Milan in May?

“What about Milan during your holidays?” I asked The Family. It took some time to argue her around to this. She preferred the Himalayas. I don’t mind the Himalayas either, but my main argument was different. I had to get a visa for some work in any case, and the process of getting a visa is so tedious that I might as well plan several things together to make it worthwhile. The Family caught an important point instantly, “So you aren’t going to be here in May?” I told her I could be back after just a short business trip if she wanted.

I’ve spent only a couple of hours in Milan. That was just enough time to take a look at the cathedral, climb to its roof (featured photo), and walk around nearby. Now The Family and I took at look at what one can do in Milan if one has a few days. As always in Italy, there are Roman remains and impressive palaces, wonderful art collections and food. And then in Milan one has design and fashion. The Family was convinced. Now I have to make a plan for a four day trip. My first impression is that this is really short. What does one leave out and still get the essence of Milan?

I hope it is not too late to book a visit to Santa Maria delle Grazie to look at Leonardo’s Last Supper. If one goes to see the cathedral then La Scala and Galleria Vittorio Emanuelle II is nearby. Pinacoteca di Brera, Biblioteca Ambrosiana and Sforza Castle seem to be unmissable. Shouldn’t one also see the mosaics in Basilica di San Lorenzo? It is beginning to get complicated. Please wish me luck.

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A Summer of Tigers

Spain has lodged in my imagination since I read Pablo Neruda as a teenager, and was led through him to the Spanish poets Quevedo and Garcia Lorca. Before that was an exposure to the painters Goya and Velazquez, and then, inevitably, Picasso. So when I found I had to attend a meeting in Spain, I thought we could make a longer trip. The Family agreed.

En el fondo del pecho estamos juntos,
en el cañaveral del pecho recorremos
un verano de tigres,
al acecho de un metro de piel fría,
al acecho de un ramo de inaccesible cutis,
con la boca olfateando sudor y venas verdes
nos encontramos en la húmeda sombra que deja caer besos.

In the bottom of our hearts we are together,
In the cane field of the heart
A summer of tigers,
Lurking in a meter of cold skin,
Lurking in a bunch of untouchable skin,
With the mouth smelling of sweat and green veins
We are in the wet shadow that rains kisses.

Pablo Neruda
Furies and Sufferings

The easiest question to answer is "Will it rain in Spain?" In June it’s unlikely, unless you are in Bilbao. The temperature, on the other hand, is harder to discuss: between 26 and 18 Celcius in Barcelona, an average variation between 29 and 13 Celcius in Madrid and Granada. I was surprised that Seville could swing as high as 32 Celcius. It sounds much more comfortable than Delhi and Mumbai in the last couple of months.

The Family and I discussed what we associated most strongly with Spain. The one thing I definitely want to do is to visit the Prado in Madrid and see the painting called Las Meninas by Velazquez (picture below). The Family is looking forward to the Miro collection in Barcelona.

We ruled out bull fights; not our cup of blood. Football is definitely on the cards. We watch the football World Cups fairly regularly, but don’t watch club matches. Still, we will try to see a game.

Carlos Saura’s movies, Flamenco and Carmen are stuck in our memories. A little reading told us that Seville or Granada are likely to be best for Flamenco, although Madrid as the capital will also attract talent. We’ll try all of them. We have to start looking for tickets.

Madrid and not Barcelona? Not possible; it’s the city of Picasso, Miro and Dali, and also city of Gaudi, Cadafalch and Muntaner. We agreed that it would be a great place to spend a few days walking around and enjoying the Tapas and Vermouth. A cousin who used to go for meetings in Spain every few weeks told us that there are more pickpockets in Barcelona than in Madrid. This turns out to be widely reported. There is even a guide on how to report thefts to the police. There are warnings about taxis in Barcelona as well. This begins to sound like Delhi. We do enjoy Delhi in spite of many problems.

Crocodiles, herons and turtles

In a couple of weeks I have to fly to Odisha for work. I talked to The Family about taking the following weekend off. With a little juggling, it turned out that she can also travel that weekend. We’ve spent 40 days without seeing an animal wilder than a crow or a pigeon, so we decided to make this a quick wildlife trip.

A look at the map shows us that Odisha is full of national parks. There is a lot of choice in principle. Our main constraint is that this has to be a quick trip. The only airport in Odisha is in Bhubaneswar, and to save time we want to travel no more than three hours. This narrows our options to Chilka lake and Bhitarkanika National Park (highlighted in the map above).

We spent a day and a half in Chilka lake a few years ago, watching freshwater dolphins. We’ve also been thinking of going back there for a spot of winter bird watching. Mangalajodi has become the glam destination for birders, with articles being written about it in The Guardian and Livemint. The conversion of poachers into bird guides is certainly a very romantic story. Another reason why it is written about so much is that in winter even a novice can spot lots of birds. But this is late in the season, and the winter’s avian visitors would have begun to depart.

So we begin to think of Bhitarkanika National Park. This is a wetland protected under the Ramsar convention. The big two here are saltwater crocodiles and Olive Ridley sea turtles. These endangered turtles return to the nearby Gahiramatha beach every year to breed. The discovery and subsequent protection of this, the world’s largest breeding site for the turtles, is one of India’s success stories. A newspaper article tells us that they have already arrived this year. I can’t find any information about whether it is possible to see the nesting of these turtles.

Saltwater crocodiles are a constant tourist draw in Bhitarkanika, so there is an efficient process to visit the places where they can be seen. A little reading assures me that we will be able to see them.

The Family asks about bird watching. I find a two-year old fluff piece on bird watching in Bhitarkanika. A little more searching brings up the definitive checklist of the birds of this wetland. In a two-year long survey, conducted a decade ago, two dedicated and talented naturalists, Gopi and Pandav, found 263 bird species in the area, of which 147 were residents. I learnt from this paper that the park hosts one of the largest heronries in the world. A heronry is a tree, a group of trees, an island, or an inaccessible area where herons breed year after year. During breeding season, which is about now, it is a spectacular sight.

We know nothing about local conditions, have no contact with local experts in Bhitarkanika National Park. We might be lucky and see lots of things, or we might not. But it seems like a place worth visiting.

What can one do in cold Chicago?

http://darkroom.baltimoresun.com/2013/03/march-6-photo-brief-mourning-late-president-hugo-chavez-snowquester-medical-services-in-mogadishu/a-woman-walks-by-the-cloud-gate-sculpture-during-a-snowstorm-in-chicago/

I don’t visit Chicago very often, maybe once in a decade. So there’s a lot of this lively city which I haven’t seen. Now that I have to spend a week there on work, I’m trying to figure out what I can take the time out to see.

The first step: recall what I’ve seen already. The one thing I remember most clearly is a wonderful dinner in Greek Town. At the end of the long dinner I wanted to taste the house-made baklava. I pleaded with the waiter to give me a small piece because I was too full to eat the normal serving, but I was told it was not possible. I got a full large helping, which I had to bag to eat at breakfast in the airport the next day. It’s such a great memory that I don’t want to go back and find something different.

The next thing I definitely remember is the Art Institute. I wandered through it once looking at the incredible collection of Mesoamerican and Andean art. That was the first time I’d seen such a variety of art from this part of the world. I don’t think I’ve seen such a collection ever since then. I might go back to look at it.

It is 33 degrees in Mumbai today, and I see that it is 3 degrees below freezing right now in Chicago! Even if I’m bundled up well, I’m afraid I might find it a little too cold for a few things: walking the lakefront trail, for example. I haven’t seen Anish Kapoor’s "Cloud Gate" (photo above), or Magdalena Abakanowicz’s "Agora". I hope I can acclimatize enough to go see at least one of these pieces of sculpture.

I do plan to visit the Ledge at Sear’s Tower. I’m sure it’ll be fun comparing this experience with standing on the viewing platform of the World Financial Centre in Shanghai.

While browsing for attractions I found a link to the Chicago Pedway. This sounds so quirky that I want to walk through this. I guess this list more than fills up the few spare hours I might have. Is there anything else which I could do?

Money and Myanmar

Pictures of Myanmar Kyat notes

Note added after travel at the end of the post

In less than 24 hours we will be in Myanmar. We heard many stories about how difficult it is to change money, and how we’ll have to carry large amounts of cash with us once we leave Mandalay and Yangon. Money changers and ATMs are said to be hard to find outside these cities. I hope that the advise I read here is correct: “Unlike many other countries in the third world, Myanmar is extremely safe for tourists. You needn’t worry about carrying large quantities of cash on you, but still take the usual precautions.” Since we have little choice about carrying cash, this is reassuring. The other problem with having to carry large amounts of cash is that it is hard to make a good estimate of exactly how much you need. As a result, it is likely that we’ll have quite a few kyats left over when our trip is over. So it was good to find that one can change Kyats back into dollars before leaving.

We found that most travel web sites (this, for example) say that for about two years now, ATMs have been available. This website tells us of a 5000 Kyat charge on a withdrawal of 300,000 Kyat (a charge of only 1.6%). Others talk of difficulty in using ATMs. I’m sure internet and power outages are also issues.

Recent information is that credit cards are accepted by airlines and top hotel chains, but there is a 5% charge on their use. Our airline tickets are paid up, and we are not going to be staying at the top hotels, so our credit card will not be of much use in Myanmar.

A travel agent repeated the advise from Tripadvisor: “It is essential that bills are in first class, pristine condition, with no folds, rips or writing. New is best and keep them flat, maybe between two pieces of card. 100’s and 50’s will get the best exchange rate so use lower denominations for paying hotels and restaurants- again condition is important.” This seems to be so important that there is even an illustrated article which shows how to keep dollar bills in good condition!

About Kyats, I was surprised to read that there are no coins in Myanmar. This is surprising but rational, since minting costs more than the face value of small coins over most of the world. What is decidedly odd however, is that the smallest bill is the 100 Kyat denomination, equivalent to about 10 US cents.

To understand why this is odd, consider the following facts. In the US average salaries are around 4,000 dollars and the smallest coin is one cent; the ratio is 1 in 400,000. The smallest useful unit money in the US is a dollar, which is about 1 in 4,000 of the average salary. In India the average monthly salary is about 20,000 rupees, and the smallest coin in general circulation is 1 rupee; the ratio is 1 in 20,000. The 5 rupee coin is an useful unit, and that is 1 part in 4,000 of the average salary. In comparison, the average monthly salary in Myanmar in about 65,000 Kyat. So the smallest currency is 1 in 650 of the average salary!

The smallest transaction that make do will take away about 0.2% of your salary. Maybe this is designed to discourage spending. Any Burmese people we meet at a restaurant will probably have a salary far above average. Just this currency question makes me feel that Myanmar will be totally different from India. I’m looking forward to it.

Note added

Currency exchange is not a problem in Myanmar. The insistence on crisp dollar notes remains, but there are many legal shops for money exchange in Mandalay, Bagan and Yangon. The rates are pretty uniform. Rates inside airports vary little, but it is worth your while to check the rates at all booths. Large notes get the best rate of exchange. I saw lots of working ATMs, although I did not use them. I saw currency notes denominated in 10000, 5000, 1000, 500, 200, 100 and 50 Kyat. We had a little bit of currency left over at the end of the visit. It was easy to change it back to dollars at Yangon airport.

Checklists

One part of going to the Andamans is to spend time in the water and beaches. Another part is to walk through forests and swamplands looking for birds and local animals. Meaning to look for checklists of birds, I searched for “checklists” instead. The results surprised me.

There are more than ten kinds of birds which are endemic to this island group, and are found no where else. This includes four kinds of owls! The one species that I’ve had my metaphorical sights on is the Narcondam Hornbill. But I think this is also the one I won’t get to see, given than a trip to Narcondam Island, 262 Kms from Port Blair cannot be accomplished between sunrise and sunset. Since we have already ruled out the long side trip to the Nicobar archipelago, we will also miss seeing the Nicobar Megapode, and the endemic Nicobar species. Still, that leaves us with many hours tramping around the wilds.

Where there are birds there must be snakes. There is a list of more than twenty, including some venomous sea snakes and even a Krait and Cobra endemic to the islands. These are creatures I would not like to run into.

A great checklist was of marine molluscs. Unknown to the public at large, the Zoological Survey of India continues to do its slow job of collecting and documenting life in and around India. The booklet by Ramakrishna and Sen says that " they are more diverse and abundant in the rocky intertidal zone along the coast and in the inter-tidal area of … the Andaman and Nicobar Islands" So I think walks along the beach will show us shells we have never seen before.

Nudibranch, opisthobranch (look at the wonderful description of the pink sea slug in the featured image!) and polychaetes are two groups of marine molluscs which I might get to see on a dive, provided I’m not too busy staying oriented. The paper I’ve linked above shows animals with wonderful colouring. I wonder how much of the colour is visible underwater through goggles. Since I’ve never dived before, I think I’ll probably spend a lot of time thrashing around. I’ll be lucky to see any of these.

There is even a checklist of the mosquitos of the Andamans. Of the 3541 species of mosquitos recorded from around the world, in 112 genera, these islands contain 109 species in 25 genera. More than a fourth of all mosquito species in India can be found in these islands. That’s something to remember when I forget my anti-mosquito gel.

As far away as possible without a passport

Map of the Andaman IslandsIt turns out that I can travel 2644 Kms on a great circle without having to use my passport: from Mumbai to Indira Point, at the tip of the Great Nicobar Island in the Andaman Sea. This is more than 6.5% of the planet’s circum-ference. Another 200 Kms, and I would enter Indonesia through Banda Aceh. Why wouldn’t we make a quick dash to this place in the last week of the year? The only possible reason, it turns out, is the practical one of fixing an itinerary.

The Nicobar archipelago is largely out of bounds to tourists. We could go to Car Nicobar, the northernmost of these islands, or Great Nicobar, the southernmost. Only Great Nicobar sounds sufficiently interesting; it is home to the Shompen tribe, and is a biosphere reserve with interesting birds. But it turns out that ferries are irregular, and perhaps go only a couple of times a week. There are helicopter flights which cost Rs. 13,000 each way, which is somewhat outside our budget. So perhaps we will skip Nicobar.

The Andamans are a more compact group of islands, so hopping from one to another should not be too hard.[Note added: This is completely wrong. The most difficult part of a trip is to find a seat on a ferry. Do this as soon as you book your hotel.] Flights from the main land arrive in Port Blair. The easternmost island in the map above is Narcondam. This is 262 Km from Port Blair. The westernmost island shown in the map is the North Sentinel, which is 54 Kms from Port Blair. Strange to realize that the Sentinelese reject contact with outsiders, so this island is an exclusion zone. Barren island, 144 Kms northeast of Port Blair has an active volcano. These distances can be covered by ferry. Baratang with its mud volcanoes is also close. Visiting Ross Island with its ruins of colonial era structures, now taken over by banyan trees , is probably a nice way to spend half a day. I’m also looking forward to the beaches of Havelock island, and taking my first lessons in scuba diving and looking at coral reefs. Nice way to spend the last week of the year, isn’t it?

Here are some links which I found useful:
Andaman and Nicobar Tourism
Explore Andaman
Barren Island ferries and flights
Getting to Baratang
Island tribes
Holiday ideas

Burmese Days

Its not hard to whip up a recipe for a quick trip through Myanmar. Take a couple of days in Bagan to see some of the 2000 temples. Add a little cruise down the Irrawady if that’s to your taste. Fold in a dose of Mandalay in order to visit the Mahagandayon monastery, and the few remaining teak houses and bridges in this last imperial town. Perhaps a pinch of Maymyo, once a colonial British hill station, now renamed Pyin Oo Lwin; somewhat like Myanmar’s Abbotabad. Cross over the central highlands, perhaps stopping for a quick look at the numerous statues of Buddhas left by visitors at the Pindaya caves, and then on to a day or two of relaxed boating around Lake Inle, looking at the floating gardens, visiting the Nga Phe Kyaung monastery, famous for its jumping cats, and the Indein pagoda complex. Before flying out of a Yangon in slow decline from its colonial glory days, like a lesser Kolkata, visit the Shwedagon pagoda and the sleeping Buddha at Chauk Htat Gyi. Allow plenty of time for the mixture to settle into your soul. Add a dash of other sights which are accessible, and its food.

That is the easy part. The flavour of the whole is hard to anticipate before you travel. The hard part is to get a feel of what the country is like before leaving home. The military dictatorship which lasted from 1962 has slowly ceded space to an elected government. I looked for books on Burma. There are many books with deal with the events before the recent elections. A graphic travelogue called "Burma Chronicles" by Guy DeLisle was published in 2009. It is about his experiences in Myanmar as an expatriate. "Burma’s Spring" by Rosalyn Russell is almost a companion volume, talking of her time in Myanmar as an expat a little later. Both authors were journalists living in Myanmar with their spouse who worked with an NGO.

Now, in the last year, and half a decade after these books were written, the situation seems to have changed. Myanmar has had high-profile government-to-government meetings with its neighbours. It is looking for ways to defuse the ethnic violence of the last decades [Note added: Alas, hopes]. There is a little a lot more news about Myanmar on TV now, and Burmese newspapers are available on the web (at least Myanmar Times and Mizzima are.

I wanted to know a bit more about Burmese history than the oral history told and retold in the family, histories of the Japanese advance and retreat during the war, and oblique references from the history of the Indian freedom struggle. The book "The River of Lost Footsteps" by Thant Myint-U fills this niche. It is a very readable popular history which takes you from the early years of the Burmese state to modern times.

What remain are the practical things: hotel bookings, choosing travel options, and obtaining visas. Also, one has to take time off to learn more than the simple, all purpose greeting, "Mingalabar".

Burma telegrams, all waiting to be read

map of MyanmarI found a present for The Family’s birthday: a trip to Myanmar. For practical reasons we can only make this trip months too late, but it will be a birthday present in spirit.

We have discussed a road trip to Myanmar for long, but when you start planning it looks uncomfortably romantic. We just do not have the time for a drive in the single week that we can take off from work. So we are forced to fly; we will miss the continuity that a journey by land would give us. There are flights from Kolkata to Yangon. However, the only convenient flight from Mumbai to Kolkata and then on to Yangon is on a Monday. We do not want to waste the weekend, so we decide to go through Bangkok. This gets us to Yangon in a reasonable amount of time.

We have little more than a week for this trip. This calls for a lot of reading. My knowledge of Myanmar has been restricted to stories I heard from my grandmother. This was a country which many Indian families had contact with before the second world war, mine being no exception. When the Japanese air force started bombing erstwhile Rangoon in 1941, children and mothers came back to India to stay with relatives. When Burma was captured by Japan, Indians had to flee, many on foot, during the extreme monsoon weather that strikes these parts. I remember the story of someone in my family, I forget who, walking back to India. I was too young then to appreciate how bad this must have been, but impressionable enough to remember the horror stories.

A few years ago, when we travelled to the Mizo hills and heard about American pilots bailing out of burning planes and seeking shelter with the local villagers, I did not connect it with old family stories. A few weeks ago I mentioned my grandmother’s story to a friend, and she said that someone in her family also walked back home. She remembered hearing that it took half a year. As we talked, we began to connect these up with stories like those we heard in the Mizo hills. How is it that a whole nation has forgotten stories of this long walk home?

We will spend a dozen days travelling to Myanmar and back. So many travellers have written about their experiences in recent years (here, here, here, here, …), that it will take me weeks of reading. I have weeks, so that is fine. These are our Burma telegrams, as Kipling once wrote, waiting to be read.

Frustrated already?

Getting a visa is always tedious: you have to get together a mess of documents which you cannot use again. Only the paperwork for flights, hotels and insurance make sense. The one thing which you do not expect is a form which cannot be filled.

This is what happens when you try to get to the >visa form for Portugal. What they call an online form turns out to be a pdf file which cannot be edited. It seems that you would need to print it out and fill it by hand. This is forbidden.

We called the visa centre a few days back to report this. The person who took the phone was very sympathetic. She said that there were many complaints about this already, and their IT team was working on it. She expected that it should be done in a few hours. Three days have passed without any change.

Could this be part of a bigger problem? I googled "portuguese bureaucracy" and the first three results were Portuguese Bureaucracy is Unbelievable, Banking and Bureaucracy in Portugal and My Battle Against Portuguese Bureaucracy. I’m so relieved to find that the gods in the cabinet drawers have not singled us out for torture.

We are very excited about seeing Portugal, but getting a little bothered about completing our visa application.