Travel

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

Water

“Be like water”, he tells me. “Find your space. You may be contained by your present container. But remember you aren’t the container”. I am awestruck by what a simple man sitting under a giant oak tree in the courtyards of a simple temple is telling me. I look at him with wonder.

“You see water finds its place. Hold yourself lightly and keep going. There is a joy in the flow.”

He is old and the wrinkles bear testimony to the many seasons his skin has been in the game. A silence fills the moment as he stares into the sky and I stare into his lost eyes. “You will know what it like when you stand by the stream or watch a waterfall. You can here it’s energy”

He breaks free from his trance. And proceeds rather dourly. “You didn’t expect this from a wrinkled old odd smelling fellow like me, did you?” He doesn’t wait for an answer. And then says, “many years ago I was like you. Riveted by drive and laced with passion”

His pauses for the longest period of time. Unable to bear it any longer, I ask, “and then?”

He smiles, dusts himself up as he prepares to leave and says “I began to flow”.  He walks away leaving me in the company of a silence broken by the sounds of his receding footsteps on dried leaves

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.

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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. 🙂

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.

The Berlin Wall Today

 If you claim of having been to Berlin, then you must necessarily post pictures of the Wall. Or so I thought. The coming down of the Berlin wall perhaps marked the onset of serious television viewing. Raise your hand if you remember “The World This Week” by Prannoy Roy. Those images stay fresh in the mind. Of course, on this trip, I went to see the wall. Or whatever remains of it that is still standing.

At every street corner near the wall, the one thing that gets sold is a small assortment of broken concrete, purportedly remnants from the wall. Souvenirs, I am told. I cant imagine what people would do with a small piece of broken silly concrete. But then I was politely pointed to the fact that whatever pieces of the wall that fell have since found its way to strange places. Like a loo in Las Vegas. No, am not kidding. Odd things happen in Las Vegas, but a portion of the Berlin Wall as a backdrop to urinals perhaps reflects on Vegas. Or the Wall. Or pee. Whatever.

There are other places in the world, like a Conference Hall of the offices of Microsoft, in Redmond, where a portion of the wall still stands. (Gifted by Diamler Benz to Bill Gates). So, thats the other end of the spectrum. I have no idea why Diamler Benz chose to gift a portion of the wall to Bill Gates. Nor does it clearly occur to me, why this should adorn a conference room. Of course, all of this is clearly out of place if you start thinking of the monstrous cruelty of the wall coming up in the first place.

The wall came up in 1961 and went down in 1989. The wall was a wire fence to start out with and became a brick and mortar wall in 1965. The wall in its final concrete form was completed in 1980. Imagine one midnight, barricades come up along streets that you commuted to work for. Houses that came under the arc of a line drawn on a piece of paper, get vacated and destroyed. Neighbours find themselves in different countries. Two different ideologies to divide one city. With a thick concrete wall running in-between as a sordid reminder of how life could have been if it weren’t there.

Touching the wall now and wondering how successful it was to keep people of one city, divided for thirty years was quite something. Yet, in its fall, more than just concrete was felled. It fueled far more. in far away lands, than what people saw being felled. The Berlin Wall today is proof that art triumphs over divides and can well serve as both a balm and a reminder of a cruel bruise. Am glad some of it stands.

One side of it, the West German side had graffiti over the years, as people had access to go touch and do anything with it. The other side, the East German side, was supposedly a white thing, which nobody could go near. (They had one more wall built as some kind of a buffer wall). Naturally, when the wall came down it is the white blank wall that attracted artists from all over the world to come and express themselves. There is one long stretch which has been preserved and is still standing. After getting moved from where it stood, to where it stands today. It’s called the East Side Gallery in Berlin. .

 

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The East Side Gallery is perhaps the worlds “largest long lasting open air gallery”. There are works of art on either side and it can take a whole heap of your time, if you are into standing, staring and appreciating such stuff.  If you are up for it and want to go on a bike trip tracing the very places where the wall stood, well there is a guided tour. The Berlin Wall Trail. I discovered it much later and have put it down on the list of must dos for a later time.

The website proudly announces “Travelling along the Berlin Wall Trail, the traces of Cold War tensions are never too far away. Much of the trail runs on border patrol paths in the west (Zollwege) and their equivalents in the east (Kolonnenwege). You cycle through the city centre, past the museums, memorial sites and the last remaining watchtowers, and along the old border outside the city. This mix of nature and dramatic history means the Berlin Wall Trail offers the best of both worlds. It is a themed city tour and scenic route rolled into one”

Doesnt it sound alluring? I would have loved this. Having limited time and a surfeit of things to accomplish, I let go of the wall trail. I must hasten to bring to your kind notice, ladies and gentlemen, the last three lines of the website.
160 KM circular route of Berlin that is ‘easily managed by children’. Now, go on and make your choices.

The wall in itself, attracts all sorts of views. Like this one.  Which I was pointed to by the receptionist at hotel I was staying in. She was from the erstwhile East Germany as we chatted about how it was and how it is now. A structure that stood that long and attracted so much acrimony, becomes a memory aid to prep deep feelings entrenched in people.

But that the wall stood for so long automatically induces thoughts about how people tried to escape it. There were numerous daring attempts to cross over. All very creative attempts that hog attention and emotion. Nothing though like this one, when 57 people escaped through a tunnel dug by students, right under the wall. Its fifty years since that escape.

That night I ate dinner from a street side restaurant run by immigrants from Africa. As I watched them move effortlessly between tables and serve patrons, I wondered if there were new walls in the minds, that have since come up. Since the time, the old wall that stood on the ground was torn down. There seems to be many new walls around the world.

Walls get torn down when new perspectives emerge in the minds. Yes. New perspectives must emerge. Art can help. Thats the drift to catch. If there was one at all.

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.

TV Tower

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

Twinkle Wrinkle

The two cups of hot tea that he makes for us, two weary travelers, on a cold Udaipur morning fills the air. As the chill of the morning seeks renewal with a fresh gust of cold air, every sip of his tea seems to set the system right. 
He speaks, well, succinctly. He doesn’t need to speak a lot more. For his tea does the talking. It is both hot and crisp and with a sting of something like ginger. Keeping us awake. 

As the tea sinks in and the eyes see more of the man, the wrinkles became apparent. First, some. And then, some more. As he adjusts the apology of the woolens that’s on him, even more become visible. 

Ten rupees gets passed on to him. 

He searches for change of which there is none. He searches some more, rummaging through what seems to be a sheaf of yesterdays newspapers. Perhaps he has some cash there.  After another hurried ruffle, looks up and with an apology laced accent, says, “I don’t have change”.

“How much does it cost?  How much do you have to give”, I ask. 

The combination of abundant chill of the winter morning and the travel induced weariness that seamlessly envelop every bone, checking for the price of his tea before drinking it, was missed. Besides, this is a roadside stall. How much could it be!?! 

“Nothing”.  “I have nothing”. He says falteringly. “Actually, I had, but can’t find it”.  

Sheepishness announcing its presence through a substantial drop in the decibel level of his voice at the end of each sentence. 

“Doesn’t matter”. I say.  And move on.  Not bothering to stop and check with him. After all, It was ten rupees. Not a million.  The old man with the wrinkles indeed made a very genuine attempt and seemed sincerely out of change.  

As I get into the cab, the old man shouts out. “Wait”. He says running  as fast as his wobbly feet can bring him. “Now, what did I miss”, I wonder and hurriedly get out of the car. 

He grabs my hand and passes on a pack of biscuits to me. “For the five rupees”. He says. “Your balance”.

“It doesn’t matter”. I repeat. 
“To you”. He completes the sentence. And then adds, “It does matter. To me.” With a firmness that befits a commander at war. 

I smile and accept his biscuits. The wrinkles on his face stretch in sweet surrender to a smile that sprouts from nowhere. Perhaps to announce a quaint victory. Maybe in satisfaction of preserving what is dear to him: his pride. 

I swallow hard. The lesson stays. I say “thank you”. We look at each other for a few seconds.  He smiles. Suddenly, the twinkle in his eye outshines every wrinkle on the face. I smile too.   

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.