Rapid Mediterranean

Sure, visiting Italy, Greece and Turkey over 5 days is not a recipe for immersion. But surprisingly, what it did allow me to do was to make a rapid comparison of three of the world’s prominent ancient civilizations. And here is my 6 line primer on these three great cultures :)

The Roman civilization was obviously a martial empire and the one thing that stood out was its emphasis on physical discipline and organization. The Appian way, the Roman baths and of course the Colosseum speak of a people obsessed to physically building order.

The Greeks on the other hand (incidentally an older civilization from whom he Romans gathered much) were clearly more intellectually inclined. The Greeks, using a new tool called Reason, gave rise to many seminal intellectual developments including such gems as the notion of equality of men and the premise that ideas are more important than physically perceived reality.

What about Turkey? Turkey was the gateway through which more ancient human achievements of the East reached Greece and then over millennia onwards to the wider West. And in this process of creative transmission became one of the great cosmopolitan civilizations ever.

Another travel scam?

HolidayIQ got this email recently…

Hello,

How are you doing! I hope you are fine? I’m sorry i didn’t inform you
about my trip to Scotland for a program, I’m presently in Scotland and
got mugged at a gun point by some armed robbers on my way to the hotel
where my money and other valuable things were kept including my
passport. I would like you to assist me with a loan of 1620Pounds to
sort-out my hotel bills and get myself back home.

I have spoken to the embassy here but they are not responding to the
matter effectively,I will appreciate whatever you can afford to assist
me with,I’ll Refund the money back to you as soon as i return, let me
know if you can be of any help. I don’t have a phone where i can be
reached.

Please let me know immediately.
Regards

DR.THAMMAN

Immigration

Immigration officials across the world are all sent to this common, secret school (run, I suspect by particularly virulent commissars of the ex-USSR) where they are taught the essential niceties of their job – a deeply suspicious look & the ability to never ever let the slightest smile (or even a suspicion thereof) escape on to one’s face, being the most important.

Two countries I have visited stand apart in this – Cyprus & Thailand.

The gate-keepers at the Larnaca airport smiled at me (giving me the heebeejeebies, since to the best of my prior knowledge these guys smile only when about to effect a cop) and – I kid you  not – asked about the weather back home.

The guys at Phuket were the best of the lot. Their interaction was as between mature adults. A smile breaking out of a ‘yeah, we know you are here only to have a good time and as soon as your money runs out, you will go away – but we gotta do this…’ look.

I have been to Saudi Arabia too, where I met the guys who took all the prizes at the commissar’s school.

Accessible Travel

I had never really thought of it before; the needs of the disabled when they travel. While traipsing around India in the last 10 days (I did Bangalore to Chennai to Bangalore to Delhi to Chennai to Tanjore to Chennai to Bangalore, which explains my disappearance from this blog for some time), I came across the group that was in India for a series of conferences on Accessible Travel, which is short-hand for ‘doing all of those things that help disabled travellers travel easier’.

Met a couple of interesting people that evening in Delhi – guys who are opening up a world of easier travel for the disabled.

Scott Rains : Scott is the man who put the disabled on the world agenda. He coined practically all the phrases that are today the cornerstones of all discourse on disability, including Universal Design. In fact, almost all US legislation on disability has the Rains imprimatur. Read Scott’s writings at the Rolling Rains report here.

Craig Grimes : Craig was the first person to demonstrate conclusively that the disabled are a definite ‘market’ in world travel. While living in Barcelona, Craig set up AccessibleBarcelona, a tour operator focused on helping the disabled have a good holiday in Barcelona. And made it into a viable and vibrant business. Craig now lives in Nicaragua and is at it again. Check out his latest venture – AccessibleNicaragua.

I also met Jani Nayar of Society for Accessible Travel & Hospitality in NY. They are a Non-profit that works to increase awareness of the needs of the disabled for Travel.

A common theme that ran through all of the conversation was the notion that disabled travellers form a large market. And that it is in the interest of the travel trade to focus on this market and make it easier for the disabled to get around.

North Cyprus Tourism Video

Run-of-the-mill tourism marketing video, except for one device. The voice over, which is that of a small kid, chanting la-la-la. If you plan to target the ‘family’ market, this is a pretty cool device to complete the association. Also, the video is a bit speeded up which presumably helps in a ‘gasp-isn’t-it-fun’ kind of way.

Click here for all my posts on Tourism Marketing

Click here for all my posts on Cyprus

Headlines from the Sunday Mail, Cyprus – June 22, 2008

Local media is often an excellent window to a place (ie. the real place, not the artificial world inside a hotel or in tourist traps) and if you have the luxury of travelling to a country that has English media, never miss the chance to riffle through its papers & mags. Here are a few headlines I found in the Sunday paper while in Cyprus.

Deep in Debt to beat the prices – Crisis, what crisis? Cypriots just keep on spending away

A story on how the general gloom in Europe does not seem to be getting to the sunny Cypriots who seem to be merrily borrowing loads of dough to keep at it.

Under the knife : men going the extra mile for their looksFrom nose jobs and hair removal to weight loss procedures, more and more young men are opting for surgery, but beware, it might not be for you…

Dr Andreas Chimonides, the plastic surgeon says ” you would be surprised at just how many men I treat this way”. Girls, Cyprus is hunk-heaven; visit it. Having said that, the girls are’nt too bad either.

Arty Landmark or eyesore: Should Big Mac stay put? - Unwieldy and out of proportion it may be, but the statue of Makarios in Nicosia has become a real tourist attraction.

What with Gandhigiri the rage in our land, this seems to be the season to get all affectionate with the father of the nation, in this case the Reverend Archbishop Makarios. But, is ‘Big Mac’ taking it a bit too far? The story is about mixed views on shifting a very big statue of the big man.

Who really owns your home? - Whether the house you bought is really yours depends on the procedures you followed when you signed the contract with the developer.

Evidently, Real Estate Developers in Cyprus have the same flexibility of character they have in ours.

Shhhh! Quiet copulation key for female chimpsThey cry out during sex to attract nearby males, but keep quiet when other females are around

So, finally the incontrovertible proof is in. We are descended from the apes. And it took the Sunday Mail in Cyprus to let us in on it.

and so it went. A lot of it sounds familiar, doesn’t it?

Mediterranean Gardens in Cyprus

(More Cyprus garden photos here)

In the less than the full 4 days that I was in Cyprus, I managed to sneak into a couple of really lovely, serene gardens. Larnaca town is full of these surprising little groves. A really beautiful one was around a local post office. Another gorgeous one was around the local Art college, where I sat with my laptop for an hour on a lazy Sunday morning, writing up my first Cyprus post.

What I found particularly fascinating was the mix of flora one got to see. There were ubiquitous tropical blooms that I am very familiar with from my childhood pottering around my mom’s garden in kerala. Particularly hibiscus, the bright red variety. I do believe they are some of the most beautiful flowers on the planet. And added to such tropical flowers were the trees, shrubs and flowers clearly only found here. It was a fascinating mix.

Date palms, olive, pomegranate and other trees mixed easily with lovely bougainvillea, hibiscus, oleander and a number of other flowers I know by sight and whose names I shall one day learn. What I particularly liked was the effective interplay of sunny spaces and shade – to me one of the critical components of the Art of Gardens.

The sense of sitting inside a grove in the Mediterranean is quite different from that in the tropics. In the tropics, as you sit in the shade of a grove, you feel the perfume of the plants mixed up with the heavy scent of moisture in the soil. It is a heady mix that hits you as one acute sensory overload. In contrast, the dry, thin air of the Mediterranean helps you ‘feel’ the distinct perfume of each type of plant and flower. I almost got the feeling that the difference in sensory perception between the two, was exactly the difference in the sensory perception between having an Indian meal versus a Mediterranean meal. Sorry to jump into this food thing. But, think of the difference. Indian food is, in general, an amalgam of very many scents & tastes all presented in an absolutely overwhelming sensory mix. Contrast this to Mediterranean food, where each individual element stands alone and you can actually taste, feel & smell each part pretty distinctly. I know I have not described it too well, but those of you who have had both might get what I am trying to say.

Maybe I am being fanciful here, but I do find interesting, the possibility that Nature (and therefore Geography, really) has had a big role in evolving the ‘way’ food is consumed in each culture.

Click here for all my Cyprus posts>>

Ofto Kleftiko, Halloumi & the world’s lamb capital

(No, Ofto Kleftiko is not the Cypriot term for an old lady by an oven – it is actually very slow-cooked lamb. Just put this photo in for effect!)

Kleftiko is a form of cooking in Greece & Cyprus in which the raw ingredients are put into a hole in the ground, sealed with mud and slow fired for 6 to 7 hours. Lamb done this way is a particular delicacy and having experienced it at the Mona Lisa restaurant on the other side of the Larnaca fort, I can say this with confidence. Go for it.

The origins of Kleftiko are a bit murky, but the more popular version suggests that Greek soldiers dumped meat & veggies into the ground in the morning, fired it with charcoal and left to fight the Romans. At sundown, those of them that survived the day’s battle would come back and eat up the stuff, which to their surprise had become deliciously tender by then. The good men at Mona Lisa plied me with the softest, most delicate Lamb I have ever had along with wonderful rice and potatoes. Kleftiko.

Halloumi is goat’s cheese and is another Greek/Cypriot favourite. Grilled or Fried, Halloumi makes a great course in itself. And if you don’t believe me, check out oomphy Nigella Lawson’s take on it.

As you can see, there is a pattern beginning to emerge. And it is – yes, Lamb.

The middle east & the Mediterranean are the places to go for those who like their Ovine repasts. If East Asia is the place to go for Seafood and the Americas for more bovine pursuits, Asia Minor is great for all forms of goat/sheep/lamb. Whether it is lamb kebab or lamb pilaf from Turkey or the Kleftiko from Cyprus, Lamb enthusiasts will never tire in this land. And after 4 days of unceasing effort in this direction, all I could say was baa.

Click here for all my Cyprus posts>>

Cyprus, Greece and Turkey

As this map of the Mediterranean shows, Cyprus is really pushed into Asia and closer to Africa than to Europe. And as I lay bobbing in the lovely blue waters of Larnaca’s bay in the south-east of the Island of Cyprus , I knew that a bit further down to my left was Syria, straight down was Israel and to my right, Egypt. I was truly in the cusp of Asia Minor and Northern Africa and just a stone’s throw away from Southern Europe.

Cyprus is mostly Greek, which is surprising considering Greece is relatively far away. The other part of CYprus is Turkey. The Greeks and the Turks have been traditional competitors in the Eastern Mediterranean rim. And as is the case with such long running feuds between two countries who see themselves as ‘ancient civilizations’, history can never be forgotten and solving problems among the two is a pretty torturous process.

IN 1974 Turkey invaded Cyprus and took a portion of the Island. The Greek Cypriots screamed blue murder and now call the rest of the island (the non-Turkish part), ‘Free Cyprus’, which does seem to be a loaded term. In the span of just the 3 days I was there, I too got a small taste of the long running animosity. On the very first day of my visit, I was talking to a middle-aged lady owner of a book-shop. I casually asked her about the language of Cyprus. She looked at me for 10 seconds in shock and sniffed, “Greek. The Cypriots are Greek people”. And she absolutely refused to talk to me after that. Although 35 years have passed, the war is fresh in people’s minds and unsuspecting visitors can get caught in the cross-fire.

Click here for all my Cyprus posts>>

An evening at the waterfront promenade in Larnaca

(Larnaca Waterfront Promenade)

The shrill whistle blew my reverie. The fat guy again, on the dot every 15 minutes or so. For the full 3 hours that I sat there, I did’nt see him sell any stuff. But he sat in front of his little shop with a mischevious inner smile just about touching his lips. And every 15 minutes, he would pick up a little whistle and let go, scaring the odd pigeon and causing ripples in absolutely nothing else. Larnaca’s waterfront promenade at twilight is a place nothing much can cause ripples in.

The wildest sights of the evening are the young studs walking about in marauding groups. And knowing the way Cyprus is, the most dangerous thing they will probably ever get up to is to overdo the hair-gel. Hey, but I cannot complain. I used to be one too, and soon, my elder one will get there. Whew. The chicitas walking in front know exactly what is happening. The poor guys behind, huge hormone cocktails all of them, frantically hurrying after lithe tanned legs in front, involuntarily caught in the oldest rip tide of Life – that of the mating call.

What a mixture of races this is. I can see the patrician Greek faces one remembers from old paintings that show oval faced Greek beauties with tendrils of hair over the faces. Well, go to the Larnaca promenade to see them. They are still there and they are beautiful. Is’nt it strange how the greatest civilisations have the best looking women – is that a Cause or an Effect I wonder?

Anyway, back to the Race question. The ubiquitous Filipino nanny is here too. What is it about the Filipinos that seem to make them great care-givers. For some reason, they seem to be a Race of friendly, caring people for whom the act of helping others is genuinely interesting. While economic necessity and the ability to speak English are often touted as the reasons why Filipinos are all over the world as maids & nannies (and of course, there is no doubt about these), I am starting to think there is more to it than that.

Funnily enough, there are a number of people who look fairly Indian. They look like us, but they also look different. Mysterious. Are they Gypsies? And then of course, there are the hordes of Northerners. Brits, Germans, Nordic types, Russians, Slavs…

Now, let us dwell on Northerners for a moment. They work hard all through the year, running hither and thither buying this, selling that and making money. And for one glorious month every year, they go to the Sun and hang about and do little, soaking in enough heat into their bones to help them pass the next 11 months in a harsh land. Geography determines all human actions. If you are born in a cold and hostile land that does not give you an even chance of survival, the only thing you can do is to Do. Move about, keep warm, forage and maraud – just to survive. Thousands of years of this imperative has given the Northerners a way of life that I am sure they never thought possible. They have almost effectively tamed the Elements in their favour and with their great expending of energy brought the whole world under their sway. So successful has this model of incessant work been, some of them have even coded it into their religion. They call it the ‘Protestant Work Ethic’. The idea that more work is morally & spiritually uplifting and someone who does less work deserves a boot from God. Get to hotter climes and you can see this idea start to wobble. Many years ago, I remember reading a novel by the American Frank Yerby, in which the first scene opens with a European pastor walking down the steps of his ship after a long voyage under the blazing summer sun, to find a small Indian curled up, sleeping under a tree. Confirms all his prejudices of the ‘indolent natives’. Now the whole world has unquestioningly adopted this ideal of incessant work and its pay-off of world domination. Come to think of it, this is a pretty stupid idea for people in warmer climes. After all, if your land is blessed by the elements and there is no threat of imminent death (as there would be in cold and hostile clime) I see no reason to work so hard. And young George, the Cypriot with a Dutch mother, who gave me a great introduction to Limassol and Lefkara (about which another post will follow) eloquently argued for the same thing. Alvin Toffler in one of his books has a chapter titled “Gandhi with Satellites’, in which he paints the possibility of the human race moving to a very small, local community based mode of a quiet life (much like our forefathers in the tropics did just a couple of generations ago) but with the important difference that technology allows us to be masters of the Elements everywhere on Earth and to communicate with each other across the globe. I believe the next century wil take us very close to this situation. Modern Cyprus is a harbinger.

In this medley of races is obviously a medley of clothes. Uber-chic western dresses mix with turkish head scarves with the odd traditional skirt thrown in. Why do Western women look so good in western clothes and not so good – sorry girls – in Indian stuff like Sarees (ok, ok, just to even the field, I think the reverse is true for Indian women). I think it has to do with Shoulders. Occidental women are generally big-built and this means wide shoulders. The more I observe western clothing the more I think it is primaily about adorning these wide shoulders. On the other hand, clothing for Indian women is mostly about draping the hips – the shoulders dont seem to count. And in this difference probably lies the reason why the twain can never meet.

And in these deep and grave thoughts, passed an evening at the waterfront promenade in Larnaca…

Click here for all my Cyprus posts>>

A first visit to Cyprus

Cyprus has for long been on my list of places to visit. This Eastern Mediterranean island is at the confluence of Europe, Asia & Africa and so geographically is at a clearly fascinating place. And as is inevitable with such Geography, the history is pretty interesting too. The Turks, The Cypriots and The Greeks have been fighting over this piece of land for a very long time and I am told, scars of all of these battles remain.

Of course, given that Cyprus was a British Colony till 1955, it is a big destination for English tourists seeking Sun.

I have my visa done and tickets & hotel booked for a short visit to Cyprus.

Read all my Cyprus posts here.

See lots of Cyprus photos here.

My European trip

(Theatre of Pompey)

Random phrases one picks up in life sometimes stay with you and keep playing in that background song of the mind. A few such words in my own little background ditty pull me to a Europe I want to explore.

The Ides of March : ‘Beware the Ides of March’ said a soothsayer to Julius Caeser. And sure enough on the 15th of March (the 15th day of a few months were called Ides by the ancient Romans), Caesar was assassinated in the Theatre of Pompey in Rome. There are many reasons to visit Rome, but for me personally, none as compelling as the vision of the soothsayer talking to Julius Caesar and the ensuing murder in one of classical buildings of ancient Rome.

Checkpoint Charlie : Some of the greatest ‘spy vs spy’ novels of my young days had an inevitable setting. Checkpoint Charlie, that brutal and brooding bridge separating communist Berlin from its capitalist part. Germany is not a country on my top list of holiday destinations – for some reason, I can never find a great enthusiasm for it. But the one thing that I would like to explore in Germany is Checkpoint Charlie and the peculiar psyche of a city torn apart by ideologies. It does seem to be one of those defining European things.

Frosted Fields of Juniper : Paul Simon sang -

…and when you ran to me

your cheeks flushed with the night

we walked on frosted fields of juniper and lamplight

i held your hand…

And no one one growing up in an urban (& the slightly westernised part of) Indian metro in the seventies and eighties could have escaped the good Paul. Nor did I. And have wanted to see ‘a frosted field of juniper’ ever since. Of course, once I figured out that Gin is made from Juniper berries, the idea kinda took firmer root (so to speak).

They grow in northern Europe and there is a little town in a quiet corner of Europe, where a granny’s house sits in the middle of a field of Juniper.

Anyone for my European trip?

Travel writing & the art of writing about Food

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“we counted fourteen separate hors d’oeuvres – artichoke hearts, tiny sardines fried in batter, perfumed tabouleh, creamed salt cod, marinated mushrooms, baby calamari, tapenade, small onions in a fresh tomato sauce, celery and chick-peas, radishes and cherry tomatoes, cold mussels. Balanced on top of the loaded tray were thick slices of pate and gherkins, saucers of olives and cold peppers. The bread had a fine crisp crust. There was white wine in the ice bucket, and a bottle of Chateauneauf-du-Pape left to breathe in the shade”

” The main course arrived – rosy slices of lamb cooked with whole cloves of garlic, young green beans and a golden potato-and-onion galette

“The cheese was from Banon, moist in its wrapping of vine leaves, then came the triple flavours and textures of the desserts – lemon sorbet, chocolate tart, and creme angalise all sharing a plate. A coffee. A glass of marc from Gigondas. A sigh of contentment.”

Peter Mayle can be irritating. Here I had just finished what most observers would call a sumptuous Sunday lunch and settled down to read his “A year in Provence” and before you know it, I am panting for more food. I must say this for the man. He can bring food alive . Continue reading

1931 AD

American movies were having a good year. Top releases included Frankenstein, Mata Hari, Chaplin’s City Lights and James Cagney’s Public Enemy in addition to Dracula and Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde.

Other world events too were apace. Thomas Edison was filing his last patent application. New Delhi became India’s capital. The Empire State Building was being completed. Mao Zedong proclaimed the Chinese Soviet Republic and Haile Selassie signed Ethiopia’s first Constitution.

And in that year, a young man from the backwoods country in the southern tip of India set sail for England to pursue the dream of higher education. Along with 5 other Indians, he would be among the first batch of St Catherine’s College in Oxford University. And would later be immortalised as ‘Lost Alumni‘.

I haven’t as yet informed the Dons at St Catherine’s; but if ever there was a person who was not lost, it was this young man. He went on to do a lot of stuff in life, none of which could be characterised as ‘lost’. I know it, because I knew this young man very well.

But in that world, where telephony was an idea and long distance transport was rudimentary, such displacement was probably the equivalent of ‘lost’.

All of this came to me while listening to Paul Theroux the other day. Continue reading

Golden Anniversary of the National School of Drama, Delhi

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(photo from National School of Drama)

Read a news item that NSD is doing a series of plays to celebrate its 50th anniversary. I first went for one of NSD’s annual festivals in 1991 (I think). It was held in the open air theatre in NSD’s campus close to Mandi house and Kamani auditorium. Have you ever watched a live performance perched on the steps of an open air amphitheatre surrounded by aficionados, in the darkness of a cold northern winter? If not, do it as soon as possible.

Nothing is an elevating as a live performance; a real person on a stage creating a spell of a character and drawing distinct human beings that make up the audience into that spell and that moment. It is one of the fascinating aspects of being human – this bubble which live theatre creates, encompassing both performers and the audience. I love it.

London is one of the greatest cities on earth and theatre is a big reason for that. West End of course we know. Great plays and fine dining make this THE location for an evening out in that city. But for a truly wonderful experience head out to Regents Park for an evening with the New Shakespeare Company. And here is the kicker; it is fairly close to Baker Street. So if you like both Sherlock Holmes and William Shakespeare, you need go no further for absolute nirvana.

Unfortunately, most Indian cities have practically non-existent facilities for theatre and almost certainly none for open air theatre. Further testimony to the fact that many Indian cities have become Continue reading

My Dateless Dairy

dateless_diary.jpg

I am in the middle of reading R K Narayan’s My Dateless Diary which is a book on his trip to America. As the name suggests Narayan does does not reveal the date of his journey, but one can make out this is early 1960s – interestingly Narayan is 50 years old & this is the first time that he has gone out of India. Obviously much has changed in America since. But the real surprise of the book is the enormity of change in India that it reflects. Narayan muses about various things in America in relation to how they are in India. And many of his observations on how things are in India are no more true.

Funnily enough for a book written about America, the book reminds me of my childhood in the late sixties and early seventies in a small town in the deep south of India. Life was ordered, with predictable values and even more predictable events. Other than my neighbour, a boy who had moved to India from the US, my only touch with a wider world was ‘Span’, a thinly-veiled propaganda magazine produced by the US Information Service which they circulated to all bureaucrats (among others) across the country. My dad having been in the Indian Administrative Service got a copy and my view of the world is now forever colored by that. I discovered many things of great beauty and interest in that magazine. The most lasting impression was of an artist they profiled who did abstract paintings in oil. I have forgotten everything about that artist; but, the colours of those paintings were so alive in the glossy paper of Span, they remain with me to this day and continue to fuel my interest in abstracts in oil. The magazine closed down with budget cuts in the Reagan years (I think). They should have continued it. It did more for American super-powerdom than all the nukes they have combined. And maybe there would still be little kids across the globe who would look at those glossy sheets and wonder at the American way of life.

Interestingly, there was another book I got in my childhood that came from the Russians. It was a large coffee table kind of book called “This is my native land” and I remember buying it from a bus-converted-to-a-bookshop, run by the USSR cultural centre, which was the communist propoganda wing. Much less slicker than Span, but very intriguing too. Covering various parts of the vast expanse of the old Soviet Union, the book brought alive another kind of wonder, that of a vast and untamed land.

If India wants to have more influence in the wider world over the coming years, I would suggest our very own ‘Span’ equivalent. Even in today’s world of hyper-communication, bound glossy sheets in the hands of a curious child is still an extraordinary device of influence. And, of course, there are many little children across the world.

Click here for all my posts on Travel Writing.

Click here for my posts on North America.

Chelsea Harbour, London

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(photo courtesy : Chelsea Harbour Marina)

Get on to the District Line (green) on the London tube and aim for Wimbledon. Alight at a station called Fulham Broadway and turn left as you come out of the station; walk for about a quiet mile and you get to Chelsea Harbour. London is full of surprisingly nice boroughs and Chelsea Harbour is one of them. If you are in London, are interested in Interior Design and have a few hours to spare to meander out a bit, this is an interesting little trip.

I found Chelsea Harbour a few years ago because I was chasing up a new design centre I had heard rumours of. Chelsea Design Centre - CDC – is a nice concept if you happen to like anything associated with Interior design. (I do, so the interest). CDC is a one-stop mall for various outlets providing designer products for all interior design requirements. When I visited it a few years ago, it was almost exclusively focused on Architects and Builders. I recollect wondering why they had not promoted themselves among the aam janata and I am happy to report that they seem to done it now. It is a concept crying out to be done in India; I think Mumbai, Delhi & Bangalore can each take one such place.

The other interesting place is the Chelsea Harbour Marina which as the name suggests is, well, a Marina. A lovely little marina on the Thames ringed by residential buildings that obviously provide a respite for harassed but well-heeled Londoners.

Here is the link to all my Europe posts.

And, here you can find stuff classified under European Cuisine.

Size Matters

(A Youtube video of Pokhara, Nepal)

Trips to Nepal (some time ago) & Hong Kong (recently) have convinced me that I am a ‘size matters’ kind of person. And, please cut the snigger – I am talking about dress sizes and currency values here.

For as long as I can remember, I have travelled to countries where One Indian Rupee converts into less – a lot less – than one local dollar/drachma/whatever. Essentially, the Indian Rupee was always ‘weak’. So how low or foolish or insecure I felt in a country was directly correlated to the weakness of the Indian Rupee at that time, against that currency.

And then I got to Nepal. For the first time in my life, I was faced with the shocking reality that One Indian Rupee could actually fetch you more than One of the host currency. I puffed my chest, walked with long strides, complained freely about the strange food and funny people and generally became a pest. At which point I realised why western travellers appear in a certain way to Indians. If I were an American or Brit and got 40 Rupees or 80 Rupees for every Dollar or Pound I converted, I know how I would behave. Given that, the Americans and the Brits are a reasonably well behaved lot in India. So, unfortunately for some of us, the size of the wad of notes you get everytime you convert currency is one of the strongest ‘mood creators’ in international travel. A fairly compelling case, I would think, for quickly establishing a worldwide single currency system. Mr Ban, I hope you are listening.

Hong Kong brought me another perspective on size. I walked into Marks & Spencer and asked for a shirt. The shop girl looked me up & down (actually she was at least 85 years of age, so there was no real danger) and said ‘XXL I think’. Wow. In India I am a firm ‘M’. So, it was great to swagger into an XXL. And I had discovered the next ‘mood creator’ of international travel, which fortunately for some of us, occasionally works to our advantage. Once again, this helps the westerners, but also helps Africans & Pacific Islanders. So that is ok.

If you are from a country occupied by a small-built race with a weak currency, a sense of humour might be an imperative for international travel. On the other hand, if you are big-built and have a strong currency, please go easy on the whining. If you are somewhere in between, grow-up. You need to find other pegs for your self esteem. How about playing kho-kho well?

Preservation & Conservation

I come across calls for preserving the past or conserving nature or suchlike almost everyday. And I ponder..

A few years ago I read an interesting article about the Irish diaspora. It seems the infamous potato famine in Ireland forced many an Irishman to cross the Atlantic & seek refuge in the new world of America. A couple of centuries later, their descendants, now successful plutocrats in America decided they wanted to discover their roots in Ireland. So they set out to go to Ireland of their parents & grand-parents. Unfortunately, when they got there, that Ireland of their past had gone away. The Irish had given up the old ways for what they saw as the ‘success’ of the American Irish. And much as the Americans tried, they could not convince the Irish that the old way was the better way.

For those of us who live in big cities, the countryside seems idyllic and calm and we rush to its embrace every weekend. But for those who live in the country, the bright lights of the city beckon. I know many a gentleman-farmer who pines for the City all week and runs away from the ‘dead & boring’ countryside to the City every weekend. And their happiest moment is when Café Coffee Day opens a raucous & glitzy outlet in their backyard.

So, preservation & conservation is often a matter of perspective.

Top 5 holidays for winter 2007

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(Hogmanay in Edinburgh – photo from stuckonscotland)

So you have done well this year. The bonus has been good, your spouse is making good money & the stocks you invested in have zoomed up with the index. It is time to reward yourselves. How about a Mont Blanc Pen? Or maybe a set of fancy wheels? Or maybe a ballooning trip over the African veldt? or book yourself for one of the first sub-orbital flights with Virgin Galactic?

In my regular conversations with users & members of HolidayIQ, many of whom have the classic ‘successful’ profile I outlined in the first para, I now find that unique experiences are taking over from fancy products as the real self-indulgences. And it is clear that in the early 21st century India, unique travel has become THE way of self expression of the successful. Move aside, Mont Blanc & Maserati. Welcome to Masai Mara & the Moon (soon, hopefully).

Over the last few years, I have given up on business travel and got into some serious holidaying. So I get asked this question quite a lot – what are your suggestions for a holiday this season? So, in answer to the key existential angst of our time, here is my personal list of 5 great travel escapes for Winter 2007.

  • Watch the whales migrate at Byron Bay, Australia. One of the world’s most scenic spots, home to a great ‘littoral rainforest’ is also the setting for one of nature’s amazing events.
  • Soak in the atmosphere of true ‘ancient India’ on the banks of the Betwa and Maheshwar, ancient rivers of Madhya Pradesh. Stay in classily refurbished palaces & forts right on the waters edge.
  • Bring in the New Year at one of the classiest cities on earth. Be a part of Edinburgh’s Hogamanay, from 29th Dec 2007 to 1st jan 2008
  • Do a ‘Cantonese crawl’ – explore haute chinese cuisine starting in Hong Kong, Shenzen & Guangzhou and taking in various parts of the chinese coast around the south china sea
  • Scuba dive in the pristine coral island of Agatti, Lakshadweep. Discover the million shades that lie between Blue & Green.