Travel

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.

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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.

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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

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.

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. 🙂

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.