Tram-ed in Amsterdam!

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On the night before my flight, the nerves kicked in hard enough for me to question my decision. The conference was over and I was supposed to head to Amsterdam with Pearl on the next morning.

Was I ready to take this trip without having my parents around? I am not particularly the kind of person who scares easy; or so I told myself until this trip.

Who plans a trip to Europe one day before the flight is scheduled to leave?

Knowing that I at least have a friend who’ll be my company for the next 3 days helped a lot.

I woke up early on the big day, made sure I’d not left anything behind in the hotel room, had the last breakfast with my office folks, and got into the cab which would take us to the Frankfurt airport. We were to take a train ride to Amsterdam because we were running on a tight budget due to the trip being a total last moment plan. I should also mention that we had to choose the option of changing 5 trains along the course of a 6-hour long journey. Although the option of taking a direct 3-hour long train journey was available, we decided against it because of a bunch of reasons.

Talk about cost saving!

But then travelling by the Eurail is an experience in itself, and I grabbed it option with both my hands.

I still had three hours until we took our first train and the thoughts in my head were not being my friend. Unlike a lot of people I know, I hadn’t travelled much as a kid with my family. My folks are not much into exploring new places and all that jazz. So this trip was overwhelming for me. I was getting to a point where I started calculating how much a last-minute flight back to Bombay would cost me.

Shuddering at the frightening cost, I decided to stop thinking. 

I tend to overthink a lot, and honestly, all that overthinking hasn’t really turned me into the best decision-maker yet. So why bother, I thought to myself.

On reaching the airport, we discovered that we were at the wrong place.

Our first train was supposed to leave from Frankfurt (Main) Hauptbahnhof and due to some confusion, we reached the Frankfurt Airport instead. That was, luckily, only a 15-minute train ride away. We took around 30 minutes or so to figure how to buy a train ticket before we finally got onto the train.

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I’ve always been one of those people who stay composed when uncertainty strikes. But being lost at a crazy, crowded airport in an unknown country made me lose my control and panic.

We finally managed to reach Frankfurt (Main) Hbf. But that was still not the beginning of our train-ride-saga.

We’ve checked the indicator, our train is in our sight, we’re getting our tickets out of our bags, and we realize we don’t have our train tickets with us.

Perfect!

So here’s what happened – we printed a copy of the document we got on email on booking our tickets, which, unfortunately, was not the actual ticket; it was just a confirmation. The attachment that came along with that email was the real deal. Now, the email clearly mentioned that carrying a hard copy of the ticket was mandatory. Both Pearl and I freaked out. For some reason, Pearl thought that she should go around and look around the station for a place from where we could get a printout.

I really couldn’t understand why would she think of doing that. Did she assume that Frankfurt (Main) Hbf was like Andheri station with print and photocopy centres lining the streets around it?

But I stopped myself from stopping her because she was genuinely trying while I had almost given up in my head. After exploring the very few options that we had, we did not manage to find any solution.

I was considering faking an illness if in case the TC came asking for our ticket copy; because pulling an Aishwarya-Ajay Devgan from Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam would be too weird for two girls, nahi?

An old and a very polite German couple helped us with some basic knowledge about travelling by Eurail. The kind man told us that they had been to India a few years ago and that he’d learnt the only single Hindi sentence he knows in Agra, which he shared with me and Pearl as a piece of advice.

The train journey was one hell of a ride! We had to run from one platform to the other, at times in as short as a 3-minute period, with one bag on our shoulders, and one dragging along behind us. 

I have always had trouble asking for help. I believe that I can do whatever it is that I need to do if I manage to give it an extra try after I have reached my breaking point. So, I refused to ask for help when I was carrying a suitcase that weighed 22 kilos up along the stairs to get onto the platform.

It so turned out that people there, and these were strangers mind you, were always willing to help even if I didn’t ask for it.

Just like everyone else, I too was conditioned to believe that white people, by default, feel prejudice towards brown-skinned people. Surprisingly, I was amazed to see how nobody really cared about that!

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This very eventful, yet a very tiring train journey, ended with us calling it a night after hogging on a defrosted and reheated pizza, and a (really bad) glass of rum at our hostel. Our very friendly receptionist, Simon – an ex-casino worker from Paris turned into a receptionist in Amsterdam, made sure that we were comfortable in the hostel, gave us a free box of Pringles when no one was looking, and some free advice on sightseeing in Amsterdam; all thanks to Pearl’s socializing skills!

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We began our first morning in Amsterdam with a bang. Literally.

The bang came on the left side of my forehead, from a moving tram.

I’m too used to Mumbai locals announcing their arrival at the platform with a deafening noise. As opposed to that, this tram was so silent that I did not realize that it was approaching the platform while I casually stepped RIGHT. ON. THE. TRACK.

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The last thing I remember before getting hit on my head and falling back on the platform was Pearl’s cry – ‘NEHAAAAA’, which sounded very similar to how Tulsi Virani screamed ‘MIHIIIIIRRRRR’ on seeing his dead body (during his first death).

The tram driver yelled at me for not being attentive while the thud was still ringing loud and clear in my ears, recovering from the trauma, attempting to stand up, and trying really hard to not laugh. He said he was going to take me to the hospital and only agreed to let me go when I pleaded in front of him to leave me alone.

I don’t think I could’ve given Pearl a better start to the trip!

The rest of the trip was a splendid example of teamwork.

I went to the Heineken brewery with Pearl because she really wanted to see that place.

Pearl accompanied me to the Van Gogh museum, even though she had no clue about who this person was, only because I was dying to go there. It’s a different story that Pearl coolly waited in the lobby and made her credit card payments while I got too emotional and sobbed silently after I’d gone through Van Gogh’s entire life put on display there.

I agreed to walk inside one of those “coffee shops” to ask for “stuff” (which we eventually didn’t try because we didn’t know how to ask for it) only because Pearl said, “Chal, let’s do this!”.

And Pearl agreed to have a Butter Chicken meal in Amsterdam (#sorrynotsorry) only because I was craving for Indian food after an entire week of eating bland European steaks. Yes, I’m very Indian that way!

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This trip was crazy – that’s the long and short of it.

I had a very petite girl help me with carrying my bag up along the stairs.

I had an old gentleman help me get my humongous bag inside the train after watching me struggle when the train was just about to leave.

I received genuine smiles from strangers at the metro and railway stations.

We got picked to be photographed from a crowd of at least a 100 people waiting in the queue right outside the Heineken brewery.

We shared our room with 3 unknown people and got along well enough to click a selfie and appreciate the moment.

The Westerners are very helpful and considerate, unlike what we’re taught to believe by the “cultured” gurus and demigods in India.

We both managed to successfully complete this trip without letting any of those mishaps ruin our moods. No matter how hungry we got, we would gladly survive on hot dogs and burgers without complaining, because…well…budget!

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Oh, did I mention that I also managed to faint on our flight back home? And that the air hostess thought that I was sleeping while I was in fact, unconscious the whole time? 

Yep. I did manage to end the trip with a bang as well.

This trip was a learning experience in so many ways! We learnt how to ask for help, how to navigate in an unknown land, how to look after your travel companion and make adjustments for them.

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But the lesson that has stayed with me was the one that that old German gentleman had shared with us on the train –

Shaadi mat karna

Word! Haha.

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…and we’re ready for take-off!

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8 out of every 10 middle-class people dream of taking at least one trip to Europe in their life either because:

  1. They are DDLJ fans, or
  2. That’s one of the three foreign places they know of (the other two being US and Canada, of course)

I’ve never watched DDLJ and neither am I geographically challenged that way, but as my luck would have it, a Europe trip happened to me in 2017.

It’d only been a few minutes since the flight took off and I was trying a little too hard to exhale with my nose and mouth closed, in my attempts to relieve my blocked ears. An entire week was lying ahead of me before I could sleep in my own bed and enjoy a shameless number of servings of ghar ka khaana (home-cooked food). I was already feeling homesick when I suddenly heard the clinking of steel tiffins followed by the smell of thepla!

It doesn’t matter whether we’re sitting inside a tin box that has wings, flying hundreds of feet above ground-level, and are heading ~7000 km away from India; it’s absolutely normal for any middle-class Indian to carry their own dabba (tiffin) wherever they go, all right?

Since this was a work trip, I never really got any time to absorb the fact that I was being sent to Germany for a conference. There was no time to rave about it in front of my friends amidst the neverending number of tasks that needed to be taken care of before I left. Fortunately enough, I had an enthusiastic (then) colleague (and now a close friend), Pearl, to get me to extend this trip by a few days after the conference was over, and proceed to explore Amsterdam. I think I agreed to her plan without thinking even for a second, and this happened to be one of the best decisions I’ve ever made!

The night before the big day was a mess.

I think I’m a good packer in a way that I never forget to carry any of my essentials. The only drawback is that I’m one of the heaviest packers in the history of packers!

I have a different kind of FOMO – the fear of missing out on carrying things that others may need and I may not be able to help them with when that happens.

So I packed, and repacked, and then packed some more items.

I’m not very used to having my parents help me out with stuff that I can manage by myself. I am quite self-reliant that way, or at least, I’d like to think that I am. So, it was a bit awkward as well as cute when my family decided to drop me off at the airport. Their faces looked more excited than mine did.

I knew that if they stayed for too long, I’d start feeling homesick even before I left. So I decided that I’d rather miss them in the airport lobby after they’re gone than miss them in their presence. Even though I had a good amount of extra time, I waved a goodbye and entered the airport a little too early.

A lot of our flight experience begins right from the time we enter the airport. Talk to one rude check-in/immigration exec, and your experience is already ruined by half.

Queues, for example, are a great place to judge character, I believe.

You find all kinds of people here – the lazy ones who move at the speed of a snail; the over-enthusiastic ones who want to document their time standing in a security check-in queue by clicking a thousand selfies; and the anxious ones who think they have to hurry even though boarding is still 3 hours away.

Then there’s this special kind which comprises of aunties with razor-sharp elbows who believe that it’s absolutely fine to enter a queue from wherever they please or lie to the security exec saying that their flight is about to take off. All this only so that they get done with the formalities before everyone else does.

After yet another failed attempt at trying to wring a smile from a security exec who scans people’s butts in a curtained area for a living, and trying to not to feel drowsy looking at all the sleepy faces in the waiting area, I finally decided to give up on trying to make this journey seem pleasant.

Since this was going to be my first plane ride, my mind was juggling between excitement, nervousness, fear and prayers.

Excitement, because I had not set any expectations about how I wanted this trip to unfold.

Nervousness, because what if I left an important item back at home that I may not be able to do without in a foreign country?

Fear, because nobody wants a screaming kid in a 3-meter radius around their seat. And given how much I “love” kids, there’s a good chance that there will be an irritated and chatty a.k.a., a monster of a toddler right behind my seat!

And lastly, prayers, because what if the plane crashes and the last thought I had before dying was ‘where does all the poop collected in aircraft toilets go?’

Surprisingly, I did fine when the plane took off. I wasn’t terrified of the experience at all. All those years of hanging by the train doors had done their fair bit in preparing me for this.

The one thing that I was looking forward to on this flight journey was the food. I’d heard a lot about how boring and tasteless flight food is. The food served to us was okay-ish and was too cold to be savoured. But for some weird reason, I enjoyed it just like I would enjoy an obesity-inducing cheap Indo-Chinese meal on any normal day.

Call me crazy, but the idea of eating proper food, or nibbling in case of certain airlines, hundreds of feet above the ground, seems revolutionary to me. I mean, did we (read: humans) actually achieve this? Who would’ve thunk!

We had two stopovers – the first one at Doha, and an unexpected second one at Kuwait. Although we were sleep-depeived and tired of sitting in the same position for all that time, all those empty hours spent waiting at the Doha airport in the wee hours of the night were suddenly filled with a lot of conversations. This was the first time I was sharing a huge chunk of my thoughts locked away in the ‘Personal’ folder of my brain, with a person I’d barely interacted with at work; and I didn’t regret it.

Our first stopover confirmed that the upcoming week was going to be a good one. Even if it wasn’t, we were certain that we would manage it somehow.

“Save it for The Weekend!”

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The universe is broadly divided into 3 types of people:

  1. Those who work from Monday to Friday
  2. Those who work from Monday to Saturday
  3. Those who are paying for the sins committed in their past lives by getting their weekly off(s) on weekdays

No matter which one of these types one belongs to, any added holiday closer to the weekend reaffirms our faith in the secret power of wishful thinking. Now since India is such a salad bowl of cultures and religions, there’s never a scarcity of festivals A.K.A., public holidays. For everyone who belongs to the bored working class category, every festival means just one thing – a holiday!

We don’t care if Ram and Sita returned home after 14 long years of vanvaas and an adventurous Sri Lanka tour, we don’t care if Mahishasura was killed by Kali after a 9-day long gory duel, we really don’t give two hoots about our country celebrating its 70th year of being free from the British rule – just give us the damn holiday already!

Our generation is so hopeless that no matter how well-paying or interesting our jobs are, we will still pine for the days when we are away from our work desks.

“I’m planning to start reading this book over the weekend.”

“I think I’ll wake up a little early and go for a run on the weekend.”

“Oh, this one’s going to be a long weekend right? I think I’ll finally take my bicycle out for a ride.”

We know very well that activities such as reading a book, running and cycling are not banned on weekdays and that it’s absolutely possible to easily squeeze these into our daily routine. But we being the cranky, cribbing and lethargic souls that we are, we will always find an excuse to slyly slide things over to the weekend. 

Our generation knows nothing about celebrating the monotony of our routine; we only live for the weekends.

As a kid, I learnt quite a lot about the significance of a majority of Indian festivals through my school teachers. A lot of our post-holiday essays would revolve around learning about and writing the story that marked the importance of a certain festival for which we were getting an extra leave.

Why did we forget these stories?

Why were we so ecstatic about celebrating 1000 weeks of DDLJ (which by the way, I find to be ultra-long-maxi-level shitty) and were we not so bothered about celebrating 121 years of our victory at the Battle of Saragarhi? (Please go and read about this battle if you’re hearing about it for the first time!)

All our long weekends in the summer are reserved for trips to the hill stations, those in the monsoons are reserved for treks, and the ones in the winters are reserved for Goa. If nothing else works, there’s always the option of driving to Lonavala!

The travel industry is booming left, right, and centre – thanks to the ever-increasing number of “nomads” who always claim to bitten by the (hashtag) travel bug and smitten by (hashtag) wanderlust. This lot is completely diluting the essence of festive holidays. E-magazines have started fueling this show by publishing a list of all the long weekends panning across the year well in advance, with pre-planned mini-itineraries.

We may not know which day of the week will our birthday be falling on in 2018 but we know the order and the count of all the long weekends in 2018 by heart! (there are 16 this year, by the way.)

I may be sounding like a grandma right now but I really do think that we need to look beyond this self-created hullabaloo (and eventual disappointment) around holidays, and maybe spend at least a third of our time and energy on getting to know about the reason that made a certain day a public holiday.

It’s fun to get bhaang-ed at Holi parties and dance your heart out to ‘Do me a favour let’s play Holaaay‘ (God save us from the calamity that Anu Malik’s voice is!) with all that dirty colour on the face, which by the way, still makes us look at least three times prettier than how we look after getting off the Virar local on a weekday.

It’s also nice to get out of the city to unwind and get a dose of nature, God knows we all need it AND deserve it after all those long hours of commuting to work and back, and chasing deadlines like a cat chases a mouse.

I do understand that planning trips with just a handful of leaves available for the whole year is not an easy business, so weekends are our only hope. I also get that not all of us want to know or care about knowing what our festivals stand for. But I also think that it’s essential for us to be aware of and also respect the importance of noteworthy events from the past that still stand tall and strong in the history. Maybe Ram, Sita, Kali, Narasimha, and the likes were fictional characters, so I guess it’s okay for one to not believe in their stories. But why should that stop us from reading the story anyway and simply carry the essence of it with us? All these stories teach us lessons in some way or the other, after all.

I sometimes worry about the generations that will follow ours – how shallow and muddled is their recollection of our cultural and historic events going to be?

Will they ever know the joy of bathing before sunrise on the first day of Diwali?

Will they ever express gratitude and gather with their beloved to break bread on Thanksgiving? And will they do that because they genuinely understand the importance of doing this or only because Monica, Rachel, Phoebe, Ross, Joey and Chandler did so in F.R.I.E.N.D.S.? (For that matter, will they even watch F.R.I.E.N.D.S.?)

Will they ever stand in the never-ending queues for the bhog at the temples?

I really hope that the answer to all these questions is a good and a strong ‘yes’.

Sun, Sand, and Calamari

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There are 3 strong reasons why I dislike being on a trip away from home:

  1. I am never able to sleep in an unfamiliar bed;
  2. I’m never motivated enough to bathe in an unfamiliar bathroom; and
  3. I never get that “morning pressure” even after gulping two cups of strong adrak wali chai (you know what I mean?)

My cousin really made up for that shitty bus journey by arranging a cosy stay for all of us on the trip – me, her husband, sister-in-law, and her father-in-law, in the loveliest beach shack I’d ever seen. This quaint little café was tucked away in a sequestered corner of South Goa, far away from the “party maniacs”, the species all middle-class Indian parents thoroughly detest. One of the best parts of staying here was the delicious food that was served to us straight from the kitchen by the owner of the property who at some point in his life, worked as a professional chef on a cruise. Be it an authentic Goan Balchao or a continental Steak, he nailed every dish that we ordered.

Even though I was surrounded by a mesmerizing, never-ending stretch of the sea with just a handful of firangs around, I realized that I loved the noisier part of Goa more.

All this serenity was good, but I really do like visiting places that are crowded (am I crazy? Maybe!) and buzzing with enthusiasm being exuded by all travellers and tourists alike. Their energy and carefree vibes, I believe, breathe life into these streets, and cafés, and beaches, and busy markets.

Have you ever wondered that travelling to new places and meeting new people is much like learning to swim for the first time?

Just like a non-swimmer has no other option but to deal with the water on being thrown into the pool, travelling makes us face our inner selves and answer all the questions that we have very consciously managed to keep pushing away. It’s like a court-martial that we conduct with us being the accused, the accuser as well as the judge. While I watched really cool parents just let their toddlers run along the beach by themselves, unsupervised and admired some really gutsy firangs who had given up their jobs so as to explore the world, I asked myself a few hard questions. These ranged from the scary, self-actualization types such as “What is that one thing that I’m living for and the one thing that I can die for?” to the more realistic ones like “Should I renew my gym membership this time or just give up on my weight loss plans, because I can hear the treadmill flinch every time I step on it”.

I’m not sure whether I dealt with all those questions as well as I should have, but I’ll tackle those questions someday (I hope).

By the end of this trip, I was sure of one thing – our generation is hopeless.

My cousin’s father-in-law was more open to initiating conversations with random strangers than we were. While he happily taught the firangs to pronounce “bangda” and explain the appearance of the said creature in detail, we preferred to “socialize” by uploading a dozen stories a day on Instagram. While uncle fed his curiosity by asking the firangs about their life plans and their idea of being happy, we enviously admired their bikini-bodies while shamelessly stuffing our mouths with Batter Fried Calamari, diligently followed by generous sips of beer.

“Only 12 hours; I Promise!”

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I knew it was going to be a long journey, 16 hours to be precise, but we wanted to plan a Goa trip which would “not hurt our pockets”.

Now, a ‘low budget trip’ can hold different meanings for different people. For us, it translated to travelling from Mumbai to Goa, and back, in a bus.

Thanks to my cousin’s claustrophobia, we had to book seats in a non-AC bus. If you think that was worse, then let me tell you that we couldn’t get a sleeper bus due to unavailability of seats and had to settle for one with those good-for-nothing push-back seats.

“Yay!”, I thought; NOT!

15 minutes into the journey: A group of 7 – 8 cheerful and chirpy college students boarded the bus. All of them looked too excited to be taking a trip to Goa; so much that I started feeling nauseous after a while. When two girls from that gang sitting right in front of me thought that their overflowing enthusiasm and hair needed to be documented, they took their phones out and clicked at least a 10,57,36,52,383 selfies. Every picture had the same cringeworthy pout, raised eyebrows and strategically used camera angles meant to highlight their ridiculously fashionable “travel outfits”. And here I was, shamelessly comfortable in my ancient track pants and an oversized t-shirt. By oversized, I mean a humungous t-shirt which could easily fit two baby elephants at once. The selfie-taking business was not over yet; how could it get over unless at least 10 of those pictures reached social media? One of the girls then started typing an unending list of hashtags, simultaneously reading them aloud, with such intensity that it made me feel sorry for technology.

2 hours into the journey: I found myself in what I’d like to call a “who gets to claim the seat-rest championship”. This innocent-looking human sitting next to me gently occupied the common seat-rest between our seats, which by the way, we BOTH had an equal right to. After a few minutes of shameless amounts of awkward-elbow-touching, I pushed the arm-rest upward so that it could no longer be used by either of us, thus, calling it a draw. (Request: Please don’t judge me! I really thought that I totally deserved the arm-rest because I was doing an important job of reading a book while he was just watching a bunch of random WhatsApp videos.)

5 hours into the journey: I had a rather entertaining argument with one of the girls from that college gang. All I’d asked this female was to move her seat a little forward only for 2 minutes so that I could prevent my kneecap from cracking completely. But madam responded with a look that screamed: “how dare you old-track-pants-wearing woman ask me to make my pretty Victoria Secret-adorned ass uncomfortable by shifting 2 centimetres ahead?” (Clarification: I’m an accommodating person as long as I see both the parties make an effort to find a mid-way.)

7 hours into the journey: I accidentally (I swear I didn’t do this on purpose!) happened to turn towards the adjacent row of seats only to find two love-birds making out as if the apocalypse was coming to claim them in the next 10 seconds. I quickly turned back to look out of the window and genuinely wondered how uncomfortable the guy looked, who BTW was busy swallowing his girlfriend’s tongue.

This brings me to think that a couple on a bus is a lot like the bus journey itself. They pick up speed only when everyone else has fallen asleep.

12 hours into the journey: I’m still trying to find that one “perfect sitting position” which will make my terribly stiffened spine ache a little less.

15 hours into the journey: I’m cursing the ticket guy who’d said “Madam 12 ghanton mein Goa touch! Only 12 hours, I promise!”, with a God-like all-knowing smile.

16 hours into the journey: I finally see cute little houses with thatched roofs lining the streets with cows freely taking their morning strolls while the bus fellow yells “Last stop, Madgaon”, thereby disturbing the very brief and the only decent nap I’d taken on this entire journey.