Travel

Resolution

  Paris: From a previous trip … 

Paris: From a previous trip … 

It’s not New Year’s Day today, nor is it any other festival marking the beginning or end of a time cycle. It’s not Ugadi, for instance. It’s not my birthday, either. It’s just a chilly sunny Saturday, on which day a thought has chosen to visit me, telling me that in my long life I’ve spoken too much, eaten too much, thought petty too much. “Resolve now,” a follow on thought is urging me: “Eat less! Think less! Speak less!” And there’s a new thought forming: “Wow,” it appears to be shaping up to say: “Can these vows be kept really?”

I’m happy to write down that my mind is going blank.


I’m going to Paris tomorrow, returning Saturday. I’d be in the city four days. One day would be spent in preparation for two days’ business, and a day is free for roaming the city. The temperatures are about 5°/0°. I’ll go to the Picasso Museum, and, of course, the Apple Store in the Louvre. I can’t take the rainy windy cold so much anymore.

I’d be making a day trip to Brussels. That’s on one of the two business days I mentioned. I’d be taking the high-speed train, but my customer’s plant is by the airport, so I won’t get to spend a half-hour in a downtown Brussels cafe. I’ll enjoy the ride out and back. I’ll read. I’ll look out the window. I’ll quarrel with my wife. We always pack a fight for a train ride, and a quick-acting making-up kit as well.

I’m travelling very light. How I love that!


I’ve been writing trash like this on my blog. So I wrote a short story, my first, and gave it to my wife, and waited. She read it sitting next to me, as I watched her face, and she gave me her honest opinion. I don’t have to tell you, dear reader, the sting in an honest opinion. I sent the story to a dear young man I know, a PhD in English literature, who has returned to India to teach at a beautiful location in the North. “Thanks for writing,” he wrote me. “And thanks for sharing. I’ll get back tomorrow or so.”

A week has gone by. There’s greater honesty in his silence, I’m afraid.


I’m resolving to keep my posts to four-hundred words or less. You’re nodding, I can see that.

Dolce Far Niente

  A street in Pompeii

A street in Pompeii

In his gentle voice, Leonard said Romans prefer to eat gelato off a cone. “We cannot eat from a cup,” he said. “Because then we would need both hands. If we use both hands for gelato, we cannot talk. If you can talk without your hands, you can order gelato in a cup.”

Fair enough.

Leonard was tall and lanky, and broad in the chest and flat in the belly. He had the natural athletic grace of the European. He spoke of food all the time, and he was so relaxed through the day, I couldn’t help but wonder how he got that build and preserved it.

Why is olive oil is a touch bitter when it is Neapolitan? What are the merits of the Tuscan wine, versus those of the wine from the region of Pompeii, and Positano? Leonard wrote down names for the best places for Margherita in Rome and in Positano after he’d explained the history behind the tricolour pizza. To vegetarian listeners, he clarified: “We must have meat here. And fish. Without them, we cannot complete our cuisine.”

For a long time, it has been the Italian restaurant that reliably meets my vegan needs when I’m travelling in the West.

He did speak a little about where we were going. About the cloud of ash that hung over Pompeii, lingering long in the sky before it fell. He told the story in a languorous, drawn-out tone, painting the picture at a leisurely pace, giving the finishing touches as we passed the Vesuvius. His style was conversational, intimate, although he spoke into the microphone with eyes to the highway.

A little about Vesuvius. The story of Spartacus, and Capua where he fought, which was by our route. And the Appalachian Way, along which Spartacus’s men were crucified. The avenue of umbrella pines came up and went past before I could grab a shot.

Done with history, Leonard got back to food. Nobody minded.

“In Rome, we are unlike the Italians in the north. We love a relaxed life. And, as we have learnt from the drama of the Greeks, the future is not in our hands. So let us see. Our trip to Pompeii and Positano today may be good. Who knows? It may not be so good. Let us leave it to destiny.”

With that, he asked us to take a nap if we wished to.

It would rain a little in Pompeii when we reached in the afternoon, and we’d buy China-made umbrellas and raincoats at a kiosk. The rain would stop by the time we entered the amphitheatre, a few minutes from the entrance. Earlier to Pompeii, it would be blazing in Positano at lunch, but the entire population on this planet would be lying in wait for us there, to throttle us full-body from the moment of arrival until the point of exit. But I would get to be happy, finding a vegan feast, listed as Buddha’s Bowl on the menu, at a terrace restaurant called Collina, by a narrow street named Cristoforo Colombo.

How is limoncello made? With the rind of lemon over several weeks. The lemon were growing right there along the street, and olives, and grape. What’s the best pasta to carry home? Grainy pasta, because it assures al dente. One must take time and trouble to match the colours while asking for gelato. Choose three, but it is up to you. What does the black soil of Pompeii do to the olive above it?

“The Italian breakfast is espresso with a croissant.” But I knew that. “And you must never drink a cappuccino after morning.” I’d learnt that one too, but only three years or so ago.

“We are simple people,” Leonard said in his soothing voice with the sun pouring in. “Our approach to life isdolce far niente— the sweet art of doing nothing. Not everybody can achieve it. But if you keep trying you can.”

I wonder about that. I’ve spent a lifetime doing nothing, yet I’ve never known I’ve been practising high Roman-art all these decades. So I’m raising a toast here at home: I won’t drink wine; I can’t take take limoncello; but here’s a glass of water, I’m holding it high for Leonard, and for me, and my mastery of dolce far niente.

Happy in Hampi

  Hampi: Photo from a previous trip

Hampi: Photo from a previous trip

“Is it cheaper booking with you?” I asked her. “I have Booking.Com open on my laptop.”

“Of course, sir! On Booking.Com they will show a low price on the top and when you add everything from the bottom it will become much more costly.”

I checked on my screen as she spoke. Indeed she had quoted lower. Both had bundled breakfast and dinner, but her offer was inclusive of tax, and when I totted up everything, Booking.Com were 5% higher.

“Tell me the best you can offer,” I said, “so I can confirm right this evening.”

“Of course, sir,” she said, and to my surprise she improved the price right then, by only a bit, but I liked the attitude. But now my human frailty had stirred: The young lady — she sounded young — had in a few minutes transformed me into a confident negotiator.

“Is this the very best you can do? Can you not make it … ?” I tossed a number.

She paused. “One minute sir,” she said. “Take your time,” I said. Faint sounds came from 180 miles away, of tapping on a keyboard. Imagined, maybe.

“I am sorry sir.” Her voice had switched to another, pleasanter tone. Her delivery was slower, drawn out. The words danced out my phone into my ears: “This is the best what I am offering. I am giving you one-day discount, and breakfast and dinner free. In fact, if you want this booking after the 28th September I won’t be able to offer this price, sir.”

“Of course. You have offered me the low-season tariff. It’s very hot in Hampi these days, right?”

“Yes sir. As you yourself have said, I have offered the lowest low-season price. And I am sorry again sir,” she sang, “but it is not hot in Hampi now. Actually it is quite pleasant.”

It is at daytime 34º in Hampi these days. The place is covered in rocks and boulders. You walk on rock a lot in Hampi.

“Okay,” I said, unable to join in her drift. “Please hold the booking. September 16 to September 21.”

“Of course, sir. You will be very happy here. I will send our email in five minutes. The payment link will be there in it.”

🏨 🏨 🏨

Before the mail came I remembered something and called again. She didn’t pick up, but she called back soon enough.

“Yes sir, Mr. Shashi.”

“Sorry. I wanted to ask you something. Small thing actually. Usually hotels do repair and maintenance work during the low season. I need a quiet place …”

“No sir. No such thing is going on. I will personally make sure you have a quiet stay.”

“No maintenance work is going on?”

“No sir. No maintenance is going on.”

“No repairs are going on?”

“No sir. No maintenance is going on.”

I fought to frame the question afresh. She had aroused a sudden suspicion in me: What could be the difference between repairs and maintenance? By the dictionary? In this lady’s lingo? So much would depend on it for six days, five nights. I visualized repeating her assurance before her, before her manager, before her manager’s manager — paid up and checked in and helpless like hell by then.

“Hello? Mr. Shashi? You will be very happy here, sir. Don’t worry.”


🏨 🏨 🏨

That was last evening. I thought for a time, bringing to mind all the sounds I hate in a hotel. Then I thought some more, about heat and happiness. Just before going to bed, I opened the lady’s email and paid.

Going. To Rome …

 Image: skdesign at 123rf.com

Image: skdesign at 123rf.com

From the kitchen below, the sound of grating coconut, the firm tight sound attesting to the strong hand of the maid. From across the street, the howl and indignant screech of sisters fighting — they’re all right, in a few minutes their young blood will come off the boil and they’ll start cooing to the Labrador pup in their next compound.

In the distance, a car with a souped-up exhaust roared as it took off, and fell silent, humbled by the short streets and multiple turns in my quiet neighborhood.

And there’s the twitter of real birds that don’t know Sunday from the workday. They don’t follow a character limit in their tweets and, much like the humans with whom they cohabit, they’re vying to go viral.


🐦 🐦 🐦

It is raining to a changed pattern this year. In the mornings there’s a light drizzle. Towards six in the evening, a powerful downpour comes crashing with the vigor and intensity an invasion, takes hold of the city for a quarter of an hour, and in those minutes every evening one feels this rain is forever, this awesome master, descended from heaven to right terrible wrongs. Just as you’re getting used to such a notion the rain stops altogether, in an instant, and turns into a drip-dripping on the roof, an emptying from the gutters, and goes washing down the street. The evening turns cold, leaving every Bangalorean to invent his own hygge — if he will.

Used to be that it only rained nights in Bangalore.


🌧 🌧 🌧

Right this morning, though, I’m worrying about the weather in Europe. I’m checking the temperatures in Paris and London and Aarhus and Copenhagen and, seeing that it’s about 32 /18 in Rome these days, I’m trying to recall how, for me, 32°c has felt in Europe. As I remember, it feels like 40° in Bangalore, and Bangalore seldom climbs so high.

If you want to know, it’s 27/20 here these days.


🤒 🤒 🤒

I’ve walked on Roman walls in England, gone down to Roman remains before the Notre Dame in Paris, seen Roman relics across the Iberian Peninsula. I’ve been twice on a Mesa in Israel which they call the Masada. It is by the Dead Sea, and there’s a ramp to its top that the Romans built to take the outcrop and a stubborn Jewish habitation on it that held out for almost a year against them. In India, on walking tours in Mylapore in Chennai, and in Madurai, I’ve listened to wide-eyed tour-leaders talking about Romans trading with India. “Their coins have been dug out hereabouts. Coins to buy what?” I’ve endured the feeling of being dragged back to school, seen (as then) some smart another take the shabbash. “Yes! Pepper! And? Yes! Fine cloth!”

Driving back to Bucharest after a day trip to the Black Sea, my host and I stopped at Tropaeum Traiani, built to celebrate Emperor Trajan’s victory over the Dacians. “It seems to me the Romans had huge problems with their wives,” my host said. “To come to die so far from home.” The monument commemorates 3000 legionnaires and auxilia who died for Rome in the battle (of Adamclisi).

I’ve been many times over many years in Milano. For work. Also in Ancona by the Adriatic, to sell my India-manufactured Western innovations. I’ve gone up the hill at Assisi once, at dusk, and walked up and down its streets. I was en route to another customer location then. And, before I forget, my wife and I have holidayed a week in Florence.

But I’ve never been in Rome.


✈️ ✈️ ✈️

On a whim this morning, I pulled out the Rome guidebook by Rick Steeves that I ordered in a moment of vague anticipation a few weeks ago. I opened the Lufthansa app on my iPhone. The rates are high, being punishment for flying at short notice. I’m not sure that hotels have rooms left in August. But I’m going. Next week.

To Rome.

Salim Ali, Maa, Salim Ali!

 Mobor Beach by The Leela Goa, Cavelosim, Goa

A little girl came down the narrow wooden bridge across the slim lagoon that snakes between the villas at The Leela Goa.

“Salim Ali, Maa. Salim Ali! You don’t know Salim Ali?”

Her maa was silent, but I heard her embarrassment as I passed them. As regards myself, I’ve heard of that ornithologist, but I haven’t read him, and I don’t know more than a half-dozen bird types.

Anyway, for this entire short stay at The Leela Goa, I’ve been sighting mainly crows. Last evening, I’d been sitting in a corner at the Susegado, the beachside restaurant the hotel. Beneath me the stone floor ended and the flour-thin sand of the beach began its long smooth run to the sea. I was reading Kathleen Jamie’s Findings, and sweating in 32º heat like it was 40º. There wasn’t any breeze, just the somnolent beauty of the Mobor Beach by which sprawls The Leela. A fisherman’s boat was moored on the higher sands, small, charcoal black, weatherbeaten. The fisherman appeared now and then, pulled something from his vessel, righted something, and went, and returned. A few guests played on the fringes of the water, all of them Indian, all fully clothed — the season for foreigners starts October.

Above the sparse action sat the lifeguard on a yellow perch, by a red flag that he’d raised to honor the choppy sea. The state has banned fishing for two months in anticipation of the monsoons; the lifeguard in his turn had forbidden swimming in the moment.

Round me and running as far as I could see, were castrated coconut palms — the nuts hacked to keep the guests safe — should one fall on a head. Being at the end of the shore, close to densely wooded headlands that jut into the sea and stop the run of sand, the beach before the Leela is private, and, during the lean season in June, quiet.

After a time I became aware of the crows, of their insistent cawing, and their large number. I put down my book and gazed at the sea, favoring the crows back of me with only my ear. Just then one of their number shot into view, flying high and seaward, flapping its wings like the crow and sailing now and then in the manner of the eagle. How far over the sea can the crow travel and return safely? It flew and flew and after a long while it fell — a free fall, actually, the wind-currents revealing themselves the times the bird faltered in its fall. It touched down, and soon it rose, gained height and, just as I thought it was coming back, flew toward the white horizon. In time the lone flier became a speck, a flickering dot, and vanished.

The following morning during my walk I caught sight of a bird sitting tall at the lotus pond in the golf course on the property. Its lush, tan body reminded me of the golden retriever. Its neck and breast were white. It dipped its beak into the pond — for water? Was it this — and not the crow — that I’d seen the evening before, taking off on a lofty flight over the Arabian? A sea hawk? The osprey? Is the sea hawk nocturnal? I suppose not. What was its mission then? At six in the evening? And why had this golden thing appeared so black?

At breakfast at the imaginatively named The Restaurant in the resort, I leaned back in my chair and looked out. The teeny couple hopping about on the branches of a distant plumeria were woodpeckers, I figured, after first guessing them as the kingfisher. Their colors glittered in the morning sun, and the jutting peaking on the head leaned backward and high. But I’m not so sure now as I put this post together: I’ve spent the last few minutes on the Internet, trying to extract the image of the bird, and its name, querying for a small bird with brilliant colors, predominantly blue, and a prominent peaking on top.

I could ask that girl who was outraged at her mother’s ignorance of Salim Ali. She should be here, somewhere among the abundance in this luxurious watering hole where all guests must arrive for the lazy resort-breakfast. She’s not in this South Indian section where I am sitting, relishing idli and dosé with red, white, green, and yellow chutney. She’s not in the North Indian bay from where I fetched cut-fruit and coffee. I’ll try in the large Asian n’ Continental hall at the far end.

I’ll also check with the kid if the snow-white birds that that Sujaya spotted among the pure-pink villas here are the crane. Cranes as I know are long in the neck and leg and beak. These ones are medium-large overall, but short and thick in their parts. Are they the stork? I’ll ask. What’s the difference between a crane and a stork?

The child will not be kind to me.