Sunday, May 01, 2016

A walk down the Renaissance Italy

Next up, Florence. The birthplace of Renaissance. Now, I don't really understand art. But I thought the statues were 'marbelous' and I wouldn't take them for 'granite'. I did get an inferiority complex looking at some of the male statues and it was not a good inferiority complex. It was fun looking at paintings and making up descriptions. "Do you need a duck?" Or "are those pants tight?" Or "that horse stinks." As I
wandered around gazing at the magnificent Churches and art, the socialist in me wondered if the workers were happy. Did they have a just wage? Where did the money come from? Could the money have been used to alleviate poverty? After all Florence was a republic. Did the citizens want these things? But for now I'm grateful for the incredible beauty in the art that has survived to date. There were and are some really talented people who created masterpieces that will be appreciated for generations to come.

My travels took me further south to Assisi, the pilgrimage town. The birthplace of St Francis. It is a very photogenic old town with cobblestone streets and alleys set on a hill overlooking a verdant countryside. Walking around the town and the surrounding countryside really fills you with a sense of peace that St Francis always talked about. A narrow country road through green fields lined with some spring blooms was a perfect place for an evening stroll. Assisi may not be a top destination in Italy, but it definitely is on my 'will be back' list. I hear the rest of Umbria has a similar vibe, perfect for small town hopping.

And then onto Rome, the eternal city. I'd say the eternally crowded city. Trevi fountain looked like a 24x7 free concert venue. And the only music to be heard was the sound of running water and chatter in a hundred languages. It was quite the sight to see people trying out their throwing arms in an effort to toss a coin into the fountain from a hundred ft away. I'm sure that people up front got tonked a few times. I was tempted to do the same because when in Rome, do as the Romans. But then these morons were not Romans. Plus it would also mean throwing away money, which really is not my thing. Rome is definitely a must see for Roman history buffs. The Pantheon is quite a feat of engineering for a 2000 year old structure.
Though some of the Roman history artifacts like the Colosseum didn't make for happy imaginations. I concluded that I wouldn't very well in a bloodthirsty era and culture. How could two humans fighting to death be a form of entertainment? The Colosseum itself is quite an impressive structure and deserves a wander around for at least an hour.

The Vatican is a must visit for Catholic peeps. The Pope gives an audience to his fan base on Wednesdays. It is one giant rally. Pro tip, find a seat near the barricades as the Pope may drive through near there. It's quite the experience to be part of this massive and joyful audience. And then there is St Peter's Basilica which is truly magnificent. It's enormous and ornate, but not tacky. Michelangelo and the rest have delivered a masterpiece. You can truly feel the transcendent in the beauty around you, despite the mob scene. The geometry and symmetry, the paintings and sculptures deliver a complete all around experience. Finally, you can top it off with a visit to the Vatican museum. Make sure that you save some mental bandwidth for the Sistine Chapel that comes about three quarters of the way through. Michelangelo was truly a genius. The incredible imagination of theology and the final painting itself makes the Last Judgement worth all the hype. Prepare to have your expectations met and surpassed.

A few more observations on Italian chaos. At Sunday Mass during communion, there was none of the pew by pew business. It was a mad dash, first come first serve event. As though the priests might run out of communion.
And my airbnb host was this old Italian lady who didn't speak English. When I pointed out that the internet wasn't working, she got so animated, that I wanted to hug her and and tell her that everything would be alright. Every time she exclaimed 'mamma mia' I couldn't stop laughing. The more she had trouble communicating with me, the louder she got. I felt that if I got the accent right, spoke really loudly, threw in a few mamma mia's and gestured wildly with my hands, I'd be speaking Italian. What a wonderfully chaotic country. A look at the parking habits of Romans will leave you thinking that Rome is a giant puzzle for all ages. Even German Shepherd dogs look undisciplined here. How did the Germans and Italians get along during WWII?

Another stray thought. How do we treat hawkers? Do we ignore, do we tell them to leave us alone or do we smile and keep walking? I once dined at a cafe and when I was done decided to join one of the waiters in trying to get people to come in. I asked him if he gets depressed with the continuous rejection and how we should treat hawkers. He told me he doesn't take things to heart, but would like people to either ignore him or just smile. He hopes that people wouldn't give him a stink eye if they are not interested. So from here on, I'm gonna smile and keep walking. It'll cost me nothing.

A shout out to Fr Tony Sholander SJ for free accommodation with the Jesuits in Rome.

Saturday, April 23, 2016

Mamma Mia Italia

I arrived in Lisbon on a cold rainy morning. Lisbon appeared to be well past it's prime with paint peeling of facades, streets probably unwashed since Goa's liberation and people walking around with glum looks. Maybe it was the weather that made everything appear so dreary. As I looked around, I scoped a stall with postcards. I browsed through and noticed that most contained pictures of old school trams against a backdrop of rickety buildings. Not a good sign if that's the highlight of the city.

As I wandered the streets, I got the vibe of a homely neighborhood. People on the streets seem to know each other and there was a lot of tiny mom and pop cafes. I finally spotted my first batch of tourists sliding up on their segways. It was oddly comforting to see tourists as it meant that the place had something worth visiting and that there might be a little bit of English spoken. Though I must add that there was significantly more English spoken in Lisbon than any of the cities I'd visited in Spain.

Talking about English, I realized that Google maps and similar apps has definitely democratized travel. You may not understand signs or know what you are eating, but at least you can find your way around town. I wondered why cities known for tourism don't have maps and time tables in English? I understand not having English speakers at help desks because of the expense. But maps and instructions would be a one time investment and be very useful for independent travelers.

Next stop was Italy! I had heard of Italy's legendary chaotic lifestyle and had thought that it was one of those over hyped stereotypes. But the Italians were enthusiastic in proving me wrong. I landed in Pisa and headed to the baggage claim. The belt started moving and bags came through. For about 5 minutes, not a single bag was lifted off the carousel. Then there was an announcement in Italian and everyone rushed to another belt where the bags actually were. A British guy summed it up succinctly, "If there was any doubt, we are in Italy." I headed to the Leaning Tower, to do my bit of holding it up or pushing it down, depending on which side you stand for the picture. There I had to store my backpack at the visitor center. I was charged 4 euros to keep my bag in someone's office. No lock, no bag tag, nothing. I decided that I had no option and walked out hoping to see my bag again. As I crossed the street, on a crosswalk, I assumed that the city bus barreling towards me would slow down to let me cross. Apparently I had forgotten about Italian drivers. When the
bus was seconds away, I realized he wasn't going to slow down, and I had to sprint across, narrowly avoiding a Fiat that appeared out of nowhere.

All this chaos made me a tad hungry, so I stepped into a nice cafe and placed an order. After about 20 minutes, nothing showed up and I went inquire. In typical Italian nonchalance, she told me it should be right out. About 10 min later, only half my order came. Finally it was time to take the train to Cinque Terre for which I had to change the train in La Spezia. I read the time table and went to the designated platform. But there was no train in sight. While waiting, I spotted a guy who looked like he was in a uniform. I inquired about the train and he told me the platform was changed and I had 2 minutes to get to the other side. How was I supposed to know that? Eventually I made it to the hostel and got my room assigned. I was idly setting up my bed when a girl stepped into the room and had a shocked look on a face. She spoke no English. But the terrified look made me suspicious. So I went back to desk and asked to check the room number again. Turns out I was assigned to a ladies' dorm. Whew, that was an overdose of Italian chaos! I hope I have paid my dues.

Cinque Terre is spectacular. It's like Big Sur, but with a few tiny historical towns scattered along the coast. Though, I wish someone had taught them the concept of switchbacks on trails. Need to climb that hill? Not a problem. You just go straight up. But every climb was worth it. Gorgeous views of the rugged coast against the azure sea interspersed by a few colorful cluster of buildings. Sitting on a terrace high above the sea, sipping on Limoncello while reading some Bill Bryson comedy made for a blissful afternoon and I fell in love with Italy again. The first time I fell in love in Italy was when I had three desserts for lunch earlier that afternoon. I had tiramisu, cannoli and gelato. It was delicious and addictive. I had to tell the lady to send me away if I came back.

In the evening, I wandered around the town and came upon a spot that twenty tripods lined up. It was gratifying to know that I was at place with a 20 tripod rating. I love the camaraderie shared on such occasions. People talk about the cameras, the best settings, the places they've been, they places they want to go, etc. It's that common desire to click a picture already on the internet that brings us together. In between a couple wanted their picture taken on an iPhone in this hallowed photo studio. Everyone chipped in. I provided the lighting as I had my headlamp, someone coached them with the pose, a few commented on the camera angle, someone even suggested props. All in all a perfect evening in this slice of paradise.

Until next time, ciao

Thursday, April 14, 2016

Spain - Muy Bien

I'm not clubbing veteran, but I've been to the ones in Vegas and SF. Madrid clubs were the almost the same. You start of with some overpriced drinks to numb the pain of being in a loud, dark and smelly place. I thought I heard a Bieber song in Spanish! Everyone was vibrating like atoms in a tightly packed crystal lattice. Yes, that's the best description possible. And I report that grinding is international. As a mechanical engineer, I certify that the Spanish grinding technique is more elegant and sensuous. It's amusing to watch some guys trying to hit on or grind with anything that moves. It's a strange mating ritual.

How do you decide if you like someone just by the way they grind? Maybe they should take Pitbull's advice, "Grab somebody sexy, tell them hey, give me everything tonight" I suppose you can't really have a conversation in a club. I could say to someone that I'm from outer space looking to sacrifice humans for a ritual, and the other person will just nod and smile.

I scoped around to look at the menu on offer, but I wouldn't order of course. In any case, there was a mismatch in supply and demand. From basic economics, I concluded that I'd be better off at a Yoga class. I should start a club called 'Grind-asana' or something to bring the supply and demand together. Our hostel group was fun though. I was lazily swaying to the music when this Italian guy tells me "Shake that ass." I told him that my preferred dance style was 'changing light bulbs'. After all when I dance to EDM, I appear as a cross between shivering and being electrocuted. After a few hours of shaking in random directions, I called it quits. For the better or worse, clubbing is the same all over the world. Yet another connection for humanity across the oceans.

Onto something a little more mellow. Soccer, which they call football but I think should call dive ball. I couldn't score tickets to the El Classico at Nou Camp, so I settled for an inconsequential La Liga match between Real Madrid and Eibar. The Stadium is huge and I had seat at the very top. A bird's eye view, but without bird eyes. The ambiance was energetic with all the singing and the first half was fast paced. I loved when the announcer went "Goooal de Roooonaldooo". But what's with fans shooting videos of set pieces, that too in portrait mode? These are the same people who at live concerts watch it through their phones. As you can see, here we have morons connecting humanity across the world.
The match had some gripping moments for both sides, but ended 4-0 for Real Madrid. All in all, an experience to try out, even if you don't know any player besides Ronaldo.

From the exulted football royalty to the ignored fancy hat royalty. Spain has a royal family despite a 40 year dictatorship. I was a little surprised with that fact. And Franco wasn't a nice dictator. Well they mostly aren't nice. Anyways, the royal family has a humongous palace although they don't live there, so you can tour the rooms. Kings and queens are weird in my opinion. Or maybe I'm just a simple minded commoner. Every room was so ornate, that I felt a little sick after a half hour. Why would you need everything to be in gold and silver? Why do they have chairs and couches for twenty people in the 'Dressing Room'. And unless you sleep with your eyes open and the lights on, that gorgeous painting on the bedroom ceiling is a waste. Also, I don't think I'd get much done if I sat in a golden high chair, surrounded by paintings, golden sculptures, dazzling chandeliers and wearing twenty pounds of clothes on a hot summers day.

After Madrid, I journeyed south to Granada in Andalusia. Most of the famous Spanish traditions like Flamenco, tapas, bull fighting, etc. originated down there. Attending a Flamenco performance is a must. Dancers bust moves that appear like a hybrid between tap dancing and belly dancing, to some soulful singing and music. The Alhambra is the other must do and I'd recommend at least 4-5 hrs. Soak in the ambiance of royalty and ogle at the exquisite carvings on the palace walls. And don't forget to gaze at your imaginary kingdom from the watch tower. If you have some time, stroll the streets of Albayzin. They are a-maze-ing. Walk narrow alleys and stairways as you discover hidden plazas, markets and scintillating views of the Alhambra on the other side. The beautiful blend of European and Arabic cultures makes Granada a lovely place.

I'll wind up Spain with a few stray thoughts. The food is very greasy and starchy. I once ordered a 'plate of ham'. And it was just that, a plate of ham. No sides or anything. They don't mess around here. Wine is an integral part of meals and is as cheap as water. I enjoyed sipping fine wine and watching the world go by in a quiet plaza of a small town, just as Hemmingway had described in his novel "The Sun also Rises." The siesta is absolutely sacred and you must plan your day around that. Though I read recently that the government was planning to do away it with it. It is interesting to see a town dead silent in the afternoon and then slowly come to life in the evening. Of course the bigger cities are always buzzing, though some tourist attraction may close in the afternoon. Going for a haircut when you don't know the language is a little nerve wrecking.
Thankfully I don't have much hair, but when your barber is a bald guy, it doesn't inspire much confidence. You wouldn't go to a nudist tailor, would you? I told him to surprise me. And thankfully I was pleasantly surprised with the outcome.

Lastly, I wanna mention something I learned during my time in Spain. Kiska, who hosted me in Granda, doesn't know any English and I don't know any Spanish. So we settled on French. I'm sure Kiska's French is great. But I think the French will go "Mon Dieu" and have a heart attack if they hear me speak French. I wished I knew Spanish so that I could converse with Kiska. But then I realized that you can't know every language. You need the attitude of embracing the unknown. You have to be friendly and hope that someone will help you out. My good friend Sara told me that I should use this experience to empathize with refugees who arrive in foreign lands not knowing the language and the society. And that made me think about my own prejudices against people different from me. I know I'm an immigrant myself. But my time in Spain has shown me how I get treated by people who are open minded and closed minded when it comes to immigrants and it was truly eye opening. All I can say is "do unto others what you want done unto you." There are some lovely people out there and may God bless their hearts. Yes, all we need is a little more love.

Next up, Portugal. Maybe I might find some inheritance to the Mascarenhas family fortune. Until next time, Adios.

Monday, April 04, 2016

Barcelona - Fresh off the boat in Europe

Now that Australia was under my belt, I was a world traveler. Bring it on Europe. I sat excitedly in the plane waiting for take off when the lady in front of me decided to put her head in my lap. Don't get any ideas, she just reclined all the way that I could almost stroke her forehead and sing a lullaby to her. I muttered to myself and put my head into the lap of the person behind me. I believe putting world leaders for 10 hours in economy class would bring world peace. Air travel gives a wonderful sense of community, except when you have to establish dominance over the arm rest in subtle ways.

After a long flight I was in Barcelona! I hopped of the bus and walked towards the hostel taking in the sights as I lugged my wardrobe with me. The alleys were a labyrinth which I could never have figured out without Google maps. But I liked what I saw. There was an air of joie de vivre around. People were well dressed and looked energetic. Maybe my senses were dulled by the slobs in silicon valley. Or maybe everyone looks well dressed when you wear five layers of clothes. And the food was cheap which surprised me as I hardly saw any overweight people around.

Early next morning, I decided to walk around the famous Gothic Quarter. Ancient buildings, crumbling walls, cobblestone streets and a plethora of public squares gives you sense of being in another time. And presently I came across the Cathedral. On a cold rainy Friday morning at 8am, I was the only tourist and the friendly guard waved me through without a ticket. And my lord I was treated to something special. I was alone in this magnificent temple of God. I was speechless, not that I was saying much before that given that I was alone. My heart soared as I imbibed in the beauty around me. It's hard not to feel a connection with the transcendent when you stand in the silence of a massive 800 year old cathedral surrounded by magnificent art. I was truly inspired and thanked God for the beauty in this world.

And beauty is in abundance in Barcelona. The spectacular Sagrada Familia, a masterpiece by Gaudi, God's architect, is a must visit. Despite the crowds and the commotion, it's hard not to be inspired by this incredible canvass of pure genius. Gaudi's work is brilliant from the standpoint of beauty, nature and spirituality. His use of curves and splines in 3D left me in awe. He is the paragon of attention to detail. He has accounted for the interplay of light and sound, for the structural integrity, for beauty and for scriptural accuracy. Gaudi is my hero for concocting this delightful cocktail of God, nature and engineering.

Now given that the only countries I've been to are the US and Australia, I braced myself for the language challenge. Spanish is largely an alphabet soup to me. I decided that not knowing the language was part of the adventure. I'm not usually a yes man but I did say Si to everything thrown my way. The extent of my Spanish was 'los angeles' and for some reason 'caliente'. Where would I need to say 'hot angels' is beyond me. I thought sign language would work. It does, but sometimes it can make you look quite stupid. I had gone to this Church that has the sword of St Ignatius but I couldn't find it. So I asked the priest who didn't know a word in English. How does one act out sword? I'm not a charades expert, but I think I did a pretty good job as he finally understood me. The priest must have thought I was nuts with all my theatrics. This was after I misunderstood the communion rite and tried to drink the Blood of Christ when it was only meant for dipping the Body. Imagine the scene with me trying to grab the chalice toward my month and the priest pulling it back. I had to let him win just because everyone was staring at this lanky Indian dude in shorts and t-shirt on a cold rainy morning.

All the gesturing and yanking had me hungry and I decided to get some food under my belt. I stepped into a homely cafe that had some delicious sandwiches and pastries displayed out front. I liked the ambiance where the diners seemed to be from the hood and had a friendly banter going. I stared at the menu for 5 minutes and finally spotted Americano under coffee and California under sandwiches. But I wanted to try something local. And there was a line of hungry people behind me. I took a shot in the dark hoping that I wouldn't die from the food or from the shame of committing a faux pas in my order. Thankfully Spanish food is generally safe and I don't have any severe allergies. As I sat at a table, I tried to fit in by browsing through the newspaper. I realized that pictures don't speak a thousand words, but nonetheless I flipped through with a pensive look on my face. I knew what my horoscope said of course. Good things and bad things are going to happen. The food was delicious and I felt I truly was in Europe. With cafes such as these why do people do McDonalds or Subway?

Questionable hostels are a quintessential part of backpacking in Europe. And so is couch surfing. I had never tried the latter before, although I have experience in corporate America's version on it, Airbnb. Hence spending a night at a strangers home is not a new experience. But why would anyone host for free? After reading a lot of online reviews, I concluded that letting strangers into your home is quite enjoyable for some people. From a safety perspective, I presume being a guy helps. All things considered, I decided to give it a shot.

Call it beginner's luck or Catalan hospitality, my first couch surfing experience was awesome. I connected
with Mar when I was looking for a host in Manresa, outside of Barcelona. She and her dad played tour guide and satisfied the desires of a Jesuit junkie that is me. Everything Ignatius in Montserrat and Manresa were covered. Throw in some Catalan traditions and stories over a sumptuous three hour Catalan lunch and you have a perfect day. I felt part of the proud Catalan culture, if only for a day. And who knew that my Indian accented English would be much celebrated in a tiny corner in Catalonia. The only thing they wanted from me was conversation in English. If only life were this easy everyday.

Next up, Valencia. I love Valencia Oranges and I can't wait to try the Oranges in Valencia.

Thursday, March 31, 2016

Farewell Australia, until we meet again

As my time in Australia winds down, I have to wrap up a few stray thoughts about Oz. First, driving. To begin with, they drive on the wrong side of the road. But since I lean left, I didn't have problems keeping left. And they have roundabouts which can send you into a loop at first. But once you master the 'right side gets the right of way', it's smooth sailing. They are way more efficient than the 4 way stop signs in the US. Though sometimes the Aussies have gone overboard and put them on highways with a 100 kmph speed limit. Exiting a roundabout at high speeds is like performing the sling shot maneuver of satellites. You dive into the intersection slow enough to avoid the kerb and then accelerate through the curve, exiting hopefully still with your eyes open and your wheels still on the ground.

Second, nature. While I didn't get to experience the famed outback in Australia, I did get to sample what nature has to offer around Melbourne. The south coast is spectacular with the rugged sandstone cliffs set against a turquoise ocean. Sun kissed beaches in pretty little sheltered coves.
When the sun's out it's picture perfect. While the beaches are magnificent, the waterfalls are mediocre. Don't go chasing waterfalls near Melbourne. One of them was so insignificant that I realized I had passed it only after I saw an arrow pointed back the path I had come from. I was surprised as I'm quite good at spotting waterfalls. So I doubled back to see what I had missed. I didn't see anything of note until I came to another arrow pointing back on my doubled back path. I concluded the waterfall must be in between the two arrows. On careful inspection, I realized what would pass off as a storm water drain in most places was elevated to the status of a waterfall in the driest continent on earth. It truly is a dry place. A lake I visited was basically an open field covered with mud that looked slightly moist in some places. And the largest river in the country was about half a mile across close to its mouth. Suddenly California during the drought felt like a rainforest.

Lastly, railways. I decided to take train from Melbourne to Adelaide hoping to catch glimpses of the bush country and maybe the outback. When I had booked tickets, passengers were warned that check-ins would close at 7am for an 8am departure. Even flights close only 30mins prior. I dutifully arrived by 6:45am and was left sitting on the platform till 7:45am. Apparently the regulars knew that the whole 7am check in was baloney. The passengers were greeted over the PA system and few safety instructions dished out in case a snake was found on the train. Just kidding, no snakes on this train. These were followed by an extensive and wordy commentary about the food options available on the train. By the end of it I knew what the attendant's grandma's favorite quiche recipe was. Information filed under, will never use in the future. The scenery whizzing by was quite drab to say the least. A never ending sickly brown brush over an endless expanse of flat land. The amount of empty space is mind boggling.
Think Wyoming, much larger and more desolate. I guess everyone is in a long distance relationship by default here. And this wasn't even the worst. Flying from Adelaide to Perth, you see how unimaginably vast, desolate and dry Australia is. It's truly a wonder that the world's oldest continuous civilization survived in this God forsaken place. The next time someone says they need space, send them to the Australian Outback.

A few passing remarks on Adelaide. It's like San Jose. It's big, it's important, but it will not be on anyone's travel bucket list. Unless, well nothing comes to mind. This one guy on knowing that I came from San Jose Calif, looked anxious and said that he had been to San Francisco but not San Jose. I told him to not sweat over it. He said he wanted to see where the big three, namely Google, Apple and FB were located. I replied not San Jose and repeated to not sweat over it. Adelaide is in the same league as San Jose. It's alright, but not striking. And all the nice places are a short drive away, just like San Jose.

Goodbye Australia. Not sure when we'll meet again. Maybe I'll check out Thunder from Down Under whenever I miss you.

Thanks to Richard and Shweta for hosting in Melbourne.