Saturday, September 29, 2012

The day I watched Messi at the Camp Nou

This was how my Spain trip began. With the question, "How awesome would it be to see Messi live at the Camp Nou?" All the rest - the fact that Europe is easy to get around for an inexperienced traveller, that Spanish is easier for an Indian to learn than other European languages, and that Buñuel and Almodóvar are my favourite filmmakers - they were window-dressing. In the end, I just wanted to see a 100,000 Catalans roar their beloved FC Barcelona on and led by their talismanic Argentine.

The stadium is only half an hour or so from the hotel I stayed in and, like the rest of the city, well connected by bus and the metro. It is the largest stadium in Europe, with a seating capacity of a little over 99,000. (In the days before UEFA banned standing sections, the capacity was over 120,000.) But the stadium does not seem to be this big from the outside. I had heard comments that the stadium is a little old and that it could do with a few licks of paints here and there. That must be relatively speaking because what I saw was a sleek, good-looking building with bright, multi-coloured seating inside that makes for interesting viewing when it is empty. (I got there well in time - the only time in my Spain trip so far that I haven't reached somewhere with seconds to spare - and so got to see the stadium relatively empty.)

The game was against Granada, not one of the top teams in La Liga, and so I could afford to pay for the seat with the best view in the stadium: the middle tier, next to the corner flag, came the answer when I asked the more knowledgeable folks around. And that's the seat I got. Everyone around me seemed seated with hotdogs and coke and so I did the same. I was all set for the match. There was still over a half hour for kick-off, but a roar all of a sudden signalled the Barcelona goalkeepers stepping on to the pitch for practice. A while later another roar signalled the appearance of the rest of the team. To my delight, Messi chose a spot close to where I was sitting, and he spent much of the session pinging the ball to and fro with Dani Alves.

Close to the kick-off, they announced the players for both the teams. Xavi was on the bench and Iniesta was out injured. On top of that, their captain Puyol, his partner in central defense, Pique, and left back Jordi Alba were also missing due to injury. I was bitterly disappointed, particularly at Iniesta's non-participation. He is an impossibly elegant dribbler, the V.V.S. Laxman of football and, just like the cricketer, fitness is not his strength. Gets injured way too often. Someone at Barcelona needs to look into this seriously. You think I can afford to fly to Spain every other month? Anyway, every Barça player's name was cheered, with the loudest reserved for Villa and Messi, and every Granada player's name was whistled with equal gusto.

The game kicked off and I still couldn't believe that I was actually in the Camp Nou, a few yards away from Leo Messi. For companions, I had these English fans just behind me who kept up a running commentary through the game. Every player on view reminded them of some other player from the EPL. And I had an elderly gent, presumably Catalan, sitting in front of me, who reminded me very much of my grandfather watching cricket. Since not many of you may have seen my grandfather watching cricket, it goes like this: if you were on the lookout for a coach, and you saw him unoccupied, you would instantly offer him the job - unless a player pulls something absolutely magical out of the bag, there is always something he could've done better, and the elderly fan in front of me wasn't afraid to voice his opinions. Sandwiched between the two lots, I didn't have any trouble whatsoever following the game.

Granada played a game as impregnable as the Alhambra and Barcelona looked listless in the first half. Maybe that had something to do with the fact that so many of the regular first-teamers were not playing. Oh, one other thing. Don't expect any insightful analysis of the game here. I'm sorry if you read all these paragraphs hoping for that, but I'm not really a football fan. I just love watching Barcelona and Messi play. Think of me as a man who loves watching the Sun set, but couldn't be bothered with learning the equations for nuclear fusion and optics. I'd been hoping, though, that with a full view of the pitch at my disposal, I would finally understand what people go on about when they talk of 4-3-3 or 4-2-3-1 formations. But sadly, no. All I saw was a mob surrounding the ball wherever it fell.

As far as the atmosphere in the stadium was concerned, it was electric. The stadium was nearly full and they kept chanting that song of theirs that goes "being a Barça fan is the best there is." The bunch behind the goal was the most boisterous with their drums and most chants started from there. But I tell you, they are a demanding lot. Barcelona keep possession three-fourths of the time, but lose possession for even a few seconds and the whistling starts. The slightest of mistakes by their players is met with exasperation and plenty of advice. The only one exempted being Messi, and, when he came on later in the second half, Xavi Hernandez.

Speaking of Messi, this must have been a relative off day. I mean, he was still glorious to watch and most of Barcelona's attacking play came through him, but he seemed rather grumpy - having a go at one or two teammates a couple of times - gave the ball away a fair bit, and didn't seem to move as much as the rest of his teammates off the ball. But the thing about him is, he seems to be standing off on one side, all bored with life in general, when all of a sudden, out of nowhere, the afterburners switch on and he is a blur against the grass. One second, he's loitering listlessly away from all the action, and the next second Scotty's beamed him down near the 6-yard box, bearing down on a terrified goalkeeper at full pelt. In any case, whether he was below par or not, the crowd had not one reproach to offer Messi, no matter what he did.

Going back to the crowd, as a rule, Spanish people are a really friendly, polite and patient lot. You could walk up to a stranger and ask for some help, and he or she'd spend the next five minutes trying to make sure you got what you were looking for. But put them in a football stadium and they grow horns and the fangs come out. Every Granada player who wasted time or went down under a challenge was mercilessly barracked. And the referee, who did not give in to a number of penalty claims from Barcelona, was also castigated very loudly. It was all non-verbal, though - at least I could hear nothing apart from the whistling, the groans and the angry exclamations.

At half time, there was a performance of the sardana around the Catalan flag. Do follow the link. The video's shot from very low down and is jerky, but the music is haunting.

After half time, Barcelona attacked Granada with much more gusto than in the first half. Unfortunately, the Granada goal was now at the other end of the field, and it was hard to see with as much detail as during the first half. A goal seemed inevitable, but it just did not come. Either through plucky, last-ditch defending by Granada, or through Barça wastefulness in front of goal. Then Xavi was introduced and the roar in the stadium had to be heard to be believed.

Barça continued their siege of the Granada goal, but the goal still eluded them. In fact, on a couple of occasions, so all out was the Barça attack that Granada were given a couple of chances themselves - including a one-on-one against Victor Valdes that he somehow blocked. The minutes ticked by and the desperation in the stadium grew. The Granada manager was dancing about frenetically in his technical area. The crowd started getting louder and louder, with the chants egging Barça on reaching fever point. The tension was unbelievable. The only calm man in the whole stadium was Tito Vilanova, the Barça coach, who stood quietly by the touchline, like a man studying a painting in a museum.

And then, in the 87th minute, with just 4 minutes remaining on the clock, Xavi powered home a shot from outside the penalty area. The roof fell off. Everyone was on their feet waving and cheering, and Messi shook the net with uncharacteristic emotion. The match was won. But not before Messi ran at the defence one last time during injury time and seemed to produce a goal from an impossible angle. I was over the moon. I'd watched Messi score a goal at the Camp Nou! Later on, though, I found out that the angle was indeed impossible - his cross was turned into the net by a Granada defender.

All the same, I'm glad I scheduled my trip (this meant waiting for the Spanish federation to release the La Liga schedule, which they did just a month before my trip - leaving the travel tickets, hotel bookings and visa application impossibly late) to make sure I'd be in Barcelona for the match. And it was especially nice that it wasn't a massacre. For if it had been, I wouldn't have been able to experience those last 10 minutes. There is no way I can completely describe the tension and the sheer electricity of all those tens of thousands of people willing their team on with every last bit of telekinetic power in them. And then those few moments just after their impossibly late first goal.

But in the end, it still remains the day I finally saw Messi live at the Camp Nou...

Friday, September 28, 2012

Where the geek have inherited the earth

A long time ago, sometime in the 50s in fact, the river Turia, on whose banks Valencia was built, flooded, causing great damage and loss of life. In order to prevent anything like that from ever happening again, they diverted the course of the river, leaving the old riverbed running through the city unused and unkempt. And then, many years later, they made the whole stretch of many kilometres a park, with gardens, fountains, jogging tracks and what not.

And now, somewhere along this stretch, Valencia's City of Arts and Sciences rises like something out of a sci-fi film. I didn't feel like taking any pictures, but do an image search for the complex, and I challenge you not to be astonished. There's four main attractions - the opera house, which is the biggest in the world after Sydney; the enormous eye of the Hemispheric, the IMAX dome; the science museum; and finally the Oceanographic, which I suppose must be classified as an aquarium, but maybe the description I read somewhere of "underwater city" does it more justice.

Valencia's Spain's third largest city, but I put it in my itinerary just for this complex. When I was a little boy visiting my grandparents in Bombay, I would pester them relentlessly to take me to the science museum and the adjoining planetarium there. And it would make my day when they consented. It was with something of the same excitement that I looked forward to Valencia. I was warned, though, that while the Oceanographic is fantastic, the science museum is a little underwhelming.

I'm happy to report that I enjoyed the science museum enormously. In fact, I haven't enjoyed a museum this much since my childhood. This is, in the words of the museum itself, one of those where it is "forbidden not to touch." I started with the top floor that has a large section devoted to Valencia's football club: it makes football all scientific. There are charts on nutrition, scales for measuring your weight and height and then calculating your ideal weight, interactive quizzes and whole lot more. Also, one of the sections there lets you take penalty kicks and informs you how you rate. It gave me high marks for preferring guile and precision over raw power.

Then there is this fun section devoted to superheroes and their physics. Contains everything from Doc Ock to Magneto to the Hulk. And then a video played in a room that has mirrors all over. It contains montages of moving pictures of earth and space. The mirrors in the room reflect the video all around you, sometimes giving it infinite depth. I think it was made by the European Space Agency and is alone worth the price of admission. Then a "chromosome forest" that shows the human DNA sequence and contains trivia about the human body at every stop. Kind of boring. And finally a zero-gravity machine that is supposed to simulate the multi-gravity experience of being launched into space, followed by weightlessness. I found this last a little underwhelming. Was fun sitting with the others and anticipating the whole thing nervously, though.

The second floor is devoted mostly to Nobel winners and their achievements. Nothing to touch here. Moving right along...

The first floor must have contained a lot of things, but for the life of me I can't remember anything except the giant Foucault's Pendulum. I had Physics in school and this must have been part of the syllabus, and further I'd even read the book by Umberto Eco, but the significance and the sheer genius of the thing escaped me until I saw it before me. The idea is this. A pendulum's plane of oscillation tends to stay constant. So even if the Earth below it rotates, the pendulum still sticks to its original plane. But because we, the observers, move along with the Earth, the plane of oscillation of the pendulum appears to rotate. The pendulum in the museum demonstrates this rotation by placing pins in a circle around the pendulum. As the plane rotates relative to the Earth, you see the pins being knocked down one by one.

An idea on a celestial scale; one that had been vehemently denied for centuries and had resulted in the persecution of some of our greatest minds, proved beyond doubt by a ball on a thread. How beautiful is that?

The ground floor was mostly entrances, coffee shops and temporary exhibits.

The Oceanographic, while impressive, is not really my thing. The two most memorable exhibits there, for me, are a couple of tunnels that pass beneath the aquarium. This allows us to pass under and see the marine life above and around us - and presumably allows them to study us as well. And a dolphin show.

Then the IMAX dome. More than any 3D movie I've ever seen, this was my most life-like cinema experience. Because the dome curved above and around me, it was like I was immersed in the Nile, which was what the film was about. And for a couple of shots taken from helicopters, I could feel myself banking along with the helicopter.

All this took 2 of the 3 days for Valencia. The third was for the Bioparc. Another occupant of the old riverbed. A kind of zoo, except that there are no cages at all and only glass panes are occasionally used to separate the visitor from the animals. But for the most part, they've gone for natural separations. Very often, it is a rock or a pond that divides the visitor from the residents. So you're a guest in the animals' habitat. I was once about two feet from the head of a giraffe, as it grazed on a tree. The restaurant there offers tables that give us the option of either watching zebras and rhinos in a field, or the other section that faces some giraffes, watched from even higher up by a pride of lions, grazing on some hilly meadows. Conservation can now be done far from the shores of the original habitat of the animals, they say, and the Bioparc is Spain's bit to conserve Africa's wildlife.

And that was that. I found Valencia itself a little boring, but then again, I didn't really take the effort to explore much if it. On to Barcelona, then...

Thursday, September 27, 2012

The Alhambra

Washington Irving, during his travels in Spain, once journeyed from Seville to Granada, and described Granada as beautiful in very poetic sentences that I cannot find now. He stayed in the Alhambra, the old Moorish castle overlooking the city. It was then partly forgotten and in a state of disrepair. I think I remember reading something about it being inhabited by beggars and thieves, though maybe this was before Irving's travels. He was so enchanted by the place that he wrote a book called The Tales of the Alhambra that wove his researches with the legends and stories of its builders and occupants.

His book was instrumental in re-introducing the Alhambra to the rest of the world, and its restoration commenced. Today, it is perhaps the most famous monument in Spain, and a grateful Granada has numerous plaques and statues in Irving's honour in the Alhambra. The ones I remember are a statue with the inscription "the son of the Alhambra," a plaque that indicates the rooms he stayed in, plus another one that goes "from Granada to Washington Irving."

The reason I mention all this is that I have the book with me now, and I'd intended to read it fully before writing this post. I'd meant to quote extensively from the tales and connect them with what I saw during my 10 hours in the Alhambra. But you know how it is. You then go to Barcelona, sleep an average of 4 hours a night, and you're still stuck at Page 3. And time does not stand still all the while. There are other places and experiences you'd like to write about, too. And unlike Irving, you don't get any money for your writing. I'd also like you to keep in mind the disclaimer that I wrote in my first post in this series.

The Alhambra began life in the 9th century as a fortress - the Alcazaba. The walls of the fortress have been rebuilt many times, and none of the original walls still survive. It was on one of towers here that, after the conquest of Granada in 1492, the Castilian flag was first raised, and the views of the city it affords are magnificent. Save this for the last.

Then there are the Nasrid palaces, built, I think, from the thirteenth to the fifteenth centuries, with a view to creating a "paradise on earth." These are supposed to be the highpoints of the Alhambra visit, but they were probably too subtle for me. I mean, yes, they're nice and everything, but... Maybe if I'd read Irving's book before going up there... There's some fantastic tales of intrigue around them, though. The most memorable is the one about the Hall of the Abencerrajes. Apparently, the Sultan found the head of the Abencerrajes in "lustful collusion" with his mistress in one of the gardens and massacred the whole clan in the hall during a feast. The audio guide I rented was a little dubious as to whether this really happened. It was tactful and cited several objections regarding the customs followed and stuff to question the story. For me, the question is more basic: if you wanted to be in lustful collusion with the Sultan's favourite, would you pick a garden open from all sides to do the collusioning in, when there are hundreds, maybe thousands, of more private rooms all around?
And finally, on an even higher hill are the Generalife gardens and its attached palace. The gardens are fantastic, and the fountains, particularly the one that runs along the handrails of the highest staircase there, are a delight - especially after a hard day trekking up and down hillsides.

Oh, and there's also the Christian additions to the complex. After their conquest, the Christian monarchs fell in love with the place and lived there for a while. And they couldn't resist their own additions - which are very controversial and you're supposed to take sides on whether they're a travesty or not. For me, I know zilch about architecture. You go there and make up your own mind.

For that, the first thing you need to do is get the tickets weeks, months if possible, in advance. The number of visitors allowed in per day is limited and only a third of those can be bought at the ticket counter. And that involves queuing up for hours in front of the counters very early in the day. So, book the tickets online and remember to collect the tickets from the La Caixa terminals in the city well before you go to the Alhambra. I did not do this last and opted to get the printouts from the machine at the entrance. The problem here is that the Alhambra is practically a city and has multiple entrances. Finding the exact entrance, if you don't speak Spanish, involves a lot of misdirections. It took me about half an hour of intensive trekking and muttered curses before I could get my tickets.

Also, I'd recommend the audio guides they rent by the side of the ticket booth. It covers the geography and the history and the tales surrounding the complex. Indispensable. Again, the complex is gigantic. Only a small portion is open to the public, but even then you could spend days wandering it. Something approaching physical fitness is a definite plus if you want to really enjoy the Alhambra. You do walk up and down a fair bit to see the various sites, and this is discounting the trip up. There are buses up, but the climb up from the town is only 15 minutes or so. But it is steep, and I mean steep. I took a break for lunch, and walked down to the Moroccan quarter to a restaurant that's highly recommended. On the way back, my second climb up, I felt pangs and pains that I'd never felt before, and even once checked my pulse because I thought I was having a heart attack...

Let me leave you with the most touching story I've heard yet of the Alhambra. The year is 1492 and the armies of Isabel and Ferdinand surround the Alhambra. Boabdil the Moor sees no hope of victory and surrenders Granada to the monarchs. The monarchs are rather gracious in victory (this generosity did not last - they would institute the Spanish Inquisition and expel Jews and Muslims from Spain, not too long later) and give him some land high up in the Sierra Nevada. So, as he departed for his new home, he could look down upon his beloved castle. Just as he was about to turn the last bend, he looked down upon the Alhambra, sighed that famous last sigh, and wept uncontrollably. It is difficult to imagine anyone not being touched by this scene. Not his mother, though. She was not the favoured wife and had been imprisoned along with young Boabdil. She fashioned an escape for him and presumably went through a lot to see him ascend to the throne. So, with some asperity, she now commented: “Do not weep like a woman for what you could not defend as a man.

Friday, September 21, 2012

Granada is splendid

Federico García Lorca

I could've written that myself. Maybe I should be a poet.

The four-and-a-half-hour train ride from Madrid starts with vast yellow farmlands and gently rolling hills. Then taller mountains and deep gorges. A football field with a little Messi trying to chip an even littler Casillas. And finally, the city of Granada nestled in the valleys of the Sierra Nevada. Granada is Spanish for pomegranate, "hard on the outside, and filled with the blood of the tortured earth," if I may borrow some more from Lorca. It's the first Spanish city I've been properly introduced to... and it is beautiful, the scene of the Moor's last sigh (it was the last city to fall to the Christians, and its capture ended the 800-year Moorish reign of Spain) and the prettiest city I've ever seen.

Where do I start? I can't claim to have seen the whole of the city, restricting myself mostly to the Gran Via de Colon and its neighbourhood; the Albayzin, the old Muslim quarter built on the hill opposite the Alhambra; and the Alhambra itself, one of the most famous monuments in Spain.

The Gran Via de Colon is the city's most central road, and the hotel I stayed in was just off it. It starts as a kink in another road and ends at a statue of Queen Isabel giving Christopher Columbus leave to find India. It gave me my first impression of Granada - and it wasn't a bad one. It has on its sides some beautiful apartments, the Governor's residence and Granada's cathedral, one of the biggest in Europe. (My attitude toward churches is not too dissimilar to young Damien's, so I didn't step inside. It is enormous, though. It's the sort that would provoke math questions as, "If it took 5000 men 200 years to build the cathedral in Granada, how long would it take them to add another wing to the south?")

Also near is a street lined with tapas bars. Tapas is not any particular type of food, but a dish served free along with every drink you order. You can't choose what you get, so for a foreigner like me, it takes a load off: you just eat what they get you. Three drinks and you're done with lunch... and walk the streets with an unsteady gait.

Then there is the Albayzin, a UNESCO World Heritage site, on the hill opposite the Alhambra. If you walk down the Gran Via toward the cathedral, it rises up and above to your left. It's a maze of narrow, winding streets and houses with balconies beautifully decorated and adorned with flowers, a street lined with Moroccan shops  and restaurants - the lemonade is particularly good - and a mosque with a garden that has a wonderful view of the Alhambra. (It took them a long time to get permission to build the mosque - it was built less than a decade back. An 800-year religious war is not without after-effects.) I took a walking tour of the Albayzin  with a Texan couple - a visit to Granada made them rent an apartment in the Albayzin, and they've been there ever since, making a living off guided walking tours to English-speaking tourists.

Above the Albayzin is Sacromonte (Sacred Mountain... maybe... probably... sounds like it, anyway). It has numerous caves excavated into the hillside that are now used as houses. The main factor in the price of the caves, apparently, is not how good they are for a residence, but the quality of the view of the Alhambra. I would've loved to see one on the inside, but couldn't manage it.

And... I saw my first Flamenco performance in one of the restaurants there. For many years I'd been labouring under the idea that Flamenco is a type of dance. It isn't. It has vocals, a guitar, something like drums maybe, hand claps and, finally (and optionally (and intermittently)) the dancing. Apparently, the best performances are impromptu ones. But I had only three days in Granada and couldn't hang around indefinitely on one spot, hoping for someone to break into song and dance, so I had the very nice folks who gave me the walking tour book a table at a restaurant that featured a performance. It was worth every Euro. Flamenco is an Andalusian thing, but Lorca weighs in with his opinion that no Andalusian town has as good Flamenco as Granada:-

"Granada is made for music, for it is a city enclosed by mountain ranges, where the melody is returned and polished and blocked by walls and boulders. Music is for cities away from the coast. Seville and Malaga and Cadiz escape through their ports. But Granada’s only way out is its high natural port of stars. Granada is withdrawn, enclosed, apt for rhythm and the echo, the marrow of music."

The waiters of some of the taverns there have a little of this musical spirit inside of them, for they would sometimes burst into song while taking an order or carrying the dishes away.

But is that all, you ask? Can you give no more than disjointed recollections of a couple of places? Tell me something deeper, maybe an insight into the town's soul? The trouble is, that insight is closed to someone like me:-

"As for the caravans of noisy tourists and the lovers of cabaret and grand hotels, those frivolous parties that the people on the Albaicín call los tios turistas, to them the city’s soul is closed."

P.S. - There is also the Alhambra, of course, but that deserves a post of its own, I think.
P.P.S. - I did try taking some pictures, but they're all uniformly rubbish. Granada deserves better.

Edit: Maybe some photos are less rubbish than others. I've salvaged three, of the Albayzin, that looks presentable.

The Trip

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Get stoned and do what's cool

Enrique Tierno Galván

My trusty Lonely Planet guide tells me that when Spain emerged from dictatorship in the late 70s, Spaniards "emerged onto the streets with all the zeal of ex-convent schoolgirls." And Franco clearly had a few issues - for instance, he slept with the finger of Santa Teresa by his bedside. So, naturally, with his passing, Spaniards turned their backs on religion and started living the good life - with madrileños at the forefront.

Enrique Tierno Galván, a socialist and a former professor, became mayor of Madrid in 1979 and the title of this post is what he publicly exhorted madrileños to do. Thus began la movida madrileña, and in the opinion of Lonely Planet, 30+ years later, it's still going strong.

I had only one night for Madrid. My plane landed at 8:30 in the evening, and I was scheduled to catch a train out of Madrid at 9 the next morning. Which didn't leave me a lot of time, but it was a Saturday and from what I'd read, most folks would just be getting out of bed by that time, in preparation for a full night ahead. So, theoretically, there was plenty I could do.

But, practically, 14 hours in an airplane, something I'm not used to, had taken a lot out of me. The other thing was that while I was previously reasonably confident in my Spanish, I turned all jelly-kneed at having to speak Spanish to real, live Spaniards. It was a complete mental breakdown. It was like Warne when he came up against Sidhu in '98. I couldn't get a word out. Just telling the receptionist at the place where I was staying that I was going out and would be back pretty late was a half-an-hour skit-and-dance.

On the way from the airport to the hotel, I'd spotted a magnificent neighbourhood, bathed in golden light and immaculately beautiful - a Spanish El Dorado. My first plans had included checking it out (briefly googling for Magnificent Neighbourhoods Within Two Kilometres of Rohan's Hostal leads me to suspect that it was the Plaza Mayor), and then maybe catching a late-night movie.

What I ended up doing was walking rather vaguely a couple of times around the block where I was staying and feeling rather intimidated. For dinner, reasoning that the Spaniards would know best, I tried to pick the busiest place I could spot. This turned out to be the rather pompously named Museo del Jamón. Jamón, by the way, bears no resemblance to the similarly spelled Indian sweet. This one is ham.

Unfortunately, the menu was all Spanish. I spotted something called the menu de noche - even I could understand that - and pointed toward it. The waiter asked me for preferences. I indicated with the universally-understood shrug-and-open-arms that I didn't care, and he could bring me what he pleased. This turned out to be melons with slices of ham draped on top of them. Rather odd combo for an Indian tongue. And I had no clue how to eat it. Do I eat the ham first and then bite into the melon? Or do I try and eat them both at the same time? But if so, how do I cut it? The skin of the melon is rather hard and not the easiest to cut. All in all, many questions and no answers. I placed my problems before the waiter as best as I could. He turned around furtively, to see if his manager was watching, and deciding that he wasn't, quickly cut up my food for me. Very nice bloke. The next dish that came over was some version of chicken in a gravy. Even I knew what to do with that.

Dinner done, I decided to call it a night, and set the alarm for the early train the next day. The trouble was, I forgot about DST and woke up an hour later than I should have. In the end, huffing and puffing my way to the station, I caught the train with about 4 seconds to spare.

All in all, I must admit, not my finest day. Enrique Tierno Galván doesn't sound like a hard man, but even he would probably shake his head in disapproval. I didn't get stoned and not a single thing I did would qualify as cool. But the rest of my trip still awaits, and I will try my best to shape up and give you, my readers, something rather more interesting than this.

The Trip

Monday, September 17, 2012

The Male Traveller's Lament

"Dames..." - The Brothers Coen (Miller's Crossing)

If you, like me, are a male traveller trying to fit as much as possible into one backpack, chances are that you've had to take the help of women. They manage to fit so much more into the same space than we do. But it's a tricky decision, isn't it? It's a little like voting fascists into power. Sure, they're more efficient, and they make the trains run on time and add a few autobahns between cities; but the question is, at what cost?

I'm not trying to be overly critical here - after all, the only reason I could get everything I wanted to take packed is because of these lovely women I know. This is more a rumination on some of the deeper philosophical issues here, and trying to get to the root of perhaps the most important travel question, "Who should do the packing?" Here are a few of my observations:-

In the first place, while women tend to be highly skilled and tactical packers, they're not so good with long-term strategy. For instance, I tried to pack ten changes of clothing and they didn't fit. The dames got them in no trouble at all, but never paused to ask if perhaps there should be so many clothes. That question was left for me to ask when I hefted the bag onto my back and felt my spine collapsing into a singularity. Their motto seems to be: if there is space, fill it up.

They can also be ruthlessly unsentimental. There's this shirt of mine that's served me loyally for close to a decade. It should, by rights, be getting the loving caress and the spot of honour in my bag, but the dames took one look at it, wrinkled their noses and threw it as far away from themselves as they could. Is that any way to treat what is almost a brother to me? If we let cold, dispassionate logic run our travels, then what is the point in getting that international ticket in the first place? It stands to reason that your own home is safer, cheaper and far less strenuous than any foreign destination.

This same lack of tact applies in other matters, too - the dames rooted about in the section of my bag where I'd packed my undergarments, even after I expressly forbid them from doing so. What's the world coming to, if a man can't even have the bottom corner of a backpack all to himself, away from prying female eyes? It's against Indian culture. Ok, granted, they did cut down on the volume there by about 50%, but the ends don't always justify the means.

And, finally, there's the question of symmetry. Since we were talking of the Taj Mahal the other day, I ask you: why is it so beautiful? That's right, symmetry. If you take 6 changes of clothing, you pack 6 sets of undergarments, not more. It's kind of strange that women don't seem to understand symmetry, or ratio and proportions for that matter, for you'd think that it's essential to great packing (and they're indisputably great packers) - and it most definitely doesn't tie in with the coldly rational side we saw a while back.

Dame 1: "But you need more underwear than you need outer clothes. You should take at least 9."
Me: "Why?"
Dame 2: "You can wear trousers for more than a day."
Me: "Yes, but the limiting thing here is the number of shirts. There's 6 sets of undies here - for as many shirts as I'm packing."
Dame 1: "But you need more undies than trousers."
Me: "I am carrying more undies than trousers. Three trousers, six undies. It's the shirts that..."
Dame 1: "You'll change your inner-wear more often than you change your shirts."
Me: "No, I won't. After walking around all day in them, I'm not going to wear the same shirt again without washing it."
Dame 2: "But what if you run out of underwear first? You need to carry more."
Me: "How would I run out of them first? And what do I do if I run out of shirts, then? It's not like I'm going to step out in just my briefs."
Dame 1: "Yes, but you can't pack the same number of trousers and undies. You need more undies."
Me: "I am not packing the same number of undies and trousers! I'm packing just 3 trousers and..."
Dame 2: "See, but there is space here."
Me: "What does that have to do with it? It still has weight. Besides, it doesn't make sense. If I'm going to change my shirts as often as my undies, it stands to reason that I pack..."
Dame 2: "But your undies will soil a lot quicker than your trousers."
Me: "I AM NOT DISPUTING THAT. I HAVE 3 TROUSERS HERE AND... Oh, never mind. Give me that! See, 9 pairs packed, here. Happy?"

The Trip

Sunday, September 16, 2012

Only a madman...

... would possibly undergo all the privations of crossing the Turnwise Ocean in order to merely look at anything. - Terry Pratchett (The Colour of Magic)

I never could understand why people would brave the traffic out of Delhi to Agra, get ripped off on almost everything from accommodation to batteries, eat food practically guaranteed to make you ill, queue up for hours outside for entry, and then once inside, fiddle with rectangular boxes, with hardly a glance at what they came for. You'd think they'd use up every second of their time soaking in the most beautiful thing they're ever likely to see; but no, focal lengths, the rule of thirds and getting their own mugs in the frame occupy their time.

Why settle for a bunch of poor two-dimensional substitutes, when you could instead be committing the real thing to memory? No matter how good they are, they're unlikely to capture even a tenth of the magic of the Taj Mahal. I'd seen numerous photos of it since I was a child, and yet, for most of my two years in Delhi, I didn't bother with the Agra trip. It was only towards the end of my stay there, and that too just to get it off my list, did I bother turning up. Once there, though, my very first view of it from the South Gate is something I'll never forget - but the point here is, it wasn't any photograph that inspired me to do go there.

So then, why bother with the cameras? Why make a nuisance of yourself along every pathway, on every vantage point? Why reduce great places to nothing more than a continuous barrage of dozens of camera clicks from hundreds of visitors every second? Why lessen your own trip and get in everyone else's way by wasting so much time on an activity that will, for most people, not add anything at all to their trips?

I suppose it comes down to the age-old question of, "If a tree goes out of the jungle on vacation, but does not make an ass and a nuisance out of itself by posing for numerous pictures, has it really gone on vacation?" It doesn't make sense if you pause to think of it, but there is humanity for you. It's neither the destination nor the road that's important, but the freezing and the bragging.

And that, my friends, is why I haven't been taking any pictures on any of my vacations the last few years, and have mostly turned to the Malabar Op to help me out with his reports. My photography skills being terrible have nothing whatsoever to do with it, and anyone who tries to tell you that is selling you unmitigated bullshit. But for this trip, I might just click a few photos that look like they're taken on a cell phone camera (which is all I'm carrying) by a partially blind dude with the shakes. I'm travelling alone, and I've maybe crammed in more than I should have, and with a picture being worth a thousand words and everything, that's a lot of time saved. Plus, just filling in the forms and gathering all the documents needed for the Schengen visa was the Oblatespheroidworld equivalent of crossing the Turnwise Ocean*. I think I'm entitled to feeling a little triumphant.

One other thing.

All information you glean from here is covered by the "if it breaks, you get to keep both halves" guarantee. I'd bought a bunch of books on Spain, but most of them have been gathering dust on my shelves. So, while stuff may very well be presented with an assurance and a lightness of touch that hints at deep knowledge and a complete mastery of the topic being presented, they will in fact be culled from the following sources:

  • The Lonely Planet guide I used to plan my trip with.
  • Complete mis-translations of the Spanish I hear around me.
  • Whispered conversations wafting through paper-thin hotel walls.
  • Advertising on milk cartons.
  • Inscriptions on the backs of toilet doors.
  • Casual conversations with total strangers while waiting in queues.
  • Half-remembered dreams provoked by the fevered imaginations of Buñuel and Dali.
  • Etc.

None of which is going to be run through even the most basic of checks before I hit "publish."

Just so you know.

*And they still managed to get the visa wrong just enough to cost me a packet in rescheduling the trip.

The Trip