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.)


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.