works of Egon Schiele and Gustav Klimt) and Museum of Modern Art (or MUMOK, which was closed at the time of my visit). Only if you're into architecture should you venture into Architecture Center Vienna (Architekturzentrum Wien). Don't get me wrong, it's not entirely technical; it's a one-room exhibition space detailing what went into the planning of the city. Away from MuseumsQuartier, other art spaces include the Belvedere (above left). There is also the Wien Musuem at Karlsplatz which traces the history of the city.  

Hang around Resselpark after you're done at Wien Museum; have a simple lunch of kebab or sandwiches (there are several stands around the city) here if you'd like. Sit in front of the pond facing Karlskirche, or St Charles Church, or one of the benches in the park. Here are two pictures of the church, at different times of day (left and right).  

Speaking of churches, a visit to Vienna won't be complete without a visit to St Stephen's (Stephansdom) at Stefansplatz. A church has stood on this site since the 12th century but little remains of the original structure. You could buy a ticket at the South Tower to climb it for spectacular views of Vienna (below left). I recommend it -- there are only 343 steps to overcome, plus it's a good cardio workout. :) 

The area around the church is the shopping district in Vienna. Note though that they close by around 7pm on most days. Coming from a city like Singapore, this might seem 'weird', since shops in the island open till much late. But it doesn't take long for you to appreciaet why the Viennese (and perhaps other European cities) do this: the rest of the night allows one to spend time with family and friends. It is, after all, more important than pandering to the whims of consumerism.

A little east of the centre of the city is Leopoldstadt (the 2nd district) where you will find the Prater Park and amusement park. Head for a spin on Praterturm (right). But if hanging in the air is not your idea of fun, try the Riesenrad ferris wheel (bottom left). It was built and erected in 1897. I recently found out that a permit for its demolition was issued in 1916. Fortunately, a lack of funds meant it could not be destroyed (reminiscent of the story of the Eiffel Tower). 

How many days?
Up to 4 full days would be good. More if you want to seriously museum-hop. My friend and I went to 5 during our 4-day trip.

Getting In
I entered Vienna by train from Prague. Train connections are also available from several cities in neighbouring countries. They include Bratislava in Slovakia (just one hour away), the Hungarian capital of Budapest, the German cities of Munich and Switzerland's Zurich.
You could also consider taking a bus in from the Balkans, Greece, Italy and Germany. If you're jetting in, options include Emirates, Qatar Airways, Austrian Airlines, Qantas, British Airways, Air China and Air France.

Friday, 6 July 2012

Charmed by Hong Kong

Some years ago, if you were to ask me about Hong Kong, i'd have told you two things: one, there are too many people there, and two the authorities shoot you if you're found to have tried to smuggle drugs to the island. The latter notion was coloured by two Hindi films, Naam (1986) and Gumraah (1993). Little wonder then I wasn't too thrilled about ever visiting Hong Kong (not because I was planning to smuggle drugs into the territory of course). But a work trip changed things: I was attending a conference at a university on the island.

It takes you 30-40 minutes to get to Hong Kong island from the airport. Just as well, because it builds up curiosity about the place: how crowded is it, really? Are there high-rise buildings EVERYWHERE? Is it really just grey?

Yes, is the answer to all three questions. Yet, I found it charming. At some point, walking through the streets of Hong Kong, especially the residential areas, felt like I had stepped into a television image of Singapore in the 1980s: it's the old buildings that get to me; the retention, in a digitized age, of the past, alongside newer structures that are pinched out taller than the next.

But no, this wasn't quite it. There was something else to Hong Kong that makes me want to go back in future. I eventually nailed the reason: it was the people.

Now, I can imagine you frowning in puzzlement. And it is true that i spent barely five days there. But it is true that people make all the difference, in every little thing they do. I watched the Hongkongers during their morning/evening rush hours, I observed them when they were in less of a hurry. One constant emerged: they are systematic.

I've lost count of the number of times I have to battle with an incoming crowd seconds after train doors open in Singapore. And what about the times when people rush into buses as if there'd be no other? I didn't have these problems in hong kong. Yes, people are in a hurry but there's a way to go about it. What did it for me too, was the fact that people stay on one side of the escalators, to allow others to pass. On my last day there i did see one escalator filled to the brim with people. But the one I was on had an 'empty lane'.

Did I mention the Hongkongers are 'cute', with the way they use the English language? Remember that every place embellishes a trend/language with its own peculiarities. In Hong Kong, most of my 'thank yous' were greeted with a 'bye bye': be it the very helpful staff at G2000, or an associate professor who gave me directions the day I missed the bus to my conference venue. Then there was the McDonald's staff who asked if i'd like to 'stay here' or take my meal away. The first option wasn't too bad really, considering my room was on the 22nd floor of the hotel next door.

Alas, was it all not just a case of romanticism attached to a space I cursorily experienced? Most definitely. Hong Kong isn't without its problems (as far as i'm concerned). Summers can get very humid. I was just lucky to be there during a cooler period, layered as it was by well-dressed people.

What about Hong Kong's poor? Where are they? Hidden up in the hills it seems, as I was told by one of the conference participants. I was reminded of the homeless in Singapore. You don't see or hear of them, but that doesn't mean they don't exist.

As for those old buildings I was raving about, they're just breathing for as long as the Hong Kong government allows them to. It seems the authorities are notorious too for pulling down old structures, despite wild protests from the island's residents. They, the powers-that-be, are under the impression that everything new is better, nicer. but is it? isn't there more to life than marrying steel and glass?