Saturday, August 24, 2013

Bali Trip - Day 5 - Relaxing by the ocean

The day turned out to be exactly as expected.  My outside chance of exploring the north west of the Island was soon not to be as the journey was expected to take 12-13 hours and I had a flight to catch tomorrow. So we decided to have a leisurely breakfast, indulge in the famous Balinese Spa and go out to explore the beach.

The beach was a 5 min stroll from the hotel. We had an early afternoon brunch in a restaurant by the beach following which we strolled on to the beach. The beach was lovely and the bright afternoon sun did nothing to dampen 2 hours of fun in the rather shallow beach bordering the Indian ocean. As the evening progressed we could really feel the waves getting larger. We only left reluctantly when our daughter started shivering a bit. In the evening,  we went shopping nearby, but beyond 6pm there are hardly any shops open.  I wish I could inculcate such work life balance.

We gave a coffee shop a try for dinner, and had to struggle hard to get "real" vegetarian food in our plates. Out of mainstream restaurants, people are just as polite and friendly, but may not be aware of any special needs like ours. Looking back at our trip while awaiting dinner, we were content with what we have seen and experienced, and wore a smile on our faces as we left the shop. If there is one thing we would remember best about the trip, it would have to be the majestic Indian Ocean and our trysts with it by Tanah Lot, but my daughter would probably vote for the monkeys of Ubud!

Embarkation was a breeze compared to Immigration, and we whiled away our time at the airport as the airplane was 1 hour late. On arrival in Singapore, we really tore into the dosa on offer at midnight! We were already talking about exploring Yogyakarta and planning for a year-end trip on our way back home :)

Bali Trip - Day 4 - Northern Bali

My wife and I are usually opposites,  but we woke up feeling something common - that we wanted to get the hell out of this hotel and Candidasa in general. We discussed a couple of options during breakfast. When the tour driver came, I checked that with a Rp 100k top up, he was willing to drop us at Legian tonight after the trip. It would have taken Rp 350k to get from Candidasa to Legian on a normal day,  so it was a good deal. I rushed back to the hotel,  booked my previous hotel in Legian (who even offered a Rp 5k discount per night due to repeat business), told the current hoteliers how unsatisfactory the experience was for us and packed our bags. My wife even managed to negotiate a 50% refund on the booking,  which was the sweetener.  We boarded the car feeling light and happy.

With the burden off our chest,  we were looking forward to the trip with the most scenic locations on the cards, including the biggest temple in Bali, a volcanic mountain and a waterfall. It started drizzling and we were silently that it doesn't become more intense. Weather reports had predicted rain on Wed and Thu, so we were concerned.  Although it did become intense, the rain stopped much before our 2 hour journey ended in the scenic Besakih temple.

Besakih Temple is called the Mother temple by the locals and rightly so.  It unfortunately also means that this place is highly commercialized with people creating business opportunities out of nowhere to swindle tourists.  It started out in the ticket,  where they swindled me of Rp 5k more. When I started questioning them, they conveniently started conversing in Bahasa Indonesia.  I waited for a while and realised that I am fighting a losing battle against pros, so I gave up.  But that made me more determined for the rest of the temple tour. Sarong is a pre requisite to enter any Balinese temple.  In all other temples we were provided free sarongs and people couldn't have bothered less if we did not return them.  However here, a whole host of shops charge you for renting sarong. We managed to get the best deal where they check the tickets,  with Rp 5k per sarong. Another novel idea is that they had blocked a 1 km stretch of perfectly driveable road leading to the temple and rent out motorbikes or offer rides from Rp 10k per person. We refused and carried our kid and bags uphill to the temple.

The temple was awe inspiring, set in a picturesque locale with an awesome view of Bali below. We went up the stairs just to find a self styled security guard blocking our way in. He gave some funny reason for us not being able to enter the temple,  although tradition can be "side stepped with a tip of USD 7 per person". Although it was blatantly obvious that he was lying, I went ahead with an offer to avoid any confrontation.  Inside the temple was mind blowing,  with 7 tiers of the temple each at a higher altitude than the previous.  We went all the way just for the experience although it was a bit arduous with the kid and bags.

The view from the top made us feel it was worth parting with the swindle money to get to the highest viewable point in Bali. It started to drizzle again so we hurried down. While coming down we realized that there is a path on the side which is not "guarded" and therefore is free to enter.  We also noticed the local guides, who charge upwards of USD 10, use the side path with their clients. Too late but no regrets. We had the best view in town for a small price!

Onwards from Besakih temple lies Kintamani, a single road township primarily revolving around tourism.  It has a lovely view of Lake Batur and Mt Batur, one of the active volcanoes in Indonesia. Our driver told us that anything that is thrown on the face of the volcano grts burnt within 15 minutes! Not sure how true it is, but it just made looking at the volcano that tweeny bit more exciting. Lake Batur formed a lovely backdrop to the volcano. Having a pretty decent buffet lunch while admiring these two natural beauties made it very memorable. This was my first experience looking at an active volcano close up, so I am pretty sure that this memory will stick with me for a very long time.

A long 2 hour journey from Kintamani to the famous Git Git Waterfall was quite strenuous as the car wound through numerous continuous twists and turns of the mountain roads, making my daughter throw up and both of us almost throw up. A timely suggestion by my wife to get Sprite Lemon from one of the shops helped me avoid one. Git Git waterfall is a 500m trek through mountain stone pathway.  Again, although it's only half a kilometer,  it looked quite long and was definitely more exciting than the uphill walk in Besakih.

The waterfall was majestic. Although people couldn't get too close due to the force of the falling water, the spray hit us almost 20m away. The shops along the way all sold spices which I believe would be home grown.  The irrigation system used for terrace farming on the mountain slopes is another thing that caught my eye and brought a smile remembering my geography lessons.  Bali's diverse landscape has made me rehearse a lot of my geography lessons during this trip.

It was a long 2.5 hour drive back to Legian where we felt like we are back home. I almost fainted at a slight stench that came from the toilet but that immediately disappeared. Maybe it was just my paranoia from our previous accommodation. All this unplanned accommodation changes had drained my cash, so I had to go to my dear neighbourhood money changer again. This time I played ball, hiding a $10 bill in the middle of $20 bills. He almost fell for the trap, but the teller found out. I just had a wry smile and walked out with my money.

I had a small accident when on my way buying dinner, being hit by a reversing car that was purely my mistake. However,  I escaped with a minor cut to one of my fingers. A very exciting day indeed. After a relaxing dinner,  I am just done cataloging my journey so far. No plans so far for the last two days, but we wouldn't mind taking it a bit easier after a busy few days. We still haven't explored the western side of the island, which is dotted with mountains,  but not sure if anything is interesting over there. Something for tomorrow.

Bali Trip - Day 3 - Central and Eastern Bali

After a glorious day yesterday, we were fully excited about the day ahead,  although it was a couple of temples that we had planned to visit. Based on Internet reviews, we had selected Pura Saraswathi in Ubud and Tirtha Empul in Tampaksering.  Tiirta Ganga in Candidasa was dropped as it would have been a
stretch to cover in one day. Ubud is a hilly region, so the drive was beautiful with lovely canyons and twisty narrow roads,  although since they use a mixture of volcanic soil,  the roads are in good condition. Near the monkey forest,  we realised that there is only a hotel called Puri Saraswathi and no temple.

So we de-toured into the Monkey forest,  and glad we did that.  I have never seen so many monkeys before! And they were extremely comfortable with people and even aggressive if we don't give them any food items we carry.  My kid was sooper excited and didn't want to go away at all! One of the local visitor even got his hand bitten trying to defend his infant's milk bottle, but chose to salute the monkey god for his kindness in not taking away the milk. Such is the  faith of these Balinese Hindus in the Muslim majority country.

A one hour drive ahead brought us to Tirtha empul, which was the site where Sage Agasthya was requested to come and bless the parched land and bring water. After 14 days tapas, he tapped the land with his stick and out poured water into this thirsty land. Even now,  Balinese from all over the Island come to this place to bath in the holy water and wash off their sins.  We managed to witness one such prayer.

We then travelled down east to Candidasa, a beach resort on the eastern shores. The 2 hour scenic drive with mountains on one side and sea on the other brought us to the small town of Candidasa where there was an array of beach resorts and villas. We were staying at the Bali Palm resort which came highly recommended from a friends friend. First impressions were good with an apartment in the style of a villa right on the edge of the beach with a full size swimming pool overlooking the Lombok strait. However once inside, it all went pear shaped. It can't get worse than a mosquito infested house with a toilet that stinks and a flush that doesn't err flush!

We went for a walk to get some fresh air and saw a cliffy beach where we sampled the local coconut. We might have been a bit more adventurous with the local food stall if not for the kid. On the way,  one of the local drivers was checking about a trip tomorrow, so we jumped at the opportunity to negotiate a good price for the Northern Bali trip, which was half what the hotel guys were charging. We sampled the customized vegetarian dishes from the restaurant watching the sea do its thing. We fell asleep sooner than on any other day mainly because we were fed up.

Bali Trip - Day 2 - Southern Bali

Today started off just like yesterday ended.  I did not think we will get too much done. Although we had done much of the preparatory work yesterday,  we were slow off the blocks.  After a leisurely breakfast, I enquired about a private transport only to realise to my horror that none were available.  I went outside the
hotel to find some transportation option. Although there was one tour operator right opposite the hotel,  and he tried his best calling up 10 different people,  he confirmed my worst fears that people usually book a day in advance,  so nothing was available.  Distraught,  I was thinking of negotiating a fixed price for a taxi (or teksi in this part of the world), when the receptionist gave me a piece of good news that she had found someone.  Although the quote was in the higher end of the spectrum at 500k for 8 hours, I did not have much of an option to negotiate. While waiting for the SUV to arrive, I decided to avoid a similar fate tomorrow by booking a private tour with the operator next door, which would take us north and then east to our next hotel in Candidasa.

So finally we were off with a seemingly friendly driver at 11.15am, quite late by Bali standards. Our plan for today was to cover Southern Bali, including Uluwatu, Sanur and Tanah Lot. I was surprised at the amount of traffic on a Monday late morning here, but thankfully it dissipated after the airport.  The ride to Uluwatu was a lovely journey in itself,  winding through mountain roads, through a fairly big university and polytechnic,  through the undulating but well maintained roads. One such road literally went down and up like a roller coaster! Thankfully our driver didn't drive like one.  He kept a nice conversation going, be it our shared Hindu culture or differences in food habits,  briefing about the significance of all the good and great about Bali.  I wondered if I will ever be able to describe Chennai or Singapore with such enthusiasm.

At Uluwatu,  we were warned enough and more about the monkeys, but there were hardly any apart at the entrance.  We quickly avoided the self styled temple tour guide who was keen to show us around (and ask for some fat bucks at the end). We had the first glimpse of the roaring and majestic Indian ocean at this southern most tip of the Island. With gusty winds it was difficult holding onto both my kid and the umbrella that the driver kindly lent us. Another point that we realised is that although the sun seems to be belting down and is very bright,  the actual temperature is  lower around 29 degrees.

Next stop was a quick stop on the way to admire the surfer beach of Padang Padang with its dashing waves and decent sized beach by Bali standards, which has mostly cliffs. Our driver was almost tired searching for a vegetarian restaurant on the long drive to Sanur, so we gave him a break by having take away lunch from McDonald's @ Sanur. We went to a nice cosy Batik weaving place and learnt a little about the process of making Batik, although the main reason for going there was shopping.  Dresses for kids were expensive though.

A comparatively short 1 hour drive later, we were in Tanah Lot, a must see location with a beautiful seashore temple and a glorious sunset. This reminded me a lot about Mahabalipuram.  I started noticing facets of the Balinese architecture,  such as the unique construct of the temple gates,  as if someone had sliced a gopuram in half with a big sword. We were literally blown away by the gusty wind and the spray from the ocean. Near the temple,  we were drenched by the ocean waves and were completely elated.

It appeared that you can catch the sunset from almost anywhere, every place offering its own unique view and serenity that can only be experienced, not described in words. We personally preferred the main temple itself, although due to the crowd and the kid, we chose a restaurant at the end with a full 300 degree view of the ocean.  The sunset was glorious,  but we were a bit shortchanged due to the cloudy weather,  making the sun appear to set in the clouds rather than in the ocean. Due to our strategic location, we were one of the first out, and just about made it back to our dinner by the 8 hour limit set by the tour company.

We chose to have dinner at the Gateway of India at Jalan Abhimanyu, a stones throw away from Queens Tandoor. Although the ambience was not that great, resembling a local dhaba,  the quality of food was
comparable and slightly cheaper at about Rp 200k per couple.  Service is where they were way above the more posh Queens, with the staff babysitting most of the time to allow us to have a less rushed dinner. The serving was also rather generous. Better pick for anyone looking for a decent Indian meal. It was only a short walk to the hotel, although it appeared longer with a cranky kid wanting to sleep. I wanted to quickly change some money on the way since I spotted some genuine authorized money changer (PVA authorized). However, that only minimizes the risks of cheating,  as if I wasn't sharp with my maths, I would have got swindled to the tune of Rp 800k (about 100 USD). Do your calculation, be the last to count your money and always use your own calculator. Tips from the Internet that proved very useful indeed.

Bali Trip - Day 1 - Welcome to Bali!

A day of firsts. This is the first time that we are travelling with our kid anywhere apart from India;  the first time we are visiting Indonesia;  the first time that we are crossing over the equator to the southern hemisphere; and to top it all off,  the first time that I have ever planned a trip in 1 day.

The day started off on a wet note, with rain lashing Singapore. My daughter for once wanted to sleep in,  but we had a flight to catch! After waiting for the cab for ages,  we took the bus down to the airport.  The previous flight trips were chaotic, but since my daughter had grown up quite a bit,  she was all excited about the flight. She even managed to find other planes crisscrossing the skies and slept for most of the 2.5 hour journey, while we were overwhelmed by the ease with which we reached Bali.

Bali is supposed to be an island paradise with a lot to do. I did manage to get a packed itinerary for a week within 1 day. Bali's airport is in an equally idyllic setting, right up on the sea shore with waves lashing at the end of the runway. The airport itself is beautifully crafted in rich Balinese tradition,  which made me wonder how many man days would have been required for building the airport.

Once inside the airport though, chaos seemed to reign. For some reason, they dont accept the local currency Rupiah for providing visa on arrival,  so visitors have to shell out USD.  I had asked my wife to stand in the winding queue for the immigration in the meantime and soon I was regretting my decision as I could not locate them in the maddening crowd. Chennai Ranganathan street is the closest I have been to in terms of the crowd. Queues are vaguely defined, and some people seemed to be more equal than others since immigration officials were escorting them with minimum fuss. I was already drawing parallels with India when I again lost my wife and kid in the crowd. After nightmarish scenes, almost 2.5 hours of jostling in the queues, witnessing low level scuffles and finding my better halves,  jeez was I glad to get out of the immigration counter! Luggage and customs were literally another long winded affairs, but experience did help. Taxi system is probably the best feature of the airport and was a seamless affair,  although I was asked to pay the driver once I alight, which rang alarm bells as I was half expecting him to say "sorry no change" and swallow Rp 25 grand!  However,  although the old uncle who drove the taxi did say that, he did ask me to check with the hotel reception whether they had some change,  thankfully saving a bit of money in the process. Bali's streets were rich in heritage and the same as something I would associate with a small town in India.

Hotel Ananta Legian is a decent 4 star hotel in the middle of nowhere,  although supposedly close to the beach (yet to verify). The staff showed us a glimpse of Balinese hospitality,  which was lovely. By the time we settled down, it was way past sunset, so we just went out for dinner.  The hotel restaurant did not have any vege options, so went out. Queens Tandoor in Seminyak seems to be quite well known for Indian food, so we gave it a try.

For a pricey meal of north Indian fare,  we couldn't spend much time to relish the food, given our daughter was about to nod off. The breads were a bit too stiff for our liking, but the service was excellent with typical Balinese captivating smile and hospitality that made the Rp 250k worth it. I can't remember the last time we had such a service. Even if we dont see much of Bali, and going by today's story I wouldn't bet against it, I would at least like to enjoy the Balinese hospitality for a few more days. That was the most refreshing thing today. We have stacked up for tomorrow from one of the numerous 24 hour convenience stores in Seminyak/ Legian so that we can venture out. Even the hotel staff warned us not to drink the tap water, so mineral water is a must have. So much for today and hoping for a better tomorrow!

Tuesday, December 06, 2011

Precious Thots

There is so much to write
That I dont know where to start
You have left an imprint so bright
That a lifetime will not help distort

The journey so far, travelled so fast
Has been filled with memories from the recent past
Leaving me dumbstruck in considerable awe
That I had to fall back on my forgotten poetic skills to hem and haw

A lot of happiness and excitement
Interspersed with a lot of anxiety and disappointment
Your birth has been a miracle of life itself
A story so lush with action of yourself

The anxiety started much in advance by everyone
With your arrival eagerly expected and prayers done
I was the first to know the news, slightly before it came
For I had read tonnes of literature on the same

So when the results came, I was thoroughly overjoyed
And we shared the happy news with everyone and enjoyed
But immediately came the scare, bringing a tear
Rushing us to the hospital in nervous fear

The first 3 months were quite hectic
With your demanding mom becoming more erratic
With weird requests late at night, it was hard going
But for you my dear, nothing was beyond my doing

I have been following your growth right from when you were 8mm long
When I first saw you, a lovely angel with a heart fluttering strong
That brings tears of joy to my eyes even as I recollect the moment, so frozen in time
The most enduring of images there ever will be, seeing a life being born from mine.

Just when things were settling down in earnest
And everyone was getting excited and getting some needed rest
There came another shocker to our hearts, another stern test
For getting a baby as precious as you, everything has to be at its best!

I already had the checklist ready based on my extensive research
And was glad when the doctor checked all the boxes based on her scan and search
But my heart stopped a beat when she consulted her senior and saw a shift in her tone
And the mood became sombre when she finally broke the news that you dont have a nose bone!

This event triggered the most frantic search ever
From the US to India to Australia, family members wherever
To understand whether further diagnosis is absolutely required or not
Given the procedure will put you at risk, we didnt want to, but we were in a knot

At the end, we decided to put your well being at the forefront
And trust in the power of prayer from everyone we knew, and bear the brunt
Your mom had the courage to take in the longest needle I have ever seen
All to ensure that you are safe and healthy, the most precious gift there has even been.

The results came out normal, bringing collective relief after a while
And from then on, with due extra care, you didnt give us any further surge in bile
You took your own sweet time to finally develop your sweet little nose
But everyone around you went into panic mode until then, I suppose!

The first kick you gave had your mother screaming in joy and chime
And gave me the same feeling as seeing your heart beat for the first time
As days went on, she was making me jealous as you were responding to only her brush
But then soon realised that I had a calming effort on your adrenaline rush

We enjoyed the days counting down to the arrival of my dame
Scouring the internet and arguing countless times over your name
While enjoying your attention from inside your mom's tummy, constantly shifting positions
And keeping you engaged and singing lullabies through my ameteurish piano compositions

There was no shortage of drama just prior to your birth, a week ahead
First rushing us to think you wanted to meet me in a hurry, turning all our plans on its head
And then when we have finished re-scheduling everything, taking your time to come out
Keeping all of us waiting and guessing, 26 hours in all, even to the point the doctors were in doubt.

I was there all along, keeping your mom and yourself company, anxious after every BP drop
Waiting for my precious daughter to arrive, my most sought after prize
And then as suddenly as it was, there was a surge of activity and your head appeared with a pop
Taking even the doctor and experienced nurses by complete surprise

November the 12th, just as my sister always wanted and I had secretly hoped,
You came out with a loud sneeze, and just as soon I had you enveloped
My darling was in my hands and the next 15 mins were absolute bliss at last
Just you and me, looking into each other's eyes, while an eternity walked past

Not a word spoken, not a cry heard, you were just exploring with your eyes dashing
Having me completely mesmerised, I wouldnt have noticed if the world came crashing
I would have even failed to capture the previous moment if not for a eager nurse who told
Hearing her complement your long eyelashes, I was filled with pride as a dad only a few minutes old!

Then started the flurry of calls I didnt want to make
Although only a few minutes it would eventually take
I didnt want to lose even a few seconds of that precious time
When that instant connection was established between us, poetic beyond rhyme.

Even your great grand mother flew in at 85 yrs to witness your birth
So precious were you, although at 2.6 kg you were quite small in girth
Of all the names shortlisted, Sahana (Patience) was finally chosen as it struck a chord
And it did resemble the times you have made us desparately wait for you to break free from your cord.

To say that your mom has been through everything to bring you here
Is but a massive understatement, for the sacrifices she made for you my dear
From her food to her job, from her sleep to her greatest fear
Has all been for you and only you, my precious one born in the Rabbit year.

There is a lot more to say, but I am sure this verse is just one of aplenty
To describe my loveable girl that I have always wanted, my most precious dainty
But what better way to celebrate my 30th birthday than to compose this poem, long overdue
Smiling ear to ear as I commence describing the precious thots about you!

Random Access
The search has just begun !!! (to find my way back to earth from Cloud 9 - on second thot, I dont want to!)

Friday, February 26, 2010

Song of the day

I am not a fanatic of the Airtel Super Singer Junior, but once in a while I jump from my computer to hog the TV screen to hear one of the younger ones blast out the most beautiful of songs. I do at times feel dejected when they dont render my favorite songs as per my wishes. I am definitely not a vocal expert and my judgement usually defers from those of the judges!

It was one of those days today when I was just rivetted in front of the TV for 4 minutes, hearing Prasanna and Srinisha render one of the most melodious love duets in recent times, "Kangal Irandal" from Subramaniapuram. As astonishing as it seems, I havent heard this song of the year 2008 till today. But it was so impressive that the song runs in a loop for the past 2 hrs in my DVD player and I have hunted down all relevant youtube videos. I have hardly been so excited about a song in a long time, like this one.

I would be extremely glad if someone gives me the link to the Super Singer Junior version. Music not only breaks down barriers, but its the best medicine for a sick guy like me who is recovering from a surgery. The song definitely made my day today!

PS: Prasanna, you rock machi!!! I have become your fan after today's rendition!

Kangal irandal unn kangal irandal
ennai katti izhuthai izhuthai poodhadhenna
chinna chiripil oru kalla chiripil
ennai thalli vittu thalli vittu mooddi maraithai (x2)

Peysa enni silla naal aarugil varuven
pinbu paarvai podhum enna naan ninaithen nagardheney maatri
kangal ezhudhum iru kangal ezhudhum
oru vanna kavithai kaadhal thaanaa
oru varthai illaiye idhil oosai illaiye idhai irrulillum paddithidda mudigiradhey

iravum alladha pagallum alladha pozhudhugal unnoddu kazhiyumaa
thoddavum koodadha paddavum koodadha iddayivelli appodhu kuraiyummaa

madiyinil saindhidda thoodikudhey
marupuram nygaanamum naddukudhey
idhuvarai yaariddamum solladha kadhai

Kangal irandal unn kangal irandal
ennai katti izhuthai izhuthai poodhadhenna
chinna chiripil oru kalla chiripil
ennai thalli vittu thalli vittu mooddi maraithai

thiraigal anddadha kaatrum thinddadha
manadhurkul eppodhu nuzhandhittai
uddallum alladha uruvam kolladha kadavulai poll vandhu kalandhittai

unnai andri vear oru ninaivillai
inni indha vuon uyir ennadhillai
thaddai illai saavillumey
unnoddu varra

kangal ezhudhum iru kangal ezhudhum
oru vanna kavithai kaadhal thaanaa
oru varthai illaiye idhil oosai illaiye idhai irrulillum paddithidda mudigiradhey

Peysa enni silla naal aarugil varuven
pinbu paarvai podhum enna naan ninaithen nagardheney maatri

Kangal irandal unn kangal irandal
ennai katti izhuthai izhuthai poodhadhenna

chinna chiripil oru kalla chiripil
ennai thalli vittu thalli vittu mooddi maraithai

Random Access
The search has just begun !!!

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

An Ode to the 200

I have always considered Sachin a very good batsman, a very good selfish batsman who ensures that people talk about him 20 years after he has retired, much like his mentor and city-dweller Gavaskar. Famously, fierce foes from both sides of the border, Gavaskar and Javed Miandad, concurred on one thing, that this new kid on the block will re-write all batting records. Well, may not be everything, but definitely he replaced one yesterday. And what a knock that was!

Enough has been said by now in the surprisingly low 893 news articles in google news about the match and the context in which he achieved it, which I read through all morning. Having missed the live version yesterday until my passionate friends rang me up to tease me, I even caught the replay of the entire innings in my own 4*4inch tv, aka mosaic in this part of the world, as I wanted to write a proper account of it. What caught by attention was the quality of the innings, rather than the number of runs scored. Here was a guy timing his innings to perfection, he wanted to achieve the landmark and he knew exactly what he had to do to achieve that. Having gone to 191 in the 43rd over, he strolled to his 200 in the 50th over and left it till the very end, keeping the billions watching to the edge of their seats. No one knew whether he would make it, but for himself. He also was keen to ensure that he batted the whole 50 overs "to test himself", so that injects more sense into it. It was least surprising for me, who has watched almost all of his 46 hundreds, and his agonising and lengthyyyyyyyyy 90s.

That Sachin would be the first to the landmark was a bit surprising to me. I would have expected the dasher version of Sachin in the 90s to have done it, I would have expected the frenzy of Sehwag to have accomplished that, I would have to even think the 6 hitting chaos of Jayasuriya to have gone past it. But the Sachin of today is more focussed, he knows he doesnt have the time left in him and he has to make the most of what comes to him. With 10 hundreds in the last 12 months, and with 93 centuries to his name now, I am sure hes on the right track. Yesterday, he could not have asked for a better combination than a small ground, flat pitch that road contractors would be proud of, a number of able partners who took the pressure off him and a wayward attack that pours full tosses and full length balls. But still, the credit goes to him for making it stick, where a lesser player would have thrown his wicket away.

Although I do crib about the selfish attribute of Sachin's innings, there have been some classy innings by Sachin which I have admired along the way. The Perth genius of 1991, The Cape Town massacre of 1996 with Azhar, Desert Storm at his peak in 1998 and a lesser version of it in Australia 2009, the Chennai heartbreak of 1999 which I happened to watch live at the stadium and the equally poignant Hyderabad version of 2009, the World Cup classic against Pakistan in 2003 are the ones that have stuck to my mind. Being a critic of Sachin is never easy, but given only a handful of gems in 600+ innings doesnt make my feelings any better.

I always rate the quality of an innings by a few factors, the number of edges, the number of threes, the number of fours to name a few. The bowling attack is irrelevant as you are as likely if not more likely to get out to a poor shot than to a good ball. It is in this respect that the innings yesterday stands out for it was of an outstanding quality. Sachin had the discipline yesterday to rival his cover drive-cutting innings of Sydney 241 and Nagpur 100. He hardly had any edges, with every ball striking the middle cleanly. It was phenomenal that in 50 overs and 200 hard runs, there wasnt even one half chance. That the maximum consecutive dot ball count was 4 at the start of the innings is a glorious statistic. He even ran two 3s, and quite a few singles, which has characterised all his innings and shows that he doesnt mind working hard for his runs. He doesnt mind having to run unlike some of the lazy bums around in international cricket content with whacking the balls out of the ground. The 25 fours that he hit yesterday was another record I am proud of, cos it means he found the gaps to the boundary on a small field with 11 fielders on it. This is where the men are sorted out from the boys who whack 6s like in street cricket. His accumulation of runs were brilliant, his 50s taking 37, 53, 28 and 29 balls respectively. This is where most of the dashers like Sehwag, Jayasuriya and Afridi fail. Theirs is more likely to read 19-26-out. The beauty of the innings is the way the acceleration comes after reaching the primary 100. While the others done care if they get out at 0 or 99, Sachin doesnt care whether he gets out at 100 or 139. Definitely, he does care about 99, 149 or 199, where he wouldnt mind offering a perfect defensive stroke or two to the combined agony of a billion souls ;) And the way he takes a single to fine leg or square leg or third man to invariably reach his hundred off a single behind the wicket is testamount to his superior skills of eschewing risks while reaching landmarks.

Sachin is definitely the world's premier run machine whose consistency is outstanding. While there could be one off wonders like Zimbabwe's Coventry who will continue to threaten this record created yesterday, I am sure there will be some like his overall ODI run tally that will stand the test of time, similar to the first ODI 200 which took 39 years in the making. Records are meant to be broken, like he himself said it, but class is permanent. He is a class apart when it comes to run scoring and creating benchmarks for others. Hats off to Sachin on breaking the unbreakable. Like the famous Roger Bannister's mile under four minutes, I expect that many will follow suit now that the seemingly unbreakable has finally been broken. If there is a winner yesterday, its the spirit of sportsmen, which constantly breaks the barriers considered unbreakable.

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Sunday, January 03, 2010

Europe Day 13 - London

Today is the last day of the tour, and had loads of time to reminiscence all that happened. The flight was in the evening, so we had a slow and easy morning lazing around and packing our stuff. It didn’t appear much when we bought it, most of it small items, but only when it all went in that we knew exactly how much. With suitcases blown up to their maximum limits, we were sitting on top of them to close it. We went to the airport quite early and it helped as there was a bit of an issue with the VAT refund counter. Not being chauvinistic, but the ladies usually tend to be more aggressive than men when handling these kind of roles, especially customs and any refund. As usual, there was an Indian and a Chinese looking woman at the counter. I knew what was coming when the Chinese woman accused the previous customer who was talking in an East European language of accusing her in a foreign tongue. She refused both my requests without any consideration, and I had to go to the VAT counter after immigration where it was fine within 2 minutes. We were laughing when we were told stories about the inflexibility during check in and VAT counter, where they did not even give refund for a pen!

On board the flight, I was doing a quick recap of the tour and what I found special about each of the places I have been to, and the people there. In short, this is how I would describe the people based on my extremely short time spent there.

Italy – Stylish
Austria – Beautiful
Switzerland – Graceful
Germany – Hot
Netherlands - Fabulous
Belgium - Homely
France – Elegant
England – Sophisticated

The trip has definitely been quite a fantastic one, with so many different experiences and visiting so many places in such a short time. Although rushed and I cannot claim to have visited any place in great detail, this tour was meant to be an introduction to central Europe and enable us to identify which parts we would like to explore more in detail. I would definitely want to visit Switzerland and France again, spending a lot more time to comprehend all that these countries have to offer. I have been thrilled and fascinated by Europe during winter, coming from the tropics to experience the snow and the chill. It has been great to spend this Christmas and New Year in Europe and this trip will always remain in my memory.

Europe Day 12 - Paris and London

Paris was a very fascinating city in most aspects. Today morning, we were supposed to board the Eurostar to London, so we arrived at the Nord station 3 hours before, after a nice French breakfast including the tastiest croissant. The station wasn’t very massive, but had enough facilities to keep the travelers busy. It was a unique sight seeing quite different engines in each platform, ranging from the Paris local train to the German TGV to the French Eurostar. Sensing the opportunity to click more photos, I went out looking for the right angles and the right light setting. I came back after a while, and we had to fill up immigration forms and go through the security checks. I have never been to a place where the emigration and immigration was next to each other, so it was different to see the French and UK border agencies together. Once I went through it, I realized that my camera lens cap had gone missing. This is not the first time its happening this way, and I had got enough warnings from my wife about my carelessness, so now I had to hear the “I told you so” stories. I was feeling quite sad, as the lens cap was an integral part of the well being of my dear D5K. It was quite a lousy cap though as it was tough to take it off and put it on every now and then. So taking care of the camera on the last day of the trip to take photos became the highest priority.

We had kind of created a trend of buying souvenirs in every country we have been to this trip. We got a nice Venetian glass in Italy, a painting of Salzburg and Swarovski crystal showpiece in Austria; a Swiss knife from Switzerland, a glass shoe from Germany, a model of houses from Netherlands, a model of the Atomium in Belgium. We used this last opportunity in France to buy a model of the Eiffel Tower with a marble base, and did some last minute hurried shopping. Actually, the leather handbags were cheap and nice in the train station.

Boarding a train is a nightmare if a big group of 40 people have to take in their luggage and organize it, while being compassionate to fellow passengers who are not part of the group. With boarding allowed only 15 minutes before train departure, it was a hell of a rush, with old people struggling to take their bags up and people placing their bags in a haphazard manner blocking the way for others. With 5 minutes remaining and more than half the bags and people waiting outside, a group of young enterprising guys including me decided to take over the situation. We quickly organized ourselves and divided the work without any explicit agreement, so that the bags can be loaded in. We just about finished the job when the train departed, right on schedule to the minute.

There was a train from Paris to London every hour. The train was impressive, with enough room for all the luggage, hand carries and shopping bags, nice seat with cushions for the neck rest, and a nice pantry. The only negative about it was the leg space, with the Caucasian opposite me poaching my space. Once the train started galloping, we were off to the pantry to see what it has in store. We got a couple of drinks and were chit chatting as the train noiselessly whizzed past the French countryside. The speed of the train was impressive, and much faster than any other train I have ever been in. I could hardly hear the “toddok toddok duduk duduk duduk” rattle of Indian trains, although it was traveling more than 200 kmph. On the outside, the countryside was beautiful and serene. The smoothness of the train is like a nice lullaby nursing you to sleep. The Euro tunnel is an impressive 50km long tunnel below the English Channel, although we couldn’t see much once is was underground. The English side of the track had a lot of small tunnels, and it was bad for the ears, with every tunnel clogging the ears. We finally arrived in London at 12.30 pm, right to the minute on schedule. It was impressive speed and accuracy. It just feels so nice to start on time and arrive on time, even if you are not pressed for time. 5 stars to Eurostar.

Once in London, the first thing I noticed was the massive number of Asians and Blacks there. England seems to be totally diversified across different ethnicity. There were a few Indians hounding us to buy some calling card and mobile connections every time we passed them, there was a restaurant run by Indians and there was Indians just everywhere.
We boarding the bus and went on a city tour. We learnt about the three parts of the city, the Westminster, the city of London and the new More London part being built up for the Olympics in 2012. London was more like a modern Paris, with old robust buildings but with more vibrant colors. It was interesting to know about the history of the “London bridge is falling down” nursery rhyme. It seems that they built houses on the bridge which made the bridge collapse. They rebuilt it and made the same mistake quite a few times. Then it fell down due to other causes like fire and rebuilt again. I was surprised why they never learnt from their mistakes. We passed over the other famous bridges in London, including the Tower bridge which opens up, the Millennium bridge opened on this day ten years back to commemorate the new millennium and so on.

We saw the nice skyline of the city of London, and visited places including the Westminster Abbey, Big Ben and Buckingham Palace. The Westminster Abbey is the most famous Anglican church and many important persons are buried there, including Sir Issac Newton. This burial was praised by the French revolutionary Voltaire. The Big Ben was named after the nickname given to a short and stout Ben who created the bell on top of the tower. It was such a nice coincidence that when we were at the Big Ben, the clock struck 4 and boomeranged with its chime heralding the New Year in Singapore 10000 km away! We had a look at the prime minister’s office, the London eye and the houses of parliament on our way to the Buckingham palace. We saw it from the front, but after seeing the Versailles one the day before, it seemed quite ordinary. We learnt how Queen Victoria, who became a queen at the age of 18 opted to shift out of the then residence of Kensington palace to this palace. She was a famous queen and a golden statue outside was a tribute to her. The London eye is not as tall as the Singapore Flyer, but it was very colorful at night. We could also spot some rehearsals for the big New Year’s Eve party. Half of London was being closed down for the celebrations, and we were strongly advised not to come anywhere near the centre of town, which is what we all wanted to do. Bummer!

We went to Piccadilly to do some shopping and were given the directions to go to a Chinatown restaurant for dinner. We went around Picadilly taking in the sights and sounds of the festivities. We went into a few souvenir shops to do some shopping. We got a nice 3D glass image of the London skyline. Once we were done with the shopping, we started on our way to go to the restaurant. However, the direction was from the main road, but I thought it was from the place the bus stopped. Going straight from there, which was the other side of Chinatown, it was a very sleazy place with every shop selling adult content and services. It is definitely not the place to be with your wife next to you. We realized that we had lost our way and after crossing a few streets and finding more of the same, we traced back to the main road and asked people for directions to Chinatown. When we finally reached the restaurant, we found more of the same crap Chinese food we had grown to hate during this tour. Here in London, the Chinese restaurants strangely put mashed shrimps into the Sichuan chilli, so we were careful to confirm with them and avoid taking it.

We checked into a hotel in Wembley near the new stadium due to the lack of accommodation on this special day anywhere else. There were Indians in the reception and it took a hell lot of time to check in, much more than we had ever waited. Looking around I spotted very Indian trademarks, so I realized that the place is run by Indians. They had put up posters everywhere to let us know that they charge for everything, and even had a poster warning us of thieves in this area! We went through a maze of doors to our room. I have never gone through so many doors in a hotel before. The room was shoddy to say the least, and I was almost rolling on the floor laughing seeing a century old Thomson TV.

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Europe Day 11 - Paris

Paris is a city of the arts and the artists. We explored this beautiful city today. We started off with a city tour, in which the famous buildings were revisited by daylight. Paris is a romantic city and the romance continues onto the day with the Champs Elysees being lit up during day time as well. Each building in this city has its own character and effervescence amongst the Parisians. Paris can have a maximum of 9 storey buildings and nothing modern to preserve the sanctity of this historical town and its landmarks. However, one of the buildings was built in a modern way with dark glasses on the outer edge. The Parisians are so disturbed by this development that they wanted it to be brought down. The guide was so upset that the gentle French guy started an emotional outburst, terming the building as ugly and a huge mistake and a black mark on the city. It was funny at first, but behind the words, I could sense a deep pain inflicted by their passion being hurt. The guide was so proud that Paris has become a clean city in the last decade due to some government initiatives that he just repeated it a mere 25 times in 5 minutes. Again, the pride of the French was in ample display. Paris actually has a network of underground sewers that cleanse the city of the waste.

Paris is really a city of the arts, with more than 100 museums. The biggest and most famous museum is the Louvre, which can rival any Indian palace for its size and structure. It houses the famous smiling beauty Mona Lisa, which catapulted the imagination of millions worldwide. I couldn’t believe my eyes or eyes when I heard that all the big queues outside buildings were for some art exhibition by a Polish painter, some theatrical by a French group and a comedy by another French group. I have only seen such lines in India when Rajni film opens or in Singapore when they are giving away some goodie bags. They even have a museum for the sewers and they charge an entrance fee due to the high demand. They say that your lifetime is not enough to go through all that is on display in these museums, which does say a lot.

Paris is a very vibrant city with a lot of traffic, about 10 million people and a lovely atmosphere. It has a beauty and symmetry in its designs and structures that I have not seen elsewhere. An example is the Arc de Triumph, which Napoleon Bonaparte wanted to be built so that he can ride into the city through it when he won a war, and ironically did not live long enough to do so. However, the arch was completed and he stands proud looking at the Champs Elysees all day long. The building is majestic and stands tall at one end of the biggest road in town. The Champs Elysees itself derives its name from the palace on that road which houses the French president. 12 roads lead to the Arc de Triumph making it look like a brilliant star when looking from above.

We had lunch in a Chinese restaurant after which we took a few photos of the Eiffel Tower by daylight. I should confess that I was not all that pleased with the big piece of metal that reached out to the clouds as compared to its glittering beauty at night. In fact, I heard that the Parisians had termed this tower built for an exhibition by Gustaf Eiffel ugly at first, but later it became a symbol of the city. Another interesting fact was that he actually lived on the Eiffel tower for 4 years after its completion before he died there, possibly due to walking up and down the 1700+ steps everyday.

Then we proceeded to the Chateau di Versailles, or the palace of Versailles, which was built by Louis XIV and home to two subsequent kings. The magnificence and grandeur of the palace cannot be described by words, but can only be witnessed in person. Photos cannot fully replicate the splendor of the palace built by the sun king. We had to wait in a long queue for about an hour to get into it in the biting cold winter, which tells you how popular this place is with locals and tourists alike. Starting with the gate adorned in gold, Louis XIV ensured that the entire palace can place anyone in awe. He had so many rooms, each one dedicated to a specific thing like welcoming visitors, rooms for the royal family, king and queen, the guardroom, the library, the study room, the hunting trophy room, the war strategy room and so on. Each room was decorated appropriately with full size portraits, the ceilings covered with beautiful drawings with some dedicated to the Roman gods and others from scenes in the bible. The long hall of mirrors with fantastic chandeliers, sculptors and paintings was meant to intimidate any visitor before he is allowed to see the king. He had corridors full of sculptures of his knights, kings, gods and intellectuals. The gardens outside the palace were as beautiful as the palace itself and spread far and wide, with symmetrical greenery and lakes. This palace really takes an entire day to explore, but we had to rush everything in 2 hours, which was a bit sad.
Once the palace tour was done, we went to the Galeries Lafayette, which is for shopaholics. We went into it thinking of buying some cheap leather bags, but it turned out to be worse than Takashimaya in Singapore, with prices in 3 or 4 digits. We did a bit of window shopping before going out to hunt out some food outlets to have dinner in. We had crepes, fries (frites) and cappuccino for dinner before coming back to the store to find our tour mates carrying numerous bags of Louis Vuitton, Gucci and Lacoste. Some of them were so much of a shopping freak that they skipped Versailles to start shopping! I heard from the husbands and boyfriends that its more of a peer pressure that drives these women to procure these status symbols.

We would be starting for London tomorrow, but I felt that of all the cities I have been to this tour, Paris is the city that seems to have so much more that I haven’t touched upon. I don’t know if it’s the lure of passion and art or the mystique around the history of this city or the romance in the air, but I definitely want to be coming back to this place again to explore more of the city. Bonsoir Paris!

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Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Europe Day 10 – Brussels and Paris

I woke up to the after effect of being in Europe for 10 days now. My skin was extremely dry and it has become red in places where I was tempted to scratch. Even loads of moisturizing cream don’t seem to help. We had a nice breakfast and with people high on energy after the day out yesterday, we started off on the 3 hour trip to Brussels in Belgium. We arrived in Brussels around 11.45am amidst moderate rainfall. We walked around with an umbrella to a Chinese restaurant for a quick lunch. It is almost a standard set of items that we get everywhere, with cabbage, broccoli and some greens. The Sichuan chilli was quite hot, and the Chinese vegetarian girl next to me was quite surprised by the amount of chilli I had. I boasted saying that Indians are used to lots of spice and chilli, and nothing would happen. It might probably be good to clear out my running nose, I added.

Once the food went in, I started noticing more about this new country. Belgium is a small country of a million souls sandwiched between France and Holland, and notably has a nice mix of both cultures here, although I heard there is a bit of a tension between the two groups. All the road signs, street names etc are mentioned in both French and Dutch. Looking at these, I was more at ease as I know a bit of French (Je parlez francais cava). Brussels is a pretty old city, although it houses key EU departments, and it is used for conferences. The walkways are lined with bricks while the roads are not perfect. The ambience of the streets was more like India, with puddles of water and homeless people shivering on the streets. This was the first time in Europe that I have seen such a thing, and it was quite sad on this otherwise wonderful trip. As with other small cities on this trip, Brussels contains a nice big square with cathedrals, city hall, museum and a few commercial places. The streets lining up the square contains shops, and we got some nice Belgian chocolates and truffles from one of those shops at a very competitive price.

Belgium contains a curious story of the entire Belgian army being inspired by a little boy pissing on the French occupied territory, that they fought against the French to regain their land. The little boy probably just did what he had to do, but the consequences meant that his act is the celebrated Manneken pis, with a small statue dedicated to him near the square, and lot of watery mementos lining up the shops. Brussels was quite cold, although the temperature was about 9 degrees, maybe due to the rain. We also went to the Atomium, which is a wonderful 60s structure, mimicking a giant atomic structure, which looks like a tilted cube. It was very impressive with its size, and it houses a museum and science galleries. It was used earlier for some multinational symposiums. Brussels had its own character, but nothing really stood out as great or wonderful in my opinion.

Once we were done with Brussels, we took a long 5 hour journey to Paris, the city of romance. On entering the city, the tour manager promptly took us to the Seine river cruise, which is a fantastic way to see the famous landmarks and buildings of the city that line up on the edge of this river. The Eiffel tower was in all its glory, and later I learnt that it changes its color every hour. We started on the cruise and went past countless bridges and historical buildings, including castles, forts, the unfinished Notre Dame cathedral, and host of public buildings, museums and parks. Unlike the Amsterdam cruise, this was very open and the buildings were all majestic and huge, but each one different from the other in style, era and purpose. I just got a few glimpses of Eiffel Tower today; just enough to take a few photos, but the memories will always remain. What a wonderful structure and with the splendid lighting, it appeared to be a diamond necklace tapering down from the sky. I played around with my favorite D5K camera to capture as much as I could of the different hues, trying to match the projected color of the tower and those of the skies above. I don’t know if it was the city or the atmosphere or the slight chill in the air that made us enjoy it so much, but the 1.5 hour river cruise was really one of a kind and something we will treasure forever.

We kept turning to look at the Eiffel tower as we went to the bus walking in the middle of the road, oblivious to the few buses and cars crawling behind us. It is illegal to horn in Paris from the time of Charles de Gaulle, but maybe someone did honk at him when we was walking down the river to make him so pissed as to change the rulebook  When we got onto the bus, we did see so many other couples do the same thing walking in the middle of the road holding hand in hand without a care in this world, so I guess its just the magic of this city that makes people want to fall in love all over again. As Mettalica screams, “Nothing else matters”.

We had Thai food for dinner late in the evening, in the old town past the opera house and the famous luxury Café de la paix. I heard space is an issue in this popular place, but then it was a 20 sq m shop trying to cater for 40 people in the group and it was crazy. When we reached there and squeezed in to take our seats, the waiter realized that they forgot to prepare some vegetarian food for us, so we waited for 20 mins while the others finished their dinner, and then we got our share of fried rice, some vegetables and a jasmine jelly. With half a stomach full, it was time to walk out into the Paris night again and onto the hotel. I realized the potency of the Sichuan chilli immediately after I reached the hotel and it took me 1 hour to get rid of it from my system.

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Europe Day 9 – Amsterdam

The breakfast at the Crowne Plaza hotel was one of the best of the tour so far. With a full stomach, we started off on the tour of the Dutch capital and surrounding areas. The chill wind couldn’t dampen our spirits today as everyone was looking forward to the day with the least travel. The Dutch are a very enterprising lot. Starting with preserving the Herring fish for over a year, the Dutch had made a name for themselves as very shrewd traders. They were one of the first European countries to be unified, possibly the first European republic, started the first limited company through issue of shares, started the first modern stock market, gave rise to the first bank (Bank of Amsterdam) a hundred years before the Bank of England was established, and started the multinational company called the Dutch East Indian Company. It was one of the great powers between the 14th and 18th centuries.

The city tour started off with a visit to the cheese farm on the outskirts, which was filled with a beautiful spread of blue in the sky, green on the ground, and white on the frozen lakes that feed the wind mills. The Dutch are very famous at using wind mills, and it’s a very ingenious idea in using what they have (water) to make up for the lack of natural resources. After all these days of snow and cathedrals amongst the great mountains, the spread of colors over the flat countryside was very pleasing to the eye. We went to see a demonstration of cheese making, where I was surprised to see how hard a two year old cheese can be. After sifting around in the souvenir shops and walking around the beautiful landscape, we got on the bus for a short trip to Volendam.

The streets in Netherlands are really small, with cars, buses, trams and cyclists all sharing the same space, except in the city centre where they have separate cycle tracks. In took us longer to find a parking space than to travel to Volendam. Volendam is a beautiful little village on the shores of Holland, with a few parallel lanes of houses lining up the shores. The famous dykes of Holland save the houses from the power of the North sea, but they are hardly a few meters high. We can fully appreciate the danger posed by global warming in places like Holland, where 60% of the land is below sea level. Volendam has a great stretch for shopping, with souvenir items being much cheaper than at the other places. We also had our lunch here in one of the food outlets, including vegetable salad, fries and tomato soup. I realized how careful you need to be with your words in Europe when I got a big stare on ordering French fries. Most of Europe has been fighting amongst themselves for hundreds of years, so you have to be careful with associating something with the country. The houses in this part of the world are beautifully decorated, and most of the windows are not drawn, giving the keen onlooker a wonderful view of the beauty of the halls and rooms. Porcelain items and paintings are a big draw here, along with lace curtains.

After lunch in Volendam, we went for the Amsterdam river cruise through which we got to know the true blue Amsterdam. It was like the modern Venice, with an intricate network of canals and locks to keep the height of water in check. The buildings of Amsterdam that line up the shoreline are distinctive with its lack of gaps between the walls of buildings. Due to the lack of space, the Amsterdam dwellers are charged by the width of their houses, so they build houses which are narrow and deep. We heard that the stairs are quite narrow as well, so they shift their stuff mostly through the windows. Most of the houses are three windows wide, which open up to move stuff in and out. The canals themselves are home to many, similar to the Ton Le Sap River in Cambodia. House boats line up the canals here, but are strictly regulated with no new house boats possible due to lack of space. These boats can cost from 200 to 500k Euros, which is a pretty costly affair if you want to be floating around in Amsterdam. The low level bridges and the locks are pretty cool. I could even touch those bridges when we were going below them. There are more than 88 beautiful canals in Amsterdam, connecting the city. Outside, the phenomenal Delta project run by the government ensures that the city can run efficiently below the sea level. There are a phenomenally large number of cycles around the streets of Amsterdam, and the parking lot is extremely jam packed, with each stand holding upto 4000 bicycles. God knows how they manage to even find their cycle from the stand.

We went to Gassan diamond factory at the end of the cruise, where there was a demonstration of how they make diamonds. We got stuck there for a while and then had dinner in a Chinese restaurant nearby, before heading to the hotel. It was a glorious day with bright sunshine, temperature of about 5 degrees and a nice tour of the famous city, so all in all, a very nice day.

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Europe Day 8 – Rhine Cruise, Cologne and Amsterdam

We traveled further along the Rhine this morning to commence a cruise down the river. Germany is known to be quite strict with its numerous regulations, and this stretch of the Rhine river bordered by old castles have been regulated as well, to keep with the old traditions. The dawn sky looked fabulous on the way to the Rhine. A nice hour long cruise was started amidst light snowfall which was very pleasant. I took a cup of Denmark ice cream to complement the chill weather outside. The ice cream with nuts and whipped cream was a treat, and nothing like anything I ever tasted before. The dairy products over here in Europe are so pure and creamy and it just melts in your mouth. There are quite a few castles over the Rhine, built to protect the kings and knights against the invading armies. We leant about the ways how they built the fortresses, how they lived inside and how the invading armies usually go about destroying it. There are some nice stories surrounding the castles themselves and the forests nearby. The river itself was greenish in keeping with the surrounding rocks. The Rhine seems to be the heart line of goods transport in this area with many cargo liners going past us during our short trip.

Once we were done with the cruise, we took a 2 hour trip to Cologne, to visit the famous Cathedral, which has been classified as a world heritage site by UNESCO. This cathedral took over 600 years to complete and houses the relic of the 3 kings who offered geese to Jesus. The cathedral is huge with the dome rising more than 160 meters. It has a very flimsy look, but from inside it is quite sturdy. The 10000 sq m of stained glasses that adorn this cathedral inspires awe. The clarity of the paintings on glass is astonishing. We looked around the cathedral, which is based on the trinity concept of the father, the son and the Holy Spirit. The relic itself is placed in a golden casket at the altar. We had a quick lunch at McDonalds. There were a few Chinese staff, which was no surprise now. However, they couldn’t understand simple English like “no meat”, and I struggled to explain to them that I am a vegetarian and I needed something to eat. Finally, her German superior made sense out of it, and I got myself a burger and salad. In Europe, we need to pay extra for the sauce, and I got a couple of chilli sauce packets to go with it. In keeping with the quality of food in Europe, both items tasted fresh and delicious and very different from what I am used to in Singapore.

It was a long 4 hour drive to Amsterdam, so I slept most of the way. We stopped for a quick halt along the highway inside Holland. Netherlands is a very liberal country and it was no surprise finding porn magazines on the shelf, which guys were very eager to browse through while their wives, girlfriends and moms were desperate to drag them away. What was funny though was to see a teen guy beg his mom to get a copy of playboy. You can travel in your parents’ company and get them to pay for your trip, but at least you need to have some money in your pocket to buy what you want: P Of course the poor guy never got what he wanted. The Singaporean customs officials won’t be too liberal even if he had managed to convince his mom! We went to the city centre in Amsterdam where there were a few restaurants, including Indian and Chinese. While waiting for our seats in the crowded Chinese restaurant, we had a glimpse into the equally packed Indian restaurant next door and a souvenir shop. Most of the souvenirs made it obvious the city’s status as the sex capital of the world. There should be something in the air, as adult jokes were in free flow all of a sudden amongst the guys. Once the food was ready though, the priority changed and we gobbled up the not so great Chinese vegetarian dinner before heading back to the hotel near the airport. Tomorrow, we will get to know what this city is all about.

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Europe Day 7 – Rhine Falls, Titisee and Heidelberg

The day started brightly with a lot of sun. We started off on time for the 2 hour drive towards Rhine falls in Schauffhausen canton of Switzerland. More of the beautiful scenery was outside, but everyone was tired from the high altitude stresses yesterday, so most of the trip there was slept off. When we arrived at the Rhine, the sun was shining so brightly that I did not get perturbed by the 0 degrees temperature and ventured outside with just a jacket. One thing about Europe in winter is to not be swayed away by the apparent brightness of the sun. The temperature and the wind by the falls made it bitterly cold to stay out without any gloves or cap. I thought Rhine falls was in Germany and so I put all my Swiss francs in my suitcase, which was a mistake as we lost out on a desperately needed hot cup of coffee. The Rhine falls is the largest falls in Europe, which pours 160000 liters of water per second from 23 meters up. The scenery around the Rhine was spectacular, with a castle, a wide river and some old factories lining up the shores. Even spotted a Siemens office there, so if anyone is working there and want to go onsite, you know what place to choose  We took some photos and off we went again.

The drive from Rhineland to Titisee was one of the most beautiful drives we have had on this tour, with slippery and winding mountain roads with numerous hairpins. The drive also took us past the border into Germany. With heavy snowfall, the ride through the famous Black forest was irony very white. The landscape as far as the eye could see was filled with snow. I didn’t expect Germany to have more snow than Switzerland, but that’s the way it was here. I was surprised to hear that it takes 3 generations to harvest the fig trees that are abundant in this place. This temperate rainforest is one of the most beautiful places I have seen. The bus had to take detour a couple of times as the usual roads were too slippery for the driver’s comfort. When we finally reached Titisee, with a population of 30000, the guard there had already seen more than 30000 tourists today even in this cold wintry morning.

Lake Titisee is wide 2 sq km lake, which is 480m above sea level with a beautiful backdrop of the black forest. We walked along the brick road to the lake, which was frozen! This was the first time in my life that I had seen a frozen lake  Titisee is famous for its marvelous cuckoo clocks, and we went for a short demonstration on the clock making. The clock parts are got from different villages and assembled together. We hurried for a special black forest lunch which contained the local specialties of pork knuckle and a lovely black forest cake. The vegetarian meal contained a very nice mashed vegetarian patty, looking similar to hash browns. The lunch was surprisingly very filling and very nice to taste. During the meal, I could sense the German obsession with timing. Every second of delay with us finishing an item made them really restless, as if the world would collapse the next moment. The German sophistication was also on display with the numerous beer glasses being dried using a centrifuge in a matter of a few seconds. Now, who would imagine that!

After lunch, we went to the frozen lake, where some ducks were trying their best to keep a small puddle of water from freezing by furiously flapping themselves. Some local kids tried to help by breaking the ice. The water was not very cold to touch, compared to the surrounding. The other thing about this place was the obsession with dogs. Almost everyone had dogs and some of the smaller ones were dressed in down jackets, which made them look very cute. Some of the bigger dogs were really BIG and scary. The snow in this place was rock hard and more like ice than the powdery ones that we found on top of Mt Titlis, which wasn’t to my liking. But it was nice to touch and feel the chill run up your hand and numb it in seconds.

The next part of the day was the long 4 hour drive from Titisee to Heidelberg. The snows disappeared from the landscapes and became more flat as we went along. Our photographic hearts sank along with the snow and we tried to sleep most of our way, except for a short break in between. When we reached Heidelberg, it was dark and cold. Heidelberg is a scenic small town on the banks of the river Neckar, famous for its centuries old bridge, castle fort and nice town square. We went to a Chinese restaurant in the town and took some pictures along the bridge. We also spotted a Taj Tandoori restaurant in this place. Wind usually blows over these rivers giving rise to the intense chill. With all our warm clothes on, it was still freezing. Chemical hand warmers are very useful in these places. Today was filled with travel, and marked the halfway point of our trip, which I am sure will be an unforgettable experience.

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Europe Day 6 – Lucerne

A thing I noted in the last 3 days in Austria and Switzerland is that there are many Chinese people around, and I reasoned that it might due to the increased number of Chinese tourists who cannot speak English. And they do bring new ideas and use their connections to get more travel agencies to tie up with their place of work, like hotels and shopping complexes. And based on the small talk this morning, I confirmed that Chinese were good businessmen. The guys were chatting about how they get their Rolexes from here on heavy discount and go back home and sell them for a huge profit. On the other hand, I felt that doing business on travel makes them enjoy the travel a bit lesser and give more importance to the associated shopping.

I came on this European trip primarily for this day. This day started off beautifully, with overnight rain clearing up the sky. The roads were deserted as today was Christmas day, except for a few buses, in which almost everyone carries their pet dogs as well. I did spare a thought for all those people in the Service sectors, who need to do their job and wouldn’t be able to spend Christmas with their families, like our coach captain who has a lovely 3 year old daughter. We went to the Lion Monument, the symbol of the Swiss guard and took a few pictures. The sad looking lion is a symbol of faith and loyalty until the last breath. The tour manager told an elaborate story around this monument, but I was too busy using my camera to bother much. We even spotted an Indian restaurant Kanchi nearby, but as with everything else, it was closed.

Next up was my favorite part of the tour, the climb up Mount Titlis. We had seen a few pictures prior to booking the tour and it looked awesome. We went in the bus till the base and took a series of 3 cable cars to reach the top, the last of which is the first rotating cable car in the world. The view was simply stunning during the journey with the snow covered slopes forming the core of the spectacular scenery. Given that this was the main activity of today, we had more than 3 hours at the top, which was great. We were cursing a lack of snowfall during the trip, but on the top, it was snowing constantly. We could admire the beautiful structure of the snow flakes as they dropped onto our hands. We were covered with all the warm clothes we had, but we were a bit skeptical about the sports shoes that we had, which might get wet. So, we wore two pairs of woolen socks each, and it turned out to be a wise decision as our feet did not become too cold.

The top of Mt Titlis stands at 10000 feet and it recorded a temperature of -10 degrees Celsius today. That itself wouldn’t have been too bad, but for the strong wind at the top around 30 kmph. The first time we went out in the snow, it was too cold for me to bear, although I had myself covered from head to toe. We had a bit of an experience in the snowy conditions, but had to return back into the roof within 10 minutes. I was so freezing cold that I felt numb especially in my hands and face. I was guilty of trying to act smart and make a snow ball with my bare hands. I had also lost the feeling in my nose and it was more like a squishy lobe when I touched it. I couldn’t see my nose, but I could see my wife’s had turned all black. I have seen a lot of Discovery serials about people being caught out on the snow and Mt Everest treks and so on, but this was the real deal. What a first experience with snow. We then went for a hot lunch. We heard about an Indian restaurant up here, but that seemed to have closed this winter, so we had to make do with some French fries, salad, spaghetti and cappuccino/ shocolade. But I was sick of the constant spaghetti bash in my stomach, so I acted a bit rashly by overdoing the fries, which I had to waste. Switzerland costs a bomb and a simple lunch cost us around Fr 60, which is close to Rs 3000. I had a gulp when I realized that I was sorely running out of Swiss francs and our dinner was at stake.

Having a hot lunch (and it was searing hot) in my stomach and having had a taste of snow, literally, made us better prepared next time around. We had taken a plastic cover which enabled us to slide around in the snow easily, given us an exhilarating experience. The snow was so soft and powdery, and it spits in your face and just melts away seamlessly. It is not like rain which keeps dripping, but it just disappears without a trace once you are in warmer weather, leaving you a bit cold though. We had great fun throwing snow bombs, making snow man and playing around in the abundant snow. The brain reacts a bit slower in these conditions. Before I could comprehend what my wife said, the plastic cover she handed over to me just flew off, and off it went with the wind. I realized it a second later and gave chase, but the wind was just too strong, and it just flew away. Having given up on the precious plastic, we started trekking to the other end of the cliff. It was probably a kilometer long, and we thoroughly enjoyed the trek. In the far reaches of the peak, the snow was so soft that my leg went in almost knee deep. And like it happened with the glove yesterday, God sure didn’t want to disappoint us during this trip. I saw the plastic cover fluttering on the guard rails at the far end like a caged butterfly. I lifted it carefully and presented the trophy to my wife, who couldn’t be bothered less. But what a view we got at that point, with cliffs hanging around precariously. We stayed there for a few minutes before I felt my hands starting to get numb. Knowing that we had a long trek back, I turned around and realized to my shock that we could see not more than a few meters ahead, with thick fog eclipsing everything else. I thought I will feature in the next episode of “I shouldn’t be alive”, if I were to make it out of here :P We carefully mapped the path we had taken earlier and retraced the same path, trying to stay away from the guard poles along the way. We were surprised to see a few skiers starting to ski down slope just as we were coming back in that thick fog, but they would be more used to these conditions than we were. It was such a relief when we finally made it into the roof, and within a couple of minutes, I was back to normal again. We took a quick break and couldn’t resist a couple of other minor excursions out into the wild snowy peak. The snow shower became thicker, but our hearts melted away faster than the snow flakes at this experience.

We went to a photo shop below and were made to wear a traditional Swiss dress and pose with a yoodle. While collecting the framed photo, I was surprised to see Virender Sehwag and Nana Patekar staring at us there, from similar photos. Arghhh, if Sehwag can do it, so can I! We went down through the cable cars, but I began to miss the mountain already. Our perky single tour manager proudly announced that he had SMS-ed his ex-girl friend whom he claims is unhappily married. “Wishing you a Merry Christmas from 10000 feet above in Mt Titlis and wishing you were here with me.”

Having come down from the highs of the mountains around 4.30pm, we went for a walk around this small town. We had glimpses of the beautiful swan lake, a bridge built in 1333 and numerous buildings with distinctive architectures. The shops above the ground were all closed, but the weather was much better than yesterday, so it was pleasant walking around. A 5 minute walk from the hotel lies the railway station, which was bustling compared to the rest of the town which was aghast today. We found quite a few Indians wandering about, who might have been here on-site from one of the numerous Indian IT companies with Swiss clientele. I was impressed with an inter-city train departing Lucerne every 2 minutes. The sleeping coaches are single deckers while the seating coaches were double deckers. It was nostalgic for my wife who had spent the better part of this decade traveling between Chennai and Bangalore. We did find that all the shops in the railway station were functioning as normal, including supermarkets, shops and eateries. We did a quick roundup and found packed Bombay pulav in the supermarket and Indian vegetarian fried rice in an eatery run by Indians, which we promptly had for dinner.

Mount Titlis was indeed a truly wonderful Christmas present for everyone on this tour, especially for us who had never felt snow in our hands before. Good things never last, but then how many people were doing better things this Christmas? Off to a different country tomorrow after a good night’s sleep, knowing that I had a truly wonderful experience today. And that I didn’t run out of Swiss francs and compromise my dinner.

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Europe Day 5 – Innsbruck and Lucerne

The breakfast at Salzburg was pretty good, especially the cake was yummy. Yoghurt seems to feature in the breakfast in Europe, at least in Italy and Austria so far, and I loved it along with the fruits on offer. We kicked off quite early in the morning having only one aim; to reach Lucerne in time for some shopping and dinner. We heard that the shops close there by 4pm with some shops open till 6pm, so it was a rush against time from the start.

We went to Innsbruck first, stopping briefly at Auto Grill for some hot chocolate (Shocolade in these parts). Innsbruck is a small town in Austria with a population of about 150k, named after the Inns river that flows through the town with a fabulous background of the Austrian Alps. Innsbruck immediately struck me as a more commercial town than Salzburg, with buses and trams, residential apartments and a very lively Christmas atmosphere. The small streets had been decorated very well by the residents, with various life-size dolls hanging alongside the houses. It was very different and an exciting experience.

The world famous crystal shop Swarovski is based out of Innsbruck with a factory nearby. It was a very rushed, but very enjoyable experience looking through their impressive collection. Once we were done with a flower and bird at Swarovski, we were on the road again towards Switzerland. The mountain ranges were whiter, with more snow capped mountains filling up my camera. I have taken more than a thousand pictures so far under 5 days, and it can only get bigger. Suddenly, I realized that I haven’t changed the time zone on my camera, ensuring that the pictures were embossed with the date as of Singapore, rendering all photos taken after 5pm to be the next date. I had realized this when I was at the Singapore airport, but then I totally misjudged my memory power, leading to this pathetic mistake.

By this time, the tour manager had established a rapport with the traveling party, and started rambling with his life story interlaced with humor and wit. He smartly injects his meaningless talks with points of note, history, geography, philosophy, art and music. I have a feeling that he might be worried about his customers being bored, but with a scenery as abound as the one outside, that’s the last thing to happen even on 6-7 hr journey between places. The Alps has countless tunnels, and some of it is quite long. Sometimes, it acts as a distraction to a photo shoot, but usually offers some breather between spectacular views, where we can try to doze off. Invariably the eyes open once the sun comes out of the other end. I couldn’t help admiring the hard work that should have gone into building these highways in these places.

We passed through into Switzerland at about 2.30pm, a new country and a new currency for the next two days. Liechtenstein is a small principality of about 160 sq km, which we passed within 10 minutes. Next up was the highway to Luzern, which is the German form of Lucerne. I have read a lot about this wonderful place, which is a 20 mins walk end to end and is the tourist capital of Switzerland, as three of the famous mountains are accessible from here, and it has a beautiful lake nicknamed the Swan Lake, which is full of, guess what, swans. Switzerland is not all snow as people expect. It is a very nice mix of green hillsides, snow capped mountains and beautiful lakes all blended into one. Unity in diversity also applies to its languages and religion, with German, French and Italian all widely spoken. We arrived at 3.30pm and were supposed to buy whatever we can by 6pm.

We went to Bucharer, which is the largest retailer of watches and jeweler in Switzerland, famous for its premium Rolex. Pressed for time, we threw in whatever we could get our hands on, and not shockingly raked up a huge bill. We then went out to find out a pitch dark sky at 4.10pm and the wind blowing extremely cold. We went to the next shop that was open and shopped around a bit more, and then got some bread to munch for dinner. We spotted a couple of Indian honeymooners shopping around as well. People were running here and there to find an open shop without much luck. Having not had lunch and exposed to an extreme cold, I was running a mild headache and desperately wanted to eat something. We went to the nearby McDonalds to hear that they have closed. I came back to the central square by the lake only to find that one of my gloves had disappeared. The cold weather took over and made my hands numb within a few minutes. Never underestimate the cold, never. I was shaking all over at 5pm. Dropping all the bags in the bus, I went back in search of the missing glove. I traced back a couple of shops we had gone into, but the people here are least interested in entertaining people after their closure time, even if the person is desperately searching for his glove without which he is certain to freeze to death :P With fervent prayers in my lips, I ran around to McDonalds when a guy came out. I went around to check on my glove and caught him just as he was about to throw the glove into the bin. God does exist in cold dark high corners of the world at 6pm! What an experience today was. Tomorrow is the highlight of my trip, going on top of a 10000 feet high snowy mountain. Can’t wait to get started, with my gloves on :)

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Europe Day 4 – Salzburg

Looks like everyone’s heart was fluttering as we got rid of the SAD (seasonally afflicted disorder) syndrome to get ready an hour in advance! However, rules are not meant to be broken here, and we had to wait for the clock to strike 8.45am to start off. Bonjourno (good morning in Italian) to the captain and off we went. The climate was fantastic with a very pleasant 5 degrees. I was freezing in Rome at 9 degrees with all the winter clothes on a couple of days back, and I was just in my sweater today enjoying the weather. Yes, that’s how fast the body adapts! I still had my moisturizing cream and lip balm on, not to take any chances.

The journey today was through the Italian and Austrian alps, and was thoroughly memorable. They say life is measured by the moments that take your breath away, and we had plenty of those today during the transit. “Wow” came out involuntarily out of me, and by the time we passed the Austrian border, I was smiling so broadly that my neighbor said I wouldn’t want to leave this place. I didn’t, actually! What breathtaking views were bestowed upon us today. I was thanking God profusely to just feast my eyes on the natural beauty. My camera was hyperactive, but soon I realized it was fruitless. The camera is still not as powerful as the human eye, and it can only capture so much of the beauty. And compared to what I saw in front of me and what I saw on the screen, it was such a shame that I felt like deleting the picture immediately. Capturing the photo was almost like blemishing the dreamy landscapes all around me. Bliss is a state of mind where nothing else matters, and I was in pure bliss for the entire 7 hours. I did prefer the snow capped mountains of the Austrian Alps more, though! I could not believe both the world wars begun in such a serene country!

We stopped on the highway for lunch in the best location I have ever had my lunch in. What a view on offer. The Austrian food was another highlight. We have to pick whatever you want and pay according to the size of the plate. The garden salads came from the opposite slope! Rice, potatoes and vegetables were cooked in Austrian style, which was very different but equally nice. I thoroughly enjoyed the food and was smiling even broader than when I had come in. Much better than the grilled Italian eggplants! “Piatti Stupendo”. I did notice that the Austrian people were more stoic and composed than the emotional Italians. Most of them speak German, although they would hate you for life if you called them one. Italians are very fashionable people, with attention to the finer details of dressing, where you can pick any male or female to be a model. Austrians on the other hand are very serene people who are happy doing what they are doing. The Austrian gals seemed to have more natural beauty, possibly due to the low make up. They did not seem to be obsessed with the way they look, and came across as more homely. I just muttered “Danke” (Thank you) on my way out, and I would tell that they were pleased with that.

The emotional torture continued with more fabulous landscapes all along the way to Salzburg. We also caught a glimpse of quite a few cable cars and skiers on some of the gentle slopes. I would love to race down the slopes one day, but I knew it won’t happen on this trip, so was content with looking out of the window. We reached Salzburg just as the sun was going down at 4pm. Having walked through the famous Mirabell garden park, we crossed the river to catch a glimpse of the old castle that protected the great Austrian-Hungarian empire a few hundred years back. We also walked past the birthplace of Mozart and the various statues that adorn the place.

The beautiful Salzburg city was full on with Christmas celebrations with the town centre lit up and the old town church area full of Christmas stalls. The whole area had a very festive ambience, and we couldn’t help but be drawn in by the feelings. We roamed about the numerous stalls selling everything from Christmas tree decorations to artwork and winter wear, taking our time with each. We got a few mementoes and were frantically searching for the winter shoes that are waterproof. This was our last chance, as Swiss shops in Lucerne would be shut down during Christmas and we will be left out in the cold, literally. Just as we spotted the shop and the shoes we were looking for, we noticed that the shop has closed! Most of the shops here close by 6pm, so unfortunately, we were a bit too late. The shop keepers are least interested in going that extra minute for a potential customer, and that is how it is in this part of the world, even in a tourist town like Salzburg. We realized a lot of other tourists also got caught out by this timing issue.

We had our dinner at Restaurant Yuan, a Chinese restaurant with a decent ambience and dinner. But after yesterday’s gourmet meal, we were left a little disappointed, although we weren’t too hungry due to the late lunch. Having checked into the hotel quite early in preparation for a long day tomorrow, I caught up with my yesterday’s backlog to keep my tour diary up-to-date. Austria seems quite relaxed in terms of sexual content, with porn magazines on display in highway stops and erotic channels available on TV. With a lovely wife beside me, I did not dare take advantage of either: P

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