Myself, Travel

Car-mic Complexities

Most people say that Los Angeles is a bad place to be in if you don’t have a car. That’s just people who do not live in this city. People who live here refuse to believe you when they learn you do not own one. There’s shocked silence, and a hesitant query about how you do your groceries, or go to the office. Much wonderment about your mental (and financial) state. By the time you have been here a few months, you realize that in terms of your social status, being without a car is just one step above being homeless.

But good lord, if you think not having a car causes shock and awe, you should look at reactions when I mention that I take the bus. “THE BUS!!” – people exclaim. “Aren’t they – like – unsafe?” Everyone thinks that buses are filled with weirdos and homeless people who are out to kill, rape or spray body fluids on you. I do not claim omniscience, but nearly 11 months of regular commute has made me realize that most of these assumptions are far-fetched. Most LA people who take the bus are normal. There is the occasional person that smells of pee or the religious nut that babbles about how Jesus will save all of us if we are nice. I even got an arguer this one time, a lady next to me who kept having an argument with herself, a very loud one. (She won at the end, I think. Well, one of her.)

The only problem with buses in Los Angeles is the time these lumbering, polite hulks take to travel. That, and their low frequency at non-rush-hour times, including weekends. Buses on most routes travel close to empty. I don’t have to worry about lack of seats or road rage when travelling, and I get enough read-time. There’s the occasional interesting person you meet, either at the bus-stop or in the bus. There were two different people reading The Hunger Games just a few weeks ago, and we had nice, albeit brief conversations about Peeta’s true intentions – I kept a straight face and did not reveal spoilers, for the record. I’ve also seen a lot of the parts of LA that are considered seedy and unsafe in the nights, thanks to bus transfers. Waiting for a bus at 2 AM in Downtown LA is a peculiar experience that one cannot describe in words. It felt adventurous, but was probably a little stupid. Those may have been gunshots. Or just cars backfiring, I can’t tell.

Taking the bus has also cultivated a few lifestyle tics in me. Like the need to carry a few dollar bills and quarters everywhere I go. My hand involuntarily goes inside my right pocket, when I am leaving the house – key, phone, dollar bills, change. Bus passes? Not really too helpful with the different services – Culver City Bus, Metro Transit, Santa Monica Big Blue. The iPad’s always at hand, and I attach 15 minutes to every journey. Which happens to be the time it takes to get from my apartment to the closest Metro bus stop.

“Yet”, I always remember to add. “I do not own a car yet.” “When are you getting one?”, people ask. “I should, I know,” I say. I don’t tell them that I am postponing this arcane real-life ritual as much as I can. I am not sure why. Probably I have never really been attracted to cars, or tried to figure them out. Until very recently, every car looked the same to me – the only variants my mind could decipher were ‘frog-like’ or ‘bat-mobile-like’. I owned a scooter for a few years in Hyderabad, which served the purpose of getting from point A to point B very well. Except when it rained, but everyone knows that when it rains, you are supposed to sit at home, make hot onion pakodas[ref][/ref] and watch movies or read. Fact is, yes, the lack of obsession about buying a car was also  because my money was always earmarked for Other Things[ref][/ref]. One could make do without a car, but not a Dringenberg Sandman page. It helped that I stayed a few minutes away from the office. The only problem with everyday life was negotiating with auto-rickshaw drivers, but I stayed in Bangalore for a year. That inured me to meter manipulation and made me ruthless with scathing remarks about time and distance.

All right, fine, I agree, I make too much light of this. Of course it would be awesome to own a car. I could then go attend concerts every day. Go to Meltdown Comics every Thursday for the Nerd Melt shows. Heck, attend every fucking event I want to go to, without having to negotiate bus routes in my head. Head over to Artesia whenever I want some biryani. Do stuff. Do more stuff than what I do at the moment, at the very least. I generally give up on plans on weekends just because I would have to plan bus routes and keep some time aside for the inevitable delays. (“Not true”, Inner Voice exclaims. “You’re just lazy.” You’re right, Inner Voice, now shut up and think of what will happen in Episode 3 of Sherlock. We still have the last part of the weekend to watch it, right? “Oh, all right. Now hurry up with this tiresome self-obsessed post of yours.” Hmm, ok. Shall we? “Let’s.”)

I should have tried this last conversation with myself in a bus.

Myself, Travel

My Big Fat Spanish Vacation: Barcelona Day 1, the second half

Remember the time we did not own cellphones and were still able to coordinate times and places at which to meet people?

I don’t, either. It’s terrifying when you are not connected to any phone network and are supposed to meet someone. Especially at an airport. Even though you know the flight number and the time of arrival, there’s always this worry that you’re standing at the wrong spot and and the people you’re waiting for have arrived already and are looking for you elsewhere and you are doomed to miss each other until one of you has the bright idea of going to an internet cafe and sending an email saying exactly where they are.

Ah, technology, you make frightened little gerbils of us all.

But nothing like that happened when I went to pick my friends up at Barcelona airport on Friday night. They were supposed to arrive at 9 PM, and I landed up there much earlier, had a coffee, read a bit of Hunger Games. And waited. And felt panicky when they did not come out by 9:15. Asked a lady standing next to me if she was waiting for the same flight. She was. I asked her if she was sure this was the gate. It was. I was about to ask her if she was doubly sure, but she grabbed my shoulders and asked me to relax, because she was waiting for the same flight. I did, and took a deep breath. Of course the conversation would have gone a little less surreal if we had been speaking the same language – she was speaking Spanish, then switched to Romanian, and then tried broken English. I oscillated between English and sign language.  It worked like a charm.

And then they were there, and there was much happiness and the occasional arm-punching. Thanks to my new-found knowledge of the Barcelona subway system, the four of us were considerably less agitated than I was in the day by the time we reached the hostel, also because they were travelling with sensible amounts of luggage. We rested for a bit, and then headed back toward La Rambla, debating what should be done for the night – Cristi insisted we go bunzi bunzi (a phrase that, when coupled with a flick of the wrist and the eyebrow, conveys just the right amount of eagerness to go shake a leg at the local nightclub) but Laura and Gabi wanted to get touristy, preferably near the beach. We decided to postpone the decision until after dinner.

La Rambla spoils you in terms of culinary choice. We window-shopped through the numerous restaurants looking at menus and prices, the availability of sangria being a major criteria. The place we selected had an Indian-looking waiter serving us – turned out he was from Pakistan, and he alerted me to the fact that Barcelona had a profusion of Pakistanis, compared to Indians. (Sure enough, we met a lot of them later that night on the streets, almost all of them selling beer and weed to tourists.) We ordered a bunch of tapas, a liter of sangria that came in a clay jug, with four multicolored straws and two portions of paella. By the time we were done with the tapas, it was clear that we could not finish the paella, but we persevered. Laura poked suspiciously at what appeared to be mushrooms but turned out to be calamari. (It did not help that I insisted it was mushrooms until the waiter clarified that it was indeed calamari) There were moments of hesitation at the mussels and the shrimps; but all in all, a most successful inaugural dinner.

Both Cristi and Laura had been in Barcelona before, while Gabi and I were newcomers. The two of them took the lead and suggested that we head towards the beach, which was a not-too-short not-too-long distance away from where we were. As we walked down La Rambla, the air smelled of marijuana and cigarette smoke. Every nightclub in town seemed eager to welcome us inside, delicately-painted women and swaggering men armed with flyers and discount coupons proclaiming how much fun we would have. We valiantly sidestepped them and marched ahead. And launched into intense technical discussions – haha, as if. We laughed, and talked, and made silly jokes at the expense of the peaceful bronze lions at the Monumento a Colón (literally, the Columbus monument, a tall monument that marks the place where Christopher Columbus returned after his first voyage to the Americas). There are incriminating photographs of Gabi involved, but they will not be made public.

And finally, we got to the beach, which was completely deserted, and cold as fuck. One man sat by himself, contentedly staring at the roaring waves. We walked around the sand a bit, until the other three were emboldened by the Indian guy taking off his shoes and wading into the water. We went nuts. The sea was freezing at first but it wasn’t hard to get used to the cold. Though photographic evidence proves that Cristi was especially perturbed with the state of affairs, especially when he found out that the sand was colder than the sea! Laura did her sea-maiden thing – heading out by herself into the waves, while we whooped and hollered and did what seaside-deprived individuals do.

It is a truth universally acknowledged that a dip in ice-cold water, followed by a sprint across cold sand while holding your shoes in hand is bound to evoke strong feelings of homesickness, coupled with a marked distaste for long walks of any kind. We took a cab as soon as we could.

Our cab driver, as the law of averages suggested, was a talkative fellow. He got all the more loquacious once he realized that the pretty blonde girl sitting in the backseat knew Spanish and the hapless, semi-frozen Indian guy in the front did not. Oh well, at least the ride back was entertaining.

Except once we got inside the room, the ladies asked me if I had any porn comics on the iPad. Which meant that instead of going and taking a shower, I sat down and pointed out the joyful wonders contained in Lost Girls. And this was totally not a gratuitous Moore reference, I swear.

(to be continued)

Myself, Travel

My Big Fat Spanish Vacation: Barcelona Day 1, Half Of It

I landed at Barcelona airport on a Friday morning, with a tingling feeling in my tummy. Excitement – because I was going to have an awesome time. Mixed with trepidation – what if it rained? What if I got ripped off by cab-drivers? And a bit of semi-happiness seeing a random guy reading a copy of El Jueves. Most of the worries were taken care of in the first few minutes. It was a sunny day and according to the Information Kiosk at the airport, the path to my hotel was straightforward, involving a bus ride, a train ride and a short walk. I hadn’t reckoned with my luggage and the subway system in Barcelona. You see, I was carrying contraband of a graphic nature. Among other things, the one-volume twentieth-anniversary edition of Bone, a monstrosity of a volume that threatened to unplug my shoulders after a few meters of walking around the subway station at Plaça de Catalunya. Add to it the fact that the station was arranged across a horizontal spread, with multiple routes. It took me some time to find my correct line. It would have been a breeze without the luggage, but add the weight and the slightly air-conditioner-deprived underground, and I was rattling like a dehydrated marmoset. My stop was two stations away, and when I was out, I was like – fuck it, I can’t walk anymore. So I got a cab. Good thing I did too. Because pal Horacio, who came by the hostel for lunch, was about to leave after hanging around for some time. We met just as he was coming out. Pleasantries and Hellboy pages were exchanged – well, I gave him the page I was transporting for him. Horacio and i hit up a Catalan place for a late lunch near La Rambla, the tourist hub of the city. On the way, he showed me the Barcelona cathedral, pointed out the MACBA, the Barcelona museum of Contemporary Art – and most importantly, the comic-book shop he frequents in the area. It was closed, but the posters of Los Muertes Viventos (that’s the Spanish version of The Walking Dead, amigos) on the display window made me grin. Horacio left just before dark, because he had to take his son out to football and running late. (“my wife has run away with another man, Satya”, he remarked sadly, as his fifth phone call went unanswered, and then both of us burst out laughing. ) I decided to head back toward Catalunya again, because I had to pick up my friends from the airport – they were flying in from Cluj to spend the weekend with me. The Plaça was lit up brightly. People everywhere, sitting on benches, outside cafes, some even singing. It felt good. I sat down near the fountain, a little away from the crowd, breathing in and watching winter smoke swim out of my mouth – something that never fails to amuse. A young girl next to me, reading and smoking, turned out to be a veterinary student in her second year. She put her book down to talk, finished her cigarette, and then offered me some oranges. We looked at the fountain for a bit, and she told me how she loved and hated the crowds at the same time, how this time of evening for her was special because she could read in peace. She asked me to look her up anytime I am back. “How will I find you?”, I asked. “I am always here in the evenings”, she laughed.

(to be continued)

Music, Myself, Travel, Weirdness

Three songs

Leslie Feist – Mushaboom

Jussi, an old old friend – not in age, mind you, but someone who goes back quite a few years – flew over from Helsinki to come meet me in Cluj, Romania. We had planned a road-trip towards the Carpathian mountains, all the way to Castle Bran – otherwise known as ‘Dracula’s Castle’, and as soon as the man arrived, friends from the office helped us find a rental car agency, where we had to decide between a Volkswagen or a BMW. Jussi and I looked at each other, and he asked the question that was on my mind – “Do they have music systems with auxiliary inputs?” Well, the question on my mind was actually – “what color is the BMW?”, but I had to agree with my friend – priorities are priorities, and no self-respecting road tripper would venture out without ensuring that the car is well-equipped in terms of audio paraphernalia.

The Volkswagen had a CD system – “Plays MP3 CDs”, the person at the rental centre assured us. No auxiliary jack, though. The BMW had squat. Decisions having made, I  spent some time that night – after having imbibed quite a few glasses of wine ( I claim 7, others say 6) – burning an mp3 CD. And the next morning, as we started on our journey, we popped the CD in, waited for the music to play and then, nothing.

The music system only played audio CDs, goddamnit.

We burned two CDs on my laptop while having breakfast at a motel. One didn’t work, the other did. Wrote 4 more CDs in a hotel that night, 2 didn’t work. And finally, the next day, we burnt three more CDs, out of which one worked. That last CD included the song that Jussi had been trying to play for me the last few days. Leslie Feist’s Mushaboom.

On the last leg of the trip, the GPS on the car – the way to Cluj from Bran Castle – took us through a route that took us through a forest, and gave us a clear view of the mountains. There was not a single car to be seen, and the sun broke out of the clouds at brief intervals, but the overall atmosphere was that of complete serenity save for the open road in front of us. It was at that magical moment, when the two of us were more than a little tired from the trip, and a wee bit melancholic about the end of a good vacation, that Mushaboom began to play on the music system. And it’s because of that I’ll associate the song forever with autumn evenings, the Carpathian mountains and the open road.

The video was another source of joy when I saw it much later, making me feel giddy with laughter. Bacon bat wings, whee! Flying guitars! Empty carnival grounds, which are usually creepy, but suddenly seemed fuzzy and nice and welcoming.

Katie Melua – 9 Million Bicycles

So when I played Mushaboom to a friend in Romania the week after Jussi left, she asked me – “Have you heard Katie Melua?” I hadn’t. That was remedied within a few minutes, and as the strains of the Chinese flute opened ‘9 Million Bicycles’, the first song in Melua’s ‘Piece By Piece’, I almost held my breath and waited for the song to disappoint. Happily, it didn’t. This was one of those rare songs whose lyrics I paid close attention to during the all-important first listen, and smiled along to the references to light-years and the world’s population. Her voice is a combination of Norah Jones and Joss Stone, and the production in the album just quirky enough not be repetitive.

Later on, I learnt that Melua’s song invoked the ire of science guru Simon Singh, because of the line “We are twelve million light-years from the edge, that’s a guess” – and she apologized by coming up with a witty rephrasing of the stanza, which you can see in the snippet of video below.

Regina Spektor – Fidelity

And there are the songs that just come to you, flying out of nowhere just when you think you cannot be surprised anymore. A friend at the office enjoyed the two songs I played for him – no prizes for guessing which ones they were. He created a profile for himself, and as he was listening to my station, he asked me if I had any Regina Spektor songs. I did, and the next day, I loaded up his iPod with all the albums I had.

Last night, I sat down near the laptop, and the only music I had on the drive  ( it’s the office machine, and I don’t keep music on it, as a matter of principle. Also because it’s only 80 GB) was the aforementioned Spektor albums. I put on the first song from Begin To Hope, which happened to be ‘Fidelity’. I had heard the album before, a long time ago, but the way the song infiltrated my senses – at that precise moment – was unbelievable. Pizzicato strings, piano tinklings and Spektor’s voice kept me company for quite sometime. It’s still the only song I’ve listened to all day, and I have no doubt it will keep me company all of tonight.

And now I wonder – which song lies in wait for me next, ready to be discovered? What memory will I associate it with, and who will I think of when I listen to it?

Life, Travel

The Last Time I Updated My Blog

…was a few days after landing in an unknown city in a European country most associated with sanguinary surprises. When I wrote it, I had this distinct LA buzz in my head, as my brain tried to formulate coherent time-based chunks of my experiences in Los Angeles so that I could write it all down and recapture the awesomeness as much as I could. Now, as I make my way back to LA for another three weeks, after spending 47 days in Cluj-Napoca, it seems to me that I should have been more pro-active about the writing bit. I am afraid Cluj has totally pwned you, Los Angeles.

47 days in Cluj. Most of it a flurry of cross-continental late-night calls, meetings, 14-hour workdays, deployment issues, the works. No, I won’t be talking about any of that. That bit was just me junked up on adrenaline, enthusiasm and the occasional shot of Ţuică, a potent variety of plum brandy that drove out my initial India-trained aversion to cold and fog in a move reminiscent of the best of Obelix against the Roman legions. What I need to share is the awesome fun I had. The way these days in Cluj made me forget about comics and comic art for the first time in 3-odd years. The joys of horse-riding in the mountains at near-freezing temperatures. How karaoke can soothe the soul and mend the heart, provided there is plenty of rum and hot tea available. Road-trippin’/ with a Finn/ through vampire nation/ on a Volkswagen. ( I suck at rhymin’/so you can stop with the slimin’)  The bonding nature of movie nights. Oh, and the soul-crushing depression associated with turning thirty.

Yes, I really need to update the blog. I will, I promise.