Tag Archives: Samar Anarya

Kathmandu: The Legend Lives On

The boy from Babhnan looked away, trying to hide his welled up eyes from his mom. They were standing at the Bhaktapur Durbar Square, the capital of the great Malla kingdom till the 15th century, a place he had fallen in love with over his numerous visits to Nepal. Nothing looked the same this time though. The horrible 2015 earthquake, also known as Gorkha Earthquake had obliterated many a buildings he loved to frequent. Vatsala Durga temple was one of them. 

Bhaktapur Durbar Square in 2019
Bhaktapur Durbar Square in 2019

The scene was the same all over Kathmandu valley consisting of three ancient cities. They were all capital of Nepal over centuries under different kingdoms- Lalitpur aka Patan, Bhaktapur and Kathmandu. All three had, still have quite a lot left, their own Durbar squares. The quake did inflict a huge loss on all of them yet it could not flatten them all. A lot with which the boy from Babhnan identified still stood tall. His welled up eyes slowly gave away to a smile of hope. 

Boudhanath Stupa from a window
Boudhanath Stupa

His relationship with Nepal went a long way, literally. His village is in Terai, an area common to India and the Himalayan country divided by a man made borders. Take the proper concrete road routes and you would be crossing one just 150 kms away. 

Go by the ones ‘smugglers’ took in the era India was still a closed economy, and nearest one would be just about 70 kms. He had known many of these ‘smugglers’. One was the husband of his house help he called Mami (aunt) and thus he was Mama. The boy, grown up into a man standing at Durbar square remembered how eagerly he waited for him to return. He remembered the polyester shirts, cotton had yet not become a fad he would bring back. And the Nike shoes, real or fake, as India did not even have Action shoes (remember them?) by then. And so on. 

Rudraksh Sellers in Thamel
Rudraksh Sellers in Thamel

The smile was fully back on his lips. He had first gone to Nepal when he was just 14. To Pokhara, from where came a classmate of his, Akhilesh Barnwal. His father was one of the biggest ginger wholesaler of the kingdom with a really huge house. And a distinct smell of ginger lingering in the air. Over his stay with them for about a week, the boy from Babhnan had fallen in love with both: super yum dishes Akhilesh’s Bhabhi cooked and the smell of ginger. 

Oh, life, you cheat! You never told him that the mountains would soon become another home. And they did.

Over the course of his work visits to the republic just born out of the ruins of the Kingdom. It’s capital would soon be a city in which he would stay in a home, of a colleague cum dear friend, not in hostels or hotels. The longest stint being a whopping 28 days in a row with long scooty rides at times doing household chores. A definite ‘local’ feeling. 

He would soon know its bylanes just as well, if not better, as he knows of his Mofussil Kasba. In which he would take the shortcuts to escape the maddening traffic, and would find himself, at times, stuck in some lane recently closed. Of course with other smart asses like him. Believe him, this is the most authentic local feeling one can ever have! 

He would soon be advising others about hidden gems of the valley: The every night Arti at river Bagmati, behind the Pashupatinath Temple on the other side of the river. It is an experience to die for in itself. Watch it from the Shamshan Ghat just behind the temple, and it becomes surreal. A tale of life and death and life again, together with devotees dancing to the beautiful hymns! 

Bagmati Aarti watched from the crematorium side
Bagmati Aarti watched from the crematorium side

Or the evenings at Boudhanath Stupa. And the mornings at Swyambhoo. Yeah, specific times when they look like they do not at any other time. And the Budhanilkantha Temple with a stone statue of Lord Vishnu, perhaps the largest stone carving in the country  inexplicably floating in the water. Okay, there are a few scientific theories but religion does not allow them to experiment with. The legend has it that any Monarch visiting the temple would die so no King after Pratap Malla (1641–1674) ever visited the temple. Monarchy died anyway, aah irony! Do visit the Kopan Monastery too.

Floating Lord Vishnu Statue in Budhanilkantha Temple
Floating Lord Vishnu Statue in Budhanilkantha Temple

Of course there are regular suspects- Thamel that still retains some of the original Hippy vibes, all the Durbar Squares and so on.

Do pay my respects to the boy from Babhnan’s other home though. Please also pray for all that he lost in 2015 earthquake, both people and places. 

Jakarta: A city of jarring juxtapositions

Garuda Indonesia. The name sent a shiver down the spine of the small boy from Babhnan. Yeah, he knew that it was once one of the most dangerous airlines of the world with unrivalled crash record. Then he remembered his flight to Mugu, deep in the mountains in Nepal in a 10 seater Cessna Caravan, which the pilots flew with the GPS as radar doesn’t work in mountains and checked the tires on landing! Garuda is fine, he told himself with a smile! 

Jakarta was the first place where I saw HIjabi women in bars!
Hijabi women in a Bar!

Jakarta, it was to be. The city which took its name from Sanskrit, Jay Krita or victory accomplished.  The city which was there in books since forever as the capital of Indonesia. What dragged him to the city, rather country to be honest, was a lesson in his Hindi textbook of standard 7th or 8th- a lesson about Sumatra and Bali- still Hindu majority in the world’s largest country by Muslim majority. He had to go there.

A picture of women shopping from street side vendors
Women shopping

And he was there. On his way to the hotel, for a change from hostels, at 1 am. Lots of eateries were open with a sizable presence of women too. Just like rest of South East Asian countries, he thought. Hanoi, Bangkok, Shanghai, Phnon Penh- the first thing that struck him was this- the sense of security for the women. Do they too worship women, he thought and shrugged, no time for sarcasm. 

This city is love, he was to discover soon. It was pain, when it came to the traffic, he was to discover too. It is a contradiction. Where else could one find Hijabi women in a bar, even if drinking mocktails? Or Muslims with names like Sukaron and Suharto! Jakarta holds one of the biggest (and first of the world) Ramayan Fair, also the most popular tale in the country told in a thousand ways from plays to puppetry! 

Apsaras roam the city in the night- I am with Prakash, my Nepali colleague
Apsaras roam the city in the night- I am with Prakash, my Nepali colleague

Puppetry reminds me of another contradiction: they make their ones with the skin of dead buffaloes or cows. Imagine our deities on that- I am sure it could force us to put the bigots on trauma induced heart attack watch! 

And the Apsaras roaming in the streets in full costumes and an accompanying band! Mostly of youngsters! Beware though, they may seek money so keep some change, small notes with you! As it is, they have notes of millions meaning nothing! 

Jakarta, I mean Indonesia, is repressive, it allows the police to keep people in remand without even producing them before a judge for a whopping 60 days. The boy from Babhnan saw thousands assembling right in front of the Presidential Palace protesting for a myriad of things for a full week, everyday! 

A protest in front of Monas: Or Monument of Independence

 

Biggest of them though is coexistence of religions captured perfectly by the Istiqlal Mosque, fifth largest mosque in the world with a capacity of 1,20,000 people right in front of St. Mary of the Assumption Cathedral, Jakartal. Look from a little distance, and the towers of cathedral and minarets of the mosque seem to be part of the same structure! This, in fact was the idea behind Sukarno, then president deciding to build the mosque to celebrate Indonesian Independence right in front of the cathedral. 

Fruit seller by the canal
Fruit seller by the canal

And they both welcome people from all religions. The boy from Babhnan had gone there in a group with 2 women wearing shorts- they were immediately given a kaftan kind of thing to cover. A guide was assigned to the group who took us inside and gave us great details! And his name was Indra! 

Kota Tua aka Old Town, Batavia- an oasis of museums and life

It was a visit for work so he was little hard pressed for time. The traveler inside him was enterprising though, he stole as much time as possible and saw the city like a local. He bowed to the Monas Tower (National Monument celebrating the independence of Indonesia) in memory of all those who made sacrifices, small to supreme fighting against the colonials. Just like in our own India. 

Cycle wallah in Old Town Batavia
Cycle wallah in Kota Tua

He went to the Passer Baroe- a lovely flea market established in 1820 and bought everything- from Batik to biscuits! Just like locals would! He went to Kota Tua aka Old Town Batavia, the colonial name the Dutch gave to the city when they ruled it and traced the city, and country’s history in the Fatahillah Museum. Old Town Batavia is really charming, worth a whole day of museum hopping coupled with loitering in Cafe Batavia. Wish he had that much time on him! 

Monas Tower from my hotel
Monas Tower from my hotel

And more to visit Chinatown

There’s always a next time, though. See you again, Jakarta!

 

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A to Z challenge, 2020
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India: From Bharat and back

Statutory Warning: This post might read very narcissistic as it is essentially about a very personal journey. 

The small boy from Babhnan was very sad looking at things happening in India, 3700 kms away from Hong Kong. Lakhs of migrant labours thrown on the roads in the middle of the Covid 19 lockdown, people starving, doctors being abused and attacked, slums in eerie silence,a religion being vilified and his own friends- urbane, middle and upper middle class locked in, getting depressed. 

Small boy from Babhnan in front of his village house
Small boy from Babhnan in front of his village house

It was essentially a journey back. From India to Bharat. 

Sounds strange? As the constitution asserts that it is India that is Bharat, no? Yeah, in the constitution it is. Just like untouchability is banned and is a cognizable criminal offence in the same constitution. Believe it or not, traveling to India from Bharat is perhaps one of the longest, and the most arduous journeys, one can take upon. Even the far more fortunate ones like the small boy from Babhnan who ticked every box right barring one- so called upper caste? Right, in fact in a landed, locally dominant family. Male? Right? Father in government service? Right, actually a professor, even mom is a school principal. Born in a big town? Sorry, NO. 

In Bhilai, some 14-15 years ago

Yeah. It was a long and arduous journey even for a boy from a privileged family. The one who slowly scaled all the peaks and reached where he wanted to, living a life chasing his dreams- which did never go beyond, ironically, backpacking. The boy never fancied hotels, hostels were where he belonged to- meeting fellow travellers, sharing notes, jokes and often beers too! A fallout of having lived in hostels perhaps, as a boarding student, since he was just 12. 

He was wondering how difficult this journey back to Bharat for those on the roads must be. And he remembered his. 

Going to Gorakhpur at mere 12 as a boarding student. Then Allahabad, at 17. And from Allahabad to Shankargarh where he worked with the Kol Tribals and Snake Charmers, and often slept on the only cot in Balanath’s family- with snakes in their baskets below it. It was a journey of no return. A journey which seldom gets recognised, let alone reaching travel stories. It was to a myriad of slums, teaching children, dreaming of a better future for them. 

This was the last house standing in a village named Jhalkusum in Komna block of Nuapada,
lost to Lower Indira irrigation project in Nuapada, Odisha, in 2013. We could not save it.
This was the last house standing in a village named Jhalkusum in Komna block of Nuapada,
lost to Lower Indira irrigation project in Nuapada, Odisha, in 2013. We could not save it.

Then to Jabalpur- meeting fellow travelers- the unconventional ones. From there it was to almost every nook and corner of India: going to Hyderabad for some labour protest, Ranchi for right to food agitation. Often missing the must visit places, though.

From there it was to JNU: that was to change him even more. And a journey undertaken like none other- a bus journey demanding Right to Employment. 52 days, 12 states from Delhi to Maharashtra and back. Hundreds of places- big and small- sleeping in villages under mango trees- a throwback to the summer vacations in his village by the Manvar river decades ago. The journey succeeded, by the way, with the passing of Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act, 2005. The small boy from Babhnan smiled, after very long, thinking of this.

A village in Rewa, Madhya Pradesh. This one is still standing.
A village in Rewa, Madhya Pradesh. This one is still standing.

The journey was interesting, along with many jailbreaks- no not the iphone ones, real as they happen with activists. Basti, Allahabad, Nuapada, Kochi, Palanpur, Hyderabad, Bengaluru, Raipur, Amarkantak, Bhadrak, Chennai, Bhuvaneshwar, Agartala, Bishrampur, Shillong, Palakkad, Lansdowne, Kaithal, Indore, Solan, Gaya, Ranchi, Nagpur, Goa, Puruliya, Guwahati, Bhilwara, Jammu, Ropar, – he remembered some of the stops, in no order though. It was a journey full of horrors, of being in boats on what were villages, full of living people and all that come along with them, now submerged by some dam. It was a journey full of hopes, of Niyamgiri people successfully saving their lands for decades.

It's a fake, laboured smile extracted out in a reservoir that once was land belonging to Reyang and Chakma Adivasis. And there was a river sacrificed at the altar of development at Dumboor Dam, Tripura.
It’s a fake, laboured smile extracted out in a reservoir that once was land belonging to Reyang and Chakma Adivasis. And there was a river sacrificed at the altar of development. — at Dumboor Dam, Tripura.

From there it was to Hong Kong, and then many places- including Kathmandu- home for over a month! 

An anchor shrieking broke his chain of thoughts. He was back to the millions of journeys taking place from India to Bharat again. Journeys full of losses. Of jobs, dreams and hopes. No one wants to leave home, after all. If so many people from rural India did that, they did it under sheer compulsion. Be they privileged like the small boy writing this, or desperate- forced into distress migration. It is urban India, mostly metropolitan alone, which is their only escape route- a chance of finding a job, a life, a home- howsoever small- a shanty in a slum, home nonetheless. 

This too shall pass, they would be fine. The boy tried to reassure himself. Amen.

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Hong Kong: Home Coming to a Harbour

It was a beautiful, sunny, and oh not so humid morning of March 2007 when a bright streak of light woke the boy from Babhnan with a start. He looked out of the window and it felt like the plane was about to land on water! He looked around, a little startled, saw everyone composed and so did he. A red eye flight, his first international one, he had taken 7 hours ago from Delhi had brought him to Hong Kong, the city he would soon call home. 

Camping near the Tung Lung Chau Fort at the island by the same name.
Camping near the Tung Lung Chau Fort at the island by the same name.

Hong Kong. That was a full 6,000 years after humans first set foot in the territory. 2200 years after it became part of the Chinese Empire for the first time. 500 after the first European came here, Portugese Jorge Álvares. 

Hong Kong: a jungle of concrete and grass. Where the East meets West. The financial capital of the world. And the Disneyland and the Ocean Park.

Local tip: If you must, go to the Ocean Park, it is so much better than the Disney.

This is an aerial view of the Ocean Park, the best theme park in Hong Kong.
An Aerial view of the Ocean Park.

 

The village boy was a little nervous, but he was armed with his most trusted weapon:  a well rehearsed abandon bordering on disdain. Whole buildings of glass, so what? It is just the glitter. The Khadi kurta, rugged jeans and Hawai Chappal- the JNU uniform that got him many stares- from immigration to immigration was part of that abandon, a carefully rehearsed one, though.

He followed the crowd running to the immigration, pretending he was not, as if he had been clearing immigration since he was an infant. A faint smile ran through his cheeks. The memories of entering glass buildings when he had first come to Delhi were back. That careful look- on people behaving ‘normal’ and imitating them. 

That was the only nervousness the boy would ever have with this city. 

Hong Kong was nothing that those cinematic ‘establishing shots’ made it to be. Yeah, Victoria Harbour is beautiful, but it was only as much the city as is India Gate Delhi. The Peak too, only as much Hong Kong as Gateway of India was Mumbai. 

Victoria Harbour during the symphony of light: the mandatory 'establishing shot' for HKSAR.
Victoria Harbour during the symphony of light: the mandatory ‘establishing shot’ for HKSAR.

Yeah, the ‘heart’ of Hong Kong is all glass and concrete. Provided you could call that place, always in flux with people moving in and out as they would from any financial hub Hong Kong in the first place. No one calls Dubai airport’s transit area Dubai, right? That glass and concrete part is only that much Hong Kong. People come here, mostly on short time assignments and go. Without even knowing the city.

Iconic Star Ferry Pier from the Hong Kong Island Side
Iconic Star Ferry Pier from the Hong Kong Island Side

Beyond that exist well-knit communities in villages 300 to 400 years old still farming. Many of them are still walled in a throwback to the times gone by. 

The village boy immediately belonged here, settled in the first he took as home with windows looking at sprawling bonsai mandarin plantations on one hand and a lush green hill behind. It was not love at first sight, but a lifelong romance had begun. 

The BOnsai Mandarin plantation right out of the window of my bedroom

A romance that would take him to the Tai Mo Shan- a hike traversing over 5 waterfalls, largest over a 100 meters in a row, in a single hike! Startled? The boy too was- only till he took a nice long swim in the natural pool in the third one. Or to the Tung Lung Fort built in 1722 to guard against the pirates. Or the Bride’s Pool- another waterfall combined with a beautiful valley praying for the wife who lost her life while crossing the waterways, after whom the waterfall took its name.

Bride's Pool Waterfall
Bride’s Pool Waterfall

Or the stilted villages like Tai O with their unfolding bridges taking you straight to further south east- Vietnam and Cambodia. 

Bride's Pool
Bride’s Pool

And the villages with their centuries-old traditions living on for centuries- the dragon dances, the bun festivals in which a very rustic looking person sees you and you being the only non-Chinese there starts explaining the history and the ritual. And then that he is Vice President or this and that in HSBC or again, this or that! 

Preparation for the Dragon Dance in Pok Fu Lam village
Preparation for the Dragon Dance in Pok Fu Lam village

And yeah, the small bunkers, now shrines, dug by the Hong Kongers who resisted the Japanese during World War II with all their might, often making the biggest of the sacrifices. And the sprawling parks in the middle of the city with retired elderlies playing Mahjong all day, often also babysitting their grandchildren as both the parents would have gone to work. 

The Bun Festival in Cheung Chau
The Bun Festival in Cheung Chau

Hong Kong is now home. Yeah, I often feel sad seeing a few of the fields in front of my house disappearing every year, yet, happy that forests make for them. Yeah, forests cover over 26,400 hectares of the total area of Hong Kong, about 23.8%- much more than during the World Wars. 

Come, visit my home. But please please please, not on those 2 nights 3 days packages. I can share with you some best-kept secrets for a longer and better rendezvous with this harbor I now call home. 

Can Tho: Call from the Mekong Delta

The boy from the River Manvar banks was back in Mekong Delta, ditching Da Nang, the up and arrived beach destination in Asia for the second time in a row within an year. No, he had nothing against the Seas. They always fascinated him. He now lives by the sea, in Hong Kong. 

Onwards to Cai Rang Floating Market, biggest in the Mekong Delta
Onwards to Cai Rang Floating Market, biggest in the Mekong Delta

But the rivers are where the boy feels at home. Born and brought up in the foothills of the Himalayas, in the Gangetic plains also called Doaab, deltas are the place he belonged to. Places where everything revolved around the water earlier, most still does. He remembered the Monsoons: longingly waited for and scared off. Come, folk songs would plead the Gods of rains, but just enough to get us super crops, not to drown us, cut us off from the rest of the world for months. 

As it is, he had realised that at the end of the day, every travellers seeks to find the home left behind somewhere deep within. Oh yeah- a quick note on Doaab- it literally means 2 waters- do is 2 and Aab is water in Arabic. That’s why Punjab is Punjab at both sides of the border- 5 waters, meaning 5 rivers. However much borders try to divide, rivers find a way to sneak out and unite. They just know how to.

This was what had brought the small boy to Can Tho, the biggest city in Mekong Delta and the fourth largest in Vietnam. The delta, like all other delta, has a fabulous history. Prehistory, actually, as almost all of the earliest human settlements started in deltas only just like the Indus Valley one. 

The most fascinating thing about Can Tho, though, is that its past has a bridge to reach its present- a bridge called river  Hậu River, a distributary of the mighty Mekong with its floating markets just like they were 300 years ago! Okay, the boats have become motorised, the wholesale ones jetties, many of them are now electrified and there are even floating (on the boats) petrol pumps! Everything else is the same: predawn rush of the wholesalers to these real floating markets with a bamboo pole with something hanging on the top- denoting what is that boat selling. If it’s fish then fish, vegetables then vegetables and if nothing- then boat itself!!  Then come the boats selling breakfast and boats of retailers. Oh yeah and now also many tourists and some travelers too! 

Cai Rang floating market in full glory. This one is the biggest in Mekong Delta and essentially a wholesale market. Just a 15 minutes boa
Cai Rang floating market in full glory

Same are the orchards inside, well connected with beautiful, almost mystic canals shaded by the coconut and palm trees, and the villages making rice paper, and so many other things, enough for one to get lost there alone for days.

Canals linking villages, lives, economy, everything

Can Tho is not only about these floating markets though. It has equally enchanting night markets 4 of them- open all night, by the way, unlike many night markets across the word, Go and eat traditional delicacies there like a local. Or head to the cacao farms reminding you of your own mango orchards lost in the villages left behind, many even having homestays- basic enough to take you on a trip down the memory lane. 

Then there are magnificent temples, really intricate and different from one another unlike most of our run of the mill Shivalas and Mosques you can’t even differentiate from one another. 

Doing all this, you would pass by the Can Tho Grand Prison many a times. Hardy enough to believe in justice. It is for you. A backpacker drunk on youth, or a tourist which ended up there in a tour: do go, it would sober you down. 

Did I even talk about the hidden gem? Remember the 1992’s French Erotica Movie, The Lover, that took the world by storm, nay, sensuality? That helped bringing erotica inn Most of it was shot in Can Tho, in a small town some 17 kms away, in an over 150 years old house that remains the same even today!I had seen The Lover as a young adult, with the tape tucked inside my shirt smuggled into a friend’s house in 1997 or so in Allahabad. There I was in the house, I knew ever since.

This was the locale of the 1992 French Erotic classic, The Lover: It is called as Binh Thuy Ancient House, and also Binh Thuy Communal House
Locale of the 1992 French Erotic classic, The Lover: Binh Thuy Ancient House

Gosh! I forgot Ninh Kieu Wharf, I went to every single day there! Overlooked by a really tall statue Uncle Ho, as Ho Chi Minh is called across the country? It runs parallel to the river with a beautifully decorated bridge to itself, not going anywhere, just, to walk by the river and remember your own Manvar, 4400 kms away. 

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