Travel

A Day And A Night In Slovakia

  From Vienna to Piestany via Bratislava

From Vienna to Piestany via Bratislava

Chasing Windmills

Soon after we’d left the Vienna airport, they came up, on both sides of the Bahn, an unending presence along the route running from the edge of the highway to the horizon itself: white towers with long blades drawing energy from wind that pushed them. As in Judo. Standing tall on the rise and fall of the Austrian landscape, they turned with gusto. It was raining. Gray air and grey cloud pressed down on the lush green expanse of earth, earth free of buildings, cut through by grey road and dotted with these high windmills. Until yesterday Europe had been awash in uninterrupted golden sunshine, but this moment in the rain changed two weeks of the sun into mere memory.

“This rain is good,” our customer who was driving us from Vienna to Slovakia said. “There’s been too much pollen flying.”

The Austrians voted out nuclear energy a long time ago, and they must succeed with alternates. In Slovakia, our customer said, a Soviet-era nuclear plant is serving its five-million Slovak population just fine. (I haven’t done a fact-check. The customer was brilliant, so well informed.)

At the border, the profusion of windmills ended.

Auto Power

The big thing in Slovakia is auto. Most big European names have moved in, whisking to effervescence the dour east-bloc economy of yesteryear: Porsche’s Cayenne, Volkswagen’s Tuareg, the BMW 5, Citroen’s C3, Land Rover, KIA’s Sport, the Audi Q5. Auto has done for Slovakia what software did for India. Nearly half the industrial output is auto, which constitutes a quarter of its exports. Every few moments we passed trucks lugging fresh-made cars out to the world, cars shining like candy even in the absence of sun.

“They bought used cars from us in the past,” our customer remarked. “Now Germans buy new cars from Slovakia through agents in Germany. Up to 33% cheaper.”

The first things that show up when Bratislava appears are the spanking new malls, rising behind arched sound barriers lining the stretch of highway that passes through town. Slovaks have it good these days. A forklift operator in an auto plant makes a thousand euros a month, with an indirect payout of 47% on top.

Going through Bratislava, looking at a hill covered in old buildings, India’s police quarters and its railway quarters came to mind. The buildings were painted in bright colours, but the colours couldn’t hide dullness, the communist past of them. They weren’t painted back then. The newer buildings nearby were different, designed by free-market architects.

Bratislava is hilly, riparian with two rivers — the Danube and the Morava. Riding a wide old bridge, I noticed a hotel named after Chopin. And on a hoarding, again by the bridge, a hotel was advertised which was named after Mendelssohn. Europeans fight the most horrible wars and yet they unite completely for the arts.

Leaving Bratislava, we were in the plains again, fertile plains with hills in the distance. The mountains lurked beyond the hills, perhaps, but we couldn’t see them from the valley of the Váh river, from the road to Piestany.

Tiny Piestany

Piestany is small, population 30,000. It is a spa town whose springs have drawn humans to them since 80,000 years ago. The town centre has the things a town centre should, in a petite pedestrian zone — in a brisk ten-minute walk we’d covered the area. The boutiques were modest (Zaira, selling garments, hit my eye). The restaurants suggested French and Italian cuisine, but the Argentinian steak ruled everywhere. The Hotel Park Avenue, where we checked in, boasted unchallenged the best Argentinian in town. The hotel sat on the corner of a nice old park. Communist dictatorships nurtured parks — I remembered the large ones I’ve seen in Ceaușescu’s Bucuresti.

Everybody spoke German. They learn it at school, a carryover from when East Germany and Czechoslovakia were ideological buddies. Our waiter spoke English, and he organised for us vegan soup and aglio olio. Afterwards, he urged that we try their chocolate egg — a shell of chocolate the size of an ostrich egg, with ice cream inside, and raspberry sauce. “Somebody should order the chocolate egg,” he said and laughed. He was tall and young and good-looking, and he laughed after every three sentences. “I’ll take it,” our customer said, relieving the vegans.

Loveable folks, the Slovaks. Only five million of them, living in a beautiful land with room to spare. They won’t take one single refugee.

We’d come to Piestany to visit a factory, with a mission to move a hundred-worker operation to India. The senior executive who showed us around didn’t hide our purpose from the workers. They weren’t afraid of losing work they’ve been doing for years, because they wouldn’t be losing their jobs. We came away without suffering guilt.

On the return, the clouds had gone, and the world was again golden.

And If Doris and Ella Were Vegan in Paris?

 Les Halles, Paris

We went into the first safe-looking place we found in Chatelet, and ordered for penne pasta, telling the waiter thrice that we’re vegan, so no cheese please, and strictly vegetarian. He repeated our words to us in total fidelity.

And he brought steamed chaste penne, sans cheese and meat, but also without vegetable or herb or salt or pepper or anything at all save its sweat. But he’d brought along a suitor for the dish, some mustard sauce, and after the first forkfuls taken with tentative touches of mustard, I began to rather like the plain, now-spiced, faux-Italian meal.

“It’s good,” I said to my wife who had gone into a wakeful coma. Her penne was steaming, contrasting very well against the cold outside the glassed cafe. She didn’t reply, which was unfair because it wasn’t my fault the pasta had come as it had. We’d asked for pasta with vegetables, and we’d repeated our order three times, but the folks had chosen to keep our pasta free of everything. My one mistake could’ve been that, because the waiter was nice and polite and so French, I’d signalled to my wife with my eyes to not refuse the thing he’d kept with such panache on the table.

After a few minutes, the waiter came around to ask how we were enjoying his cook's creation. “There should be one vegetable in this at least!” my wife admonished him, pointing to her full plate. The waiter was fine with that. “Oh!” he said, and picked up her plate and, before I could stop him, my half-finished plate as well, and carried them off to the kitchen. In fifteen minutes he returned to our dead-silent table with linguini tossed with peas and sliced carrot and shelled-green-beans — and the whole mix smeared with thin creamy cheese.

My wife was too hungry by now, and she pecked and ate a little, pausing from being vegan for just one meal, swallowing one tainted noodle at a time, while I gazed at my plate as she had done in the first act. “Don’t worry about me,” I said to her, magnanimous in word only. “What I ate from my previous plate was a lot.” But she couldn’t go further than a few noodles, what with the cheese on them, and her husband not eating. We exchanged glances. And called the waiter. And paid. And tipped. The waiter was genuinely perturbed that we’d eaten nothing. “Pack?” he asked. “No!” we said, and smiled our friendliest, feeling hunger even in the dry skin on the face.

We hurried back through sub-zero temperature and an unkind breeze to the hotel, and went straight to the hotel-restaurant, and begged in fervent English to be saved. They brought us assuredly-vegan soup, and fries, both scalding hot and served on heated, pure-white china.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m loving Paris, even if it’s bitter cold, even if I’m here for business only. Also, I’m thinking of Doris Day, and Ella Fitzgerald, and their love of Paris — how they loved the city every moment because “their love was near.” In my case, I’ve brought my love along, and I’m wondering how strong is truth in song.

Jet Airways Flight 23

  Photo by baona/iStock / Getty Images

Photo by baona/iStock / Getty Images

It is dark, but for one laptop screen in seat 1F in front of me, where a Tamil man is finessing a presentation, adding and removing bullet-points. He is middle-aged, has an enviable paunch and a flowing beard, and he seems imperturbable.

The man in the next seat is young. He’s had a Black Label; he dined on chicken with it. The spirit has brought out his demons, I think: he’s shaking his head, and torso, with increasing intensity.

Only moments ago the young man let off a terrible groan, and turned and looked at me, to check if I’d heard him in spite of my noise-cancelling headphones, now playing back a Mozart sonata.

He may be forgiven his groan, set off by a fear that I share in equal measure with him, with perhaps all others in this cabin. This plane that we’re on has shook and shuddered and creaked and rattled for over an hour now, over the dark waters below. We’ve had moments when it seemed the plane would split along its spine. There’s been no service for some time; the captain has ordered his crew to their seats. But dinner is done, the trays have been cleared. The smells of what we ate are in the air.

We’ve crossed the Andamans, the monitor on the bulkhead tells me, and that an hour’s flying is left before we touch down in Bangalore, where the time now is 8:18, which also I read on the bulkhead.

**

We progress, scuffing the clouds as we go, and the blinking light from the plane’s wingtip pierces the clouds, causing flashes like lightning, except that these are so predictable, so metronomic, the only sound accompanying them the terrible labouring of the plane, which I hear in the moments I take off my headphones. In a half-hour we’ll be over land, I tell myself after a time, surprised to note a smile on my face when there’s growing anxiety in my heart.

I concentrate on my breathing, on the in-breath and the out-breath and the burn in my nostrils, trying to pat down the memory of the Air Asia flight which flew up in bad weather, weather that froze the moving parts of its wings, high above the waters that bring such rotten luck to Indonesia all the time.

**

The land appears as a curvy line of lights along the shore of Chennai.

More lights come up: large and small patches of pixellated amber, and a long line through them — a highway running northward and southward. Like embers the lights look; swollen and scorched, the earth seems.

But I know it is none of that. There are people down there, millions of people cloaked in the reduced, evening-heat of Chennai, who do not know that there’s this plane over them that has escaped tragedy and the front pages of tomorrow’s papers, and which will land in 39 minutes in Bangalore, inshallah.

**

The next day I tell my wife I experienced turbulence like never before last night. “Me, too!” she says and describes her flight last week on the same stretch. She’s been through the greater experience. As always.

Saru Maru, Sanchi, Satdhara, and Stupas and Stupas

 The Main Stupa at Sanchi

The Main Stupa at Sanchi

Saru Maru

The intimation of Sanchi is on the brow of a cave-front among the Sara-Maru caves, one-hundred-and-twenty kilometres south of Sanchi, in Madhya Pradesh. In Brahmi script carved in stone 2200 years ago, it proclaims that the emperor had been there, with his lady whom he’d not married yet, for vihara. The woman was Vidishadevi, who Ashoka the Great would wed in Vidisha where Sanchi belongs, whence Vidishadevi came. He’d instal the earliest stupas for her in Sanchi, with the relics of the Buddha embedded in them. Back home now from Madhya Pradesh, I found this translation of the Saru Maru inscription on the Web:

The king, who (now after consecration) is called Piyadassi, (once) came to this place on a pleasure tour while he was still a ruling prince, living together with this (unwedded) consort. (Translation by Falk.)


Sanchi

 Another Stupa at Sanchi

Another Stupa at Sanchi

The Sanchi stupas sit on an outcrop on plains trimmed in the distance by low hills with languorous ridges. The Halali flows close by. There’s the wind of the plains about the monuments, but there’s also the sun bearing down on them, and the few trees around don’t help so much the crowds. The stupas aren’t designed to offer shade.

But you feel no inconvenience in Sanchi. You only experience peace.

There are things to see: Fine carvings of Buddhist divinities and representations of Buddha and Dharma and Sangha, so masterfully rendered that you shake your head in disbelief that such work was possible in India’s earliest stone monuments. Besides the Buddha, there’s a square panel showing Ashoka, on a thorana at the entrance — portly, seeming to be recovering from a fainting spell. Two queens support him: the sovereign was grieving the death of a Bodhi tree. After a few moments spent gazing at the art, you stop and turn inward, wanting to savour the spiritual. You will climb the stairs of the stupa, and walk round the bare egg-shaped mound, and close your eyes, fingers grazing the mound to keep course and not fall off.

Done with Sanchi, walking the gentle gradient down the hill and out, you’re already speaking a lot less — I can tell you I was.


The Aaram Bagh Resort

 The Aaram Bagh Resort

The Aaram Bagh Resort

The waiter opened a wide visitor’s book over my dinner plate. He pointed to a comment in it by Raza Murad, a veteran Bollywood actor. Raza Murad had praised the meal, the service, the ambience. He hadn’t checked into the rooms, the waiter said, dropped in only for lunch. Taking the cue, I lauded Aaram Bagh just as much, for service over two-days and for the delicious meals. Deserving praise, I must concede.

The resort is a compact palace a few kilometres off the highway, 12 kilometres from the Sanchi stupas. It was surrounded by cropped rice fields that run up to hazy blue hills all round. Over dinner, our group of eight bantered about the use of a palace in that desolate place. “To arrive at harvest and count moolah.” Or, “For time with the mistress.” Checking the hotel’s website now, I read that successive maharajas visited here with their maharanis for rest. But also they used the place as a hunting lodge and once invited the British viceroy to join in. They don’t say if the viceroy accepted.

Raza Murad’s latest big movie is Bajirao Mastani, in which he plays the Nawab of Deccan. At 71, he’s been in some two-hundred films, and is not quite finished yet.


Satdhara

 The Largest Stupa at Satdhara

The Largest Stupa at Satdhara

Only 3 kilometres from this propped-up vestige of royalty, at Satdhara, right by the Halali flowing in a deep, deep gorge, is a profusion of even more stupas, the highest among them nearly as tall as Sanchi’s. We set out to Satdhara morning at 6:30. Not a single other tourist blighted the place, but a few Langurs marked our passage from a distance. An occasional local passed us by, and one among them brought us to a fresh dig and said a hoard of begging bowls of bhikkhus were found there, taken away to the museum now. Among the stupas are dispersed a host of monasteries, reduced to the base by time. It is a concealed expanse, leafy and serene, and exists merely to house monasteries, it seemed.

Riches. Renunciation. Surrender. The contrast lay before us within a three-kilometre stretch.


Is Cambodia Worth Losing Two Legs For?

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The lady at the next table raised her voice, breaking the murmur of conversation in her group. “Listen! I must tell you something.”

You’d think she was speaking Hindi, from the speed of her speech, the manner of speaking, her accent, and inflexions — but the words were all English. Anyway, her insistence hushed her three companions, all male.

“I know, like, a lady in our complex. She has a husband, you know, and a child. She was fine, like. Then suddenly she developed aching in her legs and after waiting for a long time she decided to see the docs.”

It was hard to tell her words in the din of the cafe. Also, I was trying to stay focused on Coetzee, who I was reading.

“She was losing control over her legs. After so many days they diagnosed what was wrong. She’d been infected by a dog tick in Cambodia, and … “

“Dog tick?” One of the men interrupted.

“Dog, tick,” she affirmed. “Dog tick. Now the problem was, like, they didn’t know the cure. They’d studied this thing in college, but they didn’t know the treatment. Now both her legs are amputated.”

Her companions fell silent, but I had a question I couldn’t ask: These days, doctors consult with peers across the globe in real time over the Net. Couldn’t they gather the information they needed? And, at any rate, wasn’t it impressive how they traced the cause to a dog tick? In Cambodia?

Breathing deep, I let it pass. And remembered the few weeks I spent in Cambodia, ten years ago.


An essay by Amitav Ghosh took me there: Dancing in Cambodia. It tells the story of the Khmer Rouge, starting the narrative with a Cambodian troupe of dancers who performed in France and won, among thousands of French people, the attention of the great Rodin, who followed them from Paris to Marseilles and painted them. Later, in the 1970s, the Khmer Rouge would decimate art and culture and all intellectual effort in the nation. The essay pushed me to travel to the place forthwith. My primary destination was the school Tuol Sleng from Amitav's story, which is now maintained as a Torture Museum, but I extended the travel to Siem Reap, the Cardamom Mountains, and Sihanoukville.


During the short reign of the Khmer Rouge, some 15,000 young and old prisoners passed through the horrors of Tuol Sleng, en route to certain death.

The school was a few minutes’ walk from my riverside hotel in Phnom Penh, reached through malodorous streets — Rue Pasteur, Sihanouk Boulevard, Monivong Boulevard, Norodom Boulevard — quite like the streets in small-town India. The school was plain — a staid missionary-style school, typical of Asia. In bare classrooms stripped of desks and benches and equipped with cheap metal cots, every conceivable excess man can devise for man was performed. Lesser prisoners built their own tiny mini-cells within the classrooms. It was not difficult to imagine the doings that happened there — here was a place that revealed the cruel face of mankind — a place that could crush the toughest. I went out and sat a half-hour on a bench in the schoolyard and watched sparrows flitting about in the heavy, tainted silence.


I spent the following week in Siem Reap, experiencing a different, older history of Cambodia, spending daytime in wonder among the ruins of the magnificent wats in a setting nestled among grand equatorial trees. Although the jungle that had enveloped this wonder has been cleared, giant trees still gripped large parts of the structures with talon-like roots.

In the evenings the air of Siem Reap town was insufferable, worse even than in Phnom Penh, from bad gasoline sold street-side in bottles and used by all classes of vehicles. I wore an ineffective surgical mask to hold off poisoned air. Toward the end of the week, returning to the hotel after a spicy Indian meal at Kamasutra on Pub Street, unable to breathe once without searing my chest, I cried out loud in anger, again and again.


I cleared my lungs in the Cardamom Mountains in the following week, feasting on pine-scented air in a cottage by a large, tranquil pond. I read Thoreau in the week. The resort where I stayed was almost entirely taken over by a missionary team from the US, their Khmer recruits, and many children. After raining bombs long and hard on these luckless people, these people from faraway nations were engaged in harvesting beautiful Khmer souls. One morning, I shared my table with the lead evangelist. He was young and friendly and very fresh-faced. “Join us for a prayer meeting?” he asked me, and smiled when I said, “Let me try.”


After the mountains I spent lazy hours on the boat in the sun off Sihanoukville, watching raptors swoop right before our vessel and pick off supple fish from the waters. There was peace all round that brought out a sigh now and then, but neither mountain nor water cheered me. It didn’t help that each evening after dinner I had to fend off taxi drivers determined to carry me off to a massage house. “Sexy massage. You want boy or girl?” I’d been four weeks in a land too steeped in tragedy.

On the eve of departure, I stayed in the pompous, and positively un-homey Hotel Cambodiana, for supper and a few hours’ sleep. I couldn’t sleep that much. A text message arrived in the small hours, telling me I had lost my father.


This story should’ve been about another person’s grief. I cannot help but wonder if, for that lady, Cambodia was worth losing two legs for.