Friday, 31 July 2009


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


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?


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


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.