Tuesday, September 28, 2010

He promised me the world and I bartered my mole!

My life is a journey and I met this realisation somewhere in the middle of a finger pointing fight with Sumeet, last year on Valentine’s Day. I was getting tired of his capability to never give me a surprise. Somehow, out of the million other fights between us... my words managed to enter the fuzzy cleavages of his ears this once as he planned a surprise that shook the last bone in me.

When I told my dad I’m off to Uzbekistan, he took an hour to put breaks to his over speeding heart. Not in his life had he heard of another ‘istan’ besides the two obvious ones... blame it on America. Honestly, I didn’t know about Uzbekistan myself until then, but then I didn’t know people made a living out of making holes in donuts either, until my encounter with Dorianne Laux tonight. So don’t you judge your lack of knowledge in comparison to my absolute absence of it. Anyway, much as I told dad all ‘istans’ were not the same, he seemed less convinced than inconvenienced to be asked to alter his comforting prejudices.

Uzbekistan is an enchanting oddness, however... a genie in deception, a jar of pickle hidden deep inside the closet, long forgotten. The unbundling of former USSR in 1991 revealed five embryonic states of what makes for Central Asia today-Kazakhstan, Kirgizstan, Turkmenistan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan. Amongst these, Uzbekistan-the seductress that rests enticingly on the ruins of the ancient silk route, is an over-qualified hostess with seldom suitors.

A piecemeal knowledge of Russian can take you a long distance there. Being an Indian is even better. The stubby good looking men with their loosely prefixed Mongolian features and the flirtatious women, cheating on men and traffic signals alike... are the most devoted lot fanning the Indian film Industry.

Walking on Tashkent’s vast, clean lanes I was stopped every five minutes by a friendly passerby wanting to sing Bollywood songs to me.... It was overwhelming to enter an Uzbeki pub.

On my first evening with Sumeet’s gorgeous uncle and aunt who are an Indian Diplomat couple living in Tashkent, I was taken to dine at the ‘NUR’ restaurant. I suddenly began to feel like a dessert on the menu... everyone wanted a piece of me on their table. The moment we entered the restaurant, the DJ played a popular Bollywood song in my honour and soon I was being dragged to the dance floor. Women as much as the men wanted to do gidda (a Punjabi dance form) with me. A girl called ‘Gauri’ with a voice so sweet, I could get diabetic on it... sang old Hindi songs to me without having known a word of Hindi, while a man called Javli Sultanov swore to stake the world in return for the mole on my nose. I could have given it to him for free, I hate it anyway... 

The intemperate heat of summer-time in Uzbekistan has added profound layers of warmth in its people’s hearts. And often as they smile feverishly, their 14 carat gold laden teeth tell stories of a society so conscious of status symbols. Teeth of gold are totems of wealth that sit inside almost 60 percent of Uzbeki jaws. 

However as deep are their tooth cavities so are the final destinations of their trouser pockets. Swollen with Uzbeki currency notes (soum) that are so depreciated that one dollar could fetch you 1650 of them notes, the Uzbeks have pockets and purses so large, they occupy an extra seat in all public places ‘a table for two plus one pocket please!’

Most unique element of Uzbekistan, and I can only speak for Tashkent actually (never got time to get out of there to visit other beauties like Samarkand and Bukhara,) is that every single vehicle ambling the streets... privately owned or public property, is a taxi. On my second day in Tashkent when I was waiting for a cab to take me to the famous ‘Chorsu Bazaar,’ and making my hand rehearse ballet in the air, a car stopped and the man in the driver’s seat explained to me ‘every car in this country can be stopped and you can pay the regular charges for being dropped to your requested spot.’ I simply loved this brilliant scheme as much as I loved everything else about the country.

I couldn’t escape local Uzbeks pinning me down with Hindi songs even in the crowded Chorsu Bazaar. Much as I love standing out in a crowd, I was increasingly getting tired this time, just when a boy stared at me and we communicated without the benefit of a common language. Of all he spoke, I understood nothing but one word ‘Hrithik Roshan.’ 

Bollywood sure has taken India places... who would fancy concealed in colours of Korean salads, famous Uzbeki dry-fruits, cherries and brandishes of cheap but exquisite Uzbeki artefacts... a silent admirer of India’s response to Batman. 

Coming back to artefacts, Uzbeki chandeliers, wood carved furniture and carpets are a delicacy that can be relished only in Uzbekistan itself, unless you are ready to pay extra baggage price for it... Uzbek air allows 20 kilos luggage alas! I hence gave the flying carpets and the hypnotic chandeliers a pass as my eyes got fixated on a group of oldies taking a good laugh at life.

They are the lucky charms that apparently bring prosperity... so many of them ganging up on the Uzbek economy and still doing no good for it... I was beginning to question their credentials... however, for the sake of ‘tourists must buy souvenirs’ legacy, I adopted one of them. Soon I saw a zombie pumpkin that let some odd guy paint all over it without realising it’s a vegetable, not a canvass. 

Anyway, I liked its attitude so I bought it... soon enough I saw many more such stoned- to-death pumpkins... they amount to some sort of art in Uzbekistan and drunk or not drunk... I just think they are gorgeous and a must buy!

Now getting drunk is an act unaccomplished by me in there... On my second evening in Tashkent, Muasi (aunt), Mausaji (uncle) took me to an all-Indian get together where I was offered the Uzbek wine. If you want to die on a glass of slightly mauve with bursts of maroon sugar syrup, then let me know... I’ll get you some Uzbek wine. In retrospect I think that country is a land of some extremes... extremely sweet wine, extremely brackish cheese (yummmm!), extremely creative calligraphy 

(they look for the messages of Allah in all his creations. So if you draw a human ‘eye’ and try reading it... it would mean ‘subhan Allah!’ in Urdu,) but most notably there is a discomforting extreme of  ‘artificially generated bliss.'

Since 1991 Uzbekistan has been run by one President and one party... every other voice is comfortably numbed. Education and media are alike, state run products marinated with power politics. While schools have no names but numbering, so you could be in school 1 or 2 or so on...  the media is homogenised with a silence that quells rebellion. Each morning I woke up to read the national newspaper splattered with stories of glory of the government. It’s a nation whose people have not the privilege to know what is ‘bad,’ what goes ‘wrong,’ hence, they know not of such bitter sensations. That’s what I call ‘generated bliss.’

One could point fingers at such governance, it’s the simplest job to do... besides, you don’t need to apply and go through the selection process for it. I’d however like us to visit Uzbekistan and experience the sense of absolute security a woman can feel even as she walks the barren streets at 3:00 am, oscillates in the oft crime-free air, bathes in historical grandeur and meets the almost perfect bunch of Allah’s own children... before making our paralysing prognosis.

In my three days in Uzbekistan I could not alight the highlands... but the lowlands were a journey of the self... I promised myself then, never to judge Sumeet’s misgivings for they could often be just as rewarding.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

While the sun composed symphonies on her naked back

I am originally a shallow Samaritan.... I thrive on the other’s sorrow so I could smear it with laughter. It helps me fill fragments of my own person, my rubbish vanity, my desire to be called a ‘good human being.’ No wonder then my distaste for Britain. There is no one here awfully helpless, in need for me... unlike India where every distance the size of a cheese slice is covered with broken limbs or eyeless souls. If India were a drama, such would be her props and I miss the Great Indian Tragedy ever so often here in Britain.

Yet tragedy herself asks of me to experience both sides to her dual personality.... one where she hits the other while I watch and this other once she has hit me... I long to go back to my own land... But India remains afar... very far.

However, to massage my agony Sumeet took me recently to another tragic tavern- that being Greece. On 2nd September 2010, Sumeet and I flew by the cheapest possible option to Athens at half past two, during what is called the ‘English summer’... a misnomer that helps sunglass brands to fool blinded-by-fashion individuals to further lose sight as they shelter their eyes from a sun that doesn’t exist here. Greece however, was a different tale... tanned with enormous sun and flourishing with ample sea... the only virtue missing there is a ‘smile.’

While in the planning stage of our second honeymoon, Sumeet and I often decorated our dreams with huge towering walls of the Ancient Acropolis hoping for the ‘ancient’ to live up to its true elements... the graffiti on the walls... on every single wall in Athens... looked like the city got hit by an epidemic called ‘graffiti’ and no corner was devoid of it. That would but obviously be the first thing one would notice in Athens, even before beginning to realise that it’s only a city... like any other... dirty, filthy and gravely erred by its own people. 

My first impression of Athens: the drive in Bus no. X95 from the Airport to the main ‘ancient city’ area-Plaka felt like experiencing open infidelity of someone you’ve always held in high esteem. Athens has comfortably married modernity in her attempt to break from the past. Plaka however, slightly sorted my aching heart. Wherever you may walk, the Acropolis would stare at you from an exhaustive distance

and we had a sufficient intercourse with this uphill antiquity that first night.

Much against his usual engineer-like precision, Sumeet this once decided he’d like to go on this holiday completely unplanned. With around 20 kilos each on our backs (both Sumeet and I somehow felt the need to carry more than required clothes to an island nation... speaks obliquely of our increasing body mass and the desire to keep it under wraps) we scanned the entire Plaka that night to find a ‘decent’ yet ‘inexpensive’ hotel for one night as we planned to go to one of Greece’s many islands the next day. Now much as our wish list for a hotel was like a girl on the lookout for a potential husband, the search was just as tough. Almost four hours of hobnobbing through the pleated streets of Athens, we finally stationed ourselves at this hotel called the ‘Acropolis Place’ for 40 Euros a night in the room right next to the reception desk, the loo in the basement across the reception across the dining room across the kitchen... far enough to dissuade even the most pressing of nature’s calls from being attended to. However, it was just one night as we had decided, half of which had already passed. 

Sadly our expedition from the past evening left us in no position to wake up early for the boat to any island so Athens it was for 3rd September 2010. The hotel’s breakfast table was like a government ration shop of which the morning shift receptionist stood as a brand ambassador. Jasmine- her body was the width of a tablecloth but her unending chatter was brutal murder... the day had set itself on us...

Outside on the streets, Athens was awaiting us... 

We walked out of Acropolis House and banked our 40 kilos of clothes at a nearby hotel called ‘Byron’ where the bed creaked so much, our poor ears were at work all night. True to its name then this Lord Byron was ‘mad, bad and dangerous to know.’ In the afternoon we ate lunch at an open restaurant with local birds breaking bread with us... 

So much heard about Greek food, I claim is mostly bull’s crap! Tsatsiki, Musaka, suvlaki, the Greek dishes sound just as grand as they are actually not. They deliberately throw in a basket of bread (their staple diet) in every meal and charge three Euros to each person for it... that’s like forced charity.... damn I still sound angry! The man serving food to us didn’t particularly enjoy our brown skin so he decided not to be nice to us and took an extra while to bring our food... we in return took extra pains not to tip him... Indians never miss a chance for making a pass on the tip.

A toy-train took us around the town then and up to the Acropolis where Sumeet got lost in history.  

While he had supper with Asterix and Obelix inside his head... the surroundings taking him back to the ‘feel of that comic,’ I found nebulous creatures around having hefty appetite for sex. 

Later we met a ‘we are from Dubai on honeymoon’ couple who asked Sumeet to spare with his pounds so they could see how the Queen’s face looks on the currency she grandly gulps down as the largest social benefiter of all times. They were so damn inquisitive, they beat the Chinese, I tell you.

The next day we set off in Bluestar ferry to Santorini Island on a five hour journey with Katherine Frank’s biography of Indira Gandhi by my side. Indira went up to Mahatma Gandhi asking for his permission to marry her longstanding boyfriend-Feroze Gandhi... however, Bapu challenged her to vow celibacy after marriage. I was just about digesting this amazing piece of history when I saw a land of such magical beauty that I forgot to put a bookmark before squashing Indira between two pages.

It’s a pity you don’t know such things about a place before you visit it, as you know after you have been there... so there no way you could ever avoid getting fleeced. Amongst the million people from around the world, who strangely picked the same day, time and place as us to holiday, we seemed to be the only ones wondering what to do next. So we simply hopped on to the most expensive cab journey of our life and went to this village called Oia. 

To the count of one Greek, that village had almost a dozen tourists. 

There was a pattern to the nationalities we realised. Brits and other Europeans travel on shoe string budgets, can’t afford villas of Oia so they stick to the hugely tourist-y ‘Fira.’ The Americans and their Arctic cousins travel rich after having sucked all the world’s oil (I mean it for the Americans)... so they cruise around the globe in expensive ships only rarely touching earth. The Canadians however insist on one crucial difference: ‘We are not Americans. We like to enquire.’ The South –East brethren of my beloved nation, huddle up together and are always taking pictures, of everything and almost anything... its wondrous how truly deprived they are so as to literally admire just about anything through the modest openings of their myopic vision. The Indians, on the other hand are like that rare endangered species on this island that not many have seen... the few that we ended up chancing upon, were all patients of personality disorders... talking London, looking Patiala paanwala.

Those three days in Oia were absolute bliss... by this time we were completely attuned to the handicapped Greeks without a single funny bone, the overpriced Chinese counterfeits they sold in the name of art and the huge-as-hell watermelons they brought from dispute- ridden Cyprus and traded in their shops at the price of gold.

The island made out of volcanic lava preserved human eruptions in all empty spaces of every single beach. Wherever you’d move your eyes, naked women would be strumming their breasts against the beach’s sands and pebbles while the sun penned symphonies on their backs. Sumeet’s soul was well fed on this trip...

The Quad-bike was another attraction... a 220 cc quad cost us 45 Euros a day... that’s a price well paid if it makes a man feel man enough... Sumeet said if there’d be a scale to measure pleasure... ‘Riding the quad was worth a million orgasms, all in a day.’ Now if men were to design all measuring scales in the world I’m wondering how cooking shows would start to look—‘add one small orgasm full of sugar....’

We drove uphill to this place called ‘ancient Thira,’ another must visit on a Greece trip itinerary. The winds up there were running a marathon so the only objects standing unperturbed were the patches of 7th century BC in all their magnificence. Such unmatched brilliance... it was tea for us in the private company of Greek Gods, the only distraction being skirts disobeying their ladies, while adding to our entertainment.

Sadly, only on the final day did we discovered ‘Nikos Place’ in Oia... the best Gyros (it’s a Greek dish again) ever and reasonably priced. We bid adieu to all... especially to our daily massages that some Chinese immigrants offered on all beaches for reasonable price... considering almost everything in the world has glimpses of Chinese labour... there was no escaping it in Greece either.

Our last night back in Athens was most adventurous I’d say. We reached Acropolis House at 12:00 am, where we’d pre-booked a room before leaving Athens earlier on. The tiny reception was cluttered with sullen faces of Europe... two Greeks and an Austrian... the silly hotel has a policy of retaining room keys of all guests before they go out for a stroll in the city... this Austrian had to submit his as well and when the room service went in to clean his room, they left the keys inside... the management comfortably-dumb... couldn’t bother and waited till the Austrian volcano erupted at night. He was fuming when we reached the Hotel cos all his expensive possessions along with his phone were locked up in the room while the manager was sound asleep. While his stuff relaxed in that room our dear Austrian got rabid... ‘You bloody Greeks with no money in your banks... you working at this reception with nothing better to do with your life...’ the poor guy behind the desk stood assault after assault for he wanted to retain his job more than his self-respect. One thing I learnt about ‘people’ in general that night is that all are the same... white or brown or black... besides an extra dose of melanin we Indians have in our genes... something that fairness creams promise to rid us of... rest everything else is the same... anger, shame, hatred and folly... that doesn’t change nationality ever.

The memories of the trip would last us a life time, and so would the after effects on our balance sheet. But they were all worth a million smiles... the sun, the sands and the sea as she sometimes kissed the earth or seamlessly merged into the skies.

1. Carry your sunscreen
2. Peak periods to visit Greece are from June-Sep end... but I'd rather go post or pre that... the mediterranean region that Greece falls in, wouldn't ever have 'bad' weather and things are cheaper in lean periods.
3. Go unplanned... Greece can throw surprises for planned travellers.
4. Pleaseee travel light... No one but fools like Sumeet and me would carry so many clothes there. Besides, you'll have to walk more than you'd imagine.
5. Don't expect to get by with a budget holiday. Its an expensive nation.
6. Carry your student ID if you are from Europe. It will help you with a lot of discounts.
7. Carry a UV lens for your SLR.
8. Carry your driving license.
9. Carry your packaged food... Greek food can tire you out on a long holiday and is super expensive.
10. Carry a book or sudoko to keep you company.
11. Carry a spare sheet to spread under you, on the beach while you take a nap
12. Get you currency converted in your own nation... Greek islands have one odd banks and conversion rates are horrible... even in Athens.
13. Don't buy any artefact... just do window shopping.
14. Never annoy the Greeks, especially if you are brown or black... sorry for the racist remark... well I'm brown too and am speaking out of experience.
15. While flying in and out of Greece take the window seat on the flight... the view is 'unmissable.'
16. Check for concerts that are happening in Greece during your holiday. We happened to miss U2 :-(
17. In Athens, get a place in the 'Plaka' area cos 'Omonio' is a notorious region of the city.
18. Travel by bus no. X95 from the airport. It will drop you at a five minutes walk to Plaka.
19. Athens is nice and different. Don't listen to those who say its a useless place. Spend atleast 2 days there.
20. Acropolis House (ask for the room no. 103, next to reception. It costs 40 euros and the other rooms are no better but more expensive. Ph no.: +30 210 3222 344)
21. Palia Tavern... now I didn't particularly enjoy their food and their service is painfully slow but that's the case in all of Greece... so make your own judgement.
22. Hotel Byron... ask for the cheapest room it comes for 60 euros... the bed makes silly sounds but you wont find anything cheaper in Athens during peak seasons... with an AC and attached bathroom. Ph no. +30 210 3230 327
23. For getting ferry booked to any Island... just step out to the main market area in Athens... its the same place where bus X95 dropped you on the first day... and you will find so many Ferry offices... Just hop into one of them. No tension at all about pre booking. But please keep in mind that all ferries move out of the city early morning so you need to book one day in advance.
24. We went to Santorini so I can't say about other Islands... but santorini is gorgeous... its both isolated (if you stay in the village Oia) and crowded (if you lodge at Fira)... u take your pick. We preferred solitude so we went with Oia.
25. At Santorini Port there would be buses every half hour to take you to Fira. from there you can get another bus to Oia. Don't worry about how long it would take and how cumbersome it would be cos it wont be. travelling by public transport in Greece is really simple and cheap.
26. If you prefer taking a cab to Oia then the guy won't charge you less than 20 euros.
27. Don't bother with pre-booking hotels here as well... Just get down at Oia information centre... that's where the buses stop also. Go inside and tell them sorry boss! I can't afford more than 80 euros a night... or whatever your limit is... and they are so damn helpful they will get you a good deal.
28. Incase you want to stay at the magnificent Caldera Villa (we were on a second honeymoon so we could splurge) then their number is: +30 228 6071 28... to tell you the secret we got a villa there for 90 euros... we just got lucky cos of some last minute cancellations... but its never less than 200 euros on average.

29. PLEASE as a rule only eat at 'Nikos Place' if you wish to save up on eating good and eating cheap. Their Gyros are aweeesome. Ph: +30 228 6071 105. Its right next to the information Centre.
30. For booking a Quad bike... please go with 220 cc cos the others can give trouble on the hilly terrain. You could book it in Oia... can't tell you from where. Or you could get it in Fira. We got it from Fira at Alex-Rent a moto for 45 euros a day. That's really the standard rate I guess. Ph no: +30 228 6022 483
31. Lastly, if you care for a taxi in ATHENS then contact Dimitris Papagrigoriou of 'Taxi Services.' He is a sweet and reasonable guy. Ph: +30 693 2717 325

Have a great Trip!