My random ramblings.

Latest

Incredible India

Thankfully no Delhi-belly for us!

India is as diverse as its cacophony of clatter, smorgasbord of scents and menagerie of masses. From sadhus to shrines, and from history to heritage; there is no place quite as enriching and epiphanising as this country. After having planned our trip for nearly 2 years, each time in vain and limited by the seasonality of the country, my husband and I were ecstatic when we confirmed our trip, as it dawned on us that we were finally setting foot on our ancient motherland. I couldn’t wait to see and experience the country that gave us logic and philosophy, and numerals and the decimal system.

One of my first observations of India was the traffic chaos: there is no place quite like it! Everything from cars to cows clamour for rights of way on the roads, there is incessant blaring of horns and traffic using the wrong side of the roads. Yet, despite the madness and seemingly blatant disregard for conventional traffic rules as we know it, there is a sense of order and respect for one another on the road. I did not witness a single accident, nor flaring of emotions while I was there. In fact on one occasion, a naked, destitute child who was no more than 3 years old ran across the busy road in Delhi, instigating the blaring of horns and screeching brakes, but miraculously no one hit him! I was told by my tour guide you need three things to be able to drive in India: good horn, good brakes and good luck! So true!

On our first day in Delhi we went to Chandni Chowk, a bazaar in Old Delhi that houses a host of shops selling clothes and jewellery, spices and all just about everything under the sun. We went around Chandni Chowk on a rickshaw after being told that is one of the best ways to see the bazaar. I remember turning wide-eyed with apprehension to my husband when the rickshaw driver pulled up in his old, tattered rickshaw: surely it wasn’t safe to sit on the rickshaw, as it looked like it was going to fall apart any minute? He convinced me to get on it after much cajoling and I was so glad I did it! It was an amazing experience riding through the streets and alleyways, seeing the true Delhi with all its charm and idiosyncrasies. I got off the rickshaw feeling reborn, for I felt like I had cheated death and come off miraculously unscathed!

On our second day in Delhi, we went to Gandhi Smriti – the place where Mahatma Gandhi spent his last 144 days – and was assassinated. The building, courtyards and garden oozed simplicity, a testament to the modest and unworldly lifestyle Gandhi led during his life. Biographies of his life and quotes by Mahatma filled the corridor leading to the place where he was assassinated, where a shrine-like structure has been erected in his memory. One quote that particularly touched me was Mahatma affirming “Even if I am killed, I will not stop repeating the names of Rama and Rahim, which mean to me the same God. With these names on my lips, I will die cheerfully.” It almost seems like he had a premonition of what was to come as his last words were “Hey Ram!” (Oh God). Many a times I felt like a hypocrite in this place. There I was, claiming to revere him as the greatest soul to have lived on Earth, the closest a mortal has come to being immortal; and yet there was not a single principle of his that I was following. He practiced simplicity, while I wandered around snapping photos with my expensive DSLR, he preached non-violence, whereas I could not give up meat for a single day, he put aside his whole life and fought for justice, whereas I have forsaken my birth country with the excuse the politics are ruining it; his existence brought freedom to the whole nation whereas I am a self-absorbed human being whose existence, come to think of it, does not really benefit anyone but myself in my quest for worldly pleasures. What right did I have to call this Great Soul my biggest hero and inspiration?

A few days later we were in Jaipur. We visited the City Palace and Jantar Mantar on the first afternoon with one of the best guides we have ever had. Nidhi Mishra was a minefield of knowledge and gave us an excellent narrative as we walked around these places. The theme of the tour seemed to be that ‘there is a reason for everything’, as Nidhi so eloquently put. I was reminded that ignorance is the main impediment to understanding the cultures and practices of another. Many a times we scoff at other cultures, but when we hear an explanation it immediately banishes our prejudices and we grow to understand or accept why things are or were done in a certain way. For instance, to the undiscerning eyes, the low entrances in and around the medieval castles and palaces in India would have suggested that Indians were short people. However this impression would have changed upon learning that the low entrances were an ingenious tactic to ensure that adversaries who attempt to invade the castle would need to bow their heads to enter the castle and this gave the guards ample time to behead their enemies. Why did Indian men have so many wives in the pre-British era? It had nothing to do with Hinduism and everything to do with a culture that was spread by invading rulers: it was a way for them to spread their domination, and slowly over the years this culture became embedded among the society.

Our next stop was Agra. Who could resist a trip to India without seeing the enigmatic, resplendent Taj Mahal! We saw the Taj Mahal at sunrise and it was breath-taking to say the least. Despite the crowds it exuded a kind of serenity usually reserved for holy places. Then again, one might argue that a monument of love is also an embodiment of divinity and godliness. We spotted some stray dogs playfully wrestling each other and I joked that even the dogs were feeling the vibrations of love at the Taj Mahal!

We took the overnight train from Agra to Varanasi which was an amazing experience in itself. I was awake by 5 a.m. and stared out the window the whole time while the train traversed the countryside. The view of wheat fields was interspersed with tiny villages and level crossings at small towns. These were places modernisation had not placed its indelible and irreversible mark yet – the mark of homogeneity both in infrastructure and lifestyles – and I noticed that people were still at one with the elements. Some men gathered around water pumps, brushing their teeth with twigs while others squatted in the open fields to empty their bowels! Well I guess the latter is not really a sign of a lack of modernisation since men in modernised places do relieve themselves in public places, but you catch my drift! (pun unintended!)

Varanasi’s main attraction are the ghats by the Ganges. The Ganges is truly the lifeblood of India: from birth to death and the life in between, everything centres around the river. Hindus celebrate births in the family by offering thanksgiving prayers at the river and they mourn death by cremating their loved ones by the funeral ghat. Hindus believe that the dead will achieve moksha or liberation from reincarnation when their ashes are strewn in the Ganges. Never have I experienced an atmosphere quite like this: children played cricket, sadhus relaxed on the steps and devotees submerged themselves in the river. People congregated to participate in the evening Aarti or prayer ceremony in one corner and boatsmen were busy in another corner building a boat. People from all walks of life converged in this place.

On our second day in Varanasi, we visited the Bharat Mata temple. Unlike all other temples that are dedicated to the worship of God, this temple was devoid of any deities or priests. Instead, there was a map of India, carved out of brass on the ground. This ancient temple was built before the partition of India and Pakistan, and even Sri Lanka and hence included all these countries on the map. I don’t think this temple was built to invoke patriotism among Indians, instead it was to revere the great land that has over thousands of years served as a birthplace to some and provided refuge to others. For some reason it made perfect sense. Why can’t we revere India or any other nation in a temple? Afterall, does our country not provide for us on the ground the same way our Heavenly Father watches us from above?

We returned with a heavy heart from Varanasi to Delhi knowing that our trip was coming to an end. After two more days in Delhi, we boarded the plane back home. I have never felt such reluctance to return from my holidays: usually it is just the thought of going back to work but this time, I was filled with emotions of having to leave my motherland and its wonderful and colourful people.

These 10 days in India have moved me in ways no other country or people have. I have been reminded of how fortunate I am to have a roof over my head, food on my table and an education that has given me a good job, which in turn has enabled me to fulfill my basic necessities and luxuries. I have also started questioning myself: what have I done to help another human being? How has my existence benefited anyone else? What is the legacy I want to leave behind?
I went to India intending to sight-see and quench my photographic thirst, but instead returned from my ancient homeland having experienced a multitude of emotions and growing spiritually. I cannot wait to return to India to take in the sights and be among its wonderful people. In the words of Caroline Quentin, my love for India is not a short romance, but I think it is going to be a lifetime affair.

 

10 Reasons to shun the Notting Hill Carnival…

…or take rotten tomatoes with you.

Yes, yes…it was only last year I went to the carnival and blogged about it here. In fact, I seemed pretty fine with it. I did express my dislike for some things, like the booming music and crowds, but I thought I had a good time overall. So what changed this year? I’ll tell you.

1. Ginger sugar cane juice

There is sugar cane juice and then there is ginger tea. Who drinks sugar cane juice with ginger in it?? There was so much ginger in it that I could hardly taste the sugar cane. Last year we had lime juice with the sugar cane juice. That was odd too, but at least it was nice as lime and lemon go well with just about anything. This year it just got plain wrong. Is it too much to ask for pure, unadulterated sugar cane juice?

2. Cavorting women

The carnival on Monday is “adult day”. You would expect to see flesh on display. You’d see the odd woman on the parade practically topless, with strategically placed flowers or ornaments. You might also see a topless woman with body paint, in an albeit feeble attempt at concealing her partial nudity. What you don’t expect to see is women among the crowds, yes, “the members of public” lifting up their tops and jiggling their wonky breasts at unsuspecting people! Imagine the shock, horror, disgust at the tasteless exposure I was subjected to! I don’t consider myself prudish or old fashioned, but I believe flesh-baring and nudity should be done with a bit of class (I’d even accept it under the guise of ‘art’), not while cavorting around intoxicated!

3. Weed, the consumable kind…

The smell of weed wafts to your nose every-bloody-where you go! I know it is a street party and it is a foregone conclusion that there will be alcohol and drugs, but it is no more fun than sniffing second-hand fart, let me tell you! And for someone who’s got the sense of smell of a greyhound, it is not pleasant at all. No amount of hot food will mask the smell of weed! It is pungent and sickening and unfortunately as ubiquitous as jerk chicken at the carnival.

4. Pee

Yes, as if the smell of weed wasn’t bad enough, there is putrid urine stench at every alley! Men don’t take well to long toilet queues. Who would, if they had water pistol-like appendages that allowed them to freely relieve themselves wherever they chose? Your only consolation while covering up your nose with your hand, scarf, hanky and jacket is that you don’t live there. It’s no wonder most residents vacate their house during the carnival and only return days or weeks afterwards. But I’ve always wondered whether the  residents have protested against having the carnival in their posh neighbourhood. Imagine your neighbourhood being turned into an open space urinal overnight!

5. Overcrowded trains

It beggars belief that the London tube services can’t withstand a weekend of Notting Hill carnival but breezed through the Olympic and Paralympic games. Getting to and from the Notting Hill carnival is nothing short of a nightmare if you take the tube. Be prepared to breathe in the scent of pits akin to fermented milk, and beer breath and sweat everywhere you turn, especially on the return trip. Of course some might consider themselves lucky if they could turn around freely on the tube. The trains are so crowded in the evenings that they are the human equivalent of farm chicken coops.

6. Noise

I’m not talking about the booming music…that probably deserves an entry of its own considering the grief and ear-ache it caused me…I’m talking about the incessant shrieking and blaring of whistles and horns. Some people clearly think vuvuzela-inspired noises add to the atmosphere of the carnival. It must be the same kind of people who go weekend in weekend out to techno clubs and shout on top of their voices to their friends next to them while dancing right next to the speakers. Too bad you won’t hear me laugh when you go deaf at 40.

7. Loud music

I told you it deserved a separate entry…

Where can I even begin with the loudness of the music? We seem to be breeding a generation of music lovers who think it is not good music if it’s not loud enough to blow out your eustachian tubes and cochlea! These people lurk everywhere, not just at carnivals and clubs unfortunately…they are in the car that pulls up next to yours, booming music audible behind closed windows…they are on trains listening to their ipods, the music so loud that Bose speakers would be put to shame…

I should have known better from my experience in 2011 that this is not a place to be more than once in your lifetime. I’m the person who switches off the tv and music when I am at home alone, for God’s sake. I love the sound of silence. Even as I write this, there is no music. The tv is switched off. I went again this year, against my better judgement. I told my friend this is how it must be like for women who have their second or third (or umpteenth) baby. After each one, they vow never to experience the pain of childbirth again. Then wired as we all are to be suckers, our brain dampens the memory of pain over time and we yearn for it again and again.

8. Shoddy costumes

For a carnival that is purported to be the second-best (in the world?) after the Rio de Janeiro carnival, it sure is a let down. BBC posted photos of the 2012 Notting Hill carnival, and to be fair the photos do look good. But let me assure you that neither did I see any of those costumes nor see any that looked impressive…and I watched the parade from the main route. Also, judging from the women in the photos, BBC has undoubtedly cherry picked and showcased the best of the carnival.

The costumes looked like they had been put together overnight with little thought or budget. Maybe these costumes look better from far. Maybe they had started to fall apart by the time they got to my section of the route from all the dancing. Whatever it is, just don’t expect Rio carnival standards for the costumes and the women!

9. Disorganised crowd control

The crowds this year seemed a lot more uncontrolled than last year. Gone were the ropes used to contain crowds within the pedestrianised zones and instead, people could freely join the parades, be it to dance alongside the costumed dancers or to take photos with them. I am not sure whether the “marshalling area” within the carnival route provided a more controlled environment, but the people were just about everywhere along the main route. I can’t speak for other photographers, but it was quite frustrating for your photo composition to be constantly disturbed by members of the public distracting the performers.

10. It’s free

“Wait…isn’t it a good thing if it’s free?” I hear you ask. Did you know you’ve got to pay for tickets to watch the best of the Rio carnival parades? That’s why they’re so good.

There’s no such thing as a free lunch.

You pay for what you get.

Those words of wisdom apply here. You know how it is when you get something for free. Museums have free sections and paid sections. Free sections are not bad – well in this case they are not really free, but funded by the government – but the paid sections are remarkably better. The fact that something is free demonstrates that there’s only so much the organisers can do with the little funds they have.

So maybe I shouldn’t be so harsh on the Notting Hill carnival. It’s free, after all.

I’ve griped enough about the carnival. Now it’s your turn. Pleeeaaassee!! Otherwise I might start wondering if age is snuffing out my fun-loving side! :)

Olympics 2012

As I write this, I keep a watchful eye on the TV. It’s fifteen minutes to the Olympics 2012 closing ceremony. It feels surreal. Wasn’t it only yesterday I sat in front of the TV with Bubbles and friends watching the opening ceremony? I remember the surprise, then the incredulity which turned to amused wonderment when the Queen appeared with James Bond. I remember peals of laughter ringing in my ears when the all too familiar Mr. Bean played the repetitive staccato in the Chariot of Fire’s theme song. Most of all I remember being there, among the live audience;  and then watching expectantly from one scene to another recalling what I had already seen.

Yes, I was there! I was there for the opening ceremony dress rehearsal on Wednesday, two days before the actual opening ceremony. I had the privilege of being there with thousands of others, privy to what became a well-kept secret; amazingly.

I present to you some of the photos I took. This is the first setting we were greeted to upon arrival: Green and pleasant Britain.

A tree up on a hill, representing Glastonbury Thor, suddenly uprooted from the ground. It was as spectacular as it was unexpected!

Next, the Industrial Revolution literally packed up the agrarian society.

Tall chimneys rose from the ground, as miners and construction workers laboured diligently at every corner.

These rings rose in a brilliant display of fireworks. I must admit this part looked better on tv as the aerial view showed us the five Olympics rings, not quite visible from the stadium.

As spectators of the dress rehearsal were not privy to all the details of the Opening Ceremony, we were not informed of one of the best highlights of the ceremony: the Queen’s guest appearance with the iconic James Bond. But all that we got was a brilliant display of lights and the James Bond theme music.

From here onwards, I started neglecting my camera. It’s always a dilemma of mine: do I immerse myself in the experience and let my memory do the photographing, or do I break my attention away from the scene to look through the lens of the camera?

Anyway, I managed a few more shots…

As I said, it only feels like I was there yesterday and it is already the Closing Ceremony. Memories aside, the whole Olympics ceremony at my doorstep has taught me about the greatness of us humans. Aren’t we capable of achieving anything we set our minds to, regardless of our circumstances?

And there can’t be a better reminder of this than the next event: the Paralympics.

Who eats ‘ice cream’ on a plate?!

Bubbles and I recently made a trip to Germany to visit a friend I’ve known since I was eight. The beauty of this friendship is that until four years ago, we hadn’t actually met each other!

You see, K and I were childhood penpals and started writing to each other at a time when exchanging letters and sharing stories about your lives were not fraught with risks. It was a time before the computer became a household product and the world was relatively devoid of paedophiles and impostors! Having said that, her world then was instead filled with an ideological divide; democracy on one side and totalitarian dictatorship on the other side. Not exactly without modern day evils! All my letters were addressed to West Germany, not just Germany; but as an eight year old I did not have the maturity to comprehend the severity of it all.

I still remember the day I got her first letter. I was so excited to hear from a girl from an exotic land! I was always mystified by the faraway land of Europe. My only knowledge of it consisted of what I had learnt from the tv, looking at my dad’s old photos from his travels around Europe and some souvenirs scattered around the house. Europe to me was a land where people were white and had blue and green eyes, had beautiful tulips and windmills and four beautiful seasons with snow in the winter. I used to watch enviously a song sequence in the Hindi movie Junglee where Shammi Kapoor cavorts in the snow with his leading lady and tell myself that someday, I would visit that magical land and dance in the snow and have snowball fights.

K and I kept in touch all these years, through letters the first ten years and then via email when we both had access to the internet. We lost touch intermittently, while she spent some years in China, and I spent my first few years in the UK, but we always managed to contact each other, even if a good year passed in between. We finally met a few years ago when she and her husband visited us enroute to Scotland. It was a funny experience meeting someone you’ve known all your life and yet is somewhat a stranger to you.

Then two months ago, we started emailing again and she suggested we visit her. We took her up on her offer and headed to Holzkirchen, some 35km south of Munich. The first day was somewhat wasted by bad weather so we spent most of our time catching up indoors and cooking dinner: a fusion of Malaysian, German and French dishes!

The next day, we ventured out to Tegernsee for a hike up the mountains. We walked past a farmhouse, which was quintessentially Bavarian in its architecture. The houses are part-brick part-wooden, with encircling balconies that are perfect for sitting out on a warm summer evening.

As we hiked up the mountain, we were greeted by splendid views of a lake and mountains on the other side. As this was a pretty miserable summer with temperatures constantly plummeting to near-winter levels, paradoxically we enjoyed a breath-taking view of snow-capped mountains. The snow would have normally melted by May, when we visited.

The air was fresh and the grass and leaves, truly green.

It started raining sometime after we struggled up this road, and so we decided to head for some lunch rather than hike in miserable weather.

I can’t quite remember which restaurant we went to, but it was a Bavarian restaurant serving traditional Bavarian food. We headed for a late lunch…it must have been 2pm but the place was packed with people. A sure sign of good food! As we walked past several tables to ours, I thought I saw ice-cream being served on a plate. Rather odd, I thought!

Little did I know until my friend ordered the same dish, that it wasn’t ice-cream, but ‘Obatzda’, a traditional Bavarian ‘snack’ of cheese served with onions and pretzel sticks! I hadn’t noticed the onions earlier, you see! :) It really looked like two scoops of ice-cream! It tasted very nice, the fresh onions giving a nice zing to the otherwise mild cheese.

Bubbles ordered ‘schweinaxe’, another traditional Bavarian dish of pork knuckle and potatoes. It came served with a knife stuck into the pork! It kind of made me wonder whether schweinaxe had its literal origins in ‘swine with axe,’ and to honour the traditional slaughtering came served with a knife! :)

I thought this shot of Bubbles’ beer was quite nice. So was the beer! I’m not usually a beer drinker but I felt the beer in Germany was real good.

My food was the last to arrive: potato fritters with sauerkraut, but I was too famished by then and not in the mood to take any more photos!

Later that evening, we bade farewell to K and headed back to Munich reluctantly. I couldn’t help but contemplate nostalgically about how we’ve played a part in each other’s lives all these years. She couldn’t be more Asian with her stacks of Chinese books and Indian recipe books, and I moved halfway across the world to live in the land she exposed me to through her letters.

Has your life been enriched by penpals? Tell me about your experience or just yap away about anything else! I’d love to hear from my readers.

BMW, the Bavarian Motor ‘Wonder’…

What better way to start your Bavarian holiday than with a dollop of German precision and efficiency? Visitors to the BMW Museum are greeted with a sterile and crisp façade, its clean lines an embodiment of the engineering excellence that has become synonymous with the brand.

A little bit of history: BMW has its roots in aircraft engine manufacturing. In 1917, while the first world war was raging, the previously unknown aircraft engine manufacturer Rapp Motorenwerke GmbH presented a new and highly innovative  type of aircraft engine to the Prussian military authorities. The company was renamed ‘Bayerische Motoren Werke’ and became the BMW that it is today.

I know nuts about aircraft engine, but as far as aesthetics go, this one is stunning!

The BMW R32 motorcycle was the first BMW product intended for road use. The company’s foresight in style and sophistication almost a hundred years ago is apparent even from its market début product.

In 1928, BMW made an automotive leap, purchasing a car and military equipment manufacturing company; and thus began its foray into and its domination of the car industry. These are just some of the beauties it has produced over the years.

Before men started giving their cars affectionate names, they slung their belts around them!

In 1978, the now legendary M1 launched BMW’s exclusive high performance series. The capital M is now considered the ‘world’s most powerful letter’ and features not just in sports cars, as originally intended, but on coupés, convertibles and saloons. My name is Menaka. Don’t mess with me, I’ve got the world’s most powerful letter attached to my name! :D

Even if you are not into cars, it would be difficult to leave the museum without being the slightest bit inspired by the achievements of this automotive behemoth.

Real interesting stuff you probably didn’t know about Florence

Some months ago, Bubbles and I and our nutcase friends, who by the way feature in my blog through periodic mention; visited Siena in Italy. (Read Siena blog here) We also paid homage to its  rival city: Florence. They say you either like one or the other, Siena for its gothic-style buildings or Florence for its renaissance-inspired architecture.

I can’t really make up my mind which city I prefer. It kind of represents the non-committal person I am…and like most psycho-analyses reveal, this one can be traced back to childhood.

Me: (I do something naughty and anger mum, then run around the dining table knowing mum can’t catch me)

Mum: (looking murderous like scary Goddess Kali and wielding a ‘rotan’ i.e. a feather duster that doubles as child-beating weapon) ARE YOU GOING TO COME HERE OR DO YOU WANT ME TO CATCH YOU? IF YOU DON’T COME HERE AND I CATCH YOU, YOU WILL GET TWICE THE BEATING!!

Me: ( I freeze on the spot and weigh the options. Little did I know that at the tender age of five I was already dealing with mathematical problems like ‘probability’ in my mind!)

But I digress. Where was I? Oh yes, Florence. Here’s Ponte Vecchio…one of the most recognised sights of Florence.

Ponte Vecchio does not boast of the pointed arches or elaborate mythical creatures that epitomise Gothic buildings. Instead it almost looks like a nondescript apartment over the river, but yet there is something enchanting about this structure, with its arched bridge crossing the Arno river.

The walk across the bridge is equally bewitching. There are interesting shops that line both sides of the bridge.

Apparently, the economic concept of bankruptcy originates here. When a merchant could not pay his debts, the table on which he sold his ware (the “banco”) was broken (“rotto”) by soldiers. This practice was called “bancorotto” – broken table, or possibly “bancorotta” – broken bank. Without his table, the merchant was not able to sell anything.

Interestingly, Siena hosts the oldest surviving bank in history; Monte dei Paschi, established in 1472. I can see signs of rivalry having its roots here. Bankrupt Florentians must have asked said bank for funds and got rejected in the face. :)

I think Florence and Siena have another distinct difference between them. Florence must have had all the muscular, macho men. How else would you explain the fact that only Florence is dotted with anatomically perfect statues such as this? :)

I reckon Siena must have had fatties (or flabbies!) as there’s not a single statue celebrating a man’s hot, muscular bod! That could also be where the rivalry originates…can you imagine the wrath stemmed by bodily insecurity and envy? :)

Here’s the Statue of Neptune. He’s a bit too bulky for my liking and there’s something odd about the kid standing between his legs. Wait a minute…he’s not a kid. He’s got pubic hair! So, there are two odd things about the kid-statue. Look at his ding-ding. It looks frayed at the edge!

Pray tell what that’s supposed to be! I’m intrigued. So there you go: possible another difference. Maybe there was so much testosterone coursing through the veins of Florentine men that they reached puberty at seven!

Sounds to me like architecture had nothing to do with the two cities’ rivalry. They each coveted what the other had! Like a lot of unproven historical research, I present to you these hypotheses so you can make a valued judgement. (I can tell I would be a very capable historian) :)

Have you noticed the frayed genital before or seen any other odd statues in Europe? Do tell me about it! 

Sienna Siena

Meet Siena: the city that lent its name to the colour ‘burnt sienna’. It almost seems ironic then that the very colour makes the city look monochromatic. A rust-coloured skyline greets the traveller from afar, as one approaches the heart of the city through its walled enclave. The atmosphere is unmistakably Italian: ancient and dusty like its southern sister, Rome.

As if decreed by the city, all windows are green; a bright contrast to the reddish brick buildings. One or two buildings stand in defiance, daring to be different.

Even the vespa I spotted is red. One has to wonder if the city’s colour theme is subliminally affecting the inhabitants’ choice!

The gelati too! Would you look at that…the ice-cream tubs have Siena’s signature colours!

By now I’m pretty convinced something is going on in that city. There’s some sort of colour-brainwashing going on. The “brain-washers” are probably operating amongst the average people. Could it be here?

Or here?

We wouldn’t know. We’ve probably fallen victim to it, too. We returned with a magnet of a red vespa.

Have you visited Siena? Were you enchanted by the (predominantly) monochromatic city, like I was?

Sky’s the limit!

It’s a year of many firsts.

For the first time in the 10 years of my life in the UK, I find that it is early May and we still have the heating switched on at home. It is raining every single day in spring. The skies are dull and grey like a winter’s morning.

I am filled with melancholy looking at my holiday photos, where not far from here the land was bright and sunny a few weeks ago.

The skies were a colourful splash of blue and white during the day.

The horizon glowed in the sunset. The world felt right.

And on the days when the sun hid itself, it was only so the clouds could show off their splendour.

They danced languidly in the sky. When night fell, the sun extinguished itself with one final display of grandeur. A rich blue hue enveloped the sky, before melting into darkness.

As if spellbound, I stood with my neck craned, gazing towards the skies.

For the first time, I didn’t photograph my subject with a bit of sky. Instead, I photographed the sky with a bit of subject.

(Note: No post-processing done to these photos.)

Europe = Best train service…really?

Hello peeps! Apologies for not writing in ages, but I was abducted by aliens sometime ago and only recently managed to escape and return to Earth. They were so enamoured by me they made me their Queen and begged me to rule their aliendom. It was a tough decision returning to Earth when one had been bestowed such an exalted position, but I couldn’t just abandon my faithful blog readers. So in no time, I plotted an escape plan and returned to Earth. The moment I returned, I threw myself into another holiday so I could blog about it and keep you fellow readers happy. I know…I take my writing obligations very seriously.

Bubbles and I and our nutcase friends went to Siena recently. We flew to Pisa then took the train to Siena. A quick research done weeks before our travels revealed that it was pretty much ‘turn up and go’ with the train from Pisa to Siena. It involved two interchanges at Pisa Central and Empoli and the whole journey would take 2 hours. We didn’t need to buy tickets in advance. Fantastic, I thought. My kind of laid back life where you just did things without planning too much. I come from a country where you just turn up at a clinic if you are ill. No appointments necessary. Not like in the UK where you need to make an appointment with your GP and by the time you get one you are practically clinging to your dear life. (nevermind the fact that I’m just talking about the common cold and no one expects you to go to the GP for that in the UK, but Malaysian doctors prescribe antibiotics for colds like they were Tic-Tacs!)

Anyway, ‘turn up’ we did at the ticket counter and bought our tickets for Siena. We were told the next train to Pisa Central was in 10 minutes. We ran to the platform and were greeted with a colourful, graffiti-adorned train.

Whatever happened to those new, shining aerodynamic trains I had somehow associated Europe with? Well, it was only a 10-minute ride to Pisa Central so I wasn’t too fussed about it. But we waited ages for the next train to turn up. The train to Empoli wasn’t exactly new and modern either. The UK’s intercity trains look like the Concorde of trains in comparison. The Italian trains looked like they were hand-me-downs from India!

It ended up being a long, dusty journey to Empoli (yes, no air-cond!), then another changing of trains for our final journey to Siena. We were in a perpetual cycle of boarding and alighting trains on the first day of our trip!

Where are Europe’s fast trains? Is it only reserved for the big cities? It made me a bit more grateful towards our UK trains. Maybe in terms of rail fares Italy was way cheaper, but at least the train experience in UK is better. When there are no delays. And no one puking or farting near you.

The Best Travel Souvenirs You Can Buy

A naked man. A hippie with a joint. Bottles of wine. I brought them all home with me. I swear…I have photographic evidence.

Before you conjure up images of me in a wild, drunken orgy, let me have you know I’m talking about fridge magnets, the best kind of souvenir you can bring back from your travels. Why?

1. They are cheap! You can usually get good ones for £3 each.

2. They are small and take up very little space in your luggage or handbag.

3. You can get them almost anywhere you travel.

4. They are unique. You won’t find magnets of Barcelona in London, or magnets of Australia in New York. (the fact that they’re probably all made in China is beside the point!)

5. They remind you everyday of the wonderful holidays you have had.

I learnt very early on that some things just don’t make good souvenirs when Bubbles and I returned from Rome, our first trip to Europe with a miniature Colosseum, a brass gladiator and horse-drawn chariot, an aerial view poster of the Colosseum and some fridge magnets. A week after returning, we looked at the Colosseum and brass items and wondered aloud why we had bought them! We had clearly been struck by a case of overzealous souvenir shopping.

It was then that we decided we should stick to magnets alone and the odd unique souvenir and not get carried away while on holiday. Anyway, here are some of my favourite magnets in my collection.

The naked man I meant. Michaelangelo must have been a mean man. Or maybe he just didn’t realise what a sensation his artwork and sculptures would cause in the future. I mean who would sculpt someone with the tiniest possible ding-dong even if it were really tiny?

Isn’t the hippie cute? Here’s another hippie…I love this one for the fact it’s got a springy attachment that says ‘free the weed’! I keep it high on the fridge so kids can’t reach it…

A rack of wine courtesy of Paris. This was quite expensive by magnet standards…I think £5… but the workmanship is flawless!

Cows from Switzerland. So very cute!

A few more favourites…

And now, some magnets which have been a huge disappointment considering where they come from…these are the worst magnets we own but had no choice but to buy them for lack of better ones. Their workmanship is just appalling…especially the Statue of Liberty. Shame on you, New York!

Our magnet collection has inspired our friends to start collections of their own (you’re welcome, you’re welcome). So, if you want to start having your own collection, you had better pay homage to me for my brilliant idea! ;)

What’s the worst thing you’ve bought on holiday?

To train or not to train…

Bubbles and I are in the midst of planning a holiday and are stumped by one dilemma after another. First, we can’t…umm…decide on the destination, but we’ve narrowed it down to two. Second, if we went with the European destination, should we fly or train it?

Anyway, I spent some precious time reading up on the train journey (in the interest of keeping my job, I better not say where I did my research. Oops!) and started reminiscing our train journey in India. We took the train from Agra to Varanasi,  involving a 13-hour overnight journey on a sleeper train.

I remember watching our train pull into the station platform. It looked like it had been battered by the ravages of time. If the carriages could talk, they would speak of better times when their cerulean shell gleamed in the sun. They might whisper some secrets of colonial times.

We had ‘first’ class tickets which meant sleeping berths in an air-conditioned carriage. This is what first class looked like:

Not exactly luxurious! I kept wondering if the pillows and sheets were clean, but dozed off almost as soon as my head hit the pillow. Bubbles would tell me the next morning that he had had the best sleep ever, rocked by the motion of the train.

I was up at 5 in the morning and watched the train pull in and out of stations. The sun was just rising, bathing the earth in a kaleidoscope of colours.

I stood at the entrance, taking shots of everything within view, not wanting to venture out in case the train left without me. An old lady with her bundle of laundry caught the corner of my eye. I snapped this shot just as she was flinging her throw around her shoulder.

The views were amazing as the train went past villages and cut through fields. It was pure, unadulterated India. I wish I had taken more shots, but at the time I set aside my camera and just took in all the sights. I can never forget the things I saw.

Speaking of the things I saw, regrettably I forgot to take photos of the toilets in the train! I’m not sure if my readers would be pleased with me if I shared such photos anyway, but suffice to say that they were not the best of toilets. Bubbles, who kept going on about his worry I might not survive the filth in India, only went once to relieve himself! I assured him I would have no such problems. And true to my words, it was no big deal to me. I gotta go when I gotta go! :)

Anyway, you can see our dilemma. Flying would save us time, but a train would give us a different kind of experience and breathtaking views as it chugs along past mountains and lakes in Europe. The scenery would be very different from that of India, but that’s what you want; a different journey, a journey that takes you on a discovery,  a journey full of serendipity.

Have you had a travel-related dilemma lately? What was it?

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 39 other followers