Saturday, November 25, 2017

Conversations with total strangers

Conversations with total strangers
With the rise of personal devices, these machines are ubiquitous and seem to have sneaked their way into every aspect our our lives. Except the hours we sleep, their persistent presence make us their slaves. Whether checking mails, putting up selfies, notifying the world about where we have been, what we have seen or eaten and who all we have met, they rule our lives.
With the phone constantly badgering our attention and overwhelming our senses, real conversations are becoming rarer, and would perhaps become extinct soon. The casual conversation with strangers, with growing paranoia, does not happen anymore.
It was a pleasant surprise when the distinguished looking gentleman, with a lady of obvious European descent, sitting at the next table in one of the reputed hotels on the Marine Drive, Mumbai for breakfast, smiles at me and asks, "Are you from here or travelling for business?"
The gentleman was wearing a khadi waistcoat (bundee), casual Kurta and churidaar and chappals. The lady was wearing a modest trouser suit. When he spoke to her, cutting through the mild east coast accent, I thought there was this western India accent- Rajasthan or Gujarat? With the lady, obviously the wife, as she was ordering his breakfast with the implicit authority that only wives exhibit. Well I said to myself, "He would be in his middle-70s and she in to her late-60s at least; he would have made his way to the US of A in the early 1970s to do his masters, and stayed back. His chappals were a dead giveaway. It was his small gesture of reasserting his roots."
It turned out he was a rather well known artist, Gujarati by birth, had gone to USA in 1962 for his masters in fine arts from Pennsylvania. Later did I find out that his paintings adorned Guggenheim and many famous art museums, private and corporate collections including Exxon, Volvo etc. He was indeed world famous!
They both proved me wrong, he was 83 and she was 77! He spoke of the need for sponsoring arts and imbibing the sense of arts and appreciating our old history of art and culture among Indian youth. He lamented how religion was destroying the basic tenet of universal brotherhood. He wandered off to explain how there were scientific evidence of genetic traits of the inhabitants of a village in Tamil Nadu were identical with those in a village in Africa; how similar were the architectural designs from the Mayan civilisation with the designs of the master architect Maya (Ravana' father-in-law, planner of Lanka of Ramayana and also that of Indraprastha mentioned in Mahabharata)! The conversation meandered to art, culture and conversations. He lamented the fact that we do not realise that life is so short and still people do not talk to each other and shirk spread goodwill and love and affection through simple conversation! I had catching up to do with reading the voluminous documents for a board meeting and he had appointments to keep at the nearby art gallery where his work was being exhibited. So we parted as friends.
Inspired by his advocacy for conversations with total strangers, I went out for a smoke. I saw an obviously middle age European couple sitting on steps and smoking. He had lurid tattoos on his rather burly arms. I sat down next to the gentleman and politely asked him about his tattoos, and whether they were painful when being created. The gentleman smiled disarmingly and said they indeed were quite painful and that he had them done when he was fifteen. They had taken a full week of being under the needle and he had lived with them ever since. They were in India for seventeen days on a trip of a lifetime, visited Delhi, Jaipur, Varanasi and Mumbai was their last port of call and this was their last day in India.They were from Manchester and he had been a postman and delivery driver for his entire life. I confessed that I had always dreamt of getting a tattoo, however small and definitely not lurid, but never could screw up enough courage! He said that their visit to Varanasi was a mind blowing experience and he would never forget it.So ended my morning with conversations with two sets of complete strangers, whom I may never meet again, but strangely I am filled with a sense of joy of living and connecting with other human beings and enriched for it!

Friday, October 20, 2017

Visit to the Greek island of Evia

Visit to the island of Evia
Who would forego the opportunity to visit a Greek island with a Greek, especially if it was his native village? My old friend Professor Evangelos Afendras offered to take me to his native village of Papades on the island of Evia, just off the mainland. Evia is a large island, long and sits at a north-west to south-east just off the coast in the Aegean Sea. As always, every journey, even the shortest walk with Evangelos turns in to a history lesson! The ancient name of the island was Euboea, and the name means rich in cattle, an island you find good beef. The Euripus strait that separates it from the mainland is  very narrow; so narrow that the bridge is hardly 200 metres long. Strangely though, the sea flows through the strait at extreme speeds like a river, and reverses directions every six hours or so, depending upon the tide.
The capital of Evia is Xalkida or Chalkida (known at different times as Chalcidice, Chalcis), is just across the bridge. Evangelos tells me that it means bronze, and that this ancient town was famous for its bronze equipment from ancient times.
So we took a bus from Athens to Xalkida and the journey took almost two hours and Euro 7.50. Papades being in the interior at the north-west tip, and 103km away and another nearly two hours away from Xalkida, the buses were limited to twice a day. With some two and a half hours in hand we decided to see a bit more of Xalkida, before getting on to the bus for Papades.
The aqueduct at Xalkida attests to its antiquity. We took a short bus ride to the promenade of Xalkida . One side of the promenade was the narrowest part of the strait and slowly it widened to be a part of Aegean. On the promenade stands a statue of Evangelos's grand uncle on his mother's side, venerable Anastasios Papanastasiou, who was a prominent leader of the struggle of independence against the Ottoman Empire. Evia at one time was even ruled by the Venetians and an old fort stands testimony to their rule! Then it passed on to Ottomans Turks.
Lunch by the bus station was Fix beer (established in 1876 no less in Evia!), Spanakotiro (cheese and spinach roll) and pita bread. 
The bus rolled in and a small forty winks, curvy hill roads lined with pine trees(which reminded me of Uttarakhand roads) and we were in Papades in less than two hours.
Papades, Evangelos told me, had a total of 180 inhabitants and a good one third to one quarter had the surname 'Afendras' and hence by definition, his cousins! We landed at a taverna and started with a cup of coffee. The taverna was run by a stolid lady Argyro and it was designed and erected by her brother Lakis.   Argyro apparently sustained herself on coffee and cigarettes! The tavern was uniquely designed with driftwood, pine boards. The design merits a lot of discussion because of the use of rather unusual material. Lakis was apparently the village handyman, a happy mix of mason,architect, plumber all rolled in one. His design sensibilities are amazing for a man who has just about finished school in a remote village on an island, with no formal training. The bar counter was made of pine boards, the smaller tables too were made from a mix of pine boards and driftwood. Even the lamp holders outside were assembled out of pieces of driftwood.
Within one hour or so a good two dozen people passed by. All such comers welcomed my friend with hugs and kisses and torrents of, you guessed it Greek, and it was all Greek to me! One middle aged lady shrieked, hugged and kissed Evangelos, and followed up with a torrent and soon had tears rolling down her cheeks. She apparently remembered, so translated my friend, how he used to toss her up in the air and catch her when they were both children. The reunion was very touching and had me surreptitiously wiping a tear.

Thanks to Evangelos, a friend of a cousin, or was it the the cousin of a friend, who agreed to rent out his cottage with two beds to us. Interestingly, he had left the keys on the door! The cottage was beautifully constructed of stone and the inside had two beds and a small kitchenette. Freshened up we set off on a discovery of Papades, for me! One taverna, a dozen cousins or friends, boisterous welcomes and I lost track of names and relations, two shots of ouzo on ice with salted sardines and tiny pieces of squid, olives for me; another taverna,  a repeat of the goodies, and it was evening. Ouzo, for the uninitiated, is the national drink of Greece and is classified as an aperitif with a strong aniseed (saunf) flavour and turns milky when water is added. Believe you me, two or more, and it gets you buzzing! By the time we reached the taverna where we were expected to have dinner, I was little buzzy and the world decidedly seemed a good place with  sweet breeze from the Aegean under starry skies. This taverna was run by a beautiful young lady Morphia (nickname derived from Evamorfia). Apparently she had nursed and taken care of the owner in his final days, another cousin of Evangelos, and had received the taverna as a thank you from the owner. By then I had learnt the Greek for 'thank you'- "xalista". The Greek "h" apparently is pronounced "kh", something our urdu 'ख'. The dinner was a fantastic treat from me: pita bread dipped in olive oil, a large piece of fried baby shark accompanied by salad of cucumber and herbs tossed in balsamic vinegar. The lady owner Morfia, added a dessert of stewed plum in honey, heavenly! This was followed by Greek liqueur called 'rakho-melo', where rakho is the local liquor and melo is honey. Divine! The kind Morphia also packed a small satchel full of bread, feta cheese, dried figs and a thick syrupy preserve of plum for our breakfast.
Evangelos, the linguist that he is,  tells me the word 'rakho' is the etymological root for the word in English, 'arrack' which means country liquor. 'Melo' is the sweet as honey part of drama as in 'melodrama' or that of a song-'melody'!

The return journey turned even more spiritual, as Evangelos met more of his country cousins/friends at one taverna on the way back. Someone suggested I try the Greek cognac Metaxa, and we have a serious difference of opinion here. Evangelos swears I had three shots of the potent brandy, at one Euro per shot of 60 ml plus, and I distinctly remember having two! Anyway, I did walk back to our abode and soon I was in the embrace of Morpheus, aided by the various libations imbibed over the evening- ouzo, rakho-melo and  Metaxa!

The next morning was glorious, with the sun rising from the Aegean, and I sat on the rear verandah of the cottage, plucked tiny apples from the tree in the backyard, saw the sun rising out of the Aegean. We had forgotten to bring tea bags, hence it was a bath and a short walk to Argyro's  taverna. It was St Eustace Day, and kindly ladies on their way back from the church gave us lumps of the bread as 'prasad'. Incidentally the past founder priest of that church was also an Efendras! I noticed that all the pious ladies and men (mostly old) used only two fingers to mark the traditional cross. My old Jesuit school days reminded me that the devout RCs (Roman Catholics) used three fingers to cross themselves, and one such classmates had educated me. The three fingers represented the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost. When I questioned Evangelos, he clarified that the Greek Orthodox church did not consider the Holy Ghost, hence the two fingers!

 We munched some of that bread with the feta cheese and strong coffee and I learnt my next Greek word- "kalimeri" good day! Evangelos decided he had to visit his ancestral plot of land with its eleven olive trees and one wallnut tree. Soon we were trekking down a rather semi-dangerous trail, beset by brambles and thorny bushes. There was a rest stop at one field where we were offered a few apples, a bunch of ripe grape by some kindly cousin. Few wrong turns, with our ankles protesting the passage through thorns, squeezing through a small gap in barbed wire fence and we were on the hallowed piece of land. Much to Evangelos's chagrin, the olive trees had small olives clearly due to neglect over years. The wallnut tree was completely surrounded by wild undergrowth and the tree itself was under some wild vine. Evangelos has stories about his grandfather came with his young children and wife during harvesting of olives and the family slept under the wallnut tree. He showed me some wild fruits which grew in small bunched on roadside bushes. As we walked uphill, the small berries were a nice follow through to the breakfast. Soon we were back to the taverna. The mayor of the village insisted on showing us a nearby resort, jointly owned by the Ministry of Tourism and by the village that had been lying idle and unutilised over last few years due to bureaucratic red-tape! The short car ride brought us to the resort that had 24 adorable cottages that were rented out for as little as Euro25 per night, peanuts if you consider each cottage has two bedrooms and another sofa outside! The large dining hall and the surrounding area with benches were just crying out to be occupied. As a teacher/trainer I was wondering what it would be like to have a training programme there? We walked back to Argyro's taverna, drinking in the beautiful scenery- red tiled houses with grapes dangling from arbour, the beautiful rolling hills, the olive fields, clear blue skies with autumn clouds and glimpses of the Aegean. 
Lakis had introduced us to a local restaurateur Kostas, who was a sculptor and artist in his spare time. We were invited for dinner jointly by Lakis and Kostas. 
Kostas is a bachelor, lives with his old mother. The entrance had an interesting steel sculpture made from industrial scrap. At the very entrance, he had red wine brewing in two large industrial tanks of 200 litres, and the wine was actually on the tap! What followed was a torrent of Greek in a three-sided conversation between Evangelos, Lakis and Kostas. I used the time to explore Kostas's house and take pictures of his art collection, a virtual treasure trove! Kostas is an self-taught artist who picks up driftwood from the nearby beaches and odd pieces of marble and carves them in to fantastic shapes. The driftwood usually ends up as female figures and the marble pieces in to faces with long streaming hair with some nautical undertones. The evening was glorious with red wine flowing with the conversation, with me participating only in the former! The dinner was a simple affair,starting with hors de oeuvres  of local tomato and cucumber, odd pieces of cheese, squid and sardines, large bread and a glorious chicken roasted by Lakis. What my companions discussed was all Greek to me as usual, and I was busy with the red wine, nectar fit for the gods! in all, a very spiritual evening.
The return trip was rather wistful for me, seemed like paradise lost!
Aqueduct at Xalkida

Seafront at Xalkida

Bridge on the Euripes Strait

Seafront at Xalkida

Dr Evangelos Efendras at the seafront at Xalkida

Seafront at Xalkida

Aristotle was born in Xalkida

Seafront at Xalkida

Church in Papades

Argyro's taverna

Handiwork of Lakis

Handiwork of Lakis

Handiwork of Lakis

Handiwork of Lakis

Cottage where we stayed

Cottage where we stayed

View of taverna at night

View of taverna 

Apples in the backyard of the cottage

Apples in the backyard of the cottage

Enroute to Evangelos's plot of land

Enroute to Evangelos's plot of land

Evangelos's plot of land


Berries by the roadside

Proud owner of the plot

The fabled walnut tree

Grapes on the arbour

House in Papades

Grave of the sainted priest Afendras (read Alpha-Phi-Nu-Delta-Rho-Alpha-Sigma!!!!)

The resort

In one of the cottages: the village Mayor & Evangelos

Lakis the handiman & designer

Kostas the restaurateur & artist

Inside Kostas's home (recognise the painting on the right??)
Inside Kostas's home

Inside Kostas's home: figurine from driftwood

Inside Kostas's home

Female figure in marble 
Female figure in marble

Female figure in marble

Female figure in marble

Kostas & Evangelos

Steel sculpture from industrial scrap

Figures in marble

Entrance to Kostas's home

L:R- Kostas, Evangelos & Lakis in the foreground

Sunset at Papades