Four Moments

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A man of sensibilities

A man of sensibilities

Is an admirable man

He talks about philosophy

His love for books

The first bluebells of spring.

 

A man of sensibilities

Wears well-ironed shirts.

He wants to please the eye

Like he gladdens the heart

Of all whom he encounters.

 

A man of sensibilities

Has a disciplined mind.

He measures his words, his gestures

His lies.

Respect his presence inspires.

 

A man of sensibilities

Once broke my heart.

He never commented on it, he never addressed it

His sensibilities would not allow for it

He was better than that.

 

Play

Play this melody.

It makes me dance.

It brings me delight.

 

Take.

Take a minute to dream.

It feels me with life.

It gives me solace.

 

The sun is already up.

I never thought time would fleet like that.

My books are empty.

I’m yearning…

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Paint me

Paint me.

My hair is turning white

My eyes are turning grey

My heart is turning black

I fade.

I forget.

 

Keep me.

Force me stay

As a ghost, as a memory.

I don’t want to dissipate.

Darkness, darkness!

The cold is wasting me away.

 

Emptiness

Emptiness is black and sticky

Like tar

Like spoiled Coca Cola.

 

I walk down the street

It’s raining.

The pavements are grey and dirty

Tree leaves flutter to the ground dully

The people pass by hidden behind their brown umbrellas.

 

I try to remember

There is nothing to remember.

 

I arrive home.

The door is dark blue

My pigeonhole is full of spam

I get inside.

The sun has set behind the clouds.

Soon it will get dark.

Αρνούμαι να φοβηθώ

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“Μου κάνει εντύπωση που κανένας γνωστός μας δεν είναι ανάμεσα στους τραυματίες”. Ο φίλος μου πίνει αργά αργά την μπίρα του – Βέλγικη, από τοπική ζυθοποιεία – και το βλέμμα του πλανάται στο μαγαζί. Το μπαρ είναι μικρό, με οχτώ τραπέζια όλα κι όλα και πέντε ακόμα θαμώνες. Η τηλεόραση είναι συντονισμένη σε ένα μουσικό κανάλι που παίζει επιτυχίες του ’90. Σε μια γωνία βρίσκεται ξεχασμένο ένα παλιό φλιπεράκι με κερματοδέκτη. Τα κόκκινα φώτα του να αντανακλώνται στο τζάμι. Ένα τυπικό μπαρ σε μια τυπική γωνιά των Βρυξελλών, Τρίτη προς Τετάρτη. Τρεις φίλοι χαλαρώνουν μετά τη δουλειά πίνοντας μπίρες. Μόνο που δύο χιλιόμετρα μακριά μια βόμβα το πρωί τραυμάτισε και σκότωσε πλήθος ανθρώπων που πήγαιναν στη δουλειά τους. Ανθρώπων σαν και μας.

Τον κοιτάζω αμίλητη. Συνήθως είναι γεμάτος αισιοδοξία. Του αρέσει να πιστεύει ότι όλα θα πάνε καλά στο τέλος και προσπαθεί να εμπνεύσει αυτή την στάση ζωής και στους γύρω του. Όταν όμως τον πήρα τηλέφωνο στις 10.00 για να δω τι κάνει, μου είπε μονάχα: “η κατάσταση είναι τρομακτική”.

Και τώρα ξανά, αν και δεν θέλω να το παραδεχτώ, ξέρω ότι έχει δίκιο. Δουλεύω δέκα λεπτά από το σταθμό του Maelbeek. Ένας φίλος επέβαινε στο τρένο που μόλις είχε αποχωρήσει από το σταθμό κινούμενο προς την αντίθετη κατεύθυνση. Μια άλλη φίλη ήταν στην αποβάθρα του διπλανού σταθμού όταν έσκασε η βόμβα. Ο τρίτος της βραδινής μας εξόρμισης ήταν εκείνη την ώρα σε ένα κοντινό κτίριο και είδε τον κόσμο που έτρεχε για να σωθεί. Ξέρω τόσους ανθρώπους που δουλεύουν στην περιοχή. Και ξέρω πως όλοι είναι ζωντανοί. Απόψε πίνουμε για να γιορτάσουμε τη ζωή.

Το σώμα μου έχει χαλαρώσει από το αλκοόλ και το μυαλό μου ταξιδεύει. Το πρωί δεν πέρασαν πάνω από πέντε λεπτά από τη στιγμή που έμαθα για την έκρηξη στο μετρό, όταν χτύπησε το τηλέφωνό μου. Η φωνή της μητέρας μου έφτασε τρεμάμενη από την άλλη άκρη της γραμμής και ένα ρίγος διαπέρασε το κορμί μου. “Παιδί μου είσαι καλά;”. Για λίγα δευτερόλεπτα έμεινα σιωπηλή. “Ναι, μην ανησυχείς, όλα είναι μια χαρά”. Τι να πεις σε κάποιον χιλιόμετρα μακριά, που δεν γνωρίζει την πόλη, που δεν ξέρει τι ώρα έφυγες από το σπίτι, που δεν μπορεί να σε πάρει μια αγκαλιά να σε παρηγορήσει, να παρηγορηθεί και ο ίδιος; Όλα είναι μια χαρά.

Περασμένα μεσάνυχτα καλώ ένα ταξί να με γυρίσει σπίτι. Καθώς περιμένω, βλέπω στον ουρανό ένα τεράστιο, ολόγιομο φεγγάρι. Λίγο παραδίπλα μια κερασιά φορτωμένη άσπρα άνθη μου θυμίζει ότι παρά το τσουχτερό κρύο, έχει έρθει η άνοιξη. Η φύση συνεχίζει τον αέναο κύκλο της, από το σκοτάδι στο φως, από τη σιωπή στην καρποφορία, κι ας σκοτώνονται οι άνθρωποι, κι ας ματώνουν τα χώματά της.

Την επόμενη μέρα ξυπνάω ασυνήθιστα νωρίς. Έχω συμφωνήσει να δουλέψω από το σπίτι. Δεν μπορώ όμως να μείνω κλεισμένη στους τέσσερις τοίχους. Τον περασμένο Νοέμβρη που μας είχαν ζητήσει να περιορίσουμε τις μετακινήσεις μας κόντεψα να τρελαθώ. Αυτοκίνητο δεν είχα, μέσα μεταφοράς δεν λειτουργούσαν, βρέθηκα να κόβω βόλτες στις δώδεκα τη νύχτα σε κεντρικό δρόμο γεμάτο πανάκριβα μαγαζιά και θωρακισμένα οχήματα του στρατού.

Let love rule. #Brussels

A photo posted by ariadne (@ariadnekyp) on Mar 23, 2016 at 10:10am PDT

 

Αυτή τη φορά ντύνομαι και πάω για τζόγκινγκ. Έχω δηλώσει συμμετοχή στα 20 χιλιόμετρα των Βρυξελλών και δεν σκοπεύω να κάνω πίσω. Ειδικά μετά τα χτεσινά. Τώρα η θέλησή μου να συμμετάσχω στην κούρσα είναι μεγαλύτερη από ποτέ. Βάζω μουσική και αρχίζω να τρέχω. Περνώ από κεντρικούς δρόμους και από στενά, από πλατείες και από ιστορικά κτίρια. Βλέπω ανθρώπους να δουλεύουν. Βλέπω ανθρώπους να μιλούν. Βλέπω ανθρώπους να χαμογελούν. Βλέπω ανθρώπους να ζουν. Βλέπω ανθρώπους που με το κεφάλι ψηλά συνεχίζουν τη ζωή τους. Θα το ξεπεράσουμε.

Φτάνω στο κτίριο του χρηματιστηρίου. Λουλούδια και μπαλόνια, μηνύματα και σημαίες είναι αφημένα μπροστά από το γκρίζο κτίριο με τα δίδυμα λιοντάρια. Με κιμωλία κάποιος έχει γράψει “tous ensemble – όλοι μαζί”. Ο κόσμος αρκετός, οι κάμερες ακόμα περισσότερες. Παίρνω βαθιά ανάσα και συνεχίζω να τρέχω. Τρέχω μακριά από αυτούς που θέλουν να μου επιβάλουν μια νιχιλιστική, θλιβερή, ενοχική εκδοχή της ζωής. Ανεβαίνω ανηφόρες, κάνω ζικ ζακ, φτάνω στην κορυφή του λόφου και σταματώ στο Παλάτι της Δικαιοσύνης απ’ όπου μπορώ να δω όλη την πόλη.

Μπροστά από το Παλάτι, δυο πάνοπλοι στρατιώτες περιπολούν όπως συνήθως. Τα λεωφορεία περνούν μισογεμάτα. Τα μαγαζιά και τα εστιατόρια, μια μέρα μόνο μετά την επίθεση, είναι ξανά ανοιχτά. Στο δρόμο επικρατεί ησυχία, που διακόπτουν μοναχά οι σειρήνες των περιπολικών. Μετά τα γεγονότα του Νοέμβρη, η πόλη είναι σκληραγωγημένη, προετοιμασμένη για τα χειρότερα. Έτσι τουλάχιστον θέλει να δείχνει.

Ατενίζω τα μεγάλα, επιβλητικά κτίρια και σκέφτομαι το μέλλον. Ονειρεύομαι ένα κόσμο ελεύθερο και λογικό. Να παίρνουμε αποφάσεις μαζί, όχι βασιζόμενοι σε σλόγκαν και δημαγωγικούς συναισθηματισμούς, αλλά σε ιδέες, γνώση, μελέτες και συζητήσεις. Να σεβόμαστε ο ένας τον άλλο και να απομονώνουμε αυτούς που θεωρούν για οποιοδήποτε λόγο δικαίωμά τους να στερούν τη ζωή των συνανθρώπων τους.

Γυρίζω στην πραγματικότητά μου. Στους νεκρούς, στους τραυματίες, στις πληγές, εμφανείς και αφανείς. Αρνούμαι να σταματήσω να αγαπώ και να σέβομαι. Είμαι ένας κόκκος άμμου στον ωκεανό, μα η θέλησή μου παραμένει ακλόνητη. Αρχίζω να τρέχω ξανά. Τρέχω προς το σπίτι μου, προς τα όνειρά μου, προς τις αξίες μου, προς την ελπίδα…

Zion.T – Yanghwa BRDG

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Let’s be happy. Regardless of the past. Or even because of it. 

I was always alone at home
My dad was a taxi driver
Whenever I asked him where he was
He’d answer, the Yang Hwa Bridge
Every morning, he’d leave me candy and ramen
My dad would end his shifts at dawn
I remember the young me, always waiting for his pocket
Mom, dad, my two older sisters
I was the baby of the family, the cutie
I remember those days
I remember

Let’s be happy
Let’s be happy
Don’t be sick, don’t be sick
Let’s be happy, let’s be happy
Don’t be sick

I’m making money, I’m making all the money
I used to ask my mom for ten cents
My mom and dad, even my dog
They all look to me now
I’m getting a call, it’s my mom
Ring ring, “Hi son, how are you?”
She asks me where I am
I’m at Yang Hwa Bridge

Mom, let’s be happy
Don’t be sick, don’t be sick
Let’s be happy, let’s be happy
Don’t be sick

Back then, when I was young
I didn’t know anything
The feeling of walking across that bridge
Whenever I asked him where he was
My dad would always be at
Yang Hwa Bridge, Yang Hwa Bridge
I’m standing there right now

Source: KpopLyrics

Ode to the Hog

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A hog won’t change his ways

His temples may turn deep grey
A wrinkle may gash his face
The sharpness of his teeth may waste away

But a hog won’t change his ways

His love for filth and rotten flesh
His wallowing-in-mud cravings
These cherished habits, long before attained
Will never go away

A hog will never change his ways.

He’ll never bring red roses
Never flatter a new dress
“I’m sorry and I care”
You’ll never catch saying.

Cause he’s a hog and he doesn’t want to change his ways.

Your love, your kindness, your devotion
All your efforts coming from a tender place
Will never change his unkind, foul ways

So stay away from the hog.

He isn’t worth your wait.

MOOCs Pt.2: e-learning and l

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During the last three years, I have used Coursera, FutureLearn and EdX. I am far more motivated to start and finish a MOOC, or any form of learning for that matter, if there is a structure and a deadline.

I have taken many classes offered by Coursera and I love their platform. I find it very user-friendly; the different segments cover nicely the topic and I always come away feeling like I’ve learnt something. The courses’ level varies from teacher to teacher. My favourite MOOC so far was the Constitutional Struggles in the Middle East, which is currently offered for the second time. What I appreciated was professor Afsah’s depth of knowledge and determination to cover as many aspects of the topic as possible through excellent video lectures and interesting assignments. It was a challenging course, but it was definitely worth it.

FutureLearn is a younger, somehow sleeker version of Coursera. As a platform, it borrows heavily from Coursera, but also sets itself apart with its comment section under every ‘step’ and the combination of text and video. I found the first MOOC I tried very interesting, but not particularly ambitious as far as the assignments were concerned. Then I took the Lips and Teeth class by Yonsei University, which boasted a brilliant instructor and a very compelling topic. That was the class that really showcased the potentials of the platform.

My EdX experience is limited, as I have only completed one course. Unfortunately, I find the platform unpleasant to use. My least favourite part of it is the forums, which felt chaotic, rendering any effort for proper discussion impossible. I haven’t tried to follow another class after that first experience, though I took a look at it today and no major changes in its structure seem to have taken place.

My advice is, if you decide to take a MOOC, start small. Sign up for one course, not five. If you are really interested in a few of them, choose the one that you will more likely complete. It is also very important to be aware of the level of the class and of your level. Overall, be honest with yourself and assess your skills; think about why you want to study the topic and how much time you are able to devote to it. If you don’t manage to follow a course, don’t be discouraged. Popular  courses run again every few months.

That being said, is it really worth spending time studying a MOOC? Yes. Especially if you are not sure what you want to do in life, if you are in high school and you want to figure out which field and university would suit you, if you need help with your coursework, or if you just have some free time and lots of interests. For better or for worse, we live in a chaotic, interconnected world. The more we understand other nations’ point of views or the way our natural world functions, the less scary the time and age that we live in will become. However, it takes dedication, effort and the desire to learn. MOOCs, like all academic work, can only get you so far. It is up to you to get your hands dirty by reading additional material, following the news or working on that project you always wanted to.

Do you have any further questions regarding MOOCs? Please leave a comment.

MOOCs Pt.1: a new education model?

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People often ask me about my passion for Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs). In response, I’ve decided to put pen to (digital) paper and try to assess their value and usefulness based on my experiences. If you’re interested in learning more about a variety of often highly specialised topics in a structured manner, or if you need help understanding your school or university coursework, then online courses may be for you! But let’s start with the basics.

First of all, MOOCs are offered by various platforms. Some of them are commercial; others are not-for-profit. They differ from each other in terms of content, course structure and presentation. Some courses may specialise in a particular field such as IT (Udacity), while others try to offer a wide range of subjects through collaborations with as many universities as possible (Coursera, FutureLearn). Some structure teaching around videos, while others combine texts, videos, assignments and recommended readings. Varying levels of engagement may also be offered within the same platforms. For example, in some Coursera courses, the student can just audit or follow the “basic track”, which requires the completion of quizzes before the deadline. The “advanced track”, meanwhile, includes both quizzes and assignments and, upon the payment of a small fee, can provide the learner with a verified certificate. The freemium model is very popular, but used differently across platforms.

As far as I know, those certificates only attest to the fact that the student has completed the required coursework. In other words, they are not recognised or accredited (or at least it is very hard to get them recognised). Accredited courses are still offered almost exclusively by Open Universities and universities with recognised distant learning programmes. The length of many courses is also shorter than the standard eight weeks of an academic term. In addition, it is true that cheating is rather easy and it would require a lot of effort and manpower to check the authenticity of submitted assignments, whose grading is currently based on the peer-assessment approach. Engagement with theoretical concepts is often kept to a minimum due to the level of the course, its length, the need to cover different aspects of the topic and, possibly, the fear of making it too difficult to follow for students without prior knowledge of the subject. There is also an inherent lack of trust from universities and employers alike when it comes to MOOCs. Many people think that because you learned it online, it is not “real academic knowledge”.

MOOCs do have significant advantages over traditional universities however. The variety of topics is much greater than what most universities would be able to offer. Flexibility is also an important selling point as courses bring in people from all walks of life in a way that traditional universities will never be able to. Furthermore, because the certificates are not accredited, the students who participate in the courses do so because they are really keen to learn. As a result, the discussions taking place on the courses’ forum and comment sections are very interesting and students tend to help each other a lot. The marketing departments of some universities are aware of the potential that this global audience offers and there are quite a few lesser-known universities (including some Asian ones) that are very active on online platforms as they see it as a way to promote their brand and attract qualified students.

Are MOOCs the future of education? I believe that nothing alone is ‘the future’ because people like variety. We will never live in societies where everyone will dress the same way and be transported to work every morning on conveyor belts. In addition, it is difficult to become a surgeon or a plumber solely through participation in online classes.

That being said, the huge potential of MOOCs is undeniable and the current platforms are definitely a step closer to the creation of a quality e-learning ecosystem that takes advantage of multimedia and online interaction. The commercial players in the MOOC business definitely see the current model as a trial-and-error phase which will lead to the perfection of their business model. For example, the specialisations offered by Coursera, which require a “cap project” (mini dissertation) at the end are a step in that direction. The prospect of more inclusive higher education has never seemed more real. This is the case not only for students, but also for educators and universities that can use online platforms to diffuse content in different languages and promote different approaches and points of view. Online courses definitely broaden our understanding of the way people learn and engage with study material. If all goes well, they can be a victory for pluralism.

India time Bonus round: the tourist experience

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Even the seasoned traveller may be unsure if a trip to India is a safe, rewarding and meaningful investment of money and time. Here are some practical advises that may help you make an informed decision, protect yourself and have fun.

Health

If you don’t have medical issues and you drink bottled water, apply mosquito-repellent and follow basic rules of hygiene during your trip, it is likely that you will not fall sick. However, you should consult well in advance a doctor and read the recommendations on vaccinations and the health and safety guidelines for travellers to India provided online by governments and governmental agencies. Purchasing a travel insurance is also a very smart thing to do and some companies require it in order to allow you to join the tour. Don’t forget to take any necessary medication with you.

In a nutshell, be informed, don’t overdo it and don’t feel compelled to treat this trip like a visit to a warzone.

Food

It is paramount that you try Indian food. Restaurant staff tends to be understanding when it comes to foreigners’ bellies. You can negotiate how spicy the dish will be. North Indian food is great, but south Indian has its own very distinct flavour.

When it comes to snacks, forget luxuries such as 7/11. There are no convenience store chains from what I saw. You can find snacks in little corner shops and supermarkets. You can also get fresh fruits from the market. Be particularly careful when you buy street food. Don’t buy food that has already been prepared, especially during monsoon season. If you really want to try street food, ask your guide for advice or buy food prepared in front of you. The first time you have curry for breakfast, you’ll feel like somebody is slapping you in the face. But eventually you will get used to the constant numbness of your oral cavity. Masala tea is a must.

Going around town

As previously mentioned, Indian cities are not particularly attractive. From what I saw, north India didn’t have a city which the tourist would be able to enjoy and explore on foot. There were no well-paved pedestrianized little streets with cute shops or coffee shops, no well-lit city centres where locals and tourists alike were enjoying an afternoon walk. At least not like those you can find in Barcelona, Tokyo or even Beijing. I figured that well-to-do Indians go to shopping malls on their free time, but as shopping malls are identical all over the world, I didn’t really bother to visit one (except from the hunted mall across our hotel in Agra).

It is easy for a tourist to end up being ushered from monument to monument, without really seeing the city. Therefore, if you decide not to go with a free-spirited tour operator, you should do a lot of research beforehand and come up with specific places that you want to see. There are many nice coffee shops, bookstores and galleries that are worth a visit. Spontaneity will not pay in India. You may end up booking a tuk tuk for a day and letting the driver take you wherever he wants. In the best of cases, they will just take you to India Gate and you will miss out on a lot of other cool places. In the worst of cases, you can get really, really badly ripped off. If you don’t like planning, opt for a city tour.

As stated before, walking is not really an option. To move around in Indian cities, you can ride the subway, get a taxi or a tuk tuk. If your hotel is reputable, they will book a taxi for you and negotiate with the tuk tuk driver on your behalf. If you need to negotiate with a tuk tuk driver yourself, be firm, bargain and don’t allow them to take you to random places. In the Delhi metro, the front section is reserved to female passengers, though women can ride any part of the train they like. Furthermore, make sure you have comfortable, baggy and relatively modest clothes with you. If you are wearing a short skirt and you are with a group, you will probably not get harassed, but it may feel uncomfortable nevertheless. 

If you want to feel safer, you can let your hotel know where you are going, what time you are planning to come back and who the driver is. Don’t forget that once you have chosen your trajectory on google maps, the use of the GPS is free. Use it if you need to keep track of your trip. Have with you a map, physical or offline, in case you get lost. Carry with you the card of your hotel and don’t put all your money and cards in your wallet. Save all the important numbers on your mobile, including your embassy’s number and tour operator emergency number. People speak English reasonably well. If worst come to worst, find a place that feels safe, like a hotel, and ask for help. Please also avoid giving money to child beggars.

Hotels

It is really worth the effort to conduct a little research on your accommodation options. All the hotels I stayed in were very nice, clean and proper. The staff really made an effort to help us and offer a good experience. Many hotels have reasonably priced spas and swimming pools and good internet connection (yeah!). Heritage hotels are definitely worth a stay.

Landmarks and entertainment

When it comes to important landmarks, the same rules apply as everywhere else. Visit them first thing in the morning. Wake up at 4.30 if needed. This is especially important in the case of the Taj Mahal which is even more impressive live and it takes time to fully appreciate its gorgeous details and majestic scale. And like everywhere else in the world, if you don’t hold an Indian passport, be ready to pay a lot more than the locals to visit the main attractions. Varanasi was a great experience, but we were kindly asked beforehand not to take photos of the burning bodies, a request that I appreciated.

There are plenty of options when ti comes to entertaining activities, as long as you do your research or ask your guide. In rural areas you can find the classic ones, such as rafting, canoeing, trekking and driving around in jeeps. A Bollywood film is a must, especially if it is shown in the magnificent Raj Mandir cinema, a tourist attraction in its own right. Language is not really an issue. Just look up the summary of the film on imdb beforehand or ask the staff to fill you in.

Spectacles involving animals

It is advisable to stay away from elephant rides or any sort of spectacle involving wild animals, as you may inadvertently end up supporting practices that go against animal welfare. Even though monkeys are abundant in cities, they are still wild animals. It is ILLEGAL to force them to perform tricks. Do not encourage this activity by tipping the owners and call a local NGO if possible.

There are many websites with more information on the topic. The ABTA animal welfare guidelines is a great place to start. Most reputable travel agencies no longer include elephant rides in their India itineraries. The rule of thumb is, the less reputable the operator, the more likely is for the animal to suffer abuse. If you decide to ride an animal, wild or domesticated, don’t forget that you can always walk away if you feel that it doesn’t look healthy or well taken care of.

An alternative is to visit one of the many beautiful reserves and shelters. There, you will have the opportunity to see many animals and plants, enjoy the spectacular nature and support the good work of people who strive to transform the life of those animals and their own communities.

Shopping

Shopping can be either fun or exhausting. If you like haggling, India is your paradise. If you want tags on the products, you will give up after the first few days and wait to go to a shopping mall or the duty-free shops to do some shopping. If you decide to bargain, start very, very low and don’t be afraid to walk away from a deal. There will most likely be another street vendor nearby selling the same mass-produced souvenir in a more reasonable price. The country is cheap, but you may need to do some searching to find truly interesting souvenirs. Places like Dilli Haat are definitely a good place to start.

Female Solo Travellers

Having said in a previous post that I didn’t encounter instances of sexual harassment by men, I personally would not recommend solo traveling for women. I felt that if I was travelling alone, I would have to be extra careful when going about my day to avoid ending up in some dodgy place or uncomfortable situation. All the extra preparation and stress can suck the fun out of the experience. In other words, India is not Japan. Therefore, going with a group may be the better option. It is true that the experience will then depend on how well the traveller will bond with the rest of the group. However, the destination, the travel company and the itinerary do define the kind of people that will sign up for the tour in the first place. If you find the package interesting, it is likely that you will have things in common with your fellow travellers. My group consisted mainly of highly intelligent, young women. It was fun! The three men in our group were also nice.

Be prepared

One thing I highly recommend is to go prepared. If you know next to nothing about India, spend some time to master the basics about the country. Don’t just read the guidebooks or trip advisor. Knowing what you want to see is nice, but knowing why it is important to see it is even better. Read a couple of novels, try to piece its history together, watch a few movies, read the local newspapers. This way, not only you will be prepared for what you will encounter on the ground and you will have realistic expectations, but you will also be able, once there, to make the most out of your trip and of the things you see and experience.

Books I read before going to India:

A Suitable Boy
The White Tiger
The God of Small Things

My favourite Indian films:

Water
Earth
Jodhaa Akbar
Lagaan
The Lunchbox
Veer-Zaara
Devdas

You can also check out the University of Melbourne/Coursera MOOC on Contemporary India.

India time Pt.2: The history, the people and the good things that are happening there

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Having spent so much blogspace complaining about the failings of a developing country, which, it can be rightfully argued, may not be very gracious, I have to dedicate some space to the things I loved about this trip.

India has a very exciting history. Once you get your Mughal emperors right (tip: focus on the sequence), you can really see the impact that the different rulers had on their people and how it was shaped according to their interests and beliefs. Akbar, of course, holds a special place among them for his forward-thinking ideas. Nevertheless, India is more than its pre-Raj or colonial history. Modern Indian history is well-documented and preserved. Teen Murti Bhavan was definitely one of the highlights of my stay, as was observing the role of titular nobility in modern times. India may not have turned out to be as colourful as the posters make it to be, but the rich tapestry of cultures, beliefs and people definitely made up for it.

Which brings me to the other highlight of my stay, the people. From the bell boy to the subway passengers, Indians were all very polite and nice. We accidentally crashed a pre-wedding party in Agra. The aunt welcomed us and asked us to stay and dance with the bride. Before leaving, she heartily wished us to have a pleasant and safe trip. We met many women and children happy to be pose for us and highly amused by the foreigners that were roaming the narrow streets of their village. I was even invited to a school to attend their celebrations for Independence Day, which included a taekwondo demonstration by the girls of the school.

I also saw far fewer children labourers than I expected, which was a relief. There are organisations that try to take care of the children, provide them with a safe environment and help them return to school. Of course, a lot more work things to be done, but there is definitely awareness. And as I mentioned before, there is acute poverty. However people can always find a temple which offers everyone, no matter their religion, as much food as they can have, a public washroom or a pump where they can wash their clothes and cheap hygiene products which can cover their basic needs. People of different financial means can get by and seek ways to imporove their lives.

On a personal level, I was lucky to have had such an excellent tour guide. I doubt he slept more than five hours per day, yet he was always cheerful, well-organised and made sure we had a personalised experience, though we were a group of 14. He was protective, but in a discreet, non-paternalistic way. He was intelligent, educated and fun to be around. Then there was also the wonderful mother of a friend of mine who took excellent care of me and helped me discover the loveliest parts of New Delhi. She was a warm, intelligent, strong woman whom I hope to see again, this time with me being the host.

Furthermore, India does have a special atmosphere. My trip happened to take place during the holy month of Shravan Maas, when devotees of Lord Shiva carry water from the Ganges to their home towns and, more often, villages. In every place we visited, we encountered groups of orange-clad boys and men, both reverent and excited to embark on a trip far away their small agrarian communities. These festivities also accentuated the omnipresence of religion in Indian people’s everyday life. The divine is present in the morning prayers and the melodic voicing coming from the places of worship in every city and village. Devotees are driven by their faith to help feed and shelter the poor and protect the vulnerable, supplementing the government’s social services. Even the word “auspicious” is constantly used by educated and illiterate people alike. Varanasi is the centerpiece of this relationship, housing religious establishments and retreats of different faiths where people go to find God.

Another highlight was definitely nature and those pretty corners that only a local can show you. From the Raneh Falls to Betwa river, to Lodhi Gardens, from the Raj Mandir Cinema to the bookstores/coffee shops in Delhi, from the beautiful sunrise in Varanasi to the sunset in Tordi and the starry night in Alimpura, every part of India had a little gem of serenity and beauty to offer. The countryside was quite an experience, also thanks to the heritage hotels in which we stayed. Especially the one in Alimpura could easily have been the Third Best Exotic Marigold Hotel.

Finally, despite the frustration that certain development issues may have caused me, I couldn’t help but see the good work done by the authorities in different areas, especially education and healthcare. Yes, the quality may often be low, but education has never been more accessible in this country. Yes, much more needs to be done for affordable housing, yet the government has many schemes that provide people with basic amenities, such as toilets. Yes, hospitals are often overcrowded and the staff is overworked, yet public health campaigns are helping people make better choices for themselves and their children. For what it’s worth, a country of over one billion people was declared polio-free in 2014. The situation is definitely getting better for this generation and the next.

On a final note, when I went back to Indira Gandhi airport two weeks later I found it very pleasant and really enjoyed the decoration. My trip to India, without being a perfect experience, which was never the goal to begin with, was definitely a very exciting and educational one. I definitely want to go back and visit the south. And who knows, maybe in 15 years from now when I talk to my niece about my first trip to India, she will look at me mystified by the difference in the country.

India Time Pt.1: big cities, big problems, big monuments

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India has fascinated me for years. The imagery, the history, the development potentials had led me to build a specific idea of what India is. Never afraid to be disappointed by reality, I decided this year to realise my last big travelling dream and head to the subcontinent to explore the place for myself. I spent two weeks there, yet it took me a month with some procrastination and a lot of thinking to write down my thoughts on the trip.

Given the undeniably bad reputation India has when it comes to the treatment of women, I opted for an organised tour with a Canadian travel operator I had used before*. The two-week tour would take my fellow travellers and me from Delhi to the village of Tordi, to the (salmon) pink city of Jaipur, to Agra, and from there to Alimpura, Orccha, Varanasi and then back to Delhi.

So, when I arrived in Delhi with a very early morning flight, I was both excited and apprehensive. I had arranged for a pick-up but I was still afraid I could end up alone searching for a means of transport in what in my mind was still a foreign and inhospitable environment.

Luckily, a young, grinning man was there looking for me. While we were waiting for our female driver from the Women on Wheels programme, a police officer approached us and talked menacingly in Hindi to my young companion. Then he turned to me to confirm that he was indeed there to take me to my hotel. This was a first taste of the strict security measures that I would experience in the country: metal detectors everywhere, even in coffee shops, police with bamboo sticks, reserve forces and private guards. By the end of the trip I would automatically open my bag for inspection and lift my arms for a pat down whenever I would see a woman in uniform. To my surprise, the security checks didn’t alarm me. On the contrary, they rather reinforced a sense of security in a country that has experienced numerous small and big-scale terrorist attacks in the past. Some of these measures nevertheless, especially the face control in fancy chain coffee shops and hipster bars, seemed rather to be in place to protect the tourists and the middle class from the unwanted presence of the very poor.

And those poor were everywhere, sleeping under the bridges, selling souvenirs, street food and water, working in construction or just begging. However, even among the poor there were differences, often visible by their clothes – even a poor man could afford a well-ironed shirt in contrast to the acutely poor and homeless with their dirty and torn garments. The notion that poverty has shades and scales was never more obvious to me. The only place where poor people would only come to work but never stay was the fancy part of a city, such as the Lutyens Bungalow Zone in New Delhi with its luxurious, colonial-era bungalows which are now given to government officials. That was also the only place where well-maintained and clean pavements would go on for miles, green spaces were abundant and people were not driving like they were taking part in some short of kamikaze race. A bit further away from there, one could also find hipster joints and big malls. It was like a segregated paradise in the middle of an urban wilderness.

Poles apart from the colonial-era New Delhi was the Mughal-era Old Delhi, a trash-, dung- and rat-infested district, bejewelled with beautiful religious monuments. Be it big mosques or Sikh temples, that part of the city best reflects the rest of Northern India, with its vibrant, crazy, polluted and multicultural streets. People of different faiths live side by side, courteously giving their neighbours space to express their beliefs, be it for the call to prayer or for the narration of the Gita. At the same time, there is a very real division among them, according to caste, religion, origin, social class, sex, age.

It was also in Old Delhi where I encountered one of the most heart-breaking spectacles an architecture admirer could encounter, the destruction of beautiful old buildings with the addition of new rooms built with cheap materials and little regard for the aesthetic result. The owners, poor people with need for space, did this out of necessity of course. However, the local authorities seem to be doing little to preserve the cultural heritage of these neighbourhoods.

That was not the only instance where Indian people’s relationship with the urban space seemed to have a negative undertone. The most famous example is the terrible state of public infrastructure, in terms of maintenance and cleanliness. India’s problem, in reality, is not the huge garbage piles themselves, but people’s attitude towards them. The average Indian will feel the need to maintain their appearance pristine, their children spotless and their house in excellent condition. But the moment they step out of their house, they will absent-mindedly throw their trash on the pavement. They will ignore the smell of the rotting pile of organic matter and trash on the unpaved sidewalk used by schoolchildren and food street vendors. They will not even think that they and their family will have to pass by it a few times per day. They do not see it as a public health hazard and the aesthetic equivalent of a Damien Hirst installation. And this is not a poor vs rich, or a city vs countryside issue, but it affects every corner, river and district of the nation.

That shows a very problematic relation with not only public space, but public property in general. As much as the individual is to blame, even more blame should be carried by all the governments, previous and current. Public services quality is notoriously low, to the point that even poor people are scrapping together money to send their children to private schools or get treatment in private hospitals. Pavements and bus stop seats are non-existent and wherever they exist, they are broken and overall poorly maintained. Streets are bumpy to the point that during our long drives they lulled me to sleep several times. There are no dustbins and the garbage collection system seems completely disorganised, with scavengers playing an important, often unofficial role in waste management.

One striking example are train stations. While we were waiting for our train, we saw a woman trying to clean the station with only a broom and no a dust pan. After a few minutes, a train entered the station and dumped the toilet’s content on the rails while the passengers were boarding it. In Agra we saw an old woman who had to dip up to her knees in dirty waters to cross the street (during a monsoon season with low rainfall). Even one of the hottest places in Delhi, Hauz Khas village, seemed to lack a concrete plan for the maximization of its development potentials. In the cities we visited, the tourism gains are huge but there is no sign of reinvestment in large-scale urban infrastructure, apart from the Jaipur and Delhi metro. There seem to be no incentives or penalties to urge the common shop owner to contribute to the beautification of the city – be it by not dumping their trash right outside their store or by painting its façade. Overall, no city in India seems to have a desire to improve aesthetically its buildings and public spaces, which again, it could be rightfully argued that it is not a priority in a developing country.

However, at some point – maybe after launching a mission to Mars – it should be considered as such. It is not only a question of appealing more to tourists, though cities with huge revenues from tourism should definitely consider seeking ways to convince tourists to stay for longer than a day. Well-maintained and pleasant public spaces improve the quality of life of all the citizens and could even help convince high-skilled Indians to stay in the country instead of moving to New York and Paris.

Now, the good news is that there is a nation-wide campaign going on, earnestly named “Clean India”. In all honesty, cleaning India seems impossible, but large-scale awareness campaign and targeted investment hygiene infrastructure is definitely a good start. One thing is for sure, if “Clean India” brings substantial results, it can become the crown jewel of Narendra Modi’s next electoral campaign due to how visible and acute the problem is. Incentives!

Unfortunately, this particular relationship with public space extends to animals. Animals are not killed. Yet they are abused. Unspayed cows are abandoned on the streets once they can no longer produce milk, with the hope that they will survive by eating trash. Even cows with owners are left free in the city during the day. There are also packs of dogs roaming the streets, posing a treat to public health. Yet those who want and can afford a pet often choose to get a pure breed. I even saw a Saint Bernard, well-groomed and well-nourished I must admit, in that climate. There are a few animals shelters and many people take very good care of their domestic animals. However, some people’s attitude towards animals was disheartening, mainly due to their apathy when witnessing animal abuse.

* The operator was G Adventures and the tour was Essential India. The tour was very well designed and the CEO phenomenal. Disclaimer: I have neither received nor offered any type of financial incentives by the company to say nice things about their tour; I just thought it would be helpful to other travellers to share my positive experience with them.

Sonnet 71

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No longer mourn for me when I am dead
Then you shall hear the surly sullen bell
Give warning to the world that I am fled
From this vile world, with vilest worms to dwell:
Nay, if you read this line, remember not
The hand that writ it; for I love you so
That I in your sweet thoughts would be forgot
If thinking on me then should make you woe.
O, if, I say, you look upon this verse
When I perhaps compounded am with clay,
Do not so much as my poor name rehearse.
But let your love even with my life decay,
Lest the wise world should look into your moan
And mock you with me after I am gone.

– Shakespeare