Travel Tales

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

Art on the streets of Berlin

Writing this post for the dance, caused me to venture into a year old album of pictures. From a trip to Berlin. Fetching pictures that told many tales then. Getting me to promise that I will tell them all on the blog. Promises that remain unkept must be worked on. So, here are a few posts on Berlin.

You don’t discover the essence of any culture unless you walk the street, soak in the air, talk to people, eat some street food and gaze at life as it happens. Guided tours in air-conditioned buses with guides who crack rehearsed jokes and pause for just the right time for the laughter to get over, is too programmed and zoo like.

The streets of Berlin give you such a fantastic array of coherent rich colour and a sense of modernity, in seamless co-existence with a firm gaze towards the future. With an aimless sip of good coffee I can narrate a thousand things that struck my eye and stayed in my mind. But if you ask me to just stick to one, JUST ONE and no more it would be this : The ubiquity of ‘art’ on the streets of Berlin.

Of the galleries and artists, there are a zillion each. Lonely Planet describes it thus, here

“Art aficionados will find their compass on perpetual spin in Berlin. Home to 440 galleries, scores of world-class collections and some 10,000 international artists, it has assumed a pole position on the global artistic circuit. Adolescent energy, restlessness and experimental spirit combined and infused with an undercurrent of grit are what give this ‘eternally unfinished’ city its street cred. Since the fall of the Wall, Berlin’s abundant space and relatively low cost of living have made it a haven for international emerging artists. Most labour in obscurity but there have also been some notable breakthroughs, including Danish-Icelandic phenom Olafur Eliasson.”

But it is what you see on the street that gives away much of the city’s positive valence for art. In the few days that I was there, a whale of time slipped by as I stood and stared at performances at street corners across the city. Different genres. An assortment of artists, instruments and art! It was perhaps the best balance to the order and symmetry that daily life of Berlin offers. (I landed from Mumbai and that should indicate a few things to you).

At all times, there is an audience that sits, stands and applauds. Sometimes its a long sit down and stare. At other times the audience is a ‘pause-for-a-moment’ and ‘shuffle-feet-to-hurry-on’ kind. The artists however genuinely didn’t seem to care. Plying their wares with such delectable ease and passion that they seemed to ooze a natural invitation for appreciation and joy, no matter your background.

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Its a year on, but I can almost remember the fantastic songs and music of one man, sitting beneath the TV Tower. He sang in English. He sang well. He seemed prepared to go on till the end of time. That Sunday morning as the September Sun emerged from behind the buildings to be the balm to a sepulchral chill, the music refreshed me with a vigour for life and living. He was still singing when I left the place. I parted gladly with Euros that were reserved for lunch. This fed me more than the best food could possibly do.

The giving was out of sheer joy. He singing seemed to be out of joy and the implicit trust in people appreciating it all. The giving that people did, seemed seamless, logical and joyous. Berlin provides a picturesque horizon where the giving at a street performance, has no sense of decaying pity that dominates several cities of the world. The reciprocity in the average passerby is a treasure that stood tall.

Every performance tugged a chord. Each unique, complete and leaving a gnawing feeling that much has gone into the weeks gone by for such a performance to flower on this day. The streets of Berlin are testimony to perhaps how ‘developed’ a city could be. A development that is lead by a desire to trust and nourish the art as well. For the soul of the city lies ensconced in the arts and how it treats its artists.

 The next time you see a street performance in your city, in any city for that matter, pause for a moment. You could spread the joy by opening your wallet. Perhaps as valuable if you use the following payment method as well.

  • Stopping your watch
  • Stow your phone away
  • Pay your attention & appreciation

I wont tell you it will work. For there is no need to do so. Usually does. Go try!

PS : Earlier posts on Berlin are here, here and here

Soul dance

If ever I make a list of things that I wished I could do better, dancing will figure right up there in that list. The stillest of still mannequins can reek eloquence on the dance floor compared to what I can ever accomplish. Awe consumes me when I see people break into a dance. Swing arms. Shake legs and other parts of the body with such striking coherence, rhythm and synchrony that just being a fly on the wall shakes me up, stiffens my body to the bone and like I got a intravenous injection of stiff glue.

Blessed are the nice people amongst them, God bless them all, who make it a point, to tell me that its not really about getting the steps and synchrony right, but more about ‘having a good time’. So as is wont to happen, I get goaded onto the dance floor. I am reasonably sure that the nice souls that goaded me to dance were really looking to have some belly ripping laughter of seeing a human being with glue in the veins attempt dancing! I once had a nightmare that someone uploaded a strikingly eloquent video of me dancing : arms, legs, head, hips and whatever else going in such asymmetrical silly splendour that it would be hard for anyone to imagine that all of that belonged to one man! Sleep played truant for a few hours after that.

Thankfully I do not watch TV. Sometimes though, the missus points me to dance shows were purportedly normal people and kids (who barely reach my knee) do such insanely incredible dance moves with amazing synchrony, rhythm and other acrobatics in the name of dance, like some cirque du soleil show. It leaves me gaping in awe, shaking my head and retreating to my world of blogs, books and bemused looks.

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Cut to a year ago. In Berlin. On a Sunday, I was hurtling to see the Berlin wall. Struggling with the language, the chill, and a little raw from a few cold shoulders, I alighted from the metro as it swept into a station with a hurried precision.
Right inside the station, there was a performance that was underway. A dance. This wasn’t abstract acrobatics. This was a community in action. Their moves were such a joy to watch. And they were perfectly normal people. Young, old and middle aged. Or so it seemed. It was seamless motion, in a metro station.

They made slick moves with such seamless ease. They turned and paired with another with a clap. Another clap in a few seconds, another turn. A new partner. A quick elegant step and then a clap. A new partner. The background hugged a music that I didn’t understand, which didn’t matter. The inanimate pillars seemed to let go of a leap of joy, every time they clapped and turned. A trance enveloped me and kept me frozen for a while. Forgetting all about the hurried flurry of wanting to see the great Berlin wall. This dance left me soothed, refreshed and as though a sudden wave of a wand was upon me, a ton of a good mood rained on me.

It was odd that I had set out to see the broken Berlin Wall and several other walls broke, even before I saw the wall. Dance has such incredible power. Artistic expression always carries with it a little bit of soul and makes moves that aren’t so visible, or so I believe. In this case, it had pronouncedly tangible moves as well. There is no joy like the one when you witness a soul dance.

The missus was discussing a ‘Bollywood Dance’ class that is the flavour of the season in the apartment we live in. This post started there. As I write, there is a constant throb of garba music and my window pane catches a zillion lights, perhaps from tiny shiny glass pieces sewn on to dupattas that adorn swiveling bodies that hug mellifluous tunes.

Go dance people. Make your moves. Whatever they are. Pass a bit of your soul. Its good for you too.

A King and his kingdom

From as long as I can remember, I have wanted to stop here and stare. A long hard look, if you will. During this trip to Tirunelveli, I did it.

On the outskirts of Tirunelveli, just by the highway, within the precincts of a small town called Kayatharu, stands a lonely memorial. Lonely, because I haven’t seen many people stop here. Further and lip sealing evidence of no one stopping here : there is zilch commercial activity in the vicinity. No aerated drinks. No cigarettes. No parking area. Not even the cursory entry fee.

That doesn’t take away anything from the simple yet elegant majestic bearing of the pedestal, carrying a couple of drawn swords, a shield and a man standing atop, who seems ready to jump at you. I almost missed the ‘fish’, which is the emblem of the Pandyas, sitting pretty between the swords.

This is the memorial of a King who lived from from 1760 to 1799. Katabomman. Or rather, Veerapandiya Kattabomman. His life and heroics, like several others, would have continued to be confined to the dark ravines of apathy, fueled by a concoction of ignorance, a surfeit of history and the monochrome schema of day to day existence.

Thank God for the eponymous Tamil movie, starring Sivaji Ganesan that was released in 1959. For those that don’t know, Sivaji Ganesan was an actor who could get his molars to twitch and incisors to dance, just to bring alive a situation on screen. Well, almost. The film won a slew of awards and contains some searing screenplay delivered by a belligerent Sivaji. Some of those dialogues were part of the paraphernalia for any elocution competition in school. The film world brought a king, his kingdom and his time alive. A couple of centuries after his death. Sometimes, one act can condone many ills. This was one such.

His memorial stood right beside the highway and I wonder why I didn’t stop for all these years.   It is overcast today and the weather pleasant. So, under the aegis of a Sun who is playing truant, like a king who ceded his throne to the clouds, I enter tentatively.

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Within seconds, I become aware there is no one else there. Its just me. Never in my life I have had a memorial all to myself.  I walk, conjuring solemn memories of watching the movie along with dad and my brother. The majestic single pedestal, an array of plants and even a small children’s play area, all stand silent. Wonderfully maintained. Which of course, was a surprise considering the absence of commerce.

In the next few minutes, I discover that the statue has been sponsored by Sivaji himself and opened by the Congress leader and former chief minister, K.Kamaraj. Sivaji sponsoring a statue of the hero of the film, who he played in the film, would sound like the height of astute self propagation, in modern day marketing terms. But, I doubt if that era had already seen the devious depths that we have sunk to now. Who knows!

I spot a line which states clearly that this after all the place where Kattabomman was hanged by the British. So, it wasn’t just a convenient location for a statue, but a place of importance after all.

The story went, as far as I could remember, Kattabomman was a valiant king, who refused to pay taxes to the British and fought them. He had initial wins but was later done in by fellow clan, was captured and naturally, executed in front of his subjects.

A king and his kingdom. It perhaps was something to become King then. I walk around, imagining how it would have been in 1799, to be a bristling 39 year old fighting the British army, in his own backyard. My faculties that normally facilitate imagination stay unresponsive and I let them be, content with the quiet. For some reason a lump forms in my throat, as the silence grows on me. Vaguely disrupted by passing vehicles on the highway and their blaring horns.

In a bit, I spot an inscription. I read it first with some awe and then with mild amusement. I reproduce it here. It was all in bold letters. That’s one change. And the only one at that.

“Katta Bomman, a great tamizh kind had power and it was visible, tangible and real for ever. A courageous king never bowed before autocracy. A dazzling hero and dashing warrior dissipated hypocrisy.

Among perfidious traitors, Katta Bomman had moving faith, miracle generating faith, situation changing faith, displayed patriotism, pacifism, pragmatism and humanism whipped off the the then calculative, crafty cruel kingdom.

Friends, no, dastardly Ettappans only betrayed him to English royalty, never Katta Bomman deviated from fairness, justness probity and nobility. The lower he fell, the higher he bounced back with vitality, had reverberating, resilient and unshakable, devotion to Lord Muruga only.

Sowed the seed of freedom and earned the eternal fame. Sowed the seed of fortitude and hushed the needless shame. Shimmered as a radiant light and roared as a lion before the then collectors, shone martyr, alas, Katta Bomman was hanged because of the traitors. – D. Chandrasekaran. I.A.S. Chennai. “

I pulled out my white handkerchief, rubbed my eyes and started reading again. To carefully craft in stone stuff of this order, would require inordinate courage of the order that Kattabomman possessed. That was clear. But to go ahead, sign it and tag the Indian Administrative Service, took this to a different plane altogether.

I stood for ten minutes speculating how such words would have sprouted. Perhaps this was literal translation from a speech. Maybe he was high. Or was promoted. Or was going to retire. Whatever.

Right next to the big stone inscription stood a smaller one. By the same D.Chandrasekaran, I.A.S, Chennai.

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It sure looked like ‘adjectives’ were on short supply for a long time and suddenly, they went on a sale!  The granite plaque provides some relief to the sombre mood. After all, it was the memorial that I came for. I train my eyes again on the statue that is majestic and seemed modeled on Sivaji the actor. Perhaps, there were very little of reference points.

I leave quietly. Without saying a word. There was no one to say anything to of course. But Kattabomman’s heroics and the stone inscription by D.Chandrasekaran I.A.S, Chennai, leave me tongue tied that I don’t want to pursue any conversation with anybody, even if someone was around. As I leave, I turn and take a long look. As Kattabomman stands tall, looking at the buzzing traffic almost with disdain. I tell myself he is entitled to that view. The disdain, that is.

Back home, I dig up some history. And read about how Kattabomman and others fought the Polygar wars much before the first War of Independence in 1857! Each page revealed a slice of history that I had abysmal clues about. I read about ancestors, descendants, tax structures and many elements that complete the richness of the picture.  I sit there, sipping my filter Kaapi, thinking of what it must have been like to be a 39 year old king to be hung from a tree, in front of his subjects.

And then I think of D.Chandrasekaran, I.A.S, Chennai. The coffee seeps in to shake my inaction.

In one reflex action, I open my calendar on the phone and on the 16th October, I mark the death anniversary of Kattabomman. Silly, you may think. Some actions cant be explained. So, lets leave it there.

Two women and their music

A wedding  holds unequivocal attention. Always. For, it means a new set of promises. A new beginning in togetherness, love, joy and such else.

I sit in one such wedding today.

Before proceeding any further, I must make a confession of sorts: Every time I am at a wedding, for some reason there are tears in my eyes.

Its a curious kind of emotion tinged with joy, resulting in the odd tear to pop up first and then opening the flood gates. There have been occasions where random strangers seated in the next chair would shuffle their feet, slowly lean away and do everything possible to make it known to the everyone in the vicinity and passing flies on the wall, that we were seated next to each other by quirk of fate and nothing else.

Sometime back, me and missus were invited to a wedding. The groom was a friend. The bride was an acquaintance. They were really nice people. We wished well for them. As the wedding vows were exchanged, tears commenced their solemn roll down my cheek.
The missus, visibly embarrassed, left to herself, would have gone incognito. She did pass a few boxes of tissues with delectably discreteness. ‘Stop it’, she said in a hushed tone, ‘before someone thinks you had an affair with the bride and still long for her.’

That thought stopped those damn tears on their tracks. Since then, I have tried to adorn a monk like poise wearing a visage of intensely meditative calm, at weddings. The tears somehow contained just before they broke free of the eyelash. Or thereof.

Those memories run amuck as I sit in this wedding.

The bride is almost family. The young lady, who my mind still places as the school kid from next door, is getting married today. All the interspersed years between her being a school kid to now stand in reams of gleaming Kanjeevaram she is draped in. I realise that ‘time is fleeting’ is a saying that is greatly understated.

The wedding is at Tirunelveli. Down in the deep South. The quaint place and all the simple conversations hold every inch of my mind.

As the music wafts in, the aroma from a surfeit of jasmine flowers on many several heads are only suitably contrasted by the bright jewelry on many necks. The atmosphere of a Tamil wedding in Tamil Nadu, with food served on leaf, is barely settling down with filter kaapi beginning to course the veins, when I slowly become aware of the tears are brimming at the corner of my eye. Again.

I let them be. But this time, I realise that it is the music that is playing its part. There are two women playing the nadaswaram. I keep looking at them and soak in every nod of their head, tap of their feet and the wafting tune from the instrument. They have poise and panache, suitably matched with a certain playful practice to their craft.

They seemed to be in the flow. It shows on them. And on my eyes too. These were two women with many years behind them. They must have taken to music a long time ago. They are devoid of the slickness that city dwelling offers and retain a familiar rough edge to the smooth music.

They finish.

As they are packing up, I walk upto them and tell them that their performance was awesome. They fold their palms in unison and say ‘thank you’. Head bowed. I linger.  I ask them where they are from. ‘Valliyur‘ they say. A small picturesque town that is a distance away. Some more conversation reveals that they have a pretty busy calendar.  They have been playing the nadaswaram since they were eight years old.

I have a lot more questions to ask. How did they start? How do they survive in a man’s world, in a small town? How many hours do they practice and so on. But they don’t have time for me, as they reach for the filter kaapis from the brass cups.

There is something in them that moves me. My eyes brim again with precocious tears. There is something in these women that move me beyond words. The tears lurk and then fall over the brim.

Then I think of a poem a colleague shared.

I should be content
to look at a mountain
for what it is
and not a comment on my life
David Ignation

I think of these women and their music.  Somethings become clear.  Ah, poetry. Somethings remain muddled. Maybe thats were the music is.

Hope in history

The cities of India are paved with history. Such a surfeit of history with such a pronounced range, splendour and class that most of it is not given more than a passing glance. Take for instance, this Mandapam that sits right in the middle of the Vaigai river. Its supposed to have been sitting on from 1293 AD.  That was almost two hundred years before Columbus landed in America!

Mandapam

This is a picture from a few years back. Now, though, the river has dried up. Little boys play cricket on what was once the river bed. Scrounging the ground a tad more for it to hold the three bent sticks from a nearby tree, that masquerades as stumps. At spots were perhaps the fish laid eggs or warriors buried stolen treasures. In the words of one famous commentator, ‘ultimately cricket is the winner’!

Allow me to drag your mind from cricket even as you wonder what TV commentators have for breakfast for them to come up with such stellar stuff with such odious frequency and get our sights to stay trained on the Thenur mandapam.

Anywhere else in the world, this would have been earmarked as a piece of heritage, marked with concerted steps to keep it as it is. Maybe weave a few stories around the place. Get a few school children visit it and learn.  Ah, but thats anywhere else in the world. When you have a surfeit of something, you perhaps tend to take it for granted. Architecture that depicts history is one such.  I  am sure most residents and tourists of the city dont have a clue of how old this place is and how much of value we miss by not stopping by to take a second look.

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It has traditions and several stories to run alongside culture that has evolved!  When you are done with this blogpost, find a minute to read its history.

Today all the rich history, stories and the traditions over seven hundred years call out loud only through deep cracks and large gaps in the structure. Enough to seed a frown on you, if you care for such things that is. Your blood will begin to simmer first at the garish colours and then boil at the degree of deep neglect that seems to seep through all the crumble. The blaring horns of traffic threaten to knock your ear drum silly and you wonder if these loud horns and our perpetual preoccupation with ‘development’ has made us so myopic that we fail to hear the silent sobs and tearful sighs from this seven hundred plus year old structure.

There can be spanking new bridges, swanky new cars and technology that captures the world in our palms through phones that sit inside our pockets. Not so long ago, this and structures like these did the same job as people came here and narrated stories they had heard in exchange for stories others had carried with them. A splendid flowing river kept them company and perhaps making its own swirling additions as it sped downstream to the sea!

Today, there is no river. The crumbling edifice reminds us that things are changing. The gaping holes left behind by young boys and the cricket stumps on the river bed indicate that the river is done with the flowing under the bridge. The sands of time shimmer prominently through the cracks on the wall.

Wont someone take notice? You are prone to ask, if such things matter to you, that is. A monument that is standing on its last few legs. In its sepulchral stoic standing, it seems to announce to every other day that it stands, that it has stood for one more day. Even while that announcement gets feebler, as the cracks make their ominous presence more visible,  urgently pointing to an inevitable end. On that day, the landscape of the dry river will forever change.

The world will have other things to focus on. New toys and fancies will continue to grip collective imagination. It will garner a mention in the newspaper. A couple of laments on blogs like these, before moving on to discuss other aspects that dominate our lives today.

But hold on. Perhaps we make a mistake in not shining the light on other minds. Minds who have hope in history. Minds for whom this is not a physical structure but a representative structure.  When this structure and even pictures of this structure brings about a warm fuzzy feeling of a different time. When there was some water in the river. Of a bundle full of memories. When the age was young and conversation was king. To those minds, this structure will continue to be the lasting edifice. Sans cracks. Sans crumble. Sans dereliction .

It is in those minds that this and structures like these thrive. Sometimes the steps of the daily day are powered by an overarching ache that comes from a clutch of memories.  Some edifices provide them with aplomb. This is one such. From new hopes that emerge, there will be new edifices.

Such is life. Always. Well, at least most of the time.

PS : You may want to read this and more importantly, this.

Soulful symmetry

The hard disk has a lot of snaps. Adjectives don’t do a complete job of describing these. Although, it can safely be said that ‘100s of snaps’ or ‘1000s of snaps’ etc are improper qualifiers. Several of them I gloss over. Part upset. More embarrassed of me wasting of a grand moment with an inept handling of the camera. Leaving me with an image that distorts far more than what it reveals and reducing a moment that should last in the mind to another passing one that is glossed over with ease.

There are some pictures that sit pretty on the hard drive. I can keep staring at them and get drawn back to the time I clicked them. Only some. Truth be told, a concoction of luck, pluck and a decent camera make it possible.  As the missus thoughtfully observed once, even as I was all chuffed looking at a photograph of a raging bull that I had clicked sometime ago, “Any donkey with a DSLR thinks attributes much less to the DSLR than what it deserves”.

My only deviant answer to that question was, ‘that is not a donkey, as you can see. That is a bull.”

Her cryptic response which said much more than what it said was, “Ah, Bull”

While that may be the general tenor and disposition, there are moments when I catch a whiff silent admiration as she looks at some of my clicks. Just a whiff. Of course, the slow chap that I am, I notice that there was a whiff that I should have caught,  long after the whiff passes by. As with most things in life, these whiffs don’t come announcing with cymbals and bugles. ( Only Weddings happen that way).

These are moments that happen. For example, when the missus looks at a snap that I have clicked for three milliseconds longer than the normal two milliseconds she usually reserves for my pictures, I reaffirm my faith that all is not lost and there is still hope for me. If she tosses her head to a side and examines it like a kid examining a new math textbook, with interest laden disinterest, I know that I have nudged my image a notch higher in her mind.

This was one such image which she even looked at twice. The Rameswaram Temple photo, as I call it. With a ‘The’.  Naturally, I had to share.

Rameshwaram

Rameswaram. The temple itself is as old as the 17 century, in its current form. In an earlier form, from the 11th century. If you have to see the interplay of light, symmetry, art and sheer scale of imagination on one scale and minute attention to detail on another, replicated multiple times, this is the place to go.

Go you must, with a truck load of time and with a desire to soak up what the place has to offer. Beyond the Gods and the pilgrims. Even as countless pilgrims scurry around running from one temple tank to another dripping water, you could soak up the grandeur of the magic of yesteryear. Of a way of life that paid attention to detail, imagination, symmetry and yet was comprehensively grounded anchored to ancient practices. All in the name of God.

If you just sit there, as I did and let the imagination roam to think what it must have taken to put all this together, pulling off such a grand structure that continues to awe and inspire for centuries, a few things happen. At a spiritual level, something happens. Its a feast for your eyes. Its a bounty for imagination. In a completely indescribable way, it is refreshing.

If it gets the missus to give it a second glance, me thinks God is in his elements. Whatsay? 😉

Scented Stuff

The slightest scent of business can get the best smile out and smoothest talk of the average Egyptian shopkeeper in Khan el khalili. He is glib, smooth and actually very nice. Amitabh Bachan, Shahrukh Khan, Rajiv Gandhi all figure in teaser lines as he befriends and then hold you down with options, smiles and a variety of ever decreasing prices and value. So much so that you wonder what hit you when you walk out with a painting you had no intention to buy in the first place. 

This is the average Egyptian trader at Khan el khalili for you. But then, the ones selling perfume are a different breed. Or so I think. 

One of them smelt ‘business’ when my friend and bought these nice little containers  of ‘scented oil’ that refracted a brilliant array of light into the ceiling. The artistic glass containers looked so beautiful that that my camera stood trained on them for a while. 

“Would you want to see the original? The best. No charge for looking my friend. Blah-blah and some more blah…” a voice asked from behind. 

In couple of nano seconds were walking into labyrinthine maze of dim alleys and dull doorless buildings. As one dark alley lead to another, we were following the man who was wafting stories of the revolution, of Mubarak and ofcourse of the ‘best original perfumes’. In one dark alley I asked myself if we should be doing this at all.  For a fleeting second the Pied Piper of Hamlin and the rats flashed before my eyes. 

In a seamless transition, fear began gripping me at every turn. We seemed to be taking too many turns. I feared a gun totting revolutionary or a burglar or some man who didn’t like my looks show up and demand something that I didn’t have or didn’t want to part with. 

But my fears weren’t even remotely justified. For now.  For, In a short while, we were lead us into a room. We had arrived. The room was filled with ubiquitous white plastic jars like the ones that you would find in a secondary school chemistry lab, a truck load of papyrus paintings and sundry trinkets.

And then the show began. 

He went on to show us papyrus paintings that would glow when he switched off the lights. Proceeding to switch off the lights. His booming Egyptian voice served as the background to the wonderful patterns in the painting that continued to glow. My fears of burglars, thugs and the general gent who didn’t like my looks returned. I didn’t even know who to call in an emergency.” What was the equivalent of the ‘100’ Police Helpline?” This and similar such assortment of thoughts caused every conceivable pore to pour beads of sweat. 

Every time he would switch off the lights, the company of darkness, the green illumination on the face of the Pharoh or some strange creature on the painting and his booming voice caused my heart to jump like monkey who was going through a behavioral scientist’s experiment on fear or motivation. 

He must have seen in me the epitome of a stoical face and a somber look. Seeing that he wasn’t making much of a headway with his paintings, he shifted to perfumes. 

His hands reached out and caressed one of those large white chemistry lab type jars. He opened one of them, dabbed some paper into it and announced, “Lotus Scented”.  

“Lotus scented”, he said. Again. Lowering his voice. As though it was the last  remains of a bottle the Pharoh dabbed on his favourite queen. To be honest, the aroma was exquisite. To say the least. As much as the aroma wafted through my nostrils, the fact that it came from a white plastic jar that could have well formed a classical part of paan shop paraphernalia, blew me. 

I was beginning to get impatient. Notwithstanding the aroma. All the sound and light show and the dim alleys had sucked out the explorers’ courage in me.  What if the next bottle he opened had chloroform in it, asked a cuckoo in my mind. I sweated more. 

At that exact moment he looked at me, and our eyes met.  And he said, “For this gentleman who doesn’t believe me, I have something special”.

By now, I was sure, he had chloroform. Or maybe cyanide. My thoughts were only getting worse.
He opened another plastic jar. Steely opaque white. And dabbed some on his wrist, inhaled it, savoured it, “the best I’ve got”. He truly seemed to relish it. 

He grabbed my hand in an ever so friendly manner and dabbed a few generous drops, and announced with a flourish “Hugo Boss”.  My eyes darted out and landed on the white plastic jar which was three fourths full. 

He repeated ‘Hugo Boss”. And like a mafia don, said “original”. 

My nostrils inhaled generous quantities’ of the air around and it indeed seemed like Hugo Boss.  But I was sweating and pulling Hugo Boss out of a white plastic jar seemed too surreal to be true. I said thank you and we began walking out. He was gracious in his disappointment and escorted us back to the main alley selling us stuff till the last moment. 

That night I slept fistfully.  The wide array of sensory experiences had left me both tired and soaked with ideas. 

In my sleep, the trader had complained to the Pharaoh that I had stolen his jar of Hugo Boss.  The Pharoh came after me, riding his bright green dog, and as he neared, his dog pinned me down and sniffed my wrist. 

I woke up in a fit.  

Shivering from fright, I reached for the jar of water on the sidetable. And as water soaked a parched throat, I realised that the wrist was smelling good. 

Quickly realising that it was Hugo Boss at work! I pulled the blanket over. Hoping that the blanket would keep the Pharoh and his dog away, I shut my eyes tight. 

Market. A real one at that!

I have a perfunctory snort of dismissal when anybody mentions shopping.  It usually feels like a ‘waste of time’ to travel, hoist all the body weight around go to a place and then choose.  That statement usually brings a howl of protests and a stern look of dismissal from the missus and her bevy of supporters which quickly cause my feelings to change!  

With that kind of disposition, the chances that I would go shopping in Cairo were as remote as remote can get. But throw in some history. Throw in some pieces of stories of culture and discovering a ‘way of living’ and am already in the car waiting for the drive to the market place. 


Khan el khalili in Cairo, is a market place that dates back to the 13 century.  And for that sheer reason, I went armed with a camera, open ears and a curious mind. 

Imagine an age old marketplace where you could practically get some of the most pristine stuff under the Sun. Stuff like Paintings, trinkets, spices, jewellery, perfume and the like. Narrow lanes that erupt from intersections and shoot into another maze of crowd, colour and cacophony to soak the senses. 

“It is crowded”, I say.  Only to be corrected that after the revolution and all the political instability the number of tourists have fallen starkly. “By as much as 75%”. Normal is when “there is no place to place your feet on the ground” I am told. 


The next I know it was a couple of hours later. It was such a feast for the eyes and ears. For one, it is home to some of the smoothest talking salesmen the world can ever see. Whatever they were selling. 

There is a lane for Jewellery. For clothing. For spices etc. And all of them have ever inviting people who do it with such ease and flourish that you could swear that they had come to your marriage! Or at least, bought you a drink. Or something close. 

The first look at me, got most of them to say, “Indian?” and upon hearing the affirmative “Namaste”.  Then followed the sweetest of talk laced with a countless “My friend” to sell you a perfume that was scented for the Pharaoh or the outstanding painting that you had no idea to buy. Or clothes. Or spices. Trinkets. Whatever. 

We were sufficiently warned of the need to ‘negotiate’ by almost every single person except perhaps the officer at the Immigration counter who had a rather businesslike approach and just stamped our passports. Practically everybody else asked us to negotiate. Such kind people they are. 

Here is a description of a deal, just to labour that point. 

The friend that I am with, is interested in Papyrus paintings.  “A thousand Egyptian Pounds for this wonderful painting” says a young man displaying a large painting which looks beautiful to me. He has deep eyes and a sing song accent that is adorned with love and decked with concern for the whole world.  They negotiate. The young man reels of stories of why he must sell at that price. Features. Benefits.  (If ever you need to the learn how to negotiate with charm, you must take lessons from here) 

Time and my friend’s patience wilt the price down from the 1000 he started with. At 600 Egyptian pounds, the young man lowers his volume and says, “Ok 550. But don’t tell anyone. I will lose all my respect amongst the traders here. They think I don’t sell for anything less than a thousand pounds”. 

“You called me ‘friend’ and quoted a 1000 pounds when we started”. My friend almost wails. “Ah, that,” the young man replies. “That is the ‘Enemy price’.  The price I am quoting is a ‘friends price’” and they go on.  

The persistence, and more than anything else, what catches my imagination the smoothness with which the soldiering on takes place with no forceful argumentative stuff that is so typical in similar markets!



My friend soldiered on.  It reminded me of an intricate chess game ever as I was clicking away at this chess board with Egyptian characters on display at the same store. Finally the deal was done. 550 Egyptian Pounds. For TWO paintings!! The money exchanged hands and we walked out happy. My friend was sufficiently chuffed and suitably thrilled. 

Until about half an hour later, when we were offered two painting for three hundred pounds. 

I didn’t know who was having the last laugh between them, but all the trade, commerce and  bright lights brought the smiles out in me. Markets indeed were in conversation!

My friend, for some reason, was in a deeply contemplative mood. Perhaps it was something that we ate during lunch.  

Shooting into the sky! The Pyramids of Giza

So I landed up at looking at the Pyramids and the Sphinx. In the city of Giza located 20 KM south west of Cairo. Now, Giza in itself holds the key to several facets of history. But for the moment, lets stick to the pyramids. 

All the ancient histories, as one of our wits say, are just fables that have been agreed upon” said Voltaire.  Which is a pretty good thing to say. But then, there objects that have continued standing for long, that have been the dots for people to weave stories around. The pyramids are one of them. And you hear such wonderful stories and imagination runs riot. All of them seem plausible. You don’t know for sure, but then they just could have been!  

It is a spectacular sight and no amount of reading Wikipedia and Lonely Planet can prepare you to just see the scale, proportion and angles. The scale, proportion and angles are just one part of the story. The beliefs, the time and the thoughts of another age that caused these to sprout in the first place, shake the last remaining lumbering trails of slumber in the mind! 

The mere thought of mans unquenchable quest to soldier on, in this life and in the next continues to reach great heights taking other subliminal forms these days. But those perhaps were the mind was more straight and simple.  As the guide keeps giving story after story, my mind race to connect the dots and leaves it yearning for more. 

There is way too much of history for me to wrap into one post here. I am leaving you to the deep data that Wikipedia provides here

The guide regales me with other accounts. Like why there were not many other pyramids. One plausible theory was that such structures attracted robbers.

  

The Sphinx is nearby. Broken nose notwithstanding. Staring into a far distance with a steady gaze and an arc of stoical presence.  

There is a sound and light show. Of course, in the evening. One of the best I have seen. The narration, the story line and the lights themselves kept me warm with wonder on a rather chill Cairo evening. 

The pyramids are a place where you must go see. For no other reason but this : These are the oldest serving edifices around. Tall, stately and all that.  There is a line in the Sound and Light show that caught my ear and poked my memory. “Man fears time. But time fears the pyramids”.  

It evokes a guffaw first and then realization dawns that hundreds and thousands of people must have come here from 2500 BC to catch a glimpse, stare at the sheer scale of belief, the trust in ‘knowledge’ and the consequent concerted action that an ancient civilization had. 

Alexander to Ceasar to Napoleon and then, of course, every chap that thought of himself as some kind of ruler (or genuinely was one) have come training their steely gaze at the pyramids and perhaps wondered what other fellow rulers did to perpetuate their souls. Albeit thousands of years ago. The modern day Pharaoh has many pyramids built in Swiss banks and who am I to know how tall! 

I too train my eye on the pyramids. The magical synchrony in the construction that shoots into the sky is mind boggling. But the thought that legions of people worked tirelessly for years to put something like this under the command of his majesty reveals about a certain age. Where there perhaps was an innocent air and a firm ‘knowledge’ of now complicated things like life, death and after life. 


Life must have been good. If after many thousands of years later, the pyramids not only firm stand but offer livelihood to thousands of people, well, they souls of the Pharaohs have continued to bless the place. So my mind thinks.  

“ 2500 years before the birth of Christ!” says the guide.  

He says, to make it amply clear that this isn’t another monument that some airbrushing on Photoshop can transform into a monumental piece of ‘heritage’ on a tourist brochure. “The only surviving wonder of the seven wonder of the ancient age fame” he adds. With a remarkable sense of satisfaction.  If you were slightly tipsy, you would think that he was taking credit for building them in the first place.   

‘Jesus Christ’ I say. In exclamation. 

The guide catches that. And says, ‘Yes. 2500 years before him” Looks at me and smiles. And adds “much before that expression”. 

Lights On! Past the proverbial crossroad.

On a travel, there is a charm that visiting a ‘famous’ place that is listed as a ‘must-see’ by Lonely Planet or spoken with great passion by someone who has already been there. Like for instance, The Brandenburg Gate of Berlin. Had I not seen the place, I would have gotten a look that people reserve for the most unkempt idiot who has suddenly inherited a fortune. 

Then there are other sorts of places, that are tucked away. That carry a very different charm. Look, “I-saw-something-that-you-didnt-and-you-spent-three-times-more-money-getting-to-the-place-and-back” value that these tucked away places have, is phenomenal, to say the least. Ofcourse, I have been a gullible sucker for such places.

But then, there are other places. Not really places, but aspects of daily life and living which carry a story or two in them. That quietly co-exist in a matter-of-fact way that you only get to discover it if you spend some more time on them. If only you plod, ask around and check. Theres a treasure trove in there. 

Ofcourse, I have something to show. If I wrote three paragraphs and you have come till here, well, there better be something. Isnt it? 

Here it is.


  

A traffic light in Berlin. Whats so special, you may wonder. Indeed there is. Well, for one they are not uniform. Thats surprising for Germany, wont you think? 
 
Below are three images from Wikipedia, that perhaps helps you see the difference. Both these co-exist. It was a matter of giant intrigue that and and some plodding later, I sat, shaking my head thinking about that I could have missed an interesting piece of history and culture, had I not asked around! Thank god I asked.   

 



The man seen on the traffic light is called the Amplemann. He was introduced on the traffic signals of East Berlin in 1961 by a traffic psychologist Kalr Peglau, with the argument that road users react more quickly to appealing symbols.  

Over a period of time, the  Amplemann merged with the culture of what was then East Berlin. He started getting cast as a ‘guardian angel’ in road safety training for children, games etc right from kindergarten. When kids connect at Kindergarten, the impressions are deep and stay for long! 

The reunification of Germany brought, the wall down and the people together. In the quest for standardisation, it was decided that the Amplemann, like several other East German aspects of life would soon be, as the cliched expression goes, be a relic of the past. The nineties saw the gradual phasing out of the Amplemann. But then, a ‘symbol’ that is in the minds of a a ‘society’ and a ‘way of life’ goes far beyond being just another symbol

In response to the discarding from the traffic lights, an industrial designer started making green and red Ampel lamps,  from the original glass of the discarded traffic lights. Ofcourse, it attracted attention. Ofcourse, the Amplemann was back on the discussion table, if not back on the traffic signals. 

Soon, a committee was formed to protect the Ampelmann. The arguments were both emotional and logical. The stocky figure of the Ampelmann  ensured that the symbol had more visibility, it was argued. Several products taking the shape of the Amplemann were launched. 

Fast forward to now. The Ampelmann urges you to stop or move, from the traffic lights of Berlin. Not from the main roads of Berlin, where his competitor, the “Euro man” holds court. But the Amplemann is back, so what if he is seen only in the secondary roads. He is still standing, as one of the last remaining visual elements of a part of a culture that is now part of a larger whole.

I picked large parts of the story from here and had it corroborated with the staff at the hotel, and a taxi driver who nodded in vigorous agreement. You didnt have to be Sherlock Holmes to find that they came from erstwhile East Germany! 

This perhaps was the most fascinating nugget that hooked my attention and enveloped my thoughts. Thank God I plodded around. And the plodding on the internet lead me to other aspects as well. For instance, I had no clue in the world that the traffic lights in Greece sported Wrestlers. Or for that matter, they sport Robots in Japan, on their traffic lights as well!  A compilation is here. And is even better here

Incredible world we live in.  We discover more of it, if we just plod around a little bit.  So, there is a note that I wrote for myself and stuck to my travel bag. “Ask around. Theres a story there”. Curiosity got me a lesson that usually lies sacrificed at the grand altar of ‘seeing one more tourist attraction’!