Monday, August 28, 2017

Three days in Budapest

A three day weekend seemed plenty of time to see Budapest. We arrived in Budapest at midday on a Saturday and left the city early evening on the following Monday feeling we were comfortably relaxed yet having gone around the city.
As most of you know, Budapest is actually two cities. Buda is hilly and green with a castle, a citadel, nice viewpoints and a statue. Pest is the hustling bustling city. We stayed in Pest close to the parliament.
As I said, we arrived at midday so we headed almost directly (thanks to our flight delay of an hour) to a free walking tour of the city. There were easily over a hundred people at the meeting point looking for the tour. I'd never seen so many people on a walking tour. K who has been Budapest in 2010 claims he couldn't even find a tour company that offers this and instead found a history professor who agreed to take five of them around. Thankfully though, the tour group was split five ways but we were still about 30 so it was still too large a group. Also, although it was a nice Sunday day of 26/27 degrees it quickly became apparent that it's not so nice when it's too sunny when you are out on a walk for three hours during the hottest part of the day.
Enough of complaining. The tour started in Pest and we realised that much of the city was destroyed multiple times and what we see now are new buildings despite of the fact that they were rebuilt to the original exteriors.

A little history for you. The country that is Hungary was occupied by some tribes sometimes referred to as the ungurs in old texts and some references to the Huns from the east. The country came together under King St Stephens combining some tribes, predominantly the tribe of Magyar. They fought with the Romans and the Turks over the years and ultimately created the mighty empire of Austria-Hungary with its vast expanse of land. However, they lost more than 2/3rds of this in the First World War. Soon after they were yet again stuck between a rock and a hard place, quite literally between the Soviet and the Nazis. They sided with the Nazis when Hitler promised them their lost lands but at the cost of the Jewish population. After Buda stood against the Soviet and was destroyed, the end of the Second World War led to four decades of Soviet rule.

The tour took us around St Stephens' cathedral named after the king, took us around some of the lime stone structures that still bear small amount of destruction when the Nazi spies and the Red Army fought running on roof tops like in the movies. The tour continued on the chain bridge (which was also twice destroyed but reconstructed to its original design) to Buda to see the place where Hungarians stood against the Soviet and lost. We then walked​ up to Matthias church and ended at the view behind the church.



K and I followed that with yet another climb up Gellert Hill to the citadel and the statute of Lady Liberty. The statue was originally put up praising the Soviet for liberating Hungary from Germany. But after public sentiment against the Soviet grew sour, the inscription was changed to just symbolise liberty and freedom. We then walked our way back to Pest across the another bridge.


At night we tried to go to some fancy Hungarian restaurants but they were booked up well in advance so we ended up going to <> Square in the Jewish District and ate at Menza which was also a nice Hungarian place. After that we caught up with some friends at this place called Instant. Budapest has a new phenomenon that they call ruinpubs. There were some large buildings in the Jewish District that were in ruins and cost too much to restore that the government basically gave up on them, ignoring them. Some young people began reclaiming these unused buildings filling them up with knick knacks and before you know it, they became artisty hipster places to hang out at day and night. So this place called Instant, we read about as being the biggest wth 27 rooms apart from the open courtyard area. It was a bit too large I think, to fill it up with random objects so most of the rooms were just empty with some themed faded wallpaper and chairs. As we were leaving though, we realised the place was getting really packed.


The next day, Sunday, we decided to go to one museum (because museums are closed on Mondays). After a lot of thinking, we decided to visit the House of Terror. This was the headquarters of the Arrow Cross Party which was the Hungarian party allied with the Nazis and then became the headquarters of the Communists during the Soviet rule - much like the Topography of Terror in Berlin. The museum starts with the Arrow Cross coming to power and then pushed aside by the Nazis who cause more atrocities and then the "changing of clothes" happens where the nation that did the dirty work for Hitler changes uniform and does it for Stalin. Then there is the 1956 uprising against the Communists but the might of the Soviet comes down on them and crushes them. And then towards the end of the museum, they don't explain how Hungary became independent but there is a large display of the photographs and names of the victimizers. That display struck me as odd but I would know later on a tour that the people of Hungary feel that those who committed the atrocities were Hungarians under both the regimes and these people did not face enough punishment. The museum is rather new and was built by the current PM Victor Orban and his party. It has received criticism for showcasing Hungary as a victim even though there were numerous Hungarians that perpetuated the Nazi as well as the Red Army cause.


So Sunday turned out to be a rather grim day because after visiting the museum, we chose to do a Jewish quarter walking tour. Our tour guide was witty so the longish tour seemed shorter. We walked to the Jewish quarter and discussed how when the Jewish came to Hungary in three waves, as and when there were disturbances in the Middle East and eventually when the synagogue in Jerusalem fell for the third time. The Jews settled right outside the then city boundary of Pest in order to trade with the city. They were foreigners and not allowed to own land. However as the trade flourished they got integrated, especially with the creation of the new sect of neo liberal Jews who bore a Hungarian identity and before the second world war, they made up a quarter of the population of Budapest. Today they make up about 2%. The Jewish District is home to the Great Synagogue which was until recently the largest synagogue in the world (now there is a bigger one in NYC). This synagogue and the parts of the Jewish District were a ghetto during the short Nazi occupation. The Jews in the city were protected for most part of the war while outside in the countryside, they were almost completely removed. Within the city, the protection lasted till the Nazis walked in only 9 months before the end of war and created the ghettos. Our tour guide showed us a photograph of the garden in the synagogue that was filled with mounds of bodies which was how the Red Army found them when they were liberated. The tour then took a cheerful turn when the guide starting talking about how the artists have been taking over the ruined buildings to create these hipster ruinpubs which are all in the Jewish District. The tour ended at Szimpla which is the most touristy of them all but with very interesting decor.

Following the tour, we went into the Great Synagogue which was the first time I had stepped into a synagogue. This particular one was designed to resemble a church with its altar and a neo Gothic and some moorish influences in architecture. It was meant to show that the people are willing to integrate into existing society. I also learnt that the mark of a synagogue was the ten commandments on display and that kosher meant a way of eating that segregates dairy from meat. We also visited the garden in the aforementioned photograph and I saw the same photograph, except this time I was standing from where it was taken and it's chilling when you look at the garden and suddenly be able to imagine the 3000 bodies in heaps. Usually,  a synagogue doesn't have a cemetery. Our synagogue tour guide himself was unaware of his religion until he was a teenager when his family felt safe enough to reveal to him how they burnt their documents in order to avoid being marked as Jewish.



Continuing on the Jewish theme, we had dinner at Yiddishe Mamma Mia. But it was mostly Italian food. After that we went to see Csendes, a local ruinpub recommended by walking tour guide but it was a tad too local in the sense it was empty on a Sunday night.

On our last day in Budapest, we woke up and dragged ourselves all the way with changes from metro to tram to bus to the edge of Buda to take a ride on the chair car. Sadly, it was closed for renovations. We then decided to go to one of the famous baths of Budapest, Scheszny. The city has some natural geothermal springs whose water is rich in minerals and can have therapeutic benefits. We went to Scheszny but we didn't pack any swimwear (and swimwear there was  some €80 which is ridiculously expensive considering this was Budapest). They do have a short tour around the place so we walked around a little bit and saw the open pool. Apparently the water comes to the surface at 70 degrees and has to then be cooled to about 38 degrees before it is let into the pool for use. In winter when it's snowing, it must be amazing with the steam riding from the pool. We then made our way to the opposite entrance of the bath because it was really beautiful. We also got ourselves a half litre of the mineral water that is drinkable. However it tasted horrible because of the sulphur and was really hot on a really hot day.



On our way back, we stopped at the Heroes Square nearby where we happen to see some VIP pay homage to the soldiers who died in all the wars. We went back to our airbnb to pack and leave but found out flight was delayed by an hour so we took the river bus along the river bank before we went to the airport.


One thing I must say though, there were a lot, and I mean a lot, of hen parties and stag parties. They were loud and boisterous and practically anywhere and anytime, including on the road at noon. All I have seen were British. Locals seem to be unhappy with them and occasionally lightly express their displeasure. One time, a British tourist was ashamed of her fellow countrymen and apologised on their behalf. It is very interesting that a culture known for its restrain would go to other countries and become so loud. You know, stiff upper lip, avoid eye contact and all that...

Barbershop Chronicles

I watched the Barbershop Chronicles at the Dorfman theatre and give it a 5/5 rating.

I'm no expert on the communities and cultures of the Africans but from what I know, hair is essential bonding. Black hair needs to be taken care of regularly and by a professional so both men and women n need to go to a parlour or a barbershop regularly and the community builds. Although Chimamanda Ngoze Adiche writes that the men's section is always more cheerful as they share their ideas of politics and society while the women's section speaks of unachievable dreams of the straight hair.

The barbershops in this play indeed showcase the community and men sit around discussing politics as well as personal issues. The play switches between barbershops in Harare, Lagos, Kampala, Accra as well as London where are the various countries meet. And they are all ordinary barbershops with ordinary people. Be it that a young man "steals" a cut but comes back to pay or a young man who misunderstands the intentions of an older father-like figure out how the barber always chastises you for not taking care of yourself properly. 

The set has all the items needed at a barbershop that can be quickly moved around to create a slightly different layout in each city. The walls all have the hoardings of various outlets in the various cities and one of them lights up to tell you which city the current sketch is set in.

Colourful, filled with music and lively from the start to end, it is coming back to the National Theatre in November if you want to catch it.

Thursday, August 10, 2017

Ink

I watched Ink at the Almeida Theatre and rate it 5/5.

It was fantastic and no wonder it got a West End transfer which means you can still watch it.

The play is about 3 hours long (incl interval) and hence I was a bit sceptical whether it would hold my attention for that long. I need not have worried. You jump right into it.

The play starts off with Rupert Murdoch making an offer to Larry Lamb which seems like a stupid move or a really bold move and we all know it's the latter because they succeeded. I didn't know the story of The Sun, neither did I know that The Mirror was once upon a time well regarded. I must buy one of each one of these days.

I'm guessing most of you know the story and it's simple. Murdoch buys a dying newspaper gives it to Lamb and pushes him to push boundaries and beat the most circulated paper of that time within a year. Lamb goes on to push rather too many boundaries including the detailed reporting of the kidnapping of a colleague's wife and of course famously creating the Page 3 that finally put The Sun ahead of The Mirror.

What is remarkable is how they showed this on stage with the intensity of a well-made movie. The fast paced life on Fleet Street, the jealousy and the rivalries. The play is about Lamb though. It's not really about Murdoch who has very little screen time. I don't know the full story but in this one, Murdoch is one of the good ones while Lamb is ruthless in the pursuit of ambition.

What is ironic is that Murdoch convinces Lamb to take the job by telling him that the industry needs an upheaval and outsiders are needed for that because at that time it was controlled by a handful of men from fancy schools. Come Murdoch, we know now that the media across the world is controlled largely by Murdoch. Beats me that they own Fox News and The Wall Street Journal.

Tuesday, July 25, 2017

White Teeth

The first novel of the author, I came across this when I read up about Zadie Smith's new book, Swing Time. I thought let me start with the very first one and opened White Teeth.

Set in North London in very ordinary neighbourhoods filled with immigrants and their second generation children, I could understand it as could many people I would assume given the success of this book. As with such books, the story and the end of where it takes us is less important than the journey itself.

Andrew, a white guy who is racially blind ends up marrying Clara who is a Caribbean black woman raised in London and decades younger. They have a daughter Irie who is more black than she is white. Andrew's friend from serving in World War II is Samad, a Bangladeshi who marries his decades younger cousin Alsana from Bangladesh. They have twins Magid and Millat. Samad and Andrew often reminisce the war days, spending more time with each other alienating their younger families. Samad also has a pet peeve of going off on a tangent about how Mangal Pandey (a hero of the Indian independence movement) was his great great grandfather. Enter the Chalfens, a perfect over achieving English middle class family who become obsessed with these non white kids and believe they can groom the kids out of their "difficult" homes.

There are many layers and themes in this story. One of lies and secrets: nothing is ever what it seems at the Jones or the Iqbals, or at least that's what Irie thinks. One of religions: Samad is a staunch Muslim, Clara's mother is a Jenovah's witness, Chalfens are religiously scientific, there is also a group of vegans and animal welfare activists. Etc etc.
There is one theme of teeth which I suppose is where the title comes from but that theme feels so forced, it's ridiculous and not in the funny way. Many chapters for example are titled the root canal of so and so. Then there is Clara who doesn't have front teeth and Iris feels cheated when she finds out.

So anyway, it's a little funny overall. I think it was meant to be a little more funny than I found it. And I also realised that Roopa Farookhi sort of made me like this book less.
You see, I read this book called Bitter Sweets. A first generation Bangladeshi couple move to London and have a pair of extremely good looking kids that they name them Omar and Sharif after the famous actor and one of them grows up to be a cool dude while the other is a geeky kid; overlaying all this is a story of how the immigrant families live in lies while the white people are so truthful. Bitter Sweets was written after White Teeth. I can't help thinking that Bitter Sweets was hugely "inspired" by this book.

Samad's twins were indeed so handsome there were references to Omar Sharif. I googled him and I was disappointed. Anyway, the twins are also similarly different - one is the cool dude and the other a geek. In this case however, they didn't get along well. And we discussed anyway, the Chalfens are truthful. However, let's ignore this.

The ending of the book was somewhat too theatrical ( but so was the entire book now that I think about it) and rather unnecessary. Too many things happening at the same time that the author couldn't write it well enough and each segment comes off as half done.

In summary, the book has a lot in it that is worth exploring and in most instances it was well explored however in bits and pieces the writing falls short of the intention and it shows that it is a debutant effort.

Never Let Me Go

This is so deep on so many levels and yet is such a refreshingly light read. It does make you cry at the end. If you want to read it I recommend you don't read any preamble and for that reason, I will keep this very spoiler proof.

No, it's not a thriller. The book is written from the perspective of one Kathy H, a student at Hailsham and about her greatly ordinary life. Over time as people grow older, we chance upon information about the bad bad world out there and learn to deal with it. So does Kathy, supported by some friends.

It's endearing in a way to see campus life in Hailsham and remember that my six years of campus life were similar. We all have things that seem so important at that stage within the confines of that word, that outside it they seem so silly. And that is what makes this book so very special. The author was able to look at the world through the eyes of this little child and then a young adult all the while. This is also what makes epics like To Kill a Mockingbird. May be that's why this book is now part of school curricula. The author did use the older Kathy H as the narrator looking back at her life, I suppose in the off chance that he found himself not sounding young enough. This flashback angle also allowed for a non linear narrative, going back and forth between different experiences at different ages but all muddled up and remembered as and when our older Kathy H pleases.

The story goes on and on through how people deal with different situations, like bullying, falling in love and hating someone for something silly, etc. It's not a great epic of changing the world. I mean the story has potential to make for an action sequence but the author chooses not to. Because we are not knights and most of us deal with unpleasant information by ignoring it and pretending like it does not affect us, which exactly what Kathy and her friends do most of time.

The melancholy that Murakami brings and the ordinary told extraordinarily that shapes up Gabriel Garcia Marquez and the marquee of loneliness that underlines their works are all themes that run in Ishiguro's Never Let Me Go. I just picked up his legendary piece of book, The Remains of the Day.

Monday, April 17, 2017

10,000 miles away - Leon, Nicaragua

On our official finally day in Nicaragua, we or rather my friend, since I've clearly been freeriding, booked a tour service for an interesting tour. We woke up really early to be picked up at 6.30 am at home in Nicaragua and made our way to Leon and past to Cerro Negro.

Cerro Negro as the name suggests is a short hill of black volcanic sand. It's a new volcano and last erupted in 1999. It's much shorter than it's neighbouring extinct volcanos. As a volcano erupts, it increases in height.


Once we reached the base we were given our very own boards that we had to carry them up a hike of 45-60 mins. I nearly made it. We went up the steepest part of it and it was all fine. But when we came near to the top, the wind changed direction and was really strong. I felt that the wind would take my board and if I tried to stop it, I would go too. So I took two steps when the rest of my team went 10. Not proud of it that I just sat down after that. The guide took my board then and it was easy after that. We went up to the rim of the crater. From there, any direction you see, the hill is just black sand. It felt similar to Jungfrau except that time it was all white and snow and cold. 


The crater had nothing much to see except it's yellow because of sulphur and anywhere on the surface, if you dig enough, you'll feel hot wet sand and possibly fumes. Once we took in the sights, we went to other edge of the other side of the hill to do what we came for. Our guide gave us a quick intro and a demo on how to do it. And off we went, sitting on our boards and slide off the side of the volcano, in what is called volcano boarding. What fun ! It's among two or three places in the world where you can do this. I highly recommend it.


We had woken up early for this so by the time we reached Leon, it was early noon and we headed to one of the hotels we knew had a restaurant with air conditioning. Yes, Leon is really hot. So hot, head started to hurt when we reached the cathedral and waited to get to the top of the tower. The view from the cathedral was a bustling city with mountains not far away and you know one of them is active. We then roamed a market for a little while before heading back.

10,000 miles away - Isla Ometepe

Isla Ometepe an island created out of two volcanos, Volcan Concepción and Volcan Maderas, and is in the middle of Lake Nicaragua. Since we were staying in Managua, we had to drive up to 3 hours to the ferry and load up the car for a 90 min ferry ride. The ferry is very small so it barely fits a few cars and advanced reservation is recommended.

Given how long it takes for us to get there, it was lunch time when we reached so after a quick lunch, we checked into our beach side cabins at Villa Aller in Santo Domingo which is the area where the two volcanic island meet.


We then headed to Ojo dear Agua. It literally translates to a waterhole and that's what it is. It's a natural pool (which now has a cemented embankment). The water is extraordinarily clear and you can see the rocky floor, parts of which are also cemented, and there is a canapy of trees above. There is a trapeze hanging from one of the trees to dive in if you like and we also spotted turtles at the bottom. We all took a dip though I wasn't in there for very long since the water was cold (for me). 

We came back to our cabins and relaxed on the front porch in a hammock and rocking chairs overlooking the beach, watching the waves. After darkness fell and there isn't much to see, we headed to another resort nearby for dinner and listened to the song Ometepe. When we reached home, we were so tired from the whole day that I slept the minute I hit the bed.


Sleeping early has its benefits because i woke up the next day to see the sunrise at the beach with golden waters everywhere as I strolled the beach. By the time the others woke up, the sun was well up and we all went to dip into the water. At first I was afraid having grown up on a sea coast with strong currents. Lake Nicaragua is so large, it looks like the sea, basically you can't see the other side and water stretches as far as you can see. But once I went into the water, I realised the difference. The waves are light push you towards the bank but there is no pull into the waters because there is no current. The lake is shallow for a long way so you can keep walking in for a distance if you like. But the most bizarre thing for me was that this sea like water body did not contain salty water! 



The water was also extremely muddy I realised as i showered later trying to get the mud out of my hair. After we showered and ate breakfast at a vegetarian natural cafe, we made our way to Puente Jesus Maria. This is one edge of Isla Ometepe overlooking the two volcanos on one side and Volcan Mombacho and Granada on the other side. An extraordinary isthmus or a narrow sand bridge (or puente in Spanish) goes into the lake for a mile or so giving one the earrie feeling that one is walking on water, famously like the Jesus, son of Maria is said to have. We couldn't walk too far because the wind was strong and hence, so were the waves.

 After taking in the beautiful views, we went to Charco Verde for some more wonderful views of Volcan Concepción in the background and beautiful green pond in the foreground. The area is also supposed to be a home for many butterflies. 

Soon after, we had lunch and headed out to the ferry for yet another long journey back to Managua.

10,000 miles away - Granada, Nicaragua

We woke up early to make our way to Granada, more specifically, the protected area of Volcan Mombacho. If Volcan Masaya is a simmering dark crater looking to absorb all life around it, Volcan Mombacho is the exact opposite with its very own microclimate that nurtures a cloud forest (a slightly lighter shrunken version of a rain forest). It's an extinct volcano and as the surface grew cooler, the extremely fertile volcanic soil allowed for plants and trees to grow, which in turn grew dense enough to create their own world. In spite of that, there are still some tunnels in the ground through which hot gases escape, amidst all the greenery.

It was surreal when we hiked our way up to one such tunnel, so shrouded by greenery that we could see it but we could still see the fumes. It was somewhat chilly and also extremely windy as we go higher up. There are brilliant view points covering the city of Granada, Lake Nicaragua and the islets. The volcano also has a zip lining experience which we couldn't do due to time constraints.

So once we got off the volcano, we headed to the city of Granada. Granada is the first colonial city of the continent and you can see the Spanish effect when you climb up the tower of the chapel from where you have the beautiful view of the settlement against Volcan Mombacho in the background.

We then went to the little harbour to find a boatman who would take us on a short tour of the isletas. The isletas are basically little pieces of land the surfaced on the Lake Nicaragua close to each other and some of which are inhabited. Some of the slightly larger ones have small huts and houses, one of which belonged to our boatman where he dropped off a gas cylinder. Some of the other isletas are tiny enough to hold just one mansion such that the whole of it becomes private property. And some are so tiny that they are basically dense mangroves. May be Sunderbans feels like this. 

After that, we just walked to the touristy pedestrian-only high street of Granada that was littered with foreign cuisine restaurants and alfresco dining where we caught up with Ivo's friend who helped us hunt down the art schools replica of the Iron Throne from A Song of Ice and Fire.

10,000 miles away - Masaya, Nicaragua

On the very first official day of our trip we figured out that Nicaragua is land of volcanoes, lakes and revolution. After a lazy breakfast at home, we headed out to our first stop - a shooting range. K and I have never held a gun before and here we were shooting .22 rifle and 9mm pistol. And managing to hit the targets (more with the rifle and less so with the pistol). Guns are a popular hobby in Nicaragua thanks to its revolutionary past and especially the Sandinista movement in the late 1970s leading to independence from Somozoa's US-supported dictatorship on 19 July 1979.



Our second stop was Volcan Masaya. It's active and spewing hot gases that you can smell the stench of sulphur and if the wind subsides a little leading the smoke into a steady stream, you can see the bright orange coloured, agitated lava. The walls of the crater are blackened but one of the outer sides still holds greenery in a dramatic difference. Also because it is a young volcano, it's pretty short and flat so you can drive up to the crater. Apparently there are also night tours where the illuminance of the lava is more assistant and beautiful.

Our final stop for the day was a lagoon or a Laguna. You can see Laguna Masaya from the top of the crater. It's crescent moon shaped lake because it keeps getting filled up from one side every time Vulcan Masaya erupts. However that's now that lagoon we went to. We went to Laguna de Apoyo which is in a sink hole of sorts of an extinct volcano, so essentially it's a lake with high walls which now support a lot of greenery. It's a very picturesque place for a dip and given it's depth, people can go scuba diving. We didn't go for a dip though. This is where JR came as a child to play.

We stopped by JR's family at a traditional Nicaraguan home with a little garden in the courtyard of the house and though we didn't speak their language we played with JR's nephew.

East Sussex for Easter

This is our first road trip. We have been on road trips before but this our first own road trip. Because I can drive and we have a car. Very late in life to be learning how to drive, but hey, better late than never - even if it is only an automatic driving license.

In the beginning of 2016, K and I decided (or K decided for both of us) that we need to learn to swim and learn to drive. I was reluctant about both but it does make sense on paper to be able to do both activities. One step a time though. So K learnt to swim and I learnt to drive. Having written by theory test in March and failing my driving test 3 times, I passed in my 4th attempt in November and then the hunt for a car began, until finally, we got a neat little city car in February. So here we are in April, going on our very first road trip.

We wanted to avoid the Easter weekend traffic so instead of driving on Thursday night or Friday morning we decided to leave on Friday afternoon and made our way to this cute little town called Rye (yes, like the catcher in the rye). We also had a couple of friends who decided they could trust my driving ! Rye is a small little fishing village with what was voted as the prettiest street in England a couple of years ago - Mermaid street. (This year it is Shambles, York though neither Shambles nor Mermaid Street would have changed the slightest bit over the last few years.) Nevertheless, Mermaid Street is quaint British and perfect for the trip down there.



After a British meal/coffee at Rye, we headed down to Camber Sands beach and found ourselves running after a sky filled with parachute-style kites and an endless flat beach.


We headed to our hotel for the trip near Herstmonceux. It was this wonderful old building with white walls and timber. And had a British dinner of Chicken Tikka Masala!


The next day we headed to city of Hastings with its beach and cliffs and funiculars and seafood huts but the Battle of Hastings did not take place here. It had wonderful views from above the hills and castle in ruins by the time we reached it.


Soon we drove up to this spot where we heard we get great views of the seven sisters and we did. We could actually see seven peaks of white cliffs against the English Channel and the sun was kind enough to give us a good time.


The next day we went to Herstmonceux castle gardens. There were a handful of landscaped gardens and then an expansive area of woods that you can keep going but we walked for probably an hour around the estate.


Then we moved on to the reason for picking 1066 county as the destination for the trip, Battle. Battle is where the Battle of Hastings happened in 1066. We took a 30min walk around the battlefield with an audio guide that took us through the story in detail.


From Battle, and a tea and scones with clotted cream, we drove back to London. Our first road trip taught us that in a relatively short period of time we can see a lot if we can drive around.

Ten Thousand Miles Away - My Nicaragua Family

Our first foray into Latin America!

The furthest I have been from home (in India) was generally about 8 or 9 thousand kilometres (the East or the West coast of the USA).The furthest I have ever been before this was Niagara falls at some 13000 km. Nicaragua is 10,000 miles away or 16,000 km. And yet I have never felt closer to home...

What would normally take lots of research and planning for a week-long trip to Nicaragua became a case of simply landing at the airport, thanks to our wonderful friends, Ivo and JR who opened their home and family to us.
Nicaragua, as Ivo explained to me when we first met more than 6 years ago, is the centre of Central America. It's a land of volcanoes and lakes, and of revolution. And like most (or all) other Central American countries, it is flanked by the two great oceans. Hence the two blue bands flanking a white band in their flags.


The moment we landed I felt at home, trading cold and wet London for hot and airy tropical Managua. After a home-cooked lunch and a well deserved afternoon siesta, in the evening after the day cooled down, we went around the city, specifically to the beach where there is a mini version of a high street in the city before the 1972 earthquake destroyed most of the city. When I say the beach, I mean the beach of Lake Managua but the lake is so expansive that it might as well have been a sea (more on that later). Noticeably for a capital city, it scarcely has any high-rise buildings due to the aforementioned earthquake and the fear of a repeat. Also noticeable are the new "trees of life" that are colourful tree-like structures littered everywhere in the city that light up in the night, so much so that the night view of Managua is essentially the trees. We ended the day with dinner at a nice place with Ivo and JR's friends and family and met Ivo's.


10,000 miles away - Masaya, NicaraguaNext day, we visited Masaya, JR's hometown with an active Volcano and a Laguna that JR grew up near. We also visited JR's family home and his family.

10,000 miles away - Granada, Nicaragua: The day after we visited Granada, a colonial town, and Mombacho, a luscious green volcano.

Nearly midweek, Ivo planned it as a"relax day". We went to this resort on the Pacific coast called Barcelo Montelimar. Here the resorts do an all-inclusive day pass as well, instead of staying overnight to avail the resort facilities (which you can do of course). I have no idea how large the resort is or how many pools it has, we saw at least 5 pools. We had a huge breakfast and then went into the pool for a while. Then we just lazed around before lunch and then we went to another pool before playing mini golf and then dipped in the main pool again for some time. We went to see the Pacific ocean but it was too hot to stay and there was no shade around much. Basically, we didn't do much except eat and dip into the pools. We ended a well-relaxed day with nice little home cooked meal at Ivo's sister's place.

10,000 miles away - Isla Ometepe: Then we went for an overnight trip to Isla Ometepe, an island in Lake Nicaragua.

10,000 miles away - Leon, Nicaragua: Finally, we went to Cerro Negro, an active volcano, for an adventure trip.

After our trip to Cerro Negro, we went to Ivo and JR's friend's surprise birthday party after a sushi dinner at a local new plaza. On our final day, we have a nice breakfast at home and heading to the airport wishing we didn't have to.
Thank you Ivo and JR !!!

Sunday, April 09, 2017

Bitter Sweets

After reading The Lives of Others, I felt this was a bit of an overload of Kolkata and Dhaka. But indeed it's a much lighter read with dark humour. It's a story of how people create intricate lies so perfectly for so long that often they successfully deceive themselves. I suppose that's the key to a perfect lie that even the liar has forgotten the truth.
It takes us through three generations of the Karim family that engage in double lives. What's the most interesting bit is that at some point they all seem to know the truth and yet ignore it. It's so much easier to create and live another lie instead.
And when it becomes a habit, it's hard to shake off.

There I've said it, the essence of the book. I need not have written so many lines where one would suffice ! It's a soap opera with overtones of the bold and the beautiful.

The first generation of Henna and Rashid is a marriage based on lies, which doesn't surprise me because in the olden days I believe it was acceptable to have some level of deception in talking up a prospective bride or groom. It's like a CV after all. This leads Rashid to have a second life (or the first depending on how you look at it) as Ricky in London, while Henna keeps up appearances as a dutiful glamorous wife of a globe trotting businessman.
The second generation of Parvez and Shona also start double lives as they have other interests.
The third generation of the twins Omar and Sharif is filled with lies too but a lot of that seemed normal to me. Both of them keep their love interests from their parents.

I don't know whether I'm supposed to be sad that none of the lies seemed outrageous to me because people lie all the time or it may be that this book has tried to show to western audiences how deceitful the Bangla community can be. After all, the only supposedly truthful people in this book are the very British Verity Trueman and her half white daughter Candida. Even though Candida is as deceitful as Sharif. But then again she is only half white. May be I'm judging the author too harshly. I don't know how London was all those years ago.

Thursday, March 02, 2017

One Hundred Years of Solitude



It's not a hundred years but one hundred years of solitude. The word one gives a sense of certainly to it. So it is that the fate of Macando is certain as well. It does not matter that there is such a long story through generations on and on, only history repeats itself. It does not matter how many times the matriarch Ursula tries to change the course of the future to stop history from repeating, to save Macando from its fate. The fate is certain and it will be so.
It's a long story and a very long one, and so densely packed that every page is oozing with detail and the story just keeps going on and on. Yet you know the end is coming, soon. Yet you are never bored, not for once. Yes, you occasionally wonder where it's all going and why it's so repetitive but that is what it is. You see, history repeats itself.
A man and his wife, escape their village because the man murdered another and they travel far and wide and finally settle down in a place and that's how the Buendias establish Macando. There they have sons and daughters who have sons and daughters who have sons and daughters. Most of the sons are named either Aureliano or Arcadio and the daughters are few and have a few different names. The repetitive nature of the names adds to the confusion while reading the book but when you follow the story it helps in setting the similarities of every generation. Ursula sees it too, especially when a pair of twins named these two names get swapped at birth and spend their whole lives being called by the other name. Yet traits tell Ursula that they were probably swapped. Aurelianos are supposed to be pensive and poetic while Arcadios impulsive. Talk of magical realism, the twins die at the same time and mistakenly get swapped when they are buried, ensuring that each went to the grave with their birth name.
Through out the story, it seems like many ills befall this little settlement and yet it was meant to be. Eventually the settlement is destroyed and just before it is, the last of the family decodes an ancient parchment that had been with the family for generations. And when the fate of his family dawns on him, it is also the end of it. And when it has all ended, a passerby would never know Macando once existed there...
They say Gabriel Garcia modelled this story on Colombia. I don't know enough about Colombia to know. All I know is the beauty of his magical realism that I had understood when I read the obituary of Gabriel Garcia Marquez on The Economist and I knew that I had to read this book.

The Girl with Seven Names



I've read many books, more than many people I know. However, I had never been able to complete any form of lengthy non-fiction. This book is the first piece of non fiction that I've read fully. (Of course it helps that it is a story.)
It's the true story of a North Korean defector who went to China and then eventually sought asylum in South Korea. She later helped her mother and brother come to South Korea.
While I love to read about books set in different cultures woven into the normal stories of every day people, reading about terrible odysseys in horrifying detail is not something I seek out. I feel that many of these sad stories (fiction) from outside the developed western world are made so to sell the poverty or suffering to the Western audience. For example, Aravind Adiga's White Tiger. However, what made me pick up this book was an article in The Financial Times of a lunch with her. I knew that her book would be very different.
The Girl with Seven names is different. It's not a sob story but a story of hope. Truly this is how I believe most stories of hardship would be. The story is not about the hardships but about what keeps one going. Most of the difficulties she faces are written in a very matter-of-fact manner without delving into detail. What is in clear detail is the pain of missing her family with the knowledge of what it means to have a North Korean defector for a family member when living inside that country.
She was born and brought up in a well-to-do resourceful family in North Korea and hence spent most of her life there believing North Korea is the greatest country in the world and that South Korea is full of beggars. She truly believed it like most others who were in the good books of the Party. What this book opens our eyes to is the happiness of living in North Korea and that brainwashing and lack of access to the outside world makes you accept whatever you are told to be true without questioning.
All the misfortune that befalls her is just that, she does not curse. But even the littlest of lucky instances happen to her and she would praise them with the kindest words. Sometimes you think she was lucky and the suffering of others was much larger but then again she makes a statement that catches you off guard and you realise what she had gone through had changed her so much and had just decided not to talk about it. But it's true however, that there were so many kind strangers,  acquaintances, friends, distant family, that supported her at every juncture. It restores your faith in humanity. It made me cry when a complete stranger in Laos helped her with not just money but physically being present along her side during visits to a prison.
The most striking sense you get from her is her courage and her bubbling warmth. Aptly, her chosen seventh name is Hyeon-seo which means sunshine and good-luck.

Sunday, January 22, 2017

Monk Key

Monk Key, Songs of the Mist by Sashi

The story line is good but everyone has a story to tell. It's how you tell it that matters. And a good author takes time to build characters before plunging into the story.

Take the first couple of pages for example, about this woman who realised that the man she wrote letters to, for over a decade, and who just had a funeral, was still alive and his daughter who found the letters emailed this woman saying she is going to find her father. But that's not all is it? A woman who writes letters and lives away from civilisation has a smooth running life that she enjoys, which we are not told about at all. She then receives an email and we don't know how she felt when she received it so unexpectedly after she returned home from her usual (coffee? walk? music classes?) smooth floating life. So much could have been said in the first few pages. So much.

Other obvious stand outs include the use of  'sparkle in the eye' which often refers to excitement, mischief or general happiness, and definitely not tears and the sadness of losing a husband or father.
Difference between sports and games, use of passed out vs graduated, usage of he/him to refer to more than one person in the same paragraph leading to confusing understanding, etc show case the lack of good editors more than anything else.

And then the story itself is so desperate to be epic and spiritual that it is nothing but.The book reeks of ambition that falls short of action.

Malta

We went up to Malta for Easter last year. Easter came too early that year and most places weren't warm enough. But I've had enough of the London's never ending winter so any sunshine is better weather.
Hence, when we went to Malta it was slightly ahead of the beach season. It is most famous for its beaches but the beach crowd hadn't gathered yet and the 40min we spent on a beach was with jackets zipped up to the neck and hoodies protecting the ears from the cold wind. But that meant we saw Malta for Malta.

Hagar Qim and Mnadjra temples - we saw these on our last day though this is the first thing on the list of why to visit Malta. These are the oldest temples in the world, pre-dating the pyramids by about 2500 years. These temples however are not the oldest structures in Malta only dating to about 3500-4000 BC. But certainly the most well-preserved and standing structures. You can see clearly the different chambers, the pinkness of some of these limestone blocks that indicate the use of fire and the magnificent alignment that ensures sun rays flow through and focus on the inner most chamber on spring and autumn equinox as well as the summer and winter solstices. There were various pots and figurines found in these temples. Funnily enough, these well preserved structures are made out of large limestone blocks. They were preserved because they were surrounded by layers of different mud. Once the excavators found them, the limestone began to corrode due to the air and rain. Now they have this huge canopy over it but the sites need a better solution.

Azure Window - this is the second reason people come to Malta (the first being the beaches). It's a beautiful window of rock that has been eroded by the sea. Reminded me a lot of Durdle Door, Jurassic coast. Apart from being extraordinarily beautiful, it has recently become more popular because of Game of Thrones (the show, GoT) for being the location of the barbaric wedding of Khal Drogo to  Daenerys Targaryen. Much of Season 1 was shot in Malta but the shooting of this particular scene apparently altered some of the natural rock formations and the environmental authority was not very happy, causing the shooting to be moved to Croatia instead. Given the boost to economy and tourism I'm sure Croatia is not complaining.

The two of these are on either ends of the country, so naturally on the either ends of the trip. On the first day of our trip, we made our way first by bus to the edge of Malta island, then by ferry across to Gozo island, then by bus again to the other edge of the Gozo island where the Azure Window is. After spending about an hour at the formation, we grabbed that same (hop-on hop-off) bus to Marslaforn which was the beach where we were freezing in the wind. Then we went to The Citadel in Victoria (Gozo) which again inspires a fan of A Song of Ice and Fire (ASOIF) with its narrow roads and high walls. We then went to Ggantija Temple which is yet another temple of similar age but unfortunately it was closed that day (for Easter). 

The next day we went to Valletta which is the capital city and a beautifully walled city that just screams GoT. We took a walking tour (of the city from the historic perspective rathar GoT but you just can't miss it when you are walking in the walkways of the Red Keep. We also crossed the water to the fort (which was also closed!) and to Cospicua In the evening we went to St Julian's for dinner which is a touristy area where all the fancy hotels overlooking the beach are. (We were staying at Sliema)

The day after we went to Mdina, the old capital, probably the tiniest ever walled city which ask explodes with GoT. For example, as you walk into Mdina you remember this is also the entrance of King's Landing and you feel you just walked into the sets. The whole city is so well-preserved that it is nearly like a set. The walls probably get washed every week, they are so sparkling clean, unlike a relic you would usually except. We also walked the road to Rabat, and I can't remember why. I vaguely recollect we wanted to watch the Dwejra cart ruts (Misraħ Għar il-Kbir) which are essentially some sort of tracks carved into the stones during prehistoric times and no one knows why. But we didn't go because they looked some what underwhelming.

The final day, as I already said, we visited the temples. Ghar Dalam caves were closed for viewing that day. Ghar Dalam caves trace the first of human activity that has been preserved dating some 5200 BC. Anyway, we had a brilliant historic visit to a beach country and flew back.

The Libertine

I watched Dominic Cooper in and as The Libertine at the Royal Haymarket Theatre and give it a 3.5/5 rating.

I wanted to watch it for Dominic Cooper. I started watching Preacher and the bad boy trying to be good role came off remarkably well from him. So when I read the synopsis of The Libertine, I pictured similar shades but with a lot more of the so-called royal excesses. I have to say, I was disappointed.

You see, there is the talk of excesses. There is little to show what it meant. May be when it was written, what the play showed were excesses. But then again the scandalous excesses of Les Liaisons Dangereuses were certainly something. Wolf of Wall Street, now that's excesses. Great Gatsby, that too. Even the threadbare production of Doctor Faustus showed excesses. The Libertine didn't. It showed some crass noise about dicks and dildos, but not a lifestyle. The lifestyle was mostly of a pathetic man whose artistic outcry is that of a 14-year-old boy thinking dicks are so scandalous. He didn't seem in control of anything and his excesses didn't seem to empower him. 

Dominic Cooper was not bad. It was just more of the Preacher, with his broody sense of bad-boy-ness. Nothing remarkable but nothing to be upset about. The actress Elizabeth Barry played by Ophelia Lovibond was well portrayed as a strong woman who is focused and would not change her life for a little drama. However, why she ever went to the Duke in the first place is unconvincing. 
Nina Toussaint-White played Bella, a much more convincing role. She was flamboyant and lit up the play during much of her performance and she defined excesses for the entire play.

The sets were beautiful, though. For a West-end show they managed a few changes and the lighting transformed you into a different era. The costumes and the like added enough authenticity to the play.
All in, it wasn't bad enough to get riled up about it but it wasn't good enough to get excited about either.

Saturday, January 21, 2017

The Red Barn

I watched The Red Barn at the Lyttleton, National Theatre and give it a 5/5 rating.


The sets were incredible. I think Lyttleton has always been very innovative with their sets. During the entire play, what we view is controlled by an aperture that the director, Robert Icke creates and sometimes moves it around. The scene with the snow storm through a white screen with wind bellowing is almost like watching a movie. And that's how the play starts.

In a snow storm, Ray is lost and his young wife, Mona is left waiting for him at the home of the friendly couple, Donald and Ingrid Doff. And what ensues is a psychological thriller. There isn't much to tell without giving the game away. What I can say, however, is that I have been waiting to watch Mark Strong perform since I missed his A View from the Bridge last year. And perform he did! He managed to transform into this boring hen-pecked middle-aged husband with a mid-life crisis that I wasn't sure it was him at all until he took a bow at the end of the play.
Hope Davis was wonderful in her calm demeanor. And Elizabeth Debicki was well, Elizabeth Debicki, the same sexy trophy wife/girlfriend that she was as Jed in The Night Manager. There was practically no difference.

The sets, as I said, were incredible and I can go on about them. How the Dodd's home in Connecticut has low ceilings and reeks of mediocrity while Ray's New York penthouse is flashy with modernity and high ceilings. A stellar end sees an entire room move in front of your eyes, again through that aperture that Robert Icke so wonderfully manages. The play is complete treat!

Nice Fish

I watched Nice Fish at the Harold Pinter Theatre last night and loved it. I would give it a 5/5.

It's a crazy doodling piece of art. Two friends go ice fishing, well only one of them is fishing, but two go ice fishing. And then they talk about life and how things turned out in their lives. Except it's not in a boring meandering brooding way. But in a, well meandering brooding way, but not boring and not "artsy" deep, just plain hilarious. They meet some characters who may or may not be there but that doesn't matter. Because it's funny and it's true. I think that's where the play got it right - not just the funny bit but the true bit. Well not entirely true, but generally true.

Mark Rylance was fantastic as this dim old fella. He was so good at the end, I almost cried (or was that because I was laughing so hard? I can't remember now). There were some incredibly funny lines that I would fondly recollect and start laughing all over again. I believe it was also co-written by him. I suppose it's comic surrealism if there is such a genre.

The sets were bare and well-done in this tiny theatre space. There was attention to detail like that little train moving in the background. They used dollhouses and puppets, which probably has a deeper meaning, but to me, it just seemed like nothing should be taken seriously. Could the sets have been better? Probably. As K pointed out, spring didn't see the ice melting and no one was really slipping. The puppeteer deserves an applause for subtlety. I didn't even realise there was a puppeteer, and I thought it must be a battery operated doll. The scene of a wind storm was beautifully done, but by the actors than anything on the set.

It's still playing if you want to watch it. I would highly recommend.