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Tuesday, January 28, 2014

It Takes Two to Tango

Top post on IndiBlogger.in, the community of Indian Bloggers

I first heard of ‘Argentina’ during a football game my father was watching on our 14 inch television, while I sat under his arm trying to do what men did. Watch the match I mean, not admire his armpits. They were all running in their striped white and blue shirts, but one curly haired boy was running faster than all of them. My father, well he was laughing because this man would keep falling without a reason, and earning a foul for his team much to the anger and shock of the opposite team.

I guess I have a thing for curly haired boys. The other one I liked went on to become the greatest batsman in the world.

Argentina, however, for a very long time, meant Diego Maradona to me. It had a beautiful ring to it, ‘Maradona’. You are bound to be something, with a name like that.



Over the years, I started to view life from outside that big man’s arm. Argentina did not come much into my reading in those days. When it did, it was because I was reading about a handsome fellow who started from his home in Argentina and travelled across the South American continent, on a motorcycle with a friend. The journey disturbed, educated and changed him as a man.  It also became the single biggest reason for making him one of the most recognizable figures across the world. You can see his posters plastered in the small shops of Palakkad and on the back of the buses in Thailand. His name? Che Guevara. You are bound to be something with a name like that.

But this story is about neither men.  A month after I saw the Motorcycle Diaries (based on Che’s life), I was at a wedding and found myself talking to this rather attractive looking soul. The conversation veered around movies and I launched into what I thought was a sufficiently intellectual discourse on Che and Argentina). The world was not conspiring for me though, and soon a diplodocus invited her to the stage. Not the dinosaur breed, we are referring to a suitor here. Without any warning, they launched into a sensual dance, flowing into each other’s arms and bodies, stamping the floor as if they held it in contempt, yet moving across it like lithe beings. The rest of us just stood there transfixed, in admiration.

Tango,” someone declared. Later, as I was having dinner, she came up from behind and whispered “I hoped you liked that. It is Argentine too.”  I would have choked on my food had I not taught myself, over several years,  to not choke in the presence of prettiness.

Very few good things have come out of slavery. Tango’s one of them.  In the 1800s, Africans were shipped as slaves to the Americas, and Argentina was no exception.  The dances popular in Argentina at that time were the Polka and the Cuban Habanera. Along came the African Candombe.

Earlier couple dances were mostly restricted to holding hands. The Viennese Waltz (in 1830) was the first dance in which the lead held one hand of the follow, and put his second around her back, and it became a craze in Europe. 10 years later, the Polka became the second dance to use such a hold.

In 1853, Argentina banned slavery, and the Africans tried resurrecting their lives.  Disillusioned, bitter, these compadritos (young men) in slouch hats, loosely tied handkerchiefs, boots and knives tucked casually in their belts, frequented the ghettos outside Buenos Aires, and tried to lose their despair in the music, the lights, the revolving dance, and in the bodies of their partners in these modest bars and brothels. It was first in such establishments where the African rhythms were introduced to the Argentine Milonga music, and it became the poor man’s dance, a dance of the streets.  It was voluptuous, raw, passionate. Cheeks touched close, teeth were gritted, and the lead led with a rose in his mouth. It was nothing like what the world had ever seen before.



Argentina’s high society looked down upon this, just as all high societies do all over the world. However, it did not stop many young men from rich families to visit the slums and the brothels. Soon everyone knew about the Tango, and it started spreading from its birth city, to Uruguay.

In the early 1900s, rich families from Argentina sent their sons to Paris (the centre of the world in those days). Parisian society, always eager for innovation, did not disapprove of the risqué dance moves. Nor did they mind dancing with wealthy young men. The African rhythms, the Latin heart, the fast paced nature, the shocking body contact, and the erotic nature of it all helped spread it like wildfire in Paris.  In 1910, the frenzy gripped London.

In 1916 the American dancer Isadora Duncan visited Argentina and declared: “I have never danced Tango, and today a charming tourist guide forced me to dance. My first steps were timid, but the feeling of the languid music caused my body to respond to the voluptuousness of the dance. Soft as a caress, toxic as love under the midday sun, cruel and dangerous as a tropical forest.”

The high society in Argentina which had shunned the Tango all this while, were now ready to accept it as a National treasure after Paris and London, and the whole world had fallen in love with it.


Rock and Roll invaded the world in the 70s and it lead to an almost an extinction of the Tango. However in the 90s, there was a Tango Renaissance and today there are clubs all over the world (India too) where people, like that girl I met once, learn the dance. In the last World Tango Championships, a Japanese couple won first prize.






 There are certain etiquettes associated with the dance.  On entering the hall (especially in Argentina), it is regular practice to not approach a person directly, but to try and catch their eye. If they do make eye contact and look back at you with favour, the man leads the lady to the floor. This practice of asking someone to dance with eye contact and a nod is called ‘Cabaceo’. Dancers have the right of passage of way, and be careful to not go through it, but around it. Don’t hold up the traffic, the floor is constantly moving forward. It is common to dance in an embrace during the Tango, but be aware and sensitive to your partner’s comfort zones.  Once a dance is over, even if you want to dance again with the same person, you are supposed to go off the floor and wait till the music starts again. This is to let all dancers have the opportunity to make eye contact with people they want to dance with.
For the last 50 years, Argentina and Uruguay have been fighting tooth and nail, insisting that the dance originated in their country. Recently the United Nations gave the dance an “Intangible Cultural Heritage Status” and jointly recognized both nations as the source. Well, maybe it really takes two to Tango.

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

The man who hitchhiked 25,000 kms across the world

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Tell me, can you just step out of your house one day, walk out believing that you can travel across the world by only hitchhiking and asking people to let you stay in their houses? Can we really see the world only depending on the assistance of strangers? Is it possible to trust the world, all its countries and people and religions and conflicts, and believe that they will all conspire to make your journey a success?

Even if you are that optimistic (rather naïve), how much can you really let go of? Let go of all your fears of being robbed or killed? Let go of all your doubts about the future? Let go of all the alien unknowns like language? Can one really let go of every single moment that succeeds the one you are living in right now? 

This is the story of Nenad Stojanovic, the man who hitchhiked 25,000 kms from his home in Serbia to China over 6 months, relying solely on people’s kindness and an indomitable, cheery spirit to do so.

Beginning the journey from his home in Serbia, Stojanovic used hitchhiking and the couchsurfing website to trot through Bulgaria, Macedonia and Turkey before entering into Asia.

Couchsurfing,” says Nenad, “is the major reason as to how I became a traveller”. Since joining the website, Nenad has hosted some 180 people and surfed at some 253 ‘couches’.

When he couldn’t find a host in the town of Nevsehir (Central Turkey), he strolled into a furniture store and using hand signals asked the owner if he could spend the night there. The owner took him to his own home for the night, and gave him a hearty dinner.

Neither did he have much trouble hitchhiking in Turkey. “It is in fact so easy to hitchhike there, that it’s not the drivers who choose you, but you who choose them,” he says laughingly.

His tale is surreal. As he rattles off the names of the countries and cities he passed through, you cannot help but smile at the sheer casualness with which he speaks of some of the ‘homes’ he lived in when he could not find a host – A potato truck in Tajikistan. An Afghan police station. A Chinese expressway toll plaza. A Talibani house. Remarkably, he talks positively of everyone he encountered on the way, be it Iran, Iraq, war torn Afghanistan – countries that the West have traditionally always suspected, accused and been wary of. You wonder if this is a man wearing bravado on his sleeve, if he is walking the very thin line on one side of which lies one of the most extraordinary journeys ever, and on the other side lies grave peril and possible death.

From Turkey, he crossed over to northern Iraq in a van of Turkish comedians, magicians and belly dancers. “This was the Kurdish part of Iraq. Even though it is still battle scarred and there are broken, destroyed buildings everywhere, the people were really hospitable and nice to me.” Hear hear, Mr Bush?


How did he hitchhike through Iraq? One hosts made him an Arabic banner which he would hold up on the road to flag down drivers.

Right, so travelling is that simple? Hold up a road sign and wait, that’s all?

Iran turned out to be even more fantastic. In the smaller parts of Iran, the locals haven’t really seen tourists at all, so hitchhiking is an alien concept to them. “In many Iranian towns, there would be huge crowds gathering around me when they saw me and the roads would get blocked. One place, a group of soldiers saw me and actually ordered a passing bus to give me a ride to the next town. In another town, the guy who gave me a lift actually called the police to make sure my couchsurfing hosts were not dangerous and would cause me no harm. It’s amazing, their niceness!

What made you go to Afghanistan, Nenad? “Well, actually from Iran, I wanted to go to Pakistan, but the visa was taking too long, so on a whim I went to the Afghan. The consul there was a friendly guy so I figured the country couldn’t be that bad either.”

Yes, that is how one decides to visit a country ravaged by war, on the basis of a ten minute interaction with one stranger. Nenad, we must check the marbles in your head.
After crossing the Iranian border and reaching Herat (Western Afghanistan), he stayed on a farm with some Taliban people. Life with them seemed uncomplicated. The men would sit in the living room and smoke all day, and ever so often food would just appear out of nowhere, prepared by women (he never really saw) in the kitchen. The men explained that they had joined the Taliban because they did not agree with the country’s policies. They insisted that they weren’t terrorists and Nenad asserts that he never saw any weapons in the house. When he wanted to proceed to Kabul they gave him tips about which highways he would be stopped lesser.  He then approached the US Consulate hoping they would give him a helicopter ride to Kabul but was sent away after being told they “were not a taxi service”.


Crossing between towns in Afghanistan can be a terrifying experience. There are frequent kidnappings and hitchhiking is out of the question. Besides bandits, there are also bombs and land mines to contend with. To go to Kabul, Nenad chose the south road, that would pass through Kandahar. It has been referred to as “one of the most dangerous roads in the world”. In the entire 25,000 kilometre odyssey, the South Road was the only one where he booked himself on a bus. To survive in the danger zone, he disguised himself as a local wearing a salwar kameez and Taqiyah (traditional Muslim cap) and grew a beard. When he left his Taliban friends’ house they said “you look exactly like one of our own”.

Not know the local language, Nenad pretended to be deaf and mute, and travelled through the length and breadth of Afghanistan for 4 days, on a bus recommended by the supposedly terrorist Taliban, on one of the most dangerous roads, in the most dangerous country to travel in the world.

He was stopped by the authorities in the town of Kunduz. The officer thought he looked like a terrorist and made him spend the night in the police station. The next day realizing his mistake, the guilty officer offered him a lot of candy and an Afghan coat as a present before letting him go.

Ironically, Nenad saw no gunfire or terrorist activity throughout his Afghan journey. The first time he was robbed was when he was just out of Afghanistan and had entered the neighbouring country of Tajikistan.  He was walking on the street when a “KGB agent” stopped him, planted heroin in his backpack and demanded a bribe threatening to otherwise throw him in jail. Freedom cost him a paltry 80 Euros.

Next he moved to the Pamir Highway, a desolate stretch where he would sometimes have to wait for four to five hours before a single car would pass by. It took him a week to cross the Highway.

After Tajikistan and Kyrgystan, he finally entered China where he hitchhiked 10,000 kms and 24 provinces before stopping at Hangzhou. Today, Nenad teaches English to children in Hangzhou.

That Nenad is a modern day Marco Polo is debate worthy. That he’s courageous, and a supremely optimistic man with a huge heart is a certainty. In a world that’s becoming smaller via technology but yet grows apart daily due to a plethora of man-made differences, it is people like Nenad Stojanovic that restore our faith in humanity, in its goodness. So rock on mate, your students in Hangzhou have a lovely teacher to look up to.

When he’s asked to recount some of his most remarkable experiences during this long journey, he says “While travelling from Hong Kong to Guangxi province, one of the drivers who gave me a ride took me to a reunion party for a group of Counter Strike players.  We were all ready for battle, wearing Counter Strike Tshirts, yelling, drinking and having a food fight. That was fun.”

Heh, passes through Afghanistan, Iraq, Iran but comes up with a Counter Strike party incident as his most memorable experiences. Well done, Nenad, the world needs more like you.


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Wednesday, January 8, 2014

Myths and Legends from Romania: The Terrifying Truth behind Count Dracula

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Slowly, a mist descends from the sky and surrounds the carriage. The horses run faster, not because their driver is pulling harder at the reins. They are as nervous as him. The carriage rattles along, kicking up dust and stones in its wake, hurtling through the only road in the forest. The traveller looks out of the window. All he can see are the dark trees. Up in the sky, the night predators circle slowly, ready to swoop down on any creature they see on land. But the animals don’t come out, not even the bigger ones, not even the bears. A lone wolf stands on top of a cliff jutting out from the mountains and looks on without blinking. He shines silver. Within minutes, evening has changed to a purple dusk. As the carriage turns on the curve, a shadow swoops down and shrouds the vehicle. The horses neigh loudly, rearing their heads in utter fright. “No no no!,” screams the traveller. It is pitch dark, and his cries go unheard in the forest.

Welcome to Transylvania, Romania.

It is the year 1485. A peasant boy in Wallachia (region adjacent to Transylvania) bursts into his home, and the family looks at him.

Vlad…” he blurts, “I saw Vlad behind the hill.” The mother lets out an anguished cry.

Vlad III has been dead for nine years. He is posthumously titled Vlad Tepes. ‘Tepes’ in Romanian language means ‘Impaler’. Vlad the Impaler.

Welcome to the land of Dracula.

Sighisoara, Transylvania: It is 1431. There is festive celebration in the house of the Draculesti. Vlad II Dracul holds the newborn baby in his hands. Over centuries, there will be tales of this day, of holy statues dripping with blood, on the day when Vlad III was born. He has three other brothers – Mircea, Vlad Calugarul aka Vlad the Monk, and Radu the Handsome.



























As a boy, Vlad was educated and  trained in warfare, geography, science and the languages. In 1447, the Hungarian Boyars rebelled against his father, Vlad Dracul, and killed him in the marshes near Balteni. Mircea, his elder brother, was  blinded and burnt alive immediately thereafter. All of sixteen, Vlad III now had to establish himself as a leader in Wallachia.

Vlad’s methods were brutal and terrible; there was blood smeared all over his crossbow, hands and soul. Anyone who dared to incur his wrath was killed violently. Thousands of people were dragged,  their hands tied to horses’ feet, dragged on the streets and then impaled on spikes built around the forests surrounding his castle. He and his men often galloped through the Carpathian mountains, burning down villages and razing fortresses. In fifteenth century Transylvania, the nights were long, burdened and cold.

According to reports, Vlad Tepes murdered 40,000 to 80,000 people during his reign.

In the 1400s also came the Crusades. The Ottaman armies from Turkey pressed into the East European countries.

The Turks sent two emissaries to Vlad's court for talks.  He killed them by nailing their turbans to their heads, later saying that they did not raise their hats to accord him respect

The battles between the Turks and Vlad’s armies were bloody and the land around the Danube turned red with the number of bodies lying around it. In his letter to his ally, the king of Hungary, Vlad wrote,

I have killed peasants men and women, old and young, who lived at Oblucitza and Novoselo, where the Danube flows into the sea, up to Rahova, from the lower Danube up to such places as Samovit and Ghighen. We killed 23,884 Turks without counting those whom we burned in homes or the Turks whose heads were cut by our soldiers…Thus, your highness, you must know that I have broken the peace with Sultan Memed.

There are stories of Sultan Memed, the great Conqueror of Constantinople (now Istanbul) and expert in the art of psychological warfare, vomiting and turning back from Wallachia at the sight of 20,000 impaled corpses outside the capital.

Surprisingly, Vlad Tepes became seeped in Romanian history as a hero. Despite his cruelty, Transylvania respected him for always standing up to the Ottoman Turks. This is in star contrast to the remaining members of his family,  who were branded as evil doers, even likened to the Devil.

Vlad’s son, Mihnea Cel Rau (Mihnea the Wrong Doer), was as cruel as his father. Gavril Protul, an abbot and chronicler of the times described Mihnea thus, “As soon as Mihnea began to rule he at once abandoned his sheep’s clothing and plugged up his ears like an asp…. He took all the Boyars captive, worked them hard, cruelly confiscated their property, and even slept with their wives in their presence. He cut off the noses and lips of some, others he hanged, and still others drowned.”

In the December of 1476, reports were spread of Vlad Tepes’ assassination. His head was supposedly carried as a trophy to Constantinople, whereas the rest of his body was buried in a monastery at Comana (in Romania). 400 years later, Romanian historians declared that he was not buried at Comana but in a monastery at Snagov, near his family property. In 1933, when the tomb was excavated, all that was found in the tomb were remains of animals.

Did Vlad Tepes really die?

A few weeks after his supposed death, people claimed to have seen Vlad in the palace grounds, the forest, and in the hills. The rumours have still not ceased, not even 500 years after the incident.
Strangely, none of the male Dracul's death dates have been recorded. This further spiked the rumors that the family was that of the Vampires. Half of their wives went mad, or committed suicide. In 1654, Prince Constatin Serban ordered that all the known Dracul graves be opened and though he never spoke of what was found, it is rumoured that there were dog bones inside.



Years after all these princes died, it was said that they had been seen riding horses, and throwing garish parties in their palaces, reveling over the deceit of their death. Many men and woman who lived near the family property were said to have gone missing. The carcasses of animals were drained of their blood and were scattered all over the Vania and Bran surrounding forests. People started going mad, claiming they had seen ravishing women appear out of the misty night and suddenly disappear into thin air.

Even today, people are warned from entering the Bran forests. It is said that the forest is haunted by Dracul princes who are undead and roaming around in search of blood. Orthodox Romanian believers insist that one should cut off the legs of the deceased, for if the undead feast on the whole body, they get access to the deceased’s living family as well.

Vlad Tepes, Bran Castle, the stories of the unrecorded deaths, the bloodshed, the imposing Carpathian mountains, the bodies, the folklore, the tales, the fear, the lust for the supernatural, all became an inspiration for Bram Stoker to create his wonderful novel – Dracula. Oh why do we love the unknown, the mysterious, the unexplained so much.

What Bram Stoker did not realize when he wrote his novel was that it would become the most important reason for a remarkable leap in tourism for Transylvania and Romania. Romania is a beautiful country. It is full of medieval towns and fortresses and forests and hills. Yet, Transylvania gets the maximum number of international visitors. In the 20th century, visitors to Romania likened Bran Castle to the castle they had read about in the novel and in the 80s, restoration commenced in the badly maintained castle and a special ‘Dracula Room’ was inserted. Today Bran Castle has become a ‘must’ in any itinerary or traveller’s plans while visiting Romania. The country in itself received between 7 to 9 million people every year between 2008 and 2012, a large part of it because of Transylvania and the Dracula legend.

It’s funny, the man who killed thousands and thousands of people, hearing whose name people wanted to flee their homes, their country, their lives now could be the reason for a million people to visit the same land.

P.S. Oh by the way in October 2011, Prince Charles claimed he was a direct descendant of Vlad Tepes.