Kept Promises

May 26, 2011

Last weekend was a weekend of kept promises. It started – as a good weekend should – on Friday afternoon. I left office at 3 p.m. and went to daycare to pick up the kids. Then, I brought them back to my office. It has been a long-pending request of theirs to see my office and just before we left for our Himalayan trek, I’d promised them I’d get it done before the summer vacations ended. With the end in sight now, just a week or so away, it was high time I kept my promise.

I told the kids they’d have to be very quiet in my office – no shouting and no running around. They were all excited as we entered the office and Mrini saw a laptop case at somebody’s cube that looked like mine and she went scooting off in that direction. When I’d retrieved her, we found our way to my desk, where they were happy to note their photos on my pin board. My colleagues had very sweetly gone out and bought a few things for the kids, which they were thrilled with. After five minutes hanging around near my cube, I took them to the cafeteria. Five minutes later, Amit walked in. Security had seen him hanging around the lift lobby, seen the kids come in with me and head to the cafeteria, and had very kindly let Amit in and directed him to the cafeteria. These are the joys of a small office; such a thing would never have happened in the larger and more formal organizations I have worked at in the past.

Amit took the kids off to give them the grand tour of his office, while I went down to the car to fetch our stuff. This, after all, was no ordinary weekend. This was the weekend of kept promises and that meant, we were finally going to Mysore. We had initially promised to take the kids to Mysore a whole year ago. For one reason and another, it just hadn’t materialized, even as most of our friends wound up taking their kids there and (mostly) reporting that it was a great experience. On the spur of the moment, we had planned a trip together with S&P and their kids, and before anyone could raise too many objections, we had booked the train tickets and eventually even filled out an exhaustive online booking form for the hotel. On Friday morning, we left home with a few extra bags. Apart from the usual set – laptops for Amit and me; lunch bags for Amit and the kids; snack boxes for me and the kids; and a handbag for me – there were school bags for the kids, in which they’d very enthusiastically packed just as many clothes as they would need for the short trip; a large laptop case full of clothes for Amit and me; and a camera bag.

We parked our laptops and the car in the office and set out with just the clothes bags and the camera bag. Amit being Amit, we were getting to the train station by bus. We left office at 4 sharp, and despite dire predictions to the contrary from well-meaning colleagues, reached the train station at 5.30 – so early, in fact, that we stopped for dosa at Platform No. 1. Consequently, by the time we got to our platform, walked all the way up the train looking for our coach, didn’t find it, and walked all the way in the other direction, it was getting rather close to ETD. In the end, though, we didn’t need to hop into a moving train – we got into our coach and were well settled before the train got rolling.

The trip to Mysore zoo went pretty much as expected. I felt less upset than I’d expected at the plight of animals in cages and small enclosures. Thankfully, many of the large animals were in open enclosures surrounded by deep ditches, so it didn’t feel as much like a cage as a cage does. That the animals were bored is beyond doubt, but there was still some excitement in it for us. The tiger paced up and down and snarled. The giraffes stretched their long necks for gulmohar leaves that were just out of reach and waited patiently for the breeze to bend the bough. The rhino made a tour of his periphery, passing a couple of feet in front of us on the way. The elephants stood together at the front of their enclosure and returned our gazes. The crocs lay as still as rocks, mouths gaping in the sun. The gorilla sauntered through his front lawn, picking fruit of some kind off the ground and eating it. The chimpanzee sat hunched over looking exactly like a grey old man. The lions and the cheetah panted in the scant shade of a tree. There were high wire fences around their enclosures. Right at the end, we saw emus and an ostrich. The beginning was full of birds.

The whole tour was a 3-km circuit. We left the hotel – a half km away – at 10 a.m. and returned shortly after 2 p.m. It wasn’t as hot as we’d expected, thanks to the lovely canopy of trees all along, but we’d stopped for various cooling drinks throughout the morning and we ended the outing with a tall glass of sugarcane juice each. After lunch at the hotel, we all retired to bed and it was 6.30 before the kids were awake again.

In the evening, we walked past the palace. We didn’t go in, but admired it from outside, beautifully lit up with golden fairy lights. There was a mela in what must have been the palace grounds. P and little p went on some of the rides, which it doesn’t seem either of them liked; while I explained to Mrini and Tara why it would be no fun for them whatsoever. But there was one more promise that I had to keep this weekend – cotton candy. I have probably had cotton candy only once or twice in my entire life. If you ask me, once or twice is enough. Cotton candy is a good experience for a kid – you have to know what it is, after all – but it’s not fun enough to repeat too often. For some time now, the kids had been asking me for cotton candy and I’d been telling them I’d get it for them on a “fun day”. I didn’t really mean anything by it – only, cotton candy is not your normal everyday kind of experience, especially not the first time. Well, this trip the Mysore zoo certainly counted as a fun day – considering they’d started with Chocos, continued with biscuits, and go on to ice cream (to say nothing of sugarcane juice), it had all the trimmings of a fun day – so cotton candy was in order. Moreover, it was available. I got them one whole stick each and I’m happy to report that they didn’t finish it – though Tara made good progress on hers. It’s going to be a long time before they get cotton candy again. Luckily, I’m not sure they really liked it. With all the thinking and reading that we do around health and dietary matters these days, for kids to be taking in this quantity of sugar in one day… shudder! It’s not good for my health to even think about it.

We ended the day with dinner at Das Prakash (Paradise), which was good.

The next morning, we got up at 5.30 and headed out to Ranganthittu. We’d booked an auto to get us there, and by 6.30-ish we were there. It was too early, of course, and we were told that the boat rides would not get going until 8.30 or so. We knew that, anyway – but sometimes, if you are lucky, you can find someone to take you out on a boat even in the early morning hours and it was certainly worth the chance. As it turned out, we were told that one boat had left at 6.15 and wouldn’t be back anytime soon. All the same, we spent a pleasant hour or so wandering around the edge of the water and then went back to the hotel for breakfast.

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The rest of the morning was spent at the hotel and was marred by an accident. The kids – Mrini, Tara, and little p – were playing with one of those luggage trolleys that you normally find at airports. After pushing each other around in it for a bit, Tara had discovered that you could climb into the top part and sit there like a monkey. Soon, Mrini wanted to climb up too. Little p, who is smarter than these two, kept her distance. It was most unfair that when the trolley toppled, it was little p who got hurt. The entire nail of the first finger of her left hand popped out. She had to be rushed to a nearby hospital for a dressing. It put a damper on the rest of the day and was a sad end to an otherwise happy outing.

We got back to Bangalore by 4.15 and it took us another two hours to find our way back home from the station. And then it was Sunday evening, the next week was around the corner and we were nowhere near prepared for it.

Three kept promises in one weekend is… fun but tiring. We’re still recovering from the ill effects of not having done grocery shopping last weekend. And next weekend is just around the corner. It’s the last weekend before school re-opens, which means it’s time to assess the wardrobe situation, check that existing stuff works, throw out some stuff, buy new stuff, and generally try to get organised. All the kids’ pants are stopping at their knees now, so I know it’s time to get them a whole new set of pants. And shoes. And some t-shirts as well. There’s obviously a lot of shopping to do. But… I’m not making any promises!

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Three Days to Takeoff

April 18, 2011

So I got last week’s prediction half right. We did fight over how many backpacks we needed and we did drive down to Decathlon again (on Saturday, though, not on Sunday) to buy one, which we are (or rather, my better half is) now in the process of trying to make redundant.

We also got the kids raincoats, caps, gloves, and socks – all of which are fairly crucial and which we hadn’t managed to accomplish earlier. The gloves are for eight-year-olds, so they look a little ridiculous right now, but who cares? They will last a few years before the girls outgrow them, so that’s good.  The raincoats are even more ridiculous – the sleeves are at least double (maybe three times) the appropriate length, but who cares? They will keep them dry, if required, so that’s good enough. The socks appear to be knee-length, but that’s good, because their warm trousers belong to two years ago and are probably also only knee length by now. 😀 Ok, so the kids are going to look a little clownish. As long as they are warm and dry, who cares?

We haven’t completed organizing our medical supplies yet – we still need Crocin and other things. And of course we haven’t completed our packing yet – far from it. But we have assembled 90% of the stuff we need and thrown it in a jumble on the king-sized bed in the study. The bed has been covered with stuff we need ever since last weekend, though. It is still covered several inches deep. The disconcerting thing is that we have actually stuffed sleeping bags, sleeping mats, three-person tent, and loads of woolen clothes into the better part of four backpacks – and we don’t seem to have made a big dent in the mountain of stuff still covering the bed.

Regardless, after we’d finished buying all the other stuff, we went and stocked up on snacks yesterday evening. We even managed to get a good number of things that I can eat – so now life’s looking up.

Another thing that I didn’t foresee last week was that in all this melee, we’d actually have to have two lunches out. Yippee! Less cooking for me. Between 9.30 a.m. on Saturday and 5.30 p.m. on Sunday, I had a cooking holiday. I made up for it (grudgingly) by churning out two kinds of chicken on Sunday evening and doing the dosa-and-roti-and-rice routine this morning, but still – a cooking holiday is a cooking holiday and not to be sneezed at in my reckoning.

All in all, a good weekend. Nothing beats the excitement of an upcoming holiday, especially when that holiday is a trek, and especially when there are two under-fives involved. The photo in the previous post says it all. Of course, the person behind the camera should have been in the picture as well, but since he isn’t, just extrapolate the expression on three faces to the fourth face and then you’ll have the full picture.


You May Be Right – I May Be Crazy

April 8, 2011

…but that’s ok with me. It’s not such a bad thing, being a little bit crazy. Especially if one is crazy about the right thing.

In this particular instance, it is about trekking.

Most people know us well enough not to bother calling us crazy if they hear that we’re going off on another trek. But when they hear that our soon-to-be-five year old daughters are coming along on their first Himalayan trek ever, eyebrows (at the very least) do tend to go up.

Maybe it is a little bit crazy. But it’s probably not as crazy as you think. First, this is only a short trek – two days up, one day at the top, and two days down. Of course, we also spend two days getting there and two days getting back, but that’s on wheels, rails, and wings, so that (probably) doesn’t count as crazy. The altitude is not all that high. We start at about 6,000 ft, and the highest point is a little under 12,000 ft. The walking itself is only 5 days, one of which is a rest day. Also, on most days we won’t have to tent because there are lodges all along this route. Only on one night, we didn’t get a reservation at the lodge, so we might end up tenting for just one night. So it’s not all that crazy, see?

Of course, there’s the small matter of walking 13 km per day. And gaining 5,000 ft in two days. Are you asking me if the kids can do that? I haven’t the slightest idea – I don’t even know if I can do that. After all, it’s been four years since my last trek. This might come as something of a shock to you (especially if you’ve read my book; have you?) but I’m actually very scared of trekking. I mean, I get scared while trekking – when the dry, slippery pebbles start sliding under foot, I get terrified. I also get phobic about steep slopes and narrow paths. And heights. And descents. And boulders. And whatever else you can think of. It took me lots of practice to get my various fears under control, but now it’s been a gap of four years and I have no idea how much I might have regressed.

Of course I should be doing something to prepare. I should be working on my leg muscles. I should be improving my cardio-vascular fitness. I’m not really doing anything. I’m going to be in so much trouble. And, on top of everything else, I’m going to starve! Because I can’t eat most of the emergency food that we carry – biscuits, cake, bread, Maggi – and my lactose intolerance is also at its most intolerant in the mountains, so I can’t even have coffee, or even a good dose of ghee in my khichadi – not unless I want to risk diarrhea, which is not the best thing to have when on a trek.

And then I have to worry about the kids. I honestly have no idea if they will take to it – the whole wilderness experience. Will they enjoy doing nothing but walking the whole day long? They love to talk and they love to get the undiluted attention of their parents and they are very active all day long. At least I can be sure they won’t miss TV or battery-operated toys (they don’t have any). But will they enjoy the walk? How much will they be able to walk? Will they last the entire trek or will we have to abort after day 1? Will they be enthralled by the views and the sheer novelty of being in the mountains? Or will they start whining “I’m bored; I’m hungry; I’m tired; you carry me…” within the first 20 minutes and keep it up the whole damn day?

If they do get tired, will they agree to be carried? By a porter? In a sack? Will they (horrors!) both want to hang on to my hand and walk – on a narrow, slippery path with a steep fall on one side???

Worse still, what if I get petrified along the way and one of the kids has to come and hold my hand and pull me along? What kind of role model is that?

Sigh. Problems, problems…

But at least we are going back to the mountains. At one point, I doubted I ever would. If this works… there could be so much more to look forward to in the coming years. 🙂


Planning Our Next Holiday…

November 26, 2010

For our entire married life, Amit and I have not let a holiday opportunity slip by unnoticed. We compare holiday calendars as soon as they appear and note all the three day weekends, four day weekends, and take-a-day-or-two-off-and-make-it-a-five-day (or sometimes a nine-day) weekends. We start to plan holidays six months before the date and our tickets are all booked on the 90th day before the date of travel – the earliest that you can book train tickets in India. Air tickets are booked so far in advance that they actually become a little cheaper a little while after we book them – strange are the ways of air ticket pricing mechanisms. Leave is sanctioned more than a month before the date. And our bags are packed – usually – about a couple of hours before departure. Unless we’re trekking – then we actually start packing a couple of days before, but still manage to leave out various vital equipment – and then find that we can actually get by without it.

After the kids came, our holidays have been less exotic and more mundane, but there have still been a few holidays. Trekking trips have largely been replaced by visits to meet family, and, of course, several good opportunities were used up on the multiple trips to Pondicherry. All the same, we have managed – jointly and severally – to work in trips to Lakshadweep, Binsar, Kasauli, Karwar, Cauvery Fishing Camp (twice), Ladakh, Goa, and Italy, quite apart from time spent meeting the family or travelling to Pondicherry. The last three named were done singly, without the kids, but even without those, that’s six holidays in three years, three of them more than a week long. Not bad going, don’t you think?

And now we have another nine day weekend coming up, just a month away – Christmas. You know where we’re going? You’ll never guess!

Nowhere. Precisely nowhere.

We haven’t had the time to book anything!

To put that in perspective, those of you who knew us five odd years ago know that we’d hear of a place on a Wednesday afternoon, book it on Thursday, and carry our luggage to work on Friday, prior to boarding an overnight bus. And we’d catch an overnight bus back on Sunday night and walk into office looking tired but thrilled (I think) on Monday morning!

I really don’t have the energy to do that anymore. But, passing up a nine-day holiday? I can’t, surely, let that happen!

Still, we seem to have. We haven’t booked anything and with only a month to go in the height of holiday season, I don’t think we’re going to get anything now. We’ve thrown around ideas of driving down to Mysore, and we might do that, but that really doesn’t count.

The worst thing is, I’m even actually looking forward to not going anywhere. I’m eyeing those nine days and thinking:

  • I have 3 issues of the National Geographic magazine to catch up on
  • I haven’t filed, sorted, and uploaded photos since May
  • I haven’t read the book on Hadrian’s Villa that I bought in Italy; or any book, come to that, apart from Archaeology text books that are so successful in putting me to sleep
  • I have to run down a couple of cheque payments that went astray and now require the whole stamp-paper-indemnity-letter runaround
  • I haven’t been for a movie since I don’t know when; it would also be nice to get away for a meal or two with Amit without the kids
  • I would love to have more time to play tennis
  • I want to take the kids swimming – they have been asking for the longest time, but there’s never enough time!
  • I could really use a sleep holiday – when I get to sleep right up till the time I wake up naturally

And so on.

Wanderlust has not entirely deserted either of us yet, though. We’re still dreaming of visiting the Serengeti next year, before Tanzania puts a road through it. We still have our eye on Egypt, which we’d almost booked in 2007 when the kids came along and happily destroyed that plan. And there’s still the Trans Siberian train that’s got berths reserved in our names (figuratively speaking). And of course we will have to take the kids trekking next year, or maybe the year after that. We’re not done with Ladakh or the Himalayas yet.

Yes, there are still lots of places to see and I’m sure there are lots of journeys we have yet to take, jointly or severally. But maybe, surprising (or shocking) as it may seem, maybe this time it’s time to take a stay-at-home holiday. After all, you’re never too old to try something new.

My only problem is: why is that blissful holiday still so far away?


Hadrian’s Villa

October 21, 2010

Fiesole was my unplanned day-trip out of Tivoli. Villa Adriana (Hadrian’s Villa, in English) was my planned day trip out of Rome. I’d even go so far as to say it was one of the major inspirations behind this entire holiday.

The word ‘villa’ today means something fairly modest. In Bangalore, it means a four-bedroom home with a pocket-handkerchief sized lawn which costs a king’s ransom even when located outside the outskirts of the city. Even if you expand your horizons a little, it only means something like a manor house – 15-20 rooms and a few acres of grounds.

The villas I studied about, of which Villa Quintili was representative, were much bigger and more productive. They employed hundreds of people and produced more than they consumed.

Hadrian’s villa took the term villa to another plane altogether. It was more of a town than a villa. In India, it would be comparable to Mandu or Hampi, but it predates those by more than a thousand years. It might have been more ornate than those monuments, but was thoroughly and systematically stripped both by humans and by the ravages of time.

Getting to Hadrian’s Villa was not as easy as getting to Fiesole. Even with my passion for walking everywhere, I didn’t intend to attempt the 27 km from Rome to Tivoli by foot. So I followed the instructions in Lonely Planet ant took a metro to some place called Ponte Mammolo, then a bus to Tivoli. This took about 75 minutes, starting at 7.45 a.m. I was pleased. I thought I’d get on the local bus from Tivoli to Hadrian’s Villa by 9.30, and be there by 9.45. The nearby cafe told me where I could catch the bus, just across the street, but neglected to mention that I needed to buy a ticket for that bus. When the CAT 4 bus finally rolled in around 9.30, he took one look at my ticket and threw me off the bus. The ticket I’d bought in Rome, which I’d understood would work in Tivoli, apparently did not work on this bus.

Great. Now I’d waste another half hour waiting for the next bus.

The bus driver, however, informed me that another bus would come along in ten minutes.

Ok, that was better, just enough time to zip across the road, get a ticket, and zip back.

Except, when I got in to the shop across the road, and waited an interminable couple of minutes while the person behind the counter dealt with another customer in a leisurely manner, I was told, bus ticket? Yeah, sure. Oh, sorry, we’ve jyst run out of them. Try the shop down the road.

I tried three shops down two different roads, but people kept pointing me back to this shop. One gentleman went so far as to take me by the arm and actually point out the exact shop to me, so I couldn’t miss it.

As I stumbled further down the street, I passed a grubby man doing some grubby repair working in front of a pizzeria that appeared to be closed. Without any real hope, I asked him for bus tickets. He didn’t understand me. He asked me if I wanted to go to Villa Adriana. I didn’t understand him. Somehow, a line of communication was established, money exchanged hands, and I became the proud owner of not one, but two bus tickets for the CAT 4. After all, I’d have to come back soon, and I didn’t want to face this same run-around for tickets at the other end again.

I charged back to the bus stop and waited impatiently. It took another half hour to get into the bus, get off ten minutes later, and march 15 minutes down a lonely little road to the ticket office. After I’d got my ticket, there was another 10-minute hike uphill to reach the actual entry to the ruins. It was 10.15 – two-and-a-half hours after I’d left home. And budgeting a similar time to get back meant I’d have to leave by 4.30; anyway, the site closed at 5. I didn’t have much time.

For the first time in my life, I took the audio guide. I hate taking guides, either live or recorded. They put me under pressure to go where they tell me to, when they tell me to. Besides, I don’t want to be talked at, not even by a recording. Give me written information, which is easier to absorb, retain, and carry away in the form of printed brochures. It seems I’m hopelessly old-fashioned.

I whizzed around trying to identify all the points on the audio guide’s itinerary and ingest all the audio-guide’s information. At 1 p.m., I marched all the way down to the main gate, returned the audio guide with a huge sense of relief, regained possession of my passport (which was kept as collateral against the audio guide) with relief, and headed back up to wander around the site at leisure.

There are way too many structures in Hadrian’s Villa to be worth describing at length here – I’d have to write a book to do it justice. But it was lovely because there was just enough of the structures left to imagine what might have been, and few enough tourists. My only regret was that I didn’t have more time. Still, by wandering around busily and happily, at the end of three hours I was satisfied that I had seen all there was to see of Hadrian’s fantastic villa, and by 4.30 I was on my way home. It had been a good day and the weather gods had smiled on me. It was the perfect end to my trip. On Saturday morning, I made an early morning (well, early-ish) excursion to the Pantheon to beat the crowds, ate one last gelato, and then I packed my bags and left.

Will I ever go back? I don’t know. There are, of course, things left undone. And I did throw a coin or two into Fontana di Trevi, so maybe, maybe…


Florence: A Few Photos

October 20, 2010

If you haven’t been to the Flickr photo album yet (or even if you have) here’s a visual feast (or at least I think so).

A panoramic view from the top of the Duomo, the heart of Florence.

The Duomo, seen from the faraway Piazzale Michelangelo

The front of the Duomo. It’s too big to fit in one picture, so this is the best I could do…

The river Arno, seen from across the river

David. The most fabulous nude male I have ever seen. (Ok, I haven’t seen that many…)

Fiesole, outside Florence. It’s a beautiful walk, I just wish it weren’t quite so long.

The Roman Theatre in Fiesole. This is why I study archaeology in my non-existent free time.

Arches, Fiesole. Aren’t they just lovely? I really like arches and columns.

Tomorrow… Hadrian’s Villa.


Rome: A Few Pictures

October 19, 2010

The photo gallery has links to the complete (shortlisted) set of photos that I’ve uploaded – 30, in all. Some of them are in this post.

The first and the best… the Colosseum

The inside of the Colosseum…

The hopelessly vast and ruined Roman Forum

Just one hopelessly vast and fascinating building in the Roman Forum

Fontana Di Trevi – hopelessly crowded but beautiful nonetheless

Terme di Caracalla – “Terme” means baths. Yeah, they needed this much building just to have a bath.

Catherine Somebody’s Mausoleum – a small but grand structure and the place near the catacombs from where I started to get lost.

Villa Quintili – The one that was worth the two-hour walk…

Florence and Hadrian’s Villa pictures coming up soon. If you can’t wait, go see the photos on Flickr.


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