Introduction

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portugese flag

 

I will be spending three weeks in Portugal this December, including Christmas and New Year.

This section of my blog is dedicated to my expedition and exploration of the Iberian Peninsula. Through the course of my travel, I will visit multiple places around, experience local culture, taste different food and work on a topic.

My topic is “What makes you feel welcome in a city?“. This is a blog series for a project sponsored by Schwarzkopf Foundation Young Europe. The organization is funding a part of travel.

I will keep writing as I go through the country. My first destination is the picturesque, loyal city of Lisbon.

Watch out this section for the updates.

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The Lady from Lahore – a short story.

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I met a lady from Lahore there. She was visiting her son, he studies in Amsterdam.

I met them at a coffee shop. Coffee shops in Amsterdam are not to be confused with cafe.

A cafe serves coffee and bagel and breakfast and croissant.

A coffee shop is a place you go to get marijuana and other stuff.

The son, Arslan was teaching his mom how to smoke weed XD

I told her that she might be the coolest mom ever. They clicked a picture together and uploaded it with this caption XD

Amsterdam is so full of happy stories, I love the city.

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Being from India, we have a sense that Pakistan is a closed and reserved society. I was pleasantly surprised rather delighted to meet this lady. She mentioned, that she had relatives in Delhi used to visit before the visa norms. I parted by inviting her to Delhi and requested to visit me next time when she’s in town.

 

 

 

 

Passenger in Luxembourg

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Last week I had a chance to attend Michael David Rosenberg’s, better known by his stage name “Passenger”, concert here in Luxembourg. The venue was subtly set up with just enough (not too many!) people. An open air arena with small stands or shops selling snacks and booze. Having arrived early at the venue, we (my friend from work & me) were lucky to get a space close to the stage. Stu Larsen, another budding musician started the concert with his songs about traveling and advertising his new upcoming album.

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After a few songs, Passenger walked on the stage with a huge cheer from the crowd. It was evening and the day was getting cooler and sun light slowing dimming. I was pleasantly surprised, rather more impressed, by the personality of David. He struck as a funny guy. With a glass of whiskey in hand, he started with a story of how he performed as a street singer for 5 years and never expected to be famous. He started with his not so famous songs and the crowd was already moving to his tunes, people were smiling kissing and cheering. His most famous single “Let her go” made everybody lose themselves. The whole energy had a positive effect. His voice was just magical and the atmosphere around added to the setup. Eventually, he finished with a few duet with Stu. It was not one of those super packed high cheering concerts, with people jumping in mosh pits. It was more of those pleasant, charming and happy like feeling concerts. The crowd too was well behaved, cheering, making loud jokes and smiling. In the end, I enjoyed my bit and was happy by the end of it.

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Kolkata and beyond: Loleygaon, Lava, Rishop, Darjeeling

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Having lived in Finland, I have developed a special liking for the nature. Fortunately, or Unfortunately, I haven’t had the chance to explore the diverse nature in the India yet.

“Maine humari Darjeeling ki tickets already book kar li hai, ab tu jaldi se Kolkata aaja.”
(I’ve already booked our tickets to Darjeeling, come to Kolkata quick)

My friend on his call made sure, there won’t be any further delay to this plan and I won’t be allowed any more excuses.

Packing my rucksack, I boarded the train from Delhi to Kolkata in the evening. I was greeted by my friend at the station and we reached our abode in the “City of Joy”, I was not disappointed. That city is a living museum, seems like not much has changed there since the Britishers left India (check my post on the tram in the city, to get a glimpse of my thoughts).

Kolkata to NJP

One evening, a week later, I was standing at the same Sealdah station, only this time to board the Darjeeling Mail. It was weekend, and I could sense a special joy and relief among the passengers to the train. Being a popular hill station, it was fairly evident most of them were excited to get there. After a long and tiring day, I retired to sleep and was up before the sunrise. Being a December morning, it was misty and foggy outside. As the train passed through the farms and fields, the view outside was pleasant. Hazy sun, rising in the horizon, damp fields and unmade houses. Finally, we arrived at the New Jalpaiguri Station (NJP).

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View from Darjeeling Mail

NJP to Loleygaon

After a bit of bickering and bargaining we managed to convince one driver to take us directly to Loleygaon for 1200 rupees. The driver was very talkative, friendly and helped us plan our trip, the dos and don’ts and places to see, things to do, such stuff. Located roughly 100 kms from the NJP, it took us around 3.5 to 4 hours to reach Loleygaon. We stopped for a breakfast at a shack, next to a tea gardens, and it was lovely, my first time among the tea gardens. The road on the hills to Loeygaon wasn’t the best one to drive on, it was broken at places and full of stones. Eventually we arrived at our destination and check into an inn, the lady charged us 700 per night for two people. Loelygaon is a small settlement with a sparse population of around 5000 located at an altitude of 5500 feet in the Himalayan ridge. Since we were there in December, the weather was on the colder side.

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Tea Garden en route to Loleygaon

We had our lunch freshened up a bit and went to see the place. There’s a canopy bridge and we went to have a look at it. You will come pass through the bridge area of the entrance gate kind of a thing while traveling from NJP to Loleygaon. To our dismay, the bridge was closed for some construction repair and we couldn’t get to walk on it. But nevertheless, we had a good look at it. It’s made of wooden planks all along and at places supported by branches of the trees. Since, the place is totally secluded and amidst a forest, the evening was quiet and calm. Occasionally, you could hear the birds chirping or even leaves falling. We didn’t do much that evening, as were tired. After a small walk in the village, we had dinner and off to sleep.

Next morning, woke up early and walked uphill for around 4 km to reach Jhandi Dara, the sunrise point. The view from the hill was absolutely spellbinding. I stood there for a long long time staring into the sky admiring the rising sun. We were hoping to get a glimpse of the Kanchenjunga hills, in the west, opposite the rising sun but the clouds hid them behind. After the sunrise, we headed back to our accommodation, showered, had brunch and started for Lava.

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Sunrise from Jhandi Dara

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Sunrise from Jhandi Dara

Loleygaon to Lava via Kalimpong

We started for Lava around 11.00ish, our original plan was to reach Lava from Loleygaon but things didn’t go per our plan. During our ride from NJP, the driver informed us that there is a quicker and cheaper way to reach Lava from Loleygaon and he handed out his contact too in case of any confusion. So, per his instruction, we hitchhiked, walked and walked and walked till we reached a four-way intersection. One road each leading to Kalimpong, Lava, Loleygaon and some other village close by (I can’t recall the name). There was a three way a few hundred metres before the four way and it’s easy to lose way due to confusion there. Anyways, on reaching there, we were told that we had already missed the last car/taxi thing to Lava and if we’re lucky we might get a ride from someone heading that way. We waited at the four way for an hour or so, asking every passing vehicle. Ultimately, we decided to go to Kalimpong, because if we missed the last car/taxi to Kalimpong, we might have to be stranded there. The plan was to hop on another bus/car/taxi from Kalimpong to Lava.

On reaching Kalimpong, it was already evening, and on enquiry we found out that the next bus to Lava is in the night. No point reaching Lava after nightfall, since we won’t be able to do anything there at night. Hence, we parked ourselves at Kalimpong for the night. Kalimpong is a city with lots of people, cars, hustle, bustle, coming from Loleygaon we found it a bit crowded. Next, morning on bus to Lava. The slow bus ride took us higher and higher into the mountains. The driver seemed to be a popular friendly guy, smiling and greeting people all along the way, exchanging pleasantries, promising people to deliver their gifts, dropping off late going school children. It made me wonder, the people in these hills don’t have access to the best to infrastructure and facilities but they have themselves and each of them take care of one another and help when needed, was kinda hearting to see. I noticed the change in vegetation all along the way.

Eventually, we arrived at Lava. Located at an altitude of about 7000 feet, the place is scenic and small. We rested and dined and headed out to the Lava Monastery. Situated on the hills, the panoramic view around the monastery is absolutely breath taking. Unfortunately, the time we reached there was a meditation time for the monks and we couldn’t get to talk to them. We roamed around the place for a while, talked to a few locals and since we were already behind our schedule, headed straight to Rishop.

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View from Lava Monastery

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At Lava Monastery

Lava to Rishop

There are two ways to reach Rishop, from Lava – by taxi and by foot. We walked for one and half hours uphill on broken roads to reach our destination. The trek is demanding at places but still doable. The way to Rishop is a bit disguised and one might need to ask locals for directions. There’s some sort of government accommodation and some small broken wooden stairs lead up on the right side of the road. On walking, a few hundred metres, there a diversion and we stuck to the right side of the road, but we asked people constantly to assure ourselves that we were on the right track.

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Trek uphill to Rishop

After a while we could see the small village in the horizon. Rishop is a small quaint Hamlet at an altitude of 8530 feet located amidst the hills. “Pink Floyd Hotel”, that was our resting place. We were living in the clouds and on opening the door, the clouds would float into the room. There was nothing but silence, dead silence. Imagine a small place in the clouds, sipping hot coffee on the balcony and all you can see is mountains, trees covering the mountains, little houses, small villages in the distant. The stars covered the night sky, twinkling bright. In the morning, we trekked 2 km uphill in to Tiffin Dara to a get a Panoramic view of the place. The trial passes through a forest and you can also rent a guide to take you there. The view was a bit below my expectation but nevertheless still worth it. We headed for our final stop, Darjeeling via Ghoom.

 

Rishop to Darjeeling via Ghoom

A few of our To-Dos in Darjeeling was to catch the glimpse of the sunrise at the Tiger hill and ride the Toy Train. The hill is closer from Ghoom, 5ish kms, and the train passing through Ghoom takes you to D’jeeling. Rishop to Ghoom was a long journey, going back to Lava, Kalimpong and then to Ghoom. The journey from K’pong to Ghoom was very scenic. We drove downhill, passing small waterfalls from big huge rocks, river flowing through the valley, trees and stones on either side and we crossed a small bridge before driving uphill.

It was already night by the time we reached there. We somehow managed to get an accommodation for 500 bucks after extensive bargaining. Next morning at 4 am we went about our way to Tiger Hill, it’s not so pleasant and there are a lot of cars whizzing past you, many tourists from Darjeeling hire cars to get there. Honestly, I was a bit disappointed on reaching there, it was crowded as hell, and they have constructed a stand to seat the tourists. Overcrowded places do not interest me. All I could see was vendors, selling you coffee and people flashing their phone for selfies. The sunrise wasn’t appealing either because of the heavy clouds.

We got on a 9 o’clock train to Darjeeling, from a distant, the city was half lit with the morning sun. We were lucky to get a view of the Kachenjunga range. And trust me on this, it’s one of the best thing you’ll see your entire life. For me, it was one of those moments, when you see something so mesmerizing that you want to keep looking at it the entire time. I was dumbstruck. A flat white mountain range covered with silver velvet. The white snow was gleaming in the morning sun. You know when you see something very gorgeous, and it makes you so happy that you forget all the worries in life and want to just keep staring, it was something like that (and I’m not exaggerating). Maybe, because I live in the city, it was more appealing to me, but still it was absolutely worth every bit of it.

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Darjeeling with Kanchenjunga in the background

Darjeeling is just like another city, full of cars and people all around. The Mall road is cleaner and better compared to other places and you can take a walk around. We went up to see St. Paul’s School, Darjeeling, it was nice, organized. I wish I went to such school, with the view of Kanchenjunga every morning. We stayed in Darjeeling for a day and a half, went to watch a movie and roamed around the city, talking to locals, there were a few good coffee houses and eateries around. It felt kinda good because I hadn’t had good coffee in a while.

Being a city it is well connected and got a shared cab to NJP.

Kolkata Tram: The Time Machine

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During my last visit to the Kolkata, the City of Joy, as they say proudly I was pretty fascinated  by the tram lines running through the city. As most of Indian cities are heavily crowded, a tram running right through the middle of the road is not the best mode to commute. This maybe the reason, the operation of trams were discontinued in other Indian cities by 1960. But not in Kolkata!! People in this city, take pride in heritage and not much has changed here as compared to other parts of India.

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The tram for sure is one of a kind. It crawls in the middle of the streets or sarani (as they call in Bengali) maundering through the cars, buses even pedestrians. There are no specified tram stops and you can board a running tram or signal the driver to make a stop for you. Built way back in 1873, and electrified in 1902, it is the oldest operational electric tram in Asia. You can hear a loud noise as it accelerates, as the heavy metals scrub against each other. On boarding the tram, you’ll be greeted with a round faced ticket conductor, his spectacles resting on his nose and a handkerchief kinda a cloth on his collar. There are 2 cars in the tram, the one farthest from the driver being the second class. With minor difference in the ticket price, the second class has a fewer chairs to sit compared to the first class. The conductor sells you the ticket, and during the evenings a yellow bulb lightens the compartment. There are some announcements and warnings written in Bangla and English. An old ceiling fan caged in a circular metal barb airs the compartment. The inside walls are pretty much wood and seems like they haven’t been upgraded in years. While riding through, you can easily explore and get the hang of the city. If you want to deboard, the conductors, pulls a rope, running overhead the door on the roof, which hits the bell next to the driver. Having received the signal, the driver makes a stop at a convenient place.

The city of Kolkata as pictured in the stories of Satyajit Ray and Sharadindu Bandyopadhyay is precisely the same even today. And the Tram does certainly takes you back in time. Give the tram a try when you’re in the city.

Amsterdam.

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Last week, I was in Amsterdam for a conference and it was an eventful experience. Being there for the first, I was excited and prepared to experience “the sins” XD. Surprisingly, I was charmed by better parts of the city and not the tourist ones. Smoking openly is a pleasing experience but the people of the city impressed me the most. Sitting beside the canals and the water floating beneath you, the tourist waving and snapping their cameras from the boats passing is a pretty picture. But the locals are care free and embracing warm and polite. Being a major attraction, and having a low crime rate speaks itself Amsterdam. There is a special charm in the city cannot be put together in words. One has to be there to experience it, to soak and absorb it all. You can sit idle silently, just pause and reflect. At the same time a different side of the city would go wild and party crazy, so calm yet so energetic, so composed yet so wild. I feel it has a lot for everyone, whether you’re an artist or a scientist or a no one. There’s something about this city you feel connected to, its hard to find sorrows and sadness in this city. I’m sure there must be failures, misery and pain, like every other place. But there’s a different way to experience and express it. It’s very mature and simplistic. It has been the best city I’ve been to so far and Amsterdam has a special spot in my heart.

Cycles & Canals

Cycles and Canals, Amsterdam’s favorite love story.

Vienna-Prague-Budapest

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Recently, some of my friends and me had a short vacation down to the central Europe. I needed some time off and a break, and so we decided to travel Vienna-Prague-Budapest. Bought a week long tickets to Budapest and the idea was to land in ‘Pest and ride to Vienna first.

We landed in Budapest around midday and boarded a bus from the airport to the center. The weather was hot (of course, I live in Finland) and I was constantly looking outside the window, reading the billboards, trying to grasp words as much as possible and making assumptions of their meanings. Budapest reminds me a lot of my city in terms of lifestyle and people. Finally we arrived at the central bus station and boarded our bus to Vienna.

I was sleep deprived and half dead by the time we were seated. The announcements and messages in the bus was in German, it sounded familiar. I was happy inside, finally my all those German lessons were being used. It was almost a 3 hour ride to Vienna and I noticed farm lands and windmills through the way. The bus passed through Slovakia and one could notice the difference in landscapes, the super markets from Hungarian side. We arrived in Vienna around evening and it took us awhile to figure out our way through the metro. Our hostel, Wombats, was one of the coolest I’ve seen, yes I know I said it even for the one in Tallinn, but this one equally good. A bit expensive and fancy but good. The reception desk had a huge living room kinda space around and bookshelves and couches and beanbags around. A Bar next to with pool table and games, a kitchen above, green jungle like themed. The place was full of young backpackers- loud, yet friendly. Our rooms was designed to accommodate 4 people with its own bathroom and closet. After settling in and freshening up, we went out for dinner with an old friend. It was a bit late to go out by the time we finished, so we decided to end our night few drinks. Next morning we went out to see the city, in the daylight, everything looked so grand and majestic. Schönbrunn palace was the biggest and most awesome palace, I’ve ever seen. Sprawled across acres with big gardens, obelisk fountains, horse carts and inside the rooms were huge with high ceilings with artistry all over it. Apparently Mozart played there when he was 6, it was truly a great exhibition of grandeur. Through the day, we visited lot of places, the Hofburg palace, Stadtsoper, St Stephen’s Cathedral, the museums (many of them). At the end of the day, were tired of roaming in the city, we went to try some authentic (supposedly) Austrian beers and crashed and passed out at the hostel. Next morning was our final in Vienna and after a heavy breakfast we went to roam around the city more before boarding our bus to Prague for the weekend. Vienna is an amazing historical city connected well with the metro line and it was easier for us to commute.

 

It was almost evening on Friday when we arrived in Prague. The sun had almost set and a thin blanket of twilight covered the sky. I was staying over some friends in Prague and locating their apartment was relatively easy (usually I’m terrible with directions). The apartment was in an old building, the walls, stairs and floors were a living proof of that. The kitchen had the gas stove with fire light to cook, unlike the heating plates in Finland and bathroom had a electric heater, where the water was stored and heated before you could use it. I was escorted into my small guest room with a fluffy bed. Apartment walls had drawings and graffiti like art scribbled over them, one could make out the residents were budding artists. After a delightful conversation over dinner and few shots, I was ready to go out on the Friday night. With a pound of “herb” in my pocket I walked towards the metro station. The metro, especially the underground ones were built surprisingly deep, like deep deep in the ground. Prague is very lively with lots of hustle and bustle, I could notice a lot of chattering, laughing, talking and hear the buzz of the city. Eventually, we crashed a factory themed, “Cross Club” amongst a bunch of stoned crazy and happy people. With psychedelic trance beating hard in my ears I was in a different state, can’t remember much from the night. I found one of the “Use-it Europe Maps” for Prague, it was extremely helpful. Apart from all the touristy places, it had a list of all the local spots to hang out and things to experience. I would highly recommend it, especially for young travelers. The whole day Saturday I spent visiting the regular tourist spots (Charles Bridge, Astronomical Clock, Prague Castle, Old Town etc etc). But what beats all is the “Franz Kafka Museum”, its the best I’ve ever seen. It was how a museum should be, black & white, dark, mild lights, the entrance itself had a Kafkasque atmosphere. A collection of Kafka’s letters to his bosses, lovers, government, to himself. The visuals of light and in chronological order, the events in Kafka’s life. The factors affected Kafka and his writings were beautifully visualized on projection with pictures, audios and videos. The place will keep you occupied and leave you absolutely spell bound. Its a must visit place if you’re a Kafka fan. Opposite the museum is a souvenir  shop with Kafka’s notes and diaries compiled and printed. It was already evening by then, we had our meal and went to the Lennon wall for while. Though there is nothing special about the wall, it had a special vibe and atmosphere about it. Being a Saturday evening, I was expecting heaps of tourists there but was pleasantly surprised. We spent the rest of the evening and night, making a pub-crawl in the old town and befriending other backpackers. Next morning I woke top with a terrible hangover, it was our last day in Prague and it started late after lunch. Museum of Communism was our highlight of the day. Its was informative, fascinating yet disappointing to know the atrocities on the people during the Communist era. We explored some local restaurants, more Kafka theme cafes 😀 and green vegans ones. The map was our guide and by the evening we were on the bus for our overnight journey to Budapest. Overall Prague gives me an impression of a liberal city. The best thing about it are its people, open bold positive extrovert and creative.

After spending a 6 hour overnight journey in bus, we arrived early morning in Budapest, sleep deprived, restless, hungry, cranky and had to wait for an hour before our AirBnB host could hand over the keys. The apartment was really colorful, small cozy with all the basic necessities needed. A wooden brown stairs led us to the second floor with a jumpy elastic bed. We freshened up, fetched some groceries cooked ourselves a brunch and laid lazy for a while. It took a lot of effort to kick out the laziness in us and we started our Budapest chapter in the late afternoon. Jewish Synagogue was the first monument we walked up to, it looked impressive form the outside but none of us were interested enough to pay for a tour inside. Close to the synagogue was the iconic St.Stephen’s Basilica, the weather bright and sunny in a blue sky added to its splendor. We relaxed in the square had an ice cream and headed to the Buda side of the city. For the aloof ones, the city is divided by river Danube into two – Buda & Pest. Walking over the historic chain bridge we could see the imposing castle up the hill Buda. Up the hill, from the Royal Place the view of the city was absolutely magnificent. We explored other landmarks on the Buda side of the hill, Mattius Church, Fisherman’s Bastion and by the evening walked back to Pest. Close of the symbolic Parliament are an assembly of old shoes kept inline with the river and are called “Shoes on Danube”. It honors the people killed during the war. Right opposite those shoes was the Parliament very old, very royal. We went back to the our apartment, relaxed a bit and started again to experience the night life in Budapest. Apparently, the city is famous for its “Ruin Pubs”, and on reaching there we weren’t disappointed. Never have I seen a such long queue of people waiting outside pubs on Mondays. The old factories destroyed in the wars are turned into pubs, with cool music, bars, pool, dark dingy corners and lots and lots of people. It was like walking in a shopping mall, only way cooler. After a few drinks there, we went dancing in a club, where we met a bunch of crazy Italians, shouting, jumping, dancing recklessly. Dancing drained us and we were tired to do more, so we went back for a good night sleep. Day 2 started with hiking on the hill Buda in a sunny weather. We walked and walked and walked through the white bridge, up the Gellert hill till the Statue of Liberty. The palace on one side in the distant and the city, the Pest side skyscrapers, on the other looked splendid. We stayed there for a few hours and went to venture far off in the Pest side after lunch. Later that evening we went to this beautiful book cafe restaurant, with chandeliers, high roofs with paintings and art all over, melodious piano playing, perfect place to enjoy a read. Next we stopped at a place called the Noir chocolate Bar, with gazillion flavors and cuisines of chocolates and quiet atmosphere. I would highly recommend this place if you have a sweet tooth. Finally, we went to the Budapest’s oldest baths, the place I felt was made more to attract tourists, and I wasn’t particularly impressed by it, though it took me a while to get out of the bath, so relaxing it was. Close to the bath was a big park and the Hero’s Square. It was illuminated and looked pretty, we sat there for a while before finally returning to the apartment.

Next morning we packed and flew back to Finland.