Arigato Gozaimas!

No prizes for guessing what this article is about — Japan. Paraphrasing an article I read, if there is one phrase you should memorize when visiting Japan, it is “Arigato Gozaimas”, meaning thank you. And this article is a thank you to Japan for the wonderful experience it offered me for the one week that I spent there. I have to be a bit hasty about one point here. People stand in line to board the train! I come from India, which is equally (if not more) crowded a place, and people claw their way into trains. Japan showed me that you can be very civilized despite the size of crowd. There goes my first reason for a thank you. From here, I will stick to my story in a chronological manner, as my experience  in Japan make more sense that way.

I had the fortune of visiting Japan for the International Conference on Computational Photography (ICCP) in Tokyo where I presented my work. The conference was for a total of  three days, but I stayed in Japan for one full week to do some sight seeing. My plan consisted of shopping in Tokyo, visiting temples in Kyoto, see a castle in Osaka and then back. Oh I completely forgot to mention, to board the fascinating bullet train, the Shinkansen! I took the JR green pass for a week which ended up costing less than all my train journeys combined, so I recommend it to anyone taking more than two Shinkansen trains. My focus in this article is three major themes — food options for vegetarians, travelling alone, and visiting the less known places.

Let’s start from the very beginning. I boarded the flight from Pittsburgh, … okay may be not that beginning. I stayed in hostel Shimokita in Shimokitazawa, which was quite close to University of Tokyo. The hostel is a small and quiet place with capsule beds that are quite economic and comfortable. I had some great conversations with people from Sweden, Hong Kong, Canada and Germany. I would definitely recommend it to anyone wanting a good stay for a short while. The conference was from Wednesday to Friday, during which I mostly hung around with my colleagues and friends. I did visit Akihabara where I purchased some Gundam kits (they are awesome!). Naturally, the first couple of days were extremely confusing to me. Lucky for me, my Japanese labmate stayed with me, who became my unofficial tour guide. He explained all the tiny details of traveling around in Tokyo. As you might have read elsewhere, Japan relies on cash transactions, so do get some cash before hand. I did not do that, but Seven Eleven came to my rescue. Oh and Japanese landscape is punctuated densely with Seven Eleven, and if you are a vegetarian like me, this will be your one (and a lot of times, the only) way of filling your tummy. However, thanks to my ever so helpful labmate, I also came across Chabuzen, a vegan ramen place, and boy! It was the best ramen I’ve had. I’ll mention about it again towards the end.

Alright, let’s get started with the touristy details. I planned to take a train to Kyoto on Saturday, stay there a night, go to Osaka on Sunday, stay there a night, then return to Tokyo on Monday. I was to travel alone, to visit several well-known temples, with a heavy bag (more about it towards the end), in a country where I could not communicate, or even read some of the sign boards, and with a curiosity for culture. I was so very excited freaking out. I traveled alone in Europe before and that was easy to manage due to English sign boards, but I wasn’t sure I was prepared for Japan. Nevertheless, I braved it, particularly because I wanted to feel like an adult who can be responsible for himself.

So then I took the Shinkansen to Kyoto (Hikari) on Saturday morning, carrying a voluminous bag with several unnecessary things, and with great excitement. The train journey was a memorable experience, due to the speed at which it moved. This caused a fascinating rolling shutter artifacts in cellphone camera images which made vertical poles look tilted. A bit of computational photography at every step in the journey!

Then I got off in Kyoto and headed out to Fushimi Inari shrine, a Shinto shrine dedicated to the god of rice harvest, and well known for numerous orange arches made of wood. It was a wonderful place, and since it was my first temple in Japan, I was very fascinated by the wooden architecture. But, I made the cardinal mistake of visiting the wonderful shrine on a Saturday. The place was chock full of people with barely any space to walk freely. You can move away from the crowd if you take a trek uphill to the “inner shrine”, which offers a good view of the Kyoto city as well. Thus started my intense efforts to move away from crowd, and enjoy temples in the way they were intended — in peace and tranquility. That said, Fushimi Inari is a must visit place, particularly due to the vibrant orange arches.

The arches closer to inner shrine on top of the hill

The arches closer to inner shrine.

Foot of Fushimi Inari shrine

Foot of Fushimi Inari shrine

I came out and then headed out to Tohfuku-ji (which means Tohfuku temple, and hence Tohfukuji temple means Tohfuku temple temple, which sounds strange) which was walking distance from Fushimi Inari. From what I reckon, not many people know about this shrine and hence it was comfortable to roam around and study the buildings. This was the first time I saw such a huge archway made of wood.

Tohfukuji archway

Tohfukuji archway

This was my hint to search for less-visited places in and around Kyoto (and as we shall see later, I did the same with Osaka). But to stick to my day’s schedule, I decided to visit Ginkaku shrine. This is less of a shrine and more of a beautiful garden. I faced the same problem as with Fushimi Inari, that of crowded place. This ended my day’s travel and I decided to retire in the hostel I booked in downtown Kyoto. Resting in the hostel was a wonderful time to sit and plan for the next day, and my goal was clear — old temples, which were not tourist hotspots. I stumbled across the perfect combination — Horyuji — the 1400 year old Buddhist temple, half an hour from Nara. This meant a more than two hours detour from Kyoto, and a tryst with semi-rural areas of Japan. I couldn’t hold my excitement.

Horyuji entrance

Horyuji entrance

This structure has been existing like this for 1400 years. It is incredible to see wooden structures this old.

Horyuji was the best temple I visited in Japan. The main pagoda is 1400 years old with minimal additions. The study hall contained a large Buddha statue along with two Bodhisatvas and the four heavenly kings protecting the four directions. It is interesting to note that most Buddhist temples in Japan depict the four kings in a warrior-like pose, with an angry face and wielding deadly weapons, and the same was the case in the study hall. However, as you move to the main hall, you see a different depiction, with the four kings in serene pose, simply holding earthly elements. This temple was a living memory of the transition of Buddhism from Indian to Japanese style. While I could not take photos of the shrine, you can find more information here. Continuing outside, one can see the door guards, called Kongo Rikishis. These clay structures are the oldest existing guardian statues in Japan. Door guards always have a powerful presence — and the Rikishis were no different. My fascination for the guardian statues goes back to Indian temples, where the Dvarapalakas stand in a stoic manner, warning about intruders entering the temple.

The right guardian statue. I have a fascination for statues of door guards, even back in Indian temples. Their large and stoic presence in the entrance gives a certain security to the surroundings.

The left guardian statue

With a satisfied mind and a body full of energy, I decided to explore any nearby temples further. I then stumbled upon Todaiji, a temple very close to Nara station. The suggestion turned up when I searched for temples around Nara, and hence did not know what to expect. At the risk of sounding like a click bait, I’ll say it. What I saw next blew my mind! It was unbelievably huge and incredibly beautiful! Todaiji is a tourist hotspot, but make no mistake, you cannot skip going to this temple. Luckily, I was able to maneuver through the crowd and get a good look at the Buddha, Bodhisatvas, and the four kings. The temple will stay in my mind as a wooden marvel. That such a massive wooden structure was constructed around thousand years ago, and is standing today is simply mesmerizing.

Todaiji main hall

The entrance to the shrine. This photo is a good measure of how huge the entrance is.

The Buddha in all his glory. The pixels around people was saturated but I had to take the image this way to show the relative size.

Koumokuten, called Virupaksha in Sanskrit, the guardian of west. The stunning wooden work is complemented by the powerful body posture and facial expression.

I then went to Kohfukuji, which had several art pieces of the heavenly kings. That ended my journey on the second day. By this time, I realized an unrelated thing — my bag was unnecessarily heavy, and that in future I would carry smart, and light. It was in the ballpark of 10 kilos and left me with either strong shoulders or a weak spine.

I went later that day to Osaka, where I stayed overnight, and begun planning for the next day. The initial plan was to visit Osaka castle, and then get back to Tokyo. However, if I learned anything from my previous visit, it was that I should be doing some more research before I set out to a popular tourist spot. So I woke up early next morning, and I read several blogs to see what the castle scenario in Japan was. And it was most useful, as I ended up boarding a train to Hikone, a place two hours away from Osaka to visit the Hikone castle.

Entrance to Hikone castle. Google stitched this nice panorama for me with the photos I took. The stone wall set against a calm river was a riveting sight.

Hikone is one of the few castles in Japan that are still in the same condition as they were built and hence is of national importance. Combined with the fact that it was a weekday (Monday) and is far away from major stations, Hikone was not too crowded, and hence was able to thoroughly study the castle and its components. While the castle itself never saw any major wars, its military fortification is fascinating. If you are visiting the castle, do look out for square and triangular holes in the wall that were supposed to be used for shooting arrows and guns. I got lucky that day, as a volunteer in the museum explained the details of the artifacts, with emphasis on their history. Ah, and not to forget the cute Hikone mascot, Hikonyan, the ambling white cat.

A view of the Hikone castle.

The castle had holes that could be used for shooting arrows and guns. However, the hole does go through the wall, which means these were never used. According to the volunteer in museum, no one yet knows what role these holes served.

The interior of the castle. Despite being a small castle, the interior is very well preserved. I was fascinated by the wavy structure of the roof beams.

Hikonyan the white cat. It is strangely comforting to see the mascot walk slowly towards you.

I then had some great food in the market nearby and headed back to Tokyo. I took the Hikari again, and rested comfortably in the train, thinking about the amazing solo trip I had these three days. I wish I could see around more, but time was of essence and had to fly back the next day. However, back in Tokyo, I had to revisit Chabuzen and taste one more dish of theirs. So I set out that night and went and had curry ramen, a dish that left my wondering if good food is all that’s required to bring world peace.

A photo at Chabuzen with the cook (bottom right), manager (beside me) and other cheerful customers. The folks at Chabuzen were nice enough to let me snap their picture.

So that was it! Japan is a country of some contradictions. Owing to how safe the country is, it was quite easy to travel anywhere alone without much trouble. At the same time, not knowing Japanese hampered my communication with others, and could not fully appreciate the info boards in temples. Similarly, being a vegetarian was quite hard. But I got incredible vegan ramen in Tokyo. But one thing is without contradictions. The people are very helpful. The lady behind the desk in Hikone tourist center marked the order in which I should visit places and gave me the map. My labmate helped me the first three days with everything, and everywhere, I was thanked profusely, even though I should have been the one to thank them.

And hence, for all my wonderful experiences, the rich culture, the tasty food and the incredible hospitality, Arigato Gozaimas!

Some tips that might help you if you are planning a travel:

Vegetarian Food: This was a difficulty. You can easily survive; Seven eleven always has something that you can eat. You might feel slightly out of place if you are a foodie. No explicit details are mentioned about the ingredients on most items. I searched for the names on Google to make sure they were vegetarian.

Money: My debit card did not work in ATM machines in station. Once again, Seven eleven came to rescue. They have a fixed charge for each transaction, so draw in excess before hand. If your home currency is USD, you can sell back the Yens for a good price.

Backpack: Travel light, and buy a good, light backpack. Take a tablet or laptop, as it will be useful when planning out. Do not carry more than you need. For example, the hostel/hotel you are staying at may provide you towels, so do not carry it. Always carry a water bottle, as you never know when you are thirsty. That said, the vending machines are everywhere and you can hydrate yourself easily.


Three men on bikes

You can’t blame me for trying to make the title sound like “Three men in a boat”. It so happened that I was reading this book at the same time as I went on a long bike ride with two of my other friends.  We biked from Pittsburgh all the way to Washington DC over five days. Why? Because we could, that’s why. The Great Allegheny Passage (GAP) and the Chesapeake and Ohio tow path (C&O tow path) span a total of 336 miles and provided a splendid biking experience. What I am going to present in this article are my noteworthy experiences over the period of five days. I haven’t included the logistics of the travel here, I will be adding a more formal one later. Here is fun and drama. So let’s begin our ride!


I see what JD meant in the show “Scrubs”. Even I can’t sleep well a day before some big plan, and that was the case on day 0. I shopped, got back my bike from repair and mentally made notes of what to do if I get hurt, faint, get hypothermia, get bit by insects and so on and so forth. I am generally a tensed person and of course, this wasn’t a mere one day trip to not worry. But yes, eventually I slept for a total of four hours while rolling in the bed 1024 times.


We met her for the first time on our way to Connelsville.

On day 1, it was our beaten path from Pittsburgh to Confluence. We biked hard till Connelsville and then slowed down for the next 30 miles till Confluence. At Confluence, we stayed at a beautiful bed and breakfast place, which was a villa in between a farm transformed to a guest house. The folks there gave us a really warm welcome and provided us with great food. As it turned out, we were far away from the city and hence I had a treat for my eyes. The Milky way galaxy was visible for the first time ever in my life. Oh the beauty of that dense band of stars! I just kept staring at it till the clouds came over and said, “Chop chop buddy, now I need to watch the stars, you may not see any more”.  Oh well. But I was also enjoying feline company there. This domesticated cat named Gizmo came to me curiously and started rubbing itself against my feet. Of course I started petting it. There were bunch of other curious cats as well. One guy that stood out was Furry, the shy, scared and lazy furry cat, which just lazed like me on the swing.


Short break at McKeesport. The guy in the red jersey, Saurabh, had his tyre punctured 6 times in four days.


Lunch break at Confluence. Since I was the weakest among the three, I carried almost no load.


The three of us at Ohiopyle. From left to right, me, Ajay, Saurabh.


Sanity was merely an option for us, as we discussed worldly issues while burdening the other rider.


Taxidermy. Drama. Me.


We started very lazily next day at 10:30 towards our eventual destination of that day. The path today, since it was new, was very refreshing and was a pleasant experience riding throughout the day.  The first half was uphill and was very similar to the previous day’s path. We were lazily biking our way for half of the day till we met one of our friend who started the same day as us, went to Cumberland and on his way back to Pittsburgh. Talk about being an under performer. The second half after the continental divide was fun! It was downhill and we were breezing at 30 kmph. All was good till one of my friend’s tyre got punctured due to the gravel beside the railway tracks. Fixing it took a while and then we reached Cumberland at around 6 pm. A central theme in our trip was that, no matter when or how early we started, we reached our destination no earlier than 6 pm.

When at mile marker 0, i.e , Cumberland, we realized that we overshot our hotel by 5 miles. While we were somewhat tired, we decided to bike back anyway. At that time, a couple we briefly met in Meyersdale showed up. They were really kind enough to offer to drop us off in their truck back to the hotel. Talk about coincidences. We also discussed Lincoln’s Gettysburg speech, which the husband recited with great clarity. Of course, we went to the hotel and hogged food, getting ready for a new tomorrow.


At the continental divide. Argument? None. Just bike lengths.


Some drama kept us alive. On top of the continental divide.


Mile 0. I tried to look like the statue and ended up looking like …


The start and the scene on the C&O path was breathtaking, with all the foliage, tiny turtles and murky water. Except for the road. The road was a gravel road and the bone shaking nature of bikes was once again reborn. It was still worth traversing this path for various spots on the way. My favourite part of this half of the trip were the numerous locks spread across the path. Though they were mostly abandoned, some were preserved as artefacts to explain to enthusiastic bikers about its functioning, the importance during the world war and of course, life of the lock keepers. The very first lock had a house beside where a kind elderly lady showed us around and offered us cookies and water. Who said the world isn’t a nice place?

One of the major issues with C&O path was that the roots of trees grew into the path, which meant we would fly with our bikes if we don’t take care of our surroundings. Solution? Cooperation.  One of us lead the pack and had his look out for roots. He would shout whenever we approached a root, asking us to take a left or right, and the next person would shout to the last. Surprisingly, we were able to go at close to 15 miles an hour with this.  Of course, this doesn’t mean we did 60 miles in four hours. We would stop for a snack break just 1 mile before a water spot, guessing that there won’t be a better place to rest for the next ten miles. And then we would again stop at the water spot because we need water.

Paw paw tunnel was very intriguing. It was long and dark and I have to admit, a bit scary. Thought it’s close to a mile, it doesn’t seem that way when seen from outside. In case you are interested to know, the water level in paw paw tunnel isn’t more than a feet. If you fall down, don’t panic, nothing should happen. No, I didn’t fall. Another interesting thing to see is the lock number 64 2/3. I have no clue where that fraction came from.

We reached Hancock at the end of the day and gorged on a piping hot pizza from Pizza Hut. The nature of these rides is that no matter what your eating habits, appetite or preferences are, at the end of the day, you see food, you eat till your jaws ache. And then you eat a little more.


Lock 64 2/3. Hogwards style?


A long exposure shot of the Paw Paw tunnel, thanks to Ajay’s DSLR.


We met her at Williamsport in the morning and unexpectedly around 15 miles before Harper’s Ferry in the evening.

Another lazy day. Today we were biking around 60 miles, so we didn’t really bother about biking early on. We started from Hancock sometime around 9 am and biked for 10 miles when we arrived at Fort Friedrick, which paved way to one of the strangest experiences of the day. We took a left from the bike path, only to be greeted by numerous men, women and children in medieval costumes! For a very brief while, I was confused if some part of USA was still living in the medieval ages, denying any technological advancements of today. Fortunately, that wasn’t the case. We came to know that the costumed people were enacting the take over of Fort Friedrick by the British. I would strongly suggest anyone biking around this area to go to this place and enjoy the beautiful medieval aged set up. To quench our thirst, we ate an ice cream and made haste from there.

After a while, we went through a path that overlooked the river directly and was flanked by huge boulders on the other side, a very cool and pleasant riding experience. I particularly liked this part of the trail because I was slightly exhausted from a long spell of 15 miles without break. We had lunch in Williamsport, where there was a street fair. Food was very cheap, but unfortunately for me, not vegetarian. I got good vegetarian food in a nearby cafe though.

Towards afternoon, we came to a beautiful spot. There was a short stretch of cemented road directly beside the river. The ride was easy, sun was bright, sky was blue, water was bluer, there was speed boats, quaint houses on the other side of the river at and the mind was happy. Fewer places have given me such ecstasy as this stretch. I wish the rest of C&O was as well paved as this one.

On and on we went that day, with more frequent breaks, thanks to the hot sun that day. As we approached Brunswick, we started faltering in our ability to think, messing up with repair equipment and snapping at each other. My friends were nothing but super sweet guys. One of them was laughing at our stupidity and the other was joking about how our IQ was rapidly falling as we biked, which made me wonder if the number of miles should be subtracted from our IQ to get the effective IQ. Life goes on though, as do bikes.

At Dargan’s bend, around 15 miles before Brunswick, we briefly halted to stretch ourselves when we saw an elderly lady struggling with her bike with a flat tyre. We helped her by pumping in air and in return we got 3 huge bottles of Gatorade! Who said there are no kind people in this world. And after another 15 miles of hot sun and haste to reach destination, we finally reached Brunswick at around 6 pm, yes our own standard reaching time. At Brunswick, we just ate, cleaned our bikes, oiled them well and good and almost went to sleep when my stupidity reached a new level. I happily opened our bag, searched the nearest toothbrush and went ahead and cleaned my chain. Well, I am not the smartest person on this planet. A hot water bath and we were all set to crash. The ultimate day was coming up and we wanted to start early and start fresh.


Hancock. Taking nature’s call to a literal level.


The good.


The bad.


The ugly. I was the poster boy for faux-candid poses.


The beautiful paved stretch between Hancock and Brunswick.


We boarded the train with her.

So it begun. We started our day with lots of coffee and lots of caffeine in other forms at 5:30am. We had to catch a train at 4 pm in DC and one of my friend didn’t see the city. We started off with all our lights on, jackets on, and our vigil minds and active bodies on. We went well for two hours and then of course, my friend’s tyre punctured. His tyre did not puncture only on the very first day. I wonder if it’s due to the fact that he had the smoothest and the thinnest tyres of all. We cruised as usual after that, with short breaks for water in and water out. This was the first time I knew what dehydration meant. I had the urge to take a leak every fifteen minutes and it was uncontrollable. The coffee we drank. The waffle I ate which had caffeine and protein bars which had caffeine as well — all contributed to my dehydration.

Part of the stretch also involved us sweeping through cobwebs, which wrapped us nicely in the nets and converted us into makeshift houses for various insects. I think this was due to the fact that we were the first riders on the trail that day. As we approached DC, the trail started antagonizing us. Anything good about C&O was finally shattered on this last stretch of 10 miles. To the point that we started biking fast to get down with it soon. The only saving grace was that there were breathtaking scenes as well, which kept our spirits high.

And so it ended. At 10:30am, we took a snapshot with Honest Abe, with smiling faces, surprisingly intact bodies and cycles and a hot sunny day. I branched off and lazed around in the city and found a restaurant for all of us, while the other two saw all the important monuments. We then ate well, had a good cold drink and went off to the railway station.

The train ride was marvellous. we almost traced back our bike path and saw the various spots where the rail road touched the bike trail. I had the pleasant company of an elderly person who spoke of his various biking endeavours. I was proudly talking of our five day trip when he watered down my parade with his 2 month, 4,500 mile tour across USA. Talk about being the best at what you do. The cafe rooms in Amtrak trains are a must sit places, thanks to their large windows and well placed seats.

We reached Pittsburgh at 10:30, worn out, but not down with spirits. We biked a short stretch back to bus stop and went home. We did it. We planned well over a summer, executed with good plan and we biked 336 miles. Luckily, we had only minor snaps on the bikes and almost no injuries. Food was great throughout the trip. People were amazing. Bikes were rugged. Weather was surprisingly good.  Looking back, the reason, that we did because we could, still stays, but the experiences we gathered will weigh over any such kind of whim.


Sanity. Optional.


The park just before Georgetown was a welcome respite from the arduous path.


Done. Three of us in front of the Lincoln memorial.

Who is she?

Ah so we address the question finally. Who is the person referred to again and again in those italicized sentences? Answer is, we don’t know. She was a lonely traveller who started off with us and ended the trip with us. She had heavy bags and was camping everywhere. She was rather talkative and spoke very fast, only making our task of understanding her harder.

We met her on the first day while going towards Connellsville, where she was telling us about how she wanted to do this solo from her childhood. We met her again in Confluence, where she briefly halted for dinner. We met her again after two days in Williamsport, where she halted for the street fair as well. On the same day, we met her at Dargan’s bend, where she was talking about issues with telling people where exactly they were camping. And on the final day, we saw her in the station, where she boarded the train to Pittsburgh with us.

I’ve never met such consistent, energetic, brave soul ever in my life. She used to ride slower than us, but took far fewer breaks. She camped while we stayed comfortably in hotels. I was so curious about how she went about doing all these things but I was too tired mentally to speak to people. All said and done, she will remain an inspiration for me.

Kernel of kindness

Somewhere deep within me, sits a cynical personality that is looking for traces of evil in this world to substantiate my beliefs. Of the many failures I’ve had, I have, and will enjoy the failure to be a cynical thread of thought. And if you think books can be of no use to alter your beliefs, think about it again, for now I am going to talk about my experience with poignant books.

Yes, of course you know the second world war and the atrocities. I also know that you will have different views of that period, depending on whether, at heart, you are a humanist, a historian, a pessimist, or an information monger. I want to present the human side to you, but before that, shall we really quickly look at Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde? You’ll soon know why I brought up this book. The book is in some way the urge of mankind to have their conscience disconnected from their want to hurt, to feel the unbridled joy of sadism. The distilling of Dr. Jekyll into Mr. Hyde alludes us to one dangerous idea, that we humans are innately belligerent at heart, and that a bizarre internal or external force keeps us from doing anything violent. Now it seems the majority of the wars fought were along similar lines. The leaders were unleashing their wrath of ideas on commoners. Commoners were unleashing their wrath of hatred on other commoners. Soldiers were stuck in a playground of blood and violence. When leaders or soldiers do it, perhaps we can conclude that it’s either the crushed humanity in the leaders or the following of orders in soldiers. But the most disheartening part is when a commoner inflicts damage on another commoner, with words, weapons or whatever that can do the damage.

I lost my faith. Or was I not focusing well enough? Was I selectively looking for the bad in the world and not even considering that there was good? Let’s get one thing out of our way, this world isn’t black or white. It’s shades of gray (and yes, far more than 50). But it seemed my spectrum was biased towards the black, keenly looking for the black blotches. I am wrong. My cynicism is ill found, or at the least, not useful. “Man’s search for meaning” said so. “The book thief” said so. “Schindler’s list” said so. My friend’s stories have said so.

Every story you read has a crux to it, something we both agree to. But there is also a dual crux to it, either in agreement or in contrast to the original crux. Books on humanity always have a contrasting crux to them, and it is up to you to choose the crux. I have chosen the bad side of humans so far, but I wish to change. I wish to see the good side, even if it means the rarer one.  Perhaps it doesn’t mean world is a rainbow town with sunshine for ice cream. But it at least means that I can look for a ray of sunshine in the merciless cold and rainy weather. Here is a quote to explain what I mean:

Human history is not the battle of good struggling to overcome evil. It is a battle fought by a great evil, struggling to crush a small kernel of human kindness. But if what is human in human beings has not been destroyed even now, then evil will never conquer — Vasily Grossmann

Yes, it’s the kernel of kindness that the keeps the world going.


Exhausted and revitalized

I biked 75 miles from Ohiopyle on a rather hot Sunday back to Pittsburgh. I think almost till 50 miles I was fairly energetic, but after that, the heat took a toll. I was biking very slowly over the last 10 miles, constantly drinking water and panting to get rid of the heat in my body. I reached Pittsburgh, but decided to bike back home. Now the route from Southside (where the trail ended) to my home is almost invariably uphill, which meant that it would be awfully exhausting. At some point, I was wondering if I would faint due to exhaustion.

Nevertheless, I decided to do the “start from home and hence end at home” exercise and at a snail pace, biked the uphill slope. No surprises,  it was really daunting and in between, I halted for five minutes, as my mind went blank. The heat was still oppressive. I was at the junction just before the last leg of the journey, which was a bit shy of one tenth of a mile. Even this short stretch was uphill and hence exasperating.

Just as I was feeling like giving up and sit on the pavement for half an hour, I see this tiny booth with three children selling ice cold tea. It was twenty five cents, but because I was exhilarated to the prospect of drinking something cold, I urged them to take a dollar for it. Those cute kids slowly tilted the jar with great effort and gave me a glass of that ambrosia. I drank with great taste and thanked those kids profusely. Till that point, I was annoyed with the heat, exhausted like never before and to the point of hating my life. Suddenly after the drink, I loved my life, admired those kids, thanked the nature and was enthusiastically ready for the last and now the most fulfilling of journeys.

Sometimes, you wish to believe that coincidences are rare, or that life is always going against you. However, once in a while, a metaphorical angel steps in just before you give up to revitalize your journey. To the kids who gave me the ice cold tea, thanks a lot guys, and I will return the favour to more travellers like me.


Who am I? Remember seeing a mid 40 aged man with thick black glasses, well ironed white shirt and dark brown pant? Yes, I am that common man from Indian public places. I’ve lived in the semi-village town for 30 years now. I just decided to recollect one particular story with you today. I’ve always been a pious man. I go to temple every Saturday to pay my ablutions to Perumal. Oh yes, I do strongly believe he is taking good care of me and that I am always and will be answerable to him. My religious views aren’t that important but what is of interest is this one lady just outside the temple. I don’t know here name, but I’ve called her Akka (elder sister) and she calls me Thambi (younger brother) from time immemorial, although I believe she is as old as me. 

Akka came to the town around 25 years ago, in extremely dirty clothes with her father and mother. Very soon, due to some rifts, both her parents were killed which left her to herself. I don’t remember seeing her for a couple of months after that, but later she started sitting right at the entrance of the temple, selling flowers to offer to the god. I could clearly see she was scared of her surroundings. Nevertheless, pious as my parents were, and something charming about her, I went towards her. “Need some flowers? These are Perumal’s favourite.” and I would buy some from her, even though I never really understood why a temple should be littered with flowers. Eventually it became a habit to buy flowers from her, much against my better judgement. Was it to just talk to her for a brief while? From shyly going to her to buy some flowers, we grew to “Akka! Did you know that a new pan shop is coming up near my house?”, “That’s great thambi! Here you go, your flower garland. Yeah, you can pay me towards the end of the month. I might make some gulab jamun tomorrow. I’ll get some just in case you decide to visit the temple”. I grew really fond of her. She was a very hard working soul. I have always been well off in terms of economic status and hence there was always a tinge of condescension for people who I thought did not have a goal in life. It never stopped me from socializing with them, but I always assumed a morally higher ground.

One fine day, she got married. I couldn’t stop crying when I came to know that she was leaving the town to go and live in the city. Her husband was a cobbler and he was planning to open a huge shop. She came to our house standing at our doorstep sheepishly. My mother took her in fondly and asked her to sit, while she went and fetched me. I won’t come, as I was angry with her for leaving the town. But I got around and went to meet her and gave a warm hug. She said nothing and left. My life was as usual after that. Over the next couple of years, I finished my polytechnic and was thinking of a career path.  Years passed as I sat and contemplated about it, but eventually decided to open an electronics shop in our town for the time being. I did that for almost ten years and was beginning to start getting exasperated with the stagnation in my life.

I was as usual going to the temple one fine Saturday when I saw a familiar face selling flowers in a basket. Akka was back. She had a small boy beside her curiously nibbling a raw mango slice. I went to her with a questioning face. She looked at me intently and we both smiled. I knew something went wrong but I never wanted to ask what it was. I was very happy that she was back in town. “Thambi, why don’t you try this new garland? It’s made thicker than usual.”, “Yes Akka. Add it to the monthly ledger will you?”, “Sure. Oh and might make some payasam next week. Will get some for you.” Life was back on track.

I very closely saw that boy grow up, as he was with his mom in the evenings. She seemed to be working harder now, almost as if she found her life’s calling. For all the fondness I had for her, I never really appreciated that she had no goal in life. Or so I thought.

Over time, her boy grew up to be a strong and well educated man. He was very courteous with me but also exuded great confidence. In the mean time, Akka also grew economically. She bought a table instead of a small basket for flowers, then two tables and finally a small hut where she sold all temple items apart from flowers. She was the same with me though, the caring elder sister, offering sweets every other week and telling me stories about how her boy was performing. 

So that gets us to this day. A fine Saturday evening when I decided to go to the temple as usual. Again, I saw Akka and went to her. Today I was particularly pensive about my life and the choices I made, but wanted to talk to her anyway. “Thambi, I heard you are thinking of closing the shop and going for a government post? I think it’s a great move. Here, take this coconut and camphor. No no! It’s from me, I won’t add its cost to the ledger. I am planning to buy a new shop new Malayappa temple. I’ve been approached by some to offer them some work, so I thought this is a nice way to go about things.”, I was listening carefully and suddenly asked her, “Akka, do you not have a huge goal in life?”. She seemed taken aback and visibly confused. “What happened Thambi?”, “Akka, I always see you selling flowers or other paraphernalia. Did you ever think about your goals, ambitions and so on? Don’t they bother you? Doesn’t it bother you that you are stuck here, selling flowers?”. She smiled, the sweetest and the most innocent smile I saw in ages. “I do have Thambi. I have goals, ambitions and I am stuck here only for those.”. It was my turn to be confused. “What are you saying akka? You never spoke to me about these things? What is it? Do you wish to live in the city and work somewhere?” “No Thambi, my ambition is here. Turn around, and see who is walking towards us”, and there I saw her son walking confidently towards us. “Greetings to you uncle! Amma, I may have gotten a job in a near by city. I think it’s a marvelous offer. I won’t work there for long, but I think I’ll get to learn some new tools. What do you say uncle? Do you think I should take a leap?”. I smiled. I found my answer.

I had a long discussion with one of my friends about how ambition means differently to different people. This story is something I concocted for the same reason. So I wish to give my friend credit for this post.

5,4,3,2,1 — contact! — Frolic/Frisk! — Oh no!

Of course we like adding a tinge of drama to either the very first paragraph of a post or the title itself. I flipped a completely biased coin and decided to add drama to the title. So here we are, a tiny string of what happened in my trip to Niagara and Washington DC.

After a long time, my friend from Austin visited me for a road trip in the North East of USA. There was lots of planning over three weeks, so much so that people stopped studying for exams and were planning instead. Leaving out the gory details of how we forgot sleeping bag, playing cards, blah blah blah but managed to get everything in place blah blah blah because we are resourceful and all that stuff, let’s quickly jump into what was interesting in the trip. Oh no, I am not going to tell you, “From Niagara we went to DC in 7 hours” and such stuff which you can simply google for yourself. I would rather tell you what stood out in each tiny episode of this trip.

Canada stole all the good parts of Niagara. The horseshoe falls is on Canadian side. Sure you can kind of see it from USA side and the ferry ride which takes you close to the falls is exhilarating, but it’s no way close to what it looks like from the Canadian side. And also the walk behind the falls? It’s so envious to see people walking through that area, closely listening to the falls. I am not even going to talk about … okay fine, yes the lighting in the night after sunset from the Canadian side is incredible.  One final rant and we will switch topics. There was a sweet and delicious smell of waffles all the while when we were around the falls. We decided to play dogs and find out if we could savour some of those tasty waffles. Again! Canada at it again! That sweet smell was from across the falls on the other side. Some kind of a wheat factory, as said by a guard. This only angered us further for not spending $100 to go to Canada. Setting drama aside, It was a nice trip with all the strong gurgling sound of the river, the raging and mighty fall, the tiny rainbows formed due to mist of water, and of course, the nice sunset.

Hershey’s chocolate world (Did you know that Hershey is a place?) has too much of chocolates. What did I expect? Well, you are right, it’s not fair to even state this. I wish they took us through an actual factory instead of a dingy tunnel with fancy and paste chocolate robots which were hardly audible. I learned that Hershey is famous for the dark chocolate, which I liked a lot. “Yuck! It tastes like tobaco!” — exclaimed my friend. Well, it’s true to an extent but I liked it nevertheless. “Did you consider starting smoking? You might like it” — no dear friend, not going to that area.

Library/Art/Capitol/Natural history/Aerospace — “I’ve seen enough fallen chairs in Parliament. Let’s go to see something else” — I like these rather interesting comparisons between congregation places of various countries. Anyway, we skipped capitol and went to see the Library of Congress instead. Yes it’s beautiful and there are umpteen books of Thomas Jefferson, but I wish I could see other wings of the library. Ah yes, noise. I can’t disagree. It was awfully noisy for a library. Oh well. I liked it though.

Can we have less of Madonna please? Of the plethora of paintings we saw, 10% were noteworthy, 10% was interesting, 10% really stood out and the rest was Madonna and variants of Madonna! Makes me name it Madonnart instead of Modern art museum. It is incredible to notice the evolution of painting across the medieval age in terms of forms, expressions, and subject. I think I am a new fan of Rembrandt. His juxtaposition of characters against black background and the easily discernible facial features was commendable. Introduced to impressionist paintings for the first time, I immediately liked it. The idea of talking about the subject more than the details appealed to me a lot. Don’t be in a hurry to see these paintings. Worth your time if you like art.

Standing tall and gracious and eerily simple, the obelisk was a sight to see. We decided to sleep on our back and see the monument. “Hey it seems like a footpath. Well lit”, “I would say it’s a walk into space. Suddenly you fall into abyss.”, “We set a trend here. Everyone is look at the monument the same way now”. Essentially that’s about it. To tire our legs towards the end of the day, we decided to give the massive and silently sitting statue of Lincoln. I was mighty impressed by the demeanour of the statue. The reflection pool is not symmetric! Why didn’t they take care of this!

Did you know that a Homo Erectus female is taller than 5’9″? And that Neanderthals were shorter and broader than us to counter cold? Yes, the humans and mummies section of Natural history museum was incredible. I must admit that they did a really good job of laying down the roots of our ancestry along with reasons for each fact. Should we be freaked out or be amazed by the fact that that blob of brown carbon was once a living being? Mummies confuse me but never fail to enthral me.

Right, as if I could go to space if I was physically fit. As it always happens, visiting the air and space museum created an urge to go to space. How cliched? Come on! The space modules, rockets and satellites were so well presented! And because I can’t go to space, I instead bought some metal models to make at home. How very unapologetically boring.

So what does the title mean? Half of the trip was spent in the car transiting from place to place. So we decided to play contact almost invariably every time, and every time someone thought they got what the other person was thinking, there would be a gush of excitement, haste, counting, shouting and finally, slump with disappointment. It’s an incredibly fun game though. And that’s what occupied all the car ride times. Other times? I was busy judging. Judging what? Hey did you even read this article? Please go up and restart then ;).

Musings of a biker

Why should you bike instead of driving a car? Car moves the body, but bike moves your soul. One with the bike, you are.

After a very long time, I decided to go biking for a short stretch on the Great Allegheny Passage (GAP) in Pittsburgh.  It it a beautiful and fairly flat stretch that runs from Pittsburgh to Washington DC, but that’s not the long route we traversed. We instead went for a total of 15 miles up until McKeesport and back.

I agree. When you are alone on your bike, you tend to get extremely philosophical. Seems like life is pretty much like biking. It really isn’t about the final destination, but more about the journey. Reminds me of this professor’s story who biked from west coast to east coast and found that the ups and downs of his life were similar to his biking experience.

After the annoying sounds of fast moving cars, we slowly move into the wooden areas which is flanked by green trees on one side and the Monongohella river on the other side. It’s quite a beautiful site, particularly late in the morning, when the sun rays bounce off the waves of the river to create a shimmering effect. Added to this is the multitude of factories on the other side of the river. Pittsburgh was once a steel hotbed. Andrew Carnegie, founder of CMU was a steel giant. No wonder Pittsburgh was called the Steel city of USA. Often reminds me of my own home town, Vishakhapatnam.

You know, Homestead is quite a famous historic landmark. One of the first strikes for labour rights was held here almost 100 years ago. Can you see those smoke stacks beside AMC? Yeah, they are remnants of a steel factory of a bygone era. Doesn’t Pittsburgh seem more and more interesting by the day? You should also read about the French English wars here.

The ride started slowly and stayed so through the journey. I was particularly keen about riding slow and enjoying the really nice weather. We started off with quite a cloudy weather but luckily it turned sunny, but the atmosphere was still cool. We rode across the waterfront towards Kennywood roller coaster park. We were wondering if we could jump the fences and take a ride in the empty roller coasters, but decided against it, considering the impractical propositions of ours and a danger of getting razed to ground because of the high voltage transformers.

Do you like trains? I love anything technology. When you go ride from Pittsburgh to McKeesport, you will come across a lot of tracks with running trains and abandoned trains. It almost feels like those compartments want to tell you a story, but are so rusted with time and weather that they are just sitting there and lamenting their static life. Isn’t it rather interesting how we crave to associate a story with everything we see?

After Kennywoods, it was a short stretch to McKeesport, and the marvellous weather only meant that we were all excited to traverse it in good speed. We reached McKeesport soon enough and sat at the bus stop for a while wondering if we should take the bus back home or, considering that the route back is somewhat downhill, bike back. We decided to bike anyway, and I was glad. On the way back, I was particularly excited to see a goods train beneath us when we were riding our bike. Interesting thing is that, due to the wooden planks on the bridge, and thanks to the fully filled tyres, I was constantly being shaken. Bizarre feeling if you think about it.

John Dunlop’s son came in the evening and said, “We have a tricycle race tomorrow. I really want to try and win. Unfortunately, it’s such an onerous task, considering the jolts you receive on these unpaved roads”. Dunlop was wondering about how apt the name “bone shakers” was for these bikes, considering that you have a free tour of hell on earth. While he was watering his garden, he observed that he might try wrapping an air filled hose around his son’s tyres. It turned out to be marvellous idea, as his son smoked the tricycle race. Next week he had a barrage of requests for fitting their tricycle tyres with the air filled hose. It went to such an extent that he had to finally ask all the tricycles to be taken back without any fitting. The next week, a patent officer came and asked Dunlop to patent his marvellous idea. And thus, my friend, was born the Dunlop tyre company.

Way back, we saw mother gander with its children wobbling and walking. We halted and were taking photos and the mother gander looked at us as if saying, “Oi mate, what are you looking at? Bugger off! I need to take care of my children”, and so we obliged and had to make do with only a couple of images. And then we kept biking. Considering that it was ever so slightly downhill, we were hardly tired.

Isn’t it interesting? When we go back, whatever was hard is now easy and whatever was easy is now hard. Quite philosophical things you say my friend. Pretty similar to life eh?

And then we kept biking in the now cloudy weather, but still cool enough to not know the long stretch. We essentially traced back the path, from McKeesport to Kennywoods to Waterfront to Southside. Finally, we came to Downtown and took a bus back home. As in any tiring trip, we slumped as soon as we got into the bus. My calf muscles seem to complain a very tiny bit, but more or less it was a comfortable trip and a rather enjoyable one. Ever so slowly, the weather turned even cloudier and the temperature lowered. Added to this, there was a mild drizzle, as if welcoming us back home after a good day under the sun.