Tag Archives: travelling

Zufrieden

Row of Shophouses on Lebuh Katz

Impression 1 : Lebuh Katz looked sleepy and quiet even at 9 in the morning. Ocassionally a moped or a trishaw would linger past leaving some trail of life. This row of shophouses seemed like the only ornate fixture in this working class neighbourhood with worn down houses that look utilitarian and lived in. Interesting trivia : As I suspected, the street has a German connection. It was named after the German born Katz brothers who established an import business in George Town in 1864.

When I learnt this word in my German class, I remember being instantly enamoured, repeating it several times in class, on the tram, in shower, enunciating it, rolling it around in my mouth to acquaint myself with its nuances, volleying it with my tongue, exploring its soft corners and rough edges and then carefully putting it back in my vocab chest, like a vintage fountain pen with gold nib and sterling silver filigree overlay, something valuable that you take out only on special occasions.

And when you do, you put on a show. You bask in the smug glory of the wonder ricocheted off others’ faces. Then you put it back in your armour again. Such is the word ‘zufrieden‘, which may mean satisfaction in English, but doesn’t feel or sound as hackneyed.

 

The owner of the shop whose corridor I had blocked came out to survey soon after I had set up. Instead of shooing me away, he moved his bike aside so I could have more elbow room and then he showed me the tap from which I could draw water for painting. A lot gesturing happenned as he didn't speak English and I don't speak Hokkien.

Impression 2 :The owner of the shop whose corridor I had blocked came out to survey soon after I had set up. Instead of shooing me away, he moved his bike aside so I could have more elbow room and then he showed me the tap from which I could draw water for painting. This was accomplished with a lot of gesturing as he didn’t speak English and I don’t speak Hokkien.

 

Row of Shophouses on Jalan Penang

Impression 3 :Row of Shophouses on Lorong Stewart. Everyday after workshop ended at 6, I would rush back on the road to utilize the 1.5 hours of leftover sunlight in sketching whatever caught my eye. This time, I was plonked on the floor of another 5-foot way, lined with several fancy restaurants. People sauntered past me, wearing shiny clothes and expensive perfumes. I remember making the ushers really uncomfortable.

Sometimes a foreign tongue can elevate the meaning of a word you’ve heard all your life and transform its ethos into something grand just because it sounds luxurious in your mouth and tantalizing to your ears and also because you didn’t have enough time and occasion to wear it out. What I mean is, I may use ‘satisfied’ to indicate my experience in using the newly opened restroom at the airport, but use ‘zufrieden‘ while reminiscing about a sketching trip to George Town in Penang, that I returned from. To explain why, I have to reiterate that it was my first overseas trip where sketching was the actor in leading role and travelling was the supporting sidekick, not the other way round, like always. The priorities were flipped and the result was glorious.

This epiphany doesn’t mean travelling takes a backseat. I am the parent that’s trying to advocate equal love for each child.

A Red Trishaw parked on Armenian Street

Impression 4 : When I saw this Red Trishaw parked on Armenian Street, I was compelled to sketch it, simply because of this  composition. I found a shady spot beside an Ice Kachang lady who initially tried to sell me her ware but later took the responsibility of shooing people away from my line of vision, including tourists. Halfway through the sketch, the red trishaw left, only to be replaced by another in few minutes but this was parked the opposite way. In an attempt to get it done, I was trying to laterally invert the vehicle in my mind and then draw it. When the trishaw driver, quietly lunching beside me got a whiff of my frustration, (I may have been muttering to myself), he got up and to my utter disbelief turned the heavy vehicle around just so I could finish my doodle and declined to take tourists for rides till I finished. When I thanked him, he just nodded. And the Ice Kachang lady dragged her son out of the house to show him my sketch. She seemed proud.

This partially dilapidated shophouse caught my eye on Love Lane.

Impression 5 : I was sketching this aged beauty from a ruined torn down shophouse, right opposite when my husband said, there’s nothing indicative of ‘Love’ on Love Lane. Well, 19th century sailers and soldiers who made a beeline for the brothels lined up here would’ve differed. The amorous frolics of yesteryears have been replaced. Love Lane looked quiet, desolate and monochromatic that evening, except for a gaggle of tourists gathering around cafes chit-chatting about guesthouses, wi-fi, backpacking and travel. Perhaps somebody will talk about Love.

Travelling

For me, travelling isn’t just fun, it is also an yearning. The fact that I feel more happy, and alive on the move is established and I don’t second guess it.

What is travel’s worth in one’s life can be gauged from the motivation to travel.  Is it to break away from the mundane seeking ‘change of scenery’, or to relax and recoup before you go back on the hamster wheel, is it to check off places from Lonely Planet’s 1000 places to visit before you die , is it to reclaim your twenties because you’re about to step into your 30s? Or is it that unsettling lifelong ‘need’, not a want but a need, right out of Maslow’s heirarchy, that thrusts you into the unknown from time to time?

 

Dinner at China House

Impression 6: China House, a beautiful shop house turned cafe has tables that are covered in white paper. A small bucket of crayons is set on the table for you to scribble while you wait for your meal. This sketch is colored using the same crayons. For dinner, I had spaghetti with grilled chicken and sadly, it was a let down. The pasta was overcooked and flavours were all over place. The lime soda with mint and mango slices was a disaster – I have never tasted anything so incongruous. But DO NOT leave this place without trying the ginormous slice of out-of-this-world Tiramisu. I have a feeling desserts are their strong suit.

My motivation to travel, my ‘need’ to travel, comes from my insatiable inquisitiveness to see, explore, thus discover and know. I believe, we are all inquisitive, differing in the intensity, perhaps. I mean, don’t we all like to take a peek, a swift glance into other’s living rooms through their open windows at night or others’ plates in a restaurant or try to read the label on a bag hanging from a stranger’s shoulder, try to peel off the discounted price sticker on a garment to reveal the actual price or take a peek at the answers behind the Math book?

The apogee of my German learning classes in Munich, was the day I could understand overheard conversations on the tram. It was as if a stubborn blocked nose had cleared and I could smell the roses again. Untill then it was unfathomable background noise instead of funny jokes, twee endearments, silly fights or crass comments. If you are inquisitive to such a degree, then travelling is one pursuit that requires each of your five senses to be in a constant state of high-alert. You are a walking sponge, absorbing an overwhelming amount of information sent by your five, foot soldiers who are working in a frenzy.

Row of Shophouses on Jalan Penang

Impression 7 : I sketched this row of Shophouses on Jalan Penang – an important thoroughfare during the colonial era –  from the Komtar pedestrian bridge. Shophouses in different stages of restoration like in this sketch is such a common sight in Penang. One crumbling and abandoned shophouse shares a wall with its fully restored neighbour, housing a bustling guesthouse or a cafe or a bistro in full regalia, which in turn shares its wall with another that is being mended and prettied up for better prospects. The famous Teochew Chendol sold at the junction of Keng Kwee Street is only a few minutes away. The Assam Laksa sold there is fresh and flavourful.

Sketching

Now let me add another dimention to this self-absorbing pursuit called travel. Suppose you’ve been quietly nurturing the habit of documenting your life, the sights and sounds around you on a regular basis in a sketchbook and have been taking immense pleasure out of it. Yes, it’s been two years. Darn, you’ve even gotten good at it. It has brought you joy, won you friends across the world and admirers who say how much they love your ‘style’ (to which, you have chuckled more than once muttering smugly and questioning at the same time – “I have a style? I have a style!”).

Shop house on Lebuh MacNair

Impression 8 : Any visitor to Penang will be awed by the potpourri of architectural styles – Early Penang Style (1790s – 1850s), Southern Chinese Eclectic Style(1840s – 1900s), Art Decco style (1920s), Anglo Indian Style (3rd quarter of 19th century) to name a few – representing various periods of the city’s history. It’s like a rainbow cake, each layer unique and different. It’s interesting to view two buildings standing side by side that may have been built in different centuries! I sketched this house on Lebuh MacNair because its architectural style seemed different from the two storied pre world war shop houses peppered across the city. It is probably an Indo-Malay bungalow but I can’t be sure.

You’ve showed your work at exhibitions, and sold. Yes, somebody actually paid money to hang your creation on their living room wall. You’ve counted the money gleefully, but you’ve also felt the pang of loss. It’s complicated.

The Conundrum

Nevertheless the burning question is what do you do with this situation of yours, when you travel? Do you accomodate it because it’s becoming second nature or do you abandon it lest it comes in the way?

Stall on Lebuh Chulia

Impression 9:  In the darkness of the night, this Wan Tan Mee pushcart twinkled like a firefly on Lebuh Chulia. In the pale bulb light I could make out a stooped figure handing out steaming bowls of springy noodles with soft wantans floating in an irriesistible dark sauce. The whole shebang was in the open, with pots and pans, buckets, gas cylinders strewn all around. Business was hot. From the enormous queue snaking around the stall, anybody could gauge its popularity.

Shophouse on Armenian Street

Impression 10 : Shophouses make such great subjects for sketching. Even across similar architectural style, each house seemed unique and full of character. Swatow Lodging house at no. 16, had all its windows closed. The worn out facade had pockmarks of mildew, faded and peeled paint. The ground was covered in weed. A whole lot of trash – dust covered broken and discarded furniture, toys, cardboard boxes was strewn right across its doorstep. But nobody seemed to care. It was even atmospheric, perhaps exhibited as such deliberately to recall vestiges of the past. After all ‘heritage’ is a fast seller among tourists. For a shophouse sketch fanatic, which I am, Armenian Street has plenty to offer. I picked this one to spend my time on because it stood like a little punctuation mark after a long sentence of shophouses.

If you are inquisitive, you probably have been badgered by the ‘let’s see what happens’ shtick. That’s what I caved in to. I carried my sketchbook everywhere I travelled to see how it felt. And surprise surprise! Sketching did come in the way I travelled, the way we – I and my husband were used to traveling all this time. Aching shoulders from lugging around A4 size sketchbooks and watercolours, making more and longer stops at sights than usual, leaving my partner to fend for himself while I doodled, battling the desire to sketch but moving on instead because, well..tick tock..tick tock, fighting the guilt of cutting on the ‘us’ time – looking into each others eyes, holding hands et al and feeding the ‘me’ time was what happened.

Sketching on the grounds of the colonian Eastern and Oriental Hotel

Impression 11 : Spending even one night at the 1885 built colonial style Eastern and Oriental Hotel( called E&O) could be the highlight of Penang trip, especially if you find out that your favourite authors Rudyard Kipling, Somerset Maugham, Herman Hesse were fellow boarders. Every room faces the sea and the black and white floor of the opulent bathrooms will steal your heart. Do request for a heritage tour at the concierge – this will be your chance to view some of the original fixtures and furishings in the Heritage Wing rooms.

The Decision Making

But if something feels remotely right you hang in there, right? You see it through. Let the unsure wobbly wheels roll, in the hope of finding balance.  Truth be told, I haven’t found balance yet, I still falter and fumble trying this third wheel to roll with us in tandem, on our travels, in our lives but guess what, it is getting easier by the day, week, month and year. And what more! I am reaping the benefits. Already.

Cafe 55 housed in a shophouse on Lorong

Impression 12 : While sketching Cafe 55 housed in a shophouse on Lebuh Pantai, we realized how narrow the roads in the historic district of George Town were. Soon we were betting if the next car could turn without grazing the parked car. There were few hits, but mostly misses. Too bad the rickshaws have been replaced.

The Consequence

If you are a mercenary, do not read further. Disenchantment follows. Because the benefits which I am reaping, which many others before me have reaped and those who are yet to follow this path will reap in future is hopelessly Zen. When I am sketching, specially on my travels, I connect with my subject and my environment much more deeply than I would have if I was merely visiting or passing by, because sketching involves intense observation.

Shophouses along Jalang Penang

Impression 13 : If you’re sketching on the road, keep your privacy tucked away in the backpocket because you’ll attract people like flies to a candy. And your work of course is open to unsolicited criticism. On this single occasion of sketching   shophouses along Jalan Penang, I had an Indian migrant worker at my elbow the entire time, three families and a group of girls lingered and quietly took overhead shots. An elderly gentleman stopped by and said, ‘If this was up for judging , I would give you first prize”. I took off my oversized sunglasses and gave him a genuine smile. The smile was wiped off by the Korean tourist who requested for a photo of me with my sketch and kept me hanging while she fixed her lens and cleaned it before the shot.

It invokes mindfulness, devoid of distraction, to such a degree that you participate in the scenery you are capturing on paper. Your fingers trace the eaves of the ancient temple roof, you knock on the louvered windows, ride the creaking bicycle, you flutter the laundry, skip the puddle on the fractured road and is caught up hopelessly in the nasty bunch of gnarly wires crisscrossing the facade of a shophouse. You become the pigeon sitting on the pole.

Eastern and Oriental Hotel

Impression 14 :The Plantation Lounge at E&O has these luxurious chairs that will engulf you when you sit on them. In combination with retro reading lamps, a small library, choice of board games, free flowing coffee and tea, this place is a perfect hideout any time of the day. The constant sound of waves washing up the shore takes the experience up a notch.  If you are staying here, don’t miss the elaborate breakfast options at Sarkies. For the first time in my life, I ditched toast and omelette for lamb curry and coconut rice for breakfast. Try a spoonful of roasted peanuts and fried anchiovies with it.

Dinner at Muntri Mews

Impression 15 : Dinner at Muntri Cafe, on Muntri Street was rewarding after a day of sketching in Penang’s heat and humidity. We ditched the relaxing alfresco seating outlined by exhuberant green boughs for air-conditioning. Wiser choice perhaps, till it became dark, temperature dropped and those tiny tea candles on the tables outside were lit up. It was romantic, but we weren’t there. Then came the food. It wasn’t just warm and comforting but also delivered on taste and presentation. We snapped right back into the zone.

“The courage- to-be, right here and now and nowhere else, is precisicely what Zen, at least, demands : Eat when you eat, sleep when you sleep!'” says Peter Mattheissen, in his book ‘Snow Leopard. Sketching lets you practice exactly that without even making an effort.

When you travel through a destination, sketching slows you down, so you don’t just eat, but taste, not just look but see, not just hear but listen. And do you know what comes out of this beautiful partnership ? You are zufrieden, truly.

 

Impression 16 : The owner of this coffee mill on sleepy Lebuh Katz hadn't opened shop yet. But that didn't stop him from keeping us company and conjure a 'thumps up' from time to time as the sketch progressed and muttering in Hokkien - 'beautiful, beautiful'.

Impression 16 : The owner of this coffee mill on sleepy Lebuh Katz hadn’t opened shop yet. But that didn’t stop him from keeping us company and conjure a ‘thumps up’ from time to time as the sketch progressed and muttering in Hokkien – ‘beautiful, beautiful’.

Bye Bye Penang!

Impression 17: Right before our flight, we had dinner at Kaffa, which is at Penang Airport. The nifty decor and the ambience does not match food quality (we had Salmon and pasta) or the portion size. The drinks were pale and watered down with plenty of ice. The trip advisor sticker on the door has to really work its charm!

This sketch of my face on the identity card, was the first one on this event

Impression 18 : I am terrible at drawing myself! Anyway, this was the first sketch done at the event.

The Happily Ever After

I have come back with 20 sketches from a 3 day trip to the UNESCO world heritage site of George Town in Penang, Malaysia. And since I slowed down on these 20 ocassions ( and almost all of these were off the tourist map) , I have 20 deep and distinct impressions of the city (see below each sketch) relating to it’s architecture, history, food, people, culture, ambience, temperament that someway or the other has characterized and demystified the place for me. I had first hand experiences which are real and personal.

And I am sure, the 170 odd skechers from the entire South East Asia plus UK and New Zealend, who assembled here to participate in the USk SGT II (Urban Sketchers Sketching Georgetown II) event, experienced the same.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Tale of two cities

Once every year, I and my husband are India bound. Only this year, in addition to our self-prescribed vacation in Kolkata- our hometown, we squeezed in two days of Mumbai, to make the aquaintance of the prima donna of India’s west.

Mumbai

Marine Drive

Marine Drive

Even if you’re new to Mumbai, just like me, chances are Mumbai isn’t new to you. You may still have a fair idea of what to expect and experience, thanks to the innumerable books ( Elephanta Suites by Paul Theroux, Sacred Games by Vikram Chandra ; Shantaram by Gregory David Roberts, Maximum City by Suketu Mehta, Narcopolis by Jeet Thayil) and movies ( Salaam Bombay, Slumdog Millionnaire, Metro, Bombay and plenty others) that have expressed the ethos of the city through narratives and plots based in the dusty folds of this audacious, over populated, rambunctious metropolis.

If Mumbai were to impress you, the first time visitor, she’d spew her impressive credentials upfront, like being the financial and commercial capital of the country, the mecca of Hindi film industry, the melting pot of communities, cultures and so on. But she doesn’t because she’s isn’t pretentious. She is industrious, sharp witted, resilient and hopeful, qualities I saw mirrored in the people I met on my short visit. The driver of our car that we hired (for 8 hours worth Rs.1500 or S$30 from Savaari Car Rentals) for the day, was an immigrant from Bihar, rather a country bumpkin who arrived in the 80s with nothing on his back, worked his way up, learnt English, married a local and now drives tourists around and guides them through the very city he was once foreign to. Mumbai is rife with stories like this.

Leopold Cafe & Bar

Leopold Cafe & Bar

After a lazy walk and sketch along Marine Drive – a picturesque promanade, our first stop was Leopold Cafe and Bar for breakfast. One of the most popular haunts in the city (especially with the backpackers), has been around since 1871. I don’t know how much the interior has changed since the old days, but even today, this ensemble – of dark wood furnitures, chequered table cloth, dated wall paintings and old fashioned ceiling fans seem right out of musty sepia toned photographs. What is new however are the bullet holes, from the heinous 2008 terrorist attacks.

We order omelettes with toasts, a plate of über-delicious melt-in your-mouth keema and bread to be washed down with orange, lime and watermelon juice as illustrated in my sketch. I request the geriatric guy manning the cash counter to put the cafe’s seal on my sketches to officially validate my visit. He approaches this gargantuan task with dopey eyes and few vapid sigh. Perhaps, I should’ve asked for a tissue instead. His social ineptitude is quickly compensated by the cafe manager, flips through my sketchbook and hands me two postcards in return.

“You didn’t sketch the bullet holes? he said. I was surprised he asked. It didn’t feel right to record the horrific reminder of an incident that shook the country and carry that with me as a trip souvenir. If that was so, I could’ve bought those kitschy Leopold branded coffee mugs with an image of bullet shots. Yes, the cafe hasn’t shied away from cashing in on the sentimentality.  Nevertheless it’s a survivor- Leopold opened for business, three days after the incident – and survivors don’t need to hide their scars.

Breakfast at Leopold cafe

Breakfast at Leopold cafe

We turn the corner, walk a few hundred meters and meet the shimmering Arabian sea, the towering Gateway of India at it’s bank and the proud, historic, magnificent Taj Hotel. I have watched this scenery and read about it so many times in my life that my first impression wasn’t of wide-eyed wonder, but that of disorientation – I was recalculating the perspective, size, distance anomalies my mind’s eye had made while visualizing this scene. ‘I imagined The Taj to be aligned with the Gateway” ; ‘The space in front of the Gateway isn’t as expansive as I had thought’ was what I was muttering.

Taj Mahal Hotel

Taj Mahal Palace Hotel

The gate way is barricaded by a voracious slew of photographers (mostly natives of Bihar) dangling chunky DSLRs from their shoulders and thrusting sample photos of people posing with these iconic monuments, into you face. Being Indians, we aren’t accosted by them as much as the foreign tourists. But still a ‘ Sir/Madam, please take a pikkchur..berry nice foto I taking..you like..see this one..or that one..only 20 rupees’ sneaks in now and then.  My husband waves his DSLR and asks, if he could take ‘their’ picture instead. All at once they are shy and recede a few steps.

It’s only 10 in the morning and the heat is punishing. I stand in the shade of the towering Gateway and sketch the Taj hotel. The details of the facade are mindboggling, so I try to simplify while little streams of sweat trickle down my lower back. Right on my left, locals and tourists are making a beeline for the ferry leaving for Elephanta caves, ‘only a 50 minutes boat ride away’ – reported our driver later in a tone that hinted our misjudgement in skipping the site. We squint our eyes at the shimmering jetty and at the fatigued tourists fidgeting in the sun, waiting in a queue that is snaking around one arm of the gateway and walk away.

Gateway of India

Gateway of India

I try to squeeze in a quick sketch of the Gateway before we step inside the Taj Mahal Palace Hotel to cool down. The interiors are as regal as I had imagined with sparkly chandeliers, nifty flower arrangements and luxurious upholstery. Waiters flitted around obsequiously ushering, chaperoning, and in some cases placating indignant guests. One side of the lobby was lined with premium stores, mostly vacant and the other side was fitted with glass cases flaunting Taj’s flamboyant past. Photographs of notable guests from Jac Kennedy, Mick Jagger, Oprah Winfrey, Duke of Edinburgh to Beatles adorn the walls. A smart uniformed staff in a saree and well coiffed hair was manning the ladies room and proffered a rehearsed smile when we entered. Each time a guest left the stall, she promptly flushed the toilet ‘again’ and wiped clean the wash basin. When we left, she smiled again.

Cooling off Inside Taj

Cooling off Inside Taj

Very slowly, we drive past the Bombay High Court, admiring the impressive neo-Gothic building from 1848 and made a short stop in front of the Victoria Terminus Railway Station ( officially called Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus or CST ) because I couldn’t, rather wouldn’t leave Mumbai without pinning this massive, 1888 built, palatial world heritage site down on paper. Perhaps, more than the Taj or Gateway, it was VT’s cocktail architecture – Victorian, Italian, Gothic, Mughal –  and sheer size that made it an absolutely delightful ( albeit challenging!) subject to gawk at and sketch. Once again pressed for time, I simplified – my pen obliterating the numerous arches, windows, turrets, grotesques friezes, bas reliefs and other embellishments so painfully put together by the architect – to capture the essence of the place in simple urgent strokes.

VT Station

VT Station

Tearing away from VT, we insisted on visiting Dhobi Ghat – which in our driver’s opinion was suited ‘for foreigners’. Not entirely, though. Our senses might be numbed to sights of men and women washing laundry in the open, along ponds and streams, but this was something else. This was large-scale, to the stature of ‘Central Laundry Station of India – the headquater of all laundry units across the country’, if something like that existed.

Dhobi Ghat

Dhobi Ghat

Amid a grungy shantytown bordered by railway tracks, all we could see far and wide were clothesline hanging spotlessly white sheets that were fluttering in the breeze. Down below, it was all business –  network of concrete troughs fitted with floggng stones, were filled with water, where the clothes would be soaked, scrubbed, washed, starched and dried by taut swarthy men and their families. This 1890s establishment now has a website http://www.dhobikalyan.org, where you can register for a tour.

The Shoe House

The Shoe House

One of the most famous public beaches in Mumbai – Girgaum chowpatty, looked practically abandoned and therefore unrecognisable in the swelter of the afternoon whereas during Ganesh Chaturthi celebrations, hundreds of people gathered here to immerse the idol, jostle for an inch of space. The white toasty sand reflected the sun right into our eyes, sending us scampering for shade. Post a ‘gola’ (ice shavings) in kala-khatta flavour from one of the venders, we settled for a drive around adjoining Malabar Hill – the dwelling grounds of the rich and famous. Our driver insisted we stop at Hanging Gardens, built on top of a water reservoir and admire it’s greenery and the sweeping view of Chowpatty and Marine Drive from it’s vantage point.

The cynosure of all eyes however, was this giant shoe house, which was infested with giggly school kids, who just couldn’t wait their turn to climb it.

Having about two hours to spare, we headed towards Dharavi– one of the largest slums of the world- that popularly wears the ‘genuine leather goods at great bargains’ tag.  There are thousands of leather factories in the district that churns out handbags, jackets, wallets, belts and what not. And in the absence of middlemen, the shopowners offer wholesale prices, which is quite low, while making decent profit at the same time. The catch however (isn’t there always!) is – if you have refined tastes, it will be hard to find something you like from the scores of knock-off designs that the shopowners proudly exhibit and the parsimonious yet fashion conscious college crowd readily laps up. Just keep looking till you find ‘the one’ and haggle when you find it.

 

Kolkata

People, to be specific cousins and close relatives are curious, if the sanitised and systematic Singapore lifestyle muddles our visit to India; if we find it disconcerting to brace the heat, noise, dust, crowd, traffic, chaos; if we tire of the hackneyed idiosyncracies and the constant impedimets to get through each day.

‘Nothing has changed here’, they’d say plaintively.

To this, I’d say, ‘What, another shopping mall on VIP Road?’, gaping at the newbie. Mango and Marks and Spencer have stores in Kolkata? When I asked my sister in law, what does she substitute Mascarpone with when making Tiramisu, she said, “Why, I get all ‘foreign’ ingredients from Spencer’s ( food retailer) these days”. Sifting through The Telegraph’s glossy lifestyle section, one evening , I found hand purses of premium global brands advertised along with local ones. A walk through Park Street, led me to an Apple store sharing a wall with a RayBan, Prada, Gucci, Chanel sunglasses retailer sharing a wall with Pizza Hut; cafes of international design and standard and bakeries with fancy French names like Au Bon Pain, riddled with white tourists clad in hot pink salwar kameezes and Indian women in short skirts and body hugging blouses.

Gone are the, reserved, reticent and nervous school kids, specially girls burdened with moralities, chaperoned by their parents to and from schools or tuitions, lest they befriend the opposite sex and malign their family’s reputation. Such species have been replaced with fluent English speaking teenagers, confidently strutting along their male compatriots, texting on phones, cracking jokes, giggling – basically being young. They looked confident, equal and in control. They also look well groomed. The Indian comfort attire – the traditional Salwar Kameez – that was the default garb for majority of women, has undergone a ‘workplace appropriate’ transformation, making it smart and chic.

Having a cake at Flury's

Lunching at Flurys – the legendary tearoom on Park Street from 1927

The ubiquitus salwar-kameez has also been replaced with western attire, most common being denims. Dresses that remained the domain of the Anglo-Indians or the liberal bengali women are being picked up by more eager consumers that work in global companies offering a multicultural work environment. How can one not see this transformation?

Fashion is changing, so is the attitude. From where I see, looking good matters in this Indian city as much as it matters in any other city of the world. Top-end beauty salons like Jawed Habibs, which wwere populated by the well heeled, have cropped up like weed in my neighbourhood, with a one hour collagen facial setting you back by over Rs.3000 (or S$60). As the prices of commodities and services have increased, so has the disposable income and people have become conscious on what to spend their money on, which is not just on the basics anymore.

Annoyed with the traffic I was, but the city is on it’s way to build yet another flyover that promises to clear many terminal road blockages in future. Proposed metro lines, half dug shopping malls, gigantic residential complexes with cranes, exposed iron rods and metal sheets and men breaking their brown sun burned backs, make grey appearances all over the city, making it look like a perpetual work-in-progress. Nearly seven hotels are due to be operational in the city in the coming years, 3 new ones including JW Marriot, just on EM Byepass, which already has ITC Sonar Bangla and Hyatt.  A year after the liquidity crunch in 2008, the works on the projects have picked up after the economy and the stock market has rebounded.

Random guy at Flury's

Random guy having tea with a woman at Flurys

There was a time not too long ago when internet connection at home was a far fetched thought. There was this one cyber cafe in the vicinity where I had to queue up during weekends to get access my mails. My hapless parents have been struggling with the prehistoric dial-up connection for as long as I can remember. Two whole minutes of uninterrupted Skype call was divine. Then came broadband, offered by BSNL, which was an upgrade but not a smooth ride either.

On our way from the airport this year, I saw the city flooded with hoardings, posters, marquees advertising a Wi-Fi internet dongle with built in hotspot that can be fixed into any plug point and is capable of serving five Wi-Fi devices at a time. “Go Live, Go unlimited” says the tag line. What more – minimum paperwork, online bill payment and house visitation for servicing, if anything goes awry! A media report from last year states Kolkata has 4.4 million internet user now with 47% y-o-y growth which is the highest growth of internet users among top cities in India. If this isn’t change, what is?

While the city’s trials and tribulations which are in multitude, render an unchanged image to it’s residents, once-a-year visitors like us, who bring in fresh pairs of eyes, see movement. My send-off was from the swanking new state of the art airport terminal ( a magnificent glass and steel structure sprawled over 1,89,815 square meters that cost Rs. 2,325 crores) – a testament to the fact that things are changing. But sometimes the change isn’t so apparent because this city is like a goliath centipede with thousands of years of baggage, making slow but sure progress.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Sketching Moscow – Part I

Moscow’s architecture is awe-inspiring, art galleries, resplendent, churches opulent, parks vivacious and metro stations so grand that they have to be seen to be believed. To top it all, the city is big, vast, enormous, sprawling. In short, overwhelming for a first time visitor, who is unaware of its dimensions till she is dwarfed by almost everything around her.
When overwhelmed, draw a map – that’s my advice. It’s therapeutic, it simplifies everything and it gives the control back to you.  I always like to draw myself a rough map of the city I am travelling to, mainly to gauge the location of the sites I’d like to visit and their distance from my hotel. Turns out, if you walk straight on Ulitsa Tverskaya, that hits the red square in a tangent, you are all set to visit the major sights and get a hang of the city on the first day. Passing gigantic buildings, abnormally big arches that gain entry to such buildings, bronze statues and enormous squares like Tverskaya Ploshad, we reach the epicenter – Red square in about thirty minutes from Mariott Tverskaya, which is a hop skip and jump from Belarussky metro station, making it a great choice for lodging in Moscow.
My hand drawn Moscow map for reference

My hand drawn Moscow map for reference

Instead of heading straight, we turn left to view a historic cultural jewel of the 19th century – the Bolshoi Theatre, that has been getting a lot of bad press lately post an acid attack earlier this year, on its ballet director by a hitman hired by one of its dancers. Scandalous inside job maybe, but on the outside, this eight colonnaded opera and ballet theatre with a bronze quadriga looks imposing and shines a golden-yellow in July’s afternoon sun. An expensive six-year overhaul has returned it to its Tsar era splendor. Perched on the wooden benches facing the fountain in front of the theatre, are scores of people, gazing at its majestic beauty. Many take photographs but it’s not easy to fit it in the viewfinder, unless you back up quite a bit.
Not even an hour old in Moscow and I am compelled to pull out my sketchbook.
The famous Bolshoi Theatre

The famous Bolshoi Theatre

Away from the Tverskaya, we keep walking left and cast a passing glance at the diagonally opposite –  luxurious Hotel Metropole and a little ahead, the Lubyanka Building , which served as the headquarters of KGB.

Soon enough, metro travel beckons because in Moscow if you do not want your legs to unscrew and fall off your body from the brutal walking, you will learn to love the underground. And at 30 roubles a ticket, it is quite the value for money considering their grandiose art gallery cum museum cum theatre like look and feel. Try exloring Mayakovskaya, Arbatskaya, Kievskaya, Ploshchad Revolyutsii amongst many others to change your image of subway stations forever.
After a near 2 min decent on the escalator ( as per my stopwatch) into the bosom of mother earth, expect to find yourself amid high arched ceilings, splendid chandeliers, bronze and marble statues, walls and ceilings embellished with exquisite bas reliefs, friezes, stained glass and mosaic paintings. Though station names are in Russian, navigating isn’t difficult as the lines are colour coded and the metro map has the English translation for every station’s name in cyrillic. If confused, just ask a local. They might not speak English, but are very happy to help. When things are lost in translation, good old sign language works like a charm.
Wedding couples posing in front of Cathedral of Christ the Saviour

Wedding couples posing in front of Cathedral of Christ the Saviour

Taking the metro at ‘Lubyanka’, we emerge at ‘Kropotninskaya’ (3 stops on the Red line) and are instantly rewarded with the splendid view of Cathedral of Christ the Saviour, along the banks of Moskva river. Get one of those chocolate coated vanilla ice creams on stick – the summer totem of Moscow held and licked by every Russian in sight – to celebrate, because you’re now one among the 9 million commuters, who brave Moscow’s metros daily.

I murmur a hesitant ‘Dasvidaniya’ (Goodbye!) to the grim ice cream lady, while walking away and she flashes an iridescent smile – two gold teeth standing amid few rotten ones, glitter in the sun like the onion domes of the cathedral itself. A stretch limousines is parked on the kerb. The bride and the groom step out with flute shaped glasses in hand, toast with champagne and kiss blissfully.

We watch their merry-making and follow them inside the cathedral. If the interiors don’t hold your fancy for long, step out and head to the beautiful footbridge on the other side of the church and start walking away. The further you walk away, more irresistible it looks. Facing the cathedral, you can spot Kremlin on your right and the unmissable giant bronze statue of Peter the Great on your left. If the photographers hanging about the bridal couples and the endless tour groups spare you some space on the bridge, take a picture with the church in the background.
With such visual treats around, who has time for a sit down lunch. We settle for a snack sold by a babushka on the sidewalk. The spread of sandwiches, breads and puff pastries neatly laid out on the table may have been most delectable and the freshest, but if you ask me, it’s hard to choose when you’re clueless about the filling. I turn to the bearded local next to me and ask if he speaks English. “Oh! Yes”. “Can you ask her, what that one is?”. “But I don’t speak Russian”. He is from Berlin. Good to know. We buy our puff anyway. “Enjoy your surprise!” says the Berliner. Tuna and cheese filling was the surprise that we gobbled up before walking into the Tretyakov State Gallery, to enjoy Russian fine arts, including several masterpieces. If you’re fond of landscapes, don’t miss Isaak Levitan’s work.
 
 
Exiting the gallery, you hit Luzhkov bridge over the Vodootvodny Canal, beautiful and teeming

Locks of various shapes and sizes with sometimes names of the couple and dates engraved on them

Locks of various shapes and sizes with sometimes names of the couple and dates engraved on them

with bridal couples engaged in the de rigueur – sipping champagnes, kissing on cue, holding precarious poses for the photographer, flying white doves and fastening love padlocks with their names and vows inscribed. Countless locks in every imaginable colour, shape, sizes (some bigger than my head), hang from the iron trees that were built on the bridge for this very purpose.

At 8 in the night, the sun doesn’t show any sign of descent. So, we head towards the nearby Gorky Park to unwind but instead make several pit stops in between because what seems right under your nose on the map is actually quite a distance away. Cafe Parco serves us the last item left on their menu – fresh banana and strawberry smoothie in sealed plastic bottles.
Resting our tired legs at Cafe Parco

Sitting on garden chairs and resting our tired legs at Cafe Parco while their music band is getting ready to play.

Nothing under the Moscow banner is ordinary or average in its dimension or architectural style – is the wisdom gained at the end of day one. Standing in front of the massive gate of Gorky park, once again we feel puny, ant-like, inconsequential.
Couldn't resist a 5 min sketch of this imposing gate to enter Gorky Park. isn't it just a park?

Couldn’t resist a 5 min sketch of this imposing gate to enter Gorky Park

Gorky Park

Gorky Park

But the atmosphere is electric. Loud, thumping music is gushing out of a concert in progress. Hundreds of people of all ages are engaged in every kind of sport/recreational activity in this 300 acre park, either playing table tennis, badminton, or riding Segway, rollerblading, bicycling, throwing frisbee, rowing in the lake or just sunbathing.

Children in prams are licking lurid pink cotton candies while their parents are lining up at the ice cream or hotdog counter. The smell of hot corn on the cob slathered with butter and salt gets me brisk walking towards the stall in a blink. Couples and families are lounging on communal bean bags under enormous trees. And right at the center, is a grand musical fountain that’s spraying water to the beats of an orchestra. The sun isn’t going anywhere and Moscow seems golden through my tinted sunglasses.
How do you tear away from all this? We do because, just across Gorky Park, on the other side

Church of St. Nicholas of the Weavers

Church of St. Nicholas of the Weavers

of the river, sits another magnificent church that supposedly rivals St. Basil’s on Red Square in its beauty. Church of St. Nicholas of the Weavers , a late 17th century parish church for a weavers settlement, is a stunner all right with its onion domes and a tented bell tower, but we arrive when the evening service has ended and the church is about to close.

The orthodox priests in somber black cassocks are conferring on the church grounds, women are quickly removing their headscarves and leaving and families are bidding goodbye to each other. I cover my head and manage a quick peek inside the church and a hurried sketch before being ushered out.
Just outside, a signboard says, Leo Tolstoy’s house turned museum is only 400 meters away but we resist the temptation and reward ourselves instead with these juicy chicken shashlik for dinner.
Chicken Shashlik with salad and a truckload of dill

Chicken Shashlik with salad and a truckload of dill