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Thursday, November 12, 2015

The Story of A Thai "Bar Girl"

Disclaimer: This story is from the March of 2014, when I went on a solo trip to South East Asia.

In front of me was Bangkok’s famous Patpong red light district. As I approached the main street, a feeling of uneasiness crept through me.  There was nothing subtle about what lay in front.

On both sides of the street, there were bars, go-go bars and night clubs. Hordes of skimpily dressed women sat in groups immediately outside these joints , looking you up and down, giggling and inviting you to come in.  A number of Thai men were walking on the streets holding up placards above their heads. On some of these boards were pictures of naked women in different sexual positions, and the nightly rates. Other boards advertised live sex shows.

The unabashed nature of it all fazed me a lot.  But I wanted a story. Even before leaving India, I had decided that I wanted to write a story from the perspective of a Thai sex worker. And for that, I need to talk to one.  And that is why I had come to Patpong. To speak to one of the bar girls.

Even standing at the street’s entrance made me feel jittery then. With all these inner thoughts bouncing off each other and mixing with the music and the hawking of the pimps and the flirting of the tourists and the girls, everything just became a blur.

As I began walking, I could feel some people calling out to me. Or maybe they were calling out to the other tourists. In the din, I could not be sure. Even my walk was guarded, as if I was ready to push off anyone who came too close. The songs kept blaring in the clubs. Thoroughly uneasy, also disgusted, I left the place and went back to my hostel.

The next two days in Bangkok I visited palaces and Buddhist temples and parks and went nowhere near Patpong. A few days later, I left for Phuket.

The last night in Phuket, I went to Patong – the most active centre in town. This was probably my last chance at getting a story, because I would be leaving for the town of Chiang Mai the next day for some jungle trekking.

I entered Tiger Bar. A massive place, under one roof there were many bars here, each with their own bartender and bar hostesses. After walking past many women, I finally sat down at one bar and ordered a beer. A girl came and sat next to me. I did not walk away was because she made no attempt to come onto me, or suggest anything sexual in nature.Surprisingly, she wasn’t  as skimpily dressed as the others. She asked if I was from India and I nodded.

We started talking. I asked if she would like to drink something . When she nodded, I ordered a beer for her. In these bars, they give you the bill as soon as you order. I noticed that though we were both having the same drink, mine cost 100 baht and hers 300 baht. “If you order a drink for a bar girl, it is three times the cost”, she told me sheepishly. Funnily, her drink did not even look like beer. “It’s apple juice” she told me. So, this is how it works. It’s the bar girl’s job to keep talking to a customer, and to make him keep drinking.  If he orders for her, the bar earns even more. And they give the girls apple juice so that they don’t get drunk and can focus on the job at hand. I shook my head in mock amusement. But, it was the price of my story, I figured.

She asked me what I did for a living. I told her I was a writer. She laughed and asked me if I would ever write about her. I told her I would.

The funny thing is, it did not feel as if I was talking to a sex worker at all. The way we started speaking it was more like two acquaintances, or someone I’d meet in a hostel or on a bus tour.

The bar had a pole, and two girls in bikinis were going up and down the pole, each raunchier than the other. And though they were hardly dancing a metre ahead of me, I was least interested. Noi and I kept talking, now discussing her village and people in North Thailand.

The bartender asked me if I would like to pay a “bar fine”. A bar fine is when you want to take the bar girl with you back to your hotel or some place, and are willing to pay the bar a said amount for the night. I shook my head. Noi laughed and told the bartender that I was a writer and that I would write a story about her. Not surprisingly, the bartender, her friend, did not share her enthusiasm at all.

Noi, like many of the girls working in the bars of Pattaya and Phuket, originally hailed from North Thailand.  Living in a poor province, her parents had a small farm and lots of children. By the time, Noi was twenty she was madly in love with a local boy and married him. Over the next few years, they had two kids. Money was still hard to come by, and the all consuming love between husband and wife was now reduced to daily fights. His womanizing ways did not help matters and one day he left, never to return.  It is the story of most of these girls, not just hers. Noi tried to find work in the village but earned practically nothing. A friend told her about the bars in Pattaya and Phuket and soon both of them, left for this part of Thailand.

Enough western tourists come to Thailand every year. They  visit the bars, pick up  girls and often ask them to spend the entire holiday with them. Some of these foreigners , or falangs as  they are known in Thailand, would come for four five days, whereas others would come for a fortnight, a month or even longer. If they picked a bar girl for the holiday, they would treat her well, pay for her meals, go out, shop together and even buy her gifts. Of course, they would have sex too.

A lot of these men are lonely and want companionship. They want an ego boost – want a girl to find them good looking, want a girl to raise their self esteem. Sometimes, they even fall in love with the girl and take her back to their country and marry her. The girls, too, hope to fall in love with a falang and live in a rich country where she can have her own house and a better life. That’s the dream. Noi hoped too that she would fall in love with a nice Falang and that he would take her away with him.

Not every girl’s knight in shining armour is Prince Charming. Some are from different countries, some are almost her father’s age, some are lonely and some are just fooling her or being fooled by her.

The bartender was clearly not happy that we were just talking, and not even drinking, and asked me if I was done for the night.

I liked how Noi didn’t try to come on to me at all. It made me comfortable enough to crack jokes. She asked me if I would like to see her children’s photographs.  When I nodded, she took out her phone and showed me some pictures from her Facebook account. “Can I add you”, she asked hesitantly.

When I nodded, she looked happy and exclaimed, “now I will know when you write a post about me”. It’s been over a year, but I hope my post finds its way to her home page feed.

Another bar girl was walking up and down the aisle next to us. Every time a tourist crossed her, she tried to pull him to sit down at the bar with her, but they would all push her away. She took it good naturedly and would just flash us a grin or say something funny every time she was rejected. She had come to talk to us a couple of times and kept teasing me to go have sex with Noi. I told her that I wasn’t looking for that.

She was shorter than Noi. Her hair was a mixture of gold and brown, and the clothes she wore left very little to imagination. As one more guy brushed off her hand, and walked off, she came to us and in good humour,  pushed up her breasts to reveal a little more through the thin top and quipped “I’ll get the the next one!!”

I smiled at her, and pointed towards a guy strolling in our direction, and asked her to “go get him”. She laughed and left. To be honest, I can’t believe my mental state in those moments. Here were two women moving raunchily on a pole next to me, and another wearing close to nothing, and a fourth with whom I was sitting, and there wasn’t a single sexual feeling in me. The only emotions I felt were those of a friend. I wanted them to be able to get some guys to sit with them, because I knew that only then the bar would pay them anything.  Never ever in my life had I imagined I would be sitting talking to sex workers , talking about their families and asking one to “go get a guy”.

The truth is that behind those smiles, and makeup and flashy clothes, lay young girls who were mostly poor, who had to necessarily smile at any man of any size, shape, age and who had probably been ravaged and hurt by hundreds of men. They had to lie to their families about their “work life”, they were judged and looked down upon by those who knew what they did, and most Thai men would never marry them. Worst of all, their own souls had taken a huge emotional beating and been left scarred and a lot of innocence had been sucked out of their lives forever.

I asked Noi if she had ever been in love. She smiled, and nodded.  There had been a Brazilian guy she had fallen for a few months back. He was much younger than her, just 26 years old. They spent a happy month together, but he had maintained that he had no interest in marriage. When he flew back to his country later, he was sad to leave her. She cried for many days.

I left half an hour later. We hugged warmly and I wished her every happiness in life. She wished that I have a great trip ahead. I told her I’d send her a postcard.

The two girls on the pole were still gyrating, making seductive expressions but not being able to hide the absolute disinterestedness in their eyes. I walked out of Tiger Bar, and realized I had not taken down her address for the postcard. I walked back to where we had sat at the bar.

From afar, I noticed there was already a man sitting with her, and playing with her hair. I turned back and went to my hostel. I hope she made some money out of him.

------------------------  THE END ------------------------------------------

Now Read:

1) Lost in a Thailand Forest for Three Days
2) Deep Sea Soloing: The Scariest Day of My Life
3) In the House of the World's Only Living Goddess

Monday, November 9, 2015

India to Australia: Without Planes or Plans!

Experience and time changes the way we look at things.

Two years ago, when I first quit my job, I wanted to step out and see the world. I had read enough about travellers who had been backpacking and living life vicariously, in the moment, and sometimes even on the edge, and now I was giving myself the chance to do that.

Two and a half years and 31 countries later, I have started viewing travel differently. I was never much interested in just check-listing places. I don’t just want to see Paris and Barcelona and Budapest and Brazil and Machu Picchu and New Zealand. Instead, I want to be an adventurer, see how far I can stretch my comfort zones and  keep doing so.

And that is why, even though I have just returned from Europe after a two month trip, I find myself increasingly restless, and wanting to do something more significant than just exploring countries. After sitting in my room for the last three days, and taking turns at staring alternately at the world map and then the cracks in the ceiling, I hit upon an idea I possibly want to chase in 2016.

India to Australia, without taking a single flight
The moment the idea struck me yesterday, I opened the map to figure out the route. It looked fairly obvious. India -> Myanmar -> Thailand -> Malaysia -> Singapore -> Indonesia - > Australia.

Till Malaysia, there is an inland route, and there must be enough boats plying between Malaysia and Indonesia. The trickiest part, I figured, would be to find a way to go from Indonesia to Australia. Buoyed by the idea, I started searching online for cheap boats, ferries and yatchs that would go between the two countries but much to my chagrin, most forums and websites insisted that  (a) there are very few ships that travel between the two countries  (B) the ones that do are pretty expensive if you travel as a passenger (can cost anywhere between Rs 70,000 and Rs 1,50,000 for a 7-12 day one-way ride).

I delved deeper and searched some more, and found out that there are a few freighter ships and other vessels where you can work as a crew member and travel between the two countries.

Now, I have absolutely no prior experience in working on a boat, so the idea seemed quite farfetched even to me. But then I went through a few websites that connect ship/yatch/sailing boat owners with crew members as well as volunteers in all parts of the world. A few of the owners had posted job descriptions that mentioned that they weren’t necessarily looking for prior work experience on a boat, and it made my already over optimistic heart jump a little more.

I even wrote to one Australian guy who has a sailboat and wants to set sail in April 2016 and will be covering Vietnam, Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia, Brunei, Timor Leste, Papua New Guinea before docking at Cairns in Australia. In my cheeky, irreverent mail to him, I let him know that though I did not know the first thing about sailing, what I could offer in plenty was enthusiasm, a desire to learn, trashy Bollywood music, and short spells of privacy where he could think about conquering the world while I sat at deck and wrote about the sea. In my over excited head, I could already picture magnificent sunsets, raging seas, migratory sea birds flying in the sky high above, whales and sharks revealing themselves to us for brief seconds,  lots of hard work and him cursing me crudely and loudly while I fumbled around.

Of course, it is childish to think that the very first person I write to will let me hop onboard. Maybe nobody will. But hopefully I can persevere and write to as many people as I can find, and some day I will see an email in my inbox that invites me to be a crew member on a boat sailing the Indian Ocean.

And if the boat sinks, well I'll anyway be going Down Under either way.

Next, I started reading about the road passageway from India to Myanmar.  I googled ‘Manipur Myanmar road passage’ and a variety of websites and blogs opened up.  Among these, came a fascinating blog about these two travellers – a man and a woman – who left their homes in October 2013 and since then have spent 511 days travelling through land, covering the length and breadth of Central Asia. Currently, in India’s North Eastern region, the most astounding part of their epic sojourn is that they have travelled the last one and a half years on an average budget of 3.30 Euros (Rs 250) per person per day.  These 3 odd euros include their accommodation, food and transport. Fascinated by their story, I opened post after post on their blog and read how they have been living in a tent, foraging for fruits and food in jungles, hitchhiking their way through countries, sitting in cramped and overpacked vans, trucks, dumpsters, and chronicling their journey, their trials, their changing thoughts in their blog.

This is how they describe themselves, 'Boris, Marta and Burma are two humans and one cat. Little and resilient, their average speed is of a few km per hour. Generally peaceful, they show a negligible level of aggression and so far have reported only two natural foes, namely gravitation and standstillSince October 2013 they are hitchhiking Asia from West to East, and after 511 days on the road they found their overland way to India. Now they roam the subcontient, drink tea, feast on vegetarian wonders, enjoy time with friends and write a little book of tales, while looking for a way back home.'


All the while when I was researching for my own proposed trip, one part of my head was telling me it was all wishful thinking. Or maybe just an impulsive idea that I would soon forget about. Or something that I may or may not be able to execute. But there was another voice that whispered, that over the last two years, there had been enough such thoughts which when they first came to my head seemed like mere fantasies I would never live through. But I had gone on to do them, even though I had not really burnt myself in the pursuit to do so.  When I read Boris’ and Marta’s stories, it just served as even more inspiration. There are so many people doing such wonderful, amazing things in the world. There are so many travellers doing such incredibly difficult things by my standards, that even my naturally narcissistic self cannot but stay grounded and humbled.

Over the last two years, there were many things I found intimidating the first time I experienced them. Even simple things like finding my way from the airport to my host’s house the first time, without internet, without taxi, and using public transport on the first day in a foreign country (especially where they don’t speak English) felt challenging.  The first time I was hitchhiking, this was between two towns in Albania, I appeared calm outwardly, but inside there were these constant questions pounding my brain, ‘What if no one actually stopped and offered me a ride! How many hours would I wait until quitting and taking a bus’. As I went past many such small challenges, subconsciously I became increasingly calmer in the face of new situations that followed thereafter. Over days and months, I started developing a sober confidence that every situation could be handled, and to not panic when one could not foresee an immediate solution. That there would always be a way.

It is with that thought in mind, I believe I can find a way to travel from Delhi to Darwin, or India to Australia, without taking a single flight. It is a whim, an impulsive desire, but it also has the backing of two years of travelling, of trying small but new things, and listening to hundreds of stories from backpackers like Boris and Martha who believe in the overall goodness of the world, who believe in the spirit of discovery, who do not blindly follow society’s conventional and security-first approach to everything, and who’s eyes shine brightly as  they look at the stars and the oceans and the mountains and the animals that live in this beautiful world.

Wish me luck!! And heh, if you know any sailor plying the Indian Ocean, put me in touch? :)

Now Read:

1) Walking in Mostar, Bosnia
2) Hitchhiking in Albania
3) The Art of Travelling: Nero in the Balkans

Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Nero in Bosnia: Walking in Mostar

What do I say about a town that seems like it has just been taken out of a medieval era and placed in today’s world. A town whose soul is a four hundred year old bridge and every evening, people gather all around and talk the night away. A town that makes you feel as if you have come to a place where you don’t want to do anything but go on long walks in the evenings and sit in the balcony in the night and write.

A town that was ravaged twenty two years back has blocks of stones lying everywhere, with the line “Don’t forget ‘93” written on them in black chalk.

Let’s just start at the beginning.

It was almost ten pm when I got down at Mostar bus station and walked over to ‘Hostel David’.
It was actually a house that had been converted into a hostel. The ground floor had been converted into dorms, and upstairs there were two bedrooms, a living room, kitchen and a balcony that was used by the family running the hostel.

A young boy, about sixteen years old, came down the steps and greeted me. His name was Tariq. At six feet one, he was towering over me.

They were all full for the night.

There is a room upstairs inside the house. I can give it to you at the same price as the dorm.”

Of course, I took it.

Famished, I came out of the room in five minutes to go grab some dinner. 

Come sit here”, said Pedja, the owner of the hostel. I looked at him, as he sat lazily on a chair in the balcony. His daughter was sitting next to him, and she introduced herself as Ana.

I sat obediently, and he poured wine in two glasses and handed it to me and another backpacker, Bernat. Tariq brought some hot goulash and huge loaves of bread. There was nice music playing in the background and I asked Pedja the language. “Catalan”, said he and Bernat together. Bernat was from Barcelona and we all raised our glasses and grinned at each other.

The dinner was wonderful. In all my travels in two years, never had any hostel offered me a free dinner. And we had barely arrived. These people did not even know us. It was simply a generous gesture and we spent the next two hours sitting there in that balcony, listening to Catalan songs and sipping wine.

But what can I say about a town that makes you feel as if  life could not be more peaceful than here but the moment you read about its past, you are jolted by the gruesome violence that it has been a victim of.

The word “Mostar” means bridge keeper and the name of the town comes from the four hundred year old bridge that is the heart of the town. It lies in the old quarter, and on one side of it lies a delightful Turkish bazaar. A little alley just after the bridge heads downwards and takes you down to the river Neretva. The river is blue green in colour, absolutely crystal clear and deliciously cold. It’s temperature is around 7 degrees and it is one of the coldest rivers in the world. 

Between 1992 and 1993, after Bosnia-Herzegovina declared independence from Yugoslavia, the town was under an 18 month siege. The Yugoslav People’s Army bombed Mostar and controlled a large part of it. The Bozniacs however got support from the Croatian Defence Council and together they chased  the Serb dominated Yugoslav army out of Mostar. But within a few months, the Croats wanted control over Mostar and soon began a bloody war between the Bozniak Muslims and the Bosniak Croats. The Croats took over the western side of the bridge and bombarded and shelled the eastern Muslim area. Those captured were tortured and killed, and as the rest of the world kept silent and watched, a systematic, shocking and brutal ethnic cleansing happened in this town that had for hundreds of years seen Serbs, Croats, Bozniaks, Muslims, Christians all coexist peacefully. The Croats kept firing and bombing and the bridge which had withstood all tests of time, weather and armies, finally collapsed into the river.

It was as if Mostar’s heart had been plucked out. 

Twenty two years since the war, the people from the two sides, the eastern and the western, still don’t mix. There is hostility still in the air.

Pedja would say a lot of things about the waterfalls around the region, the rivers, the fortresses in Herzegovina, but every time I tried to talk to him about the war, he would go silent. It took me a couple of days to understand that he had seen it all, had suffered greatly from it, and did not wish to remember or be reminded  of it. I kicked myself for not realizing it earlier, and made it a point to never talk about the subject in front of him again.

As we walked around Mostar, we could still see some broken houses, still see bullet marks in the walls of houses. Some of these houses stand next to perfectly new buildings. The government picks specific buildings and reconstructs them.

In 2004, the bridge was reconstructed and opened up and the city roared in happiness at the unveiling. In a beautiful move, they decided to build it with the same flaws as it had been originally built, and even retrieved as many stones as they could from the river and reused them in the construction.

Today young local boys hang around the bridge in their speedos, and if you  give them a few euros, they will jump off the top of the 27 metre bridge into the river. There is an annual diving competition too off the bridge. As Pedja told me, "To be a man in Mostar, you have to dive off the bridge."

 Mostar was one of my favourite places in the entire two month trip through the Balkans. I wonder why though.

Maybe it was the bridge. In the evenings, it looks even more beautiful when it is lit up. As I went to it, every evening and sat there every night, I looked at the people as they all came together; the couples kissing or just holding each other, the old men who would sit around a table and play a board game, the girls in the heels who would giggle and laugh and squeal as they  found it impossible to walk on the slippery surface; the café owners on either side who would ask you to come over but never pester, the bazaar  that would completely alive and look as bright as could be with the dazzling lamps, the hookahs, the bowls, the flowing robes, the souvenirs. 

Maybe it was the slowness in the air. Those cobblestone streets, those buildings of Ottoman architecture, the narrow alleys in the bazaar, had a charm that made you feel as if you were in a different era altogether. It made you want to just saunter through those lanes, it made you want to write. 

Or maybe it was just that family I stayed with. Every day as I walked into the hostel, after my morning or evening excursions, Ana and Tariq would smile widely at me. Not just a heavy breakfast, they also insisted on giving me dinner every night. Each time I entered the house, I was offered something to eat. And in the nights, Pedja, Ana, Tariq and I would sit in the balcony, drink wine and listen to the music playing in the background. Sometimes they were songs of Freedom, sometimes they were classics, sometimes they were jazz, but they all sounded beautiful. Pedja would never remember my name and would keep calling me Gandhi, a man he greatly admired. They had never had an Indian in the hostel before, and Gandhi soon became my name there. By two days, we had become very attached.

On the third night, there were a number of new backpackers in the hostel. A rumbuctious lot, they kept shouting and laughing and drinking in the middle of the night, and it annoyed me to see this, especially because Pedja had such long work days, and their noise would not let him sleep. I had not even realized how I had become possessive towards this new family of mine.

On the fourth morning, I planned to leave. Tariq’s face fell when I checked out and paid him for my room.  Something just pulled at my heart right then so I impulsively said “alright I will stay for an extra day.”  Both he and Ana whooped in excitement. Pedja was away conducting a group tour to the waterfalls, and Ana called him to say that I was extending my stay by a day. I could hear him roar on the other end of the line, and say “Tell Gandhi I will put his picture on my wall”.

The whole day I sat with Tariq and Ana at the dining table. We played chess, we spoke, they taught me some Bosnian, I taught them some Hindi. We were all terrible students.

The next morning as I woke up, Tariq grinned at me and said, “my brother”. It sounds cheesy now but in those moments, listening to that giant of a sixteen year old say those words in a heavy accent made me smile.

Finally, I had to leave. When I proceeded to pay for the room, they refused to take money and told me that Pedja had said that he would not accept more money from me. For four nights, the family fed me breakfast, dinner, snacks, and filled me with wine and beer and had not taken a single penny for it. Now they were not even accepting money for the room. I kept pleading but they did not listen.
I walked out of the hostel, shaking my head. As I walked on, I realized I loved this town. Ahead a crowd had collected. A man was blowing large giant bubbles. He was wearing a hat, and long flowing pants.The kids in the crowd were completely fascinated by these large bubbles and came forward to hold them or burst them. He moved his hands in an exaggerated manner, and kept calling out to the kids, and they all came, enchanted, entranced, following his command and following the bubbles. Their parents clapped and the crowd cheered as the man had the kids fascinated. Through his act, the child in all of was coming out.

A small hat lay on the ground, and next to it lay a placard that said he was a traveler from Argentina and needed money to travel. That he went to every town and performed in the evenings. I have seen people busking before, but almost all of these street performers have either been musicians, singers, dancers or fire eaters. It was the first time I was seeing a man blow bubbles, make children happy and try to earn money. I went forward and put a few coins in his hat.

I stood there for ten more minutes, watching him enthrall the kids. Every single person in the audience was smiling and it was beautiful. Realizing that my bus would leave soon, I left. As I walked on, I realized I loved this town.

Do you want to join This Guy on one of his August trips? We are going to Kashmir and Ladakh. Send a mail to if you want to come along.

Now Read:

1) Hitchhiking to Tirana: This Guy's On His Own Trip
2) The Art of Travelling
3) Nero is in Albania

Monday, July 20, 2015

Hitchhiking to Tirana: Nero in Albania

And with that one simple gesture, she had floored me. It wasn’t love in the slightest sort, neither was it infatuation, nor a warmth brewing from friendship. But I was filled with affection, and I didn’t know what to do.

Let’s go back to the beginning of the story.
I was standing on the side of the road, in Berat. A few cars had passed me already and though I put out my thumb, nobody paid any attention to it. I was trying to hitchhike my way from Berat to Tirana, the capital of Albania. Not that there weren’t any buses, and neither was the ticket expensive, but I wanted to see if I could hitchhike my way across a country. Tirana would just serve as a pit stop, and the goal was to hitchhike till Kosovo – Albania’s neighbor and the second newest country in the world.

I didn’t mind the cars not stopping. One would, eventually, I figured. What was inconvenient though was the searing heat. It was over forty degrees celcius and there wasn’t a cloud in the sky. I tried to let it not bother me. It was, finally, all part of the experience.

Another traveler joined me. He was from New Zealand, and said he was hitchhiking to Tirana too. He introduced himself as Peter. “Nero”, I replied and we shook hands.

 I noticed a man standing on the opposite side of the road, staring at me. I was getting used to it now. None of them had ever met an Indian before. I smiled at him and he walked over to us and asked us where we were from. We spoke for a while and he asked me if I would pose for a photograph with him. So we grinned into his phone, as he took a selfie.

Ten minutes later, a car stopped a few metres ahead and we ran to it, hauling our bags. He wasn’t going to Tirana but he could drop us midway, he said. We hopped in and he started the car’s engine. ‘Falemenderit’, we both told him excitedly,  the Albanian word for “thank you”.

The breeze hit my face, and it was making me feel good about myself. About the hitchhiking that I was doing.

Peter and I started talking and when I asked him how long he had been travelling. “It’s been 9-10 months now” he replied casually.

The man had started his journey from Thailand. After spending some time in the islands, he boarded a bus and headed north. Soon, he had crossed over to Myanmar. After spending two weeks there, he hopped across to India via the Manipur-Myanmar border. Unlike a lot of international backpackers who come to India and do Delhi, Agra, Jaipur, Varanasi and Khajuraho, Peter fell in love with the simplicity and virgin beauty of India’s north eastern states and spent over a month trekking through Manipur, Tripura, Arunachal and Assam. He then moved a little south to West Bengal and flitted through the streets of Kolkata, rode the yellow taxis, and sat at the banks of the Hooghly. Moving westward, he entered into Varanasi and had long smoking sessions with a saadhu. Later, he took the train to New Delhi.

The car suddenly stopped and the owner smiled at us sheepishly and said that he was turning into another town and if we wanted to go to Tirana, it made sense to get down there. He was nice enough to stop at a bus stop. We got down, thanked him and saw him drive away.

Peter told me that he would take the next bus and asked if I’d join him. I shook my head. I was sure I wanted to complete this journey only by hitchhiking. We bid adieu to each other.
Peter’s father was French, and when he had started this trip, Peter had decided to go all the way from Asia to France by land. After travelling in India, he crossed over to Pakistan, Iran, Turkey, Greece and till a few moments back had been sitting in a car with me in Albania. In a few more weeks, he would be in the land of Napolean, Victor Hugo and Zinedine Zidane and his journey would be complete.

The cars whizzed past me. It was hotter now, and I was quite tempted to join Peter on the bus. I finished the last drops in my water bottle and stared at the road. A bus went by. Maybe he was on it. Safe travels, my friend.

Finally, a car stopped. Two young travellers, a girl and a boy, smiled at me as I got into the back of their car and told me they were from Belgium and were road tripping through Albania.

I was very sleepy and tired when I had gone into the car, but there was something in the way the three of us connected that made me just want to talk to them, and not sleep at all. They were in their early twenties. In love. Soft spoken. Interested in visiting India. They had been to Argentina before. And I was interested in visiting Argentina. They spoke of Shantaram, and I spoke of the Tango. We spoke of how beautiful Albania was, and the need to see places which weren’t swarming with pub crawls, and not swarming with a thousand tourists. I don’t really remember what all we spoke about, but there are days when someone says something and you just smile and nod your head and look out of the window and think about what they said, in your head. I don’t remember what all we spoke about but it’s not every day you say something and someone looks back at you and writes down that line in a brown diary. I don’t remember smiling so much in a conversation in some time.

I don’t remember seeing my destination appear and me wishing that we were driving for some more time.

It was so sudden that we reached Tirana that I didn’t really have time to think of anything except to get out of the car and haul out my bags. I had to still complete my journey to Kosovo, while they were spending the next two days in Tirana.

I looked into the window and wished Noam a pleasant journey ahead. Jasmine had gone down from the car and I turned back and smiled at her. We hugged, and as is regular in Southern and Eastern Europe, I leaned forward and we lightly cheek kissed twice. I was about to withdraw, when she leaned a third time and put her cheek next to mine and said in a soft tone, “In Belgium, we say goodbye by cheek kissing thrice, Nero.”

And with that one simple gesture, she had floored me. It wasn’t love in the slightest sort, neither was it infatuation, nor a warmth brewing from friendship. But I was filled with affection, and I didn’t know what to do. I don’t even know why it felt significant.

I just stood there, looking at the two of them and wondering if the three of us would ever meet again. Somewhere I know they were thinking the same. But we chose to keep silent and after a few moments, Noam started the car and I saw it leave.

I walked to a café, my head still filled with the conversation we had and the two of them. It would be stupid to text that I miss them, I thought to myself. “It’s only been fifteen minutes”, I said to myself. The next moment, I got a message “We miss you. If you haven’t gotten a ride yet to Kosovo, come to our hostel.”

I smiled at the message and finished my sandwich. To go back would be to try and capture the moment again. To go back would be stretching a moment. I picked up my bags and went out of the café.

Eventually, some car would stop. And I would reach Kosovo. What was inconvenient though was the searing heat. It was over forty degrees celcius and there wasn’t a cloud in the sky. I tried to let it not bother me. It was, finally, all part of the experience.

-------   The End -------

Friday, July 17, 2015

The Art of Travelling & Nero in Albania

I pick up my bags and look at the hostel garden for the last time. The owner’s wife, she must be in her fifties, is smiling at me. It was a nice place, the Berat Backpackers Hostel. It’s traditional, large and a beautiful old Ottoman house now converted into a hostel. The interiors still have some of the family portraits.

I touch the fortifying wall and walk out. I used to sit near the railings and watch the river and the town across it, in the evenings. In two days, I became fond of this house. But the 250 year old abode has seen a lot of backpackers like me. 

I walk down the street, typically Albanian old town, no tar, just white stone. It is the best part of town, the UNESCO protected old quarter called Gorica. 

All the houses are old, almost two three hundred years, white in colour, with large windows. There are winding footpaths and narrow alleyways, and you can spend an entire evening just walking around Gorica. Pretty and quaint, it’s a fairytale-like place. A girl watches me from her balcony as I take in my surroundings. Whatever the news, the media, regular blogs say about Albania is silly. It is a beautiful country and has such friendly people.

As on July 10, its been over a month since I came to Europe. The group I was leading in Turkey and Greece left a few days back, and after a couple of relaxed days, I am ready to travel hardcore. 

The most significant part of travelling alone is that it makes you think a lot. In those long moments when you are just by yourself, maybe on a bus, or just walking alone, there are a thousand things going on in your head. Most of your head is cluttered by thoughts about where you can have your next meal, or where the hell’s that bus stop the hostel guy was talking about, or when you should leave for the next town. 

And there is a part of your head that is learning and processing so much. I can now figure out if a person is from Scandinavian Europe or not. I have learnt to differentiate between some of the accents. Then, there's the history. Every place I go to in the Balkans, there has been war in the past, bloodshed, empires being built and shattered, of which I mostly knew nothing before I came here. As I headed from Turkey to Greece and now to Albania and continue on my northward journey, I trace the path that the Ottomans took. I am reading the history of the Ottoman empire and seeing the cultural and architectural influence in the lands they ruled.

As I walk on, I wonder if I am progressing ahead, or going back in time. Maybe the two go hand in hand.

I cross the bridge that divides Gorica from the rest of Berat. In the evenings, when the town is lighted up, the bridge looks very pretty. There is not much water in the Osumi river now. July’s the hottest month of the year. But the water is very clear and green. Next to the bridge is probably the best part of the town. It is like a postcard - an old bridge over a river, the two oldest and most historic parts of town – Gorica and Mangalem, sitting on the mountain slopes – on either side of the bridge. As the river curves ahead, it will pass through towering canyons as high as a hundred metres.

The houses in the Mangalem quarter too are old, white, and have large windows. It is exactly why Berat is known as the “town of a thousand windows.” This well preserved Ottoman town is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and along with Gjirokastra is one of the most beautiful towns in Albania.

On top of the hill above the Mangalem quarter is the fortress. The castle has seen Roman, Byzantine and Ottoman conquerors, and has been continuously inhabited ever since the fourth century. The path from the town to the castle is beautiful, it’s a sea of white on cobblestone streets, and there are trees lined on the sides as you climb higher.  

There are some fantastic views from the castle walls, of the entire region. I would have loved it more but there is a hotel and a few cafes inside the castle walls. It made it less authentic for me.

A man asks me if he can click a photograph with me. I smile. He has never met an Indian before. Albania is still very untouched, unlike Croatia which receives a lot more tourists. After being in Santorini and Muykonos, two stunning Greek islands that are overrun by tourists, I am liking it here, where there are no tourists at all.

Travelling should also make you try out things, test your newly acquired comfort zones and make you stretch those too. The first evening at the Berat Backpackers Hostel, I meet a traveler from France. On the road for six weeks, he’s carrying a tent with him. He goes to a town, finds a hill or a lake or a shaded area and pitches his tent. When he has finished seeing the town, he hitchhikes to his next destination. Only when he is exhausted, he takes a short break and stays in a hostel. He left yesterday, and as I saw him fold his tent into the bag, I can’t help but wish him all the best in his travels.

And I love it. One of the key things about the life of a traveller is that he/she must constantly try to evolve, push their comfort zones. I never really made a bucketlist but if I had a couple of years back, I guess it would have focussed around places. Now however, it is in trying out things that are more challenging.  

Next year onwards, I want to carry a tent too.

I want to do busking  - perform on the street for a couple of hours every day and collect money in a hat. Heh, I don’t think I have a talent for street performance and it will take a lot of luck for my Bollywood dancing to get me a few pennies. I need a hot partner, I think.

I want to do a four person (all strangers to each other) road trip through a series of countries. Also try a two person trip for three four weeks.

I want to figure out all the countries in South America that give Indians visa on arrival. Plot a route map through them, and bike my way across the countries.

 I want to Visit Antarctica, and sit in between a colony of Emperor Penguins.

As I walk ahead, there are a few souvenir shops. Lost in my thoughts, I forget to buy a magnet.

Berat has been a good experience. It is time to move on to a new country now. I am headed to Kosovo – the second newest country in the world. From there, I will probably go to Montenegro, then Bosnia, Serbia and Romania.
To reach Kosovo, I must first take the bus to Tirana, the capital of Albania. And then take the evening bus from Tirana to Prizren, the Kosovo town I want to visit.

I pass the bus station and walk a hundred metres ahead. I put out my hand as the first car approaches. He does not stop. Neither does the second.
I look up at the sun. It is about forty degrees celcius. So many people only see the glamour that comes with a traveller’s image. Nice photos, overwhelming locales, the jump shots. Nobody sees the sun, the heat, the tons of patience, the queues, the waiting.
I walk a little more and wait for the next car to come. Another hitchhiker joins me. We smile as five, six cars zip past us and pay our thumbs or us no attention whatsoever.

I can easily take the bus. But a traveler must push his comfort zones. I have decided. I will hitchhike my way to Tirana, come what may.
----------------------  The End  --------------------

Have you read  "Nero's in Albania"

Or if you want to read something else,

1) Love in the Times of the Jaipur Literature Festival
2) How I met Lisa

Thursday, July 9, 2015

Nero is in Albania

It is half past one in the night, and the guard takes his own time to look at my passport. I stand nervously wondering if all is okay. Finally, he stamps it. I heave a sigh of relief and walk back to my bus, still groggy eyed. When I climb aboard, everyone is staring at me. There is not a single foreigner in the bus. Besides me.

Down the road, a sign reads “Welcome to Albania”.

They are all talking loudly. Finally a girl translates. “Where are you from?”, she asks me. When I say India, there are several “aahs”. One man is rubbing his chin, another is eyeing me. The chatter does not stop. The girl keeps translating the questions. “How far is India?” “Where are you coming from?” “Why are you visiting Albania?” To the last I answer “Because it is beautiful” and when the girl translates it back in Albanian, the bus erupts and everyone cheers. Everyone is smiling. The questions don’t stop however, and neither do the side jokes. And all this at 2-3 am. When I finally get off at my stop at Gjirokastra, everyone waves at me and wish me good luck. I think I will like this country.

It is 330 am.

The bus has dropped me in the middle of the city. My plan was to wait at the bus station till morning to save one night’s accommodation cost. But Gjirokastra, just like most of Albania, has no official bus station. A few men are staring at me from the other side of the road. I nod at them and make my way to an inn. After knocking several times, finally someone opens the door and thankfully I am given a room.

My bedsheet has a print on it. It says “Welcome to Albania”.

Ask anyone if they have been to Albania and mostly they will say “What? Where is that?” or “Is it safe?”. The latter is a valid question. Albania has mostly been at war for hundreds of years. While earlier, it was under the rule of the Ottoman empire, in the twentieth century, it was under Communist dictatorship for over forty years.

I go to sleep almost immediately. I have already been on the road for twenty nine days, first travelling solo and then leading a group trip through Turkey and Greece for two weeks. Now that my group has left, I am looking for some serious adventure and am planning to hitchhike and bus ride my way through the Balkans for a month. Bosnia and Serbia might not approve of my visa, so I am planning to weave my way through Albania, Kosovo, Montenegro, Hungary and Romania.

I wake up the next morning and my balcony opens up to the town on the mountainside. I walk through the streets and my plan is to make my way to Gjirokastra castle.

A lot of people are staring curiously at me.They have never seen an Indian before. Neither had any of the people in my bus the previous night. Can you imagine the gravity of that line? There are 1.2 billion Indians and they haven’t seen a single one!!!

Forget Indians, I don’t see any tourists at all in this town. And it makes me happy. I have been on too many backpacker trails and most travelers keep doing the same things, keep following the same circuits. It is the same cities and countries and pattern that all backpackers follow when they are in South East Asia, and it is the same places everyone does in Turkey. In Greece, the Europeans do a few more islands but we Indians only do Santorini, Mykonos, Athens and sometimes Crete.

Here there are no Germans, no Australians and no Japanese (the countries who travel the most). Here, unlike South East Asia or Bali there are no pancakes and waffles being served and hostels aren’t selling flyers or talking in an American accent. There aren’t any pub crawls in Gjirokastra. And these thirty days, that is how I want to travel. Not through capital cities, not through Europe’s most cosmopolitan cities, but through the countrysides and towns of the nations that most people don’t visit.

Nobody here understands English. But I don’t need to speak the language. I ask “Castle” and they all smile and point in a direction. I keep asking people the same thing, and they keep smiling and pointing.

And such is the beautiful irony in this land. It is not just the land of Enver Hoxha, the Dictator who built 700,000 military bunkers in the country for fear of invasion. It is also the birth place of Mother Teresa, the apostle of peace.

Till the 90s, only politicians were allowed to drive in Albania, and only 3000 cars were on the road. Today, everyone rides a Mercedes. The brand is so deeply entrenched that everyone, office goers, taxi drivers, mini bus drivers, food caterers all drive Mercs.

I walk on and am completely mesmerized by this town. It is as if it was plucked out of the medieval ages and planted in today’s world. 

The houses, mostly in Ottoman style, are painted white and have grey tiled roofs and as they stand next to each other, on the slopes, with the majestic mountain in the background and the castle perched on top, the town looks like a perfect postcard. The street roads aren’t tarred (except for the highway and a connecting road), and are made of white brick and stone and run narrow and curved between the houses. 

I pass a small bookstore and see the name “Ali Pasha of Teplene” on it. Arguably the greatest Pasha of the Ottoman empire, it is he who had added extensions to the castle and brought in advanced firearms and cannons. Earlier, when at the age of fourteen his father was murdered, Ali along with his mother formed a gang of brigands and looted all those who passed the mountain. As he grew older, he was first recruited by the empire to police the region and through way of favour, bribes and marriage, became Pasha (governor) in the region. Ali Pasha was a strict ruler and a vengeful one and his violent acts instilled fear in his enemies. Under him the Albanians emerged stronger and united and his soldiers would do anything for him.
I walk into the castle and fall in love with it immediately. I have always had a thing for stone castles and military fortresses. I can almost hear the horses gallop inside, can almost see the prisoners of war being brought in, can see the soldiers guard the walls. There is so much history in these walls. 

It is fitting that the dials on the clock tower don't work any more. Time, it feels, has actually stood still in this town.

I come out and walk over to Zekate House, an Ottoman house that belonged to the rich Zekate family in and was built in 1812 but was plundered in the early 20th century. Today, it serves as a modest museum house and though the riches, the jewellery, the paintings haven’t been returned, one can still see traces of what might have been when one sees the large rooms, the divans,  the viewing galleries and the many fireplaces *(in Albania, traditionally a house’s family’s richness was decided by the number of fireplaces in the house I counted nine in the Zekate House). The house is a lovely window into the lifestyle of a rich family during the Ottoman era.

I come out and walk down to Babameto Hostel – a lovely nineteenth century house that is now a hostel but has kept most of its style intact. A French girl is working on her laptop in the lawns and a dog is sprawled on the ground by her side. I sit opposite and we start talking. She has been here for  a month and she loves it. I wish I could just spend a month here, do nothing but read a book, play with the dog and bicycle to the nearby towns. I express that wish to her. An Albanian boy is listening to our conversation and laughs loudly.

You will get bored here in Gjirokastra”, he says “nothing ever happens here.”

I look around, down the mountainside. Just a stone throw away lies the village of Gardhiq. In 1812, forty years after the men of that village kidnapped Ali Pasha’s mother and sister and gangraped them for days on end, Ali Pasha had his revenge by killing 739 direct male descendants of the original sinners. Actually, I don’t even have to look that far. Gjirokastra is also the birth place of Enver Hoxha, the Dictator. He is also the man who ordered the confiscation of all the materials of the Zekate House.

The boy repeats, “It is boring, nothing ever happens here.”

I smile at him and nod my head.

Wednesday, June 3, 2015

Lost in a Thailand Forest for 3 Days: The Adventures of Neeraj Narayanan

But how can you expect me to just stay in this #$#$@ forest”, I raged.

He walked over to the jeep and the next moment he had driven off, leaving me alone in the middle of the jungle. In the background stood five wild elephants. I was stranded and there wasn’t a human around, for miles.

I seem to have a knack of getting into ridiculous situations...

It all started when I signed up for a three day jungle tour in the forested highlands of North Thailand. It was still just day eight of my South East Asia solo trip and I was now in Chiang Mai – a pretty town where you do nothing much besides walking along the canals, drinking at the pub, riding a bike to the nearby town of Pai and doing nothing there as well.

I, of course, was raring for some adventure and thought I had found a bit of that in my three day jungle itinerary. It did look promising. Hiking to a waterfalls, and then rafting - on day one. Trekking deeper into the forest on day two and staying overnight in a tribal village. And rock climbing on day three before returning to Chiang Mai in the evening.

Earlier that fateful morning, I bounded to the jeep waiting outside my hostel. Besides me, there were six others. In the three hours that it took to leave the town and reach the forest, we were laughing, talking and had bonded a lot.

The sun was beating down on us, when we began the trek. We were all in our vests and shorts and walked under the trees as much as possible. A shallow stream kept us company as we hiked to the waterfall. 

The water was deliciously cold and we played about for a while.

It was when we were headed to the rafting point when I first got to know that I was the only one in the group who had signed up for a three day tour. Everyone else was part of the one day jungle tour. Puzzled, I asked the driver what I was supposed to do when the rest would leave.

We are going to leave you at a deserted elephant camp”, he informed me and chuckled. I laughed with him and reminded myself that Thai guides had a good sense of humour. If only I knew then that he was speaking the truth.

We divided ourselves into two teams and jumped into the rafts. The water was extremely shallow but we had a fun time, flicking water on the other boats and singing songs.
We then headed back to our jeep and half an hour later, we were at a deserted camp. In this non touristy season, there were no workers at the camp. I could see a couple of makeshift huts and the driver asked me to alight from the vehicle.

When he told me that I was to stay there while the rest returned to the city, I exploded.

Nobody else signed up today for the three day jungle tour, so you will have to stay here by yourself tonight.”

What if no one comes to pick me up tomorrow?”

Even if no one comes tomorrow, at the end of these three days you will be picked up. Don’t worry, a villager will come and make lunch and dinner for you every day.”
You think I care about someone cooking food in this jungle. How can the agency just leave me here, I don’t get it.”

He looked equally helpless. When he insisted that he was just the driver and was only following instructions, I did not even know how to react.

Somebody will come to pick you up tomorrow”, he insisted.

 I wonder what made me stop protesting. Maybe I wanted to believe him. My silence emboldened him to turn and make for the jeep. My friends just stared at me from the back of the vehicle. The next moment he had driven off, leaving me alone in the middle of the jungle. In the background stood five wild elephants, in a stable of sorts. I was stranded and there wasn’t a human around, for miles.

It was five thirty pm. I was still seething but decided to explore my neighbourhood. In half an hour, it became dark. So I walked across to my hut. Inside, there was a mattress, a mosquito net, and a single bulb. No fan. No window. I flopped on the mattress and stared at the ceiling. What I had imagined as an ideal day just hours before, was now turning out to be quite a disaster. I raised my head when I heard a sound from the stream.

A man was bent over the water, at the banks. I hurried to him and tried talking. His English was very basic and he told me he would be cooking for me. He caught a few fish and disappeared into a makeshift kitchen. Soon he came back with a large bowl of rice, a bowl of fried fish and some vegetable. Before I could even raise my head and thank him, he vanished into the jungle. I have a feeling he wanted to get to his village before it became even darker. One doesn’t know what animals lurk in these jungles.
I have had all kinds of food across the world, and I have always been very non fussy about what I eat. But what he cooked was very inedible. 

After finishing whatever I could, I returned to my hut. Of course there was no phone network or internet. There was nothing to do, so I took out my iPad and started writing about the emotions that were running inside me. From time to time, I thought I could hear something, and whenever I did, I shut off the light and listened intently.  My fear had now given way to excitement though. I was still a little unnerved but a part of me told me this was a great adventure and I could feel a familiar excitement run inside.

From time to time, the elephants trumpeted. Maybe they were dreaming. Somewhere around three or four am, I dozed off too.

I woke up the next morning,on hearing some human voices. I rushed outside to see my cook and three other men. “Mahouts, sir” he told me in his funny accent. “From Burma.”
Excellent. I did not know any Thai in the first place. And the three men who now grace my abode turn out to be Burmese and don’t know a single word of English. 

As usual, my cook disappeared like clockwork the moment he had made a meal for me. He had earlier told me that the mahouts came daily for two hours to feed the elephants and bathe them. In high season, they would take tourists on the back of these elephants to the river and the fields.

I followed the mahouts to the elephants’ stable. Though I did not understand a word of what they said to each other, I really wanted to learn how to deal with elephants. They noticed my eagerness and laughed. One by one, they clambered onto the backs of the elephants, not from some high perch, but by clambering up the trunk. The youngest guy then signaled me to climb onto the fourth elephant’s back. I tried and slipped and fell on my bum. I was also worried that my antics might irritate the elephant. She was a venerable old lady and I was not sure if she would take kindly to be mounted without first being properly courted.

What’s her name?” I barked.
Lhoti”, the youngest man replied.

I looked at Lhoti, the beautiful animal, and held her trunk and cooed to her. There was so much in her eyes. Slowly, she sat down and I clambered on top. The mahouts cheered as she stood again, with the Indian boy on top.

Slowly in line, we lumbered towards the river. For those who do not know, an elephant’s skin is not soft at all. It is in fact extremely tough and coarse. And the tiny hair that sprout from its skin are extremely porky. They almost feel like thorns.

The river was down a three metre slope and as Lhoti descended awkwardly, I slipped down her head. My cries did not seem to have any impact on her and I went almost halfway down her trunk before I somehow managed to stop my slide.

The stream was not more than twenty feet in width. On both banks were bamboo trees and the elephants went straight for them. It is during those moments I realized how insignificant my weight was to an adult elephant. As Lhoti splashed her way to the bamboo trees, and tore down the branches, I had to crouch, almost lie flat on her to avoid being hit by the bamboo.

And so we continued, from one bamboo tree to another, the elephants enjoying their time, me swerving and diving and lying flat and almost falling off, and the mahouts laughing at my expense.

When they had their fill, the elephants went to the middle of the stream. The mahouts slid down and started throwing water on their backs. This was the part I was waiting for and I too splashed water on my lady. She eyed me for a bit, and then suddenly out of nowhere, filled her trunk with water and sprayed me. I looked at her in shock, and I can swear there was a twinkle in her eye.

The mahouts had scrubbing brushes with them and they rubbed it on the elephants’ backs with gusto. The elephants seemed to love it. I scrubbed Lhoti with my hands, and every time I heard one of the men shout something in Burmese, I would repeat the same to Lhoti. Whenever she got bored, she would spray me and though I wanted to whack her for doing so, common sense told me not to be over friendly.

Later the mahouts led them back through the fields to the stable, and left. I wondered how far their village was, and if they would take me with them. But I chose to stay put in my hut. I knew they would return the next day.

The three days in that jungle in the highlands of Chiang Mai passed just like that. In the mornings, the mahouts would come and we would take the elephants to the river. They would feed and bathe there. Later, when the Burmese men left, I would sit a little away from the elephants’ stable and write for a bit. Towards five pm, the Thai man would come and cook for me. And every day I learned a little bit more about what Lhoti liked. Or did not.

On the third day, a jeep did come to my camp. It had a new group of tourists and they all came to ride the elephants. It made me a little angry to see the mahouts put howdahs on the elephants and the tourists sit on the howdahs, but I kept quiet. Lhoti, however, rode without a howdah. She had me on top, you know.

I returned to Chiang Mai that evening. I had earlier wanted to go and scream at the guys in the travel agency, but I did not. To be honest, the experience at the camp, alone in the middle of a jungle, with those elephants, felt like the most special experience of my life.

It still is.

Hopefully, Lhoti will still be there when I return. And maybe she will not have forgotten me.