Wednesday, June 30, 2010

A fairytale finish

Venice is famous for these masks, worn by people during the Carnival of Venice

We reached the main piazza, the San Marco, where there was this majestic church, but there were too many people all around, and we couldn’t hope to get into the church anytime soon. So we went to Lido. That is yet another island. Shape - narrow and long, just like the lanes of Venice. We went to a beach on the Adriatic. Have you ever felt shy for being heavily dressed in public? Not me, before going to this beach. There were lots of people having fun in the water and the sand and suddenly I had this very strange sensation. In our shirts, trousers and bags that we were carrying, we looked extremely out of place.

Rows of beach rooms that can be rented, made the beach look different from the ones I had seen previously. We returned in appropriate attire, and then went for the sea, in turns of two each. The waves weren't very high, making it a safer beach, although life guards were around.

In the evening after a few more boat rides, and some more walking, we retired. Not all together though, since we took shelter in a jetty floating by the grand canal, and someone had to be up to watch over.

Next morning, a prolonged economy lesson from an American, some miscalculations, and some more foolishness led to us reaching the bus stop at 10.45. That's when we learnt that the next bus to the airport is at 11 am. It takes 70 minutes to reach the airport, and the gate for check-in for our flight closes at 12.05. We were afraid even to think of the consequences. Add to that the fact that the three of us combined together had 10 cents shy of 8 euros in cash. (Result of yet another miscalculation)

We ran for a taxi. Asked how much it was to the airport. He said eight five. I asked, “eight point five?”, thinking we might bargain a bit if required. The reply was curt, “Eighty five”. Back in the bus, with the help of co-passengers we tried to convince the driver to reach us to the Treviso airport 10 minutes early. But he refused point blank. Some passengers advised us to inform the airlines, but on hearing that we were travelling by Ryan Air, they shook their heads in dismay because it was very unlikely that they will have a phone, that too with a person to receive it. This was when our hero arrived, taking the form of a bus driver, and promising us to reach our destination in time. Ten minutes later, a Volvo bus, with only three passengers and a hero as the driver was hurling down the highway at 100kmph. At one point, we even overtook the 10.30 bus and so once again the day was saved. The hero didn’t ask for a penny. We could only show our gratitude.

The return flight was particularly wonderful, with the low flying jet going over the Swiss Alps on a sunny day. The snow, the rivers, the valleys and the lakes all combined together to present an unforgettable picture. I could actually identify from the shapes, some of the lakes. After Constance, the landscape became a bit monotonous, and so I dozed off. Sometime down the line, a cabin crew woke me up and made me open the window shutter. I was wondering why, when I looked below to perceive yet another beauty – the Rhine bending its way through the valley.

A fairytale start

The Venice trip was eventful is an understatement. It started with the Ryan air flight, which cost me 10 euros, cost Diptarka 10 euros and a Colgate Toothpaste, cost Chandrasekhar 10 euros and a Deodorant.

The island that is Venice has a shape strikingly similar to that of a fish. After reaching the mouth of the fish at 10.30 pm, when we asked around for budget hotels, people started shaking their heads immediately on hearing the word ‘budget’.

Now who would come to our help but a guy from Karachi, who had just lost his iPhone, whose Credit Card had got damaged, and whose Eurail pass had been disqualified, and who was cool about all of this. He said there was room in the hostel where he was staying for the night (He was a tourist too). He asked us to wait while he went to find his iPhone. Surprisingly he found it, and even more surprisingly he returned for us and took us to the hostel. Ironically, we helped him find his way from his map. But by the time we reached, it was late in the night, and the main door was locked. After some unyielding attitude from us, that involved waking up 3 more people in the middle of the night, we managed to get ourselves in. And then, 3 Indians and a Pakistani chatted late into the night. Before retiring to bed, Yusuf had started using the phrase ‘peace marna’ with ease. So if that gets spread in Karachi, remember who were the ones involved in bringing peace to Pakistan.

A good night’s sleep is what we required and what we had. There were exactly 3 extra beds in Yusuf’s hostel room. Thinking of the odds if you think this is lucky, then read on, because we needed lot more of it on the last day. Anyway more on luck later. Now on Venice.

Let me repeat some well known facts about Venice. Instead of roads they have canals only. All modes of transportation through the canals, - water buses (vaporetti), taxis, gondolas. There were footpaths for pedestrians too, of whom all I guess were tourists. In Venice there are only two categories of people, - tourists and people who serve tourists.

We found lots of Bangladeshis in Venice who make a living here.

The Rialto Bridge

The Grand Canal

Basilica dei Giovanne Paolo.

Some other architechturally good churches are Santa Maria dei Miracoli, S.M. dei Formosa, S.M. dei Allafava of course besides the grandest of them all, the Basilica dei San Marco

Strangely, most churches of Italy have a minimum dressing requirement

We inherited a map from Yusuf too. It had all the lanes recorded. And some lanes they were. Some so narrow that one can’t spread his arms across them. And when you would think you are going to nowhere by that lane, it would suddenly open to a huge square or ‘Piazza,’ with some majestic church capturing your senses. So there were surprises hidden around every corner. It is said that in Venice, getting lost is also a must-have experience. But you don't have to do anything to get that experience, - it is unavoidable.

And everywhere it was picturesque. We started with the famous Rialto Bridge, went to the churches. A ferry from F. Nova took us to Murano, famous for its glass factories. We tasted some real good local pizzas, having pity on vegetarians at the same time. It was also quite some experience having meals sitting down beside the canals, in some obscure corner, our legs dangling from the edge.

Gondolas parked by the canals.

Murano glassware

Friday, June 25, 2010


So far we have had problems of various kinds with water, mostly the unavailability of it. When people speak of Germany, they say “Beer costs less than water”. What they don’t say is that water itself is very expensive. Even if it is available, 500ml costs around 1 euro and it has soda mixed in it. And then when you want to use the WC (toilet) at the stations you have to pay 0.5 euros more. So keep that hidden cost in mind while drinking.

Not only drinking, they also don’t have water for rinsing hands in restaurants. Strange ways some people have. Same problem in some toilets too. No source of water anywhere in toilets. Infact I was once scolded by the caretaker of the guest house, for keeping my bathroom floor all wet !!!!

Tuesday, June 22, 2010


The following day, the rain followed us to Salzburg and Werfen. They are both in Austria. Here the mountains were beautiful, more rocky, and steep, but wasn’t high enough to shelter any snow, at least during this time of the year. We reached the mountain top, some distance on foot, some by bus, and some by a ropeway that was more like a lift (almost vertical).

The Eisriesenwelt ice caves of Werfen are the largest in the world. The details of its formation are pretty interesting - A guide led us through the hallways and alleys of the majestic cave. It was dark and the some people were given lanterns, while the guide lit splinters from time to time. Photography was prohibited, but that is not for me to follow. However, the low light in the caves, and the fact that we were continuously moving were the major deterrents behind my poor photography.

The two photographs below are from the official website of the caves:

During the descent, the skies cleared for small periods, giving glimpses of a grand landscape that lay before us.

The connection by which I returned to Heidelberg, had a stopover at Ulm for 45 minutes. I took this opportunity to visit the Ulm Minster, which at 162 metres, was for a period in history, the tallest artificial structure of the world.


Fuessen presented itself in bad light, as it rained throughout the day. Supposed to be a beautiful ending of the Romantische Strasse, into Bavarian hills and lakes and medieval castles, only that the weather did not allow me to appreciate the beauty. The day turned out to be a test of my patience and stamina, as I walked some 21 kilometres in the rain with 5 kg on my shoulders, and a considerable part of the route being uphill. From the morning I just hoped that by the time I reach the Hohenschwangau and Neuschwanstein castles, the weather would improve, and I urged myself forward with this false promise. What happened instead was that I had gotten completely drenched by midday, my passport and other documents all wet, and most importantly my camera had started to malfunction. Only positive I could draw from Fuessen was the Lech Falls.

Hohenschwangau Castle

Neuschwanstein castle (the Sleeping Beauty castle of Disneyland is modeled on this)

The Lech Falls

Diptarka provided me with extras when he arrived in the afternoon. For most of these trips he has proven to be equivalent to Hogwarts’ Room of Requirement, having exactly what one would need, no more no less. Together we went to Munich, to be met by the same depressing rain. After Karlplatz, and Marienplatz, wherever we went, it was completely deserted.

The BMW buildings (museum and showrooms) were suggestive of the fact that BMW could have done equally well if not better in the field of innovative/abstract architecture.

The Munich Olympic Arena (infamous for the terrorist attack on the Israeli contingent)

Nymphenburg Castle, huge but deserted

We also went to the Hirshgarten, and tasted some beer. (In Wikitravel website, at one place, it is called the largest beer garden in Europe, at another it is the largest in Germany , and at yet another place it is called the largest in Munich, as if they aren’t subsets of each other)

By the end of the day, I had walked some 30 kilometres odd, - a personal high, although I wasn’t any high, when I literally collapsed onto the bed at Runit’s place.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Road Transport

Standing on the wrong side of the street to catch a bus, is a mistake I have done many times already. But this is not as dangerous as the near-reflex action of looking right before crossing a street. I am all confused, and I generally end up checking both directions, before crossing. When I am travelling and a vehicle speeds past in the opposite direction, from the left, I have this automatic initial sensation of uneasiness. It registers itself like a syntax error in the brain, till it remembers that it is not in one of the commonwealth nations.

The public transport buses and cabs are all Mercedes Benz. And some features they have. The buses tilt to the side to allow easy boarding and deboarding. For the disabled, there are even more facilities. Also the buses have almost zero radius turning, i.e, they can turn in a circle with the hind wheels moving infinitesimally. They run by the clock. Exact timings.

There are many famous brands coming from here, - the BMW, Porsche, Audi, Mercedes, Opel, Volkswagen. There are cars which can do as good as the ICE trains, and roads that allow them to do so.

Sunday, June 13, 2010

Expeditions..... and an experience I did not miss

While playing AOE, the most exciting thing for me is not to build or destroy civilizations, but just to explore. I like to know what lies in the black parts of the map. Same in real life. I generally feel uneasy, unless I go around on my own to see every path around the place where I am living. So, often I take a walk in the extended afternoons around 7pm. Google Earth showed a huge green patch in front of the MPIK. The meadow amidst the forests is really quite a sight. However, the grass is knee high, larger than I wished it were. And I walked through the forests and hills around, along stale trails, but new for me.

I walked to Boxberg once. From there you get a good view of the city from the side of the hill. Further south is Emmertsgrund. I found a departmental store there, bought some stuff, and realized the pains of carrying 5 kg uphill, -an uninterrupted walk that lasted an hour. Although I later came to know that there are such stores in Boxberg too.

Konigstuhl is at the top of the hill, 500 ft higher than the MPIK and 7 kms away. Yesterday I decided to go there walking, taking some food supplies with me. The whole of this area is covered with forests and pretty dense in some places. It is part of the Neckartal-Odenwald Nature Park. I took a trail that goes past the institute. Every 500 meters or so, the trail forked leaving me in a dilemma. For some time I tried using my intuition for directions, then I started to do the wiser thing, that of taking the route which goes up. But I did not meet a 2nd person on the whole stretch. At some places I cut through sticky cobwebs, shuddering at the thought of tarantulas. And the trees in one spot, reminded me vividly of The Blair Witch Project. I was not sure where the path would lead me, but suddenly I heard a car, and soon I found the trail leading me to the main road at Drei Eichen. From there I took a cyclists' trail, and walked along it for about half an hour, again through the forests, until I reached a glade. It was a 8-side crossing. There were directions carved on stones placed at the corners. The name of that place itself was also carved on one of them, -Leopoldstein. The forest ended with the Max Planck Institute for Astronomy, and soon I reached the summit.

And oh, what a sight! The city of Heidelberg, and beyond, much much beyond, the Neckar meandering through.

In the next few hours that I spent there, I saw the play of the sun and the clouds. The rays penetrating through the holes in the clouds falling like numerous spotlights on the panoramic landscape. A few birds got into the act too, showing their skills of floating at any point in the air. They would fly to a spot and then balance themselves there for minutes at length.

I called Abhirup to come up as well. He did, but left before sunset. The crowd thinned till only photographers and new lovers were left. The sunset in itself wasn't as impressive as the rest of the show.

It was 10.15 pm, when I decided that it is high time I return. There was still some light in the sky. I guess they call this twilight. I didn't have the guts to take the route through the forest. So I walked along the main road. In 10 minutes, I realized that it was just me and the road and the forest. A car would whoosh past after long pauses of about 5 minutes, blinding me for a moment, if they were coming up the hill. Occasionally, some noises like the rustle of leaves,emanated from the forests on either side of the road. I stopped sometimes to listen carefully. Must be some small animal I thought and moved on. From time to time, the sky also threatened to open up, with its deep rumbles. Other than that, the background sound was so low that my movements made the most prominent noise for much of the time. The darkness increased considerably, and there was a slight sense of worry somewhere in me. And maybe a tinge of fear too.

I was nearing an U-turn in the road, when I heard something. About 15-20 metres ahead, from the jungle fringes on the other side of the road, came a short deep throated growl, or a grunt, that just froze me. I was frightened like hell. From the depth of the voice, I was certain that the animal, whatever it was, must be of moderately big size. After a few seconds, I heard a second similar hoarse growl from the same place. i just turned and ran back uphill, without a thought. Car lights brightened my hopes, as I waved frantically. It slowed down, but then as it neared me, it suddenly accelerated and was gone in a moment. I was all by myself again. I thought that the animal could catch me anytime if it had such an intention, whether I went forward or backward. So going further away from my destination, might not quite help. I decided I had to cross the spot, and that I would do so when a car is passing through. But even then I kept running uphill halfheartedly. With the bagful of supplies it wasn't too easy either.

After a minute or so, I saw lights. Lights coming downhill. I stopped. I reversed my direction, and again faced my destination. And then I ran. Some run it was. Like running for my life. I didn't dare to look at the side from where the sound came. God knows what the car driver might have been thinking seeing someone run along the highway at 11.15 pm in the night. As if I cared then!!! I continued the run and stopped only when I entered the institute premises. Yet another lifetime experience !

Saturday, June 12, 2010


Besides this being a travelling internship for me, it has been a cooking internship under the able mentorship of Abhirup Nath and Yogesh Patil. Never had I expected to get home-like food here had it not been for them. By now I can pretty much fry stuff, and am graduating to make some curries with gravy. But when they are around, I restrict myself to peeling and cutting stuff, or washing dishes.
The menza (mess/canteen) food is very expensive - 6 euros a meal on an average, all the more reason to learn some cooking.

Yogesh and his productions

Yogesh and Abhirup had brought their artillery of spices, turmeric, and masala from India. So, a feast is what I have when they are around in the kitchen, . Realizing that the taste of pretty much everything we have comes from spices and salt, I have been quite liberal on using them. Without these, the potatoes, vegetables taste pretty bland. Anyway, the turmeric turned out to be the source of some major trouble too. I didn't know that it is too strong a chemical for German detergent chemicals to overcome, and so was a bit careless with it initially.

And then the next day I ended up in the wrong place at the wrong time. The cleaning lady is rightfully the right-hand (woe)man of Ms Hafner. Firstly she doesn't know English. Only thing she can say in English is that she knows it little. So our communication was limited to hand movements and acting in some cases. (Now I understand the importance of dumb-charades). Next, she liked putting all the blame on me, irrespective of whether I am responsible for it or not, -if there are unwashed dishes, according to her it had to be me who was behind it. And then she uttered one phrase that is still ringing in my ears - pointing to a tiny yellow spot, she said "Aal-iss-curry". I thought of the complications involved in explaining the differences between curry and turmeric, and then decided it easier to nod my head in approval. A terrible mistake in itself. Overjoyed at gaining some ground against me and also at her success to say something in English that I could comprehend, she celebrated it by showing yet another mark, and again claiming "Aal-iss-curry". And this went on for the next 5-10 minutes. All the while she pointed to inexistent spots or spots which under 100X magnification becomes resolvable by the normal human eye. Or marks that have faded beyond recognition. She even showed stains on the scrubber itself. Meanwhile I got bored, and started counting the number of times she's using the phrase. And then when I lost count, I just muttered to myself "All-is-well" everytime she said "Aal-iss-curry."..... Really, if she is so concerned about guests, she should remember that I am a guest too.

Random drifts

So far I have said close to nothing about my work here. The reason being that the task I was assigned was related to programming, an instrument interfacing, the coding of which involves no physics, and I was not very satisfied with it. At the same time, having come for just 2 months with very limited exposure, experience and knowledge, I couldn't expect to be given some hi-fi pure-Physics project either. This leaves me disillusioned as I burden myself with the feeling that I am good for nothing.

Of late though, it has been nice to be around with Siva. Most of the people here work hard, but Siva probably works the hardest, he is always the last one to leave the lab, and by some margin. I have been learning a lot about the laser experiments he is performing. I continuously bug him with questions, (mostly I prefer thinking aloud) and he always answers my doubts patiently. More importantly, I am also getting an idea about the lifestyle of researchers in general.

I sometimes go and attend the talks. They are nice too. But overall, academically speaking, there is something amiss.

Inside the Bothe Lab - Not as frightening as it looks

Thursday, June 10, 2010

A missed experience

An extract from a GTalk chat at 1.10 am on 10th June:

me: kothay? (where?)

Abhirup: deepesh er ekhane
dint go
But had a one hell of an experience

me: wat abt deepesh?
how so?

Abhirup: no one went
we went and sat near the neckar park
along the river bank
and then it turned cloudy
and sky went black
then all of a sudden

me: hmm, bhishon brishti holo (it rained a lot)

Abhirup: a white big cloudy thing
came running
all over the sky
came frm no whr

me: what the???

Abhirup: and filled the sky in seconds

me: had ur cam wit u?

Abhirup: no
but we were scared to shit

me: shit! what was it?

Abhirup: deepesh screamed
sayng its a volcano

me: what did u think, aliens? :P
ohh :D

Abhirup: it filled the whole sky coming frm behind thw mountain
it was HUGE
filled the whole sky in seconds

me: gosh missed it

Abhirup: we were shit scared
and ran
but it was so damm windy
and cd see lightinings in the far sky
seemed like hurricanes
it was awesome
better thn ne strip club


I wish I had some attraction towards strip clubs, so that I didn’t miss this…

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

A journey like never before - Part 2

At 3 pm, we left Luzern by the Golden Pass line, a scenic route lasting 5 hours, a journey through unforgettable landscapes. There are lots of lakes in here, and they are pretty big. The water is bluish green, and has a ground glass look. The line took us through Interlaken, Zweisimmen, Montreux, and then finally Lausanne.

Our diet mainly consisted of chocolate cakes, loads of bread and apples, that we brought from our originating cities knowing that Switzerland is costly. Being starved of sleep and also a proper diet, we were all pretty tired, when we moved to Geneva airport for the night stay without going around Lausanne for a while as planned previously. The day saw people become nostalgic over mess food.

We also had to drop Zermatt from our plan, as our Eurail passes weren't valid on that line. But it was good in a way because we had more time for Luzern. At Luzern the group broke, as Diptarka and Ketan had to return early.

The Lion Monument built in memory of the Swiss mercenaries who were killed in the French revolution
A cave bear skeleton at the Gletscher garten.

Here we went through the geologic history of Switzerland, all about ice ages, the clues it left behind in the rocks, and remnants of mammoths and other flora and fauna dating back to 4 million years in the past.
But where Piyush and I had max fun was the house of mirrors, where we were literally lost in the 'bhulbhulaiya' made by using mirrors. We had to grope our way to understand which was a mirror and which wasn't, and many times we crashed right against the mirrors.

We took a ferry to Burgenstock-Kehristan. They called these boats.

The picture above is of Mount Burgenstock from where we had yet another breathtaking view of the Luzern lake. To get up to the hill, we rode a funicular (pic below), which took us up at something like 60-70 degrees, but the passengers in it felt it as 15 degrees odd, because of the shape of the vehicle.
1/3 of the panoramic view from atop Mt. Burgenstock, where we went for a 1.30 hour walk with this view on one side and the tree covered hill on the other

One good thing about Switzerland is that all its ultra-beautiful spots are very easily reachable. To scale huge mountains they use an array of ropeways, or vehicles like the funicular. In India, what would have taken a 2 day road journey, winding up the hills, here it is done in 15 minutes odd.
And another thing is the weather. I got the impression that mostly it remains sunny in here. In our short stay, rarely did the clouds come to block the views.