“Spira, Spera” (Breathe, Hope) Victor Hugo, The Hunchback of Notre Dame

We walked upto and past the beautiful Notre Dame a couple of times before we finally decided to beat the lines to get inside the cathedral.

Our plan worked perfectly, except as we found out when we got to the front of the line, we were in the line to climb up to the top of Notre Dame, and not the one, to go inside. But, we had waited too long, and dammit, we were going to see Notre Dame, even if was from the top. I am not a very fit person, but with a steady slow step even I managed it, and I am so glad I did. After a dizzying number of stairs, we were greeted by a spectacular view of Paris and got to hang out with some of the coolest gargoyles. Certainly one of my favorite memories of Paris from that trip. The inside of the cathedral was breathtaking – a symbol for peace and acceptance beyond religion or spirituality.

There are so few things today that hold the world together. Monuments and Cathedrals are living works of art and stand as mute witnesses to the worst and the very best in us, in humanity. Seeing Notre Dame fall tonight is a terrifying reminder that nothing, no matter how strong or beautiful, lasts forever.

As I type this, the French authorities have just released a statement saying that the the fire at Notre Dame cannot be contained and the cathedral will burn on, till it burns out. I am blessed to have had the opportunity to experience the grandeur of Notre Dame in person but I am saddened as we watch history, art and beauty go up in flames tonight.

Today is a reminder to not wait to travel the world. If you can, get out there; meet people, experience other cultures, reflect on history and the beautiful parts of our shared humanity before it is too late.

“Great edifices, like great mountains, are the work of the ages” ~ Victor Hugo, The Hunchback of 🇫🇷 #NotreDame

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The People We Meet

Driving through Tsaghkadzor was an unforgettable experience.

We are in a white Honda Civic, driving through a snow covered stretch of what seems to be no man’s land. Daylight has dawned and the signs of devastations that followed the end of the soviet era are scattered all over the place. I stare out of the window, beyond brown rooftops, at a white wilderness. Mt. Ararat looms over the horizon – the only sign of our location – we are traveling somewhere along the Turkish border.

Amidst the rhythmic tremble of the Honda, is the clicking noises from my phone’s camera. The subject it would like to capture is the natural beauty that runs through the Turkish-Armenian frontier but instead, the photos reveal hazy silhouettes of giant Oaks and Pines; reminding me that the real is always best remembered in my mind’s eye.

Autumn and winter are colliding during my trip to Armenia. New Cherry blossoms are budding in the capital city Yerevan; while the mountains still look like a winter wonderland. Suddenly, the car jerks to a halt and I am stirred from my morning reverie. We have reached our destination – the beautiful Tsaghkadzor woodlands along the slopes of the Tegenis.

I step out and take in the breathtaking vistas of the majestic Caucasus Mountains. I can stare for hours but my guide Shushan motions for me to catch up with her. I slip my phone into my jeans and count the number of crunches my Nike’s make in the snow before I reach where she is. Back when Armenia was part of the USSR, Soviet athletes came to Tsaghkadzor (Gorge of flowers) to train for the Winter Olympics. In-between her narrations Shushan ensures that I begin to understand the intricate historical and cultural fabric of the country and the values of the Armenian people. It is clear that she does not want me to leave without understanding those whom she represents and so a common theme runs through her narratives – resilience. Resilience in the face of changing ideologies, resilience in the face of a macabre genocide and resilience as the country walks a tightrope between tradition and modernity.

Odds are, if you are a traveler, you have met some pretty interesting people over the years. Some memories of them are fleeting while others recur. Many times, when reminiscing, the memory of the people that I have met along the way will outweigh the memories of the destination itself.

My travel personality is a polar opposite to my regular one. When I am traveling I find myself to be outgoing, lively and social; when I am confined by routine, I am reserved, quiet, and introverted. Isn’t that strange? That said, I love to engage with people during my travels, meeting new people and traveling go hand in hand and any interaction, good or unpleasant, adds depth to my experience.

My first impression of travel in the Caucasus region was a lovely one, arriving in sunny Tbilisi in 2016, to an enthusiastic welcome from the immigration officers. A couple of nights later, I was on a coach to Batumi, drinking wine from a Styrofoam cup with three new friends who were part of my tour group. That experience still stands out for me but was only a little taste of what was to come as the people of Georgia, Azerbaijan (2016) and Armenia (2019) are some of the most warm and welcoming I have met anywhere in the world.

I quickly scribble some of these thoughts in my diary (so that I remember them when I am staring at my computer screen later), pull my gloves back on and look around for my guide. Shushan has already reached the top of the slope and is and is signaling me towards a narrow uphill path shaped in the shrubbery by the footsteps of previous climbers. I sigh dramatically and prepare myself for my second hike in 34 years. ‘Resilience’ I remind myself and make my way up the slope. It will be a while before I reach the top.

Some people have a way of making a permanent space for themselves in our memories, don’t they?

I will never forget the people I have met during my visit, Narine, Marina, Hovo, Amir, Narkek, Shelby, Shushan’s mother’s freshly baked Gata or my time in Armenia, even if I try.

I did it! Dead Sea-rious!

47376641_10161171579730252_2573991943650410496_nFor someone who doesn’t know how to swim, I hobble bravely; barefoot across salt-encrusted rocks and slither into the cool waters of the sea. It feels so slippery on my skin, like oil – but it looks as clear as daylight. There is literally only one family around and the only sounds are the ripples I make and the laughter from the children. I can’t believe I have this magical place to myself and in under thirty seconds I am on my back, floating involuntarily along the shoreline. Excitement mingles with fear as I gaze up at the sun, in disbelief, I am floating in the Dead Sea.
Around me, the water glimmers in all shades of aqua and the mountains of Israel glow pink in the distance. A lone green sprite can, floats lazily by, the only other sign of humanity in this place and I find myself jealous that the can will end up in Israel, before I ever do.
I haven’t always wanted to visit the Dead Sea and float in its salty water. It’s not something that consumes one’s thoughts or plans. It just sort of, sits there in your subconscious memory box, piled up on all the wonderful things you hear and read about in life but may never get to experience firsthand. So, being here, experiencing the wonder of nature and the glory of Christ’s creation is a surreal experience for me. Words don’t seem adequate, but I will try anyway.

I began travelling in 2008 and have been to twenty countries since. Each one has been an experience like no other. Every time I see a mountain range, or walk through an ancient cathedral or marvel at a natural wonder I am humbled. It’s as if they’re looking down at me, staring me in the eye and saying ‘we’ve been around for thousands of years, we’re still here, and we’re still beautiful, who in the world are you?’
Travel has become my way of life. It’s how I originally discovered who I was, and is how I continue to discover who I am. While I have spent five years completing three college degrees, I believe I am truly educated because of travel.

I can see why the Dead Sea claims such healing properties, my skin already feels baby-smooth. Plus, floating is fun and my buoyancy makes me feel like a graceful swimmer even tough I’m pretty sure the laughter from the children was really their reaction to me trying to gain my composure in a very persistent sea. I chuckle giddily too, after all who would have ever thought I’d ever be here, doing this? Surreal, I tell you!

Dear Teacher

Yesterday, Indian educators everywhere celebrated ‘Teacher’s Day’ and as always, I began my morning by typing out WhatsApp messages to my own teachers – from high school, university and even to some who hold no educational qualifications and yet have taught me valuable lessons for life. Halfway through my fourth WhatsApp message I decided to write an open letter instead and dedicate it to the wonderful people who I have been privileged to call ‘My Teacher’s’.

Dear Teacher,

There are so many things I wish I would have said to you while I occupied a desk in your classroom, once I graduated, or anytime that I was a part of your life. You deserve to know how I felt every single day, but I didn’t always say it, not because I didn’t care but because I thought you already knew. But today, let me tell you exactly how I feel.

To me, you were everything rolled into one: teacher, parent, friend, and a kick in the pants when needed. I asked you to check my homework, wipe my tears, keep my secrets, and motivate me on my worst days, and you never failed to do all of that and more.

To the chubby kid who sat by the window, you were that kind voice when someone made fun or cracked a harsh joke, to the kid who struggled through high-school math, you were the gentleman with so much patience, to the reluctant back-bencher, you were the coach, pushing me forward till I found a microphone and then my voice. I can’t begin to thank you for playing all those roles because it has helped shape me into the person I am today. You will never know how much it means to me that you still take the time, even years after I have been out of your class, to check in or to celebrate my successes with me. Your impact on me certainly didn’t end when I left your class.

I will forever admire how you chose a profession that put countless others before yourself, and even with that, you always made me feel like I was the most important one. Truth be told, all your students felt that way. I will forever admire your spirit and your love of life. I also admire your integrity; you didn’t tell me how to have character; you showed me. I watched you do right even if it was hard. I watched you choose kindness when most others would have turned to anger, and I watched you work as hard as you could every day no matter how exhausted you were.

You, my teacher, will always be with me. I think of you when I am reminded of a lesson you taught me. I think of you when I make a decision in my own classroom and find myself wondering what you would have done had you been in my place,  I promise you – your legacy lives on in me.

Thank you for every hug, lesson, smile, piece of advice, and vote of encouragement. You were never “just a teacher.” In fact, most days you were my favorite part about school. You’ve cemented a place in my heart that can never be replaced. I should have told you all of this every day, but I just assumed you knew.

“Nothing is original” they say, and everyone has learnt from someone. How I deal with children today, is a combination of the methods and approaches I have experienced myself, with you. What came from whom almost becomes indistinguishable….but it is very important to me to acknowledge and pay tribute to your role in my development as a persona and as a teacher too.

Today, I think of myself as a effective teacher but I am fully aware that I am confident of this only because I stand on the shoulders of giants, giants like you.

Sydney

Sondering

There is a strange kind of calmness amidst a coffee shop’s chaos. The jukebox spins 90s pop songs as baristas brew and serve coffee blends in a perfect synchronization, as if it were a dance routine practiced to perfection. Around me, china cups rest dangerously close to the edges of plastic trays and silver spoons clink lazily against the edges of porcelain. The hubbub from humanity huddled in animated conversation fills the air as words mingle with aromas of coffee and grilled cheese and smoke swirls rise seductively from mugs of every shape and size.

For some, a busy coffee shop might seem like the worst place to try and get work done. Not for me though. When time allows, simply sitting at coffee shops is one of my favorite things to do – here the world slows down, personalities emerge and stories come alive. The books being read, the drinks being ordered, the conversations being had. People meet at a coffee shop for every situation imaginable: to interview for new jobs, to plan exits from old ones, to date and break up, to complain with disgust and to brainstorm with giddy whispers. Every visible detail serves as a spotlight of someone’s personality and sometimes character too. But, as if to tease, these things are never enough to tell their whole story.

Sometimes, you get a little more of a glimpse–while standing in line, waiting for a drink, sharing a table. Here, collisions are made and more details from stories unfold. This is also one reason I am addicted to travel – these collisions: chance encounters with interesting people enrich your life in subtle and sometimes unimaginable ways. Without these, the people you meet, the days you live, can get a bit circular, routine even. For me, anyway.

I’ve learned there is a word for this feeling – to sonder. Apparently, “sonder” is a fake word, and in fact more of an expression, or a realization. To sonder is to realize that everyone around you is living those same complex, dynamic lives that we sometimes tend to think is specific only to ourselves. How will tackle that specific problem? ………How do we handle work stress? ……I can’t wait for the weekend… What’s meeting tomorrow night going to be like? Is my promotion coming, or is it not? All these seemingly-personal musings and questions are going on around us, at all times. And we can’t see them.

Except at coffee shops, where if you close your eyes an imagine it, you can almost visualize the stories, you will see words drifting lazily, skimming the tops of heads and mixing with the lyrics of that Bon Jovi number that’s playing for the second time.

Sometimes, these intersections change your own orbit, providing new ideas, longer conversations, even friendships. If you’re like me and get lost in your people-watching, a coffee shop may not be the best place for professional output. But, with practice, I have found you can have both: a lazy bout of sondering while getting work done as well.

 

 

Get Set, Go!

It’s that time of year again, tourist pamphlets and summer offers from travel companies litter both my desk and my inbox. ‘The 100 Places to Visit before You Die’ guide has been referred to countless times by now, there are multiple browsers open on my laptop and a flurry of illegible scrawl fills the pages of my notepad. There’s even a new folder on my uber organized desktop and it has been labelled with the name of country number 17! Inside it, countless PDFs and word documents tell a compelling tale of someone in a serious wanderlust state of mind. Occasionally during my research, I stop to take a deep breath – to recompose. In some fleeting moments, I start to feel confused by the sheer amount of planning travel takes, but then as suddenly as it comes, the fog lifts and is replaced by the joy a new adventure brings with it and that familiar feeling of itchy-feet.

Calendar blocked, tickets paid for, hotel rooms confirmed – I have officially initiated ‘Travel Research’ mode – the part where I start putting my dreams into action. This sometimes results in serious air-fist pumps and a surge of joy and excitement as I begin to check things off my list and start planning out the things I want to do, the sites I want to visit and the experiences I have been waiting to have.

In a few weeks’ time I will be exploring country number 17. As I stare at my computer screen and switch between tabs, I soak in all the information I can, stopping intermittently to make notes in my diary. I check the location of my hotel, its proximity to the beach, restaurants and tourist attractions in the area and the best ways to get there. I download route maps and check on ticket prices, I read through all the websites looking for the best deals and day passes, I even watch YouTube videos of scams I should be aware of. This btw is one of my top tips for travel, the more aware you are of possible scams (and there are scams everywhere, including the country where you live) the safer you will be.

Reading done, notes made, *air-fist pump*

I can recall distinctly the first trip I took with my family. Back then, maps were paper pamphlets that you picked up at a station/ airport or found at the back of a guide book, and figuring out your location involved some thought and getting help from actual people. You did not have the luxury of pressing a button on your phone and having information within seconds. Also back then cameras still used a thing called film and the anticipation of seeing the photographs developed and slipped into the cellophane sleeves of a photo album, prolonged the wanderlust for a few days after the holiday had actually ended.

Fast forward about 26 years and in a few short minutes I can know all there is to know about a location, restaurants and best places to stay and things to do. Sure nothing beats getting lost in a new city only to stumble upon a true gem, but I am still so thankful for Google, Zomato, Uber and travel apps.byylw-kz.jpg

As with all things, you need to take travel advice with a grain of salt. Be it a blog, trip advisor review, or Instagram post everyone always has a different opinion on what they like and dislike. The trick is to take in all the information you can and then make your own decisions. There are some amazing travel blogs out there – I am trawling through many of them now and using their experiences to hopefully enrich my future travels.

Having said that, I must confess that maps, plans, itineraries are about knowing for sure, about owning your path, about control. That’s a good thing, or else you could end up in a bit of a mess in a strange place. Direction is important but what’s equally important is sometimes, throwing away that schedule and allowing yourself the freedom once in a while to not know where your next wow moment is coming from.

You see, I am a zealous planner, not because I need to plan (and ironically, I disregard 40% of my plans once I’m “on-site”), but because I love the reading and research ahead of time almost as much as the travel itself.

Life is like that too, sometimes you need to really plan and chart out a clear pathway for yourself, and sometimes not planning things will still lead you to exactly where you’re supposed to be. NO?

Blaming Starbucks Won’t Change Anything

I drink a lot of Starbucks coffee…a lot, and this past week I have been glued to my iPad reading all about the company’s recent PR nightmare.

Yes the story affects me, a terrible thing was done and yes, this an important conversation to have.  I could even boycott the brand like all of social media is urging customers to. But I won’t. While I understand and share the global anger over last week’s arrest of two African-American men at their local Starbucks; saying no to my Americano and mermaid cup is not going to resolve this deep rooted problem.

Sadly, the company currently faces its worst PR nightmare as people swear off its lattes and macchiatos. Protesters have appeared in public, on TV, inside stores, around street corners and on every nook of the internet. ‘Starbucks is Anti-Black’ and ‘Shame on Starbs’ tweets fill my feed. ‘Boycott Starbucks’ they all demand.

But here’s how I see it, Starbucks most certainly isn’t the problem. Deep rooted implicit racism is. It cannot be argued, that every day countless African-Americans are at the receiving end of implicit racial bias. Sadly their stories never get told, their experiences don’t make it to CNN and most certainly don’t take up space on your social media feed. These people probably deal with everyday racism routinely. If you notice the body language of the two men in the Starbucks video, you cannot help the feeling that this has probably happened to them before, it isn’t as big a deal to them as it was to the upper-middle class, white soccer mum who shot and tweeted the video. To them, racism is probably routine, and what happened, could have happened to them at any other location, restaurant, grocery store, school or medical facility in America. The circumstances change,  but the story never does. It’s merely coincidental that this time it unfolded at a Starbucks.

Months later when the public outcry has moved to the next big story,  America will still be a nation infected with the same idiocy with its elected President – a racist who continues to judge people’s intentions and worth from the color of their skin.

In all these years, it has never come to light that the company has a corporate culture of being condescending to its Black customers. If that is ever revealed to be true then Starbucks deserves what’s coming to it. Until then, what happened in Philadelphia, is the same as what happened to Trayvon Martin, it is also the reason why black actors rarely receive nominations at the Oscars and it is for this same reason countless other African Americans  fight everyday injustices. The only difference is their stories remain untold, perhaps snuffed out by sighs or tears into a pillow or over gloomy dinner-table conversations.

Yes this is an embarrassing moment for Starbucks, but the company will come out ok. On the other hand this is a decisive moment for America, an important conversation is taking place but I am not sure things will change any time soon.

So like many loyal customers across the world, I will wait and watch as the company initiates damage control, trains its staff and reviews its policies. But sitting here in the tanned leather recliner of my local Starbucks at Al Ain Mall, I am certain of this – racism is America’s problem to fix, and blaming Starbucks is not going to change anything.