Tuesday, August 4, 2020

Beirut is where Michele (pronounced mi-SHEL) lives.

Dear Readers,

I'm sharing a post I wrote about Beirut more than two years ago when I visited this historical city with my friend, Angela.

The people we met were warm and welcoming. Beirut charmed us with its history and its vibrant energy. Bullet holes and stunning murals jostled to show off the walls of a city that Faiz Ahmed Faiz referred to as  "Beirut: the ornament of our world" in his Beirut poem.

Angela and I exchanged messages yesterday to express our sadness at the turn of events. 

I offer this post as a tribute to this jewel of Lebanon which shattered my perceptions and unarmed me of some of my preconceived notions.

Stay safe and well.

Much Love



Street Art in Gemmayzeh
"What's he doing?"


"They look like spikes."

Angela and I are in Beirut. It's our first time in the city. 

We wanted to see each other. The current blockade makes it extremely difficult to visit each other as she lives in Dubai and I reside in Doha. We were looking for nearby destinations. The flights to Beirut looked good to travel on staff rebate. 

So here we are, a day after Valentine's, exploring a city both of us have read about in books and in recent news.  

We see an old man hunched over a low work bench. He's sitting in a deep chair with armrests with his back to the street, his hands are busy polishing what look like brass spikes.

We carry on walking.

"What do you think he's making?" asks Angela.

"No idea." I confess. "Perhaps he's cleaning them."

Our thoughts linger on the hunched over old man in his grayish bluish coat, peering through his glasses, steadily polishing golden rods (about 6-8 inches long) without looking up, for a few minutes before our eyes spot something interesting-- an achingly old building with a fading facade that hides tales of eras past. 

A few hours later, tired but excited about being in Beirut, we decide to head back. Without intention or design, we find ourselves on the same road, in Gemmayzeh. The old man's hands are still busy. This time I spot a table laden with jewellery pieces. I am almost tempted. It's getting late and there's always tomorrow. We hail a taxi and leave.
Next morning, we decide to start our exploration from the other end of Beirut (Hamra). The map, which till yesterday had looked like a puzzle, behaves like a friendly guide.  A longish coffee stop and lots of walking later, we find ourselves looking at the old man's table full of  jewellery in Gemmayzeh. It's late afternoon and lunch is on our minds.

"These look good." I declare.

In the freshness of a new day and the familiarity of day two in a new city, the area around the table covered in red cloth reveals more of itself. The table is set out on the front pavement of an old Antique Shop. There is a bright light trying to peep through the cloudy glass of the half open doors. The old man is wearing a brassy ring on his left thumb and using a tool with his right when he looks up and smiles.

"Do you make these?" I ask.

"Yes." His voice is clear and warm, like a glass of fresh milk: soothing and full of life. "I make these."

He walks the short distance from the far corner where his low work bench sits, laden with tools and a twisted brassy sheet, over to us and slides the ring off his thumb.

"It says 'my light' (or did he say 'my love'--I'm not 100 % sure) in Arabic." He says in perfect English and holds the ring up so we can see the light enter the calligraphic carvings on the ring.

"You did this?" Angela and I ask him in unison.

"Yes. You can come and make with me if you want." he offers.

I'm not sure I've heard him correctly. Maybe he doesn't mean that. Maybe he wants to say he'll make one for us just like this one.

I'm doubtful. Surely, he's not going to spend his time teaching us! Surely, he's expecting us to buy something. Odd, how easily cynicism overtakes trust. Why are we programmed to veer towards mistrust as our first instinct?  Is it evolution (survival of the fittest) or just the way the world has come to be?

"What's your name?" we ask.

"Michele." He smiles and disarms my canons of cynicism with his grin.  "And I'm ninety years old." He beams. 

"No!" we almost shriek like teenagers. "Ninety?"

His eyes twinkle a little more brightly. I ask if I can click his picture. Michele obliges like a true gentleman and even poses.
"What's yours?"


"Like the angel." He says and takes Angela's hand while I continue to take  pictures. Angela melts in front of me.
Michele looks up and I give him my name.

He squints quizzically at me.

"Like Art with an I...Arti." I offer an explanation.

He nods and smiles and when he finds out that Angela is from England, he mentions Teresa May.

"This world needs more women leaders...no really. Women are smart."

Who would've thought we'd run into a ninety year old male feminist on the streets of Beirut!

"I was watching a programme on TV about ancient Indian architecture recently, it's so good...so good." adds Michele exuberantly when I mention to him that I'm of Indian stock.

"Yes, India is full of amazing art and architecture." I add and nod. 

It feels part surreal and  part normal to bump into Michele. Human connections such as these is the reason why I love travelling. No monument or museum can live up to simply connecting with another soul. Unless, of course, I'm walking alone in the hills, then I'm happy to be all by myself.

My conclusion, ladies and gentlemen, is that Michele is the most interesting man I've met on my travels in a while. We could've talked the afternoon away, if we wanted to. 

"What were you making yesterday?" Asks Angela. "those spike like things..."

"Come inside the shop, I'll show you..." says Michele and wanders towards the glass door. 

Loud music is blasting  from a corner of the shop. There is stuff everywhere. 

"I haven't had the time to clear up..." he offers an apology and sounds like I do when friends drop in and my house hasn't been dusted! "This is what I made with the spikes..." he points to the light and stands next to it with such a big grin that he looks like a six year old who's just got a 10/10 in his math quiz--absolutely delighted with his work.
"You made this?" We sound like we don't really believe him.

"Yes, and I'm making these to send to my son in Canada. He will use them to make another light like this one." Michele points out the spikes we'd seen him with the previous evening.
If I ever reach ninety, please God, let me be like Michele--working with my hands, open to strangers, warm and kind and curious like a two year old.

I spot a pair of swirly earrings on the table when we step out of his shop. I consider getting them for a friend but decide to wait till I explore a bit more and perhaps come back the next day.

"We should buy a cake for him and go see him again." suggests Angela as we polish off our vegan lunch at the Sursock museum cafe a couple of hours later. 

We couldn't stop talking about Michele after we bid him goodbye: while eating lunch we wondered about him, throughout that evening we discussed his kind eyes and warm smile and even later that night we pondered aloud to each other:

Imagine the stories he'd have to tell. 

What all must he have seen in his life.

He must've put the music that loud so he could hear it outside.

How amazing for us to come across someone like him...

 and on and on.

The one regret I have is that we decided to postpone our cake with Michele idea to the next day. 

Rain and wind and grey skies welcomed us the next morning. We went to the shop. It was shut. It was our last day in Beirut. Our flights were scheduled to take off that evening.

Sometimes, cakes should be bought and shared as soon as the idea enters our hearts--for one never knows if there will be another tomorrow.

I don't have Michele's number or address. But if anyone in Beirut is reading this and knows him, please give him our love and heartfelt thanks for infusing our weekend trip with his generous smile.

Facades cover buildings, like faces cover souls--what is that old saying again? Never judge a book by its cover.

Better still, never judge.

There were many such kind and helpful humans in Beirut who we encountered in restaurants, shops and even at the farmers market selling their delicious vegan wares. If you're thinking of going to Beirut, I'd say, if you can, then just go. 

Leaving you with a few eclectic shots of facades that caught my eye on the day after Valentine's in the city of Beirut.

 This reminder of 'James and the Giant Peach' (as Angela pointed out) is an old movie theater.

The oft-photographed colourful steps on Armenia Street of Beirut
May this beautiful city and its people find the strength to deal with their losses. 
May their hearts heal and may their smiles return soon.

Tuesday, July 28, 2020

A bucket full of blue skies: Chainsheel Trek (Part 2) #traveloguesofArtiJain

Day 3 (contd...)
You may recall "Part 1" of this trek from last month's post. Part 2 follows:

We left Mandi Thatch after word of our moody mules reached us. The late start will catch up with us but for now we were enjoying the unbroken blue skies and Ranaji's transistor. 

Incidentally, I wrote and recited a Hindi poem about this tiny transistor and its owner, Ranaji, who peppered our trek with Hindi film music whenever the mighty Himalayas let radio waves reach us. I'll share the link at the end of this post.

Blue: the colour of Shiva, of Krishna, of skies, of oceans, of lakes and of a plastic pale, however, kept us company throughout. Sometimes, silver-grey clouds played hide and seek with the blue but no matter.

Pradhanji (the village leader of Maunda) would stop every now and then to draw our attention to the things growing around. In the picture below, he's holding a tuft of moss growing under this massive rock that is used for its medicinal properties.
Of course, any opportunity to admire Mother Nature's abundance gives weary knees the much needed rest and break.

The trail on day 3 was unique because for the majority of  the 11 km stretch, the mountains and peaks were visible which is rare. In fact, for a long time, while traversing the ridge, we had a panoramic view of snow capped peaks on our left and  and right.  And time enough to pose with them:)
We ate lunch languishing on a log that had once been the trunk of an upright oak. Lunch was veg pulao that day -- deliciously abundant with potatoes, peas, carrots and capsicum. I must've been famished for there are no photos!

Post lunch progress is always tedious as filled tummies slow the legs down, or perhaps weary legs blame the tummy to hide behind an excuse. 

Snow flurries hit us late afternoon. Suddenly, dark grey clouds engulfed the clear blue skies and before we could zip up our rain covers, first fat raindrops and then soft snowflakes tumbled down from the heavens. Distant thunder carried threat of drenching.  There was no shelter in sight. It was freezing. The thought of being wet and cold in the mountains is not too appealing.

The threat receded as soon as it had appeared. All was well again. I'd burrowed my camera inside multiple layers so it didn't emerge till the changing light reminded me of the golden hour: that precious time when the setting sun bathes the world in golden light. It is a photographer's delight.

By the time the sun was rushing to kiss the horizon, we could spot the tents.  We had made it just in the nick of time--another hour late, and we would've missed this bliss.

How they managed it, I don't know, but almost as soon as we reached our tents, the team of Outdoor Monks offered us hot water to drink. Apparently, sipping hot water works on two levels: it not only hydrate the body but keeps it warm too. We will need all the warmth in the world that night. Two rounds of fabulous tea followed the hot water. 

If there's a God, he's tea on a cold mountain top--believe me.

Will we? Won't we? Step out of our tents? The twilight hour was fast receding into darkness. The temperature was well below minus 8 degrees Celsius. We were cocooned inside our tents wearing all the layers we could possibly wear and still it felt cold. 

I'm not fond of closed spaces so the tent is only used when it's absolutely essential: i.e. to sleep at night. I wasn't too pleased about the prospect of waiting inside the tent from sunset to sunrise.

This will be long night, I thought.

Will they? Won't they? Light a bonfire tonight? 
But, how could they?
We were far above the tree line. There were no trees, hence no wood. 

Pradhanji's booming voice mixed with sounds of scurrying activity pierced our tent. I laboured with my cold and heavy boots and stepped outside.

What do I see but a crackling fire and hunched silhouettes of people sitting around it. 

Rhododendron (known as Buransh  locally) can be burnt for fuel even when its wood is green. It grows above treeline and provides the perfect fuel for shepherds on nights such as these.

Nature is truly abundant.

The picture above and below are the best I could do with my camera to capture the miracle I was witnessing sitting around a warm fire, a steaming cup of soup warming my heart and hands.
Sleep was being rather elusive that night. I was ready to step outside before the first rays of sun touched down. 

Day 4 arrived dressed in orange, gold and the promise of warmth.

Sunrise of Day 4:
Someone, we don't know who as no one owned up to it, had left a sock on the rock near the previous night's camp fire. The solidified sock created an anecdotal distraction while we waited for chai soon after sunrise. It sat there on the rock thawing--perhaps waiting for its owner to own it again, once it had shed its icy facade. 

You will know when you see these photos just how rewarding Day 4 was. This, yes, this, we told each other is why we wriggle our toes into frozen socks and sleep like mummies --entombed but wide awake.
Can you spot the ice on the water? We'll come across frozen streams and puddles later on today. The blue of sky is misleading. It was cccccccold!

 Blue so bright -- it hurt the eyes.
But don't be fooled by the sky.
Our bones were chilled
and that is why
as soon as we reached the treeline
Bharat gathered some twigs, wood and twine
And lit a fire so divine.
we felt fine.

 Rest breaks are the best
 Meet the star chef: Surinder
Just how tricky is
tumbling down a hill
Jack and/or Jill
They'll tell you
Down and Crown
don't belong together
Humility and Pride
The latter half of our tumble aka trek down the mountainside was a tad tricky. Layers kept coming off our backs and getting stuffed into our bags. 

Congratulating ourselves and each other on surviving the cold, we meandered our way through forests of oak and deodar, trying not to look at the reminders of our advanced years, such as this young lad who carried this blue bucket throughout the trek and was dressed in these clothes even on the night of minus 8 degrees Celcius! They refer to us as 'elderly' in these parts. They're not wrong but it hurts. 
"What is blue? The sky is blue.
Where the clouds float through."
wrote Chritina Rossetti.
She was born in 1830.

Poetry never fails to inspire me...

Of the trek, there's more to come
We're not yet done.
There's a night and a day still:
One more bonfire to be lit
One last night in a tent
Under those stars that shine like suns
when the sun 
goes to pay his rent
to the Almighty.
You see--
He's supposed to pay it daily
for he occupies prime property
in the blue sky
up high
where clouds sometimes fly.
Wishing you all a safe and healthy Tuesday.
May you and your loved ones enjoy the bliss of noon, night and day
Here's the link I'd promised of my poetry recital in Hindi:
Thank you for being here.
Much love 

Thursday, July 9, 2020

A Haiku and a Tanka (almost:)

Haiku #2

The bees came in May-
to drink honey only they could see.
Come, my dates are ready.

(~says the date palm tree)


Tanka #1 

Erase my edges.
Soften me, O! Dragonfly.
Smudge me to oblivion;
where I can be you or me,
Frangipani or blue sky.

(~ say I as I attempt to write a Tanka but can't seem to whittle off the extra syllable in line 3!)

Dear Readers,

The date palm trees in Doha are pregnant with ripe fruit now. The first photo was made in May when the blossoms were hosting boisterous parties for honey bees.

This year, dragonflies have been regular visitors--I'm not sure why. Perhaps all the quietness induced by Covid is responsible. I'm not complaining--I'm grateful for such good looking visitors who sit still on branches for hours so that novice photographers like me can click to our hearts' content.

Wishing you all a healthy and happy weekend.

Stay safe and enjoy nature and her bounteous beauty.

Warm regards


Friday, June 19, 2020

Waiting for Mules: a photo essay of our trek to Chainsheel Lake (Part 1) #TravelouesofArtiJain

Dear Readers,

I hope you are all well and healthy.

Today, I'm sharing memories of a trek that I went on in October 2018. As memories are many and wonderful, I've decided to split the travelogue into parts.

Offering part 1 today for your reading pleasure.

The photos were made then but are being looked at and shared now--thanks to my current home-bound journey status, I'm able to look back at the treasures of my past travels and relish them all over again.

I hope you'll join me.

Warm regards


The morning temperature read -5 degrees Celsius in Mandi Thatch. Misty fog seemed reluctant to let go of the sun. She wanted another cuddle.  

It was the morning after the night of celebrating Vani's 50th birthday. 

Vani, a dancer, a health coach and an avid trekker had decided to celebrate her milestone birthday in the mountains, doing what she likes best--trekking. And even though October gets cold in the Himalayas, a couple of us volunteered to be part of her birthday celebrations--happily and eagerly.

Apu, as usual, did all the spade work. She sent us the itinerary and a packing list. Looking at the weather predictions, I packed all the thermal vests and leggings I had ever bought from UniQlo and landed in Maunda: a village that will become very dear to us after this trip. 

Outdoor Monks were trusted with the task of taking us to our destination: Chainsheel Lake, nestled in the lush green folds of Chainsheel bhugyal -- a high altitude meadow in the Himalayas perched at 3,600 metres above sea level. As there had been a few unfortunate episodes of loss of life in these parts the previous year, the village Pradhanji and one of his friends, Rana ji, came along with us as local guides.
You can see Maunda's charming Pradhan ji (on the right of this photo) all set to embark on the trek with us.  While we were lugging all the thermals known to us and were kitted out in our carefully thought out trekking gear, Pradhan ji's preparation included packing his phone and  a change of clothes and Ranaji for his part, carried his transistor. 

Our trek started in Maunda.  The khacchar wala (the mule owner) who was supposed to accompany the team did not turn up. So, some local lads from a nearby village were roped in to help out with the trek.

The trail we were supposed to take had not been accessed all year. So, this trek to celebrate Vani's 50th would wear many hats -- as a trial to check out the route, as an opportunity to capture its beauty to promote the village of Maunda as a suitable base to start all future treks from and consequently bring much needed commerce into the village.  All we, the mountain lovers whose souls dwell in these parts, needed was an excuse to pack up and go. So we did.

Six or seven hours of hiking later, we reached Sonawat Thatch, our first camp site, by early evening. 

Tents were set up. Dinner followed a couple of rounds of tea and a young moon shone in the deep Himalayan sky while we rested.

As an early riser and as someone who can make do with four hours of sleep on treks, I can be found outside my tent, waiting for the sun to rise.  The next morning was no different.

For me, every sunrise and every sunset witnessed is like a new book read or a poem told. The alchemy of sun and sky in those hours has to be witnessed to behold. 

Sunrises and sunsets are the best kind of gold to hoard in a life time. I'd like to be the Bill Gates of sunsets and sunrises one day. I'm not kidding. I'm extremely ambitious like that.

The sun rose like a sorcerer that morning and sprinkled Sonawat Thatch with its magic.
The mules, though, had a slightly different point of view. Do you notice the ground frost? 
After breakfast, we loaded our day packs on our backs, slathered on sun cream while the team loaded the mules with everything else--all the essentials needed to spend five nights outdoors, in the Himalayas in October.

Clear blue skies, grove after grove of bare branched birch trees and unending rows of mountains kept our spirits up and vibrant. Mountains come in all shapes and forms. The one we were about to traverse seemed to have suffered a few erosive blows from land slides in the monsoon rains. The path ahead started getting narrower and rockier.  

And then it became dangerous. The only saving grace was that it wasn't raining. We crossed this stretch in single file. The rubble and debris on the path made it slippery at places. But as humans with two legs carrying just the day's supplies of lunch, water and extra layers, we managed to cross over pretty deftly and then whooped a triumphant whoop when we got to the other side. The mules who were following us had a very different experience.

You see, treks are a means of income for villages in the Himalayas where employment opportunities are rare as all developmental policies in India, like in many other countries, focus exclusively on manufacturing and building and hardly ever on preserving and conserving. We are all witnessing the effects of such lopsided, money-making, short-term solution based policies.  Treks in these parts are akin to a co-operative movement: the entire village benefits from it, assuming that the head or pradhan has his people's best interest at heart. 

Mules are loaded up with tents and other camping equipment. Care is taken to ensure they are not over burdened and that the weight is proportionate on both sides. A trekking team is as good as its mules/donkeys. Without them, treks such as the one I go on wouldn't be possible. This also provides earning opportunities to the village youth who would otherwise head out to towns and cities, as is the case in so many parts of India. Thus, emptying villages of youth and hope. 
As you can see, with all this load, it was impossible for the mules to cross the narrow ledge. We didn't know any of this, of course. We had carried on ahead and when there were no donkeys in sight behind us, had decided to wait for them.

It was a very long wait!
We waited and we waited and then we waited some more. First, I went around clicking photos of mountains and trees. Then, I munched on an apple. Then I clicked a few photos of us waiting. That's Apu up there. Now, the thing is that without our mules, we wouldn't be able to carry on ahead. I'm usually lost in my own world so I tend to find out what's going on pretty late. Any stop on a trek is an unhindered opportunity to click. So I click and don't ask too many questions.  When the waiting didn't end for a very long time, I asked.

"They're having trouble with that last pass." Someone said.

All manners of speculations and suggestions fluttered around the group. Pradhanji, for his part, sat unperturbed and Ranaji's transistor rang out ---"Yeh Akashwani ki...seva..." to break the silence when conversations died down: as they do when one is faced with an unexpected change of plans. 

"I can see them." declared Pradhanji, getting up from the perch he was sitting on- on his haunches all this while, smoking.

"Where? Where?" we all erupted simultaneously.

"Ooooh...there....can you see that falan-falan bend ..." he pointed his finger in the direction we'd just come up from.

To say that it took me an hour after he'd spotted the moving mules on the horizon to make out dark blobs of movement far, far, away is no exaggeration. Well, that's what you get when you live in cities---you stop seeing clearly!

A collective sigh of relief followed by a chorus of "kya hua, kya hua?" (what happened, what happened?) greeted the team when they finally joined us in Mandi Thatch, our camp site for the day.

As expected, the narrow ledge had freaked out the mules who rely entirely on their instincts for survival. So, their loads had to be offloaded. Each mule was then cajoled/pushed/perhaps even threatened to cross the ledge, guided by its keeper. The loads were then carried by the team across the ledge and only when the mules felt settled, were they loaded up, balanced and secured (for the second time that day) for the rest of the journey. 
Once reunited, the tents were pitched, tea was made and life returned to normal once again.

That night, Surinder, the chef, excelled far and beyond our expectations. He makes the most amazing food but when he and the team brought out a cake: baked in the tent in a pressure cooker and dotted with candles to celebrate Vani's 50th, it left us all speechless. I still can't fathom how Surinder manages to bake and cook such feasts at such altitudes! The cake was delicious.

Sunset and bonfire, cake and cuppa, songs of 'Happy birthday' sung in English and Garhwali, tum jiyo hazzaron saal... followed by amazing shero-shayari (poetry recitals) by Pradhanji created a celebration like none seen before or since. It was perfect. We went to bed clad in many layers of warmth, both the thermal kind and the fuzzy kind one feels in ones heart when man and nature come together.

The next morning unfolded dramatically. 

"Our mules have gone.... khacchar bhaag gaye...the mules have fled..." cries of wonder and hilarity (the kind one finds in unimaginable situations) tweeted around Mandi Thatch along with birdsong a little before sun rise. 

The morning was bitterly cold.
Siddhartha's thermometer refused to rise above -5 degrees Celcius despite his effort to take it to the 'sunniest' spot around his tent.

After some chaotic kerfuffle trying to figure out the mules' whereabouts, the team figured that they must've made their way back to their village--yes, equivalent to  a day and a half of our trek thus far. A little sleuthing revealed that while the mules' novice keepers took to their grasses to invite sound sleep, the mules had decided to scamper all the way back to the warmth and familiarity of their own haystacks and sheds in the village. Animal instincts are fine tuned for survival. 

Another wait unfolded. But, with hot cups of tea, yummy breakfast and enough warm layers, we were able to crack jokes. Or perhaps, it's the innate optimism of a new day breaking out over the mountains that makes one see everything through the prism of positivism. Or maybe, it was Pradhanji's chilled out vibes that helped. His reaction to the situation was akin to a father's whose son or daughter  has just missed the school bus and he knows he'll have to take his car/scooter out to drop his offspring--a slight deviation in daily routine but nothing to get worked up about. When one is in sync with nature, patience comes naturally.

Khacchar walas (keepers of mules) took off to look for the stars of the trek and to fetch them back. 

As soon as word reached  that they had been spotted and were now being brought back, it was decided that the group would carry on ahead with Bharat, our team leader, while the rest of the team of Outdoor Monks will wait to load up the Moody Mules and follow us.

By then, fog had reluctantly let go of the sun. The long wait for our band of rebels to be found worked in our favour. Slowly and steadily, a bright sunny day began to emerge from the smothering cuddles of Himalayan fog.

Everything sparkled-- snow, stones, shrubs and our smiles:)
A 'happy' birthday girl:)
The pictures that follow were all taken on Day 3 of the trek: we covered 11 kms that day from Mandi Thatch (Bhutaha) to Sarutal. Come along and enjoy the spectacular views. The air is fresh and crisp. Cerulean skies and fluffy clouds are ready to keep you company.

To stand and ponder and stare for hours without any agenda or plans--now, that's bliss in my world. And when one gets amazing chai after a long day of walking and admiring, that's what I call sone pe suhaga:
translation: Gold. Pure Gold.
I'll be back with more bags of gold for you soon-ish. Part 2 of this travelogue promises to blow your socks off -- or rather freeze them--because while we will be climbing higher to get closer to Chainsheel Lake, the temperature will tumble lower.

The views, however, will make it all worth your while as they did for us.

Till then, stay safe and healthy. Smile often and dance whenever you can:)

Happy weekend dear ones. xx