ALLORA….

Italia, here I come.

Rome, we know was not built in a day, but where are the Gladiators? There are carabiniere – armoured vehicles only. Forget about strutting, these chaps don’t like being photographed.

 

A ‘Night by Rome’ tour was a great idea. It was semi walking through city sights via narrow lanes & by lanes with little or no traffic & small crowds. The historic places – brilliantly lit up – appeared to have better visibility too.

So also a boat ride down the Tiber, music, food & wine included. We started at the bridge near Castel Sant Angelo & finished at Isola Tibertina near another historic bridge, the Ponte Cesare.

 

On the go, meet – eat –shop one must & no place better than the newly opened ‘Mercato Centrale’ (Roma Termini) Its size & scale will astound. What absolutely caught the fancy was a leisurely day out in Trastevere. Absolutely enjoyable wandering aimlessly – gelato in hand –scouting the Sunday Flea market & riding a tram back to the train station.

Trastevere: Steps                                                 And the tram

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Ponte Cesare

Most people visiting Italy make it a point to include Pisa & Pompei in their itinerary but they make day trips, basing themselves elsewhere. That, I think is a mistake for both towns deserve better as they have much to offer. Sleeping – awaking in a place is in any case an entirely different experience. Little things like having a cappuccino – croissant at an outdoor café as the town comes alive. Or watching the streets swept & washed. In Pisa they did it everyday.

A word about ‘M Gorkij’. Having checked in I was handed a set of 3 keys – entrance, corridor, room – & shown around before Elena vanished never to be seen again. Neither she nor any other hotel staff, all the days I was there. Not even when I finally checked out. I simply deposited the keys & whamooshed. But, who’s complaining. It was a nice, quiet place. Room cleaned & linen changed every day.

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Doors, Florence

                         Roof tops, Pisa                                               River Arno, Pisa

Pisa, was my base for day trips to Chianti /Tuscany & Cinque Terre. The small towns of Siena, Luca, Castellani & Monteriggone were a delight, more so with generous amounts of Chianti red wine, cheese, salami, olives & balsamic. All of it, followed by more wine & 3 course meal at a country resort.

Luca, with its old Renaissance walls is especially memorable. It was a lovely day. I had missed the 10.20, it was an empty platform & I had it all to myself so, a few yogic stretches & bends seemed perfectly in order.

(Luca to Pisa is a mere 30 minutes & the train brings you right inside the ancient walls.)

Monterosso, Cinque Terre

Renaissance walls, Luca                 Monterigione

Chianti, wine country

Traveling solo is ideal but a little company gives variety. We were a group of 7 doing Cinque Terre along with Amy, our young, vivacious guide & we ended up using every mode of transport – minivan, train & ferry. Starting at La Spezia, a port town from where the hill climb begins ( also famous for the white Caracas stone used by Michelangelo) & onwards to the 5 picturesque towns wedged between mountain & sea. The first of these was Riomaggiore where we switched from van to train, journeying along the Tyrrhenian coast to Vernazza & Monterosso with brief halts everywhere. Monterosso is the largest in the region but Riomaggiore, with its quaint little train station & murals is special. A break for lunch, some souvenir shopping & a ferry, to Porto Venere, going past Lord Byron’s alcove (he liked swimming there), bidding goodbye to the gorgeous coastline. Cinque Terre or the Italian riviera is stunning, the landscape more real & authentic than its counterpart on the French side which, comes across as a cluster of ultra rich towns & designer villages. 5 Terre is a UNESCO heritage site hence any new construction or alteration is forbidden. Consequently, there are no lifts or elevators. Flights of stairs that look like gateways to heaven lead to precarious homes atop cliff hanging villages. The inhabitants, all old, retired fishermen continue to toil up & down,visiting friends & neighbours et al.

 

A small, mixed group is also jolly good fun. And Americans are outrageous fun. Naïve, simple, generous, Robert hated walking. He was, quite obviously there on account of his wife who nagged him – sweetly & constantly.

“ Rob – Bert. Where arrrr U Rob-Bert,” she’d drawl, looking around.

“O, F—k off”, he’d respond.

Robert was of Italian origin & mouthed aphorisms like – “a happy wife is a happy life,” & “water for lungs/wine for the heart.”

Said with a straight face, his favourite was, “ Italians never divorce their wives. They simply murder them”

There was this other wearing flimsy, skimpy clothes & fanning herself on a cold windy day.

“you must be cold?” I say.

“No Dear” she replies. “I have the hot flushes”

 

Cinque Terre

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Train station, Riomaggiore

Pompei can only be described as picture perfect. Mute witness to the splendour of the Roman empire, a smoking volcano in the background, it has the most spectacular ruins anywhere in the world. And Iside, the lovely family owned property was precisely 10 minutes away from the Scavi. It was a boutique hotel, gave personalised service & breakfast that included an assortment of fresh fruit, juice, home-made cakes & jam.

Pompei Scavi

The pleasures of strolling in traffic free Venice – best place ‘tween earth & sky – can only be experienced not described. One easily gets lost, then miraculously finds the way again. I soon got a hang of it, which was that Venice essentially revolved around 3 major pivots – VSL station, San Marco Square & Rialto bridge – One simply followed clearly marked arrows leading to either of these places. Venice is in any case too small. Getting lost is therefore an impossibility. It is quaint, it is strange, it is above all like none other.

I did a Chichetti /wine, walking tour of the Jewish ghettos walking from Osteria to Osteria & Bacaro to Bacaro tasting wine & small eats that can hardly be termed small.

Venice: San Marco, Bridge of Sighs & Rialto

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Capri’s iconic swimmer

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Murano:  glass blower in action

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Burano

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Torcello

Naples, a city I hardly researched or expected anything from turned out to be full of surprises. From the moment of setting foot all & sundry warned – ‘do be careful’. Total strangers even, setting off a panic scare but the reality was something different. Anything untoward can happen anywhere. Lets just say that Napoli is as safe or unsafe as any other city. It is vibrant & full of energy, with fair amounts of noise, speeding & honking. It has, to top it all, Mt Vesuvius – the best view by far. There are other memorable vignettes, like the eye-catching metro at via Toledo & the balcony singer on via Trebunale who had every passer-by enthralled. There definitely is something in the air that spells music, soft breezes, romance, abandon & laughter. No surprise therefore that it was the scene of movies like ‘Yesterday,Today, Tomorrow’ & ‘Scent of a woman.‘

My one big regret? I did the unthinkable. I did not have a Neapolitan. This, in the birthplace of pizza is an unforgivable sacrilege. ‘Antica’ Trattoria, Pizzeria & Frigettoria inundate the place, so what was I thinking?

 

Naples cannot be signed off without a big thank you to Gabrielo, Cristina & the team at ‘B & B Sweet Sleep.’ Go for it guys! This B&B is money’s worth. Not just the breakfast & service but rooms on the top floor with balconies overlooking Piazza Garibaldi. The terrace with a roof top garden had a jacuzzi, restaurant & bar & a tantalising glimpse of Vesuvius.

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Mt Vesuvius from Naples sea front

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via Toledo, Naples – adjudged best metro station in Europe

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Naples, Balcony singer

I arrived at Salerno on a feast day – the feast of St Mathew, patron saint of the city. There were marching bands, firework displays, tableau, crowds & an entire city decked up to witness the saints taken out in procession.

Salerno was meant to be a spring-board to Amalfi, because of its proximity & because it was budget friendly. It is a city of churches & fountains & has a long, arching promenade. There is a ferry to Amalfi, Positano & Capri by the hour. Avoiding hair pin bends & traffic jams this is the best & least tiring way to enjoy the beauty of the coastline.

Sorrento, Amalfi, Positano –  all lovely, albeit touristy & overwhelming. The real steal is Ravello. Gem of a mountain town Ravello assaults the senses. The bus from Amalfi climbs steeply up the sea-coast offering sudden & breath taking views. It boasts a beautiful Duomo, castle & square & has cafes, bars & ceramic shops along with quiet corners & walks. Only 30 minutes from Amalfi, it is neither crowded nor touristy.

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Salerno

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Positano

Ravello: Ceramics galore

Hotel vs Air B&B vs Home Stay, what should it be? What would Salerno have been without Annarossa?. She met me on arrival, hauled luggage up 40 stairs, served a bountiful Feast day lunch & opened hearth & home in the most generous of ways. Anna was bohemian & care free & spread good cheer much like Amelie who gave every visitor a friendly ‘meow’ before settling on the sofa. Anna was like, ‘ prego…….make yourself at home…. all yours….’

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Amelie on her perch

21 days in Italia. What does one make of it?

May or may not make sense but Sophia says it best

                                     “ Everything you see I owe to spaghetti”

 

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Ouch, I can’t stand still

Man was not born to stay in one place Man was not born to stay in one place

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I once chanced upon a post where the blogger had taken a 2 month trip travelling halfway across the globe in the clothes that he was wearing. Except for an extra undergarment his rucksack contained money & documents, phone, music, camera, medicine & basic toiletries. His self imposed rule was neither to borrow nor buy clothes along the way. That was also his challenge

I threw in the gauntlet – with amends. Well, he was a guy & I was not. He was a kid & I was not. I would permit myself the luxury of 2 extra sets of clothing beside what I was wearing. Everything else would be ditto, for a fortnight of travel to an equatorial country first, then onwards to a tropical one. The rule was to look presentable at all times. And that was my challenge.

Friends laughed it away. ‘Not possible’, said they. The American may have done it but no Indian can ever travel this way.

( I had a bright colourful stole that doubled up as sarong /scarf/bedsheet/ tank top/ what have you. It was my single most important piece of clothing.)DSC00921

beauty of the unstitched garment beauty of the unstitched garment

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So here were my 2 rucksacks, which I carried as hand baggage, weighing less than 6 Kg in toto. Simply loved the idea as did the airline that looked on benignly.

Screen partition Malaysia Screen partition Malaysia

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There is a certain thrill in the unknown. Of landing & walking on distant shores. A whole new world opens up for you to embrace & to explore. Even for a first time solo traveler nothing is intimidating. Look at the myriad faces, rootless souls all making their way to the same backpacker den or thereabouts, a place that is almost always walking distance from the sights & sounds of town. The butterfly in the stomach occasionally flutters but that is mostly during  pre take off stage when travel plans are being fueled & ignited. One shrugs off that feeling with what the heck. Can’t let it happen. There is the added realization that it could well mean the beginning of the end of any future solo travel plans. The remedy is to have Dutch courage. Muster up plenty of it.

Could I ever forget the first time I ventured forth alone?

I look back now and wonder at the sheer audacity of it. Did I actually embark on a voyage to 5 different countries with nothing but school geography as guide? A walking atlas inside the head assisted by such all time legends as The Lonely Planet & Lets Go. Backpacker Bibles both. Those were the days – pre internet days – when ignorance was bliss. To have traveled like that sans credit card or insurance & to be none the wiser. O, the horror of it all!

Budget travel has evolved & backpacker joints have metamorphosed over time. Place to place people appear to interact less & less. It has a lot to do with Wi-Fi, mobiles, tablets & laptops. The result being each person immersed in his own. The old bonhomie hasn’t completely disappeared but the long friendly chats over breakfast or travel tales at the end of day are passé.

Miss you Gary of bread & jam fame – 75 Damareus Street Athens, 1997. A true backpacker young Gary traveled the earth in search of a wife. Bread & jam was his staple & he moved from hostel to hostel as he disliked the idea of spending each night under the same one roof.

Cafes & Bars continue to beckon, entice, entertain & enthrall. They add to the experience. Nothing quite like the local & traditional – food, drink, people – to round off the plot.

At the ‘Geographers Cafe’, Malacca, over a pot of Cameron Highland tea & scones I watch life go by on busy Jonker street. There are crowds, music, banter & laughter

And an entry password to the golden Loo

“Eh Eh, tri tri “ pipes the attendant

Excuse me!

“Eh Eh Tree Tree’’ he repeats

Once

Twice

Thrice

Oh 8833 ?

(Turns out to be a squat toilet in the end. But who cares when it is for free.)

As everyone knows the only way to explore a place is to do it on foot. Just walk, walk, walk. And if you meet a lost kindred spirit from a far away land take time to talk, talk & talk.

Smile. Walk. Talk. Walk the talk. Three simple golden rules.

Remember conversation never did kill anyone. And not everyone is Jack the Ripper.171805_1682378773703_8375429_o IMG-20140810-WA0027 2

Against All Odds

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Against All Odds

It is said that the Ganga descended from the matted locks of Shiva so that the impact of it hitting ground did not destroy the land. The architect of this damning feat – Kapil Muni, in whose name there is a temple. At the estuary, crisscrossed by several tributaries Shivas’ locks come unbound –  so to speak. The languid river enters the sea, the sweet of its waters mixing with the salt. Marshland & sea, human & wild, 54 islands big & small, inhabited & uninhabited.

The Sundarbans, was declared a world heritage site by UNESCO in 1987.

It is also the place I had set my heart upon. Plans were made & unmade. Plans that came a cropper due to some inexorable wheel of karma.

I had wanted to ‘island hop’ but seeing local conditions the idea was dropped. Everything it seems is loaded against the traveller. You have to be one crazy, intrepid wanderer to come along.

As I must have been, surely.

I arrived at Bakkhali Island at the south western tip of the archipelago sans hotel reservation – only because – everything in this bastion of communism is routed through Calcutta.

The direct bus from Esplanade departed at 8 am & took 5 hours via Diamond Harbor, Kakdwip & Namkhana . The fare, all of Rs 78/- it halted at random for the convenience of locals with no planned halt for toilet, food or water. I semi dozed most of the way the countryside being largely non descript. It being December when the crops were already harvested & fields bare. There were acres upon acres of tawny, seared ground.

Hotel rooms there were aplenty but none, it seemed for the lone & weary traveller. Nobody told me why in so many words but it was the unwritten, unofficial rule that was followed to the tee. The policemen on the island were of no help either. What did they care for a single woman ?  I soon discovered it had something to do with a spate of recent suicides in sundry hotel rooms.  “ Would I come all the way to commit suicide?  Here? I could do it outside the police station. And well I might if I didn’t get that room fast.

The Govt owned Bakkhali Tourist Lodge relented but not before trying to scuttle me off some place else where the tariff was lower ‘For your own good madam….’ But temperatures both outside & inside were soaring & so we clinched a deal without further ado. Room No: 7  it was. Spacious, neat & clean with running hot water, television & room service. A veritable haven. I didn’t fail to praise it to the skies every time I ran into Mr. KK Kanjiwal, the manager.  “ Don’t forget to tell the higher ups in Calcutta “, he’d say. I swore I would. We soon became friends, my stay extending from one night to two, to four. I could have stayed on forever. Two hoots to  ‘No Singles’.

Bonbibi,Lakshmi,Durga,Sithala

Bonbibi,Lakshmi,Durga,
Sithala

Fish mongering

Fish mongering

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After a terrific fish curry – rice lunch & rest it was time to scour the isle. What better way to get oriented than on Sikantos’ motor van, a contraption that ingeniously aligned the desi thela/ van to a motorbike. Sikanto was to be Man Friday for the duration of my stay here. He is young & well informed, knows the islands like the back of his palm & speaks a smattering of both English & Hindi. Today it will be a trip to Frazerganj  & Henry Island. With the cool evening breeze blowing in the face it is really quite enjoyable.

The 3 kms stretch to Frazergunj goes past the silver sands of Dolphin beach, lines of Casuarina trees, windmills & paved paths leading to hidden tribal villages. It is a harsh existence indeed but the people seem content & happy. Perhaps because they are as yet simple & unspoilt. The islands have electric power but lanterns are lit in most homes, as electricity is unaffordable. Saw lots of kid lamb & goat reared for a living. The people are mostly farmers, fishermen & honey catchers. There is a junior school miles out of town & a clinic almost 22 kms away. The staple diet is rice, dal, veg & fish. There is no crime to speak of, the 2 policemen at the chowki being a mere presence.

Frazerganj has a deer & crocodile park managed by the department of Forests. A quick halt there & off we go to Benfish harbor to catch a ferry to Jambudwip. The charges are Rs 800 for a 2 hour ride on a motorized barge carrying about 15 persons. We are 10 of us so we each pay Rs 75/ – The waters are a light sea green, choppy & turbulent. With blue skies above it is exhilarating especially when the barge nears a mohana, which is, literally  where diverse streams of water & current converge. The barge sails along a coastline of Mangroves. It is forbidden to disembark but one can clearly see what must be at least a zillion red crabs on the silver shore.

The sands at Bakkhali are silver too but its  nice long beach with canopied benches is sadly littered. There are stalls selling fresh fish & tender coconut & there are chairs, if you can believe it at Rs 5/ an hour. Some enterprise this!

I have come in search of a Bon Bibi temple. Following the lampposts along the periphery I walk past the last one then take a left turn into a forest of dense Sundari trees. The temple, also called Bishalaksmi is bang on –  a simple corrugated structure. It opens from 7 to 12 noon for rituals performed by Thakur Maharaj . The temple has images of Durga, Lakshmi, Sithala Devi, Ganga & Bon Bibi who is the patron of forest dwellers. She is perhaps the closest one could ever get to creating an Islamic deity. But the many worshippers are oblivious to the Muslim connection, if any. The writer Amitav Ghosh has given a sample rendering of what he terms a mantra, in ’The Hungry Tide’.

“ In Allah’s name I begin to pronounce the Word

Of the whole universe. He is the Begetter, the Lord To all His disciples. He is full of mercy

Above the created world, who is there but He”

on Henry Island

on Henry Island

Sundari & Bani trees

Sundari & Bani trees

village huts Bakkhali

village huts Bakkhali

A narrow creek leads to Henry Island. Less than 5 kms from Bakkhali it is a magical space with an abundance of deer, wild boar, birds & trees. There are nature walks & the  beach is the best in the area. Limpid pools reflect the green of the leaves. The island has solar power & tiger prawns bred by the department of Fisheries. The watchtower offers a panoramic view of jungle, beach & water. Beherkhedi & Lothian Island  (populated by the royal Bengal tiger)& the ocean in the distance. There are cottages, named after trees of the forest-  Mangrove, Sundari, Bani – at Rs 700 a night, with advance booking – only through Calcutta, of course.

“ Teerth Sthan Baar Baar / Gangasagar Ek Baar” chant the pilgrims waiting to board a ferry to Kachuberia at the northern end of Sagardwip The journey thereafter would continue by road, another 35 Kms to Gangasagar at the southern most tip of the island where the Kapil Muni temple stands, at the confluence of river & sea. Most of the pilgrims have visited the  river along its path from mountain to sea. At Gangotri, its source, at Haridwar where the mountain river splashes into the plains & again at the Sangam in Allahabad where the Ganga & Yamuna meet the mythical Saraswati. A ‘darshan’ of the river meeting the sea is for most the penultimate.I must be the only person who is not a pilgrim  but I also want to see the waters meet & mingle.

It has taken the better part of the day already & here I stand with jostling crowds on a narrow pier at Lot 8 waiting for a  ferry that promises never to come. It is expected to every hour but there is this play of tides – jwar bhata / ebb & flow – because of which 2 earlier ferries were cancelled leading to an unprecedented rush. Why, I wonder, is the man at the ticket counter giving out tickets & swelling the crowd? To think that Gangasagar is a mere 72 kms from Bakkhali but short distances make for long journeys, as connectivity is poor. For the greater part of the day one has been juggling road & river transport, ferry & bus, bus & ferry doling out Rs 13 or Rs 8, at times even 50 paisa to cross a ford or a creek . The time taken enormous.

It is noon almost, the heat over bearing. I make a quick calculation. Would it be worth the gamble were I to manage the river crossing now ? It would take me an hour to the other side of the river & another hour to the southern most tip of the island. I had been on the road for 5 hours already. There is also the matter of return. To journey back before the various river crossings close & before the last bus departs from Namkhana. There is always the option of staying back for the night but what if there is a ‘No Singles’ policy in place here also?

Standing in line I make up my mind. It is impossible to turn around & walk back because the chanting crowd behind me is humongous. So I simply squeeze myself between the barricades & ouch …land safely  on the other side.

Gangasagar, for me was never meant to be.

My free advice to those who may care to listen. Visit the islands if you must. And only if you are already in the general vicinity. No point scampering across  half the globe. My visit was interesting but a tad of a let down. The downside of living by books & dreams I suppose. ‘The Hungry Tide’ being the culprit in this instance.

Dec 2012

a motor van

a motor van

Bakkhali Tourist Lodge

Bakkhali Tourist Lodge

jostling for Nirvana

jostling for Nirvana

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enjoying the chill

enjoying the chill

A Sabarmati Tale

 

 

 

Ahmedabad

Dec. 2012

It is the time of reckoning once again. Both for Narendra Modi & for Gujarat. A decade down the line & two elections later the ghosts of 2002 simply refuse to die. ‘Across the border ‘as Amdavadis term it; the Teen Darwaza area is kicking with activity.  Everyone has a stake in the pie. It is as Vaznavi said: “ unlike the Muslims in other parts of the country, especially in the North, the Muslims of western India are interested in what they have for breakfast, lunch & dinner. Therefore, while religion is important it is not the be all & end all of our existence”. Poor Vaznavi. What was he thinking? What did he expect? Of course he never got the position he aspired to in the Deoband   for, whatever your faith it isn’t easy being contrarian.

Arriving in Ahmedabad one quickly gets into the groove of the city. There is hustle & bustle, purposeful people everywhere making the most of it, getting along with it. Coming from Delhi I look around for tell tale signs of disaffection, social or communal strife. I strike up a conversation. Things could be better of course but at least the basics are in place. The rest of the country has contrived a certain image of Gujarat treating it almost as a pariah but the common man here is either totally oblivious of the perception or maybe he just doesn’t care. There is a quiet confidence born out of opportunity, peace & order.  There are the marginalized also but the citizen has a stake in the future – make no bones about it. Whether Modi carries the state or not democracy will be the eventual winner.

The Sabarmati Ashram

Ahmedabad has recently applied for heritage status & may well be on its way to acquiring it. If it does it will be the first city in the country to do so.  It has the most beautiful, ornate  & well-maintained step well that is even today a refuge from the searing heat of the summer. The ancient civilizational ruins at Lothal on the outskirts, the tombs at Sarkhej, the shaking minarets & the Saiyyid Siddhi monument all vie for attention along side the modern day Meccas _ IIM, NID & Hussian Ki Gufa. It’s a city on the mend what with the wealth  & drive of the Gujarati diaspora, the coming of the waters of the Narmada & the beautification along the banks of the Sabarmati.

Jama Masjid

The Sabarmati. Alas!  The river is brimming with clear clean water. A rarity in any Indian city these days. What hurts & surprises however is the dilapidated condition of the Ashram on its banks. What should be the city’s’ showpiece & pride is the scene of utter & total disrespect & neglect. The abode once, of a great, albeit simple & humble man, the Mahatma himself, this was where the great leaders of our national movement met & confabulated  & where momentous decisions relating to the freedom movement were taken. Mira Bais’ room was this tiny little cubicle & this is where Gandhi sat spinning at the wheel. There is a stark austere room where he received his most famous & special guests. His goat was tethered there. In that corner.

There used to be a Sound & Light show in the evening up to some years ago. Not any more. Just as the city of Ahmedabad is beginning to perk up there is a noticeably steady deterioration within the precincts of the Ashram.

Gandhi ashram must have been miles away from the city during the Mahatmas’ time but Ahmedabad has expanded & encroached upon it literally strangling it by the neck. There is an Ashok tree at the entrance – hardly noticed – planted by Jawaharlal Nehru, no less. Monkeys & stray dogs roam the place, the toilets stink  & the books & papers in the library are all musty & full of dust. Devotees come never the less for neither Gandhi nor his legacy may be wished away that easily.

Someone needs to answer.

And it is not Modi alone

Tariki Turkiye

Tariki Turkiye

Dateline Turkey

 

Come whoever you are. Just come as you are

Turkey is the sixth most popular tourist destination in the world. It is a delightful mix of East & West, modern & traditional, young & old. And nothing epitomizes this better than Istanbul on the Bosporus. A Eurasian city astride two continents. It is a place of frenetic activity & leisurely pace. One feels the vibrant energy & sense of joie de vivre everywhere. It’s many charms ever so beguiling.  Turkey’s largest city. Let these pictures do the talking.

Its leisure time always

Foreign language students

English is spoken & understood in very few of the cities & towns of Turkey. To that extent communication does pose a problem.  At Cannakale I asked  a group of women  for directions to the jetty. I knew it was in the general vicinity but did not want to waste time going around in circles. The women spoke no English whatsoever. ‘ Just a little ’ gestured one & then they animatedly broke into what seemed  a torrent of gibberish. Except that it was Turkish, not gibberish. ‘Wait’, I yelled, halting them in the tracks. I just heard you say ‘ishaara’. I understand that. I am from Hindustan. I understand ‘ishaara’. There were smiles all around as they followed me on to the road pointing the way to the jetty. Using sign language or ishaara. ‘Shukran’, I said. Thank you, followed by a wave of the hand & ‘gule gule’.  Goodbye!

Experts believe that the Indo European group of modern languages originated in Anatolia, Turkey. This would of course include English, Turkish & Hindustani. Mr. Burak Akcapar, who is presently the Turkish ambassador in New Delhi has said that Turki & Hindustani have at least 9000 words in common. You bet they do, as I discovered trying to make myself understood in No English – In – Turkland. This understanding came upon me very slowly, aheste aheste. But it made travel – sefer – so much easier especially when chatting up women (avrat /aurat).  Only (sirf) women, in some heart to soul (ruh) talk. Travelling alone this was not only useful but immensely interesting. What do women who are complete strangers (ecnebi/ajnabi) discuss? Our thoughts & feelings & the injustice done to us, obviously. Common words with the deepest meanings. Yani,- that is to say –  words such as

gam       sorrow

gurur    pride

muhabbet   love

nefret   hatred

dost  friend

dusman  enemy

musibet  trouble

masum  innocent

akil – akal   intelligence,

asik  ashique  lover,

avare awara  vagabond

azad  freedom.

This above all. Azaad. O, for a life of freedom!

The world – dunya  – appeared to shrink despite the wide chasm of the seas – darya – separating our shores – sahil.

The Cay/ Chai Boy

There are a host of general words that the reader will easily comprehend. The most familiar being vatan, hamam, meydan, hisap (hisaab), faqir, insan, saf, zalim, seytan. If someone were to commit a gunah he would be taken to an adalet or to the polisi with a seykayet against him.

Many of the inns sarays are owned & managed by Kurds who are a politically disgruntled minority. Away from their families they come to the cities in search of work. A lot of them taxi drivers. One has to watch out & keep alert or else get completely rooked. It’s the same old story all over the world ‘dost‘ So look yourself in the mirror ‘aina’ before getting judgmental

The bazaars are laden with goods from all over. And the dukan has practically everything from kitap to sabun to seker, sugar or shakkar. The stalls are full of absolutely taze ananas, badem, nar, pomegranate or anar  there are cay chai shops, chaiwallahs & hamams. Away from your vatan you are a misafir here, a guest. We love you yar.

The Dervish before his performance

I had dinner one evening at Café Mesale in Sultanahmet. I had to be there by 8pm in time for a performance by a whirling dervish. A drink was ordered. Yes, sarap or sharab is readily  available in this  Islamic republic. The dervish appeared with his tombstone like headgear & white shroud & whirled with open arms, his right hand directed to the sky ready to receive the creators blessing & the left turned solidly towards the earth. He whirled & pivoted from right to left stating the fundamental belief that the human  condition is meant to revolve & circulate. Like blood for instance. It was mesmerizing.

The whirling Dervish

The food at the café had a variety of taste & traditional flavor. Baharat is the word for spices in Turkish because spices originally came from Bharat, India in Hindi. Even today the spice markets  are full of exotic spices from  Hindustan as the Turks would have it.

 When cultural vocabulary of any language creates special words to denote a special connection, we can truly say that we have entered each other’s consciousness. The same as other Hindustani words like vilayat or misr, for England & Egypt respectively.

So what shall I have to eat ? I think I’ll settle for sade/ plain tava baked bread, taze sebze/ fresh vegetables, and pehnir/cottage cheese. Kebab, Pilaf, Kiyma & Kofte. Thank you.

Is it any wonder then that the chief architect of India’s wonder of the world, the Taj Mahal, is none other than a gentleman named Isa Efendi. And you know what ? He came from Istanbul

Hampi

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Hampi Karnataka India

Feb 7 – 9 2012

Hampi is a small village on the southern banks of the mighty Tungabhadra.  It is today a world heritage site, the ruins spread across 26 sq kms of what was once the glorious Vijayanagar empire (AD 1343 – 1565) It can be easily reached from Bangalore and Goa as both cities are roughly equidistant from it. Hospet, the nearest railhead is 11 kms away. There is a night train from Bangalore, the 16592 ‘Hampi Express’ that departs at 10 pm arriving at Hospet at 07.40 am. From here one could take a taxi, bus or auto.

Most visitors prefer to stay at the several hotels & lodges in Hospet for Hampi is a mere 11 kms away. They can have a quick ‘dekho’ over the weekend. ‘Been there done that’ kind of thing & slip away.  For their own selfish gains the Fat Cats have conspired with the establishment to promote it as a base for Hampi. But Hospet is definitely not for me. It is a dusty, brick & mortar town that is dull, boring, staid & characterless. Imagine the poetic beauty of Hampi juxtaposed with the ugliness of a modern Indian town. I much prefer the gentle folk of the charming countryside that the local mafia is desperately trying to browbeat into submission. In order to get the tourists to stay at their commercial properties in Hospet they are inventing all kinds of rules  & regulations to declare the village homesteads irregular & illegal.

Across the river is village Virupapar Gadde where I am going to stay. I want to go across in a Coracle, the tiny 2 seater basket that the villagers use but dare not because I cannot swim. I take the motor ferry instead. A noisy polluting affair.  It takes 2 minutes to go across. The charges being Rs 20 – Rs 15/ with – without luggage. The ferry plies everyday from 7am – 6pm & it is always tipping because it is overloaded.

Hey I CANNOT SWIM ” But who’s’ listening. This is India.

Note: Please carry minimum baggage. I had a small rucksack only. Also the short walk from the ghats to the boat is through mud & slush. I wore 2 plastic shower caps over my shoes rinsing them with a bottle of Bisleri on reaching the opposite bank.

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I am booked at the  ‘Shanthi Guest House’ (SGH), which is a 10 – 15 minute walk from the river point. No extra baggage remember. You have to lug it by yourself all the way. There are farms & homesteads a plenty but this village prospers & thrives on tourism. A single unpaved road runs through it  – an entire village of a few hundred families only.  It is clean, easy, uncomplicated & you never have to haggle for anything. Hope it remains unchanged, like this forever. The locals are a simple homely lot. They own the guesthouses, shops & eateries while the workers are from Nepal & Himachal mostly. The majority however are visitors from all corners of the globe. International flotsam & jetsam. No wonder cuisine from almost everywhere is readily available. That single nameless street has it all. Even the ubiquitous German bakery. Not to mention the reflexology parlor where I had a superb foot massage.

And the Israelis are everywhere. Flying their flags & occupying territories. Much like the Russians in Goa.

I have to say that the Karnataka countryside is extremely beautiful. It is lush & green with fields of paddy, sugarcane, banana & coconut palm. It is also a moonscape of giant rocks & boulders with the river meandering by. The rocks are everywhere & in all shapes & sizes. A bewildering variety that gives Hampi & its environs a unique colour.

My accommodation at SGH is a thatched cottage in the midst of a small private garden. It is very basic & consists of a verandah that has a swing bed, the main room that is neat & functional & an attached toilet. All this at Rs 800 a night. (You could have a river view room for Rs 1500 instead.)  The property has several cottages, all interlinked by stone pathways. Beyond lies the green of the fields, plantations & groves & further beyond the river. The whole area is largely unfenced giving one a sense of unfettered freedom & joy.

 Loved the mosquito net hung low over the bed. Can’t remember when I had last used one.

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Food at the SGH restaurant is just about okay but there is ‘Gouthami’ next door  & it has excellent fare. I thought their pizza  & south Indian thali really good. After a full day of sightseeing from monuments to ruins to museum this is the place to stretch out & relax. There are candle lit low tables, floor cushions, throws  & mattresses. There is music, laughter & chatter as people exchange notes over tall glasses of beer & platters of food. There is Internet, Skype & Wi-Fi facilities & late night movies if you wish to watch. – ‘The Great Gatsby’ was playing one evening. The atmosphere relaxed & chill after a hectic day at the archaeological sites. Also one can’t help but notice that the crowd here is not the usual ragamuffin sort. These are serious young travellers who have come to a world heritage site  & who treat it with the awe & respect that it deserves.

The village has power cuts from 11am – 3pm daily. Luckily SGH has power backup. But network connection is poor so I walk down to the riverbed past the fields of paddy  & coconut palm. And the phone instantly springs to life. Down by the river the sun is beginning to set. A bright orange orb that is reflected in the ripple of the waters of the Tungabhadra. It is also a moment of quiet reflection & peace. Away from it all. Not a soul around except for the Gopurams of Virupaksha standing tall & beckoning from a distance

The ruins of Hampi can broadly be divided into the royal & the sacred. You could see it in a day or over several days & you could do it in many ways – by car, by auto, on foot, motorcycle or bicycle. Bikes are available on hire & it is great fun riding across a lush green countryside spattered with monuments & ruins of a bygone era. I once cycled 5 kms away to Anegondi village & as luck would have it met an old gentleman who was a direct descendant of Krishnadeva Raya under whom the Vijayanagar Empire reached its zenith.  Anegondi too is full of beautiful ruins. And the drive up is lovely. There are some temples & the Kishkindha resort. So named because Hampi & its surroundings are believed to be the Kishkindha of the Ramayana On the way to Anegondi lies the old Tungabhadra stone bridge which is no longer in use as the river has changed course several times & moved further away over the years. The bridge is also a protected heritage site. Peter an Austrian has chosen to live here. He has an organic farm  – ‘Peters’ Land ‘ -thereabouts.

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Most hotels here shut down after March when the tourist traffic declines because of the summer heat.

But the ruins? The ruins are what brought me here in the first place. The temples _  Virupaksha & Vithala, the grand Hampi bazaar, the Ramayana in stone, the Guard Quarters & Elephant Stables, the ruins of the ancient fortifications & much much more. One gets a breathtaking view of the magnificence of these  sites, from atop Matunga Hill. Twenty six  sq kms of glory to behold in its entirety. And while each & every monument is spectacular & bewitching my personal favorite is the Queens Bath. See it yourself to understand why.

Om Beach Gokarna, Karnataka, India

Om Beach Gokarna Karnataka  India

July 05 -14,2012

Gokarna is a small temple town in south India about 170 kms south of Goa. It is famous for the mythology associated with its temples, bovine life & lovely sandy beaches. ‘Go karna’ translated literally means cows ear. And you see these creatures roaming everywhere especially on the beaches. Om beach is in the shape of the Sanskrit word ‘Om’. The primeval sound that resonates in the universe & which symbolizes an auspicious beginning. It is a sandy beach along the Arabian Sea that is muddy & turbulent during the monsoons. Two rivers empty out into the sea here. There are shacks, shops, hotels, inns & resorts on the beach but only in season.  A Hippie paradise much like Goa, the difference is that it is essentially a sacred temple town.

The nearest airport is Dabolim Goa but it can also be reached by rail & road. All the trains coming from the north to Kerela halt either at Gokarna town or at a station nearby as it is on the picturesque Konkan line.

Local lass

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Gokarna is basically a collection of temples & beaches. It has some architecturally interesting old homes & paved streets. Wish it wasn’t littered the way it unfortunately is. What’s with the Hindus & their unique heritage I begin to wonder. Why are they never able or even inclined to live up to it?

I hope I am wrong & that there is beginning to be a slow  & perceptible change, for six kms away is SwaSwara the beautiful CGH Earth property. It is bang on Om beach & actively contributes to keeping the environs clean. SwaSwara blends harmoniously with the surrounding land & seascape. Local laterite has been used in its construction. It is 26 acres of pristine natural & man made habitat out of which the built in area is a mere 11 acres. (For more details access its website)

Normally a late riser I would wake up around 4 am  – the hour of Brahma according to the scriptures – before the birds & the bees even. In the stillness of the dark the only sound was the roar of the sea or the pitter-patter perhaps of the relentless monsoon rain. I’d walk the lonely beach or meditate atop a ridge returning to my exclusive Konkan villa with the first chirping of the birds & gulls. Ah yes, there was a cock that crowed –  shrilly too.

Time for worship