Sunday, January 17, 2016

2015: Looking Back

Certain years in our lives pose questions, and other years provide answers. Looking back at the year that 2015 was, there are so many expected things that did not, and things unexpected that happened out of the blue. Most things that happened fall into predictable categories of academic achievements, expansion of writing interests, forging new friendships, and some extensive networking. There were some interesting first times too. Doing pot in Amsterdam. Taking the Amtrak from Chicago to Seattle. Getting my first internal grant. Seeing the largest sailing event in the world. First travel grant. Going back to the UW after 7 years. 

However, the one thing that stands out more than anything is travel. 2015 has been undoubtedly the most extensively traveled year of my life. Conferences, collaborations, family trips, personal travel, everything that was meant to happen happened. Every month, I visited at least one different country. That's a total of 22 different cities in 13 different countries, including six new countries. There were three discrete trips to India and two discrete trips to the US. There were two aborted trips to Luxembourg and Italy as well, but no complaints. At one point, I was wondering why I am even paying rent.

India: Kolkata is Kolkata. Most of my time there goes in meeting and eating. The interesting bit was visiting during Durga Puja for the first time ever since I left India. My last Durga Puja in Kolkata was in 2005. I was in Mumbai too, very briefly, and the only thing I remember of it was dining at Mahesh Lunch Home. Unarguably the best seafood restaurant I have dined at, do not miss ordering Solkadhi, the strawberry-milkshake-lookalike drink that is anything but strawberries and sugar. It blew me away. Talking of being blown away, Sikkim had pretty much that kind of effect on me. Clean air, plastic-free, the majestic snow-capped mountains, simple people, delicious Tibetian food, and pretty homes stacked up. That is how I will always remember the capital city, Gangtok. After viewing the Kanchenjunga (the third highest mountain in the world) for two consecutive dawns from Gangtok, we went to Pelling to be able to get a better and much closer view of the mountains. However, the rain and bad weather ensured that the entire mountain is shrouded, and we saw nothing, despite excitedly waking up before dawn and waiting in the cold with camera gear. Forget seeing the mountains, even our sightseeing plans had to be cancelled. It rehashed an important life lesson. That moving physically closer to your destination doesn't necessarily mean that you will reach your destination. If something is meant to happen, it will. Most importantly, it might be good to have alternate plans in life, and move on. 

Canada, France, and UAE were short trips, mostly for meeting old friends or exploring a city during long layovers. Visiting the Scandinavian countries for the first time made me realize how short, and how poor I am. Malmö (Sweden) was nice, and so was Helsinki (Finland). Grey, exorbitant, but thankfully, English speaking. The interesting surprise was an unexpected cruise ship ride (my first time) from Helsinki to Tallinn (Estonia), when the smaller boats were cancelled due to bad weather. Try traveling in a cruise ship at least once. It is an amazing experience. The Baltic countries (Estonia, and Riga in Latvia) were very pretty, inexpensive, laidback, and replete with their eastern European charm.

In Germany, visiting the Berlin wall was a humbling experience. Even with everything I had read and the number of movies I watched over the years, nothing had prepared me for how I felt visiting it. For an onlooker who does not know, this would have seemed an ordinary park, a rather dilapidated one, with children playing, people running, and tourists taking pictures. Yet this place is full of history, full of stories that are not quite that old. Stories of pain and separation and letting go. And stories of courage and bravery and resilience of the human spirit. I was engulfed with a sense of sadness, a sense of shared grief for human suffering. But what I witnessed was also the victory of hope over suffering, of good over bad. May no wall be strong enough to confine and restrict the spirit, our dreams, love, and the sense of goodness. There are people who build walls, and there are also people who break those walls. Being here reaffirmed my faith in the resilience of the human spirit.

Lübeck turned out to be a very pretty northern German town, reminding me how pretty Germany is. The cobbled streets, the architecture, the pretty little cafes that serve amazing food and coffee in classy china, the churches and pretty homes, the waterfront, and the iconic Holsten Gate, Lübeck had to offer a lot. I spent the entire day walking, watching, reading, then walking some more, and taking in the pretty sights. Two of the many things about it- This is the home to the marzipan industry, and the home of Nobel laureate Günter Grass. Although a small place, Lübeck is actually home to three Nobel laureates.

Denmark was beautiful, and so was Switzerland. Amsterdam (Netherlands) turned out to be a city of canals, museums, and pot. I had the most amazing Indonesian food in Amsterdam. I was not aware of Netherland’s colonial history, and how Indonesian cuisine became a part of Dutch food. Seriously, when in Amsterdam, do not miss eating Indonesian.

USA: The other interesting experience was taking the Empire Builder train (Amtrak) from Chicago to Seattle ($140 one way). It leaves Chicago Union Station at 2:15 pm CST, and 46 hours later, reaches Seattle at 10:30 am PST. The scenery for more than half the trip was uneventful (unless you are like me, who loves watching any kind of landscape). I saw a lot of fields, birds, and arid lands in Illinois, Wisconsin, Minnesota, and North Dakota. However, the real change started on the evening of day 2, while we were crossing Glacier National Park in Montana. The sunset was amazing. The mountains were huge. After that, it was really pretty for the rest of the trip.

The seats were much better and more comfortable than the ones in an airplane. They recline very well, and given that only half the train was full, I had two seats to myself. So I actually managed to get into a fetal position and sleep well for two nights. However, if you do not fall asleep easily, I would not recommend it.

The dining car and the observation deck had an amazing 270 degree view. YouTube has some nice videos of how it looks inside the train and the observation deck. The food was quite pricey, and nothing to die for (the menu is available online). I had anticipated this. So I carried my own food to last me for the trip, including biryani from Ghareeb Nawaz in Chicago. But then, that's me. I can sleep well, and eat biryani under any circumstances.

There is no internet, unless you have your own. I don't know about cell phone connectivity, since I did not have one. Not anymore. I was surprised at how many people boarded the train with me, and went all the way to Seattle. At some point, the train bifurcated. Half of it went to Seattle, and the other half to Portland.

Dress in layers. It was freezing at night. The restrooms were clean and big. No complaints. Also, you can check in a lot of luggage, much more than airplanes allow you. Overall, it was a great experience, and I would do it again. But then, I love trains, watching landscapes, and I was not in a hurry. If you don't have the time and are more into "tick mark tourism", this is not for you.

This is a short summary of some of the places I visited in 2015. I am not sure what 2016 has in store. As weird as it sounds, I think that I might be ready to be home, be rooted for a change, and develop different hobbies that does not require as much travel.



Ritu Raj said...

Hey Sunshine

So nice to have a post from you. I have been checking your blog for the past six months and often wondered what adventures are you upto. I think it has been the longest break you took from blogging.

It seemed as if a friend has not been in touch for so long. To many more posts and new adventures.

Happy New Year !

sunshine said...

Ritu Raj, thank you. I have been busy doing things other than blogging. I intend to write more though. Happy new year! :)