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Letter to my younger self

Letter to my younger self


If you can read this, then the time machine worked. Also, it’s really me. I mean you. On your first summer holiday, you found that knife with the shiny red handle and there was nobody around to see you take it, but you put it back anyway. See? It’s really me. That is, you, but twenty years older. So listen.

First and foremost, stop worrying so much about all that petty crap. Everything works out fine in the end. Laugh some more, relax, live a little. Your good friends will remain your friends twenty years down the line. The assholes will be virtually forgotten by the time you get to college. So there.

Also, the cute little blonde girl that you fell in love with in 9th grade? Just have the guts to tell her outright – the sooner, the better. Sticking around like a love-sick puppy never solves anything. You’ll end up telling her anyway – right before you leave for college – and she’ll laugh it off and you’ll stay friends. The only thing unrequited love is good for is poetry. And your high-school poetry sucks.

Let your hair grow just like you always wanted. There’ll come a time when sadly that won’t be an option any more.

Go see your grandparents while they’re still around. They love you and your sister more than anything else in the world. You’ll be out of the country soon, and you don’t get to visit much. No, I’m not telling you where you end up. Spoilers, you know.

Spend more time with dad. He’s not going to be around for much longer. Get him to quit smoking, if you can. Also, stop talking and start listening every once in a while. Not everything is a contest of wills, and you don’t need to get your way every damn time. Might even be better in the long run if you don’t.

Be fair with others and treat them with respect, even when it’s so tempting to do otherwise. Don’t forget that people that love you get hurt the most. And when that time comes when you have no idea where you’re going (I promise you, you’ll know), just figure it out by yourself. Don’t take other people along for the ride. They only get hurt in the end.

Did you know that the metabolism slows down in your twenties? Neither did I. Now you have no excuse to stop exercising. Get a bike. Trust me, it pays off.

Hope this little letter won’t change our lives so much that the created paradox blows me out of existence. Or ends the universe as we know it. I tried to keep it as spoiler-free as possible; I’m only telling you things that you’re going to figure out by yourself later anyway. Well, duh. Have a nice life, mate. See you in twenty years.

* * *

Oh, what the hell. BUY GOOGLE!

Indian Summer: The King’s Tomb

Indian Summer: The King’s Tomb

The previous instalment of this story is Indian Summer: Hidden Tiger.

ln_2010_02_12_152-2284There is a special place in Hell for those hapless tourists who tell an Indian driver to “hurry up”. Incidentally, that place bears a striking resemblance to the back seat of a certain white Mahindra-Suzuki Swift, hurling through traffic like a meteor wannabe in search of yet another near miss. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

After my second (and still tigerless) safari, it was time to leave Ranthambore and head for India’s most famous monument. It was to be the last day of our grand tour; the next night we would spend in Delhi and then literally head for the hills – and the comparative peace and quiet of Uttarakhand. But now it was time to play tourists once more, and burn onto our retinas and our lenses the greatest of India’s icons and one of the most instantly recognizable human-made edifices on the planet. The Taj Mahal.

Our Rough Guide to India had its own special chapter about Agra. Among the things it recommended, there was a view of the Taj from across the river Yamuna, right before the sunset. It would be, the guide promised, a sight to remember, and I freely admit, it was memorable – but not as memorable as getting there. When we left Ranthambore, a little before noon, I asked Sunil, our driver, if he thought we would make it there before sunset. He said he’ll try. And, by God, he did. Through potholes and traffic jams, swerving wildly around rickshaws and tractors and farm animals, crossing the whole city of Agra on a headlong rush towards the river, then inching along the most crowded bridge I’ve ever seen… and at last, we were there.

Agra is a hectic, crazy town. Not in the large-scale, we’re-as-big-as-your-country Delhi style, but in an almost American, land-of-opportunity way. Tourist traps abound in the city, and why wouldn’t they? The Taj draws more than one million visitors per year. There’s bound to be some gullible folk among them, and it’s not like there’s a lot of return customers. Agra is a check-box, a must-visit for every India first-timer. I don’t regret visiting – but I won’t be doing it again. And that is really the fault of the Taj Mahal itself, I must say. It is an overwhelmingly beautiful place – so much so, in fact, that Agra becomes an afterthought, a shadow, the place you get to if you want to see the Taj. Unfair, but the inhabitants don’t mind. They make a living providing for for

Let me get back to the story before I run out of superlatives. We stopped at a non-descript hotel – the shoddiest so far in our tour – and then, because this was the last night of the trip, we asked Sunil out to dinner. He took us to a restaurant belonging to one of his cousins – a nice place, bit off the main tourist path, but nevertheless delicious. I had the “Chicken Mughal” – a heavy, heavy dish of chicken in a butter and egg yolk sauce, deemed to be the food of the kings. The Mughal sultans must have had livers of steel.

We didn’t stay too late; the wake-up call was set for 6 o’clock the next morning. I longed to see the sunrise shining on the cupola of the Taj, to watch the embedded semi-precious stones light up into the first rays of the sun. Our book described these things in detail, you see. We religiously got rid of the few mosquitoes still roaming around in our room and went to bed.

ln_2010_02_13_152-2309 Alas. The next day arrived with a heavy, white mist that would thoroughly obscure most things not in the immediate vicinity. Of the Taj there was nothing to be seen; not even a silhouette. Only a milky, greyish white, which my camera could not penetrate for more than a few meters. We did find the mausoleum – after all, it was hard to miss – but the fog was to heavy. We wandered about the park, taking in the old trees and the heavy silence, and the occasional squirrel. Of the sun there was no trace. We were reminded, not too subtly, that we were visiting a tomb.

But even though there was no majestic vista, there were still plenty of things to see. We walked around the Taj, marvelling at the whiteness of its marble and the amazing artistry of its precious stone inlays. There were finely wrought filigree marble curtains surrounding the sarcophagi of the Mughal emperor Shah Jahan and of his favourite wife, Mumtaz Mahal. While heavily decorated, the place still retains an air of austere grace. We walk here as aestheticians, as tourists searching for a view, forgetting this is ultimately a place of remembrance and worship. An Islamic tomb, where garish paintings and statues have no place. After seeing the temples of the Hindu, the contrast could not be greater.

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By the time we completed a first tour of the gardens, the mist seemed to be thinning. We decided to wait a while, give the sun a chance to chase it away. After all, it was our only day in Agra. Better make it count. And little by little, the silhouette of the most beautiful monument of India began to rise from the mist.

A long, long time ago, on the other side of history, a Mughal emperor pitted Art against Death. And thus Death was defeated.

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* * *

I am concluding here my Indian journal. This was the end of the tour, but not the end of our journey. From Delhi we went on to Rishikesh, in Uttarakhand, and attended a true Vedic wedding. We went to an ashram near the holy city of Haridwar and found the real meaning of peace. I took a swim in the Ganges – the clean, cold Ganges, just emerging from the hills of Himalaya – and, according to Hindu tradition, I washed away my sins. I went up to a temple on the top of a “hill” – three thousand meters up – and saw the roof of the world. But these no longer form a story. Rather, they’re moments, anecdotes and flashbacks.

Which is why I stop here. I know that, try as I might, I will never be able to impress upon you the true feeling of India. That, dear reader, is something I hope you will experience for yourself.

Thank you for reading.

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Indian Summer: Hidden Tiger

Indian Summer: Hidden Tiger

The previous instalment of this story is Indian Summer: Temple of the Monkey God.

ln_2010_02_10_152-1953 After the chaos and mayhem of Jaipur and Delhi, Ranthambore was a real treat. We stayed at another heritage hotel, arguably the best we’ve experienced so far. Good service, decent food, swimming pool (in February! my head exploded!) and – most importantly – a booked tour to the much-touted Ranthambore National Park. In other words, an all-paid trip to the tiger’s den.

We arrived late in the afternoon, so we took advantage of the remaining few hours of daylight and took a stroll through the village. Since I forgot my sunglasses at home, I got myself a pair of “original” Diesels for half the original price – they were lifetime guaranteed, but only on Indian soil, since they broke on our way to the airport. We also got ourselves a guava – our new favourite fruit – and promptly proceeded to consume it while watching a local game of cricket. It was all in all a peaceful afternoon. We had an early dinner, then retired to bed; the next day would start early indeed.

It was surprisingly cold at half past four, when we woke up to get ready for the trip to the jungle. We bundled up best we could, I checked my camera for the hundredth time and then we were off! To have some tea! And possibly biscuits! Because the canter bus that was scheduled to take us to the reservation was fashionably late.

ln_2010_02_11_152-2043 After days and days of waiting – or about half an hour, if you’re into that objective time thing – we were finally off. Our guide told us though that our chances were slim – it had rained just the day before, and the tigers were unlikely to come down from the hills to the water. Damn you, dry season, couldn’t you hold it for one more day? Still, he was hopeful. We held on as the driver accelerated towards the dawn, and possibly the fateful meeting with a certain large predator, whose name by know you probably know.

The first wild animal we were to encounter in the park was not the aforementioned feline, but its prey. The graceful, shy Indian spotted deer belied its reputation by shamelessly posing for tens of hungry tourists. Hungry for perfect images of unsoiled, beautiful nature, and just possibly an extra biscuit.

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There weren’t that many species to see, to be honest. But then again, if you want to actually see the animals – in lieu of staring at every wind-blown straw or leaf – you’d be much better off visiting a zoo. But I wasn’t disappointed, not really; the absence of tigers was more than offset by the spectacular vistas the park had to offer. Including, but not limited to some very insistent and shameless magpies. That didn’t mean that I was just going to give up, however. The moment we got back, I asked our faithful guide and miracle-working driver to please, please, arrange another trip for tomorrow morning. In a jeep, if possible. Our guide book recommended them for tiger hunting – the Mahindra Gipsy being faster, quieter and wider-ranging than the canter busses the park has to offer. The only problem? Jeeps are booked in advance. Way in advance. Not possible via the hotel reception, and almost impossible on a day’s notice, the receptionist said. But that “almost” gave me hope.

In the meantime we went sightseeing again. On the heights near the park’s entrance there is a formidable fort, with more than a thousand years of attested history. One can visit it for free – not counting the cost of transport from the village – and its temples are still being used. It was indeed an impressive sight.

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Ranthambore is now a national park, but in the olden days it was a royal hunting ground, with the mighty tiger being on the top of the list. Indeed, according to ancient custom, a rajah had to kill no less than 109 tigers to ensure an auspicious rule. The introduction of the modern hunting guns – and the attached Brits – brought the big cats on the brink of extinction. In modern-day India, poaching is just as perilous for tigers; their pelt, bones and internal organs can fetch really high prices on the black market. They are mostly used for so-called “traditional remedies” – for instance, tiger’s testes are thought to be an “effective” “cure” “for” “impotence”. That is why today there are less than 1500 tigers left in the whole of India. I sincerely hope that when tiger’s organs become increasingly unavailable, the “traditional medicine” will look to the poacher’s testes as a possible replacement in their cures.

In any case, a nice surprise was waiting for me back at the hotel. Sunil, our guardian angel, had kept his promise: I had a place in a jeep the very next day. We celebrated this amazing feat with proper quantities of beer before retiring to another night of uneventful sleep.

Alas, the only tigers I saw that day were the ones in my dreams.

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