A Week in Berlin

Berlin, Germany

Jan 4, 2018

The rain that had meant soggy days in Porto followed me dutifully and I was treated to more of the same for the entire week in Berlin. But this side trip to Berlin was mostly to visit friends that I haven’t seen in a while so it hardly mattered. In between lunches and dinners and new year’s eve fireworks I squeezed in a few hours of sightseeing under marginally brighter skies. Apart from the iconic landmarks, I could scarcely recognize Berlin, so much has it changed in the years since I last visited.

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By the People & Of the People

Porto, Portugal
Dec 26, 2017

A decade or so ago, if you strolled around Porto, you would be greeted by abandoned buildings, shabby run-down areas and unsavory characters peddling drugs more often than not. But decades of neglect is forgotten as Porto explodes into the tourism scene. It is a city in a frenzy of renewal as graceful old buildings get a facelift and hotels and restaurants pop up in every corner. Festive decorations are draped in every window and strung across streets. Big red double-decker buses trundle through the town ferrying tourists and selfie-sticks can take your eye out if you are not careful. Tall yellow cranes loom over the cityscape, the peal of church bells ring from the myriad churches and there is a feel of infectious exuberance in the air. An exuberance that is ably aided by its famed port wine that helps wash down the dubious delicacy of tripe and pig’s ears. Even the gray, rainy winter days put barely a damper on the infectious appeal of Porto. And a rare sunny day manages to push that exuberance into giddy heights.

The cobble-stoned streets that wander at will, remnants of old city walls made of massive chunks of granite that run through parts of town and the grand old buildings in extravagant baroque style may be reminiscent of any city with a few hundred years under their belt, but Porto has a uniqueness all its own. It lies just below the surface, evident in the stories that pepper its ages.

Even in the days when kings ruled the land, Porto did not deign to curry royal favor. Despite their sovereignty, no royalty could build their castles here. It was only the common people who had that privilege; a privilege granted by the all-important Bishop of Porto. Scattered among the many monasteries and convents were humble dwellings of commoners. It was the religious houses that held firmly to their power over this city, and it was the voice of the people that was heard over others.

And so it continues to this day. Public protests and rebellions checker the history of Porto and it is this heritage that weaves through the fabric of today. It is a city with a collective quirkiness that is immensely appealing. A city where the antics of an eccentric populace are the norm and taken in their stride. Porto has a charm all its own.

Landlubber Alert

Nkhata Bay,

Malawi

July 4, 2016

The landlubber that I am, of course none of this interests me. Swimming is not one of the skills I possess. But there is something here that I want to do. I want to go with one of the fishermen on their boat.

I see them out on the bay each day. But these are not the usual metal or plastic canoes or motorboats. These are dugouts called makoros. There are usually a pair of fishermen in each. One paddles while the other dives into the water, armed with a snorkel and a mask. He dives into the water spearfishing underwater. He surfaces a few minutes later, with some fish strung along a piece of wire. There are others with fishing nets that they bring ashore in the village. The fish are taken out of the nets and up the short path into the village. Soon the smoke of cooking fires carries with it the tantalizing smell of frying fish.

For the past few days in my wanderings through the village I have been pestering the fishermen, hoping that one would take me out on his mokoro.

“Hello, good morning” I would open the conversation in the usual way of these parts.

“How are you”?

“Good, good” came the reply.

“Did you have a good catch today?”

“Is okay, not so good last night”

“Is this your makoro? Is it a good one?”

“Oh yes, this one is very very good!”

“Great! Can I go on it?”

At this point there would be a dramatic change in facial expression. What was until now a friendly look morphs into a faintly wary one.

“You want to go on the makoro?” he asks with the sort of look that questions my sanity.

“Yes”, I say, I would love to.

A few more questions aimed at ascertaining the presence (or absence) of my gray cells and he reluctantly agrees to a short ride. I sternly restrained my urge to do a little jig of joy. Just as I am about to step into the boat, more or less in an offhand manner he asks

“You are a good swimmer. Yes?”

“Um” I hedge, “No, I cannot swim”

“Oh, then Madam, I cannot take you” he replies with alacrity. “This one can turn over often”.

The conversation invariably ended the same way. I have a sneaking feeling that word has got around. Now when they see me coming their way, the immediate reaction is “no, we cannot take you”.

Deep sighs and a forlorn expression at the bar last night had Lyman taking pity on me. Kind soul that he is, he said that the Mayoka Village has its own makoro and once his shift was over, he would take me. I was thrilled! Dutifully trussed into a lifejacket we paddled out into the bay. I even managed to paddle without overturning – a previously unattained achievement for this landlubber!

Run Little Ninja, Run!

San Juan Del Sur,

Nicaragua

January 2, 2012

We sat squashed inside the truck on the two long benches along its sides. There were too many of us and some stood, holding onto the metal bars against the cab. Torn canvas covered the sides and top of the truck, flapping against the sides as we jolted in and out of ruts on the road. The back was open and the silhouettes of the two guards with their rifles stood out starkly against the moonlit sky.

img_3680_rszOur destination was a wildlife refuge on the beach some twenty kilometers south of town. But this is not beach that is overrun each day with bathers, surfers and boats. Set along the Pacific coast, the Refugio de Vida Silvestre la Flor is a stretch of beach that is witness to one of those astonishing migrations in the animal kingdom. Each year between July and December turtles come here to lay their eggs. Most numerous are the Olive Ridley turtles but they are joined by some Leatherbacks as well says our guide. Turtles wander the ocean from the day they hatch, mate with multiple males img_3679_rszand wait to fertilize their eggs. When they are ready, they swim hundreds of kilometers to the beach where they were born and begin the laborious process of climbing up on the beach to dig a hole. Far enough from the reach of the waves, the hole itself is thirty to forty centimeters deep and about twenty to thirty centimeters in diameter. After the exhausting process the turtle lies in a trance and it is then that poachers are at their most active. Turtle eggs are supposedly an aphrodisiac and fetch large sums on the black market. Lately the poaching has become rampant enough for the government to assign gun-toting guards to these nesting sites. No less lucrative and therefore dangerous is the hatching period. This is what we were here to see and guards that accompanied us were for our protection.

Armed with headlamps with dim red lights to minimize the sense of intrusion we walked to the beach fronting the ocean. The sand littered with rocks and tree bark looks like any other sand on any other beach. But wait! There is a spot where the sand seems to shift and move and re-settle. There it is again! Something seems to be burrowing out from under the sand. We watch and before a couple of seconds have passed, a tiny head pokes out of the sand. A flipper pushes its way out of the sand. Then another head to the left, one to the right and another just behind pokes out. It is almost as if the sand bubbles and erupts and the baby turtles tumble out. Around us are more pockets of similar eruptions with wriggling, heaving, tumbling masses of little baby turtles.

img_3690_rsz

They have hatched out of the eggs using a hard “beak” atop their noses and spent the last couple of days burrowing vertically through the sand to the surface. They seem to be in a frenzy as they climb over one another out of the crater of sand. The more energetic ones or the stronger ones or perhaps the ones that hatched from the topmost eggs appear first and the rest soon follow. As they climb out they seem to have an unerring sense of orientation. They make for the waves, scrambling as fast as they can. There are inevitably ones that are too weak to climb all the way or even when out, disoriented enough not to turn img_3687_rsztoward the crashing waves. But even the ones that are dashing toward the waves are not out of the woods yet; there are any number of predators lying in wait. Shining my headlamp into one of the holes I see a crab with its mouth agape and claws at ready, waiting for a meal. This is the age-old song of nature and the survival of the fittest but we found ourselves rooting for the laggards. Run, ninjas, run, we urge them on. They scamper for three or four steps and pause. Then as the moon comes out from behind the clouds and the surf spreads on the beach, they scurry again heading directly toward the pounding waves. We img_3689_rszhave to watch where we step – the entire beach is awash with scurrying little turtles, each barely a few centimeters long. Some wriggle over our toes as we stand still and some, lacking that inner compass try to climb up our legs.

Each nest has thirty to forty eggs and in the space of two hours we had watched four to six nests erupt into this frenzy of activity. They reach the surf and float away on it as a wave recedes. We find ourselves cheering but this is only just the beginning of their journey. There are dangers aplenty in these waters and only one in a thousand will live to adulthood. How many of those will find their way back to this beach I wonder. To dig another nest, lay another clutch of eggs and begin another generation?

Mogao Caves of Dunhuang

Dunhuang, China
July 8th, 2010
I had been travelling west along parts of the Silk Road and had reached Dunhuang at the eastern end of the Taklamakhan desert. The town has the feel of a ghost town with its wide empty streets, empty cafes and general air of good times gone bad. Even the travel and tourist agencies are devoid of people and seem disinterested in offering any information or tours to the Mogao caves that lie on the outskirts of town.

IMG_5117But it was not always so. Located at the junction of the northern and southern trails around the Taklamakhan desert, this was one of the most important cities along the Silk Road. In days of yore it was a bustling city teeming with merchants, pilgrims, scholars, musicians, monks, laymen and women and all the infrastructure of the super highway that was the Silk Road.

Some distance from the oasis that is Dunhuang, lies an isolated ridge, some two or three kilometers long. Starting in 366 AD kings, queens and rich merchants started commissioning caves to be dug out on this ridge. These were the places that caravans coming to Duhuang would stop at, offer prayers and thanks for a safe journey. If they were about to leave for the months-long or often years-long journey, it was also where they would stop to offer prayers for a safe journey. It is where tourists now flock to see the frescoes and murals in slack-jawed wonder.

IMG_5123The entire ridge is riddled with caves. Hundreds of them were built on several levels and each was an elaborate offering to Buddha. The earliest ones are smaller but the latter ones are built on a grand scale. In contrast to many other places and times in history, the successive people did not destroy the previous work; instead each successive dynasty or rich patron attempted to outdo the previous one in size and grandeur.

IMG_5114Each cave has a porch at the entry lined with guardian deities in ferocious poses. Beyond the entry is a small passage leading to the main cave. The shape of the cave is square with side walls that taper inward like a truncated pyramid. At the top, some ten or twelve feet up is a small square multi-layered cavity. The walls, the ceiling, passageway, and virtually every inch of space is covered in frescoes and murals. Even the floor is made of carved tiles in lotus patterns. They were probably originally painted in vivid colours but they are now gone although the eroded lotus patterns still show. On the ceiling are thousands upon thousands of Buddha images and on the walls are depicted scenes from Buddha’s life. Sometimes there are scenes from distant lands, probably of the journey made to or from Dunhaung.

The earliest ones show distinctly Indian influence in the figures and art while in others I could identify figures that showed a more south-east Asian features. In one cave, the scenes were clearly from central Asia perhaps the Ferhgana valley, in present day Uzbekistan. The gracefulness of horses and clothing of the men harken back to those days. Every single figure or scene is amazing in its details and sheer artistic beauty in colours still vivid after all this time.

IMG_5113At the back of each cave is an altar with a seated Buddha with attendants flanking him on either side. A couple of the caves house enormous seated Buddhas, one of which is seven stories tall. The hushed musty, dark interior holds a strange spell as I crane my neck to peer up toward the top. Faint streamers of sunlight come in through the slats in the roof and dust motes dance in the air. One of the largest caves is also the best. It shows a massive thirty meter long figure of Buddha entering paranirvana. Behind him are arrayed a double layer of figures showing mourners. Behind them on the wall are painted yet more figures of mourners. The facial features and clothing speak eloquently of people from diverse countries and cultures. They span the spectrum of the then-known world from India, south-east Asia, Mongol or Chinese or even distinctly European features. It is startling to realize just how far Buddhism had spread – it was revered in just about the entire known world of those days. Travel along the Silk road was almost routine for pilgrims, merchants, traders and travellers. Silk, teas, fruit, gemstones, gold and silver as well as nuts and raisins flowed along the road. But it was not only goods that flowed here. Along with goods flowed ideas and inventions, music and religion and art. This was a veritable super highway. And much of it is depicted on these walls in beautifully painted murals.

Entranced, enthralled and captivated was I to see history come alive in front of me! With little effort I could almost imagine myself back in the days of yore hearing the babble of different tongues, smelling the incense and rubbing shoulders with people from far-flung places.

In Search of Hidden Gompas

In Search of Hidden Gompas
Qinghai province, China
June 28th, 2010

I was in what used to be the Amdo province of old Tibet but is now called Qinghai, in western China. Someone in Xining told me about little known and less visited monasteries high in the mountains near Xining where incredibly there are still no roads. How could I resist? Armed with a hand-drawn sketch off I went. With me was Emmy, a dutch photographer I had met in Xining. We figured that with her half-baked chinese and my sketchy Amdo, we could muddle our way through.

IMG_4744From Xining we took a shared minivan to a smaller town and from there to an even smaller town squished in with the locals in a minivan among bags of shopping. The village closest to the monastery lay across a few high passes and we found ourselves travelling in the open flatbed of a truck. Once over the last pass, we could see a lush valley protected by a ring of high mountains.

IMG_4729Squares and rectangles of verdant green of barley fields and eye-popping yellow of mustard fields were spread everywhere in the valley. The bright headscarves worn by the women showed occasionally among the fields of tall waving crops. This valley had just a handful of villages, each with is own chapel, marked by a stupa. The white of the stupas were blinding in the bright sunlight and seemed to shine against the packed-mud houses of the villages. The structure of the houses is the same as traditional Tibetan houses – flat-roofed and made of packed mud, they almost seem to grow out of the mountains and cliffs.

IMG_4752This is a village as yet unmarred by the concrete monstrosities that one sees elsewhere. The small lanes that run through the village are lined with poplars and willow trees. It had a startling similarity to the villages around Ladakh in northern India. But then again, perhaps not so startling after all. It is similar too in the friendliness of the people. It was late in the day but instead of staying the night at the village, we decided to walk on. The villagers told us which path to take in the mountains to reach the secluded monastery.

They had mentioned that the walk should be just an hour. Emmy and I walked, climbing steadily. We passed a woman and was startled to see not one or two but three baby goats poking their heads out of her shawl, under her arm and over her shoulder.

IMG_4758After three hours we saw no gompa, nor any people and it was getting dark. We had forgotten to take into account that these are people who routinely walk the mountains and probably sprint up the slopes. Not to mention that their sense of time is fairly elastic and not to be confused with the actual time of a watch.

IMG_4755Reaching the top of a pass, we decided to stop and look for shelter. In a rare stroke of brilliance I had left my tent behind at the village since we were planning to sleep at the monastery that night. Not only that, we only carried enough food and water for the trek. Although I did have tablets to treat water, the river beds were bone-dry. But no matter, we thought. A day without food wasn’t likely to kill us and we did have our sleeping bags. From the prayer flag-draped pass we could see down one valley and in the distance made out one small building. Thinking to ask for shelter and directions we literally flew down the steep scree-covered descent.

IMG_4761It was then that we discovered that the house was just a storage shed, the lock held together with a bit of wire. I quickly added breaking and entering to my list of accomplishments and found the shed full of hay, straw and dried piles of yak-dung that are used as fuel in these parts. We piled some of the straw on the floor to make lumpy beds and put the sleeping bags on top. We were sheltered from the biting wind – really, what more could one possibly want? We even had company that night – a mouse or possibly rat that was upset to have his home invaded.

Early the next morning, just as we were trying to decide whether we should keep going or backtrack, we saw a lone herder coming up the valley and sure enough, the gompa we sought was down that way – just five minutes away he said. Of course we now knew the five minutes needed to be re-calibrated. It was probably more like thirty for us. And so it was.

IMG_4787The valley narrowed as we climbed down, the walls began to resemble a canyon. We saw the gompa tucked into the side of the canyon, hidden from view from almost all sides. This is one of the oldest monasteries in this region, and unlike most others that have been destroyed, this was relatively unscathed because of its inaccessibility. It had started as a series of caves in the mountain where famed masters have meditated.

One such cave was supposedly even used by the Buddha or so the legend says. It was certainly used by an Indian sage who later founded the Tantric college here. In fact the original cave where he meditated still exists and is now a shrine of worship. It has never been a large gompa and today is even smaller than is used to be with about a hundred monks.

IMG_4810We were lucky enough to arrive on a day with a special ceremony in session. All morning we watched the prayers and the rituals being perfomed with the clash of cymbals, the wail of long horns and the thudding of drums that reverberate in one’s gut.

IMG_4849Monks robed in maroon with the tall yellow hats of the Gelugpa sect chanted prayers as the tendrils of incense curled into the air. Lit by the glow of yak butter lamps, the deities painted on the wall seemed to peer down on us. Young novice monks rushed back and forth with kettles of salt butter tea, refilling cups during the breaks. Prayer flags flapped in the breeze outside and the chanting drifted on the wind, reflecting off the walls of the canyon.

High in the sky circled a couple of hawks. No roads lead here, nor are there any towns or villages visible nearby. The world outside seemed to have ceased to exist. Hidden from the world, it felt completely isolated and surreal. I felt I had been transported into pages of The Lost Horizon in the valley called Shangri La.

Translations:
Gompa: Monastery
Amdo: One of he provinces of old Tibet and also the name of the dialect spoken here. It is different from the Tibetan dialect of Lhasa.
Stupa: Built in traditional shape they usually contain relics of monks and are considered sacred.
Ladakh: Province in northern India, it is part of the Tibetan plateau and has historical, cultural and religious ties to Tibet.
Gelugpa: One of the sects of Tibetan Buddhism, popularly known as the yellow hat sect.