This is how it’s done

Hamburg makes you fall helplessly in love with her. Over and over again.

This rainbow today broke the gloomy spell of dreary weather we had all weekend. Just when it seemed I was at my wit’s (and tit’s) end at the icy chill, Hamburg decided to smile down some colour.

Additionally for me, it was as if the city took a moment out of her busy schedule to wish me a Happy Illegal* Second Wedding Anniversary. Gosh, I feel blessed! ❤

*We got legally married in Germany and then illegally (in church) in India. 😉

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Train of thought

I am currently riding Line 3 of the Subway (U-Bahn) in Hamburg. As little canals and post-card pretty trees whizz by, I suddenly have an AHA-moment!

Trains have always been a huge part of my life!

As a kid, in Goa, India; when steam trains were still the mainstay; one of my favourite father-daughter activities was visiting the rickety train station five minutes away from our house.

I was fascinated no end by the billowing smoke, the toot-toot of the train and the deafening roar as the wheels chugged into charcoal-driven motion. My charismatic father almost always managed to befriend the driver who then gave us a proud tour of his tools and mean machine.

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We took a yearly holiday to different parts of India, well connected by rail and road (flights at the time were beyond our budget and only a rare luxury). Every station we halted at always had the most tempting aromas, the most delicious assortment of foods and very often a bunch of rowdy monkeys, waiting to steal anything you weren’t guarding.

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When I left home for University, I sometimes took the train and managed to meet interesting people on my travels. A Tanzanian boy I still keep in touch with, a British Backpacker who cried when I offered him half my bacon sandwich and a strongly opinionated Indian family who tried to hook me up with their very awkward son, who I’m not sure was into women.

I have lost count of the train trips I’ve taken with friends and my Basketball team, where we stayed up the night playing pranks, singing and being a nuisance.

One night on a train I never took before, by some freaky workings of the universe, I met a stranger whom I madly fell in love with. 4 years later, he chose to propose to me, on; you guessed right; another night train.

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Interestingly, my father-in-law is crazy about trains and has constructed his own adult-train-play-station in the garden. His trains are the marvel of the neighbourhood and the envy of every kid passing by.

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Last July in Shanghai, we took the super fast magnetic Maglev train. Watching the speedometer zoom to over 300 km/hr within the first minute, had me both awed and sick!

The trams in both Calcutta (India) and Basel (Switzerland), seem to transport me to a by-gone era where life operated at a much slower pace. Riding the local trains in Mumbai is another harrowing, exhilarating, nerve-racking and joyous experience all bundled into one. It is definitely NOT for the faint-hearted.

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Trains in Germany– right from the subways to the ICEs- (Intercity Express) have a way calmer and more orderly demeanor. I love riding them and often do so, just for the sheer joy it brings me. Of course, unlike in India, I can’t stick my head out and enjoy the breeze distorting my face. It is dangerous, I know. But I did it all the same (in India).  Oh what joy forbidden fruit brings!

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Now as my train ride comes to a gentle halt, I reflect on the man responsible for introducing me to these wonderful machines- my father. How fitting that today, 3 months since he passed, I had my AHA moment and realized trains have taught me much about life:

  • to keep moving, preferably forward, no matter what.
  • that life’s journeys bring you to different stations; good, bad, ugly, heavenly. You choose where to get on or off.
  • trains have evolved from being coal powered to electric, magnetic and even self-driven. There’s always room for improvement!

Thank you Dada..

-2nd November 2017. Hamburg, Germany

Being spontaneous. Yes/no?

Having moved from an Indian social set-up to a German one, spontaneous meet-ups are something I sorely miss. Back home, I could easily waltz into a friend’s house and check if they wanted to grab a drink or go to the beach. If they weren’t available, the parents or room-mates usually were, or worst case, I had a nice scooter ride back and forth.

Often in Hamburg, to meet a friend, we need to plan weeks ahead and pick a specific date, time and place. Some of my friends have their calendars full for the rest of the year! Even when it’s only June. No swinging by on a Vespa to say hi.

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Today in chilly Hamburg, I felt this primal urge to connect with good food and company and to do so spontaneously. Considering the relatively small social circle I have here, I took to a few expat platforms on social media and announced my desire. I posted just a few hours in advance. Being a Tuesday, I was thoroughly skeptical and fully expected to be enjoying my cupcake and coffee in the company of my very dear self.

Now don’t get me wrong. I love being organized and planning ahead. And Germany has honed those skills in me to a remarkable degree. But I also love the unexpected, the spontaneous and even the chaotic. There is a certain magic in doing things on the spur of the moment or just because.

As much as I try not to view the world through stereotyped lenses, I am human. So while I expected the expats to take my bait to meet, I certainly thought no German in their right mind would respond. I have been reprimanded in the past by German acquaintances for being too last-minute. While I acknowledged their annoyance at my tardiness, I was equally annoyed at their lack of spontaneity.

So imagine my surprise when the company that turned up today was German! So lovely! Meeting M was a delight.  We connected over delicious food and coffee, swapping stories of yoga, love, travel and life in Hamburg. All the while breaking stereotypes and celebrating being spontaneous.

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I thought of all the times I have been spontaneous. Sometimes they paid off and sometimes they didn’t. But I realized that every single time was infused with excitement and adventure. Here are some:

-taking a midnight train back to university, for the first time in 8 years, instead of the usual bus. The result- I met my future husband on that train!

-exploring a new route home through the enticing by-lanes of Hamburg. Disaster! I got thoroughly lost. Two hours and frozen toes later, I needed to swallow my pride and ask to be picked up.

-saying yes to hosting a group of Lebanese students over Easter in Goa. I met a soul-mate.

-taking an unplanned hike to Mount Emei in China because our flights got cancelled. It was both exhilarating and terrifying at the same time. The hike and view awed me and then I had heat stroke and food-poisoning.

-getting my hair braided in Bali. I’m not sure my friends and family were sold on the look, definitely not my fiancee when I informed him that braids would be my wedding hair-do. I sure had a blast!

What have you done spontaneously that led to exciting outcomes? I’m curious…

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Autumn

Musing in rustic Brussels

Scenes of yellow trees

Changing palettes of colour

Greens take their leave

 

October blues set in

Summer turns its back

The wind gains courage

My spirits recognize fall

 

The sun still shone

When you were around

Through heat and pain

We hoped for tomorrow

 

Little did we know

The seasons tragic plan

You had a calling

To freedom once more

 

You pulled an autumn

Said goodbye and left

Now comes dreary winter

Maybe the cold will help

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Seasons ebb and wane

And so does this life

When one says farewell

Another breath is born

 

Spring will bring him

Your grandchild, my son

I will teach him

As you did me

 

Autumn turns to winter

Then surely onto spring

Life is but a circle

Birth and death within

 

The falling yellow leaves

Winter’s icy blue breeze

Fresh flowers and sun

Life will go on

 

You are with me

Every step, every misstep

I cherish being loved

And loving in return….

 

 

…Je t’aime Dada

-Nicola Coutinho

2nd October 2017, Vilroode, Belgium

 

 

Dear Dada, until we meet again..

I am here not to mourn the passing of my father, but to celebrate the richness of his life. Celebration begets gratitude. So let me begin by saying a huge Thank You! to all whose help, support and concern have meant the world to us. From medical to spiritual, emotional and physical care, you tided the three of us- Dad, Mum and myself through these trying times. You have been and continue to be indispensable.

You know who you are. To each of you here who knew Albert, he would have loved to say to you- Dev Borem Korum! (Thank You in Konkani).

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Had it been up to my dad, he would have said at this point, “Nice speech Nicky, thank you! That will be all.” Unfortunately for him, I inherited his stubbornness. So here goes:

Albert was well versed in the role of being a father figure. He had much exposure even before me. No, it’s not what you think. I am  his only biological child (princess, if I am honest). He first fathered his own siblings- six of them, when they lost their father prematurely. Subsequently he readily took on the mantle of provider and mentor to friends, nieces, nephews, 32nd cousins and complete strangers.

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He was most at ease and peace when he could be there for someone in need. I will refrain from saying anymore because I respect his firm belief of “Don’t let your right hand know what your left hand is up to”. Might I add, he always said this with a naughty twinkle in his eye.

In celebrating Albert’s life, I would be amiss if I didn’t mention his cherished and sometimes crazy desire to travel. When in college at Mangalore (350 km or 8 hours from home) I often received a call from him saying, “Get ready in 20 min, we’re going out.” Much to my mother’s chagrin he often hopped onto a train, bus or plane – on the spur of the moment- to explore the world and see his baby girl. He more than made up to Mama these last two years, taking her all over the globe and partially satiating his travel hunger.

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To my mother and the love of Albert’s life; Mama, know that he held you in a very special place. Though he might not have said it in so many words, – we know he was a man of minimum words and maximum action; YOU made his life complete. You were his first “Best Girl in the Whole World”!

Hochzeit Nicola und Kay (50)

My father often told me how he played the song, “You’ll never know how much I love you”, when I was born. Perhaps I may never fully comprehend his love, but the day he died, I got a taste.

He endured excruciating pain to wait until I arrived from another continent. We spoke and I held him as he passed.

My greatest consolation through these waves of grief, is that he is truly in a better place and not in pain anymore.

Of course, memories help- of us “King-fishing” (read spotting and counting Kingfishers in paddy fields), stepping hard on his toes learning an awkward waltz, devouring roadside tea and bhajis (veggies deep fried in batter), long bike rides to the beach and deep conversations on life, love and football.

As I bid a physical adieu to the remains of my father, I wish to answer a question many have asked me since he died. “What can I do to help?”

In Albert’s memory, help someone in need- no matter if it’s a child, a street dog or a stranger. Or maybe plant a tree. Let’s spread some goodness.

And finally, to my favourite dance partner, my father and my friend; it is an honour to be your daughter. You died knowing your legacy lives on and I promise to do my best.

On behalf of all your family and friends, Adeus Dada, until we meet again.

PG 57

 

An Indian, a German and a Puerto Rican backpack in China Part 2

I’m hoping Part 1 led you to this piece. If not, you missed out on Disneyland, Hot Pots, crazy monkeys and a breath-taking hike. Oh; and several world wonders.

KUNGFU PANDAS

The most adorable part of our trip was heralded by black and white Asian balls of fur: Pandas. These creatures are terribly naughty, adorable and lazy. Consuming up to 40 kg of bamboo a day, it’s  a miracle they have time for anything else. But they do- an endless cycle of play for 5, lie exhausted for 10, eat for 15 and repeat.

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Chengdu had the largest Panda reserve in the world and the preservation work they do is commendable. The Pandas have a foxy looking cousin- the Red Pandas. Equally cute and constantly nibbling on pumpkin.

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We saw Pandas wrestle for a sleeping spot, itch their behinds on sticks, attempt to (successfully) pull down a tree-climbing neighbour and simply, quite clumsily fall flat- on face and back- from a creaking branch.

These creatures made our hearts sing and changed how we saw ourselves. J, K and N were now Master Panda, Baby Panda and Red Panda. Thereafter, we had many “Do a Panda” moments- lie on your back, eat, roll around and be cute. I couldn’t tell if onlookers (usually at train stations) were amused or mortified.

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ART & CULTURE

The Chinese have a flair for art- from architecture to music and dance. We had the privilege of a 90 minute Opera where talented artists put on the most amazing acts: a glass-shattering Opera singer, performers magically switching masks before you can blink- 15 masks in 10 seconds, puppetry, dance and shadow play.

The show filled not just our thirst for art, but also our very present physical hunger. Our cups overflowed with Jasmine tea- quite literally as the server used a long pipe attached to what looked like an oxygen tank on his back, to access remote cups. The point was filling the cups, not precision.  Bowls of sunflower seeds, wantons, dumplings and noodles (without surprises) kept us stuffed.

The place also offered back massages and ear-cleaning for a small fee. The massage tempted me but the look on the receiver’s face as metre long instruments penetrated their ears, made my decision for me. it wasn’t an option to have just the massage.

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BIG BUDDHA, BUDDHISM AND SHANGRILA

As you’ve gathered by now, China holds plenty of world records. One of them is an enormous 71 metre tall Buddha in Leshan, the tallest in the world. Built centuries ago, the sheer size is staggering. Getting there is also a mighty effort of surviving serpentine queues and feisty old ladies with no qualms about elbowing their way to the front of the line.

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We visited many Buddhist temples and were impressed by the calm and serenity they radiated. Halfway on our hike to Mount Emei we stayed at a Monastery whose head monk was delighted to “practice my English with the foreign people”. He was a darling.

The herculean Prayer Wheel in Shangrila required two dozen panting pullers to set it in motion. Atop a hill, accessed by a 100 breathless steps, the view is simply marvellous.

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You know how sometimes, when on a journey, you get truly and thoroughly disoriented? That happened to us 3 days after our original but cancelled flight, we landed in Shangrila. Fresh from our 3,100 metre hike, we had toned muscles, acclimatized lungs and supple limbs. Or so we thought.

5 metres out of the airport and we were gasping for air. Was it something on the plane? We refused to believe the altitude the phone proclaimed- 3,400 metre!

Totally unprepared, we let ourselves get lost in this picturesque town with Tibetan influence and dogs the size of cows. Oh, and Yaks. And Yak milk and meat. Delicious!

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After some confusion of believing we were in the North-West of China, we realized we were actually in the South-West! It was one of those disorienting but hilarious moments when you realize getting lost on a journey isn’t always bad if you can laugh about it and share it with friends.

LIFE LESSONS

As usual backpacking gave us; J, K and N aka Master Panda, Baby Panda and Red Panda; life lessons:

  1. Language is no barrier if you are willing to get creative. Limbs, grimaces, translation Apps and as often happened, involving a village. We sometimes had the whole restaurant, staff and customers help to order our food and even HOW to eat it.
  2. Food as we knew it was not even the tip of the universe as far as the Chinese are concerned. They can conjure food out of almost anything.
  3. Endless hiking and being on the road introduces you to muscles you didn’t know existed.
  4. After 48 hours in buses,trains and planes, a warm shower will make you cry.
  5. When stressed or in doubt, do a Panda!
  6. You don’t need much to be happy. Most of what you do fits in a backpack. And what doesn’t, is friends that make you believe life is worth it after all.

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We’re already looking for our next adventure. Any suggestions?

 

An Indian, a German & a Puerto Rican backpack in China Part 1

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I spent mine birthday in China- more specifically in Shanghai- and like a proper 31 year old, at Disneyland! ❤ Oh the joys of letting your inner child run wild to the adventures of Daisy, Mickey and the Lion King!

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Three of us- J, K and N backpacked through China for a whole two weeks and what a roller-coaster experience it was! I felt like a rag doll lost in stormy seas of countless moving human bodies; everywhere, at ALL times! At Disney I felt like a princess like one rightly should!

THE WONDER WALL

The Great Wall of 22,000 kms had us humbled and in awe of how far human capacity can stretch. Our awe soon morphed into an irresistible desire to strike yoga poses despite the pouring rain. The terrible weather meant we were relatively alone and that my friend, in a country of 1.3 billion is a priceless moment. After imposing skyscrapers, the Forbidden City and chaos of Beijing, the Wall was a breath of fresh air! You stop, take in the peace and work your magic. Rest assured, I was on cloud nine.

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SUNRISE AT THE GOLDEN SUMMIT

Our hiking instincts kicked in hard and fast when we decided to trek to the summit of Mount Emei at 3,100 metres. It was a grueling 11 hour, 15,000 stair affair. (The equivalent of around 380 stories) Yes, stairs! But don’t be fooled for a minute. They only go up. Higher and higher and never ending. You think you’re done but there’s always another stairway waiting to bite you in the bum. Well, in my case- the knees and the back too. While J happily skipped to the top like a mountain goat, K and I were like slow-motion figures creaking up the mountain with rickety bamboo sticks.

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As if this wasn’t tough enough, the climb has it’s homegrown brand of Scary-house. Huge, aggressive monkeys that jump out at you and go straight for whatever food/clothing/bags/camera/phone you made the mistake of carrying. After 11 hours of being on pins and needles, anticipating an attack; we made it safely to the top. I did however see a man get bitten on the ankle, another literally pushed over (he disrespected King Kong’s comfort zone, so he had it coming) and several others unceremoniously stripped off their food bags.

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All the trials and tribulations of the trail were a forgotten memory as we reached our goal.

5:45 am at the Golden Summit which houses the world’s highest Buddha: The massive statue is bathed in dark hues of pre-dawn hours. As light shyly breaks through cottony clouds, the statue shimmers to life. Crowds wait patiently for the young sun to show itself. While brilliant shades of purple, pink and yellow dance before our eyes, it seems like his majesty will not appear.

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Then suddenly, when we least expect it, a soft orange sphere bobs up in the distance. Thanks to our altitude, it’s almost as if we are watching sunrise unfold from the seats of the Gods.

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As the orange blob grows bigger and brighter, dazzling rays cascade upon us and we are soaked. Soaked in golden light, soaked in emotion and soaked in the simplistic beauty of a spectacular sunrise.

We cried.

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FANCY SOME DUCK’S BLOOD? 

My duo and I craved a warm beverage after the morning’s excitement. Now naturally, one thinks of tea or coffee. China taught me to think, live and eat out of the box. All we could find was steaming hot soup.

In all my travels thus far, I hadn’t come across a culture that explored, broke and relished the boundaries of food. The Chinese reign supreme at it. My dear palate and tummy had the time of their lives. It was usually a minute to minute decision to either churn and turn me green or to go for the Yum-card!

My system smiled in acceptance at fish and veggies in a Hot Pot (a Sichuan-special boiling concoction of spices, oils and water in which you cook your food at your table); gourmet quality Peking duck (relished with sugar, soy and an array of spices); cold noodles in Leshan, grilled Yak meat on sticks and a delicious egg/something pie in Shangrila.

What had me running for the hills was: Duck’s blood, baby chicks on skewers, pig’s elbow and; get ready for it…. Ox penis!

I stopped asking why.

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Between the three of us, J was the only one with working knowledge of Mandarin. So while his request for tea was sometimes understood as a plea for alcohol; he is the reason we sailed over the language barrier in what we thought was style…

However, we figured a new way of ordering once his vocabulary had reached it’s limits. We simply pointed to dishes on the menu. Of course we had fingers, toes and eyes crossed until the food arrived. 9 out of ten times our randomness paid off. The rest of the time, well…

THESE TECH-SAVVY CHINESE

The first time I was asked for a photograph, I was mighty confused which side of the camera to stand on. Soon I got used to posing with complete strangers and then, using J’s mandate, taking a picture on my phone of the surprised stranger. I guess the three of us together probably caught more than a passing glance. A Puerto rican, a German and an Indian backpacking through China

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Curious Chinese often asked how we know each other, whether we met on the road… When language permitted, we explained that two of us go back a decade as flatmates and best friends, two of us are married to each other and two of us are discovering how it is to get along like a house on fire. If language was not an option, we used hands, feet and faces.

China being extremely advanced in technology, had no shortage of translation Apps which our friendly waiters, drivers and hostel hosts regularly shoved under our chins.

I was struck by how little paper money I saw in China. 80% of payments are cashless, through Apps like We Chat and Ali Pay. Additionally,  everybody seems glued to their phones. Noses buried deep in virtual worlds, the masses looked like question mark figures in humble submission to hand-held addictions.

Perhaps a side-effect of so much technology?

….Check Part 2 to re-live the most adorable part of our journey……

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