Thursday, March 16, 2017

Embers..

A life halted, wavering on the edge
of a promise well on its way to being fulfilled,
stands facing the vast ocean and strong winds -
tired, proud, unrecognizable, trying to hold still

Countless dreams, bold pursuits, a taste of success,
they all came with little choice,
hardening a soul meant to be light,
they were paid for with a voice

One that differed, cared, emboldened,
could laugh easily, and sought joy
It was not to be found in the strong winds,
that which was rare to have come by

A life coloured, by fading embers
of a fire that could have warmed some hearts,
steams away barely heard above the ocean,
much like a game of missed darts

Wednesday, August 17, 2016

Prague

It was DDLJ trip all the way right from the start. Picture this. All of us INSEADers get to the train station on time (5 am) and then go separate ways to grab breakfast as there is still a while for the train to start. And then 4 of us make it when the train starts to whistle away and cant find the remaining 7! We walk from one end to the other, desperately looking into each window trying to see if they are already in and the train starts to move. Neither do we find them inside, nor do we spot them approaching the train from wherever they were gallivanting. In the last minute as the doors begin to close, we get in hoping they would have the sense to run or find another train. Turns out they make it in time huffing and puffing - we just didn't give them a hand in.  Neither were we feeling like Shah Rukh Khan, nor they like Kajol. Anyway the journey from Berlin to Prague was 4 hours and we caught up on sleep most of the time. Fortunately I woke up on time to notice the picturesque villages and green hills and streams on the way. Not a sight to be missed for anything.
When we got to Prague, the taxis had their way twisting our arms for exorbitant fares. Thank god for Uber - we made it at reasonable expense. We lived in one of the most beautiful lodges I have seen. It was a huge mansion with atleast 6 rooms as far as I could tell - and we girls got the best one. It was in the middle of Prague downtown (new city) on one side of Charles Bridge that separates the old and new cities. Right across the street from where we stayed were numerous hotels and spas. We got lunch in a Mediterranean place which offered some great margaritas.
From there we walked towards the huge river that separates old and new Prague. We rented a boat for the bunch of us and spent a most magical evening going up and down the river, sipping Irish coffee and watch the city transform from dusk to night. That night we went to a classy restaurant called COMO somewhere on the verge of downtown.
The next day we set out on a walking tour yet again after grabbing brunch at a pastry place close to downtown. Covering what must have been the original Disney castle - we walked to downtown Prague, past the street with top brands (this one was by far the choicest), stopping to admire the square and the astronomical clock which is mathematical brilliance itself. It has so many cool features that I cannot remember all of them. Suffice it to say that it covered months, days, times, events - solar and lunar and what not. It is the biggest astronomical clock that is still working today.
Endless roads spread out from the square lined with restaurants, souvenir shops, forex banks and horse carriages. We saw the Jewish quarter next and a questionably haunted cathedral. Finally we ended on the banks of the river overlooking the Prague castle. Resting a bit on benches under trees, we mustered back the energy to continue to explore this beautiful city. Some of us decided to check out the 'dancing house' which is a really twisted building way down in the new city. It proved to be quite a long walk and not much of a destination. We posed for pictures at multiple places admiring the beauty of river side living. On the way back my friends insisted on stopping for coffee and cookies, and then for some chicken nuggets and then at a candy house... well then we made it back. In the quest for authentic Czechoslovakian dinner, we went to a place close by that looked like a cabin with antlers and stuff. The food looked scary (steak hanging from some hunter's equipment - if I could interpret it myself) and enough to feed a dozen people. I had my humble potatoes and soup.
The night was long as I found myself tagging along into yet another club for dancing. I had great gin and tonic here. But when the smoke got too much to handle, I walked back to the lodge.
The last day here, we woke up late, got brunch at a pasta place (had some great foccacia and hot chocolate).  And then some of us decided to go see the Prague castle and it was a great idea. We walked across the Charles bridge and all the way up to the castle, its gardens and walls and museums. A UNESCO world heritage sight,  it was one of the best parts of my travels. I loved the small village of colourful houses in Golden Lane by the castle  - now museums of sorts. We saw the St. Vitus cathedral with gothic architecture. Finally grabbed some food in the castle cafe and made our way back. Then I went window shopping for a bit in the amazing shopping district. Apparently eastern travellers visit here just to do that.
Late the same night we took a flight out from Prague. I would definitely like to go back here.

Berlin

This was my first trip with INSEAD buddies after a really painful first term. Imagine studying 7 different courses that you have no background in, and writing insanely difficult exams for 5 of them, and building a playground for kids with 70 other students, owning and running student clubs after fighting for their ownership... all in a span of 2 months. And all we got was 4 days of break before we were churned all over again.
So we decided to make the most of these 4 days of which 2 were spent in Berlin. Little had I known that Berlin was famous for partying, food and night clubs. We stayed at City hostel of Berlin. That was my first experience living in a hostel with bunk beds and just one bathroom to be shared by 8 people. The night we arrived in Berlin we dined at a Turkish delicacy place which served amazing falafel sandwich. From there we walked to a great coffee place and met another group of students who had flown in separately. It was a memorable night because as we walked back, we sang old Hindi songs and it had been ages since I had done that.
Neeha and Vaibhav who made up the impromptu band with me went on to become 2 of my most favourite people at school. Walking miles with a song on our lips and wind in our hair in Berlin and continuing to sing our hearts out sitting on the steps of the city hostel are one of my best memories.
The next day we got brunch at the best brunch place I have tried - The factory girl. Thanks to my friend Terren who looked it up. I had some of the best salsas and bread and olives here. 
We went on to join a free (tips only) walking tour with the most wonderful guide Amy, who showed us Brandenburg gate, the holocaust memorial, the hotel from whose balcony Michael Jackson was alleged to have suspended a child and some ministeries. The holocaust memorial is very unique and has vertical tombs with varying heights. We also stopped at check point C (for Charlie) which is the crossing point between east and west Berlin. The Berlin wall is almost unrecognizable as the city has grown. It is heart-wrenching to hear stories of the separated families and their failed attempts at meeting one another - sometimes by flinging themselves with a catapult only to land between 2 walls steadied for multi-layered security, and sometimes by tricking the guards who stood watch there. 
It was here, during tour-break-time that my friend could not resist having currywurst - a famous street food that turned out to be extremely tasty. Think fried soy chunks and curry powder with ketchup. Yum!
Finally we saw where Hitler's last days passed. Pushed to a corner, literally and figuratively he lived in a bunker (which is now a parking lot) and is claimed to have ended his life and ordered his confidantes to burn his body. It was a compelling part of the tour. 
We passed by the cathedral and concert hall in Friedrichstradt, saw Bebelplatz adjoining Humboldt University where the German Student Union had indulged in book burning (burning books that were anti-Nazi-philosophies). Now there stands a glass window commemorating a white cellar with empty shelves under the ground. Finally, our tour concluded and all I could remember were bits and pieces of a story of how Gunter Schabowski of the ruling party submitted to a premature fall of the wall due to misinformation, and how one good man at the gates bent the rules to let people cross (without passport checks).
It was a cold day and I went back with a friend to catch some rest in her nice hotel room and later on we went with the group for night-long partying and dance. Night long for me, turned out to be a couple of hours (I am too boring) and some of us caught a cab back. The next morning we had to rush to get on a train ... to Praha!

Tuesday, August 16, 2016

Barcelona

My second stop after Lisbon, on this trip with my folks, was indeed Barcelona. 3 days in this beautiful city reminded me how much I loved the sun and beaches. Our stay was at one end of Las Ramblas - the famous walking street that leads from the city to the beach.

Las Ramblas is a wide street with brand stores on either side (think Desigual, Zara) and huge dividers in between. The land on the dividers is big enough to host open air cafes, fine dining restaurants and musicians. Vehicles pile up on both sides on the streets in between the divider and the stores.
You could walk endlessly on this street and notice something new each time - there is just so much to observe. About half way towards the beach you come across Plaza Catalunya - which is a town centre and a place for people to rest, walk their kids and pets and yes - feed pigeons! This square is owned by the pigeons - there are just so many of them. And it is almost a comedy watching them have a go at the dogs.

 




Plaza Catalunya is also the place to catch the airport bus to and fro. Cafe Zurich stands tall on one side of the Playa. We got lunch in a nice vegan place a street away from Las Ramblas. And then continued on. On the same road down, one can see less of the brands, more of some old style buildings (theatre, hotels) and farmers markets. By the time we got here, we were tired and walked back buying some souvenirs on the way and resting up for a while in Playa Catalunya. Further along the way back, we took the road parallel to Las Ramblas  (Passeig De Gracia) to see the Gaudi house or "Gaudi Casa Batllo". In my opinion, it was quite pricey and on hindsight, I may have enjoyed it just from outside...

For dinner we went to a not so great Indian place near our stay. The host managed to scare me with stories of how Sangria was made with blood. That pretty much killed my appetite.
That was pretty much end of day 1. On day 2, with 2 of us sick we walked slowly to Sagrada Familia (also walkable from our stay) and spent some time in the park opposite admiring this beautiful basilica. From here we grabbed a taxi to the beach. Getting off on the beach, I noticed the amazing restaurants by the water and the docks. It is one of the best beach towns I have seen. We took a pedicab to see more of the beach and hotels and a glimpse of the Olympics stadium. We had good lunch overlooking the sea in a wok place and spent the rest of the day basking in the sun, and took the taxi back home. For dinner we walked to yet another Indian place (mind you - my parents pretty much wouldn't eat outside their comfort zone) and luckily found one of the best Indian places in my list - Veg world India.


      




Day 3 did not start with a plan. We walked in the direction opposite the beach this time, and found a small square where children were dancing to some hippie music.
It was more residential on this side and you could see how locals lived here. We decided to take a taxi and visit Tibidabo - which is a mountain with a cathedral. It turned out to be a beautiful, serene place, with an amazing view of Barcelona. My mom rested at the bottom of the mount, while dad and I went up and saw the cathedral and views. We took the last bus out from here which stopped somewhere in the mountains and we had to take a cable-car-like-train to get down the Mt. Tibidabo. From here another metro train took us to Playa Catalunya and we made our way back home again.

 

On the last day, we woke up went straight to Cafe Zurich near Playa Catalunya, dragging our bags with us. We got some brunch next door at an Asian noodles stall and finished up with great coffee in Cafe Zurich. The airport bus was waiting on the other side of Playa Catalunya, and with that we bid adieu to one of the best times I have spent. Thanks to my amazing parents.


Lisboa/Lisbon

Lisbon and Barcelona are two of my trips that will be very special for all of time. The reason is - I had the chance to visit with my parents!
Landing in Lisbon airport and taking a taxi out, I felt like I was in India. It could have been the weather or the natural landscaping that gave me that feeling. Lisbon itself takes you back in time once you are in the  heart of it. Its vintage colours and semi-developed city remind you of the Europe in old movies. My journey here started as a tribute to my parents. We stayed here in Bairro Alto which is at walking distance from Chiado - the place known for its night life and food.
Our home was called My Suite Lisbon and boy! was it sweet. A neat home upstairs in an old-style lodge, it came complete with living room (with bunk beds), a kitchenette, large master bedroom and bath and beautiful furniture and windows. It was one of the highlights of our trip.

On the first of our 2 days here, we unpacked and took a light stroll down Bairro Alto. We mounted the famous tram (yes, the yellow one) and went as far as the last stop - noting places of interest along the way. Portas Do Sol caught our eye. We got off close to Portas and had a drink sipping in the beautiful view.

 




Walking all the way back along tiny streets lined with shops and souvenirs, we felt a light rain. Strolling along Baixa downtown (Praca do Comercio), we treated ourselves to an Indian restaurant making Italian food in Portugal. Ha! Needless to say it wasn't the greatest of meals.
I was coming down with something and the rain wasn't helping - so we decided to stop at a "Pharmacie" on the way. The rain continued and we waited in Baixa for a long time till we caught the tram back to Bairro Alto.


The next day was sunny and welcoming. We started with a short walk to Chiado and photo sessions in the town square. That was followed by a hearty breakfast of croissants, fresh orange juice and coffee in A Padaria Portuguesa close by. From there, we walked down the Chiado centre (lined with big brand stores) trying to make it to the seaside. We soon realized it was quite far and instead took a taxi to see the Belem tower, Jeronimos monastery and the Monument to the discoveries.
The Belem tower is a naval structure which looks like a Disney Castle without paint. It is beautiful nevertheless. Instead of waiting in a line of a 100 people, we sipped some rum and tea at a stall. That's one thing I noticed in Lisbon. The vendors here get really creative with their stalls/trucks.
And by the way, auto rickshaws are called tuk-tuks here. And they look as cute.

 




Bright colors and petite vehicles is the name of the game. Across the street from this is the Jeronimos monastery - it was closing time, but we managed to get a glimpse of the tomb of Vasco Da Gama here. From here, we went to get lunch nearby in the beautiful downtown-like area laden with shops and restaurants. I even had a row with my dad regarding what restaurant we should eat it - which I feel bad about now..

 


On from here, we went to the weekend market and shopped a couple of interesting jars and wall decor. Crossing the street back to the side of Belem tower we went to the adjoining Monument to the Discoveries. This is an edifice commemorating all the sailors who set forth from Portugal to different parts of the world, discovering a lot of it - including India. Vasco Da Gama, Christopher Columbus, Bartholomew Diaz - to name a few. We could take an elevator up to the terrace of this structure and get a 360 view of Lisbon and it was well worth it to see the sunny skies, sails boats and the colourful city.

 

Finally we made our way back to My Suite Lisbon and packed our things with an aching heart. 

Wednesday, August 10, 2016

Santorini

One of my most anticipated trips was to Santorini.  Went here just after my graduation and this place deserves every bit of hype it has seen.
When you land, the airport throws you off - it is tinier than some hotels and restrooms aren't always functional. But as you set out in humid air and catch glimpses of the Greece you expect, the heart soars. Santorini is like no other place. It is also called the Caldera (cauldron) because of its volcanic nature. Although Santorini itself hasnt erupted in a long long time, it is close to more volatile islands. Santorini has 3 main regions - Oia, Imerovogli and Firastefani (aka Fira or Thira).


Our stay was in Imerovigli and it has been my best stay till date. There are two reasons I say that.
First - our hosts (Annio hotels) were extremely helpful, hospitable and went out of their way to accommodate our unusual departure times.
Second, for 4 days we lived like locals in a typical limestone hut with the trademark blue door and bright pink bougainvilleas blooming from our windows. It was located right in the centre of Santorini and we had our own spacious patio overlooking the complete expanse of the island. Oia stretched forwards at one end and Fira at the other. We had unobstructed view of the other two islands Nea Kameni and Thirasia, and of the picturesque sailboats and cruises right in front of us. A bit before the start of that view stood a small hill with a cathedral that rose up from Imerovigli (where my partner managed to go on a morning jog).

 

We walked everywhere. It is the best way to enjoy the winding, colourful streets and bookmarking restaurants for the next meal. With every turn we were stunned by the view of the sea and islands and cliffs. Our first day was spent exploring Oia (apart from getting a massage), and watching the sunset from here. All the tourists on the island flock to Oia for sunset because it is at the western tip of the island. We had a private viewing with free champagne (offered with the massage booking) and it was some evening - that!

 

 





On day 2, we set out to board our boat for a sailing tour. From Imerovigli we walked and walked till we reached Fira, grabbed a quick bite and took the cable car down to the docks. A beautiful wooden sail boat called Poseidon took us to Nia Kameni first to see 3 volcano craters. It was a couple of hours' trek up the island and was a good start to the day. Next we changed boats to Odysseus that took us to the Red Sea. Here Odysseus waited as almost everyone in the boat dived off to enjoy the water for a brief time. From here, our last stop was Thirasia island. This was a smaller island with restaurants along the coast and a very uphill climb that took us to Manolas - a traditional Greek village, untouched yet by commerce and tourism. White windmills with blue caps caught our eyes and provided some soul as we puffed and panted on our way up.






Donkeys are a popular way of commute in Santorini. I couldn't help feeling bad for the poor creatures as they jingled and passed by us carrying tourists. They looked very colourful and unique though.
After a tiresome journey, we squatted over the narrow road on top for a good amount of time enjoying the view and annoying cats that were trying to get by.
The climb down was easy and we stopped to take many pictures, contemplating starting our own diving school (inspired by the very tall cliffs) or an oceanography institute on this untapped land. Yeah right..


We made our way back to Fira on Odysseus and ended our tour with yet another long walk in search of some Indian cuisine. Patience paid off and we relished it. Once home, we sat on our patio till late in the night enjoying the cool air and stars above us.
We decided day 3 and 4 should be complete relaxers. We took it easy, slept in, and treated ourselves with some good food in choice restaurants. Took a slow walk again to Fira and enjoyed it end-to-end, looking for souvenirs, choking our phones with photographs and just window shopping. It was with a heavy heart that I mounted the plane back.

 





Santorini is a beauty. I hope everyone gets to see it atleast once!

Dubrovnik

I was initially supposed to pack up and go to Hvar in Croatia which is an island of pristine beaches, high cliffs and fewer tourists (if you discount the 300 students from my class who planned a graduation trip there). But the romantic in me decided to give my partner a surprise instead. (The graduation party in Hvar was costing a fortune too ;)) So off I went to meet my better half in Dubrovnik to see all things game-of-thrones in 3 days.

King's Landing aka Dubrovnik Old City is the first city I saw which was walled (apart from The Vatican). Dubrovnik, historically, had been structured to protect from invaders from Venice. Some very high cliffs guard the walls.


Just inside the walls begins the pathway where Joffrey faces rebellion from his people (dung attacks) and Sansa's honour is nearly compromised.






As you move in you discover commercial shops everywhere. Some contrast. These shopkeepers are apparently paid in the order of 20000 Euros a month to stay closed during shoots. Whats more a majority of the locals have never watched the Game of Thrones. Our guide seemed to have had deep conversations with Tyrion over wine (yes the man loves his drink in real life too). Peter Baelish's 'whorehouses' are a makeover from a Government museum further in, and our guide claimed the officials had no idea what use it was going to be put to.
Star Wars have also been filmed in the main street within the walls.



From one side of the wall branches the pier where Sansa and Shae have a heart-to-heart about trusting Little Finger. Sansa's escape route on a boat with the clown is located not far from it.
The magical tower of Qarth where the dragons first breathe fire is a regular looking structure outside the Old City walls. Kudos to cinematographers who made us believe otherwise. On the right most photo is a zoomed version of the left picture of Sansa's pier below, which was where Robert's illegitimate sons are sought and killed in the show.


 



A 25 minute boat ride from Old City takes you to the island of Lokrum. What caught my eye about this island were the peacocks. They strutted around freely, coming close and showing off their plumes. This island has a dead sea, some nice old style architecture and countless coves to swim in.
Some scenes of Jamie and Bran's sword fights were from here.









Old City has no dearth of restaurants. All along main street, several alleys behind, and up flights of stairs.. they are everywhere. On one of these alleys is a fake Iron Throne where you can get your photograph taken.






Our stay was in the new city and atop a hill overlooking the sea, docks and mountains. We walked everywhere, up and down some seriously steep staircases that connect roads along the hill.
The new city has a great dock and downtown around it which is a sight in itself. We actually spent half a day enjoying it.

We took a bus ride that went from one end of Dubrovnik to the other. I have realized that this is a great, inexpensive and A/C-euipped way to discover the index page of a city. At the end of the bus ride, we got off to enjoy some beach time at CopaCabana resort.

                                                     


Dubrovnik proved to be a surprisingly pleasant trip (notwithstanding the sweltering sun). It has some very good beaches, food and views.