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!


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.


It’s Just Around the Next Corner…

October 18, 2010

The other experience of getting lost was not exactly getting lost, either. This time, I knew where I was, where I was going, and how I was going to get there. I was walking from my youth hostel, a little outside Florence, to a hill town called Fiesole, a little more outside Florence. My trusty (by now) GPS told me it was only a mere 2.7 km walk – I could do that before breakfast.

So I set off at 8.20, the morning after the night before. GPS told me that I should be able to turn right at the youth hostel door, and there was a road there that looked promising, but the person at reception said I should go down to the main road, turn right, then turn right again. That should have alerted me right there. Still, all unsuspecting, I walked out.

After half an hour, I asked two girls. They said I was on the right track and pointed me to the nearest bus stop. But can I walk it?

Sure, they said, we’re walking ourselves.

They strode of, assuring me it would take about half an hour. I sauntered off in their wake. Fifteen minutes later, a bus roared past me and rolled to a stop just ahead of me. I decided not to take it, thinking I just had another 15 minutes to walk.

In psychology, there is a theory that once you make a slightly wrong decision, you will keep making stupid decisions in an attempt to justify that first wrong decision.

As I walked on an on and on, no less than six buses shot past me and I trudged despairingly past ten bus stops, but I didn’t reverse my decision to not take a bus. The result was that I reached Fiesole at 9.50, just in time for the opening of various monuments at 10. I wasn’t particularly tired, and it was a scenic walk, albeit uphill, but it was just mentally very difficult to set out on a 40-minute, 3-km stroll and find yourself walking an endless 6 km in 90 minutes instead.

But the other time that I got lost, I really did get lost. I’d gone to see the catacombs just outside Rome. I didn’t have a map of this region, but I thought the signage was good enough to get me there. It was. I took a bus, which dropped me on a lonely country road. I walked along a quiet, scenic, curving road with no traffic and huge villa estates on either side, and no people. After 15-20 minutes, I reached the catacombs. They were closed. No matter, I walked another five minutes and came to the next enclosure of catacombs. They were open.

After I’d finished with the catacombs, I asked for directions to Villa Quintili. They were complicated, involving two unspecified buses at distant stops. In any case, I would first have to walk to the first bus stop.

I set off briskly around 10.15, but soon got dustracted by a beautiful structure that turned out to be the mausoleum of some rich old woman. As I left that enclosure around 11, I asked the woman at the ticket counter for directions. She assured me that Villa Quintili was a mere 3 km down the road. That, of course, is an eminently walkable distance, and infinitely easier than finding multiple buses in this remote area where English-speakung people were difficult to find,

So I started walking again. It was a very pleasant walk now. It was Sunday morning and people were out in large numbers, walking, jogging, and cycling. No wonder Italians are all so slim – even very elderly people were walking faster than me – and I was already walking at a fairly brisk pace, I thought. Those who were jogging and cycling looked terrifyingly fit.

Anyway, after an hour or so of this lovely walk along the cobblestone road under shady trees and with no vehicular traffic… I began to wonder about the Italian measure of kilometers. Three?

After an eternity, I came to a road that had traffic. Hallelujah! Now I could get a bus.

Not so fast. I happened to be on a one-way going the wrong way. There were some women running some kind of stall. I asked them the way to the Villa and they said something like, oh, just follow the road for a bit and when you come to the intersection, take a right. How far, I asked in a worried tone. One km, they said, and waggled their hands to indicate ‘more-or-less. I have read XXX book, I should have known then, what to expect.

I followed the road for a good half hour before finding an intersection. Fed up and literally very foot sore, I looked for a bus. If I’d found one, I’d have taken it pretty much regardless of where it was going. The best I could hope for, by then, was a bus heading home. But at 12.30 on Sunday afternoon, in a remote little part of the countryside, buses were in short supply.

I limped along a little further, found a bus stop, and stopped. The sign was uninformative – none of the places on the route were remotely familiar. Now what should I do? Despairingly, I turned on GPS and searched for Villa Quintilli. No result was found. I tried again, with a single ‘l’. And GPS promptly told me that the nearest result was 850m away on the right.

I stared at it disbelievingly. Villa Quintili had become something of a holy grail by now, not because of any known intrinsic value but only due to its elusiveness. 850m? I could walk it, I suppose.

I would have been willing to give up at that point and if a bus had come, I would have got on to it. But… When I studied the classical archaeology module at the end of last year, villas were one of the things that I’d particularly focused on and discussed in my assignment. To come this close to seeing one and yet be defeated…

Tired and almost tearful, I turned my back to the bus stop and trudged on. The road curved ahead and merged with a very busy main road, with four lanes on each side and no pavement. In Italy, traffic drives on the right of the road. The Villa, GPS informed me, was on the right. But it was suicidal, so I crossed, rather dangerously, to the left, where there was a slip road that was a lot safer to walk on. A few minutes later, I asked one gentleman, who very sweetly in fluent Italian explained to me exactly where the villa was.

Actually, by this time I could see the ruins. It was vast and surrounded by wilderness. It was lovely. And it was really far away!

But the kind gentleman and the GPS were right about the entry to the villa, it was indeed just across the road from where I was now.

From the entry point, the ruins themselves were another 5-10 minutes’ stroll uphill, but now it didn’t matter. Now I was in the villa complex and I even had a very illegible photocopy of a map. Now I wasn’t looking, any more, I had arrived. My tiredness vanished and I spent two very happy hours scrambling around the ruins in solitary splendour.

Getting back, of course, was much easier. I crossed the road, got a bus, stayed on it till the end, then got off and took the metro. Simple.

The long, tiring hunt for the villa did not make it any sweeter when I found it, but I’m glad I found it, not only because I really wanted to see it and it really was very lovely, but also because it would have been very disappointing to spend all that time and energy looking for it and then leave without seeing it. As so often in life, it was just a matter of keeping on going. But in this case, at least I had the GPS to guide me. What a (corny) metaphor.


If you know where you are…

October 14, 2010

…and where you want to go…

…but you don’t know how to get there… are you lost?

On Tuesday, my second day in Florence, at the end of my sightseeing for the day, I packed away my Lonely Planet, which has all the maps I need. Then I walked away from Santa Croce, intending to catch a bus to the station, and from there a bus back to the youth hostel.

Soon, I was lost. I was in a bus-less area. I walked and walked and finally caught sight of some buses. I reached a bus stop and studied the route map, but didn’t recognize any part of it.

By this time, I was a little worried, because I was on a very big and busy main road with signs pointing to Autostrada, Venice, Siena, and so on. There weren’t many pedestrians around.

It gets dark around 7, and I like to be ‘home’, or at least in the vicinity of home, before dark. Getting lost at 6, is not something I like to do.

So I took out my phone and turned on GPS. I hadn’t used it much so far, because on the first day in Rome, I used it for half an hour and two things happened: my prepaid card ran out of money and my phone ran out of battery.

But this was an emergency, so I turned it on and asked for directions to my youth hostel. Straight down this road, it said. 3.7 km.

I did the math: it would take me about an hour to walk. Finding out about buses and changing multiple buses? Could take longer. And the last stretch of half-km or so I’d have to walk anyway.

So I walked it.

It wouldn’t have been much of an adventure except that my phone was low on battery when I started. And it’s true that it said straight down this road, but it wasn’t entirely straight.

I trudged off, wondering if I could trust the GPS and wondering whether the battery would last till I got to some area I recognized.

It was a long, tense walk, and the battery finally gave out while I still had 1km to go. Soon after that, I asked someone and it turned out the GPS was wrong after all. It wanted me to loop around a long way, when actually the entry to the youth hostel was just around the corner!

So I was saved by a timely combination of GPS navigation and a low battery. I reached my room just after 7.30, well after dark.

So all’s well…

Oh, wait, that was only one getting-lost story. The others? Will follow, another day…


Still Way Too Much

October 13, 2010

This whole experience is mind-boggling.

The good thing is that this is my second trip to both Rome and Florence. I know some of what there is to be seen. I know that there are things I don’t want to do.Last time we were here, in my 25-year-old enthusiasm, I was determined to go everywhere and see everything. I thought I might never come back and I never wanted to say, oh no, we were there but we missed seeing that.

I realize now that I was naive on both accounts. First, because you can always come back if you really want to. Opportunities don’t always come your way, but you can always make an opportunity if you really want to.

Second because… I don’t think you can take in all that Rome and Florence have to offer even in a full year, much less in a week. It’s like trying to understand Delhi in a week. It can’t be done, not if you want to do it properly.

Now, ten years on, I know a few things. I know that I get quickly overwhelmed by richly painted and sculpted interiors of churches and museums. Museums, in fact, bore me to tears. I’m no connoisseur of art, or sculpture, and never will be.

So there.

So I’m giving the whole Vatican a miss. Gasp???? But, I mean… You stop seeing anything almost as soon as you enter, it’s so much visual overkill. And the world-famous Sistine Chapel? Well, I’ve seen lots of pictures of it…

Of course, that doesn’t mean that I didn’t go to St Peter’s Basilica. Technically, it is part of the Vatican, but it’s different. The piazza outside is just huge and spacious and wonderful with its graceful colonnades where everyone sits and chats, and it’s big enough so that, in normal circumstances, it’s never crowded.

I happened to be there at 5 p.m. on Sunday afternoon, so on a whim I sat through Vespers. They allow tourists to wander around far from the altar even when service is on, but if you profess to want to attend the service, you must sit in the pews and attend. No photography.Fair enough. I attended. I’m not religious, so it didn’t matter that I didn’t understand a word of what was said. There was a choir, that was good enough for me. All men, of course. A lot of people walked in after the service had begun, some of them locals. A few people left before it ended. It only lasted half an hour, so I sat through it, and even dropped a coin when they came around asking.

The Pantheon is a church I loved when we were here the last time, but when I went there on Saturday at 5, they were just closing. Hopefully, I’ll get in once before I leave.

In Florence, I went into the Duomo, of course, and did the obligatory climb to the top. I got a good view of the upper levels of the interior, that was enriched by my recollection of Ken Follett’s Pillars of the Earth. I went into Santa Maria Novella, Basilica (or was it Chiesa) di San Miniato, and Chiesa di San Orsanmichele. The last named bowled me over with a fantastic altar of intricately carved gilded wood. Apart from the altar, it was the simplest of buildings, two arches front and back and three arches on either side, no aisles. According to the literature, it was used as an open grain warehouse,before being enclosed and converted to a church.

San Miniato, at the top of a hill, was also very simple and nice, with a crypt that was behind the altar and half underground. Later, I saw a similar crypt in another very simple and early church, in Fiesole.

Lesson learnt: I like my churches simple on the inside, with focus on the architecture and the altar and minimum distraction from irrelevant richly detailed painting and sculpture. I’m ok with richly-decorated exteriors that can be admired (and photographed; too many places don’t allow any photography at all) from afar.

Even with this handful of churches under my belt, I’m already having trouble remembering which was which.

Why won’t they allow photography? The altar at Orsanmichele was so mind-blowing, how can I possibly hope to remember it without a single photo?

Outdoor archaeological sites are easier to absorb and retain. And, of course, to photograph. The Colosseum is difficult, or impossible, to forget once you’ve seen it. The Roman Forum, with its mess of ruins scattered over a vast area was captivating and exhausting. And the ancient Roman and Etruscan ruins in Fiesole were also enthralling, though too few.

The nice thing with outdoor sites is that it’s easy to linger. You can find a nice rock and sit down in the sun, or, if the weather merits, in the shade. You can much, sip, read,shoot, and talk on the phone. The only trouble is if it rains.

Museums are good places to hang out when it rains, but if you have to stand in queue 45 minutes and then shell out 10€… Maybe not.

On the other hand, I couldn’t come to Florence and not meet the real David (there are two fakes as well, all right here in Florence). Besides, I had to say hi to him on Supriya’s behalf, she had specifically requested me to. So I queued up to meet him and gazed at him from every angle adoringly for half an hour. What a hunk. No photographs, of course, not even after shelling out €10. Then, I quickly whizzed out of the museum before the naked splendour of David could be dulled by millions of other splendid bits of sclupture. Really, once you’ve seen the best, why bother with all the rest?

Still, as before, despite my best effort to take it in slowly and in small installments, I know I’m going to leave here overwhelmed, bewildered and enriched.

Perhaps, unfortunately, the experiences that will stay with me the longest from this trip will be those of getting lost. So far, there have been three of them.

But they are the subject of another post…


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