Istanbul again


Come back safe! A colleague said to me, when he heard we were traveling to Istanbul. Apparently a few German journalists had been arrested recently in Turkey, and the German government had advised citizens not to visit the country. We still carry Indian passports, I said to my colleague, before reassuring him that all will be well.

Our visit revealed the disconnect between local reality and media-induced paranoia. Life in the city appeared normal. If there was any repression, it could perhaps be inferred in the absence of street protests and troops of riot policemen waiting nearby. Both were a frequent presence during our visit four years ago. But such signs — I found myself looking for them — could be misleading. Turkish flags were everywhere, and I wondered if this had something to do with the coup and the purge that followed. But a carpet seller in Grand Bazaar corrected my hasty impression: the flags had come out for display on recent national holiday.

This time we stayed on the other side of Istiklal Caddesi, in an aparthotel built three years ago in the middle of an old quarter, surrounded by a dense cluster of tenements. From the terrace, sticking its neck out among irregular rooftops, you could see the Galata tower. At dusk bursts of camera flashes from the tower dotted the darkening sky.

In the city to meet my sister, who was holidaying in Turkey, we spent most of the weekend revisiting places we had seen on our previous visit. Cukurcuma, Istiklal, Taksim, the bazaar quarter, the mosques. A excursion to Eyup, a town on the Golden Horn, did not work as planned: the ferry company had cancelled this stop. We took the Bosphorus tour instead, hopping off at unfamiliar places — Emirgan, Beylerbeyi — and walking about, catching glimpses of life in these parts. The waterfront was busy with brides and grooms posing for photos, hobbyist and serious fishermen displaying patience and generosity (some threw fish they caught back into the water), and men selling kite-shaped kites.

Tourists were fewer. On the Bosphorus tour the ferries were occupied not with European faces we’d seen last time, but Turkish families on a holiday, or perhaps Istanbulites enjoying a weekend outing. I could see myself sitting all day on these sparsely-filled boats, reading and writing and watching the riverside mansions and ships and barges float past.


Cats still roamed all over the city, people still smoked as if they drew life from those puffs, locals were warm and curious about ‘Hindistan’ as before, the ritual of drinking Turkish tea brought the familiar feeling I belonged here, and the skyline with mosques and minarets left me once again with a heartache. All this is sentimental, but it is also true, and perhaps the only other place that triggers in me such emotions is Calvino’s Venice. Istanbul, a city I’ve visited briefly only twice, fills me with longing.




(Part 3 of a series that began here. P and I have just arrived at Sacha, a lodge in the Ecuadorian rainforest; we are part of a group led by our guide Daniel.)

The room safe was locked when we checked in. Eduardo, the barman who came to unlock it, looked Indian. American Indian, not Indian Indian. The staff was mostly Indian, and while our skin tones matched theirs, P and I were the only real Indians.

Next day, on the safe’s display, 4 appeared when 1 was pressed. Summoned again, Eduardo laughed like a boy seeing the errant display. It’s the humidity, he said; use only the last column of digits — that will work! It probably would, but the reduced attack vector would also render the safe useless. This did not enter Eduardo’s calculations. The safe had a symbolic purpose: to calm down tourists used to seeing them in their rooms. We left it open.

That first afternoon, not long after we arrived, Daniel led our group (Pierre, Dominique, Julie, and us) on a short canoe ride around the lake. We spotted flycatchers, oropendolas, and hoatzins. The hoatzin, whom Daniel called a stinky turkey, flew between trees in an ungainly fashion, cawing like a sick crow. A bizarre bird with reptilian features, it looked like a prehistoric creature.

In the evening, over dinner, we learned Pierre was a retired lawyer.

I put people behind bars, he said.

Used to put, said Dominique, his daughter, a sports instructor.

Don’t challenge me, Pierre said, lifting his fork.

They lived in Zurich. Both looked French, had French names, but they spoke Swiss German. Which meant I could not understand most of what they said to each other. (Swiss German is what you get when a regular German has an upset stomach.) Earlier on this trip to Ecuador, they’d been to the Galapagos for a week.

Continue reading “Deadpanner”



(Part 2 of a series that began here.)

This is no beach vacation, I recall one reviewer on TripAdvisor saying. You wake up at five-thirty, breakfast at six, spend the morning canoeing or hiking in the rainforest. Back at the lodge, you break for lunch before venturing out for a late afternoon adventure. Following an early dinner there may be some night activity: walking or canoeing.

Another review detailed the journey to the lodge. From Coca, the nearest airport, you ride a motorboat for two hours, hike in the forest for twenty minutes, then ride a canoe for another twenty minutes. Keep your ponchos ready, it may rain anytime.

I carried this outline — a skeleton — with me. The rainforest infused it with life.

Flying over the Andes towards the Oriente, we landed in Coca at noon, forty minutes after taking off from Quito. The arrival lounge at Coca was a verandah facing an asphalted backyard of a house.

Is this the airport daddee? A little girl asked.

Palm trees sprung out of a green patch beside the airstrip. Beyond it a dense row of concrete houses filled the horizon. A tractor with a carriage wheeled the baggages to the verandah, where two stocky men unloaded them on a parapet.

Outside, we met Daniel. He wore a dark blue Sacha T-shirt and looked not older than thirty, but he carried the poise and presence of an older man. Our suitcase was hauled onto the back of a pick-up and we were ushered, along with others visiting Sacha, to a small bus.

Continue reading “Pilchicocha”

Journeying to Ecuador

Our baggage did not arrive in Quito. One suitcase did, the other was orphaned in Houston. The United Airlines agent who traced the missing piece said their policy offers no compensation for delays shorter than 48 hours. The suitcase would arrive exactly a day later, on the same flight from Houston to Quito. And United would deliver it anywhere in Ecuador.

We were leaving for the Amazon rainforest next morning. The agent, a short woman with a soft voice and reassuring manner, took down details of our lodge. Then she handed us two complimentary packets, each containing a toothbrush, toothpaste, a shaving kit, and a sachet of laundry granules.

Missing baggage isn’t much cause for worry these days. Airlines trace the items with ease, and a formal process oversees such incidents. (I can imagine a meeting of United employees, sitting around a table in a room, defining such a process. One of them proposes a complimentary toiletries pack in lieu of compensation. Another one adds: with laundry granules.) It can be inconvenient of course, but P had packed some of her clothes into my suitcase. She coped, without the granules.

Continue reading “Journeying to Ecuador”

Bright eyes that reveal her heart


There’s a new Bücherregal in Neugasse now. The old shelf was narrow and made of wood; it matched the street’s character. The new one is taller and wider, a piece of metal under slick grey paint, modern like the new Hallhuber store opposite. Even the wooden bench next to the shelf is new, a piece whose wavy back reaches the shelf’s eight-feet. The combination looks designed, not accidental. This end of Neugasse seems as though it wants to escape into the Hauptstrasse, all glitz and chic.

I cross the shelf on my walks into the altstadt, and sometimes, if my return route leads me into Hauptstrasse, I take the perpendicular Neugasse back home too. There’s always someone standing at the shelf browsing books, but of late I’ve spotted, on three or four occasions, an old woman who mutters to herself while she goes about arranging the books. Not with a librarian’s tic for semantic organisation, but a stickler’s instinct for physical order. She picks up books left behind by careless passersby, large and small volumes lying horizontally or stacked in a pile, and sets them vertically in a row, the way they ought to stand in a bookshelf. Unused spaces are anathema to her: only when a row is packed does she allow a new one. She displays the manner of an impatient mother tidying up her son’s unruly desk, and not until she is done do I gather courage to scan the titles myself.

The other day I found her standing on the bottom shelf, which is wider than the others, reaching for books on the top one. Dressed in jeans and a half-sleeved embroidered jacket over a shirt, she seemed like someone who cared about appearances. Her white hair, sightly ruffled, was held in place under two plastic hairbands and a pair of sunglasses. A black leather handbag, slung over the right shoulder, reached her waist. She was muttering as usual, and I waited, as always.

Continue reading “Bright eyes that reveal her heart”

Entrepreneurs, Cricket, and Mangoes


In April, a business trip to Bangalore led me to extend my stay in the city by a week. I spent it at home, with my parents and sister, eating mangoes and watching IPL on the television (often both at the same time). I met friends at their homes or outside. There was a Kannada play, a Kannada movie, a classical concert, a visit to the National Gallery of Modern Art, and even a live IPL game at the Chinnaswamy stadium.

The city felt more familiar than before. I put this to my previous two visits (less than eight months apart) and to the writing, about the city, I had been engaged in the previous year. Bangalore was changing, but I now had a frame to place the changes in and understand them. Nonetheless, there were surprises.

The gated community my parents lived in now had a system of verifying visitors via an app, MyGate. The app notified you about the visitor at the gate, and also triggered an automated call to your landline. You could approve the visitor either by clicking on the app or by pressing a key on the landline, but one did not exclude the other. The security folks at the gate still relied on the old system of directly calling the apartment: so instead of one simple call from the gate to the apartment, we now had two calls and one app notification. You could ignore the app, but the automated call was persistent. My father, eager for conversation, always responded verbally, trying to engage the automated voice asking the listener to “Press 1 to approve, 2 to reject.” He gave up soon, and these calls were picked up by someone else at home.

The apartment’s monthly maintenance fee had recently been hiked to eight thousand rupees. Water, delivered to the apartment in water tankers, was the culprit. Bangalore’s water crisis and the water-tanker ‘mafia’ has been widely reported, and on each visit I read more descriptions of the alarming water situation in the city. But the most common response from the middle-class is to buy water from private operators.

“We wanted flying cars, instead we got 140 characters”: this is Peter Thiel, a Silicon Valley entrepreneur, bemoaning the nature of present-day innovation. In Bangalore, one wishes for things more basic: water, clean air, good public transportation, garbage-free neighbourhoods. Bangaloreans complain about these matters, but (like people everywhere) they go on with their lives, few engaging in attempts to address them. What excites the young middle-class though is the next new app in town, or the cool new venture of a serial entrepreneur.

Continue reading “Entrepreneurs, Cricket, and Mangoes”

Postcards from Tanzania – 3


Inside the Ngorongoro crater, as we stopped to photograph the elephants, Gerald told us about the Elephant Graveyard. A marshy area with tall and soft grass, it attracted ageing elephants seeking easy access to food and water during their last days. Although Gerald did not directly say this, we left with the notion that ‘elephants came here to die’: poignant but misleading.


Postcards from Tanzania – 2


On our drive to Serengeti and back, we passed small towns with a thriving roadside economy bound to this passing traffic. The bigger and more permanent shops were set a little away from the street: Mobile ‘Wakalas’ (agencies), bike repair shops, car washing centers, groceries, medical stores, and others whose purpose you could only guess at: Lelo shop, Joh Mix shop, Mama Soni shop, Dogo shop.  Closer to the road we saw motorcycle taxis, autorickshaws (called “Bajaj” by the locals), and pushcart vendors selling all manner of things from bananas, corn, and cassavas, to handicrafts, shoes, and clothing. Hilary Clinton Shop and Michelle Obama Mobile Shop were labelled to attract the attention of tourists who fall for such tricks, and it worked on us to a point. We slowed down to take a photo.

At a fuel station nearby, hawkers peddling handicrafts drifted towards our jeep.

“Hello mister, are you from India?”

The boy — he was fourteen or fifteen — had a backpack strapped to his stomach and a smaller bag on his shoulders with wooden figurines peeping out. His left hand was obscured beneath a thicket of bracelets.

“Yes we are!”

“My name is Krishna.” He held out his hand towards my window.

“Then I’m Rama,” I said, shaking his hand, and before I could withdraw it he had placed an elephant on my palm.

“It is made of ebony — really good.”

“This is too light,” I said. “It can’t be ebony.”

“It is ebony! Anyway, try this one.”

The giraffe was no heavier than the elephant.

“No thank you.”

“Try these!” he persisted, untangling a few bracelets. A man wearing dark glasses and carrying similar odds and ends arrived at my window. On instinct I began to close it.

“No close mister,” the boy said. “Friendship is more important than money. You don’t buy, no problem.”

I left the window open and indulged in my curiosity, asking about this or that object. Krishna continued to maintain it was all ebony. When we were done fuelling, I thanked him and shook his hand.

“Asante!” I said.

“Karibu!” came the reply.