I was reading about one of my favorite travel writers, Nick Danziger, when I found out that he was inspired by Tintin, the Belgian comic-strip character. Wasn’t a total surprise though. My dad introduced me to Tintin when I was about 6 years old and I just loved reading those books. Tintin and his dog, Snowy, went to all these mysterious places around the globe…volcanic islands in Indonesia, the forests of Central America, the Himalayas, the desert sands of the Sahara, a hybrid of Indiana Jones and James Bond! I ended up buying all the available books within a year when I lived in Calcutta, India and then had to go all around the world to collect the last few. Tracked down “Tintin in the Land of the Soviets” in The Tintin Shop in Covent Garden, London, the unfinished “Tintin and Alph-Art” from the Tintin Museum in Brussels and finally the Spanish edition of “Tintin in Congo” from amazon.com after waiting quite a few months after having placed the order.

The movie based on the book “The Secret of the Unicorn” directed by Steven Spielberg is out but sadly not in the US yet. I watched the trailer on youtube and will have to wait another month before I can see it in the theaters.

Also found out today that Alph-Art was completed by the Canadian author, Yves Rodier, and it’s available online. Read it here.

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Poland 2009

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After watching Schindler’s List I had decided that I would have to visit Krakow someday. That opportunity came up in the Summer of ’09. We stared off from Leeds on a Jet2 and arrived in Krakow before noon on a very wet day. Having a rental car helped and we were in our hotel next to the Vistula river within an hour. The rain ruled out outdoor attractions so we started off with Wieliczka Salt Mine.

Descending to a maximum depth of 130m we saw amazing artwork made out of rocksalt. There was a huge chapel filled with chandeliers, statues and wall carvings and on our way out we sat and ate in a great dining hall that was carved out in 1830. There was an area dedicated to Copernicus; he is thought to have visited this mine during his lifetime. On our way back we stopped at the beautiful city center and had fried pierogi and roasted pork for dinner.

Started off bright and early on the next day and the very first stop was a boat tour on the Vistula. It took us past the castle, Kazimierz, under a few bridges and a gigantic Soviet-era concrete block that was once a hotel. Spent some time at the Wawel castle and the cathedral within it taking pictures with a statue of Pope John Paul, a Krakow native. Climbed down the hill to get to the old town and the historic center located just north of the castle. It was a beautiful sunny day and the sights were gorgeous; a flower market, medieval horse drawn carriages, the Renaissance cloth hall, St. Mary’s church, baroque and gothic buildings…no wonder it’s on UNESCO’s World Heritage Sites list. Saw an old Lada parked in a side street as well!

The next destination was Auschwitz. Well…what’s there to say about it. It was such a humbling experience going through it imagining the horrors and how humanity managed to stoop so low and debase itself. Hope we never repeat those blunders. I stood in silence in every building in the memory of the innocent people that had perished there and everywhere else…mere pawns in the meaningless bloody battles that we keep fighting; why exactly?

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Vatican City 2009

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Vatican1Visited the Vatican on our very first day in Rome. Hopped off the bus at St. Peter’s Piazza and walked around it all the way up north to the entrance to the museum. Though the entry was expensive, this was probably the greatest art gallery in the world. There was so much around that I was never sure where to look, the walls on both sides or the ceiling! The benefit was that this was in summer and the route was one way so the crowd pushed us through. Passed through the wonderful galleries, Raphael’s Rooms to get to the Sistine Chapel where we were able to take a few photos of Michelangelo’s works before the guards spotted us and we had to stop. I’m not sure whose work it was but we saw an unforgettable sculpture of a curtain which I had to touch to make sure that it wasn’t made of cloth! Exited to St. Peter’s and walked around amidst the opulence, grandeur, strange combination of light and shade and dead popes before exiting to the piazza, having a few ice-creams and going back to the hotel.

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Italy 2003, 2009

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My-opic view
Italy and it’s rich three thousand year history beckons everyone. From the mighty Alps and the romantic canals of Venice to the Colosseum in Rome and the Byzantine wonders of Sicily, from fashionable Milan to the sleepy little hill towns, there’s something to see in every corner. Pasta, pizza, da Vinci, Michaelangelo, Mt. Vesuvius, Inter Milan, Paolo Rossi, Pompeii, olive oil all probably add up to living “la dolce vita”.

The trouble with taking cheaper flights is that they invariably operate from airports far from the city. We boarded the flight at Charleroi (Belgium, December 2003) and got down at Treviso. Both airports are about 1 hour’s drive from Brussels and Venice. On reaching Venice we learnt that there was a public vehicle strike. Italy has its share of lowlifes and cheats, and the owner of the water taxi took advantage of the strike and charged us a lot more than what would have been due. The hotel we stayed at was close to Piazza San Marco. We left our baggage in the rooms and went out. I do not know what people find so romantic about Venice, especially nowadays…it’s a little town full of dirt and garbage everywhere. There are no proper signs on the roads, so it is very easy to get lost. However, it’s water on all sides, so eventually, you get to your destination!

Next day we went over to Trieste. I had been traveling with a couple of my friends who had studied there, so they were familiar with the place. As you enter the town, the view of the Adriatic Sea is really grand. The faint line of the Alps can be seen too from the City Centre. There was a particular angle from which you could see the Alps with its cap of snow seemingly floating majestically over the Adriatic; I can see it still in my mind’s eye. What an incomparable scene it was! After walking a lot and treading thousands of stairs we were famished, so we went into a Mom and Pop pizza joint, they make the most wonderful pizzas! Then we boarded a tram with cogwheel drives that took us to the top of a hill adjoining the town. Slovenia was just across the hilltop, and the Adriatic sea lay all stretched out in a fascinating view. We caught the evening train and went back to Venice.

Venice is sinking
Is Venice sinking? Or is the water level rising? The answer is complex but it’s “yes” to both questions. The mean level of the land has lowered by 23cm / 9in relative to sea level.

This was our last day in Venice; we went out to see the neighbouring islands. We caught a public boat. Among the many stops on the way, two consecutive ones were at the hospital and at the cemetery; that gave me a lot of confidence in the Italian healthcare system! 🙂 We went to Murano, which is famous for Venetian glass works. I do not think the place has changed one bit in the last thousand years or so. Most of the workers were quite aged, the younger ones probably left for better lives somewhere else. Touched a few more islands and then went back to the main island of Venice to catch a bus to Treviso airport and back to Brussels.

Rome was the primary destination this time and we made sure we had more than a day (4 days in reality) to conquer it! 🙂 We had to start quite early from England since these were free flights on KLM with the mandatory changeover at Schiphol, Amsterdam. Once we landed at Fiumicino it was a long walk to the train station from where we boarded the Leonardo Express to Termini (Rome Central). Our hotel was a short walk from the station and we passed by Basilica di Santa Maria on our way to it. The Colosseum was close by as well and that was our first destination. It was almost like a deja vu except that it was not! This was my first time but I had seen it so many times in movies and other pictures that it seemed very very familiar. We stood in awe for a few minutes and then walked around the impressive structure before finding the hop-on/off bus stop behind it. We were pretty tired from the very early start and decided to take a tour of the city and finding our bearings a bit before embarking on the active phase. However, that did not turn out to be the case. As the bus made it’s way through the city we jumped off at the Vatican; couldn’t resist that! After taking a tour of the Papal estates, we boarded the bus back to the train station where we had dinner and walked back to the hotel.

The second day started early as well since we wanted to put our 24 hour ticket to good use before it expired. We rode the bus around the city and then started the walk from the furthest point on the west, Piazza Navona. The square was pretty impressive with wonderful architecture all around, fountains, local artists, sidewalk eating places and lot of people taking photos of everything from every conceivable angle. The next stop was the Pantheon. It was “commissioned by Marcus Agrippa as a temple to all the gods of Ancient Rome, and rebuilt by Emperor Hadrian in about 126 AD” (wikipedia). The dome was quite impressive and had a timeless feel to it. From here we found our way to Trevi Fountain. It was an incredibly hot day and the sight of water made me thirsty. Spanish Steps was the next on the list. After climbing the 138 steps we sat inside the Trinita dei Monti church at the top and caught our breath. The view of Piazza di Spagna and the rest of the city was quite wonderful from the top of the stairs. We had covered a lot on that day. Picked up pizzas on our way back as our tired legs refused more exercise!

The third day started off with a visit to the Arch of Constantine and then we walked around without much purpose among the ruins of the Roman Forum, Augustus’ Castle, Arch of Septimius and Trajan’s Column. In the afternoon we met with our friends at Campidoglio Square, one of Michelangelo’s creations, right behind the Victor Emmanuel Monument. The VE Monument looked out of place, all new and white in the midst of beautiful historical surroundings. They walked us through some old neighborhoods, probably the places Julius Caesar once frequented! One of the monuments we saw has fallen into a sad state of disrepair and has now turned into a hangout for feral cats and a dumping ground for bag snatchers; we did see quite a few empty ones lying around. That evening we had dinner at a nice Argentine restaurant. I knew about the huge Italian community in Argentina and now some of those folks have started to come back to the mother country. Clearly remember how Maradona and Veron, the two great Argentine footballers used a not-so-great way of getting hold of Italian citizenships! 🙂

The last day had arrived and we had already covered all that was on our list, something that happens very rarely. We didn’t do much. After a late breakfast we wandered around our hotel for a bit and made our way back to the Termini station where we took the return train to the airport. Saw remnants of an aqueduct and wonderful but crumbling architecture throughout the journey. While I understood that there weren’t enough resources to protect every historical building in Rome, it made me sad nonetheless.

We had our share. Since it was very hot we usually got back to the hotel in the evening, rested a bit and went out again around 10 pm for dinner and snacks. The area next to Trajan’s Column was nicely lit from the shining lights at Victor Emmanuel Monument and we hung out there until past midnight snacking on lovely gelatos from the numerous kiosks and mobile vendors run by Bangladeshis.

They are everywhere in Rome. I could probably get by over there just speaking in my native language, Bengali. They had some amazing stories to share when I had a chance to talk with quite a few of them. Sadly, they are all part of the trade in human trafficking that lures people from the third world with promises of better lives abroad. I met a teenager at a grocery store who told me that he had no papers and had somehow been smuggled into Turkey before making his way into Italy six months earlier. He was paid next to nothing and worked all day, everyday. The fact that they had no papers was pretty obvious when we were in the Colosseum area late one evening. I had struck up a conversation with one that was selling miniature replicas, he had promised me an excellent deal after finding out that I was his “brother” when suddenly someone started yelling in Bengali that there would be a police raid – he had been “informed”! All of a sudden these guys ran for their lives and disappeared into the surrounding darkness within a few seconds. Sure, the police were there shortly afterwards but the sham raid found not a single illegal immigrant!

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Wales 2008

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Wales had been on my to-do list for a long time and the opportunity arrived in the Summer of 2008 when my cousin had a few days off from work to show me around. We started off from the Manchester area and the first stop was Rhyl. The town was definitely past it’s prime and quite run down. The only visible signs of modernization were the wind turbines at the Rhyl Flats Wind Farm some 5 miles out into the sea. We kept following motorway all the way to Holyhead in county of Anglesey. St. Cybi’s church, at the heart of town, is the main attraction. It’s “built inside one of Europe’s few three-walled Roman forts, the fourth wall being the sea, which used to come up to the fort” (wikipedia). We also checked out the Port of Holyhead but all the ferries to Ireland were cancelled due to rough seas and it was deserted. Off we went to South Stack after that. It has one of Wales’ most spectacular lighthouses warning ships of the rugged coastline since it was built in 1809. Actually, rugged would be an understatement, vertical drops of what seemed like 100 meters were pretty common and the sea was lashing furiously against the walls. An almost zero chance of survival for shipwrecks, I thought standing next to it and immersed in the spectacular scenery; colorful beds of holly, dark rockfaces, angry waters, an approaching storm all bathed in the gentle light of the afternoon sun. We decided to make a run for the lighthouse, some 400 steps below the cliff and got there as they were about to close early for the day. By the time were making our way up the steps to get to the parking lot, heavy rains had started and we got totally drenched. We had reached the west coast of Wales and turned around soon afterwards towards Menai Bridge and finally to Llanfairpwllgwyngyllgogerychwyrndrobwyll-llantysiliogogogoch! The name translates as “The church of St. Mary in the hollow of white hazel trees near the rapid whirlpool by St. Tysilio’s of the red cave” in Welsh, has long claimed the fame of having the longest name in the world before being outdone by an even longer name somewhere in New Zealand or Thailand (not exactly sure). We went around to find the rail station so that we could take a picture of the full name spelled out on the platform. We went up north to the coast once again to the town of Llandudno, Queen of the Welsh Resorts, where we stopped for the night. The Victorian hotel was pretty nice but had an expensive restaurant. So we walked a few blocks over to an Italian place for dinner.

The promenade was a short walk away but it didn’t seem much different from a typical British seaside with a pier etc. and having seen many of them before we quickly lost interest and drove all the way up to the Great Orme, a prominent limestone headland right next to town. The tramway there is one of a kind, the only cable-hauled one still operating publicly in GB. The Halfway station provided interesting insight to the operations with a display of huge gears and boilers and here’s where we changed to the lower section that came down all the way to the city center. The views were spectacular and I cursed myself for not having a wide-angle lens with me. We made our way back to the summit the same way we had descended but took note of the copper mines from the Bronze Age. Wikipedia tells us that these mines were abandoned around 600 BC but re-discovered in the 1600s.

Conwy Castle was next on the schedule and we got there around noon. It was built in the 1200s but the walls are intact for the most part. We walked around it and over the remains of the town walls and the pretty impressive suspension bridge before locating what is now “The Smallest House in Great Britain” by the mouth of the river. The 1.5 day trip was over and it was time to go back to England. The day was quite bright and on the way back I did see quite a few deserted castles from a distance. Maybe some of them are even listed here.

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This poem is from Mara Broadway’s site and celebrates a very important day in my journey through life:


When summer’s green becomes
soft tinged with wisdom’s colors,
before the frost drapes crystal diamond lights
I’ll come to watch the changing of our season
as gold and purple reach their greatest heights.
I’ll follow you through a deepening arboretum,
a forest mossed with splendor’s falling leaves
when fire leaf fragments form a crimson carpet
and the seasons of our lives all interweave.
I promise you, I’ll be there in October
when summer’s heat has mellowed into gold,
before November paints a gray mist canvas,
I’ll warm you ‘gainst the coming winter cold.

I’ll be there in October

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US 2011 – Fall

Fall’s here and there’s so much color all around! I saw this tree on my way back to work from lunch this afternoon and was immediately reminded of a poem that I read long ago. It’s in Bangla (my native language) and written by Rabindranath Tagore, the first non-European to win the Nobel Prize in literature nearly 100 years ago, in 1913. Translated:

I traveled miles, for many a year,
I spent a lot in lands a far,
I’ve gone to see the mountains, the oceans I’ve been to view.
But I haven’t seen with these eyes
Just two steps from my home lies
On a sheaf of paddy grain, a glistening drop of dew.

Here’s an album from Fall 2009 that does a more comprehensive job at capturing the stunning colors around our area.

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