Saturday, July 9, 2016

The Beautiful game - Euro 2016 at Paris

The lines at Eiffel tower are always busy. But this time was different. The tower, which Isabelle called the “most over-rated world famous tourist spot in the world”, had a giant football hanging above its wide arch. Flags welcoming fans to the “Euro 2016 finals” were fluttering in the breeze. It was a glorious day, the sun was bright and welcoming. A small group wearing the Red Crescent boisterously sung “Oh Turkiye”, while a few Red/Blue and white polka dots milled around, drinking cheap beer peddled by the Pakistani and Bangladeshi street vendors. 2 Euros a beer, barely half-filled, more water than beer, a real scam, but this was Paris. What started as a trickle turned into a stampede. As night fell, Eiffel was lit up in Blue, White and Red. Gun-toting policemen, a grim reminder that France was still under an emergency, started washing up in their sleek cars, sirens blazing, took one look at the crowd and rang for reinforcements. Not that we were unruly. Both groups of fans sang their national anthems, hissed at each other from across the street, were loud and obnoxious but all in good humor. I moved from one group to the other, singing with the first and jumping with the second, a true neutral living a 15-year dream. “That Turan is good”. Modric is going to dominate the mid-field”. Beer and broken English flowed. We danced right under the nose of the police who, to their credit successfully ignored us and stared. I might have learnt a bit of Turkish. The Senegalese souvenir sellers had a great time, despite the numerous baton charges by the police; each time the police chased them away, they would miraculously appear at the other end of the street. At the end of three hours, I could barely stand. I hugged strangers, posed for groupies in incriminating postures, and wished both sets of supporters luck. “I’ll see you at the stadium, maybe”. Different shirts, same scene. All three pre-game evenings. Congregating at Eiffel the evening before a game become the norm.  A mass of humanity bound only by their love for the beautiful game.
 
Someone forgot to inform the locals that they need to share the world’s enthusiasm for their city and the tournament. Train drivers went on strike the day I landed in Paris, following the spate of other union strikes the previous weeks. Isabelle said the unions made it a habit of striking before a major event, for maximum mileage and bargaining leverage. Paris locals grumbled about the metro, the traffic, and the city being over-run by drunken fans and broken bottles. Streets piled on garbage, petrol was in short supply, and the city stunk. Isabelle summed it up nicely “Welcome to France in crisis”. It had rained the whole week, Seine was in spate, Louvre was shut. Even the elements were conspiring against football.
 
Football fans are a different breed. We don’t care about the weather, the long queues, the crowded metro, or the dirty looks from flustered locals. We sacrifice careers, family and sleep for an hour-and-half of bliss. Over and over again. We mass in numbers, get drunk and sing through the night, perfect strangers behaving like childhood buddies. Some of us fight, a minority loot, get arrested and are deported. You’ve got to support the team. I have been hooked on football so long that my hit rate on predicting games is better than that with currencies. It is my coffee, my addiction and my stimulant to get through life. Paris was my homage to the beautiful game.
 
The pilgrimage started the next day at the “La Defense” metro. A group of Turkish fans were equally lost. We resolved to stick together till Parc des Princes, guessing more dialects were better at asking directions. We need not have worried. In a couple of stops, the coach was full of fans, all nodding at the other shirts and hugging their shirts as they entered the coach. The train was jam-packed. With perfect synchronization, each group shouted its slogans and sang its anthem, welcoming at each stop, friends and temporary foes for the day. “We’ll kick your ass”. At the changeover, I followed the mass of humanity to another train. Strangers pulled me in. It seemed the whole train was headed to the stadium. At the exit, we followed the painted football signs on the sidewalk, lamp-posts and walk-ways to the stadium. At the queues, the crowd neatly split into two groups, with their chants, anthems and flags. Riot police in full gear stood between the two groups, more to pre-empt. It was a damp, wet day but our spirits hardly were. More staring, finger-wagging and chanting. Luckily, I was wearing a neutral shirt.
 
 
In a single file, we marched through the multiple check-points in to the stadium. Others grumbled, but as an Indian used to near strip-searches at local stadiums, this was a breeze. I grabbed a beer and walked to my category A seat, at the center of the pitch, high above the ground. I wanted to be there a couple of hours before the kick-off, just to breathe the air, and stare at the ground. Make mental notes as to how different it looks in real life. Yelling at the TV is exciting, so is throwing stuff, but nothing prepares you for that moment when the green pitch and the imposing stands come into view. A tingle went up my spine. I stood at the entrance for a while, till a rather suspicious usher pointed out my seat. I may have been crying. Why hadn’t I done this earlier? The rain stopped as if on cue, and the sun poked through the clouds. I am not a believer, but this was divine intervention. My stand had waves of Turkey supporters, so I was one for the day. An hour before the kick-off, the stadium was buzzing, with not a seat empty around. Cheers went around when the team buses were shown on the stadium TV, and the roof came down when the teams came on to the pitch for their warm-ups. Noise levels reached a crescendo at the national anthems. Fans, who till then had engaged in a running battle to shout down the other group, stood perfectly still for each other’s national anthems. Mutual respect and brotherhood, before the war erupts. Around me, Turkish fans hugged and cried. A few Croatians in the front row took a few minutes to recover from the emotion.
 
As the game began, it was evident that Croatia, with the ravaging Modric, bossed the midfield and it was only a matter of time before they scored. The Turkish fans though never lost heart. They cheered every pass, groaned at every tackle, and booed the referee, accusing him of being a Croat, and sung “Oh Turkiye” right through the game. The Croatian fans realized they were the better team, and lustily sung their anthem, egging their team to score. The fans down at the corners took the lead, banging their planks and seats each time their team took the ball. And so it passed, the ball from one team to another, and the waves and chants from one set of supporters to the other. I prayed for a goal, just one, any kind would do, give me a deflected cross or something. It would be a shame if my first real game of world football ended in a goal-less draw. The Turkey goal-keeper tipped a header from Srna on to the cross-bar, and I almost got killed for shouting while the stand groaned. Fans cannot stand a traitor in their midst, especially when their team is under pressure.
And right before half-time, Modric scored with a glorious long-range volley off a corner which Turkey failed to clear their lines. The other half of the stadium erupted in waves of joy, with the celebrations seeming to last forever, and a collective groan rang from our stand. I muffled a cheer as the ball hit the back of the net, and made the necessary noises. It was always a question of time. The Turkish fans refused to give up, and booed their own coach as he took off a woefully ineffective Turan at the hour, and put on a nippy teenager who showed far more enthusiasm than the rest of the team. Fans can be merciless. A couple of close shaves followed, some long-distance efforts which raised tempers among the Turkey supporters, who by then, sensed it wasn’t their day. Croatia should have scored more on the counter, and hit the post again, but they settled for a well-deserved 1-0 win. Croat fans sang the most joyous national anthem I’ve ever heard, while Turkey supporters filed out silently, devastated. The metro ride back was first joyous in the Croatian coach, and deathly silent on the Turkish coach at the inter-change. It is never “just” a game.
 
The next day was a metro ride to Saint-Denis. Swedish fans, even when drunk, are courteous while the Irish drink like fish. I thought these were myths. Zlatan this, Zlatan that, the conversation flowed. “Were you there when he hit that overhead kick?” I asked an elderly couple in yellow and chanting his name on the metro. “We sure were, we’ve watched all of our team’s games the last 10 years”, the lady beamed. She had a motherly smile. A group of unruly looking and obviously drunk Irish fans offered me a free ticket, as I said I was a great fan of Keano and Long. “Join us for a drink mate” they said. Cars with the respective flags wrapped on the hood, honked as they passed us. Bistros offered beers at half the price for Swedish and Irish fans. Souvenir shops made a killing, peddling team scarfs for 20 Euros. Scalpers walked around, asking if I needed tickets. Glum-faced fans held aloft placards that said “Need ticket, willing to pay up to 150 Euros”. Early booking has its benefits.
 
It is a great stadium, Stade de France, the largest in the country, with a capacity of 85,000. Majestic and imposing, when full, the noise must feel like a gladiatorial ring. I was again a couple of hours early, and the ushers were nicer, allowed me to roam across stands, and take as many snaps as I wished. One old man probably has probably worked here for ages, he had a quizzical look as I jumped from one stand to another. Elements play a smaller role here than at the Parc Des Princes, and one sits higher up, and with a 360 degree view without craning the neck. It was a glorious evening and streaks of gold washed across the bright green pitch. I watched Spain beat the Czech on the giant screen, and was growled at for celebrating Pique’s goal by an angry Czech couple. “We couldn’t get tickets to Tolouse”, the girl said. I commiserated and pointed out that Petr Cech was my favorite, which calmed them a bit. 85,000 must be tough to fill, as large as the MCG, but this is football. “Ole, ole ole ole. Ole, ole” the Swedish chanted as their numbers grew. The loudest cheer went out to Zlatan as he warmed up, he is a true superstar and the Swedes had a lot riding on him and the man with the wonderful free-kick, Larsson. The belly of the stadium was equally split between both sets of fans at kick-off. One side of the stadium, the one in the sunshine was bright yellow, while the other in the shade was a glorious Green. “Stand up for the boys in Green” sang the Irish. The Swedes chanted his name.
 
The Irish dominated from the word-go, with the wings tearing up the field, while the Swedish defenders looked their age. Brady and Hoolahan ran rings around the defense from the left, while Coleman was a one-man battering ram from the right. Hoolahan scored a stunner, the Irish celebrations had to be broken up by the referee, and it seemed the green army will have a lot to cheer. But they kept missing simple chances, and the guy next to me said “Let’s hope we don’t pay for it”. Long worked himself to death and missed a one-on-one with the keeper, it should have been 3-0 by now. Zlatan had a couple of men on him every time he took a touch and was mostly ineffective, but in a moment of brilliance, skipped past a couple of defenders on the left wing, and crossed a sharp ball in to the box. Own goal by a diving Clark, but he had to dive, there was a forward waiting to tuck it in. “Aaaah” went the Irish, “Yes” went the Swedes. Names I had watched for years on the telly in flesh and blood, and Brady and Coleman were a couple of paces quicker than they appeared on TV, but the biggest attraction was Zlatan. He had an off-day, but was pivotal in the own goal. The game meandered in to a dull draw as both teams seemed happy to take a point from their opening game. Maybe I will see Zlatan score one of his spectacular volleys this year at Manchester. Stadiums have the effect of stretching your line of vision, and among all sports, football has the most intense fan engagement. You can see that diagonal pass which Coleman should have chipped for Keano, and the back-flick that Brady tried to play through to Long, and wonder why they can’t see what is so evident to you. The mind instinctively recognizes the infinite possibilities. You itch to play like your heroes, but settle for a hoarse throat.
 
I went back to Stade de France two days later, this time for the World champions against their nemesis. Muller against Lewandowski. Neur and Schweini on the same pitch. Surely the game of my life. History suggested a German victory while form pointed to the Poles. The Germans I traveled with, from the station to the stadium, swore Goetze is a genius and Ozil the best left-footed player of this generation. Football passion isn’t built on facts. It was a 9PM kick-off and the stadium glowed under the lights. I have always hated late night kick-offs, the night-guy always screws the day-guy, but football under the lights, in one of the great stadiums in Europe, is surreal. The German national anthem, the one I had heard a thousand times over the years, sounded very familiar, and the Germans vastly out-numbered the Poles. But the game was a dull, drab encounter, with both defenses holding strong, and the midfield hardly creating any chances. Such talent on the pitch and can’t conjure up a goal! The crowd kept their spirits up with Mexican waves; one game in which the spirits off the pitch were better than the ones on it.
 
A goal wasn’t meant to be, the game didn’t deserve one. I furiously pinged Dana, who quickly assured me Germany would score in their next game. “I’ve prayed for a win” she said. Couldn’t you pray a day earlier, the trip would’ve been perfect! And while you are at it, can you pray for a rain-free couple of days? German fans were surprisingly happy that night. “We have qualified, we are going to win” they cheered on the streets. I found myself in a gorgeous little pub, surrounded by Germans of all sizes. And some Irish fans, who were still glum after their last game, Romanians fully expecting to lose, Brits expecting to win, but all drinking barrels. We exchanged sports and travel stories till early morning. Football, beer and shared experiences. Maybe the protesting Union workers should be gifted a ticket to the next game. That ought to calm them down, and not make a fool of themselves on the world stage. Or atleast bring their minds around to the fact that life isn’t about perks and working hours. It’s about football. Joga bonito rules.
 

Tuesday, May 17, 2016

Vietnam - Part 5 - Phong Nha-Ke Bang national park & Thien Duong cave

The lights went out just as I climbed down the steep wooden stairs. The eye took just a few seconds to adjust from bright lighting to complete darkness, another of those miracles the human body is capable of, and which we take for granted. At around the same time, panic of the sort Iron Maiden crooned in "Fear of the Dark" set in, and a chill ran up my spine. My good friend "Dr.C" always maintained I was paranoid and claustrophobic. At this moment, I had to agree with him. I heard a voice screech in the background somewhere - "hey, the lights. We can't see". A child wailed. I heard strange noises and felt something brush past my arm, while a few drops of water dripped down my face. Fresh, limey and cold. I looked up. There was a strange green glow high up in the ceiling and it seemed to be twinkling. A yellow flash. Then a blue tinge. Appearing and vanishing, what were they and where were they coming from? I felt in suspended animation for ages, but it was barely a minute or less before the lights came back on. My arm was stretched out, searching for support while the other arm gripped the camera; I was sweating. The mind plays its tricks when one of the primary senses is disabled, probably an evolutionary defense mechanism. A cheer went out within the "Thien Duong cave". The next time the scenario played out a few minutes later, my brain knew what to expect. I looked forward to the mysterious specks of green and gold. Thank you power cuts for showing me a world one can never imagine.

The approach in to "Phong Nha-Ke Bang" national park lasts forever. We had woken up to fierce winds and persistent rain, courtesy "Typhoon Vamco" which had hit the coast near Danang the previous day. Van showed me some of the pictures as we got on to the bus, the beautiful beach-front in the town shredded, trees lying on the roads, roofs blown away. We had missed it by a day. The river that accompanied the single-lane road in the national park looked full. Muddy and angry, swollen by the torrential rain. Limestone rocks jutting out of nowhere vanished into the thick mist that hung low. The forests in the national park looked lush, small hills rode in and out of sight as the road snaked across the thick vegetation. The villages we drove through looked empty. Barring a couple of bikes, for all practical purposes, we were all alone as we drove for an hour up to the entrance. Mr. Cam's face had a serene look, no traffic, I told you this was the best part of the year, he said, rain or shine.

A small and unassuming 2km rain-forest walk leads one to the mouth of the "Thien Duong" or the "Paradise cave". One can take a cart, but a walk in such pristine surroundings, amidst the steady drizzle, up from the river bed to the mouth of the cave helps burn a few calories. Badly needed on what felt like a typical Indian monsoon morning. Sandra, who had spent the previous three months in South-East Asia, had a rain-coat and walked around briskly. Fiona and Paula, who had criss-crossed Africa the past 6 months were reluctant hikers. I tried to run, but the pitter-patter of the rain kept pace. The mouth of the cave is innocuous and does a great job of hiding what lies beneath, so well-hidden that it was only in 2005 that the cave system was first explored. One climbs down a series of wooden stairways, complete with well-positioned hand rails, into the first large section of the cave, which is about 70 meters tall at its highest point.

We do not know how ancient the cave system is, but we do know an underwater river passed through here. Pools of fresh water abound everywhere, so it would be logical to assume human settlements must have existed sometime. Limestone walls are perfect for nature to work its magic over millennium, and the end result is the third-largest cave system discovered till date, or so said the plaque. 31 kms long, 150 meters wide, and roughly 100 meters high, the four larger sections of the cave have innumerable stalactites, stalagmites, eerie shapes and mind-bending figures, columns that reach from the ground all the way to the ceiling. At places, one can see nature still at work. White chalk drips from the ceiling and droplets extend to the ground, forming fresh patterns. We went gaga over the first large section, excitedly clicking pictures, till a guide said "save some for later". There was an even larger section next door, hidden from view by a tall column that throws strange reflections in the glow. The deeper one proceeds, the stranger the shapes get, the more mysterious the whispers one hears, the wilder the colors in the ceiling seem. It is easy to spend hours here, especially when there is none around.

The wooden path through the cave system is well-lit, well-maintained, safe, but it is only about a mile long; the rest is blocked due to safety concerns and an unpredictable river that makes an appearance as and when rain gods deem fit, I over-heard a guide explaining to his over-enthusiastic American group. Another guide boasted "there are much larger sections inside where you cannot even see the ceiling, but the approach is very narrow". Narrower than Cango,Oudtshoorn in South Africa? I bragged. Deeper and much wider inside, and narrower at the opening my friend, he said, putting me in my place. 

The power outages continued every 15 minutes, and each generated the same mysterious lights and sounds, and ever-increasing awe and joy. We went in whistling and came out numb. Mr. Cam said we could drive around the entire national park in half a day. Phong Nha national park is at the narrowest part of the country, adjoins the one in neighboring Laos, and at its widest is barely 50kms from the coast to the border. A complex eco-system of flora, and an evergreen forest that doesn't follow demarcations of national boundaries. Nature needs no visas. It rained the whole day, we never got even as much as a peek of the sun, truly a horrendous day to be outdoors, and an even worse day to hike. We were wet to the bone, tired to our guts, and ravenous at the end of those five hours. Dinner was early and deservedly so. Beer and music flowed. Knopfler by night as we took in the beautiful lake and the misty surroundings. Exercise and rest. That's just what the body needs. Meanwhile, typhoon Vamco raged all night, dumping unprecedented amounts of rain over the central parts of the country. Van said the worst was over, the typhoon was heading towards Cambodia, and prayed for sunny days ahead. I wanted to believe her that night. But one does not pray while drunk.

Thursday, April 28, 2016

Vietnam - Part 4 - Hue

Ringing the bell never felt so good. Or in this case, attempting to. It was no ordinary temple bell either, not the kind you would find in every Indian temple, which pilgrims use to announce their presence to the Lord, as if he needs to be told we exist. This one dated back to the early 17th Century AD, weighed 3,300 kg and was apparently audible all the way to the other end of the Imperial city. "Do not ring the bell", the warning sign proclaimed in big, bold letters, but that did not stop a majority of visitors trying. A local guide was explaining the history of the "Thien Mu" pagoda to an animated group of aged Brit couples, and apparently, there was a process and a time to ring the bell, which depended on the flow of the "Perfume river", on the Northern banks of which stood the 16th Century seven-storied pagoda. Latching on to the group for a free history session brought me to the statue of a large marble turtle, which the guide claimed was worshiped by the Nguyen dynasty as a symbol of longevity. Fiona and Paula were fuming by the time I got back to the bikes. So was Hien, the leader of the bike-driver pack, "We said an hour and you disappeared for half an hour more. Little time for Imperial city". And proceeded to zip around the next half an hour, just in time to catch the sunset at the Citadel. Do not antagonize your bike guide, it hurts where it matters. 

We were in Hue, the historical city located bang in the middle of Vietnam, and the imperial capital of the Nguyen dynasty from 1800 to 1945. Billy and Sandy had dropped off at Hoi An and were replaced by Fiona and Paula, from Edinburgh, with the most unintelligible of all accents, Scottish! Paula's claims their Edinburgh accent was the easiest to comprehend; I'd take Uncle Scrooge any day. Danang serves as the flight connection to both Hoi An and Hue, and it is easy to see why it is considered the most popular beach destination in the country. Any city which has a Greg Norman designed golf course must be a playground for the rich. Judging by the number of resorts and restaurants, and the incredibly long and well-planned boulevard on the curving beach that spans the entire length of the city, there must be a lot of money splashing around. But the best part of Danang is the approach out of it to Hue.

The 21 km long "Hai Van pass" saw even the perennially grumpy Mr. Cam whistle, "I love driving on this road", he said. Why wouldn't he? Passing through the main route 1A and Bach Ma national park, and flanked by the "Ai Van Son" peak that juts majestically in to the clouds on one side, and layers of gorgeous white beaches and small fishing villages on the other side, this route is an absolute stunner. The one-hour drive from Danang through the mountainous circuit is probably one of the best coastal roads I have ever been, comparable to Chapman peak drive in Capetown. Obviously, Mr. Cam agreed, he couldn't wipe that smile off his face till we hit Hue. There is an alternate tunnel that has none of the scenery and views of the pass, and cuts the travel time between the two cities by more than half. If you take the tunnel, don't bank on the positive effect of unintended consequences; including a dramatic improvement in comprehension of Scottish accent by the time we reached Hue at lunch.

We were smelling the air and splashing water on our faces. There was no aroma. Neither was it autumn and nor did we see any orchards from the "Vong Canh" hill perched high above the town. It is called the "perfume river" for a reason, said Hien, our bike guide, as we walked along the Vietnam war bunkers on the side of the hill. A delicious vegetarian lunch, the first in Vietnam over the last eight days was a luxury that afternoon, and I had gorged on wok tossed vegetables and steamed rice. There are far more vegetarian options in Hue than in any other town in the country. Maybe the history and culture of the town has something to do with it. A half-a-day bike tour followed, with the first stop at "Thanh Toan" bridge built in 1778 by a barren lady who prayed for children. Today, the bridge is used as a flirting ground by local school kids, who must be barely 15. Youngsters today have too much exposure and too many options, way too early. Too much choice is not necessarily right.

Follow the road down the hill, pass by the old amphitheater and the "Thien Mu" pagoda comes in to view. Most brochures of Hue have the pagoda and the 1601 AD built seven-storied "Phuoc Duyen" tower on display. Sitting at the fork of the river as it snakes into the city, it is a relic of the Nguyen dynasty which ruled Central Vietnam with Hue as its capital in the 16th Century. Myths abound. The giant bell, the gong of which could be heard miles away and was used to carry messages in times of distress, and the royal turtle with whose worship the fate of the dynasty was inter-linked are what the guides peddle. The main hall of the pagoda with its bright red carved ceiling, the arched gates, the brown and yellow Buddha statue at the center of the hall all point to a dynasty that was both religious and rich. The place has a divine feel about it. Stanley Kubrick agrees. He filmed the training parts in "Full metal jacket" somewhere in this area.

It is pronounced "Hooyah" and at the center of the town lies the Imperial city, surrounded by a moat, and protected by large walls, watch towers, and ceremonial gates. The "Ngo Mon" gate, the largest, built in 1883 is built with large stone bricks, about 3 meters thick and 10 meters high, and has a rich yellow and gold lining. If meant to look intimidating, it serves the purpose. The moat is filled with water routed from the nearby Perfume river and rumored to be, once, filled with crocodiles. Within the city and at its center lies the  purple "Forbidden city" with an inner court, many temples, gardens, and pavilions. Access to the inner-most parts of the city is apparently restricted. 

The Scottish lassies were surprisingly nimble and more energetic than I assumed; we walked a large part of the citadel and the surrounding grounds, and they were up for a drink and dinner. Having been away from Edinburgh for 6 months and traveled the whole of the African continent on a shoe-string budget, Fiona's beer guzzling and story-telling abilities easily beat mine and Billy's. And I thought it was Scotch they drank. Dinner stories were dominated by the topic of the weirdest food one has ever chanced upon. Mine were fried bats in the hills of Cambodia, and I was reveling in the attention, till I heard about Haggis. There are some stories left unexplored forever. Not the town of Hue though. It is quaint and charming, has enough history to whet your senses, and maybe, some autumn, the perfume river may divulge its mysterious aroma. And the bell may ring loud and clear. For now, I have a picture of me, Fiona and Paula on bikes, with our shades and helmets, waving at the camera, with the widest grins ever. We look happy. Hue looks grand and calm. In my photographs and my memory.

Tuesday, April 12, 2016

Vietnam - Part 3 - Hoi An

When you have to ask someone what day of the week it is, something must be right in your life. Or terribly amiss. Judging from my aching back and bursting lungs, which over the last four hours had destroyed several myths about my endurance capabilities and lowered a couple of notches of hard-earned self-esteem, the second did not sound likely. Eliminating the impossible, the improbable truth must be that I was in a good space. Son Nguyen, my cycling guide said it was a Tuesday. Monday has a bad feeling, but at least you know it is to be endured. Thursday and Fridays obviously are full of joy and excitement. The worst of the lot is Tuesday. It has no obvious reason to exist, drags on endlessly, and gives you a dull headache. But this Tuesday was exhilarating. We had started in Hoi An at 8am, and cycled the next four hours around Cam Kim island. Physically I was shot; mentally, it seemed I was a decade younger, as if couple of layers had been peeled off from my overworked brain. Son, on the other hand barely broke a sweat, and looked as if he could ride the whole day, and as it turned out, he usually did. Reminded me of those African runners, who after a marathon, look fresh as a daisy.

From the highlands of Dalat to the South-Central coastal town of Hoi An is roughly 700 kms over some mixed quality country roads. Mr. Cam, our driver seemed to have the ability to control time; it went faster as he accelerated and slowed as he negotiated with the highway police, each time emerging with a wide grin and his license intact, but his wallet a little emptier.

Dalat is all about thick temperate forests dotted with pine trees, endless coffee plantations and horticulture, which seemed to be the inspiration for Coldplay's life in technicolor. Mountains to the coast is a four-hour steep descent through winding roads, numerous hair-pin bends, multitude of waterfalls, sheer cliffs and some dangerous landslides. All along, we begged Mr.Cam to stop for photographs, and he would dismiss us with a wave of his hand. But he would more than make it up, first with an unscheduled stop for probably the freshest coffee at the prettiest roadside restaurant, and another at a sheer gap through which we could just make out the ocean glimmering at the horizon. Pure evil or misunderstood genius? Ah, that is the question.

We landed for lunch at Nha Trang. The sea-food was fresh, the beer chilled on a sultry day, and the roads choc-a-bloc with Russians. After a decade of wandering around the world, I have gotten pretty good at guessing nationalities. It keeps one occupied on those long drives, when the memory of the previous day and anticipation of the next are not enough to get past the boredom of the present. Nha Trang competes with Danang for the most popular beach town in Vietnam, but as beach towns go, they all look-alike. Or maybe it was my age and pessimism speaking. The older me found it too "touristy" if there existed such a thing. Too many tourists, too many souvenir shops, too many pubs. 

The highway snakes up the coast from Nha Trang, with the ocean and little fishing villages on the right, cliffs on the left, and the railway line alternating between the two. We were on the main highway connecting Saigon to Hanoi, and the transition from the mountains to the agrarian heartland of the country was stark. While the morning was dominated by sights of forests and cliffs, the afternoon was dominated by flat-lands and vast expanses of rice fields. The road is in decent condition most of the way, but the 215 kms drive from Nha Trang to Bai Xep is one for the aficionados. Top Gear featured the drive from Saigon to Hanoi in their Vietnam special; Van doubts how they managed to obtain permits, since foreigners officially cannot drive in the country. But we did see several groups of bikers, and they clearly weren't locals. A few dollars must go a long way. 

Bai Xep is a really tiny, nondescript fishing village on the highway, about 20 mins from the town of Quy Nhon. If we weren't booked to stay here, I wouldn’t know it existed. Stray Asia must have some similar leaning folks as me; Billy and Van were the spotters who managed to include this tiny beach stop in their itinerary. A narrow strip of a beach, a fishing village, three resorts, absolute calm and bereft of the usual signs of civilization. Chris runs "The Haven" which is exactly as the website describes. The bistro is good, the rooms airy, the beach clean, and the villagers smile a lot. Two nights here went by like a breeze, managing to do absolutely nothing, which takes a lot of effort. Sandra went for swims, Dean lazed around and tried to act young, Van tried catching the cat and the puppy in turns, Billy disappeared and miraculously reappeared, I played the guitar and went for long jogs. Entertainment was provided by a Singaporean single dad and his 6-year old kid, trying to get over the recent loss of the mother by traveling the world. His grief and love for the kid was both heart-breaking and inspiring.

You would expect a culturally important port and a strategically located town to have better connectivity. Bai Xep to Hoi An is barely 300 kms, but seven hours later, we staggered into town mid-afternoon, tired and disillusioned with roads that were under perennial repair; Van passes through this way every month, and she vouched the conditions were similar as long as she could remember. The saving grace for the day was an excellent lunch of free-range chicken at a roadside shanty that served nothing else, and a detour to the “Son My” memorial, a grim reminder of the My Lai massacre. The blatant disregard for human life and brain-washing that is evident in video testimonies of several teenage U.S soldiers who participated in the murders should be shown to war-mongering politicians and dictators alike. The fact that what Norman Whitfield knew in 1969 is still being challenged today, speaks volumes of the times we live in. An eye for an eye leaves everyone blind.

Hoi An has a large presence of Chinese and Japanese communities, and along with the old French buildings and architecture belonging to all three nationalities, is a UNESCO World heritage site. Three wooden bridges connect the mainland to the other islands, and the narrow alleys of the old town and historic city are perfect for walking. Van said it is impossible to walk around in the old town during the busy season; we had no such worries. A desperate hunt for scarfs ensued over the next two hours, interspersed with maniac wandering in and out of historic sites as we struggled with the guide map. Is this the Japanese bridge? Did we just walk through the Chinese enclosure? Is that bright yellow building with beautiful windows and large wooden door French and ancient? There seemed to be enough to explore and getting lost was a wonderful option.

Evenings in the old town and river-front are a riot of colors. The old town is brightly lit up with paper lamps, the streets bustle with tourists and touts, young girls sell paper lamps that tourists release in the river for good luck, newly-wed couples have photo-sessions on boats in poses that threaten to break their backs and strain their necks, the town square has live performances and music that are highly entertaining and amusingly involving, while the innumerable pubs and restaurants that dot the river-front start filling up by 730pm. If this was the beginning of the season, what would the peak be? Almost everyone pencils in a couple of nights at Hoi An, and they should. Van says it is the most favored mid-point for road-trippers starting from Saigon to Hanoi. I finally found a gorgeous scarf for USD4 after an intense bout of haggling that started at USD20. How exciting!

The second morning was the cycle tour to Cam Kim island. A scrawny teenager turned up at the “Thanh Binh 2” and in broken English said “It is cloudy today, good for cycling”. It takes a bit of patience but one gets the accent after a while. I grew up in small villages where rice fields, small streams, backwaters, rickety wooden bridges, and school kids who wave at strangers were the norm; a move to the big city at the age of 15 left me feeling claustrophobic, with a strange sensation that I don’t belong – which still persists after two decades of survival. Son, my guide, takes cycling tours through the year, and as he says, sometimes there are 18/20 people on the tour, and losing a couple on the way is par. Again, low season meant Son had to put up with just one ignorant tourist for five hours instead of the usual group. He works with a local tour company and this is his day-job; USD150 a month for a four hour workout every day. Moonlighting as an English teacher for school kids in the evenings earns him another USD150. Half for his upkeep and the rest goes to his family. English language skills seem to be the differentiator between haves/have-nots here; those who speak English make a decent living in tourism related jobs, while others struggle to eke out an existence.

The island by itself is nothing spectacular, but is wonderfully scenic; the fresh air and the wafts of burnt rice floating around are especially invigorating. Lots of backwaters crisscross the island, blue and white boats with village folk fishing in the mornings are a common sight, people make rice wine at home, and women weave brightly colored bamboo carpets and sleeping mats on the streets. Narrow dirt tracks passing through rice fields are ideal for cycling, provided the weather and your back cooperate. Son set off at a furious pace, and only my maniac paddling while attempting frantically to stay on the bike around the sharp bends kept me in sync. One can cycle alone, but boredom and the threat of getting lost where no one is likely to speak English is a real killjoy. There are of course the usual touristy artifacts. You visit a Cambodian war veteran, he sings a war song on his guitar, offers you a tea, and makes pleasant conversation, which may work with a group, but gets terribly boring after a while. Village women demonstrate how they make their bamboo mats and offer you sugarcane juice. The guide steps in to their houses once you walk out and pays their share; it is an efficient distributing machine. But considering the fact that it occupies the whole first half of the day, and gives you enough exercise, all for USD25 seems just about right.

What’s also worth is a boat ride along the river in the evening. A motor boat that seats ten people for two hours, for USD10. Marriage of convenience I suppose; what appears a lot of money for a local is apparently very little for the adventure-seeking tourist. And a tryst at steering a full-fledged motor boat on a busy river, on a glorious evening where it is bright and sunny when you start, and the village dark but abundantly lit with paper lamps as you return, is a definite treat. Plus those snaps that go straight up on whatsapp and twitter. Dean and Sandy enjoyed the ride, so did I love their company and chatter. They were staying in Hoi An a couple more days, while we would continue up the coast, joined by a new pair from Scotland. The benefits of traveling alone are manifold; unless you want to go insane, you have to talk to strangers and make friends; attempt new experiences; and make a fool of yourself every day. The steering wheel of a large motor boat can be insanely sensitive and a simple turn can almost topple the boat, and chocolate mousse tastes exceptional after a beer, were my learnings for the day. Oh, and the pain from cycling over dirt tracks peaks in unimaginable body parts the next evening.

Wednesday, January 13, 2016

Kemmangundi & Mullayanagiri

Feet on the ground versus armchair analysis. Sherlock vs. Mycroft. A debate for all economists, investors and macro watchers. Hop on a bike for a three-month road trip, Jim Rogers would say, but few have the ability, patience or time. Financial markets churn out millions of research reports, authored by arm-chair analysts, and the financially literate yet reality-challenged 1% (including yours truly) wonder whether the financial world we inhabit has anything in common with the “real economy”. Post the 2008 financial crisis that proved how over-paid “market folks” were relative to their contribution to the real economy, acknowledging it and maintaining a smidgen of sanity requires me to take a break every couple of months; and the traveler me more often than not rescues the markets me – a couple of hours with chatty locals can either destroy a thousand hypothesis, or reinforce them as solid facts. And demystify a lot of the jargon that passes off as “smart analysis”. In an exaggerated feedback loop, the smart investor travels to learn while having fun, while the real traveler uses his local interactions to make enough money to fund his next trip.
Momentous discoveries and meaningless philosophical discourses were farthest from my mind, the basic plan was a trek up the famous “Z-point” at Kemmangundi, a drive along those scenic, foggy winding roads to Bababudangiri, and a climb up the 1,900 metre Mullayanagiri peak. www.takeabreak.in suggested both a location www.kemmangundihomestays.com and a local driver-cum-guide. Google maps and AP’s ipad did the rest. Old-timers like us who have actually trampled around without smart phones find googlemaps extremely useful, yet I cannot avoid the feeling that all these gadgets and apps are making me dumber by the minute. A seven hour drive, the last two through some wonderfully quaint and scenic surroundings passing through Chikmagalur town, coffee estates surrounded by pine forests and sheer cliffs, which test the city driver and his small car, brought us to the edge of Bhadra forest where the home-stay is located; right in front of a tall hill and surrounded by small fields and plantations. A long walk in the crisp winter air in the evening, with the setting sun throwing off golden streaks across the reddish soil, and a rustic dinner in the common hall were real treats. These are cherished memories for a city-dweller; how complicated our lives have turned out to be!
Kemmangundi is a lovely small hill-town, flanked by the Bababudangiri hill range, with spectacular red soil and wonderful hiking trails passing through lavish green valleys, grasslands and waterfalls. From the homestay to Raj Bhavan was a 12km long narrow winding path, which the Mahindra jeep handled really well. Raju was the driver-cum-guide from the nearby village of Lingadahalli, and he made his displeasure with city drivers rather apparent. “They don’t belong here, they don’t know how to drive, they don’t have any commonsense”, he kept muttering. The jeep twisted and turned, and wafts of crisp mountain air floated in through the windows, and with every hair-pin we climbed, our lungs struggled while our ears popped. Most cars can get up to Raj Bhavan where the hiking trails start, but Raju had other ideas. “What is the point of hiking on flat terrain, climb when you can't drive”, and proceeded to subject us to the agony of a non-existent dirt track for the next 10 minutes, which mercifully ended when we came upon a large ditch. We ditched our jackets, bundled water and biscuits in to a backpack, while Raju was already disturbing the peaceful environment with his snores.
It is not supposed to be a difficult climb, but the intensity and struggle depends on the differential between how fit one believes he is, and reality. Body vs. Mind. Not very steep, yet challenging as you go higher, with some episodes of breathlessness, couple of recovery periods, and two sharp juts where one needs to be careful and hold on to the slippery rocks. We passed a family with extremely inappropriately dressed women (for the climb!) at one of the waterfalls, enquiring how far they were from the peak. A very suspicious group of teenagers, a guy and three girls, all panting heavily, said 45 minutes. It didn’t look that far, the peak was visible, the trail looked innocuous enough.
All around were steep valleys covered with tall grass that swayed to the strong winds, while the sun shone brightly and drove the chill out of our bones; glorious settings with dazzling scenery, the immense trees along the steep cliffs obscuring the deep bottom of the valley, with a lake at the horizon visible to the eye but not to my expensive camera. Surprisingly, we were all alone for the next hour as we kept climbing and taking pictures. It is only when you hit the peak and look at the watch that the realization sinks in. It was easily the tallest peak around; the towns looked like tiny dots way below, the wind turned in to strong breeze that threatened to blow away my glares, and the steep slopes of the “Z-point” looked threatening enough for me to take a step back. AP displayed previously unheard bravery and pointed out a steep trail to the very top, which I took one look at and turned around; bravery and foolhardy are separated by a thin line, perhaps as thin as the trail he wanted to take. We lingered around, trying to settle our cameras which swayed to the mighty wind, and our hearts, which fluttered with joy. The family was still at the waterfall on our way back, and one of the women asked “did you see my kid? He went out on the climb after you”. Indian mothers have a way of ignoring age, she was at least sixty and her kid would be my age. “I didn’t, there is no one around on the trail” I said, as a wave of panic swept across her eyes. “Maybe he went on the other trail up the waterfall?” “Oh yes, there he is, my child, waving at me”. You never stop being a mother, said mine once. Raju was fast asleep and we had to wake him up, knocking furiously on the windows. He looked refreshed; it had been two and a half hours since we left him at peace.
“Do you want to see the real mountainside?” Faced with such an existential question, my experience told me to nod. Raju is as rustic as one can get; rough and tough on the outside, and soft and gooey on the inside. And mindful of the fact that we were paying him top dollar, by his definition anyway, and he promised to make it worth the money. The concept of money and wealth is very urban; village-folk anywhere in the world get their basics right; never equate time with money, value a good night’s sleep, not a bank balance. Raju swung his jeep across the rickety gate that separates the village limits from the Bhadra reserve. We should have feared the worst when he said “typically, I don’t take this route if there was a family riding, but”.
There are two routes from Kemmangundi to Bababudangiri – the paved double lane that is 60kms long, or the 18km partly paved single lane cut across the hills, through the natural reserve, that only the locals or the truly lost seemed to take. Over the next 45 mins, we overtook two jeeps and a small car and passed a shuttle auto. Raju wanted us to have an “authentic mountain” experience, and that meant a minute of paved road followed by deft maneuvering across potholes, pebbles, and deep gashes on a non-existent pebble infested track that hugged the steep mountainside. The road snakes through some stunning scenery and tall mountains that jut out and end mysteriously in the strange moist and sweet fog, the sun plays hide and seek and turns the grass brown one minute and green the next, showing off bright flashes of silver as the rays bounce off some invisible mysterious objects far away. AP and me have survived each other on a million trips for the past 12 years, mainly through the art of keeping quiet. Pass me the water, I have to take a leak, I am hungry! Raju did all the talking, boasting about his driving skills while humming two decades old Hindi film songs and a decade old pop music, while we silently took in the sights and filled our lungs with the sweet mountain mist. Raju does 10-12 such trips a month and the surroundings must feel normal to him, just as a pub or an office feels to me. We take for granted what we are used to, that is the bane of our existence. Entertainment of the day was a risky overtaking maneuver which annoyed him, since he had to brake and slow down, activities he hates; a drunk driver, with four fully drunk ugly-looking pot-bellied men who were obviously lost and imagined this to be the main road to Chikmagalur asked Raju where they could borrow a 4-wheel drive. What they wanted to do with their tata indica and whether they made it alive to the town remains a mystery.
All proponents of the “Intolerance” debate must visit Bababudangiri or Dattapeetha, as it’s called by locals. Always a tinder-box, controversial, headline grabbing, a place of worship revered and claimed by both religions, and witness to several clashes over the years, our first experience with local passions had begun with a question the previous afternoon as we were driving through Chikmagalur town. Why were police and riot gear in full display, and why had they set up so many road blocks? At a particular junction, which we later learnt led to the shrine, there was a traffic jam a couple of miles long. Buses full of saffron shawl pilgrims waving orange flags contrasted with the green headgear. It was both eid and datta jayanti, on Christmas eve! The shrine was empty as we stepped in, relatively speaking, a policeman said it was bursting the previous day. "We had to lathicharge to control the crowds yesterday, the lines never stopped".
The shrine is a cave that worships, depending on who you talk to, Lord Dattatreya, Dada Hayath, the sufi saint Baba Budan, and may others. Within the cave, the first site is a dargah and the second is a formless image of Dattatreya, administered respectively by the two religions. We drank the holy water administered by the fakir, touched the image and paid our respects, and smeared the clay on our foreheads. Attendance was thin, but both religions paid obeisance at each other’ shrine. And it has been this way for as long as I can remember, said Raju. A German couple, who had found the shrine on tripadvisor and were brave enough to venture out, were very curious. The fakir called a lady and said “explain to them about Baba Budan”. “Touch the image and your prayers will be answered” said the priest, and AP translated, with due explanations. She was from Frankfurt, “I haven’t seen something like this in a long time”. Neither have I.
The peak of Bababudangiri is a further 3kms away, over steep hair-pins up the mountain, and sadly resembles a picnic spot. Hordes of families, plastic bottles and chips packets strewn, dirty clothes discarded all around, you get the drift. It is still a beautiful sight as one looks over the edge, the saffron flag fluttering at the cliff-top temple which is open on special days and can be reached only through steep stairs, must be a real treat for those who time it right. We hardly spent 15 mins at the lookout, the breeze was strong, and the people too many. We walked up and down the steep slopes and imagined what a trek up the base would take. Ten years ago, we might have actually done it, and I had climbed up the slope in my teens, but those were good times.
The base of Mullayanagiri peak is reached through an ever narrower road, about 8kms away. It is a surprise it can be reached at all by road, so steep is the drive and so exposed the road that a single twitch can send you down the scary slope. Raju laughed at the cars attempting the climb, betting which would get stuck at which turn, and he was bang on. Only the very brave or the really experienced drivers have the heart to drive to the top; I took one look down the slippery slope and the road ahead, and mumbled a quick prayer. Even a couple of off-road bikes had to ditch, but Raju motored on; after dropping us at the base, he had the energy to make a couple of quick trips, ferrying families up and down the last mile, charging 50 per head. Grinning ear to ear, and planning which arrack shop to hit that night.
From the base to the temple at the peak is a series of winding steps, which takes a toll on the knees and calves, rather than the lungs. AP felt the other way round, but we both made it to the temple in about eight minutes and two breathing breaks. At 6,330ft, it is the highest in Karnataka and deserves every accolade I ever read; the views from the peak on a bright day like this are worth all the pain and the horrid road. Six years ago, two young men climbed Adam’s peak in Srilanka in the middle of the night to feast on the most gorgeous sunrise I could ever imagine. The features on every mountain peak remain identical. Long hours of pain followed by the orgasmic thrill of actually being there, smelling the crisp mountain air, looking down at the slopes and waving at the faces laboring up the steps, celebrating with bars of chocolate and gallons of water, and those long moments of silence when you want to freeze that one moment and remember it as a highlight of your life. Mountains are exciting, they are a challenge, and Mullayanagiri certainly was one. Every mountain I climb, the same thought scares me; will I be fit enough to climb the next one?
There were about a million cars streaming up the narrow slopes as mid-day turned in to a beautiful evening, and we were lucky to escape the traffic jam on our way back. Raju laughed; “All you city-dwellers are responsible for this, imagine, a traffic jam here”. He believes the road should be blocked half-way and only the fit should be allowed to trek up. I can certainly see the merit in his argument, judging by the quantum of cars. “They are all rushing to watch the sunset, but you know what, you don’t see the setting sun from here, it is a classic tourist scam”, he said. Try explaining that to the hordes of tourists stuck in that five km long traffic jam. Evening falls quickly in the hills, and for my tired knees, it couldn’t come any sooner. Raju drove rather warily into the evening, actually braking a couple of times to let someone pass, so out of character. He must be tired; it had been a long day.
Evening was spent in the most interesting conversation I had for a long time. Next to the resort is a large farmland, I was fascinated by the striking red earth and started taking pictures. The farmer called out to me, asked where I was from, and we started talking; knowing the local lingo has its advantages. His story was one of extremes. A ten acre land divided among three families, enough to feed each but not much more, sons more interested in city life and alcohol than farming, and for good reasons; extremes of weather and prices. Potato sold at 25 a kg last year and at 5 a kg this year; rains that started as plenty tapered off right when you needed them; farm labor getting expensive every year, from 300 a day to 500 post MNREGA program; bore wells that keep getting deeper and deeper, 10 years ago at 100ft now 700ft; bank loans available in plenty and at lower rates as well, but no takers; “Where is the reward for my hard work?” he wailed. He is 47 and expects to die tilling his field, “If I don’t, who will? Not my sons”.
If the first hour was negative, the next was anything but. Ramesh owns an adjoining farmland, “that was my distant uncle you were talking to an hour ago” he started. These small town folk open up the minute they trust you, we city dwellers don’t unless our lives depend on it. “Proud of my farm, look around, I planted all these trees myself”. Arecanut trees and coffee inter-cropped in neat rows, hard labor paying dividends. His land is worth a decent 1cr today, and was bare just 7 years ago. 5-7 years it takes for arecanut to start yielding, and they yield for twice as long, three or four pluckings a year, all they need is water and fertilizer once they take root. Robusta coffee is true to its name, requires very little treatment, yields for 40 years, all it needs is shade and fertilizer. I hesitated while asking “how much does an acre yield in a year?” Ramesh was proud “8-10 lakhs after expenses in a good year”. The plants are his, maintenance expenses are his, he contracts out the farm every year to one of those estates which pay him by the yield. “I am thinking of selling my next year’s produce directly to the market in Chikmagalur, let me see what I can get”. This small town man dreams big, but entrepreneurs everywhere think alike. Risk and effort should have disproportionate rewards; only the financial world sees risk-free rewards, or is it reward-free risks?

Raju was happy as well, “made decent money today”, and at dinner, he was seen standing in for one of the resort help; they frequently help each other out, belonging to the same village. “I will sleep well today, tomorrow is another struggle”, he said before signing off. “What is happening in Bangalore, I heard you have pubs the size of dance floors? It must be fun!”. What we have, we take for granted. Pubs, forests, family, bank balance, health, a good night’s sleep. Life is all about choices. Raju his jeep and long drives to Mullayanagiri, Ramesh his farm and 2am watering alarm, AP his badminton, and yours truly, his travel, music and long runs. And a pledge to keep my sanity as China increasingly becomes the buzzword in global markets.

Sunday, December 13, 2015

Vietnam - Part 2 - Dalat

Van called it the honeymoon capital of Vietnam - "It gets really cold, great weather to cuddle". Perched at a height of 1,500 meters in the central highlands and blessed with a year round temperate weather, the most striking feature of Dalat is its uncanny resemblance to a European town. A large man-made lake at the center of the town, gorgeous pine forests that dot the countryside, farms cut in to the steep hills, dazzling flower-shows, excellent local produce of fruits and vegetables, a golf course, streets lined with pubs and restaurants, a quaint old railway station with furniture from the 1900's and a toy train that runs on narrow gauge, and chateau styled villas at strategic corners! Of-course the town was built by the French, to escape the stifling summer heat down in the plains. Everyone comes here for their summer vacation, said Van. The joke is that Dalat has a population of 200,000, while in the summer it rises to a million, the rest are tourists.

It was the first day of my two-week group tour with www.straytravel.asia, which Kamal from www.takeabreak.in had assiduously researched, and built a three week program
around, when I went to him with a one-line request "Take me to Vietnam". We suit each other's needs, he uses me as a guinea-pig to test his partner network, and I trudge along, in the hope of digging out stories and interesting people. After what seemed like an hour finding the pick-up point early in the morning in HCMC, and it turned out to be a rather ramshackle backpackers' in a seedy part of the town, I had just settled down to grab a breakfast, when in walked Dean and Sandy, and out came Sandra from the dorm. Last to arrive were Billy and Van, our tour leader, and Mr.Cam the driver. "How many are we?" "Just the six of us till Hoi An, and then some more expected to join", chirped Van. The tourist season was yet to get going, and we were just the second bus of the season. So, 3 Kiwis, a German, an Indian, and 2 locals. All the usual suspects.

Dalat is about 300kms from HCMC, and it takes about 7 hours. The roads are decent, but progress is slow, and it takes some getting used to. If you do 40kmph on an average in Vietnam, you are lucky; the upside is you have lots of time to get familiar with your co-passengers. We passed through the plains, quietly rose up in to the highlands meandering through some dense forests and roads that hugged steep cliffs, drove through picturesque villages and farmlands, stopping for lunch at one of those scenic restaurants. The last 75kms in to Dalat were bone-jarring, the repairmen were out in full strength on the roads, but Mr.Cam kept a smile all through. We reached Dalat around 4pm, checked in to our hotel, where the manager said "No AC and no TV, you don't need them in this town". 

The beauty of a small town is one can walk through and explore, and all the sights are nearby. It was a Sunday evening, the city square was closed for traffic 7-11PM, and the skateboarders and walkers were out in full force. So were the street food vendors, and delightful aromas filled the walkways. The streets, as Van promised, were full of young couples, in layers of clothing, and holding hands, and we, a motley group of odd-looking tourists in shorts and t-shirts and soaking up the crisp hilly air, must have stuck out like a sore thumb. Surprisingly, very few foreigners were around. "I told you so" said Van, "this is the best time of the year to visit Vietnam, off-season prices and very little crowds", as she handed another rice crispy and noodle soup.

Hill towns have a certain old-world charm about them, Dalat is no exception. Time goes by slowly, people are friendlier, food tastes better, the air feels crisp, and one has more energy. It seemed to rub in on our group as well, Sandy dug out her lonely planet guide book the next morning at breakfast, Dean caught the waiter and extracted the "must-see" places in town, and I ate the largest breakfast I could remember. The benefit of group travel is you can always find someone with similar interests, and we quickly agreed on the plan for the day, and hired a taxi to ferry us around. Everything apparently was just 15 mins from the city center, or VND70,000 per ride. 

To the cable car, we asked the taxi driver. And will you wait for us to come back in a couple of hours? In 10 mins, we were buying a return ticket to "Truc Lam pagoda". The pagoda is on top of a far-away hill, and the narrow winding road is a favorite cycling trail for youngsters, Sandra choosing a day full of biking rather than tagging along with us. The cable car affords some spectacular views, with the city of Dalat on one side, thick pine forests on the other side, with the valley between the two hills full of small farms growing vegetables, and town-folk waving to us as they worked the fields. It was easily the best Monday morning in a long time. The mountain-top pagoda comes in to view as the cable car rises to the other hill, and you catch a glimpse of the magnificent blue lake at the station. Built in 1994 with golden and yellow arches, and bright red tiled roofs, the pagoda seems cut off from the world, and is incredibly peaceful, if not for the truck-load of Russian tourists who somehow thought ringing the large bell at the entrance was fun. We walked down a pathway that led to the lake, took in the sun and the surroundings, contemplated a boat ride, questioned why the Chinese would buy property in Auckland and the meaning of our lives, in that order, talked about our families and found common interests. And found to our surprise, the cab waiting at the exit. "I told you I will wait, so next to the Crazy house, right?" the driver said. 

When architect Dang Viet Nga started working on this project, it was apparently so controversial that local folk stonewalled the construction for years, relenting only after the Hanoi Govt. intervened. Look it up, and you will see why the guesthouse (yes, you can stay here, and it isn't very expensive, USD40 a night) frequently makes it to the "10 most bizzare buildings" list. Dreaming up something so convoluted, and unconventional, shaped like a giant tree is one thing, but incorporating all those natural elements in to its construction such as vines, spiders, snakes and ladders, elephant trunks, caves and nameless twisting forms, and making them look as if they belong in the structure is another thing altogether. They are still building elements as we speak, there are now 10-themed guest rooms, each named after an animal and resembling its den! We stumbled around, not knowing what to expect. The crazy house defies logic, but it is magical! Some love it, some hate it, but everyone wants to see more. Most agree they felt like a child, as they pass through the tunnels and enter the caves. All for VND40,000.

Another 10 mins drive and we were at the "Old French station", one of those colonial structures with a red tiled roof, large brown windows, and big brown furniture dating back centuries. Opened in 1938, and once part of the Dalat-Thap cham narrow gauge railway line 84kms long, it is today a joy-ride on a toy train. 20 mins in a rocking carriage brought us to the village of Trai Mat. The train emptied and the crowds started walking, Sandy's research did not say what to do in the village, but hard nosed tourists that we were, we sensed the crowd knew something we didn't. When a large Chinese contingent walks in a single line, you blindly follow. A 5 min walk got us to the "Linh Phuoc pagoda", a chinese influenced 7-storied structure with beautiful blue and white mosaics, great arches and bright colors, and a large standing Buddha in dazzling yellow. Carved ceilings, brightly painted walls, and a sitting Buddha in the main hall, surrounded by a large number of golden and jade Buddhas. Sometimes, you must toss away the guidebook and go with the flow, the thrill of discovery is so rare in this modern world, it must be cherished. On the way back, a Colombian guy with two beautiful Spanish girls from Mallorca on the train wanted to take a selfie with me. Apparently, I was the first Indian he ever met. The word "trail-blazer" comes to mind.

Dalat lake dazzles under the evening lights. The town spreads out from the lake, all the fine dining places are located on its shores, a beautiful pathway goes all around it, full of locals walking and running. It was 19C, and with a mild breeze, a beautiful evening. The market square which was bustling yesterday, was empty. It was just 630PM, but the locals knew rain was in the air. Halfway on my walk around the lake, a few drops and panicking locals and I knew the day was up. When was the last time I tasted rain drops so sweet? And why was I not tired after the exertions of the day? Why was I so excited on the toy-train, surely the Spanish women had nothing to do it! A few streaks of lightning and a low rumble drove me inside a pub, and it turned out to be an authentic Thai offering. Tom Yum Kung and Pad Thai in Vietnam? But that is what travel does, serves up experiences that you can never imagine. Vietnamese coffee and walnut cake at a delightful road-side deli, while a light drizzle left the roads with that misty sweet aroma of fresh earth. The hotel manager was right, you don't need the AC or the TV in Dalat. But you definitely need a blanket.

Friday, November 13, 2015

Vietnam - Part 1 - First look and Ho Chi Minh city

I love the window seat. On flights, trains, buses, everywhere I go. You can rest your head as you sleep, you don't have people stepping on your feet as they get up and down, you don't have to worry about your handbag, safe as it is under your feet, you don't have to talk to your neighbors, the stewards make an extra effort to feed you, and best of all, you never get bored peering down at the landscape below, and can take as many pictures as you wish. Kids making a racket behind you, peer down. A young couple getting dirty on the next seat, peer down. Boring love stories playing on in-flight entertainment, peer down. Forgot to pack your book, peer down. The key to a successful "window seat" experience though is to use the bathroom before you board the flight. 

All I could see from my window for an hour after we took off from KL was the blue waters of the Gulf of Thailand. Then the muddy, brown flat lands shaped by the great Mekong river, the lifeline of much of South East Asia, and the little villages fed by the soil and silt it deposits. It is an incredibly flat terrain, with the Mekong snaking its way through the landscape, its brown waters broken by the yellow and green paddy fields, and the red and blue tiles of the villages. Ho Chi Minh city announces its arrival by its skyscrapers as the flight starts circling into descent. It looks large and wide, its 10Mn population spread across 24 districts making it the largest city in the country. It was raining on one side of the city as we landed, and it was bright and sunny the other part, with a rainbow beginning to form at the horizon. Welcome to Vietnam.

Immigration was quick and easy. I got my visa sticker, was asked to go to the last counter, but the guy waved me to the next, although it was empty. And so on, each immigration official waving me to the next counter. They were all empty. And the guy at the first counter again asked me to go to the last. I smiled and said they sent me here. He smiled and stamped my passport, and out I was. As I kept looking out of the cab on my way to downtown Saigon and my hotel, two things stood out; the yellow French bungalows reminding one of the history of Saigon as the capital of French Indochina, and the innumerable 2-wheelers that seemed to occupy every inch of the road. 

My hotel guide suggested a walk in the afternoon and an umbrella. It was hot, humid and bright, but in exactly 10 mins, in rolled a thunderstorm that lasted about 20 mins. Typical Saigon weather in the rainy season, said the Brit with whom I ended up sharing a narrow strip of shade during the storm. Saigon is a bustling city, and it seems there are as many motorbikes as humans. "Beware when you cross the road" warned the traffic policeman, seeing my camera, is there a bigger touristy giveaway? Huh, you want to advise an Indian about traffic? I have seen it all and driven on far worse roads and traffic, I said to myself. And promptly got caught at a crossing, with only a kind old woman saving me from being driven over. Saigon bikers do not obey any rules, or signals. The key, as the old woman taught me, is to keep moving ahead with a wave of your hand, and they will drive around you. A t-shirt summed it well "If it's green, I cross. If it's red, even then I cross". I didn't see much of the city except downtown, I just had one night before starting my journey across the country. But there were truckloads of backpackers, with as many pubs and street joints dotting the city. Fish and chips, a beer and dessert for $5. If this was any indication of what the food cost, I had changed too many dollars at the airport.

Vietnam was the only country is South-East Asia I hadn't set foot on. Over the past decade, and over the course of many travels, I had ticked off much of the region, including Cambodia in 2014, which was at the top of my bucket list, especially Angkor Wat. You've seen one, you've seen them all, I said. And how different could Vietnam be, I reasoned and pushed it to the back of my list. AP asked me the exact same question. Kamal from takeabreak.in designed a terrific road trip and convinced me it was worth the money. I think he uses me as a guinea pig to discover new destinations; I love it. It is a win-win relationship.

The intriguingly S-shaped country is roughly 3,500kms long, of which I would cover two-thirds. The two major cities Saigon (Ho Chi Minh city officially, but everyone calls it Saigon) and Hanoi are 1,800kms apart, and connected by a ram-rod straight highway that hugs the coast. 50kms narrow at it's center and expanding to 600kms wide up north, Vietnam is uniquely diverse. Over the next two and a half weeks weeks, our www.straytravel.asia tour bus passed through cities, river deltas, central highlands, sublime coastline, sheer cliffs, dense tropical forests, and some of the largest paddy fields, stretching as far as the eye can see. We hiked through mountains, discovered pretty towns and lakes, drove though roads that seemed to drop off the face of the earth, explored huge cave systems, walked across ancient capitals and pagodas, and criss-crossed wild and dense national parks. We tasted an incredible variety of street food and sampled the culture, with different influences ranging from Khmer in the south to French and Chinese in the north. And experienced both the best and worst of the weather, hot and humid, wet and tropical, cool and misty, calm and serene. And got caught in typhoon "Vamco", which briefly threatened to ruin our trip. Three weeks which I would look back fondly as incredibly exciting. Sometimes, and only sometimes, whims turn out right. I love telling stories, and my three weeks in Vietnam had many.