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Monday, August 31, 2009

Golconda

The taxi winds around the narrow maze of roads leading up to the fort. It's a very democratic cross-section of the population that lines up to enter the grounds: at Rs.10 per ticket, this is a poor man's park, not just the haunt of the well-heeled. The lawns near the entrance are surprisingly green, well-watered even as an extended dry spell has been hovering over the city and suburbs. But further inside, the parterres look parched and dusty red.
(The photo above is by A.Gopalratnam)
As we climb the steps, we dip off to the side, under the erstwhile stables/bodyguard barracks. At the far end, a couple of cauldrons are cooking and a largish group of picnickers are seated in a row, partaking of the feast. (Is that the famed Hyderabadi biryani that I smell?)
We pass on, further up the steps to the main fort. A couple are marked with what I suspect to be red and yellow paint- it's too bright to be kumkum and turmeric. I wonder why, until a few steps later we are treated to the unexpected spectacle of a man cutting the head off a white rooster in front of a small make-shift altar at the step. Maybe a sacrifice to the goddess Jagadamba, who has a temple, even in this fort which was last controlled by the Muslim Qutb Shahi dynasty.
My kids and friends are shocked by the blood spilling out onto the step, and walk gingerly around the altar and rooster head, bemoaning the barbarianism. The man carefully washes the blood from the steps, and walks quickly away, clutching the rooster's body, that likely will be cooked as part of the Bonalu festival.
We stop the walk to the top of the hill, and retrace our steps towards another area where a Light and Sound show will be held. This is for the bonafide wealthier tourists, cost Rs.100 for an ordinary ticket and double that for the VIP Executive class ticket, which comes with free soft drinks. The path to the seats is fraught with the perils of Bat-smell and Bat-droppings, echoes from the cliff-swallows swooping around the cavernous ceilings, as we wait in line for the security queue. A uniformed policewoman diligently peeks into our handbags before nodding us in.
As we swelter in the last rays of the setting sun, batting mosquitoes and ticks away in vain, a couple of scrawny cats rush towards the nearby garbage can, disappearing almost entirely inside as they rummage for leftovers.
A squeal from the loudspeakers, and then a booming voice announces the start of the show. It is a well-written and re-enacted history of the occupants of the fort, starting with the Kakatiya kings who built it, to the Qutb Shahi rulers who maintained the longest control over it, tales of kings and singers and lovers and saints, all wiped away in the final blast of war for control of the fabled fort. The Golconda is impregnable to all onslaughts but that of treachery. The lighting is wonderfully synced with the stirring narration and dialogues.
The audience is alternately captivated by the narration, or nodding off when the too-long musical interludes commence.(I'm sure they must have paid the singers handsomely for their efforts, but that doesn't necessarily mean that the whole songs be played in their 6 -or-8-stanza entirety!)
We escape during the final soulful paean to the glories of the Telugu people, just minutes before the remaining mass of the audience tries to ooze through the narrow pathway back, through the Bat-zone.
Walking outside the fort towards the taxi, squeals of horror from the kids punctuate our path: We have just managed to step on masses of teeming cockroaches that are out for the evening's dinner, congregating in the manholes.
The verdict from the kids: Unmitigated disaster of an excursion, since they didn't like the sacrificial rooster, or the bat-smells or the cockroaches.
My verdict: A reminder that beyond all the tourist trappings, there is still an underlying India that is worth seeing in all its glory and squalor.

Saturday, August 22, 2009

Racing through the Louvre

From the New York Times a few weeks ago:

"Spending an idle morning watching people look at art is hardly a scientific experiment, but it rekindles a perennial question: What exactly are we looking for when we roam as tourists around museums? As with so many things right in front of us, the answer may be no less useful for being familiar."

Why indeed do we wander around museums? Is it the age-old quest for finding ourselves in our past, the thirst for knowledge? Or the window-shopper and street-gawker's instinct? Is it less about stopping and staring and more about bragging rights as in "I visited the Louvre, when we were last in Paris." Or maybe a combination of 'All of the Above"?
As a kid in Paris, I had been taken to various sections of the Louvre for school field trips, spending a few hours once in the Egyptian section, and another visit in the Greek section, but remember very little of what are considered to be its main attractions. This recent visit was an all new-experience for me, only reminding me that it was perhaps at the Louvre that I acquired my taste for museum-hopping no matter where we went.

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Ah, the Louvre! The perfect place to loiter leisurely, gazing at John the Baptist's all-knowing smile, or perchance the mysterious magnificence of the Mona Lisa.That is, until the hordes of tourists and tour guides waving flags, assorted brochures and even umbrellas to keep their groups together, all trample over you in their eagerness to see the next item on the 'Da Vinci Code' tour.
The Monna Lisa was unreachable. A special line of the devoted faithful had to be stood in and endured, before you were able to partake of her timeless gaze at closer quarters. We settled for the 'distant darshan'. Even hoisting M onto her dad's shoulders and placing a camera in her tiny fingers elicited an indignant "Not allowed" from a museum security official doing due diligence.
Never mind, the huge painting of the Wedding Feast at Cana (Veronese) on the opposite side was quite a show-stopper, though precious few of the crowds milling around the Gioconda paid any attention to it.
With over 35,000 paintings and antiquities, we could have spent an entire month in the museum, but having only a day, we could only spent a paltry few minutes in each section, catching the 'highlighted items' suggested in the museum's brochure.
Then, we decided to linger in certain places, not quite the stuff of tourist lore, but quite fantastic nevertheless. The Persian section was eye-popping, with its huge capitals that took up so much room that one could barely imagine the size of the pillar that supported it.
A small crowd was milling around a rock edict which bore the Code of Hammurabi, with a prominently displayed French translation nearby- 'for X, off with the hand... for Y, off with the leg... for Z, off with the head..."- I mentioned it to S: "It's the Off-with-his-head school of justice", as an eavesdropping tourist nearby snickered in agreement.
The sculpture courtyard adjoining the Persian section was a relatively quiet place to recuperate from the milling crowds jostling to pose with the Winged Victory. I sat behind a statue of Hercules battling a gigantic snake , though not at a good vantage point (read, treated to a prominent view of the Derriere). I was reduced to sneaking peeks at the red charcoal drawing of the statue, which an art student was working on, right next to me. She had time to spare, tracing every contour with careful concentration, but tiring presently of her drawing, whipped out a cellphone and started a quiet conversation with a friend. So much for the slow version of museum enjoyment in the era of the cellphone.
M wanted a drink of water, and the quest for a water fountain began in earnest. But the Louvre, being a palace more than a few centuries old, didn't have the requisite plumbing to handle the thirst of the trampling hordes, unlike the new-fangled shiny restroomed and water-fountained American museums. We waited in line desperately at the entrance to a crowded café, and 15 minutes after we made it in, the bored-looking waiter finally brought a tiny cup of cappucino (10 Euros! Eeek!) and a bottle of Evian (3 Euros! Eeek-squared!). Next time we visited a Musée, we resolved to carry our own water, even if it was in a distinctly unfashionable recycled Fanta bottle.
The famed glass Pyramid was but a snatched glimpse through the windows of various wings, as we gaped our way through the luxurious apartments of Napoleon III. Then we redoubled our walk through the section of European painters, catching a few famous Rembrandt self-portraits in the process.
How did we manage to spend the better part of a day in a museum with M and S, notoriously allergic to museums? S didn't complain much, having succumbed quite happily to the touristy notion of 'catching all the highlights' in the brochures. M was anointed the official photographer and religiously clicking away at everything in sight. Unfortunately, we only have a handful of usable pictures from her collection, but the camera was worth its price in gold, for the peace of mind and busyness of M that it brought.

Friday, August 21, 2009

Back After a Long Trip

Apologies for the infrequent posting over the last few weeks. I just got back yesterday from a long trip to India, with a brief halt in Paris, as you may have noticed.

I will be back soon with little snippets and vignettes from the trip.

Monday, August 3, 2009

Shoes, Scarves, 'Spik Inglish?'

The first thought that struck me as I wheeled the cabin luggage off the escalator in the Paris airport, was : "They probably know we are Americans from our horrendous sneakers."
All the Parisiennes were mincing around delicately in shoes that would make Jimmy Choo green with envy. Up the stairs, down the escalators, triptrapping down the Champs-Elysées, clickclacking over the marbled floors of Versailles, even precariously teetering up the gazillion steps to the second stage of the Eiffel tower.
By day 2, I had got the hint. The comfy sneakers lay disconsolate under the coffee table for the room maid to shove out of the way while vacuuming, sniffing at the horrible taste in shoes of Les Americains, while I wore respectable black flats to the Louvre and the Tuileries (drat that white limestone dust!). Not chic, but not a huge fashion faux pas, either.

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On day 1, riding on the metro, apart from the shoes, I noticed the casual attitude towards cleavage display. Frenchwomen seem to be quite unbothered by any gratuitous attention to their appearance and proceed to serenely read their fat literary picks in the fast-moving train, even as they stand inches from the doorways.
I kept a death's-hand grasp on my handbag, determined to outwit the gangs of pickpockets said to swarm the trains looking for unwary suspects. So grim was my expression, that on bumping into my handbag from behind , the mild-mannered Vietnamese (?) gentleman seated behind threw up his empty hands in the air, as I glared at him.
'Desolé', he muttered.
My goodness, I thought at the end of the day. How do these ladies manage those shoes and clothes and catwalks day after day without switching to frumpy mode?
But as I soon discovered, the 'fashion show' was reserved for warm sunny days.
The next day, a heavy summer thunderstorm had cooled the city down considerably. All the ladies were dressed in the same deep-necked outfits, but now topped off with little black sweaters, cardigans or jackets. Scarves were evidently no longer a la mode.
Not for me, though. As we headed towards the Notre Dame, the chill wind on the Pont St.Michel made my teeth chatter. I spied a souvenir shop promising 3 scarves for 10 euros and promptly made a beeline for the racks placed artfully outside, determined to get a scarf both as a souvenir and a protection for my freezing neck. N helped knot it around with what she claimed was the Parisienne method of wearing a scarf, and I went around the whole day, feeling rather Audrey Hepburnish in my new scarf and my dark sunglasses. It mattered not a whit that I stood out like the proverbial sore thumb in a group of stylish jacketed Parisiennes, while I looked like a relic of the 1960's. I was no longer freezing, and could loosen or pack my scarf if the sun decided to make an appearance.

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'Spik Inglish?', asked a young girl in a scarf and long layered skirt along the Champs-Elysées, waving a piece of cardboard at us. She had no chance with tourists like us, inured as we were to the sad tales of beggars and panhandlers. We swept on by her, convinced that she was only a diversion for a couple of nimble-fingered pickpockets to work their magic on our wallets.
'Spik Inglish?'- I could swear it was the same girl again. This time we were near the Notre Dame, trying to decide between the extra-long queue to climb the bell tower or the non-existent queue to enter the main sanctorum. We turned past her and headed for the dark coolness of the church interior.

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The trains were full of polyglot strangers, French being but one of the mumbled utterances between chatting passengers. The other language heard constantly was 'Jazz-sax', more often than not playing 'Hava Nagila' at every other stop, with the busker whisking out his battered plastic tub for a handful of euros from the stone-faced crowd.
The poster on the train wall featured a battered British bobby imploring 'Don't massacre English', (translated), part of an ad for a language school promising to improve your English to 'Wall Street Journal levels' or your money back.
Meanwhile, I was massacring my French, woefully unprepared for the speed of regular French conversation, as well as the lack of inflections and stresses that I had gotten used to hearing in American English. The receptionist and the waiters were happy to grin at my mangled French and switched smoothly to fluent English at the first opportunity. That is, till I got mad at the hotel desk personnel on Day 3, and fluent French expostulations at the tardiness of the staff came pouring out from my unfrozen tongue.

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An out-of-breath trip up the 300 odd-steps of La Butte de Montmartre had me convinced that 'Steps' were the secret of the slim figures of the French. Never mind the pastries and the fat-dripping Cordon Bleu cuisine. If we climbed steps like the French, we could eat horses for lunch, whales for dinner and still not gain a single pound.
The only obese I saw all around Paris were among the tourists. Though the French TV does have a hilarious love affair with the latest and greatest in 'fitness technology'., with channels blaring the latest 'Abdo-fit' infomercials with voice-overs of the wonders of the latest from 'la Californie', they hardly need it, with their constant walking around and climbing steps.