Travel Tales

“People don’t take trips, trips take people.” – John Steinbeck

Of Borders and lines

For a trickle of Korean Won, we could peer through fixed telescopes and look into North Korea. To the clank of the coin settling into the metal box, I peered on. Blue skies. An occasional soldier. Green mountains, and fluttering birds. It could have been some nature reserve. But I was standing at the Korean border at Imjingak and staring into North Korea.

The Demilitarized Zone ( ‘Dee Emm Zee’) is a strip of land running across the Korean Peninsula separating the two Koreas. It is 250 kilometers long and 4 KM wide. With wire fences, watchful eyes and guns on either side its brought with it a side benefit. There are no apartment complexes, flyovers, malls with their attendant parking lots and the like. You get the picture, don’t you? Who doesn’t know the rampant poverty that ‘development’ ushers in the world over? The DMZ though is green and lush. Perhaps no other piece of green is as protected and watched by the rest of the world as much as this strip! Dark cloud, silver lining and all that.

Beyond the Demilitarized Zone is one of the heaviest military presence. And heavier posturing perhaps. The posturing and the promise of war have given life to some of the most endangered species thriving. DMZ plays host to some of the most exotic and endangered species. Like cranes, leopards, tigers, and bears. Perhaps these species, have over the years, learned to live under the gaze of the guns in the air and landmines beneath their feet.

That silver lining apart the DMZ is a dark area. It stands as a bright testimony to the limitless potential of human avarice, greed, and one-upmanship. The two Koreas have shouted at each other with loudspeakers ( actual loudspeakers belting out propaganda) across the border. They have tried to outdo each other building tall flag poles and sent balloons with leaflets across the DMZs. All these of course, when they weren’t busy staring each other down. Incredulous it seems. But from 1953, peace has reigned. By and large.Imjingak resort - Looking into North Korea

 

Mangbae pagoda at the Korean border - Imjingak. Yearning for reunification

The Korean border at  Imjingak which hosts the telescopes offers may a pointer. ‘Mangbaeddan‘ is one such. It’s an altar to pray for ancestors and their families. People from across South Korea whose origins were from somewhere in the North, come here to bow down. It’s a bowing down to their parents and ancestors as a sign of respect during new year and other important festivals. Parents who stayed back. Or could not be contacted. One whole country that is a black box. Not even a snail mail service.

There is a plaque that captures the sentiment than my words can. “After 36 years of Japanese colonial era rule, our country was liberated on August 15, 1945, thanks to the sacrifices of service personnel who fought for the nation’s independence and for an end to the Second World War. Before celebration could break out, however, Korea was arbitrarily divided into north and south according to a unilateral decision on the part of larger powers regardless of the desire of our people. Mangbaeden is a permanent alter established by the government at a cost of 500 million won (supervision by the Ministry of Home Affairs 5 North Korean Provinces, execution: Paju Country Office ), at Imjingak, overlooking the lands of North Korea.  

Five million people left their home in the north, where they had lived for generations, to avoid the Soviet army and the North Korea Communist Party’s persecution and brutalities. The refugees built a temporary altar at Imjingak on every Chuserok (Korean Thanksgiving day ), held an event to honor their ancestor and parents who had been left behind in North Korea, and longed for a permanent altar. In terms of scale and form, the censer and altar are located on a 400-m site. The Mangbae pagoda at the center represents the earnest longing for the reunification of the country and prayer for the welfare of those in North Korea. The characteristics of the historical remains, institutions and customs and mountains and streams of the 5 North Korean Provinces, and the non-reclaimed area, Gyeonggi and Gangwon were carved in seven granite stone-folding screens around the pagoda to ease the homesickness of the refugees.” 

A friend who was with us spoke with eloquence about her mom, who several years ago, had to be held back by border guards. As she dashed towards the border at Imjingak, sorely missing her mother who got left behind beyond the border.  I listened to the story with a keen ear and a pounding heart. The cruelty that permeates several lives in the planet needed explanation beyond borders, flags, and territory.

Madmen fire rockets and ramble from podiums around the world about destruction as though it were a lollipop. Even as the rest of us duck for cover, there are some who wonder if there is a silver lining somewhere.The dark clouds sprouting to the sky seem imminent. Costly, ghostly dark clouds. Will there be silver linings or will it too little, too late? Opinion is divided but hope springs eternal.

Figure of Eight Knot - Korean border Imjingak

 

There are citizens who yearn to be united. The “We are One” installation in Imjingak for instance, portrays this yearning for a peaceful reunification. “Installed by the Paju Government on February 14, 2006. This sculpture embraces our desire to achieve peaceful reunification. The joining of the two separated parts by the figure of 8-knot embodies the unification of North and South Korea. The height is 280 centimeters which represent the 28 metropolitan cities and provinces in the Korean peninsula”

Nothing perhaps captures the tragedy of the separation more than the bullet-ridden testimony that the engine of a steam locomotive that plied between the North and the South. The tracks from that time remain. The station names call attention to the staid tracks and lost ways. The bullet holes stare with vapid eloquence amidst the cackle of tourists, selfie sticks, and cameras. Somewhere in between the point of all suffering seems distant and removed from the priorities of the present day. Steam engine - Korean border Imjingak

Rail signboard - Korean border Imjingak

 

As I try to pack my memories from Imjingak into a neat stack, I realise they elude fitting in. They spring in different directions. The tears of separation and sadness seem to take away the sheen off the silver lining. That leaves me with a simple line and a dark cloud.

Ever since visiting Imjingak, any image of leaders and armchair commentators waxing eloquence on twitter or from podiums gets me ever more present to what it is on the ground. The stories that are not told. Stories about living through separation and war. It is 2017 and the world has made serious progress in several dimensions from electric cars to space travel. But can there be a greater travesty that vast tracts of the human mind continue to let the future to be held prisoner by the mistakes of the past?

Must not the imagination that has fuelled ‘progress’ also help us extricate us and co-create a better future? Even if it meant a slow, painful extrication? As I sat in silence at the Mangbaeddan, Tom Brokaw‘s commencement speech to the class of 2006 wafted in from memory. More than a decade old now, but has relevance.

Border guards - Korean border - Imjingak

Here is one part of his speech.

“So, welcome to a world of perpetual contradictions, welcome to a world of unintended consequences and unexpected realities. Welcome to a world in which war is not a video game, … in which genocide and ancient hatreds are not eliminated with a delete button. You won’t find the answer to global poverty in Tools or Help. You cannot fix the environment by hitting the Insert bar. You cannot take your place in the long line of those who came before you simply by sitting in front of a screen or at a keyboard.

The pace of change in your lifetime is at warp speed. We live now on a smaller planet, with more people, many of them on the move these days in a desperate search for economic opportunity and political freedom, a world of ever-diminishing open spaces, disappearing natural resources, with great seismic shifts in political, economic and cultural power wherever you may be on this planet…..

We cannot ignore them, and as the last four years have demonstrated in tragic fashion, a military response is inadequate. If … hostility is not addressed in a more effective manner in the West, and in the Islamic world as well, we will live in a perpetual state of terror and rage on both sides of the equation.

So a primary challenge of your time is to bank the fires of hostilities that are now burning out of control, to neutralize that hatred, to expedite not just global competition economically and politically, but also global understanding, and especially global opportunity.

To do that requires more than a fresh political strategy or imagination.”

The full text is here. The context has shifted a bit. But the fundamental contradictions remain. Only exacerbated by a new crop of leaders who whose jingoism and sabre rattling divides people even further.

Imjingak is a reminder that we need to look beyond the narratives that the unreasonable madness in the political leadership of the modern day. We need to search for and connect to a deeper humanity in each other. Cliched it may sound. There aren’t easy solutions. But the absence easy solutions must not get us lean towards letting the dark clouds loom from the ground. We still have several silver linings today. The capabilities that are present in us to operate from ‘imagination’ is one such. Perhaps we could start there.

 

Earlier Post on my Korean travel is here

 

I went to Korea

Travel opens eyes in ways that alarms that go off early mornings can’t figure how. In its range of new stimuli, there is more than ‘attention’ that you give up. You give a piece of yourself for unknown to you, a piece of yourself shifts. Or so it does for me.

Bill Bryson says it like none else.

“But that’s the glory of foreign travel, as far as I am concerned. I don’t want to know what people are talking about. I can’t think of anything that excites a greater sense of childlike wonder than to be in a country where you are ignorant of almost everything. Suddenly you are five years old again. You can’t read anything, you have only the most rudimentary sense of how things work, you can’t even reliably cross a street without endangering your life. Your whole existence becomes a series of interesting guesses.”

Last month, I went to Korea. I guess I have been jumping around and exclaiming to every moving object that whizzes by: “I went to Korea”.  Perhaps laced with a tone of stupendous achievement.  That’s the only explanation I have for the question that some well-meaning friends posed:  ‘North or South?”

For the money of an air ticket and the visa to the South, I also checked out the North. By going up to the border and gazing at the skies of North Korea. That point’s mention has been like a noisy trinket in a solemn conversation. Always attracting attention beyond its worth!

That was the trip. Time spent in walking about the streets of Seoul. Discovery. Conversation and of course, some work! Many GB of photographs and many multiples GBs of memories that were soaked in with a resolve to share. As has been the case with every trip.

Shedding some laziness, thanks to gentle arm twisting of well meaning friends who declare ” I love to read your travel account “,  there will be a few posts here.  Over the next few weeks, hopefully.

For starters, Korea is an awesome country. The seamless mix of modernity and tradition. The distinctness in the culture that taste buds announce with no scope for ambivalence. The exacting polite ways of people. The diligence and the work ethic.  And several such will vie with my default procrastination and an up to the brim calendar to find a way here.

I didn’t go to Korea with a list of places to see. I wanted to go there and figure out what do through conversations and ambling around. It was worth the adventure. Lucky breaks, lovely people, and google helped in hordes. I saw some fantastic palaces, trudged across streets, gazed at mountains and at a time or two was overcome by emotion. It is a place to go to and I hope to do so again.

One last thing about travel. When you travel the world and come home, the home looks different. Nothing has changed at home in itself, but the lenses you wear shifts the horizons of your imagination.  There are new questions of the ‘why not’ variety that emerge.  Base assumptions that are hidden beneath layers of time resurface.  Home is never the same place for the person who travels, at the end of each travel. For that reason, I hope to keep traveling and discovering as much about myself as about the places I travel to.

Bill Bryson said, “I could spend my life arriving each evening in a new city.”  I couldn’t have said it better. Maybe, I would wish that it extends to a few more lifetimes too.

For there is so much to see.

Both outside and inside!

 

Thailand Diaries

The American author John Steinbeck wrote a line that left an indelible imprint on me. “People don’t take trips, trips take people”.

After yet another trip, as I download my pictures, dust my shoes, clean up my suitcases and unpack my memory, how small the world is. How similar we are and yet how different. The richness in our differences gives us numerous opportunities to learn and rejoice. This time around the trip was to quieten the mind and take the opportunity to reflect and renew. Much of the trip was spent doing nothing. Or just shuffling my feet to street corners and vaguely staring at the world go by.

Only that the world doesn’t go by vaguely, if the world happens to be Thailand! Its sights, smells, voices can be arresting to energise every pore. The world comes to experience ‘Amazing Thailand’ for that very reason. The land has much to offer. Especially so, if you are able to go past the richness that is on offer and dished out on a plate to anyone who lands there. To be able to transcend that richness is an ask, I must confess!

But beyond what lies on the surface, there is true pageantry to the soul. A wistful energy in the eyes and an authenticity in the smiles. Talking to people on the road will expose the smiles in their heart and somehow a certain unpretentious completeness in their way of life and livelihoods.

My Thailand Diaries are full of random scribbles and rapid notes. Deciphering them is going to take a while. Few pictures are here.  Over the next week, I hope to have at least a couple of blogposts up on my experiences.

As always, do let me know what you think! 🙂

Thailand Travel vendor

Thailand travel shopping

Thailand travel market

Locks of love

To see locks on doors and gates is normal. But to see colourful locks, on a bridge, serving no ostensible purpose can trigger a dash to the nearest WiFi spot and wake up the browser on the phone.
Travel often offers a warm sprinkle of moments when what the eyes absorb is both new and interesting! The nudging of the browser leads to images and passages springing out and shining a torch on slices of culture that fuels a travelers quest. These discoveries are accentuated by how much these are a way of life in one part of the world while remaining dark, distant or taking other forms in other parts of the world.
Locks. The moment you hear ‘LOCKS’ what are the first images that rush to your mind? To me, locks haven’t held any allure. Sure, they are useful and are necessary in modern society. Perhaps pointing to the ways of the world we live in. Locks and the need for locks  has only grown exponentially!

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These locks affixed on this bridge, held enough intrigue to consume my thoughts for a while. I soon figured, these are called Love Locks.
A while later, my curiosity knew no bounds as I soaked in the story of Love Locks.  A relatively new phenomenon originating in Europe about couples in love attaching locks on bridges and throwing the key into the river! Fortification of love, in some form. Tourists did it usually, I read. The bridge across River Neckar in Heidelberg seemed to hold quite a few locks.
But that was a number that paled in comparison to what the internet threw up as examples. Like this bridge in Paris which caved in under the weight of these locks of love!  That Love Locks themselves could be affixed in different bridges for different reasons. Or the website that came up against ‘Love Locks’ as a category! Or the website that came up to send Love Locks : Choose your bridge, choose the lock, pay the money! If I had been on the topic for some more time, I was reasonably sure of finding a start up working on moneitsing this phenomenon. And there, I stopped.
I recall standing there, taken by the pristine river, the quiet expanse and the immediate contrast of colourful locks on a historic bridge! As my eyes surveyed the locks, fresh rain drops ran off them onto the bridge.  As the drops hurried on and disappeared from the parapet wall, I wondered if they held any clue to the people who affixed the locks. Who were they, I wondered. What hopes did they harbour? And what fears?  I shook my head and hoped they still were in love!

Just then, one large bird flew in, settled amidst and walked about the Love Locks. With cackles and calls adding colour to the quiet scene. Interrupted otherwise only by the soft pitter patter of scattering rain. Within minutes, he was joined by his companion.

 

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They seemed to survey the locks, and the river. With some level of detached interest. Perhaps they laughed at human kind’s ways. Perhaps. In a while the rain intensified. And as I ran for cover, the pair flapped their wings and flew away.
From a distance, only the bridge remained. With Love Locks, and dripping rain. Holding a bunch of hopes and prayers.  Thoughts of the ‘locks of love’ ran ignited new thoughts and a fresh round of questions in my mind for a few days. The next day morning I woke up and wondered, after all, What is life without hope? And love?
Any object which helps have a shade of hope and a sliver of love opens up the future just a bit more. So be it, if it were just a lock and a river! Perhaps it helps the flow and in the crossing over to a joyful future.
What else is there?
This post is the last in the series (for now) from a travel to Heidelberg. Earlier posts are here, here and here! 🙂

Bridge Monkey

The internet has powered travel like a turbo charger fitted onto an otherwise placid car. This grand marriage of a placid car and the turbo charger is of little use if after the marriage, you gift the car to a chap who firmly believes that flooring the pedal is a new age sin! When God sits on the dashboard, flooring the pedal is a good thing to do. Especially, if its about harnessing the power of the Internet before you visit a place. Yes, before the trip.

Trawling the internet for tidbits about places that I would see gives my wanderlust as much power as it gives the love for waddlesome sloth, a new meaning. Trawling for tidbits about Heidelberg lead me to the ‘Bridge Monkey’. Monkeys (and for that matter, any ape) hold human kind’s (read ‘my’) attention like none else. I leave it to you to mull over reasons.

Heidelberg’s Bridge Monkey I read, was a ‘tourist attraction’. Clangs of the keys on the keyboard absorbed what otherwise would have been a garrulous tirade on ‘tourist attractions’. I continued to indulge in the insoluble appetite for finding more and soon there was a pile of information that showed up on the screen.

The present day Bridge Monkey is a bronze sculpture that took its place at one end of the famous old bridge called Karl-Theordor-Brucke across the pristine River Neckar. The bridge by itself deserves a separate post. Perhaps many bound volumes of an encyclopedia. Any structure that is as pretty, or as resilient ( it was rebuilt nine times since 1742 ) deserves much more than a passing mention. But this post is about the Bridge Monkey. So there.

The present day Bridge Monkey showed up for the first time 1979. The work of Professor Gernot Rumpf . One website talked about the existence of a similar statue in an earlier time. An installation that disappeared as war and bloodshed punctured the pretty sight and the brilliant air. Sometime between 1689-93.

The idea of the ‘Bridge Monkey’, looked like one nice package and as though that wasn’t enough, it had a legend thrown in as well. Now, with a legend, even a passing gap in a mountain or pile of brick amasses a cloak of righteous importance.

One website told me that “..the Bridge Monkey is intended as a symbolic reminder to Heidelberg’s citizens that neither the city-dwellers nor the people who lived outside the city of Heidelberg were better than the other, and that they should look over their shoulder as they cross the bridge to remember this”.

By now, the Bridge Monkey had grown in stature in my mind. It had morphed from a ‘tourist attraction’ to a ‘must-see’

So, on a cold rain-soaked evening in Heidelberg, just as the pebbled streets of the old city radiated their stately presence in luxurious understated elegance, I saw the Bridge Monkey. And was instantly aware of the surprise that enveloped me. You see, the trouble with trawling for tidbits is that it surreptitiously provides for constructing an experience in the mind. Often times, what turns up on the ground, can be quite different to what the mind constructs.

The Bridge Monkey in reality presented itself as a structure that is much smaller and simpler than that one the mind had drawn up. Plus, it is unmarked and shows up just like that, at the end of this street.

Heidelberg bridge

I must hurry to give some context. If at all this was to be in India, signboards which said something like ‘One Kilometer to world famous Bridge Monkey’ would be the norm from 357 kilometers! Stores selling sugar cane juice to Super Computers would carry the name of the Bridge Monkey as their names. Photographers lugging cameras would try and entice you into clicking a snap with the Bridge Monkey and hand it out to you in a jiffy.

A customary board that would say ‘The World Famous Bridge Monkey is closed between 2.00 PM – 4.00 PM. Please queue for tickets’. I would have queued as the Sun bristled and beads of sweat marked their presence and as a listless man from behind a dark counter hands over a ticket to enter, I would already be prepared to soak in for whatever follows with a degree of awe.

As much irritating I may make all of these sound, they provide life to the statue and livelihood to a zillion people in the neighbourhood.

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In forlorn loneliness it stood. Much smaller than what my mind had conjured up. (Can you spot the Monkey’s tail in the picture above? Peeking amongst the umbrellas)?  An average Ganpati mandal organised by a the local auto drivers would have three times the size an infinite quantum of more noise around it and a scale of fervour that is indescribable. Especially so, considering the fact that the Bridge Monkey had its own prowess too.

Legends and myths invariably have a ring of things to do as well. Action items if you will that perpetuate the myth plus, make the visit seem purposeful! The Bridge Monkey is no exception.

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Infact its awesomeness comes three pronged. It is believed that you could run your hands over the mirror to be blessed with fortune, touch the fingers of the monkey for a return to the city of Heidelberg. Plus, touching the accompanying mice, would get you more kids! From whatever little I saw, people go for the mirror and the monkey’s hands, but are cagey about the mouse.

A monkey with a cat face, who can bless you with wealth, travel and kids would be an alluring business proposition. The city of Heidelberg doesn’t seem to think so is obvious from the fact that the Bridge Monkey is left relatively untouched by commerce around it!

In its understated yet active presence, the city seems to showcase its own character. Of a simple, stately and rich presence. A presence that is unobtrusive. And in that unobtrusive solitude, he grew on me.

As time sped by in reckless haste, matched only by tiny flakes of snow that the rain seemed to bring, I found my hands involuntarily touch the fingers of the Bridge Monkey.

So far, nothing. Lets see. 🙂

A lady & her passion! At the Heidelberg Castle

There was a mischievous twinkle in her eye that seemed to light up the evening sky, sparkling incessantly the first time I spoke to her. She looked abjectly interested in where I was from and what tales I brought. It was kind of ironic for she was present to tell some to us. Some people have this raw beauty. A beauty that comes from staying genuinely curious about everything and every person they meet. She was one of them.  There were several other pluses. She was beautiful.  She personified passion. Often times she spoke of love and lucre with a sort of equanimity that would cause a balance to ache. I could have spent hours speaking to her. Time can be a cruel spoilsport. Limited time, is even worse.

We were at the Heidelberg castle. She was our tour guide. She did a swell job of guiding us through the ruins. In a cold weather that the insides of my bones were becoming present to, I became more and more aware of the prescience in her stories and the near perfect timing with which she shared them all. It was not as much the depth of the story, but the intensity of her sharing that brought alive a few hundred year old ruin.

More of the lady, later. The Heidelberg Castle first.

 

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castle

Every city boasts of a few places that are a ‘must go’, if you ever want to tell that world that you indeed went to that place. The Castle happens to be that place for Heidelberg. Now there are tons of notes on the internet starting here, about the Heidelberg castle starting here. What follows now is an incomplete recounting from random notes. Standard disclaimers apply!

For one, the castle is genuinely old. The first mention of this structure is circa 1214 AD. That’s a long time, even by Indian standards, where ‘this is a 1600 year old structure’ can be said with a matter of routine matter of fact, monotone. The structure has survived wars, destruction and even a couple of lightning strikes. A second lightning  strike in fact knocking out a structure that was built in place of a structure that was knocked down by the first strike. Some persistence there!

There were stories of Kings and Queens running away. Falling in love. Fighting the enemy. The Vanquished. The Victors. The armies. The victories. The flags. I couldn’t help think of this quip, standing amidst the ruins there : We learn from history that we don’t learn from history!

Irrespective of all the philosophy stuff, the place presents the visitor with some wonderful objects to construct in the mind how life would have been many years earlier. Exquisite art adorns every corner. In an understated quiet, that you would miss if you didn’t have an extra moment or just that extra dash of curiosity. Here is a door handle as proof. Certainty runs amuck in my mind, that I have missed much! Which is reason enough to want to go back there again.

castle gate

 

 

castletree

There were a few moments during the entire trip when I rued not carrying a camera  that would do justice the richness that was there for the taking. Standing amidst the ruins of the castle, hearing the stories that were being told, every crevice, every nook and all corners seemed to heap scorn on my lazy idiocy of not carrying the right equipment. But in the soaking in of the raw beauty, there was an immersion in the moment. That was a bold silver lining.

No trip the castle is complete without seeing the huge oak casks built to house  wine! 130 oak trees, the lady said, as I gawked at the heady number. Just that fact could have well given me a solid hangover, as I surveyed the huge casks. What seems like sophisticated plumbing with pipes and taps dart across the barrels. Wine on a tap, could have been cool stuff! Man’s foresight to satisfy his thirst hundreds of years ago is commendable!

cask

I turned to check if my good friend, Mark Twain had anything to say about this opulence in inebriation!  Here is his inimitable take. “Everybody has heard of the great Heidelberg Tun, and most people have seen it no doubt. It is a wine-cask as big as a cottage, and some traditions say it holds eighteen hundred thousand  bottles and other traditions say it  holds eighteen hundred million barrels.  I think it is likely that one of these statements is a mistake and the other is a lie. However the mere matter of capacity is a thing of no sort of consequence, since the cask is empty, and indeed has always been empty, history says. An empty cask the size of a cathedral could excite but little emotion in me. I do not see any wisdom in building a monster cask to hoard up emptiness in, when you can get a better quality, outside, any day, free of expense”  – Mark Twain in A Tramp Abroad

The castle seems to have been brought down by a combination of natures prowess, man’s greed and neglect! But then, it is said to to be still standing because of the fact that it is a ‘ruin’.  Surviving a full question of whether comprehensive restoration was required or otherwise, the decision was to leave it a ruin. Ruins make some interesting read and conversation.

The castle itself, except for some portions, the rooms and such else are fully in use. There are administrative blocks, restaurants etc. Plus you could get married here. In the Summer Festival (July-Aug), the place is supposed to come alive and adorn a different avatar that the quiet persona that we were introduced to is an inadvertent mistake.

Time, as I said earlier, is cruel. Especially when it shortens the possibility of what seems to be presented on a platter with a flourish. I just wished I had more time. Especially between me and the lady.

Now for the lady.

lady

 

I have one gargantuan aggregation of a wish. It is this.  When I am as old as her, if I have a fraction of her passion, a portion of her curiosity, a whisper of her voice, a dose of her knowledge and a cut of her elegant countenance, I would count myself amidst the truly blessed. While the tiniest of quivers in her voice punctuated her sentences, the imprint they left on me, as an example of a life that is truly alive and purposeful, is striking.

My travels often put me in front of people and places. Some people just stay long after the dates of travel recede into the calendar archives. She sure will be one of those for me.

Heidelberg diaries

My travels took me to Germany. Again. Now, if a place beckons you again, sans notice sans fanfare, maybe there is a deeper connection. Who wouldn’t love a deeper connection with Germany anyway?

This time the flight landed in Frankfurt and a train ride helped me set my sights on the city of Heidelberg. A wonderful, serene city that offered far more than copious ‘romantic city’ that it gets talked about, on the internet.

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Heidelberg is a beautiful place. It has pebbled roads. The brilliant clean river Neckar. Buildings are bridges that snatch the breath out of your lungs. Plus of course, a picturesque castle tempts the camera like a lollipop would tempt a haggled toddler’s parent! All of that is part of the old city.  And the old city, bristles with pride, shoulder to shoulder with the new city that has all trappings of a developed nation. Add an indelible stamp of a German skyline, where squares, right angles and order have a pervasive presence. Roads filled with cars, buses. Trams. Trains. Traffic Lights and beautiful people with heavy overcoats and other denominations of ‘winter wear’!

Needless to mention, you must have heard about the Heidelberg University, that ranks amongst the best! There are 55 Nobel Laureates that have a Heidelberg connection. FIFTY FIVE! Almost as thought the whole Nobel thing is rigged in its favour.

Here is something else that caught my attention.

In 1907, as a worker was digging up a sandpit, he spotted a jaw. Thankfully, he didn’t view it as a joke and turned it in to a professor at the Heidelberg University. Pretty prescient of him. For that was a fossil of someone who then got named the ‘Heidelberg man’! That fossil proved that the place was inhabited for a very long time. ( The fossil itself is called Homo Heidelberggensis that dates from at least 600,000 years to 1,300,000 years).

The earliest history of Man, having a Heidelberg connection wont have much allure to the selfie clicking-posting-on-facebook tourist, except when there is an opportunity to click a picture with the open jaw in the background! I don’t know if such an opportunity exists though. For some odd reason, the ‘dropped jaw’ as I called it, excited me no end. Unfortunately, I didn’t have the time to pursue it in person and click a jaw dropping picture of our forefather!

In the meanwhile, here are some pictures of the city.

Sprinting Press

 

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Heid 1

I hope to rustle my Heidelberg memories and get a couple of more posts in soon. Of the castle and the city. And before I get drunk on the memory, I must write about the oak cask that was designed to hold wine! If I don’t, please nudge me.

The oldest description of Heidelberg from 1465 mentions that the city is “frequented by strangers”. It is a tourist destination that holds great allure for people around the world. During WW-II, Heidelberg was one of the few major cities in Germany that wasn’t bombed much. America had a base there, that it vacated in 2014! Yes, in 2014! Talk about long stays! Of course, the Americans staying on there, helped spread the word about Heidelberg’s beauty. Now it a busy  global tourist destination with Japanese tourists and American tourists dominating the scene.

Heidelberg has played hosts to a variety of celebrities. From Mark Twain (who wrote about it in The Tramp Abroad ) to Goethe to Victor Hugo and several others.

Such a stunning scenery which caused Mark Twain to remark

“The town lay, stretched along the river, its intricate cobweb of streets jeweled with twinkling lights. Behind the castle swells a dome-shaped hill, forest-clad, and beyond that a nobler and loftier one. The Castle looks down upon the compact brown-roofed town; and from the town two picturesque old bridges span the river. I have never enjoyed a view which had such a satisfying charm about it as this one gives.

One thinks Heidelberg by day—with its surroundings—is the last possibility of the beautiful; but when he sees Heidelberg by night, a fallen Milky Way, with that glittering railway constellation pinned to the border, he requires time to consider upon the verdict”.

That was Mark Twain for you. Now, with my limited prowess, I will only go as far as saying that the city retains the essence of Mark Twain’s verse.

Make your plans people. Its a good place to go!

( Previous posts on the visit to Berlin are here, here, here and here )

Notes from Melaka

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“Melakka (Its also written as Malacca) is a historical place”, they said. At numerous coffee shops and other places. Being this romantic sucker for history and the stories that it tells, it was only a natural that the car found itself making an unplanned detour to ‘check out Melaka’.  Actually, we were famished. I could have given my right hand for some food. That famished.

There is something distinctive to every city. Even the most nondescript ones. Sometimes it hits you in the face. At other times, it envelopes you in a seamless trance. Yet other times, it surprises you.  Here we were, looking forward to set our foot and have some food in a city with history and character. And the first sign board that we saw was this: ‘Dont mess with Melaka’.  Mess with Melaka sounded rhythmic, but also caused the eyebrow to arch.

Dont mess with Texas” was a similar campaign that ran in far away Texas. How a campaign that started out as a campaign against litter turned out to give a deeper cultural meaning to Texas and Texans is stuff that advertising legends are made of. That phrase went on to become a federally registered trademark and later on the motto of a nuclear Submarine : USS Texas!

“Dont Mess with Melaka”, is a similar campaign against litter, “robbers, snatch thieves”. To promote a clean environment. All this information came after a frantic searching the web. Truth be tolda, “Dont Mess with Melaka” caused some consternation. Albeit, a mild one at that.

Now, Melaka has some history to it.  A cursory glance scramble of the fingers on the Malacca’s wikipedia page, will lead you to some interesting facts. It has a Malay-Portuguese-Dutch-English rule to it. A history that dates back 13th century. A diverse population. A size that is less than three times the size of Mumbai. It has the Malaccan straits names after it. But what seemed bigger than all of that to the famished me was this : Melaka city had Restoran Selvam.

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It was Deepavali day and all shops were shut. Restoran Selvam was however open and we had a melange of tourists eating out of banana leaves. I was famished and the sight of the spectrum that seemed to be mind numbingly focused on the food increased the hunger quotient by a large number. Taste buds seemed to erupt in some tantric dance as they stayed stimulated by this gastronomic delight. Food that we were used to, but having a different etching to it.

After the food, I wandered the road with the camera in hand and got a few shots of a small sleepy city, caught deep in festive slumber.  Melaka seemed to invite everyone. The ancient seamlessly invited the new. And the new, respects the ancient, not deferentially but taking its place in the modern scheme of things, rather gracefully.

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Across the road from Restoran Selvam, is Discovery Cafe.  It teemed with people who seemed to be visiting Melaka but sporting an air as though they belonged there. Backpackers with beer, languidly conversing is a pretty sight to watch. I made a mental note. Melaka was a place to visit again. With a backpack. Tasty food, history, culture and an opportunity to trade your story for another’s. Thats Melaka.  What more is there to life?

Ofcourse here is a lot more to life, if there are kids with you who are keen to keep you busy. The daughter is one such. We soon drove out of Melaka. Missing the River Cruise, the Dutch & Portugese forts and several other aspects of the architecture that teeming travelers and their accounts on the internet point us to bear in mind while planning the next visit. Melaka City’s city centre got its ‘UNESCO Heritage’ tag in 2008 and that means something.

Thats that Melaka. Or atleast, that was my short visit to Melaka. Ah, there is one more aspect that I accidentally bumped into. The ‘Chitty People’.  People who migrated from Tamil Nadu in the 15th Century and made Melaka their home. Mingling with the Malays, Chinese and the Javanese folks, this is a set of people who have assimilated from every culture, while retaining aspects of their roots. Wikipedia announces that there are 2000 people left of them. That number doesnt add up in my mind.  That is one more reason, I want to go back. Soon.

Kuala Lumpur to Singapore by road

“You mean we can actually drive? From KL all the way to Singapore? With two kids in the car? You’ve got to be joking”. That was the missus speaking. In all earnestness. Hands on the hips. Head tilted. The kind of look that communicates ‘excuse-me-but-I-don’t-tolerate-nonsense-beyond-a-point’.

At the end of the road trip, I couldn’t help but notice the surprise that twitched on the bridge of her nose, that we had driven all the way to Singapore and headed back without much of a strain of a muscle. I could have done a victory jig just to prove a point. An elaborate victory jig that she was proven wrong. Maybe even do a spinning the T-shirt that was on me till then, atop my head!

Of course, I didn’t.

Kuala Lumpur to Singapore is about four hours by road. There are those that claim that it takes lesser. One man said he does it in three. I think a minimum of four hours, in sane speeds, is needed. That is if you don’t stop anywhere and are grimly focused on reaching Singapore as quickly as you can. It is about 350 Kilometers. Depending on your dexterity with math you can calculate the exact speed. But if you want to leave math alone and just flow with me for now, I can safely say, that its a pretty fast drive!

After driving up and down the highway, if there is one conclusion that I could reach with reasonable surety, it is this : The plan for the E2 highway, that runs between KL and Singapore was drawn with a conscientious kid in class two, who was asked to connect these two cities on map. Perhaps as part of her geography assignment. It is that simple and straight a road

When the GPS in the car spews stuff like ‘go straight for 150 Kilometers’ you can help but wonder how! Not as straight as what you would find in the US or the expressways of Europe. It occasionally has a curve here. And a turn there. But in a mild and well mannered casual sort of a way, that you wont notice it in the first place.

Driving on this highway is an experience that gets you off the ‘ever on’ mode that you have to be on, while navigating Indian highways. Touching a speed of 100 KM per hour, in India often gives me the jitters for you don’t know what level of challenge the road is going to throw at you when. Maybe a speed breaker, that you would swear was constructed to prevent enemy troop movement : hidden, sudden and throws you a mile into mid air. Sometimes its just a languorous buffalo, who on a whim decides to take a closer look at your iris. Most often of course, is the driver of the car just ahead of you, who likes the colour of the house he passed by, and chooses to take a second look by braking without announcement.

I mean, anything is possible.

For people who love the adrenalin rush of any of the above, driving the road from KL to Singapore by road can be a dead bore. But if you are tired of it all, and want some quiet conversation, speed, and the allure of taking to the road, well this is the road to take.

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Not a single pothole in the entire 350 Kilometers, Not one honk. Well mannered drivers who move aside judging your speed on the rear view mirror. As if by some magic. Or who will mildly tailgate you if they are speeding up, for you to move to your left. It was like First level of a simple video game with a backdrop of well lined teak trees for four hours!

Green in the middle. Green on the sides. Occasional showers. Signboards galore. For kilometers and kilometers. And is if to wake up the senses a bit, there was blinding rain for a bit. Just a little bit of a tease. And then, dry parched roads. Even rain seemed simulated that it seemed picture perfect.

You pass through Malacca and Johor before reaching Singapore. If you are as impulsive as us, you will halt. We walked about Malacca and stayed in Johor Baru. Johor is the state of Malaysia that shares a border with Singapore.

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Malaysian immigration folks stamp you out. Sitting in small cabins, scanning passports, asking the windows to be lowered, taking a long hard look and stamp passports with a flourish.  The cost of living at Singapore has left many thousands living in Johor and working in Singapore. The long line of cars at the border crossing is only matched by the billion bikes that traverse the distance. Maybe not a billion, but you know, there well could be. That many. They cross over and come back, every day!

There are two ways to get to Singapore by road from Johor.  The Tuas causeway (otherwise called the Malaysia-Singapore second link) and Woodlands ( Johor Singapore Causeway). We drove in via Tuas. We were told at a gas station that lesser people frequent it. We were game for every stray piece of advice, on the ground, that came our way.

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The causeway in its sepulchral elegance seemed to stare at us, as we crossed the sea, and Singapore was crisp in its welcome signboard. I realise it is like any other road there. But the fact that it is international border, does something to the mind, for it to be accorded such a status.

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There are different segregated lanes for immigration processing for buses, cars and bikes.  The last thing we wanted was to be prosecuted in Singapore and stuck to our lanes. “They wield the cane here it seems”, the missus quipped. We drove in silence. In a distance, as silence continued to engulf the car, “I read in Wikipedia”, she said to add a indomitable ring of authenticity to her profound knowledge. A visage of a wince passed through my imagination before I steadied myself.

We had valid visas for Singapore but no filled in immigration forms. The lady at the Singapore Immigration counter, asked us to pull over. I feared the worst, but when we stopped, there were a few others like us. Standing in a queue.

Every passenger had to alight, fill in the forms, get passports stamped. Plus there was an autopass to get for the car and move to customs clearance. Top Ups on the card weren’t available at the Immigration counter and we were advised to reach the nearest 7/11 store to get one.

If there was one paragraph that conceals far more than what it reveals, it is the one that you just read. With two kids in tow, paperwork to be done, pens going missing, and passports falling off our hands with alacrity, it was one heck of a time. You can imagine it took us more than an hour but seemed forever. Dealing with our kids, (One of whom chose to fling a toy at the Immigration officer. The good Lord was in a benign mood that day for the toy landed a meter short of the officer) and all the paperwork was quite something.

The officers were polite. Perhaps a trifle stretched, but polite nevertheless. In a very restrained yet pronounced order. A picture that introduces you to the rules that the city state expects its visitors to play by.

Singapore customs officers, give another long hard look at all passengers, check the boot and you are flagged in. On the way back, we exited Singapore through the Woodlands bridge. We didn’t have to alight. The same procedure. Roll down the windows. Long hard look. Customs check and keep going.

That is Kuala Lumpur to Singapore by road. Oh, by the way, there are buses and trains as well. Very comfortable, we were told. Unfortunately they don’t give the wheel to passengers. For that reason, I would drive again, if chance presents itself.

Malaysian Diaries

It is something to travel. To travel across borders is something else. But going over there and seeing that more the things seem different, more they are the same, has held firm.  Every single journey that I have undertaken. It didn’t disappoint this time either. We went to Malaysia for a certain number of days that can be aptly described as ‘few’.

The big difference this trip, was we were going ‘agenda-less’. We didn’t have places to see or items to tick off a checklist. No Lonely Planet. No fervent reading of bloggers who had traveled there. We landed there, and eased ourselves into the home of our friends who live there. The idea was to catch up with our lives. That it was a ‘phoren’ was incidental.  Well, almost. By the way, I had a deal with the missus.  This holiday was also meant to be a holiday from the internet.  I was apprehensive but not as bad as I had feared it to be. That story for another time.

The immigration official at the KL airport extended a grimace at our long names South Indian tongue twister of names. But a polite grimace that almost went unnoticed. In quick time, with a laborious movement of the hand, landed the seals on the passport and let us into the country.  A board screamed in small letters :”Salamat Datang”. “That must be ‘welcome'” hissed the missus.  I nodded in quiet agreement. Seemed like it. And disagreements at the border are not wise.

From that time on, till the time we said “terima kasih” (Thank you) a good ten days later, we were completely taken by the inviting beauty of the land and its people, the rich tropical climes, the surfeit of connected history and of course, the many culinary delights that shook up our taste buds. We took to the roads and drove to Southern Malaysia in one of the most inviting roads that I have ever driven on, made a dash to Singapore and then settled to discover unfamiliar nooks of a familiar culture in KL. It was one hell of a trip and I am furrowing my brow to remember all that I wanted to write about. Perhaps over the next couple of weeks a few posts from my Malaysian Diaries would unfold here.

Malaysia catches multiple cultural winds. One that flows in from India, another aggregation that comes from many lands that are collectively (and often unfairly ) bunched together as ‘ASEAN countries’, not to forget stiff whiff from China. Indian and Chinese traders set up shop in the first century AD. So there!  The unfortunate and traumatic tragedies of Malaysian Airlines would have acquainted the world with more of Malaysia than it would have otherwise known. But what seems a rather small land mass in the map has a striking, profound and rich stuff to offer. Far more to offer than what the maps and tourist brochures indicate.

Malaysia has got a population of about 30 million people ( Mumbai has a population of 12 million, to give you a sense of scale) but large tracts are still forests.  There is rain almost everyday. There are Sultans and kings and a confederated way of working that seems to be working! Daily life has options that are both modern and traditional to choose from. Modernity doesn’t come in the way of tradition. Nor does tradition come in the way of progress. There seems to be a peaceful embracing of each other. A joint flowering of sorts. Like the flowering of the lamps.  Lamp post designs that I found rather striking.

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The roads are clean. The buildings are good. The cars are modern. There is no honking. The fuel is cheap. The wildlife is pretty. The food is awesome (and not expensive).  But above all this, people are warm and very inviting. A way of living that is inviting, not mandating a ‘fit in’, but rather letting the person be and kind of envelope them with charm.  A culture that seemed relaxed and at peace with everything around.  For that last reason, if all the previous reasons don’t resonate with you, its a must visit place.

As we boarded the flight back home, I didn’t feel a sense of loss that our holiday was done and we were to start for home as is the case normally.  “I think we will be returning here”, the missus said. I stared out through the airplane window looking into the Malaysian skies. ‘But of course’, I thought. Our reasons were different. But thats besides the point.