Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Turn the page...

A post which deviates from my current mission of not gassing my readers to death with senti stuff, but I got to get this off my chest.

It's funny how things work out. I think the fella up there has an incredible sense of humour, I can see him tilt back and laugh loudly, watching me down here below. Every time I have questioned him, questioned his actions, asked, 'why?', it's as if he's just saying, turn the page, dude... there's something else waiting for you.

27th April, 2007. One of the lowest days of my life. 5 IIM rejects in the space of 3 hours is enough to shake the confidence of anybody, especially somebody who already doesn't think too brightly of himself. Never in my wildest dreams would I have enough mulled over what would be reality in just over a year - that I would make it through almost all the places I was interviewed for. A year later, and as that undreamable dream turned into reality, I wondered whether I should be taking my passport along to campus. For what, my cynical self asked. One day before summer placements began, the idea of getting a foreign summers in a batch of 250 fellas, with a profile as average as mine, in one of the worst placement years sounded ridiculous. 7 months later, I stand in my room in Germany, wanting to go back the day after I reached here. Turn the page, dude, a voice inside me said. Just under 2 months later I wish I could not go back, I wish I could continue this awesome journey forever. My second weekend trip, I got bored stiff in the space of 2 hours, and thought that maybe I should just stay at home for the rest of the summer. And then, a page turned, and I ended up wishing I had more weekends. Especially since I had traveled during ALL of them.

Sometimes, I think I missed out just because I didn't turn the page, till somebody ripped the book out of my hand, conked me on the head with it and stuffed a new one back in my hands.

Maybe I need to hear it again. It's time to turn the page. And discover something incredible, beyond my wildest dreams.


Why would a guy from a city in Eastern Europe, throw the doors of his house open for a random stranger who wants a place to stay for 2 nights, then welcome him in and hand him the keys to his house after knowing him for an hour, so that he could come back whenever he wanted from the party that night? A stranger who doesn't speak his language, who is differently coloured, who comes from a culture so completely different, a stranger he will, in all likelihood, never see again in his life. Why would he offer him dinner, breakfast, anything and everything he had in his kitchen, then help him with anything he needed in the city, give him 2 gifts and one awesome home-made cake, and then carry his luggage to the bus station just before his bus left so that he didn't have to lug it around when he went around the city?

What makes more than a million people across the globe open their minds to this concept?

My couchsurfing experiences have left me overwhelmed by the generosity of the human spirit, and the kindness of souls which I have done nothing to deserve. It has raised more questions than answers, but happy questions, questions which make me ponder over the way we lead our lives, scared, afraid, wary, fearful of the unknown, whether it's a place or a person or a community.

I owe you big-time, Marek. And I owe so much to Couchsurfing. I've reached the end of my travels in Europe, but it has been an exceptional and life-changing journey. In the space of 7 weeks, I've discovered a concept which I hope I can use and contribute to as much as possible for the rest of my life. I am sad that I will be leaving Europe soon, but even more that I will not be able to continue this breath-taking journey which is shaking the very foundations of a dozen assumptions and prejudices of mine.


I hit the ground hard, and my head bounced violently off the concrete floor, as the American football player who'd been the reason for me hitting terra firma watched me with a bit of concern. It was my mistake, really, I should have realized that while, in theory, helping the sole Indian girl teach a gang of 200 foreigners the amazingly docile and gentle game of Kabaddi looked like a good idea, in practice, it was rather unadvisable, especially when the group of a hundred foreigners also included some hefty, tall men, apart from a lot of good looking girls. Especially since after teaching them, I couldn't very well not participate, and after participating, not quite take the lead and show them how it's played.

So after the explaining part was over, and it was time for a bit of action, I went into the ring, and well, tried to play the game. The next moment that I remember was the one I described in the beginning. From being the guy who showed them how to do it, to being one whom everybody was looking with the look usually reserved for a quadriplegic, was a rather rapid transition. And boy, it hurt. Not just the bit that my leg was so badly hurt that I could not walk later that evening and could just about hobble around the next day, but because of the realization that a mere casual tackle from that bloke had caused so much damage.

But, I guess I'll take it, for the gang loved the game (so much for it being looked down at in India as uncool and a 'rural' game!). I was in Krakow, Poland, for a couchsurfing meet, and we were picnicking in a small garden. Afternoon was turning into evening, and half the crowd was satiated with gallons of beer and all kinds of food, and wanted something new. And that's when Oindri, the Indian girl who started this stuff came in. It was kind of a tough end to my participation in the proceedings, but then it was looked upon as the highlight of the afternoon by many, so that's fine.

I wonder whether just over a year and half a month ago, I would have, ever, in my wildest dreams, dreamt of me teaching Kabaddi to a group of around a hundred foreigners from around a couple of dozen countries, in a small, unkempt university garden in an east european city which, to be frank, I had never heard of before, and having the time of my life inspite of almost being taken out of circulation.

Life can be the stranger than any, any, any fiction you can think of.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

German websites and other such pure evil...

German webmasters seem to derive a significant portion of their everyday joy from the vile act of sadism. They design a site, all in German, of course, which is fine with me, an act which I don't highly approve of, but which I understand, since the number of customers who will take their business elsewhere is negligible, especially when there isn't much of a choice where to take their business. But why do they then lull these wretched users into a false sense of complacency by putting up a nice, small little link at the top or bottom of their pages saying 'English' is beyond my assumption that most people usually tend to be nice and not mean. The unwary or unaccustomed user, by the lack of his ability to understand a language which he has not been fortunate enough to be born into, tends to click on these things, under the false impression that it will, actually, lead him or her to an English version of the website.

He does that, and sees a page which makes his heart leap with joy; here is finally a business concern which actually values every single customer, and understands the trauma that a visitor goes through when overwhelmed by a string of familiar letters which make no sense to him. He clicks here and he clicks there and makes full use of the multiple tabs options in firefox, only to be suddenly struck by the magnitude of the vile fraud that has been pulled off. For what promised to be an English version of the site was but an English version of the page, and he is stuck with half a dozen brightly coloured and beautifully designed pages in German. Thank god I have a mac which provides me with an otherwise very nice computing experience, for the combination of German websites and annoying windows balloons kindly informing me that my wireless internet connection has now connected would have resulted in one hell of a broken LCD.

Of paid loos and cleaning streets...

Why does a country which has enough money to clean its roads, not the sidewalks, not the signposts, no, the very road surface itself, ask you for money to use a loo? Especially when it's so frigging cold all the time that you start wondering if they forgot to take the stuffings out of your bladder when they rolled you into use, somewhat like trying to put on a shoe without taking out those balls of paper they put inside. Ok, bad analogy, but I'll get on with it. The point is, you need a loo rather too frequently, and it rather annoys me to pay half a euro every time I need to take a leak. I have no fundamental problems with parting with the money, but why they would charge people for facilities as basic as this, WHEN they seem to have so much money to do things which, frankly, seem ridiculous is really astonishing. I can understand the logic in India - if you don't charge money, you get a stinkpot which will put you off food for half a week - and I am ready to pay half a euro even there to use a decent loo - but doing that in a place which is (was?) rolling in the stuff beats me. I see those funny machines BRUSHING the road surface clean, and it makes me realize that there's another addition to the list of things that I just don't understand.

Saturday, May 9, 2009

Strange encounters

It's funny sometimes how somebody reacts to your acts in a manner which is completely unexpected. I was roaming around Stuttgart station, waiting for my train connection. It was slightly late, and I had nothing to do, which meant that I went around in circles, window shopping, all over the place. Stuttgart Hbf (Central Railway Station) isn't very big a place, so I ended up going across the same places a few times. This attracted the attention of a couple of policemen, who looked at me curiously. A non-white guy, lurking around just like that, with a rather large bag on his shoulders should expect that, I guess, in these times. So then, he approached me, and asked for my papers. He stood at a distance of around 3 to 4 feet from me, which necessitated that I took a couple of steps towards him to hand it over, unless I wanted to play catch with the thing. So I stepped closer. An alarmed look spread over his face, and he stepped backwards. Sometimes, you don't quickly understand what is going on, and this was one such occasion, so I stepped ahead again, following which he stepped back a further 2 steps, and we started enacting some sidey Hindi movie song dancing step.

Suddenly it all became very clear, and I couldn't resist a chuckle, and stepped back with my hand extended, passport in it. I understand that they might fear somebody with his hands in his pockets, for what he might pull out from there, and it's consequences, could vary considerably, but to fear a guy with a 170 cm x 55 kg frame who's approaching you with his passport in one hand and very clearly nothing else in the other is somewhat beyond me. Especially when you are a policeman. And a German one.

We need change :|

There seems to be a worldwide agenda against the act of giving change. I mean wherever I've been, across India, Nepal, and now Europe, asking for change gets you a reaction where you wonder if there was some grave mistake in the other person's interpretation of what you said, and whether your words sounded like an invitation for indulging in activities which respectable people - giving the other person the benefit of doubt - do not indulge in with strangers.

I just don't get this. It's not as if they are spectacularly rude or selfish otherwise, but when you request some change for a 500 rupee or 100 Kroner or 50 Euro note, they will all refuse to co-operate with a vehemence which is quite astonishing for an exchange which does not leave either parties worse off, and one of them slightly better. I guess there's something about this fundamentally coded in our DNA. Oh, well...

Of English and the lack of it

Prague is so incredibly tourist friendly... Almost everything is in English apart from Prague, and it's such a relief after visiting some of the bigger western european cities... which seem to be under the erroneous belief that everybody in the world knows their language or the pompous one that everybody who comes there should learn it. Now, I don't mind a country being so proud of it's language that it refuses to have anything else almost anywhere. But to have all sorts of vital information in spots where usually only tourists would read it, only in their native language is rather pushing it and defeating the purpose.

So I was actually thrilled when I kept discovering that they had taken the effort to explain things almost everywhere in English. Even the ticket machines at the small tram stops had English instructions, which, ironically, did not help a group of German tourists at all, who were wondering what to do when faced with a choice of 2 languages, neither of which they seemed to understand much of.

Subway stations in Prague have these large LCD screens which keep showing some videos on subway etiquette. I ignored these, initially, since all of them were only in Czech, but a curious look on the last day made me wish I had observed them properly, for they were the amongst the most brilliantly funny and cute ads I have ever seen. It's remarkable how something as dry as subway etiquette could be taught in a manner so entertaining that you want to let the next train go and keep watching. I was cracking up after watching them one after the other, something which amused Lydia a bit, I think. All the text was in Czech, but it was fairly obvious what they wanted to, for there are not too many different ways in which you can interpret an ad showing a bunch on youngsters occupying all the available seats, and an old lady flying like a flag, holding on to a pole desperately as the train starts, or when a football bounces over a line of passengers' heads on it's way from one youngster to another. Why these range of ads should be only In Czech kind of beat me, but they were still worth watching. I wish I could get them from somewhere off the net, unfortunately, google did not really throw up much that I could make sense of.

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Prague :)

There's something unmistakably charming about Prague which you just cannot pin down. On the surface, there seems to be nothing. But there is something indeed, which makes you feel comfortable and yet bewitched by the old-world charm of this magnificent city.

Right : The Astronomical Clock in Old Town

I got off at the Florenc Bus station on the nippy morning of the first of May. A quick visit to the loo made me realize that it was essential to change my Euros into a few Kroner if I didn't want to pay a 20-30% premium for anything. My couchsurfing contact in Prague, Lydia was supposed to meet me at 6.15 here, and I had half an hour to kill, which I did by roaming around and taking wild guesses about any random female being her.

6.30, and still no signs of anybody looking even remotely interested in me, and I decided to send her a message. Well, she'd overslept, and were meeting at 9. That was fine with me, I could wait for the currency exchange to open at 7 and then drop off my stuff at the hostel. I had used the subway system in Paris and Vienna, so I thought this would be easy too, but the Prague subway takes a wee bit more careful attention. It is not too tough, but they dont have so many signboards and notices and arrows as the other ones. In Paris and Vienna, you would have to rather dumb or compete with a bat for blindness to really miss something, but here, they probably thought that it was not too bad an idea to let the occasional bunch of tourists see the Prague castle rather than have yet another round of shopping at Palladium. Maybe they'll change that, with the way the recession is biting, and make it the other way round for a while...

Right : One of the ancient Jewish synagogues

So I wandered out of some rather tough-to-pronounce-for-my-non-Czech-tongue railway station, and tried to proceed towards a similar tram station. Unfortunately, the council probably tries to keep the tourists off the trams - there are so many of them, or maybe I should say us - it's not a bad idea if you let a few of them rest for a while in the zillions of parks and benches they have everywhere rather than fill the trams. So there was nothing to indicate where I should be heading. I wandered down a street, and found a man walking along. He stopped when he saw me, and a hint of a smile covered his face. I offered a hesitant 'excuse me', to which he his face lightened up with a genuine smile and he went 'How can I help you?', and then proceeded to tell me just where the tram station was. Wow.

The Hostel was seemed rather nice, although I believe they had forgotten to put up a board outside which announced that this, indeed, was HostelOne, so I had to bear the risk of ringing a random bell and have a rather cheesed off Czech fella hollering at me for ruining his public holiday slumber in a language which I couldn't even read, forget understand. What they do with so many consonants and so few vowels kind of beats me.

A quick bath and dumping of my luggage in the luggage room later, I left for Winceslas square where Lydia was going to meet me. We were going to meet under the large horse, which seemed like a good idea, until I saw that the place was swarming with half of Prague's tourist population. A bit more of the guessing-whether-she's-the-one game, na she's looks a tad too old, na she's way too young, na, oops, she's actually a he, later, she walked up to me and introduced yourself. Sometimes it helps to be the only person who looks a fair bit different from the rest. It would have been jolly fun if I was also a white westerner, we would have played catch me if you can around the horse for a few times before realizing that we both had mobile phones and could call each other.

And so we roamed around, all over the place, seeing majestic castles and towering, err, towers and ancient clocks, and really ancient synagogues and a whole lot of a lot else. As usual, we discussed about a zillion things, the Czech Republic, India, Germany and since she was from there, Slovakia.

Right to Left : My right shoe, me, Lydia, Ondrej and Branislav

No, I don't have one exceptionally large foot... just an exceptionally awkward pose :|

It was 3 incredible days. The first one went in seeing the usual touristy stuff, which was rather beautiful, but a wee bit tiring because of so many
tourists. The evening was rather nice, at a Slovak students party, where they tried their darndest to get me drunk, by making me have 3 shots of some rather strong Pear liquor, neat, thank you very much, followed by Vodka and something else which I now find it tough to remember :P Unfortunately, just as things had started to get a wee bit wild, we had to leave to catch the last bus, since this place was somewhere rather far away from the city. We had a dozen odd Slovaks with us, all in different stages of inebriation, who proceeded to ask me anything and everything about India. They were incredibly friendly and nice, and there was never a hint of malice or a trace of superiority in their voices even when we talked about something about India which wasn't exactly nice. I really liked these guys, and it made me want to visit Slovakia a lot. I got off at my stop, and realized to my relief that I was in pretty ok shape to make the 5 minute walk back to my room :)

The second day was spent in sunbathing on the banks of the Vltava river, and soaking our feet into the water to remind us that it was rather cold, and it was not a very bright idea to have a dip in it. 2 of Lydia's friends joined us. They were really fun company and slightly crazy at times, which I believe is a very good trait to have, especially when I have it in abnormal quantities. We then went to this hillock which looked upon the entire city, and was surrounded by a small forest. It was a stunning view, and I wish I could just sit there for an entire day, taking in the sight.

Right : Moi on the hill-top

Sunday, and we had just a few hours left, for I had to catch a bus back to Germany in the evening. We went up the Eiffel Tower replica, not a bad effort, though I think they got bored of it after a while and decided that they needn't make it too tall after all. The view from the top is fantastic, though, and it's well worth the hike up the spiral staircase.

After a long walk down, Lydia decided that it was time to take me to a vegetarian restaurant. I was wondering what they would have in a veggie restaurant in eastern europe, when we walked into proper indian restaurant. A few bites and I couldnt believe myself... this was way better than what I would get in a few places back home! Superb food, and really authentic Indian stuff, not the rich, greasy stuff you tend to associate foreign indian food with. This was the stuff, seriously!

Right : Lydia and a rather zonked looking moi

Another hour spent on a park bench, soaking up the sun, and it was time to go. Prague and its people had left me enchanted and wishing for more. It was a beautiful place with really friendly people, and it left me wondering if I could change my travel plans for next week, chuck Zurich, and somehow find my way into Slovakia or Ukraine instead. I mean where else would some really, really nice girl troop around for 3 days with a twisted and strapped ankle (I realized the strapped bit later :| ) with some random stranger just so that he could see what was not even her native city? Oh, Eastern Europe!