Friday, February 26, 2010

Les M&M's font du ski...

Gulmarg, Kashmir (India)

Imagine you are given the map of India: what are the first images that come to your mind? Unbearable heat? Half-naked Brahmins that plunge into the waters of the Ganga or the Brahmaputra rivers? The sunny beaches of Goa?

Now, imagine you are preparing your luggage to India; what would you try not to forget? Your linen shirt? Your favourite swim-suit? An umbrella and a raincoat for the monsoon season?

Well then, when I was packing for India, I put in my luggage my ski-jacket -pants and -gloves, and my pile hat. And a little dream: skiing on the Himalayas.

And now, on the occasion of Holi, the ‘festival of colours’ and national holiday here in India, we are about to fulfill this little dream.

In company of Elise, who is visiting us from Switzerland, we are leaving today to Gulmarg, in Kashmir. We know very little about this place, besides the fact that it is supposedly a very wild and pristine spot for skiing.

We will tell you more at our return on Monday evening...

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Indian vs American playgrounds...

Harrison playground, V Street, Washington DC 20009

Sukun Park, Defence Colony, New Delhi 110 024

India and the US, our last two countries. In the common imagery, two totally different worlds, two almost opposite cultures. Consumerism vs spirituality, opulence vs starvation, Mc Donald’s vs holy cows…

But is that really the case? How close or how far from each other are India and the US in reality?

If we consider playgrounds as a simplified version of the world, and the rules that are in use in them as somehow reflecting the rules and the values of the societies outside, we can observe the following:

- Similarities: consuming alcohol is ‘bad’ in both societies (not sure about Italy and France, but a picnic without a glass of wine does not seem to be possible in our home-countries).

- Also littering is considered a reprehensible behavior (fair enough. Perhaps a similar sign should be put at every corner in India).

- Pets are not allowed either in the US or in India. Interestingly though, in India it seems important to distinguish ‘dogs’ from ‘pets’ - perhaps because in Nagaland (one of the states at the border with China) dogs are actually a delicatessen and not pets...

- And finally, cursing seems to be censurable in both countries.

- Differences: in India it is prohibited to play football, cricket or hockey in the parks. This seems unconceivable in the US, where, on the contrary, parks and playgrounds are meant for people to meet and play.

- In India it is prohibited to steal plants from the park (!). In the US this is not even mentioned: who would even think about that…

- In India it is prohibited to pitch tents, cook, and perform private functions in the park. Well, this gives you, in my opinion, a nice portrait of Indian society…

- ‘No drugs’ seems to be an unavoidable rule in the American parks. ‘No smoking’ (and ‘no gambling’) seems to be sufficient in India.

- And finally, dreadful but not surprising, weapons are not allowed in American playgrounds. In India, on the other hand, the rules of decorum impose people not to spit or urinate in the park.

Indeed, two different worlds…

Monday, February 22, 2010

A quiet and lazy week-end...

For once, les M&M’s had a quiet and lazy week end.

No planes. No trains. No backpacks. But late wake-ups, breakfasts on the terrace, yoga (Mathilde) and football (Matteo), laundry and a bit of grocery to fill the fridge, a walk in the markets, a couple of hours on the computer to skype with our families and download and file our pictures, aperitifs and dinners with friends, cinema and DVDs, and - above all - loooong afternoon siestas!

Getting prepared for our next trip, the forthcoming week-end: skiing in Kashmir!

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Jodhpur, Jasailmer and Thar Desert pictures

And here there are the pictures of our trip to Jodhpur, Jasailmer and the Thar Desert: - vote your favourite one!

Ajanta and Ellora pictures available on Picasa

We have uploaded the pictures of our week-end to the Ajanta and Ellora caves on Picasa.

Check them at: - and vote your favourite one!

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

15 February

Happy birthday to me. And thanks to Mathie for the wonderful week-end...

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Daulatabad fortress

While the Ajanta and Ellora caves did certainly represent the main attractions of this trip, my favourite stop during this week-end was at the fort of Daulatabad, on our way to Ellora.

The story of this fortress is pretty bizarre.

Built through the XII century by the Yadava rulers, it suddenly became the capital of the Delhi sultanate in 1328 when the sultan of Delhi Muhammad-bin Tughluq decided to move there his kingdom’s capital. Believe it or not, the sultan forced the entire population of Delhi to march to this citadel (about 1200 Km southern!), killing part of it during the trip. However, Daulatabad soon proved to be unsuitable for a capital, and only a few years after the first move, the sultan decided to move the capital of his kingdom back to Delhi, and - deja vu - marched his population back to the previous capital.

The fortress is a masterpiece of military engineering. Secured on a solitary hill, protected by five sets of powerful walls, surrounded by a deep moat teemed with crocodiles, accessible only through a drawbridge, and defended by a series of ingenious architectonical tricks and contrivances, such as multiple doorways with odd angles and uneven steps to prevent elephant charges, loopholes from which throw boiling oil or water from above, etc.

My favourite defensive contrivance is however the Andheri (‘dark passage’), the only entrance to the citadel. The Andheri consists of a long devious tunnel that rises rapidly and tortuously by a flight of steps which are uneven in width and height, thus making them difficult to climb in the absence of light. In the complete darkness or filled with smoke, this passage was supposed to disorient and throw the enemies into confusion, leading them - through a series of turns and twists - to a trap: a passage that would have made the intruders tumble down to the moat.

We experienced the thrill of going through it. In a way, it has been like going through the ‘horror tunnel’ at the funfair. In the complete darkness (no electric lights have been added to maintain the original setting) we groped our way with a multitude of bats skimming over our heads, and the noise of mice (rats?) squeaking in between our feet.

The fort was considered impregnable. Ironically, however, history records that the fort was once successfully conquered by simply bribing the sentinels on guard at the gate…

Monday, February 15, 2010

Ajanta and Ellora caves

And so, my surprise week-end was in Maharashtra (the state of Bombay), visiting the spectacular caves of Ajanta and Ellora.

These caves were patiently and laboriously dug with hammer and chisel throughout eleven centuries (from the II BC to the IX AD) by generations of Buddhist, Hindu and Jain monks - who literally built their monasteries, chapels and temples digging in the mountains!

This would be already impressive in itself. What makes these caves extraordinary though are the decorations left by the monks: gigantic sculptures caved in the rock and frescoes of a sublime beauty - impressive if you think that some of them are dated more than thousands of years before those of the Sistine Chapel, and the techniques used (e.g. three-dimensional effects, false perspective, etc.) were adopted in Europe only centuries after.

Now - as the sleeping Buddha below - straight to bed. More stories and pictures in the coming days...

Saturday, February 13, 2010

Surprise week-end

Surprise parties are not fashionable anymore. If you want to be really cool nowadays you have to organize at least a ‘surprise week-end’!

Consistent with the nouvelle vogue, Mathilde organized a ‘surprise week-end’ for my birthday. We are leaving to the airport right now, destination… no idea. The only hint I was given is that temperature ranges between 15 and 31 degree Celsius.

With this hint, try to guess where Mathilde is bringing me, and post your guess under “comments”.

We will post the solution on Monday eve, when we will be back from my surprise birthday week-end…

Friday, February 12, 2010

The Sun Behind The Clouds

One of the little advantages of living out of Europe and out of the US is that, from time to time, you end up watching a movie that will never reach the international circuit, and that therefore you would never have had the opportunity to watch otherwise.

Today we happened to watch “The Sun Behind the Clouds”, recently awarded at the Mumbai International Film Festival. The film tells the struggle of Tibet for freedom, and presents, in a very balanced way, the different views and positions among Tibetans regarding Tibet’s independence: from the Dalai Lama’s ‘Middle Way’ to the more radical positions of the new generation and of certain activists. What emerges is a complex picture, and the tensions, contradictions and dilemmas between the role of the Dalai Lama as spiritual but also political leader, between ideals and political reality, between justice and pragmatism.

We went out of the auditorium where the movie was shown flooded by mix feelings: the admiration for the strength and passion with which these people persist in their struggle for freedom, the compassion for their sufferance, the anger for the injustice, the sorrow and the sense of impotence for what we believe the fate of Tibet will eventually be...

We are afraid that most of you won’t have the opportunity to see this movie. But if, by any chance, you’ll end up having this chance - well, we certainly recommend it.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Indian talks

Colourful, naïf, often funny. But also, sometime, delicate and poetic. That’s the ‘Indian-English’. Talking with Indians may look somehow disorienting at the beginning, but with time and experience we learnt to get by. In a way, discussing with an Indian is like playing a crossword puzzle or solving a rebus…

As in many other Asian cultures, Indians seem to have difficulties in saying ‘no’. The first rule to get by in a conversation with an Indian is thus not to forget that a ‘yes’ does not always mean ‘yes’. Our first months in India are rich of examples…

At the UNDP cafeteria, discussing about sport with one of the guards of the compound while watching a cricket match on TV:

- Do you like cricket?

- Yes

- Do you also like football?

- Yes

- What is your favourite football team?

- Yes

Or in my office, with the guy that brings us coffee and tea in the morning:

- Can I have sugar please?

- Yes (And he takes my cup and leaves!!!)

And by the way, speaking of the guy that brings us coffee (the ‘coffee-walla’), my daily dialogues with him could easily be the dialogues of a play of Samuel Beckett. An example:

- Can I have some sugar? (The incipit is often the same)

- Can I have some sugar? (Repeats the coffee-walla, looking at me and smiling)

- Can I have some sugar? (Myself, a bit puzzled, repeating the question a bit more slowly)

- Can I have some sugar? (Again, the coffee-walla, staring at my eyes and smiling)

- Can I have some sugar? (Myself, miming the action of pouring the sugar in the cup and speaking even more slowly)

- Can I have some sugar? (The coffee-walla, still staring at me, nodding the way Indians do, smiling, and repeating at my same speed)

- OK, thanks (Myself, by then resigned)

- OK, thanks (The coffee-walla, smiling. And leaves…)

Mathilde has also plenty of examples of conversations that can easily be confused for ‘dialogues of the absurd’. At the gym with Sabrina, asking at what time the gym is less crowded:

- At what time is the gym less crowded?

- At what time do you want to come?

But as mentioned earlier, the Indian-English can also be - in its simplicity and essence - very colourful and creative.

Surinda, my broker, offering me a cigarette: “Are you smoke?”

Or Kusuum, Riccardo’s maid, explaining me that her sister is seriously sick: “She is very serious”.

Or, again, a taxi driver while discussing about Hindi and English: “You know, Hindi language is easy. It’s looking [reading?] difficult”…

But as much as naïf or funny, I found Indian-English also very delicate - particularly when touching certain subjects, such as death…

Kusuum, talking about her sister (the one who was ‘very serious’) who passed away: “She is no more”.

And Tripta, my Yoga teacher, informing us that she took a few days of leaves to go to her guru’s funeral: “My master’ soul decided to leave his body”…

Monday, February 8, 2010

Do not pay bribes!

In one of our past posts, one of our good readers told us that he learnt more about India in the past three months reading our blog than in his entire life.

While certainly flattered, I have to say I feel quite the opposite, i.e. I have the feeling that three lives would not be enough for me to really understand India.


Thursday, February 4, 2010

How to spot a tiger

All Calvin & Hobbes’ readers do well know that to attract a tiger you need a tuna sandwich. But how to spot a tiger in the absence of a tuna sandwich? We discovered it on Saturday...

On Saturday we visited the Ranthambore National Park in Southern Rajasthan, the closest place to Delhi to spot tigers (but still, eight hours by train!).

Initially a bit skeptical (at least I was), we liked the park very very much. The scenery is extremely suggestive: the park develops itself around the ruins of the Ranthambore Fort, a 10th century fortress located at the top of a rocky hill in the middle of the jungle, and it is spotted by the remains of ancient temples and mosques, now covered and half-hidden by the vegetation in a landscape that somehow evokes the Jungle Book.

But how to spot one of the 42 tigers in this 1,332 sq km park? The guides of the Forest Department that kindly accompanied us explained that each animal of the jungle (birds, monkeys, deer, etc.) that sees a tiger emits a dull sound to inform the other animals that a tiger is nearby. The set of this sounds, called ‘the call’, help identifying the location of the tigers in the park.

Well then, following the ‘calls’, we wandered in the park for hours in search of tigers. We saw plenty of monkeys, alligators, thousands of different birds, a number of different antelopes, a leopard (extremely rare!), warthogs - but, as far as tigers are concerned, alas, only their tracks (and faeces)...

But be sure we won’t desist, and we will certainly come back to continue our hunt - next time with a tuna sandwich!

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

How many people visit our Blog?

web traffic software

Seven months and 136 posts ago we started this Blog, initially as something absolutely temporary. Basically we wanted a space where we could easily upload pictures and other stuff from our wedding, and to which we could redirect people without the burden of communicating individually with everyone. As we were not technologically proficient enough to design our own website, we identified the blog as the easiest solution.

In time, the Blog changed a bit its function, and from a virtual archive, it became more and more a sort of virtual diary, or, if you prefer, a common mailing list: a space where we could collect and share our daily stories, our thoughts and reflections, and - by doing this - keep updated and keep in contact with our families and with the friends spread around the world. After hours sit in front of a computer in fact, we didn’t always have the will (and the strength) to spend additional time writing emails telling the same things to different people. And at the same time, time difference did not always make easy to simply chat over the phone.

Anyway, to make it brief, in the past months writing a blog has become a nice hobby, and often an opportunity to reflect on things and details that otherwise would easily pass away and be forgotten (a special thanks to Emanuele for his encouragement to start first, and to persist later).

Despite my initial enthusiasm however, I recently lost a bit my motivation as - not receiving many feedbacks* - I had the feeling I was writing more for myself than for the others - and that therefore the main purpose of the Blog got somehow lost**.

However, people hurried to reassure me: “Even if we don’t leave comments on your Blog, we do read it”.

Truth or adulation?

We decided then to set a small program to count the number of visits on our site. Don’t worry, your anonymity will be preserved, but at least we will know that, even from far away, you are following us. And this cheers us up!

(*) For those who wished to leave a comment on our Blog but had difficulties in doing it, you’ll find a step-by-step guide on how to post a comment on this blog in one of our past posts:

(**) We would like though to thank once more our six ‘official’ followers: Clemence, Mathilde, Laura, Brice, Hu8o, and Pakto

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Voices from the (Thar) Desert

The week end we were in Jaisalmer, was also the week end of Juve-Roma 1-2, and Inter-Milan 2-0. You all know my football faith, but for those who do not know Riccardo, I have to say that - regretfully - he is a ‘gobbo’ (‘humpbacked’, the friendly epithet by which Juventus’ supporters are commonly known in Italy).

In the world of the mobile telephony, we didn’t have much difficulty to get to know the results of the matches, even in the middle of the Thar Desert. You can then well imagine the different moods in which Riccardo and I woke-up on Monday morning when we received the long awaited sms.

Riccardo is, no question, a nice fellow, but - I discovered during this trip - he is also what we friendly call ‘un gran bastardo’ (‘a dear bastard’). Well then, look at what he did while I was away from the camp for a morning walk in the desert:

He calls it ‘capacity building’…

Find the differences...

Monday, February 1, 2010

In the Thar Desert

One of my favourite movies was ‘City Slickers’ (‘Scappo dalla cittá’), the story of three friends in the middle of their mid-life crises who decide - to temporarily escape their problems - to spend a vacation together playing to the ‘cow boys’ - and join an organized group who has to move a herd of cattle from New Mexico to Colorado. During that trip they have to face a number of unforeseen events, by overcoming which they eventually overcome their crises.

One of my favourite scenes in that movie is when the three friends, after having led the herd across a river in flood, proudly gallop together through the prairies singing softly the soundtrack of the Magnificent Seven...

I always dreamt to find myself in the same situation, and - with all the due differences - I had this opportunity last week, when we decided to venture in the Thar Desert on a camel. After a couple of hours of quiet ride on these loose-limbed animals in fact, we suddenly went wild and started a wild run in the middle of the dunes, inciting our camels in an improbable Hindi... an incomparable feeling of freedom!

(If you want to know who actually won the ride, check ).

We spent then a wonderful night around a fire under the stars of Rajasthan, eating dhal and chapati, and trying to teach ‘Bella Ciao’, ‘Fiume Rosso’, and the Chinese national anthem to our guides (two young kids not older than 12-13 years).

The following morning we arduously went back to Jaisalmer on the back of our camels, suffering the pains of hell for our sore bottoms.

It was beautiful overnight excursion and we spent a wonderful night - but, while massaging our butts, I was sadly observing we are not cut for the adventure anymore...