Monday, September 16, 2013

Airport City

Alexander McCall Smith, speaking for Isabel Dalhousie in one of those delicious Edinburgh based stories, writes that "....hell must be like an airport, with a surplus of artificial lighting and fake smiles...", or some words to that effect. I cannot remember (or find online) the exact quote, so if anyone reading this can point me to the book I'm trying to remember, I'd appreciate it a lot. Or we'll just have to wait until someone develops an exhaustive quotes page for this wonderful author.

New Delhi's T3, one of my favorites (picture from
I remembered the phrase when I entered Dumdum airport today evening. I was weary, weighed down with Sunday evening blues. But I felt an instant lifting of spirits as I walked into Dumdum, and realized that airports always have this effect on me. Even when I'm grumpily taking 4 AM flights. I find that I'm seized with sudden involuntary happiness every time I walk into a terminal. Perhaps it is the chance to do unabashed people watching - there are people hugging, kissing, crying (or struggling to not cry), arguing - and all of it is fuel to my soul. I love the bright lights, the book stores and the doughnuts; I love the gleaming floors and tall ceilings. I even love the 'fake' smiles of the airport staff and sales people. Besides, who am I to say that the smiles are fake?

Further introspection reveals that what sums up the magic of airports for me is the air of anticipation. There's a feeling, that from this moment on, anything can happen. You're off to another city, another country, new and exciting experiences will follow. Even if it's a city that I'm returning to for the 97th time, the terminal whispers - you never know, something utterly different can happen to you tomorrow.

I think we're meant to feel this way about life in general, every minute of it - that there is just so much to look forward to. An airport perhaps is the place where the mind is able to pause, stop being mindless, and reaffirm that there are potential new beginnings, all the time, and everywhere.

Saturday, July 20, 2013

A trek to Mont Tremblant (The "Trembling Mountain")

Or, my recommendation for what to do if you have a weekend to spare in Montreal.

Mont Tremblant (pronounced "Trom" to rhyme with "mom", and "blent" to rhyme with "blond" without the "d") is a city in the Laurentian mountains of Quebec, approximately 130 kilometers from Montreal. The city may seem like the weekend getaway of the fancy people, with golf courses and spa resorts aplenty, but it also has a beautiful wooded hill, perfect for a day trek, lakes to swim in, and dozens of little coffee shops and pubs that you can keep walking in and out of over a weekend

To get there: I took a bus from the Montreal bus station. Buses run from Montreal to Tremblant 3 times a day, and can be booked online at the GAMTL website. The buses are super-comfortable (I saw a loo inside a bus for the first time in my life!)

My room in Le Couvent
To Stay: There are many hotels and homestays in the city, which consists of 4 municipalities, all quite close to each other, and all quite picturesque. Among the four - Ville St. Jovite, Paroisse de Saint-Jovite, Mont Tremblant, and Lac-Tremblant-Nord - I recommend the Mont Tremblant village because it's the closest to the mountain, where all the excitement is. I stayed at the Le Couvent, a charming homestay (run by one Susan Staub, who serves the most amazing breakfast ever). For my second night in the village, I chose the Hostelling International's hostel in Mont Tremblant, which is a steal beyond belief.

The Trek: Trekking in Mont Tremblant can seem a little tame, but if you're in the mood for a short day hike through a steep forest trail, wonderfully silent except for the sound of wind through trees and filled with delicious jungle scents, you will not be disappointed. 

Susan gave me a map with a well marked route from the village to the mountain base - it was a lovely 3 kilometer walk at the end of which is a cable car that takes you to the foot of the mountain. There's also a information kiosk next to the cable car where they'll tell you everything you need to know about the trails. There are 6 trails to choose from, with varying degrees of difficulty and ranging from 2 hours to 6 hours for the climb and back. There's a second cable car at the mountain base that takes you to the top, and there is a very well hidden notice board that tells you that the last return trip from the mountain top will be at 5 PM.

The trails are marked with colored arrows that correspond with the markers on your map (I did say it's a bit tame), but the path is steep enough, and lonely enough to be adventurous. There were times when I had minor panic attacks when I thought I had lost the trail, but they turned out to be all false alarms, except for one very exciting half hour, when I reached a dense and dark place and retraced my steps with prayers in my heart. It took me a total of five hours (3 up, 2 down), and it was a lot of fun. I've put some more pictures of the trek on my Facebook page.
The Mont Tremblant hiking trail

My tips if you're planning a trek on this hill (relevant for any day hike, in fact; please take notes) -
1. Start early. I cannot stress this strongly enough. My over confidence and over reliance on the Canadian sun's late hours made me start my trek at 4 PM, and I spent a very alarming hour hiking down the mountain in steadily increasing darkness.
2. Carry more water than you think you'll need. 
3. Carry a torch even if you're sure you'll return long before it's dark.
4. Carry insect repellant.
5. Carry Food. I know few things worse than hiking on a grumbling stomach. 
6. Make sure you have your return trip planned. Is there a cable car? What time does it get back?

But overall, I think I prefer climbing in the Indian Sahyadris, where you're seldom sure where a wrong turn will take you.

Sunday, May 5, 2013

14 hours in Qatar

Or, Things to Do in Doha City
Souq Wakif (Picture: Rigveda)
Please bookmark this post, and use it whenever Qatar airways dumps you in Doha because you miss a connecting flight. You're welcome.

Here's is what wiki travel says about the city we found ourselves in this Monday, en route to Tanzania - "Doha has a reputation for not being the most exciting place on earth". But not to despair. We hired a car for four hours and did a speed round of Doha tourism - mostly on the recommendation of the concierge desk at the Movenpick hotel. Here's my opinion of what we saw:
  1.  The Pearl-Qatar. This is an artificial island, known for uber rich people who live here and for the luxury brand stores. Given that Rigveda and I were walking around in track pants and chappals, not sure why he brought us here. My rating: 1/5
  2. Katara. An upmarket mixture of Haveli and Dilli haat, has some interesting photography exhibitions, stamp collections and very overpriced food. They have some performances once in a while, but there was nothing on when we visited. I give it a 1/5.
  3. Villagio Mall. Once I've told you that the Villagio is built like an Italian street, and has an artificial canal with gondolas running through it, you know everything worth knowing about the mall. Also, the roof is made to resemble a monsoon sky, which leads me to suspect that the makers of Culture Gully (Kingdom of Dreams) may have copied the ceiling design. As malls go, the ones in Delhi have more stuff, I have to admit. My rating: 2/5, and that too because of the canal and the gondolas.
  4. Museum of Islamic Art. Now we're talking. I so wish we had ignored the well-meaning advice of locals and headed straight to this. Built over 3 floors, it has some amazing pieces and some delightful stories. They have exhibitions too - we were lucky enough to see the Ferozkoh collection from Afghanistan that on display this month and the next. It blew my mind. I wish we had more time here. My rating: 4.5/5
  5. Souq Wakif. Great place to experience the local culture, and to buy spices. There's a section that sells birds and animals - very colorful, but also very disturbing. 3.5/5
  6. Al Corniche. The waterfront promenade where locals walk/jog/bicycle on. Lovely views of the sea and the skyline. 4.5/5
Al Corniche (Picture: Rigveda)
To sum up, if you have half a day in Doha, I recommend the following:
  • Politely say no to your concierge's suggestions and take a cab straight to the Souq Wakif. Please spend some time here, buy some stuff.
  • Cross the road to reach the Museum of Islamic Art where I suggest you spend hours and hours. 
  • If you still have time left, start walking on the Al Corniche which starts right outside the Museum, and walk till you you run out time and/or energy. 
Again, you're welcome.

Friday, April 26, 2013

Side effects of being Indian, part 2

Or, The story with a semi happy ending.

For the first two side effects, see Side effects of being Indian, Part 1

3. You are afraid of school-kids. This happened to me yesterday. I need to document it because in these times of utter fear and mistrust, the Delhi police treated me with respect and concern, and that at least is something to celebrate.

Yesterday, 3 PM: We leave work early, and Rigveda drops me at the street corner, which is less than a 5 minute walk from the gate of my apartment complex. There's a school across the road, and I see the students for the first time - I usually return from work much later than this. They're done with their school day, and there's about 2 dozen boys in school uniform hanging around the ice-cream seller. Some of them stare and point at me, and I'm acutely conscious of the fact that I wore a skirt and high heels to work today. But they're kids, calm down, I tell myself. As I continue walking, the jeering starts - 8 or nine voices, saying various things about various parts of me. I feel an icy cold hand on my heart, which is part fear, part shock and part anger but I decide to keep walking.

And then a pebble falls on my back. This is unbelievable. I turn around, angrier than I have been in a long time, and yell - What the hell! Most of them have run away, and the rest are standing around, giggling. I may have used some 4 letter words, but mostly I called them ill-mannered and rude, I think. I continue walking back, relieved that I'm almost home, miserable because I hate confrontation of any kind...and then a pebble hits me again. But this time I am too angry to shout. This time I have to walk back to where they are huddled up, feeling secure in their numbers, the little monsters. I say to the guy in front, the one's who's staring at me. He's taller than I am. (Why is he angry with me?) - "Look, this is where I live. I'm going to walk back every day. And I'm going to have the police on speed dial, and call them tomorrow if one of you attempts this again. Get it?"
He says - "I didn't do it."
I say - "I don't care who did it. And neither will the police. They'll take away all of you together, and teach you all some things you need to learn"

4 PM: I have cried for an hour, called friends, recieved love and sympathy, and finished all the ice-cream I had in the fridge. Made resolutions never to wear skirts, or to come home at this hour - and felt ashamed at being cowed down enough to make stupid resolutions. And I continue to feel miserable. There's only one thing to do - I google 'women's helpline Delhi' and find these numbers: Delhi Commission for Women 23379181/ 23370597. I feel a little crazy, wanting to complain about kids, so I ask the woman what I should do. She's amazing - she seems to understand exactly what I'm feeling and tells me that a minor can be as dangerous to your safety as an adult. She advises me call the nearest police station and let them know. "And if you can't reach them, please call me back." Wow.

4.30 PM: I've been debating with myself if I should call the police. Will they tell me I'm over-reacting? But I call the police station up anyway (the numbers are really easy to find on Google). Once again I'm blown away by the sensitivity exhibited - apart from interrupting me once to tell me to speak slowly and in Hindi, the guy at the other end listens patiently as I talk to him. He asks me for the name of the school and the area, and tells me they'll post a constable there from tomorrow onwards. And he reiterates that minors can harass too. "Apko dobara aise suffer nahin karna padega" (you will never have to suffer like this again). Wow.

I don't feel great, but I feel a little safer.

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Life Imitates Jigsaw Puzzles

Let me clarify and admit without any shame: I'm a jigsaw puzzle geek. I once spent 14 hours on the floor on a cold winter night (okay Hyderabad winter, but still) working on one. It's like heroin addiction - eyes may water, legs may cramp, it's impossible to stop once begun.

Over 10 hours of work..
It occurred to me last week, as I was helping Prashanth put his 1000-piece Beatles picture together, that the number of things common between a jigsaw puzzle and life is astounding. The broad principles you use to assemble a jigsaw, are also the principles of a life well lived:
  1. If you find yourself putting something in place and asking yourself (or your friends) - Does this fit? - it probably doesn't. When it fits, there will be no question in your mind. It will feel perfect.
  2. When you've spent hours struggling to find a solution that you see very clearly in your head, it's a good idea to take a break, and go to something else for a while. When you come back, you will find that the thing has been lying right beneath your nose, and you were just too exhausted to see it.
  3. When you think you've tried everything that could have fit, and you're convinced the one piece that would fill in a really annoying gaping space has been lost forever, through your stupidity or someone's carelessness, calm down. It's not lost. Nothing is ever lost for good - you'll find it.
I'm thinking of flying to Kolkata next weekend to help Prashanth finish the picture.

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Side effects of being Indian

They raped a girl and hurt her so badly that she died of her injuries. No matter how much time goes by, there will be one family who lives with that grief forever. And one entire generation of women will feel an ache every time we remember the weeks we prayed for a nameless, faceless young girl to live.

This was one event, one of many such. They leave us feeling much - bereft at what was lost, scared to walk back alone after parties, or charged up to fight and look at that groper in the eye; but they do something else too. There's this one side effect that distresses me more than all the others - they leave us with an inability to trust each other. Strangers are no longer friends waiting to be made. They're just potential rapists and murderers. This particular side effect, this paranoia that we will all live with forever, damages us in two major ways: 

1. We don't have magical chance encounters.  I remember reading a story on Tumblr some months ago - about a guy called Gare who always stops to help hitchhikers and people with car trouble, and makes great friends in the process. He started the tradition because a family from Mexico once helped him when his car broke down in the middle of nowhere. He begins by saying - "This story is one of my motivations to becoming a better person." It's an amazing story and makes me feel emotional every time I read it. (You can read it here: Today you, tomorrow me) My point is that it's a blessing that our man Gare did not start practicing this philosophy in India - he'd have been raped and left for dead long before he had a chance to help hitchhiker no.3.

It depresses me that I view every unfamiliar person (and some familiar ones too, come to think of it) with suspicion. A potential flatmate called me last week to ask if she could come see my flat after work that evening. She then called at 10 PM - "I'm so awfully sorry, but I'm leaving work only now, can I come to your place right away? I need to take a decision about the house tomorrow.." Part of me was annoyed. Is she crazy? This is Delhi! This sounds like such a con, and I'm alone at home! But part of me wanted to fight the paranoia. She could be someone just like me, a regular girl, stuck late at work and needing to figure out a place to live. I realized I was punishing her for what the five rapists had done in December. This was the full extent of their crime - ordinary people going through life looking at each other with doubt and fear. She was profusely apologetic about putting me through the trouble, and I decided to let her come. I was right, she was a lot like me - I even have the exact same jacket and skirt she was wearing. But I did not feel any victory over the paranoia. I had palpitations in my heart, and my hand on the speed dial button all the time she was in the house. And she was equally jittery. She was in and out of the house in less than 10 minutes. I did not offer her coffee.

2. We leave each other to bleed on the road. This happened in Jaipur a few hours ago. And it happens often. I cannot quit thinking about this - would I have stopped to help? I think I would have. And so would a lot of people I love and respect. But the people who didn't...they carry in their hearts the memories of hundreds of crimes, and those memories can block the cries of a four year old who's asking you to stop and help his mother. I don't blame them. It's the awful side effect of being Indian.

My friend Mehul would say that this rant is unfair because isn't as if there aren't crimes and negligence in other countries, and I agree. And yet there are places where people grow up and live in relative safety. Perhaps the trust that people have for each other is directly proportional to that safety? It makes me so envious that there are places where strangers smile at each other (which is different from the leering we're familiar with). The highlight of my week in Geneva was that every time I would stop at a street corner and open my massive map, someone would stop and ask if they could help. And they did it for everyone. I got a lump in my throat the first time it happened. I envy them this naivete even more than the utter beauty they live in. How wonderful must it feel, to live in a place, where you can roll down your car window and ask - Can I help you?

Side Effects of being Indian, Part 2

Saturday, February 9, 2013

The elusive 'Reply' button

I'm shamefully (or do I mean unashamedly?) indifferent to a lot - traffic, crime, politics do not move me too much. But what makes me truly, deeply angry is rudeness. And I find myself thinking about this subject frequently. When you're rude to someone, you're telling them, in effect, "You don't matter". Not enough for me to bother about your state of mind. These three words are perhaps more cruel than 'I dislike you', or even, 'I hate you', because they hurt that part of our being that tells us that we're worthwhile, that we bring value to this universe by being part of it. You could, of course, say that it would be a very fragile sense of self worth if one allowed every act of incivility to hurt it. But if I did inure myself to impoliteness, would I also, eventually, become uncivil?

Not that I have a lot of right to complain. I'm surrounded by kind, generous people who are unfailingly polite and who forgive my own acts of ill-manneredness more often than not. Where I suffer most often, is when people ignore my emails. An unanswered mail, particularly when it contains a question, makes me angry at a very primal level, because I hear those dreaded words - you don't matter enough for me to acknowledge or respond to your message.

I was upset enough today to run a Google search on this. Wondering if I was acting needy or clingy for expecting prompt responses to mails, I typed "is it rude to not respond to an email" and got about 12,100,000 results. I performed a meta-analysis over the top 10, and below is a summary of this 'robust' sample:
  • 40% articles say that it is rude to not to respond to an email within a couple of hours of receiving it. "To ignore an email sent to you in good faith, especially by someone you know, is to forget that you're dealing with a fellow human being, who deserves to be treated with respect, and even with a modicum of care". (Huffington Post).
  • 20% articles suggested that this could be an 'it depends' kind of scenario, where people who were deluged by dating requests or messages from salesmen could take a call on how they wanted to deal with the flood. 
  • 10% publications were of the opinion that responding to emails may clutter our lives. "I hesitate to e-mail those people who seem to reply immediately to every single message. It's like playing tag. You're it" (Joyce Carpenter in Computerworld Blogs).
  • 30% of the search results were irrelevant to the question.
And then I found these two absolutely delightful gems in NY times that pulled me out of self-pity, and made me laugh:
  • Though it would comfort us to think that these long silences are the product of technical failure or mishap, the more likely culprits are lack of courtesy and passive aggression.
  • Diana Abu-Jaber, a novelist, said that a few years ago she had “a whole nonrelationship” with a fellow writer in Portland, Ore., who would not hit the reply button.
There. Now I have the anger out of my system. I'm going to try and be less dependent on people's email behavior for my personal happiness. I will repeat to myself, it's not me, it's them. It's a continuing battle.

Click here for the brilliant NY Times article on the subject.

Saturday, January 12, 2013

On travel, and on Kovalam...

I have the unbelievable good fortune of spending a week in Kerala with my extended family. There's 12 of us here, ranging from age twenty to sixty two - the logistics are mind-boggling, but the joy and the madness is amazing. We have traveled across the western border of India in a two day train journey, played endlessly in the Arabian Sea and watched Kathakali dancers on the beach, but like all good things, this one is ending too. I'm writing this post from a verandah where I can see a swimming pool overlooking the sea. My brother and his wife are doing laps in the pool, my baby sister is sleeping in the room, and the rest of the family is off climbing a lighthouse to watch the sunset. 


We will pour oil on body and do massage, he said (he pronounced the 'mass' as it is in 'massive' - prophetically as it later turned out). Oil will enter body subcutaneous tissue and remove all toxins from body. When we live in the cities, we take in lot of metallic and non-metallic toxins into body. So regular massage is very important to pull the toxins out (miming an impressive pulling at this point).

We were talking to Dr. Shambhu from the Ayush Ayurveda clinic in Kovalam, and he was giving us an Abhyangam 101. It was a convincing lecture, and five of us signed up for an hour long session each at his clinic. My take on Abhyangam: they slather you with buckets of oil and do something resembling a massage. I give it a 6 on 10. I guess I prefer the Balinese variety.

Interesting as it was, the massage isn't what I want this post to be about.

My adorable chacha and chachi on the Poovar beach
It occured to me today, as I was walking on the white sands of the Poovar beach, that what Dr. Shambhu said about massage is a brilliant metaphor for travel itself. Every time we run barefoot on a beach, with the music of the sea filling us up, every time we sigh over how blue the water is, or how deliciously steep the climb is, some of the exhaustion that we have accumulated for months washes away. Every crazy meal shared with the people we love (and the people who love food), every walk under the moon with people who enjoy arguing for the sake of argument, every mountain climbed with people who like nothing better than finding out how much they can push themselves (and then do it a little bit more), and every directionless rambling through a village with a fellow dreamer - these are the ways we clean up the clutter in our heads.

And then we go back to the 'real world', to collect some more of the clutter and the 'toxins' (metallic and non metallic) - we wake up to smoggy skies and views of ugly high rises, commute in fear, breathe in smoke, do our jogging in concrete jungles, and eat whatever junk is available quickly and with minimum fuss (I'd like to add 'spend our days doing work that doesn't move us', to this list but that part isn't true for me anymore *Grin*).

But all that is tomorrow. Today, what remains topmost in my being, is the memory of my mother's voice behind me, as our boat floated gently in the green backwaters of Poovar,"It doesn't feel like this is earth, does it?"

It really didn't. Not the earth we're used to.

I have a list of recommendations (you're welcome, universe!) for Things That You Have To Do In Kovalam (order does not indicate the delight I derived from each - that part is very hard to pin down):
Poovar backwaters, picture courtesy Kanwaljit Kaur

1. Have breakfast at the German Bakery (Hawah Beach).
2. Go swimming in the infinity pool at the Leela Kovalam and have their brunch.
3. Eat at the Lonely Planet Restaurant (yes, that is the name).
4. Go to the Fusion Restaurant (Eve's beach) and order the pineapple curry with rice.
5. Take a boat through the backwaters of Poovar.
6. Walk on the Poovar Beach.
7. Believe in the magic of post-breakfast siestas.
8. Ditto for post-lunch siestas.

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