Wednesday, June 13, 2018

Iceland: Nature's majesty

Iceland reminds us that nature is magnificently fascinating! This blogpost, I shall be writing as I experience it rather than after the trip because I realise that sometimes we need to capture our immediate responses to nature. (After writing the entire blogpost, now I have a word to describe Iceland - otherworldly.)

I always thought of chasing the sun westwards. For example, my London to Seattle flight would only seem 2 hours long due to timezones, or my Amsterdam to London flight may even travel a few mins back in time. But I never even considered that it is possible to chase the sun northwards. Our flight took off around 9.30pm. Ordinarily, my tropical childhood would suggest that 9.30pm is night. But in June, in London, the sun was nearing the horizon with a 30min journey left before darkness descends. It had taken me a few summers to adjust to that. Our flight continued to chase this setting sun, not allowing it to touch the horizon. We landed in Iceland at 11pm (midnight in London) with the sun still another 30mins away from setting.

We reached our airport hotel, which was the only hotel that I booked with not much thought going into it except trying to keep the costs low. After all, we just need a place to crash for the night before we pick up our car. Turns out, our "room" was actually a studio cottage on absolutely flat land. Here is a picture. Taken at midnight, you see the daylight. I imagine the daylight persisted through the night so really there wasn't any night at all.

Day 1: KEF airport to Jökulsárlón and retreated towards Kirkjubæjarklaustur for the night (570km of driving)
We found that our first day in Iceland was bound to be rainy, and very rainy for the plans we had. So a little adjustment meant that we had 400+ km or over 5 hours of driving east to Jökulsárlón which would be the furthest point of our trip. This is an iceberg lagoon. We saw the massive glacier hanging over us and the tongue of the glacier collapsing into this lagoon which is filled with varying sizes of icebergs. These icebergs, most of them powder blue in colour and few black with volcanic ash, float around melting fast under the near constant sun.
We jumped on an amphibious boat which took us around the lagoon passing by some impressive icebergs. Our guide got a piece of the iceberg and we tasted fresh mountain water. After the tour, we walked up a little hill for better views.

So impressed we were by this iceberg lagoon that we went in search of a smaller one on our way back from Jökulsárlón, called Fjallsárlón. This is much smaller hence quieter and pleasant to sit by the pond filled with small icebergs. The glacier tongue was also much closer and almost feels like you can walk up to it.

We were all ready to explore a glacier next but  realised that while the daylight stays all night, restaurants shut at some point and glacier tours are anyway closed for the day. We found a nice sit down restaurant for dinner in the village of
Kirkjubæjarklaustur after which we headed to our Airbnb close by. We had a found a cosy little place by the banks of Tungufljot River, literally in the middle of nowhere.

Day 2: From Kirkjubæjarklaustur to Hvolsvöllur (only 200km of driving but we walked 18km)

Our Airbnb host, a Kiwi who moved to the other end of the world for love, was helpful with suggests on glacier hikes. We called Arctic Adventures in the morning and booked a guided hike and then headed out to Sólheimajökull glacier parking lot. There we met the Arctic Adventures guys who sorted us out with a helmet, harness, icepick and crampons, and additionally hiking boots (for me) and waterproof trousers (we only had jackets). Then, we set out around 11.30 with our guide Jeff up on to Sólheimajökull glacier which sits snugly on top of the Katla volcano. This glacier is much smaller than the one that flows into Jökulsárlón. The volcano underneath is also a smallish one, yet it's bigger than the nearby Eyjafjallajökull which when it erupted in August 2010, caused flights to be cancelled across all of Europe, if you remember.

We were pretty much on the glacier within 15mins, but at the bottom. We began climbing it with the help of our crampons that dig into the ice and our guide who helped us navigate the terrain. He called himself a drill master and we followed him to the t, which meant we could see a lot more. Ice is constantly melting, forming little rivulets and flowing down along some ridges. The glacier, because it sits on a volcano, had volcanic ash mixed with ice. As the ice melts away, it leaves black mounds of volcanic ash. So closer to the tongue (at the glacier lagoon), the terrain is otherworldly, with ice and volcanic mounds.

As make our way up to the plateau, we see more ice and less ash. And finally at the plateau, the terrain is also otherworldly, but in a different way: hard ice everywhere with volcanic mounds in the distance and on either sides in the far distance is the glacial gorge where nothing grows (where the glacier used to be some 20 years ago). The ice up here had been crushed under the weight of all the ice that has melted away before it and so it is very densely packed and without any impurities, even air. Hence, it is blue, clear and hard. After hiking up for about 2 hours, we took some pictures and checked out the ice, and the hike back was only some 30mins.

Having done this exciting thing, we were back to regular sightseeing. The closest sight to the glacier is a plane wreck (famously features in the hindi song, Gerua). We went up to the parking lot and were told that it's about 7kms to get to and back from the wreckage. We went anyway. Bad call? May be. It's a good 50min walk on black gravel with a bleak surrounding of black gravel as far as the eyes can see. One may call it otherworldly too although not in the pretty way. On trip advisor, you see people say it's only about 30mins to get to the wreckage while others say it's an hour. We figured that it's possibly because the location of the parking lot may differ from season to season. In any case, we walked all the way to see a tiny plane with people crawling all over it and names scratched into it. It was just about ok but we lost about 2 hours and exhausted ourselves with the walk (after the glacier hike). This was bad because the next stop was Skogafoss, a beautiful waterfall.

Skogafoss is fed by the Eyjafjallajökull. It's really pretty and you can get quite close to where the water crashes into a lake and then the river Skoga continues. Next to the falls, there are about 400 steps to get to the top of the waterfall for wonderful views of the numerous cascades ahead of the falls and the meandering river after the falls. On any given day we wouldn't have thought twice about 400 steps but we really struggled through it, after our 4.5 hours of hiking for the day. I'm glad we did. The views were definitely worth it. Beyond that there are hiking trails that take to the various other cascades the river goes through before the falls. We only walked for about 10mins but it's the start of a 25km hike if you are willing and able.

The final stop was Seljalandfoss. This waterfall, also fed by the glacier on Eyjafjallajökull, is famous for being able to walk behind it. Even with our rain jackets on, we didn't have rain trousers so we didn't venture all the way in but we did get a peak for how it is from behind. Also for some reason the winds were strong, the water spray was wide and I was freezing. There is a pathway in front of the falls to see two smaller falls, although far less impressive. We then made our way to a lovely little farm with horses and sheep, south of the falls for our night stay.

Day 3: From Hvolsvöllur to Leidarendi and then to Laugarás (2/3 of the golden circle)

We started the day off by driving towards the Rekjadalur thermal river while also debating which activity to do next. In the end, exploring lava tunnels won and since we liked the Arctic Adventures, we called them and booked a tour. They only had a pick up tour operating from Rekjavik but were happy for us to join at the location. We reached the parking lot of the Rekjadalur thermal river only to find out that it takes about an hour's hike to get to the river where people bathe in and we didn't have enough time. Nevertheless, all the little streams around us were warm and we also saw a bubbling mud pool on the way. We then turned around and left to find the lava caves.

Driving towards the GPS coordinates of the lava tunnel, we couldn't see anything anywhere as far as the eye can see, except lava fields. Lava fields are large expanses of land where the lava flowed and now we have rocks the look like bubbles, completely covered in moss. Some of the moss is many inches thick and hence these "rocks" are very soft. They reminded me of Kristoff's troll family in Frozen. Finally, after 11km on a gravel road, near the coordinates, we saw a small flattened area and one car alongside a tiny board that said "Leidarendi". If not for that car, we might have be searching for a while. We had about half hour for some sandwiches before the tour arrived.

We were a small group and our guide had some British humour to him. He got us helmets with tiny flashlights on them, and I also rented hiking boots. He took us to the entrance of the caves which seemed like a pit that had caved in. We navigated large rocks and jumped into the tunnel. I had been to caves before. They usually contain some lighting, smell musty, some have stalactites and stalagmites, and possibly have bats. This was completely different. For starters, it's pitch dark; as in as dark as it can get. It takes some time for the eyes to adjust and when ten tiny flashlights and our guides' handheld beam look into the same direction, we see a lot more. But then you turn around to see where you are coming from and it's nothingness.

The sun has never touched these places. The only thing that grows here is a type of bacteria that gives a silver glow to the rocks (when the flash falls on them). The surface can be uneven but most of the way it's actually pretty flat, where the lava flowed. These tunnels or tubes are formed when as the lava cooled from the surface and solidified as rock while the lava underneath flowed out. Some of the rocks have beautiful colours due to trapped minerals. Mostly it's all greyish basalt but occasionally you see reddish hues from iron, some blues and some greens. 

The most fascinating are the seemingly silver coloured stalactites or stalagmites. Actually, they are just basalt rock that melted and squeezed out of the ceiling or the floor as the lava cooled and expanded into place. The rock also solidified after. So they are actually rock. Everything in the cave was formed in a very short period of time about 2000 years ago and nothing has changed ever since, except for the silver bacteria. The ceiling is fascinating. It looks like it's melting, especially because it was raining for the past few days, so we see the rain water seeping in and dripping. But basically the ceiling is frozen rock that was melting. And it is now the bacteria gives it a beautiful shine. This indeed is truly otherworldly in the truest sense of the word, and as our guide pointed out, looks very much like the egg laying alien in the movie Alien.

The lava tubes are about 900 metres long and are longish with a circular loop at the bottom. We entered through one side of the circle, went up the tube and came back the other side of the circle to exit at the same point. You would think that it should all look the same but all the sections show different aspects. The other side of the circular area, for example, saw some lava flow in few other eruptions in the 1950s. The new lava smoothed out the walls which almost look manmade now, like a proper tunnel. To get into the various sections, you sometimes need to get on all fours and through some tight spaces but only for very short lengths. I've never used a helmet as much, bumping my head to the ceiling many times. We probably spent an hour and a half in total in the lava tubes. Our subterranean adventure would be my highlight of the trip!

After the tour we are back on the tourist circuit to do part of the famous Golden Circle. First, as a starter, we had a pitstop at Kerid to see a smallish volcanic crater that was most likely formed by a collapse rather than an explosion. The water is blueish green but towards the bank you can see yellow and red hues. The inverted cone itself is reddish sand with the green grass in places. The crater is a nice oval shape and looks pretty but I can image it looks really interesting if the sun shines strong and the colours are evident (it was cloudy when we went). Interestingly, on the lee side of the crater, I saw a large grove of trees which would be the most trees I ever saw in Iceland. We walked the rim in some 15mins.

Next, we went to Geysir. It is a geothermal area in Iceland where the biggest geyser is called Geysir and it lends its name to all geysers in the world. However, it's currently inactive. The entire area is just fuming everywhere. Even before entering the park, the little stream on the side was at least 50 deg Celsius. As we were walking in park, the star attraction, a small geyser caused Strokkur that erupts every 5-10mins, erupted. It was a tiny eruption. We were a little underwhelmed but as we continued on our path we saw a really high eruption. Eventually we ended at Strokkur, watching four more before leaving. It was more fun watching the surface to predict when it would erupt. You can spend 20mins here or hours, just watching Strokkur. No pics unfortunately; I only have videos. Here is a picture of Geysir.

Our final stop for the day was Gullfoss or golden falls. It's enormous, pushing out many gallons of water, first in a step and then off an oblique cliff which makes the falls look like a triangle, and then it flows as river Hvita in the gorge. Many say it compares to the Niagara falls. This is really pretty but also not much to do. I believe there are some hikes which take you to different view points but can't be better than the two that you can reach easily. We sat down for dinner soon after and then reached the lovely house of our Airbnb guest which overlooks a river, where we had some homemade bread and fresh tomato jam or breakfast.

Day 4: From Laugarás to the airport, via Þingvellir National park (1/3 of the golden circle)

With our flight in the afternoon, we only had time for one place after breakfast. We thought we should complete the golden circle and headed to Þingvellir National park. This is usually the first stop on the golden circle if you start from Rekjavik. It's a really large park and you can spend hours hiking it. We obviously did not have the time so we picked the highlights.

Þingvellir is most famous for being part of the mid Atlantic fault line between the North American tectonic plate and the Eurasian tectonic plate. The continental drift can be observed here with many fissures and rifts. The Almannagja fault is more than 7km long and the rift valley could 60m wide. The only other place in the world where you can see continents drifting and walk between them is the Great Rift Valley of Eastern Africa.

If you, like us, wondered why there are so many flights to North America than to Europe from Iceland, you know now. Iceland is half North American! And so we walked between the two continents. We walked for about 15min from Hakid visitor centre to Silfra. Silfra is a lake of crystal clear water with the fissure in it. The rain water seeps through the volcanic rock for about 2-4 months before it reaches the lake and hence is devoid of any impurities. The clarity of this water lends itself to a wonderful snorkelling and diving experience to observe the fissure between the two continents. There wasn't much for us to see from the surface though.

Back on the track along the North American fissure wall, we come to Lögberg or Law Rock which is the place where Icelandic parliament first met in 930 AD, making it the oldest parliament in the world. However, because the rift is drifting, the exact position is unknown. Continuing along the fissure, we come to Oxararfoss where the river Oxarar falls off the fissure wall creating a waterfall. The wall itself is pretty imposing. 

And soon enough, we had to head back to car and to the airport, bidding adieu to mesmerising Iceland! On the flight I met this lady who works on whale watching tours who tells me winter is equally mesmerising. There is still so much to do, although we are very proud of ourselves having driven 1200km on our first driving trip by ourselves!

Other itinerary suggestions which we didn't do:
There is indeed a lot more to do in Iceland. You can encircle the island if you have a week or more, and the North East has a lot to offer. Even in the South West, we haven't covered a lot many activities. There are many thermal lagoons. The most popular ones are the Blue Lagoon which is right next to Rekjavik (it's really a spa resort) and the Secret Lagoon near Gullfoss on the golden circle.Horse riding on Icelandic horses is also very popular. They are meant to be very very docile but sturdy. Whale watching from Rekjavik or the North East (near Dalvik/Hossuvik) is specially popular in summer. The lady on my flight back who worked in both places and told me that the whale watching opportunities in North East in the summer are excellent compared to Rekjavik at any time. Puffins watching tours are also on offer from Rekjavik or Vik. Some companies offer snowmobile tours where they you on a glacier and give you a snowmobile to drive around. There are some manmade ice caves which are nice to see as the ice which is very hard, clear and densely packed, and hence allows you to see through it for a considerable distance. And of course there are volcano tours.

Wednesday, April 18, 2018

Hola Barcelona - Montjuic

The title is not in reference to the travel card called Hola Barcelona which gives you unlimited public transport travel for a set time period. You might find that useful if you are travelling alone. If you are more than one, you might benefit from buying a 10 metro tickets set that makes it cheaper per ticket as well as that the tickets can be shared by multiple people or consider cabbing it as taxis are reasonably cheap. 
I digress. 
We spent a weekend in Barcelona. By that I mean, we flew in on Saturday morning and flew out Sunday night.
We missed our outbound flight in the early morning by probably 90 seconds. We looked at the departures board for the next flight, and bought tickets online. But we couldn't check in online as it is too close to the departure so we needed to go back to the check-in counter. Exiting the security area at London Luton airport turned out to be a huge hassle. In case you ever need to know, you need to go to Gate 6 which is far from the departures area and you need to call the airline responsible for your flight and ask them to send a personnel to escort you out of the airport through staff access which includes a passport check. Random piece of information, I know. But it may come in handy some day.
Anyway, we got there and joined our friends for a Sandeman's Barcelona city tour. It turned out to be less of a city tour and more of a history lesson. After 1.5 hours, we probably stopped at 5 places, each with a history lecture. So we left at break time. I've done many of the Sandeman's free tours that introduce you to the city. They used to lightly touch upon all the important sights in any city and show us at least half of them from the outside as well as tell us how best to visit those sights. This one was just a history class. So we left.
We just wandered around La Ramblas and Placa Riel. We ate some fruits and ham at the farmer's market nearby (La Boqueria), had some nice tapas and sangria, and watched a flamenco show at Los Tarantos. It's an interesting experience. I was very intrigued by how graceful the male dancer was (so was the female dancer although that was expected from the public perception of flamenco). Another thing to note is that dancing is only a part of flamenco. Our show started with a wonderful solo piece by the guitarist, followed by a musical performances by the band who were eventually joined by a dancing couple who gave us solo performances each before a duet.
The next morning we went to Park Guell. I absolutely love it, especially so after watching Emerald City, a TV show that portrays Park Guell as the palace of the Wizard of Oz. But may be because of all the shooting activity, a large part of the roof was under renovation. Then we made our way to Montjuic.

Montjuic is a hill. We can drive up there but we can also take a cable car from Parc de Montjuic. To get to Parc de Montjuic we can take a different "funicular". We googled up about cable cars and we find out there is one at the beach. So we went to the beach where we had a nice lunch and then we waited in the queue for the cable car. I had twice previously stood in this queue on my visits to Barcelona but I left because it takes so long. But this time we waited. While we waited we realised that this cable car doesn't seem to go to the hill at all. The hill is too far away. Nevertheless the website and all tourist info is telling our there is a funicular that takes us to the Parc. It took us a long time to figure this one out but anyway it's not from the beach.
We got into a cab and asked the driver to take us to where we can catch the funicular to Montjuic.
We needed to take the Montjuic funicular from Parallel metro. We cabbed it to metro and couldn't find anything remotely looking like a funicular. Instead we found a bus that takes us to the Montjuic funicular. We took it. It delivered us to Avinguda de Miramar where Parc dear Montjuic is. I repeat there is actually no cable car that goes to Parc de Montjuic. It is a bus. From there we take the cable car to Castle Montjuic. We didn't go into the castle. The views from the hill are beautiful and you can see out into the sea. On the way back we stopped at one of the stops which is simply a park around a view point.

Sagrada Familia
I went to view Sagrada Familia in 2012 and was  disappointed a little bit due to the fact that I paid a lot of money for what was really just a construction site. 
In 2017 I sort of had to go for it with my friends and I was expecting more of that and was pleasantly surprised! A lot was completed over the last few years and now, it looks beautiful!
I would highly recommend!!!

A weekend in Rome - Pompeii & Herculaneum

If Rome was magnificent, Pompeii is fascinating and Herculaneum ever more so!

We took a day trip to Naples for a tour of the ancient cities of Pompeii and Herculaneum, so that we can accompany our dear friends Ivo and JR on their Euro trip.

To give you a bit of history, Mt Vesuvius erupted in 79 AD spewing lava and ash catastrophically for the two places and many other cities. Pompeii and Herculaneum were both between 7-10kms from the mountain and with lava flowing at 80km/hour and hot gases ever faster, the towns' people had little warning, especially considering that Mt Vesuvius had been dormant for 800 years prior.

We first arrived at Pompeii.
To tour an entire town would take you a couple of days one would think and we had a couple of hours. We picked out what we wanted to see, nevertheless we got lost. You see, it is very much a city. It has street names, a town center, the market, residential quarters differentiating the haves and have-nots, and not one but two theatres, not to mention the main amphitheatre. Pompeii must have been a metro of its day.

What people probably find fascinating is the decorations in some of the rich houses. They had these mosiac patterns on the walls, on the ceilings and even on the floor. Some had enamel paintings which are largely lost but you can still make out the structure of the painting. Many of the houses of the rich also had nicely maintained gardens with pathways and sculptures well preserved. A brothel is also a popular spot, for the well-preserved paintings. The market square is so impressive with its large pillars and it is also here where they

found the remarkably preserved bodies of a dog and a hunched up man, under all the volcanic ash.

What I found most fascinating was the fastfood restaurant on every other street. They have this kitchen area and serving area so fundamentally similar to any fastfood restaurant you can think of. That little Chinese place around corner from my office has the same layout. That tells you that this is the same city as today. Might have had horse carts instead of cars and people had some zebra crossings so they don't set foot on the road, but fundamentally it's the same as today. We live the same way with the same differences between rich and poor and gather around market squares.

Herculaneum is slightly different. Although it's currently dug up underground and is far from the sea, back then it was a multilevel Hamlet on the sea. Hence it doesn't have the same roads that Pompeii has and neither did it have it's organised structure. Roads are narrowing and winding, many ending in stairs at you get closer to the sea. Not unlike the historical center of Edinburgh. It has its own charm, that of a small community. When they dug up Herculaneum, they underestimated the number of people who lived and died there. The archeologists assumed that the people of Herculaneum had too little time being too close to Mt Vesuvius and hence couldn't have run far. But as they continued to dig they found a closed warehouse near the erstwhile harbour where at least 300 took refuge or may be waiting for boats to get away from the lava. A grim picture. But it also helped the archeologists figure out where the sea used to be versus where it is now and all the land mass that now exists between Herculaneum and the sea has been contributed by Mt Vesuvius, albiet over multiple eruptions.

Today there are 3 million people living in the vicinity of Mt Vesuvius which last erupted in 1944, compared to the 800 years it was dormant before spewing lava on Pompeii.

Saturday, February 03, 2018


Homegoing is the history of the tribes of Asante and Fante, spanning centuries and continents, through the stories of the members of one lineage.
Maame, taken as a prisoner of war in a Fante village, delivers Effia and escapes the same day leaving her newborn. Back in her Asante village, she gives birth to Esi. The novel follows the two women's progenies as the political and social background transforms.
For a debutant author, to cover an entire history of a people is a tremendous task. To make it simpler, Yaa Gyasi broke down the stories into a number of chapters, one for each character that showcases a generation of each women's progeny.
Through these characters, the author shows us how the slave trade of the prisoners of war between the two tribes, eventually led to slave trade with the British and then ultimately their subjugation by the British.
One chapter showcases the introduction of the cacao crop, and another the slavery in plantations in Americas. Soon we move into the exploitation of the free black people as prisoners working the mines, the discrimination in free modern society and the identity crisis of young people born and bred in relative equality.
By separating the chapters which are essentially short stories, she worked on them individually which gives it a certain charm. However, it would have been a lot more interesting had the stories been woven together. 

Wednesday, January 17, 2018

The Network play

I watched The Network at the National Theatre and give it a 2/5 rating.

I give Bryan Cranston a 4/5. I deduct 2 points for poor direction that did not use the actor in a better manner, for costumes/sets that were too modem to worry about television and the overdone plot with little meat in that it barely holds together it's elements.

Let me start by reiterating the brilliant acting from Bryan Cranston. He was perfect as a middle-aged man with a monotonous life reading the news in the blandest way possible, even when the news is not so bland. He was perfect in his frustration with the mundane when he decides to end it. He was also perfect in his feverish madness as the messiah of truth. He was however repetitive and lacked any other dimension to his personality which is where I believe the director falls short.
Also, I couldn't help but wonder if Rory Kinnear might have done a better job.

The sets and costumes did not have anything inherently wrong with them but they just did not seem like they were from a past era. May be it was the use of glass (for rooms, etc) which I associate with the modern. May be it was clothing which possibly has not changed in generations for news readers and corporate employees. May be it was the restaurant (there were a few audience members having dinner on the stage) with its diners looking like ordinary people of today rather than the yester years passed. May be it was the use of this massive screen at the back which is effectively a flat screen, which we did not have during the 1970s when the play was set in. They could have at least put a box around the screen to make it resemble a box television. Instead they put three sound engineers on top of it and it looked like an EDM concert with the DJ deck above a screen where the DJ rolls his psychedelic visuals. The main stage also had a very shiny surface which is probably how TV studios look like but on stage it was glaring off a lot of light.

The plot itself was light. A bland newsreader is fired because his show has low ratings. He is so frustrated that in his bland way he announces he will kill himself on television. His ratings go up and the network keeps him on in this lunatic tabloid type show.
Because the sets fail, the story fails. The sets keep us firmly in today's world and the story is too yesterday for the internet generation. Not only are our newspapers and television tabloid, we create our own tabloid news through Twitter and blogs, the take down of Aziz Ansari as a case in point. We probably don't even read newspapers and watch television. We read WhatsApp forwards and watch Netflix. I understand it was an old movie that won Oscars for some of its actors as well as the screenplay.
I have not watched the movie but I can only imagine it was not adapted well. The story line seemed disjointed and the emotions not relatable. For example, the story tries to compare the television generation with its previous generation through a romantic relationship between a middle-aged man and a younger career oriented woman. I failed to see the chemistry between them and assumed it was just an affair so I was rather surprised when the man left his wife of 25 years and professed love to his younger partner. I was also so uninvested in this plot line that when he expressed his frustration regarding the lack of emotional involvement from his partner, I was surprised again.
A sad fact is the wife has a five minute role which seemed completely unconnected. And this is the same role that won the actor in the movie an Oscar, the shortest role to win an Oscar.
The play does have a number of monologues that makes it well placed for awards.

Without the romantic story line, the play could be cut short to 90 mins and may have kept the audience engaged as well as be able to keep the tempo on the play.
The audience members having dinner on the stage we pointless, except as a money making scheme which Jensen would approve.

Watching the play mostly on the large flat screen it felt like I was watching a movie. If I wanted to watch a movie, I would rather have watched the original.
Having watched the Black Mirror episode caused Fifteen Million Merits and also having watched the brilliant play Ink only months ago, this play was underwhelming.

Wednesday, January 03, 2018

Oslo, the play

I watched the play Oslo at Harold Pinter and give it a 3/5 rating.

May be the expectations from all the Tony awards and the publicity set it up to fail for me. The female lead of Mona Juul played by Lydia Leonard was bland with a very "calming" voice and an "earnest" face that get annoying very quickly. The male lead was just about average. The play itself was far too long. Abu Ala of Palestine played by Peter Polycarpou and Uri of Israel played by Philip Arditti stand out, performed by a Greek-Cypriot and a Turkish-Jewish respectively. Nabil Elhouahabi played perfectly the hot-blooded Communist, Hassan.

It was indeed historic that I should watch the play based on the Oslo peace process laying the foundation between Israel and Palestine on the day after Trump decides to move the US Embassy of Israel to Jerusalem.

The story was a bit drawn out and sometimes at the cost of losing focus. For example when Abu Ala and Uri really connect at a human level, they show us the Norwegian couple watching over them with some sort of altruistic view. But Abu Ala was wonderfully portrayed to showcase the clash between patriotism and the economic cost of it.

The most striking sentence comes from the hot-blooded Hassan shouting at the Israelites: you can either be the bully or the victim; you can't be both.
It's true, yet we are all guilty of it. When we bully someone we find a reason to justify it - a reason that makes us the victim.

Wednesday, November 22, 2017

Venus in Fur

I watched Venus in Fur at the Royal Haymarket Theatre and I give it a 5/5 rating.

We had read reviews that suggest the play was just about average and that Natalie Dormer was good while the writing/flow has had its stumbles. We wondered if we should watch it just for Natalie Dormer. In the end, the fact that the play is only 90 minutes long won over and we ended up going.

Natalie Dormer was indeed brilliant and her co-actor David Oakes was only slightly behind her. The two-actor and one-set play might be underwhelming for some but the impeccable execution and the length of the play make it electric.

The sloping ceiling and bare set gives a feel of a derelict attic space to the set but the upward sloping floor gives the actors more room. Such that, even when the actors step back a few paces from the audience, their presence is not diminished.

I once again mentioned the length of the play because it's hard to keep the audience hooked for 2-3 hours, especially with little happening on stage but lines from the two actors. With the story being that of auditioning for a role in a play, the actors change "costumes" on stage and even set their own lighting (although the actual lightning is managed by production).

I wasn't aware of the plot of the play prior to watching it, or the book on which the play inside the play is based on. If I had known I would possibly have found the play that much more involving. I was hooked in any case.

An actor arrives late to an audition and insists on auditioning for the female lead role and requests the director and playwright to read the lines of the male lead role in the play. As they begin reading, it is rather clear whether she is reading the lines or expressing her opinion on the play with Natalie Dormer changing her accent and her personality between the heroine of the play and the struggling actor. The director only just reads the lines to start with but urged by the actor, he begins to play the lines as well. As they continue reading, the line between the character and the actor who plays it gets blurred until eventually the two become the characters themselves. The chemistry was phenomenal, helped by the lightning and thunder.

Tuesday, September 26, 2017

The Remains of the Day

This book is so simple yet so complex that a lot of it has just gone above my head. Knowing that it won the Man Booker would make it harder for me to critic it. All I can say is that I enjoyed reading the book very much.

Told from a first person narrative, an aged butler goes on a "motoring" trip to Devon for a well earned break as well as meet his ex colleague who he believes may be interested in coming back to work with him.

On his motoring trip, he reminisces about the wonderful days of Darlington Hall back in the day when it hosted many social events with men of stature where important decisions that changed the course of the world were taken. As he relays his story we realise a few things about him.
He values dignity of his profession above everything else. By this he means that a butler should maintain composer and continue his role irrespective of the situation and never let his true emotions show. He narrates several instances where he had done that and takes considerable pride in it. We understand this trait comes from his father who remained aloof to reinforce the principle.
He expects loyalty to his employer as sacrosanct. His Lord Darlington fell from grace when he sympathised with the Germans and tried to establish peace before World War II. But we see our butler Mr Stevens never questioning Darlington's intentions.
His professionalism leaves him incapable of comprehending human emotions that he refuses to indulge in whether it is witty banter that he believes he must learn in order to please his new employer Mr Faraday or his fondness that borders on love for his former colleague Ms Keaton that he wishes to meet with on the trip.

In a first person narrative, we see things the way our Mr Stevens sees them and then whenever he divulges new information, we peel away a layer of his reality until we understand but not entirely of what things really mean to him.

I suppose that's what makes it a wonderful book to read. We almost also give in to our own perceived reality and rarely do we acknowledge others realities.
This must have been a really difficult book to write. Like method acting, the author would have needed to really become the narrator to be able to divulge information that way.

Monday, August 28, 2017

Three days in Budapest

A three day weekend seemed plenty of time to see Budapest. We arrived in Budapest at midday on a Saturday and left the city early evening on the following Monday feeling we were comfortably relaxed yet having gone around the city.
As most of you know, Budapest is actually two cities. Buda is hilly and green with a castle, a citadel, nice viewpoints and a statue. Pest is the hustling bustling city. We stayed in Pest close to the parliament.
As I said, we arrived at midday so we headed almost directly (thanks to our flight delay of an hour) to a free walking tour of the city. There were easily over a hundred people at the meeting point looking for the tour. I'd never seen so many people on a walking tour. K who has been Budapest in 2010 claims he couldn't even find a tour company that offers this and instead found a history professor who agreed to take five of them around. Thankfully though, the tour group was split five ways but we were still about 30 so it was still too large a group. Also, although it was a nice Sunday day of 26/27 degrees it quickly became apparent that it's not so nice when it's too sunny when you are out on a walk for three hours during the hottest part of the day.
Enough of complaining. The tour started in Pest and we realised that much of the city was destroyed multiple times and what we see now are new buildings despite of the fact that they were rebuilt to the original exteriors.

A little history for you. The country that is Hungary was occupied by some tribes sometimes referred to as the ungurs in old texts and some references to the Huns from the east. The country came together under King St Stephens combining some tribes, predominantly the tribe of Magyar. They fought with the Romans and the Turks over the years and ultimately created the mighty empire of Austria-Hungary with its vast expanse of land. However, they lost more than 2/3rds of this in the First World War. Soon after they were yet again stuck between a rock and a hard place, quite literally between the Soviet and the Nazis. They sided with the Nazis when Hitler promised them their lost lands but at the cost of the Jewish population. After Buda stood against the Soviet and was destroyed, the end of the Second World War led to four decades of Soviet rule.

The tour took us around St Stephens' cathedral named after the king, took us around some of the lime stone structures that still bear small amount of destruction when the Nazi spies and the Red Army fought running on roof tops like in the movies. The tour continued on the chain bridge (which was also twice destroyed but reconstructed to its original design) to Buda to see the place where Hungarians stood against the Soviet and lost. We then walked​ up to Matthias church and ended at the view behind the church.

K and I followed that with yet another climb up Gellert Hill to the citadel and the statute of Lady Liberty. The statue was originally put up praising the Soviet for liberating Hungary from Germany. But after public sentiment against the Soviet grew sour, the inscription was changed to just symbolise liberty and freedom. We then walked our way back to Pest across the another bridge.

At night we tried to go to some fancy Hungarian restaurants but they were booked up well in advance so we ended up going to <> Square in the Jewish District and ate at Menza which was also a nice Hungarian place. After that we caught up with some friends at this place called Instant. Budapest has a new phenomenon that they call ruinpubs. There were some large buildings in the Jewish District that were in ruins and cost too much to restore that the government basically gave up on them, ignoring them. Some young people began reclaiming these unused buildings filling them up with knick knacks and before you know it, they became artisty hipster places to hang out at day and night. So this place called Instant, we read about as being the biggest wth 27 rooms apart from the open courtyard area. It was a bit too large I think, to fill it up with random objects so most of the rooms were just empty with some themed faded wallpaper and chairs. As we were leaving though, we realised the place was getting really packed.

The next day, Sunday, we decided to go to one museum (because museums are closed on Mondays). After a lot of thinking, we decided to visit the House of Terror. This was the headquarters of the Arrow Cross Party which was the Hungarian party allied with the Nazis and then became the headquarters of the Communists during the Soviet rule - much like the Topography of Terror in Berlin. The museum starts with the Arrow Cross coming to power and then pushed aside by the Nazis who cause more atrocities and then the "changing of clothes" happens where the nation that did the dirty work for Hitler changes uniform and does it for Stalin. Then there is the 1956 uprising against the Communists but the might of the Soviet comes down on them and crushes them. And then towards the end of the museum, they don't explain how Hungary became independent but there is a large display of the photographs and names of the victimizers. That display struck me as odd but I would know later on a tour that the people of Hungary feel that those who committed the atrocities were Hungarians under both the regimes and these people did not face enough punishment. The museum is rather new and was built by the current PM Victor Orban and his party. It has received criticism for showcasing Hungary as a victim even though there were numerous Hungarians that perpetuated the Nazi as well as the Red Army cause.

So Sunday turned out to be a rather grim day because after visiting the museum, we chose to do a Jewish quarter walking tour. Our tour guide was witty so the longish tour seemed shorter. We walked to the Jewish quarter and discussed how when the Jewish came to Hungary in three waves, as and when there were disturbances in the Middle East and eventually when the synagogue in Jerusalem fell for the third time. The Jews settled right outside the then city boundary of Pest in order to trade with the city. They were foreigners and not allowed to own land. However as the trade flourished they got integrated, especially with the creation of the new sect of neo liberal Jews who bore a Hungarian identity and before the second world war, they made up a quarter of the population of Budapest. Today they make up about 2%. The Jewish District is home to the Great Synagogue which was until recently the largest synagogue in the world (now there is a bigger one in NYC). This synagogue and the parts of the Jewish District were a ghetto during the short Nazi occupation. The Jews in the city were protected for most part of the war while outside in the countryside, they were almost completely removed. Within the city, the protection lasted till the Nazis walked in only 9 months before the end of war and created the ghettos. Our tour guide showed us a photograph of the garden in the synagogue that was filled with mounds of bodies which was how the Red Army found them when they were liberated. The tour then took a cheerful turn when the guide starting talking about how the artists have been taking over the ruined buildings to create these hipster ruinpubs which are all in the Jewish District. The tour ended at Szimpla which is the most touristy of them all but with very interesting decor.

Following the tour, we went into the Great Synagogue which was the first time I had stepped into a synagogue. This particular one was designed to resemble a church with its altar and a neo Gothic and some moorish influences in architecture. It was meant to show that the people are willing to integrate into existing society. I also learnt that the mark of a synagogue was the ten commandments on display and that kosher meant a way of eating that segregates dairy from meat. We also visited the garden in the aforementioned photograph and I saw the same photograph, except this time I was standing from where it was taken and it's chilling when you look at the garden and suddenly be able to imagine the 3000 bodies in heaps. Usually,  a synagogue doesn't have a cemetery. Our synagogue tour guide himself was unaware of his religion until he was a teenager when his family felt safe enough to reveal to him how they burnt their documents in order to avoid being marked as Jewish.

Continuing on the Jewish theme, we had dinner at Yiddishe Mamma Mia. But it was mostly Italian food. After that we went to see Csendes, a local ruinpub recommended by walking tour guide but it was a tad too local in the sense it was empty on a Sunday night.

On our last day in Budapest, we woke up and dragged ourselves all the way with changes from metro to tram to bus to the edge of Buda to take a ride on the chair car. Sadly, it was closed for renovations. We then decided to go to one of the famous baths of Budapest, Scheszny. The city has some natural geothermal springs whose water is rich in minerals and can have therapeutic benefits. We went to Scheszny but we didn't pack any swimwear (and swimwear there was  some €80 which is ridiculously expensive considering this was Budapest). They do have a short tour around the place so we walked around a little bit and saw the open pool. Apparently the water comes to the surface at 70 degrees and has to then be cooled to about 38 degrees before it is let into the pool for use. In winter when it's snowing, it must be amazing with the steam riding from the pool. We then made our way to the opposite entrance of the bath because it was really beautiful. We also got ourselves a half litre of the mineral water that is drinkable. However it tasted horrible because of the sulphur and was really hot on a really hot day.

On our way back, we stopped at the Heroes Square nearby where we happen to see some VIP pay homage to the soldiers who died in all the wars. We went back to our airbnb to pack and leave but found out flight was delayed by an hour so we took the river bus along the river bank before we went to the airport.

One thing I must say though, there were a lot, and I mean a lot, of hen parties and stag parties. They were loud and boisterous and practically anywhere and anytime, including on the road at noon. All I have seen were British. Locals seem to be unhappy with them and occasionally lightly express their displeasure. One time, a British tourist was ashamed of her fellow countrymen and apologised on their behalf. It is very interesting that a culture known for its restrain would go to other countries and become so loud. You know, stiff upper lip, avoid eye contact and all that...

Barbershop Chronicles

I watched the Barbershop Chronicles at the Dorfman theatre and give it a 5/5 rating.

I'm no expert on the communities and cultures of the Africans but from what I know, hair is essential bonding. Black hair needs to be taken care of regularly and by a professional so both men and women n need to go to a parlour or a barbershop regularly and the community builds. Although Chimamanda Ngoze Adiche writes that the men's section is always more cheerful as they share their ideas of politics and society while the women's section speaks of unachievable dreams of the straight hair.

The barbershops in this play indeed showcase the community and men sit around discussing politics as well as personal issues. The play switches between barbershops in Harare, Lagos, Kampala, Accra as well as London where are the various countries meet. And they are all ordinary barbershops with ordinary people. Be it that a young man "steals" a cut but comes back to pay or a young man who misunderstands the intentions of an older father-like figure out how the barber always chastises you for not taking care of yourself properly. 

The set has all the items needed at a barbershop that can be quickly moved around to create a slightly different layout in each city. The walls all have the hoardings of various outlets in the various cities and one of them lights up to tell you which city the current sketch is set in.

Colourful, filled with music and lively from the start to end, it is coming back to the National Theatre in November if you want to catch it.