Posted in Europe travel, food, life, mountains, Photos, travel, travel photography

A Trip to Liechtenstein and Austria

I am a big fan of budget travel. Apart from meeting new people, you also travel cheap. Having undertaken a number of such trips since I came to the Netherlands about eighteen months ago, I grabbed the opportunity with both hands when one of the student trips organization announced an excursion to Vaduz and Innsbruck.

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A view of Vaduz from the hilltop

 

To those who are not aware of Vaduz, it is the capital of Liechtenstein-the sixth smallest country in the world. Starting from Utrecht in the heart of the Netherlands on a cold evening, about eighty people (some students, some expats) arrived in Vaduz the next morning. We were immediately captivated by the place-the hills, the signs in German and not a soul out on the streets. Coming from India and living in the Netherlands (two of the most densely populated countries in the world), you become accustomed to seeing people wherever you go. But not in Vaduz. However, we were told that while the shops would open much later, the tourist information center would open before time for us. After a quick snack, we went about exploring the city.

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Some landmarks in Vaduz

Since this was a one-day trip and we had to reach Austria around lunchtime, we had about two hours to see what the city had to offer. One of the most remarkable sites of the city is the Vaduz Castle-home of the Prince. Sitting on top of a hill, it is visible from anywhere in the city and is like a symbolic watchtower-with the Prince watching over the city’s inhabitants and acting like a guardian angel. Since the city center would be deserted in the early morning, we decided to climb the hill and see the castle. A road near the parking depot led to the path towards our destination. After walking for about 20 minutes, we reached the castle. Made of stone, it is a site to behold. Although not very big, it is still very impressive. One of the lucky members of the group even managed to meet the Prince.

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Vaduz Castle

After seeing our share of the castle, we headed back down towards the main street. Here, the tourist information center, the museum, parliament and the main church are all in the same line, with the garden in front of them. The four most important buildings on one street gave us an idea of the size of this city. Especially for me, coming from a big city in India where travelling from one end to the other takes about three hours, it was a bit surprising to see that entire city could be crossed in about fifteen minutes. With our time in Vaduz over, we headed towards Innsbruck in Austria.

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Inn river flowing through Innsbruck

Innsbruck (the name meaning Inn bridge in German) is a popular winter sports destination of the country. Located in the state of Tyrol, I was immediately struck as to how similar the city looked to the hill stations like Manali in India, with a rapidly flowing river fed by the melting glaciers amidst snow covered peaks. Since we were about a month away from Christmas, there were Christmas markets all around the city-in total six of them. We went about these markets, trying out the local delicacies, especially “Currywurst met pommes” (Sausages in curry with French fries) and Gluhwein (hot wine mixed with honey and spices).

Apart from all the Christmas festivities, Innsbruck also has a lot of cultural history. We visited one of its most famous landmarks-Goldenes Dachl, loosely translated as the Golden Roof. In ancient times, the Emperor of the land could watch tournaments and other performances going on in the square below from his position. We were lucky to witness a performance of an orchestra from this roof while doing some Christmas shopping.

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Goldenes Dach or Golden Roof in Innsbruck

All things must come to an end, and this happened with us too. Soon we realized that it was time to leave and go back to our hectic lives in the Netherlands. All in all, it was a good trip and one that we all deserved given the amount of work we had put in the last few months.

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Posted in book review, thriller, travel

Tales of Polar, Desert and Sea Explorations

There are few men in history and almost none alive today, who can be compared in the same breath as Sir Ranulph Fiennes. For those who are hearing his name for the first time, Sir Ranulph is one of the best polar explorers in the world, in addition to being a writer and a poet. I first read about him when I was reading something about Antarctic expeditions and the more I found out about him, the more respect I had for the man. But like him, my thirst for knowledge and understanding was not quenched, and so I decided to read his autobiography- Mad, Bad & Dangerous to Know. The unusual sounding title is how he was referred to by his father-in-law when he asked his daughter’s hand to marry him.

The book begins with an account of the author’s childhood-the death of his father in World War 2 before he was born, his childhood in South Africa and how he dreamed of someday commanding the Royal Grey Scouts, which he ultimately did. After graduating from university (where he was taught German by John le Carre, the famous author), he served in the army of the Sultanate of Oman, and once his commision expired began looking for alternative employment opportunities. What followed was a series of expeditions in Canada, Transglobe (where the team started from England and went to Antarctica, the Arctic and back to England over a course of three years, travelling entirely on land and sea), the Antarctic expeditions and countless others. But the one expedition that I was really impressed by was the 7*7*7 marathon challenge.

Ranulph finishing a marathon
Sir Ranulph completing a marathon

In 2003, just three months after suffering a heart attack and undergoing a bypass surgery, Sir Ranulph completed 7 marathons in 7 days across 7 continents. While most of us only dream about running one marathon, this sixty-year “young” man completed seven over a period of six days actually, taking into account the different time zones. And in addition to that, the sponsors had one more condition-each marathon must be completed in under six hours, which both Sir Ranulph and his partner managed to do.

Sir Ranulph writes the book in a no-nonsense style, meaning if he doesn’t like someone, he will say it. And that is what makes this book so interesting. Readers expecting high drama and adrenaline pumping action will be disappointed. The author does not glorify himself or the expeditions, rather he simply states the facts, his preparation, the journey itself and finally the outcome. Towards the end of the book, the author described his failed attempt to climb Everest and successful one to climb the north face of the Eiger.

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Sir Ranulph climbing the Eiger

Ginny, the author’s first wife features predominantly in the book. He described her as a rock in his life, taking care of all the planning and communication for his expeditions, in addition to managing a farm in his hometown. Her death due to cancer affected the morale of the author, but he subsequently remarried.

Having raised over 10 million pounds so far for charity, the author pens down his “wishlist” at the end of the book, where even at the age of seventy, he wants to plan and go for a few more expeditions in order to reach the magical figure of 15 million pounds.

After the release of the book, the author succeeded in his third attempt to climb Everest and thus became the first man to cross both poles on land and climb Everest. When one journalist asked him about his plans for retirement, he joked that he would never retire as he thought playing golf and bridge are ways to reach an early grave.

There are many things that one can learn from this man and his book, no matter what your profession. Never give up is the foremost lesson. Strive hard to achieve what you want, and ultimately you will get it. And lastly, age is just a number. If a man in his sixties can run seven marathons in seven days barely three months after having a double bypass, we in our twenties can finish at least one.  

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Hovercraft expedition across the Nile
Posted in book review

Book Review: Riot-A Love Story

DayDreamer

Riots and India have something synonymous with each other. With a population of over 1.3 billion people belonging to different religions, speaking different languages and following different customs, tensions are bound to flare at one point or another. There are many incidents which make the “normal” citizens like us cringe even at the thought of it. When one of India’s popular singers tweeted that he did not like being woken up by the sound of Azaan early every morning (Azaan is the Muslim call of prayer, the first of which takes place around 5 am), a minority leader offered anyone who shaved the singer’s head a sum of INR 10 lakh (around 15,400 USD). Then there is a recent case of a film called Padmavati, based on the life of a Rajput queen. Even before the film’s release, the Rajputs have started protesting and offering anyone who cut the lead…

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Posted in book review, thriller

Book Review: Riot-A Love Story

Riots and India have something synonymous with each other. With a population of over 1.3 billion people belonging to different religions, speaking different languages and following different customs, tensions are bound to flare at one point or another. There are many incidents which make the “normal” citizens like us cringe even at the thought of it. When one of India’s popular singers tweeted that he did not like being woken up by the sound of Azaan early every morning (Azaan is the Muslim call of prayer, the first of which takes place around 5 am), a minority leader offered anyone who shaved the singer’s head a sum of INR 10 lakh (around 15,400 USD). Then there is a recent case of a film called Padmavati, based on the life of a Rajput queen. Even before the film’s release, the Rajputs have started protesting and offering anyone who cut the lead actresses nose a hefty sum of money, stating that filmmakers have distorted history in the movie. This comes at a time when the film is set to release in the county and almost no-one (apart from the makers), have seen it. This sense of holding the country hostage and getting your way in everything is what is halting the march of the country on the path of development.

Shashi Tharoor bases his book Riot-A Love Story in such a similar setting. The book, written in 1989, is set against the backdrop of a riot in the town of Zalilgarh in India. The author portrays the location as a typical small Indian town where people are not too educated, but everyone takes religious matters seriously.

Priscilla Hart is an American medical student at a university in New York and has come to Zalilgarh to educate the women about reproductive health. Her association with the country is not new. Falling in love with India as a young child when her father was the head of Coca-Cola in the country, she sympathized with the Indian poor and wanted to make a difference in their lives, particularly the women. She felt that if Indian women were educated about contraceptives, they would bear fewer children and thus have more control over their lives. Apart from Priscilla, the District Magistrate of the town-Lakshman and the Superintendent of Police are the two main protagonists. Trouble brews when Lakshman and Priscilla fall in love with each other. The author weaves a simple narrative out of the two storylines of the love story on one side and the brewing tension between the Hindus and Muslims on the other side. The Hindus want to destroy a mosque built on a sacred Hindu land and want to build a temple on the site. Matters come to a head when clashes erupt between Hindus and Muslims and as an act of revenge against Lakshman, Priscilla is killed.

The author tells the story from the first-person narrative of all the main characters-similar to what we see in The Song of Ice and Fire books (Game of Thrones book series). The book is gripping because each of the characters thinks that he is telling the truth and that all his actions are justified. From the author of The Great Indian Novel and Show Business, this book is nothing short of a masterpiece. Shashi Tharoor once again takes the readers on a ride, at the end of which they will be forced to think about the state of their country in retrospect.

Although written almost 30 years ago, many of the situations depicted in the book still ring true. Most of the towns are still dusty and polluted with an erratic power supply. Communal tensions can still lead to riots in any city with a comparable Hindu-Muslim population. It is high time that the country starts to think about these issues.

Posted in book review, travel

Tales of African and Amazonian Exploration

Exploration and the desire to reach the most uninhabitable places on earth was always and still is, the fascination of explorers around the world. Since the 1850s, the world wanted to know more about Africa and the Amazon. One of the most famous questions burning through the minds of explorers was regarding the Source of the Nile in Africa and the presence of a lost city in the Amazon, fabled for its riches. These were the topics of my reads this month. The first was Into Africa: The Remarkable Story of Stanley and Livingstone by Martin Dugard and the other was The Lost City of Z by David Grann.

THe lost city of Z

Into Africa deals with the adventures of David Livingstone and more importantly, the search to find him when he goes missing. Like most explorers of his era, Livingstone was a man fixed on his purpose, which can be gauged from the fact that his 21-year-old son had only seen him for 5 years of his life. His life was dedicated to only one thing-finding the source of the Nile. The discovery of the source was a challenge captivating the hearts and minds of the British explorers. Into Africa talks about this challenge. The book also mentions the previous efforts undertaken by Burton and Speke, but the main protagonists are Livingstone and Henry Morton Stanley.

Livingstone was a Scottish missionary and had undertaken two expeditions previously to Africa. What made him more famous was the fact that he was a commoner and not an aristocrat as all the other British explorers were before him or at that time. He went into Africa to spread the gospels about Jesus but found himself captivated by the land and eventually with the questions of the Nile’s source. So, he set out in 1867 to finally find the answer to that question. His disappearance and ultimate discovery by Stanley forms the crux of the book. In a way, the book and the story give us the lesson that once we set our minds to a task and go about it with diligence, we will succeed eventually. Even though Livingstone failed in finding the source, he made numerous discoveries which led to people getting to know more about the continent from his journals and writings.

Similar to Africa, there was a myth circulating among the British exploratory circles that the Amazon was once a host of a vast and rich civilization. Though many doubted that an isolated land could harbour such a complex civilization, the evidence was overwhelming enough to point to the affirmative. The city was called Z and the search for it by British explorer Percy Fawcett Jr in the early 1900s forms the heart of The Lost City of Z. The author of the book David Grann retraced Fawcett’s steps as part of his research and ultimately succeeded in finding the lost city which had eluded the explorer.

Both the books are easy reads and make you appreciate the hardships that the early explorers went to help us understand all that we know about these lands today.

Posted in Poems

If-A Poem by Rudyard Kipling

If you can keep your head when all about you
    Are losing theirs and blaming it on you,
If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you,
    But make allowance for their doubting too;
If you can wait and not be tired by waiting,
    Or being lied about, don’t deal in lies,
Or being hated, don’t give way to hating,
    And yet don’t look too good, nor talk too wise:
If you can dream—and not make dreams your master;
    If you can think—and not make thoughts your aim;
If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster
    And treat those two impostors just the same;
If you can bear to hear the truth you’ve spoken
    Twisted by knaves to make a trap for fools,
Or watch the things you gave your life to, broken,
    And stoop and build ’em up with worn-out tools:
If you can make one heap of all your winnings
    And risk it on one turn of pitch-and-toss,
And lose, and start again at your beginnings
    And never breathe a word about your loss;
If you can force your heart and nerve and sinew
    To serve your turn long after they are gone,
And so hold on when there is nothing in you
    Except the Will which says to them: ‘Hold on!’
If you can talk with crowds and keep your virtue,
    Or walk with Kings—nor lose the common touch,
If neither foes nor loving friends can hurt you,
    If all men count with you, but none too much;
If you can fill the unforgiving minute
    With sixty seconds’ worth of distance run,
Yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it,
    And—which is more—you’ll be a Man, my son!
Posted in life

Don’t Quit: A Poem

When things go wrong as they sometimes will;

When the road you’re trudging seems all uphill;

When the funds are low and the debts are high;

And you want to smile but you have to sigh.

When all is pressing you down a bit-

Rest if you must, but don’t you quit.

Success is failure turned inside out;

The silver tint on the clouds of doubt;

And you can never tell how close you are;

It may be near when it seems far.

So stick to the fight when you are hardest hit;

It’s when things go wrong that you must not quit.