Sunday, 6 December 2009

Found and lost

















My Istanbul. By the Yeni Jamii.


Like the pashmina i left behind on Base Camp 4,000 metres up in the Himalayas and my coin pouch (which slid out of a hole in my jeans pocket) on a bus ride in Aleppo, i  think we all leave behind a bit of ourselves in those places where we have stayed in for a period of time - which by my definition, is one which involves having to do the laundry.

A bit of my heart is still in Istanbul. Many many laundry trips there, and trips to the local kebapci for breakfasts and baklavaci for sweet snacks, and down Galata bridge on evenings and Independence Street, Istiklal Caddesi in the heart of Galata.

I am a Galata boy. Cim Bom all the way.

Friday, 4 December 2009

Ramayana

Once again, i am looking at all my life, in one bag, in my hands.

Lanka.

In a sense, it will be a bit like going back to India. After one and a half years, the memories still run deep - from standing on a street corner in Chennai sipping chai to watching the Ganga puja one sweltering evening in Varanasi, and standing up there in the Himalayas looking at mountains touching a clear blue sky... My life was never the same after that summer. And hopefully, i will have many more things to learn and reflect upon when in Sri Lanka as well.

p/s: btw, do you know where Adam first set foot on earth, exiled from the garden of Eden?

 - the answer, of course, is Lanka :) Adam's peak, or Sri Pada is a 2,243m high peak in the central highlands of Sri Lanka, where a huge footprint is found on a boulder on its summit - Buddhists claim this to be of the Buddha, Hindus the Lord Shiva, and Muslims and Christians Adam.

From wikipedia, a beautiful description: "Climbing at night can be a remarkable experience, with the lights of the path leading up and into the stars overhead." And better: "The legends of Adam are connected to the idea that Sri Lanka was the original Eden."

from here at base camp Maskeliya where the stairs begin...
















to here...

Sunday, 15 November 2009

Nepal. A fairytale.



Its like a video game with the hero coming back to town after a hard days slog up misty mountains (killing dragons and looting dungeons) and heading to the tavern to sit by the fire and eat dhaal bhaat. Good life.

Saturday, 14 November 2009

A world lit by lightning

Where we are all running
toward something
an old tree in the horizon
cracked, lit up
harsh white lightning.
Or are we running away
In the end -
it doesn't matter.

A poem to the city. It has been raining a lot these days... especially in the evenings. I love it - the post-apocalyptic feel of swirling leaves, a watery cold sunset, purple skies somewhere between dark and light...

Flashes of lightning in the distance - rain dripping from green leafy boughs of trees, and against the curtain of water blurred lights by the sidewalk lamps...stretching away.

And i am reminded of Tom Wingfield's hauntingly beautiful closing soliloquy in the Glass Menagerie....

"I didn't go to the moon. I went much further — for time is the longest distance between two places. Not long after that I was fired for writing a poem on the lid of a shoe-box. I left Saint Louis. I descended the steps of this fire escape for a last time and followed, from then on, in my father's footsteps, attempting to find in motion what was lost in space. I traveled around a great deal. The cities swept about me like dead leaves, leaves that were brightly colored but torn away from the branches. I would have stopped, but I was pursued by something. It always came upon me unawares, taking me altogether by surprise. Perhaps it was a familiar bit of music. Perhaps it was only a piece of transparent glass. Perhaps I am walking along a street at night, in some strange city, before I have found companions. I pass the lighted window of a shop where perfume is sold. The window is filled with pieces of colored glass, tiny transparent bottles in delicate colors, like bits of a shattered rainbow. Then all at once my sister touches my shoulder. I turn around and look into her eyes. Oh, Laura, Laura, I tried to leave you behind me, but I am more faithful than I intended to be! I reach for a cigarette, I cross the street, I run into the movies or a bar, I buy a drink, I speak to the nearest stranger — anything that can blow your candles out!"


For me, in the end, we all seek forgiveness. For me I just want to be forgiven.

Friday, 13 November 2009

Dust in the wind...



Quite a surreal moment to be woken up at 3 in the morning to the soft haunting strains of Kansas' Dust in the Wind over the radio... I open my eyes, in that half dark, i close my eyes in semi-sleep, to the surreal melancholic guitar sound, "only for a moment, and the moments gone..."

Dust in the wind.... all we are is dust in the wind....

Friday, 30 October 2009

I remember...

In what feels like a few lifetimes ago, I remember...















1. Chocolate tastes better up in the mountains, the Himalayas touching the heavens. It feels like a beautiful dream now, looking back...













 2. Driving through the night across Anatolia Turkey, waking up to a dream of driving past rich golden fields of flowers and the sunshine in my eyes, snowy mountains in the windshield, framed by the words "Bismillah al-Rahman al-Rahim" towards the fairytale world of Cappadocia.









































3. Arriving on the night train in Varanasi to a power-cut. Total blackout, chaos, surreal sweltery night in the City of Shiva with no place to stay, heavy packs, and all cloaked in darkness and silence - the ghats, the streets, the railway station...


















4. On the same thread - sleeping at Agra Fort railway station and waking up to the chai-wallah walking among sleeping bodies, Indians brushing their teeth by the tracks, the station slowly coming to life with the first warm rays of the day's sunshine...

Sunday, 25 October 2009

The "Quest"

Happiness is right here, right now.

Start looking for it and you miss it.

(all you need is here)

Friday, 23 October 2009

The soul of a road junky

By Tom Thumb, from roadjunky.com

When you’ve traveled too long the only direction left to go is inwards.


When you travel for long enough, you eventually leave your past behind. It becomes another place that you might visit physically or just behind your eyelids on another bus journey someplace, as confused and indistinct as last night’s dream, real in the same way as the plot of a favourite book or movie, buried deep inside you like a thorn that may never come out. You look in the mirror and don’t quite recognize yourself, you’re a stranger to who you once were, a traitor to your ambitions, a convert to the winding designs of the road that take you anywhere other than where you expected.

Your life fills with places and people like the items that you stuff into your backpack, there’s only room for so many and you lose half of them along the way like odd socks. In the end it seems that you stand still and the earth passes beneath your feet, changing climate, economy, language, race, all of it like scenes of a movie and when you wake up tomorrow you have to wait a full five minutes before your brain works out where you are.

You carry none of the treasures that others strive to amass, the endless zeros in a bank account, the paper qualifications, the garage full of yesterday’s consumer goods, shelves lined with little luxuries. Yet when you sit down at a table with the right mood served up, your heart can suddenly open and out poor a wealth of experiences that leave your company in laughter or tears.

Unable to see yourself, to follow the incomprehensible trail you’ve followed like Pooh footsteps over the years, you can no longer even describe your life, the details running off the page and the words wrapping themselves up in images as beautiful as they are untrue. You allow others to make a legend of you rather than argue the point and then walk disguised past a doorway where you would have been more than welcome.

The countries you’ve seen pile up as smudged stamps in lost and stolen passports, random emails from the past re-awake a foreign affair, a forgotten crisis or a revelatory moment shared with a random friend picked from the casual flow of coincidental acquaintances. Remember me? when you don’t quite remember yourself.

Your body remembers. Smells bound up with days spent ill with fever, or stepping out of a bus and smelling mountain wood smoke, the sound of crows heralding tropical mornings, even the unapproachable stars reflecting back every place you ever stood and looked up, wondering why, how and where, where, where, will someone tell me where?

The time not spent in movement is spent waiting, hanging around for that bus, train or plane, killing time in unfriendly hotel rooms, drinking tea, watching other people live their lives, all the things they’re bound to, that they would never dream of leaving behind and feeling like another species, studying the human race through the microscope of your own eyes.

The journey, the way, becomes an unconscious flight from growing up, from the relentless pull of growing old, of jumping on the same bus as everyone else, the vehicle that is heading only in one direction and you’d choose any destination other than that one. Only when you look in the mirror and see the first grey hairs and lines around the eyes does it occur to you that you’re all traveling, no matter which way you go you’ll get there.

You might scramble, hustle, backtrack to cover your trail, send your inner compass spinning around until north is a subjective term. You might gorge on yet more new experiences, deeper thrills, higher highs, picking up the pace in order that you might never quite catch up with yourself.

But then you do. And suddenly there’s no longer anywhere to go, nowhere to be. Your bags spill open their contents onto the floor and you split open, your unfulfilled, junkie selves tumbling out, begged to be downloaded, decoded. It might be in the hands of a therapist navigating the treasure map where you buried your soul, three steps north and two to the south; it might be in the warm embrace of a lover or child, their heart melting the many masks you’ve learned to wear on the varied stages you’ve trod in the great human comedy; it might even be the long slow arguments of the waves on the shore somewhere, or a handful of earth between your fingers, as you laugh at the impossibility of ever outrunning your own shadow.

And when it happens – if it happens and you don’t go insane, get jailed, killed or die inside – then you learn what it means to be free. You continue to learn with each step you take, the journey now taking place on the inside, a voyage of exploration as you head off the beaten track and wind your way inexorably in.

And that’s when you really begin to travel.

*****

This was what i was after, what i was trying so hard to say, to put into coherent words what i was feeling - this passion, this life, this flood of incoherent surreal memories - flashbacks of seemingly different lives. I couldn't have put it better, more fittingly, than this. Its amazing other minds out there shares my madness - like Robinson Crusoe finding footsteps in the sand.

Friday, 16 October 2009

The Great Life Experiment

This is my thesis statement about my life.

What travel does is that it opens your eyes to the endless horizons of life, the multitude of paths, the infinite possibilities stretching away. Its about life - living life consciously, deliberately, your eyes open. I stood at the rooftop today and looked out at the sunrise, the brightening skies, and realise, in a flood of realisation, that its the moment, perfection in fluid motion. Its about every moment, and wanting to live each of these moments in that amazing journey called life.

And just because you can't have everything in life, its about making conscious choices, knowing what you want from life, and being happy with the choices you make. That's it. Ive made mine, I know how i want to live my life, who i am, who i want to be. Its not about the money, its not about the new things, its not about doing what everybody does just because everybody does...

Call me naive - at the very least i'm doing no one any harm. And if this naivete, this optimism, an excitement about life can bring me content and fulfillment, my purpose in life (to live), then so be it. Its probably an easier and more fulfilling karma neutral way than say reaching a million dollars or having to buy that car/gadget/whatnot that advertisers tell you to, for instance.

Instead of just stumbling along in life not knowing who you are and what you want and sticking to the mainstream highway just to be safe, until that one day you will know. That one day. I've made it today - Ive made my choice, to live life with eyes wide open, a collector of experiences, come good come bad - anyhow both come together don't they.

I feel i've come a long way. A really long way. I'm not tired - I'm excited. About life, about all the things ahead, about all the things i'm going to do - even if not all of it is rosy. I've made my choices in life - I may be poor, but damn, am i going to be self-actualised content and fulfilled.

This is my great life experiment. Conscious living Eyes wide open. We'll see how it goes. If i die someday - I'll be the happiest man alive - no, dead.

Friday, 9 October 2009

Yesterday...















A time, a place, a memory. Istanbul June 2009.

In Istanbul, Somewhere special. One of those places that you know will remain with you for a lifetime. Fond memories climbing the hill up to Galatasaray, the Istiklal Caddesi for evenings on the town, Galata bridge and the smell of fresh grilled fish on Istanbul mornings, hopping on and off trams like an Istanbullu, living in Aksaray for the first part of my stay, walking down to Sultanahmet square, sitting in the Topkapi palace gardens, reading, writing, eating chewy Turkish dondurma ice-creams...

Unabashedly, the country i have gone back in my dreams most is Turkey.

Just yesterday I found myself strolling down a cobbled street, a seafront promenade, in a small Turkish town by the sea, the Mediterranean, the sea breeze in my face. A street-side cafe, the waiter beckoning, people walking down the promenade in the evening, couples hand in hand.

I wish i could go back again. A happy little foreign town where the stars hung upside down and where we were so free, not thinking about the future, the past, but the now, the moment, the sunset.

It feels like another life. In fact I feel that i've had many different lives, each so different, so crazy, from the next - mad to live, an exuberance, a passion to live, and to burn, burn, burn until i go with a bang and make people go "aww"...

Yep. When i ask myself, what is the purpose to life, i find that i can come up with no other answer than a simple, to live.

Blulist 2010 - ?




Broken skyline, which way to love land

Which way to something better
Which way to forgiveness
Which way, do i go


1. Walking the Camino de Santiago

2. the Motorcycle Diaries - South America by bike, tracing a line up the continent

3. Finally Africa! The North, combining a bit of Portugal and Spain, or the East with a Kilimanjaro climb...

4. India, again, definitely. And Nepal and Tibet.

Tuesday, 6 October 2009

Quick update

Song of the moment: Goran Bregovic - An annis aigh



















I long for those days - an orange grove in Olympos, on the Mediterranean in southern Turkey.

Been thinking a bit about life recently. Where its going and where it will take me.

Currently - 3rd year in University, staring at an immensely tough semester in front of me, and then working life for 6 months. And then a last year to go before i graduate.

And then what? 3 years of office slave being bonded and paying off my debt - id throw in an additional year saving up a bit actually, so make that 4 years. If i can, ill do 2 years in Norway, doing my masters, and hopefully staying on to work for a while.

And after that another 2 teaching in rural India (hopefully Punjab or Himachal Pradesh), and then hopefully 2 more on working holiday in the UK or New Zealand. And then I would be 32. Ahh Life.... Not too young, not too old, happy enough to die. What then? Only God knows.

If all goes. If it will.

In the shorter term: December - Serendip, fingers-crossed. Something to look forward to in my current darkness - a depressing semester so far, in life, in work. In work, especially. Struggling and suffocating would be good descriptions.

Friday, 25 September 2009

Today.

Sitting in the university cafeteria looking up at the white ceiling lights on a wet Thursday morning - picking at my toast on one of my rare early days i start to think, i've been 2 years already in this place... The same things, the comfortable routines and familiarity of the wooden picnic tables, cheap coffee and tea and favourite stalls. Its hard to believe. Time to move on? Almost.

Saturday, 19 September 2009

Happiness?















The setting sun over Wadi Musa, dipping into the Nabateaen's hidden valley capital of Petra. Jordan, June 2009.


























Picture postcard - Al-Khazneh,
after emerging from the Siq


Breakfast at Petra.
Walking down from Wadi Musa and stopping at grocery shops along the way to buy bananas and freshly delivered bread (hobs) in the morning with a Frenchman and a Brazilian. Choosing our biscuits and comparing the prices of bottled water, buying 2 huge ones and having no place to put them - pockets? But smart enough to have more than enough for a full day out in the Petra heat and nice enough to share them later.

Strolling downhill into Petra, walking down the winding Siq and having a laugh about the Indiana Jones movie last night, and then stopping at the Treasury, al-Khazneh, and plot to uncover the holy Grail - guarded by 2 desert patrols sitting on the temple steps. Past sandy camels and plonking ourselves down on some tables right in front of the magnificent Treasury and peeling bananas and breaking bread, passing biscuits ("oh life is so difficult man...") and feeling the happiest ever - kings of the world - watching package tourists from the Movenpick fresh from buffet breakfast take photos and hurry on by in their safari jackets and sun hats... Amazing bananas - though expensive, swept off crumbs, draped on our keffiyehs, sharing a spare cap, and we're off to Petra! Today - conquering the Monastery - a steep climb from lower Petra in the valley into the hills above, a Sinai-esque task as we gleaned last night.

Saturday, 12 September 2009

the Istanbul Pudding shop

"Sometimes, dreams are as important as bread..."
- the Çolpan brothers, founders of the Lale pastry shop. Rory Maclean, Magic Bus

and i am transported back to Istanbul, to the Pudding shop, where 40 years ago paradise-bound hippies ordered sutlac, sticky sweet rice puddings, traded Nescafe and swopped travel tips on the bulletin board that more resembled a leafy tree, the first step on the long way east to nirvana - mythical Katmandu.

In its heyday, buses, trucks, hand sprayed Kombis parked outside at the Byzantine hippodrome, "the greatest procession of unroadworthy vehicles" and guitar strumming tie dyed freaks ever to make their way east overland to paradise.

































images from puddingshop.com

And today:

Saturday, 29 August 2009

Where to next, man, where to?



















Going home! Packing up in Istanbul...

Bursting with the energy and excitement again at the end of another trip. Where to, next? Its the Jack Kerouac moment when there are so many things i wanna do all at this instant that i don't i can't know what to do, now, until i finally decide - Mad to live, desirous of everything at the same time.

Living wise i've realised that for me life has been mostly passed by - ie the working life and the travelling life - failing to realise that both are equally amazing, the simple everyday beauty of life. I've gone more into Zen (and religion), and realised how useful they are in appreciating what life deals everyday, and actually living life (even when working).

Trip-wise, December maybe ill get somewhere, maybe. island hop Indonesia, or the Philippines.

Work wise - a 2 year stint in Norway doing my masters sounds just about amazing right now - studying while working and cycling to school. Im dreaming - but why not? Just 6 months ago the Middle-east was a dream, and before that India and even travelling alone through weird and wonderful lands. Its a possibility that my friend has brought up - work-study in Norway for 2 years while getting a masters degree. Sounds like a plan. Heck one of the guys is even there now working at a restaurant and cycling to university.

Thursday, 6 August 2009

Mezes

It's a work of art. Think the freshest salads with a light dash of olive oil, aubergines served cold stuffed with meat and garnished with parsley, tasty hummus, bread just out of the oven, purple cabbage salad, eggs in cold cream... They make the best aubergines ever in Turkey - served cold as mezes (starters) or as a main dish in itself, often on oven-baked clay pans - with delightfully descriptive names like Hunkar begendi (sultan's delight) and imam belediye - the imam fainted, after tasting the dish. Or as another version goes, after hearing how much olive oil went into cooking it, being thrifty. The best aubergines i had was in Goreme, at the Ozleme restaurant - where the man also makes the best pides (Turkish "pizzas") in Anatolia. Even my travel journals sport conspicuous olive oil stains from sipping hot apple tea after dinner and scribbling on a greasy table. Another eclectic thing i fondly remember about eating in Turkey is after the meal, the lemon scented handwash that the waiter pours on your hands.

Tuesday, 4 August 2009

My newest harebrained scheme
























Treehouses!


Having been suitably impressed with staying in a treehouse in Olympos, i have sort of decided to build my own treehouse, or at least a wooden cottage somewhere someday, when i can. What i believe: you don't have to be rich to pursue your dreams, you just have to want to do it. As they say, if you can dream it, you can do it. So that's my project shelved away for sometime in the future. Nearer "schemes" if i may call them as they would probably seem to others are:

Basically i hope i can get somewhere this December - my bank account has taken quite a big hit from the Middle east tour - some countries aren't cheap at all - yes im looking at you Jordan where 1 US dollar only buys you 0.70 dinars and nowhere near half a felafel... So rejuvenating it is one of my priorities and it seems that even travel has to wait for a bit. But God and finances willing, i hope to make it to Serendip - Sri Lanka in December (bit of wishful thinking), or maybe island hopping in Indonesia or the Philippines...

On the shelf, Summer 2010:

Europe after communism: The tour of Eastern Europe - that will again start from Istanbul, for old times' sake. The train from Istanbul gar (near where i lived later in Sirkeci) to Sofia or Bucharest sounds like a good idea.

The motorcycle diaries: South America June-? 2010. This is the dream - and has been since i was in high school and read Che. Tracing the length of the continent up from Argentina to Chile, Bolivia, Peru, and Ecuador.

Saturday, 1 August 2009

Bira

A worthy competitor for the worst beer i've ever had:


























El Shark. Beer without alcohol in Aleppo, Syria. Just made it across the border after one huge overnight bus ride across Anatolia and treated myself to this.

The recent Carlsberg ad, the one with the mustached customs officer beckoning, reminds me just of the border at Reyhali/Bab al-Hawa - minus the "welcome my friends" part, of course.

A distant second, thanks to the sheer repulsiveness of the Shark is Nepali Ice. Another Nepali favourite is the Gorkha. The Everest is tolerable. Nepal, while amazing in all other respects, just doesn't do a good beer. Stick to a Tuborg.

And the best:

A Beer Lao floating down the Nam Song river in a tube in Vang Vieng, Laos, the tinkling cool clear waters gliding by majestic karst mountains and glimmering rice paddies.

Splurging on a 2 dinar (3USD) can of Philadelphia after much thought sitting on the roof of the Valentine inn in Wadi Musa with some friends, looking out towards the lights of town at night and the majestic hidden valley of Petra, ancient capital of the Nabateaens carved in rose-red cliffs. It looks like a seaside town - Rhodos, Bodrum... Little cube-shaped houses and orange lamps in the distance, and beyond that nothing. It could have been the sea there, but instead of the sea we have the desert.

Rocking the Smugglers Inn in the middle-of-nowhere on the Turkish Mediterranean at night- a little islet accessible only by boat which dropped us on what is virtually a private island bar. How much better can it get?

Friday, 31 July 2009

Home!



















Song of the moment: Ruby - Mesheit Wara Ehsasy

My Aksaray neighbourhood, Istanbul. Remember closing the old apartment gate and walking down to the corner lokantasi (small restaurant) for breakfast of pilav and kebap with strong black Turkish chai, catching the Yusufpasa tram to Sultanahmet, taking the bus (no. 27) down to Taksim for a night on the town, grocery shopping on the way back (amazingly cheap strawberries), lamp-lit streets at night older European sedans driving down, finding my way down twilight streets and still stopping for a sweet snack at the baklavaci...

Istanbul will always have a place in my heart.

Tuesday, 28 July 2009

Volleyball, anyone?















When i think of volleyball, i usually picture a hot sunny tropical beach.
***

Obviously no takers when even icicles sprout overnight in the toilet and its a mini-adventure just to use the loo in the morning.

In a mist of fresh alpine cold 4130 metres up in the Himalayas at the Annapurna base camp. June 2008 Nepal.

Thursday, 23 July 2009

That time i almost burnt down the guesthouse...

Everyone seems to have a horrifically funny (literally) story to share on the 12 hour bus ride to nowhere or at backpacker watering holes - how the Tsahal shot at them in the West Bank, held up in a Syrian lockup for a day because the bus driver was speeding, a bar fight in Mongolia by coughing in the wrong direction...

But the one that trumps it all is usually the "how i almost burnt down my guesthouse". Mine wasn't even that remotely dangerously close but it never fails as people lean in to listen.

To use a classic gambit - It was a blustery winter's day in Sapa, north Vietnam. It was a cold day (as said), even when i dodged indoors into my room, reaching on the night train from Hanoi, and i was thankful i had paid that little extra for a heater. Being a good bulky heater of decidedly Soviet vintage, it heated and soon got hot. Satisfied, I left my heater on, looking forward to a snug warm room when i got back from trekking.

Halfway through the trail the conversation switched to heaters. "It looked dangerous" was the unanimous conclusion (from people who obviously had paid more attention to their heater than me). Also observed were flying sparks and that it was really hot - too hot.

Something clicked in my mind. "Oh sh*t. You mean you guys turned it off??!". My Soviet vintage was still heating back there.

"Oops", said the German. "Maybe when we go back the hotel won't be there anymore", my Greek friend helpfully suggested.

Sh*t. I was looking forward to a nice warm room at the end of a long walk, not a burnt down guesthouse. Looking up the mountain towards the possibly ill-fated hotel, I couldn't see any smoke yet so i figured we - I - was still safe, and i could still go back instead of hitching the next ride downhill to Lao Cai (if not for the fact that my passport was still at reception).

It didn't happen - not even a wisp of smoke - we got back to an unburnt down guesthouse, and i was happy - even if the heater refused to work anymore and i was cold that night and my socks wouldn't dry. Luckily for me it died sometime during the trek. I much rather have cold feet and wet socks anytime over a burnt down guesthouse, even though that would have made for a better story.

Weezer - island in the sun

On my friend's mobile in Vietnam it goes a very irritating and unwanted "hip, hip" on repeat at 7 plus in the mornings when we only just managed to stumble our way back to our beach bungalow - hut - at 3 or 4 the last night. I - we all - groan. It's time to wake up - even if its on an island in the sun. The place is Phu Quoc island off the southern coast of Vietnam - a crazy one hour flight from Ho Chi Minh on a twin propeller plane, hopping out and walking into the warm sunshine and an arrivals that was more beach bar than airport - a medium-sized room with the sun shining in and luggage popping out from behind potted palm trees and touts in Hawaiian shirts handing out party pamphlets. It just needs some sand.

Funnily, by sheer serendipity I found the song and realised in a flash of recognition, half a year on, what the song was. It makes sense now, no longer a dismembered annoying "hip, hip". Phu Quoc was my island in the sun, the simple sweet lyrics, days spent in the company of friends trekking tropical hills, exploring the little seaside town with fishing boats pulling in and the smell of sea and seashells for sale with fish sauce (of which Phu Quoc is the gold standard for - we saw plenty - crates - on our way back by ferry to the mainland), going fishing out at sea at night watching the little lights on the island, cruising in the day, kayaking, just doing nothing on the beach listening to the crash of blue South China sea waves, and spending Christmas day on the sand. Those were good days.

Tuesday, 21 July 2009

Photo of the moment - Misty mountain hop















On the base camp trail... Early June day, 2008 in Nepal.

Sunday, 12 July 2009

Breakfast in Pokhara

Song of the moment: Don McLean - American Pie























































A garden by the lakeside, quietly reading Shantaram and scribbling random thoughts and sketches over cups of milky tea after a lazy late breakfast, waking and strolling down from my room at Lakeside 6 on a sunlit Nepali morning and stopping to say cheery heartfelt namastes and have a chat with my neighbours whom i've become quite familiar with. Those languid Nepali days in Pokhara watching wooden boats glide on the lake, the smell of fresh morning air, a slight breeze casting ripples on the Phewa Tal, a water buffalo chewing green green grass with snowy mountains in the distance. I long to go back. Those days.

As for the song - its my Nepal song - Pokhara actually, softly singing along in the sweet light cool evenings after the afternoon monsoonal downpour walking down with a few friends that i've gotten to know quite well during our weeks in Pokhara to the main chowk (square) for dinner, and later hanging out late at night by the beautiful dark mirror-flat lake after a few drinks - the Busybee apparently the place to be when i was back in Pokhara, though i much preferred the quiet Amsterdam with plenty pool tables and free chips.

Humming along to Don McLean's sweet melancholic American Pie on long walks that lead us out of Pokhara, in all truth and beauty a village by the lake, into the nearby woods, where the trail climbs, worsens and narrows into the shade of tall shady evergreens.

Pokhara days with the torrential refreshing wind-swept rains at 3 o'clock sharp - running for shelter in hole-in-the-wall Tibetan kitchens and 3 table pop-and-mom restaurants, gratefully slurping on hot momo soup and black tea and watching the world go by in sheets of water from the Himalayan heavens.

When are you coming back?

I don't know.


















Izmir highway, Turkey May 2009.

That to me is the true beauty of travel, the almost luxurious excess of time and infinite possibilities, endless horizons - will i even come back. To me it feels closest to what travel should be about - facing the uncertainties and embracing it, going alone and along in a foreign country, not teaching but learning, not seeking but finding. Not rejecting or imposing our cultural standards on another - I like to believe, or at least make myself believe, that every seemingly bad experience (like falling ill for a fortnight with respiratory tract infection in Syria - of all places) has something to teach us. And really one of my favourite words in the Middle east is Mashaallah - God's will be done, and Inshaallah (God willing) - though not as an answer to questions like when is the bus coming.

On the road i always try to remind myself that, i came here to learn, and i am still learning. I came here to find, and i am still finding. Also i like this quote from Brave New Traveler: "there are no boring destinations, only incurious travellers".

Another good one from BNT - how to travel the world for free.

Photo of the moment - Sunset on Galata bridge, Istanbul















Istanbul, May 2009.

Song of the moment: Bob Dylan - the Gates of Eden.

The start of the hippie trail. First stop on the long road to nirvana - overland to Kathmandu, the tail of Europe unwinding, via the mighty Bridge of the Bosphorus, into the vast lands and snowy mountains and glittering rivers of Asia.

I love this city, the confluence of Europe and Asia, its diversity, vibrancy, its zest for life and a true movida that doesn't stop. At midnight Galata bridge is still filled with hopeful fishermen leaning out over the Golden Horn, the shimmering sickle dividing old and new Istanbul in its European Thracian half. To the east ferries steam up the legendary Bosphorus, and across is Asia. Bobbing boats by the promenade - floating kitchens - still serve up a wicked sizzling fish sandwich. Istiklal Cadessi remains as crowded as ever and the atmospheric taverns are overflowing with people and good times.

The Galata bridge is probably my favourite spot in Istanbul - though there are plenty to choose from. Istanbul mornings i would take a walk from Sirkeci, where i stayed, down to Eminonu by the Golden horn, and then following it west to the Yeni Camii (New mosque) and the market right next to it - the appropriately named Egyptian spice market (Misir carsisi) which is chaos mixed with more than a tinge of spices and the dairy smell of huge wheels of fresh peynir (cheese) wrapped in sheep skin, and fresh fruits and green vegetables and fish. Beyond is the Halic, the Golden horn and the Galata bridge that spans over into new Istanbul, where the modern commercial district is.

That moment of pure magic, standing on the Galata bridge looking out into the Halic and thinking, "i'm here" and not believing it. The Galata tower - once fire-lookout, then prison and now tourist landmark rises on top of a hill above a line of cream-coloured buildings and it is this view that will always remind me of Istanbul.

Tuesday, 7 July 2009

Wear some flowers in your hair



the summer of love, 1967.

There is a certain nostalgia, an inexplicable melancholy that makes me wistfully long for those days, to go back, to the late 60s where Haight-Ashbury was the place to be for the new bohemians, the freaks, even if the summer of love in '67 was the start of the end. And it was not just acid or long hair or the Beatles, it was a whole generation on the move, a whole new explanation, a youthful optimism, a hope, an aspiration to change the world. Their legacy lives on.

Photo of the moment














Face to face with the unmistakable form of Machhaphuchhare, ol' "fishtail" looming at all 6993m. That's us - the tiny silhouettes - at the bottom of the photo.

Annapurna base camp, Nepal,
June 9, 2008.

Monday, 6 July 2009

Globalisation

is eating kimchi fried rice on a Varanasi rooftop with a British girl picking at her dhaal curry.



















I still remember that Varanasi terrace at the Shanti guesthouse, looking out at the river Ganga at night, and waking up in the mornings to have breakfast with the gang after a soul-soothing boat ride down the Ganges in the dewey sweet dawn to the smell of incense and wood. And then going for walks down Varanasi's chaotic streets and markets, weaving through the crowd and squeezing by stalls with sense-assaulting arrays of weird and wonderful spices, incense being burnt, perfumeries, jewellery stores, rows of technicolour silk saris - which Varanasi is famous for - hung from the eaves of shoplots... A golden temple with red-faced monkeys, soldiers in khaki on patrol with slung rifles after the Jaipur bombings (drinking chai), Indian women that gracefully pass by balancing pots on their heads, and milk-boys dart through the crowd with dented metal urns of fresh goat milk for delivery. In a corner the chai-wallah (tea man, literally) stirs his boiling pot after tilting in half a bag of sugar, cinnamon, and milk. Cows pass and stop in the middle of narrow busy alleys to nibble on trash.


























Bell, a Varanasi street, late May 2008.

Sunday, 5 July 2009

Photo of the moment














Middle-earth? Poon Hill on a cold misty morning after a predawn hike from Ghorepani, waiting for the sunrise. Nepal, June 14, 2008.

Saturday, 4 July 2009

Stars may, always guide our way



Loreena McKennitt - the Gates of Istanbul

See there, past that far-off hill
A tower held in the sky
Hear there, in that dark blue night
The music calling us home


Missed her Istanbul concert by a few days - I was flipping through the inflight magazine on the Turkish airlines flight from Amman to Istanbul (going "home") and realised that the performance was on the 16th - 4 days ago. What a pity - would have been amazing to listen to the Gates of Istanbul live in the city itself - a breathtaking palimpsest of Greek, Roman and Ottoman influence, and where Europe meets Asia in a fascinating blend.

For me McKennitt's "eclectic Celtic" music has the unusual quality to dredge up past memories and old feelings - fresh flashbacks (that's hard to pronounce ;) of long strolls by the lake in Pokhara, rainy slicked Thamel nights - the lights a blur in the rain in Kathmandu, long walks out to the emerald valley, the Galata bridge at sunset in Istanbul, Sirkeci, Eminonu, the tram trundling by in the orangey evening light, fishermen at the bridge on the Golden Horn... flocks of white gliding seagulls and the smell of fresh hot grilled fish (balik).

Thursday, 2 July 2009

Photo of the moment















Wooden boats floating on the Phewa Tal. Early morning in Pokhara, Nepal. 16 June 2008.

Where are you headed?

Paradise.

There are many roads to nirvana, and all of us have to find our own.

J.R.R. Tolkien - "Not all those who wander are lost."

Wednesday, 1 July 2009

NEPAL.

Never Ending Peace And Love. It's everywhere - painted on rocks on the trail up the Himalayas along with peace symbols, embroided T-shirts, shopfronts... A nostalgic throwback to the 70s when it was Nirvana to the hippies, the end of the road, symbolic paradise. And not a bit wrong too - it felt like paradise, like Tolkien's Middle Earth - fresh, beautiful, untouched, it felt like i have found my own little slice of heaven. Of course, there's no denying modern Nepal has its own problems and malaise, but still, to me it was the most bewitching, bewilderingly beautiful place ever.

Its been exactly a year since i left Nepal, flying out of the Tribhuvan International airport - i wonder if they've renamed it and done away with the Kumari yet, since the monarchy, under whose patronage the institution of the Kumari, the living goddess, was preserved has been abolished to form the world's newest republic - a year and 3 days old. For this i've heard both sides of the argument for (and against) the monarchy and the Maoists. The ex-king basically is deeply implicated and guilty in the court of public opinion of the palace massacre that handed the throne to him (conveniently), and has a reputation as a "bully". The Maoists are, on the other hand, involved in campaigns of terror that target local villages and law enforcement personnel, and aren't above the odd massacre.

The idea of it all is that the Maoists are actually voted into power to put an end to all the fighting - basically a deal with the devil, and of course not forgetting their campaign of intimidation against the local populace to "win" votes. So whichever way, Nepal loses, and its a parody of democracy.

The locals simply know Tribhuvan International as Gaucher - or "cow pasture", and its not unknown for taxiing planes to screech to a stop at the sight of a pack of cows crossing the runway in search of greener grass on the other side. My flight made it without any bovine encounters, and i'm on my way home after a long journey starting from that crazed yellow-black taxi ride in Madras.















World Peace Pagoda, June 2008, Pokhara Nepal.

Here's to peace and love in Nepal.

Tuesday, 30 June 2009

Mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved

"They danced down the streets like dingledodies, and I shambled after as I've been doing all my life after people who interest me, because the only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones who never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn like fabulous yellow roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars and in the middle you see the blue centerlight pop and everybody goes "Awww!""

- Jack Kerouac, On the Road

Monday, 29 June 2009

Journey home

The time that my journey takes is long and the way of it long.

I came out on the chariot of the first gleam of light, and pursued my
voyage through the wildernesses of worlds leaving my track on many a star and planet.

It is the most distant course that comes nearest to thyself,
and that training is the most intricate which leads to the utter simplicity of a tune.

The traveler has to knock at every alien door to come to his own,
and one has to wander through all the outer worlds to reach the innermost shrine at the end.

My eyes strayed far and wide before I shut them and said `Here art thou!'

The question and the cry `Oh, where?' melt into tears of a thousand
streams and deluge the world with the flood of the assurance `I am!'

- Rabindranath Tagore

Saturday, 27 June 2009

World world world

I sit in my room
imagine the future
sunlight falls on Paris...
Trafalgar's fountain splash
on noon-warmed pigeons...
Gold dolphins leaping
thru Mediterranean rainbow
White smoke and steam in Andes
Asia's rivers glittering...

- Allen Ginsberg

Strolling the Golden Horn, watching the fishermen on Galata bridge, taking a ferry down the Bosphorus that divides Europe and Asia... It was magic, Istanbul was magic, and i loved every minute of it, the skyline of minarets and graceful domes of mosques silhouetted against the sunset as i stroll past the grand Yeni Jamii and the chaos of the Misir Carsisi (Egyptian spice market) down Galata bridge in the evenings....

Thursday, 7 May 2009

Leaving



















May 7, 2009 1.15 a.m.

Its less then 24 hours to go and again, i'm feeling the usual mix of fear, sadness at leaving home, some excitement, and anticipation.

Always, the feeling strikes when i'm packing my bags (on the last night - i am an organised person), packing up my room for some future months of emptiness, saying my goodbyes, getting into the car beside the garden, smelling the fragrant flowery scent in the early hours of dew-ey morning. Tomorrow i have a midnight flight. So it will be the same, leaving at 6 or 7 at dusk with the light veil of darkness and the fragrant perfume of flowers, watching the gate close and driving off.

Tuesday, 5 May 2009

Breakfast in Doha

In 3 days, ill be eating fish sandwiches strolling the Golden Horn in Istanbul. I cant wait.

My current to do list:

1. Sandboarding

2. Float in the Dead Sea

3. Get pummeled in a Turkish hammam

4. Watch Galatasaray at home. "Welcome to Hell". The 10th May 6pm match.

5. Take a felucca down the Nile

6. Look over into the Promised Land from Mt. Nebo in Jordan

7. Bethany-beyond-the-Jordan

Sunday, 3 May 2009

Monday, 27 April 2009

The Hanoi-Lao Cai night train


On the way to Sapa, on the Chinese border. Winter 2008.


3 years ago when i mentioned to my friend that i was thinking of taking the train, he gave me an incredulous look (of horror). I was hence, mentally prepared but it seems that Vietnam Railways have improved leaps and bounds in that 3 years.


The train station, a brand spanking new concrete block in central Ha Noi showing Cars on flat screen plasma TVs was a clear sign of how Viet Nam has prospered recently. The shops that sold expensive snacks and mineral water too. I think they must think that us foreigners are really cheap - the Vietnamese seem quite ready to pay for a 1 dollar bottle of mineral water while i gave the cashier a sheer look of incredulity (and tried to haggle *blushes*). It was a good thing that i had the foresight to buy my own supplies during the day.

Baguette - check. My half-eaten pack of laughing cow cheese - check. Favourite jacket - check. Water - half-full, but ill survive (refusing to succumb to railway station oligopoly). All ready for a comfy night tucked in onboard the Transindochinois to Lao Cai station - actually in Chinese this means old street - lao jie, i would think it would mean roughly the same in Vietnamese given that the latter is heavily influenced by Chinese. It was, in fact, written in Chinese script until it became Romanised.

The Transindochinois, surprisingly, ran above ground in Ha Noi - surreal surreal as i stole peeks of nighttime Ha Noi from the window, curtains partly drawn, the residential suburbs, old quiet neighbourhood streets, motorcycles patiently waiting by the barrier for the train to pass... And then the train came down once we left Ha Noi, which seemed to take forever. Into the countryside then, occasional trees and expanses of dark wet rice paddy fields passing by the window in the night. I sleep really well on trains - its the rocking that makes you feel like a baby in a cradle (and i get top bunk - actually the Vietnamese prefer lower bunks - which are more expensive, by the way).

Friday, 24 April 2009

Let the world change you, and you can change the world

In India you actually thank the beggars for giving you the chance to accumulate karma credits.

***

Reading Rory MacLean's Magic Bus, and I like to think that 40 years, almost 50, on, still we have not changed that much. Still a bunch of kids, full of hope, full of enthusiasm for the world, travelling to be transformed, even if we're no longer the first.

When i was in India, a year ago, we still lit incense, slept on mouldy rooftop mattresses, and talked politics and morality late into the night, learning ayuverda, practising yoga, meditation in the day... In Nepal we'd trip out by the Lakeside, jumping in for a swim at 4 in the morning, right by the Kings' summer palace, taking strolls following the only road past the Camping Chowk and out of town, into the woods, up towards the enticing, magical glow of the World Peace Pagoda, on top of the hill, where "everything you wish for will be true". A magical place.

We stuck flowers in our hair and loved each other, loved the world, believed that nothing could go wrong as long as we gave peace a chance. Hot timeless afternoons in Varanasi, getting lost in its alleys and wandering the ghats, running for shelter in a sudden downpour in Pokhara, curtains of water pouring down and us slurping down hot momos and buttery tea gratefully in a hole-in-the-wall Tibetan kitchen and watching buffaloes pass in the rain.

We learnt, so much, of ourselves, others, different cultures, religions, lives, and found that afterall, we are all the same. The same ideals, the same dreams, all children of the world.

Lets give peace a chance.

Tuesday, 14 April 2009

Saturday, 11 April 2009

The feeling of freedom

Just feel the sudden urge to buy one of these (or alternately a KTM...) and drive it to London. Meh. I talk about it as if its taking the subway.


(But that's the spirit that's gonna make things happen.)

Maybe.

One day when i quit my job and throw my suitcase into the trash can at Raffles place i can. That would be approximately 6-7 years from now. Not too long now...

Heres a great site for preparations (turning that baby into a monster; you should really check out the Unimogs...)

But for me, a hand-sprayed VW Kombi would do it anytime.

Tuesday, 7 April 2009

My 2-year plan (mini-stimulus)

It will be graduation and then work in another 2 years. What to do (kathmandu - note my clever alliteration), loans have to be repaid, and then i will sit down and review my future again. At current estimation (and market conditions) it will be 5 years (plus plus) before i am a free man. And then i will give some serious thought to what i want to do with my life - be an aid worker in Darfur? Busk in a Prague streetcorner? Throw my passport into the Ganges and be a saddhu in India? Sell roti canais on a Malaysian kerbside, starting afresh somewhere in the north where i have not been - Kelantan, Kedah?


Who says that we all have to get our diplomas or degrees and slog it out for the rest of our lives just to pay off that SUV, house, washing machine, dental plans and all that lot? What, is it written in the stars? No - no one says you have to do that, and i have made my decision - i am going to live.


How time has passed since i first started this blog - back then as a first year (naive) greenhorn, would-be (pseudo) vagabond churning out writings that are the literary equivalent of stale cups of tea. Maybe i still do, but so many things have already changed. I found myself (in the backstreets of India, besides the Ganges), who i wanted to be, who i was. What i wanted to do, what i wanted from life. My whole perspective had changed. Travel is a great teacher - it opens you to so many cultures, so many different peoples, so many perspectives, the ideas, great religions, civilisations, politics... And throw in challenges and moments that really test your Zen-patience.


As i told my friend the other day, i would not, never, sell my memories, whatever the sum even if it were humanly possible - it is so much a part of me, who i am today.


Fingers crossed i will be in the Middle east this summer (a month away, Insyallah), and then maybe save up for Indonesia in december - somewhere warm, maybe Bali to Timor Leste. And then its work - my professional internship which will net me a princely sum of some 600 plus dollars a month... After that it will be, virtually, my last big trip. Hopefully, i will go out with a bang on this one. South America is on the drawing board, if i can somehow get enough cash. That would be a sweet end to Year 3. And then final year - winter break on whatever funds i have left over would probably be spent somewhere nearby - was thinking of Burma encore, or maybe the Philippines.


I am hoping that i will be able to make one final trip - where else but back to India, again, before i go for my convocation and step out into the working world. This, in the sense, is my true convocation, my real graduation. After so many invaluable lessons and experiences on life, going on to another phase in life, from carefree backpacker to semi-tied down office worker (who can't wait for the day he has paid off his loans (and throw off his shackles) to be a vagabond, a world nomad with all his real estate on his back again, and no loans, no mortgage to pay...).

Of course, i am not forgetting the great travel axiom that goes: Make grand plans and make God laugh. But in the meantime i am still secretly eyeing a Silk Road journey into Central Asia from China, or the trans-Mongolian. And Pakistan, once the politcal impasse gets, umm, passed.

Sunday, 5 April 2009

Today - Malaysia.

Moving between 2 countries. Belonging a bit, to both, though my heart will always be on one side of the causeway.

Today i had nasi lemak at a roadside stand, chairs in a shaded clearing. Waiting for the ayam goreng to be ready at 540 in the evening, protocol dictates that we drink teh tarek (what else). And over the old stereo Michael Jackson sang Billie Jean. It felt like that golden afternoon, a slight sweet breeze rustling fallen leaves, could just last forever. And all my worries so far away. I am home, after all.

It was a moment that so reminded me, as a Chinese philosopher said, what then, is patriotism but a memory of the good food we had in our childhood.

Of course it is much more than that.

7 April - the battle of the 2 bukits (and a river)

My kopitiam prediction - 2-1 unless the referee and linesmen are on their side also.

My observation(s) for the day:

1. Kopitiams (heartland coffeshops), warungs and mamak stalls are the building blocks of civil society and a healthy public sphere.

2. The consumption of teh tarek or alternately kopi kau-kau exhibits a significant positive correlation with the level of public deliberation and dialogue.

Friday, 3 April 2009

Singapore, Singapore.

J'adore... the feeling of riding the metro, the MRT , down the lines to Dhoby Ghaut, in the evening where its all quiet inside the train, the silent whooshing of sterile office air from the air conditioning and rushing past outside the setting sun in a mist of light drizzle and orange skies over the horizons, the pot of gold past the neat clusters of HDB flats.

Met up with the lads today for dinner at Farrer park - the (ka-toh - scissors??) curry rice (which really ought to have been on my food list - ah what a travesty). It looks like a right mess with curry sauce and some unidentifiable sweet black caramelised sauce (might have been the lo bak sauce - braised pork??), but trust me, it is wonderful. The best things in life often look the worst, another one from my venerable book of quotes.

On weekdays, taxis would disgorge loads of famished office workers (released from their crucibles) at 1 where they would (rush and) squeeze and sweat and drip curry sauce down their shirtfronts. Oh the barley and watercress soup is pretty good too (its separate). The best thing - its affordable at 2.80 Sing per plate - which i had chicken chops, eggs, and veggies. Its a very authentic place - a quintessential kopitiam (coffeehouse) of the 80s complete with red, hard plastic chairs, no menus (theres only one entree, anyway), rude waiters, a stifling lack of ventilation - impotent ceiling fans (probably a blast from the past as well) churning lazily the sultry night air than providing a genuine breeze. Outside the corner-lot shop that spilt out, al fresco by necessity, into the walkways, gleaming business district cars rushed by in the night, the odd KTV hostesses (ahem) sashayed by.

In short, it was great.

Its been 3 years since i went back there - Little India, Mustapha centre, Serangoon.... Still remember some of the places like the Goodwood hotel, the Farrer Park MRT (of course, after one too many sojourns after high school here). So many memories, ahh those days - when we were all young and naive and innocent and everyday was bright and cheerful.

Tonight it felt like old times again - but weird old times - the anomolous fit of past friendships and not-so-past experiences - wandering Chennai and saying namaste in my heart to the Nepalese workers, i greet the divine in you as we walked down the streets around Farrer Park - forgive me, after so long i am still not good with street names. And being cheapskates and sharing drinks from 7-11 along with betting tips (ive quit a long time ago, finding out (too late) that in the long term the law of chance says that we can only be losers) and practising Singlish and reminiscing about those days - along the lines of "that ****er burnt his stock of (dunno what) chemicals for fun in chem pract and filled the whole lab with green smoke".

Yes and i found a dusty copy of Lawrence of Arabia for a bargain price in the catacombs of (smart) consumerism that is Mustapha centre. It reminds me a lot of Chennai.

Tuesday, 31 March 2009

The Gates of Istanbul

Its that time of the year again.

3 weeks (22 days) till all of this is over. This week is hell week for us - 5 assignments/papers/presentations due over the week - one for each day. Nice. Very thoughtful of the professors.

Its just a little more than a month before i fly off to Doha and then Istanbul. I do hate flying, and now im looking at around 10 hours in a plane in economy (not that ive ever flown non-economy before...). And then another 2 to Istanbul after having breakfast in Qatar. =)

I would like to think that hell is one long plane ride on a budget carrier.

Tired, tired.

Je suis tres fatiguee mais j'ai beaucoup travail... (ugh. French. The only consolation is that i can actually use it in Syrie et Liban.)

Je voudrais dormir!!

Learning Arabic after the exams.

Thursday, 26 March 2009

Madras dreaming

Today i woke up and set my phone calender (which has reset itself again) to 2008 and wondered why today was only Wednesday.

Times like this i wish i were, i wish i could, go back to India, where everything would be ok again.

The life, the craziness that just assails you the moment you get out on the streets. That i really miss, going for breakfast, buying chai and poring over the day's newspapers, just standing there on a (relatively) clean spot with the world rushing past me - a colourful rush of autorickshaws, yellow-black Bombay cabs, porters with impossible loads balanced on their backs, ox carts to the market, and cows serenely and regally strolling pass everything, stopping every now and then to nibble at a tantalising looking piece of garbage at my feet. Perry's corner, San Thome, mangoes on Marina beach, Egmore station... I felt like a true Chennaiker, a Madrasi, a city where i loved and i belonged.

A year had passed. Maybe i will go back one day. I know i will.

Mother India - where i found myself, who i am, who i wanted to be.

Tuesday, 24 March 2009

If you're going to San Francisco (wear some flowers in your hair)


I remember those long bus rides (old Korean tanks modified with super high suspensions and huge tyres) in Nepal, the saddhu coming on before the departure, collecting alms and drawing bindhis/tikas of red sandalwood on our foreheads, between the eyebrows, a key chakra point of latent wisdom. Sprinkling holy water, he would pass us flowers which we strung from our bags.

And then the people started crowding along the bus, selling things like bags of sweets (made in China), watches, dried melons, slices of coconut flesh, cucumbers... (Um sorry but i don't think i need that??)

On the road from Belahiya at the Indian border a goat got on the bus and left piles of droppings along the aisle.

That was the day after the night (duh) at Belahiya, downing glasses of Royal Stag whiskey and Coke before being asked to leave the tea house at some hour past midnight. We trudged back (reluctantly) to our rooom at the Nepal guesthouse, a charming place with bed bugs and 6 travellers cramped in one peeling, musty room with 6 mouldy mattresses on 6 termite infested beds. No one bothered to switch on the lights - it looked bad enough in the darkness. The smell of charras was thick in the air.

Later we were joined by an enigmatic Nepali and his Austrian girlfriend who made it (finally) after a heated fight with the immigration people at Belahiya over her visa (It was their 6th month in Nepal that year - the limit). No one slept much - the bed bugs made it impossible, and it was too hot. People took turns to go to the shower (where grime was the wallpaper and extending your elbows would punch a hole in the wall). On the second-floor rooftop, in the sweaty heat of the night everyone was silent, contemplative. Tomorrow the 3 Japanese would go to Kathmandu, with the Canadian. Me and the Dutchman were heading to Pokhara.

On the long bus ride, winding up the hills in the monsoon, as the rain dripped through the roof we talked about steak and wine dinners by the fabled Lakeside (promising ourselves), imagining it, drawing it up in our minds and talking about what we would be eating once we got home, after weeks of malnourishment in India.
We made it to Pokhara in the evening - a watery sunset, cold and wet and drizzly and colourless: grey and pale blue, the colour drained from the sky. Surrounded by touts (the usual, but nothing compared to India and it made me smile), we got a ride into the Lakeside, the Rustica Guesthouse, which would become my home in Pokhara for most of the next month (ever seen a 3 dollar room that comes with a tub (hot water of course), two huge luxuriant double beds to sink and snuggle into, curtains (mountain views), coffeetable, and carpeting??). Such a welcome respite, a haven, almost, after the rather miserable bus ride and India, which was enlightening, a trip for the soul, but challenging, of course.

The night (after a looong hot bath) we had our steak and beer dinner. And it was good. One inch thick slabs of beef, sizzling pepper sauce with garlic, peas and potatoes....

Just avoid the Nepali Ice. Quote of the day: *drinks, takes a pause, grimaces* "its piss, no?"

Monday, 16 March 2009

Incense and Peppermints

My pretending to be a gourmet foodie attempt at a foodlist -

Vietnam - Cat Ba island's Bamboo restaurant. The sweet and sour shrimps (actually huge succulent prawns - unshelled too!) are to die for. Washed down with bottles of Dalat red, the Halong Bay junks lying idle in the bay at night, bobbing along in the calm night sea.

Also escargot pho in a Hanoi side lane beside the St Joseph's church.

Laos - The feast fit for a (jungle) king in the Nam Ha protected area on the Laos-China border, with bamboo cups and cute little soup troughs (for lack of a better word), banana leaf placemats, washing our hands in a nearby bubbling creek before tucking into sticky rice, the best green chillie paste ever, ommelette, fresh sweet river fish grilled over an open fire. The freshest and tastiest food ever - the other day i woke at 5 to the sound of a chicken being caught in the village - poor guy was to be our lunch.

Nepal - the Nepali Margherita at Base camp (or anywhere else on the trail, for that matter), tomato and cheese spaghetti at Ghorepani.

Also an honorable mention to La Dolce Vita (with the saluting doorman) in Thamel - authentic Italian fare in Nepal (complete with real tiramisu and great coffee)

The best dhal bhaat ever in Chhomrrong.

And how could i forget those wonderful steak and beer evenings on the Lakeside, particularly after a prolonged period of involuntary enforced vegan-ism in India.


Honorary mention - India - first taste of meat in India - after a few weeks in India i've come to develop an intense suspicion of "meat" on the menu, having ordered scrumptious chicken tikka masala in starving anticipation and being served with pieces of soy in curry. I was really aghast. Following i would ask the waiter if it was real chicken (plus miming). The first real meat i had was in Amritsar - a huge chicken burger at a Western style diner, and that made me sick (it was pretty good still).

In Malaysia i liked - the roadside mamak stalls, more for the chilled atmosphere of a late night teh tarek and Ramli burger than anything else... And laksa and ABC in Melaka.

Wine coloured days warmed by the sun...

Speak softly love is my song for lovely Phu Quoc island off the southern coast of Vietnam, where 2 years ago i had looked out at from the haunting hill station of Bokor in Cambodia. The waltz, haunting, lilting, playing faintly in the background, ambient sound on the Christmas Eve evening to the crashing waves of the South China Sea on the powdery white beach, tropical island cliches of crabs scuttling and swaying palms. The darkening sky and the setting tropical sun, and sitting by the beach, watching stray beach dogs wander, nursing a sundowner banana shake and picking at slices of pineapple, trying to finish my book while waiting for my friends for a night out on the town.

We'd start with dinner at the local night market - a quintessential pasar malam with great sea food (the sweet and sour fish steaks!) at this stall run by interestingly enough, a Swiss man, before adjourning to waste the night away at some "club" by the sand, which are fun enough, but crazily expensive - like 20 USD for 5 shots of tequila at the Eden... Still the Eden Beach Bar was a cool place, with a huge surreal snowman on the beach, tables with candles set out on the sand, decent music (sighs of relief when the live band packed up at 12), pool tables, free internet (the only place in miles...)

Those were the days - the friendships, not a care in the world - except staying sober enough to walk/wade our way back down the beach to our beach bungalow, getting drunk on 1.5 dollar bottles of beer and having the obligatory Hanoi/Halida/Red/Blue debates.

In the day we'd sit on the beach and daydream, read, get a tan, go for a swim, rent a kayak, go trekking in the nearby countryside, wander the rustic small town (did feel like home, the sun, the coffeeshops by the road, laidback vibes) watching fishing trawlers pull in, go squid fishing at night drifting along in a chugging ancient trawler watching the island lights go by and slowly fade into nothing blackness, the sweet sea breeze at night, and our lines reeling in the sea (more an exercise in Zen and socialising than catching anything, though i did end up with a puny squid that squirted water on everyone the moment he was pulled onboard...)

Ah those Phu Quoc days (and nights)...

Sunday, 15 March 2009

The Istanbul pudding shop

And apparently it is still around, at Sultanahmet opposite the Byzantine Hippodrome, though "with wi-fi and draft Tuborg beer" nowadays. Pity. Though i am sure i would still drop by for a sweet rice pudding once i am in Istanbul - to me it is very much part of the legend, the magic of the 70s where it was the first stop on the long road overland to paradise in Kathmandu, or the spirituality of India and the great mother Ganga. Like Freak street in Nepal, and the durbar square's "hippie temple", where the freaks used to sit, smoke hash and strum on their guitars.

As opposed to Thamel, today's sterile and packaged version of a backpacker's hangout. Like Thanon Khao San. I suppose these names will be synonymous with our generation, with cheap airfares and ATMs and travel insurance. That said, i still like to think that there is, as i have always maintained, a certain charm to these backpacker's ghettos - you just feel the possibility, the hope that every young, fresh backpacker has on his/her faces, the mixture of trepidation and fear at something unexpected, something new; a totally foreign, at once weird, and wonderful experience of checking into a Khao San road fleapit, negotiating over a 60 rupee room in the Taj Ganj sprawl...


"All adventures start on Khao San road..." is another quote i cooked up, and am waiting for the chance to use as a possible first line in my kickass novel to rival Garland's Thailand classic the Beach. While this is probably not going to happen, it reminds of the magic that looking through my guidebook, when i first started to travel, brings. The rush. Finding places on the map, plotting journeys, drawing imaginary lines across cities, towns, countries... The things you could do. Everything.