Tuesday, July 17, 2018

Italy Trip- Pizza, Gucci and much more!

When it comes to Euro Trips, what people essentially mean is that they would be doing some serious fast-paced hopping from one capital to another attempting to maximize their 'Score'. No no, by score I do not mean what you are thinking, you satyromaniac! I meant to cover as many countries as possible in those 7-10 days. After all, with a Schengen proudly stamped on their foreheads, they don't want to miss even San Marino. It would be sacrilege to go to only one country they said, its like you take a Fast Track ticket at Universal Studios and do only a single ride. Preposterous Signora!

But yours truly had something different in mind and that has always been the idea of travel for me. To spend enough time at one place and attempting to grasp some elements of their culture and values. Because what you get to see superficially is often far away from the truth. And its a vacation for crying out loud, not a marathon, although I don't hate that either. So which country then? As soon as that question popped into my head, for a while I almost forgot that my rights under Article 19 of the Constitution have been compromised. That happened the day I got married. Better half always wanted to travel Italy so that she could have the authentic and original pizzas and pastas. Although even Dominos makes her euphoric. Ergo, it was decided. 

When we landed in Milan via Kiev it was pretty late by then plus the airport was at Bergamo which is an hour drive from the central area. By the time we reached our Hotel it was around 2330 hrs which should not have been a problem as we had pre-booked the room. There was no one at the reception and we had to call the emergency number written on the notice outside. When someone finally came, they apprised us of the policy that late check-ins come with a penalty same as the room rent. Mama mia, what a start! And somehow it's more painful to pay extras as they were in euros and every time your brain starts multiplying that by the conversion factor. It hurts 80 times more! Next day we were on the move quite early and took a metro to Duomo Station located just below the Milan Cathedral. And as soon as you get out of the exit, you see this. 

Amazing, isn't it. The insides are even more. You can also chose to go upstairs to enjoy the view of entire Milan city. The stairs aren't many but you can also take the lift for extra euros. There are couple of museums around for the nerdy souls. The shopping complex is just next with the likes of Gucci, Zara, Bvlgari etc. But whenever you go to historic places in Italy especially during summer, you should book your tickets online before or take those passes which allow you to visit multiple such places skipping the regular line. And believe me, there are crazy lines everywhere. Or you could go during the siesta hours when you would find acceptable queues. 

In the evening we had our Frecciarossa (their high speed train) to Florence, a place which I was really excited about since Alfred told Bruce Wayne about his yearly trip to a cafe on the banks of Arno where he would have a Fernet Branca in The Dark Knight Rises. The Frecciarossa goes up to speeds of 300 kmph and is smoother than butter but of course all that comes with a heavy price tag. You can easily save a lot by travelling through the regional trains who also are pretty decent and can max out to 160 kmph. Florence is certainly a must-go destination as it is also the launch pad for Pisa and Cinque Terre. And not to mention, the magnificently bare, David.  

On the next day, we started early for Pisa, at least we tried. We had to catch a Bus to the train station and our Hostel guy told us that the tickets could also be purchased on the bus. We hopped on the public bus and asked the driver about it but of course he could not understand English. So we asked the people who showed us some app they use to buy tickets. The others had passes. So we gave up and waited for the conductor to come and fetch us tickets. Only that there is no conductor there. The driver only gives the tickets or mostly people buy from the shops near the bus stops. To our misfortune, two ticket checkers enter the bus. We try to explain them the situation. That it was our first time in a Public bus in Italy. That we tried but no one told us how. They fined us anyway and the fines there are pretty high for almost everything. There goes the money for all the Prada you wanted, I told my better half. Whereas I appreciate the strict implementation of rules but I also feel that they should at least here out the plea of tourists who have just landed and had so such intention. 

It took a while to get over all the Euros we lost there but hey, shit happens. Pisa is a cozy little settlement in the famous Tuscany region and is very well connected by trains from Florence. I would advice to reach there pretty early beating the crowd and then walk from the station to Pisa tower. That way you get to experience the beauty of small towns in Italy. And I am glad that my better half loves walking too and everyday we walked at least 15 kms traversing through cities and countryside. That's where you see the real country. That's where you find the best of authentic food. Pisa tower and the near by area is unique in itself. An engineering blunder turned into a marvel. And from Pisa, you get trains for Cinque Terre which you can explore in the second half of the day. 

Cinque Terre is a group of five ancient villages on the Italian coast which have been preserved and connected excellently via the rail network. Each village has it's own way of life and culture which is quite observable in the form of settlements they have created. You can also trek from one village to another. One of the villages is known for the vineyards and there are several wine-tasting shops where you can simply sit and sip the finest wines overlooking the majestic blue waters. For sure a day is not enough and you should plan to stay here at least for a couple of days. And while you are there don't forget to try the local fruits and berries. The taste doesn't get better. 

After a hectic day covering these two places and going back, we decided to give Florence two days and to explore the historic city in peace. In Florence we were staying in a hostel which was pretty much like a hotel only. The advantage of staying in hostels is that they offer good breakfast menu at a less cost and also you have to pay less city tax as compared to the hotels. This way you can end up saving a lot. And then of course, the college type feel, the music and the party ambiance. Everywhere in Florence, you get a feel that you are time travelling back to those ancient periods in the history. It's absolutely marvelous in terms of the architectural assets it has. And then of course, there is Arno. 

From Florence, we went to Rome which also has the grand Vatican City inside it. And you got to pre-book your tickets for the Vatican Museum. There is always a month long waiting for that, more so in summer time. You would not want to miss the opportunity to be inside the Sistine Chapel, would you? Robin Williams would not like that for sure. Then there is the grandeur of Colosseum and the remains near it where perhaps you can manage without the pre-book. If you are a person who would like to visit all the historic places and the museums, you should take the Roma-pass in advance. The next day we just strolled though Rome and discovered one marvel after the other. It's simply never ending. 

Next stop was Naples. The place where you would get the best of authentic pizza and the place where you would be warned to be most careful with your stuff. In general, you have to be careful about the pick pocketing in Italy, more so in Naples. And right on our first day there, a purse snatching attempt was made. Unsuccessfully though, you see, my wife comes from Punjab, I need not say more. Naples is must because there are lot many crucial day tours from here. On day one, we took a train to Pompei which is famous for preserving the remains of their ancient city which was once submerged under the ash of the adjoining volcano. And the other is Mount Vesuvius, around which they have developed a wonderful trek. From up there, you get the best view of Naples bay. 

The other day tour from Naples is for Island of Capri, more like Pandora from Avatar. The cruise from Naples is fantastic and once you reach there, make sure you do the complete Island tour and not just the Blue Grotto. You almost feel like you have made an Interstellar voyage to some other planet and have finally landed upon one which is serene and hospitable. Staying on that Island is freakishly costly but you can always take the last ferry to Naples and stay there the whole day. And its amazing that across Europe, the sundown is mostly around 9-10 pm. Another day tour from Naples can be a drive through the Amalfi coast. 

Next day was to explore Naples on foot. Make sure you stay near the bay area so that all the historic and good eating places are a Pizza's throw away from you. The area near the Naples Train station can be avoided as is too crowded and kind of not so safe. Naples is also good for street shopping where you can do some real crazy bargains on the replicas. From Naples we made a long journey to Venice. Now the thing is, we have been romanticizing Venice since long and ergo I would advice not to stay in Venice proper as its too costly and not worth. You can get down just one station before in the suburb of Venice and there is a camping site there named "Jolly". It has movable houses, pool, bar, sports facilities etc. A carnival of sorts all the time and they also offer shuttle service to Venice. We didn't like Venice much though, its heavily overrated, 'Dharavi of Europe' as my wife labelled it. The water canals only look good in the pictures I guess and they do stink at places. And do not fall for the overpriced water shuttles and boats, you can simply walk your way through bridges using Google Maps. 

We had couple of days left with us and we made an impromptu trip to a city called Verona. The city of Romeo and Juliet. And frankly, this is one of the best places there. A small and quite city having all the flavors of Italy. It also has a arena like the Colosseum which they presently use for opera. There is an ancient fort along the river where one could sit for ages. And for me, these unplanned and random places have been the high point of this trip. We were travelling light too with our respective backpacks. We simply decided where we wanted to go next, or to stay a bit longer. That's the way to dissolve yourself in a new setting. amidst new people and to have varied experiences. 

As the plane took off from Bergamo, 
It all came flashing back. 
Grandeur of the Duomo, 
Warmth of the Arno, 
Smell of the Sistine Chapel, 
the serenity of Capri, 
and the love in Verona. 
Italy, Grazie! 

Sunday, July 15, 2018

IAS Diaries Part 24- Model Anganwadi Center

After wriggling through the treacherous roads, we finally reached our destination. A small sleepy village in the lap of Garo hills. Across the playground, there was a abandoned one-room structure, that's what it looked like. There was another dilapidated structure along that room which supposedly was the toilet. Must have been some old office, I thought, they moved somewhere else it seems. To my surprise, the Nokma (Village Headman) tells me that I have got it all wrong. That was an operational Anganwadi Center (AWC).

"Where are the kids? And the Anganwadi worker?", I asked, while still in shock. The Nokma smiled at my ignorance and then patiently explained me how things worked in this part of the country. "There isn't much in the center except for the regular Supplementary Nutrition food that they regularly receive. The kids come in the morning to eat that whenever the stock is present. Rest days, you won't see anyone here. There aren't many troys, books or learning material. What they have is too less for the number of children around. The walls are dilapidated and not hygienic. The people now want to send their kids to private playschools, at least those who can afford. The private ones are of course far off. Such people are a handful though. It is a difficult proposition".

As we traveled through the entire civil sub division, hopping from one Anganwadi Center to another, the words of that Nokma kept getting emboldened. More or less, that was the fate of all the Anganwadi Centers. If you think about it, they are the primary interface for the children of rural areas with the world of learning, nutrition and health. And with the present infrastructural condition, how are we supposed to inculcate in them a desire to learn. A desire that's quintessential in these early stages as they would soon be ready for the realm of school education. Talking to several personnel involved in ICDS (Interegrated Child Development Scheme), it became clear that the resources were constrained. And with provision of supplementary logistics, they would perform much better. They all wanted to.

There are hundreds of such Anganwadi centers across my sub-division. It would not be possible to upgrade them all to Model Centers. So, I thought if we could make one of them as a Model Center, which would have all the necessary resources and facilities, we could see the response of the local children and people. With positive results, we would then put forward a case to the respective department for facilitating an upgrade of more such Anganwadi Centers. Ergo, we zeroed down one center which was closer to the head quarters for better monitoring, Dilsigre Anganwadi Center. I initiated a crowd funding campaign on Milaap.org but this time the response was not much as was the case for the campaign about solar lanterns. Perhaps people don't connect to Anganwadis, even I didn't when I was unaware of their state and the colossal importance they hold.

Then we tried some community participation approach where we did some meetings to convince the local people about the relevance of this initiative. Some of them pitched in in whatever way they can. Some people from outside Meghalaya also did their bit in contributing whatever way they could. We did a tinny bit from our office side too. Collectively we were able to realize our dream. We had upgraded the Dilsigre AWC as we wanted. We repaired the structures, painted them and got a talented local artist to wall paint the entire structure. We got toys for the kids, learning books and story books, cushions, carpet, water filter, containers for food storage and many other things.

On the day of inauguration, I was pleasantly surprised to see that the entire village was present. They had made all the arrangements by themselves. They presented songs and several dance performances. You could feel it, the bliss in the air. They wanted to continue the celebrations beyond the schedule. Why would I object to that. The children from the center were so happy to get so many toys. Several simply sat in awe of the beautiful and educative wall paintings did by the artist. A moment of extreme joy for all of us.

Several days after when I visited the center, I saw them enjoying and learning. Reciting poems and singing songs. I wish if all of the centers could be upgraded like this. All it needs is community participation and a little help from those who are privileged. The entire cost of such an upgrade is only 1,00,000 INR. For those interested to contribute and upgrade an Anganwadi center, please write to me at tembe.swapnil@gmail.com or give a call on +91 8527345879. I am hoping to upgrade many more Anganwadis like this, do I have your support ?

P.S. The link to the last post in this series is given below

Saturday, July 14, 2018

Grazie, Pisa

Pisa truly is a masterpiece seemingly defying the laws of physics. The unintended tilt was a result of improper foundation which later was rectified to stabilize it.
Pretty symbolic, no, we do err at times. If we don't amend that, the whole thing perhaps would collapse. But if you do correct your wrongs, you could transform it into something marvelous which the world would drool over!

Cinque Terre

Cinque Terre, a group of seaside villages originally established in the 11th century on the rugged Italian Riviera coastline proudly exhibiting colorful houses. The vineyards sit on top of the hills like a crown studded with rubies Liguria region’s famous sauce attracts food enthusiasts from all over. All this, embraced by the blue waters of Ligurian sea.
He had never been out of this place, the owner of the vineyard where we camped for some wine tasting. "Don't you want to see what lies beyond these hills?", I had to ask. "Does it get more beautiful than this?", he teasingly answered. I looked over the coastline adorning a rainbow of houses. "No, it can't", I humbly submitted.

Fernet Branca

Remember that scene from DKR when Alfred talks about going to Florence and having a Fernet Branca at a cafe on the banks of River Arno. "You wouldn't say anything to me, nor me to you. But we'd both know that you'd made it, that you were happy", he tells Bruce.
Ever since, I wanted to go there too. Fernet Branca alongside Arno. I too looked around. Hoping to see Bruce. But could only spot my better half looking amused. As I gulp this dark Italian amaro , I ponder, how we often create these silly fantasies in life and my god, the joy when we actually live them. Cheers.