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Friday, April 20, 2018

Different Types of Photographers on Trips - This Guy's On His Own Trip!

As a trip leader, I see a lot of different people coming on the trips, and it’s interesting to observe similarities in people across trips!

 Here's highlighting the different types of trippers, based on how they use their cameras on trips

1. The Selfie Lovers : This specie will stretch out their hands high and click away. With the other trippers crowding in, all you see in the picture are faces. The back ones struggle to be in in the frame. Sometimes all that they get in is a clump of hair or one ear. Some background people even try to subtly push others out of the frame, all the time maintaining that smile for the selfie. With no background whatsoever in the frame, even if clicked in Bali, the pic could appear to be from anywhere - Lajpat Nagar, Sakinaka, Nungambakkam!!!!

2.    The Face Lover: There is always one person on a trip who likes to click faces. He/she tries to click these face pictures when the others aren’t watching, but a lot of times the subject has a fair idea and will show better acting skills than Nawazuddin Siddiqui and will stare elsewhere and pretend as if they didn’t know they were being clicked.

It doesn't matter how the others responded to this photographer on the trip. After the trip, when they share the pics, everyone is in love with this person.

3. The Arty Fellas: They like to click the most random things. For eg, wrinkles on the face of an old woman; a kettle in a teashop; smoke coming out of the tea kettle; the smoke coming out of the kettle and going out of the window bars; dirt stains on windows; the eye of a frog. Matlab kya yaar, kya kar rahe ho! Itna angst kyu life mein. 

As soon as they take this pic, they will don a serious expression, and while continuously looking into the camera's view finder, they'll make their way to you and say, "See this one". And despite you looking at an eye of a frog, you will tell them "Good shot, bro." And they will nod their heads and say "Next time I'll change the aperture thoda". 

Bilkul. Next time I'll change who I want to take on the trip.

4. The Food Porn ones: Firstly the food comes late. Upar se, these people want you to wait and not eat till they take a pic from top angle, side angle, obtuse angle, saare angle.

5.The Ones who only click pics of the girls: There is always one guy who will only click the girls. He will ask her to pose, and when she obliges, it does not matter what the rest of the guys do. We might be doing a handstand on one finger for 73 straight seconds, we could be standing on a burning flame, we might collect as a bunch and yell "Bro, at least ek photo toh hamari bhi lele", but he won't notice. After clicking her, he will go and tell her "See, you can make this your profile picture" while we will collapse or grow old and die.

6. The Feet Fetish: There is another category of people (mostly girls) who for some reason are obsessed with getting their footwear in the way of scenery. So they will sit on a mountain edge, stretch their feet and click the background. So while you see two huge shoes or sandals in the pic, a poor snowy mountain has been completely camouflaged.


This specie has a cousin specie as well. They will stand in a circle and click a pic of all the sandals/shoes together. Matlab maar hi do mujhe ab. 


Thursday, April 12, 2018

How Captain Nero Lost His Bags in Belarus - This Guy's On His Own Trip

It was the August of 2017. I was midway through my fourth Europe solo trip. From Finland, I had taken the boat to Estonia and then gone down the road route to Latvia and Lithuania. And now I was flying to Belarus. When I reached Minsk airport, I headed straight to immigration. They looked at my passport and asked me for my return ticket. If you are Indian and want to go to Belarus on a Schengen visa, you are only allowed entry for five days, and you must have a return ticket when you enter the country. I promptly took out my phone, and showed them the ticket. The officer stared at my passport for a long time. I understood he hadn’t seen many Indians coming to his country. After sometime, he shook his head and told me that I needed to have a print-out copy of the ticket. I told him that I if they needed a hard copy, they should direct me to a printer. He shook his head and told me that it wasn’t possible. Repeated conversation didn’t seem to help, neither did the coming of one more officer. Suddenly a guard was summoned and he rudely ordered me to go sit on a chair. And he insisted I would have to fly back to Lithuania on the next flight.

Dismayed, I tried to convince him that I had booked hotels for the next  four days. I hadn’t, actually. I never book anything in advance. It’s the only way to live in the moment. But I kept at it, telling him it was unreasonable for them to send me back even though I had a ticket, but not a printout. He became even more aggressive so I shut up.

Having nothing to do, and being asked to just sit indefinitely, I took out my laptop and started playing chess against the computer. This made the guard interested, and he asked me if we could play against each other. I grinned, and we started our match. When I came close to winning, he got up abruptly, said he had some “important work” and walked off. India 1 , Belarus 0, pal!

After almost three hours, someone from the airline company came, handed me a printout and immigration finally let me enter. The next stop was the Baggage claim, and my rucksack was nowhere to be seen. I ran all over the airport, spoke to everyone I could (hardly anyone spoke English), and they all claimed that there was no other bags except for the ones all the other travellers took away. My bag, they insisted, must be still at Vilnius airport (Lithuania) from where I had flown to Minsk.

After the unsuccessful search, I left the airport and set out for a hostel.I was tired. I was supposed to be out of the airport at 6 pm, but it was already 1030 pm. I had been treated aggressively, I had been detained without much reason, and now my bags were lost. The only thing remaining with me was my small bag which had just my passport and money. All my clothes and other stuff were in the lost rucksack.

When I reached the hostel that night, there was chaos. It was a family home that was disguised as a hostel. Absolutely no one seemed to speak English, and I barely managed to get a dorm bed. The owner, an old lady, looked kind, and gave me a towel. Well, not bad, now I had my passport, my money, and a towel for the next five days.

I woke up next morning, and called up Minsk airport Lost and Found. They declared that my rucksack hadn’t arrived at all at their airport. I called Vilnius airport, and they had no clue where my rucksack was.

Oh well, I thought to myself. I got onto my Facebook page, and wrote a post. I did not want to crib or rant about my bag. I have been travelling for five years now, and only amazing things have happened to me. I have been helped all across the world, I have only received kindness for five years, so the first time I had a misfortune happening to me, I didn’t want to be ungrateful and crib about it. So I wrote a post about my detaining, my rucksack getting lost, but how it was alright that it had happened, that nature always needed to maintain a balance, and that if I had a hundred good things happening to me across 35 countries in five years, it was alright if there was an occasional mishap like now. And mostly I had just lost all my clothes and some food and shoes.

I wrote the post, and went out to see the city. I was back after two hours, and was astounded to see the reaction my post garnered. People from everywhere were commenting, some were calling me brave, some were calling me positive, and most said they were praying for the bag to come back to me. Astonishingly, the post went so viral that a lot of Belarussians also saw the post. Locals from Minsk were saying that they felt terrible about my ordeal, and that they couldn’t believe a traveller had been treated so badly. Some offered to show me their city, some offered to take me out for dinner, some offered to keep calling up the airport and finding out the status of my rucksack.

I wrote back to everyone. I was overwhelmed by how strangers from India, from Belarus, and from other countries could feel so empathetic. I was surprised that something as trivial as me losing my rucksack could make so many people pray and wish for me. Two of my friends, Shweta and Reshma took down the airport numbers, my baggage tag, and set about calling up the airport every few hours.
That is when I realized one thing. I knew that my bag was going to come back to me. I just knew it. When hundreds, thousands of people want something to happen in one united move, when there are so many people praying for one thing so unselfishly, when the world is by your side, the universe will always respond. I told a friend then that I did not know which corner of the world my rucksack was in, but I would get it back within these five days.

With Shweta and Reshma continuously in touch with the airports, I decided not to get a sim card. I wanted to see Belarus and I did not want a phone to distract me. A local, Dmitry, god bless him, kept calling up the airport too, trying to get updates about my bag. I would get all the messages when I  would connect to the hostel wifi.

A day later, the post had gone so viral that a local newspaper got in touch with me. They wanted to interrogate the immigration officers for being rude to me, a visitor to their country. I understood they wanted to do this, more for the story and the attention the newspaper would get, so I was not much interested in being a part of the story.

Day 3: The comments, the love, the prayers kept pouring in. Conversely, it also affected me a bit. I wanted to live in the moment. Forget about my bag. But people were so concerned, they would keep messaging me and asking me if it was found. After messaging for thehundredth time that it wasn’t found, I got a little irritated. To live in the moment, you must forget the past, and not worry about the future. Just enjoy what you are doing then.

For the first two days, I wore the same tee and jeans. On day 3, I took off my tshirt and wore only my jacket and jeans. I was convinced my bag would come back, and I wasn’t going to buy anything.
Day 4: There had already been two false alarms. Twice the airports said they found my bag, but the pics of the found bags were not mine. Reshma, Shweta did not give up. Nor did Dmitry. Nor did the hundreds of people still pouring in comments on Facebook and Whatsapp.

I was going to fly out to Poland the next afternoon. The reinforcements team (people calling up the airport) had one more addition – Lavanya. While I roamed about the streets of Minsk and silently admired the extremely hot women all around, Lavanya, Resh, Shweta and Dmitry kept communicating with the airports. I was not bothered about the bag any more, I wanted to just enjoy my last night in Minsk.

Early next morning, Lavanya called excitedly.  “Your bag is found”.  Still wary, I asked her to tell the airport to send a pic. Ten minutes later, she had whatsapped me a picture of my rucksack. It was finally found! 

I went to the airport, also because I was to fly to Poland, collected my bags, did my check in and put up a post about my rucksack being found. 

Again, love poured in from all over. People celebrated as if their own bag had been found. 

Congratulatory messages kept pouring in, not just from followers in India, but other countries too. It was overwhelming to know how many people cared. In an adorable display, 8-9 friends of mine made my rucksack their whatsapp DP.

p.s 1 Like I said, I knew that my bag was going to come back to me. I just knew it. When hundreds, thousands of people want something to happen in one united move, when there are so many people praying for one thing so unselfishly, when the world is by your side, the universe will always respond. Heh, in four years of travelling, every single time, and I repeat every single time, things have dramatically become alright when I am in a spot. My faith in this theory is even more reinforced now. 

p.s 2  The biggest hug to Shweta, Reshma and Lavanya -  my friends, who called up the airports for days for me because I did not have a local number.

p.s 3 To everyone, stray stories of travel mishaps should never deter you from travelling anywhere. The very fact that so many local Belarusians messaged me and offered all help shows how there are amazing people everywhere. So keep travelling, folks, to make such stories. 

-------------------------------------------------------  The END --------------------------------------------

Tuesday, April 10, 2018

Funniest Questions People ask before Joining a Trip! - This Guy's On His Own Trip

It's been close to four years of leading trips now! Can't believe the last time I posted on this blog was in November 2015. That's how busy I have gotten with the trips, I guess. 

There are a lot of questions people ask before joining in for a trip. Especially people who have just heard of the trips and don't know me personally. The questions fall under the category of logical, factual, obvious and sometimes downright funny. Sharing some of the questions that left me dazed for a moment, and the succeeding thoughts in my head that I keep to myself . 

All in good humour people, so if any of you did ask me that, know I adore you. 

1. "In this 7 day trip to Bhutan, would we have to carry our own water?" 
(my head to itself) Umm yes, there is absolutely no water in Bhutan and we are all going to carry individual water tankers to last us for 7 days!

2. "While crossing the border to Bhutan, will tribals kidnap us?"

Err yeah, they are all hiding on a tree. 20 tribals on one coconut tree. The moment our car reaches, they will tie each one of ours' hands and legs on a stick, take us to the middle of the jungle and roast us like seekh kebabs on a slow fire.

pic credits :

"Will all the other girls wear bikinis? 
"Only then I shall wear one." 

Bilkul. Every time a girl signs up, I ask her if she will wear a bikini on the trip. That is exactly how a trip leader should make women feel comfortable around him. Maadhuri.

4. "Can you introduce me to the king of Bhutan when we are there?"

Yes. The moment I announce my Bhutan dates, he marks his calendar, and comes rushing to Bagdogra airport in his best clothes. What else work could the king of a country have ;)

Heh, we are all on our own trips, I guess.

p.s All in good fun, folks! But to answer the questions if anyone is still in doubt, no please do not get water, you will get that in Bhutan, in Timbuctoo, in every country. 

No tribals will kidnap you anywhere. Not even if you wear a bikini made of leaves that they use to make their clothes. 

Heh, feel free to wear whatever you are comfortable wearing on the trips. Enough and most girls who come on the trips wear swimwear when we enter pools, or beaches and that could be bikinis or swimming costumes. Just dont enter in a salwar or shakti kapoor shorts with long naadas. 

And no, charming as I might be ;), and despite visiting Bhutan a dozen times, I can't help get anyone an audience with the king. Leave the man alone, he is already taking care of an entire country and proudly so! 

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