Category Archives: Travel

The spotlight is actually always on

When everything seems to be going just fine, what is this restlessness inside? What is simmering underneath this well-composed life I lead every day? Do I just need some silence, some time away from the laptop, internet, email, chat, Facebook? Is it as simple as that, or is that oversimplifying a larger existential question?

My trip to Haridwar and Rishikesh was planned in a manner as impromptu as it happened. I had been on a ’proper’ vacation for a year and a half now. I don’t even know why I chose these places. I just know that one fine day, I booked a flight to Delhi and decided to take it from there.

It is quite ironical that people from across the world go to these two places to find peace. Yes they are considered holy by the Hindus, and they have a unique juxtaposition of nature and spirituality. That does not take away the fact that these places are teeming with hundreds of devotees and animals and noise! But that is what makes traveling in India so interesting. Even if you are seeking peace, you cannot help but steal a chuckle here or have your blood boiling there. Quite expectedly, there was a surfeit of such moments on this journey too!

Have you ever seen a bull and a monkey fight for a piece of fruit on a hanging bridge a few centimeters wide that is, by the way, brimming with people trying to bypass the animals and make their way to God? Have you ever seen a Hindu holy man trying to teach Hindi to a Korean, only that each is trying to establish basic comprehension of the other in less-than-elementary English? Have you been woken up early every morning by a crow pecking vehemently on your mirrored window, thinking it has spotted another crow? Have you ever ridden a cable car with a family that is mortified by heights and is therefore chanting hymns throughout the 3-minute ride while they hold hands and keep their eyes tightly shut? Have you ever…..? Well, the laughs are endless.

But so is the overwhelming sensation of anger and despair that hits you every now and then. How would you feel if you saw people shampooing away in the ‘holy’ waters of Ganga? How would you feel if you saw plastic waste heaped everywhere, some of it even floating down the river? How would you feel if every few meters, you had to circumvent animal waste? How would you feel if you saw large tracts of water channels dried up and become home to the homeless? How would you react to the utter administrative dereliction that stares you in the face from all around?

And then there are things you don’t even know what to feel about. Cripples, lepers, downtrodden, hungry, destitute – some coming up to you for alms, some spread out basking in the October sun as if they were on a picnic. I’ve always wondered why a place of pilgrimage has such high numbers of such people. Is it because they think pilgrims are more inclined to giving? Or is it because they have been ostracized from their communities and have no one to turn to but God?

As I walked around Haridwar and Rishikesh in a semi-amused semi-enraged trance, intensified further by the nonchalant abandon and dark humor of Manto’s short stories, witnessing the varied forms of worship and faith, the only constant was the overpowering presence of the massive Himalayas and the endless gurgle of the waters of the Ganga. This feeling is accentuated by the hundreds of lamps lit by devotees and set afloat on the Ganga every evening. The flickering reflections of these lamps in the flowing waters spark the sudden realization that this river has existed for not just centuries but millennia and has fed not just generations but truly the beginning of mankind in this region! There is also something fresh and crisp about the cold Himalayan air; it seems indifferent to the dust and pollution that we humans so unthinkingly and often afflict on it. The ice-blue waters too seem unaffected by the onslaught of soap and plastic.

I don’t quite know what I was looking for, so I don’t quite know what I found there. It could be a regular trip – it was funny at times, mesmerizing at others, and largely silent. Having gone by myself, my conversations were restricted to placing orders or asking for directions. Some fellow-travelers did chat up, but they then went their way and I went mine.

I did, however, for these few days, feel that I had conquered something that I have been fighting throughout my adult life – time, or the lack of it. For once, I was never running out of it. My cornucopia seemed eternally and bountifully brimming with more than I could ask for! I would sit on the banks with my feet dipped in the ice-cold fast-flowing waters and go into deep thought, only to realize the whole experience cost me only fifteen minutes! Fifteen minutes? What is that worth in my world? I finished page after page of books in no time, I sketched after 15 years and finished them in a matter of hours. Was I thinking faster, writing faster, reading faster, walking faster, living faster; packing in a lot more of my actual self in every passing unit of time?

I have come back with no “Eureka!”. Being Indian and being Hindu, none of the chants, rituals and sages impressed me as much as they impress foreign travelers. Also, the poverty and anarchy is not enchanting, it is a problem that we need to fix, and pretty soon. But I have come back knowing that I can go back anytime, by myself, to sit with my feet dipped in the ice-cold fast-flowing waters, to do things I have not done in years, to stay silent and to conquer time! I have come back knowing that enlightenment is not God one day switching on Her/His spotlight on you; it is what you add to your life every day, but only if you stop to acknowledge.

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The Tale of Two Cities

My flights to Delhi are usually in the evening (after a day’s work) and by the time I land and am in a cab to my destination, I am typically swearing away, cursing myself for making the same mistake again. “Why do you do this to yourself?” I ask, “Didn’t you promise yourself to land during the day or early evening?” Around me, Delhi is by 9pm a ghost town. The taxi driver is typically an illiterate smart-ass with zilch humility. He does not know his way to the most popular places though he claims to be driving for 11 years in the same city! He keeps calling Defence Colony “Difference Colony” till you give up correcting him (and no, he doesn’t shut up even after that). He swerves dangerously and cruises at speeds unheard of on Indian roads through the empty Delhi streets. But wait, your ordeal is not over yet! Because once you reach “Difference” Colony, after multiple phone calls to friends and colleagues and keeping your eyes fixed on any sign that pops up along the way, there are blocks, sectors, stages, round markets that you keep circling for 30 minutes because there is not a soul to ask, and when you find a few drunk men lounging around, all they can tell you is – “pataa nahin” (don’t know). Coming from Bombay (yes, again, I will call it Bombay. Please leave me alone!), this is almost unrealistic. When I fly back to Bombay, I ask for the latest flight of the day so I can complete all my work without rushing. I know when I land at midnight, the city will be as bustling with people, cars, vendors and shops as Cairo is on the eve of Eid. Yes, that’s true. Every day is Eid in Bombay, and every night is national mourning in Delhi. That is how far apart these two jewels of India are. They are not two different cities, they are two different worlds.

In Bombay, your worst-case taxi driver is the guy who drops hints that you should pay him Rs.50 extra for off-loading your saamaan. In Delhi, your best-case taxi driver is the guy who takes you on a ride of the city while you hide your laptop, phone and ipod into the deepest pockets of your backpack. In Delhi, I wake up on a Saturday morning at 11am to my host pleading with his plumber on the phone to PLEASE come repair the pipe in the bathroom. In Bombay, I wake up at 8am on a Sunday morning to my doorbell ringing incessantly and find my domestic helper, plumber, carpenter, presswaala waiting to do business and move on to earning more bucks. In Delhi, your best-case landlord is one who fights with you at the time of leaving the apartment for not returning a pair of scissors you borrowed six months ago. In Bombay, your worst-case landlord is one who turns up once in six months, and only when your rental cheque has bounced. In Bombay, your worst-case co-passenger does not follow the queue at the pre-paid taxi stand and hovers around you while you make your payment. In Delhi, your best-case co-passenger knocks you down when he spots his suitcase a mile away on the conveyor belt. What is it about Delhi that makes its people so naturally aggressive that even the most suave diplomat shows his rustic inner self? What is it about Bombay that makes its people so tolerant that even an uneducated auto-driver shares with you how he is struggling to pay the school fees of his children with tears in his eyes? The story goes that when a migrant worker (from wherever in India) lands in Delhi, he is constantly cheated and robbed until he is smart enough to survive, while the same migrant worker in Bombay is hosted by friends in their less-than-modest homes and served food by colleagues in the slums before he learns to survive. Interesting, isn’t it?

But then, what is it about Delhi then that every time I leave the city to come back to Bombay, instead of heaving a sigh of relief, I let out a gasp of sadness? That is because I know I’m leaving the most beautiful city of the country to go to the ugliest; I’m leaving the tree-lined margs and diving head-deep into a shit-hole; I’m trading the smells of guavas and tea leaves and mughlai chicken for the smells of smoke and dust and dirt; I’m leaving a city that has history at every corner and crossroads to go to one that is homogenously brown and dilapidated and on the verge of collapse (spare me the Victorian architecture of VT, I think we’re done with it for a lifetime).

My friend Dev once said – Bombay air smells of filth. It does! You smell it the moment you walk out into the city. You smell it on a relaxed Sunday evening while shopping in the upmarket locality of Bandra. You smell it just outside the posh Infinity mall. One evening in Delhi, my friend Rajshree-didi and I bought a box of baklavas from the Defence Colony bakery and sat in the nearby park to savor them. We couldn’t stop talking about how quaint the market and the park and the neighborhood were: individual bungalows, trees all over, people out on walks, young couples dressed in their best winter clothes, their beautifully sharp Punjabi features causing heads to turn from all around. And as if all this was not enough, Delhi sprung another pleasant surprise on us! The fountains in the park went off, and Rajshree-didi and I had to keep our sides from aching as we laughed at how a “park” in the poshest Bombay locality would mean a stretch of tired green you could walk in under 10 minutes. Funnily, when we came back to Bombay and told this story to a quintessential Bombay’ite, she remarked unperturbed – “are you sure those weren’t sprinklers?”. The idea of fountains in an urban park was too much for her to fathom, I suppose!

Both Delhi’ites and Bombay’ites will swear by their street food. When still new to Bombay, I eagerly went up to a roadside stall to try the famous vadaa pau. After much jostling and screaming and throwing my money in the guy’s face (just to make him notice me, I promise, and also because that is what everyone else was doing), the guy picked up two pieces of bread, shoved two miniscule vadaas between them, dipped his hands wrist-deep in two sauces and threw the vadaa-pau at me in projectile motion. It did taste good, but only as good as food can taste when you’ve punched 5 people, elbowed a few others, screamed yourself hoarse and hurt your feet for it. Just outside Chandni Chowk Metro Station in Delhi, I decided to try the rabri falooda. Having lived in Bombay for a few months then, I kept peeping over the counter to see why the guy was taking so long (clearly, I was looking for another projectile coming my way). Well, his annoyed look told me, I’m still preparing it. You want good food, you wait mister! So I waited while he mixed, added pistachios and almonds, gave me a little to taste and tell him if I needed a little more of anything, and finally, with a royal gesture, handed me the falooda. I still haven’t forgotten how good it tasted!

When I say Delhi has history at every corner and crossroad, I’m not exaggerating. It’s no mean feat to pull off a Humayun’s Tomb, Mirza Ghalib’s house, Nizamudin’s dargah – all reminiscent of Delhi’s rich heritage, within walking distance of each other. Nor does it happen in any other city that you can walk down by the national Parliament, past the Prime Minister’s office, right into the vast Mughal Gardens which is basically the backyard of the President’s Palace! Maybe an obvious extension of this is the culture that Delhi still breeds in its bosom. Walk into Nehru Park in Chanakyapuri on a spring weekend and watch for free one of the many celebrated Indian classical maestros performing! Wander around Connaught Place and catch the most fascinating art and photography exhibitions. Amble into Habitat Centre and right there in the amphitheater is an unknown singer whose chaitis, thumris and drupads sound so awesome that even foreigners are swooning away. A free concert by the best Odissi dancer of the country on a random Tuesday evening in Kamani auditorium. In Bombay, I’d have to pay thousands to watch these people perform, if they do, that is. But let me not make it sound like Bombay does not breed culture! The theater scene is always hot – like the weather of the city. The best actors of the country do justice to their creative juices and leave their legacies behind on the stages of Prithvi Theater and NCPA.

You are probably really confused by now, aren’t you? I haven’t been able to make a case in favor of any of these cities, and I don’t intend to. I love them both for what they are. I love Bombay for its easy-going convenience and filth. I love Delhi for its rich culture and high-handedness. I love the down-to-earth crowds of Bombay and the full-of-themselves people of Delhi. I love the endless sea in Bombay and the endless monuments of Delhi. No other city in this mammoth country of mine has as much character and covers as much range than these two do. They are the two women every man loves, and doesn’t know whom to love more. While Delhi is the cultured lady of the house, clad in her silk saris and gold jewelry, soft-spoken and appearing in front of only important guests yet very subtly wielding power over family business and politics, Bombay is the prostitute on the street, loud and outspoken, unapologetic of her lust for money, dressed in cheap fabric and tawdry trinkets, spitting out her paan as she suggestively tucks bucks away in her blouse. And just like a man needs both these women to make him feel complete, so does India need both these cities to be what it is.

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Mumbai Manoos

If 80s was the decade of the Taj Mahal for Indian tourism and 90s was that of the Kerala backwaters and Rajasthan forts, the 2000s surely belong to Mumbai. With Gregory Davis Roberts’ book Shantaram becoming a bestseller and Slumdog Millionaire making it big at the Oscars, Mumbai has never before enjoyed as much limelight as it does today.

My visit to Mumbai (I don’t know why I still feel like calling it Bombay) was not supposed to be an out-of-the-world event. It was not my first time in the city. I’d been there for sleepovers twice before, on my way to other destinations. There was nothing touristy charted out for this trip, since there’s only a limit to things you can see in a city really. I was looking forward to a relaxing holiday at my sister’s place. Well, very relaxing it was, but, at the end of it all, I realized that Bombay really doesn’t let you feel like you could be in any other city of the world. There’s something electric in the air, something about the winding dirty lanes, the throngs and throngs of people, the rush-hour traffic and the unbelievable energy in just about anyone I came across that charges you up too.

My friend had once told me, in Bombay, you need to be THE best to survive. Even a vada-pau waala (street fast-food vendor) needs to have enough competence to be selling his stuff on the streets of Bombay. Very true! The second most populous city in the world is home to 19 million people, each fighting for his pay, his livelihood and, most importantly, his own space under the Bombay sun. This truth is as evident as is the never-ending traffic and the swank malls that dot the city everywhere. When BBC made its list of the cities in the world with the fastest walkers, I was surprised not to find Bombay in the top 5. But now, I know why. It’s because people in Bombay don’t walk, they run!

But first, coming back to how Bombayites are the true survivors of the rampant mayhem that urban living often causes in the developing world. The monsoon season in Bombay is famous all over India for its volume and brutality. With the Arabian Sea on one side and the Mithi river on the other, Bombay is perched on a sensitive water table that can give way to floods the moment the clouds decide to get generous. Along with the rains comes dangerously strong breeze. Since I was visiting in July, the peak of monsoons, I got ample chances to get up-close-and-personal with the phenomenon. I had heard and seen photographs of Bombay monsoons before, but what I wasn’t expecting was for street vendors to remain put where they were, storm or sunshine. Under wildly-swerving fragile umbrellas fixed to their carts, they continued selling their wares; some making vada-paus, some covering cigarette packs from getting drenched and some, nonchalantly taking in the chaos around them. They would just remain right there, braving hours of ruthless rainfall and waterlogging, because they know Bombay is a city that never rests, and even in such harsh weather, there might be a drop in, but never a dearth of customers.

Local trains are the lifeline of Bombay. In a city that has its roads always clogged with traffic, the trains are the fastest and most reliable means of commuting. There are multiple lines running in different directions, intersecting at certain strategic stations. Trains are spaced out within a maximum of 5 minutes, and there are fast trains that jump stations. There is a separate compartment for ladies and a first-class compartment for people willing to pay more. But for a pakka Mumbaikar, the embellishments of a first-class compartment mean nothing. The push-and-shove at the train doors, three people on a seat of three noiselessly making place for a fourth fellow-passenger, a guy playing pathetic film songs on his phone at full volume, groups of youngsters hanging their torsos out of moving trains to get some air (and to impress the girls) – the second-class compartment of the local trains is where the activity is. And if you are settling in for first-class comfort, you are missing out on the Mumbai magic. I was amazed by how people would rather struggle to get into the most crowded train than wait for the next train that is due in 3 minutes! It surely says something about the eternal hurry to get to the workplace (or to get home), the story of travelling long distances from a personal space under the Mumbai sky to a professional one. Or maybe it’s just the kicks they get out of being able to enter any train at all, no matter how many people are in it. Once in, all passengers are comrades. They help to keep others’ bags on the luggage shelf, help you with what the next station is, which side the platform will appear on, what you should do once you get off. You don’t even need to ask! They have an eye for newcomers. It can be unsettling at first, to know that you are being watched and tracked. But a couple of train rides, and you are already feeling secure that this multitude of unknown people are making sure you don’t end up lost.

Interestingly, even though local trains are the lifeline of Mumbai (I’m trying hard not to slip into Bombay), the train stations happen to be tucked into the remotest of locations. You will have to traverse through lanes and by-lanes, vegetable markets, old tailor shops, rundown temples and a dozen stray animals in order to find your way into a dilapidated entrance. There is clearly no time for glamorization, no time to pay attention to unnecessary details. There is work to be done, mouths to be fed. One day, when I walked out of the Goregaon train station and it began raining real heavy, there was such a “traffic” jam of umbrellas in the narrow lane outside that people decided, by a unanimous tacit consensus, that it makes more sense to simply keep the umbrellas folded. So there we all were, brothers and sisters-in-arms, bravely walking in the rain and high-jumping over gigantic puddles, drenched to the last centimetre. It didn’t feel bad at all! In fact, it gave me so much food for conversation once I got home. If life were to be the same everyday with nothing new to talk about, wouldn’t that be boring? Well, now you know what keeps Mumbai going – the myriad stories that you gather in your head everyday to come back and share with your nears and dears.

There is no substitute to having a sea by your city, and Mumbai has many such sea-faces. Be it the Marine Drive or the Juhu beach or the Worli Sea-face or Chowpatty, you can always sneak out for a gush of fresh air and a little wet touch of the waves on your feet. The government has done a good job of cleaning up the beaches and I was impressed by how much more beautiful they looked than the last time I’d seen them. The sea made me miss the pleasures of open-air fun, and the big fan of sea-breeze that I am, I could simply sit there for hours “watching the world go by”, as they say.

Night-life in Mumbai rocks. It’s better than Delhi, because it does not carry the extra baggage of attitude that Delhi painfully drags along with it everywhere. You could be in a dhoti-kurta with paan in your mouth and yet walk into a club and dance your way onto the floor! In Bombay, they all mind their own business. The fun they have is hard-earned, and they don’t want to waste time analyzing and finding faults with people around them. I desperately wanted to dance to Hindi music (the only type of music in the world you can dance to impromptu and yet end up looking like a professional). I’d heard complaints from Bombayites about how DJs are angrezi babus and only play English music. But the DJ at Red Light (in Colaba) must’ve guessed I was coming, because all the time I was there, he played all the latest Hindi hits while I danced myself into a trance. And then, at 1:30am sharp, the lights suddenly came on and we were all caught in our half-dancing positions. Funnily, people remained like that for a few seconds, waiting for the lights to go off again. But sadly, they didn’t, the reason being that the police (Pandu hawaldars, in Mumbai slang) had arrived to close the place down. The legal time for ending the party had been 1am!! Well, we all got our alcohol poured into paper Coca-Cola cups and walked out in a single file. A tipsy guy even went to the extent of saluting the cops. Then we had our own little party downstairs on the street, while we finished our drinks.

For a Hindi movie buff like me, Bombay means far more than just a city. It means a city where the dream factories work overtime everyday to feed into imaginations of people like me. In spite of the filth, the slums, the poverty and the struggle, it is in this city that the most popular, and sometimes, the most superior, form of Indian art is created day after day. It is in this city that some of the biggest stars, whose posters adorn hoardings and hang from the walls all over the country, slept on platforms and travelled in local trains to get where they are today. For movie-crazy people, the air in Bombay, the smells of Bombay, the colloquial slang of Bombay, the names of places in Bombay; everything is familiar and yet new because I’ve seen and heard all of this on a 70 mm screen before my senses seeped into the Bombay fabric. And even though I came away without seeing a single celebrity (not even a small-fry, can you beat that?), I felt like a celebrity myself, boarding the flight from this never-sleeping alive dynamic eternally-charged city.

Bombay is not about walking around and taking photographs (well, you could do that, but only for a couple of days). Bombay is not about visiting. Bombay is all about living, and even as a tourist, you have to make sure you live in Bombay.  You gotta ride in their trains, you gotta walk on their promenades by the sea, you gotta eat their vada-pau on the street, you gotta pray like them at the auspicious Siddhivinayak and Mahalakshmi temples, you gotta be on the lookout for people whom you can help find their ways… and then, my friend, you’ve known what it is to be a Mumbai manoos.

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Bandung!

In this age of availability of information everywhere through multiple means, it rarely so happens that we know not much about something, and then when we finally experience it, the surprise turns out to be as pleasant as can be! Bandung came to me as a surprise, a pleasure and a much-needed break from the drabberies (I invented this word just now!) of everyday life

When my friend told me she is from Bandung, I remember asking her – err.. where is that? I even confused the name with that of the Indonesian President (former?) Bambang! Five years later, a visit to the city infused the exact kind of freshness I am seeking in life right now.


Where is it? How to get there?

Bandung is a short drive from Jakarta. It is in the western part of the Java landmass, situated in a valley and surrounded by hills. One can drive from Jakarta, but for tourists who don’t want to do that, there are coaches leaving every 15 minutes from Jakarta airport. The name of the agency is Primajasa. Its counter is right outside the airport arrival lounge. And yes, the coach is comfortable, the highways are awesome, the route is safe.

It took us 2-3 hours to get there. If you’re traveling during daytime, make sure you have some time in hand as the highway usually has traffic jams during peak hours.

I also understand that there are several travels in Jakarta that run mini-buses to and from Bandung. Also, you could try the 3-hour train ride. It is supposed to be fantastically picturesque, passing as it does by hills, fields and lakes.


The weather

The weather can be described by just one word – NICE! Coming from a humid sea-facing equatorial island, namely Singapore, where you are dripping sweat the moment you are out in the open, the weather was probably what made the trip even more endearing. As I was telling a friend, good weather can actually beat half the struggle of life! It gives one energy to do a lot more things and generally lifts up moods of people. The weather in Bandung, being situated in the midst of hills, is cloudy and breezy. One might have to put up with light rains sometimes in the afternoons, but that’s welcome too! The drizzle just adds to the charm. Even the sun, when it is out, is mild and makes you cozy. Am I being too superlative all the way? J Check it out for yourself… and wait, don’t tire yet. There’s more coming!


The City

Well, my friend said Bandung is a small city. Having lived in the Himalayas (Sikkim) for 4 years, my idea of a small city is a single road with houses on both sides running for 2 kilometers at the most. Bandung is nothing like that. It is spread over about 168 sq.km. The streets are well-planned and clean. The traffic could get a big cloggy during peak hours, especially during weekends when Jakartans drop by for a quick holiday. I was also told there are several one-way roads that makes driving a bit complicated.

Getting around the city is not very convenient if you don’t have your own car. We had the privilege of being driven around. All arrangements were impeccably made by my friend’s mother! Terimah-kaish, Aunty! So get yourself a local friend and you can enjoy the lavish indulgences J. But if you aren’t so lucky, it’s OK too. Cabs ply all day round, especially on the main roads. Try using BlueBird taxis. They’re the ones that follow the meter (argo in local language). Else, bargain well with the other cabs. You can also use public transportation in the form of mini-buses. We used it and it’s quite interesting. No problems at all!


The Character

In short, Bandung was clearly a hill resort for the Dutch colonialists, developed for summer escapes and quiet holidays. Today, too, Bandung is not an industrial hub and therefore, does not attract unnecessary immigration. This helps to maintain the character of the city and not open up its culture to workers from all places. It also seemed, during those 3 days, that the city boasts of a low crime-rate. We took taxis late at night, and there were no signs of things being unsafe (though, we were acting like idiots and freaking out J).


A Boutique Place

Bandung is clearly a boutique city. Not just because it is clean, planned, small and quaint, but also because of its amazing architecture. Having seen sky-scraping apartment blocks (most resembling a pile of matchboxes) in Singapore for so many years, it was quite a change to see a city full of bungalows. The best part is that nowhere did we find random constructions. Every house in the city seemed to be built out of love and genuine care by the people who live in it. Some are renovated bungalows from the Dutch era, but there is lot of modern architecture on display too. Ranging from cozy homes to startling mansions, the cornices, offsets, glass facades, sprawling gardens, extended balconies really make you want to live there. Sadly, I found out upon enquiry that a foreigner cannot buy property in Indonesia. What a shame when I just found the ideal nature retreat in an urban setting

Dutch cottage

A Dutch cottage

Greenery-lined streets

Greenery-lined streets

Greenery-lined streets

A University Town

Bandung boasts of having the best university in Indonesia. The ITB (Institute Technology Bandung) is a huge green clean campus that reminded me of the sprawling areas that IITs have in India. The buildings with sloping roofs depict the Minang architecture. Beyond the educational blocks was the Student Center with the different clubs. On the wall of the Politics Club, I was intrigued to see a spray painting of Che Guevara! Interesting how a man with a revolutionary political career of just a few years could reach out to students across continents even decades after his death.

Also, interestingly, Ganesha (the Indian God of Wisdom) is the logo of ITB. Another sign of Indonesia’s culture being steeped in ancient Indian mythology.

Being a university town automatically affects the culture of the place. Bandung is full of young vibrant people, wearing fashionable clothes, guitars in hand, chit-chatting in coffee shops, trying to fit 10 butts in one bench, laughing out loud! Just makes the whole ambience so happy and energetic! Reminded me of my student days…

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Entrance of ITB

Guevara continues to inspire

Guevara continues to inspire

Political Relevance

It’s sometimes disappointing how our pampered cushioned generation has missed out on knowing so many important events in the history of our nations and the world. One of the most underrated historical occurrences is probably the Asia-Africa Conference of 1955. Initiated by 5 nations in Asia and Africa and hosted by Indonesia, this Conference brought together as many as 29 newly-independent nations. These countries, at the same time proud of their fight to freedom and apprehensive of any further attempt at occupation, pledged not to be aligned to any superpower and took an oath to sovereignty and equality of all human beings, irrespective of class, color, creed or religion.

This conference was held in Bandung (as Bandung was the only place to have a hotel of international standards back then). One should, under no circumstances, miss a visit to the Asia-Africa Conference Museum on Jalan Asia-Afrika. It is clear that not many people visit this place everyday, but it is in perfect condition with a guide who knew his stuff and spoke good English. The museum hosts the hall in which the conference was held, having preserved the original furniture used at the time. It has wax models of the Heads of State of the 5 host nations (including Pt. Nehru). It also showcases the events that led to the conference, the happenings during the conference and the consequences. Life-size portraits of leaders we have only read about such as Soekarno, Nasser, Nehru and Tito were as awe-inspiring as were the recorded speeches that were delivered during the conference.

Asia-Africa Conference Wax Model

Wax Models at Asia-Africa Conference Museum

The Culture

Bandung, being in West Java, belongs to the Sundanese culture. We visited a cultural workshop called Saung Angklung Udjo in the eastern part of the city. I’d seen a Javanese Ramayana ballet before and though the dance and costumes were striking, the music hadn’t really caught my ear. We were told we would leave within half-an-hour. Once the show started, however, we had no idea how time flew by!

The show is a series of performances. There are songs and dances by children as young as 3 years and (again) as young as teenagers. The show reflects the different kinds of performances of Sundanese culture. The rural wayang shadow-puppet dance, the harvest ceremony, the mask dance, the angklung orchestra (angklung being an interesting instrument made of bamboo shavings) that even performed a Beethoven symphony! The final 2 segments were the fun parts where the audience got to play the angklung. We actually played a number of known songs. In the last segment, we all went down to the arena and danced with the kids.

Apart from the fact that the instrument, the dances and the songs impressed me, I was floored by the fact that no one performer was more than 18 years of age. To get kids (almost infants, I would say) to perform in sync, to conduct an orchestra and to compere when the audience is going wild with the angklungs is no mere feat! Hats off! Don’t miss this either.

Here’s the link to the place

http://www.angklung-udjo.co.id/sau/index.php


Regional Political Architecture

Bandung is the capital of the province of West Java. It houses a modest legislative building called the Gedung Sate. The name comes from the satay-shaped stick that adorns the dome of the building. If you smile at the guards there, they will happily give you a tour of the building. The best part is when you go up to the terrace, you can see the entire city in broad daylight and the hills in the backdrop.

Gedung Sate

Gedung Sate

View from the terrace

View from the terrace

Cafes and Restaurants

Asians love to eat, and this is reflected in just about any Asian city. Bandung is no different. The place abounds in spots to eat, drink, hang out, chit-chat. While that doesn’t seem like an unusual urban occurrence, I have to mention that the cafes are simply awesome. (Sorry I’m cribbing too much about Singapore here, but I have to relate the comparisons I made). In Singapore, everything is a branded chain of outlets. Big names of restaurants, coffee places, spas, clothes shops, supermarkets, so on and so forth. They all have the same things offer, same décor, same furniture, waiters in same uniform, same menu, same goods. So you can imagine how happy I felt when I walked into these personalized boutique cafes, where the décor does not just change from one café to the other, but even from one room to the other! Somewhere there are cushioned sofas, some rooms may have a large wooden table to host a big party, some rooms are meant for singles who want to read in peace. Then, of course, given the weather, there’s always the option of sitting outdoors.

I sipped through strong Javanese coffee! Ah! What a life! J. Another drink we loved is the Bandrek, a mixture of ginger and honey. Perfect for rainy afternoons! We also tried Kopi Bandrek, where the ginger and honey are blended with coffee beans. That wasn’t bad either (though for a coffee buff, there’s nothing like just coffee beans with a little skimmed milk J). Some really nice cafes one should not miss are Dakken (on Jalan R E Martadinata), Javanese Coffee Bean (in Plaza Dago mall) and Ngopi Doeloe (on Jalan Teuku Umar).

As for restaurants, they are aplenty too. I strongly recommend you take a cab up to the mountains. There are a string of restaurants on the hill Dago Pakar. We went to Sierra. What is special about these restaurants is that they offer a top view of the entire city! If you are there for dinner, well… the view is that of lights glittering from the city below coupled with a nice live band. We also had a full moon above us to complete the picture! I was asking my friends whether this is the best place to bring someone on a date. Well, they couldn’t agree more J

There are a big number of restaurants that serve Sundanese food. Again, most of them are boutique and decorated with a personal touch, as if to specially welcome you. In one of the places called D’Palms, you are seated in a stall over water with fish swimming up to you for food. It was truly marvelous!

Also, don’t miss the delicious satay at its best! Try the local stall of Maulana Yusuf on Jalan Maulana Yusuf for satays of all kinds of meat! If you are lucky, you might get to taste rabbit satay too. Street food, in the form of serabi and yoghurt syrups, are yummy too!

Finally, bakeries are famous in Bandung. Try getting brownies from Amanda and Kartika Sari mall for your friends back home. I’m sure they’re gonna go back to Bandung for more!

View of Bandung by night

View of Bandung by night

Making of the serabi (flour pancakes with coconut topping)

Making of the serabi (flour pancakes with coconut topping)

Spread of Sundanese Cuisine

Spread of Sundanese Cuisine

Shopping

Now I know the secret of Tissa’s enviable wardrobe that keeps replenishing every time she goes back home J. Bandung is also the fashion capital of Indonesia. Ranging from factory outlets to designerwear in the malls, Bandung tops the charts when it comes to fashion at a decent price! Try out the Riaujunction Mall and several other boutique outlets on Jalan Sultan Agung. The other favorite shopping hotspot is Jalan Riau where there is a plethora of outlets with clothes, shoes, bag, sunglasses, just about anything you are looking for.


A Day Trip to the Outskirts

When you are in a city with hills for surroundings, could beautiful picnic spots be far enough? A day trip from Bandung would ideally consist of a drive through the hills that are dotted with myriad nurseries flashing flowers of the most extravagant colors. A clear blue sky, a natural haven and a bumpy hill road – couldn’t get better right? J. Once you drive further into the hills, you come across acre after acre of tea gardens. Stop by for some photographs, walk through the gardens and even drink some of their tea!

A volcano called Tangkuban Parahu is situated 30km from Bandung. It is an active volcano, having last erupted in 1983. Sulphur fumes still emit from the dry crater. It might not be as striking as Mt.Ijen or as vast as Mt.Bromo in the Tengger Caldera, but it surely is a beautiful site. Surrounding the volcano is a market of thatched roofs selling all types of handicrafts. Goods here are cheaper than they are in the city.

A short drive from the volcano is the Ciater hot spring. There are pools of different depths where you could dip yourself and swim around. You can also laze around by the sides and call for a leg and back massage. This was my first time in a hot spring, and I could not believe how relaxed the body becomes after a dip. All my muscles simply gave way to serenity and my body reached levels of peace it hasn’t known in a while

Tangkuban Parahu Volcano

Tangkuban Parahu Volcano


Drive through the hills

Drive through the hills

The People

This is my second visit to Indonesia, and I stand by my declaration that Indonesians and Vietnamese are the friendliest and most polite people I have come across. It is a pleasure being in a place and around people who always turn back and smile at you. Also, Bandung being a non-touristy place, there are hardly any people trying to talk you into doing or buying anything. You are largely left to the luxury of a localite to walk around and not be disturbed with any proposition.

Also, trust me when I say Sundanese girls are one of the most beautiful in the world!

The Music

Last but not the least, the music. Tissa has always been very proud of the music in her country. She says they’re the strongest in South East Asia. I have no reason to disagree! Wherever we went, there were strains of local music wafting in the air. We also caught a live rock performance at a nightclub called Score. The music rocks. Don’t expect traditional stuff. It’s western pop and rock. But the tunes are peppy, the singing talent is palpable and the sheer number of bands and albums speak for themselves. Bandung is also a very musical place. There are people strumming guitars on the streets. Tissa even challenged us to ask any person anywhere to start singing, and we would find they would and could!

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