Nice aka the one where I find my place

I got off the train at the train station in Nice and followed Google Maps to the hostel. I had walked over 650 km to get here, but none of those kilometres was as stressful as these last one-and-a-half kilometres through the centre of the city to the hostel. There were people everywhere: couples and walkers and workers and musicians and kids and costumes. I was looking forward to my first hot shower but also feeling very disoriented.

I think I felt exactly like Diana in Wonder Woman, when she comes to London (Nice, in my case) for the first time after a life in the green, magical land of Themyscira (The Alps, in my case). Of course, she overcomes all her initial awkwardness and goes on to save the world while I went on to do pretty much nothing all over the world, but our beginnings in our new lives of superherodom and backpacking were pretty much identical.

The hostel I was staying at was overrun by kids. I was expecting the backpacking crowd to be younger than me, but I hadn’t expected squealing and giggling teenagers; perfectly made up girls and boys with muscles and tight-fitting pants talking mostly in English about drinking and partying and how they didn’t need to sleep. They did look like they were enjoying themselves, but I had absolutely nothing to talk about with them, and they certainly didn’t seem to care about the smelly guy with grey hair.

At the reception once, I was standing in line behind three girls who were asking the guy at the counter where to eat, their words punctuated just as much by “Like”s as by breaths and pauses. They were giggling, talking about how they’re not into shrimp but love paella anyway, and the guy was smiling and telling them all the local spots that he loved.

Once they left, I asked the guy, “Where can I get something nice to eat?”
He looked at me and then pointed somewhere on the map. “All the restaurants are here,” he said and turned to his computer.

This is what backpacking is like, I thought. Brown skin, white hair, no confidence. Maybe even I wouldn’t talk to me. At that moment, the scores of people who told me stories and laughed at my jokes in the mountains didn’t come to mind. As far as I could tell, my backpacking journey was off to a bad start. Maybe I was too old for this?

Always a good view at sunset
Impressive skies
The sunset was dramatic on all of the three days I spent in Nice

I spent most of my time in Nice walking along the coast, with small expeditions into the city. The coast is pretty, with a promenade extending as far as my eye could see on both sides. On all three days that I was there, I sat on the stone ledge in the evening and watched the sun sink into the mediterranean sea.

Nice is very walkable. It is, in fact, pleasant and not just easy to get around on your feet. There are street performers of mediocre to good quality everywhere. There are tourists sitting on the street side chairs eating their mussels and fries. I imagine the old ones are talking about how the yacht wasn’t up to the mark on their previous vacation, and the young ones are talking about where they’re going get wasted and laid tonight.

Just walking around aimlessly every day, I saw a natural history museum that was always closed, a hotel that Johnny Depp stayed at, and a nice viewpoint from which you can see the city spread out in shades of brown sand and red roofs below you. I spent a lot of time in the main square (Place Masséna) watching tourists and locals and street performers.

Two buildings reaching for the sky
Failed attempt at an artsy shot. I even tried to see if it looked good in B&W. It didn’t.
A motorbike parked on the street
Cool motorbike on a pretty street

Old Nice is where the city really shines. The architecture and the plan of the place are not fancy or imposing or gaudy. The perfect word for it, I think, is comfortable. There are what seem to be a million restaurants, each with its own beautiful woman hassling you that their restaurant has the best food and so you should eat there. The streets are narrow, the buildings stand shoulder to shoulder, not afraid of making contact, yet confident in their knowledge of their own space. Like the French people.

One night, TripAdvisor led me to a small restaurant called “Chat Noir, Chat Blanc”. The restaurant had two tables inside and two tables outside, and there were people waiting for a table. The dishes looked really pretty. If I had to end up as food, I wouldn’t have minded being killed to be on of those plate; just sayin’.

Entrance to Chat Noir Chat Blanc
The restaurant where I finally came to terms with solo travel (in cities). I went back the day after my dinner to take this picture

“Bon Jour! Do you have reservation?”, the waitress asked me as I entered.
I shook my head.

“Where are you from?”, the chef asked. He was in a corner of the restaurant, his space as big as two tables, surrounded by a granite countertop, and one of those wooden tables that rise up to let people pass through.

“India,” I told him.

“There is Indian restaurant next door. Why you don’t go there?”

“I will eat Indian food in India.”

He laughed. “Today you eat there. Tomorrow, you make reservation and come back here, okay?”

I made a reservation for dinner the next night and went to Delhi Belhi, the “Indian restaurant next door”. Eating my way through a North Indian Thali, I couldn’t figure out who their target audience was; the menus were wordy and the food was bland.

When I returned the next night – five minutes early so I wouldn’t miss my spot – the restaurant was empty. “Ah, my Indian friend”, the chef said, laughing.

“Come. Sit, sit. Some days full, some days empty. Funny, eh?”

The first dish was some kind of soup. I remember there was duck involved (foie gras) and octopus, and bread. I remember this because I was wiping the bowl with the bread as the beautiful French waitress said something in beautiful French to the chef. “She say you like it,” he exclaimed.

I bet you’re looking forward to hearing about what else I ate that night. Well, I have good news and bad news. The good news is that as soon as I got home that night, I wrote down my thoughts in my notebook about all the six dishes that he served (including this  very literary line, “The octopus and the soup tasted good, but I don’t know why they were together. They were like awkward strangers in an elevator”). I was sure that I would eventually write a blog post about it. And two years later, here I am, writing that very same post!

The bad news? That notebook was stolen from me when I visited Buenos Aires, so I have no record of that night other than my memories and scattered notes I made on my phone after the robbery.

No one else visited the restaurant that night, so I stayed there two hours, eating through six courses and chatting with the chef. He was from Italy and had learned cooking from his grandmother. He talked about his travel to the middle east and how he learned so many new ways to cook meat and vegetables there. I told him that the most complex dish I know how to make is a biryani. I have to say, he was suitably impressed. I tried telling him how to make sambar, but I don’t think I did a very good job.

I had started off in Nice awkward, tired, and disoriented. But I learned a very important lesson that’s always stayed with me during my travels: everything gets better if you just keep walking.

Stones on the beach
It’s okay if you feel out of place. Just go for a walk 😊

Travel Details

Getting there: Nice has a major airport, so you can fly in from Paris or most places in Europe. You can also take the train; trains are pretty nice in Europe.

Staying and EatingHostels everywhere, hotels everywhere. Food and drinks are expensive, as are beds and rooms. Of course, if you’ve read this far, you know you should go eat at Chat Noir, Chat Blanc, but not at Delhi Belly.

Doing: If you’re the kind that likes to stay up all night and drink and dance and party, Nice is right up your alley. If that’s not your thing, or you want something to do during the day, you can do what I did: walk around, go to the farmer’s market, climb up to that viewpoint, sit on the promenade and read, complain about the pebbles on the beach. You can also take the train or bus to adjacent towns like Cannes and Monaco which are even fancier.

A walk in Gokarna

I started walking from the hostel on the so-called “Five Beach Trek” at 7 AM, a full hour later than what the manager had told me. “You have to start at 6. It gets hot very fast after that!”

I spent a few minutes chasing a peacock trying to get the bird, the light, and my camera to agree on a good photograph. The world was not cooperating with me today. That, or I needed coffee.

Morning peacock
I kept running behind this peacock and it kept running away from me. Very frustrating bird!
Kudle beach was the first of the five beaches and as I reached it, I was thinking of sunset the previous day. I had gone for a walk along the Main Beach (not one of the five beaches on this trek). I sat on the sand for more than an hour watching kids and grown-ups playing. I had felt a great calm and I had smiled to myself a lot as the sun went down.

Today morning, however, my mind was agitated. I walked by two kids playing soccer. The ball came to me and I kicked it back to them. Encouraged, they sent it my way again. I kicked it back again and hurried on before they passed to me again, even though what I really wanted was to stay. The beach was hot, my shirt was stuck to my back, and I didn’t have enough water to spend time playing with them.

At the fork in Om beach, the next stop on the walk, a shack was opening for business.

Om beach
Looking back on Om beach. See how it’s shaped like the letter Om? That’s where it gets its name from
“A coffee and a milkshake?”, the guy confirmed as I ordered. I nodded and sat down to wait. A couple beside me was eating omelets and sandwiches. A group of four boys was expressing their collective disappointment in the lack of “happening” things in Gokarna. “We should have gone to Goa like I told you guys”, one of them said.

These guys are so full of themselves, I thought to myself. The couple with the omelets looked quite content, and that infuriated me. Where was my food?

I walked up to the counter. “Cancel my order”, I told the guy and walked out before he could answer.

I continued along Om beach, and then into the forest again, not stopping to get into the water or to take pictures, except one of a lizard that was poking its head out of the bushes.

My mind was very busy with the lack of water in my backpack, my missing kindle, and the sweat. It was getting hot alarmingly fast. I tried to get something to drink at another shack, and was told that they only serve their room guests. What a silly thing to do, I thought.

I rushed through Paradise beach and Half Moon beach, ignoring everyone on the way. I reached the fifth and last beach in about an hour and a half. One hour less than what the manager had said, I thought to myself with some pride.

There was a man in the water. White skin, white hair, maybe fifty, and enjoying himself. He seemed to be having a better time than me.

What’s wrong with me today? 

The beach itself was disappointing. It was hardly a few metres in width and a narrow road lay just beside it, threatening to take over the sand any day.
I sat down for a few minutes, looking out at the man playing in the sea, and then took off my shirt and walked into the Indian Ocean. The water was warm, but I immediately felt refreshed. The feeling of suffocation quieted down, leaving me calmer.

As I started walking back, I met Valentine, a traveller from France. He had been in Gokarna for a few months, oscillating between tents on Paradise beach and shacks on Om beach, going where his friends-for-the-time-being and the weed took him. He was very impressed that I was choosing to walk back and not take the bus. “There’s a bus?”, I asked him and we laughed.

I pestered a kid along the path to let me taste the fruit he was plucking off the tree. “You just suck on it,” he said, handing me one. It was sweet, juicy, and very fibrous.

“You have a lot of positive energy”, Valentine told me, “the girls must really love you.”

“Where are these girls? I have to find them!”, I said, laughing.

I walked with him to Paradise Beach where he was camping with about ten other people. The others were playing in the water, passing a coconut to each other. They were hugging each other, splashing water, and jumping around, as if everything else was out of earshot, and the world was just them, right here and right now.

There was a small tea stall by a coconut tree, and the guy running it was happy to talk in Kannada. “These kids, they come here and play like mad people. Then they leave all their beer bottles on the beach and go off”, he said, handing me my tea. “They don’t dirty their country, they come here and dirty ours”.

He lived in the village I had just walked from. This beach was always full of these folks, he told me. They just stayed here for months at a time, hanging out, making friends and love, eating, reading, and playing in the water. “It’s much more crowded in December. You should come back then”.

“Do you want to take a boat ride to Om beach?”, a boatman shouted from near the water. “Only five hundred rupees”. We haggled amicably for a bit, settling on two hundred if he could get someone else to come along for the ride before I finished my second tea.

Right up to December last year, he had fished. His insurance had run out first, and then his fishing license expired. It was too expensive to renew them, the insurance especially. The companies were always raising the rates. As the fishing became harder, the boats stayed the same and the fishermen took more risks. “I don’t make as much money ferrying people, but it’s easier. You know, you can see dolphins now if you come on the boat.” I laughed and shook my head. The tea was over.

“Come back in December”, he said as I got up to leave. Then you can see the dolphins sitting here on the beach!”

“You’re already leaving? Why don’t you stay for lunch?”, Valentine asked me. I smiled and shook my head.

The sun was shining fiercer than in the morning, but it bothered me less. I stopped at every beach to get wet. The waves were playful, pushing me down when I tried to stand up and letting me dive underneath as they broke near the shore.

Leaving Om beach, there were steps going up the way I had come, and to their left was a sign pointing along the rocks. “Danger!”, it warned me. “For local fisherman only.”

The path by the rocks started off timidly enough. There was a trail, thinner than the stairs, but still proper and easy to follow. There was even a shack about ten minutes in. Then I decided to turn left, away from the trail, which meandered back into the forest. The sea is pretty and it’s better to keep it in view, I thought.

Who needs trails?
Who needs trails? These were the rocks I walked along
At some points, the waves were crashing against the rocks, so I had to time my steps so they came in the lulls. Crabs scurried away to make way for me and I had a strong urge to sit and watch them for a bit.

Suddenly there was no way forward, and to my right was this huge boulder.

The way I see it, I turn back or I climb up.

The climb would have been a V2 maybe, a route I could have done easily. But here, I was getting scared. There was no mattress below me, only the waves smashing against the rocks.

Near the top, the next hold was in reach, but if I committed to the move, I would lose my path back down. In another world, at another age, or maybe just on a cooler day, I would have reached out without hesitation. Today, I gave up.

I felt like walking back on the same path would not just be wrong, but humiliating. So I turned left into the forest at a random point. Keep the sea on your left, and all will be good, I told myself.

In five minutes the sea was gone and I  was in the middle of a dense thicket of eucalyptus trees. The ground was very slippery with newly fallen leaves, and I couldn’t walk without slipping and. I was flinging myself from tree to tree, holding on for dear life.

When the trees finally cleared out, I noticed my towel was wet with blood. My hands and feet were hurting. Even worse, the sea was now to my right.

Fuck! Why is the sea on the right? How long have I been walking the wrong way?

I decided to play it safe and just keep walking till I found the trail, even if it meant retracing my steps. In half an hour, I was on the trail, and I seemed to be far closer to the hostel than I thought I would be.

Just before I got back to the hostel, I stopped at a restaurant and asked for a lassi. I played hide-and-seek with a girl who told me her name was Nagashri and that she was in the first grade. I sat there for a few minutes, tired and content, thinking about my restlessness in the morning and how much difference getting lost, getting hurt, and getting wet had made.

What would happen, I wondered, if I jumped into the sea and became a fish? If one moment, suddenly, I just disappear, my thoughts turn to sand and the memory of me in people’s hearts fades away?

Nothing would happen, obviously, another voice in my head answered.

If people are the sum of their experiences, what am I?

I am sand, heavy in the water and light in the wind.

Sunset at Zostel, Gokarna
Sunset over Gokarna
I lay down on a hammock, and the orange sky peeked through silhouetted trees.

I settled in to read my novel.

Longform Wednesday – Reading, Kashmir, Scifi again (😊), Physics and Andamans

Welcome to Longform Wednesday, where I post approximately five good long articles that I read over the last week! I may miss posting on some weeks, but this week is not one of them.

I am posting this series on here to encourage myself to read more well researched and well thought-out articles online, and in doing that, to give you a selection to try for yourself! These articles are rewarding, because depth is rewarding. Being slow and deliberate with your time is rewarding.

So, this week, we have (as always, click on the headers to get to the articles):

Can Reading Make You Happier – The New Yorker

This whole series is part of my effort to prove to myself that reading can make you happier. This article explores the science behind this, and introduced me to bibliotherapy: the act of reading for therapeutic effect.

Read the article, and then a book!

Kashmir and the Mass Blinding- The Guardian

Last year, Kashmir exploded into protests following the killing of a man the Indian government considered a terrorist. During these protests, the police (or the army, or the border forces, does it matter?) used pellet guns which ended up blinding protestors. No, seriously.

When I was in Manali, I ended up arguing with two strangers about Kashmir, and I was called anti-Indian when I said we can’t stand for what the government is doing to the Kashmiris, that the government has to listen to the people there. I see people on my facebook wall, my friends, saying that even if this crackdown was sad, it was necessary.

Before I get all sad and angry and political again, let me move on.

Auspicium Melioris Aevi – Uncanny Magazine

These days, whenever I read SciFi short stories, they are open-ended, complex, and mostly seem like they are painting a picture rather than telling a story. So I was happy to read this straight-up simple, yet clever SciFi story about an interesting future. Imagine a story in which this quote fits right in, and then tell me you don’t want to read it.

The Suu Kyis and the Hillaries seemed to get along well, for example, but the Modis and Merkels never did. And sometimes there were surprises, like the frequent friendships between the Gateses and the Ahmadis.

The Boundaries of Physics – Quanta Magazine

Recently, String theory has become, at least in the public eye, one of the forerunners in Physicists’ quest to find a Grand Unified Theory of everything. However, as this article shows, there is a fundamental problem with string theory: it is unfalsifiable via experiment.

It’s a great debate. The experiments needed to verify string theory are not possible. But if we don’t do the experiments, how can we even call String Theory scientific. One of the proponents for the theory says we can use a Bayesian interpretation, basically saying calculate fairly the chances of correctness. However, some physicists think that is crap.

The comments in the article are awesome and informative as well.

Native Tribes in the Andaman Islands – The Economic Times

This website doesn’t look too good, but the article is solid.

There are native tribes, mostly cut off from all other contact, living in the Andaman Islands. The Indian government has been careful to leave them to their own devices, to avoid the “colonial mistakes” of the British and the Americans. The British, of course, came to the island and killed most of the tribe in the early 1800s.

However even in the present of course, has been contact between the tribes and the others on the island, especially since some refugees were given land in the immediate surrounding areas. Things came to a head when there was a mixed-race baby born to one of the tribeswomen and the baby was killed.

If you were the Indian government, would you turn a blind eye? The interesting thing is that the people who actually are in close contact with the tribe, including people whose relatives were killed by the tribespeople, say that the tribe should be left alone. There is a long history of local knowledge that will just disappear with modernity.

San Pedro de Atacama

View from a hill with a small house in the distance

Prologue

The carabineros (Chilean police) rushed into the scene before any of us could even stand up. They spread out across the front of the group, speaking in quick and efficient Spanish, telling everyone to wrap up the party and go home. One of them approached a man who was clearly drunk and probably high. He said something and started laughing. The carabinero lady didn’t look impressed with his wit and called one of her teammates over. It looked like he was going to be arrested. People around him tried getting in the way, but the carabineros coolly ignored them.

I started walking towards them, but the man beside me held me back with his arm. “Not safe for you,” he said, and then added, “They just want to scare him. They won’t do anything. Where are you from?”

Arrival

On the map of Chile, the Atacama desert occupies much of the North of Chile and small parts of Peru, Bolivia and Argentina. Given its existential issue as a plateau between two mountain ranges on both sides that shield it from the rest of the world, the area receives almost no rainfall. I was told some parts of the desert have never received rainfall. The desert one of the world’s premier sights for star-gazing and NASA has tested their Mars Rovers here.

There is almost no humidity and there is almost always an unrelenting and dry heat under a straight-to-your-skin sun. There will probably come a day when I will regret not wearing sunscreen during my time here.

The desert is littered with interesting rock formations, salt lakes, geyser pools, salt flats, sand dunes, and so much more. There is a never-ending list of things to tick off while you are here, and all these things are always in the periphery of your vision and perception when you spend any time in the small gateway town of San Pedro de Atacama. David, Travis, Jes (who we met again on the bus to here. Remember these guys from Valparaiso, Vina, and La Serena?), and I spent a few days here touring the region and seeing the sights.

San Pedro brought to a head all my debates — internal and external — about being a traveller versus being a tourist. In my mind, the differences had been slowly melting away leaving behind a general understanding that everyone, tourist or traveller,  is doing their own thing.

People walking on the streets of San Pedro
Backpackers on the street. Interesting construction materials and a great vibe pervade the town of San Pedro de Atacama

But getting to San Pedro de Atacama from the Caldera region was a shock. Every street was replete with travel agencies, adventure tour operators and fancy restaurants. There were backpackers walking everywhere, always recognisable with their (mostly) whiteness, (mostly) youth, flip-flops, and a general aura of confidence and aimlessness that seemed to walk in step with them.

However, the town also had an unavoidable positive energy, rumoured to be from all the lithium deposits in the desert. Almost-pedestrian-only dust-covered streets, clean and dry air, volcanoes in the distance, cafes filled with chatty happy tourists, pretty expats advertising for the tour agencies: all these things left me feeling light and cheerful, and gave me a spring in my otherwise exhausted (from the heat) step. David was unimpressed though. “It’s a tourist trap”, he said.

Day One

Cycling path to Valle de la Luna
The beginning of our cycling path to Valle de la Luna. Yes, we tried to cycle on this path. Yes, we failed

On our first day, we rented cycles and rode to the nearby Valle de la Luna (Valley of the moon). Sculpted by millions of years of wind and water interacting with salt and sand and stone, the formations in the valley are thrilling. There are caves that connect to small paths that connect to viewpoints. There are sand dunes and amazing views from the top of them that extend all the way to the horizon and seemingly beyond because there’s nothing between your eye and infinity here. At sunset, improbable colours pile up on top of the landscape as hundreds of travellers and tourists on guided tours gather to watch the show.

The valley really is something different from any other place I have ever been. I would love to go back in a camper van and just spend a few days there.

Sand dune in the Valle de la Luna
Half of a panoramic view with a sand dune
Me looking at the view
Me posing as an explorer
We walked through this cave and reached a hilltop
Crazy rock formations in the Valle de la Luna. We walked into here and then ended up a small hilltop

That night in our campground, we met two brothers from Punta Arenas in the south of Chile, and a group of giggling girls from Santiago de Chile who thought I resembled the lead actor from Life of Pi. Together with the brothers, we went out to have dinner and instead ended up watching the most amazing street musicians I have ever seen. They were playing a few unusual instruments, some native to Chile, and they had some really cool rhythms going. A big crowd was gathered around them; strangers talking to one another (and to us) and enjoying the music. Dinner was forgotten and we just stayed there, dancing and enjoying the music.

After a while, the musicians started walking along the road, but they kept playing. The crowd started walking and dancing along with them and we got caught up in the flow of people. “Where are we going?”, I asked David. He shrugged and we kept dancing and walking in what had now become a parade through the streets of San Pedro.

“We’re here! Welcome to the Playa Sin Agua [beach without water]”, said one of the musicians as we reached what appeared to be the outskirts of the town. We had left the streets behind and we were on sand now. The musicians continued playing their awesome music and a bonfire was lit. We lay down on the sand and looked up at the stars.

Day Two

The next day, we did the unthinkable and booked tours with an agency. They took us a set of two pools (water in the middle of the desert!) called the Ojos del Salar. One of these pools welcomes tourists jumping into it, and so that is what I did of course. For sunset, we were taken to a place that I now don’t remember the name of. There were salt flats and a few volcanoes in the background which made for a magnificent view.

Me jumping into the water
Me jumping into one of the lagoons at Ojos del Salar
San Pedro landscape
This is the San Pedro desert with volcanoes and mountains in the distance. Look how far you can see!
Boardwalk on sunset tour
Boardwalk on our sunset tour. Look at all of those tour vans. That’s how many people were around
San Pedro Sunset over the salt flats

That night, we walked around the town trying to find the musicians again, but they weren’t there. After dinner and a great deal of walking, we ended up at a square in the middle of the town, where a group of locals was sitting around. One guitarist in the middle was strumming songs with a gentle, soothing voice. We sat on the ground and took in the atmosphere. “See, this is what I’m talking about. These are real people”, said David.

I nodded, but then added, “You know they wouldn’t be here if it weren’t for the tourists, right?”.

There were joints passed around and beer cans kept appearing out of nowhere. Then the carabineros arrived. Even as the police vans were parking, the beer had disappeared. I looked around and David was gone as well.

I wanted to interfere when they started talking loudly to a man who was clearly drunk but was held back by the guy next to me. “They just want to scare him. They won’t do anything. Where are you from?”.

I told him I was Indian, and continued to look at the drama.

“That’s pretty cool that they won’t do anything”, I said. “In India, they wouldn’t let him go without humiliation and a bribe.”

“The last thing you want to do is bribe a carabinero. They are very proud and never accept bribes.”

He led me away from the scene and we walked together and talked. “Chilean wine is the best”, he said as we reached his apartment. “Wait, you want to try some?”, he asked.

“Of course.”

He went inside and came back after a few minutes with a huge bottle of white wine. “Best white wine in Chile!”, he said.

We sat there side by side, the night silent and wispy like cigarette smoke around us, drinking wine and talking about our countries.

“Chile is very political because we are still divided on the dictatorship years”, he told me.

He showed me music videos by famous Chilean artists. One artist, Violeta Parra, still stands out to me, and I’ve linked to one of her songs below. It is a beautiful deeply political song about a girl whose brother has been arrested. The translated lyrics can be found here.

In return, I showed him videos of Zakir Hussain playing the tabla because that’s the only thing my wine-happy mind could think of!

“Do you have Facebook? Can I add you?”, I asked him.

“Why?”

He waved and disappeared into the night.

Day Three

When I made my way back to camp at around 5 AM, David was there waiting. “Where did you disappear to?”, I asked him.

“A guy was showing me around the town. It was really cool. He told me about the town’s history and all. Really cool guy. But then he got pissed that I wasn’t gay”.

We had come to San Pedro and our eyes had at first seen merely a tourist town. We left it (in different directions) happily surprised with experiences I had never thought I would have.

Travel Details

Getting there: You can fly to Calama airport from Santiago and take a taxi or bus to San Pedro, or you can take the bus to San Pedro. It’s about a 22 hour bus ride from Santiago, but it’s comfortable and fun.

StayingHostels everywhere, hotels everywhere, and a few campgrounds too. There’s probably one that fits your budget.

Doing: Sandboarding, star-gazing, thermal springs, volcanos, lagoons, salt lakes, crazy rock formations. You could stay a month and still keep doing stuff.

But really, if you have the time and money, get your own transport (i.e. a camper van) and drive around. Some of my friends did that when they came here later, and they had a blast.

Longform Wednesday

Welcome to the second episode of Pritam’s Longform Wednesdays, where I share approximately five longform articles chosen from my reading on the internet through the week.

Reading longer articles is quite challenging me for these days; just the act of staying with the article for longer than a few minutes, while the rest of the internet is waiting, just a tab or a click away. However, it is more than worth the effort, especially if I manage to get immersed in the narrative. It’s part of an effort on my part to be slow and deliberate about the things I do. After all, the motto on the front page of this website is “Do not hurry. Do not rest.”, a quote by Goethe.

This week, we have: nature, heroin, Anthony Bourdain, an fantasy short story, and a diamond heist, so let’s get started!

Click on the headers to go to the articles.

Call to the wild – National Geographic

“People underestimate the happiness effect” of being outdoors, Nisbet says. “We don’t think of it as a way to increase happiness. We think other things will, like shopping or TV. We evolved in nature. It’s strange we’d be so disconnected.”

Just an article outlining the science that shows that being outside, in the mountains (maybe a beach too, I guess, if you’re into that) has a measurably positive effect on your happiness. Nature makes us nicer, happier, more creative, and more peaceful.

The science bears out what you will most certainly feel if you just get out of the concrete and into the green.

Why I bought my daughter heroin – BBC

This is a sad narrative of what a family goes through when one of them gets addicted. The writing is pretty raw and brutally honest about the daughter (the addict) and the mother (the writer of the article), and what both think of each other.

Anthony Bourdain’s Moveable Feast – New Yorker

A profile of Anthony Bourdain, how he travels, works, eats and lives. It’s a great, and inspiring look into the days of a great personality. Just watching his shows (No ReservationsLayover) or reading his books makes you trust the man immediately.

A fist of permutations in Lightning And Wildflowers – Tor

When I was a kid, I would always pick up Science Fiction novels that advertised themselves as Hugo and Nebula award winners, and it was a Nebula nomination that led me to read this short story.

It is as much about fantasy and alternate timelines as it is about trying to understand, and get through the pain of someone close to you dying.

The world’s biggest Diamond Heist – Wired

An old article (from 2009) that outlines the planning and execution of an improbably diamond heist. It reads like the plot of a movie, including awesomely creative solutions to security measures, characters with specialisations, twists, and even betrayals!

The “thief” and the “mastermind” have been arrested, but the diamonds still remain unrecovered. It’s a great story!

Caldera, where I learned more about Chile

Sunset at Bahia Inglesa beach

Caldera — for travellers — is a sleepy coastal town in Northern Chile. For the Chilean economy, it is an important port for the copper mining industry. In my memory now, however, it is the place that I met Carlos, who gave me a glimpse into the history of Chile and the spirit of its people.

Caldera is close to the beach town of Bahia Inglesa, a popular spot for both local and foreign tourists because of it’s clear beaches, white sands, moderate temperatures, good seafood and fresh ice-cream. People usually take the collectivo (shared taxi) to the Bahia Inglesa beach, but we decided to walk, which turned out to be a great decision.

The walk is through really small villages along the coast, and the terrain is empty, barren and somehow still friendly. There are no roads, there are just the sand covered plains with a few paths wide enough for cars (only four-wheel drives) scattered in them.

Sandswept roads on the way to Bahia Inglesa
Walking to Bahia Inglesa from Caldera. I’ve never seen anything like this before
This person was telling me what they were looking for in the sea, but I didn’t understand Spanish, so I don’t know!

The beach has a really long stretch of sand. Just beyond this crowded stretch below is a much-less crowded and slightly more rocky beach. The people there are mostly locals camping out with their cars, and taking rides in ATVs

We spent a lot of time on that beach, just lazing around on the sand, climbing rocks, taking pictures, eating seafood, and watching people enjoying themselves in the ocean.

Bahia Inglesa beach
Green, fresh, and clean waters. Lots of shiny, happy people
Sunset with a hut on the beach
Sunset on the way back from Bahia Inglesa
Instagram pic of a shell on the Bahia Inglesa beach

We also spent a lot of time, cooking and relaxing in our hostel. It had only a few rooms, so we spoke to all the occupants. I remember clearly a french father-daughter duo; the father a lawyer fighting for the rights of refugees in France, and the daughter, a self-professed hippie, just starting college in England. Both of them were extremely stylish and graceful, their voices low and commanding, their laughter melodious, and their eyes sincere.

While talking with them over beers and a fire, we befriended Carlos, a loud and friendly twenty-year local with curly hair. He wore oversized shirts and shorts, listened to hip-hop, and taught basketball to poor kids. “To save them from the streets, it’s good if they play sports”, he told us.

He was involved in many protest movements against the police and the government in Chile and showed us how to wrap a sweatshirt around your head so that you don’t breathe in tear gas.

“My dad was tortured by the Chilean government”, said Carlos one night.

I looked at David, to make sure I had heard correctly. “Did he say his dad was tortured?”

David nodded. “Under the Pinochet government.”

Carlos continued telling David his father’s story in rapid Spanish. “What’s he saying?”, I asked David.

“His dad had to flee the country”, David said, waving his hands to hush me so that Carlos could continue. “He could come back only when Pinochet was overthrown.”

I had already heard that the 1970s had been a turbulent time in Chilean politics and that it was still fresh in many Chileans’ minds. However, this was the first time someone was talking to me so freely about it.

Now, as I was writing this entry, I looked into it a little bit more, and what I found made me quite angry and sad.

Some Recent Chilean History

It is October 1970, and Salvador Allende is the president of Chile, despite active involvement by the CIA to prevent his ascendancy. They have directly funded political parties, they have actively plotted coups, and they have funded anti-Allende propaganda in the media, but the people have still voted for him.

The US is wary of him because he espouses Marxist and socialist ideas. It isn’t just that, however. He also aims to nationalise the copper mines (if you watch Motorcycle Diaries, the mine that Che Guevara stops at with the old, poor couple and fights for them the next day is one of the largest in Chile) that are a source of valuable profits to private American companies. Chilean telecommunications are almost wholly managed by ITT, an American corporation.

Moreover, all this is happening during the height of the cold war, and every country that isn’t following American ideals is a potential convert to the Russian side, even though Russia is now a little hesitant because their experiment in Cuba is costing them a lot (Pg 37 in Reference 1).

With this background, and against advice from his own state department, Nixon tells the CIA to “make the [Chilean] economy scream” (Reference 2).

And they do.

Chile’s economy, even with Allende’s attempts at diversification, is hugely dependent on the US, which accounts for about eighty percent of its foreign trade. An ITT memo from 1970 reads, “A more realistic hope among those who want to block Allende is that a swiftly deteriorating economy will touch off a wave of violence leading to a military coup.”

The US stops providing economical assistance to Chile. Imports of important replacement parts for basic infrastructures such as trucks, cars, and construction equipment comes to a halt. Truckers go on a very well-publicised strike (Reference 3), and they are curiously well-funded, even admitting to reporters that their money is coming from the CIA. Bus companies stop running, there are food shortages, inflation is now through the roof, and people are finally unhappy. The plan is working, and the CIA increases its propaganda in Chile, directly influencing and placing editorials and radio programmes every day, pointing to the Allende government as the cause of all this suffering to the people (Pg 40 in Reference 1).

Despite all of this, Allende’s party’s vote share increases in the 1973 parliamentary election, and the US is faced with the prospect of a continuing Allende presidency.

However, while it has been strangling the economy, the US has been increasing the funding to the Chilean military, both directly and through private groups. The CIA is actively involved in the planning of coups through multiple parties.

They later claim they were not directly involved in the coup that actually succeeded, even though they were aware of it in the months leading up to it. Though they also acknowledge that private companies that had CIA funding were actively involved (Reference 1). “The CIA was aware that links between these groups and the political parties made clear distinctions difficult.”

After one failed attempt, Allende is finally ousted on September 11, 1973. There are tanks outside the parliament, and Allende is surrounded. Instead of vacating his office and surrendering, he makes a speech to the Chilean people (Reference 4) on the radio and then shoots himself.

They have force and will be able to dominate us, but social processes can be arrested by neither crime nor force. History is ours, and people make history.   — Salvador Allende, Sept 11, 1973.

Allende is replaced by Pinochet, the army chief, who immediately dissolves congress, bans political activity, abolishes freedom of the press, arrests supporters of other parties, bans rock music, makes congregations illegal, and of course cancels all upcoming elections. More than 20,000 people are arrested, and the Estadio Nacional (National Stadium) in Santiago is converted to a prison and torture chamber.

A famous singer with communist leanings, Victor Jara, is tortured. He is mocked and told to play the guitar after his fingers are cut off. He is shot with more than forty bullets and his body is displayed publicly at the entrance of the stadium. The song linked to below talks about a girl Amanda, whose lover goes off to fight and never returns.

The US government, through Henry Kissinger, continues to support the Pinochet government, turning a blind eye to the human rights abuses that continue to pile up. More people, including Carlos’ dad, are imprisoned and tortured. Many, like my Airbnb hosts’ family in Valparaiso, flee into exile.

In 1975, the CIA acknowledges in their report (Reference 1) that, even with all their involvement, the prospects for a revival of democracy had declined rather than improved.

In 1980, a new constitution was put into place, and in 1988, Pinochet lost a referendum to continue as President, and Chile finally returned to Civilian rule (Reference 6).

Much later, in 2003, after the declassification of many documents related to US action in Chile, Colin Powell calls the period “not a part of American history that we’re proud of” (Reference 7).

Carlos’ Story

I got in touch with Carlos again while writing this post.

He told me that Hector Rivera Osorio, his father, was arrested during the military regime for thinking along the lines of the singer Victor Jara, a communist singer who was arrested, tortured, and beaten to death in the Estadio Nacional (the national stadium) in Santiago.

Hector Rivera Osorio was also tortured on the pretext that he had been building a bomb with dynamite. Many of his friends were killed by the military, but he was eventually released. After his release, he fled to Ecuador to avoid recapture where he taught mathematics under the name Juan Pablo Perez Cotapo. He lived there till the dictatorship ended in 1988, when he returned to his homeland that he still loved.

More than forty years later, his son met an Indian traveller and told him this story, adding, “My father suffered because he believed there was a better future for me and my brothers in Chile.”

Carlos is now studying to be an engineer in Santiago, Chile and believes he is living in that future now.

Juan Pablo Perez Cotapo alias Hector Rivera Osorio
Carlos’ father, Juan Pablo Perez Cotapo alias Hector Rivera Osorio

Travel Details

Getting there: You can get to Caldera by bus from Santiago. It’s a long ride, and La Serena is a great place

Staying: There are only a few hostels in Caldera, but they are cheap. Bahia Inglesa has hotels and more hostels and things are closer to the beach, but it is more expensive.

Doing: Laze around on the beach, swim in the pleasant water, watch all the people and talk to the locals. You might meet someone like Carlos as well.

References

  1. Senate report CIA covert action in Chile between 1963 and 1973 (Big PDF that’s been scanned quite badly, but really well written)
  2. DemocracyNow report on Nixon’s involvement in the Chile coup and its aftermath
  3. An excerpt from the book Killing Hope by William Blum
  4. Salvador Allende’s last speech
  5. NYTimes article where some prisoners talk about their time in the Estadio Nacional
  6. Wikipedia article on the dictatorship period in Chile
  7. Colin Powell answers students’ questions in 2003

Longform Wednesday – River Stealing, Lost Musicians, Socialism, Istanbul, and a Short Story

I read a lot on the internet, and I want to encourage myself to read more longform articles, because they are usually well-researched and take the time to get to the heart of the story rather than just describing the surface.

With that in mind, I’ve decided to irregularly update this blog with links to articles that I’ve enjoyed during the week, either because they’ve taught me something new, or just because the writing is so great.

There might be some bias towards India-focused articles and travel-focused articles, but that’s because I’m Indian and I’m a traveller.

Welcome to the First Episode of Pritam’s Longform Wednesdays!

How To Steal a River – The New York Times Magazine

India is growing at a crazy rate, and that crazy rate, demands a surplus of, among many other things, construction materials. At the heart of those things is: sand, which this article covers wonderfully, examining the corruption, necessity, and recklessness that is leading to the destruction of India’s rivers.

When you say something happens illegally in India, it always seems to mean that there are poor people being taken advantage of, and there is a callous disregard for the environment. Both are true in this case.

Finding India’s Lost Musicians – National Geographic

My country is made up of many, many ethnicities and races, each with its own unique traditions, customs and music. In many places, these traditions are dying down, unknown to the horde that is marching forward into capitalism and modernity.

If we only took a little time to reflect and understand, we would see that there is so much to protect. I have no doubt that we would preserve these wonderful folk music traditions, and more importantly, give them the respect they deserve.

Why Socialism – Albert Einstein

The Monthly Review calls themselves an “Independent Socialist Magazine”. Now, I know little of Socialism other than that the main goal is to distribute wealth across all layers of society, and that there are many practical hurdles to achieving this goal, such as the reluctance of rich people to give up the wealth that they believe they have earned fairly.

Einstein argues that the problem with capitalism is that its very nature makes the owners of the means of production unreasonably richer than the labourers that make the production possible, thus inevitably leading to a situation where wealth is concentrated in the hands of a few. He says the inequality that arises from this situation disadvantages huge sections of society. Both these observations seem quite prescient to me, considering today’s world.

I’m obviously not a politician, but it seems useful to me to understand at least the basics of these things. Plus, Einstein is such a great writer. If someone told me that letter was written today, I would see nothing out of place.

My Shattered Istanbul – The Big Roundtable (Medium)

This is just a lovely, sad description of Istanbul. I felt like I was in Istanbul, watching it slowly destroy itself by violence and closed-mindedness.

Last Night – James Salter (New Yorker)

I came across this short story in a writing course that I’m taking. Even though (both) the ending(s) is (are) predictable, it is a worthy inclusion here just because of the writing. All the little details and descriptions, that I never even think to include in my writing, make this story much more than the sum of its parts.

I’m saving this story more as an example of good writing, than as an example of good plot.