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.

Monday, 9 March 2009

Katmandu काठमांडौ

I sit beside the dark
Beneath the mire
Cold grey dusty day
The morning lake
Drinks up the sky

Katmandu I’ll soon be seeing you
And your strange bewildering time
Will hold me down

Chop me some broken wood
We’ll start a fire
White warm light the dawn
And help me see
Old satan’s tree

Katmandu I’ll soon be touching you
And your strange bewildering time
Will hold me down
Pass me my hat and coat
Lock up the cabin
Slow night treat me right
Until I go

Be nice to know
Katmandu I’ll soon be seeing you
And your strange bewildering time
Will keep me home

Cat Stevens - Katmandu

Despite burning with high fever for 3 days in a fanless Thamel guesthouse, the Happy Family, which is a happy enough place with the owner, Hari Gurung - used to sit and play chess with him on those long blackout, candlelit nights (lets forget the time i fell asleep and burnt my hair...); i loved Kathmandu. Such a beautiful, mystical place where the spiritual was in the everyday - every turn you came into ancient toles, a square where there was a small pagoda, flocks of pigeons being fed grain for good karma, old bronze temple bells, statuettes of Ganesha, Tara, Shiva, ancient bodhi trees with prayers hanging from it, and the people... Going out into the Kathmandu valley, the Emerald valley where there were more temples, hills, villages, old ancient towns where people have lived for the past thousand years...

Magical, beautiful Kathmandu... Your strange bewildering time,
Will keep me home.

NOT lost in translation...

Courtesy: roadjunky.com

Perfect... Just perfect... Now let me make the conversions... 100,000 VND is like... 6 US dollars...

Thursday, 5 March 2009

Seven Summits

After Nepal, im dreaming mountain dreams. I'm in love with mountains, all the snow and ice and clouds and peaks up 8000 metres into the clear blue Himalayan sky. Falling asleep in the sanctuary, Macchapucchare, Annapurna South, Fang, Gangapurna, Hiunchuli, around the little cosy lodge, surrounding it, rising to the heavens. Like a baby in a (cold) cradle of ice we slept, coccooned under two layers of thin mattresses (aka blankets, in Nepal) and pashminas, sprinting to bed after warming ourselves in the kitchen where the only source of heat in miles was; a brazier placed under the dining table, and everyone seated meditatively in lotus position around it, playing cards, stoning, reading (Shantaram apparently flavour of the month), talking...

Good morning...

Ive learnt to know my mountains - going out for a (very cold) wash up in the morning it was usually Macchapuchare's distinctive fishtail peak that greeted me first, amidst the rolling seas of white clouds. Then we started to see Annapurna South's blunt peak, then Tent, the lower peak beside it, and Hiunchuli and Singachuli soon emerged. In Nepal sunrise was usually the coldest time of the day - we made the dash into the mess hall after the sun rose, sitting content with our hands around our (2 dollar!) mugs of hot chocolate and authentic Nepali wood fired pancakes/bread/pizza - which is awesome, by the way - the Nepali Margherita is a revelation, with fresh creamy yak cheese, rich tomato paste (no basil though) and the wood fired crust. If i made a food list one day this would certainly be in the contention for top spot. Plus coming in hungry from the trail, dhaal bhaat for lunch - dhaal i.e. legumes with rice really gives you wings on the trail, but after 10 days you start to have meat hallucinations... And tought, leathery (not to mention hairy!) buffalo meat doesn't cut it at all - in fact i found it hard to swallow; you have a right feast in the making.

Thought i might start with Kosciuzko (ok, ok i'm a wimp i know (but at least i finally got my tetanus jab) and actually, ahem, i do stand with the Carstenz Pyramid crowd on this one), Kili, and then graduate to some of the tougher peaks - maybe do a technical mountaineering course, and then try Elbrus before going for the big boys of Anconcagua and Carstenz Pyramid (Puncak Jaya - a nicer name). And then (i like to dream) Denali in Alaska, the Vinson Massif in Antarctica and the holy grail of Everest.

I will try, actually, for Kilimanjaro next year, and maybe it will be the start of it all, after i get some funds from my internship - something good has to come out of it, no? (As much as i dislike waking up at 7 and being a part of the morning crawl to the office, and in all probability learning all the skills needed to make a good coffee while resisting the urge to poison my superiors...)

The Mont Blanc Technical Mountaineering Course (TMC) is on the cards, maybe in the next few years when i have more cash but less time - would be a perfect 2 week European jaunt from the office and then back. I am already mentally prepared for cubicle life for the next 5 years to pay off debts and save up enough to have my own little bistro, somewhere that catches my fancy, where i could stay for a while. To those who know, the Nepali guesthouse scheme is still on! (it has already replaced the sugarcane plantation in Argentina plan...)

Current status check: 0 out of 20,000 USD.