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.