Monday, August 28, 2017

S - St. Goar , Rhine Valley

Been there ... Done that 

St. Goar , Rhine Valley
Chimes from across the Rhine Valley 

It was on this solo - soul searching trip across Europe in that summer of 2006.  

On that warm summer afternoon at  Munich’s central  Marienplatz square,  I watched the Glockenspiel – chime and dance to the tunes for the royal wedding and the ritualistic dance at the stroke of midday.  

It was grand. It was intriguing . But most importantly it was a classic piece of mechanical engineering.

The industry of making  mechanical Cuckoo clocks and their many variants like the dancing dolls  with soldiers marching was a thriving industry in the 18th century and traces of that industrious art continues even today across regions of Switzerland and Germany. .      

I fell in love with the charm of the old world mechanical clocks and the art and science that goes behind creating them.  

That evening  the tour took us through the meandering Rhine valley along the black forest to this quaint village called St Goar  which was the place where the original cuckoo clocks were made by families  that had the craftsmanship passed on to them generation after generation since the mid 1800’s.     
At the cuckoo clock shop in St. Goar  were clocks big and small, grand and understated.
Each clock spoke of delicate craftsmanship and the pride and passion that goes behind creating these simple works of mechanics with such precision and beauty. 

Cuckoo clocks have been a favorite of Black Forest clockmakers since the 18th century. The traditional style clock is known as a Schilduhr, or shield clock. At the stroke of the hour, a cuckoo emerges through a door at the top of a square wooden face. The clock face is usually simply painted and decorated at the top with a semicircle of richly carved wood.
It is unknown who invented it and where the first one was made. It is thought that much of its development and evolution was made in the Black Forest area in southwestern Germany, the region where the cuckoo clock was popularized. The cuckoo clocks were exported to the rest of the world from the mid 1850s on. Today, the cuckoo clock is one of the favourite souvenirs of travelers in Germany, Switzerland, and Austria. It has become a cultural icon of Germany.
Cuckoo clocks are almost always weight driven, though a very few are spring driven. The weights are made of cast iron in a pine cone shape and the "cuc-koo" sound is created by two tiny gedackt (pipes) in the clock, with bellows attached to their tops. The clock's movement activates the bellows to send a puff of air into each pipe alternately when the timekeeper strikes.

I just knew, I wanted one of them .  

On a shoe string budget Europe trip, this was certainly not the one thing I had budgeted for.

I am not given to splurging and impulsive buying. 
But that day had to be an exception. I did not want to regret later in life for having passed that moment.
 I think that is what I said to myself that warm summer evening at St. Goar in Rhine valley.
At 120 euros this was the cheapest cuckoo clock and the only one I could afford.  
When I now think of it, it was a steal. Although at that time it did burn a big hole in my pocket.

This  cuckoo clock came into my life on a surge of temptation that evening in the village of St. Goar upon the Rhine valley in the Black Forest area in Germany.

September 6th 2006. That was the day I got her. 

Instinct told me she would occupy a special place in my life.

The shop packed it well for me to carry. Yet for  someone on a backpacking trip across Europe that  was a huge luggage to carry.  I eagerly lugged  her from the Rhine valley to Normandy and then to Paris and then from Calais to Dover across the English channel and all the way to London on the coach and then in the tube and then the train all the way to the house in Croydon.  

I carefully assembled her into working condition soon after my return from the Europe trip. 

She chimed for a while at our Croydon house and then fell silent. 

Then we shifted houses. Considering she was not given to harsh handling (Oh-so-much-like-me), she stopped chiming when I reassembled her at the Hounslow apartment although she always showed the right time and was hung right in the middle of the entrance of the apartment. 

With a three year warranty still running, I could have taken her back to St. Goar in the  Rhine valley , to the cuckoo clock shop where she could have been  mended. 

She badly needed the mending, but so did my spirits. 
I did not do anything about either of them

Perhaps reflective of my own spirits she was never really unpacked  when we shifted houses once again, this time to Egham.  

One never gives up hope. I lugged her back to India when I decided to relocate to Bangalore. I made a special trip just for her and made sure I checked her in as a hand baggage. She was too delicate to be handled in a check in baggage even if it was marked fragile.

She got the much needed mending at an upmarket cuckoo clock specialist in Bangalore.

Once again, reflective of my own spirits, she started chiming again and has been doing a great job adorning the center stage of my drawing room. The Cuckoo chimes reverberate all over the house.

Her cuckoo chimes have given me company through many a sleepless nights in the past and also give me company when I sleep  like a baby, only to faintly hear her chime away a seven or perhaps even an eight in the mornings, starkly reminding me to get out of bed , strut my butt and begin the day.        

For more than a decade now she has kept me company chiming happily and  unfailingly.
My Cuckoo clock and I,feels like  we have been on a long journey together for a long time now.  

Saturday, August 26, 2017

N - New york - Musings along the New York skyline

Been there ... done that

N - Musings along  The New York Skyline

From far across the Staten Island I am about to embark on the most touristy thing that one does when in the US of A.

I am going through the security check. In a few minutes I would board the ferry that would take us across to Staten Island. 

From afar, the lady in Green beckons us and everyone in the ferry is clicking away on their DSLR and mobiles phones. It feels surreal.  (That is when you realize that selfie sticks are the best thing that happened since sliced bread. One shudders to think how civilizations of the previous era managed without something as primitive as a selfie stick) 

The icon that symbolizes what America stands for.

Over many centuries since Christopher Columbus accidentally discovered that promised Land, millions have arrived on her shores to make their dreams comes true in the land of milk of honey. Rags to riches stories of many immigrants who made their wealth and their mark after arriving here are what legends are made of.

Just across the Island is Wall Street whose spirit is filled with stories alike of people from Riches to rags as well.  It has weathered many an economic upheaval.  The great recession of 1929 was etched in historical memory for the many riches to rags story of American dream until the 2009 Global recession whose epicenter originated arguably over here and not somewhere over the ethernet. . 

 Yet even today the Manhattan skyline allures and attracts many men (some women as well) in the promise of making wealth. 

On the way to board the ferry to Staten Island, I stopped by a street hawker selling souvenirs of New York. In it is a picture of work men sitting on top of what looks like an iron scaffolding far above the sea level.

Like those men on the picture postcard, there must have been millions of unsung heroes who must have toiled to build those tall skyscrapers, those iconic bridges and the symmetrically laid out city of New York.
They look tough, weary, and dirty and in overalls that labourers would wear at construction sites. Yet there is no mistaking the smile on their faces.

A smile perhaps taken during a break for a few minutes from some back breaking manual work. ..

Or perhaps 

A smile thinking of a loved one or a family left behind many miles away, 

Or perhaps 

A smile dreaming of making enough money in the land of opportunities 

Or perhaps

A smile of having been part of building something that would last beyond their lifetime

The New York Skyline ...

There must have been thousands of them over the centuries. 

From the ferry  back from Staten Island , I notice the sun dazzle across the Manhattan Skyline and reflect light into the sea before it. It is a picture perfect moment.
But there is a void over here, There stands ground Zero, where once stood those two iconic towers.  The rest of Manhattan , the Wall street, the Empire state building, the Waldorf  Astoria hotel , the Grand central station and the other skyscrapers that make the magnificient Manhattan skyline are all there intact.

It is the spirit of New York.  The spirit of those who toil to make money . The money that they hope will one day help them make their dreams come true. 

She is a very attractive bait.  
Those who land in her shores, seldom go back.
They toil  happily  and  unhappily. 
Some settle down make this place their adopted home , Some keep dreaming of going back home  and many die here while taking their dreams to their grave.  

And that is the spirit that keeps the New Yorkers going.

I click a picture with the big bull ( these were times before the fearless lady found place opposite the big bull) . 

Then as I walk back to the Wall street metro station after watching in awe the city that churns a good chunk of the world’s wealth,   I notice this little poem on the underground Metro train.

Billy Collins wrote it.  And so beautifully summarized what I have clumsily attempted in so many words all over this post. 

As you fly swiftly underground
 with  a song in your ears
or lost in the maze of a book, 

remember the ones who descended here
into the mire of bedrock
to bore a hole through this granite,

to clear a passage for you
where there was only darkness and stone. 
Remember as you come up into the light. 

Thursday, April 13, 2017

K - Kochi -The Chinese fishing nets of Fort Kochi

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Been there done that 
Kochi – The Chinese fishing nets of Fort Kochi

Cheena Vala’ as they are called in the native Malayalam are found across the harbor towns in China.

Kochi once a trading port owes the import of Chinese fishing nets as a legacy of traders from the AD 1400 court of Kublai Khan, these enormous, spiderlike contraptions require at least four people to operate their counterweights at high tide.   


While such nets are used throughout coastal southern China and Indochina, in India they are found in Kochi , where they have become a tourist attraction. 

The Indian common name arises because they are unusual in India and different from usual fishing nets in India. With the advent of modern fishing techniques the Chinese fishing nets are not exactly profitable, but have been preserved as a tourist  attraction.   

They are fixed land installations, which are used for a very unusual and now outdated method of fishing. Operated from the shore, these nets are set up on bamboo and teak poles and held horizontally by huge mechanisms, which lower them into the sea. They look somewhat like hammocks and are counter-weighed by large stones tied to ropes.

The net is left into the water for a short time; say for four-five minutes, before it is raised back by tugging the ropes. The catch is usually modest, but it is not meant  for  a big trade. At the corner of the Chinese finishing nets are small street hawkers who could take  the fresh catch and cook up a lip smacking fired fish fritters that would get sold  in a Jiffy.

The Chinese fishing nets are also most photographed  attraction  while aboard  a local ferry especially around sunset.
Here is another one when the sky was overcast and the tides were high on the backwaters of the port of Kochi. 

The cool breezy humid air atop the ferry was refreshing to feel as the chinese fishing nets dwindled into oblivion while the local government operated ferry touched the island of Vypin.

Wednesday, April 12, 2017

J - Jew Town of Mattancherry

Been there ... Done that ...

Jew town of Mattancherry 

1170: When the traveler Benjamin of Tudela visited India, he reported that there were about a  thousand Jews in the south.
1686:   Moses Pereira de Paiva listed 465 Malabar Jews.
1781: The Dutch governor, A. Moens, recorded 422 families or about 2,000 persons. In
1948:  2,500 Jews were living on the Malabar Coast.
1953 : 2,400 emigrated to Israel, leaving behind only about 100 Paradesi Jews on the Malabar Coast.

Amongst all the must see tourist destinations in Cochin is the ‘Pardaesi’ Synagogue . Paradesi in native Malayalam means the Foreigner.  The Synagogue which is the main tourist destination is a small place of Jewish worship.

The bylanes that approach the Jewish synagogue are strewn with Antique shops selling tourist souvenirs  and real as well as fake Antique Trinkets, furniture and bric a brac from the era gone by .
They are all not necessarily genuine, but if you really have an eye for the antiques you can find them.  On the face of it they are exorbitantly priced, and a good deal of haggling is absolutely necessary unless you want the shop keeper  to laugh his way to the bank.

This is the Jew Town of Mattancherry which until 1953 was home to about 100 hews whose descendants had made this neighbourhood their home over the centuries.

Today hardly six of them remain.  The youngest Yael Halleguan is in her mid forties.  She is the care taker for the Synagogue which charges five rupees as the entry fees. The money goes in maintaining the synagogue. 

It is an ornately decorated synagogue.  Its tiled floors were imported from China in 1762, the handknit Oriental rug from the last emperor of Ethiopia and the cadle lamps from Belgium. 

Sadly though, there is no Rabbi to sand at the bimah, the Pulpit. The place itself is a small museum that is visited by travellers specially Jews from all over the world. Services are held only when there is a minyan - a group of 10 Jewish men needed to form a prayer service.  It is now only possible with the inclusion of Jewish male visitors.  So the beautiful Synagogue is usually empty, save for tourists who some to marvel its beauty.   

As you finish looking around the synagogue, you would inevitably visit the adjacent exhibition that has some artefacts that explain the history of the Jews in Malabar. During Portuguese persecution in the 16th Century, they were granted sanctuary by the Hindu Rajah of Cochin, Keshava Rama Varma. The present day Paradesi synagogue was built in 1568 on land granted by Varma, and the Jew Town neighbourhood built up around it.

By 1953 when Israel declared independence many Jews from Mattancherry emigrated back to their ome land, although most of them had been living in the ocast of Malabar for generations.

Of the few who remained in Mattacherry is Sarah Cohen. 

When you walk past the Synagogue you cannot miss the quaint ‘Sarah’s Embriodery shop’ in the outer verandah of what once must have been a quaint Jewish home.

As I  look through the window I see an incredibly old woman sitting up in a four poster bed calling out in a feeble voice when the house keeper comes and props her pillow down for her to sleep. 

I enter the shop and look around for the things.  I am not exactly a customer looking to buy a challah  the jewish Ritual Bread covers  or the Mezuzah , intricately embroidered with Hebrew writings on them.

I must say I am  tempeted. But my main attraction is the lady of the house, now probably resting down for her siesta. She speaks fluent Malayalam to the house keeper.

The house keeper is a middle aged muslim lady.  

She and her son are doing the day duty today looking over Sarah’s aunty as well as the occasional customer to the shoppe.

Her husband Thaha Ibrahim , when he was a young boy  was a frequent visitor to the house of Sarah and her husband to the extent that the childless Sarah Cohen considers him her adopted son. His father used to work next door at the post card shop and he would visit them as a young boy and was intrigued by all things Jewish.

When Jacob Cohen died it was his wish that Thaha Ibrahim take care of his wife. It has been nearly two decades since then and the Ibrahim family is the caretaker of the shop as well as Sarah Cohen.
Thoufeeq Zakriya, a friend of Sara Cohen maintains a blog that Chronicles the Jewish Heritage . A Chef by passion and a calligrapher by profession, Zakriya, learnt the Hebrew language and helps tourists decipher some of the Hebrew script at the Paradesi Synagogue.
Sarah Aunty’s memory has been relapsing on and off in the last few months says Thaha Ibrahim’s wife. Her son who was showing me around the shop is now sitting and studying.

Sarah is now listlessly gazing at the ceiling, as I take her photopgraph.  I ask if I may click her photograph and I am told that she would hardly understand.  In better days she has entertained many a curious  visitor and explained to them a lot about the interesting history of Jew town.  

Today she hardly remembers things happening around her.  

A nurse comes and stays in the night when the Ibrahims get back home which is just at the end of the lane.    
As I look around the shop I see many quaint black and white photographs that talk about a vibrant social life that must have existed in the 50s and 60s in Jew town among the Jews.
Sara & Jacob Cohen on their wedding day 

Today Sarah Cohen is too old to do her own embroidery. Her hands shake and her memory relapses too often. 

Most of the embroidery in the shop comes from a village in Andhra Pradesh.  Many Jews and non –Jew tourists who come to Fort Kochi inevitably visit Sara’s Embriodery Shoppe where you still can buy some very delicately embroidered Mezuzah and Challah covers.

It is one of the last remnants of a once industrious and thriving Jewish community in this region.   

Stay tuned for more from Kochi  

To be continued

Tuesday, April 11, 2017

I - Irish Whiskey taster

Been there, Done that 

Irish whiskey taster 

Jameson’s Distillery, Bow Street, Dublin

If you thought whisky was always Scotch, the Irish would be really offended.
And therefore, when in Dublin they make a song and dance about educating you on the subtle nuances of whiskey.

One of the main attractions in Dublin is the Jameson’s Whiskey Distillery on Bow Street.  A 3 hour tour on the still functional distillery is a tourist attraction, since they offer free whisky tasting as part of their entrance fee.

Essentially according to them the world of Whiskey is divided as Irish whiskey and the insignificant non-Irish types of whisky.  Ireland has had a history of whisky making.  Much before Guinness the Beer usurped their status of a whiskey drinking nation.

Irish are great storytellers and they weave an educative and interesting story which they call‘from the grain to the glasses about the process and the finesse involved in Whiskey making.
Sine Metu is their motto. And that when translated from Latin means
 ‘Never Fear ’. 

Apparently the Jameson’s family has had this motto since the 1600’s.  Legend has it that John Jameson, facing middle age crisis arrived in Dublin and took up a job as the general manager of the distillery and ran its operations.

Ok let us get it out over here. 
John Jameson got his job easily. And that is because he arrived from Scotland probably armed with a CV that had in it, years of experience in Whiskey making.   

Oh yes … the founder of the original Irish whiskey was a Scotsman.  (Then why all this fuss!!!)   

Nepotism possibly wasn’t a bad word in the 1800’s and thus John Jameson passed his legacy to John Jameson II, then John Jameson III and then John Jameson IV.  John Jameson as sons established the brand in a whiskey distillery area that in it’s hey days had many distilleries in Bow Street.

As a part of the distillery tour you get taken to where the barrels are maturing with the distilled malt buried in those huge wooden casks. There is a subtle difference between how the Irish whiskey is distilled vs. the scotch whiskey is distilled in Scotland vs. how that American whiskey is distilled in the Americas.

Then comes the whisky tasting session. 

The tour guide calls for four volunteers and there are many.  (Huh ... obviously!!!) . 

He has to make the choices. But then there is a hitch. These are days of being politically correct and gender inclusive.

The hands that went up were all that of men.  And they needed a woman.  A special call was made for the few women who were on the tour. 

Not that I was not adventurous, but whiskey was never my forte and I did not put my hand up. 
The lady next to me was coaxed into being a volunteer and she wriggled out saying she thinks she may be pregnant.
I had no such excuse and boldly signed up as the only female representative amongst the four whiskey tasters of the day.
There was an ornate wooden table laid out, where we were explained the differences between the malt and the distillation process of Whiskey blended in Scotland (Johnny Walker). The one blended in America (Jack Daniels) and the one is Ireland (Jameson’s)
Wonder why the all start with J.  
It was supposed to be a blind tasting session and you were asked questions after every source of Whisky being served.   I blundered along and said I liked the one with that fruity taste.
And that happened to be Jack Daniels.  (That was my second time with whiskey … cannot help it)  

The Whiskey master was embarrassed.  

 I got another sip of the Whiskey, so I could be sure about my verdict and as if by cue just said... of course this one is the best,

No marks for guessing, that one... it was ofcourse the Jameson’s Irish whiskey. 

And thus we were awarded a certificate each of being a certified Irish Whisky taster from none other than the Jameson’s distillery at Bow Street in Dublin. 

Years later when I was laid  off and was frantically searching for a job, a recruitment  consultant asked me if apart from my years of professional  experience enumerated in my CV,  I had any  certifications.

I said I was a certified Irish Whisky taster, with a certification from Jameson’s distillery in Dublin, just in case it counted.    

I never heard back from the consultant thereafter.  

Monday, April 10, 2017

H - Hongkong -Sniffed out in Hong Kong

 Been there ... Done that 

Sniffed out in Hong Kong

I must confess I was adequately warned about it. 
Some people I know had, had their share of misadventures with it. 

In fact, that is what  raised my curiosity. I had to experience it.  
You live life only once and I certainly did not want to die ignorant.  

I looked up google maps,  made note of directions and walked a couple of miles into alleyways that must have carried years and years of  history and commerce with it.  

It was all intriguing and fascinating. 

To the eyes the place felt like Bombay for its sheer energy and enterprise. 
To the body the place felt like Chennai  for its heat and humidity .
To the heart the place felt foreign at the same time it felt like home. 
Rich, fertile, green mountains that nurtured thousands of species of animals and plants stood in stark contrast to the sprawling urban jungle, that stood tall and high in all that reclaimed land. It stretched not horizontally but vertically to dizzying heights that made you feel the awe for the sheer wonders of modern  man made creation. 

It was relatively clean ( considering what you are used to if you have lived in Indian cities) and extremely safe even in the middle of the night ( although the over cautious traveller in me refuses to take chances)

It was extremely modern and commercialized. What with Louis vitton, Cartier, Dior, Chanel, Versace, Prada and Jimmy choo outlets it felt like Champ de elysees of the east.

 But as a stark contrast  it also exuded a quaint old world charm. The narrow alleyways with hawkers selling stuff at mind boggling and ridiculously low prices. ( After you have numbed your conscience and bargained your way through.).               

It felt very foreign in a sense since people on the streets hardly spoke or understood English.  But it felt very much like home since the street smart locals put their gadgets and their mastery over sign  language to good use and communicated to make up for the lack of mastery over that arguably universal language. 
The people ... they were proud and yet they were humble.

Ah ... but I have digressed a lot.  

I walk through the narrow alleyways, clicking away pictures and enter a market. Finally I am there and I decide to take a shot at it.
I try my hand at bargaining over the price.  But they see the tourist in me in the way I am cheekily taking photographs and refuse to budge on the price.   

They have probably made a killing since I agreed for a price just 20% lower than what they quoted. I just could not bargain any more since my impatient self  was raring to go and to take a shot at this piece  of experience for what felt like a reasonable cost. 
But it had to wait.  People over there do not do this on the streets or anywhere in public.

They packed it well for me and I tucked it deep into my bag.

 I headed back with the single minded determination of trying it out in privacy once I was safely in my hotel room. 

The underground trains were crowded. It was peak hour evening traffic.  But I managed to get a seat.

I clutched my bag close to my chest.  That is when it struck me.

It was the Durian.
That exotic fruit cut and packed in polystyrene  container that was safely tucked inside my bag.  

It started smelling. 

I braved  the smell and held it closer to myself in the hope that the other passengers around me do not smell it. 

I consoled myself saying they could suspect it in anyone’s bag .

It is like farting in a crowded room or peeing in a pool. No one would get to know who did it, unless your face gives it away.

It did not take them much time to figure it out.  Faces turned towards me. The way I was clutching my bag, I think I gave it away. 

To say it was embarrassing, would be an understatement .  I look up and down the train trying to avoid other people’s gaze.  And this is what catches my attention.

Damn ... Will they dump me off the train? 
Will they imprison me?  
Will they deport me from this country? 

If it was a fine I would have gladly paid. Ok, may be I would have grudgingly paid.  
Why is there no fine for Durian?  Is probably is a bigger and more unpardonable crime than smoking, eating, drinking or carrying inflammable goods ? 

Oh no !!!  I should have been careful .  Me and my misadventures . It was’nt funny at all.
Thankfully my  station arrives and I quickly get off the train and make a quick exit off the station. 
On the streets I take long strides and walk like I am chased by a spirit. In my mind I can almost imagine the cops chasing me from all sides. 

 I do not have the guts to look back and check. 
I make my way into the hotel entrance and into the elevator. The elevator door closes on me.

Honestly, I cannot fathom how I did not notice this signboard in all the previous instances days when I took the elevator.

Now I cannot even plead ignorance.   I get into my room and  I am still holding my bag close to my chest.  It does not help much. 

By now there is no mistaking the smell of the  Durian.
Is it foul ? 
Is it sweet ?
I cannot come to a decision on that bit.
I guess ‘Smell’ like beauty lies in the noses of the beholder.

it emanates a smell that cannot be controlled.  Soon the room smells of durian.  There are no windows that can be opened. 
The only place to bury the Durian was in my stomach.  I quickly pick a piece up. It looks like a piece  of chicken. The strict vegetarian in me revolts. 

But right now there is no other place for the two pieces of Durian to go but into my mouth and then into my belly. I close my eyes, roll up my nose and put one piece into my mouth.

It was an orgasmic moment.
What the nose smells the tongue does not.

The sweet, fleshy Durian pulp, almost melts into my mouth.
My taste buds ejaculate in sheer ecstasy.

I pick up another piece, notice to remove the seed and slowly and steadily let my taste buds linger on this experience for just a little while more before it melts into my mouth. Long after the after-taste has vanished from my tongue, the taste buds linger for more.


Clearly that bloke had not been through the Durian experience in his lifetime.   

I cringe when I think of the dirty looks, the co-passengers gave me on the underground train and the imaginary cops who chased me on the streets.  For now I do not have the gumption to try out another misadventure.

But who knows ? It is certainly worth the second try. And a third ...  

No wonder the South east Asians call it the King of fruits.

Lessons in Humility at the Golden temple

To call it a structure symbolizing classic minimalism would be an oxymoron. The Harmandir Sahib or the Golden temple of Amritsar...