Welcome To My World

Some Rambling Thoughts

Been a long time. So long that I had almost forgotten I even had a blog. On my way home from office yesterday, it suddenly struck me that, apart from everyday office notings, I haven’t written anything in a long while, apart from inane updates on my Facebook page. I thought about how, at one time, I just had to put down thoughts that came to mind and I would spend many an evening typing each and every thought that came to mind – many of them winding up in my blog, quite a few still unfinished and un’published’. With the sudden wave of nostalgia still lingering, I had a quick dinner and sat down and ‘penned’ the following for my Facebook page. And here I am tonight, writing these lines. Perhaps, hopefully, a return to the good ole days…..? 
So, it’s been just over a year since we arrived here in Copenhagen. The past year and a half has been, as Dickens put it so eloquently, ‘…the best of times….the worst of times….the winter of despair…’ The best of times because, by God’s grace, we somehow managed to get our dream apartment in Delhi – in Vasant Kunj, no less – just before our move to Copenhagen. Truly a dream come true. We then had to move to Copenhagen just as we were beginning to settle down in a place we could finally call our very own home for the first time in our lives.
We arrived in Copenhagen just as winter was setting in. Cold and windy, maybe, but, as I soon discovered, a jogger’s paradise. With fresh, unpolluted air, unlike Delhi. Before a month had passed, I had already seen almost all corners of our neighborhood within a 3-4 km radius on my evening jogs. Since we couldn’t buy a car straight away, I started walking to and from office every day – a distance of around 3km or so, one way. I so enjoyed the daily walk in the crisp, cold air that the initial urgency to buy a car slowly started to recede and, for the first time since our posting in Milano, we remained without a car for around two months. I should add here that, to put this into perspective, when we landed in Hanoi from Tokyo in June 2011, the first thing I told my staff was that I need to get a car asap. And, by sheer luck, a Korean diplomat had put up a notice for her car the very morning we arrived and, to cut a long story short, I had a car by lunch time the day I joined office. So being without a car in foreign soil for so long was something new and, had things continued with my daily walk to office and evening jogs in this joggers paradise which I was enjoying tremendously, Christmas and New Year would have probably rolled by before we started to seriously look for a car.
Then, as I was picking up groceries from our neighborhood Netto that cold November evening last year, I received a call from my daughter Esther. Dad had passed away a few minutes back. For a moment, my mind went blank. I immediately went to the checkout counter with whatever I had already put in my shopping basket, checked out, and walked on home. As I stumbled out the the shop and headed home, memories of dad flooded my mind. Memories of his ever-smiling face, the last time I sat with him on our veranda in Sielmat, his last request (which I hope to one day fulfill, God willing) flashed before my eyes. Then memories of mom flooded my mind, of how I was not there when she passed away. And I knew I had to go home.
By the time I reached home, they had already buried dad. I would never see him again in this life. But being there with my brothers and close family and friends and to again breathe the fresh air of home was just the thing I needed to soothe my broken heart and spirit. Looking back, I realize now that the love and support I received from my family and community during the all too short two weeks I was there somehow calmed my soul and I could accept that, though I may not have been there when both my mom and dad passed away, they were now in a better place, finally reunited forever.
So, last winter was, for me, ‘the winter of despair’ in some ways, the worst of times…….
So, tonight, I sit here, thinking of times gone by and various, unconnected thoughts come to mind. I look at the pitifully small collection of books that I have managed to lay my hands on during the past year – less than ten, of which I have managed to read only one and hardly opened the others, and my mind goes back to the past when I would practically devour each and every book that came my way. I think of the times when I used to blog. When thoughts that just had to be put in writing came hard and fast. And how, now, the mind is just a big blank, empty sheet.
Then I think of how God has been ever faithful and good to me and how, in many ways, the last year has been the best of times. And I think of my one and only good addiction – jogging – which has practically saved my life in many ways. I check my running app, according to which I have managed to run/jog 94 times and exactly 535.30km this year, which is an average of 5.69km per run. Not bad for an old guy, I say to myself, thanks to God. And the wonderful thing is that some of those runs have been in places I never ever imagined I would find myself in – among them a dream run in Central Park, NYC (a cool 16.08km, btw ) added to a few runs in Boston, runs in beautiful cities I had never even heard of before we came here (Aarhus, Aalborg, Esberg), even Tel Aviv, Israel. Yes, God has been good to me.
I think of the good times, as well as some soul-wrenching times we had, when Andrew and Esther visited this summer. I think of how we started our life, the two of us, on our first posting in Morocco. How our wonderful kids, Andrew and Esther came and filled our life with so many beautiful memories. And how, now, they are gone from us, trying to forge their own separate future in the world. How quickly time has passed us by and I realize that we are already in the twilight of our lives, in a way. And we have now have come full circle, back to just the two of us.
So I sit here tonight, alone, nostalgic, far from home, but secure in the thought that God has been faithful and has always been with us in our journey. Hoping, as always, for a better future.
Copenhagen, Tuesday, 13 Nov 2018, 11:42pm.
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Back to the Beginning

I sat with some feeling of trepidation, exhilaration and excitement as the Ethiopian Airlines Boeing 737 took off from Delhi at the ungodly hour of 3:45am for Addis Ababa on Sunday. Already late by about an hour, we had been fuming with non-functioning AC for some time onboard when we finally took off. At least we will be away from the drudgery and routine of office life for a few days I comforted myself as I finished off the last of what was probably the worst airline meal I’ve ever had.

I looked out the window as we approached Addis Ababa, wishing we had some time to get out and explore the city often referred to as the political capital of Africa because of its historical, diplomatic and political significance. But we had just over an hour to catch our connecting flight. The chilly and gentle breeze that welcomed us as we emerged from the aircraft on to the tarmac to get on the bus that would take us to the terminal where we would catch our connecting flight for Maputo was a welcome relief from hot and humid Delhi.

And so, on a cold Sunday morning I found myself in Ethiopia, often called the original home of mankind due to various fossil discoveries like the Australopithecine Lucy, and once rule by Emperor Haile Selassie, revered as the returned Messiah of the Bible and God incarnate by Rastafarians and immortalized as the Lion of Judah in Bob Marley’s ‘Iron Lion Zion’.

All thoughts of Bob Marley and the Lion of Judah quickly dissipated by the time we reached the end of the interminably long queue leading to the security check-in inside Bole International Airport where we were thoroughly checked again and made to take off almost everything including our shoes. As we took off for Maputo on another Ethiopian Airlines Boeing 737, I looked down at the city engulfed in light mist with the Entoto Mountains in the north calmly and majestically watching over the city. I looked out the window till the city disappeared.

The 6 hours it took our aircraft to reach Maputo was one of the most uncomfortable flights I have been on, with cramped seats and lousy food but it brought us in one piece to our final destination. It was good to touch down in Mozambique again after more than 11 years. As I looked out the window, I saw that the small, cozy airport we flew out of in early 2005 had morphed into a big terminal with its own aerobridges and all the modern accoutrements one expects to see nowadays in any self-respecting international airport.

The cool, almost chilly, winter air of Maputo that welcomed us as we stepped off the plane was a welcome change from hot and humid Delhi and, by the time we came out after clearing immigration, all the discomforts of our flight were forgotten as we wrapped our jackets closer to keep out the chilly breeze. After some delay caused by some of our delegation members having forgotten to take the mandatory yellow fever vaccination for passengers transiting through Ethiopia which is in the yellow fever belt of Africa, we finally reached our hotel at around 4pm.

Apart from the modern airport that welcomed us, Maputo, where we spent almost 4 years from 2001 to 2005, felt almost the same as we drove towards our hotel. I hardly noticed anything new on the drive from the airport to Av. Kenneth Kaunda where the Indian High Commission is located. As we drove past the High Commission and down Rua Jose Craveirinha towards Southern Sun Hotel, located right on the beach, where we would be staying, my first sight of the beautiful Maputo Bay after more than 11 years made me realize that, yes, I was really here again. We drove past the new Radisson Blu, which had come up during my absence and soon reached our hotel which was just a stone’s throw away.

As soon as I learned that I would be going back to Maputo, my thought immediately turned to Av. Friedrich Engels, the back street behind the highrise apartment on Av. Julius Nyerere which was our home in Maputo and where I first started jogging all those years ago. I planned to retrace my steps, as it were, at the first opportunity. From previous, similar assignments, I thought there would be ample time in the mornings before the official part of our trip began later in the day. But, as it turned out, from the very day of our arrival there were so many meetings and arrangements to be made and loose ends tied up, I did not make it to my old jogging street till the morning of the day we were to return. I fumed and fretted for four days, unable to make time for my planned trip to the past. I did manage two trips to the hotel gym and half-heartedly went through the formalities on the treadmill, all the time thinking how near and yet so far was I to my dream run, just a few kilometers away.

I was up at 2am on D-day and, except for a minor hiccup, everything went off smoothly and I was able to finally crawl into bed, exhausted, before midnight. We were to leave the next day at 2pm which meant I had about 6 hours to complete my mission as well as try and tick off whatever items I could from the long shopping list thrust upon me by the powers-that-be the night of my departure from Delhi. So I set my alarm for 0530, aiming to start my run at 0600, and soon drifted off into a dreamless sleep.

The next thing I knew was my mobile alarm telling me it was time. I quickly awoke and, after dumping as much excess weight as I could from the scrumptious dinner the previous evening and freshening up, put on my jogging outfit. It was just before 0600 as I stepped out of my room, ready for my dream run. Though it was still dark outside, the hotel staff was already up and about readying for another day. I walked into the lobby, past a few guests checking out to catch their early morning flights to wherever they were headed next.

The chilly breeze that greeted me as I stepped out of the hotel reminded me that it was winter in this part of the world. I stepped onto the pavement and, finally having completed my official assignment the previous day and all tensions gone, began the run that I had been planning for the past two weeks. I put on my earphones and pressed play to my regular ‘jogging’ track on my ‘walkman’ and, turning right onto Av. Marginal, began my run. After about a hundred metres, I turned left on to Rua Jose Craveirinha, which is a gentle climb just opposite Radisson Blu, and soon reached the top where the road merged into Av. Julius Nyerere.

Despite the climb of about half a kilometer, I found myself breathing comfortably and, turning left on to Av. Julius Nyerere, continued on my usual pace to the rhythm of my regular jogging tracks on my walkman. To my left I glanced at Maputo Bay where dawn would soon break. To my right, I caught a glimpse of the High Commission where I spent an eventful three and a half years of my life. I crossed the street and, with the Presidential Office to my left, continued my run towards the historic Polana Hotel, our temporary HQ during my trip. I was surprised at the ease with which I continued my run and the thought came to my mind that perhaps it was because I was running at sea level where Oxygen would be at its maximum. Or perhaps it was all the anticipation that I had built up in my mind the week before my trip and the frustrating few days when I was unable to get time off for the run.

As I continued on my run towards Polana Hotel, some 2km away, memories of the many times I had walked on these same pavements more than 11 years ago came flooding back and, before I realized it, I found myself crossing the traffic juncture just before Polana. I crossed the street and continued past Polana and soon turned left onto Av. Friedrich Engels.

Finally, as I turned right on to Av. Friedrich Engels, I again saw the familiar street where I first dreamed of being able to run at least a kilometer without having to stop for breath. I stopped awhile and stood at the railings from where we would look out on to Maputo Bay and beyond, often telling ourselves that our loved ones were somewhere across the Indian Ocean thousands of miles away. Dawn was now breaking over the Bay lighting up the horizon and, as I looked at the deep blue sea, felt like I had never been away. I turned right and looked up at the 11th floor balcony of our old apartment where we would sometimes set up our barbeque on an evening and, with the cool breeze blowing in from the Bay, reminisce about old times, a can of chilled 2M or Laurentina in hand.

I shook off the flood of memories that threatened to overwhelm me and began my run afresh along the familiar pavement. With Maputo Bay to my left and the row of beautiful Portuguese-style bungalows and their well-manicured lawns to my right, I ran on till the end of Av. Friedrich Engels to the corner where I would turn back for home. The street was exactly like I remembered. From the row of trees that lined up one side of the street to a corner at the end of the street used as a natural dumping ground for empty plastic cups, beer and liquor bottles by late evening revelers and romancing couples, everything was the same. It seemed the trees hadn’t grown an inch since we left, and the content of the corner dumping ground showed that youngsters had continued their party even after we left.

I turned back at the corner and, instead of returning the way I had come, turned right at the beginning of Av. Friedrich Engels, on to Rua Caracol which is a steep road, about 500m, leading to Av. Marginal and the beach. As I ran down the steep road, I recalled the many times I had run up and down the very same road. I met quite a few early morning joggers running up the steep road. Most of them greeted me with ‘Bom Dia’ (Good Morning) as we passed and I recalled with nostalgia the pleasure of being in polite society where even strangers wish you as you pass by on the streets.

I soon reached Av. Marginal and crossed the road to continue my run on the pavement next to the beach. I turned left, across from the Clube Naval de Maputo and headed for my hotel up the road about a kilometer or two ahead. As I passed by a stretch close to the beach I recalled the one time we had gone down to the beach at that very same spot when the tide was low, picking clams and even some small prawns which tasted quite good. As I ran on, I reached a spot where we once came across a live puffer fish that must have been washed ashore by the high tide, wriggling in the sand. I ran on and all sorts of memories which I had forgotten came rushing in and I realized that I was really reliving my memories.

As I neared our hotel, I turned right on to the beach and continued till I reached the portion of the beach maintained by our hotel. I ran on the beach a little past our hotel till all the songs in my ‘jogging’ folder ran out. Despite the early morning winter chill, I was drenched with sweat by the time I stopped to walk across the beach to my hotel.

That’s when I realized that I had just run one of the best runs of my life. Because it was a run which brought me back to the beginning.

11 July 2016

(Written on return from an official trip to Maputo 3-8 July 2016)

Memories

Somewhere in the middle of the 500+ songs in one of my pendrives, which I listen to on my daily commute to and from office, is a folder named ‘oldies’ which contains favourites mostly from the 60s. It’s one of those folders I rarely listen to mainly because my cheap Chinese-made car mp3 player does not give me the option to select/choose and play from different folders. Once I plug in the pendrive, the songs automatically start playing from the beginning. The only way I can select a song is to keep on clicking the forward button till I get to the song. Which is why I rarely listen to the ‘oldies’ because they are somewhere in the middle of the pendrive which means I have to click more than 200 times to get to them in the first place.

This morning, with several heads of state from Pacific countries in town and traffic slower than usual, the smooth golden voice of Engelbert Humperdinck from my ‘oldies’ folder telling the world ‘there goes my only possession…’ suddenly filled my car as traffic crawled slowly opposite Maurya on SP Marg.

Humperdinck gave way to Dean Martin’s ‘Blue Spanish Eyes’, followed by Tom Jones’ ‘Green Green Grass of Home’ and I suddenly found myself back in the early 70s, in Mission Compound aka Old Churachand. In my mind’s eyes I saw grandpa HL Sela, white-haired but looking fresh and spry, his signature hnang lukhum (bamboo hat) on, smartly dressed as always, with pipi at his side, as always, walking home from early morning prayers in church. I pictured myself sitting in the big living room where my putes (maternal uncles) kept their most precious ‘record player’ with their collection of the latest Neil Diamond, Humperdinck, Tom Jones, Jim Reeves, CCR as well as various Gospel LPs neatly stacked on the side.

One by one, I saw my putes’ faces from long ago. Pute Rayson, Pute William, Pu Lien, even Pu Royal (just back home on retirement from the Army). I saw Pu Zalal’s ever smiling face from long ago, before he joined the Army as a chaplain.

I clearly felt Pi Kim hugging me as I waved to my parents and brothers leaving me for a month-long trip to thingtlang. I still have no idea why I did not go with them on that trip but I still recall, as if it was yesterday, the extra care all my putes took to make me feel at home that month.

With Tom Jones singing of how they laid him ‘neath the green, green grass of home’ I felt myself transported back to a time when time hardly mattered and life and love and a bright future seemed to be there for the taking. I was young again.

All too soon I found myself rolling down the parking ramp in office, looking for space to park my car. I sat for some time in my car, unwilling to let the feelings go and return to reality. Listening to nostalgia.

Then, suddenly, I saw mom, young, beautiful, smiling, waiting for me as I walked home from school.

That’s when the tears came……

I know, I know. Another post on running. For those who don’t get it, this must be extremely boring and narcissistic. But those who get it and, like me, have been bitten by the bug, will understand that this is a post that just had to be written. Because it’s like the mountaineer who replied when asked why he climbed mountains: “Because, it’s there”. When you see an announcement for a 10K run in your own locality, there’s no way you are going to pass that up. Especially when it’s for free and you’d have been more than happy to pay to run. That’s what happened when Red River Runners announced their annual ‘Turn Up And Run’ a few weeks back……. 😉

When I woke up on Saturday (22 Feb), I already knew how I’d start my next post: ‘Finally! 10K in less than an hour!’ I was going to run my seventh 10K later in the afternoon and my dream was to do it in less than an hour.

I ran my first 10K in 2010 at the Tokyo Marathon (https://ruolngulworld.wordpress.com/2010/03/03/a-dream-realised/) in an hour and seven minutes. It was the first time I had ever run more than 5km at a stretch in my life. A good friend even told me, ‘John, at our age, running would do more harm than good – a good, brisk walk is all that we should be aiming for’ – or words to that effect.

But I’d been dreaming since I first started jogging (or trying to) back in Mozambique and, despite my better half’s sincere advice to the contrary (for fear that I was attempting something I probably would never be able to achieve – words to the effect that I might drop dead from exhaustion might have been said – the word ‘might’ here is important 😉 ), I applied and was accepted for my first Tokyo Marathon. And so, a dream was realized, and I was hooked. I ran the next Tokyo Marathon (10K) in 2011 clocking an hour and four minutes which made me dream of an under one hour 10K. We then shifted to Hanoi and the first thing I did was sign up for the Song Hong Half Marathon which also had a 10K component where I thought I’d finally realize my dream. I managed an hour and eight minutes that year but the dream remained. I managed an hour and six minutes in 2012 which was two minutes off my personal best but my dream remained. Then, last year, I barely managed an hour and ten minutes – my worst timing yet, which made me realize that, perhaps, having met Abraham (https://ruolngulworld.wordpress.com/2012/08/12/meeting-abraham-2/), a sub-hour 10k was now beyond me.

But I continued to dream because, after all, ‘dreams die hard’. Which is how I found myself at the starting line of my seventh 10K on a cold, drizzly afternoon last Saturday – lining up with 70 or so fellow enthusiasts, thinking to myself that here was another chance to realize my dream.

The race began with a lot of adrenalin, as usual, and I managed the first 1K somewhere in the middle of the pack before others began to slowly overtake me. I managed to make it to the halfway mark in a little less than half an hour which kept my dream alive. Though I knew I had to do considerably better if I wanted to really realize my dream, because the second leg of the race is always the most difficult part where it really becomes ‘mind over matter’ as your body tells you to just stop, walk for a while, take it easy (‘you’re just an old guy – nobody really cares whether you finish the race or not’…), I glanced back and, realizing that there were other runners also struggling behind me, pushed on. I suppressed the urge to stop and walk a bit, telling myself that my wife would be somewhere at the 6-7km mark waiting to take photographs. I told myself that, if I had to stop and walk, it would only be after I had majestically run into her frame and continued to do so till I was reasonable sure that I had passed beyond her sights. And so, I ran on, and even passed a fellow runner as I sighted my wife lining up her shots, even managing to give her a few thumbs-ups and ‘V’ signs.

I pushed on, carried by the momentum and the realization that I was still not the last and there were quite a few runners still behind me. The moment I crossed the 8km mark and glanced at my watch was when I realized that my dream was again slipping away from me. Which realization triggered my brain (yes, blame my brain!) to decelerate my muscles and make me slow down to a walk as I neared UNIS with barely a km left. My only comfort at that stage was the knowledge that there were still a few stragglers behind me and I would, at least, not be the last. I somehow summoned up the strength to run the last km and, cheered on by fellow runners who had obviously finished long back and were walking back from the finish line to Jafa Restaurant for some well-deserved beers and cheers, crossed the finish line in an hour and nine minutes.

Though my dream of a sub-hour 10K remained unrealized, the exhilaration of finishing another race hit me as I crossed the finish line. I waited for the remaining five (five!) runners behind me to finish before walking towards my car to go home for some well-deserved rest. I took off my sweat-drenched t-shirt, letting the cool chilly breeze cool me.

Along the way, I took off my shoes and walked barefoot to my car, my t-shirt draped across my shoulder, sipping a bottle of cold Gatorade bought from the corner shop, feeling, if only for a moment, as cool and athletic as any Olympic athlete 🙂 

And the dream remains…..

After two weeks away on holiday in Cambodia, we were supposed to be back in Hanoi by 9pm after a two hour flight by the Vietjet flight from Ho Chi Minh City, but we ultimately landed at 11:25pm after a number of changes in our flight timing – the last of which was on Boxing Day, just a day before our scheduled flight home from Ho Chi Minh City, which our travel agent informed while we were still in Phnom Penh. After the half hour it took to collect our considerably heavy baggage (compared to when we left for our Christmas holiday), it was well past midnight by the time we reached home.

After a quick bath and a light meal of instant noodles, I went out to our balcony and, looking out from our 15th floor apartment, drank in the fresh and chilly air of Hanoi which, coupled with seasonal decorative lights still twinkling below, made it seem like Christmas was still around the corner. After two weeks basking in the warm weather and warmer company of friends in Cambodia, the cold air and familiar sight of the golf course to my right along with the ever-busy airport road in the distance still filled with considerable traffic rushing late night passengers to and from the airport made me realize that we were back home after a most fulfilling and memorable family holiday.

And, just like that, a two-week Christmas holiday we had planned for almost a year became a memory. Like a good dream from which you never want to wake up, but eventually must.Image

…..leaving on a jet plane. On the flight from Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh City

I had booked our seats more than three months in advance not only to avail of the cheapest fares available but also to ensure that, by paying the full, non-refundable price for the air tickets, we were committed to a real family holiday. When I booked and confirmed our tickets, we were to leave Hanoi on 17 December by 7am and be in Ho Chi Minh City by 9am, which would give us two full days to see the sights before we caught the bus for Phnom Penh two days later, on 19 December. The only hitch at that stage was whether we’d be able to wake up early enough to catch the flight but the flight timing kept on changing and, when the day arrived, we left at 5pm and reached Ho Chi Minh City after dark, at 7pm – a whole day wasted, giving us just a day to explore and see the sights.

Ho Chi Minh City

17 Dec 2013

From chilly Hanoi, we arrived in Tan Son Nhat International airport at 7pm and breathed in the comfortably warm weather of HCM City for the first time. Mr. Chanh, the Consulate driver, was waiting for us as we walked out of the arrival lounge. He, of course, id not see us walking out with the other passengers. Expecting an Indian family, he looked past us as we trooped out with our baggage. A dignified looking man, probably in his 50s but looking much younger like all Vietnamese, I spotted him almost immediately as we walked out. As we were about to pass him, I took out my phone and called his number and I saw him reach into his pocket to take out his phone, looking past us into the mass of passengers exiting, still looking for Indian faces.

I tapped him on the shoulder from behind and watched as it took a few seconds for him to realize that the Viet Kieu-looking family that just walked past him was actually the Indian family for whom he’d probably missed a good family dinner to rush to the airport. Introductions duly made and doubts cleared that we were actually the people he’d been asked to pick up from the airport, we quickly put our bags into his Mercedes and drove into HCM City and so, finally, began the family holiday that we had so looked forward to.

Unlike Noi Bai airport in Hanoi which is 28kms from the city centre, Tan Son Nhat airport is within the city itself and, as we drove out of the airport, we joined the early evening traffic of this bustling, lively and impressive city still affectionately called Saigon by many of its residents and expats. After driving about 20 minutes through well-lit streets full of festive and blinking decorations and signs wishing us Merry Christmas, we reached the residence of our colleague Manoj Kumar, Consul and Head of Chancery at the Indian Consulate, where dinner was waiting for us. Despite our protests that our good friend Lucy had already prepared and kept dinner for us, we sat down for a nice dinner prepared by his wife Rosy. By the time we reached Lucy’s apartment in District 7, where we would be staying for two nights, it was past 10pm. We huffed and puffed our way up five flights of stairs, carrying our baggage, cursing the absence of a lift all the way

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Morning, 18 Dec 2013. View from Lucy Pautu’s apartment

Cu Chi Tunnels

18 Dec 2013

We asked the Consulate-arranged Innova to pick us up at 8am as we had just a day to see the sights but, as it turned out, we just about managed to leave at around 9am. After a few more precious minutes wasted debating on our itinerary, we finally agreed on starting with Cu Chi Tunnels, about two hours’ drive from Lucy’s place.

We duly reached Cu Chi Tunnels at around 11am. Located in Cu Chi district of HCM City, the tunnels are an immense network of connecting underground tunnels 121 km long and the Viet Cong’s base of operations for the Tet Offensive of 1968 as well as several other military campaigns during the Vietnam War and have been preserved as a war park and the main tourist attraction of HCM City. We duly did the touristy round of the place, sneaking into many of the tourist groups and listening to their tour guides as they went on and on about the history and significance of the tunnels. Andrew and I even entered into one of the tunnels. The ten minutes or so we crawled around the tunnels which had been widened enough to allow the mainly western tourists to comfortably crawl around, searching for the nearest exit, was enough to give us an idea of what the Viet Cong must have gone through during their years-long struggle to finally defeat the Americans. One has to just crawl through one tunnel to realize the truth in the report that ‘Sickness was rampant among the people living in the tunnels, especially malaria, which was the second largest cause of death next to battle wounds. A captured Viet Cong report suggests that at any given time half of them had malaria and that “one-hundred percent had intestinal parasites of significance’.Image

Inside one of the tunnels in Cu Chi

All through our tour, the one constant sound we heard was the sound of gunfire – the rat-a-tat of machine guns as well as single rifle shots. At one stage I thought that they were some kind of sound effect from hidden speakers to make our experience of the tunnels more realistic until I realized that it was actual gunfire which came from somewhere ahead. As we continued our tour, we suddenly came upon a clearing where the sign read ‘National Defence Sports Shooting Range’ and we saw a line of wannabe soldiers lined up in front of a counter below a signboard which listed, among other weapons, AK-47, AK-52, M-16 rifles and all sorts of machine guns which could be fired at prices ranging from VND 35,000 to 50,000 (US$ 1.50 to 2.50) per bullet (minimum of 10 bullets). From the long line that sneaked from the counters to the constant sound of gunfire coming from the firing range just a few steps away, one could immediately make out that the Vietnamese Army or whoever had stumbled upon the idea had come out with a brilliant idea for minting money by catering to one of man’s basic instincts.Image

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Andrew and Esther in front of the Museum (no idea how this photo came up here, should’ve been down there 😉 

And, almost by instinct, Andrew and I found ourselves lining up in front of the desk as we mentally ticked off which weapon to choose. And that’s how I found myself cradling the AK-47 of legend and shooting off live rounds one after another at a target in the distance. Whether I hit the bull’s-eye or not, I’ll never know, but I can now say that I’ve held a real killing weapon and fired live rounds from it. It was only later on that the creepy thought hit me whether the AK-47 that I held in my arms (which looked well-used) had actually been used to kill people.

Though we had planned on a quick tour of not more than half an hour as we had only that day to see the sights in HCM City, we still spent an entire hour there even though we skipped entire portions of the regular tour. Back in the city, we had a quick lunch at the first KFC we came across before driving around downtown HCM City, past the Reunification Palace and well-maintained parks, and stopping at the Notre Dame Cathedral, a beautiful cathedral with two bell towers, reaching a height of 58m, built by the French during 1863-1880

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Notre Dame Cathedral with my girlsImage

Feeling truly touristy by now, we decided to visit a Museum next and our driver immediately suggested the War Remnants Museum, said to be one of the main attractions in HCM City. But, already having been to the War Museum in Hanoi a couple of times and having just come from Cu Chi Tunnels, another memorial to war, we told the driver to take us to the National Museum, or any museum which had more to do with the culture and people of Vietnam.

We tried our best to explain to the driver but our best efforts ended up lost in translation and, in the end, we landed up at a museum dedicated to the southern campaign of the Vietnam/American War. Since all signboards in Vietnam are in Vietnamese (naturally), and still thinking that we were walking into the National Museum, I was surprised at the absence of any sort of crowd at the ticket counter. In fact we were the only visitors till, halfway through our tour of the museum, a lone European guy came walking in, looking slightly bemused and bewildered. I suspect he also thought he was walking into the War Remnants Museum as there were the usual US jetfighters, tanks and other wreckage greeting visitors near the main entrance gate. Since we were there (and the entrance tickets were non-refundable), we dutifully made a quick round of the museum and, deciding that we had had enough cultural education for the day, headed for the nearest shopping mall.

Our driver dutifully dropped us at Saigon Square as the girls were ostensibly looking for boots which turned out to be a rare commodity in hot Saigon. Of course, that didn’t stop them from looking for the boots anyway as they checked out each and every other item on sale in the hundred or so shops in the mall. I, of course, was long gone by then, walking up Le Loi street to the Opera House, camera in hand, taking in the sights of downtown HCM City, which looked as prosperous and glitzy as downtown Singapore or Tokyo with its highrise buildings and many designer stores and five-star hotels.Image

Opera House, Ho Chi Minh CityImage

Lovely park in downtown HCM City

Having been out since morning and having covered quite a lot of ground from Cu Chi Tunnels to some of the main sights and having somewhat satiated the shopping urge, we decided to call it a day and headed for Lucy’s apartment to rest for an hour or so before venturing out again for dinner onboard one of the floating restaurants that ply the Saigon river.

The Saigon River Cruise is one of the main tourist attractions of HCM City where ‘floating restaurants’ which are actually double-decker boats capable of seating upto a hundred diners or more take you on a leisurely one-hour cruise of the Saigon river with live music on board. A cool gentle breeze was blowing as we reached the dock at around 7:45pm and saw a line of brightly lit boats waiting for customers. We boarded the nearest boat and were ushered on to the upper deck where we saw a rather garishly-dressed lady and a gentleman in white suit, both of indeterminate age, checking the microphone while another guy sat behind a console fiddling with their sound system. Looking at our ‘band’ for the evening, we sat ourselves at a table near the steps which led down to the lower deck, on the port side, as far away as possible from the stage.Image

On board the ‘My Canh’ floating restaurant on our Saigon River Cruise

As we settled in and pored over the menu trying to decide on what to order, the afore-mentioned lady took to the stage and started belting out what we presumed were Vietnamese classics, soon followed by the gentleman in white as they took turns singing to soundtracks being played by the guy behind the console. Suffice it to say that, as far as we were concerned, the evening would have been much more enjoyable and memorable without the ‘band’.Image

Saigon skyline from the CruiseImage

Fried frog meat, anyone?

Feeling adventurous, we decided to order frog meat, fried, which was the first time for all of us, along with the usual Vietnamese dishes. Soon enough, as the waiters brought the dishes we ordered, our boat left the dock and we began our cruise on the river Saigon, dining on frog meat and other Vietnamese delicacies. We spent the next hour cruising the Saigon river, admiring the well-lit and impressive Saigon skyline. By the time we came back and walked down the gangway to our waiting car, it was almost 10 and the cool early evening breeze had become decidedly cold. We reached Lucy’s apartment well after 10 and, setting our alarms for an early morning wake-up to catch our 8am bus for Phnom Penh, turned in for the night.

Though Mr. Chanh turned up with the Consulate car by 7am the next morning, and we had planned to make it to the bus stop well in time, we barely made it with about five minutes to spare. But we did make it and were soon on our way to Phnom Penh, seven hours away.

Phnom Penh

19 Dec 2013

After driving for what seemed like hours through HCM City and its suburbs, we finally left the city behind and reached the Moc Bai border crossing at around 11am. We all got off the bus and, after completing the immigration formalities which was surprisingly fast and smooth, made our way to our bus which had also crossed the border into Mavet, Cambodia while we were completing our entry procedures.

Image

Typical Khmer architecture – immigration check point at Bavet, Cambodia

As we crossed the Customs/Border gates into Cambodia, we almost immediately came upon glitzy Casino-hotels on both sides of the road with names like Las Vegas Sun, Golden Palm, Goodluck 9. There are more than 30 casinos on the Cambodian side of the border, catering mainly to Vietnamese gamblers from the southwestern provinces including HCM City. Everyday thousands of Vietnamese go to Cambodia to gamble in these casinos and many of them are said to have gambled away their houses and assets. A number of media reports have appeared about gamblers being held hostage by lenders at these casinos who have had their fingers and ears cut to be sent to their families in Vietnam to force them to bring money to Cambodia for redemption. After another 10 minutes’ drive the bus stopped at a restaurant run by the same bus company where we had lunch and freshened up to ready ourselves for the remaining 3-4 hours’ drive to Phnom Penh.

After over an hour’s drive through a countryside dotted with the occasional village and town and rice fields on both sides of the highway, we reached Neak Leung where we crossed the mighty Mekong river on a ferry. I was pleasantly surprised at the efficient manner in which we crossed the Mekong river on the ferry which could take at least 4-5 big buses/trucks as well as smaller cars and other vehicles. It took hardly 5-10 minutes from the time our bus drove up to the ferry crossing to line up with other vehicles, wait for the vehicles on the incoming ferry to exit and then for us to drive onto the ferry. We sat in the bus and watched fascinated as the ferry came slowly onto the dock, disgorged its load in a few minutes, clearing the way for our bus as well as a big truck and several SUVs and cars to drive onto the gangway and into the ferry.

We didn’t even have to get off the bus and from out comfortable seats watched the majestic Mekong flow by, as it has done for centuries, as the ferry made its way to the other side. The crossing took about 15 minutes and, without so much as even a short stop on exiting from the ferry, we continued on our way to Phnom Penh, some 60-70 km away.

Soon, after about an hour, we reached the suburbs of Phnom Penh. The number of tuk-tuks and two-wheelers increased proportionately as we neared the city centre and, coupled with ongoing road construction work almost every few hundred metres, our bus slowed down to a crawl and it took us almost an hour to reach the bus stop. Taxis are conspicuous by their absence in Phnom Penh and, in the absence of a proper public transport system, its denizens depend on tuk-tuks, a cleverly constructed two-wheeled four-seater trailer pulled by a two-wheeler/bike, something akin to the autorickshaw in India or the ‘phut-phuts’ that used to take us from Connaught Place to Chandni Chowk/Red Fort when we first came to Delhi all those years ago.Image

On a tuk-tuk in Siem Reap

As soon as we got off the bus at around 2:30pm and claimed our luggage, we were surrounded by tuk-tuk drivers. But they were not as aggressive and obnoxious as the taxi drivers in Delhi fighting with other drivers for fares. In any case, our good friend Yesudas Bell, a former diplomat and owner of Futurelinks, a business consulting firm based in Singapore with rep offices in several SE Asian capitals including Hanoi and Phnom Penh, had kindly arranged for his office to provide us a vehicle to pick us up. Rajshekhar, the Futurelinks rep in Phnom Penh, with whom I had been in phone contact from the time we left HCM City, was waiting for us with their office SUV and we were soon on our way to my cousin Dinpui’s house in Bassac Garden City, one of the exclusive gated communities that have come up in Phnom Penh in recent times. Image

Off to shop, soon after our arrival (poimaw full thrak 😉

(to be continued)

(8 Jan 2013, Hanoi)

Memories

‘These are the dreams we must savor…..memories are made of these’

Over the years we’ve collected thousands of photographs – ‘real’ photographs, that is. The type we used to get printed and then save in photo albums (remember those?) to be savored and passed around for a few days before being dumped in some corner. Forgotten until, in our case, we stumble upon them when we have to pack and move again. It’s been quite a few years since we too ‘digitalized’ our memories which made for easier storage but in many ways they will never replace ‘real’ photos nicely arranged in albums which you can touch and feel.

Perhaps it was the fact that our thoughts and memories always turn back to family and friends back home on special occasions like this Good Friday and Easter weekend that made us rummage through our garbage storeroom to find the carton (weighing 15 kgs – yes, I weighed it :)) where we keep all our photographs and albums. And so, my wife and I spent this Easter weekend refreshing memories and contemplating the more than two decades we’ve spent together, digitalizing our past contained in the photographs the only way we know how – photographing the photos and saving them on to our computer.

With our Silver Jubilee coming up next year, it made me think of the life journey that we’ve been through. With God’s Grace, we’ve had a blessed and wonderful life. We’ve had our ups and our downs but God has guided us this far and I know He will continue to be there throughout the rest of our journey.

It has been an exciting and exhilarating journey which I will be sharing through some of the photos that we saved this weekend. If I can upload them properly, that is 🙂

So here goes……

Isn't she lovely....

Isn’t she lovely….

Sorry, maybe it’s me, maybe it’s the internet, I don’t know, but after trying for the past half an hour, I’ve only managed this one photo with ‘error’ messages coming up for all the other images. But since I’ve come this far, I’ll post it anyway and try to upload more images later.

Or, maybe, this is WordPress telling me ‘Enough already. With a bombshell like that why do you need to upload more?’ 🙂

As promised, here are more photos:

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on 'honeymoon' - the day after

on ‘honeymoon’ – the day after

Andrew - Morocco 1990

Andrew – Morocco 1990

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Esther – Delhi 1994

Andrew & Esther 0- at home in Milan

Andrew & Esther 0- at home in Milan

Family trip to Venice
Family trip to Venice

Andrew & Esther in Vatican - St. Peter's Square

Andrew & Esther in Vatican – St. Peter’s Square

In front of Duomo, Milano

In front of Duomo, Milano

Andrew's 2nd birthday - Morocco

Andrew’s 2nd birthday – Morocco

Casablanca - 1992 Berber tribesmen

Casablanca – 1992 Berber tribesmen

Leaning Tower of Pisa

Leaning Tower of Pisa

Maputo, Mozambique

Maputo, Mozambique

Nelspruit, South Africa

Nelspruit, South Africa

Big shoes in Swaziland

Big shoes in Swaziland

Young man in Milan

Young man in Milan

Young lady in traditional dress

Young lady in traditional dress

Dubai

Dubai

Adeus Mozambique - Maputo airport

Adeus Mozambique – Maputo airport

Bologna, Italia

Bologna, Italia

Finally (for now) - that happy day in June 1989

Finally (for now) – that happy day in June 1989

 

 

Keep On Running

I have been running, whenever I can, depending on the time and place, for a little over 10 years now. It is perhaps the only good habit I’ve developed over the years.  I love running, or more precisely, jogging. A blog I recently read (here) pretty much describes the feeling, though I would have put it a little differently 😉

It has become so much a part of my normal routine that I feel lost and incomplete on days when, because of work or some other reason, I am unable to go for my daily jog. When I first started, I would get up early and jog in the morning before going to office.  But now, I find it easier and more relaxing to jog in the evening, after office. I also recently realized that this a more efficient use of time because, once I reach home from office in the evening, there is always a gap of an hour or so before dinner during which, if I don’t go jog, I would just be lazing around watching TV or wasting even more time on the internet, plus, I get a few more hours of sleep in the morning. I now jog only occasionally in the morning on weekends, when the mind is more relaxed, knowing that the whole day is yours.

Another thing I love about running is being able to actually participate in actual races. I am extremely proud to say that I have participated in six (six!!) real, organized, races. Proud, because I have never ever been the sporty type, and to be able to actually race with younger and fitter guys than me at this age is a huge thing for me. I started with the Tokyo Marathon in 2010 (a dream realised) and 2011. Then we moved to Vietnam and I have since participated in the Song Hong Half Marathon 2011 and 2012 as well as the Hanoi Moi Run 2011 and 2012. No, I did not win any of those races. But I managed to finish in all, and not in last either 😉

My daily route takes me from P2 Tower, our apartment building in Ciputra, to the roundabout near the Post Office/E4/E5 Towers, and back, a distance of about 4 km. To put this into perspective for friends back home, let me just say that the distance from Sielmat ‘field’ to Muolvaiphei ‘field’ is just over 2.2 km and Sielmat to Saidan just over 3.3 km and, in Delhi, Priya Cinema to Sector 3, RK Puram (Pu Vunga’s residence) almost exactly 3 km. 😉

The first 2-3 minutes are to die for, as you feel the wind against your face and your feet start to get into their rhythm, and you feel energized and the day’s troubles and worries fade away as you start to concentrate on the run ahead. The next 4-5 minutes are always the hardest when the physical exertion hits you and you start getting a little out of breath. Then, before you know it, you are into your rhythm and almost before you know it you are past the halfway mark and heading back home.

After ‘meeting Abraham’ (meeting abraham-2) and just before the Song Hong Half Marathon last December, I had more or less decided to ‘retire’ from running. The recurrent thought that passed through my mind at that stage was that I had, through God’s grace, been able to actually fulfill my dream of participating in several actual races and, having now crossed 50 years, I should now concentrate more on walking or cycling, at the most. It was actually in that frame of mind that I took part in the race. I even became a little nostalgic, thinking that this would be my last actual race/competition.

But the next day saw me more than eager to continue my ‘run’ and now, after more than a month since the race, except for about 2 weeks in the New Year when I simply didn’t have the time because of work; I am happily back into my daily (or at least 5 days a week) runs. And thinking of this year’s Hanoi Moi Run and Song Hong Half Marathon. 

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