Varanasi (aka Benares, aka Kashi)

Varanasi or Benares, as the British called it, is known for a lot of things.

It’s one of the oldest continually inhabited cities in the world, the oldest, certainly, in India.

It is the holiest of seven holy cities for Hindus, known as Kashi in olden times. The might Ganges, flows through here and yes, thousands of people visit Benares every year. Hindus come here for obvious reasons. Foreigners flock here to take in the myriad rituals of Hinduism and walk the chaos of the city, now 3.5 million strong.

There are about 3,600 temples in Benares, I’ve been told. I walked through the old city last week and it felt as though there was a temple on every corner. Many of the ancient ones are gone, razed by Muslim invaders but some date back several hundred years. The city also claims 1,400 mosques.

I was mesmerized as I walked the narrow alleyways and snaking lanes of the old city. The smell of fresh cow dung mingled with motorbike exhaust and turmeric and cumin as I walked past homes and shops that all seemed stacked one on top of another.

Indians look down on Benares, a city that reminds me of how my native Kolkata was 30 years ago. Grimy, dusty, filthy with little order to the daily machinations of life. I, too felt that way about the city on my previous visits.

This was my third trip to Benares. I understand the magic of this city a little better now. I owe that to my superb guide Nandan Upadhyay, who a few years ago began running a tour company here. Nandan knows a lot about his hometown. If you are ever here, look him up. He has a website called Groovy Tours.

I’m posting a ton of photos with this dispatch. None capture the essence of the city, really. You have to not only see but smell, hear and touch Benares. And that’s not possible with a camera. Not even with a iPhone 5s.

Going to Goa

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I’d never been to Goa until last week. My cousin Rahul and his wife Shraya moved to Goa several years ago but I hadn’t had a chance to visit them on my rapid-fire trips to India before.

The western state in India is a haven for tourists who flock to its beaches and revel in a culture that is far more progressive than in other parts of the subcontinent.

At first, it was hard for me to believe I was still in India. I’d spent the first 10 days in India in Kolkata, where many of my friends and family still aspire to tradition and abide by cultural norms set decades ago. I love my hometown but sometimes, it can feel a bit oppressive.

Goa surprised me instantly. People seemed far more laid back in their bermuda shorts and sandals and t-shirts. It felt more like coastal Mexico or Nicaragua than India. It looked that way, too, because of the influence of Portuguese architecture.

It’s warm in Goa even in January and I was saved only by the ocean breeze that flows through Rahul and Shraya’s house.

They own a multi-level space atop a hill. Their house is teeming with all sorts of art (Shraya is an artist) and colorful paint and textiles. On the top level is a massive terrace, where we sipped a cool drink at sunset and watched darkness descend.

Over four days, I ate delicious food — fish is a staple in Goa, as is chorizo. The Portuguese settled here and brought with them their culture and religion. About 27 percent of the Goan people are Catholics.

On Friday night, Rahul took me to a birthday party for one of his relatives. The crowd was largely expat. I didn’t get to speak with them much but I gathered they liked it in Goa because here, they could afford to live the kind of artsy, beachy, easy-breezy, stress-free lifestyle that appealed to them.

I’ve posted other photos of my trip on Facebook. You can check them out there.

Now I am back in Delhi. Back at work. And Goa seems distant again, as it always had been. But it was a great break. I am thankful to Rahul and Shraya for their generosity. I see another trip for me in the future. Very soon, I hope.

Water, water, everywhere: Gaining perspective on New Year’s Day

The boat docked at Uros Island. Jose came to meet us with a smile on his face and a totora reed in his left hand.

Totora are the living reeds that float around Lake Titicaca, a massive body of water between Peru and Bolivia that is almost 13,000 feet in elevation. It’s known as the highest navigable lake in the world.

I’d wanted to visit ever since I was a child and my father told me stories about the magical lake in South America. He’d always wanted to visit Titicaca. He made it as far as Cusco and Machu Picchu but never made it to the lake. I was feasting on its majesty for both father and daughter.

My friend Aditi and I made the journey to Titicaca on a chilly December day. We boarded a small boat full of visitors and made our way first to Jose’s floating island.

Jose lives in a small hut on an floating island built with totora. His people have been living that way for hundreds of years, ever since they were forced out of their lands by the Incas. They fish and make handicrafts for tourists (like us) to buy.

The Uros people have faces tanned heavily by the sun — the high altitude makes for high rates of skin cancer. They lead lives from another era. Simple. Honest. Back-breaking at times. Jose let me enter his hut. There was nothing in it but a floor of reeds, a bed and a small black and white television. He thanked former Peruvian President Alberto Fujimori for bringing solar panels to the floating islands. Now he can watch TV and play music.

Oh and one other important difference these days: Human waste is taken by boat to dispose of on the mainland. That way, the water stays clean. Seemed fitting they would do that.

Jose explained how he and his family have to beef up the island as the reeds disintegrate. He then held up one of the reeds that look almost like sugarcane but are much softer. He peeled the outer layers and bit into the end. “Titicaca banana.” Ha.

From the floating islands, we traveled two hours to Taquile Island and marveled at the vastness of the lake. The people who live here also lead the simplest of lives, thriving on quinoa and vegetables they grow there. And trout — originally introduced to Titicaca from Canada — from the lake, though they must go to shallower waters for that. The water here is too cold and deep for fish.

There’s little pollution here. Or stress. Maybe that’s why the average life span is 95. Or so said our guide, Julio.

I thought of all the people I met on that trip that day as a new year is about to come upon us. I report on so much strife in the world. Of war, death, rape, torture. Of climate change and extreme poverty. Of sadness. Grief. And inhumanity. Sometimes, I crave the simplicity of the Uros.

I hope the world becomes a better place in 2014. Maybe there are some crucial lessons to learn from the people of Titicaca.

Purse paradise

Many years ago, I walked through the Bata Shoe Museum in Toronto, mesmerized that the history of mankind could be told through footwear — from caveman to Christian Laboutin. I was fascinated, given my penchant for shoes. (Yes, I have way too many.)

So when I stumbled upon the Tassen Museum Hendrikje in Amsterdam recently, I had to go in. Housed in a beautiful old building on Herengracht, the museum pays homage to, what else, handbags. It’s not as extensive as the shoe museum but tells a 500-year-history of handbags and purses in the Western world. Through bags, you get a good idea of how social norms changed for women.

And the museum shop is terrific if you are in the market for a good bag.

Pedal power? Art walk is better

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The New York Times published an interesting story today about bicycles in Amsterdam. In a city of 800,000 people, there are 880,000 bicycles. The Dutch have led the way in pedal power but as the story points out, and as I found out firsthand when I was there a couple of weeks ago, the bikes can make for chaos on the streets.

I almost got mowed down by one on Herengracht.

bikeI opted not to fight to find parking places for my bike. Not to fight for space with other cyclists on crowded streets. Instead, I walked.

And did things you cannot do on a bike. Like meander through the city’s Zuid district and soak in the annual sculpture show. I got off Tram 16 and walked south on Minervalaan, stopping at sculptures made by artists from all over the world. Among them: China’s Ai Wewei and Nigeria’s Sokari Douglas Camp. In all, there were 66 pieces on display under the summer sun.

Here’s what the official ArtZuid website says about the exhibit:

“In 2008, Cintha van Heeswijck took the initiative to draw greater attention to the urban expansion of the south of Amsterdam, known as the Plan-Zuid, designed by architect H.P. Berlage almost a hundred years ago. This world-class platform for sculpture adds a jewel to Amsterdam’s crown of leading cultural events.”

After my two-hour stroll, I agreed.

Read the New York Times bike story here: http://nyti.ms/10BPQcq

Which country is this?

Ezequeil Zeff (left) and Lautaro Rivas of Buenos Aires.

Ezequeil Zeff (left) and Lautaro Rivas of Buenos Aires.

I thought I was in Amsterdam until I sat down to dine at Kantjil & de Tijger on Spruistracht. On the menu was an Indonesian feast: Pangsit Goreng, Ajam Sereh Pedis and Oteh Oteh. I ordered a sampling of savory stuff. Hadn’t eaten since breakfast and had walked all over the canal city. I was hungry.

Just as I’d finished dinner, a couple of guys sat on the other end of my outdoor table. We struck up a conversation.

They were in search of beef. Naturally — they were from Argentina.

Ezequeil Zeff, 30, and Lautaro Rivas, 46, had been in Amsterdam for a week. They were software guys from Buenos Aires. They liked Amsterdam but the Dutch, they said, were lacking soul. The people here needed a lesson in life from the Latinos. They might have coffee shops here but no tango.

The two Argentines had tired of bland food and come upon this Indonesian place for a little fire in the belly. They wanted meat, like any good carnivorous Argentine. I was worried. I’d eaten at the Pampas-style steakhouses in Buenos Aires. They are the finest in the world. I was worried these two ravenous Argentinians would be more disappointed in the meat dishes here than a Japanese person at Benihana. But they liked it. Whew.

Oddly enough, the next night I strolled into an Argentinian restaurant quite by accident and continued my South American adventure right here in Holland. The empanadas were deelish. So were te jump prawns. Just that they looked at me the entire time that I ate them.

Hamlet’s Elsinore

Our first view was just five minutes after we got off the train from Copenhagen. There it was, in all its magnificent glory, though less ominous than I had imagined it perhaps because of this glorious day. There was hardly a cloud in the sky; the brisk breeze whipped my hair about my face as we walked toward the grand.

The royal Danish castle is actually called Kronberg but we know it all as Elsinore from Shakespeare’s greatest tragedy, “Hamlet.”

To be, or not to be: that is the question:
Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer
The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,
Or to take arms against a sea of troubles…

My companion for the day, journalist Jacqui Banaszynski, and I walked up to the castle, crossed the moat and looked out to the sea that separates Denmark from Sweden. How cold it must be here in the middle of January, we thought. An equally chilly history accompanied us through our tour. We learned of a fire that ravaged the castle, an attack and capture by the Swedes, of Bubonic Plague halving the nearby town’s population.

We climbed to the top and stood awed by the majestic views of sea and sky. And then descended on the stairs thinking of the madness, rage, grief, revenge and moral corruption Shakespeare so eloquently gave us in his play.

We didn’t have time to stick around for the Hamlet tour. Instead we walked back to the town of Helsingor, where we stopped for a drink at an Italian cafe in one of the town’s main streets. From bard to beer, Jacqui announced.

A day well spent.