Thursday, July 2, 2020

Perfect Hosts

Sultan Qaboos Grand Mosque in Muscat by night

Very often we travel to new destinations and mostly come back content with the memories of a new place. We make new friends, have a bite of new dishes, see new things and do so much more, We seldom give a thought about the place where we spend the nights be it a comfortable hotel, a friends place or guest house. I have some lovely memories of the hosts without which our stay would not have been such a memorable one. When I look back some of these that stay on the top of my mind are narrated below.

A couple of years back we had booked our holiday in France and we were to travel by Oman Air via Muscat. So, I planned my trip with a break of the journey on my way back from Paris for three nights in Muscat. When we were closer to the date of travel I realized that the visa for Muscat would be a challenge. So, I contacted my host and he readily agreed to help me. We were to stay at an Airbnb accommodation and my host collected my passport details and arranged the visas for my family and self. He acted as a sponsor and this facilitated the entire process. He came to pick us at the airport at midnight and drove us to the place a good 25 km away, Though we were very tired and jet-lagged he not only showed us the city that glittered in the night till we reached our place. Next day he drove us to see the Sultan Qaboos Grand Mosque. Next evening he took us to the Muscat Grand Opera show( Video attached) in his car and later for dinner in a traditional Arabic restaurant. All this was complimentary a surprise that was almost unbelievable. The icing on the cake was the last evening when he promised to drop us at the airport past midnight in his limousine. He did not charge for the extended stay beyond 2PM in the hotel and neither for the drop back to the airport.

Yet another time when we landed at Prague, our host had arranged Christmas gifts like traditional footwear, bottles of wine, chocolates and other treats as it was the festive time. We had planned to visit Karlovy Vary from Prague by train but were forced to cancel the trip at the eleventh hour. The Czech Railways not only refunded the entire amount but gave us the option to travel on another date which we readily availed

In Basel in Switzerland, our host gave us city passes for local travel in the city for unlimited rides and concessions to visits to the museums. On another occasion at Interlaken when we were staying at the Airbnb accommodation the hostess would bake the pizza for us besides carrying our bags to our room despite my protest! A sweet gesture that stays in memory to this day

While I was staying in TelAviv in Israel, the hotel travel desk offered to take us on a complimentary trip to show the International Diamond Centre located at Ramat Gan. It is a unique place which tells the history of diamonds, how they are mined, evaluated, polished and finally sold to the highest bidders in an auction. It was an exhilarating experience.

When we got off at the train station of Dunkirk on the French coast a surprise awaited us. The entire city bus service is free for travel. The farthest city limit is about 30 km and one can travel for free. A bonanza which enabled us to see the remote parts where the Battle of Dunkirk was fought during the second world war. The Belgian border is just within walking distance of the place

Many years back I had planned a trip to Bangkok, Chaing Mai and Phuket in Thailand. However, due to certain family circumstances, we had to cancel the trip. So instead of cancelling it altogether, I postponed the trip by another three months which involved re= booking several flights, changes in hotel dates, the local flights besides the Thai Airways flights from India to Thailand and back, After, about fifteen days of intense work to make the changes, the new plan was evolved and fortunately I did not have to incur any additional expense.

These are blessings that need to be counted, as they become the cherished memories for posterity.

PS- The picture and video is mine

Monday, June 22, 2020

An Ode to Safe Life

A time of life when things standstill
  No movies or outings enough time to fill
Rare things, pandemic, nature's wrath spill
  Humans look helpless as life goes downhill
Never in a lifetime things looked so grim
  Innocent lives lost, and sorrows fill the brim
Time to tread cautiously adopt a new paradigm
   Keep distance, avoid touch be safe to outswim
There is a silver lining to every dark cloud
   Do not mingle, frolic, avoid the crowd
For soon life will be normal if we vowed
  To adopt new norms see pandemic, bow out

PS: The current scenario looks grim but we look forward to a better tomorrow
2.  A hearty thanks to the COVID warriors
3. Image kind courtesy Google

Thursday, June 11, 2020

Tales of Air Travel

Most of us who have travelled abroad more than once will remember their encounters with the immigration and customs authorities. Some of these experiences are worthy of recollection and some not. In my many travels to different destinations, I remember some of these so vividly is if it was yesterday. I will share these mini-stories in the sequence I remember.

Almost four decades back, I was on a solo trip from Mumbai to New York for a training that was to take place at Long Island in New York. I was thrilled and had a queasy sensation at the Mumbai airport from where the flight was to depart. I was looking at a small crowd that had come to bid farewell to a bride who was apparently travelling alone. While I kept looking in that direction I suddenly felt a thunderous pat on my back and I looked back. I was taken aback to see my senior shipmate who was a Flight Deck Engineer Officer onboard my ship INS Vikrant. After, learning that I am on my way to New York, he took me to the family of the newlywed girl and exchanged some brief introductions. The girl was married about a fortnight ago to a man settled in Boston and was going to join him. The parents were happy that she would have a companion for the long journey. They ensured that we got seats next to each other. After the flight took off, the stewardess took us for newly wedded and I went red in the face as the pampering ensued all the way. The girl was sporting and kept chatting with me all along and told me that she was Miss Pune in the Femina India contest the previous year. After the change of flight at London Heathrow, we continued to JFK International airport in New York. As soon as we reached the customs, the authorities again mistook us for newlyweds and greeted us. They did not ask us to open any bags and wished us a happy honeymoon. Unbelievable, it was.

 Several years later As I walked into the Ben Gurion Airport at Tel Aviv, during my first visit to Israel a young girl came to me and asked a flurry of questions. Till I picked up my baggage, two more girls came one after another and asked me several questions. By the time I came out of the gate having seen some very modern eye scanners, for Identity check and hand readers I realized that it was a very gruelling oral exam I had undergone. I felt a bit rattled

Later, at the Christchurch airport in New Zealand. where I had arrived there were scary banners regarding non-permissible items. All food items were to be thrown in garbage cans. After having got rid of everything, our baggage was sent through scanners and ripped open. Two dogs were ushered in to sniff the contents and after having gone through this exercise more than two hours had gone by. Every passenger went through the drill and later someone told us that due to the fragile ecology of New Zealand their immigration check is one of the toughest.

At the Valetta airport in Malta, the customs wanted to inspect the bags and asked me to open the lock. Somehow the key was not to be found. In desperation, I had to request them to break the lock.

The biggest gaffe occurred at the Changi airport where I collected the luggage of another passenger as it was a Siamese twin of my bag, home almost 40 km away from the airport. Later at night when we broke the lock once again as the lock would not open I realized that the contents did not belong to us. Next morning I took the bag back to the airport and they were kind enough to accept the bag back while I located my missing bag

I have lost two swiss knives, a skipping rope, and some other item s discovered in my handbag that was inadvertently slipped in at the last moment.

I am sure all of you would have your own tales to narrate. Such escapades not only make us realize that no matter how much we travel there will be instances that we never expected would happen in our dreams. If you have an experience to share do narrate,

Thursday, June 4, 2020

A Whirlwind Tour of the Netherlands

The Gouda Cheese
 A prolonged stay it home sometimes makes the mind drift to some awesome destinations which I was fortunate to visit in preceding years. After several years in the Navy, I had just switched to the corporate world. Within a month, I was asked to travel to the United States for training at Boston. It was quite a surprise but got me excited. The flight was via Amsterdam and there was a layover of a couple of hours. Fortunately, I was having a visa for travel within the Netherlands too! After many years it was the first time that I landed on the soil of Europe, As the flight was descending the huge green field interrupted by many canals caught my attention.  While landing I could see a steady stream of cars flowing under the runway of the Schipol airport at one place. It was fascinating indeed.
Groningen Centraal
As the luggage was already checked in, I walked out of the airport with my handbag and headed for Amsterdam Central station from the airport. The huge airport was bubbling with activity and in less than half an hour had boarded a train. The Amsterdam Central station overlooked the canals and the beauty of the city with tall church spires in the background with hundreds of flower sellers, the cafes and cheese shops bowled me over. I spent a couple of hours exploring the city including a boat ride on the canals where I learnt the history of the city and saw several overbridges en route. The house of Anne Frank, now a museum looked pretty.  This was the beginning of a long term relationship that was built this beautiful country in times to come. I returned back to the airport later in the evening, with some memorable shots of my first encounter.
The Cathedral at Gouda

Most of us who visit the Netherlands see only the city of Amsterdam which has a long list of attractions besides the nightlife and Keukenhof Tulip gardens which would require a separate post. It is a truly happening city, and no matter how many times you visit the place it does not seem to be enough. It is the only country in the world that has more bicycles than the entire population of the country. The cycle tracks connect the entire country making it the most reliable and healthy form of commuting. In the ensuing years, I was fortunate to see several other cities and towns in this lovely country and that is where the beauty truly lies.
A windmill at Leiden
Amsterdam lies almost in the middle with  Groningen at the northern end and Maastricht at the southern end, bordering Belgium. It is separated by a distance of 270 km that can be covered by train in almost four hours.  There are several beautiful towns and villages that are very picturesque. Some of these like Haarlem, Utrecht, Gouda, Leiden, Rotterdam, Delft, The Hague, Dordrecht, Eindhoven and Breda are a must-visit depending on the time available.
The canals in Gouda
For those who love the countryside, Gouda, Leiden and Delft are a rare treat. The Cheese and Stroop waffles of Gouda are known the world over. Discovering the old canals, windmills and the blue pottery of Delft is a rare treat. It is the birthplace of the painter Johannes Vermeer, known for his creation of 'The Girl with a Pearl'. 

Pilgrims Houses in Leiden

Leiden is a university town and is a prominent scientific centre since 1575 and several Nobel Prize winners hail from the town. It is also the birthplace of the world-famous painter Rembrandt. It is also known as a place where the 'Pilgrims' lived in early 17th century before they headed for the shores of the United States of America This year the Netherlands, England and The USA  are commemorating 400 years of the Pilgrims( the founders of the United States of America) before they arrived in Plymouth in the USA. A number of the presidents of the USA were the direct descendants of these pilgrims.
Erasmus bridge-Rotterdam

Rotterdam is perhaps the only city with skyscrapers in the entire Netherlands. The city was razed to the ground during the Second World War and was built from scratch. It is the busiest port in the world today besides being a cosmopolitan hub wit some lovely landmarks like the Erasmus bridge, The Cube Houses, a quiet flowing huge Maas river. The city is like a Disney land for the architecture geeks for the variety and styles of construction.
Utrecht University

Haarlem is famous for its Grote Kerk(church) and Grote Markt. The residents of Haarlem call their shopping street as 'De Gouden Straatjes ( the streets of gold), Everything imaginable is available here.
Street of Haarlem
Beautiful green spaces are tucked away behind many unassuming streets. Utrecht is one of the most populous cities besides being a huge railway junction of the Netherlands. It is on the banks of River Rhine and has some of the most beautiful and historical structures like the St Martin's Cathedral, The Domtoren( The Cathedral Tower) and the grand University on the Dom Square.

Clingendael Park or The Japanese Garden -The Hague
Each of the other places like Dordrecht, Breda, Eindhoven, The Hague are extremely pretty and have sights that will stay in the memory forever. The first printed Bible, the old houses, the fascinating tales, huge helpings of cheese, broodges( Dutch bread), and tall built men and women will remain etched in the memory forever and unsatiated for time to come till you revisit them

PS :All pics are mine

Thursday, May 28, 2020

Straight from the heart

As the days of lockdown continue to move at a snail's pace the world has changed a lot. Now nearing three months the period of hibernation is endlessly extending. After, the initial small victory in keeping the numbers of those who have fallen victims low, it now appears to be a long battle. This post is not about what one sees, hears, reads and battles every day but about those who made a difference in my life.

More than three years back I got associated with some NGOs in my desire to teach the children from the economically weaker background. After several years in the corporate world and with the Navy before that, one front associated with teaching which was close to my heart was still to be conquered. I got associated with children who lived minimalist lives but had hearts of gold. Their conversations, their problems, their simple hearts won me over. Every child was special and had a volcano of talent waiting to erupt at the first opportunity. These children shared their stories and not everyone was academically bright but the sincerity was unquestioned. I could almost feel what went through their minds when I explained to them the answers to their questions. Whether it was Mathematics, English, Science or Social Studies, etc they heard with rapt attention and I would try to make things simple for them, Initially, the task of teaching these subjects in the vernacular was a huge challenge but with time I came to grips and could teach them with newfound ease.  They were in all the age groups from 6 to 17 years old.

Gradually, I took on the task of teaching in the bigger schools where there were organised classes and big classrooms. It was a novel experience after a gap of more than three decades when I was once an instructor at the Naval College of Electrical Engineering at Jamnagar. Teaching the under trainees at the academy to men in uniform was a different ball game compared to the inquisitive teenagers who would also indulge in pranks in the class. As I stepped into the corridor scores of children would come and touch my feet which were an experience, that cannot be put in words. Long back I had read an essay by Charles Lamb who wrote, "poor man's smoky cabins are not always the porticoes of moral philosophy".  Here I found the children being raised in such an environment, had better moral values than children of public schools who mock at their teachers and also have a crass behaviour. In every class, I taught the girl students outshone the boys.  Children from senior classes would often surround me during the lunch hour to know of the ways of entering the Indian Armed Forces. The greatest delight was to make a presentation to them one day at the request of the principal to motivate them for joining the Armed Forces with various modes of entry

Almost my entire day was spent in such schools till the schools closed for the annual examinations but have not reopened since. The raging pandemic has disrupted the lives. Every day, when I hear of migrants returning to their families my heart shudders at the thought of some of the kids or their families having fallen a prey! They are the ones who have suffered the most during the ongoing calamity and I only hope that their lives have not been ripped apart.  I now long to return to the school which gave more joy than anything else in the world. It would be the greatest pleasure to find that they have come out unscathed from the ongoing crisis

Wednesday, May 20, 2020

Mementos on my shelf

The Papyrus Painting
The long and solitary days during the prolonged period of lockdown suddenly ignited some memories of the travels undertaken in yesteryears. They had been quietly resting in their places for several years and except occasional dusting and removal during the times the house was being painted they have been there. Little did I realize that a time will come when I will have to feel content just by looking at them and remembering the stories associated with their entry in my life.
 'The Statue of Liberty'  that stands in a solitary corner was one of the earliest one in the series of collection. I remember that almost four decades back I had just stepped off the ferry to Staten Island where the majestic figure loomed large. The chilly winter air of January was no deterrence to admire the beauty of this symbol of liberty. A feeling of excitement and awe had taken over me. After exploring the place the two things that held my attention was a slot machine whereby inserting a cent and adding a quarter the machine would squeeze out the pressed one cent with an emblem of 'the statue' and another was the miniature statue itself. I lost no time and since then have been a proud owner of these.
Thee Demitasse Cups-Egyptian
Next to the shelf is an ancient painting from the Egyptian folklore on the papyrus. It was an arid afternoon when I had just returned after a visit to the Pyramids at Giza. I had never imagined that I would one day see the mummies of Pharoah Kufu or the Cheops at the ancient site. The huge Arabs on camels took us around the pyramids. I was transfixed by the beauty of the paintings when I stood at the stall outside the National Museum in Cairo, on return. A decision to buy the papyrus painting was almost instantaneous and to this day reminds me of the trip in the scorching sun by driving around the Nile to explore this lovely place.

A set of shimmering cups of gold with ancient paintings and mythological characters are a reminder of  Athens. I had just climbed down from the hilltop at Acropolis in Athens and found myself in the middle of a small bazaar. I was accosted by many sellers with different souvenirs being thrust at me.  As I  looked around what caught my attention was a set of traditional  Greek coffee cups also called as 'demitasse cups'( french for half cups). I haggled for the price but the bigger concern was packing them and bringing back safely with me. These are still a proud possession and the reminder of the visit to this exotic country.
Wooden Carvings from Ubud

A few years back we were exploring Bali, the biggest Hindu island in Indonesia. The paddy fields of Ubud were a sight to remember. We looked around for the house where the legendary Ketut, a character from, 'Eat, Pray and Love'( book and blockbuster movie starring Julia Roberts). In the process, we landed in a small market where a lot of curios and wooden carvings were being sold. There was no way I could restrain myself to buy the wooden replicas of Hindu gods beautifully carved in wood.

It will be a longish post if I focus on some more but each small tidbit unwraps the story waiting to be told. Numerous coins, stamps, fridge magnets, small replicas of famous monuments, woollen gloves et al, each has a story of its own. During the last trip to Bosnia and Herzegovina, the most interesting visit to Medjugore a place of pilgrimage of the Christians needs to be told. The place was not on our itinerary but the kind driver took us there to visit the church of Mother Mary. On completion of the visit, the driver handed over a silver coin with the crest of the Basilica and an image of Mother Mary embossed on either side.

No wonder for any traveller the mementoes gain importance to associate the memories. But for these small tokens of love which we gift to ourselves or are gifted by others become a source of immense pleasure in the cradle of our memory

PS: All pics are mine

Monday, May 11, 2020

Of Human Bonds

In these hard times of social distancing and isolation to prevent falling prey to the pandemic one remembers the times of having unabashed fun with a lot of company. During our childhood most of the times we went unannounced to meet our relatives as there were no landline telephones in most of the homes and the concept of calling never really existed. Only on some important occasions like the wedding and some rituals, one would get an invitation well in advance for which the preparations would be made to undertake the journey.

Whilst, I was still in school we would invariably go for our summer vacations to spend the time with paternal or maternal relatives for fairly long durations in Mathura. We would be welcomed with open arms and treats after treats would follow. There were no expectations and we would shuttle between meals to uncle's and aunt's who lived in a big house. At least, five-set of families stayed in the house but the living spaces were unlike in today's modern dwellings. We would lie down on huge beds with our cousins and share endless stories after lunch till we dozed off in the afternoons. One huge fan in the room was the only comfort and sometimes a bamboo khus screen stuck on the windows to provide the cool air when the blistering hot breeze would make the outside an inferno.

After the snooze,  in the afternoon it was time to share huge watermelons, melons and mangoes without counting the calories. No one kept the count as the pile of mangoes disappeared. A game of cards, snakes and ladders and ludo would keep us busy till there was a respite from the heat. Later in the evening, we would go for strolls in the bazaar and eat chaat without fail. The chaat seller would only appear around 5 PM and finish of all the savouries by 8 PM. Many times we would visit the famous Dwarkadeesh temple and wait for the prasad of pedas that were divine. At night everyone would gather in the big kitchen where our grandmother and aunts prepared a simple meal. We would share the meal and no one complained. The aroma of that still lingers in mind. The food was cooked on a chulaha or 'angithi'( small earthen cooking fireplace) and everyone had to finish the meal before 9 PM as there was no way one could get a warm meal later.

Come night, and we would gather our bedrolls and spread them out on the huge terrace and sleep under the starlit skies. There was hardly any sound at night except an occasional passing train on the Yamuna bridge at a little distance. Our grandfather, who was the first one to wake up would prepare tea for the entire household and bring the steaming cups of tea all by himself on the terrace and lovingly wake up everyone with tea. He would later perform 'pooja' and we would greedily look forward to the prasad of jalebi and kachori to be distributed.

Those were very uncomplicated lives and even with meagre incomes the joys were shared and the entire house would reverberate with peels of laughter, We could not differentiate between our cousins and own blood. Much later, I was fortunate to make annual trips to Mathura where only some cousins now lived but we were greeted with same love and affection. They would go out of the way to look after our comfort and my daughter felt as much at home with them. She would sit and chat with my parents' cousins with as much ease as with their children. It was a blessed life.

When I see the world around now, even with so many possessions one seldom likes to share anything. There is so much focus on privacy that one talks with great caution least someone are annoyed. The recent pandemic has made most of us realize that even with a very little one can still manage to live, but without human interactions, lives are far from complete. The world is all set to change and the experts are having a field day in predicting the future. Without a doubt, we would still need human love to keep the world going as even in these tough times it is one human rising to elevate another's misery.

PS Image kind courtesy Google and Dennis the Menace