Thursday, 28 June 2012

what's my name?

this entry was first written on the 23rd of Apr, 2012, during the last hour or so before the bus I was in entered Sarajevo.

Zagreb airport's immigration counters freed up quickly, save for one officer's. she was struggling with my passport. i watched her swipe the document and then shake her head, with crumpled eyebrows for effect. what could be the problem, i wondered. it didn't help that her colleague's suggestions bore little fruit. i saw myself being put on the next flight out.
when she finally spoke it was to ask where my last name was. i almost laughed out in relief. your name is very long, she said. i apologised: it's not my fault, really.
i'm woken by a light slap on my knee. i see an immigration officer standing in front of me. he takes my passport and swipes it through a mobile device. once, twice, three times. i anticipate the same problem and but am more relaxed. but Slovenia, being part of the Schengen region, requires more than just my first or last name.
where are you going in Slovenia?
for how long?
till Sunday.
why are you going there?
i'm a tourist.
where you from?
(look at my passport, Einstein) Singapore.
where you going after this?
(wanna come with me?) Croatia.
how long you stay in Europe?
16 days.

During this time the other two passengers in the cabin watch the proceedings without a word. one even slips me a suspicious look. my passport is returned to me, with the second stamp on my journey around the region.
entering Bosnia i Hercegovina did not require us getting off the bus for immigration checks. When the officer walked away with my passport, i became a bit concerned. but as he walked back to his booth, i saw in his hand several others. he had no fancy mobile device.
then began a wait that held up the bus for over 15 minutes. how long does scanning and stamping a handful of passports really take? maybe my name was a problem again. the other passengers started exchanging worried looks and some started speculating the cause of the delay. i considered getting off the bus, going over to the booth and clearing the confusion that looked like a tough murder case. the impetus was what i was seeing from my seat in the bus: two officers leaning forward, one saying something to the first, who was holding a red passport and flipping the pages furiously. could i really be single-handedly delaying everyone? at some point i saw myself returning to my seat, eyes averting stares.

one of the officers walks back to the bus. this is it, i thought to myself. i hope he speaks english. the officer walks right past me to a young man at the back. 'come with me', or 'you need to get off'-- i suppose it was one of these instructions that took the man off the bus. two passengers in front of me began speaking in hushed tones. the ticket inspector for our bus then comes over and returns me my passport. i sense relief in his expression -- thankfully it wasn't you (why would it have been anyway?). i thought of asking someone what had actually happened. then again, no one spoke english.

i went back to sleep.

Wednesday, 13 June 2012


Budapest is divided by the Danube into Buda and Pest. The Castle District is on the Buda side of the city, but the major sites are at Pest.
The city is accessible by several major airlines including Air France and Emirates. I took a train from Vienna though, for about 30 Euros. There are also connections to the Czech Republic, Germany, Italy and Greece.
The city can be seen in 3-4 days, depending on your interests. If museums are your thing, stick around for four days because there are several to visit. Otherwise, three days should do the trick. And here's the best part about the city: it is excellent for sightseeing on foot. So put on some comfy shoes and get started!

The Sights

Castle Hill: feast your eyes on medieval buildings and splendid views over Pest.
The Royal Palace, Hungarian National Gallery and the Budapest History Museum (closed at the time of my visit) are up here (above left). So are Matthias Church (a neo-Gothic structure with a colourful tiled roof and lovely murals) and Fisherman's Bastion. Tickets to both are available at ticket counters across from the entrance to the church. I would recommend skipping Fisherman's Bastion though because you can get pretty decent views of the river and parliament building without even climbing it (above right).
Castle Hill is accessible by furnicular at the foot of the hill across from Chain Bridge, or you could take a leisurely stroll up.

Chain Bridge (left): when you think of Budapest, this bridge should come to mind. At the time of its construction in the 19th century, it was regarded as one of the modern world's engineering wonders. 

Parlament (right): the city’s most iconic building. There are tours here. On the riverbank in front of the building is a sculpture that serves as a memorial to the Jews who were shot and thrown into the Danube in 1944 during the Holocaust.

Great Synagogue (left): You will find a museum with exhibits on the Holocaust, and the Memorial of the Hungarian Jewish Martyrs within the compound. The ticket office sells three tours, one of which includes all of the above. Depending on your guide, you might even get a little walking tour of what used to be the Jewish quarter.

House of Terror (above right): the former headquarters of the secret police, it now serves as a museum and focuses on the crimes and atrocities of the fascist and Stalinist regimes.

Andrássy út: listed on the UNESCO World Heritage Site list, this avenue is home to some fantastic neo-Renaissance buildings. 

Heroes' Square: here you’ll find the Millenary Monument, the Museum of Fine Arts and the Palace of Art. Beyond the Square is the City Park, which provides a lovely respite from a day of sightseeing.

Gellért Hill: walk up here at your own pace and take in the views over the Danube and the city as you do. Check out the statue of St Gellért during your ascent. The bishop had come to Budapest in the 11th century to spread Christianity. But it seems the pagans put him in a barrel and sent him rolling down this hill into the Danube (whatever happened to politely declining the offer?).
Continuing up the hill will take you to the Liberty Monument (left) at the top. The statue was erected as a tribute to Soviet soldiers who died liberating Hungary in 1945. Now it just commemorates those who fought for the freedom of Hungary.

Four Seasons Gresham Palace Hotel: If you can afford to stay here, great! Otherwise, wander into the lobby and marvel at the gorgeous chandelier that hangs above you. I think Antoni Gaudí would approve of its design.

St Stephen's Basilica (right): It is said that the interior looks more stunning when it's lit up. I took pictures without lighting and still found it to be beautiful. Then again, it is subjective.

Hungarian State Opera House (right): Check with them a day before, or on the day you plan to visit for tour times. Sessions are subject to change at the last minute (don’t say I didn’t warn you).

Váci utca: for your shopping fix. Do note that the Hungarians still use their own currency (forint) despite being part of the European Union. The last time I checked, it seems Hungary will continue using the forint for some time to come.

To read about my own experience with Budapest, click here.

In Pictures: Delhi

Delhi. or Dilli as I like to call it.
Established since around the 6th century BC.
Invaded, ransacked, rebuilt.
Old, new, newer.
These are some pictures from the city.

the sun sets against Humayun's tomb (right), a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Below left is the New Delhi Railway Station. There are connections from here to virtually everywhere in India.

Birla Mandir, a Hindu temple
(below right).

Stores such as Nike and Pepe Jeans form the list of shops in the inner circle of Connaught Place (left), one of the oldest commercial spaces in Delhi. There's a kebab place at the first radial road (it's close to the PVR Cinema) called Nizam's.
Fast, finger-licking good, and filling.
On the left is another UNESCO World Heritage Site, Qutb Minar. Construction began in the late 12th century and it was completed sometime in the 13th century. It seems some Hindu and Jain temples were destroyed and their material reused for the building of the tower and its accompanying mosque. Above right is the Delhi metro which has made commuting around the city (and to the airport) a breeze. Just don't expect to get a seat though.

The structure bathed in light on the right is India Gate, which is a memorial to those in the Indian Army who perished in the First World War.
Finally we have the Jama Masjid (below left) in Old Delhi, built by Shah Jahan when he was the Emperor of the Mughal dynasty. The mosque was almost destroyed by the British in response to the Indian Mutiny of 1857. Before you pop in here to be enthralled by this gorgeous piece of architecture, slip into one of the many eateries in its vicinity. Karim's (right) is one good option.
Suggested length of stay
If you're a big history buff, 4-5 days would be good. Otherwise, 3 days should suffice to feast your eyes on the main sights.

Best time to go
November till early March. Temperatures are cooler and more comfortable unless you prefer to sweat buckets during summer.

City of Djinns by William Dalrymple
Twilight in Delhi by Ahmed Ali
Delhi Metropolitan by Ranjana Sengupta
City Improbable: An Anthology of Writings on Delhi edited by Khushwant Singh
Delhi by Khushwant Singh

Sunday, 10 June 2012

Whistlestop: Ljubljana

When they say the Slovenian capital of Ljubljana (prono: lyoo-blee-yaa-naa) is small, they kid you not. This capital city (which some Slovenes say is more of a town), can be explored in 2 days. And precisely because it is so compact, it is worth a visit: there are no world-famous sights so you won’t find yourself running around breathlessly just because there are must-sees.

Having said that, however, the city does have some gems. The historic centre boasts a number of buildings that were part of the art nouveau/Secessionist movement. One of the most prominent is the Cooperative Bank along Miklošičeva cesta (right). There’s no way you can miss its geometric folk-patterned façade. The street is also home to the Grand Union hotel, right across from the Bank.

Down the street past the Franciscan Church of the Annunciation on your right, you will find yourself crossing Ljubljana’s famous Triple Bridge (below), which was designed by Jože Plečnik. The Triple Bridge consists of three separate picturesque bridges located next to one another. Turning right after crossing the bridge takes you to an open space where a flea market sets up on weekends, and the Dragon Bridge. Legend has it that Jason and the Argonauts killed a dragon, and one of them is among the four statues on the bridge. Perhaps more fascinating is a local legend, which says that when a virgin crosses the bridge, the dragons will wag their tail (Hmm).

Overlooking the historic city is the Ljubljana Castle, which sits atop a hill and offers
great views all around. When I made my way up to the WatchTower, the sun was
struggling to fend off the rainclouds which, from some distance away, were bullying it into submission. The ticket to the tower includes a visit to the Slovenia History Exhibition, which I thought was fascinating because of the interactive displays. I did not however leave much of an impression at some displays though, because no amount of hand-waving or pressing myself against them launched the videos or lit up the exhibits (you might have better luck).

Ljubljana has many art galleries and museums. For art, the National Gallery sits across from the Museum of Modern Art so you can easily knock yourself out moving from one to the next. As far as museums are concerned, I would recommend the Museum of Contemporary History (left). The pink building, which has a pink/purple tank at its entrance, traces Slovenia’s recent history from the late 19th century till its recent entry into the European Union. The room dedicated to the Second World War is particularly informative because there are television screens which beam accounts of survivors of the war. Once you’re done, take a leisurely stroll through Tivoli Park, Ljubljana’s largest. Join the locals (especially in summer) as they spread out a mat for some cheese and wine or sandwiches and coffee.

Speaking of which, I would recommend Lascicarna café along Stari trg (past the Town Square and Mestni trg). This quaint little place starts off looking like a regular café, but take a few steps in and you’ll find it decorated with a range of sometimes incongruous items: there’s a witch doll that sits just above the door that leads to more seats, and a lovely little fountain with a Romanesque statue. I have to admit though that the free wi-fi was what drew me to the café in the first place.

Once you feel that you’re ready to move on from Ljubljana, hop onto a bus for a day trip to Bled (about an hour and a half away), which is known for its glacial lake. It was raining when I went to this alpine gem, but that did little to ruin the romanticism. In fact, for me, the rain added that much more to the experience. I can only imagine how much more beautiful it would look under a clear sky.

You would notice a small island in the middle of the lake, which is home to the Assumption of Mary Pilgrimage Church. The island has 99 steps, and a local tradition at weddings is for the husband to carry his new bride up. During this time, the bride is to remain silent (I wonder if the groom is allowed to groan under all that weight though). However, some couples prefer to tie the knot up on Bled Castle (right), where a pavilion overlooking the lake serves this function. For regular visitors like you and me, the splendid views from the Castle should suffice.

Getting In
I entered Ljubljana by train from Zagreb. There are connections to regional cities such as Belgrade (Serbia), Budapest (Hungary), and Vienna (Austria).
Flag-carrier Adria Airways connects you to 30 European cities including Istanbul. Other airlines that land in Ljubljana include Air France, eastJet and FinnAir.

Monday, 4 June 2012

Sarajevo in 3 days

"I view Sarajevo as one city, like a person made up of different parts." - Aziz, in Joshua Irby's
Meeting Miss Irby.

As a smile spread across my face, I shut the book after reading this line and the paragraph that
followed. It summed up exactly how I felt about the city I recently visited.

Of course, most people still think of the city as 'war-torn' and 'dangerous'; but let me assure you
that the most "dangerous" experience for you would be having to answer (countless times, might
I add) a very common question: 'why did you choose to visit Sarajevo?'

The capital of Bosnia-Hercegovina is a lovely little city which one person told me truly deserves
being described as a blend of the East and West, more so than Istanbul. You be the judge. Personally, I loved how the city is small enough to be navigated on foot. And considering the number of cafes and eateries that stick out of virtually every corner, you would not have to worry about being on your feet all day. So here's my suggested itinerary. 

Day 1
Take a walk around Baščaršija, the old town of Sarajevo. Start with Pigeons' Square and Sebilj (below, right), a kiosk-shaped public wooden and stone fountain, and lose yourself in one of the many alleys in the area.
Down from the Sebilj, make a right turn towards the Gazi Husrev-beg buildings which include a mosque. It is considered the most important Islamic structure in the country and one of the world's finest examples of Ottoman architecture. There's also a covered bazaar which offers the usual touristy trinkets in a variety of shops.

Continuing straight down from there would bring you past a string of cafes along Ferhadija, where you will also see reminders of the Austro-Hungarian era. You could also pop into the Catholic Cathedral which dates from the late 19th century.

Not far from here is the Orthodox Cathedral (on the left), which in my opinion, is best viewed at night because it is artfully lit up. What made it even more beautiful for me during my trip in late April 2012 was the falling rain.

Take some steps south from here and you will find yourself in front of the Miljacka River. Look out for a cream-coloured building topped with green domes. This is the Academy of Arts, which is reminiscent of Budapest's national parliament building. There's also the cute Latin Bridge, which gained infamy for being the site where the wheels of the First World War started turning; it was here that a Serbian nationalist assassinated the heir to the throne of the Austro-Hungarian empire (Archduke Franz Ferdinand) in late June 1914. There's a little museum (Sarajevo 1878-1918 Museum) right next to the bridge which showcases photographs from that period.

Continue east of Baščaršija, and walk uphill past Sebilj and the tram stop towards Kovači and beyond. You'll find yourself in front of the Kovači Martyrs' Cemetery where the dead from the 1990s conflict rest. Just beyond here is the Yellow Bastion wherefrom you get lovely views of the city and its surrounding hills. The hills too offer some gorgeous views of Sarajevo, but it's not always advisable to tread those paths because some mines from the war remain.

Day 2
Prepare yourself for something more serious today with a visit to the History Museum. It is largely devoted to the 1990s conflict, and the building itself bears the scars of the war. Some of the photographs are disturbing, and so are some displays on how the Sarajevans survived the 44-month siege. But do look out for an alphabetic guide pinned to one of the walls, and you might just find yourself chuckling at the dark humour with which people possibly tried to keep themselves sane amidst the madness. Wander around the hallways on the ground floor as well, because there might be a temporary exhibition on in one of the rooms. At the time of my visit, there were two photography exhibitions, both dealing with the break-up of the former Yugoslavia. Right behind is the Tito Cafe, which is filled with photographs of Marshal Tito (the late leader of the former Yugoslavia).

I'd also recommend a visit to the Tunnel Museum in Butmir, close to the airport. It tracks the construction of an 800-metre underpass which was literally the lifeline of the city during the siege of the 1990s. The guide books suggest arranging for the trip from the hotel, but I suppose that was taking the four- and five-starrers into consideration. Alternatively, they said, take a tram (number 3 or 5) from the city centre to Ilidža terminus and hop onto a bus.

Simple enough, I thought. But as it turned out, a girl I asked said she did not know how to get there. I looked at my map and decided to looked pretty close by anyway. Under a sky that looked ready to burst, I put one foot ahead of the next for at least 20 minutes until I reached a crossroad. A lady at a salon nearby knew fully well where I was going from my appearance, and offered directions -- in Bosnian. I continued walking for another 20-30 minutes, past quaint houses and empty streets. Why am I doing this to myself again? I'm happy to report that I eventually found the museum. But my advice is, go with a taxi from Ilidža if you plan to take public transport. Otherwise, stick to the hotel's arrangement.

Day 3
If you haven't had enough of museums, make a trip to the National Museum. It's really quite close to the History Museum but I guess doing both in the same day would be overwhelming. One of the highlights here is the Sarajevo Haggadah, a 14th-century Jewish codex.

The other option is to pay a visit to the Svrzo House at Glodina (north of Baščaršija). It is a restored 18th-century house-museum (right) which has retained its courtyards and overhanging box windows. It may be a little difficult to find but it's worth the trip. The guy who runs the place said he's spoken to the authorities to put signs up to help tourists find the place. But it seems the government isn't allowing it because it wants to do the work. Nothing's transpired yet so if you find yourself scratching your head at some little junction, ask someone. :)

Note: These are not the only things to look out for because there are a number of other mosques and sites strewn around the city; I've only mentioned the ones I think are essential.

Getting InI took an overnight bus from Ljubljana (12 hours), which set me back by 44 Euros. Good thing
is that it saves you the cost of one night's accommodation. Buses are also available from regional
cities such as Zagreb, Split (Croatia) and Belgrade (Serbia). You could also take a train in from
Croatia (Zagreb) and Hungary (Budapest).
Alternatively, fly into Sarajevo with Lufthansa (via Munich), Turkish Airlines (via Istanbul) and
Croatia Airlines.

I'm not sure about the airport but the bus station has no money changing facility. The best option here are the ATMs. Ditto in the city although you will find postal offices offering the service. Note too that the Bosnian Mark is the preferred currency.

Friday, 1 June 2012


I had no shoes on; only striped socks whose colours resembled that of my pullover. Maybe someone would find that cute, I thought to myself as I gingerly made my way to the toilet – past sleeping passengers, and some engrossed in the latest Hollywood film or TV series.

I pulled the door shut and turned to look at the mirror. I had not shaved for the past two days, stubble had begun to colonise my face. I searched my eyes for the brown that glows with kisses from the sun. It was not there. I guess the mist was covering it. I don’t know how long I stood there, watching a tear form slowly from one eye, sliding down with a suppressed urgency. It was as if I were entering an unknown space. How was that possible?

Within hours it would start: I would have to make out their individuality although that would be akin to forcing my eyes towards the sun. In the cab home, I would have to re-acquaint myself with my own reality – the people around me, the job I have been at for the past few years, the surroundings. Did I forget a folder with all that information in the hotel room, at one of the airports perhaps?

There is a certain sense of fatalism about being in a plane. You cannot choose where to get off. You can alight at an unknown bus stop, an unfamiliar train station. No one needs to know you do not belong there. You will make yourself fit in, somehow. You are in charge, you can determine things. But the plane takes all that away from you. Your free will is arrested the moment you check in your baggage. It directs you all the way to a final destination of the pilot’s manoeuvring. And as if to remind you who’s in charge, he makes announcements about where you are during your flight – how high, how far, how much time you have to prepare yourself before you land. And then you follow everyone else out of the plane: to a waiting immigration officer, a waiting taxi, a pair of arms.

I return to my seat and look outside the window. The TV screen shows that we’re flying over the Indian subcontinent. That’s Mumbai, I think to myself. So many friends are in that city. They are so small from up here, almost insignificant. In the same way, I am up here, so small, so vulnerable. How did our problems become so big?

I switch to the audio function and play old Hindi songs. There in the list is an album by Kishore Kumar, his greatest hits from the 1970s. Top of the list is a familiar song picturised on Rajesh Khanna and Sharmila Tagore from the 1971 film, Safar:

Zindagi ka safar, hai yeh kaisa safar, (the journey of life, what sort of a journey is it?)
Koi samjha nahin, koi jana nahin.. (no one understands, no one knows)

Was the 1970s a really miserable decade? Hindi cinema of that era seemed to suggest so.
Then again, perhaps it was not just the decade it was mourning.

children of the revolution

i was having coffee when the voices floated in. it was the usual crowd -- adults, posters, flags, families. Syrians. i had seen a similar rally at Vienna´s Stephensplatz in june. this one in Madrid is smaller. but what makes it unique is that the voices are those of children. they are taking turns to demonstrate their rage at their leader. they scream, they clap. they are watched by ordinary Spaniards. some are taking photos, some cheering them on. a group of policemen watch from across the road, probably wishing they had something better to do on a lovely warm sunday afternoon.

i walk around the so-called protest site, snapping pictures as i weave in and out. i cannot help but be moved by the rousing voices. they are desperate, they are impatient for change. i feel like joining them, shouting slogans at the Syrian embassy which sits quietly on the second floor of the building across the street. 

as i walk away from them, an urge rises from within to hurl a stone at the Syrian mission. i want it to ask my questions, to convey their people´s rage, to smash the walls and windows of helplessness. but what good has violence done anyone anyway..


this entry was first written in October 2011.
since then, many more people have died in the continuing violence in Syria.
and as the world did before, it will carry on watching from the comfort of its living room couch.