Not A Sabbatical Travel Memory Project - Portugal, Russia, Italy, Poland, Iceland, Hungary, Czech Republic, Hong Kong/Macau, Spain, U.S.A, France, India

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There was a lot of travel - near and far - in the last few years. With an aim of curating and sharing snapshots of my journeys, I created the 'Not A Sabbatical Travel Memory Project'. 

I love travelling, but I also like coming home (currently London). Travelling then, is a way of life, something you constantly bring back to your work, friends, studies; enriching those things and your outlook on daily life in the process. It is a base to my being and can occur anywhere, even in a place that is familiar; and at times, if I'm lucky, even at home. 

The idea is to share defining pictures of each of the countries/spaces/places I have been fortunate to make an acquaintance with so far. 

Series 12 - Lisbon, Sintra, Arrabida, Cascais - Portugal
Forca Portugal – here, take these rings, rainbow rings
The passengers of the Lisbon intercity bus looked at me, and I at them. Perhaps they wondered why I hadn’t taken the metro like other travellers. Perhaps I wondered why they were traveling from the airport at midday.  Or perhaps, we just wanted to look at each other, as seems to be the norm on public transport anywhere in the world except in London.

Lisbon was playing host to summer; a summer as I had not known in a while - the heat so warm, it simply soaked right through your skin, changing its colour and all the cells constituting it. When my companions arrived, we greeted each other in Alfama, a neighbourhood populated with so many cobbled paths, cats and balconies with hanging laundry, it was an open invitation to lose your way.

We walked in and out of ‘no commitment’ bars. Here, it was acceptable to study menus in detail, check out the furniture, design and lighting, greet the owners and then walk out with good cheer, no questions asked. When we finally found a bar we fancied, on top of a hill, a mist had settled on the port and the sun was very bright.

Our jaunts were interspersed by pastry munching and supermarket stops. We had dinner sitting on the stairs outside our flat, trying to decipher the profession of our neighbour (creator of Spanish subtitles for action movie, or some such), listening to music and laughing late into the night. The warmth, the sounds, the views on every hill and the promise of our return to Alfama every night, seemed to invigorate our friendship anew.

Pleasure abounded – in a train winding its way to Sintra, imagining the histories of old streets with decrepit houses. The castle at Sintra gave the impression that a group of painters on a sojourn in the skies had decided on whim, to empty all their paints down on the castle out of curiosity for what would transpire.

In our excitement to return to Lisbon for the UEFA football semi-finals, we lost our way and ran through the woods as the dogs of the neighbourhood barked in protest.  Back in the capital, we managed to unearth Lisbon’s most touristy café to watch the match. As a bonus, they charged us for the ketchup. Later that night, what looked like half the country, was out on the street, celebrating Portugal’s win against Wales.

I spent the next day hiking in Arrábida. A downpour put pause to my plans at the station, the only two other people who got off at the station fixing me with looks of sympathy as they extricated large umbrellas from their bags. But the rain lifted and I walked about in Palmela by the terracotta roofed houses, stopping for lunch in a little restaurant. The owner spoke some English and gave me directions for my hike, interjecting with ‘are you sure you don’t want to just stay here on such a hot day and drink some beer, dear?’

When I finally got on the track, windmills lining the path and the sound of summer insects omnipresent, my face broke into a smile. I walked for a few hours in solitude but for the company of the surrounding hills, trees, birds and insects. I thought back to how hard the restaurant’s proprietress had tried to convince me not to go on my hike, and although I saw her dilemma, how could I possibly convey the height to which one’s spirit soars on encountering a large expanse of nature, hot day or otherwise.

Of course, it was very hot, and I walked in shade where I could, but I ran out of water. I stopped at a village, and with a valiant attempt of stringing some Portuguese, asked an old man washing his car outside his house, if I could fill my bottle. I needn’t have said anything at all, for when he noticed me, he gestured to the fresh water tap in the courtyard. These chance acts of kindness from strangers in foreign lands, compel me to try and be as kind as I can in my daily life; that, and to give others the benefit of doubt at least once or twice.

Thirst quenched, I walked on, eager with the anticipation of seeing the sea, but in the end, there was just an estuary. After a cold beer, and exploring some strange buildings on the path to the beach, I hailed an open air bus that took me back to the station in Setubal, the art and the vibe reminding me of Macau.

Back in Lisbon, we revelled in a music festival – Nos Alive for a couple of days. Continental European festivals seemed to lack the all-out-debauchery found in the British ones. The festival grounds were clean and well managed, the weather was just right and I managed to procure a ticket for the day Radiohead was playing. As the band went into their second or third encore that night, the entire audience inhabiting the same wavelength, give or take a few hertz, we all shed a few tears. We staggered in a dazed happiness to see Hot Chip play and danced through the night.
The next evening, we watched Portugal win the UEFA, this time with what looked like the whole country out on the streets. ‘Forca Portugal’, we all shouted ourselves hoarse, as the fireworks went off in the square.

After our festival party, the sea in all its blue expanse in Cascais, soaked through our skin as the summer had. There was not much else to do, but lie on our backs and try to read some Portuguese poetry.

Wherever we went – LX Factory (Lisbon’s hipster paradise), an old, extremely popular pastelaria in Belem (Pasteis de Belem), galleries, neighbourhoods, etc, there was cheap cold beer, pastel de nata, miradouros and striking street art.  At LX Factory, we spent some dreaming moments in a bookstore, Ler Devagar. Most of these were spaces full of tourists like us, and certainly, there was a shared appreciation, reasons why those who visit Lisbon love it.

Through our trip, on occasion, a piece of architecture or the colour of a wall reminded me of streets in Goa, making me wonder about a colonial empire that lasted over six centuries and its lasting impact. Still, Empires rise, and then they fall. As we left Portugal, on separate flights back to London, I listened to ‘Ave Maria’ on repeat and looked out to find rings of rainbow following us. The girl in front of me tried to capture these space phenomena on her iPhone, but failed, for they were fleeting – here, and gone again.

This trip changed me, as it likely did all my travel companions, as likely does any travel where there are so many rich experiences intertwined together, channelling the joys and sadness of life through you. I returned home with pages and pages of filled journal entries and the endless summer in Portugal bottled up in my mind to open at will on a grey day in London. And in addition to those things, I returned with a renewed awareness of impermanence.

The next time I would get on an intercity bus in Lisbon, or anywhere (including London), I made a vow to myself that I would fix my co-passengers with a searching look that would reach their soul, and then look away, outside, for there may not be or may be, a rainbow ring lying in wait.

Series 11 - Moscow, Russia
Traffic is to Moscow, what weather is to London and Anton, my taxi driver, used all the English in his vocabulary to describe how it ebbed and flowed through the day. As he drove past the Kremlin, the Tretyakov Gallery, the Moskva river and onto Tverskaya Steet, our communication improved enough for me to able to tell him that as a visitor, I was more accepting of traffic jams - they gave me a little more time to absorb the capital of the world’s largest country.

I was in the city to speak at a conference and fortunate to stay at the Ritz. I walked in a trance, taking in the chandeliers, the ceilings, and the hotel’s vast clientele - ranging from oil tycoons and international business folk to regular Muscovites dressed in their best, sneaking into the hotel lobby for a chat.

Breakfast was a feast every day and facilitated prying with as much sensitivity as I could muster, into the exchanges that occurred alongside scrambled eggs and six types of porridge. These whispered rendezvous included a mother daughter pair talking to a big German man with the aid of a translator about selling their boutique jewellery business and two men from London, who seemed to have decided I looked too foreign to speak any English, and proceeded to spare no detail in their discussions of their nights out and in (with an assortment of women).

Strolling through the streets past human beings dressed in immaculate winter fashion, the lights flickering around the Bolshoi, the shapes and angles of architecture over centuries, the hip cafes,  and then craning my neck to see the art on the roof in the metros - Moscow, was a city of opulence, transformation, intrigue, all at once.

My business colleagues helped enrichen my understanding - localized professional networking, the rise of digital media, the growing development of cities outside of Moscow/St Petersburg in Siberia and elsewhere, the thirst for education outside of Moscow etc.

In Red October, a warehouse teeming with all the digital marketers of Moscow, I gave my talk while a Russian translator simultaneously dubbed me. I harboured the hope that he was transmitting at least half of what I wanted to say, until the time came for questions, when the high quality of the audience’s asks of me, made me realize that the translator had likely over delivered on his transmission. It was apparent that the Russian language had a level of expression and sophistication that my English could not surpass.

My colleagues took me to a restaurant by the river with a view of the monstrosity of Peter the Great’s statue in the distance; something that grips a Muscovite with the same hold as the city’s traffic.  While we were served by the politest waiter I have ever met, a journalist coached out an intriguing interview about the intersection of life and technology. It was a day sparked with conversations spanning the widest range of topics and I finished it talking with a colleague about leadership and life goals.

A babooshka who kept brushing her hair with a small brush, gave me a guided tour of the Kremlin. Walking through the orthodox churches, imagining the revolution and the Soviet Regime, the more information I received from her, the further away I felt in my understanding of Russia. I sat on a bench in the cloakroom, overwhelmed in a reverie, when a little girl came and sat right next to me and initiated a conversation in perfect English that started with ‘Hello, what’s your name and how old are you and do you go to school?’ while her classmates looked at her in awe. Breaking barriers was clearly more straightforward for her.

A colleague treated me to Giselle in the Bolshoi. We went back a few years, maybe a hundred or two, sipping champagne and mesmerized by an exquisite dance of lost love, the second half, dark and sorrowful, earning several collective sighs from the audience. In the stairway, I ran into my London landlady’s Tokyo-residing son’s Japanese girlfriend who was in Moscow for a short spell. I enjoyed other meetings with friends who showed me the city at dusk, photographs of Russia’s exquisite geography, and Stalin’s skyscrapers catching the last rays of the sun.

One morning, after the nth viewing of Russian Winnie the Pooh and other cartoons from Soviet times, I took myself to Yaroslavskaya station to go and visit a suburb. Men stood in groups, smoking something, and a homeless man blared out some strange house music. Using sign language, the ticket inspector managed to guide me to the right platform, and I got on an old, blue, rickety train that would take me to Podlipki Dachnye, at the edge of a forest in the Elk national park. The train passed snowy suburbs, concrete chunks of Soviet buildings, workers repairing old tracks. Every time the train stopped, someone got into the carriage and advertised the sale of some small object of (in)convenience like shoe laces or buttons.

Wherever I went in Moscow, and whoever I met, I was greeted with a kindness and often times, a curiosity. Being there for work allowed for a lucky lens. Still, there seemed to be a certain order of events, an underlying hierarchy, a weighing up of personalities and facial expressions, a long history, all of which determined the boundaries of every conversation and situation. There was an enigma around the city that seemed opaque for an outsider or at the very least, for one who didn’t speak Russian. This enigma, I imagined, housed secret transactions and meetings, dispelled on occasion in daily-life joys like families walking by the river or playing in Gorky Park, but always returning to form – like so many other cultures and places - a separation between what is public and what is private.

I visited the suburbs in defiance of this enigma, chasing after an image I had from a Soviet children’s book I read as a kid, about a boy called Vanya playing with his Grandma in the snow. I had no detail save that, condemning me to a life of never finding that book again.

In Podlipki Dachnye, I found birches and snow, rows of run down blocks of houses, a dearth of tourists, and people, far removed from the brightness of Moscow, staring at me with hollow and wide eyes. Someone helped a drunk old man cross the street. Finally as I got to the forest, I walked past towering pine trees, and stopped to eat my lunch sitting on top of a large fallen trunk, while people cross-country-skied past. I paused by a group of cats, and a colourful house, where a Grandma walked ahead without giving me a second look, a small sled trailing behind, and a little boy riding in it. ‘Vanya, Vanya,’ she called to him (in my mind), as that little boy (Vanya) smiled back at her. Any desire to unravel the secret mysteries of hidden transactions in the streets or hotels of Moscow or elsewhere in Russia, vanished from my mind. Perhaps there would be another time, another visit, for that. I doubt anyone can confirm, but finding any sort of warmth in a Russian winter, might be classified as an enigma of sorts.

Series 10 - Italy

Heart Shaped Pizzas and Roman Ruins
Roma Termini bustled with an energy reminiscent of railway stations in India. The paint on the graffiti peeled off the walls. People bumped into me and to each other. The road to my hostel smelled like piss and a scooter almost hit me. The cappuccino I spent my last few Euro for the day on was nothing like I imagined. At the hostel, I met an American cyclist and we set about exploring the city together, young tourists in a daze. 

The Colosseum compelled us to imagine what it must have been like when a gladiator walked in to the hypogeum through the tunnels leading up to it, to the roar of the crowd. We walked around, transfixed, by a structure and society that were hard to relate to and yet moved us somehow. Outside, Palatine Hill, offered up a spectacular view of the city, the metropolis managing to look like a chaos of history and modernity.

At St Peter’s Square in the Vatican, people stood around holding up green balloons, handing out brochures glorifying the Pope. On an impulse, we went inside a random church to listen to the priest give an animated sermon in Italian.

We spent an afternoon walking along Via Appia Antica or the Appian Way, the remains of an ancient road connecting Rome to Brindisi in the South. Green pastures lay on either side. A small house called ‘Ave Maria’, creepers intertwined all around its gates, held our gaze, making us think about the lives of its inhabitants.

On returning to the city, we sat on a bridge and discussed our travels as the sun set over the Tiber. The food we consumed on those travels, enforced by a tiny budget that catered for trips over food, consisted mostly of microwaved pizzas and fast foods. The only saving grace was a gelato in Piazza Navona, as people walked around, staring at street artists painted silver to look like fairies.

I was nineteen years old on that trip, and delighted in its visuals and experiences. It didn’t matter that the food lacked taste – it fed my hunger and that was sufficient.

More than eight years later, at a business meeting in a suburb of Rome, I sparked up a group of Italians with the memory of that trip. It was a packed day full of presentations and although it was a working lunch, our clients had put together a delectable feast.

At the end of an exhausting day, I went for a walk through the pines trees, smelling the freshness of the trees.  There was a huge old building with big classical columns and a photographer was taking pictures of two models as the light danced between those columns. I passed a large tennis academy as parents took their kids for lessons. It was a suburban haven.

It started raining and I went to a local pizzeria. It was Valentine’s Day and the place was full of families and couples. The waiters and the owner didn’t speak English. I felt a pang, overcome by nostalgia for my first trip and at being alone after a day and a half packed with activity and people. As I waited for my pizza I saw the chef call some kids up to him and the kids squealing with delight looking at the pizza. Finally, after what seemed like a long time, another waiter brought the pizza to me. I waited for him to leave but he stood by my table, as though waiting for a response. He gestured for me to look at my pizza with a grin, and when I saw it, I laughed, for I realized it was shaped like a heart. ‘Buon appetito, signorina.’ The chef nodded at me from a distance and I nodded back, mouthing the word ‘grazie’. On a different day, in a different place, perhaps I might have responded differently, but in that local pizzeria in that suburb, after a busy day on my second trip to Rome, I was rather pleased.

The next day I met my cousin, and we ran through the futuristic Roma Tiburtina station, to catch a train to Tivoli. We had no expectations from this trip and as the train passed through valleys and forests, we sat back in our seats, chatting and happy to merely look outside.

Tivoli with its old crumbling streets and buildings had an atmosphere that was so slow that it bade us to sit at some broken stairs, full of resolve not to move. There was a cat passing by, no one else in sight, and some old lace clothes moving very softly. Hunger finally took us to a restaurant where a mother and her daughter were finishing lunch. We realized they were the owners and they cooked up a feast. Antipasto, primo, secondo, contorno, dolce, caffe – now this was an Italian meal my friends and colleagues would be proud of.

In between these indulgences, we visited the Hadrian’s Villa, and made the acquaintances of more trees and fat cats.

On our return back to Rome, we took the bus and I was surprised by the poverty on the streets that is evident outside the cities. We were tired after our journey and took a break sitting on a bench in a courtyard of a church. We spent the evening walking around Capitoline Hill.

A few hours before my flight back to London, I had the opportunity to experience another Roman sunset. Bidding farewell to the sun’s fading rays, we walked in to a bookshop.  As I wandered around the bookshop, I found some Montalbanos and Italo Calvinos I wanted to take back with me. The man at the till called to my attention that I still owed him some money. ‘36 EUR not 6, miss’, he was saying. I didn’t have any more cash, and I paid with my card, a luxury I certainly would not have allowed myself on my first trip.

This trip provided so much contentment, that I began to question my sensibilities as a teenager. I thought back to the calm I felt in that courtyard that afternoon and the view of the city from Capitoline Hill as it spread out in all its splendor. It wasn’t very far from the thrill I had felt on a leafy green walk along the Appia Antica, imagining who lived in that little house called ‘Ave Maria’. We are often quite unforgiving when we dissect our youth. There is no excuse for eating microwaved pizzas when you are in Italy, but I knew that if I was forced to make a choice between a nice meal in a restaurant or a trip to some ruins, my allegiance lay with my nineteen year old self.

Series 9 -  Poland
Britain houses a large Polish community and as a result, there seems to be a certain sentiment associated with the Poles. Thankfully, I was lucky to make the acquaintance of some wonderful Polish people in London, who removed any misconceptions from my mind. 

I had the opportunity to go to Warsaw on work, and decided to use it to visit a good friend, Ewa, who pleased me no end by meeting me at the airport with a flower, chocolate, snacks, carrot juice and tickets to her place in the suburbs. We got on the train with the contentment of fulfilled hunger and companionship. 

In central Warsaw, there was no escaping a rather ugly building, notable in its architecture and height - the Palace of Culture and Science, Stalin’s ‘gift’ to Poland. This building and others like it, initiated many conversations and compelled me to read more about Poland’s tumultuous History. Ewa had cooked up a feast, and we enjoyed a great big meal of Polish bread, beetroot salad, cheese, roasted vegetables and fruit tea. The family dog was a nervous, cute little thing called Szyszka who unfortunately, having been mistreated by her previous owner, was wary of strangers. She didn’t allow me to pet her the whole night, even though I threw her ball around trying to play with her. As we neared bed time, she seemed to have established that I meant well, and nestled up to me, allowing for some tears of joy. 

It was Easter weekend and we started Good Friday by embarking on a walk in the forest close by. We spent the morning in Warsaw, walking in and out of churches and conversing at length about religion and specifically, Catholicism.  Old Town was a collection of medieval colored buildings, reminiscent of Stockholm.  We stopped for a break in Warsaw’s oldest café, continued our walk through the University and then to the park where there were red squirrels and peacocks. As dusk fell on Good Friday, the crowds seemed to be moving towards the Old Town, making their way to the churches. When we arrived at the church that Ewa had chosen, people were beginning to queue to get inside.  Apparently, Easter weekend is one of the rare times in the year that everyone in Poland goes to church. The church was so crowded, there was barely space to sit. We managed to find a spot on the stairs, and participate in the Polish service. The mood was somber and although I understood nothing, towards the end of the service, as the hundreds of people gathered close together on a cold night, chanted and sang to the sound of beating wood, I was moved. It wasn’t religion, history, language, or even spirituality that was prevalent in my mind. There was a greater power in the hum of repeated tones reverberating in an acoustic space and those sounds stayed with long after. 

Next day, we had a big breakfast and went to church with the family again.There were other families waiting to get baskets of eggs blessed by the priest. Each basket seemed to be unique to the family and Ewa’s family’s basket had its own charm. I left after the church to go to Krakow by train, accompanied only by Chopin’s piano concertos.Krakow was full of tourists, and a little disorienting for it. On cue, it ran heavy drops of rain, just as I got out of the station, dispersing many of the tourists. The Old Town was spectacular.  Old buildings, churches, parks everywhere and the atmosphere of being in a medieval time. I wasn’t able to get to Auschwitz as many things were closed during this long weekend, but at the Contemporary museum and the Jewish quarter, there were some fascinating galleries and exhibitions about Poland’s history and art. I spent the evening watching a film in an old cinema. 

On Easter Sunday, I paid a visit to Wawel Castle, which was so enchanting with its many courtyards and panoramic views over the Vistula, that I went in and out on repeat till I had to force myself to move on. To see the sun set over Krakow, I went to the Krakus mound, adjacent to a cemetery that was flooded with visitors that Easter Sunday. 

Next day, I met up with a shining Ewa and revelled in her company once again as we made our way down south to Zakapone and the Tatras. Ewa brought with her some Easter cakes that she baked with her lovely Mother and we ate these on the bus. Ewa had a trip planned, but when we arrived, there was no sign of the mini bus we were meant to take. So she changed the plan on the spot, as only one with the familiarity of the mountains has the ability to. We went into the town to eat and it was like arriving at the shopping mall of the mountains. The people here seemed to have a hunger for consuming, quite dissonant to the richness of the mountains. In the end the mini bus we caught had the Beatles playing while it snaked its way through the mountains till we arrived at our hiking trail where we were greeted with the sound of a gushing stream and smell of pines. There were people everywhere, but after a while the numbers reduced. A couple of hours later we were at a wooden mountain hostel, warming ourselves with hot tea and cake. We then set off to discover Ewa’s ‘little surprise’, for of course, she had planned one for me. There was snow everywhere, and we followed a wooded path, talking of various things, the light bouncing off the snow and the pines, paving the way for contemplation. The little surprise was a frozen lake and we sat there a long while, just the two of us and the icy lake, munching on chocolate. It felt like we couldn’t get enough of these expanses of snow, for when we went back to the hostel, we wanted to go out once again, stomping in the snow, running helter-skelter, following footprints and making new ones. Dinner was potato pancakes, sour cream, scrambled eggs, beetroot and gherkins. We spent the night reading in a cosy, common room. 

The next morning, we couldn’t wait to start exploring. The air was crisp, the sky blue, the mountains sharp. There was snow everywhere and the green of the trees in contrast against it. The path was steep after a while and got difficult, but we trudged on. After a while the view ahead cleared to show us the mountains in the back. We stopped for lunch in another mountain hostel, where we had the most delicious roasted cheese and apple cake and blackberry dressing. I had many questions about the mountains and Ewa answered them all with patience. After lunch we loitered about in the valleys, looking for the crocuses of the Tatras. We strolled along the river, photographing the flowers, thinking memories aloud of our other common good friends, and pausing at a little steeple to write into the guest book. We took tea breaks and walked till we arrived at the bus stop, where a fox was running around just as the Tatras greeted twilight. At the end of these experiences full of luminescence, it was a challenge to take the bus back to Warsaw, to crowded streets, to further reading on Polish history and current affairs, to business. I missed the company of my friend and her family so much that even the contemporary Jazz concert I went to with my colleagues seemed somewhat lacking. It was only on my flight back to London, that I processed the crux of my time in Poland. The warmth of soul-synced companionship, the beauty of medieval ancient towns in Warsaw and Krakow, the sights and sounds of the Tatras in early spring, had managed to awaken a child in my spirit. As an adult, I acknowledge what a privilege it is to be able to remember that awakening and to seek courage from it.

Series 8 -  Iceland

Balancing ourselves on the ice, we stood by the geyser, waiting for it to erupt, the feeling that the Earth was breathing and alive, just below us and all around. It was a feeling that returned to me on numerous occasions on my (spontaneous) trip to Iceland, earlier this year in the spring of ‘16. The geyser erupted, the sound drowning out the gasps and cheers of the crowd all around. Mountains covered with moss and snow everywhere made us feel isolated despite being surrounded by throngs of tourists.

That night, we went chasing the Northern Lights, stopping in the South of Iceland somewhere next to the sea. The Aurora borealis are formed by the collision of gaseous particles in the Earth’s atmosphere with charged particles released by the Sun. Tourists from all over the world come to these parts to experience them and we heard stories of sightings and non-sightings wherever we went. Stars hung low and our imaginations were in high bands of energy. It was freezing, and as we stood on a mound and stumbled, we realized that we were standing on some old gravestones near a church in the dark. We ached to see green lights above us, but we were forced to turn back.

The next day, we decided to rent a car. We started with caution but soon revelled in our new found independence from tours. We drove towards Reykjanesbær, towards the west of Reykjavik. There were black, volcanic rocks all around with the sea crashing against them. Walking outside, we were reminded of how hostile the climate was, although not as cold as we had imagined. Iceland, being in the North Atlantic current, is blessed with a more temperate climate than one would expect from the Arctic Circle. After driving past large snow clad mountains, there was no denying the warmth that a coffee in a café brought us.

We stopped by a frozen lake. It extended out to the horizon and we stood in silence. Although time passed fast as we moved past these magnificent landscapes, our thoughts seemed to move on a slow crawl, overpowered by the splendour around.

One evening we went to see a Finnish ‘dream synth pop’ artist, Jakko Eino Kalevi. We studied the demographic of the audience – tall locals with hair buns(men and women), sipping micro-brewed beer, creating an atmosphere of familiarity as if they all knew each other – summarised of course, as ‘hipsters’ in my travel journal. It was a fun gig - colourful lights moving with the vocals, synths, drums and saxophone, reminding me of all the Icelandic music I had heard over the last decade or so. This small country with its ever-changing landscape, definitely seemed conductive to creativity.

The next day, the sun finally came out as we made our way to Vik in the south. We stopped at Skogafoss, the waterfall lit up by multiple rainbows. Climbing on to the trail that took us to the top of the waterfall, we were surprised to find open meadows, the view of the estuary and flatlands on one side and the town on the other. As we followed the path by the waterfall, the waterfall grew wider, ice formations on each side and the sound of the water omnipresent. As I imagined the place transforming in the summer, and in every season, I had the feeling of openness, all trivial details falling side.

When we drove to Reynisfjara shore to experience the black sand beach, the sun was setting, the orange light in stark contrast with the black rocks and sand, white waves crashing loud against them, the haze mixing all colours. As we drove back home to Reykjavik, I was refreshing the aurora forecast on my phone on repeat. I was prepared for the worst, and had made up my mind to revisit again another time if I couldn’t get a glimpse of the lights this time around. This didn’t keep my heart from beating faster. It was dusk and there were clouds in the sky. One of the clouds looked suspiciously large and wave-like. My friend laughed at my over-excitement, but I managed to convince him to stop the car. We waited. When I looked up at the wave-like cloud as it got dark, the cloud was green. There was no mistaking it this time, the Northern Lights had come to pay us a visit. I was clapping my hands in glee. We drove again and stopped after a while, the lights were taking over the sky in green waves. As we stared and stared, a bus pulled over – the tour bus that we were on some days ago. The tourists tumbled out on top of each other, to take a look. But by then the lights were disappearing. We laughed and made our way back in a happy daze.
When we parked the car outside our hostel, we stepped outside to find brighter, greener, aurora borealis. My friend and I looked at each other in disbelief – we had been chasing this solar activity for the last few days and in the end they visited us in the parking lot of our hostel in Reykjavik. This time there were shades of pink and light purple, and the lights danced across the sky, as though chasing each other. I’m not entirely sure why those lights cast such an enchanting spell on all of us, but I had pleasant dreams that night.
On my last day in Reykjavik, my friend and I parted ways and I met some Japanese guys in the kitchen. We hung out in the city, communicating in Japanese (I tried) and English, exploring some strange, contemporary art and slurping on hot, Vietnamese noodles. We skidded on the snow outside Hallgrimskirkja, a white concrete star shaped church that overwhelms the skyline of the city. We went up to the top to experience the view of a lego-like perspective of Rejkjavik.
Coming back to London, I noticed a heightened focus towards the sounds of birds and other carbon forms. Impressive as it was, there was something quite desolate about the landscape in Iceland. As the country is so sparsely populated, it’s not rare to encounter places with very few humans or living nature, if at all. Equally, all elements of nature seemed raw - snow, glaciers, mountains, volcanoes, moss, geysers, lakes, rivers, waterfalls, rocks, solar activity, the Northern lights, stars, sun, moon, oceans.
Iceland was a lesson in real-time geography. It was an honour to experience the Earth transforming herself at such close quarters. 4.6 billion years and still going – that’s some serious inspiration.

Series 7 - Hungary

In the summer of 2013, the Danube had been facing its worst floods. Ignoring the weather forecasts, I found myself in the house of my old London flatmate in a suburb of Budapest. We sat in the kitchen late into the night, munching on her mother’s spinach sauce and ‘microwaved eggs’, a trick I pocketed with agility. 

We spent the days wandering about the old and new town, taking in the architecture as it transformed from one period to another till everything was mixed up - Gothic, Turkish, Classic, Art-nouveau. Synagogues lay close to Catholic churches. Mustard trams snaked past communist blocs, old stations and street markets.  Hikes through mosquito laden Buda Hills as our clothes stuck to us with humidity, offered respite in the form of trees, clouds and cable cars as they dangled in the sky. 
Walking along the Castle, we discovered hidden galleries full of sculptures. We found a bookshop still vivid in my mind, where I bought a red children’s book called Lenka, promising myself that I would attempt to understand it one day. History hung heavy by the Parliament and the bridges, permeating the city. 

After a few hot days, it rained a sort of thunderstorm, the rain cooling the air around, and its sound refreshing our souls.  We drove to Esztergom and Visegrád, towns outside of Budapest. The large green door of the castle in Esztergom held our gaze a while. There was much exploring of forts in the sun, basking in the twilight as it spread on the oversized river, crossing a large bridge to imagine a peek of Slovakia just past the border. 

One evening we went splashing in a lido. We ran into my friends’ cousins and they exchanged some laughs in Hungarian.  It was a public swimming pool but had the familiarity of a family gathering. When it got too hot, we had an ice cream and then went to cool ourselves in the caves of Budapest where the temperature stays at 11 degrees celsius throughout the year. 

We visited the Central Market Hall to buy the best paprika we could find so I could cook some vegetarian Lecsó for the family as they shouted out instructions from the living room. As we finished cooking, my friend’s mother added some Hungarian stock to the rice, another trick for my pocket. We ate together, and talked about my trip. A drive after dinner was filled with secret surprises - the view of the city from the hills at night, lights sparkling in the dark then entering an old University to see how everything reflected in the moat and water around. 

On my last day we went to the local swimming pool for a group exercise lesson. It was one of the first times I understood that traveling experiences didn’t need to be separated from daily life and vice versa.

I had the opportunity to revisit Budapest again this winter, three years after that first trip. I went armed with my old book, ‘Lenka’ (of which I had managed to understand the premise using the internet), and music playlists full of Lizst, Jazz and Magashegyi Underground. Like other ‘revisit trips’, I was better informed of Hungarian history entwined as it was with wars and revolutions. 

I was unable to meet my friend this time, and we were both very disappointed, but roaming about during a break, I ran into her husband and we laughed long at the coincidence. 

My colleagues and I had dinner in a hip Jewish conservatory restaurant with high ceilings. We walked along the Danube hugging our coats and discussing our experiences in Hungary. Two senior colleagues exchanged stories on how they planned to go running every day before our meetings – the theme of our conference was ‘building bridges’, and jokes made their way into the conversation with ease.

The next morning, I braved the cold to go running. Workers were working alongside a bridge, gesturing through the dust that the road ahead was closed. Changing my route, I decided to run up the hill to the Citadella which was built after the suppression of a revolution in 1848. I stopped for a break by the ‘statues of liberty’. As the Danube caught the morning sun, and the wind shadowed the noise of the city waking up, it was clear that the city was forging on ahead, changing bit by bit every day. 

Sometimes when you leave a place, you leave wishing that if you ever came back, you would find it as you had left it. When I left Budapest for the second time, I couldn’t help anticipating the changes I would find the next time.

Series 6 - Czech Republic

The timelessness of summer was something I thought I had bid farewell to when I left school. How anyone with the smallest sensibilities was capable of dismissing the gift of time during summer break by complaining about boredom, still escapes me. Even as an ungrateful child with no sense of appreciation, I realized that summer breaks were a riot. The best thing about them was how they spread out before you, each day bringing with it new possibilities. Even when you felt like you ‘wasted’ a day, you slept soundly at night with the promise of the next day lying in wait. When the holidays finished, and you went back to school feeling a little bit homesick, you couldn’t describe what it was exactly that you got up to but somehow you had managed to enjoy your summer to perfection, a feeling much harder to chase as an adult.

Last year, I was presented with the unique opportunity of a four day visit to Prague and surrounding areas with a group of hiking friends from London.  Our host was to be one of our friends, a native Slovak who grew up in Prague.

I knew but snatches of Czech history, and my sketchy knowledge was made more surreal by reading War with the Newts by Karel Čapek throughout the trip. A year later, I’m still trying to make sense of how a people that seem to be such lovers of the outdoors and free-thinking, could have kept their sanity whilst living through a restricting regimen.

It was a hot summer, something we had to re-adjust to, after the mildness of the ones in London. We walked through the city, taking in the views of the bright orange tiles of the roofs of medieval buildings in the Old Town.  The days were interspersed with ‘secret’ experiences that our friend had planned for us – her guide-friend giving us a history tour of the Jewish quarter or chilling out by the Vltava as the sun set to the sound of live jazz. We were treated to a visit to a closed-off mine with the backdrop of an aquamarine lake in the quarry outside.  In Prachovské skály, a national park near Prague, we hiked through boulders and rocks formed millions of years ago when the area was still under sea. The rocks felt cool and ancient.  Afterwards, we went for a dip in a green lake. One of our friends procured a large barrage of sorts, and we spent the evening paddling it around, creating a large ruckus and feeling like we owned the whole place. Lunches, dinner, ice-creams and beer-cheaper-than-water were consumed with with aplomb.

 The quality of each experience competed with the previous one and because the quality was so high throughout, it felt like we had been there two weeks, not four days. Although I couldn’t describe clearly the sights that we saw, there was an atmosphere that was very specific, suited to each of those experiences. 

One night we were invited to a friend’s barbeque in the countryside some distance from Prague. Her family was full of musicians and the house had all sorts of instruments everywhere.  We started the evening preparing salads and other food for the barbeque and placing cartons of beer in a bath tub to keep them cool. Our friend’s large group of friends were all Czech ex-scouts who had known each other for over a decade. They chatted together with familiarity and comfort.  Their conversations with us on the other hand, seemed stilted at first.

As the evening progressed, guitars were brought out, and a bonfire was started in the garden. We sat around the fire, the light of the full moon shimmering on everyone’s mixed-international faces. As our new friends exhausted their repertoire of popular English songs that they had chosen for our benefit, and the sounds of crickets around became omnipresent, we started to coax each other into singing some Czech songs together. The Czech sang with a clear diction, so we could follow their words. The guitarist played like a conductor, so he could guide our music. Nothing else existed or mattered in that moment, except the sounds of our voices, hesitant, then gaining in strength, mingling with the sounds of nature all around and the warmth of a long summer night.

There were many things that I loved about this trip - the easy companionship of my friends and the relaxed way in which we were able to travel together, the secret aspects of Czech culture that we were fortunate to experience naturally, the hospitality of our friends’ family and friends, the beauty of the places we visited. But most of all, I valued re-discovering that timelessness of summer that I thought I had bid farewell to.

Series 5 – Hong Kong/Macau

Most people were unable to describe to me why they loved Hong Kong. Their descriptions were confused - a collection of adjectives and anecdotes trailing into summaries like ‘East meets West’.
Some years ago, when a friend who was living there sent me postcards, he described aspects of life that I had not imagined before – sto
ries of hiking in the mountains and of the ubiquity of street-markets. 

The curiosity of this metropolis lay so heavy on my mind that at the end of last year, I found myself at the Hong Kong International airport with my Mother, queuing up with hundreds of Chinese and Indian visitors who all seemed to have extra, empty suitcases for the consumer goods they were likely going to splurge on.

Our hotel was in Kowloon and to get there we took a bus from Lantau. We passed tree covered hills, reflected in aquamarine water that gave way to shipping containers and tall apartment blocks. Behind our hotel was a maze of street markets and shopping malls. This was the Hong Kong I recognized; an interpretation reminiscent of the reality that clashed with my travel visions on my first night in Osaka in Japan, when after shrines in residential neighbourhoods and kids who broke into songs at the train station, I discovered that the neighbourhood that my hostel was in, was full of homeless old men riding around on stolen bikes.

Despite these conflicting themes, Hong Kong surprised and enthralled, just as Japan had.

For every vegetarian noodles shop I failed to unearth because the shopkeeper refused to speak to me in English, I met kind people who went out of their way to show us big fruit and veg stores and places we could find vegetarian dumplings. Outside the black-hole of malls that had the power to consume souls, were tree paved streets, sunset laden skies and views of boats on the harbour. While we pushed past throngs of tourists to listen to some Cantonese Indie and Rock bands, there was solitude whilst hiking in the mountains in Lantau and strolling on the beach after. Every experience, whether it was crafted - drinking three types of tea in an old Chinese tea house or incidental - walking in the rain on Dragon’s Back using a route from a secret blog away from the popular trail – was fulfilling.

We went to Macau and avoided all casinos. We took buses with announcements in Mandarin and Portuguese, chilled in a decrepit stall eating almond cookies and drinking bubble tea. The Portuguese influenced architecture made us stop in our tracks. In Kun Iam temple, we sat on a bench, mesmerized, as a procession of monks went around the temple chanting prayers to the sound of cymbals and the backdrop of smoky lanterns. There on that bench, I understood why I loved Hong Kong. 

Hong Kong often transported me back to the café at the corner of Chinatown in London where everyone goes to eat substandard dumplings made by a tiny woman looking into the distance sans any expression. The dumplings look homemade, with the flour tearing. There is no concept of private service for everyone sits at everyone’s table and you can almost always hope to sit next to some students from Manchester who are really excited to be eating pak choi.

I loved Hong Kong because it was familiar – it reminded me of places in India, Japan, London and other countries I have travelled to. I loved Hong Kong also because it was unfamiliar – that at other times, I couldn’t associate any other memory with that moment I was in. Yet somehow, because that unfamiliarity was at the brink of the familiar, I could find ways to connect that moment back to something I understood. The city seemed to change and evolve as much as it aspired to retain its root base. 

The biggest reason I loved Hong Kong though, was because it made me realize the crux of why I love to travel, that a frame of reference can be as limiting or freeing as you want it to be.

Series 4 – Spain

Catalunya and Andalusia were regions of Spain that I was unfamiliar with, when at the age of 20, I first visited Barcelona. The reason of my visit was a travelogue competition for an Indian Newspaper. I thought the destination was worthy enough of a prize and so off I went with my backpack (as part of my ‘Eurail experience’). I won second place in the competition in the end, for a depiction of warmth, but lacking in focus; shaped as it was, by my enthusiasm and interest in everything at that age. Despite this, I still have vivid memories of that first trip, sparked in part by a spontaneous visit to Montjuic which gave me an appetite for the natural beauty of Spain.

A couple of years later, after I moved to the UK, I had the luck of meeting an exceptional girl from Barcelona, Esther,  who became a dear friend and introduced me to some of my closest friends in London. These Catalans introduced me to the language, the history of Catalunya, its desire for independence and thirst for protecting its culture. I was certain that revisiting Catalunya with these people would change my perception of it completely.

The Spain of my mind’s eye was in the South of Spain in Andalusia, so in 2012, I planned a trip with Esther. We met in Seville. It was the second time after my time in France, when I was able to experience a new space through people who knew it well. They took me around in a car and showed me magnificent gardens, architecture, landscape, and old traditions like the Semana Santas parades, part of the Holy Week in Spain during Easter time.

Last year, the opportunity to explore Barcelona and surrounding areas with my Catalan friends, finally arrived with the wedding of one of the girls. With their help, I discovered Montserrat. That first glimpse of the towering pre-coastal mountains was other worldly, as though we had gone to Mars. We hiked there for a day and the landscape changed at least five times from sandy to rocky to green to exposed to shady. I was surprised by it and how it exceeded every expectation I had ever had from the diversity of this planet we live in.

Afterwards, we went to Calella palafrugell for the wedding. I understood the meaning of ‘azure waters’. If it were at all possible to become closer with my friends, that trip allowed us to realize the potential. The whole town was pretty much the guest list of our friends’ wedding, or so it seemed, and many an intimate gathering came to life. Walking around the town at different times of the day and night filled my mind with a ‘contentment oasis’ that I tap into on occasion.

My friends showed me a secret Spain, and added more places to my wish list – the Pyreness, Basque Country, Madrid etc. During or after these trips, I informed myself a little more about Franco’s regime, the autonomous regions of Spain and other historical events.  

Once again, similar to some other travels, the memories I attempted to cement from these trips, that I thought I could recreate on my return, were secrets of a more simple nature; ones that I chanced upon by being allowed to participate in the daily lives of my friends and their families – long breakfasts with the fresh orange juice and olive oil made from the products of the region, the concept of the family getting dressed and then going out together for a Sunday stroll, finding little alleys that had the best tortillas and gazpacho, waiting in queue to get handmade cookies from some reclusive nuns in Ronda, playing spontaneous card games and using it as a break during travelling on a rainy day, post dinner strolls by the sea, wetting your feet in the sea after a long and enjoyable wedding party – worthy components, in my opinion of  la buena vida!

Series 3 - U.S.A

For many years, the U.S.A conjured up images of many things in my mind, the strongest of which, were Rock music, the great outdoors, suburbia, and a pack of Crayola crayons. These images and associations evolved over time and I dreamt that I would visit this super power of a country one day to make my own impressions of it. My expectations were high. 

When I had the opportunity in the autumn of 2013, it was to an unexpected place - New Orleans - once again some travel facilitated by my Dad's multifaceted attitude to work. We wandered in a meandering fashion through the city. The aim was to try and match its pace as it slowly got back to its beat from Katrina while also soaking in some jazz. 

Then, we visited a plantation. For the first time, I became aware of slavery in America, as a real system of manipulation that changed and shaped its history. I had expected to read light novels throughout my travel but ended up pouring into second-hand books about slavery instead.
In the second part of that trip, I went to visit friends/relatives in New York City. I went to 'study' the hipsters in Brooklyn, strut on the stylish streets of 5th Avenue, catch the rain in Central Park, shout like a zombie on Halloween in the ferry from Staten Island etc etc. Exploring the city, I wrote in my travel journal and for the first time in a while, I observed that my travel writings had turned interrogatory, replacing my usual style of introspective notes with lists of questions.
  • How much of this huge country is inhabited?
  • What drove so many people to migrate to the USA?
  • How did they get past their reality and achieve success?
  • Is the US really a developed country? 
  • When did slavery begin?
  • Who were the people living here when the migrants first arrived? What happened to them?

My next trip was last autumn in 2014, to California (San Francisco, Mountain View, Half moon Bay and Yosemite).
I left the U.S.A with a very strong feeling of wanting to come back.

I became aware of my curiosity for/lack of understanding of several things about this complicated country and I realized that I had created a Utopian image of the U.S.A in my mind that was quite different from reality. Of course the country had a lot of great things that worked well but I also realized that there was a lot I didn’t understand at all.

This time, a year on and perhaps a little bit wiser, I was more prepared. I made a Spotify playlist full of songs from California. Then, I informed myself about the crisis hitting Silicon Valley, the boom happening now, homelessness, how and why the settlers arrived in the U.S.A, why California had a Spanish influence, how Yosemite was created, California’s diverse nature…

I loved every moment – the announcements in the San Fran buses in Mandarin/Cantonese(?), English, and Spanish,  shopping for groceries in the Mission in Mexican shops, all-the-hills, the views from every street, the pastel shaded buildings, the business-like buzz in Downtown San Fran, China Town, JAPAN TOWN(!), the smiling people with their musical accent that made even the American accent pleasing to my ears, the energy of ideas and professional entrepreneurship in Mountain View, the ocean, the trees, the weather and the mountains. 

This time, like last time, I left with the feeling of wanting to return, except that I had a wishlist of places I want to go back to next (and questions I want to delve into).

Series 2 - France:

One evening in 2007, my father came to us with the news that his work was going to allow a transition to Paris. In reality that announcement translated into a move for my parents and brother and many free trips for me.

France played a pivotal role in shaping my travel 'evolution and maturity'. That a place could be visited, again and again, and that you could relish every moment anew, sans checklists, was a wonderful awakening.

Between 2008 and 2013, I had the opportunity to visit France with friends, family, on my own, on numerous occasions.

Paris served as an excellent base in different seasons. Surrounding areas were explored, road trips were celebrated, many museums were visited, wine/chocolate/good food was consumed, long walks were taken, the Eiffel was gaped at from every angle, new friends were made, and generally much revelry was indulged in.

France was my introductory lens to Europe and an apt one for it has the ability to awaken inaccessible senses in one's being.

A particularly refreshing memory was from two consecutive impromptu weekend trips from London to Paris, visiting my parents (also impromptu visiting Paris from London) in 2013, towards the end of the 'France series'; where a charming, gentle contentment was obtained from a random rainy walk in Bois de Boulogne and jumping up and down in the woods in the suburbs in Palaiseau.
•           a long drawn out strong coffee
•           a lunch that turns into a dessert that turns into a coffee that turns into a dinner so you are sat at the table with your loved ones for hours
•           a run outside
•           imagining a different era by looking at impressionist paintings
•           listening to Yann Tiersen or any French artists
•           reading a French comicbook
•           standing in the queue of a boulangerie somewhere and buying a single freshly baked baguette and then eating half of it on the way home
The biggest truth France taught me was of extracting pleasure from simple moments. It is thus very easy for me to relive my experiences in France with -

I hope you have the opportunity to visit this dreamy country, and that when you do, you seek experiences beyond Paris.

 Series 1 - India
First in the series is a beautiful, complex country, a place I was born and educated in and where I inculcated a lifestyle of travelling. 

A lot of people ask me where they should begin when they go to India. That's always a difficult question to answer because in fact, India is unique and you could have a singular experience, if you so wished. It's the seventh largest country in the world with over a hundred languages, and many religions (Hinduism, Christianity, Sikhism, Judaism, Islam etc)

You can really begin anywhere.

Start in the North, visit Delhi, Rajasthan, Lucknow, or go North East to Sikkim, hiking in the mountains, or East to Orissa, to see caves from the 2nd century, old temples and scenery, or west to Gujarat, for some unusual architecture or go South, to Bangalore to see how fast a country can develop, to smaller places in Tamil Nadu, Karnataka, Kerala for scenery that may seem unreal. 
In this album, I tried to capture places/spaces that made an impact on me for their nature, architecture or 'being'. Of course, I don't have evidence of any travel until the age of 17 (when I got my first digital camera) so many places that I loved are missing but that means you get a glimpse into my 'conscious travels'.

When I return from India and wish to remember my travels, I use the culture of having a 'chai (North, Central, East, West India) ' or 'coffee'(South India) with a small snack in the evening, accompanied by a book. Wherever I am in the world, this ritual reminds me instantly of India. It's one of the first things I do even when I visit my family, to feel at home again.

I have so many more places I want to visit in the country of my birth - Madhya Pradesh, more North East, Kashmir, the list seems endless and only gets bigger. 

I cannot guarantee that you will 'find yourself in India', as so many travellers seem to expect, however, at least you will form a journey and a perception of a wonderful country that's entirely yours. 

So just start somewhere, anywhere, pick a region, make it yours, and tell me all about it. You will go back to explore more and keep forming your India.

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