Welcome to this travel blog which is inspired by the wandering clouds effortlessly gliding through distant lands. Sometimes almost still as if watching the beauty of the earth below and at times rushing to some place far away – as if on an endless travel mission. This is where I share my observations, experiences and thoughts gathered during my travels

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Mystical Himalayas

I have just returned from Kathmandu a couple of days ago and am still remembering the grand view of the mystical and magnificent Himalayas. As soon as the aircraft took off from Kathmandu, I changed my seat and got myself an empty window seat in the front row so that I could capture the view from the aircraft. The window pane was a bit dirty on the outside, but here is what I was able to click from the top. Needless to say that I was completely spell bound. I remembered the time when I had gone on a spiritual retreat to the Himalayas in my early twenties, when I was told by a nun to join their fold. Had I gone with the suggestion, I might have ended up being an enlightened soul by now and would have been staying in one of the monasteries in the Himalayas. Life indeed takes you in strange directions and the sight of the mighty Himalayas was absolutely humbling.

Friday, December 16, 2011

A Nostalgic Food Trip

One Sunday evening, making my way through the thick crowd near Dadar railway station in Mumbai, I realized that I was almost racing towards the place I had been longing to visit for almost one year. Mumbai visits are incomplete without this ritual. I took the Chhabildas School lane, passed by the Ideal Book Depot, found the familiar crowd around the small roadside stall on the right and then with a deep breath took in the familiar aroma of hot Batata Vadas.  

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Nongpoh Market

Nongpoh is a small village on NH 40 situated in Ri-Bhoi district of Meghalaya. While driving to Shillong from Guwahati, my colleague and I decided to stop at the weekly vegetable market at Nongpoh to buy some fruits that could be our breakfast. It was around 7.30 am and the local traders had already started coming in with their fresh produce. Most of them were carrying fruits and vegetables in tall conical bamboo baskets. Small vans were helping traders carry their wares from long distances. As we reached, some vendors had already set up their stalls while others were finding space.  I spent the first few minutes trying to identify the different local varieties of fruits and vegetables that were being sold. There were huge bunches of leafy vegetables, long and weird shaped roots, and big melons that I had never seen before. Some stalls were selling meat and there were others selling grain and spices. I was actually very tempted to buy some local stuff and try it after returning to Bangalore; but that would have been too much of an ordeal.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Devouring the jam

“Send me a truck” is what I should have said to the travel agent in Guwahati when he asked me what kind of vehicle I’d like to take to Shillong. Because the Tata Indica that I opted for (a non-AC one since I thought it would be an insult to the wonderful weather to keep window panes rolled up and an air-conditioner on) looked like a toy car amidst hundreds of trucks that dominated the National Highway 40 which connects Guwahati to Shillong. When I asked people around how much time it would take us to reach Shillong by road from Guwahati, not one person could give us a specific answer. All of them very obliquely told us ‘it depends, can’t say anything about the traffic’. I understood what this meant only when I experienced it first-hand and I can say without any hesitation that the Guwahati-Shillong traffic jams are of a different league altogether. They cannot be compared with city jams that one negotiates and curses everyday - where blaring horns, one-upmanship, indifference to traffic rules and ill-managed traffic lights create total chaos. Because the traffic jams on this NH 40 are as laid back as the daily life and there is often no urgency to literally find a way out. As I observed, it also offers a source of entertainment to those living around and I found groups of people in several places simply sitting around, analyzing and getting amused by the impossible jams.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Break ke baad...

A friend points out that it has been exactly two months since my last post. I am back after my longest break since I started blogging, and I don’t know where to begin. I already had a backlog of over 50 places to write about before I went ‘off-blog’ and this period in between (when I have been living out of my suitcase) has provided many more memories to re-live and stories to recount. There were times during my travels when I was so excited about what I had seen or done that I almost wrote my blog posts in my mind and saved it there. But there were also times when my mind was so pre-occupied that it failed to observe and enjoy. This made me realize that there must be a saturation point even for travelers.

Friday, October 7, 2011

Standing Tall

Many people, whichever part of the world they may live in, have their own 9/11 story to tell. But nothing brings out these stories more strongly than a visit to Ground Zero. Even after ten years, these narratives are so powerful that they can take you back in time and take you through the collective memories of grief, terror, shock, anger, fear, sacrifice, courage and hope. The recently inaugurated National September 11 Memorial at what was earlier called Ground Zero will become an important part of travel itinerary for those visiting Manhattan. However, the 9/11 memorial housed at the adjacent St. Paul’s Chapel is also a must see.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Taj of the Deccan

I have blogged about my jinxed trip to the Taj Mahal but I must say that I have visited the Taj of the Deccan. Bibi ka Maqbara is called the Taj of the Deccan because it is inspired by the architecture, carvings and landscaping of the Taj Mahal. Located in Aurangabad, Maharashtra which had become an important centre for the Mughals in the 17th century, the Bibi ka Maqbara is said to have been built somewhere between 1651 and 1661. Although the name means it is the ‘tomb of the wife’, it was actually built by Aurangzeb’s elder son Azam Shah (Akbar’s brother) in memory of his mother Rabbia Ul Durrani or Dilras Banu Begum. When I cross-checked the dates through a search on Wiki, I found that Azam Shah was born in 1653 so it is unlikely that the construction would have started in 1651 although these are the dates mentioned on the inscription put up by the Archeological Survey of India. The same inscription states that the monument took shape under leadership of Ata-Ullah, who was the architect and Hanspat Rai, the engineer. It is also called ‘poor man’s Taj’ because it was built with a fraction of the resources spent on the Taj Mahal and tries to copy the grandeur of the Taj.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Russian Winter

It was middle of January and the temperature at St. Petersburg had dipped to minus 25 degrees Celsius. The tourist guide asked us once again, “Are you sure you want to go ahead with the sight-seeing tour today”. I was fully prepared to face the bitter Russian winter and so gave a double thumbs-up. The bus took ten of us around for the entire day and we had a truly memorable time. I will write about the places we visited in a separate post, this one is dedicated to sharing the sights and experiences of Russian winter.

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Some things change and some things don't

Spaces for children in urban areas are dwindling rapidly and Mumbai is no exception. Very few parks have been designed keeping children in mind. One of the oldest parks that has been the top favourite among children is the Kamala Nehru Park. All those who have grown up in Mumbai would recollect that this used to be a regular spot for school picnics. After all these years, when I passed by Kamala Nehru Park some time ago, it was heartening to see that at least some things in life are still the same.

Friday, September 16, 2011

Silent and Mesmerizing - Hail she is

It was early summer and we were driving through South Dakota. It was around three in the afternoon. The skies were beginning to turn grey and the sunshine seemed undecided if it wanted to stay or hide away.  We thought it would be a good idea to head back to the hotel instead of getting stuck in a sudden thunderstorm. But we pushed our luck and decided to drive on and thank goodness, we did not return. Because what we saw in the next few minutes was absolutely magical. Suddenly the open fields and the valley got filled with cold thunderclouds. There was no storm, no thundering, no noise; just a silent and mesmerizing entry of clouds carrying hail. The horses grazing in the fields paused for a moment to enjoy the beauty. The white clouds swept in spreading themselves as a carpet. They slowed down for a while shedding the hail they had carried with them and silently moved on, leaving us completely dumbstruck. Here are some pictures where I have tried to capture the magical experience.

Kabini - In the lap of nature

One of the places in Karnataka where one can enjoy wildlife and get immersed in the lap of nature is Kabini. It is about 80 kms from Mysore and located inside the Nagarhole National Park. It is named after Kabini, a tributary of Kaveri. We visited Kabini a while ago and stayed at the Jungle Lodges Resort. For a long time, this used to be the only place to stay at Kabini and therefore always heavily booked. Now there are other resorts too but if one is planning to stay at the Jungle Lodges, it is advisable to book well in advance because it is still sought after.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Zero Mile Marker at Nagpur

The geographical centre of India is located at Nagpur, Maharashtra and the ‘zero mile marker’ located in the heart of the city is considered to be the central-most point in the country. This stone pillar is supposed to have been erected during the British period although it is not clear for what purpose they thought of building it. We can see the old names of cities marked on different sides of the pillar indicating the direction and the distance between the city and the zero mile marker. Located adjacent to a busy road junction on a small patch of a green lawn, one can just pass by it without even recognizing its importance.

Next to the pillar stands a sculpture with running horses. Although the sculpture is nice per se, it simply does not go well with the old stone zero mile marker (hence it has been smartly cut off from this picture). I would have rather appreciated the tourism department putting up a small board indicating the significance of the place and a little bit of its history. I am not even sure if all the local autorickshaw drivers know about the place because we had to ask many people on the way for directions and not all knew what we were looking for. But if you are in Nagpur, you should certainly check it out at least. Whatever said, it is a nice feeling to be standing at the centre of our vast country.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Puri - a picture of faith

When I was at college, an Oriya friend of mine had gifted me a magnet with a picture of Lord Jagannatha which still finds a place on my refrigerator after all these years. So when work took me to Puri some time ago, I thought I must visit the temple if schedule permitted. Early one morning, I skipped my long run on the beach and instead took a cycle rickshaw to the temple. Puri is basically a temple town and all roads lead to the temple. When I started at 7 am, I thought I would be the early bird but was surprised to see that the crowd had already started building up. The rickshaw stopped a little distance away and I had to walk the last few hundred metres. Outside the temple, I had to deposit my footwear, mobile phone and my camera. I was somewhat reluctant, but they had a fairly decent system to ensure that the personal belongings of hundreds of devotees were kept safely. Moreover, I did not have a choice.

As I entered through what is called the Lion Gate facing eastwards (there are four gates facing four directions called the Lion Gate, Tiger Gate, Elephant Gate and Horse Gate), I came across the Aruna Sthambha, a stone pillar that has been moved from Konark to Puri. After bowing to the pillar, I climbed up the sacred twenty-two steps and saw the devotees either kissing every step or touching their forehead to every step. The priests (called the pandas) were thrusting themselves on all visitors and it took me some time to get used to their nagging presence at every spot without getting irritated. Everyone around seemed to be carrying pooja thalis and elaborate offerings and I looked somewhat out of place because I was not carrying even a single flower and was not even interested in doing any pooja.

The temple itself rests on a raised platform and is built in Kalinga style of architecture. The walls and the dome have beautiful intricate carvings and considering that it was built in the 12th century, it is in an excellent condition. The main temple is surrounded by thirty other small and not-so-small temples and the devotees were distributed across all.

There is also a huge kitchen that can serve food to large gatherings during festivals. Lord Jagannatha is said to be worshipped by all sects of Hinduism thus symbolizing spiritual eclecticism. It is also among the four ‘dhams’ which must be visited by every Hindu before departing from this life. The idol of Jagannatha is actually made out of wood and is said to contain an object that lends the deity an extra mystical and spiritual significance.

As I entered inside the dark corridor on the periphery of the sanctum sanctorum, there was a huge rush to get a glimpse of Lord Jagannatha, Balabhadra and Subhadra. Looking at the crowd, I wondered if I should just head back, but there was no choice. Before I could make up my mind, I was pushed by the crowd away from the exit. The priest ensured that the crowd kept moving and all the devotees got just a couple of seconds to fold their hands and lower their heads when they were straight in front of the trinity. I too got my two seconds before I was pushed away. The image was just the same as the one on my refrigerator but here the trinity was almost coming alive with the prayers and chantings reverberating inside the high dome and adding to the radiance. The deities were dressed elaborately and exquisitely.

As I came out, I saw many devotees sitting in the courtyard with rosary beads praying and reading from the texts. I saw there was an unusually high proportion of elderly women devotees, some so old and bent that they could barely walk. I realized some of them must have waited their entire lifetime to finally make this yatra.

Some devotees were distributing and eating Prasad. I quickly went around all the other temples, but spent more time sitting and observing the devotees and marveling at the picture of faith that was spread around. The sun had risen quite high by now and the temple looked brilliant with a golden hue created by sunlight. I realized that I should now return. As I walked down the steps, I once again saw the devotees touching every step as they entered and the temple bells ringing continuously beckoning them as they came closer and closer. I wished I had my camera with me, not so much for taking pictures of the beautiful architecture but for capturing the expressions of those who were nearing their destination. As I stepped out of the temple and rode through the narrow lanes of Puri in a cycle rickshaw driven laboriously by someone who was of my father’s age, it seemed like I had stepped into a different world altogether.  

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Sinhagad - a chapter from Maratha history

Having grown up reading Maratha history at school and a dose of Amar Chitra Katha stories about Shivaji, a trip to Sinhagad was a great way of refreshing all the history lessons from my childhood. Sinhagad literally means Lion’s Fort. It is located around 30-35 kms from Pune on a hill (about 800 metres high) and is a lovely spot for making a day trip.

Sinhagad, which was earlier called Kondhana, was strategically important for the Marathas because it was located at the centre of other important forts like the Purandar, Rajgad and Torna and they captured the fort every time it was snatched away from them. But Sinhagad is significant in Maratha history primarily because of the Battle of Sinhagad which was fought in 1670 to recapture the fort from the Mughals. During the battle, Tanaji Malasure, Shivaji’s most reliable lieutenant surprised the enemies by climbing up the steep cliff of the fort with the help of a monitor lizard and putting up a brave fight. Although he died fighting valiantly in the battle, the Marathas were victorious and recaptured the fort. Shivaji is said to have then remarked, ‘Gad aala pan Sinha gela’ (The fort has been won but the lion is lost). Today, when one looks down the sharp vertical cliff standing on top of Sinhagad at the same spot, one can only imagine the sheer courage and loyalty of Tanaji.

Although one can trek right up to the fort from Sinhagad village at the foothills, we drove up as we were traveling with little kids. However, the road was in a bad shape. From the parking lot, the climb up to the fort was comfortable. It was very hot and there were not many trees on the top providing shade. The steps were uneven in many places and had a lot of gravel. Thankfully, we were prepared for both these conditions with caps and comfortable shoes. 

Pune Darwaza at Sinhagad

There were two entrances to the fort – Pune Darwaza taken by most visitors and Kalyan Darwaza. A tour around the fort can take even an entire day, depending on how much one wants to explore. There is a Tanaji Smarak (memorial) on top; several water tanks, including the Elephant tank; several temples including a small temple dedicated to Kondhaneshwar; several towers, ammunition storehouse, a rock-cut cave-like horse stable and also the Doordarshan TV tower. One can not only see the majestic Sahyadri ranges from top, one can also spot other forts around. During summer, the mountain ranges look blackish because they are dry with little vegetation. But in monsoons, we were told that they look as if they are covered with green velvet. We would have liked to see more displays depicting a map of the fort, explanation about the history and significance of every spot. The place somehow assumed that every visitor would be familiar with Maratha history. Back in the parking lot, there were many places that served typical Marathi food, but we settled for a glass of buttermilk.

On the way back, we wished we had spent the entire day at the fort, wished we had trekked instead of taking a bumpy road ride and wished that the kids were slightly older to understand what they saw. Anyways, now we have more than one reason to visit Sinhagad again.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

A day in Agartala

A few months ago, I was in Agartala on work. Given that I was spending only 24 hours (from Friday noon to Saturday noon) in the city and with some important work that required hundred percent focus, I was not expecting a chance to go around. I was staying at the Circuit House, a sprawling newly constructed sarkari Guest House which offered superb food and hospitality; so there was no reason to step out either other than for my scheduled business. The traveler in me was getting a bit restless, but work always comes before pleasure! Luckily, all the scheduled work was completed late evening on the first day itself freeing up the next morning. The government officials whom I had come to meet suggested that I should also see the city since I had not been there before and had come all the way from Bangalore. Although it was a holiday the next day, they deputed a person to take me around.

Next morning as I woke up, I found thick fog enveloped outside the window and I could see absolutely nothing beyond. It took a good couple of hours for the fog to clear up. My escort showed up exactly at the scheduled time and I allowed him to work out my itinerary for the morning. He had come equipped with a camera and a USB cable so I could carry the pictures that he was planning to take as we went around. His idea was that I could look around and he could take the pictures, so we could save time - I had never met such a thoughtful and enthusiastic escort before!

On the way I was told how the international border with Bangladesh is only 4-5 kilometers away from Agartala, how 80% of Tripura’s border is shared with Bangladesh (on north, west and south), how the border is just a fence with barbed wire and covers most of the border leaving out certain pockets, how trade and exchange takes place across the border on a daily basis, how the cultures across are more or less identical because of the Bengali identity and so on. We talked about the two famous personalities from Tripura – legendary S.D. Burman and upcoming tennis star Somdev Devvarman. I saw that Agartala had a few signs of having joined the globalization era- a small mall (which I preferred to skip), advertisements of cell-phones and computer courses…however, my Reliance Netconnect did not get any signal and I did not find any surfing centre easily.

Ujjayanta Palace getting renovated
We first went to the Durga Bari temple and Laxminarayan Bari temple. These simple, non-ostentatious temples (compared to what I am used to seeing in the South) hold great significance and had many devotees although there was no special occasion. We then went to the Ujjayanta Palace which is where the Tripura Legislative Assembly was housed since Tripura attained statehood in 1972. The gates were closed as it was a holiday but since I was in a sarkari car and with sarkari escort, they opened magically. The long pathway after the entrance went around Mughal styled gardens leading upto a two storey white palace. It was built by Maharaja Radhakishore Manickya more than 100 years ago. I saw that the palace building was covered with scaffoldings and was undergoing some renovation. I was told that the Assembly would move to a new and modern building sometime after summer this year. We then went to Jagannath Bari temple which had several beautifully decorated statutes of Krishna, Balaram and Subhadra. The entire life of Krishna was depicted through the colourful statues. I also saw statues of Shiva-Parvati tucked at the back, beside a small tank and a dharamshala.
Shiva at Jagannath Bari temple

I realized I had seen almost all the must-see places in Agartala within just three hours. It was time for me to head back to the airport. On the way, my escort transferred the pictures he had taken onto my laptop and the ones I have displayed in this post are actually clicked by him. He insisted that I should return to Agartala so that I could visit some more important and beautiful temples located a few hundred kilometers away. In his excitement, he copied some of the pictures of those other temples also on to my laptop from his camera and said, ‘If you see these pictures, you will feel like returning again to Agartala’. I was really touched by this sweet gesture.

As the plane flew from Agartala to Kolkata, it went over Bangladesh for most of the time. The sky was clear and I could see the blue tinged rivers, green fields and grey houses. I tried to locate the fenced border but could not find any.

Sunday, September 4, 2011

Scientists in Steel

Just outside the Tsukuba Expo Memorial Park in Ibaraki, Japan, there is an amazing stainless steel installation that keeps up with the city’s reputation as the Science City. Constructed with the help of hundreds of steel balls suspended from a square frame, images of four great scientists namely, Archimedes, Newton, Edison and Galileo, have been created. 

View from below the structure
The square frame rests on four polished steel pillars and on the top it has connected the diagonals and the sides. Hundreds of steel balls are suspended with the help of thin but strong wires from top in such a manner that faces of the four scientists can be identified by looking at the installation from each of the four sides. The most amazing part of this installation is that when one looks at say Galileo from one side, the other steel balls making the images of other scientists are not even visible because they are integrated into the design of Galileo. The design is extremely neat and without any distortion although it simultaneously showcases four images facing four different sides. I thought, perhaps if I stood under the square frame and looked up I would get to see some messiness of the artist, but I was wrong. It was impeccable and absolutely Japanese. Although I am unable to find the details of the creators in my notes, my strong hunch is that it must have been a team effort, that too an inter-disciplinary team effort. 
Image of Galileo

The team would have relied on first, the artist or designer for conceiving and visualizing the installation, then the people with backgrounds in math, computer graphics, 3D modeling to come up with simulated virtual models, then the people with background in material sciences in helping select material that has withstood the weather conditions and then finally those who actually worked on it hands-on to erect the structure and translate the designer’s vision into a reality.  Kudos to the team which has beautifully converged multiple disciplines and for a flawless execution that brings the four great scientists together!

Till the last drop...

Broadly speaking, there are two types of drivers when it comes to making decisions about when to refuel during long road journeys- the cautious ones who refuel even before the arrow tips to the E mark and the slightly bindaas ones who rely on their gut instinct about the capacity of the reserve fuel in the car and are willing to push the car to the nearest fueling station, if need be. Besides there are those who seem to be on some kind of a loyalty programme and refuel only at particular fuel stations and there are also those who refuel only if the price is within a particular price bracket (like in US where prices differ across vendors and stations). Whatever be your type, sooner or later you are bound to come across an experience that may nudge you to reconsider how you make refueling decisions and when you make them.

We had a nail-biting experience while driving from Lafayette to Baton Rouge on I-10 in Louisiana after which the E mark on the car does not look the same to us anymore. We were so engrossed in talking, eating, taking pictures, listening to music and all that is usually done during long drives that we did not notice how long we’d been driving with the arrow on the E mark. And before we knew it, we were already driving on the Atchafalya Swamp Freeway, a long stretch of elevated freeway that rests on pillars over the swamps. The bridge is an architectural feat because it is constructed over the Atchafalaya river and large tracts of swamps on all side and runs for over 18.2 miles. 

Initially we joked about who would push the car for the remaining distance in the hot sun; but soon we realized that there was no way we could turn back and all we could do was to keep driving until we ran out of fuel. Jokes were soon replaced with arguments about who was responsible or rather irresponsible to get us into this situation. Arguments rarely provide answers or solutions, so for the sake of self-preservation we kept aside the verbal duel (to be continued at another time and place) and tried to find some solutions. The first step was to take a baseline by trying to calibrate the exact position of the arrow relative to the lettering E and making some quick calculations on mileage, distance covered, fuel efficiency etc. As per the calculations, we thought we may just be able to cross the 18.2 miles elevated highway if we conserved. The AC was switched off immediately and the windows were rolled down to let the swampy air flow into the car and add to the foul atmosphere inside the car. Then there was an argument if switching off the car stereo would have any impact on fuel conservation. Although we did not arrive at any consensus, we decided to err on the cautious side and switch off the music. Instead of listening to the other person say ‘I had told you to switch off the music, now push the car’ we preferred to rather listen to each other sing. There was no question of stopping or changing gears, but we did try to argue if the changes in speed would affect the fuel efficiency. We tried telling each other that staring at the arrow would not elevate it in any way and we should leave the poor 'E' alone instead of hypnotizing it with our constant glare. We tried to figure out what emergency features the expressway was equipped with. We saw that there were several call phones marked by numbers for easy identification and we figured out that help will not be too far away even if we indeed needed support. With all eyes on the movement of the arrow which was way below E, we forgot to even take pictures of the Atchafalaya river and swamps. The 18.2 miles ride seemed so long that we even began wondering if there was any digit missing from the hundredth place and if it was in fact 118.2 kms or even worse if the decimal was actually not supposed to be there before 2? But finally we did see the end of the freeway and our car was still running on the reserve fuel. 

Once we got off, we still did not see any fuel station but the fact that we were in a human habitation and not suspended over a swamp gave tremendous relief. Soon we spotted a fueling station- it was not selling fuel from our preferred company and the price was also somewhat high but that did not matter anymore. We had stared at the E mark for too long than what it deserved.

Sunday, August 28, 2011

The Blue Ghost at Corpus Christi

Located in Southern Texas, Corpus Christi in Latin means ‘body of Christ’, however, the city has no particular significance in the celebration of the Catholic feast by the same name. Corpus Christi is actually well known for its Naval Air Station and its museum ship called USS Lexington. The ship was used in the Second World War and is said to have served for the longest period of time and set maximum number of records than any other US navy aircraft carrier. The Japanese called it the “Blue Ghost” because they thought they had managed to sink it several times but it shockingly kept showing up. If one visits Corpus Christi, one has to visit this historical museum to get a sense of what this nation used when it went on wars in the last century and also to see how it now evokes a sense of pride and nationalism among the visiting Americans.

The museum ship at Corpus Christi bay

After reaching the museum, we collected a museum map and brochures and went on a self guided tour. The volunteers and guides were available for answering queries at every corner. The ship has multiple decks, each with interesting exhibits. We first went to the flight deck from where the aircrafts took off and landed and were struck by its size. A number of decommissioned aircrafts were kept on display on the deck, each with a description of when it was used and its technical details. We then went to the forecastle-the part where equipment for anchoring is stored and were stunned to see the giant chains and machinery that was showcased. The lower deck had interesting exhibits on how the crew lived when on duty, where they ate, where they prayed and where they rested when they got sick. The hangar deck, where the aircrafts were kept for maintenance and fueling, also had some interesting exhibits. This included flight simulators where one could actually get a sense of being part of a war and a display of some of the aircrafts used during Second World War for bombings. Although some modifications have been made to the ship in order to make it accessible to the visitors, most of the places required walking through narrow openings and winding pathways and ducking one’s head from being hit by the low ceilings. Closer to the exit, a large US flag was pinned up which also served as a backdrop for clicking group pictures.

As I stepped out, I wondered if such a museum built on the foundations of patriotism and warfare was not only preserving histories and memories but also laying ground for its continued legacy.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

A bicycle ride under blooming Sakura

In early April, when the Cherry Blossom trees are in full bloom in Japan, it is a common practice to go out for flower viewing called ‘Hanami’ or hold lawn parties under fully blossomed trees. Since I did not have anyone to party with, I decided to go around enjoying the Sakura on a bicycle. It was not very difficult to rent a bicycle at the local train station. I just had to cross two hurdles- one, filling up a Japanese form which I managed to do with some help from two kind-hearted elderly women who barely knew English and two, after being given the key to the bicycle I actually managed to find the right bicycle from hundreds parked at the cycle stand. I knew the route I had to take, but once I got on the road, I decided to keep the maps away and wander aimlessly under the Sakura.

The weather was beautiful. Bright sunshine passing through thick branches of blooming Sakura created a play of light and dark on the pathway. Every now and then, the cool breeze nudged the petals to leave home and carried them delicately as they twirled and danced to silent music till they rested on the earth. Every time I passed through this rhapsody, I stood there with my face turned upwards and my palms stretched out so that I could feel the petals falling on my skin. Can there be anything more flattering than being showered by the Sakura petals or the ‘Hanafubuki’ as the showers are called in Japanese? I rode through the Tsukuba University campus and found many people merrily stretching out on the lawns- some were playing music, some were reading and some were even barbequing! It seemed like no one could turn down the invitation extended by bright sunshine and the pink hued-cloud shaped Cherry Blossoms to come outdoors and have a nice time.

I cycled through the small lanes finding spots where I could enjoy the Hanafubuki and then rode through the boulevards that were graciously lined by Sakura on both sides. As it started getting dark, I realized that I had to go back and return my rented bicycle. I handed over the keys and told the lady at the counter that I would need the bicycle again the next day. I had enjoyed the Sakura show and wanted to experience it once again. You see, there are some things in life that one can’t get enough of.

Monday, August 22, 2011

Unresolved conspiracies

On November 22, 1963 President John F Kennedy was declared dead at Parkland Memorial Hospital, Dallas. As per official sources, his death took place due to bullet injuries after being fired by Lee Harvey Oswald from the sixth floor of Dealy Plaza. Oswald was himself shot dead two days later by Jack Ruby. JFK’s death has been a subject of conspiracy theories all these years and the interest in finding explanations to the mysterious circumstances surrounding his assassination continues even today. Questions have been asked about the investigations carried out by various official agencies and about the conclusions drawn by the Warren Commission’s report and subsequently the other official reports probing the assassination. Much has been written but several questions still remain unanswered.

Sixth Floor, Dealy Plaza
During my visit to Dallas, I went to see the place where JFK was assassinated and the spot from where the shots were fired. The window from where Oswald fired the shots is located on the Sixth Floor, Dealy Plaza which is now converted into a museum. Located towards one end of downtown Dallas where three streets converge (Main, Elm and Commerce Streets) and go under a railroad bridge, the place sees hundreds of visitors curiously looking from one end to the other, trying to visualize the scene and ponder over the conspiracy theories. The JFK memorial is not located at the assassination site itself but a block away. The last remains, however, are buried at Arlington cemetery, Washington D.C.

JFK Memorial, Dallas

I was gripped by the conspiracy theories for several weeks after the visit to Dealy Plaza. I tried to read about it and even watched Oliver Stone’s controversial film ‘JFK’. But the most fascinating part of being bitten by the conspiracy bug was grabbing an opportunity to attend Dr. Robert McClelland’s lecture at the Dallas Public Library. Dr. McClelland was one of the six doctors present in the Trauma Room One where JFK was brought on the stretcher after the gun shots and perhaps the only person from among the six doctors who is still alive. Dr. McClelland stood at the head of the table while assisting the other doctors performing tracheotomy on JFK and was in a unique position to observe the head damage. During his lecture, he shared in detail what happened in Trauma Room One, what he had seen and heard, about his depositions before the Warren Commission and his statements during investigations. He also pointed out that the account of Ed Hoffman, a speech and hearing impaired eyewitness is the most crucial one in shedding light on the assassination.

As years go by, it is going to be more and more difficult to piece together the puzzle and find out the truth about JFK’s assassination. And that is indeed a perfect scenario for conspiracy theories to hatch and abound. 

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Hugs to Paro

The Japanese are well known for their advanced contribution to robotics, engineering and technology. The Science Square at the National Institute of Advanced Industrial Science and Technology (called AIST) at Tsukuba, Japan showcases a stunning range of state-of-the-art robots that have been designed to serve various purposes. There are the HRP 2P and HRP 3P humanoid robots that can carry out various tasks like humans; they can walk even on slippery and uneven surfaces, dance, sit down, get up after falling and pick up objects. They can do useful chores like sorting and stacking plates of difference sizes and bowls. They have robots that can detect and anticipate movement of objects in the surroundings and respond accordingly. There is also a robotic version of the Tyrannosaurus which walks and is meant for commercial use in the entertainment industry.

However, the biggest attraction at the Science Square is Paro, a robotic baby harp seal, which has been recognized as the world’s most therapeutic robot. With a pacifier in its mouth and having the most vivid and expressive eyes, Paro can evoke soft and tender emotions in any person. Under the soft white fluffy body are fitted numerous sensors that allow Paro to respond to auditory, temperature, tactile, light and postural stimuli. Paro can recognize when it is taken on one’s lap and is patted and is programmed to make certain kinds of sounds. It turns its head, waggles its tail, and blinks with its long eyelashes. It loves to be cuddled and talked to and responds in various ways when it is shown affection. Paro has been effectively used in therapy with children and the elderly. For developing Paro, scientists used research in psychology and animal therapy and studied how stress and depression could be reduced in patients, especially in situations when use of real animals may not be advisable or possible.

I felt like bringing Paro home. Perhaps I may have to some day, if I end up getting old and lonely. 

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Man and animal

Have you ever witnessed a bull race? It is a sheer display of exhilaration, heroism and raw energy. A few years ago, we watched a local bull race near Ullal, in Dakshina Kannada district of Karnataka and it was quite an experience. 

 As we approached the venue, we saw huge hordes of people from surrounding villages making their way to witness the event. We didn’t have to ask for any directions for we simply followed the crowds. The local villagers had already taken the best spots and the VIPs were seated in a temporarily erected shamiana. We managed to find a place for ourselves close to the VIPs so that we too could enjoy a great view. It seemed to be primarily a male sport as I could hardly find any women among the spectators. There were two tracks covered with ankle-deep muddy water and separated from each other and the spectators by red mud embankments. We realized that the contestants would have to race in pairs in perhaps a dozen heats. Soon the contestants flaunting their bare chests, turbans and bright coloured folded veshtis and shorts paraded with their respective pairs of bulls. The bulls were also decorated with bright ribbons, woolen flowers and bells. Each contestant was accompanied by a couple of men- perhaps their coaches and strategists - helping them to keep their nerves. 

The spectators were in complete frenzy when the race started. The contestants raced amidst complete cacophony of cheering crowds, village drums and whistles. We were sure this egged the bulls and their men to get into the zone and sprint through the muddy waters. The bulls ran like crazy and the men tried to keep pace by not letting go off the rope that connected the two. It was not clear who was controlling whom, if the men were racing the bulls or if the bulls were dragging the men at a speed beyond their limits. The men who got the prizes became instant heroes bringing glory to their families and villages. The bulls got their share of indulgence and the spectators went back charged contagiously with the raw energy that filled the air.

In my mind's eye

When I was nine years old, my dad had visited the US and had got us a ‘View-Master’ with reels containing pictures of some attractive tourist destinations in that country. One of them carried pictures of stalagmites and stalactites making amazing formations. That was the first time I had seen such a natural wonder and I had no clue what it was called or how it was formed. More than awe I remember experiencing sheer disbelief that something like that could exist on this planet. It seemed so unreal and straight out of a ghost story.

A few years ago, when I read about the Natural Bridge Caverns near San Antonio, Texas, the images from the View-Master came right in front of my eyes.  I was staying at Houston at that time and the caverns were only three hours drive away. I could not wait to see how it looked like in real life.

The King's Throne
The Natural Bridge Caverns sees many tourists combining this with a visit to San Antonio or New Braunfels. Outside the caverns, there is a nice park with huge dinosaur models that one can climb on. I took a tour of the caverns which lasted approximately one hour and took us about 180 feet below the ground. The pathway was wet and at some places quite slippery. Although there were railings all along, one had to watch every step. I paused to observe each formation along the way and found that every single one of them was absolutely unique although they had generic names like soda straws, chandeliers, etc. Each chamber has an interesting name based on the patterns and meanings drawn from the abstract structures that are formed. As I went deeper and deeper inside the cavern, it became darker but the lights placed at strategic spots gave a brilliant orange hue to the formations. 
Pluto's Anteroom

We were told that the caverns were discovered in the early sixties by a group of local college students who made repeated expeditions to the naturally formed limestone bridge that lies above the caverns. Thanks to these college kids who were adventurous enough to crawl through the small openings and discover the spectacular caverns, we now have a site that showcases what underground water flowing through cracks in the layers of limestone can create over millions of years. The stalagmites and stalactites are still dynamic and growing with water silently passing and dripping through the formations.

I tried to take a few pictures but I don’t think they can ever match the quality of what I had seen through my old View-Master. I clicked them nevertheless, not to showcase the unbelievable wonders hidden in the caverns to others but to remind me of the joy of actually seeing it after preserving its image in my mind’s eye for years.        

Monday, August 8, 2011

Not just dirty laundry!

When one returns home from any travel, one is usually confronted with the question- what have you brought back with you? The question is as standard and predictable (and sometimes as indifferent) as the safety announcements on the flights. The question can come from your family and friends or even from distant acquaintances that somehow get to know that you had traveled to a particular place. Some wise and veteran travelers (like my hubby) think of this in advance and plan methodically such that they have more than an adequate response to offer to the question – both verbally and materially. But I have not managed to learn this trait from my better half and I often scramble for an answer on the way back home. I think it is far too expensive to buy anything at the airports just to be able to give an answer. A few days ago, I was listing all the things that I have actually brought home, besides dirty laundry of course.

Once when my daughter was in pre-school, I just got some interesting maps of the city I had visited and we spent days after that trying to find places, check distances and learn about co-ordinates. Once it was a sling that she could use, once it was a nice smooth round stone that she used as a paperweight. Once it was maple leaves of different colours that we laminated when I got back and now use as bookmarks. I usually end up visiting a grocery store wherever I go and it is easy to buy some food items, although there have been times when I have purchased something simply because the packaging looked interesting and I had no clue what was written on the label. Pictures of the places visited and local currency is always easy to bring home. Sometimes, I have even bought utility items like stain removers and storage boxes. It is not that I have not purchased local souvenirs – like Matryoshka dolls or local silks, but I have always preferred to look around than spend my time in shops.

I have sometimes shopped under compulsion and sometimes under pressure. Whenever I have visited smaller villages or towns, I have felt compelled to purchase local products and contribute to the local economy. It could be honey, spices, textiles or even baskets. I remember once shopping under pressure-I had only one hour before leaving for the airport, I had limited luggage space but I had loads of local currency left with me which I wanted to exhaust as I was not interested in re-converting. Once I had shopped so many big and heavy things like books and glass items that I had to buy two large bags just to carry back the new purchases. Sometimes, friends and colleagues whom I meet have been generous and have made matters easier for me by giving things that I can carry home. I have received mounds of organic jaggery, books, cosmetics, crockery sets and paintings.

Bringing home African braids 
Sometimes, I have brought home surprises. Once, some African colleagues spent two hours braiding my hair and I came back with over thirty braids and a pattern resembling tortoise-back on my scalp. The expression on the faces of my loved ones was simply priceless, something I would never have managed to see after presenting them items from the duty-free shops.

When I look at the list of things that I have brought back, I feel that I may not have always brought back the expected souvenirs, but I have always brought home plenty of stories and memories that I have recounted and relived around the dinner table. I have come home with stories about new friends I have made, new places I have seen and new cultures I have explored. When I come home, my family does not search my suitcase for shopping bags, they know there is likely to be nothing other than dirty laundry. They often ignore the bag and just look at me and wait for me to start talking. 

Sunday, August 7, 2011

Grand Prix de Monaco

The principality of Monaco is an amazing place and there are many things to see and do. There is the Palace, the Cathedral with beautiful stained glass paintings, gardens, interesting museums (like the museum of arms, museum of automatons and dolls) and of course, the casinos. Located on the French Riviera and an attractive destination for the wealthy because it levies no income tax, it is a perfect place for a permanent holiday. Monaco is also known for its famous Grand Prix Formula One race event and that is what I think of when I remember my visit to Monaco.

I was visiting a few days before the Grand Prix weekend some years ago and although I was not staying on to witness the exciting race, it was fascinating to see the principality getting ready to host the grand event.

The circuit stretches over 3.3 kms along Monte Carlo and Le Condamine municipalities and even includes a stretch under the tunnel.  Being one of the most demanding street circuits with hair-pin bends, narrow lanes and inclines, it is an ultimate testing ground for strategy, technique, skill and speed. The narrow lanes do not give much room for overtaking and at some bends the drivers have to slow down considerably. The sight-seeing tour which I had taken took us along the race circuit and one could see the preparations being made in full swing. This included newly resurfaced streets and marking them especially for the race by erasing all the earlier road markings, placing advertisers’ billboards, welding the manholes so they do not get thrown up with the speed of racing cars, and setting up viewers’ stands along the route. The amount of preparation and work that goes behind the scenes to make the race both smooth and thrilling is enormous. Although the circuit does not meet the safety standards, it is still the most spectacular places to race and hence the event continues with the backdrop of the harbour.

Having watched F1 races only on television, it was terrific to walk on the circuit and get a sense of how electrifying the atmosphere must be with cars racing at unimaginable speeds, expertly negotiating the twists and turns without room for even a slightest error. I imagined the action that would unfold in the next few days- right from the pits stop to the circuit, among the rivals Schumacher and Alonso (Alonso went on win with Renault) as well as among the strategists and the spectators. More recently, when I read a little about F1 and what actually goes on with the driver and the entire team- before, during and after the race, my admiration for the teams grew immensely. I realized that it is not only about speed, it has much to do with technology, engineering, strategy, intricacy and sheer fearlessness. And what can be a better location to witness these in action other than the glamorous Monaco.

Saturday, August 6, 2011


When I landed at Moscow at four o’clock on a freezing January morning a few years ago, I first decided to forget about my nightmarish journey on Aeroflot and look ahead at what I could do in this historical city. I knew I had to work with three colleagues on a presentation that we were supposed to make at St. Petersburg after a couple of days. But since they were arriving at different times from different countries, I decided that I must go around before we sat down to work. It was bitterly cold outside, but I did not want that to affect my plans. I checked in at Hotel Budapest which is a nineteenth century building with beautiful interiors. The room looked a little too royal with red satins, golden wall papers and elegantly carved furniture. After having some hot chocolate, I played music on my laptop and dozed off for a few hours. I woke up, called my local colleague and took stock of the work we had to complete. We decided that since others were arriving later, we might as well begin work in the evening.

I had a hearty breakfast, picked up a map and a sightseeing brochure from the hotel lobby, asked the receptionist for some tips and set off to see the city. 

Statue of Karl Marx
Since the hotel was located close to the major attractions, I decided to walk. It was a busy working day, people walking on the streets, office-goers on their way to work, construction workers and civil engineers busy with road repair work and examining water pipes that were weak and could crack in winter - suddenly it did not feel so cold outside. I walked past a stone carved statue of Karl Marx at the Teatralnaya Square which had the inscription “Workers of the World Unite”. I found some elderly men sitting on benches and engrossed in intense discussions with newspapers on their laps. I wondered what they could be talking about- workers’ rights, fall-outs of reforms, party dynamics. I continued to walk and came to the Red Square. It was a huge square and standing at one end near the GUM store, I tried to imagine the interesting history of the Square- from being the site of bloody fights in the medieval times, to a place used for official parades and more recently even for rock concerts. A huge decorated Christmas tree in front of GUM conveyed that Christmas season was not yet over. 

St. Basil's Cathedral
The onion domes of St. Basil’s Cathedral stood out because of their architecture and colour. In front of the cathedral was a bronze statue of Minin and Pozharsky who saved Moscow in war with the Polish in early seventeenth century. The Kremlin wall was on one side, protecting Moscow Kremlin, the erstwhile royal bastion and currently the official residence of President of Russia. 
Lenin's Mausoleum

Lenin’s Mausoleum stood in front of the wall and the Kazan Cathedral on the other side. I had not come across so many important landmarks located in such close proximity and I think that is what makes the Red Square really unique. One can easily spend an entire day there absorbing the history and politics that are associated with the place. It was beginning to get dark and I walked back to the hotel taking another route so I could see a different part of the city.

By the time I reached the hotel, my colleagues had already arrived and we went to have an early dinner. The place had a nice warm feel to it with a Turkish flavour - hookahs, belly dancing and low divans to recline on. The next day, we went to our local colleague’s office, which was located in an old building and had many remnants of the Soviet era including Soviet style toilet blocks and a cafeteria with spartan mugs, plates and cutlery. I barely managed to find some vegetarian food. We worked until late evening. The temperatures had dipped further and I was glad I had managed to go around the previous day. Not sure when I would visit Moscow again, but when I do, I will certainly take a crash course on Russian political history before boarding an Aeroflot. That would help me better appreciate every street, every statue and every monument of this historical city. And perhaps also help me see the Aeroflot experience within a context!

Friday, August 5, 2011

Dollar Factory

The Bureau of Engraving and Printing of the US Department of Treasury prints the Federal Reserve Notes i.e. US dollar currency at two locations in the country, Washington D.C. and Fort Worth, Texas. We visited the facility at Fort Worth to see how billions of dollars in hard cash looked like in times of recession. Actually we were quite surprised to know that the facility is open to visitors since we do not know if similar facility in India is open to the public.

After going through standard security checks, we entered a lobby where there was a huge glass cube with one million dollars of hard currency stuffed inside. Gosh, looking at all that cash made me feel a little dizzy. As we turned away and began looking at other exhibits, we were ushered into a mini-theatre where they were about to screen a video documentary. The video was very informative and showed the history of currency making, how currency is printed, the crucial role played by the engravers, how the designs are prepared, the kind of ink and paper used, the various tests the currency notes are put through (like the laundry test where the notes are put through the laundry seven times to check if they survive), how they redeem currency that is completely mutilated, the things that are done to deter counterfeiting, how defective currency is identified and removed and how the notes become ‘real currency’ after one final step that takes place in Washington D.C. We were then taken on a tour of the facility. Through the glass paneled elevated walkway, we saw that the place looked like any other printing factory, just that what was being printed gave it an extra value. The notes were printed, cut, stacked, bundled and loaded into boxes meant to be dispatched to the D.C. facility. There were very few workers and they seemed to be going about their jobs in a matter-of-fact way. One of the workers standing next to a huge pile of notes scribbled a fat number and held it up for us to read. I could not even count the zeroes- but that was apparently the value of those green bills stacked next to him. We were told that the new ‘purple five’ dollar bill was being printed at the facility and if we looked more closely, we could see the identity of the Fort Worth facility printed on every such bill available. The tour lasted for about 45 minutes and we were then brought into another exhibit area. We were really impressed with the way the entire tour was organized and also the manner in which all the information was presented to visitors through interactive and interesting exhibits. On the way out, we stopped at the gift shop which sold interesting items like uncut sheets of dollar bills, shredded dollar bills besides the regular souvenirs like magnets and key-chains. We purchased a few souvenirs by paying cash (somehow did not feel like paying with plastic) and asked for a ‘purple five’ to be given as part of the change due.

We wondered in whose pockets would the billions of Federal Reserve Notes we had seen getting printed finally land. Hopefully, in the hands of those who have a rightful claim. In God We Trust!

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Desi Flavours at Mt.Titlis

Located in central Switzerland and considered to be the highest excursion peak offering the best 360 degree view of snow clad mountain ranges, Mt. Titlis is one of the most popular destinations among Indians visiting Switzerland. This was amply clear to us when we were there last October.  We took a train up to Engelberg, a picturesque village from where one can take a cable car to reach Mt. Titlis. The huge hoarding meant for welcoming guests just outside the cable car station included ‘Swagatam’ on one side and ‘Alvida’ on the other side along with other languages. The first cable car we took was a small one that could accommodate four persons. When we started the ascent, we could barely see the peak as it was covered with thick low lying clouds but within a minute the car took us high above the clouds from where we got a great view of Engelberg. Amidst the absolute stillness we could clearly hear the non-stop ringing of the cow bells from the meadows below.

After reaching Trubsee, we got into a larger rotating cable car called Rotair which took us all the way up to Mt. Titlis, which is located over 3000 metres above sea level. Inside the walls of the Rotair, we found information provided in Hindi along with other languages. Just shows that they are catering to the needs of tourists from India, we thought. 

When we reached Mt. Titlis, we were surprised to see a huge cut-out of Shahrukh Khan and Kajol from DDLJ right next to a cutout of faceless skiers meant for visitors to peep through, pose and take pictures. We had no clue what the display of Bollywood stars in their Bhangra pose was meant to serve on top of Mt Titlis. But there it was, amusing all visiting Indians and puzzling others who had no clue about the characters on display. 

DDLJ on Mt. Titlis
The summit was covered with thick snow. From the top, we could see the Alp ranges, glacier caves and an interesting structure that resembled a sitting Buddha. This was discovered by a Chinese gymnast just before he won an Olympic medal in 1996. After taking loads of pictures and trying all stunts in the snow, we went indoors to see a film about Mt. Titlis and eat the local Mövenpick chocolate ice-cream. We got into the Rotair, then again in the small cable car, descending through the clouds, hearing the cow bells and finally landing back at Engelberg. 

We were in for another desi jolt. This time a mobile food joint serving vada pav, pav-bhaji, samosa, idli-chutney, gajar halwa and masala chai! As the only food joint serving hot food at the foothills of Mt.Titlis, it was doing good business and we were really impressed. The weather was just right to indulge in the spicy chaats and top it up with masala chai.

Hot desi snacks at foothills of Mt. Titlis

Our trip to Mt Titlis had given us a taste of Indianisation of Swiss tourism and we were really tickled by it. A few months ago, we read that the Swiss are trying to increase inflow of Indian tourists by 25% this year. What more can they offer to make Indians feel at home – an autorickshaw ride around Engelberg or ice-gola as an addition to the Mövenpick range?