Finding lost Treasures: The Summer of Rediscovery

I knew I could not cope with the future unless I was able to rediscover the past.
– Gene Tierney

It has been a while, hasn’t it? My words never did go silent – they just went from being digital to dusty cursive choosing to live in physical notebooks for some time. I wrote, I was prolific. Perhaps the reason why it was more literally pen to paper is because so many of these thoughts were deeply personal. That’s how this summer of travel affected me – the sights that I saw, the people I met – almost gave rise to emotions and aspects that I thought I had lost in the buzzing world of Business school.

These post-MBA travels before restarting my career after a two-year hiatus serve as a perfect bookend to my pre-MBA exploits around Southeast Asia. Back then, in 2011, I had set out to discover new worlds and push myself in directions that I didn’t know. These past 2013 travels were almost like shaking hands with a familiar friend – a best friend – who one doesn’t get to see that often. A friend who I had forgotten in my pursuit of a higher education. Ah – well – I am glad that I have found her again. She’s alive and thriving!

The Arno

The Arno, Florence

In Croatia, I confirmed the strength of beautiful friendships that I had cultivated over the last 2 years.

In Vienna and Budapest, I felt my inner history-loving fire come to life, waltzing around the Schönbrunn, pumping my fists up in Jewish Ruin pubs, singing “Quizas, Quizas, Quizas” with an eclectic, musical trio.

In Italy – ah Italy – I met Bernini. I came face-to-face with his majesty – finally. I rediscovered my Art. Dancing on the streets of Venice, Prancing through cobbled stones of Florence, Hiding in the caves of Cinque Terre’s Ligurian Sea, Playing with fountains in Rome. Running across a friend from primary school days after 10 years of separation.

In Paris, I unearthed my love for Absolute Immersion. Living in the heart of Montmarte, traversing the City of Lights with friends who had defined me in my days in Boston, relishing on pan au chocolat and a café from a corner bakery every morning.

In Freiburg, I again understood the joy of Living Simply and the Art of Conversation. Picnics, munching on berries, swimming in green lakes, debates of society and politics under stars. And yet again, this time too, with friends who had shaped an amazing few months for me back in Boston.

In Peru, I found all of the things above in a wonderful package juxtaposed with some of the most astounding scenery that I have ever seen. And, saw my Macchu Picchu – a site that I have been chasing for about 10 years to get to. What was the most wondrous? While Europe rekindled with my old self in beautiful backdrops, Peru unveiled an entirely new dimension of me.

My travelogues eventually will follow. I wanted to write this piece to join together jumbled thoughts.

Heart of the Andes, Peru

Heart of the Andes, Peru

Shanghai: Capping it Off

Two weeks in China have flown by. Through the course of the last few days, I have witnessed slices of this country that are constantly changing my overall opinion of it. From the somber hutongs (streets) of Beijing to the cities in the skies in midland China (Chengdu and Chongqing) to the urban, international metropolis of Shanghai – Commercial China has been, overall, steeped in new money and quick development. The developing China left me impressed but there was still something missing to tie me inherently to the country. In Thailand, the history and markets of Ayutthaya were the trigger; in Cambodia, the ruins of Angkor Wat; and in Spain, the vibrant oranges of Sevilla.

 

 In my last two days in the Land of the Pandas, I have found that trigger – it’s called a tiny city of Shanghai. This city is the perfect blend of modernism, Europeanism, and ethnic Chinese culture. And there is a further element to it that renders it a perfectly suited city to my sentiments – its love for art and architecture. Ranging from an exposition on Miro’s modern swirls to ancient Chinese urns, sweeping from wooden houses of old China to Nuevo-Greco architecture brought on by European colonizers, the flavor that Shanghai gives is that of historic east blended with aspects of the west.

What sweetened my already favorable opinion of the city was seeing the place through the eyes of a local Shanghainese. My friend and I had the goodfortune to meet a friend of a friend who is from a smaller town in China but has spent about 10 years is Shanghai. He showed us bits of the city here and there to indicate why this city really has a character that is truly its own. We went to an area in Shanghai that was less accessed by tourists – cobbled roads, narrow streets, intricate wooden buildings. And within these structures lay galleries, artisans, and restaurants that were so unique (and some, so Chinese) that we spent hours roaming a very small circle

A perfectly spiced lunch was fueled by conversation that for both my friend and I was riveting. For the last 12 weeks, we had been studying Modern China and its business growth diligently. We had spent the last 2 weeks in country visiting stalwarts like IntelJohnson and Johnson, and Baidu to better understand growth, government, and, to an extent, stagnation. We had even had the opportunity to meet with the Chongqing government (currently in the center of global media frenzy due to the sacking of a top official, Bo Xilai). Getting a perspective from our friend, a budding entrepreneur in a country where innovation is now a top priority was a fascinating cap to our ideas. Through him, we saw a China whose young people were passionate, driven, worldly, and above all, very confident in their country’s future prospects.

The China that I got to see in two short weeks is one that has an underlayer of tradition and order while opening its arms to embrace modern ideas and thoughts.

The youth wore the latest designers but in their own unique way, the buildings (especially those in Shanghai and Chongqing) could give some western cities a run for their money, and the interior street- and food-markets, selling a vast array of animals and vegetables that I had never seen consumed before. It was an interesting visit and in Shanghai, I felt that pang of saying goodbye before one is ready to do so.

Encounters: Ma vie, c’est la vie

Encounters

(written May 2009)

“Sometimes you just need a person in your life and they do that bit and you move on, but for that time its the most important person and its great to have the feeling as it energizes you and makes you feel good”

-Rachna Dushyant Singh

 Chance encounters. Memorable words. Poignant moments. The world turns. Fading. Forgetting. Leaving.

So many faces met over the course of last year. Lasting impressions. Tons of personalities clashed and bonded with over few cups of tea or beer or dessert. And the clock hands move, dirty dishes taken away, bill paid, and you move on.

One of the biggest lessons that I’ve learned in this new environment, where each fends for himself with no parental figure constantly protecting you from The World, is that sometimes you meet, make merry, and then part ways. All over the course of a mere meal even. The essence of the experience is in getting to know people just for a particular moment. Be this moment 5 minutes or 5 weeks long. And then you move on to the next set of chance encounters and memorable words.

I am still trying to figure out this odd way of bonding. I cannot fathom why people would go to the effort of meeting and sharing lives with others who they might see only that night. It is hard for me to not feel a pang of regret as goodbyes are said, while at the same time, making a mental promise of keeping touch. I cannot see why one would just let the flow take them farther downstream from the person they’ve just left behind, and not make the effort to swim countercurrent so that they can relive again the sheer enjoyment that the meeting brought them with the possibility of the one moment turning into long days of lazy happiness.

However, I am warming up to this notion, increasingly, as life puts me at the epicenter of such meetings. I’d initially failed to see that not only are such meetings enjoyable due to the nature of their uniqueness, they are crucial in the life lessons they teach. It’s an idea that took a while for me to arrive at. It took me a while to see such unnatural encounters in a positive light. I used to turn my mind over and over again, trying to get to the crux of the issue and not really seeing that the relationships were to be savored in just those choice moments. That those moments, despite their short lengths, were capable to teach a soul lessons that a 10-year friendship might fail to. Beyond these valuable messages, they introduce a person to new ideas, feelings, experiences, thus broadening one’s knowledge of what life has to offer.

Looking back to my last year, so many standout moments were those spent with what I am terming “5-minute friends.” Conversing with someone about his life spent on a traveling circus, meeting a photographer who’d spent a year in Iraq as part of the U.S. Army, connecting with another kindred soul over a shared take on life. All of these single moments, with “5-minute friends” left deep footprints in my mind and in my path of life.

Each person, a planet in his or her own orbit, crosses path sometimes with another’s orbit.

But ultimately, the set path of the orbit beckons and each has to go his or her merry which way. Departing with sweetness (or sadness), but nonetheless leaving a small dent in the other they bumped into. And thus life continues and chance encounters keep happening and we should learn how to embrace them and not hold the planet from continuing its course. Live, learn, move on.


I left my heart in Luang Prabang

I had made it a point to research my trip from a very literary perspective – all text and minimal photos. I did not want pictures to act as spoilers and wanted to be surprised everywhere that I landed.

Well, what an amazing surprise Luang Prabang gave. I had assumed that the town would be like the one it is often compared to – the hilly, busy city of Chiang Mai in Northern Thailand. But Luang Prabang turned out to be something right out of the dusty pages of French Colonial Era of the last century. It also had a past life as a royal capital pre-colonization.

It is magical, it is historic, it is so preciously beautiful that my heart laments on not being a painter nor a poet to capture either the vistas that it presents or the feelings that it evokes from within. And it is not just the nature that shrouds this city hidden in the valley of the hills, nor just the intricate wooden French villas, but also the Lao people who reside within. Everywhere my friends and I went, rode, walked – we were greeted with precocious children, toothy old men, shy women all saying a sing-songy “Sabai Dee” (a Hello in Lao). The few young adults that we met spoke great English (on the account of being educated in monasteries) and were not only helpful but insightful into the culture of the Lao people. Our young hotel manager and his friend – two former monks during their teens – now working and studying were a privilege to talk to. A postcard that I bought was a photo of some monks and to my surprise when I showed it to them, they recognized the monks by name! All of a sudden, it added a more personal touch to a  photograph of monks receiving their daily morning alms from the locals.

Leafy, Quiet Luang Prabang

The city – the non-human parts of it – lives and breathes accordingly. On landing, one feels a deep, personal connection – it feels like a city that one can just move to. Welcoming, warm, and wondrous. Leafy streets bordered by wooden, simplistic French-Asian architecture containing artistic and handicraft shops. The music within the city often during sunset hours is the soft chanting of the monks doing their evening prayers in the various temples that dot the city. At night, the skies open up to reveal a sky so brilliantly lit with stars while the buildings glimmer from the lights of lanterns and soft-glow bulbs. It is exquisite.

I know for certain that I have left a part of my heart in Luang Prabang. I only await my return here.

Sunset over the Mekong River, Luang Prabang

Sunset over the Mekong River in Luang Prabang, Laos

A Sensory Take on Bangkok

Swatdee Kaa (Hello in Thai)!

I did this for my NYU Stern essay and I have done it prior (subconsciously) and now I actually consciously realize that I do it all the time: I analyze things by categorizing them according to how they appeal to my different senses, ultimately combining the senses to deliver a final response. For my NYU essay, for example, I dissected my personality and self according to senses (e.g. The sense of hearing was conveyed by an attached CD with sounds that defined me).

 

Therefore, let’s dissect Bangkok accordingly.

 

Taste: Being the food-lover that I am, I have to start with the taste. The taste of Bangkok is eclectic and original. It is best enjoyed through maneuvering a cramped street replete with street vendors selling anything from Rambutan (a lichee-like tropical fruit) to the staple Pad Thai. The concept of street food is almost similar to that of Spanish Tapas – you go from vendor to vendor, eating small portions of their speciality until you find yourself full. The overall flavour is a blend of Sweet, Tangy, and Spicy. There is much, too much to write about food – an altogether new blog entry later.

Smell: The smell of Bangkok is heavily dependent on food (Thais, more than tourists, love eating out as the price of food here – especially that of the street – is ridiculous cheap). The smoky kebabs mix with the darkness of coffee. There isn’t a pungent stink (as is common sometimes in India) and the people smell surprisingly neutral (despite the heat). With Bangkok being very much a city –  the smells come coated in a thin layer of smog.

See: There is a ton to see in Bangkok – ranging from the historic (and surprisingly ornate and beautifully maintained) Wats (temples), sparkling in the afternoon sun to the zig-zaggy streets that by day sell cheap souvenirs and by night sell cheap souvenirs. Sometimes called as Venice of the East due to muddy canals that we just found are also home to some grotesque animals (i.e. wild Komodo Dragons).

Hear: I find it personally odd being in a place that sounds a lot like India – with names  rooted in Sanskrit – and being completely unable to neither understand nor pronounce the language. The Thais are also very quiet and speak softly. The voices, in turn, are drowned out by the wheels of the motors and the tuk-tuks (rickshaws) that dot the city. Blaring horns, however, are not common at all.

Touch: It is HOT! Not as humid as Mumbai but blisteringly hot. The sun beats down on my tourist skin with relish – turning me a shade darker every time it spots me. June is not supposed to be a summer month here (it signals the start of the Monsoon), so the heat is also somewhat unexpected. When it rains – there is a coolness in the air – but as soon as the rain stops, the heat is back with a vengeance.

 

Bangkok, my gateway into all things South East Asian, has served as an amazing starting point. I am thoroughly excited to immerse myself further into the East Asian culture and dig deeper to understand the nature of the people and their culture better. It also helps tremendously to be introduced into the city by a friend who has lived in Thailand for the last few months and can help to maneuver around the tourist traps!