I read the Lord of the Rings by J R R Tolkien when I was about 18 and it had a profound impression on my life. It also made me turn to books and reading. Here I gather a few quotes that I love from the book along with a few of my photographs.
“It is not our part to master all the tides of the world, but to do what is in us for the succour of those years wherein we are set, uprooting the evil in the fields that we know, so that those who live after may have clean earth to till. What weather they shall have is not ours to rule”
“It’s the job that’s never started as takes longest to finish”
“Yet such is oft the course of deeds that move the wheels of the world: small hands do them because they must, while the eyes of the great are elsewhere”
“All that is gold does not glitter, Not all those who wander are lost; The old that is strong does not wither, Deep roots are not reached by the frost.”
“All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given to us.”
We all have our visions of Paradise. Here’s one version of it- white sandy beach, blue waters, a few trees- spread a mat, an umbrella, a good book and a cool lemonade and you’d be in your own paradise!
By far the most impressive cathedral and landmark in the French town of Clermont Ferrand, Notre Dame de l’Assomption is a distinct monument that stands tall. The twin spires of the cathedral are more than 96 metres tall.
The most distinct feature of this cathedral is that it is made from the local volcanic volvic stone giving it a sombre and dark appearance. I guess that adds a bit more dignity and makes the cathedral even more impressive.
The present cathedral in its full form took centuries to complete from the 13th to the 19th- though the site had been a base for Christian worship from as early as the 6th century AD.
There are a number of wonderful stained glass windows inside the cathedral. However as I always feel a bit apprehensive about photographing inside living places of worship I didn’t take too many photographs and the ones I took did not come out well! Oh well!
I love Macro photography- somehow the art of photographing something extremely small appeals to me a lot- it’s how you can see details that you can’t normally see- to delve into a world that you did not know existed.
I have a lens (mZuiko12-50mm) that can do a fairly decent job of macro but I’m thinking that the next lens I would invest in would be a specialist macro lens.
The Langkawi Cable Car and Sky Bride are two of the most popular tourist destination in the Malaysian Island archipelago of Langkawi.
The sky bridge is unfortunately closed for maintenance and renovation currently and is scheduled to open only at the end of 2014 (which incidentally is being promoted as the Visit Malaysia year). Is the cable car ride still worth it? In my opinion- definitely.
The entrance to the cable car rides is located in what is called the Oriental village- a shopping arcade that has been designed to look like traditional local architecture. I guess the lines to enter the cable car can be long at times (we had to wait for about 15 minutes).
There are two segments in riding the cable car- the longer first section is also quite steep- you don’t feel it going up but when coming down it can feel a bit scary- the cars almost go down vertically at a point.
You then reach an intermediate viewing platform where you can get down to take photos or just enjoy the views. Later you board the cars again to go to the highest viewing point with two viewing decks.
The views are probably best early in the morning or fairly late in the evening around sunset- otherwise the light is too harsh and there is quite a bit of haze. But if you have limited time and you can only make it at 11 am- I would still recommend a visit.
For my last post this week, I chose to write about a very unique place that I visited when I travelled to Siem Reap earlier this year.
I first heard about Kabal Spean in John Sors “Temple of Thousand Faces”- I read this and a couple of other books about Angkor era before I travelled so I could be a bit familiar with the history. In the story the exiled King and Queen use this as one of their refuges where they regroup before making war on the invaders.
Kabal Spean is not a regular temple- it is actually a stretch of riverbed that has carvings on it. To get to see the carvings you have to hike a kilometre and a half up a hill. But the hike is completely worth it.
The carvings represent the various Gods from Hindu mythology- mainly Shiva (through the Lingas), Vishnu and Brahma. The water levels in the river also impact how many of these carvings you can see.
The mere mention of the website of IRCTC is bound to make any seasoned railway traveler start quaking. This is not out of any disrespect to Indian Railways. After all it is one of the largest railway networks in the world (and according to Wikipedia the 9th largest commercial employer!). It transports about 30 million people every day. You just have to walk into Chennai Central station at any point during the day and you realise immediately that this is a city by itself- a city with its own rules and codes. Anyway it’s only the online portal of the company that I’ll be talking about.
In the 90s when we used to go on our family annual holidays, we always took the train. And back in those days you went to the railway station as soon as you made your plans (the bookings opened 60 days ahead- remember India has a very large population- if you snooze, you definitely lose), filled in a form, stood in line respectfully and handed it over to the person behind the counter. You then held your breath to see if you managed to get a ticket or get put on a waiting list- which is a system that was probably devised by a mathematician wanting to test people on their skills in evaluating probability- long story.
Anyway the 90s are long gone (sometimes I can’t believe that! Like wasn’t it the 90s just a few years ago?) and so of course the Indian Railways also gets itself a swanky new website where you can (hold your breath) book your tickets online. What they probably didn’t bank on was the number of people who would try to log in to the website simultaneously trying to book tickets.
From 2002 until 2011 I didn’t travel by long distance trains in India except on one occasion (I still took the suburban lines to commute everyday for a few years) so it is fair to say that I missed this online revolution completely. And call it beginner’s luck- the first time I actually tried booking a ticket in 2011, the transaction went through exactly as it was supposed to- no mishaps (I am still trying to figure out what I did right then- was it the time of the day? was it the credit card I used? was it the server I was accessing it from??????). I looked at the people dissing the IRCTC website on social media and believed they were snobs.
Luck runs out- sometimes sooner than later. The next time I tried using the website I could almost immediately feel that something was amiss. The home page had loaded quickly enough but it was taking ages to log in after I had typed in my user name and password. Some eons later, when I was actually looking at another tab, the website had logged me in. When I finally realised that I am logged in I type in the station details only for the website to tell me it had already logged me out as I had been inactive for far too long (WHAT!!!!!). Anyway back to the home page and same thing once again except this time I stare hawk eyed at the page willing all my energies on the page to load. No luck- the wheel of death keeps spinning and after a few minutes I lose patience and close the window.
I get a nagging suspicion- what if the people complaining about the website were actually right? I still persist in my belief and open another window. This time the system logs me in reasonably quickly- “There you go!” you think “that wasn’t so hard was it!”. You type in the details for your stations and the website even shows you the entire list of all trains running between those stations and the availability for each train and category (you can see if you will actually get a ticket or get put on a waiting list). (***Crazy! As I write this I get an email from IRCTC- maybe they sense something is on the way!***)
But once again you hit a wall after you’ve chosen the train- the page refuses to load and whilst you’re away checking your emails on the other tab/ window the page has loaded silently. You panic when you see that it has loaded and quickly type the passenger details. You hit go and then either nothing happens or you get told that you have been logged out because of inactivity- arrrrrrrrrrrrgh! Sometimes you don’t even get there- you cannot decipher the enigmatic captcha code that sits on the reservation page and of course trying to reload another code is like asking to get slapped.
Depending on how desperate/ bored you are you keep retrying the process (once I spent 4 hours trying to book a train ticket between Chennai and Bangalore) until you get to the page where you can actually click on a button that says make payment. On the payment page there are ominous signs- the website has rated different payment gateways depending on their levels of success (the maximum is 80%- despair ye all!). I take something that has an 80% success rate- use my regular credit card- the first step goes through and I’m then taken to the card company website for the 3d code (I know they are trying to protect us against fraud but sometimes putting in another step means another step for failure). I type in my code and then am promptly told that my transaction is declined. I panic wonder if my card has been deactivated.
Relentlessly (at this point it’s you or the website) you close the page and open it again and login (after about 5 trials). You see an option that says quick book and head there. It seems promising- you enter train number, passenger details and card details all on the same page. You then click the button saying go and nothing happens. I mean that the button go is a dud- you can’t click it. Somebody needs to inform IRCTC that they have a bug right there. This is the stage where you are ready to fling random objects at other random objects/ people.
The trick is to let go and then try again after a while. This way the website also feels that it won and when you log back in- doesn’t mind letting you book a ticket because it feels magnanimous. Sounds crazy? Well you try booking tickets every week and sooner or later you will be feeling the same way. Remember I called the others snobs!
And I am not even talking about booking tatkal tickets (a certain proportion of tickets are released only one day prior to the journey so as to allow people with genuine emergencies etc book- it’s a crazy game that- I haven’t even tried it!)
Of course the website has genuine challenges- the number of people attempting to access it, lack of funds (it’s government owned but if you look at the fares sometimes you want to laugh because it is unimaginably inexpensive to travel by train in India) etc. Still getting better online infrastructure would be one better way to make the entire journey less traumatic.
I had to do I for IRCTC. Wondering what I will do next?
I was in a crowded train on a Sunday morning. Everywhere around me were teenagers heading to the beach at Sorrento, screaming and yelling at each other. The only other people on that packed Circumvesuviana line on the Sunday morning in June from Naples to Sorrento were the furtive looking tourists- not knowing what had hit them. Most of them were heading to the star attraction in the region of Campania- Pompeii- a city of legend. Buried by the eruption of Mt Vesuvius in 79 AD, the ruins of the town still continues to impress tourists. So it was no surprise that when the train doors opened for the ‘Ercolano Scavi’ station I had to literally wrestle my way out to the platform. It was a good thing that I had years of experience travelling in the suburban trains between Tambaram and Chennai Beach.
Once out on the platform I quickly made my way outside to the square outside the railway station of the modern town of Ercolano- the only occupant at the time was an old man trying to sell me bus tickets for the climb up Mt Vesuvius. I looked around desperately hoping for a signboard pointing me to the ruins of Herculaneum- a sister town to Pompeii, buried by the very same eruption and forgotten for centuries. It was in fact Herculaneum that was accidentally discovered in the 18th Century and the town was the first site of frantic digging for Roman treasures. As time passed however, Pompeii became a much easier and more attractive showcase for the perfect Roman town preserved in time- a trend that continues to this day.
From the railway station, I had to follow a long road sloping downhill towards the direction of the sea until I came to a vast park- the site of the ruins. Upon entry you quickly realise how deeply the city was buried in ancient times by the number of stairs you have to climb down before you reach the ruins. The modern city of Ercolano breathes down the old town- daring it to grow any bigger as tourists to the site struggle to avoid the clothes drying from balcony railings in the apartments nearby entering into their photo frames.
The site of the ruins at Herculaneum is much smaller than Pompeii. However what the site loses in size it makes up in punch. The nature in which Herculaneum was buried meant that some structures and even organic material were better preserved than Pompeii. Many houses even had wooden frames still intact within them when they were excavated- nearly 2000 years later. I stand in awe in front of a two storied Roman house- its outer wall faced with wooden beams and a pattern of stone-work called ‘Opus Craticum’- a light weight construction technique.
Inside another house I find two massive and decorated wooden partitions used to divide the living room into two separate areas when required. Everywhere I turn I see the remains of colourful frescos, mosaics, shrines and fountains. The colour Red is predominant everywhere giving a sense of grandeur to the ancient remains. At some places the walls and floors are shaped like waves- the heat of the pyroclastic surge from the volcano made the floors and walls buckle- like rippling water, but their structure survived.
Houses are not the only attraction at Herculaneum- one can even glance through the remains of what were once shops, taverns and thermopolia- the equivalents of modern fast food restaurants. One wall had a cluster of tourists arduously clicking photographs in front of it. After a patient wait I saw that the wall once advertised the wares of a shop nearby selling different kinds of wines. There are also wonderfully preserved public baths with barrel vaulted roofs, floor mosaics of sea animals and seats with alcoves above for placing one’s belongings.
The eruption did not just cause damage to the built structures- much of the landscape itself was changed. Herculaneum was in some ways a beach resort where the rich and famous had some of their villas- in fact the magnificent villa of the Papyrii which has not yet been completely excavated had multiple terraces leading all the way to the water front. One can view the ancient structures built on the waterside where hundreds of people waited to be evacuated from the town during the eruption. Many survived but the remains of many people huddled up in sheds beside the beach were uncovered in modern times. Today the waterfront has moved away from the ancient town.
Herculaneum is a place that is used to being in the shadows- in the shadow of the volcano Vesuvius and also in the shadow of its sister town Pompeii over the last few centuries. But that does not make Herculaneum less special. The sea may have moved away, the modern town may have encroached upon the ancient ruins, and much of the town may still be unexcavated but what is left for the visitor is still a unique glimpse into the way people carried on their lives two millennia ago.
How to get there: You can get to Herculaneum by taking the Circumvesuviana train from Naples central to Sorrento. The stop to get off is Ercolano Scavi from where the ruins are a 10 minute walk. If you are also planning to visit Pompeii, you can buy a combined ticket at the entrance.
Alright, so what did you think of Herculaneum? Tomorrow’s post will be different- no travelling, photography etc- it will be going back to the early days. Curious? Check this space..