In the Lisbon State of Mind

If you have not been to Europe yet and you had to choose one place to go for that wonderful laidback way of life, the precious old-world charm, narrow cobbled streets, baroque street lamps from another century, Lisbon is It. Gnarled women sit at doorsteps knitting away but hurriedly put them away to examine strangers, bunches of portly men with white hair and fedora hats sit around cafés, hunched over a game of cards or sometimes dominoes. Others lounge around with newspapers in parks, while some sit in local bars and watch football with great passion. Often did I wonder if I had not stepped into another age and another time. Lisbon does that to you.

They do not really make places like Lisbon, anymore. When tram no. 28 winds through the narrow alleys of the old districts in Lisbon, you cannot stop thinking, “I want to tuck that tram into my bag and carry it home.” These pre-war, yellow trams, known as Remodelado Trams, were made by the Lisbon state-owned operator, Carris, in the mid-1920s. They were made in such a way that they could successfully navigate the notoriously sharp twists and turns while ascending the undulating roads of Lisbon. Yet the inspiration for these vintage trams came from across the Atlantic – from the electric railroad cars developed by the American J.G. Brill Company.

With the quaint trams of Lisbon, passing me by at intervals, what I was witnessing was a functional American idea adapted in an endearing form to European roads. Of course, I would not have objected to the early trams of Lisbon which had horse-drawn carriages. Now, there are Trams 12, 15, 18 and 25 too that crawl their way across the far-flung districts. There are the red and green trams too. But they are exclusively for tours.

Okay, enough blathering on about trams.

Legend goes that Lisbon was built upon seven hills. It did not seem much of a legend though when I found out that the capital city of Portugal is spread out extensively over steep hills.

I was always huffing and puffing, climbing the very many stairs or charting incredibly steep descents and ascents, oh so gingerly – the possibility was dangerously high that I would find myself rolling down its many cobbled lanes. The irony is that I did slip and slide but on the shiny cobbles of Avenida da Liberdade (Liberty Avenue), one of Lisbon’s main boulevards, which hosts a roll-call of the big fashion houses.

The most important thing to keep in mind while packing your bags for Lisbon are walking shoes. Unless you want a hobble on the cobble, do not don heels. If you do, it is on you. I have to confess that I had a weight, the size of a boulder, resting on my heart when I did not stow in a pair of heels. I can live in heels. But apparently not in Lisbon.

I have visited Lisbon twice now. On my first Lisbon tripping, I had a pair of block-heeled boots which left my feet blistered and callused, all over. A vital lesson learned, I switched on my second visit to a pair of navy blue sneakers with white polka dots and chirpy, pink laces and alternated it with a pair of cuffed, tan boots. Who says comfortable shoes have to be boring?

This second trip was a lengthy stay of 14 days. Those shoes saved me. I walked about 13 miles every day because I am a walking fiend. Also, I believe that there is no better way to see a city.

The second thing that you have to figure out is a layout of the city. The districts are many and you do not want to miss out on the curious mix of colour, culture and eccentricity.

I shall take you about them in a minute.

Before it skips my mind, do look out for the miradouros. They are viewpoints on the highest points of each hill. The best part is the kind of views they offer for which you have to pay nothing. The ones that I loved the best were the Miradouro Dos Portas Do Sol and Miradouro De São Pedro De Alcântara. The monuments that offer a bird’s eye view of the city are the castle, the Rua Augusta Arch, the Santa Justa Elevator, the National Pantheon and the Cristo Rei. They are paid for entrances only but the tickets are so very reasonable that you would probably scoff in disbelief.

Quintessentially Lisbon. Its cutesy trams that trawl their way through the city, its alleys, nooks and corners, up and those winding roads.
“Trams … They appear from nothingness and disappear in the horizon of the crowds.” Mehmet Murat ildan.
Calçada do Combro. Atop the Corinthian column in Rossio Square stands Pedro IV, king of Portugal and first emperor of Brazil.
Rossio Square in the Pombaline Downtown of Lisbon. A popular rendezvous point. Pombaline is a Portuguese architectural style of the 18th century. It gets it name from the first Marquês de Pombal who had reconstructed Lisbon after the earthquake of 1755.


Lisbon is said to be perched upon seven hills. All the huffing and puffing will make you believe that it is not a matter of legends.
Santa Justa Elevator looks like it is made of steel lace
Miradouro De São Pedro De Alcântara
At Miradouro Dos Portas Do Sol
Watching a cruise ship from Miradouro Dos Portas Do Sol
Miradouro Dos Portas Do Sol



Things you hear about Lisbon are not mostly exaggerations. Such as the fact that the city, called Lisboa (pronounced Lish-boa) locally, has three abiding passions. Football, Fatima and Fado.

Of the first, I learnt when I was dithering outside Porta Azul, a faded, old bar in the Bairro Alto area. The barkeep stepped out and just waved me in with expansive gestures and a big smile. His name was Carlos and he had come from Brazil at a young age to Lisbon because his family hailed from Portugal. I ordered a glass of port wine (cost me just a couple of Euros – Lisbon is incredibly friendly to the pockets) and sat down inside the bar. The third person in there was a wizened deaf man, fervent in his observations (in Portuguese, of course) about a Villarreal match. I sat there, watching a Champions League match, sipping on sweet and potent port wine, with Carlos and the old man. Them frequently shaking their heads at fouls and exchanging notes in Portuguese while Carlos interspersed them with some Portuguese for me. He acquainted me with the local favourites, “Esta aqui é a cerveja” (This here is beer). Then he made me repeat Portuguese lines after him and I had no idea what it was that he said on that hot afternoon.

Later, in the evening, I returned to Porta Azul with my husband and a Spanish friend for cocktails. Carlos’ Caipirinhas made severe dents into my senses. I spent the entire next day in bed, recuperating from the after-effect.

Beware of a Caipirinha made by a Brazilian, if you do not know when to stop.

My second reference was to Fatima. Right. She is the Roman Catholic version of Virgin Mary and she even has a town eponymously dedicated to her. The Portuguese town of Fatima has a Catholic church, The Sanctuary of Our Lady of Fátima, at the spot where in 1917 three teenagers had apparently seen an apparition of the Virgin Mary, “brighter than the sun, shedding rays of light clearer and stronger than a crystal goblet filled with the most sparkling water and pierced by the burning rays of the sun”. This apparition wore a white mantle, edged with gold and held a rosary in her hand. I saw her everywhere. No, I was not on LSD, thank you. She came in various heights, tall, medium, teensy and a respectable short stature. Actually wait, there could have been more height variations. I bet I am missing out more because I just remembered thinking, “Boy, there are tons of her around.”

Now, back to earthly matters. Bairro Alto is where all newcomers to the city head for Fado, cerveja and bacalhau.

Wait, have I not mentioned the bacalhau yet? It is something you will eat usually in Portugal and its former colonies, or in Spain. Bacalhau, my friends, is Portuguese for dried and salted cod. It is a local peculiarity though certainly not a native to Portugal’s Atlantic waters. The Basque country of northern Spain is said to be where to cod was first cured, while the Vikings, way back in the 12th century, are known to have survived brutal winters in Newfoundland with hard-as-wood supplies of dried cod. Remember that in those days, there were no modern conveniences of refrigeration. Yet, even today, it is difficult not to tuck into the ancient bacalhau and say, “Ah, that was so-o-o good,” at the end of a meal.

The Portuguese have more than 1000 ways of cooking the bacalhau. My favourite dishes were Bacalhau à Lagareiro (grilled, salted cod with olive oil and served with garlic and potatoes) and Bacalhau à Brás (oh that delicious fried-rice like texture created by tiny fried potato matchsticks, scrambled eggs and marinated olives). Bacalhau is a strong tasting fish, almost meat-like in its chewiness and absolutely a winner in my food memories. The grilled octopus and squids of Lisbon are strong contenders too.

Bairro Alto, meaning Upper City, is the historic, central district packed with hip n’ happening bars, ramshackle ones, alfresco chairs lining the cobbled lanes where people sit even during the day and catch a drink or two.

Once dusk sets in, the air of Bairro Alto is rendered by the soulful strains of Fado. The word loosely refers to the Portuguese saudade, or, “longing”. On evenings that I listened to the captivating, emotional renditions, I could not help but be moved by the haunting quality to the genre – a timber of loss, fatefulness and melancholia ran through them. But then the singers livened things up and brought a sudden perky rhythm for the listeners to involve them with some amount of clapping and foot tapping.

There is a social context to Fado. Originating in the old Mouraria, Alfama and Bairro Alto quarters, Fado is said to have been linked to the marginalised parts of society. Read: Prostitutes, sailors, coachmen. It is indelibly linked too with the Salalzar regime that locals even today recall with great reluctance. I watched a poet (on Anthony Bourdain’s episode on Lisbon – not be able to come to terms with Fado even today because he had lived through the dictatorship years of Antonio de Oliveira Salazar, between 1932 and 1968. Fado took him back to the terror of that reign.

A local insisted upon me the knowledge that Fado had its origins in ancient Moorish customs – in the chantings of Muslim women.

It was clear that in these areas in which their heart commands them, the Portuguese are a passionate people.


Dried cod. Essential for Bacalhau.
Cops patrol the streets of Bairro Alto
By the Tagus
Contemplation by the Tagus




Old mansions that have been transformed into shopping arcades
The touch of the classic in mansions

I was in a city that was peopled by the Phoenicians who named it Allis Ubbo (‘calm harbour’), the Romans and the Visigoths. The people who left a lasting mark upon the city, however, were the Moors from North Africa. They came into the city that they referred to as Lishbuna during the early 700s and established the Alcáçova (a Muslim palace) once where the castle stands today. The Moors settled down around the Alfama, the area with the hot springs, and developed a network web of closed-in streets that were meant to be defensive and keep hot summers at bay. But after weeks and weeks of resistance, they had to give in to a band of European crusaders, who in 1147 laid siege to the castle. The Moors were killed or they were sent off to live renewed identities as “New Christians” in the quarter of Mouraria. Afonso Henriques, Portugal’s first monarch, then in 1150 raised the Sé (cathedral) where the main mosque used to be and it was thus that in 1255 Lisbon acquired its status as the capital of a Christian country.

From the 15th to 16th centuries, it became extremely influential in Europe with explorers setting off to new countries by sea and opening up new trade routes.

Then the Great Lisbon Earthquake of 1755 happened. It shook the city to its core on All Saints’ Day (November 1) and opened up fissures that were reported to be 15 feet wide in the centre of Lisbon. The quake’s magnitude ranged between 8.5-9.0 and it brought in its wake a fearful tsunami to the waterfront.  It reduced most of the city to rubble but three districts survived its ravages. Bairro Alto, Alfama and Belém.

From Bairro Alto, I walked to the Estrela district and gaped at the baroque-neoclassical Basilica of Estrela and ancient Carmelite convent. Then through the green environs of the Jardim da Estrela (Gardens of Estrela), I made my way past monkey puzzle trees and pine trees and a giant banyan tree, in an effort to locate the Cemitério Inglês (the city’s only English Cemetary). In that cemetary is buried the 18th century English writer of ‘Tom Jones’ fame, Henry Fielding. Suffering intensely from gout, dropsy and the exhaustion of dealing with criminals (Fielding was a magistrate in London and had started its first police force of the Bow Street Runners), he had travelled to Lisbon for a cure in 1754. He died a couple of months later and was buried in Lisbon. By the time, I reached the cemetary it had shut. A notice said that it remained open till 1pm.

That was that and I instead spent my time in the museum of puppets in the vicinity. For 5 Euros, it was not a disappointment. Though the collection of puppets I had seen in Lübeck previously were far more extensive and engrossing. You would be better off spending 2 Euros on seeing the Calouste Gulbenkian museum in the civil parish of Avenidas Novas instead. The museum has the private collections of an extremely wealthy British businessman and philanthropist of Armenian origin, Calouste Gulbenkian. He is credited to be the first Western person to exploit Iraqi oil. Gulbenkian was quite the traveller and lived in cities such as Constantinople, London, Paris, and Lisbon.

My other pick was the Museu Nacional do Azulejo (National Tile Museum) which is again priced so reasonably at 5 Euros. It is somewhat out of the way but you can always walk down from the Alfama past the Santa Apolonia railway station.

Tiled beauty of Lisbon’s alleys. Those tiles are called Azulejos, Portuguese for painted tin-glazed ceramic tile work. The city is awash with them.
Street art of the Alfama quarter
Soulful fado in the Alfama
The man and his gull friends by the River Tagus.
Art in the Chiado district
The Alfama
Avenida da Liberdade
Avenida da Liberdade


On other days, heading down Rossio Square (the most convenient meeting point in the city), I explored the Baixa, Lisbon’s business district which is marked by a Pombaline style of architecture (a school that gets its name from the Marquis of Pombal who rebuilt the city following the earthquake).  Down the axis is the Praça do Comércio where a triumphal arch leads to the River Tagus. If it is a cheerful sight today, filled with trams and tourists, once it was the site of an assassination, that of the penultimate king of Portugal.

West of the Baixa, is the chic district of Chiado, filled with hi-street shopping and artsy cafés. My thrill lay in entering the oldest bookshop in the world. The Livraria Bertrand traces its beginnings to 1732. Within its portals, I discovered the beauty of the writings of Fernando Pessoa and picked up ‘The Book of Disquiet’ as a valuable addition to my library. I think his preface had me: “I’m astounded whenever I finish something. Astounded and distressed…I begin because I don’t have the strength to think; I finish because I don’t have the courage to quit. This book is my cowardice.”

Nearby, in Chaido is the coffeehouse, A Brasileira, that Pessoa often frequented. Nowadays, he sits there, a bronze statue on a bench, the customary hat and spectacles perched upon his visage. While hordes of tourists pout and pose next to him.

There are also other writers whom you find references to in Chiado, such as the romantic writer João Batista de Almeida Garrett after whom a street has been named in Chiado, and the poet Luís de Camões, who has a square dedicated to him. There is a strange strain of melancholia haunting the writings of most of these literary figures of Lisbon.

I will leave you to mull upon these lines by the 19th century Portuguese poet, Cesário Verde.

“All through our streets at nightfall

There is such a sullenness, such a melancholy,

That the shadows, the bustle, the Tagus, the salt air

Stir me with an absurd longing to suffer”.

Spanning the River Tagus is Ponte 25 de Abril, the suspension bridge that connects Lisbon to the municipality of Almada on the south bank of the Tagus. On the left is the Cristo Rei, Christ the King.


Three men by the Tagus.


Carlos the bartender at Porta Azul


Whatever you do, do not be conned into a fado and dinner proposition in the Alfama. They will lure you with the words, ‘cheap tasty, local food and Fado’. Reserve both for Bairro Alto.

Alfama and Mouraria are my chosen quarters in Lisbon. The larger part of my days were spent peering into their nooks and corners, alleys and churches.

The Mouraria is a warren of old streets, the plaster peeling off the facades of old houses, sudden blue doors startling the sight, ancient tiled house fronts, old people lounging in their windows and doorways idly sizing you up through rheumy eyes. In the 12th century, after the Christian re-conquest of Lisbon, the Moors were relegated to the Mouraria and hence its name. Later in 1497, they were expelled altogether along with the Jews.

When I strolled through the Mouraria, I was a little wary of the especially rundown part of it that is home to a multi-ethnic bunch of immigrants from Bangladesh, China, India, Pakistan, and Mozambique. But I persevered and soon enough, the character changed and I was taken up by the quiet, old houses in the interiors. There was even an alley dedicated to its Fado singers.

The Mouraria took me into the heart of Alfama, a conglomeration of poor fishermen’s cottages. If you climb up from the Alfama, the roads inevitably lead to the São Jorge Castle and if you descend, they take you to the river.

In this oldest part of the city, which derives its name from the Arabic ‘Al-hamma’, meaning “hot fountains/baths”, fishermen continue to live. Old members of their families sat at window ledges, sunning themselves, while clotheslines ran across the house fronts, faded clothes fluttering around in the wind. I was in another time and space.

While in the Alfama area, right behind the 17th century Monastery of São Vicente de Fora, you will come upon a flea market that is truly one in every sense of the word. Every Tuesday and Saturday, the Feira da Ladra or Thieves’ Market sprawls over an extensive area that overlooks the stunning National Pantheon and the blue river on the horizon. The market is said to have existed since the 17th century and might even trace its roots to the 12th century.

Exploring the castle is something I ended up doing, just by dint of the fact that it was a castle built by the Moors, and that it had an incredible view of the river, the Cristo Rei (Christ the King monument, inspired by Christ the Redeemer of Rio de Janeiro) in the parish of Almada across the river, and the 25 de Abril Bridge which connects Lisbon with Almada. The suspension bridge was once deemed Ponte Salazar (Salazar Bridge), but the people hated him clearly enough to remove the plaque with his name on it and painted a provisional 25 de Abril in its place. You see, April 25 marks the Carnation Revolution in Lisbon when the military overthrew the existing political regime in 1974. The April 25th coup became the day of Lisbon’s liberty when locals put carnations on the barrels of the rifles of the soldiers in solidarity.


Into the Mouraria


Graffitis dedicated to fado
Amália Rodrigues, a Portuguese fadista, a key figure in the revival of fado especially during the Salazar regime (1932-1968) in Portugal.
Praça do Comércio. In 1908, Carlos I, the penultimate King of Portugal was assassinated on this square. The assassins were members of the Republican Party which two years later overthrew the monarchy in Portugal.


Avenue to Praça do Comércio which got its name as the Square of Commerce as a symbol of its function in the economy of the city.
The husband and a friend catching a much-needed Cerveja (Portuguese for beer), post a long day at work, by the Tagus.


The Rooster of Barcelos. Played a crucial part in proving the innocence of a man who had been falsely accused and sentenced to death. The rooster was dead by the way. Yet…

This, my friends, is the final bit. In case, my long post has somehow got you wavering. I could not but take you to the part of Lisbon that is a paean to the Age of Discovery, the waterfront of Belém from where Portugal’s greatest navigators set sail. It is the romantic story of these seafarers, the most prominent of whom was Vasco da Gama, that is encapsulated in the monuments here – the 16th century ceremonial gateway to Lisbon that sits upon a basal outcrop of rocks on the river in the form of the beige-whitish Belém Tower; the magnificent Mosteiro dos Jerónimos (Jerónimos Monastery); and the Padrão dos Descobrimentos (Monument to the Discoveries), a monument to the discoverers who departed from there to explore new places and trade opportunities in India and the Orient, during the 15th and 16th centuries.

Of these, I loved the almost filigreed look of the Jerónimos Monastery, which was designed in the Manueline school of architecture. It was an ornate architectural style, with maritime elements and objects discovered during naval expeditions, carved into it in limestone. The monastery was home to the religious order of Hieronymite monks at the behest of King Manuel I. He wanted them to pray for his eternal soul and to give navigators spiritual succour before they left to discover the world. The monks apparently carried out the orders for over four centuries. Only in the 19th century, were the religious orders dissolved.

Vasco da Gama lies here within the monastic church.
A trip to Lisbon is incomplete without a stop at this pastry shop.
In 1837, Pastéis de Belém started making the original recipe from an ancient recipe culled from the Mosteiro dos Jerónimos.
Pastéis de Belém. An egg tart pastry.
Torre de Belém. On the northern bank of the Tagus river, this was where the great Portuguese seafarers started from during the Age of Discovery.
Padrão dos Descobrimentos is a monument to the the Portuguese Age of Discovery during the 15th and 16th centuries.
At night, the crowds just melt away and the tower glows golden in its limestone glory.

Inside the church, adjoining the monastery, lies the mortal remains of Vasco da Gama and Luís de Camões (who had chronicled the Age of Discoveries), while inside the monastery are the tombs of the poets Fernando Pessoa and Almeida Garrett.

Every day in Lisbon was a discovery. It was made all the more fascinating by the fact that the people of Lisbon are an interesting breed. As Fielding had noted in his Journey of a Voyage to Lisbon. “If the customs and manners of men were everywhere the same, there would be no office so dull as that of a traveller…”


The Uncanny Welsh Story

I do not essentially believe in the supernatural. Even though I have grown up loving the thrill of those stories that make you curl up with dread and lie ramrod stiff on the bed at night. Most of my supply of stories came from the jhuli (Bengali for bag) of my father’s friend. He used to arrive every evening with a mischievous smile, his eye glinting behind thick black frames and you could see the joy he found in being a storyteller. A storyteller of creepy tales where someone would pull your legs from beneath the bed at night. Hah. You must have heard that one too, right?

My father once came up with the tale of a skondokata (Bengali word for a headless ghost). When he was a wee boy, he was part of a large joint family in Calcutta and they used to live in a place called Mohini Mansions in the southern part of Calcutta. They used to have a separate kitchen where they used to dine together. To get to the kitchen they had to take a flight of stairs that was outside the house. Next door was an old British mansion. One evening my father was going up the stairs for dinner and happened to glance at the lawn next door. What he saw chilled him to the bone – it was a skondokata. Each night after, he would race up the stairs and refuse to let his eyes stray next door.

Then my brother narrated one of his experiences to me. I somehow do believe him. This happened during his boyhood days of living in a hostel. The building in which he stayed at the time faced an old Muslim cemetary. One night he was studying alone in the hall when the windows — which were tightly shut — started flapping to and fro. My brother asked his teacher the next day about it. He was told, “You cannot do anything about it. You have to stay here. There are two ways you can deal with it. You either ignore them or go a little berserk every time they take place.” My brother chose the former.

I couldn’t sleep three nights in a row after that.

Yet, I am rather sceptic of the entire concept. I bet you are too. Which is why you might scoff at the tale I am about to tell you from one of my many Welsh holidays.

This happened one summer in an area called Gwynedd in north-west Wales. Gwynedd used to be a kingdom in times gone by, not that it has any bearing upon my story.

On a bank holiday weekend, I set out on a long drive from Northampton, with my husband in a merry group of six, to Wales. We had rented a converted old mill in the village of Abersoch, plonked right by the Irish Sea. The cottage was tucked away into a corner by a brook and slightly removed from a gaggle of lovely stone houses.

The plaque on the old cottage, latticed charmingly by Virginia creepers, read Melinsoch.

Angling references were scattered across its rambling interiors – an inkling about the locale of the cottage. Abersoch is an old fishing port.

Cobwebs hung in places. Fat candles with strands of wax melted and hardened around them added an eerie touch to the ambience of the farmhouse dining room. At the end of a rustic, pock-marked table stood a piano, its keys yellowed with age.

The living room was strewn with shabby rugs, and a big fireplace stuffed with logs, ready to warm up the cold, stone floors. The fireplace set off the (so far dormant) jacket-potato-baking instincts in my husband. He is just terribly enthusiastic about jacket potatoes. Woe be on that member of the gang who does not fancy a big, fat spud slathered with butter, cracked pepper and salt.

The gaming table.jpg

My delighted husband preps up the fireplace for making his beloved jacket potatoes
Our hobbit bedroom


Adi’s flower power


Bodnant Garden
Giant Redwood in Bodnant
Conwy Castle.jpg
A jaunt to Conwy Castle


After a merry night of quaffing a few pints, and snacking on some deliciously smoky potatoes, we retired to the bedrooms. To our share fell a low-ceiling bedroom that could have readily been home to a hobbit or two. The door had no latch and tended to creak open.

The bedroom which our couple friend had, came with a cracked basin and an enamel jug. I could imagine an Emily Bronte heroine waking up to such a rustic affair and washing her rosy face in that basin.

A full strolley was my measure for wedging the door to our hobbit bedroom shut. During the wee hours, my husband woke me up. He had to make a quick trip to the bathroom which was round the other end of the house. We match each other in our propensity to be brave.

When he got back, the strolley resumed its place back against the door. He promptly fell asleep and I remained in a state of wakefulness. In a while, footsteps thudded above.

“Now, how is that even possible?” I mulled. The cottage had sloping roofs.

Right after, the handle of the door moved and it creaked open. I could not even believe my eyes. My heart beating rat-a-tat-tat, I leapt up on the bed and boomed out, “Who’s there?” In a second, I was at the door. Could it have been a prank? I did not put it past one of our gang – especially one of them who had planned to play the piano the next night, as a prank. But when I crept to the other side of the house, I found the others quite lost to the world.

The husband woke up with a start. Then he went off to sleep again (it is amazing how fast he can do that), after all his cooing failed to have any calming effect on me.

I was ready to flee that morning. But we had another night.

So the next night, I lay siege to the big bedroom in the cottage that had a massive bed and two bunkers. Our two male friends were banished to the bunkers in that bedroom. Also, unwittingly I had foiled the piano playing plans of the above mentioned friend. Only on the second night, we were haunted by the ascending snores of the fourth friend.

Would I go back to Melinsoch? I am in no hurry.


The single word that has our hearts thrumming.

My partner on Two Blue Pencils, SR, associates travel with discovery. “The discoveries you make outside lead to so many inner discoveries about yourself. Nothing can be bigger than that,” she emphasizes.

An ex-colleague, SV, finds travel to be synonymous with freedom. The notion of getting away from the grind of daily life appeals to her. Journalist ND has a few words running through her mind when she thinks about travel. They span a few essentials such as “friends, the sun shining on the face, petrichor, wine at 11:00 am, history and walking.”

For some like lawyer NSG, wanderlust revolves around the idea of seeing a place like a local.

A freelance-multimedia-travel journalist, ADM, who authors Lonely Planet guides, notes: “The idea of leaving behind the familiar and venturing into the unknown, meeting new people, learning about new cultures, exploring new spaces, etcetera, all that put together is an immense learning experience. To go away, only to return home with a bagful of newly acquired knowledge, experience and wisdom.” He refers to the Satyajit Ray film, Agantuk (means The Stranger), that was released in the 90s. “It is quite that whole kupomonduk hoyo na (translated roughly, ‘don’t be a frog in a well’) impulse when Utpal Dutt comes back to his niece’s house after years of being away, and tells her son to go out and see the world.”

Different folks, different strokes. Yet a common thread runs through them – that we are all explorers at heart.

I was born in the Sultanate of Oman. I mention it because the first eight years of my life, spent in Salalah, filled me with the yearning to be out on the road. Memories filter through – of my father driving my mother and me through the rocky Jabal mountains, and then ploughing through the Empty Quarter, a direct translation of its Arabic name, Rub’ Al Khali. The dunes of Rub’ Al Khali then seemed to stretch on forever.



Psst: Those are camels though the husband insists that they resemble giant lizards on the move.

Every time I think of the Rub’ Al Khali, I recall a camel lying in the desert, upturned and quite dead. I have not seen such a sight again. I have always wondered since if camels do die in such a manner.

These memories are mingled with the adventurous expeditions of an elder brother who would spend his boarding school holidays in Salalah, playing with the bald pates of Omani boys. As a result, he would be the recipient of solid spankings from my mother. On our days out to the beach, he would climb up mountains in the rugged Jabal ranges and thereafter get stuck up there.
On most weekends, we used to set off in my father’s precious white super saloon, its mini fridge stacked with chilled, soft drinks. We would explore the ruins of Queen Sheba’s palace (the biblical Queen of Sheba is said to have frequented Salalah for frankincense) – the ancient city of Sumharam by the sea shore in Khor-rori; the coastal town of Mirbat; the small town of Thumrait which lay on the Incense Route that charted a caravan route from South Arabia to the Mediterranean roughly between 7th century BCE and 2nd century CE; the harbour town of Raysut; and the airport town of Marmul – all in the Dhofar region of southern Oman. We spent time exploring Muscat, Dubai, Abu Dhabi and Sharjah and soaking in the quintessential Middle-Eastern experience but of those my memories become vague.

When we got back to India, we settled into a quiet existence in our suburban house in Calcutta. My father, however, did return to Salalah in the mid-90s at the insistence of his former Omani colleagues. In 1995, he came back home with a terrible story. He was lunching in a restaurant in Salalah, on a certain afternoon, when a big car pulled up on the street. Out of it emerged four Jabali tribesmen, armed with Sten guns. In a matter of a few minutes they mowed down the largely South Indian populace on that street. Their grouse was that their jobs were being taken away by these foreigners.

Qaboos bin Said Al Said, the reigning sultan, turned his face the other way. It is said that he keeps peace in his kingdom by not messing around with the affairs of the Jabalis. Going back to Oman, for my father, was not an option after witnessing such a bloodbath.

For me, Oman remains an oasis. I snuggle into the warmth of those memories – something we tend to do with things that are a precious part of our pasts. Because travel, in my books, is about developing a connection with a place – which is why I have a penchant of going back to a place more than once.

Every time I travel, I leave a piece of me behind.