Dolce Far Niente – Langkawi, Malaysia, January 2011

The Beauty of doing Nothing. They say successful people have two qualities: first, to achieve all that they desire, and the second, to actually enjoy it. Needless to say, very few achieve the second.

Rebal Island, Langkawi

Rebak Island, Langkawi

Similarly difficult is the art of doing nothing. When at work, I often find myself wriggling in my chair, mentally pleading for the time to do nothing. But when I do get that time, after say the first 30 minutes or so, I find myself wriggling again…except this time with restlessness, wondering what to do with myself.

But I think Langkawi has cured me of this schizophrenic behavior – from the minute I landed at the airport, the Langkawi-special –nothingness pheromones engulfed me, drawing out an instant beatific silly smile from me. Suddenly, I wasn’t even worried (and I had been worrying about this the entire flight) that I had arrived at a beach destination with no swimwear.  Who cares, I thought.

The Jetty – Personal Yachts are plenty here

And three days hence, that thought has suddenly become applicable to everything – I don’t really care that the humidity is making my hair levitate and is likely to confuse bees any minute. I’m tanned as hell – and that often does not mean good things for the darker Asian skin, but who cares!

Not caring started at the airport with the delightfully non-existent security checks. So refreshing in this day and age.  All of us would just revel in the joy of getting out of an aircraft and breezily walking into the terminal (if you can call it that) no buses, or ground staff to direct you (bother you). People started taking pictures right there, practically on the runway!

Nothingness runs in the geography of Langkawi – an archipelago of 99 islands, and when I think island I think of peace floating around, isolated from the world’s madness.  I am on Rebak Island at a beautiful resort at the foot of a tropical rainforest (details and trip advisory later).

The turquoise sea and the most vibrant green field and rain forest hills I’ve ever seen surround this island. And don’t get me wrong, it’s not like there isn’t much to do here, because there is plenty.  Island hopping, water sports, duty-free shopping, etc., etc. But that’s not what’s got me wired up to write. I’m excited because this place has actually managed to make me sit still in leisure. My itinerary:

  • AM: Breakfast – gotta stack up for the hectic day ahead!
  • Noon: Time for Vitamin D
    • Beach Chair, Sunscreen, Book, Ipod.
    • Sunscreen, Swimming Pool, Pina Colada
    • Pina Colada, Sunscreen, Beach, Mimosa
  • Afternoon: Lunch. Around 3-4 pm, you’ve run out of reinforcements to sustain that hell of a day. One needs energy to spend all that time lounging around with thoughts. Thinking (or in my case, lying still with one thought – is the beach better or the pool?) needs a healthy mind and healthy mind needs some gastronomical delights. And turns out, Langkawi is perfect for that. My tummy has a separate smile running parallel to my face, what with all the delightful curry treats, and seafood. Ofcourse, this is followed by a nap in the sun.
  • PM: This is “recreation time”. I alternate between cycling, fish feeding
    Cycling Me

    Cycling Me

    and long walks. There is also the option of feeding Monitor Lizards, but I think that messes with my comfortably ensconced thoughts of how beautiful the world is (for me lizards lie outside the bounds of nature, that’s just the way it is). This is one of my favorite times of the day. In normal life, evenings are usually when I begin to get restless. I need to be busily engaged with some hobby, or friends or work. But here, I’m relishing the joy of feeding fishes and watching them fight over the limited breadcrumbs (of course, I overfeed them), or how joyous biking is especially amidst a rainforest on one side and blue beach water on the other. And I can walk endlessly here. The resort keeps offering its electric buggies for transportation, but I don’t want them (except when I’m down over 4 glass of wine and I have the opportunity of sitting on the reverse backseat with outstretched legs, going wheeeeee)

  • Night Time: Light dinner. At this point, my tummy has been rendered exhausted with the initial excitement and wants something light for the night. Soupy noodles preceded with a bottle of wine are perfect. Then I retire to my room, with a book and am asleep before I get past the first ten lines.

Please note: No TV, no Telephone, no Internet (except to upload this post), no schedule. But such utter pointless fun!

This is Dolce Far Niente – The beauty of doing nothing or pleasant idleness.

For a person like me, who always wants to do, do, do, this idleness has been a mini personal adventure. I’ve seldom, even on holidays, stopped to just be and derive small joys from not doing much at all.  Pure leisure is something we have perhaps been trained to “deserve” rather than just enjoy. In fact, humans will seldom be able to enjoy leisure for long if we haven’t in some form truly deserved it.

I don’t know whether I’ve deserved it or not, but so far this personal experiment has been successful and has deserved me some more leisure time. I’ve previously discussed the sacred space that Joseph Campbell feels we all must indulge in (Travel-ism or Tourism?). He says something creative happens when you sit still. So I’m waiting. But the wide halo of ease upon myself is probably a start. It’s nothing short of a miracle that my camera has gone dead in the middle of my vacation and I am not panicking.

So till something does happen, I’m indulging my sacred space. For the next couple of days, some more niente for me.

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Taking Flight – Airport Diaries, Entry One

 
 
 

Sleepy, at Hong Kong airport

Post Dated

Ok so I thought I would be blogging about something cheerful, but fate has it that I am waiting endlessly at an airport and there is nothing cheerful about it, apart from free wireless. I’ve been here for the past 3 hours waiting for the aircraft to grace us with its presence. The airline is offering us a pittance of a complimentary “meal” comprising of a squishy Chicken Puff, a desperate looking cookie that’s neither chocolate chip, nor oat, honey or any other known cookie… material.

But there are two upsides to this situation:

1) A little budget airline that does not even offer food in the flight is making an effort to do some service recovery by providing this snack

2) I am technically now “traveling”. It’s a lot more romantic to be writing from an airport, even if it is the New Delhi airport.

I’ve been looking forward to this 4-day respite even though traveling to attend weddings typically deviates from my preferred travel schedule of no schedule. However, before that begins, it seems I’m stuck at the airport for an endless wait – but if you think about it, being stranded at an airport is in fact an important part of travel.

There is nothing pretty about an airport. As Douglas Adams once said, “It’s no coincidence that in no known language does the phrase ‘As pretty as an airport” appear’”. But still, a true traveler can find some beauty in them , if for nothing else then just because of the time spent there when en route. I think there must be something called The Airport Memoirs. Think about it – they’re such tangible representations of departure and arrival, movement and transition. Whenever I arrive at an airport, I feel like something important is going to happen. And so I tend to get all nostalgic and reflective; often not really discovering anything except that I’ve forgotten to pack an important item 😐

I have a habit of arriving  at airports late…for various reasons. I’ve been late because I had to eat my last Pau Bhaji at Mumbai airport, or because I wrongly booked flights and had to board the plane straight from the venue of a friends wedding, resembling a runaway bride myself. My arrivals on the other hand are fairly slow and measured, wondering what to do next. I wonder if this has a deeper meaning into my personality – I take flight haphazardly, impulsively, hurriedly, but take a while to arrive…? That’s probably best unexplored

Over the years, airports have become little worlds in themselves – what with the shopping gallerias and food spreads. But still, my favorite thing to do at an airport remains people watching. I enjoy people watching in general, but the airport is a particularly good environment for this activity. It’s a microcosm of the different personalities in the world…the irritable mothers with noisy kids or happy mothers with well-behaved ones, business travelers, chatty teenagers, grandpas and grandmas intimidated by the escalators. So much energy in one spot – traveling during festivals makes it even more contagious with exuberant conversations, skippy steps, and relaxed napping passengers.

I also enjoy chatting up with complete strangers sometimes. Like the girl from Harvard Law School at the San Francisco airport who introduced me to my first “green beer” as we traveled together on St. Patrick’s day (Irish day, hence the green). She explained that the green beer had no genesis in Ireland and nothing to do with Irish Day, but completely founded by Americans who decided to make the day just another excuse to drink…and so I fell in love with the homegrown world-famous-in-America traditions all over again.

And then there was the time when I met an Indian, who was, for the lack of a better term, everything-phobic. My judgment went wrong on interesting looking strangers – he was interesting in that he did not really enjoy travel, did not like sleeping in hotels, did not enjoy sleeping in a bed that wasn’t his, did not like take-out food, could-not holiday for over a week…you get the picture. But it’s always enlightening to meet different kinds of people and the airport is the perfect place for diversity in one spot.

 Then there are the quiet flights too when you have unadulterated time to yourself like today. A sobering sense of belonging and flight at the same time…it’s probably why so many movies have been made with airport plots – The Terminal, Up In the Air, etc. Also why dramatic sequences tend to be shot at airports. Taking flight is not a phrase for no reason…flying to places is sometimes like that, when the airplane is just a funnel through which you arrive on the other side and cross over…the airport in that sense is preparation of the flight. Sometimes chaotic, maybe reflective, exciting…often acting as nesting places for complicated emotions such as sorrow and pain if you’re separating from someone or leaving important things behind; or as hosts of excitement, thrill and positivity expected from the destination of the next flight…

New York, New York – The Business of Life

The Empire State of Mind

I’ve been harvesting this thought for a some time now, pondering over why this city is so endearing to most people…to me, given that it has never technically been my home.  So I did some quote-searching online and found a couple that succinctly expressed it, but one in particular stood out:New York

There is something in the New York air that makes sleep useless – Simone De Beauvoir

Simple. That’s why it really is the city that never sleeps, why most people are either succeeding or striving, all types of people – artists, musicians, models, investment bankers – and people like me who were just break-ing for a bit in the city, yet woke up no later at 8:00am everyday just because it didn’t make sense to waste time sleeping in New York (Of course now that I am back at work and have to wake up at unearthly hours everyday, I’m having a tough time relating to my own holiday behavior)

But, even if you’re just visiting, the restlessness of the city creeps up on you. If you are  not actively trying to make something of yourself, you suddenly want to, just so you can justify your position on those crowded streets. If you’re going to push and shove, it must be for a cause!

What is the romance of New York? It’s not an exotic place; it is certainly not a relaxing place. But it is a lot of other things rolled into one. As Meyer Berger said, every one reads his own meaning into New York, and so I have mine.

Let me warn you, if you’re looking for a light read, this might get slightly philosophical. I may be over intellectualizing this but I feel the need to  articulate to myself, my own reasons for selecting this place. I need that connection between sense and sensibility for this one.

The whole objective of my break was to consolidate my 25 years in some way, make sense of events, experiences, just sit still with them for a bit. But more than that, to reinforce and never forget that there is so so so much more to do, to achieve, places to visit, people to meet, to succeed.

And if you really want to experience aspiration anywhere, it is this City. On the faces of people on the road, walking as if there is no tomorrow, in the lights that seem like if they shut down for few minutes, the universe might as well shut itself down, the yellow cabs that almost add to the illumination at night, the Statue that stands tall and upright, Times Square that is a little microcosm of the city really.

New York, at all points seems as if it is in business everyday, the business of life. Representing truly, what one wise man once said: The business of life is to be, to do, to be without, and to depart. You can’t really speak of the City without using a lot of verbs, to be, to do, to be without and to depart seems just right for the place.

 

Addressing the being and doing part, the whole world is in the city…literally (On day one, I bumped into three people I hadn’t met in years randomly). The mini-countries in Chinatown, Little Italy, little India-s spurting here and there; the immigrants, it seems, moved there and promptly plopped their countries alongside as well, and the city said “the more, the merrier” and adopted them as natural extensions of itself.

The theatre, art, glamour, commerce, fashion, the Hollywood and even the Bollywood, whatever you want to do or be, you have it. Just know how to get there, the map is important in the city.

Which bring me to the walking, one of the most delightful aspects of my trip. It isn’t called the Walking City for nothing. For one, try hailing a cab in NY. I walked on one hand, out of sheer pleasure and joy of being a traveler, and on the other hand because of my sheer disability to acquire a cab for myself.  There is too much competition, a line of people competing with you to catch one, and apparently the city disqualifies me for this game altogether because even if I manage to get one, I can’t keep one…somehow I never go to a place the cab driver would like to take me to, but the next person after me is always a perfect match. And let’s hope this is limited to cabs in NY only.

So back to the walking, this is when I overdid it and injured my Plantar Fascia (somewhere in the feet, my latest biological discovery). Apart from the obvious delights of the walking tours, you come across bakeries that promise “Happiness Unlimited” in the chocolate muffins. What a lovely idea I thought, why wouldn’t one go in to buy some happiness in the form of a chocolate muffin!

Man Shopping for Wife, NY

Man shopping for wife, NY

They don’t say this city is all business for nothing. Now look at this picture alongside, in which the man is “shopping” for a wife.  This is what his front and back read, “ Hi Friends, looking for a wealthy lady to be my wife. My name is Robert. Single, Never Married, No children. Call me…”

It transforms you a little too. In one of my first cab rides (the ONLY one) the Italian cab driver, when asked to take me to Chinatown, insisted that he must take me home instead, and I, in fact had a conversation about whose home he should take me, mine or his, till I reached my destination. This is what the city does to you. I do not typically chat with cab drivers, I don’t even receive telephone calls from numbers that don’t seem familiar. But here I was sitting in a cab, flirting with the cabbie, who feigned heartbreak as he dropped me off (thankfully) at Chinatown.

The city also brought my Sociology classes back to me. You are the place that you are in, you are the society, you are the environment.  In New York then, you are a lot of things at once. One time, at Madison Square Garden, I decided to stop and people watch. If I stayed there long enough, I’m pretty sure I would have caught the frequencies of the thoughts of all those diverse people frantically going somewhere: happy, sad, distressed, frustrated, exhilarated, success, failure.

It reminds you of all your life’s experiences at once. Somehow, I think the physical representation of grids; the right angled cross of avenues and numbered streets did this for me. I think the cross represents the cross between expectation and disappointment, excitement and gloom, hope and despair all rolled into one.  You take 5th Ave and 75 street and maybe buy some happiness at the big Apple store, you walk 42nd, and you’re bound to stumble upon excitement at Times Square, walk through Central Park, and you may experience contentment, take the financial district and you experience the despair a little, or stop earlier at WTC and some more gloom.  There are days when the tall buildings may seem like they’re all falling on you at once and other days when you feel like you are a part of them stretching unto the sky, into the universe gleefully, touching the stars and all that.

There is something so tangible about the fact that such is life, c’est la vie, be it, live it. The disappointments, the frustrations, the insecurities, all are a part of it, and sometimes do come up on one street and that is fate. But there are times, when all you need to do is walk away, the next street is right there, holding in itself a completely different set of options and experiences, always running parallel tempting you to choose it as an option. You can decide what to do, to be, to live without and to depart from. Life is always an option that way, I thought.  Happiness is the consequence of personal effort and that effort is to get off that street and take the next one. Because it is right there, in front of you, just a block to your right or left, depending upon what you’re looking for.

Do check this video out, if you haven’t already, my post might make more sense:

Travel-ism or Tourism?

Apparently, there IS a difference

Each time I travel, I am faced by the same dilemma. Must I follow convention and go visit all the tourist-y places in the town first, or  follow my heart that is urging me to pick up a map, walk the street, try the food, meet the people and then perhaps if time allows, go see the tourist-y spots?

Walking in NYC, 2010

 I took some time to reflect on this travel quirk. Last year, I visited Hong Kong and Macau, had a great time. Then my sister and her husband did exactly the same trip two weeks later, and came back with pictures that looked entirely different from mine! Did we visit different places?

When I pondered more, it struck me that I have been to New York about a zillion times, but have never actually taken the trouble to go see the Statue of Liberty. I know great bars, eating joints, my favorite avenues, but no I can’t say I hate or love one of the Seven Wonders of the World.

Thoughts accelerating now…I am living in Delhi and I haven’t seen the Red Fort. I was in Boston for three years and I didn’t take the trouble to go on the History Walk, or the Duck Tour (you can’t blame me for this though, this tour is on a “vehicle” in the shape of a duck that first drives you around the city, and then randomly enters the Charles river turning into a boat!).

This is enough to be identified as a pattern. Am I lazy? I don’t think so; I can spring out of bed for  Six Flags at 6:00am.  If the best crepes in town are 2 hours away, I’ll put an alarm to trek there too, just to catch the freshest ones. But an alarm for a packed day of city landmarks…

I’m not saying I never sight see, I do. I have been to Agra for the Taj Mahal and everything. But I do tend towards being a slightly eccentric tourist, for which I recently found a term.  Apparently, I fall under the category of what they call travelers. I spent some time researching this and found this definition that best explains this distinction:

The traveler sees what he sees, the tourist sees what he has come to see.” G.K. Chesterton

It seems a tourist is a visitor then, a traveler more of a wanderer. When I started this trip, my first alone-trip, the objective was just that, to wander. Without a time schedule to be anywhere (unless it’s a movie), arrive somewhere accidentally and marvel at the places on the way. So I did exactly that…through the streets of New York, the little Italy in Boston, woods of Maine, countryside in Texas and so on. Hungrily walking from one place to the next, only taking public transport when necessary. And I started to make mental notes on 1) handy tips, how you can be a good traveler and 2) why travel-ism maybe picking up as distinct from tourism. The How part first:

1)      Whenever possible, walk. This saves cost and is the best way to feel the pulse of the city, the smells, people, and culture…

2)      Smile at people (try not to be creepy)– There is so much you can learn about the culture of the city if the smile returned (or not returned) is wide and bright (like in California) or suspicious (Hong Kong) or brief (New York).

3)      Food! This is a big one for me; this is one research I do do. From Chandni Chowk in Delhi to French food in California, to the eclectic mix in NYC, I can’t call a vacation a vacation if I haven’t devoured the food

4)      Gain weight: Don’t bother dieting on a holiday! And this is coming from an obsessive weight freak, but I have successfully convinced myself that holiday weight is fashionable, yes it is.

5)      Taste local wine: The best wine I have had was in the oldest restaurant

Casal Gracias, Macau 2009

in Macau. I have never found it after much search anywhere in India, America or even Hong Kong! (picture alongside for reference, if anyone can find me that wine for purchase, there will be a cash prize!).

6)      Marvel – always best to set aside time to just marvel. You don’t have to miss the slow sunset over Hudson, just because you have to be at Times Square to see the night-lights. In my experience, the refreshing moments that serve the purpose of the vacation come from what you see when you happen to see it, rather than plan to.

7)      Wear flat shoes and bring a camera: these are two things I share with the tourist-y clan. Always bring a camera; even if it’s a small walk, it can be memorable. And wear flats; I have been doing this even as NYC women tower over me in their mind blowing heels (I’ve come to believe, their legs must have a nutrition inlet of their own)

8)   Laugh: if you are a traveler, you will get lost. Also since you haven’t taken the trouble to research the place, you will make a lot of other cultural or social boo-boos. But that’s the fun of it, so laugh

On why travel is picking up as distinct from tourism. I think travel in general relates back to the human need to move. Historically, our predecessors first traveled out of necessity, then for religion, migration, emigration, commerce, enlightenment and finally for pleasure. But pleasure as a reason for the need to move has been around for too long to accept it for what it is, so we spend some time intellectualizing it.

We have heard the word rejuvenate so often that it has lost its impact. But it is something to ponder. Traveling is the only time we sit still for a bit. In real life, we are always on the go. The “go” often makes us do things uncharacteristic of us; at work, we may become competitive even if we are not, in personal life there may be other pressures we may have to succumb to.

 

Central Park Zoo, 2010

Travel, from time to time, gives us the space and time to just be, in a manner that tourism doesn’t. Joseph Campbell very succinctly said that a sacred place is an absolute necessity for everyone today. “You must have a room, or hour, where you don’t know what was in the newspapers that morning, you don’t know who your friends are, you don’t know what you owe anybody, you don’t know what anybody owes to you. This is a place where you can simply experience and bring forth what you are and what you might be. This is the place of creative incubation. At first you may find that nothing happens there. But if you have a sacred place and use it, something eventually will happen.”

 

I think Travel-ism has picked up because it allows us to find that sacred place, where instead of getting out of the hustle bustle of real life and getting into the hustle bustle of being a tourist, it allows people to be still for sometime and come back really refreshed and ready to bustle again. So I guess, a little bit of a wandering once in a while is good. I’m reminded of the old adage, not all those who wander are lost.

 

A good traveler has no fixed plans, and is not intent on arriving.” Lao Tzu


Visit Top Quotes, This and That for my other favorite quotes on travel. Do add in your own too!

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