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.