Thursday, July 29, 2010

Humor in Uniform - Now that I am out of it!

I have now retired from the Defence Forces and that allows me the liberty to take potshots at my previous service, though I always viewed life through the utmost magnifying glass called ‘humor’. Recently I came across the following lines, summing up the motto of the Indian Armed Forces (with all pun and fun intended) and I realized that we could apply it to almost any profession that pays. For that reason mountaineers don’t qualify. With all due respect to the Armed Forces of this world, India in particular and to all other professions that pay, here are the lines in Hindi followed by transliteration in English for my international readers. Read on and enjoy: -

Fauj Ka Usool

bane raho paglay, kam karenge agle,
bane raho lull, tankhwa paao full,
kam se daro nahin, kam ko karo nahin,
kam mat karo, kam ki fiqr karo and fiqr ka zikr karo,
kam karoge to kam milega,
kam nahin karoge to sirf tankhwa milegi,
kam tum nahin karoge to koi aur karega,
aur trust me tumse acha karega

English version

Motto of the Armed Forces

Stick around you insane, leave the work to others
Remain a duffer, get paid in full
Don’t be scared of work, don’t do the work
Don’t work, worry about the work and mention that you worry about the work
If you work, you will get more work
If you don’t work, then you will only get paid
If you don’t do the work, someone else will do it
And trust me he will do it better than you

No lingo, no problemo – Snowy days in Scotland


In climbing, especially the extreme kind where we dangle from non-existent holds and bullet-proof vertical ice slabs, words and languages are mostly superfluous. We often don't say anything, in order to save our breaths and energy for that one impossible move, and when and if we do, it is often an expletive to which we don’t expect an answer. For our last prayers, when the need arise for such devotion to God, we generally mutter silently inside the deepest and unknown recesses of our souls asking forgiveness for our stupidity. In none of the situations, as you can evince, are words or languages (that can be understood by your climbing co-conspirators) necessary. Climbing is an activity that transcends borders of demography, religion, sex, language and visions. Where we perhaps differ, fundamentally, is our individual ethics and reason to climb. Put any two climbers together on a hard route, who may have never met before, or don't understand each other's tongue, and they would be able to pair up and climb in perfect synchronization within minutes.

Fundamentally I climb, as do many of my community, because it is so much fun and it allows me to cross the limitations of my mind, body and soul; besides the opportunity to see and travel to some of the most exotic and unexplored locations on Earth. Take out the element of 'fun' and climbing would become a drab, high adrenalin activity full of only charged up athletes for whom only the end and summit matters. Though the techniques and tools for climbing are universal across the world, we can often identify a climber's nationality by her attitude on a face. And one of the funniest and fun loving nations in the world of climbing (or for that matter in the general world too) are the British climbing community. Brits climb firstly to get drunk and tell tall tales in a pub in the evening about what they did during the day; and if during the day a couple of them fell off and broke limbs or died then it would only add spice to the yarns. An international climbing meet anywhere in the world is a virtual assembly of some of the craziest human beings on Earth and if it is a winter meet then so much better and for that reason along with the chance to climb with British hosts, I always look forward to the British Mountaineering Council (BMC) International Winter Climbing meets that they organize every alternate year in the beatific surroundings of Cairngorms and Ben Nevis, Scotland, where different countries are invited to field their top climbers.

February 2009, BMC's International Winter Climbing Meet saw around 60 of the world's top (don't read 'famous') climbers, rock gymnasts and ice specialists, representing around 40 nations from all corners of the globe. When I arrived at the Glenmore Lodge (Scottish National Outdoor Training Centre and main venue for the meet) on a bone chilling evening I found some of the climbing czars lazing by the fire and downing gallons of Scottish brew accompanied with silly banter and dart games. Over the next week we climbed like possessed as if the end of the world was predicted by the day the meet would conclude.

The rules of the meet were simple – there were no rules at all, save that you write your name on a sheet, mentioning with whom you are going to climb on the day and the place if you know of any and had decided on a route (highly unlikely for such a bunch of crazy climbers) and then off you go like a torpedo to wherever you fancied. There was another rule that was not imposed but suggested with slight hint of authority in the typical British stiff upper lip fashion and Scotch humor; we should ideally rotate our partners each day so as to climb with a variety of climbers and preferably have a local climber (Brit or Scottish; these are two different species) in the team who knows (supposedly) the area and the routes well. This suited me fine since I was looking forward to climbing with different nationalities.

Anyone who has ever undertaken a routine hill-walk in Scotland during the winters would vouch that the only thing certain about Scottish winter weather is that absolutely nothing is certain. The sky can vary between 'spotless sunny' to 'raging hurricane blinding blizzard' within the blink of your eye. And when it rages in Scotland it really roars and rips you apart. The fierce North Sea wind cuts through layers of insulation and through bones like a hot steel knife through butter. Under such conditions it is often best to have someone around who knows where he is and has a head calm and cool like the ice shelves of Antarctica.

First morning of the meet I paired up with a guy who would outsize me even if I had two of myself stacked atop of each other. A local star, he oozed confidence and bon-homie from every pore. Ruddy, big, broad, rippling muscles and absolutely raring to go. He had a wonderful smile to go along with the package. I marveled at the ease with which he flicked the metal-laden sack from the floor and slung it across his shoulders. I breathed easy for if I fell he would surely hold but if the other way round happened I was sure we both would rip off the face. He was a youngster who had just appeared for his mountain guide exam and was hoping to emerge at the top of his class. He wanted to be a professional mountain guide, and as luck would have it, his practical exam, which would happen post the meet, would be under the watchful eyes of my friend and a British legend Andy Cave. I told him that if he managed to keep me alive till supper then for sure I would put in few good words to Andy when he arrived. We hopped into his mammoth pick up that was cramped with climbing gear and hardware and off we went towards the distant hills now beginning to blur under the transient snow.

On the way we found an Italian climber, doggedly twisted under his super sized pack walking like a bent old man towards the same horizon we hoped to reach. We would reach the horizon in less than an hour; the Italian (by his looks) may never reach. So we picked him up and became an impromptu team of three desperados; my guide desperate to show off that he might never have climbed above 2000 meters but he knew his ropes; the Italian desperate to get the 'hell' out of wherever he was, and I was desperate and disparate in various degrees for reasons swinging from the unknown to totally insane. My Italian is as good as my Chinese, which may not give you the right picture, and I managed to convey to our vagrant companion that my brother lived and worked in the vicinity of Vatican. He garbled something over the next ten minutes with such alarming display of animation that my guide nearly swiveled off into the deep void on the narrow mountain road that was now slippery and traction-less due to the snow. I have no idea what the Italian said but his smile said that he found our company jolly and worthy of his climbing skills.

My young local guide, now ever more determined to go the extra length, to show me his true worth (which he surreptitiously suggested I might mention accidentally to Andy later) bulldozed through the sinking snow like an ice breaker possessed while I and the Italian struggled breathless to keep pace with the giant. We crossed several interesting faces, where other climbers were assembled or ranting beneath, and finally reached the far end of the ridge, where only another small group were getting their gears sorted out before hitting the wall. Still reeling under jetlag my head spinned and my heart galloped. The Italian looked as wasted and emaciated as afore; so perhaps he was well conditioned. Our guide looked as rested and alive as the day he was born. He led us directly to a rock wall, almost vertically rising from where we stood, rearing nearly 800 feet into the whiteout azure above. The sheer rock wall had copious amount of ice plastered at various locations, which could be bridged to make it a mixed climb; only if the climber was beyond redemption and care and knew his nuts from his screws. We three met the QRs and we decided to go free for the bottom half, which had a moderate grade of 60 deg. After which the route entered a steep and overhung gully with rock slabs and roofs embedded with frozen turf that looked devilish enough for us to agree that from the mouth of the gully we must rope up and take turns leading. In all, we estimated, we had between 5 – 6 pitches to pocket. The Italian participated in our millisecond discussion by nodding his head vigorously sideways that could mean anything from 'I don't like it' to 'I want my pasta right now, since these are my final moments on Earth' and then some.

Ice is my element and I love to improvise on mixed ground and I offered to lead the first pitch that still had some semblance to a gradient marginally less than 90 degrees. Even as my Italian friend nodded and gesticulated with typical abandon, I quickly realized through the snow that in all possibility I would be leading the final pitch too of which we could see nothing since it lay hidden beyond a roof. So much for volunteering despite the fact that all my life I had strictly followed my dear departed dad's advice, 'never volunteer'. All of us were seasoned veterans, barring the guide who could easily outpace the other two with his youth, and what lay up and ahead was mildly challenging on a sunny day. And then the storm hit us in full fury.

In all of our lives there are several 'points of no return' and we often cross them unwittingly, unintentionally since we had no other options. On that furious morning, huddled beneath the face of the mountain I defined my own point of no return since we did have options of either going back or delaying our start. My guide screamed something in the wind and what my Italian friend ejaculated sounded something like 'Tutto il meglio, non preoccuparti, Dio è con te!' The only word I understood was 'Dio' a reference to God almighty. In my world when someone refers to God, it generally doesn't forebode anything good. But seeing two 'thumbs up' up I went into the pandemonium.

The ice was rock solid and the rocky patches totally devoid of any purchase. I clawed my way up more in desperation than anything else. First pitch ended when the rope ran out and the tugs told me I must find an anchor and take weight for my partners to follow. Easier said than done. My guide followed quickly, thankfully he did not put his weight on the rope at all. He crossed me and perched above. The Italian followed, throwing 'ben fatto' at me as he crossed my stance.

Eventually we emerged at the top and found that we could barely stand straight into the blizzard as tiny chips of ice cut our skins like razor. The guide stood like the rock of Gibraltar while I and my Italian friend hugged each other for support like long lost lovers aboard Titanic. I leaned back into the wind and did not fall and that became our game for the next couple of minutes. We laughed the universal laughter of relief and happiness and it sounded same in Indian and Italian tongue. Walking in the wind we had to literally maneuver ourselves like ships against tide and wind, so that we finally made good the course we wished to chart. My ski goggles were totally plastered with hard ice and only our guide knew where we headed. I thanked the Lord that I had followed one of the rules of the meet. We followed our previous climb with three more, equally insane and outrageous in the maddening storm that only gained momentum and strength with every passing moment. We were properly getting Scottish winterized. In our parlance such conditions are actually good and enjoyable and gave us ample material to get drunk in the evening and tell tales by the fire to the pretty ladies and equally drunk and dumb climbers. I don't think we exceeded 5 VI Scottish winter grade on the first day, which was fine with me. By the time we got back to Glenmore Lodge the sun had set and the bar had already been filled up with wild stories and wilder animals and the pretty ladies were tipsy and totally stunning. I had made two new friends and learnt some Italian and gained few trophies on my person not to mention of having gone nearly blind several times. So we quickly gobbled the excellent food and joined the dart throwing, beer gulping, raunchy joke telling and raucous crowd.

The next day when I found myself paired up with the Japanese super star, who had recently won the much coveted Piolet d'or for his incredible ascent of Kalanka in the Indian Himalaya, I knew I was in deep trouble. Not that my Japanese was any worse than my Chinese and Italian, but going by his reputation and of what I had seen and read of his Kalanka ascent, he would be a formidable companion on any ground. Nearly fifteen years my junior in age, the Jap was a slim tiny fellow with an easy charm and smile that bellied the fact of who he was. He was not a professional climber and climbed for all the right reasons and it was impossible not to like his modest bearings. He was the exact opposite of my guide the previous day. A Scot of fifty who had climbed in India (as he confided to me) joined us as our local support. He seemed totally unimpressed by the Jap’s or my (modest) credentials, which in an emergency could really be a good thing. I had never heard of the guy though he seemed to know everyone and he was a typical jolly good fellow. I loaded my sack with more carb and fruits than climbing hardware while Sato sharpened his crampons and axes. Our guide did nothing but laugh out loud. We boarded his much battered low roofed car and sped off in the direction of Ben. He suggested we just cruise along the road, keeping a sharp eye on the faces along and wherever we found something fanciful we stop and go for it. Nice plan it was.

I exchanged 'Ohio gozimasta' and something of the sort with the Jap who smiled more than he spoke. Our guide played music at ear-splitting level that discourage further conversation. Keeping a sharp eye on the passing mountain ridges was difficult through the snow drift, and finally we picked up a fine face and line of which my oriental friend seemed happy too, though he did not offer any opinion, besides a bucketful of smiles and 'vely (Jap pronunciation) nice'. In his parlance 'vely nice' could either mean a kamikaze or hara-kiri, take your pick and I was fine with either. Our guide was oozing with confidence and chattering hundred words a minute as we parked near a stream and waded through the mind-chilling water on to the other side. Ice slabs floated on the water.

Mercifully the snow was less furious than before. We crossed several frozen ponds and ice encrusted ridges to finally reach the bottom of the face that tottered like a totem pole with a very bad center-of-gravity. It was not more than 400 – 500 feet and that was the only thing in its favor. An ominous overhanging bulge, right on the top, hung precariously. It seemed ready to detach itself and come hurtling straight at anyone going up the face. And then we realized that we had left our ropes in the car. In the fraction of a second all our well-laid plans and climbing gear ceased to have any meaning. And I realized the moment I had stepped into the car, I had crossed my 'point of no return'.

Literally throwing caution into the blizzard, the three of us fanned across the face and climbed in three parallel lines like a well rehearsed opera. I was in the middle and directly beneath the ominous protrusion atop. I watched Sato as he made it look all too easy as he effortlessly shifted weight from one toe to another since we were climbing 'four-point' all the way to the top. He barely swung his ice axe, yet they gripped on first hit. My right knee with torn ACL gave me ample trouble but I too maintained a cool exterior and clambered up while our guide matched the roaring winds with his stentorian voice, regaling us with his stories of bravery. We all emerged unscathed and well within our breathing capacity at the top though I had to veer to my left a little to avoid chopping through the overhanging bulge. The Scot egged me to do it but good sense prevailed for once and I let it be, a beautiful natural ice cauliflower defying gravity and intrepid climbers. Scotland is breathtaking in all seasons but to gaze at the endless vista on a winter noon with clear skies and everything around coated in white is a vision from heaven. We ate our breakfast on top and then we decided to indulge in a bit of ‘hill walking’; that sedentary and all too purposeful occupation of British men of leisure. In short for those who had enough inheritance to do absolutely nothing while making it sound very rigorous and sporty. And off we went with our guide for a spot of hill-walking. After about quarter of an hour I realized it was more in the line of ‘hill-sprinting’ in which both my companions seemed well versed. With my limping knee I always take my time to descend and soon I was left far behind to take pictures and breathe the succulent air at leisure and feel like the Lord of the place. Sparkling blue glens lay beneath my feet and the brown rolling fields and mountain ridges mixed perfectly with the white summits. Frozen waterfalls lay suspended in places and it felt like a summer day of picnic. We did two more on-sight routes up the road and then returned to Glenmore since the main host for the evening was none other than our guide for the day.

The next morning lucky draw paired me with a rotund Portuguese speaking Argentine who had a solid and impeccable reputation as one who could outsmart a spider on a long wall like that on Cerro Tore. The moment I glanced through his bio I felt humbled at his audacious climbs in the Andes (my favored part of the world). Someone tapped on my shoulder and I turned to find the beaming face of my partner staring back. I liked the guy from the word go. More than dozen tape patches adorned his much abused ‘Patagonia’ climbing shell jacket and his calloused fingers told their own stories. Both his hands had one digit short and in their place only the stumps remained. ‘India?’ he gesticulated, poking his index finger into my middle. I nodded in assent, and then he introduced me to his girlfriend who would go with us to watch us climb. She was a real Latino beauty and I asked if she climbed, to which she gave a reply I dare not disclose publicly. She was a Chilean and we could muster few common words in Spanish and English. The surprise of the day arrived dressed in Scottish kilt, holding a leash, at the end of which a brute of a dog growled menacingly at us. A local royalty and ex-Royal Marines, he would be our local guide for the day.

Our guide paraded us like truant school kids and made us check our equipment and bag while barking commands like a private GI. No he had never climbed anything that needed friction and face but knew all about climbers like us who got themselves killed for notoriety and no sir, he wouldn’t have our blood on his hand, and he ran a tight ship, etc. etc. While the girlfriend giggled and played hopscotch with the dog, we two followed every word of our guide. He even made us wipe our shoes before he would allow us inside his shining landcruiser. As he started the vehicle, I felt heading for a public execution. We were finally deposited in front of a ridge that had little ice but plenty of twisted and gnarled rock to keep a rock climber busy and happy. I was seriously out of my elements.

Our guide left us a basket of food and water and instructed us to stick to the marked routes while he went around the corner for a walk with the dog. Once he departed my companion and his girlfriend got little intimate and I got little worried as to what I was supposed to do. Soon they disengaged and the girl spread her picnic sheet on the ground and started setting up her stall as if expecting the entire family to turn up any minute. The Portuguese climber took out his rack and did few pull ups for the want of anything better, and then the idea hit me. I pantomimed a bit and finally managed to get my point across. I am virtually lost without my ice gear and here we had little ice so the only way I could do anything here was dry tooling (using ice axes and crampons to climb rock). It’s still nascent in India though I had done a bit before in the Alps and wanted to do it in the company of my friend who was a champion at such things.

Once off the ground we worked perfectly and spent a fun-filled half-day hanging and dangling and falling too and waking up the entire place with our metallic jingles. The girlfriend, from time to time, threw us smiles and embellishment from below that did amazing things to my performance and endurance. Our guide returned a little after two and with that ended our fun. He nearly lost his wits when he saw our ice gear spread out under the face. Nevertheless he got us back to our lodgings and never before I had traveled in such complete silence alongside one, with whom I shared a common language. The rear seat was of course filled with noises that told us not to look back.

Next two days were complete washout as storm warnings followed by real storm kept us indoors and we had talks and slide shows and indoor climbing competitions, tight rope walking displays, much boozing, dart throwing, story swapping, eating, sleeping and bonding. The day after the storm abated I found myself in the company of a startlingly beautiful woman climber from Slovenia. Suddenly I wished I could speak her tongue and tell her what her appearance was doing to me. Soon her giant boyfriend arrived and demolished my dreams true and proper. We squeezed inside the tiny car of our day’s local guide, another Scottish legend and a man past sixty. En route to our climbing ground I learned that this diminutive girl and her boyfriend had done the direct north face on Everest and this was their first trip to Scotland. I had climbed in Scottish winter many times before so I assured them of things to come and that they needn’t worry or hurry (like Slovenians are wont to). We did moderate climbs, not exceeding 5 VI and I found new respect for my fellow climbers, the girl reminded me of my friend Nat with whom I had partnered some of my finest climbs across the world.

On the penultimate day I joined a large group of people who wished to travel by road till the end of Scottish main land and not climb at all. The weather was sumptuous, the company eclectic (with a smattering of beautiful women) including some of the finest contemporary climbers and we had great fun just talking and gazing at the landscape that never ceases to amaze me with its stark beauty and endless charm. We visited beaches, combed through the sand, climbed slippery boulders and peeked into lighthouses and abandoned castles, then sipped tea at quaint little joints literally hanging at the edge of cliffs with the growling sea waves crashing below with deafening roar.

The final evening did not need any language at all since it was all about eating, drinking, dancing, bonding and viewing the million pictures that we all had collectively clicked through the week. Typically on the morning that we all boarded our buses destined for the airport, the weather cleared and the sun shone brightly bidding us goodbye.

When I boarded my flight back to London, I realized that I did not necessarily remember what all I had climbed or how during the week but all the fun I had and the friends I met and made despite the lack of the common platform of language or culture.

Here’s to BMC and many more to come, hick!

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Proof of Pudding (Ascent)

A wise man had once told me 'in today's world it's not always important what you do, but what you can prove for others to see.' While mountaineering is an ethical sport where much is believed from the climbers and summiteers without the need of any proof whatsoever and I personally don't necessarily subscribe in the wisdom of the aforementioned wise man, it has now become more necessary than ever before to understand how to prove your ascent conclusively to an independent body that you had indeed climbed a peak and it is not a false claim; either intentionally or non-intentionally.

These days when we are more concerned about media and publicity and setting of records than the pure pleasure of climbing for your own sake, the mountaineering world at large has become more competitive and fierce in claiming and proving ascents. Record books are more important than anything personal or spiritual that a climber and adventurer should ideally gain. Therefore it is more important in the contemporary concept to understand clearly how one should go about chronicling and maintaining a record of one's ascent; more so in the case of a first ascent / new route / extremely difficult and challenging routes, etc where the outside world would be more curious about your claim and would do everything possible within their capacity to nullify your claim and sully you in the process.

In recent years in the Indian Himalaya we have the famous case of the first ascent of the extremely difficult and technical peak of Mt Gaya; where the rightful claimants of the first ascent was not accepted by the Indian Mountaineering Foundation since they could not bring back adequate proof of the ascent. The team that followed them to the summit few years later, actually found evidence of the first ascent and therefore proved that the earlier team had indeed made the first ascent.

I am going to list down few check of lists that every mountaineer should adhere to or take as a guideline while climbing a peak that would assist you in brining back adequate proofs of your ascent.

1. This is obvious but you would be surprised at the number of climbers who forget to do adequate homework. You must know the mountain and the peak you are going to attempt inside out or at least everything that is humanly possible to know. I know of even veteran climbers who after having summitted the peak realize that they had climbed the wrong peak.

2. You must always carry an adequately large scale map of the area and the mountain, so that the neighboring peaks and landmarks are clearly visible and discernable on the map. Anything of 1:50000 or larger is recommended. Carry a trustworthy prismatic compass and altimeter, previous photos of the mountains (from different directions and angles if possible), cameras and a GPS (only as a supplement and not as the first line of proof, since GPS readings can be manipulated). After getting all these, please learn to use them well and learn map reading in the classical way and to take bearings etc. Having the tools is useless if you can't use them properly.

3. You must ensure that all your team members know how to record and use the tools.

4. Submit photos of all the camp sites (include reference points and true bearings from conspicuous landmarks, also GPS positions (include errors). Submit photos of the route taken, especially of the points where the landscapes change significantly.

5. From the summit / highest point reached, record photos in all directions, showing all the main ridges and faces with part of the summit in the foreground. Also capture the neighboring summits in the same frame to show the exact orientation of the pictures. Mark each photo with the directions and bearings. Only a group of climbers waving flag on a cloudy and obfuscated summit is of no use.

6. All through the climb, record the rate of ascent and the gradient of the ground on an hourly basis and also for coming down. This is a very important factor for proving your ascent. Record rest periods as well and mention what you did during the rest periods.

7. Make a sketch from the summit showing the bearings of the major peaks in the vicinity that are clearly identified.

8. A written narrative of day to day climb is very important. Mention any conspicuous features en route and of all the camp sites, especially of the summit camp.

9. Mark the route by a marker pen on an enlarged photo of the mountain showing the face and ridge used for the climb along with the position of each camp site. Mark the altitudes of each camp site.

10. For all directions, use true compass bearing, rather than any direction relative to the climbers.

11. A very important point to remember while referring to any face or ridge is that all the faces and ridges are in the direction with reference to the summit and not to the observer. So the face of the mountain that is to your true north is actually the south face of the mountain.

12. In your ascent report avoid flowery language or ambiguity. Keep it simple and to the point, don't glorify your achievements or of any individual. Just bare and simple, what you did is all that is needed.

13. And finally be ready to accept that you may have made an error while reporting or while making the actual ascent. Don't be dogged to prove that you were indeed at a place. It really doesn't matter, like I said earlier, climbing is a journey within and you could summit Mt Everest 20 times and not tell anyone about it.

Saturday, July 17, 2010

Stein Am Rhein – A Fairy tale

When we think of Switzerland we normally think of the snowcapped mountains with endless ski slopes, sparkling blue lakes and some of you, perhaps, of the Swiss Banks. Rarely would we associate plain land with Swiss topography though there are vast tracts of Switzerland devoid of anything vertical. With my enchantment with anything natural that rises up into the azure, my obvious destinations in Switzerland had always been the Zermatt Valley and Grindelwald, the two take off points for some of the nicest and steepest mountain architectures anywhere in the world.

In one of my trips to Switzerland, after I had climbed few peaks in the Zermatt Valley, including the infamous Weisshorn by its north face, and had strained my ligaments to a degree not utterly suitable for such activities, one of my well-meaning friends suggested that it was perhaps time for me to give the Swiss Alps a break from my antics and I would be well advised to see the prettiest village in all of Switzerland. And it is a universally acknowledged fact, he stressed, and not my point of view alone (as he wasn’t a Swiss). With an injured leg, I finally allowed my head to do a bit of work and it set me thinking.

For most of humanity around the globe, the entire precinct of Switzerland is perhaps the prettiest spot on Earth and within that the prettiest of them all lies a village that I hadn’t yet seen. How could it be possible that I had missed out on this Alpine village (since to me anything pretty had to be somewhere in the hills)? So I quizzed further. Where is this village that you mention, how high it is, etc. My friend took a keen look into my eyes and nodded his head in utter dejection as if I was beyond redemption; which to most of my friends, I am. Stein am Rhein is not in the Alps, he informed, it is by the river Rhein at a measly altitude of few hundred meters from sea level and it has no mountain anywhere within its vicinity and only a small tiny little hillock on the backdrop. That did not sound very pretty and exciting in that order; moreover I had never heard of a place on earth called ‘Stein am Rhein’. Sensing my tardy mind deliberating over the possibilities, my friend suggested that I would get further frustrated to be cooling my heels within the sight of the majestic snow capped Alps and I would be better off in a place where there was peace, tranquility, beauty and some amount of horizontal ground for me to walk without much strain. He hastened to add that knowing my dilapidated financial credentials he was willing to buy me the train ticket to this village. Now that sounded like a good deal, if I had heard of any in Switzerland and the Swiss are great at offering deals to tourists.

So on a fine sun-kissed morning I boarded the red colored train from Randa and as my over-enthusiastic friend waved me goodbye and receded from the moving train, I suddenly remembered with the clarity of the crisp Alpine air coursing through my veins that my friend’s girlfriend was visiting him that evening and of course he wanted me out of his residence. That was the only time I doubted my friend’s sincerity or veracity of Stein am Rhein that he had so enthusiastically enthused. For as it turned out Stein am Rhein (now on referred to as SAR) was and still continues to be one of the nicest and the prettiest little villages / townships I have ever come across anywhere in all of Europe or for that matter in the world. This is the story of a place that is horizontal for most parts and emerges straight out of Gothic grandeur. It’s also a place where I found myself for the span of one single day and night that left me dumbstruck for most part and with memories to span my entire life time.

As the train chugged along the passing landscape that was as haunting as the interiors of the train, with my fellow passengers involved in various activities, I repeated the name few times at the tip of my tongue and found it deliciously rhyming and rhythming with the chug of the train. I changed train at Zurich, and again at Winterthur to step into a smaller train with wooden flooring. The train itself looked straight out of some fairy tale as it wobbled unsteadily on the track. It was full of tourists and families, jovial and convivial to say the least. Every twist and turn that the train took, infused gasps of admirations from the occupants, self included. I realized much to my own amazement that the horizontal landscapes of Switzerland can indeed give its vertical counterpart a serious run for its money. A toddler played an accordion near my feet while a gaggle of pre-pubescent schoolgirls sang choir while making a skirt-holding train along the compartment. I had indeed been transported into a merry wonderland where no one had any misery or suffering of any kind. I kept my nose glued to the cool window glass and gulped in the scenery passing us by. The train stopped at a place, which was a stopover for the passengers to get off and have a close look at the awesome Rhein Waterfall.

The moment the train stopped and stood silent, the air filled up with a roaring noise of a jet squadron on its take-off stage. I joined the crowd and we moved on the well-marked trail towards the waterfall. The cobblestoned path led downwards as it spiraled away. The noise increased in magnitude every step that we neared. Suddenly around a bend, lo-and-behold, emerging like a giant canvas, stood the frothy and foaming waters of Rhein Fall. The sheer width and the ferocity of the water as it churned and roared, filling up the air with cold spray, took my breath away. If one fell in that water, he would die instantly, smashed into smithereens for eternity. Everyone fell silent at the majestic spectacle, including the noisy schoolgirls. We gingered our way carefully on the wet wooden steps and went down to have a closer look at the water. I read on a wooden board that I was looking into the largest waterfall in all of Europe and realized that perhaps I need to brush my knowledge of geography beyond the mountains too.

Eventually the train stopped at my destination and I stepped out into the tiny platform of SAR. Surprisingly, for the prettiest village in all of Switzerland, none of my fellow passengers alighted. They were continuing ahead towards Lake Constance bordering Germany and Bodensee. I stretched my limbs a bit and looked around at the deserted platform. I seemed to have stepped out right in a fairy tale world of my dreams where everything looked gossamer and unreal. The silence and absence of any life drove my imagination wild. The timber wood station preserved the looks of at least half a millennium if not more and everything was as spick and span as it always is in Switzerland. I shouldered by backpack and exited the platform on to the road outside. I looked around but found no sign of any other human being. No taxis, no hansom cab, and no modes of transportation at all – none of the usual sights outside of a train station was visible. If SAR was indeed the prettiest and the most well preserved of Swiss villages then it must also be the most well guarded secret since anywhere else in the country I would expect to see tourists by far exceed the local residents.

SAR is so tiny and well laid out that is impossible to get lost no matter which direction you walked, my friend had told me. For me the choice was easy since there lay only one road in front of me, turning up and then curving left. I took it and filling up my lungs with fresh air hit the road with the vigor of a Roman General seeking to vanquish new lands.

Soon the road curved and I came across a magnificently arched bridge across the blue waters of Rhein. I had to pause for a minute just to take in the sight and fill up my eyes with everything that entered my visual senses. A row of timbered buildings lined the waterway along the white quay where few boats bobbed up and down with the waves. A solitary church spire stood proud of the neighboring structures, piercing the sky, while to the right of the bridge an ancient church building came right into the water. Across the bridge I could spy a Gothic building displaying the Swiss flag from a pole on the roof that was flapping aimlessly in the morning breeze. I crossed the bridge and stopped around midway to observe a young boy, bare-chested and a young girl similarly sparsely clothed, lean out alarmingly over the bridge railing as if peering into the under-flowing water. They were not making any sound at all and though I passed them within touching distance they did not turn around or show any signs of my presence. Being the first representatives of inhabitants I decided to observe them. Soon they climbed atop the rail and jumped out, silently, holding hands. A loud splash (the first sound I really heard since arriving) told me that they had hit water. I leaned out and saw them surface and start swimming towards the quay. This must be the usual occupation of SAR, I mused and walked on.

After the bridge, I turned right and took to the deserted cobblestoned path leading towards the monastery of the St Georgen. I had a simple plan. To cover the entire village on foot, starting from the monastery and then walk around the village and climb to the hillock and to the fort atop, partake the view and then loop back into the village square by late afternoon when the village folks were supposedly to be found near the village fountain resplendent in their best attire.

I walked on the deserted path, wondering again at the eerie silence and absence of anything human; but then with a population of less than 3000 what else could I expect! I soon reached the monastery and pushing the mammoth door ajar, I stepped inside the dim-lit hall. I craned my neck up and took in the spectacular carved ceilings with murals depicting Biblical myths. The painted walls and the beautifully tiled floors defied the fact that it was nearly 600 years old. I stared at the painting depicting St Georgen slaying the dragon, a symbol often found throughout Switzerland. Zodiac signs covered another wall. I walked into the banquet room and admired the impeccably preserved frescos. These were commissioned way back in 1516 by the famed artist duo of Thomas Schmede and Ambrosia Holbein. The ornate stain-glass windows, circular and colorfully opaque threw faint pallor on the walls and intricately dancing forms on the beautifully tiled floor. I stepped out of a small door at the end of the main hall to find myself by the bank of Rhein. The arched bridge now lay to my right. Suddenly the morning air was pierced by a ship’s foghorn and a several-tiered boat of considerable girth sallied down the river, with tourists sun-bathing on the deck. As it passed me by, I heard their excited chatter fill in the atmosphere. I was surprised that these people preferred to view SAR from the river and not step on the pier and walk through. Soon a pair of modern speedboats came in the wake of the passenger boat and sped past me like rogue torpedoes.

Beyond the monastery, I followed the cobblestoned pathway weaving in and around timber wood buildings with amazing frescos covering every bit of the walls. This is what SAR is renowned for and of course for the manner in which the locals have preserved their village from modern invasion. Painted windows and doors looked real and at few places I had to actually walk up and touch a curtain to ensure that it was only a fresco and not a real window. With a map in my hand it wasn’t difficult to follow the path going up to the fort atop the hillock, moreover I could see it almost all the time rising above the buildings around. I finally met a local resident, an old man pushing an equally ancient bicycle heavily laden with fruits coming my way. We exchanged greetings and I chugged along.

Soon a sign ‘Schloss Hohenklingen’ pointed me towards a path climbing towards the distant hill. I was on my way to the ancient castle of Hohenklingen. If my guide book was to be believed then the erstwhile residence of the feudal lords, now boasted of a restaurant that promised food as good as the view, if not better. As I spiraled up towards the castle, the village fell below and being the only vertical path within sight I enjoyed the sojourn greatly. Rhein danced in the sun and the village now looked more like a Turner’s painting, intricate and immaculate in its inception and scale. I had by then lost all sense of time or space. I felt completely transported in the medieval age that the village preserved. There’s only that much that our sensory organs can sense and absorb and by the time I reached the castle, I was super saturated. I entered the restaurant that had only two occupants, the bar tender and a young waiter and went to the nearest arched window and looked down at the SAR with unblinking eyes and totally dormant mind. Both the rightful occupants of the restaurant remained inert and non-obtrusive, favoring me only a smile apiece. After a long while, I managed to tear my eyes away from the window to order a slice of Swiss pretzel sandwich with extra cheese on the sides.

On my way down I took the other path to make it a complete circle, and soon came across a bed of tulips forming a flower clock on ground along side a block of the only modern building to be found in the entire village. It looked like an administrative block of something. I walked till the quay and now found few families frolicking in the water. It was late afternoon and time for me to return into the medieval age. I entered another arched gateway and inside the village wall, which itself was as ancient as the place. Soon enough the silent streets led me to the village square, which was more of an elongated shaped street that split into two to girdle the town hall. The village square of SAR in the heart of the village has often been hailed as the most picturesque of all Swiss villages and that is some claim to fame. I realized much to my merriment that it hasn’t been misplaced.
Near the center but placed at a corner stood the beautifully carved fountain dating from the 16th century that had a little statue of a soldier on top. Right next to it stood the open visage of a bakery and Swiss delicacies. A portion of the cobbled pathways had been taken up with whicker chairs and tables and beach umbrellas aka Parisian coffee shops. A handful of tourists lingered languidly on the chairs sipping coffee and eating the cakes and cookies. I washed my face at the fountain and then gaped around the square that now lit up by the orange hue of the late afternoon sun gleaned like gold. The row of half-timbered buildings surrounding the square, jostled my eyes for attention with their elegant frescos, lavish and grand as they were, and the majestic oriels. The southern extent of the square was resplendent with facades sporting fresco with drawings of the house names like Hirschen (Stag), Krone (crown), Roter Ochsen (red ox), etc. To the north the most elegant of all, the Weisser Adler (white eagle) displayed a series of paintings dating back to 1520 – 1525. This is supposedly the highest concentration of frescoes in the world. The frescoes mostly depicted some mythological stories, moral tales, history or religious incidents and characters, normal life scenes of the locals, about the house owner and even that of pretty woman in their finest liveries.

I bought a coffee and cookie and occupied a vacant wooden 4-seater near the fountain and observed the village life pass me by. The locals were easily discernable by their outdated attires and gentle manners while the tourists stood out by their loud colors and jocular temper. No one seemed in any kind of hurry at all. Soon a group of young girls wearing long white dresses along with blue checkered half sleeve blouses walked to the clearing next to the fountain and started singing some songs to the accompaniment of musical instruments and dancing from another group of girls. I wasn’t sure if it was a normal local ritual or if it had been put up for the tourists. Their soft voices and twinkling toes tapping heart lilting rhythms on the cobblestones soon filled up the air and some of the tourists too joined the merry making girls. A little later a group of four men joined in the place setting up a mobile kiosk stand nearby. All of them wore bellowing colorful kaftans like the traveling circus jesters. One of them produced five wooden clubs and started to juggle, while another pair started mock sword fight and the fourth man brought out a wooden torch that he lit up with some inflammable fluid and started showing us the trick of fire eating. None of these performers demanded any money nor did they look at the tourists with any kind of supplication. They seemed to be doing these things for their own pleasure and fulfillment. I had a field view and was thoroughly immersed in the beatific displays, specially the juggler since I am a mean juggler too. Around 40 minutes later they all wound up their wares and left the square, heading away. The singing girls too fell silent and they walked away. But for some reason an air of expectancy hung around and I sensed as if there was still more to come.

I was almost out of my reverie, dreaming of the medieval ages where I was a knight fighting for a fairy maiden’s hand, when a man of around fifty, wearing tight pants and a leather waistcoat over a grey colored shirt with rolled sleeves alighted near me from his cycle. Over his broad shoulders he had a carry bag that looked like a small guitar bag. The man walked away from me and stood in front of the fountain offering me his profile. He opened his bag and took out a violin. He dropped the bag on ground and placed the violin against his left cheek. He placed his head on the violin and took up the bow. So far the man had shown no sign of the fact that there were other people in the vicinity staring at him, neither had be made any sound of any kind. And then he began to play filling up the evening with haunting melodies that reverberated from the tall spire to the frescos and bounced and cried with the cobblestones.

I had never heard anything so haunting and heart rendering in my entire life. The music took my senses away and my soul dissolved into the melody. I sat hypnotized gazing at the man’s strong profile. His eyes were shut and he was cordoned off in his own world and it was evident that he was not playing his violin for any of us. He was playing it for the entire world, for the river, for the sky and for the breeze and for every fresco and cobblestone around. Everyone else around too were transfixed, even the tourists interrupted their coffee and cameras and gazed wonderingly at the violinist. Few walked up and dropped some coins in the violin bag. The man kept on playing, totally oblivious to his surroundings. About an hour later he stopped as abruptly he had started and gathering his belongings left on his cycle, as silently as he had arrived. Even after he left, for a while the square remained transfixed, as the music seemed to linger around into the dusk. Reluctantly I tore myself away from the place to partake in a final ritual before taking my leave.

I found the place that housed the famous golden goblet of Baron Johann Rudolf Schmid. I joined a group of American tourists and drank wine from the goblet while listening to the Baron’s tales of bravery and adventures with the Turks. You could only drink the wine (free) if you would listen to his life story; such was the condition laid by the late Baron. With that my tryst with SAR came to an end. A village that every guidebook suggested takes no more than few hours to cover in leisure, had kept me engaged and riveted for nearly an entire day. This was nothing short of a miracle since it did not have any hills or snow lines nearby. All that was now left for me to do was return across Rhein for camping overnight at the camping ground across the train station and hike to the town of Schaffhausen next morning.

As I stood up in the twilight, a small furry dog came panting by and licked my outstretched fingers. Soon its owner, a tiny girl with golden ponytails arrived. I smiled at her and tousled her hair then offered her the last piece of chocolate I had. She took it with a big bright smile and ran away after her fast receding puppy. I smiled too at no one in particular or for any reason at all and headed for the arched bridge that I had crossed in the morning. The street was deserted once again even as the medieval lamp stands came alive one after another, lit up by some unseen hand. I jerked my head several times as I started walking, to clear my mind of all the intoxication. I doubted if this village would ever go out of my heart. At the bridge a family of swans joined me on my journey and accompanied me with their lively chatter all the way to the other side.

Finally, I had found the most raucous inhabitants of Stein am Rhein.

P.S. For any visitor to Switzerland, a half-day trip to SAR is a must and I would be happy to know from you if the violinist still plays in the village square every evening.

Friday, July 16, 2010

Highway

Recently a friend of mine sent me the picture of a mystic mountain trail, showing a solitary human figure walking towards the viewer with a thin trail behind him, disappearing into the distant snow covered mountains. Now I know of such trails in abundance, and I am often found at such places, often alone, like the figure in the picture. Along with it, my friend asked me for some lyrical explosions to go. I am not sure what exactly she wanted me to write but on the spur of a moment I came up with few lines, in general, not necessarily meant for her, but for anyone who has ever taken on a trail where the destination was either not known or not thought of. So for this post I expanded the lines a bit more and here it is for all of you: -

There's your way, there's my way
and then there's the HIGH way

There's that way, there's this way
and then there's the HIGH way

There's pathway, there's midway
and then there's the HIGH way

There's low way, there's go way
and then there's the HIGH way

There's snow way, there's blow way
and then there's the HIGH way

There's no way I am going away
for you and me
it'll always be the HIGH way

Saturday, July 3, 2010

Vacillating in Venice Part 2

I had already told my companion that I had absolutely no interest in seeing the interiors of any of the world’s best museums and palaces, of which Venice seemed to contain at least fifty if not more; but she wouldn’t hear of the same about the churches; and promised to take me to the nicest and quietest ones only and then follow it up with a surprise of the visual kind. Gastronomic surprises were sure to follow later.

A short walk away our first halt was the church of San Giacomo di Rialto. ‘This is the oldest Venetian Church,’ Maria said, ‘over thousand years.’ Maria pointed out the Gothic portico that was spectacularly inscribed. We loitered a while in the black-stoned quadrangle with the central sprout and then left for the next church, San Polo, at a stone’s throw from her uncle’s place. It was a magnificent edifice of Byzantine origin mixed with a generous amount of Gothic and neoclassical periods as well. ‘It had to be restored,’ Maria interjected. The great rose-window of the façade stood out prominently as did the splendid bell tower. I spotted few paintings in the interior, noteworthy among them that of J. Tintoretto. From there we made a short work of the imposing Santa Maria Gloriosa dei Frari, my eyes trying to find a route up the brick wall all the way to the top of the bell tower. Maria insisted that I see the wooden statue of St John the Baptist, so I did, though I didn’t find anything striking about it. Since I had done some readings about Tintoretto’s art work and sculptors some time back I was keen to visit the Guildhall of San Rocco that lay nearby. It was an impressive array of canvasses depicting scenes from the New and Old Testament. I was veritably moved beyond words at such play of light and colors on canvasses and murals more than 500 years old.

‘We are now in Dorsoduro and I have something to show you that you would surely like,’ Maria hinted mysteriously as we crossed a narrow canal and suddenly came across a large open space with a glorious fountain and huge trees. ‘This is Campo Santa Margherita, one of the finest gardens in all of Venice.’ I had never imagined such a large verdant place in Venice but Maria confirmed that Venice had nearly a dozen such gardens that the tourists seldom see. We sat on a bench near the fountain and gazed longingly at the children playing in their exuberance. All around the park ran a pathway that was lined with fruit and fish sellers and gelato vendors in their mobile kiosks. It was a lovely place with beautiful people all around and I wished to linger around but Maria would have none of it, ‘It’s your fault Sat, you only have two days and you must see things that you must.’ She pulled me up and we headed, as she promised, for the last church of the day, only to be viewed from the outside. I dragged my feet to Angelo Raffaele Church and what I really fell in love with the place was not the church itself (which to me seemed a regular affair) but by the canal skirting its wall. It was a tranquil place with colorful boats tied up with the piers into the narrow canal. Somehow Maria sensed my inner thoughts.
‘Let’s take a waterbus,’ she hailed one and we hopped into the boat that had only two locals besides. The bus driver cum conductor touched his cap at Maria and I offered to buy the tickets. Soon we weaved through the canal and came out into the waters of Canale Della Giudecca, which is to the South of Venice, leading out into the Adriatic. Shortly we alighted at the steps of Zattere and headed up to a place that Maria introduced as the Squero of San Trovaso. To say that I was rendered speechless at what lay in front would be an understatement. It was a boatyard for building and repairing gondolas with slipways and iron tracks. It was a hauntingly picturesque spot, one that was completely out of the touristy route. The edifice of the boathouse towered above the green trees and threw moving shadows into the blue-green water of the San Trovaso Canal. From there we headed straight up north and skirting the grand Gallery of Accademia (which houses the most priceless range of works in all of Venice) crossed Grand Canal over the bridge of Ponte Dell Accademia and entered the district of San Marco, the hub of Venice tourism and commerce.

Sun had set by now and into the gathering twilight we loitered around a bit in Campo Santo Stefano and then onwards to the ‘world’s best restaurant’ run by Maria’s childhood friend Marco.

Creatively named, ‘House of Marco’ the restaurant owned and run by three generations of Marco family was tucked into a corner around Palazzo Contarini facing the Grand Canal. It had a bar, a café outside and spaced out interior that was redolent with the fragrance of spices and basil that immediately watered my tongue and imagination. Marco Jr. who came forward and planted a resounding kiss on Maria’s lips seemed right out of a renaissance painting. He was all bronzed sculptor and could have easily replaced Clark Gable in ‘Gone with the Wind’ on a bad day. His eyes sparkled in delight as he took my hand and shook it with the gusto of a long lost brother. It was a relief that he did not kiss my cheek. ‘Welcome my friend; I have the special table as always for Maria,’ Marco guided us to a table for two on the wooden extension that hung outside of the restaurant over the Grand Canal. The view was spellbinding. I felt as if I sat on the dancing waves and the city light reflected like countless stars on the now-dark water of the canal. Every gondola that passed us emanated some romantic song and so did the entire place. If not the ‘world’s best restaurant’ it certainly was the best located one in all of Venice or so it appeared. I could simply sit here all night and count the stars above and below and feel absolutely content with the world. Finally I caught the twinkling eyes of my guide and friend.
‘You like it?’ Maria asked eagerly.
‘This is amazing, I love it.’
Marco arrived soon with a bottle of Chianti white. ‘Wine from Tuscany,’ Maria interjected as Marco showed me the label and proceeded to uncork it in one single twist. ‘The best in our cellar my friend.’ Marco assured as he poured a generous amount in my glass. I hoped that his ‘new found’ friend is not footing the bill; else I could easily forget the rest of my Italian extravaganza. We raised a toast to our friendship and life and silently sipped the smooth fluid. Food followed soon in typical Italian style Leccino olives, artichoke soup, risotto, fish, cheese platter, salad, pudding and concluding with a cup of dark espresso. As we hopped from one course to another accompanied by the wine, small talks and deep silence of admiration at what lay around and into each other’s eyes, I literally lost track of time and of my past, present or future. I was full to the brim and feeling rather heady from the wine. If it was possible for Maria to look more enchanting than she was looking so. We finally left Marco after much display of love and fondness between the two friends, of which I got a fair share in the form of a kiss on the cheek, which in my inebriated state and also the fact that the evening was totally gratis, I did not mind.

As we walked into the night and the semi-silent footpaths, I sang some soulful Hindi numbers as a tribute to the night and my companion while she broke into Italian love songs and what a duet we churned up the night with! Odd that no one protested our ululations. After some minutes of senseless walking I asked, ‘Where are we going?’
‘Tiramisu at my Uncle’s, the house of Garibaldi, of course!’ Maria said.
I had totally forgotten about my Holy Grail and I doubted if I still had any space left in my stomach. Hearing my predicament Maria said, ‘Don’t worry Sat, your palate and your system is now ready for Tiramisu, as it has been oiled by Marco’s food.’ I too hoped so.

Maria led me towards the Rialto Bridge. Within the sight of the Rialto Bridge the pathway takes an S like curve where it bifurcates to the east into a narrow lane. Right at that corner we came across a small but densely crowded (even in that hour) shop that proudly proclaimed ‘Garibaldi Patisseries’. Maria jumped up in glee and literally pulled me off my feet for the last 10 meter or so. While I groped among the jubilant crowd, Maria disengaged herself from me and dived straight into the milieu. Soon enough I heard a resounding greeting followed by kisses from somewhere beyond the jostling crowd and then appeared Maria’s hand gesticulating from above the sea of heads, asking me to enter. Using all my survival skills learned in the jungles of Amazon I too managed to squeeze through and finding a low-headed gap beneath the serving counter with Maria on her knees on the other side, simply tunneled myself in.

Even before Maria could pull me back on my feet my head spun with the whiff of the freshest and nicest Tiramisu and assortment of pastries and Italian coffee. I could have happily left my earthly self at that moment as I sank in that ocean of aroma. Finding myself in the deathly hug of a grizzly I opened my eyes to find a huge red faced and nosed man of seventy attempting to break my back within his grasp even as his twinkling eyes took me in with obvious joy and deliverance. Maria said something in Italian that only increased the pressure on my back; though I understood that it came out of pure love and happiness. By then Maria had managed to lift off a sizeable box from somewhere and we wriggled back out of the shop without any permanent damage anywhere on our countenance.

‘Come, now we go to Rialto and enjoy the world’s finest Tiramisu,’ Maria ran ahead and we ascended to the middle of the arched bridge, right where the two sides met. There was a tiny space where already three couples were lost into each other. Maria went down the other side few steps and picked up a vacant spot. I joined her and together we gazed down at the dark water now pulsating with the city lights and scattering from the street lights from either banks. The halcyon breeze brushed our hair; Maria’s fluttering around her shoulders, while mine getting all messed up. Someone was singing somewhere and empty gondolas returned home languidly. The entire bridge, which in the day has so many people that you cannot stand without touching someone, now had no more than a dozen couples. The moon was almost full and threw a silver shimmer on the canal. Glasses tinkered in some unseen bars and people whispering far could be discerned as they came floating across the waves. It was a romantic place and moment. Except us, everyone around were clasped together. My mind was on the scent emanating from the box held carelessly in Maria’s hand. She seemed to have forgotten of it completely.
‘Isn’t it beautiful?’ Maria sighed deeply and looked at me with melting eyes.
Maria smiled and touched my hand briefly. ‘I always come here at this hour; I like Venice when it goes to sleep and is silent. Do you know that even Michelangelo had submitted his design for Rialto when it was being commissioned in the sixteenth century?’
‘Really?’ I said.
‘Yes, but his design was too archaic and expensive while the city administrators wanted it to be economical and functional so it was given to someone else.’
We relapsed into silence and looked out into the water for a while. Finally Maria chirped, ‘Now for Tiramisu. Do you know how to eat it?’
‘Just the way I eat any food, through my mouth.’ I said.
‘Come on Sat, be serious. I will tell you the way to savor Tiramisu.’ She opened the box and pulled out two large size glass goblet into which sat two equally large shaped Tiramisu. The fragrance hit me like a prize fighter’s left hook.

I picked up one and the accompanying spoon.
‘Now follow my instructions. First take it close to your nose and take a deep breath, inhaling the aroma right down in the pit of your soul and keep it there.’ I followed suit and felt my soul intoxicated. ‘Now feel yourself being light and soft, as if you can fly in the air without wings.’ With a writer’s imagination I had no difficulty in doing that. ‘Dip your spoon and take a small portion into your mouth and hold it on your tongue.’ My tongue didn’t want to hold on to it, my esophagus wanted to suck it. ‘Let the rich flavor sink into your pallet, your taste buds, feel it’s dreamy texture.’ I was already dreaming with eyes open. ‘Allow the coffee and the liquor to kiss your inner being as you let it slip in.’ I kissed it back. ‘Now suddenly a teeny-weeny, almost non-existent hint of chocolate explodes around your tongue and vanishes in a blink.’ I was ready to explode. ‘Your entire mouth is wrapped in the finest silk and you feel Heaven inside you and you are in heaven.’ Maria completed her instruction. I was in heaven and had no intention of returning ever. We ate in silence, prolonging each spoonful as long as humanly possible in our mouths before swallowing it down. Even if it wasn’t the finest Tiramisu in the world, it certainly was the finest I had tasted anywhere in the world.

Next morning Maria shook me up with a steaming cup of the darkest Italian coffee.
‘Rise and shine, sleepyhead, it’s our big day. I have packed in our picnic basket and two wine bottles from uncle’s cellar.’
I was ready and shining in under twenty minutes. She led me to a small pier nearby and we hopped into a roofless boat with a 50 hp OBM. ‘Can you handle this?’ Maria challenged playfully. ‘I can handle it and also the lady in it,’ I replied laughing. ‘Ok Captain, all yours.’ Maria took off the rope from the bollard and off we went.

As I weaved around and through the narrow canals, Maria told me about the local rules of boating and navigation and kept directing me. Soon enough she was convinced of my boat-handling skills. ‘You are a good sailor boy.’ She laughed into the rising mist from the water. Our first stop was Lido. Our boat being small, light and shallow, we simply beached at one corner and jumped out into the water. We ran and walloped in the sand like children. The elegant tree-lined Moorish-styled villas along the stretch of the beach held some of the richest and famous people on Earth at that moment, of that I was certain. Lido was where the rich and the famous came to holiday and soak in the Adriatic Sun. It was a picturesque island. Soon we dived into the sea. At that early hour the sea did not have many bathers and we pretty much shouted and screamed as much as we could.

From Lido we headed to Torcello. Still soaking and enjoying the sea spray on our bodies, we both in our bathing attire. At Torcello we took a lazy walk around the island enjoying the lapping waters of the breathtaking lagoon and we lingered in the island centre square to take in the scenery. Surprisingly not a single tourist was visible in this pretty little island. Maria did play the perfect guide and educated me about the rich history of Torcello that now escapes me totally. As a final ode we climbed to the top of the Bell Tower and spied the lagoon and the backwaters from this vantage point.

Our final destination was Murano. Being the center of the Venetian glass blowing industry, Murano is perhaps Venice’s greatest and finest export and a Murano glass work is prized and pined for all over the world. Murano is a group of nine islets crossed and linked by a wide canal and as we stepped onto the main pier, which already had a regular tourist boat, I immediately fell in love with the place. The riot of colors took my breath away. The row of houses, most of them glass blowing factory cum residence, along the canal and the boats resting silently in the water came in all sorts of vibrant colors and texture. It was unusually quiet and a kind of ululating hush permeated through the air. We walked through the streets and crossed the bridges from one islet to another, while admiring the exquisite works of Murano glass on most of the windows. After much strolling we finally visited the Glass Museum and Maria guided me from one exhibit to another. I was amazed at the glass masks and the gold gilded figurines. The price tags amazed me more. We then visited two factories to see how the families worked together. First trip to Murano cannot be completed without buying one of the glassworks, so I hummed and drummed till I finally found a tiny turquoise-blue dolphin within my budget.

We capped Murano Island with a late lunch and wine and with our feet dipped into the water and my heart never wanting to go back. Maria handled the boat on the return trip as I lay on my back on deck and just let my eyes linger longingly on the islands passing by. We took a longer trip back to the home pier and Maria pointed out Piazza San Marco from the sea, where she would take me in the night. The Basilica of San Marco along with the Piazza must be the most sighted and photographed and well known of all Venice attractions. It appeared mammoth and grand from afar. We chugged along with other bigger boats and hand-rowed gondolas. Maria knew some of the boatmen and she exchanged playful banter with many. As the Basilica had closed by the time we reached, we climbed to the top of the Bell Tower and looked down upon the Piazza, which was full of pigeons and people, all of whom appeared and moved like ants. As the evening deepened, we stepped down and finally took a gondola ride (without which no trip to Venice can be complete) and I sang the famous song of Bollywood that had been shot in a gondola in Venice – do lufzon ki hai dil ki kahani, ya hai mohabbat ya hai jawani (the story of heart has only two words, it is either love or it is youth) to my companion as she snuggled close and sighed even deeper.

After alighting from the gondola we headed for a mobile Pizza vendor (who made the most delicious pizzas) and we both helped ourselves to Grande slices of pepperoni pizza with extra olive, basil and jalapeno. The entire day under the heady sun and sea travel had made both of us hungry. Maria carried her picnic basket that still had an intact bottle of red wine. We walked back to the Piazza of San Marco in silence. It was nearing ten in the evening and the moon was up in her full glory, being full moon, rising up from behind the tall Bell Tower. High tide was approaching and the water had started filling up the Piazza. We stepped into the cool water and splashed our way through. There were rows of tables spread through the width of the Piazza for people to step and walk upon to avoid wetting their feet. We walked in the shadows and into the spilling moonlight. We crossed the entire quadrangle and came out towards the sea and there Maria bid me to take a seat on the cold stone.

We sat in silence as the whispering sea filled up the Piazza evenly, rising around us as well. Only shadows moved and danced elusively without form or shape. Maria snuggled on my shoulders with our hands intertwined. The cool breeze stirred us with a pleasant chill. Maria passed me the bottle of wine and we shared it over the next hour. Words were unnecessary and so were any action. We simply remained as we were, totally transfixed and transformed into the night as every other thought became superfluous.

Next morning Maria walked me back to the station. She kissed me lightly on the lips as the train started and waved her hand. ‘Would I see you again, Sat, somewhere? Would you call me?’
‘Sure Maria, I would never forget you.’ I blew her a kiss into the wind and withdrew inside as the train gathered speed. For me she must remain my promise of a reunion and a dream out of my reach.

‘Ave Maria,’ I smiled at the old lady next to me and nuzzling deeper into my long seat closed my eyes and finally let my body slip into the much deserved stupor after so much gallivanting and sinful activities.

Vacillating in Venice Part 1

The following, in two parts, is the tale of my sole trip to Venice.


Italy to me means much more than to most. Besides the hot ladies, pizza and pasta and Rome and Naples, and St Peter's cathedral, to me Italy is special since my own blood brother is an Italian in mind, body, spirit and soul but that's certainly not the reason that I visit Italy whenever I do. There are two distinct regions of Italy that particularly finds favor with me – Italian Alps (bordering France / Switzerland) and Italian Dolomites. Most of my entries into Italy have been either over land on foot across some high mountain ridge or summit or cycling or on board a bus through the Mt Blanc tunnel, including one illegal one, where I had to go back into Switzerland across the summit of Mt Matterhorn or Cervino as Italians call it, since that year I had only Swiss visa and not the Schengen.

Over the years whenever I had a valid permit and reason to be in Italy, and on occasions being bullied by my brother, I did end up seeing all the touristy Italian spots as well, including Milan, Florence, Naples, Sicily, Pisa, many of the Mediterranean Islands like Capri, did wine routes, church routes, and even climbed Mt Vesuvius after paying an exorbitant fee of Euro 5 to a guide whom I could have carried in my backpack and outrun to the summit. By no means am I saying that I did not enjoy these visits, beautiful and enchanting as Italy is and the abundance of liberal and free kissing women at every corner, I would have certainly loved the country but for the over-gesticulating gentile people who, in order to say one word, gesticulated a dozen. And I certainly abhor male kisses anywhere on my person.

There's another reason that pulled me to Italy. It was my search for the Holy Grail, which to me was the world's finest Tiramisu. History and gastronomic guidebooks say that such a thing, if it existed, must be somewhere in Italy. For those who have not yet been initiated into Tiramisu, it's a concoction of mascarpone cheese, raw eggs, sugar, espresso coffee, ladyfingers (savoiardi biscuits), liquor and cocoa. Heavy cream is optional. It’s pure sin and is often called the dessert of heaven. But mind you, if it is not properly prepared, then it is no more delectable than a tightly packed punch of soft tissue paper dipped in coffee and cheese cake. As I scoured from north to south and then from east to west (can you do that in Italy, thin in its width as it is!) climbing the highest and lowest spots or carousing at its lofty or cavernous corners, I did hear 'Venice' being mentioned several times as the place to find world's finest and smoothest Tiramisu, though despite that I did not feel like making a detour to Venice. Come on; how exciting can a sinking city be! But when once in the company of my 'all-knowing' brother in Rome, while polishing off a bottle of fine wine, he mentioned casually that it indeed is Venice where I would find my Holy Grail (though he took great offence, being a pure Roman Catholic, that I would demean Holy Grail to such a sinful pleasure as Tiramisu). That swung my mind totally. If my brother says something as true then it is, period. He never says anything in jest and he knows everything.

Soon enough I took a train to Venice and dozed my way to the end of the Roman world while draped on the shoulder of a big Italian mama on one side and a pretty Italian lass dressed in a short dress that if it were shorter would not be a dress any more on my other shoulder. The Italian mama took an immediate and intense dislike to my bohemian and rhapsodical looks while the lass took an immediate liking to my full smile and honest eyes. I am sure she also liked the fact that I was totally checking her out. We struck up a cute conversation; her English rivaling my Italian perfectly. I was brazen she was coy. During that trip for some reason I had made a hand printed visiting card for self and had few of them in my torn pocket. During the spell of our eyes peering into each other, at some point I must have slipped one such card innocuously into her perfectly manicured palm. She must have read it too, at some point of time, for when we neared the end of our train journey, she suddenly bent towards me more than can be considered civil in public places, and asked in the most honeyed tone possible, drawing out the 'r' and the 'l' in a manner that left even me speechless for that fraction of a second that stands between a pair of heartbeats.
'Why a criminologist?'
'Excuzi!' I used my Italian.
She held up my visiting card, which among my numerous activities, mentioned 'criminologist'. And she repeated, 'Why a criminologist?' 'Why not?' I croaked while my eyes ogled just below her throat.
'You are most interesting, where are you staying, how long are you in Venice?'
'I have no idea, may be a day or two. Once I find my Tiramisu…' I trailed off. How could I possibly tell her that in the world's most romantic location (to Italians at least) I was on a measly gastronomic mission.
'You are so funny, you stay with me ok, at my uncle's place, I will show you around and I want to know you more, by the way I am Maria.' She finally said.
'Tell me something new' I muttered within my mind, 'Nice to meet you Maria.' I finally shook her hand though our bodies have been colliding now for more than few hours.

The train chugged in at the Venezia station with much aplomb and cheer from my fellow passengers nearly all of whom seemed honeymooners or mooners certainly with at least one striking member of the opposite sex draped carefully around their arms. Now even I had Maria, albeit at a hair's breadth away, within the reach of my arms, a distance which I was certain would diminish during my days of Venetian voyage. People cheered, clapped and smooched. The sound of kissing, long drawn out 'hold-your-breath' kind filled up the coach. It seemed as if the mere sight of Venice train station had finally awakened the amorous passions in every bosom, who till now were hibernating within a crystal globe of inactivity and torpor.

'This happens every time, you see. People visit Venice looking for love or for the love that they have lost with those with whom they have lost it or wish to find it. But many return empty handed or with the realization that they will never find it with the person with whom they arrived here. So they either file for a separation or return deluded. It's sad really. Love does not reside in Venice, though we would like to believe it; it resides in your heart and in your eyes… I am glad you are not looking for love in Venice… or are you!' Maria said as we alighted.
'I am not looking for love in Venice, may be love is looking for me. What I always look for is an adventure, something that I don't expect and don't know whatever it is.' I replied mysteriously. It always worked with beautiful women.
'Then you are at the right place, Sat,' Maria pressed my hand, 'you have no idea what's going to happen to you in Venice.'
'I like it that way for sure.' I pressed her back and we waddled off into the waddling crowd.

I had seen enough pictures and movie scenes to have a fair idea what Venice would visually be. Even then the zigzagging canals and the antediluvian baroque and Gothic architecture rising straight out of the sea and water and the cute little darkened alleys and by-lanes girdled by kiosks selling masks, muslins and Murano glass figurines caught my fancy. American, German and British tourists jostled past, literally pushing us out of their way, with one eye glued into the travel brochures and the other on to whatever they fancied, trailing their companions with hair flying into the wind. What was the hurry I wondered? Was Venice supposed to sink into oblivion today, I pondered.

Anywhere I looked people ran in all possible directions and jumped in and out of the water taxies indiscriminately, or so it appeared. Only the locals, easily discernable by their phlegmatic gait, prominent stupor (as if their left ear was careened into the wind coming from the sea), superior air (I have seen it all) and monochromatic attire, took it real slow and real easy. ‘Almost all these people would leave Venice in few hours by the night train so they want to do everything before they leave, including gondola ride and a quick trip to the islands.’ Maria explained as she tucked her left arm into my right.

Canals, narrow and wide, spread out in all directions like a carefully and intricately woven cobweb. We walked along the tightly squeezed narrow lanes lined up along the canals that weaved in and out of the shadows cast by the sinking sun across the high roofs. Soon Maria led me away from the busy and the tourist-marked canals and lanes and I suddenly found myself in a silent waterway, on which boats stood transfixed like stone since not a ripple moved anywhere. The towering and tottering ancient buildings did not let out even a whisper and their beautifully colored and carved baroque façade looked too proportionate to be real. I stopped and took a sharp breath in amazement.

Oddly enough, viewed from the sky, the main island of Venice resembles a giant fish, with the Grand Canal (Canal Grande) twisting and turning through it like the transparent gullet. Every tourist brochure recommends a promenade along the 3 km long banks of the Canal and it is delightful indeed; not to be missed if you ever visit Venice. The Canal can be crossed on foot only at three points (bridges); Ponte Degli Scalzi, Ponte Di Rialto, and Ponte Dell’ Accademia. If you wish to swim across then you can do so at almost any point since the canal width doesn’t exceed 50 m anywhere and there are often more than a handful of gondolas or boats zipping by in case you begin to drown.

We now walked along the Canal, hand in hand, swinging our bodies and light bags like the children in Sound of Music. We had returned to the normal buzzing world of colorful tourists and bargain hunters, and the thousand year old cobblestoned pathways that were choked with curio shops and eatery kiosks almost every possible inch. Venice is festive and feasting every day of the year, year after year, and never is there a moment when Venice is out of season, Maria confided.
‘We are in San Polo,’ Maria said, ‘my uncle’s house is here. Let’s first keep our bags and get something to eat then I will take you around.’
At a point we turned to our right along a thin artery of the Grand Canal and came to an opened courtyard frilled with garden and ivy plants that had a house each on its four sides.

‘This is Rio Terà and we are just a hopping distance from the famous Campo San Polo, which I will show you later.’ Maria went up to a dark green door with a lamp hanging from the top and groped under the doormat. ‘This is my uncle’s house,’ she found the key and threw the doors open with a flourish. ‘Welcome Sat, to the original house of Tiramisu. This is indeed the place where world’s finest Tiramisus are created.’
‘You are serious!’ I said.
‘Remember Sat, we Italians never joke about our food and wine and this is Tiramisu we are talking about, the ultimate ambrosia, food for the gods,’ She said, ‘Roman Gods.’ Maria hastily added. ‘My uncle’s father perfected the art of Tiramisu. Everyone knows the name of Garibaldi, the handmade Tiramisu family.’
Well, I didn’t, I mused silently. But with a free roof over my head and possibility of free food and a convivial companion in hand I wasn’t the one to complain.
While I dumped my bag in the room Maria directed me into, she got busy in the kitchen that was right next to the entrance.

After a light lunch we took to the roads. ‘I hope you don’t mind walking, that’s the best way to experience Venice.’ Maria said as she skipped along.
‘I love walking, remember I am an alpinist. I trust my feet more than anything else.’
‘Out here trust me more, ok,’ Maria laughed her natural trill.
‘Hmmm… where should we start from? I will show you the islands tomorrow, we have our own boat. I am sure you know boat handling!’
‘Of course, I am also in the Navy, remember!’ I was loving this more and more. ‘And I am a navigator, won’t lose my way for sure.’

‘Well as your first sight in Venice, we shall begin from Mercati di Rialto, or the Rialto Market, where you would get to see real Venice.’
‘Won’t we see the Rialto Bridge?’ I enquired of my guide, as we pattered along through narrow lanes.
‘At this time there won’t be a place to stand, I will take you there at night, when it is most beautiful and empty.’
Suddenly we exited a nearly deserted lane and came out into a maddening bustling hub of human activity. It was a true blue bazaar if I have seen one, raucous and lively enough to rival the flea market of Istanbul.

‘This is Campo Della Pescaria, the greatest market in the world,’ Maria pulled my right arm and threw me right into the middle of the bedlam.

I would have been surprised if it weren’t, I mused. A regular Italian’s nationalistic fervor (including that of my brother) compelled him or her to proclaim anything and everything within its national boundaries as the greatest and finest of its kind in the world. That is not to say that I wasn’t visibly impressed and suffocated. I am intensely averse to crowded places and the Rialto Market was crowded to the point of being choked with people, shops, curio sellers, hawkers, mobile kiosks, an entire tsunami of human and edibles jostling and bursting for space in the narrow market street, which was bordered on the other side by the dancing waters of Grand Canal. I marveled how no one actually fell off or was being pushed off into the Canal! What lacked in natural splendor was more than adequately covered up in colors of humanity and cacophonous ramblings of the most explicitly Italian pantomime. If I could find a space to stand on my two feet at one place then I could have spent an entire day simply listening and observing these people, so varied and humorous it was. If you just walk up and down with a video camera for an hour through this place then by the end of it you would have a magnificently vociferous and animated film on humankind without the need of any dubbing or editing at all. The Italian and Venetian bargain hunters and the delicately decorated tourists were the funniest to watch. Those who claim that the art of bargaining has been perfected by Indians and the middle-east Arabs must come here to see what it is all about. I was totally taken in by the fruit and vegetable stalls and even tasted the local delicacies of baccala montecato and pasta e fagioli with risi e bisi. Despite Maria’s best efforts I decided to skip the fish market as I have had enough of the crowd and we headed out.