Saturday, July 09, 2016

Travel Thoughts and Taughts

Have you ever watched the departures screen at the airport and imagined hopping and skipping across all those cities? Whenever I'm at a major airport, I usually stare at the departures board and day dream of traveling to those exotic destinations. Finally I had the opportunity to trapeze across a small section of the world earlier this year. Five months on the road is a long time, but I've barely scratched the surface. This world is a big place. And that's wonderful because there will always be something left to see and do.

Months on the road was a novelty for this former citizen of corporate America. There was an impulse to operate in week long vacation mode, to cram the days and to try to see as much as possible. This definitely led to burnout and I had to pace myself. It was exhilarating to realize that I had all the time in the world to see so much and so little. It's liberating to realize that traveling the world is checking off boxes on an infinitely long list. I learned the paradox that the more you see, the more you have not seen.

I set out out from Calif in the beginning of Feb. It would have been hard had I been on my own the entire time. Meeting and talking to strangers is fun to an extent. And so is the feeling of complete independence. I've had some amazing conversations with complete strangers on the solo legs of my journey. But I think I'd choose travel with family, friends and friends of friends over solo travel. I like to share my experiences with people I can keep in touch with, with people I have something in common with. I love getting to know people at a deeper level and to invest in relationships. And this can't quite be achieved during fleeting encounters with strangers at cafes or in trains. But this shouldn't deter solo travel. After all, the alignment of time, money and energy happens very rarely in one's life. Throw in the requirement of friends, and you are looking at astronomical odds. Thus, when you get a chance to travel, you take it. And that's what I did.

Travel is an incredible teacher and you learn a thing or two on on the road. First, traveling made me realize that most people are nice, even Parisians. There are morons out there, no doubt. But statistically if we are much more likely to meet nice people, why do we worry and assume the worst all the time? As Mark Twain wrote, “Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness.” Obviously it is important to keep your wits about you and not be naive, but that shouldn't devolve into cynicism and unwarranted suspicion. For me, life is about taking risks, being open to new experiences and being vulnerable so as to let others into your lives.

Second, I learned to trust God and yourself. When you travel, you are by default outside your comfort zone. You learn to go with the flow. Some planning is obviously essential to enhance your experience. For example, standing in line for an hour when you could have bought tickets online is stupid. But you can't plan for everything. You can't have every eventuality accounted for. It would have been hard for me to be prepared for everything that happened on my first day in France. And you have to remember that most problems can be solved with money and a level head. Take one step at a time. Don't look at and worry too much about the boulders on the horizon that you trip on the pebble at your feet.

Thirdly, I learned that if I were nice to myself, I'd be nice to others. If you wake up late or spill coffee or misplace something, relax. Stuff happens. Slow down and you'll have more time for kindness. Besides, as Calvin said "When you're SERIOUS about having fun, it's not much fun at all!" In this year of mercy, I have learned that mercy comes from within.

Lastly, on a personal level, this trip satisfied my wanderlust to a certain extent. There are many jokes about the Jesuit vow of poverty. But even a Jesuit level of poverty means that I'll never have the freedom to go anywhere and everywhere I want. In a way, even though this trip was absolutely awesome, I'm willing to let it be a one time thing. As I mentioned before, this world is a truly big place and I'll never see everything. But having seen a tiny bit, I'm satisfied and willing to let go of the freedom of having the world at the reach of my credit card.

The world is beautiful. Let it inspire you. If you believe in God, use the moments that captivate you to thank and praise the creator. In the drudgery of life, sometimes you may lose sight of beauty and life will become tedious. Take time to find the beauty around you, in nature, people, food, architecture, music, and the list endless. Find God and find beauty in everything. And as the ancient prayer goes, "May you always walk in beauty."

Thursday, June 30, 2016

This one time when I was backpacking through Europe

Three months through western and central Europe was an amazing time of exploring myriad cultures, millennia of history and a variety of food. It's hard to paint the whole of Europe with a single brush, hence I'd suggest to read about specific countries in other posts, if you are interested. But I thought a wrap up of the trip was on order when people ask about my trip. 

Europe is best for the culture, history, architecture and food. It is a feast for the senses. The variety within the continent is mind boggling as expected, but don't rule out the variations within a country. Spain, for example, can be easily divided into several distinct cultures. Having traveled extensively around the US, I can say that Americans need not travel to Europe for untouched wilderness because there isn't much of it. Note, I didn't make it to Iceland and Norway. Natural beauty abounds, but not wilderness. Also, depending on the length of the trip, throw in some countryside in your itinerary. Guide books, (I used Lonely Planet), are biased towards cities. Obviously they give the maximum bang for your buck if you have only a few days. But after a week or two, I found cities tedious and overwhelming and had to decamp to the country to recharge.

Getting around Europe is fairly easy. I didn't rent a car anywhere mainly because of the cost, the hassle of figuring out parking rules and not understanding the language in most countries. Public transport in cities is exceptional and the inter city train connections range from superb in the west to non existent in the east. Though conversely, it's expensive in the west and cheap in the east. Train journeys are generally scenic, but I wouldn't use it as a way to see the country. In the sense, they are good to get from point A to B or to socialize. But it's hard to appreciate a place when you are whizzing by at high speeds, sometimes in excess of 300 kmph. Even Switzerland, with it's legendary train routes, is best seen by walking the trails and soaking in the scenery. 

Eurail pass is handy, but may not be worth it. I'll examine the pros and cons. First, it's expensive. I had to save about $60 on average on every train ride, assuming that I'd use all 17 trips over two months, to break even. Train rides usually don't cost that much, except high speed trains which generally serve only major cities in western Europe. Besides, the high speed trains often incurred an added $12 fee for reservations. Further, overnight trains might cost more for these 'reservations'.

Second, a rail pass could be considered as a flexible travel option, meaning you don't need prior reservations. Depends. Some trains require reservations before boarding even with a rail pass. And even if they don't require reservations, I'd recommend you do it anyways. Else you might get bumped around during the journey by people who have reserved the seat you are on. Furthermore, I couldn't make these reservations online as Eurail said that they could only mail tickets to my address in Calif. I have no idea why they don't have e-tickets. Thus for every reservation, I had to trek to the nearest train station. And if you go to a station, you can only book tickets for journeys originating in that country. For example. if you are in Spain, you can't book a ticket for a journey in France. So much for flexibility. 

Third, be careful about using the Eurail website/app for checking train connections. Trains not covered by the pass may not be listed. For example, there is a train from Ljubljana to Budapest. But it didn't show up when I was looking at options on the app. Lastly, in Central Europe, trains may not be your best option, rendering your pass quite useless. Overall, the verdict on the pass is, it depends. You can make your decision based on my feedback and information from a thousand other travel blogs and websites.

We may have heard the joke on European stereotypes concerning heaven and hell.
Heaven Is Where:
The French are the chefs,
The Italians are the lovers
The British are the police
The Germans are the mechanics
And the Swiss make everything run on time

Hell is Where:
The British are the chefs
The Swiss are the lovers
The French are the mechanics
The Italians make everything run on time
And the Germans are the police

I think I'd want Italian chefs. But not drivers. I had heard about bad drivers and haphazard parking in Italy. Completely true. Even the cops drive badly. But the food, ah Italian food, makes up from everything. On the other hand, British food lives up to its billing. That's why they took over half the world. The Germans are definitely disciplined and organized. And their language lives up to sounding like machine gun fire. The French fortunately or unfortunately didn't conform to their reputation of snobbery.  

Not listed above is Spain. I had heard of the lazy stereotype because of their siestas. I don't think that's quite true because they do end up working the same hours as everyone else. It's just that then their evenings are taken by work, and so the socializing spills over in to the wee hours of the morning and we have a sleep deprived nation on our hands. And lastly, Ireland. I didn't make it out here, but I saw Irish pubs all over Europe. They are always around the corner, lest an Irish guy gets a little too sober.

Best of Europe
The best cities on my trip were Paris, Prague and Amsterdam. It's hard to say why exactly and it also depends on your interests. For me it was architecture, history, beer, cafes and overall ambiance. For countryside, it has to be Bavaria with it's rolling hills against the backdrop of the alps and quaint villages. The best country was Italy. It scores decently well on all the above categories, plus the food is excellent. Of course the objectivity of my judgement may have been affected by the weather, cost and company I had in those places.

And here is a map of my trip. Barcelona was the first stop and Paris the last. Black lines represent land journey, green air and blue water. 

Friday, June 24, 2016

France, je t'aime

I bid farewell to England and took the ferry across the moat to France. I have always wanted to travel by sea, only so that I could say "This ship has sailed!". And to get the feel of the adventures of yore, when brave men sailed into the unknown in search new lands and fortune, without knowing if they'd fall of the edge of the earth, without Google Maps. My departure from Portsmouth was a rather staid affair. None of the hoopla and fanfare that you see in the movies. No waving and cheering. No foghorn. No "weigh the anchor!". Just a quiet rumble and we slowly pulled away from the bleak gray coastline of southern England.

The next morning dawned crisp and clear. Land Ahoy! That was France ahead. It really wasn't that exciting as the journey had only been 12 hours (covering a measly 200 km) and I had slept through most of it. Besides, there were no icebergs or pirates in the English Channel. While the sea journey was quite uneventful, the rest of the day made up for it. I saw the good and the bad of the French in a space of a few hours.

They ferry was delayed by an hour because of the annual summer strike by French workers. And so I missed the only bus to Mont St Michel, my day trip plan for the day. I decided to rebook my train ticket to leave St Malo at the earliest. The attendant grumpily took care of it, but I wasn't told that the changeover in Paris involved changing stations. Thankfully I read the tickets. When I reached Paris, I headed to the info desk to inquire about transit options to the other station. The guy at the information desk spoke to me as though I had insulted his mom or had stolen his girlfriend or both. Why do people whose job is to help people behave like that?

I got on the metro as instructed, but when we arrived at the metro stop, the train didn't stop as the station was closed because of the strike. Now how could Mr Grumpy not have known this? Thankfully a guy on the subway helped me figure out a new option and I made it onto the train just in time. I arrived in the beautiful Loire valley and hopped off the train at Amboise. I made my way out of town and into the countryside towards my Airbnb reservation. After a good 45 min of walking, I was there. Only problem, the place didn't exist. I looked at my Google Map, it said I had arrived. I didn't have a phone to call the host. Eventually I knocked on a neighbor's door. I was a little embarrassed to have interrupted their dinner. But they were very kind and I asked to use their WiFi. I got through to the Airbnb host, but couldn't understand his French. One of my new found friends offered to speak and translate for me. He figured that I was on the wrong street and began to give me instructions. But the older lady in the house insisted that they drive me over. I love the French! Finally, I had made it to the Airbnb place. In hindsight it was good that the strike led me to book an earlier train. Else I would have been wandering the countryside all night.

After the roller coaster of a first day in France, it was time to explore the country. I had seen the gorgeous French countryside on TV when I used to watch the Tour de France. I was quite stoked to ride those same back roads through quaint towns and over rolling hills of golden wheat fields. Loire Valley is famous for it castles with Chonenceau and Chambord among the finest. Also, soak in the small town ambiance in Blois and Amboise

My last stop in Europe was Paris, the city of lights. Paris was absolutely gorgeous and Paris after midnight was magical. With the Euro 2016 on, the party was definitely in town. The piece the resistance was the Eiffel tower of course. It is arguably the most recognizable landmark in the world. The view from the top at dusk was spectacular. But Paris was more than monuments and museums. It was about the ambiance. I loved walking the streets, past the cafes with chairs facing outside. Seriously, it's a thing in Paris where people don't face each other, but sit on the same side of the table, facing outside. A long lunch in one such cafe, watching the world go by, secretly or openly judging others is a must do thing in Paris. Throw in a rude waiter and your experience of Paris is complete.

The French are surprising friendly. Or maybe I had really low expectations. Much has been made of the French attitude and ennui. But I didn't see much of it on display, except for the odd waiter or help desk attendant. I wonder how they'd have reacted if I had said that Calif wine was better than the French wine. And they really appreciated my efforts in speaking in French. It was probably the first time they had heard French in an Indian accent. Now I speak only a little French. So whenever I initiated a conversation in French, they would just keep talking. And I would have no idea what they had said. But French sounds so beautiful that I didn't want them to stop. I once told a lady to just keep speaking because it was especially mellifluous. I think I would want to listen to bed time stories in French.

Paris was an amazing end to this trip. I had my doubts and fears with the strike, floods, Euro crowds, terrorist warnings, etc. None of it mattered. France, truly je t'aime.

Shout out to Lenka and Gabo for hosting in Paris.

Thursday, June 16, 2016

Musings over Afternoon Tea in Britain

As I stood in line at the immigration counter at the airport, I wondered whether the Brits stood in line when they arrived in India. I believe it's a little hypocritical of them to check others before letting them in into their country. I thought that maybe I should at least get a free beer as restitution for the plunder they carried out over the centuries. Though minor detail, I should have taken up my case with the Portuguese, not the Brits. I looked around and noticed that all the signs were in English. Obviously. But this is the first place in Europe that had only one language. At least they should have had signs in French as well to placate the French for losing out as the universal language.

The first port of call was York, famous for its medieval setting. At the station I was disappointed not to see the famed queuing tendency of the Brits when the train arrived. But I was well pleased to see rules strictly observed on the stairways. Basically you can only walk up/down on the left side, with prominent 'No Entry' signs on the right side. And even if one side is packed, no one would walk on the other side. Given that people depart a station in waves and arrive in trickles, it made no sense to have both lanes to be of equal width. While on the topic of no sense, what's with sinks that have two faucets, one for hot water and one for cold water? I was left constantly alternating my hands back and forth to prevent scalding and freezing of my hands. Also, they use a curious mix of metric and imperial units of measure. Distances are in miles and elevations are in feet for instance. All things aside, the one thing that I applaud the Brits for is the double decker buses. Why haven't other countries thought of that? It's such an efficient use of space. Plus you get great views from the upper level.

Getting back to York, after that important tangent. The York Minster is one of those places where you spend more than 5 min just because you paid a hefty entry fee and you linger around pointlessly to get your money's worth. Couldn't they tell you that the church has been converted to a theater temporarily? All you could see was the ugly back side of stage sets. The main draw of a Gothic structure is the feeling of space, created by the tall slender columns. Here, there was scaffolding everywhere. I darted for the exit once the respectful 5 min was up. The bright side of leaving right away was that I caught a 'free' history tour of the city. A colorful guy talking about the colorful past of England was an ideal combination. Potter around the medieval streets and along the city wall, and York is a great day trip destination.

The next stop was Bristol. It is where London hipsters go to retire, just like Calif hipsters retire to Portland. It has a great vibe or maybe I'm just biased towards hipsters. A visit to the pub felt like gate crashing a family gathering. The atmosphere was that homey. There were some guys who seemed to have come straight from their evening run, all sweaty in their running shorts. We need these pubs in Calif. Once I went to a neighborhood dive bar in Santa Clara and I thought I was at a convention of AA rejetcs. While on the topic of drinking, we know that the Brits love their tea (PS: The Brits stole tea from the Chinese). Afternoon tea in a garden was an experience to savor, just like thinly sliced scones slathered in clotted cream and jam. A light drizzle and ominous clouds weren't enough to deter the Brits from being outside just a little longer. After all, a light drizzle would be considered good weather in Britain. Blessed are those with low expectations.

The final stop was London. That's where the party was. It was the Queens 90th birthday. I am beginning to believe she is immortal. The queen is so old that her memory is in black and white. Meanwhile, thousands of royal aficionados lined the street for the parade. The event though was a yawn fest. It was a lot of doing nothing, just like the royals I suppose. Occasionally a few guys in funny hats marched by. It was the kind of party where, even if you didn't have any expectations, you'd disappointed. I saw the queen for about five seconds, too short a time to ask about that Kohinoor diamond she's been holding hostage. I'll get her next time. And just like that, the parade was over. The fans of the royals obviously continued the party by excitedly discussing her green dress, her wave and her (purely imaginary) smile. While I will never understand the concept of royalty, I applaud her longevity in her role as the queen. Waving to peasants a few times a year is a tough life indeed.

After the extremely mild dose of excitement at the parade, it time to wander the streets of the great city. London is an eclectic mix of cultures and architecture. There is no old town in London. The city is a mix of beautiful Victorian and Georgian, ugly 60s and bold modern. London, or England in general, is expensive for a tourist. It was a good thing that I had a few extra pounds on me from all the desserts I had eaten over the past few months. One penny saving tip, attend a service or free organ concert in St Paul's Cathedral for a free viewing of this impressive church.

Meanwhile, Catholics looking for a good Sunday service should head to the Jesuit parish in Mayfair. I'm not playing brand ambassador here, but it was a wonderful service and I met some awesome young adults who hung out at a nearby pub thereafter. It was great to get an insight into the Brexit debate that is raging in London. My take from the discussion was that Brexit was mainly about immigrants. And these (probably liberal) young professionals felt that the 'exiters' were just a bunch of xenophobic racists. I'm not entirely informed about the whole debate, so I'll pass no further judgement. But one things is for certain. The immigrants have definitely improved the food scene in England.

With that, I cast off across the moat to France. Au revoir!

Cheers to Matthew, Nikhil and Milroy for hosting!

Wednesday, June 08, 2016

High Life in the Low Countries

The last time I was in Brussels, it was 7 years back, a layover on my way to the US for the first time. I guess layovers don't count as being in a city, but the thought of that layover did bring back some great memories of that eventful journey. This time was a layover as well, but it's much easier to get out of a train station and stroll around the city for a few hours than say leaving the airport to stroll around and voluntarily having your body cavities searched a second time when back at the airport.

Stepping out of the station you are greeted by fully armed soldiers and armored vehicles. Not an entirely warm welcome to the capital of Europe. But I guess better safe than sorry? It's complicated. Though I wonder why they wear the green camouflage in a city? Maybe dress in red and yellow, the colors of McDonalds, if you want to blend in an urban environment? Brussels, meanwhile, was having a litter festival. Who knew that the drab grey streets could be livened with thrash in bright colors?

Brussels was where Tintin was created. My favorite comic book series. Seeing Tintin pictures in windows and alleys brought back some fond memories from childhood. Blistering barnacles, I only had a couple of hours to see the highlights of the city. I spent most of it in the central square, the grandest in Europe. I took in the 360 degree panorama of ornate facades and majestic spires. And it was time to head to catch the connection to Bruges

Moving on to Belgium's number one destination. Bruges is a lovely medieval city with narrow cobblestone streets lined with gingerbread houses. It was lovely to walk around the back streets and canals, everything silent and a mist, albeit a little annoying, adding to the ambiance. Sometimes a long walk through a maze of quaint homes, with no fixed plan, is just what the mind needs. To be with your thoughts, to pray and to just be. At the end of it, I stepped into a cozy coffee shop and ordered waffles and chocolate, followed by beer. Not a gourmet combination, but it covered all things Belgian. 

Finally! Finally, I saw how beautiful life could be if the conservatives in the US would finally let go of their unfounded doubts and entrenched mentality. I'm not talking about weed or the sex shops, two of the most famous things in Amsterdam. I'm talking about biking.

Amsterdam is a city on bikes. Everyone is on bikes. The old and the young, men in suits and men in speedos and women in heels. Though almost no one was in spandex. Europeans consider biking as a form of commute, not a workout. Kids are strapped in the front or the back, or sometimes two in a box in the front. I hadn't seen two on a bike (passenger on the carriage) since I was maybe fifteen. One guy was multitasking with a phone in one hand and a cigarette (maybe a joint?) in another. If he had more hands, he would probably be drinking coffee and painting as well. And there were stretched bikes and cargo bikes. A few were cheating with electric assisted bikes. But it all counts. This is a city on bikes.

I decided to join the city on two wheels and rented a bike. The city looks so much friendlier and more fun from a perch on a saddle. Except when I almost got hit by a bike, a scooter and a ped at the same time. And watch out for trams and tracks. Red lights are suggestions to yield rather than stop. It's incredible that there are no crashes. I'm not sure if the Dutch and the Italians are somehow related. It's chaos on the streets. Even old ladies go like there's no tomorrow. Though some are so old, they probably think that that is the case. Everyone is zipping by with a #yolo attitude. The dedicated bike highways make for smooth riding, until you reach cobblestone streets. I love walking on a cobblestone streets, but definitely don't want to traverse them on a bike. Unless it's a full suspension mountain bike.

I loved the vibe of Amsterdam. It was the best city for ambiance. It felt alive. Amsterdam felt local. The tourists were not obvious with their tour guides and buses. Though the canals were patrolled by gangs of bros and woo girls. Also there are no obvious tourist sites for a selfie and duck face exhibitions. Except for the Anne Frank museum where the lines make it look like an Apple store on release day of iPhone 17 (I don't know what number they have reached).

I wandered around this wonderful city taking in the sights and sounds. Dutch sounds remarkably like English. It felt like I should  know what they were saying. Just that they started clearing their throats suddenly and uttered something incomprehensible. It was time for a break. But I was too scared to go to a coffee shop as I was apprehensive about baked goods in case I got baked. I learned that coffee shops = weed, and cafe = normal coffee shop. I once had to go to a pharmacy and had to make sure that it was a pharmacy and not a 'pharmacy'. It's just that I'm not into weed and the only joint I have rolled is my ankle. And isn't it a fun coincidence that the city coat of arms is a triple x and their main clock tower was built in 1620? Amsterdam is just fulfilling it's destiny.

A must visit in Amsterdam is the Anne Frank House. I had read the Diary of Ann Frank just a couple of years back and it's still fresh in my mind. The pain and suffering of a teenager, a family, a community, a nation and the world can never be forgotten. Seeing the places described in the Diary was a profound experience. We have to remember that both Anne and Hitler were human. But their lives were so different and have been remembered so differently. We are the choices we make. It's also a stark reminder of the dangers of excessive nationalism. It's important to remember that Hitler was human. Not a demon or an extra terrestrial. He could rise up again anytime from among us. Those who consider themselves good need to be vigilant. In the guise of a strong leader, we could have a tyrant lurking. A visit on the 72nd anniversary of D-Day added to the sense of occasion. Let us truly mean the 'never again'. Pro tip about tickets. The tickets are sold out online weeks in advance and the in person queues are long. But you can get tickets on the day off if you check online at about 9am.

With that, from the highs of Amsterdam, I head across the sea to the big country on a small island.