What’s Travelling Like?

What’s travelling like, really?

Travelling is three camera batteries and a soggy burger wrapped in a t-shirt in your backpack. Travelling is maps from cities you forgot to take out of your pocket.

Travelling is hazy streetlights outside the bus window, a world of happy strangers in a city you never thought you’d see. Travelling is nodding off tired and exhausted as the lights pass you by, blissfully succumbing to whatever time zone your body imagines it is in.

Travelling is being woken up by a stranger. ‘The train ends here, buddy. Do you know how to get home?’

Travelling is smiling at everyone because that’s the only language everyone understands. Travelling is always being smiled at because you’re a traveller.

Travelling is the best way of growing up and staying young at the same time.

Travelling is peeling yourself naked, holding out your prejudices and your assumptions for every person and every country to shoot arrows through. Travelling is asking the tall tattooed guy with the giant dog for directions, and giving him a hug before you part.

Travelling is including everyone. Sharing a smoke with a construction labourer, and explaining a prescription to a strange old man at a bus stop you’ll never see again.

Travelling is all your moments curled up into a single infinite stretch of time, as if you forgot to blink for days.

Travelling is looking up at a different ceiling every night, as a crowd of new thoughts lull you to sleep.

Travelling is becoming someone different with every mile you add. Travelling is stopping by the road, taking off your worn shoes, and thinking about who you are now.

Travelling is sometimes being at home, at a rare passing moment with strangers sharing a beer over something deep and familiar. And then leaving, because being at home was not the purpose.

Travelling is a bunch of crumpled names and phone numbers picked up from everywhere you went. Numbers you may never call but will preserve for ever.

Travelling is meeting so many people you realize there’s no point taking down everyone’s number. The world is your social network, and you stop to care.

Travelling is also about being from somewhere. You cannot really be from somewhere unless you are somewhere else.

Travelling is telling them what home is like, and the wonderful inexplicable joy when everyone understands.

Travelling is being stranded in a train station in a city you don’t know, and having to trust people because you must go to sleep. Travelling is waking up and finding everything right there. Or some things missing, and getting up and moving on. Travelling is to forgive, because everyone is in trouble.

Travelling is a sudden thunderstorm in an alien city, when you stop and sit on the pavement and think of home, and suddenly can’t tell the rain from your tears.

Travelling doesn’t stop. Travelling is restless, unquenchable, all-devouring.

Travelling is forever. That’s what it’s like.

Travellers' hostel. Prague, Czech Republic.

Travellers’ hostel. Prague, Czech Republic.

Anecdotes of Europe #3: Story of a Knife

This story is about a knife.

I visited Switzerland pretty early during my summer stay in Germany in 2011. I have friends there with whom I stayed. When I was about to return by train, my friend Alex who had come to see me off  went into a tourist shop with me in the station as I bought a few little souvenirs. This is frankly the last type of place where you should buy things, because they are targeted towards tourists with money to spend on junk trinkets. But what the hell, I was pretty late and I wanted something. So I bought a few things (including a red T-shirt with a proud Swiss flag and ‘Suisse’ written across the chest, and which upon subsequent investigation revealed a tiny ‘Made in Bangladesh’ tag), and then my gaze fell on something that I just had to buy. Of course, it was a Swiss army knife. My birthday had been just a couple of days ago, so Alex became wonderful and said he’d pay for it as a gift. I was overjoyed.

On the way back, I started to completely drool over it and took a photo of it in the train. So here it is:

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After I returned to Germany, though, and had taken a better look at it, I was a little unsure of exactly how sharp it was. I couldn’t immediately think of anything to try the blades on. If you own a Victorinox, that is of course not a feeling you want to have about it. You want to feel content.

Anyway, on my next trip a week later with a friend named Vishal, probably to Italy, I took the knife along.

Sitting across the aisle on the train was a wiry woman who I didn’t like the sight of very much. Yes, just because of the way she looked. She was thin, wiry, had sunken eyes and thinning hair, and looked on the whole pretty sinister to me.

So on the train I pulled out the knife, of course.

If you are imagining that this caused some panic or distress among the passengers, no, that’s not how this story goes.

I pulled out the knife to show it off to Vishal. He took it in his hand, and I started to say, pretty proudly, ‘Be careful. This is very sharp stuff, man. Don’t cut yourself.’

Vishal was very impressed with the whole thing, you know, how cool and outdoorsy it is to have a Swiss army knife with you. And I was radiating tangible awesomeness as I took it back from him.

A couple of blades were open, and I started to close them.

Do you know how this closing works? The blades resist your closing for some of the way, then at a critical angle it suddenly snaps close. As this happened with one of the blades, my finger pressing behind it followed along with the blade, and landed smack on the cutting edge of another blade that was open.

I watched as blood started to flow immediately from a beautiful, long cut.

I remember the next thing that happened: my lips bent involuntarily into a serene, pristine smile, watching the accumulating blood.

This shit is sharp, I thought.

Vishal was visibly distraught. I was, too, now, realizing how stupid this was looking. I needed to stop the bleeding and the dripping and all the red nonsense somehow. Red is too bright a colour in a train full of people like that.

I pulled out some tissues that had come with some McDonald’s stuff I had packed along, and started dabbing my finger on them. I could not dab the tissue on my finger because it was too much blood, so I just had to lay the tissue on the seat and dab my finger at different spots, letting gravity do its job.

It was a pretty long cut, and the blood just kept flowing. In a few minutes, the tissue had become this:

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At this time, an Italian train attendant of some kind arrived in our compartment, to check the tickets or perhaps he was just going through, I can’t remember which.

I was worried now, and embarrassed to a far greater extent, and I asked this guy if I could have some first aid. People were looking at me now.

He looked blankly at my cut (it was just starting to look scary at this point), and shrugged and said there’s nothing he could do, and went on his way. Italians are rude, I thought. I had got too used to German politeness.

I was hating to touch the tissue by then; it was starting to remind me of a, well, you know what. But given the options, I decided that I’d have to resort to keep dabbing my finger on it until the bleeding stopped. This looked like first class idiocy now.

Suddenly, this wiry, sinister woman, who had observed the exchange with the attendant, called me across the aisle, and said that she had some band-aid with her.

She rummaged through her purse, pulled out a band-aid and gave it to me. I was immediately so sorry and grateful to her that I showered her with profuse thankfulness as I accepted it.

So the band-aid went on the finger, and the rest of the journey was uneventful. Except that I made a fierce mental note in my head, Looks-based impression: 0, band-aid-based impression: 1.

 

The other half of this story of the knife happened on my way back to India. This is a sad story about the loss of the knife actually. And there are three people who are responsible for it, to be revealed in chronological order.

When I had packed my bags for India, I had suddenly become too moronic to suspect that Swiss army knives would not be allowed in the cabin baggage. So it arrived in Hamburg airport happily nestled in my backpack, oblivious yet of its impending fate. I, therefore, was the first of the three persons responsible.

As I checked in to get my boarding pass, I met the second person responsible for the sad parting: the woman at the counter.

She was a thin, old-ish woman with pale hair. As I was putting my suitcase on the belt for the registered luggage, she told me that I’d have to get rid of all the previous airplane tags. She tried tearing them by hand, but it wouldn’t tear. I tried it, and I couldn’t tear any either. Then I remembered the knife. I told her, just one moment, and with one elegant flourish, I brought out the knife from my bag and snapped open the scissors in it, and got to cutting the tags away.

A sensible counter person would at the sight of this have gone into a wild-eyed tantrum, shrieking like a love-crazed yeti at me to put the knife away in the registered luggage.

You know what she did? She went completely gaga over my effusing superhuman coolness and watched me and my unbearably awesome army knife go at the baggage tags like some starry-eyed, giggly high school crush.

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And this is why she was the second responsible person. If I were sorting these people instead in terms of their contribution to the misfortune, she would lead hands down.

I checked in my registered luggage, popped the knife back into my backpack and got on the flight. Nobody stopped me even at the cabin baggage check.

Oh wait, actually they did. It was because I had some liquid with me. I think it was a face wash gel which I had to throw away. Then they said I have more liquid. It was a bottle of water, and they said to throw it too, but I had memories associated with the bottle (that’s me), so I asked them if I could just drain the water, which they allowed. So I actually left all my stuff at that checking, strolled out of the airport, found a trash, drained the water and came back. But I remembered this little part mostly positively, because the girl who was requesting me to get rid of all these was very sweet and apologetic and she seriously asked me if I had been in the US for long (I had a serious American accent on throughout my Europe stay).

Anyway, back to the story.

My flight wasn’t a straight one to India. It was a cheap (the cheapest I could find) Aeroflot flight that connected through Sheremetyevo, Moscow. Suffice it to say that

a. There was another check of the cabin baggage there, and

b. Russians are more careful.

 

So I’m wearing my shoes after the security pat-down when this beefy, stern looking security woman watching the scans of the bags tells me that I have a knife, and I must take it out. She is, of course, the third person.

For a moment I don’t know what she is talking about, then I remember. And I think, aghast, no, not like this.
I gingerly bring out my Swiss army knife. She unceremoniously puts it to her side and tells me to move on.

You know what happens when an Indian suddenly faces the inexorable hand of fate like this? (There’s a pun here with face and hand. It’s called a slap. It’s what fate usually does to you.)

We reset to our default Indian bargaining mode.

I ask her if it is not allowed. She says it is not. Then I ask her with please. She said there is no way that knife is allowed in the cabin.

I think of a last-ditch try, although in my head it sounded really lame. This is your last chance anyway, I told myself. Then I looked up at her and blurted out: ‘But it was a birthday gift! From a friend!’

She did not even look up as she repeated the same thing. I think she was starting to think now that maybe I had some serious terrorist ideas.

I walked slowly away from the checking, gazing longingly at my Swiss army knife, knowing it was the last I would ever see of it.

 

Epilogue

My friends from Switzerland visited us later the following year in India, and I had told them of the unfortunate story and told Alex to bring another Swiss army knife, a better one, for which I would pay. He brought it, and I have it now, and it’s awesome and sharp and cutting-edge technology. I don’t test it on myself any more though.

Anecdotes of Europe #2: How karma travelled from Venice to Prague

You may remember Vishal from my last Europe anecdote, the guy I had travelled to a few countries with. In the same weekend that we visited Rome, we also visited Venice for a day. (We also toured Pisa and the Vatican City that weekend. Yeah, hell of a trip.)

So as we arrived in Venice on the train over a bridge through the seas, I went completely and helplessly monkey over seeing nothing but water outside the train window. It was surreal.

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However, as we got off at the station, I started getting a little impatient because I didn’t get the ‘Venice’-y feel from the place that I supposed should have struck me the moment I landed (I had gathered these preconceptions from reading books such as The Thief Lord, with its vivid and evocative sketches of the city). The station we had arrived at (Santa Lucia), looked ordinary and forgettable. I was starting to expect just such an ordinary city outside the station, and was feeling somehow tricked. Vishal went into a queue to ask some questions at a Trenitalia booth about his return Deutsche Bahn ticket. So I decided to take a quick look outside the station. I went out of the doors and bumped right into this:

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Canal, bridge, boat, Venice. The whole deal.

A voice inside me exploded: ‘Ohmygod, this is Venice!’

I scamper into the station and announce excitedly to Vishal something to the end of ‘Ohmygod this is Venice! Canal, bridge, everything, it’s just like Venice! Ohmygod!’

We went back outside after a while. I had already planned a detailed itinerary. We would take the vaporetto (the waterbus or big passenger-carrying boats) that started from right in front of the station and travelled the length of the canal weaving through the whole of Venice. We would get off at the Piazza San Marco (St. Mark’s Square), look at all the spots there (there are quite a few), take the boat again to the Lido beach, come back by evening to the Piazza again, and take a walk at night through Venice’s famous narrow, Kolkata-esque winding alleys back to the station in time for our train. The problem was that this was the early part of our stay abroad, so we were still hesitant at all occasions of parting with our Euros, which in quick mental calculations always turned out to be really expensive in rupees. We had therefore gone into some deliberation over managing our primary expense, the vaporetto ticket fare. € 6-7 each is good for tickets that last an hour, so that should get us to the Piazza. But we again needed the waterbus to get from there to Lido later, and back to the Piazza in the evening. We were not sure of spending so much for the tickets in one day and were confused as to whether there could be a better way, with the longer duration or group tickets, but nothing was working out to our advantage. Anyway, we were not sure of anything, and at this time we were just looking around, really excited and all, posing for photos in the open space that you see in that picture, when the first part of the karma story happened.

All of a sudden a young couple came up to us. They looked Indian. They came up and asked us, ‘Are you Indian?’ I felt a little irked at this. I never liked making a big deal out of my nationality while I was abroad, or going and deliberately meeting other Indian people. Anyway, we said yes.

Then they held up two cards and said, ‘These are magnetic tickets for the vaporetto. We bought them, but we have to go somewhere else now, so we have to leave quickly. We cannot use these any more. These are 12-hour cards valid until 9.30 at night. You guys want them?’

Something smelt fishy to me. I am always immediately suspicious of such things, especially in this case because they had searched us out. So I was pretty disinclined at this, and asked them to clarify what they were saying. They repeated the explanation, and said they had been looking for some Indians to give this to, and had found us. They seemed to be in a lot of hurry to get out of there.

Finally I asked, ‘How much do you need for them?’ And they said, ‘Oh, no no no! You don’t have to pay anything. Just take them.’

We were like, whoa!

We accepted the tickets and thanked them furiously as they left. Then we walked to the vaporetti platform. There was a magnetic reader where you could stick your ticket to check it. It confirmed that both the tickets were valid till late evening. We grinned like maniacs at each other. What were the chances that exactly two people, Indians, would find themselves in excess of the exact tickets we needed, at the exact time we arrived, and found us to give them to us, for free? I remember that I went really hypocritical on myself at that time and started feeling really happy about the whole thing, not so much for the money, but for the happenstance of events, and the gesture of the couple, that they found us out because we were Indians, that we Indians do such things. I didn’t know then that this momentary gladness would embed itself in me for a long time.

I checked later that they had saved us near about a total of € 36.

Anyway, we travelled along the canal to the Piazza and saw all the places we wanted to visit, we went to the Lido beach where I had a nice dip and some really nice Italian pizza, came back to the Piazza, all with the same tickets, and had another adventure trying to walk back to the station that maybe I’ll tell you some other day. And all of this in some small extent owed itself to two kind-hearted people who had taken the time and effort to find some people to give their tickets to.

Around a month and half after this, after Vishal had returned home to India, I decided one Friday to go to Prague, Czech Republic on my own for the weekend, because nobody else was available to come along.

Prague was a beautiful place, made more memorable for the experiences in the awesome little Travellers’ Hostel I stayed in (hopefully I’ll write about it some time). In the daytime I went to visit the Prague Castle, the biggest castle in the world. I bought a ticket that included all the buildings inside the castle perimeter. I took a long time going around some of them, and as in most places in Europe they were beautiful.

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It was late afternoon when I realized that 3 or 4 items were still unvisited and thus un-punched on my ticket, but I had not enough time to possibly cover all of them and then walk to the famous old Charles Bridge while there was still some daylight left.

I was about to exit with my unfinished ticket anyway when I caught sight of a group of Indians. They looked like students. I surveyed them as I remembered the Indian couple in Venice from long back and this idea started to crystallize in my head.

I ruminated for a while more, then I walked up to them and asked, ‘Are you Indian?’

The rest, as they say, is history. I can still remember feeling the universe let out a blissful purr as long-forgotten karma balanced itself again at a different place and time.

Anecdotes of Europe #1: The Tipsies of Rome

For a long time I’ve been thinking of blogging about some experiences I had in Europe during my summer Europe trip of 2011. I decided I’d write them down in a single blog post as a series of small anecdotes. I sat down today to write it, and found that just one of the anecdotes gets very long. So I decided finally that I’ll write separate posts for each, and name them all in a series: Anecdotes of Europe. So this shall be the first of them. Hope you enjoy them, and do leave some form of feedback.

It was the evening of 29 May 2011 that I reached Rome for a weekend trip with a friend named Vishal. We left the station to take a look at the Colosseum. After we had spent some time there and it was getting late at night, we discovered, as was common with us, that we had no place to spend the night. We took the usual decision, that of staying in the station for the night. So we returned to the station, Roma Termini, the only big train station in Rome.IMG_2251

We went and sat down on the fixed metal benches inside the station. We decided we needed some sleep, so I clipped my camera bag and backpack through the metal arm of the bench using the carabiner climbing clip on my backpack. Then I buried my head on the backpack and tried to get some sleep. Vishal told me before snoozing off that he is a very light sleeper, and that he’ll wake up if there’s any problem and also early in the morning, so I needn’t worry about anything.

I couldn’t fall asleep very easily. I watched Vishal doze off. I stared around at the station that was now near-deserted. This station had been so lively in the morning, bustling with people, tourists, and Roman youths wooing beautiful girls who were giving away promotional cans of Coke Zero (I remember this because of the girls). There were very few people left in the station now. I thought of Howrah station in Kolkata and chuckled inside.

Then I noticed something else. The station had two gates on either end, and thus formed an open corridor for pedestrians taking a shortcut from one side to the other. Our bench was right in the middle of that corridor, so quite a few people were passing us regularly as they walked through the station. This situation made it even more uncomfortable for me to drift peacefully off to sleep.

Some time later I discovered that the street outside the gate that we were facing had a late night pub, and from this pub there issued a steady stream of drunken people, almost all of whom chose to walk through the station. This is not good, I thought. My DSLR cost a lot of money, and we had our passports, rail passes and a fair amount of cash with us. I glanced at Vishal. He was sleeping comfortably. I was tired as hell and all worn-out, but I couldn’t sleep in the middle of this.

After a while though, the weariness and strain of all the travel and walking lulled me into a deep sleep. I didn’t know then that my apprehensions would very soon be justified.

I don’t know how much later, I felt a sudden tug at whatever was supporting my head. I opened my eyes to find that my backpack was moving away from under my head. I blinked and looked up to find… this mountain. Towering over me, well over 6 feet tall, was this very strongly built black man, almost on the verge of portly. He had a clean, smooth bald head. I swear, he must have been Mike Tyson or a close bloodline. He wore a three-piece suit, and was towing a travel suitcase with wheels. With his other hand, he was pulling at my camera bag that was under my seat. This being clipped on to my backpack was causing it to be tugged away from under my head. His huge head was right in front of my face and he reeked of alcohol that sent my head spinning.

I was scared. Not shit scared, because I could still think and rationalize, but scared nevertheless. I noted out of the corner of my eyes that Vishal was still sleeping.

I looked at this man, mastered all my courage, and said something to the effect of ‘Hey man, what are you doing?’

Realizing from my movements and voice that I was awake, he let go of my camera bag, stood up and looked at me. I think then that he tried to say something, as if to give some justification for what he was doing. But before I could hear him properly, he walked away from the bench, lugging his suitcase behind him.

I looked at Vishal. He was sleeping like a baby. I tried to wake him. No response. I shook him, it didn’t work. Light sleep, huh. Finally I slapped him moderately hard and he woke with bleary red unfocused eyes that gave me quite a scare. I seriously thought I had booted his system while his mind was still being downloaded.

Thankfully he came to terms with his surroundings in a few seconds, and I explained to him what had happened. We decided we’d give sleep another go and hopefully get some rest till morning.

Vishal had just nodded off and I was still awake, when one long, lanky person, shabbily dressed in a T-shirt and very dirty jeans, came and flopped heavily down on the seat between Vishal and me. This sudden jerk jolted Vishal into wakefulness, who saw this man and immediately got pretty scared.

This guy laid his hands in front and started saying something in Italian through a hazy drunken drawl. I looked at his hands. They were dirty as hell. They were black and greasy as if he had been clawing through all the city’s refuse the whole day. He kept talking, as I kept staring at his hands. Then he suddenly leaned back very rapidly and the bench shook. Vishal immediately jolted upright, his face now clearly betraying undiluted fear.

The station had a golf cart in which two policemen would patrol round in intervals. Yes, it was a golf cart. I wish I could say ‘a patrol car shaped like a golf cart’, but it was a plain golf cart, with perhaps ‘Police’ written on it and a symbol. This golf cart had been around a few times, without any use whatsoever. It came around now, and I hoped they’d take the guy away or something. But no, they whirred by in front of us, without so much as a second glance.

The guy now started saying something in a low voice, leaning in towards me. I told him, ‘Hey, I don’t know what you’re saying, okay? I speak English.’ He stared at my face, seeming to understand. Then he tried something in English, but he was only drawling unintelligibly. He kept showing me those abominable palms as he spoke, as if explaining something about them. At the conclusion of his monologue, he put a dirty hand on the jeans of my right leg, slightly above my knee, and nodding gently as if he was speaking to his closest friend, he kept saying, ‘So you understand. So you see.’

That was it for me. I was really pissed off. But at the same time I felt a little funny at all this. I told him, ‘No, I don’t understand. I don’t see anything.’

He stared at my face again for a while, then stood up and teetered away.

Phew, I thought.

At this time the policemen in the golf cart came and stopped in front of us. One of them said, ‘the station is closing. You’ll have to leave.’

What? I thought.  A station, closing?  What is this place? How can a station, the only station in such a big city, just close like that?

Nevertheless, we got up and went outside. It was two in the morning.

Great iron grills rose up slowly and dramatically from the ground and the gates were closed. I stared at this in disbelief and suddenly felt such a fondness for Howrah station again.

The station, we heard, would open again at four. Vishal and I climbed a concrete wall of the subway entrance in front of the station and sat there dangling our legs. There were drunken people all around, coming out of the pub, and broken alcohol bottles littered the street. There were a few sober people around too. We discussed whether we should go in the pub for a while, to pass the time and to be somewhere safer than the streets, but we had stuff with us so we dropped the idea. There was a McDonald’s café, but it had closed at two.

There was a bus terminus beside the station, and I watched in surprise as buses arrived at intervals, packed full of people at this dead of the night, sober, normal people, adults and younger people, men and women, all appeared to be dressed for work, who got off the bus and immediately dissipated in all directions.

After a while when we got very sleepy again, we decided we’d sleep like true homeless people on the pavement outside the station. We walked there and saw already a few people sleeping. They were also travellers seemingly waiting for the station to open again. We found a spot, I clipped everything to my arm, and went to sleep. This time it was a peaceful, unbroken, deep sleep.

The sleep was broken only a couple of hours later by Vishal who told me that the station had opened again. We trudged back in, sat at the benches again, and slept right off.

In the morning we woke again to commotion and hustle and sunlight, people, shopkeepers, travellers and beautiful Roman girls in black tees distributing free Coke Zero. I looked around and couldn’t believe what this place had been at night.

Oh well, that’s Italy, I thought, as we put on our backpacks for another day of adventure.