Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Footloose in Barcelona – 2... La Rambla

I was staying in a lovely hotel – the Gran Hotel Havana – in the center of Barcelona. It is a refurbished, heritage building dating from the 1880’s and the service was a nice mix of “business class” efficiency and laid back luxury. It was bang in the middle of all the touristy hotspots – the most famous of the Gaudi buildings, the “Las Ramblas” Street and the Gothic Quarter.

So, the first morning I had a big, slow breakfast and went gallivanting.

At this point let me state for the record that I had Beer wherever and whenever it pleased me. So, I shall not be specifically mentioning all the Beers that I had. What you, as my virtual companion on this ramble, could do is just imagine a cold, invigorating Beer at any point in the narrative where you feel that a Beer would have been welcome and then, imagine quaffing it at your own pace. Better still, dash outside right now and get a couple of Cold Ones, come running back and sit back, relax and continue...

Bueno! Great! Vamos!! Let’s go!!!

La Rambla is a tree lined avenue with a wide platform or walkway running down the middle. This ancient street with a precisely documented history dating from the middle-ages has enough heritage to keep a suitably inclined tourist occupied for several days.

But what captivates and usually blinds the average visitor from all this history is the stunning array of street performers dotting the entire length of the central platform.

From an Amazonian Fruit Case...

to Enchanting Twin Angels...

to The Hollow Man...

via Che Guevara...

and a WWII Japanese Soldier,

these street performers – either solo or in duos - recreate brilliantly detailed themes.

The custom is for the tourist/traveler to drop a few coins into the cup in front of whoever catches his or her fancy and then have the photo/s taken by someone. If, perchance, you should try to take photos without paying your due, you would most likely get a middle finger or a pair of ugly, glinting eyes flashed at you.

I guess that these "performers" are seriously busy and marginally impoverished “workers” making a chancy living.

I’m also guessing that there are “dues” to be paid daily. Mafia? Police? Collective? Frig, I dunno! But for sure, it ain’t for free - the space, the permission, the protection et al!!

Till you get there yourself, take a look at this excellent, “official” Barcelona tourism website.

I wish Indian city administrations or private parties with a stake in the travel industry, like luxury hotel chains, would do half as much for all the beautiful, fascinating places in our country!

Sunday, April 26, 2009

Footloose in Barcelona – 1. Some musings on tourists vs. travelers

After Frankfurt and Vienna, Barcelona was a sensory orgy. The whole feeling was one of animation.

Humor, architecture, football, anger, bullfight, protest against the bullfight, the sexuality in the policewomen - everything seemed to have an edge to it. Not razor sharp but still palpable - as if the denizens were perpetually just a step away from some very personal tipping point, and at the same time still quite comfortable with the idea of gently pushing the envelope.

The people were more casual, both in attitude and attire. Language was a problem because English was not as easily understood as in the DACH (Germany, Austria and Switzerland). The weather was glorious and I had just a single day of meetings to get over with before three days of carefree loafing…

Well now, you know, I hate to think of myself as a tourist.

“Tourist” implies a certain disconnect. Like humans in a zoo. I mean humans visiting a zoo. They stand at a distance and gawk. They seldom have even a rudimentary understanding of the “specimens” they are gawking at.

In the first chapter (Why Look At Animals?) of his incredibly dense “About Looking”, John Berger gives his take on how animals in zoos are basically marginalized props designed to cater to an abstruse, perverse need of the human visitors to relate to certain, very personal but distorted interpretations of an already misrepresented reality.

Similarly, I feel that tourists too chase some personal chimera that they wish existed. In the heat of this shallow chase, tourists invariably render the locals into marginalized props – bit actors in an enormous set piece. A tourist feels no need to understand. For the tourist, the travel is a diversion. It’s an activity or an experience that was bought and paid for, with little or no obligation on his or her part to participate in the reality on the other side of the invisible cage.

A traveler on the other hand, weaves his existence slowly and seamlessly through the fabric of the land that he travels in. Like a single, short, peripheral but harmonious thread in a vast tapestry. The traveler becomes, for a moment, a part of the “reality” of the space that he shares with the natives.

And truly great travelers leave at least a little something of value behind while taking a personal treasure with them as they move on.

Unfortunately, I suspect that these days I am more often tourist than traveler. But what the fuck, with the dollar rate being what it is, true travel is a pipe dream for me anyway.

Barcelona, allelujah, was perfect for me, the tourist.

Saturday, April 25, 2009

Sunset over the Kabini

Just back from 3 days at the Kabini River Lodge. This is perhaps the finest "value for money", "world class" wildlife resort in South India. This is all the more significant because it's run by an Indian state government organization - Jungle Lodges and Resorts (JLR) which runs the Kabini River Lodge is a unit of the Government of Karnataka's Tourism Department.

The wildlife density in the jungles just outside the gates of the resort is so high that no trekking is allowed - only escorted jeep or boat safaris. Leopard and tiger sightings were freely reported (with photographs to prove them) by other groups on each of the days that I was there. Unfortunately for me, neither leopard nor tiger wanted to see my mug so I had to be content with close encounters of other kinds like:

- Wild elephant (including several lone tuskers, a 4 day old calf with an irritable mother and a family of 7 that was fast asleep on the roadside when we surprised them)
- wild boar
- mongoose
- spotted deer
- gaur
- sambhar
- langur
- malabar giant squirrel
- jungle fowl
- blue jay (indian roller)
- jungle babbler
- white bellied woodpecker
- flame back woodpecker (this is what the naturalist called it but I can't seem to find it in the The Book Of Indian Birds)
- scalybellied green woodpecker
- jungle owlet
- magpie robin
- jungle myna
- common myna
- green imperial pigeon
- red wattled lapwing
- crested serpent eagle
- changeable hawk eagle
- peacock and peahen (including an enchanting dance by a lovestruck peacock. The peahen didn't give a damn and just plonked on by)
- hoopoe
- racket-tailed drongo
- kingfisher
- great cormorant
- hornbill in flight - not one but three! (next to impossible to see when you are on foot inside the jungle. We saw this from a boat by the river bank)

...and numerous other splendid creatures that nobody had the time to help me identify.

Saturday, April 4, 2009

Tamil inscription on a pillar inside Angkor Wat

I saw this on a pillar in the topmost chamber of the Angkor Wat (the most famous structure in the Angkor Temple Complex)

it says: ...gangai jameen madu(rai?) jilla...The village head or zamindar of ...gangai in the Madu(rai?) district....

This certainly did not look or feel like random graffiti by any tourist in the last hundred years. There were many completely uncovered and more legible inscriptions on other pillars which looked like japanese or chinese or whatever. It was sheer serendipity that I happened to walk past this pillar and that I knew how to read Tamil. There were zillions of Japanese milling about and I couldn't get better shots.

In the National Museum at Phnom Penh I also saw an exquisite statuette of Lord Muruga (Skanda) astride a peacock with its neck subtly stylized like a phallus ....no photography was allowed and I didn't have money for the catalogue.

A stroll through Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon), Jan 2005

I am going through all my old photos and thought I would share some of them...

In 2004, I was having a terrible time at work and things in general were getting unbearable. So I decided to take a break.

I arrived in Bangkok by a night flight from Bangalore just as the tsunami was roaring across half the world's oceans, but I didn't know this then. I learnt about it only some 15, 20 hours later because I went to sleep as soon as I found myself a room.

In the following two weeks I went from Bangkok to Ayutthaya to Poipet (border town) to Siem Reap (Angkor), then across the Tonle Sap to Phnom Penh and finally Saigon. It was a slow, lazy wander and total value for my money in the sense that when I got back to my cubicle war I was sufficiently charged up to win some battles and improve my general situation.

The Angkor complex is a "must see before you die" destination...

But Saigon was the charm champ of my itinerary. What struck me most about the Vietnamese was that they seemed to have truly forgiven (but not forgotten) the past. The place was swarming with loud, middle aged Americans - "Vietnam Veterans" revisiting old haunts. The Vietnamese were invariably polite and considerate towards them, perhaps in deference to The Dollar. Perhaps.

Whatever might have been the reason for the equanimity of the Vietnamese, the truth of course is that this apparently peaceable, diminutive people engaged the most powerful army in the world for 20 years and eventually beat the shit out of it. Not very long ago. In 1975.

The Saigon General Post Office.

The Saigon General Post Office. The atmosphere inside reminded me of the Madras GPO on Beach Road in the seventies and early eighties. Designed by Eiffel.

Tender Coconut vendor.

Facade of colonial era apartment block.

War veteran. 

He was selling lottery tickets (note the bunch in his hand) and was completely chilled out - not anxious, not grabbing, not really keen on making a sale - and friendly. He spoke a little english and I bought a ticket from him more as a handshake of camaraderie than a doling out of mindless largesse. Cool, laid back encounter.

A peep over a wall...

A saigonese family having a quiet afternoon with their dogs..note the man of the house in the hammock.