This Day, That Year

Early this morning Facebook reminded me that at this time in 2011 I was on my way to Malaysia. I was almost instantly transported back to eight years ago and to what made that trip so special. It was not a typical vacation or holiday and in fact it was the first time I spent a sizeable amount of time exploring a foreign city, with no set plans or itinerary. It was a transformational experience, to say the least and reflecting on that trip got me thinking about the power of travel and how it can positively impact the way we think, act and feel.

Everything about that trip to Malaysia felt larger than life. The smells, the sounds, the street level chaos… my senses were kicked into overdrive the moment I stepped out of the airport and into the street. Remember, this was back in 2011, a time before Google Maps, smartphones and travel apps. Information was not as readily available as it is today and it was simple moments like eating spicy noodles and drinking cold Tiger beer with a group of European travelers that left the biggest impression on me.

Now, the philosophical world traveler in me 😊 feels the need to describe these moments as rich cultural experiences, but, truth be told, back then, I was only interested in getting pictures for Facebook and the cultural education was a convenient bonus.

My trip to Malaysia wasn’t always easy, but the most rewarding things in life rarely are. I had a bout of food poisoning, lost my spending money and missed a bus to Penang. It taught me that travel really is about the travel.

It wasn’t the perfect white sandy beaches that left the strongest impression on me. It was navigating the confusing bus terminal and finding the right bus ticket. It was that anxious moment of trying to find a something to eat, in the middle of nowhere. It was connecting with other travelers faced with the same dilemma and finding a solution, together.

Looking back, it was that experience in Malaysia that laid the foundation for future trips and I will always cherish the memories and experiences I had.

Like all great travelers, I have seen more than I remember, and remember more than I have seen ~ Benjamin Disraeli

11 going on 12

As I touched down in Dubai last week, a familiar feeling came over me, a feeling I’ve had many times upon returning to the UAE after a trip abroad. It’s a feeling of coming home, a feeling of pride at what my adopted country has achieved in such a short span of time.

The beginning of last year marked a minor milestone in my life: I’ve been living in the UAE for over a decade now. It’s been eleven years since I moved here; to a country that quickly became my second home.

Having spent my entire adult life in the UAE, I can say that on one hand, it feels like eleven years has passed by in the blink of an eye; I can distinctly remember wandering the streets of Dubai and Sharjah with nervous excitement and uncertainty at what lay ahead for me, but it also somehow feels as though I’ve been here much longer, like my life has been rooted here somehow, for years.

I owe so much to this country and to the people I have met here. At the risk of sounding clichéd, I feel like the UAE has changed me for the better: it has inspired me and re-energized me, and it’s helped me to uncover aspects of my personality that had long been buried by fear and self-doubt.

When I arrived in 2008, the Burj Khalifa was still a construction site that we looked at in awe and wonder from the campus of my school in the Safa area, Metro stations were sprouting in various locations giving Dubai a distinctly futuristic look and tenor and the only way to get to Sharjah on a Thursday evening was to brave three hours of traffic on the roads. Well, maybe not everything has changed.

In 2019, the UAE feels like a vibrant new destination that still retains its culture and heritage. This new avatar of the desert reimagined, provides a perfect metaphor for my life too. Change is constant, in cities, in countries and in individuals too. Evolution is inevitable and the UAE has certainly laid the foundation for evolution in all aspects; exponential technologies, architecture, sustainability, innovative practices (to name a few), placing the country in an enviable position on the world stage. One cannot expect to stay successful by working the same way. Life is about progress and keeping up with the rest of the world.

Like Columbus, Ibn Battuta or Marco Polo, I believe each of us came to this planet hardwired to explore, to push ourselves to our personal limits, to grow and to evolve – to discover new parts of ourselves and experience the world in ways we could not imagine before.

Over the years I have sat in cafes around the UAE, watching people go by, marveling at the infrastructure and ever-evolving skylines. I have learned so much about life, this country and myself by simply sitting behind my cappuccino and watching the UAE transform. In many ways, these structural changes also reflect a changed reality: here is a country incredibly proud of its rich history but choosing to be defined less by the past and more by its promising future. From sandy stretches and dunes to a Middle Eastern Shang-ri-la, the UAE has undergone such a transformation and I cannot help but marvel at how much I have changed along with it.

The sky really is the limit here in the UAE, for the country as well as for the people who call it home.

Your scars have stories worth sharing -Dhiman

Just last month I learnt that April 24th, is ‘Armenian Genocide Remembrance Day’. The genocide is probably Armenia’s heaviest scar, one that too many people don’t see or acknowledge. Struggling with the past is not unique to Armenia but more than a century later, the pain still surfaces and permeates every aspect of life in the country.

I can recall entering the Genocide Museum with its haunting music playing in the distance, like ghosts calling after their loved ones left behind. On my left a wall stretched on for half a kilometer towards the memorial. Etched in the stone are the names of cities lost in the genocide. Itʼs strangely unsettling seeing it carved into that wall. Still wet from the rain.

Untouched by the rain though, is the fire burning in the middle of the memorial: the everlasting flame. It burns in memory of all the people that died and for everyone else who shares their loss. I’ve never been superstitious, but this place felt ominous. As if the people killed still remained in that circle, waiting for justice or simply to be acknowledged.

From what my new Armenian friends have taught me, I understand that Genocide Day is not a celebration – it’s a somber occasion. The atrocities are still a divisive, sometimes heated issue. I knew very little about the history before I arrived in Armenia, but I had no idea about the political controversy that still surrounds it. So that’s not really what I want to focus on in this post. I don’t have anything to contribute to the topic – I haven’t done any in-depth research; I only know what I learned in Yerevan.

To the best of my memory, I never learned about the Armenian Genocide in school or heard much about it through the media. When it comes to history, there are plenty of things we don’t know. So what I can offer is only a reflection as an outsider – and why I think all tourists visiting the country should take the time to learn about the tragic events of its past. History will repeat itself if there is no recognition and contrition for crimes committed. A change in human behavior only comes when the behavior is recognized as wrong. Too many conflicts or instances of violence across the globe seem organized around one or more dimension of human difference, ethnic, religious, racial, gender, sexual orientation, and more. There is an endless stream of new stories of violence, conflict – even as recently as last weekend, in Sri Lanka.

More than a hundred years on, the impact of the Armenian genocide reverberates loud and is echoed by the other atrocities that dot our social media feed daily. New Zealand, Syria, Sri Lanka, India, Too often despair stands in the way of action and knowledge leads to a sense of hopelessness. We cannot bring back to life the dead of the past or those who have been victims of political mass murder throughout the ages, but, through courage as well as knowledge, we can act to bring about a world free from the scourge of hatred. In committing ourselves in the everyday things to creating a world of peace, freedom, and mutual respect, we honor the memory of those who have fallen victim to the ultimate crimes.

Scars are sign of hurt but they are also indications of slow healing.

“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

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.

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?

Georgia On My Mind

Last winter a friend of mine backpacked solo across Georgia in Eastern Europe. His social media updates and the pictures he kept sharing were enough to convince me to plan a trip of my own. I had heard amazing things about Georgia from other travelers too and could not wait to explore the country, though sadly I only had one short week to split between Georgia and Baku, Azerbaijan. I will keep details of the latter for another post.

While my exploration of Georgia was far from thorough, I did leave with one solid impression of the country: I love it! Its beautiful mountains, historic churches, European vibes, and incredibly good-natured people didn’t need more than a week to win my heart over. I will absolutely be returning to Georgia again someday, hopefully soon. Hopefully in snow.

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My co-travelers and I managed not just to take in beautiful Tbilisi, but the absolutely amazing countryside as well. Our first trip outside the capital was to Gudauri, 7200 meters above sea level and 80 km from the Russian border. The panoramic views were soul stirring to say the least – the kind of experience that will remain with me forever. We also managed to travel to Mtskheta, one of the oldest towns in the country and to also to Batumi and Kazbegi, villages that are home to the Black Sea and absolutely stunning mountain scenery.

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One could write a dozen such blog posts highlighting Georgia’s beauty and yet not scratch the surface. It is a complex, sometimes difficult place, and I do know some people who dislike it, but it has a special, indescribable ‘something’. My experience in Georgia was beautiful. It wrapped itself around me like a blanket, got into my DNA, and has certainly captured my heart and mind forever.

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Georgia is a country of contradictions. It felt like a place frozen in time and yet modern and pulsating with life. Beautiful and yet there are pockets of poverty, disheveled homes in dilapidated Cul-de-sac. Georgia is Unique. Culturally limitless. Lots of contrasts. Bohemian. I guess like all places I have traveled to, Georgia has its own special vibe and that’s why I loved it so much. We travel to seek out different places and people. An insatiable thirst for difference.

Like all those who travel, I have seen and experience way more than I remember and though it has been two days since I have returned from my short trip  I’m still there in my head and heart, and the hole it leaves is tangible. I will return there someday but until then, like that old Ray Charles classic,

I’ve got ‘…Georgia on my mind…’