May 2017 took me to Gdansk in Poland. Gdansk – a place I had never heard until a month back and a name which I could not even pronounce. (A simple way to remember: “Gd” – Gadd as in Gaddaar (Hindi word) and “aaansk”).
Neptune Fountain in Gdansk
Now I know that this was the place where the second World War started. Gdansk – or Danzig had a majority native-German population. When Hitler sought to expand his empire, this was one of his targets. The majority in the city was in the favor of annexation to Germany. On 1st September 1939, as part of the bigger plan to attack Poland, the first hit was made at Gdansk. This is called the Battle of Westerplatte. The Polish put up a spirited fight – much to the surprise of the Germans. The fighting continued for 7 days and ended when the Poles ran out of ammunition and supplies.
I also got a chance to visit Hell. Well, that is a spelling mistake. The place is called Hel. It is a peninsula coming out of the north of Gdansk. This was the place of action in the world war 2 post the fall of Westerplatter. Hel is said to be the place where the Polish army resistance lasted the longest. 8 September to 3 October 1939.
Around 50 km from Gdansk is what used to be the Stutthoff Concentration camp. This was the first concentration camp set up outside Germany. It was also the last to be freed and around 65000 people died here. The place – quiet, peaceful, beautiful carried with it horrifying memories in the form of photos, stories, barracks and yes – the gas chamber – Nazis favorite way to kill people.
The concentration camp with the Gas Chamber at the far end

Delhi – Gurgaon Metro

Dhalta Sooraj

“Kahin bhi baith sakte hain kya?”, a guy asked me as soon as I had taken a seat in the almost empty Metro from Qutab Minar to Gurgaon. He was a middle aged person – a laborer who was confused and was feeling out of place with his old torn air bag amongst the suave, urban crowd most of who seemed like on a picnic in the metro.
“Pehli baar Metro mein aaya hun”, he explained, probably as confused as one of the kids who was asking his father the reasons for putting the hanging handles on the roof. But he was equally ecstatic too – after all he may not get to travel everyday on a 5 star AC train which according to another kid was “moving in the sky”.
“Gurgaon ka konsa station hai?”, he again asked leaving me confused as well.
“Aapne kahan jaana hai?”, I asked.
“Gurgaon bus stand se apne gaon ki bus pakadni hai”.
I told him to get off at Iffco Chowk station, which I later realised was quite a bit away from the actual Iffco Chowk. After all this was my first journey on Gurgon Metro Line too. Till now I had only travelled on the underground sections in North Delhi. The underground part has its own charm. While travelling you cannot see anything around, the sense of direction has any meaning only if you look at the map on top of the doors. Overhead Metro on the other hand was scenic. And the journey from Quatab to Gurgaon is filled with diversity. You start with Quatab Minar behind you and a vast expanse of greenery around. The trees fall short as you ‘move in the sky’. The way is occasionally dotted with different farmhouses, their privacy destroyed by giving the public a bird’s eye view of the palatial bungalows. The distinct Chattarpur temple then looms large over to the left. Gradually the human intrusion starts surfacing as the green gives way to the brown and then eventually a jungle of a different kind – the skyline of the millenium city. And within half an hour, you have successfully made the transition from the history to the future.
Gurgaon Skyline
As I sat there clicking photos and watching excited toddlers having different views of the changing views outside, it was tough not to notice the laborer. He had not looked outside the window even once and sat there looking at the floor all the time. The only time he looked around with expectation was when a station came. Obviously he will have some different kind of experiences to tell to his family.


Book, Music and Journey

It is always an interesting experience to travel in a train. The thought of it is fascinating. You are trapped in the iron box with a large glass window separating the natural from the artificial.
There is light music in ears – I wonder why I don’t like to hear rock or an upbeat number while travelling. It is always slow & soothing. May be it is the overall lazy setting. Eyes oscillate between the passing scenery and a book in the lap.
There is a blanket over the legs as you see half clad villagers sweating it out in their fields (or may be calling it ‘their’ field is wrong). And the smells…Ah…the smells, specially after the lunch or dinners. At that time you wish you were in a non-AC compartment where you can just turn your face towards the window. But it is also a plac where you see the similarities of the nation. A family always has food along – unless you are travelling in a Rajdhani. Punjabis prefer dry aaloo sabji along with plain paranthas and pickle. My mother used to pack the same thing and I have had this menu in trains, buses and airports. And interestingly seen many people have the exact same thing in all these places. So I am used to the before and after smells – don’t know how many people suffered at my hands.
At night, it is pitch dark outside but still you keep looking. Such darkness, a rare sight in cities, seems fascinating. Sometimes there is a solitary light standing out somewhere far and its tough not to think about it. Is it a solitary light in perhaps a whole village or a solitary home in the wanderness. May be its none of it. Who knows?
In a train, places like these become ephemeral and so do the thoughts. We call ourselves travellers. But may be the real traveller is one who finds the story behind that solitary light, places are not ephmeral and the associated thoughts are documented.

Traffic Jam

I am struck in a terrible Delhi traffic jam right now. In the sweltering heat, inside an auto – where unlike an AC car, there is no barrier between me and the dust, heat and the typical traffic jam noises – just two primarily – horn and the engine. But within these 2 parameters there is as much variety on offer as it in Sachin’s shots.
There are 2 rows of vehicles that have formed – typical of a jam. I am on the right side as we have to take a U turn. On my left is a Santro with two kids who, unaware and unflusterred by the jam are enjoying themselves with some game. Blarring horns don’t affect them, neither does the slow moving traffic. They are not in a hurry to reach somewhere. As I am looking at them, trying to make out what is the game they are involved in, I catch their attention. They make faces at me. May be they don’t like my frustrated face. Just then their line moves forward – perfect opportunity  to mock me with their tongues out and the thumbs up. Meanwhile I curse my luck for being in the wrong line.
Behind them is a contrasting picture. A mercedes moves up and stands elegantly besides my auto. I can see some big honcho sitting through the shaded window –  a copy of the economic times in his hands. This surprises me a bit. Newspapers lose their importance after morning. In Mumbai, ETs are ubiquitous when you take a morning train to Churchgate station (the financial nerve center) but in the evening? Only time you see that happening is during placement season, when someone has an interview the next day . But then Who knows this guy is also headed for some interview!!  He looks calm but is frequently turning his newspaper pages and glancing above it into the non-moving traffic. The contrast between the playfullness of the Santro and the seriousness of the mercedes amazes me.
Tired from waiting and to save his oil, the auto driver turns his engine off. Unlike Mumbai, Delhi Autowalahs dont go on a meter which keeps running while stationary too. But by some corollary to some Murphy’s Law, the line starts moving as soon as the engine sputters down. It is the most beautiful site I guess – watching the vehicle ahead inching away in a traffic Jam. It seems like it has opened up all the way. I pass the Santro and almost mock the children back. But anyways, they are absorbed in their little game. All hopes dash, when I see the car ahead stop again.
This time it is a big white ambassador by my side. An unused Red Light on top – may be he has realised that its of no use in a jam like this. Antennas coming out of everywhere. The outside looks powerful but the sad point is that I cannot see inside – the windows are dark black – perhaps just like their lives. What is the neta inside doing right now? We only see them on TV, giving speeches, press conferences, on dharnas, abusing some one or the other. But what exactly do they do normally – for example just now stranded in a traffic jam?
My line has moved further ahead. There is a cut in the divider and the auto successfully manages to take the much desired U turn. Whenever there is a traffic jam, the other side of the road(if there is a divider) – one for the on coming traffic is free of traffic and vehicles zoom past you. The person stuck in it often wonders why is he not on the other, empty side where he can move freely at a high speed. But then, it is not the direction. Is it?

Apni Desi ‘Cars’

11.35 AM
It’s a cold, foggy day when I start this journey – 250 kms long from Jallandhar to Jammu. It is the first time that I only have only 1 person sitting on my head – commanding me, ordering me and making me dance on his finger.. err… is that a correct translation for ungliyon pe nachana? Well it’s a phrase but has been literally true since I went to gym and gained more power in my steering. The thing I fear today is not the fog but the fact that my passenger is alone (just like me!!) and all the focus will be on me today. Other times, when they get chatting up, I get a chance to run smoothly at a constant speed for good stretches. Chalo, enough of talking. I am invigorated with that sweet smelling petrol. Time to hit the road!!
12.00 PM
The city of Jallandhar is behind me now. After spending some time on the bypass road and the outskirts of the city, I am now freely moving on a 4 lane road. Though I must say that it was more enjoyable 2 days ago, when I was coming to Jallandhar. Less traffic meant that I had nice, fresh wind in my face. Now it’s all polluted. Shucks. I hope this broad 4 lane road doesn’t end. But I know it will. And then it will be time for the constant pull and push on my levers. That gives me lot of pain. Not to forget I will be constantly moved from one side to another. Well. Why fret about the future. We will take it when it comes. Filhaal.. enjoy the present.
12.30 PM
Exactly as I expected – the cat and mouse game has started. I don’t know why I named it but that was the first thing that came to mind. But it’s an exciting game that I hardly get to play in the cities. It happens as follows. There is a sputtering thing like a truck or a tractor or a bus moving ahead. I move slightly to the right, peeking, with one eye on the road ahead. It is easy decision if either there is nothing ahead or someone is so close that we can look deep into each other’s eyes. But the fun comes when there is a decision to be made. If it’s a go, then I have to open up my mouth, drink in more fuel and just march ahead. No time to think, no excuses, it’s a one way road then. Though there are few cases when I may have to stop in between. My other friends have told me but this guy sitting on my head has not let it happen to me till now. But that stuff is real hair raising one. The other one – just narrowly missing kissing the on-coming friend. That kiss by the way is called kiss of death!!!

1.00 PM
Wooooh.. I hate this part… Was cruising through wonderfully. Beautiful, Lush green fields on both sides and suddenly I am pulled up for no fault of mine. Some bloody tractors seemed to have gotten tired in the middle of the highway. Poor chaps are like the donkeys. They move slowly, bray like the always loaded animal. You should see how happy they are when they don’t have the baggage behind them. Anyways, there is a minor jam on the road right now. Have to slow down in any case as the town is coming up.

I don’t remember this stretch of road. It is awesome. Proceedings from the town were slow but have hit a nice patch of the journey. There is no one around – and being all alone is giving me some doubts if I am on the correct path. There has been no milestone too from quite some time. But what the heck. I don’t really mind even if I have to turn back. I am gliding on the curves nicely and have reached a nice speed of 120. Last time I had experienced some pains while on 100 only. Coughing and Tiredness was there. But today nothing of the sort. May be it’s the nice sunny weather.

Reached the half way point. And the road gets bad from here to Lakhanpur. And to make matters worse, the big enemies – the gundas, called trucks have entered the scene big time. These guys are huge, walk thinking they are Sanjay Dutt and the bhai of the road. Most responsible for beating up small people like me. Inse bach bach ke aage jaana padega.

2.30 PM
Have crossed into J&K now. Vast difference in the scenery – a sudden change in the colors on the sidelines. Green to Brown. I am also feeling tired now. Plenty of border towns here so it’s been slow and steady for some time.

It’s like total dizzy phase now. My mind is totally numb. I am just moving along, tiredly going past my slow friends and staying behind the faster ones. It’s really hot. This bloody guy has not given me any break. It’s been like three and a half hours now. And I am just following the motions. The road has been strange. The highway is partially constructed and one side of the road is open. So have to alternate between them. And it is the only time I wake up from my slumber- just to be sure that I am going the right way.

Closer home now. I can already see the beautiful shade under the tree. I am dreaming about it. It’s not far. Meanwhile, got some adrenaline rushing when a speeding Alto gave me some challenge. The damn thing was quite fast, even on straights. I thought of not taking too many risk overtaking the bhais. So let it go after some time.

Finally home, under the shade of the tree.

Christmas Getaway

Lot of firsts were reserved for this Christmas. It was the first getaway from Jammu – generally holidays are reserved for going home. First time driving more than 300 kms – on a hilly terrain. And it was the first time to extreme north of India – just 180 kms shy of Srinagar.

The destination was Patnitop. It was an early morning start. The car flew on the empty roads. The bypass road to NH1A is excellent. In fact the whole highway was totally unexpected. Considering that we were going towards Srinagar, the image in the mind was that of a torturous, narrow, steep, bending and curving road. But it was quite the opposite – a comfortable, Shimla kind of highway. In fact the conditions of roads in Jammu City have been a revelation too. They are as good as any.

Coming back to the journey, milestones indicating the reducing distance from Srinagar created excitement enough to stop and pose for some clicks with one of them, which had an Urdu translation as well. While in south India, we constantly complain of a language problem, the boards and names written in the language which make no meaning. Like Sanchit, I also never expected a similar problem in North India as well.

Patnitop was nothing but just another stopover on way to Srinagar – just marketed well, may be because of its appropriate ‘getaway’ distance from Jammu.

There is a resort for night stopovers which we were not really interested. After having breakfast, in which Kava was ordered. It’s a Kashmir specialty – green tea with almonds etc. Didn’t really like it. The weather was awesomely chilly. On getting news of some snow on Natha Top a place around 14km from there we decided to head that way. Rs 50 was charged at the start of the road and someone tried to sell us the idea of renting out gum boots and heavy clothing for the snow. Having experienced enough snow, we could see clearly that there was negligible snow on the hill. In any case, Sanchit and I had trekked several kilometers of more than ankle high snow on the hills at Tawang in Arunachal Pradesh in mere sports shoes so we were sure we could definitely make it through here. The way up was disappointing if anyone had expected the white cover. It was a barren brown land. We found a spot, parked the car and climbed up a small hill. The chill was felt immediately as the first step was taken out of the car – the cold wind making the bright sun useless. Within minutes, ears were literally paining with cold, nose incapacitated to do its primary job, the mouth, slightly open frozen in its place and the wind making funny sounds as it passed the teeny tiny gaps in the teeth. All kind of biological sensors under the skin had gone awry.

The loss of 4 senses was compensated by the last one – eyes. It was a visual treat. In front of us were the splendid Himalayas. It was the first time I saw snow clad mountains with the sharp, pointed peaks. Generally the hill tops get curved at the top and are exactly the same as we used to show in the drawing books in our bachpan. But here was something that had come out just out of those books and our imagination.

After some minutes, the 4 senses whose call for some relief had slipped under the beauty of the nature, stood up and it was time to return to the car where the sun and the glasses had colluded  to trap the heat inside the car. It was an instant relief.

My co-passengers slept off on the return journey where the highlight was the Udhampur by-pass road. We had missed it in the morning and had crossed the city. The bypass, though a bit longer was amazing. The car literally flew over the lonely and deserted stretch.

The after effects of around 300 kms of driving were witnessed when, on reaching Jammu, I came out of the car. The knee and the foot refused to move from their places. They had to be moved a lot to get them back into use.

Overall it was a satisfying experience which gave me the confidence that driving down(rather than taking a flight) to Srinagar is a nice option. In any case, the last 100 kms of the 300 km distance is through plains only as you leave the hills behind and enter the valley area.

Hopefully it will happen soon…