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

 

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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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Hello China!

I first went backpacking in 2013 with my then boyfriend through south India. It was a wild adventure across train delays, flooded roads, breath-taking landscapes, amazing fellow travelers and discovering what it means to get high on the road. Not on spirit or drugs or sugar but on the pure bliss of travel!

We went horse-riding in Matheran, caught fireflies in Kamshet, surfed in Pondicherry, camped in the wild at BR Hills and enjoyed a night under the stars in Auroville. Pune had us partying with friends, Goa had us awestruck at the beauty of a raging monsoon along virgin coastline and Bangalore reminded us of the joys of street food.

This time, in a few hours from now, we’re headed off to China. Oh, my then boyfriend is my husband today.  (We have a crazy story! Check here for more) We will meet up with a dear friend in Shanghai and then fly, drive, hot-foot it and maybe even sail through this vast, fascinating land!

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China, here we come!

Our bags are packed and we’re itching to go. China, we look forward to you!

PS- if you have any tips for us, drop us a line. We probably have a few more hours of connectivity. If not, see you when we re-surface!

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Roadside Chai in Pune

Zen at an intersection

It beats me why I chose this spot to zone out and zen in. In retrospect, perhaps because it’s a fitting analogy to my present status.
Today is day 1 of my 19th month in a new country. While I have a lot going for me, I also have a lot going against. I love Hamburg and the life it offers me, nonetheless there are constantly new hurdles I need to step over, sometimes stomp on or just let fly.

Take for instance Ms. Pretentious in my licensing exam class (in German) who made her disdain of my language very audible. Upon finding out I’m new (relatively) she switched gears and offered to coach me (at a ridiculous price) on my pronunciation. I, of course, happily let her know that she could go fly a kite. In not so many words as actions. Needless to say, she reverted to her former disdain.

Back to finding Zen. For many of us caught in the cross hairs of life; it’s easy to let chaos overwhelm. There’s many a contender vying for top peeve- boss, the absence of or the presence of a partner, a kid, family, money. There’s always illness, an addiction, pesky neighbours, the weather, you don’t need to look far.

So today after Ms. Pretentious grated my nerves once again, I let off steam by cycling a couple of kilometres and found myself sitting cross-legged on a park bench. The soothing hot chocolate in my hand manages to calm more than my hungry stomach.

The intersection is buzzing with traffic, cyclists whizz past, dogs are being walked, children are being cycle- trained and the occasional tramp gives me a curious look.

I find my ears tuning in to the cheerful cries of tiny birds. My nose picks up the scent of spicy chicken being roasted across the street​. My skin tingles in confusion, unable to decide if it feels warm or cold. For though the sun is shining, a cool breeze of 16°C takes over intermittently.

As I allow my senses to be soaked in the stimuli around me; I suddenly feel completely at peace. My heart no longer runs a race, my lungs breathe freely and deeply and the tension in my muscles slowly leaves.

The devil’s advocate in me gets vocal and asks- so how does this solve all of your other challenges

The Zen I’ve tapped into answers- it doesn’t. 

So this was an exercise in futility. 

Most certainly not. Now that I feel better, I deal better.

A barking dog breaks me out of this dialogue in my head and I notice how light I feel.

To some it might seem strange and silly. But to me, this was a lesson in Zen. A lesson in being fully present in the moment and realising that-

I dont need to have all the answers. Nor a problem free life. I just need to BE. Just be ME.

Go and flow

I’m going to my home of choice

Yet as I leave my home of birth

I feel a pang of pain

It’s goodbye now, until we meet again
This dichotomy of life

Present at every turn

Transitioning from old to new

Another dawn, a different hue

Change is inspiring and scary

Both exciting and jarring

Motion is but a way of life

We decide if it’s joy or strife
Growing older, parting ways

Leaving known territories

And being on the go

Hey beautiful I say, let it flow!
Nicola Coutinho

Food for my soul

Have you ever found yourself in a bowl of something delicious? Well, I sure have. Found myself I mean, in bowls of food. Both spiritually and literally. (Pun intended)

You have to admit that very often a taste of something that tingles those gustatory nerves makes you feel alive once more. Makes you want to step out into a different phase- whether new, bold, exciting or at the very least- into a satisfied, peaceful, post-prandial slumber.

I’ve just had a particularly discouraging day since my 16 months in Germany. I used the 6 km brisk walk home to burn through my bubbling frustration. However, my nose decided to lead me astray every few meters. It invariably caught the scent of freshly brewed coffee, tantalizing Mexican cuisine and pungent Indian curries. 3km into my furious walk and I succumbed to the not-so-subtle rumblings of my rather angry stomach. I jumped onto a train and headed straight to a little authentic Indian place called Badshah at Hansaplatz in Hamburg. As the name suggests, you are treated to food worthy of a king.


In the flurry of five minutes it took the friendly staff to get my order ready, familiar smells of home were already releasing the tense knots which were once my muscles. I did indeed find myself in this simply superb plate of Chole Bhature– red, hot chickpea curry relished with fried bread. (Here are more details for the curious and brave-hearted).

It amazed me how comfortable I felt in this chaotic, colourful, noisy place where Indians and non-Indians alike bonded over food. Most of the latter category, surrounded by piles of tissue to calm their shocked noses. For me, raw spice has the most soothing effect. Home truly is where the spice is!

Much to my surprise, my affair with exotic food for the day was not done. Friends from an old language class invited me to L’Amira– a Syrian restaurant (a stone’s throw away from Badshah’s).

We had many bowls of yum to find ourselves in. My favourite was once again a chickpea based dish called Fatteh.

My Syrian friends, as is custom back home, broke into song once we finished our meal. Needless to say, the Germans around us raised more than just their eyebrows. It wasn’t difficult to read their minds- “These crazy foreigners!”

Oh, how my spirits soared!

Happy and sleepy, my body set out to digest my soul food and I made my groggy way home. I climbed under the sheets and as expected, my big disappointment from earlier in the day came back to bite me in the bum. Sad and down but once again, saved by my nose. It picked up the aroma of comfort -fresh mint tea this time, served with a big hug from the hubby. What a darling I thought!

Only now, as I lie awake with the events of the day coursing through my mind and tummy; I wonder what the mint tea was really meant for. To comfort a sorrowful wife or to protect from the cheerful effect of one too many chickpeas?

Let’s say I don’t want to know.

PS- go get your fill of chickpea goodness if you are close to either of these two places. Maybe just not both on the same day. 😉