Saturday, July 09, 2016

Travel Thoughts and Taughts

Have you ever watched the departures screen at the airport and imagined hopping and skipping across all those cities? Whenever I'm at a major airport, I usually stare at the departures board and day dream of traveling to those exotic destinations. Finally I had the opportunity to trapeze across a small section of the world earlier this year. Five months on the road is a long time, but I've barely scratched the surface. This world is a big place. And that's wonderful because there will always be something left to see and do.

Months on the road was a novelty for this former citizen of corporate America. There was an impulse to operate in week long vacation mode, to cram the days and to try to see as much as possible. This definitely led to burnout and I had to pace myself. It was exhilarating to realize that I had all the time in the world to see so much and so little. It's liberating to realize that traveling the world is checking off boxes on an infinitely long list. I learned the paradox that the more you see, the more you have not seen.

I set out out from Calif in the beginning of Feb. It would have been hard had I been on my own the entire time. Meeting and talking to strangers is fun to an extent. And so is the feeling of complete independence. I've had some amazing conversations with complete strangers on the solo legs of my journey. But I think I'd choose travel with family, friends and friends of friends over solo travel. I like to share my experiences with people I can keep in touch with, with people I have something in common with. I love getting to know people at a deeper level and to invest in relationships. And this can't quite be achieved during fleeting encounters with strangers at cafes or in trains. But this shouldn't deter solo travel. After all, the alignment of time, money and energy happens very rarely in one's life. Throw in the requirement of friends, and you are looking at astronomical odds. Thus, when you get a chance to travel, you take it. And that's what I did.

Travel is an incredible teacher and you learn a thing or two on on the road. First, traveling made me realize that most people are nice, even Parisians. There are morons out there, no doubt. But statistically if we are much more likely to meet nice people, why do we worry and assume the worst all the time? As Mark Twain wrote, “Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness.” Obviously it is important to keep your wits about you and not be naive, but that shouldn't devolve into cynicism and unwarranted suspicion. For me, life is about taking risks, being open to new experiences and being vulnerable so as to let others into your lives.

Second, I learned to trust God and yourself. When you travel, you are by default outside your comfort zone. You learn to go with the flow. Some planning is obviously essential to enhance your experience. For example, standing in line for an hour when you could have bought tickets online is stupid. But you can't plan for everything. You can't have every eventuality accounted for. It would have been hard for me to be prepared for everything that happened on my first day in France. And you have to remember that most problems can be solved with money and a level head. Take one step at a time. Don't look at and worry too much about the boulders on the horizon that you trip on the pebble at your feet.

Thirdly, I learned that if I were nice to myself, I'd be nice to others. If you wake up late or spill coffee or misplace something, relax. Stuff happens. Slow down and you'll have more time for kindness. Besides, as Calvin said "When you're SERIOUS about having fun, it's not much fun at all!" In this year of mercy, I have learned that mercy comes from within.

Lastly, on a personal level, this trip satisfied my wanderlust to a certain extent. There are many jokes about the Jesuit vow of poverty. But even a Jesuit level of poverty means that I'll never have the freedom to go anywhere and everywhere I want. In a way, even though this trip was absolutely awesome, I'm willing to let it be a one time thing. As I mentioned before, this world is a truly big place and I'll never see everything. But having seen a tiny bit, I'm satisfied and willing to let go of the freedom of having the world at the reach of my credit card.

The world is beautiful. Let it inspire you. If you believe in God, use the moments that captivate you to thank and praise the creator. In the drudgery of life, sometimes you may lose sight of beauty and life will become tedious. Take time to find the beauty around you, in nature, people, food, architecture, music, and the list endless. Find God and find beauty in everything. And as the ancient prayer goes, "May you always walk in beauty."

Thursday, June 30, 2016

This one time when I was backpacking through Europe

Three months through western and central Europe was an amazing time of exploring myriad cultures, millennia of history and a variety of food. It's hard to paint the whole of Europe with a single brush, hence I'd suggest to read about specific countries in other posts, if you are interested. But I thought a wrap up of the trip was on order when people ask about my trip. 

Europe is best for the culture, history, architecture and food. It is a feast for the senses. The variety within the continent is mind boggling as expected, but don't rule out the variations within a country. Spain, for example, can be easily divided into several distinct cultures. Having traveled extensively around the US, I can say that Americans need not travel to Europe for untouched wilderness because there isn't much of it. Note, I didn't make it to Iceland and Norway. Natural beauty abounds, but not wilderness. Also, depending on the length of the trip, throw in some countryside in your itinerary. Guide books, (I used Lonely Planet), are biased towards cities. Obviously they give the maximum bang for your buck if you have only a few days. But after a week or two, I found cities tedious and overwhelming and had to decamp to the country to recharge.

Getting around Europe is fairly easy. I didn't rent a car anywhere mainly because of the cost, the hassle of figuring out parking rules and not understanding the language in most countries. Public transport in cities is exceptional and the inter city train connections range from superb in the west to non existent in the east. Though conversely, it's expensive in the west and cheap in the east. Train journeys are generally scenic, but I wouldn't use it as a way to see the country. In the sense, they are good to get from point A to B or to socialize. But it's hard to appreciate a place when you are whizzing by at high speeds, sometimes in excess of 300 kmph. Even Switzerland, with it's legendary train routes, is best seen by walking the trails and soaking in the scenery. 

Eurail pass is handy, but may not be worth it. I'll examine the pros and cons. First, it's expensive. I had to save about $60 on average on every train ride, assuming that I'd use all 17 trips over two months, to break even. Train rides usually don't cost that much, except high speed trains which generally serve only major cities in western Europe. Besides, the high speed trains often incurred an added $12 fee for reservations. Further, overnight trains might cost more for these 'reservations'.

Second, a rail pass could be considered as a flexible travel option, meaning you don't need prior reservations. Depends. Some trains require reservations before boarding even with a rail pass. And even if they don't require reservations, I'd recommend you do it anyways. Else you might get bumped around during the journey by people who have reserved the seat you are on. Furthermore, I couldn't make these reservations online as Eurail said that they could only mail tickets to my address in Calif. I have no idea why they don't have e-tickets. Thus for every reservation, I had to trek to the nearest train station. And if you go to a station, you can only book tickets for journeys originating in that country. For example. if you are in Spain, you can't book a ticket for a journey in France. So much for flexibility. 

Third, be careful about using the Eurail website/app for checking train connections. Trains not covered by the pass may not be listed. For example, there is a train from Ljubljana to Budapest. But it didn't show up when I was looking at options on the app. Lastly, in Central Europe, trains may not be your best option, rendering your pass quite useless. Overall, the verdict on the pass is, it depends. You can make your decision based on my feedback and information from a thousand other travel blogs and websites.

We may have heard the joke on European stereotypes concerning heaven and hell.
Heaven Is Where:
The French are the chefs,
The Italians are the lovers
The British are the police
The Germans are the mechanics
And the Swiss make everything run on time

Hell is Where:
The British are the chefs
The Swiss are the lovers
The French are the mechanics
The Italians make everything run on time
And the Germans are the police

I think I'd want Italian chefs. But not drivers. I had heard about bad drivers and haphazard parking in Italy. Completely true. Even the cops drive badly. But the food, ah Italian food, makes up from everything. On the other hand, British food lives up to its billing. That's why they took over half the world. The Germans are definitely disciplined and organized. And their language lives up to sounding like machine gun fire. The French fortunately or unfortunately didn't conform to their reputation of snobbery.  

Not listed above is Spain. I had heard of the lazy stereotype because of their siestas. I don't think that's quite true because they do end up working the same hours as everyone else. It's just that then their evenings are taken by work, and so the socializing spills over in to the wee hours of the morning and we have a sleep deprived nation on our hands. And lastly, Ireland. I didn't make it out here, but I saw Irish pubs all over Europe. They are always around the corner, lest an Irish guy gets a little too sober.

Best of Europe
The best cities on my trip were Paris, Prague and Amsterdam. It's hard to say why exactly and it also depends on your interests. For me it was architecture, history, beer, cafes and overall ambiance. For countryside, it has to be Bavaria with it's rolling hills against the backdrop of the alps and quaint villages. The best country was Italy. It scores decently well on all the above categories, plus the food is excellent. Of course the objectivity of my judgement may have been affected by the weather, cost and company I had in those places.

And here is a map of my trip. Barcelona was the first stop and Paris the last. Black lines represent land journey, green air and blue water. 

Friday, June 24, 2016

France, je t'aime

I bid farewell to England and took the ferry across the moat to France. I have always wanted to travel by sea, only so that I could say "This ship has sailed!". And to get the feel of the adventures of yore, when brave men sailed into the unknown in search new lands and fortune, without knowing if they'd fall of the edge of the earth, without Google Maps. My departure from Portsmouth was a rather staid affair. None of the hoopla and fanfare that you see in the movies. No waving and cheering. No foghorn. No "weigh the anchor!". Just a quiet rumble and we slowly pulled away from the bleak gray coastline of southern England.

The next morning dawned crisp and clear. Land Ahoy! That was France ahead. It really wasn't that exciting as the journey had only been 12 hours (covering a measly 200 km) and I had slept through most of it. Besides, there were no icebergs or pirates in the English Channel. While the sea journey was quite uneventful, the rest of the day made up for it. I saw the good and the bad of the French in a space of a few hours.

They ferry was delayed by an hour because of the annual summer strike by French workers. And so I missed the only bus to Mont St Michel, my day trip plan for the day. I decided to rebook my train ticket to leave St Malo at the earliest. The attendant grumpily took care of it, but I wasn't told that the changeover in Paris involved changing stations. Thankfully I read the tickets. When I reached Paris, I headed to the info desk to inquire about transit options to the other station. The guy at the information desk spoke to me as though I had insulted his mom or had stolen his girlfriend or both. Why do people whose job is to help people behave like that?

I got on the metro as instructed, but when we arrived at the metro stop, the train didn't stop as the station was closed because of the strike. Now how could Mr Grumpy not have known this? Thankfully a guy on the subway helped me figure out a new option and I made it onto the train just in time. I arrived in the beautiful Loire valley and hopped off the train at Amboise. I made my way out of town and into the countryside towards my Airbnb reservation. After a good 45 min of walking, I was there. Only problem, the place didn't exist. I looked at my Google Map, it said I had arrived. I didn't have a phone to call the host. Eventually I knocked on a neighbor's door. I was a little embarrassed to have interrupted their dinner. But they were very kind and I asked to use their WiFi. I got through to the Airbnb host, but couldn't understand his French. One of my new found friends offered to speak and translate for me. He figured that I was on the wrong street and began to give me instructions. But the older lady in the house insisted that they drive me over. I love the French! Finally, I had made it to the Airbnb place. In hindsight it was good that the strike led me to book an earlier train. Else I would have been wandering the countryside all night.

After the roller coaster of a first day in France, it was time to explore the country. I had seen the gorgeous French countryside on TV when I used to watch the Tour de France. I was quite stoked to ride those same back roads through quaint towns and over rolling hills of golden wheat fields. Loire Valley is famous for it castles with Chonenceau and Chambord among the finest. Also, soak in the small town ambiance in Blois and Amboise

My last stop in Europe was Paris, the city of lights. Paris was absolutely gorgeous and Paris after midnight was magical. With the Euro 2016 on, the party was definitely in town. The piece the resistance was the Eiffel tower of course. It is arguably the most recognizable landmark in the world. The view from the top at dusk was spectacular. But Paris was more than monuments and museums. It was about the ambiance. I loved walking the streets, past the cafes with chairs facing outside. Seriously, it's a thing in Paris where people don't face each other, but sit on the same side of the table, facing outside. A long lunch in one such cafe, watching the world go by, secretly or openly judging others is a must do thing in Paris. Throw in a rude waiter and your experience of Paris is complete.

The French are surprising friendly. Or maybe I had really low expectations. Much has been made of the French attitude and ennui. But I didn't see much of it on display, except for the odd waiter or help desk attendant. I wonder how they'd have reacted if I had said that Calif wine was better than the French wine. And they really appreciated my efforts in speaking in French. It was probably the first time they had heard French in an Indian accent. Now I speak only a little French. So whenever I initiated a conversation in French, they would just keep talking. And I would have no idea what they had said. But French sounds so beautiful that I didn't want them to stop. I once told a lady to just keep speaking because it was especially mellifluous. I think I would want to listen to bed time stories in French.

Paris was an amazing end to this trip. I had my doubts and fears with the strike, floods, Euro crowds, terrorist warnings, etc. None of it mattered. France, truly je t'aime.

Shout out to Lenka and Gabo for hosting in Paris.

Thursday, June 16, 2016

Musings over Afternoon Tea in Britain

As I stood in line at the immigration counter at the airport, I wondered whether the Brits stood in line when they arrived in India. I believe it's a little hypocritical of them to check others before letting them in into their country. I thought that maybe I should at least get a free beer as restitution for the plunder they carried out over the centuries. Though minor detail, I should have taken up my case with the Portuguese, not the Brits. I looked around and noticed that all the signs were in English. Obviously. But this is the first place in Europe that had only one language. At least they should have had signs in French as well to placate the French for losing out as the universal language.

The first port of call was York, famous for its medieval setting. At the station I was disappointed not to see the famed queuing tendency of the Brits when the train arrived. But I was well pleased to see rules strictly observed on the stairways. Basically you can only walk up/down on the left side, with prominent 'No Entry' signs on the right side. And even if one side is packed, no one would walk on the other side. Given that people depart a station in waves and arrive in trickles, it made no sense to have both lanes to be of equal width. While on the topic of no sense, what's with sinks that have two faucets, one for hot water and one for cold water? I was left constantly alternating my hands back and forth to prevent scalding and freezing of my hands. Also, they use a curious mix of metric and imperial units of measure. Distances are in miles and elevations are in feet for instance. All things aside, the one thing that I applaud the Brits for is the double decker buses. Why haven't other countries thought of that? It's such an efficient use of space. Plus you get great views from the upper level.

Getting back to York, after that important tangent. The York Minster is one of those places where you spend more than 5 min just because you paid a hefty entry fee and you linger around pointlessly to get your money's worth. Couldn't they tell you that the church has been converted to a theater temporarily? All you could see was the ugly back side of stage sets. The main draw of a Gothic structure is the feeling of space, created by the tall slender columns. Here, there was scaffolding everywhere. I darted for the exit once the respectful 5 min was up. The bright side of leaving right away was that I caught a 'free' history tour of the city. A colorful guy talking about the colorful past of England was an ideal combination. Potter around the medieval streets and along the city wall, and York is a great day trip destination.

The next stop was Bristol. It is where London hipsters go to retire, just like Calif hipsters retire to Portland. It has a great vibe or maybe I'm just biased towards hipsters. A visit to the pub felt like gate crashing a family gathering. The atmosphere was that homey. There were some guys who seemed to have come straight from their evening run, all sweaty in their running shorts. We need these pubs in Calif. Once I went to a neighborhood dive bar in Santa Clara and I thought I was at a convention of AA rejetcs. While on the topic of drinking, we know that the Brits love their tea (PS: The Brits stole tea from the Chinese). Afternoon tea in a garden was an experience to savor, just like thinly sliced scones slathered in clotted cream and jam. A light drizzle and ominous clouds weren't enough to deter the Brits from being outside just a little longer. After all, a light drizzle would be considered good weather in Britain. Blessed are those with low expectations.

The final stop was London. That's where the party was. It was the Queens 90th birthday. I am beginning to believe she is immortal. The queen is so old that her memory is in black and white. Meanwhile, thousands of royal aficionados lined the street for the parade. The event though was a yawn fest. It was a lot of doing nothing, just like the royals I suppose. Occasionally a few guys in funny hats marched by. It was the kind of party where, even if you didn't have any expectations, you'd disappointed. I saw the queen for about five seconds, too short a time to ask about that Kohinoor diamond she's been holding hostage. I'll get her next time. And just like that, the parade was over. The fans of the royals obviously continued the party by excitedly discussing her green dress, her wave and her (purely imaginary) smile. While I will never understand the concept of royalty, I applaud her longevity in her role as the queen. Waving to peasants a few times a year is a tough life indeed.

After the extremely mild dose of excitement at the parade, it time to wander the streets of the great city. London is an eclectic mix of cultures and architecture. There is no old town in London. The city is a mix of beautiful Victorian and Georgian, ugly 60s and bold modern. London, or England in general, is expensive for a tourist. It was a good thing that I had a few extra pounds on me from all the desserts I had eaten over the past few months. One penny saving tip, attend a service or free organ concert in St Paul's Cathedral for a free viewing of this impressive church.

Meanwhile, Catholics looking for a good Sunday service should head to the Jesuit parish in Mayfair. I'm not playing brand ambassador here, but it was a wonderful service and I met some awesome young adults who hung out at a nearby pub thereafter. It was great to get an insight into the Brexit debate that is raging in London. My take from the discussion was that Brexit was mainly about immigrants. And these (probably liberal) young professionals felt that the 'exiters' were just a bunch of xenophobic racists. I'm not entirely informed about the whole debate, so I'll pass no further judgement. But one things is for certain. The immigrants have definitely improved the food scene in England.

With that, I cast off across the moat to France. Au revoir!

Cheers to Matthew, Nikhil and Milroy for hosting!

Wednesday, June 08, 2016

High Life in the Low Countries

The last time I was in Brussels, it was 7 years back, a layover on my way to the US for the first time. I guess layovers don't count as being in a city, but the thought of that layover did bring back some great memories of that eventful journey. This time was a layover as well, but it's much easier to get out of a train station and stroll around the city for a few hours than say leaving the airport to stroll around and voluntarily having your body cavities searched a second time when back at the airport.

Stepping out of the station you are greeted by fully armed soldiers and armored vehicles. Not an entirely warm welcome to the capital of Europe. But I guess better safe than sorry? It's complicated. Though I wonder why they wear the green camouflage in a city? Maybe dress in red and yellow, the colors of McDonalds, if you want to blend in an urban environment? Brussels, meanwhile, was having a litter festival. Who knew that the drab grey streets could be livened with thrash in bright colors?

Brussels was where Tintin was created. My favorite comic book series. Seeing Tintin pictures in windows and alleys brought back some fond memories from childhood. Blistering barnacles, I only had a couple of hours to see the highlights of the city. I spent most of it in the central square, the grandest in Europe. I took in the 360 degree panorama of ornate facades and majestic spires. And it was time to head to catch the connection to Bruges

Moving on to Belgium's number one destination. Bruges is a lovely medieval city with narrow cobblestone streets lined with gingerbread houses. It was lovely to walk around the back streets and canals, everything silent and a mist, albeit a little annoying, adding to the ambiance. Sometimes a long walk through a maze of quaint homes, with no fixed plan, is just what the mind needs. To be with your thoughts, to pray and to just be. At the end of it, I stepped into a cozy coffee shop and ordered waffles and chocolate, followed by beer. Not a gourmet combination, but it covered all things Belgian. 

Finally! Finally, I saw how beautiful life could be if the conservatives in the US would finally let go of their unfounded doubts and entrenched mentality. I'm not talking about weed or the sex shops, two of the most famous things in Amsterdam. I'm talking about biking.

Amsterdam is a city on bikes. Everyone is on bikes. The old and the young, men in suits and men in speedos and women in heels. Though almost no one was in spandex. Europeans consider biking as a form of commute, not a workout. Kids are strapped in the front or the back, or sometimes two in a box in the front. I hadn't seen two on a bike (passenger on the carriage) since I was maybe fifteen. One guy was multitasking with a phone in one hand and a cigarette (maybe a joint?) in another. If he had more hands, he would probably be drinking coffee and painting as well. And there were stretched bikes and cargo bikes. A few were cheating with electric assisted bikes. But it all counts. This is a city on bikes.

I decided to join the city on two wheels and rented a bike. The city looks so much friendlier and more fun from a perch on a saddle. Except when I almost got hit by a bike, a scooter and a ped at the same time. And watch out for trams and tracks. Red lights are suggestions to yield rather than stop. It's incredible that there are no crashes. I'm not sure if the Dutch and the Italians are somehow related. It's chaos on the streets. Even old ladies go like there's no tomorrow. Though some are so old, they probably think that that is the case. Everyone is zipping by with a #yolo attitude. The dedicated bike highways make for smooth riding, until you reach cobblestone streets. I love walking on a cobblestone streets, but definitely don't want to traverse them on a bike. Unless it's a full suspension mountain bike.

I loved the vibe of Amsterdam. It was the best city for ambiance. It felt alive. Amsterdam felt local. The tourists were not obvious with their tour guides and buses. Though the canals were patrolled by gangs of bros and woo girls. Also there are no obvious tourist sites for a selfie and duck face exhibitions. Except for the Anne Frank museum where the lines make it look like an Apple store on release day of iPhone 17 (I don't know what number they have reached).

I wandered around this wonderful city taking in the sights and sounds. Dutch sounds remarkably like English. It felt like I should  know what they were saying. Just that they started clearing their throats suddenly and uttered something incomprehensible. It was time for a break. But I was too scared to go to a coffee shop as I was apprehensive about baked goods in case I got baked. I learned that coffee shops = weed, and cafe = normal coffee shop. I once had to go to a pharmacy and had to make sure that it was a pharmacy and not a 'pharmacy'. It's just that I'm not into weed and the only joint I have rolled is my ankle. And isn't it a fun coincidence that the city coat of arms is a triple x and their main clock tower was built in 1620? Amsterdam is just fulfilling it's destiny.

A must visit in Amsterdam is the Anne Frank House. I had read the Diary of Ann Frank just a couple of years back and it's still fresh in my mind. The pain and suffering of a teenager, a family, a community, a nation and the world can never be forgotten. Seeing the places described in the Diary was a profound experience. We have to remember that both Anne and Hitler were human. But their lives were so different and have been remembered so differently. We are the choices we make. It's also a stark reminder of the dangers of excessive nationalism. It's important to remember that Hitler was human. Not a demon or an extra terrestrial. He could rise up again anytime from among us. Those who consider themselves good need to be vigilant. In the guise of a strong leader, we could have a tyrant lurking. A visit on the 72nd anniversary of D-Day added to the sense of occasion. Let us truly mean the 'never again'. Pro tip about tickets. The tickets are sold out online weeks in advance and the in person queues are long. But you can get tickets on the day off if you check online at about 9am.

With that, from the highs of Amsterdam, I head across the sea to the big country on a small island.

Friday, June 03, 2016

To the Alps!

On to Germany. The current economic powerhouse of Europe, a country that rose brilliantly from the ashes of WWII. First up, I was disappointed that the train from Prague to Munich was late by over 2 hours, causing me to miss my connection. We seemed to have fallen behind only after we had crossed into Germany. Not a good first impression of the famed German efficiency. Though I later learned that Germans over estimate their efficiency and build no slack into their time train time tables.

My initial plan was to visit Berlin, but after Rome, I had developed a general aversion towards big cities. So I decided to go to Bavaria instead. However, I did get a chance to visit Munich for a few hours. The former base of the Nazis was flattened during the war and the city has been rebuilt in a mixture of old and new styles. Strolling around a city for a few hours doesn't do justice to any city. But I did get a feel of Munich's beer culture around every corner. I guess I checked off the most important item on Munich's to do list.

My decision to choose Bavaria over Berlin was richly rewarded. The first stop was Benediktbueren. A nondescript town that for some reason popped up in my Google search. My couch surfing host gave me an authentic Bavarian experience. A house set in the countryside with views of the mountains was just the beginning. There was a Bavarian breakfast of sausages, pretzels and of course beer. Some of them even dressed up in traditional clothes. Another experience, a hike up a mountain that rewarded me with spectacular views and beer. Yes, in Europe you can get beer and lunch on the trail. Talk about instant gratification.

My second stop in Bavaria was Fussen, for the famous Neushwanstein Castle. The castle appears to have come straight out of a fairy tale, framed by snow capped mountains, overlooking a lush countryside. The inside is very ornate as well with ever square inch covered with carvings and paintings. While the castle trip was very rewarding, I was a little disappointed that the view made famous in postcards is not to be found anywhere. Those views are either from the air or by hiking through private property. Oh well, nonetheless, still a worthwhile trip.

Journeying through Bavaria on foot, bike and train made me feel like I had died and gone to heaven. The scenery is picturesque and the setting idyllic. The towns are like the ones you see on Christmas cards and in children's books. Wandering along the back roads, the only sounds you hear are cow bells ringing and church bells tolling. Occasionally a tractor will rumble through. It got me thinking that if I ever try those farm work vacations, it will have to be around Fussen. And like a prayer answered, I met a lady in line at the station who has a farm and gave me her email address asking me to contact her if I'm ever back. Southern Bavaria is definitely a hope-to-be-back place for me. I also loved Radler, a drink made from lemonade and beer. Sweet alcoholic drinks, they hit the sweet spot for me.

One a side note, one thing on my bucket list on this trip was hitch hiking. I gave it a shot in Bavaria. I got a ride for a short distance, but didn't get further after that. After a long wait, I decided to cut my losses and catch a train. I'm not sure what exactly was the problem. A national holiday or low traffic route or single guy. I don't think I'll have a chance to try it again as rural Germany was probably my best shot.

One thing I have been asked is whether I have been affected by the migrant crisis and the rise of extreme right wing views in Europe. Overall I've head a great experience with friends and strangers alike being very friendly and helpful. But there were a couple of incidents that could be attributed to the current migrant crisis. First, in Budapest, when I need a phone to call up my contact, people even crossed the street to avoid me when I approached them. Maybe it was because it was after dark or because I'm a tall guy with a big backpack. But I hope I don't look too threatening to warrant such a response. And the second incident was in Fussen when a bunch of kids asked for my passport (while pointing toy guns) as I was strolling through a quiet neighborhood. Now I attribute their moronism to plain stupidity as I was a guy with a big camera in a town overrun by tourists. And I was more concerned about their stupidity than their xenophobia. But I'm sure they must have gotten their views from the adults around them. I have been following the migrant crisis in the news, but seeing it first hand definitely gives a new perspective.

I could be a dreamer and imagine a world with no borders. I wish I could see all the great cities, experience the cultures and taste the food everywhere in the world without worrying about visas and passports. I wish there was no migrant crisis. I wish there was no war. The reality is very different and the causes highly complex. Trying to address any of these in a blog post would be an impossible task. But I hope that travel will leave me with a better understanding of the world and I hope that the people who have met me have a slightly better understanding of India and the US.

The above paragraphs about Bavaria being heaven were written before my time in Switzerland. This note is important because if there can be only one heaven, it has to be Switzerland, not Bavaria. Switzerland has many things going for it and the flag is a big plus. It is a small country, but there are so many things Swiss. Chocolate, cheese, watches, knives, banks, etc. And now they even have the longest rail tunnel.

The first thing you notice in Interlaken is the number of Indian tourists. Years of SRK romancing with the Bollywood ladies in the Swiss mountains have led to Switzerland having the highest number of Indian tourists in my observation. It is a great destination, no doubt. But the bang to buck ratio is average because the place is outrageously expensive. And factor in the atrocious weather (I saw the sun for about 10 minutes in 5 days), you've got a good chance of being underwhelmed. It's a good thing they have beautiful pictures of mountains on clear days everywhere. It helps imagine the scene when you are standing in fog as thick as pea soup. Or maybe it leaves you ruing what might have been. Thanks to Michael for trying his best to optimize my trip by checking detailed weather conditions to decide on the plan every morning.

Switzerland is known for it's scenic train journeys. The train snaking up and down steep mountains as it makes its way through the tiny picturesque villages hugging the mountain side is a quintessential Swiss experience. Throw in a few waterfalls, alpine lakes and rugged mountains and you've got heaven on earth. My personal favorite leg was Interlaken to Lucerne. Besides, all those tunnels makes you see the truth in the old adage "there's a light at the end of every tunnel." The only downside of seeing the country this way is that you don't get to stop and take it all in. I'd suggest to get off the train sometime and hike around one of those tiny villages and imagine what it must be to live in paradise.

On one of the train journeys, I met a Swiss lady who claimed that her people are too cold and efficient and that she loved the vibrant and chaotic Italian culture. True, Switzerland is always on the clock. Train schedules are optimized to around the top of the hour. And there are clocks everywhere. The capital, Bern, is the epitome of Switzerland; clean, efficient, organized and a tad boring. Though the Swiss kids seemed like normal kids; boisterous, mischievous and rebellious. I wonder at what age do Swiss kids morph into Swiss adults.

With that it was goodbye mountains. Let's hope it's downhill here only literally as I head north.

Thanks to Daniel Siebel for hosting me in Benediktbueren!

Monday, May 23, 2016

Slavic Peregrinations

My next stop as I stomped around Central Europe was Roznava. I imbibed in the Slovak countryside that is like the Microsoft XP wallpaper, endless rolling hills of verdant green. Roznava is a small town in Eastern Slovakia that isn't used to tourists. A tall brown guy with a camera was a subject of attention everywhere I went. Maybe if they started receiving bus loads of Chinese tourists, their curiosity will be diminished. I jest. Those cute villages cradled in gorgeous valleys are best left in the time capsule they are in.

One thing I noticed was that every home my host took me, I was offered Slivovika, a Slovakian spirit. It doesn't have to be 5 o'clock anywhere for Slovaks to drink. I guess this is the source of the high spirits of the Slovak people. Apparently they drink spirits to kill bacteria in their systems. Given the amount they drink, either they have superbugs in their tummies or they are just plain hypochondriacs. Another peculiarity of Eastern Slovakia - Gypsy villages. These are pretty much clean slums. The Gypsy people have a culture, language and society of their own. And they are known to have originated from North India. Though their language is very different from Hindi, the only North Indian language I know. I tried speaking Hindi to one guy, and he just stared at me. Maybe I just spoke really bad Hindi. What a strange parallel society to exist in the heart of Europe.

Moving on to Krakow, a quick stop in Poland to get another country checked of the list of countries I have visited. It is the relatively undiscovered Prague of the East. Emphasis on the term relatively. It has a lovely old town with numerous magnificent Gothic churches. And for once there were people praying! Most of European churches have turned into museums of art and architecture. So it was a pleasant surprise to see people of ages showing some form of piety.

But as I stepped out of a church and I got accosted by a pretty lady trying to make conversation with me. Now in my 29 years of existence, I have concluded that I will never attract a hot girl based on my looks. It's not that I suffer from low self esteem (read this blog URL), but facts are facts. How did I become attractive suddenly? So naturally this lady's overtures made me suspicious. She said she would get me free drinks at a gentleman's club. I asked her if I looked gentle, given my 5 o'clock shadow from last week. Besides, I wasn't thirsty. The problem with puns is that they are completely ineffective when English is not the first language of the audience/victim. And I don't think she was interested in my jokes anyways. She moved on to her next target and I was left wondering about the contrast of churches and strip clubs in the heart of Krakow.

A must visit in Krakow is the Schindler Factory museum. WWII brought out the best and the worst of the human soul. There was brutality and horrors beyond words. And there was sacrifice from people who went above and beyond the call to help someone else, sometimes at the risk of their own lives. You read about stories of hope and resilience of the human spirit. And finally it is a lesson in history. One mustn't forget that these events transpired less than a lifetime ago. And history repeats itself for those who forget.

If any city could be a melody, it would have to be Prague. The seamless blend of architectural styles surrounded by spires in all directions results in a delightful harmony. It is easily the most beautiful city I have been to so far. Prague is simply stunning. There's something magical at every turn as you stroll through the medieval streets of the old town and over the Charles Bridge towards the Castle. Thank you WWII leaders for not bombing the crap out of it.

Charles bridge is probably the most famous sight in Prague. Every time I walked across, I was awestruck by the views in both directions. The panoramas never ceased to amaze me. Agreed that it is so crowded that they almost have foot traffic lanes with pull outs for photo ops. I wouldn't blame you if you thought for a brief moment that you were on a subway train in Tokyo. But go there at 7am (or earlier) for an experience to savor. The quiet of the morning augments the eminence of the spires and arches looming over the horizon. Now who wakes up that early when on vacation? Well, if the offspring of a peasant wants a royal experience, you gotta do what needs to be done. The other famous attraction in Prague is the clock. At first I was, well, whelmed. Not over or under. It seemed nice and fancy, but not deserving the throngs of tourists who gather faithfully every hour, like clockwork. Later, after reading about the details of the clock, I was definitely overwhelmed. I encourage you to read up before you go see it so that you are not left thinking that staring at the clock was a waste of time. Give it a second glance and the minute details will manifest themselves.

If all that sight seeing has made you thirsty, grab a Czech beer. Oh yes, pilsners and lagers. Enough with the pale ales that have infested the American beer scene. Czech beers are refreshing, delicious, potent and cheap. They love their beers so much that once my coffee was served in a beer glass. And with the foam at the top, it looked like a porter. A delightful place to enjoy a cold one and feel like a million dollars (for $4) is at the bar on the roof of U Prince. It's a hidden gem overlooking the main square. Best time is after 5pm as the best views are to the east.

Time for a little general rant. Why do people feed pigeons? I don't want to be a party pooper here. But I'd rather poop on this party figuratively than be pooped on literally. Let's keep these flying rodents away please. They are menace to the outdoor spaces and monuments. See those ugly nets hanging everywhere, that's to scare the pigeons. And while on rant mode, what do smokers think when they drop cigarette butts all over the place? Do they think that when they stamp it out, it just magically disappears? Cigarette butts are one of the major polluters of the oceans as well. I wish I could tell smokers that dealing with their smoke was enough. Now if they could clean up after they are done, it would be a breath of fresh air.

Shout out to the Dorcakovas in Roznava and Vieroslava&Marek in Prague for hosting me.

Sunday, May 15, 2016

Into the heart of Europe

I continued my peregrinations through central Europe as I trundled in a 'fast train' along the Danube to arrive in Bratislava, a neat city that maintains a quiet charm without trying too hard to compete with Vienna. In the current age of the Internet, Facebook and selfies, much of the world has been discovered. 'Hidden treasure' is quickly becoming an oxymoron. Bratislava is a compromise by being partly hidden and partly a treasure.
Low costs, prevalence of English, a lot of history centered around the old town and friendly people make it one of the more complete off beat destinations. Also it has the 'where?' factor if you want to be the guy who talks about obscure destinations rather than London, Paris and Rome.

My first experience of the city was a Spring Festival that had a live bad playing. Attending a concert in a language I don't understand was a novel experience. Though the lead singer did give the standard instructions in English. "Put your hands in the air." Or, "make some noise." And every time he yelled Bratislava, you shout "yeah!!!". It's quite simple really. Music is a universal language after all. And so are blond jokes apparently. I was told that blond jokes are quite common in Slovakia. Though I'm not sure how they are funny if half the population is blond.

While in Bratislava, I'd like to file another incident another the 'Stranger Kindness' section. I was at the ticket machine at a bus stop when I realized that I didn't have any coins to use in the machine. So I approached this pretty lady to ask for change. Instead she bought me the ticket! Before I could thank her, bus 205 arrived and the lady was gone. I was left, ticket in hand, pondering the kindness of people. I realized that you can experience the kindness of others only when you are in need. You have to be in a vulnerable place so as to be open to receive. And for me, learning to receive teaches me to give because the next time you are in a position to give, you will be able to empathize with the one who is receiving. I hope to be able to pay this kindness forward some time during my travels.

Another top 25 destination in Europe according to Lonely Planet is Vienna, the former capital of the powerful Hapsburg empire. Vienna is famous for palaces, coffee houses and classical music. I did enjoy lingering around a coffee shop one afternoon as I read the New York times. Was it in places like these where intellectuals met to philosophize and argue about life? Are we missing out on something with the demise of idle conversations in coffee shops and pubs? Now we just abuse each other on the comments section of various websites. With this depressing thought, I headed into the warm sun bathed streets. As I wandered the streets idly, I was approached by a lady who asked me if I'd put on headphones and dance to some EDM for 30 seconds on the streets of Vienna. I gathered through a mix of German and English that they were making a promotional video for some music festival. I got a lot of bemused/admiring stares from passers by. And maybe if I got my moves right, I'll have my 5 seconds of fame in Austria.

Another must do in Vienna is to attend a classical music performance. I attended part of an Opera in the famous Vienna Opera House. Don't be put off by the cost or formal clothing you'd expect at a fancy opera. You can get standing room tickets for 4 euros and you can be in t-shirt and jeans. Thanks to Americans for always saving the day by dressing in casuals and helping me blend in. The Opera was a spectacular performance. The music was beautiful, the stage play elaborate and the ambiance majestic. It was totally worth the aching feet and exposure to strange German singing. I think German is best suited for heavy metal. The Opera gives a taste of the life of the Viennese high society.

Heading off the beaten path, I arrived in Ruzomberok, beautifully nestled among the Tatra and Fatra mountains. While the town itself is a drab affair, the surrounding mountains more than make up for the eye sore that is the Soviet style box buildings. The hiking was wonderful with gorgeous views of the mountains and tiny villages in the valleys. But the highlight was a geography class at a local middle school. I was the guest speaker for the day and had to talk about India. Props to me that no one fell asleep. After all, I wouldn't blame you if you had mistaken my TA classes at UMN for sleep therapy sessions. And I even had an autograph session with the kids after the class. I guess being the only foreign tourist (ever?) in the town made me a celebrity. I should have practiced writing my name legibly. Or maybe they might assume that I wrote my name in some exotic Indian language. I hope the kids learned something that morning. But for me, having an audience of wide eyed kids definitely made my day.

A couple of things that I have realized on my travels so far. First, learn at least two words in the language of the play you are visiting. Hello and thank you. This is especially true in smaller countries because it shows that you care about their culture. In every country I have visited, this has helped me get friendlier service and a smile on many occasions. Some languages are harder than others. But two words, even in Hungarian, shouldn't tax your mental faculties too much.

Second, how to balance photography with experiences. Photography is a lot about timing and patience with light, composition, angle, etc. But I have learned not to get carried away and not to make it the sole purpose of my journey. Maybe someday I'll be a photographer. But today, I'm a traveler. So I take a picture or two and put my camera away. After the picture, don't move on. Linger. Look. Imagine. So many people point, shoot and leave. I say point, shoot and stay. And I try to ensure that my days are not planned around photography, but rather around experiences and people. Europe is a beautiful continent and you don't need to try too hard to get great pictures. And for those who've asked, I use a Canon SX50 camera. It's nothing fancy, but gets the job done

Thanks to Andrea for hosting me in Bratislava and Pavol for hosting me in Ruzomberok.

Sunday, May 08, 2016

Meandering East

Slovenia, where's that? I certainly had no idea where it was until I read an article on the BBC website extolling the beauty of Bled. One look at the picture and I was sold. I had to go there. And more than two years later I was there.

I arrived in Ljubljana on a sunny spring afternoon. Don't worry, the spelling looks a lot more difficult than the pronunciation. And the locals were genuinely happy when I uttered the only Slovene word I learned. The historic part of town is set along the river as it snakes around a bluff. There was something beautiful about the city that I couldn't quite put my finger on. Maybe it was the neat red roofed buildings along the river, maybe it was the intimate small town feel, maybe it was the friendly people. Or maybe it was just the peace that comes when you leave the chaos of Rome behind. A short little hike up to the castle gave expansive vistas of the city and beyond. That was followed by a drink at a cafe by the river listening to some 80s pop music. Ljubljana is a great place for your 'bring-back-the-80s' band.

Next day was a trip to Bled, the town that my heart bled for from thousands of miles away. It is picture perfect. A castle set on a cliff high up above the lake against a backdrop of snowy mountains. A church on an island in the lake breaks the monotony of the delicate emerald waters. Tiny boats milling around the island complete the picture. I'd say a trip to the castle, a boat ride to the island and a hike around the lake make for a perfect day. You get the feeling that Slovenia exudes a sense of optimism as it looks to the future after a tumultuous recent past.

The lovely Slovenian countryside and the small town feel of Ljubljana made me want to shift the focus of this trip from big cities to small towns. Guide books tend to overemphasize cities. The cities have a lot of highlights, no doubt. And on a short trip, you get the maximum bang for your buck. But they can leave me tired and jaded after a few days. And occasionally the cosmopolitan feel means uniformity and repetition across different destinations. I'd wanna mix things up a little by trying a few offbeat destinations. Maybe Slovakia in a few days might have something to offer on that front.

There was one last stop in Italy, the beguiling and romantic Venice. The city is beautiful and exhilarating. It is the best city to get lost in. Firstly, you can't end up too far from your hotel as you are surrounded by water. And more importantly you can discover the seductive charm in the hidden treasures of small bridges, gondolas on narrow canals, ornate churches, peaceful piazzas and time worn buildings. There are no cars and bikes and so your mindless zig zag meanderings will not endanger your life. As you get lost you wonder about the future of the city. It is sinking into the sea. It is dying as a city and is slowly turning into a hybrid of a museum and Disney land. Almost everyone you see is a tourist or connected with the tourism trade.
And even those people are day commuters. Venice is a must see before it is too late. This glitzy jewel of yore is slowly fading and sinking as time takes its toll.

Venice has a vibrant classical music scene with many churches being turned into concert venues practically every night. I had the good fortune of attending a free concert in an old stone church one evening. The beautiful singing coupled with the ambiance of delicate lighting in a baroque church and beautiful acoustics made for a memorable performance. Another highlight of Venice is the Cathedral. Initially it gives an impression of a cave with it's dim interiors. But let your eyes adjust and you'll find the beauty in the details. Thousands of square feet of mosaic adorn the roof and walls. A mix of Byzantine, Venetian and Islamic styles make for a unique canvas of medieval art. 

Next stop, Budapest. My first stop in Europe without the Euro. Florints are hard to use given that everything is in the hundreds and thousands. It requires pulling out your rusty and dusty arithmetic skills. And the language is incomprehensible comprising of sounds that I've never heard before. Hungarian is very different from the neighboring Slavic languages and is very difficult to learn. Also, the people seem to smile a lot less here. Not that they are hostile, they are just cold. I believe it is a remnant of the communist era. Another remnant of the communist era, monotone audio guides. I took a boat cruise up and down the Danube one evening to soak in the beautifully lit bridges and castles of Budapest.
The narrator used the same monotone to talk about a king being put in a barrel of snakes and thrown into the river and about Hungarians enjoying summer pastimes along the Danube. I couldn't stop laughing even though some of the events narrated were quite tragic.

While Slovenia could be considered a former commie state, it was not the true red Soviet communism. Hence, I consider this as my first stop behind the Iron Curtain. Though some of Rick Steve's podcasts make it seem like communism is at times remembered fondly, the realty is different. Conversations with a couple of people led me to believe that communist Hungary was a terrible place to live in. A trip to the museum 'House of Terrors' confirmed this notion. I'm now even more grateful for democracy, despite our struggles with dirty politics. I will always cherish freedom of speech and lame jokes. May I always be able to make fun of Trump's hair. I wonder why we have lost interest in our democracies. Maybe it is because we have never seen the horrors of dictatorships as we were lucky to be born in a free society. And what makes it harder to accept is that in Budapest the brutal and corrupt communist officers were never prosecuted after the fall of communism. They are actually living among the people they persecuted. I believe Hungary is trying to move on with life in the hope that the past will be forgiven, if not forgotten. I'm not entirely sure if that's the way forward. May God give them the strength to overcome the horrific events of the past.

Thanks to the Balint Nagy SJ for arranging my stay with the Jesuits in Budapest.

Sunday, May 01, 2016

A walk down the Renaissance Italy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, April 23, 2016

Mamma Mia Italia

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Until next time, ciao