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Travel teaches not only about places, but also about people living in those places.
I had no intentions of visiting Austin during my recent US trip. Firstly, had havent heard significant about Austin earlier. Secondly, had to spend another four days from the itinery and thirdly, it would have burnt a hole in the pocket. However, decided to go against the call of my conscience. Firstly, my school buddy, Mahesh, had been inviting me since a long and secondly, had decided…hey, what the heck? We live only one lifetime; another four days to meet Mahesh wont be a big deal.
Mahesh and me were in school together and had been to his house for Ganpati. However, there was no contact whatsoever after we parted ways. It is the magnificience and generosity of whatsapp, that brought us and other school buddies together. He visited India a couple of years back and we could celebrate our birthday together (which were a day apart) at the school reunion.
So, it was with some hesitation that we decided to visit Mahesh and Anu. And when we did, we were glad that we did. For, visiting Mahesh was not only about visiting Austin, but it was also about getting to know of his story.
Mahesh’s story is one of grit and determination. After formal schooling, he could not do much in studies inspite of getting admission in engineering diploma. He dropped out and started doing odd jobs. Wedding photography, selling idli-dosas at Shivaji park, screen printing, selling crackers during Diwali … were some of the things, he tried his hand at. But eventually he stabilised in the business of exporting granites and marbles. ‘Stability’ is an odd word. You always want it, but it is always difficult to get it. At the time when Mahesh thought that he was stable, destiny threw a surprise at him. His huge consignment of exported marbles to Hongkong was rejected. He was at a loss of more than a lakh of US dollars. Doomed and marooned, choices were bleak. Somehow, through Anu’s contact in a bank, he got a loan, sold a house and started repaying the credit.
To try his luck, he came to US as a visitor. He started filling petrol at gas stations, serving at convenience stores and doing all sorts of odd jobs. There was some hope of starting life afresh. He worked day and night, and burnt his ass out. Being an illegal alien, there was always this threat of being caught, hounded and deported. Somehow, he could manage to get a permenant residency. He became a partner in a Quino’s sandwich chain. Hard work started paying. He opted out from the partnership, could get Anu in US and start his own restaurant in Dallas. Fortunately, in US, hard work always pays and fortunately, Mahesh was in US. The restaurant flourished, one thing led to another, and in no time he became a owner of seven restaurants. He formed his own company and could sponsor a few of his family members and friends as employees for emigrating.
Now again, when he thought that everything was stable again, luck struck. George Bush started the gulf war to find the weapons of mass destruction. Whether or not he found those WMDs was a big question, but what is for sure, was that he threw America in huge recession. People could not spend money and ‘eating out’ was the first thing which was marooned. Mahesh’s restaurants started running in huge losses and he went bankrupt again.
Not knowing what to do, he moved to Austin and started filling petrol in gas station again. It was very humiliating to accept sympathies from the workers whom he had sponsored and who then moved ahead. But if you have grit and determination, nothing can stop you. Mahesh rose again. He took a loan, rented a place and started a restaurant ‘New India’ in downtown Austin. He always wanted to do something different. So in spite of many Indian restaurants in Austin, he started one with a Maharashtrian menu. It became a hit not only with Indians, but also with Americans. Bharli wangi, zunka bhakar, malvani fish, kombadi wade, solkadi… these names started becoming a common name amongst the Austinites. This led to opening of another place, ‘Nasha’ not faraway from downtown Austin. Here, he tried his hand at Mexican dishes and exotic drinks.
The four days we spent with Mahesh were very enlightening. We had meals at both his restaurants and it were just yummmyyy. The spicy martini with a hint of pepper and basil was out of the world. Downtown Austin was a revelation. The Sixth street with all the bars and live music make it the ‘Live Music Capital’ of the world. As the sun starts setting, the live bands all over make it a very happening place. A trip to Austin cannot be complete till you visit to San Antonio, an hours drive from there. The Riverwalk and a cruise through the small Colorado river in a small boat was just amazing. Sailing across shopping galleries, quaint restaurants, office buildings, and merry people make the small boat ride a journey of the life time.
But more than anything else, the biggest revelation of this trip was Mahesh’s grit and resolution. He is closing New India now to start a new Nesparado… a bigger restaurant and with Texmax cuisine… in the hub of dowtown Austin. He offers employment to more than 40 Americans, a thing which could make him Trump’s blue eyed boy. He is happy to be an American and detests most Indians for their hypocracy, indiscipline and corruption. He is happy with his wife, Peanut, Butter, and Chocolate (his 3 doggies). After the ditching from close family members, he has become a atheist. His only friend is Lord Ganesha, whose 15 feet idol he shipped from Mumbai spending Rs 3 lakhs. But he is more of a source of entertainment rather than a God. He enjoys life and doesnt want to get stressed about the future. He has revealed how to rise from the ashes…and how to be a Phoenix..
A hero doesnt has to be one who wins world cup matches, rules the nation or acquires tons of fame. It can be Mahesh. That is what Mahesh teaches us. Even Americans envy him…
Travelling throught he land of La Mancha took me back to the school days and the chapters of Don Quixote. The story follows the adventures of a middle class farmer who reads so many adventure novels that he loses his sanity and decides to set out to revive chivalry, undo wrongs, and bring justice to the world, under the name Don Quixote de la Mancha. He recruits a simple farmer, Sancho Panza, as his sidekick, who employs a unique, earthy wit in dealing with Don Quixote’s rhetorical orations on antiquated knighthood. It is hilarious to see Don Quixote hallucinating the windmills as demons about to attack him and the Inn as the castle where he is about be bestowed the knighthood. From what I could gather from these lessons were the facts that too much idealism could make you go crazy and it is better to be little less idealistic and more practical. Whatever the litereraians may say, the iconic novel enriched the English language with words like ‘Quixotic’ and phrases like ’tilting at windmills’.
The land of La Mancha is a arid, dry, but fertile region to the south of Madrid. Superficially, there is nothing remarkable about the geagraphy of this land. A relatively flat land with rolling hills around. However, what makes it remarkable are the endless orchards of olive trees, vineyards dotted with windmills and occasional intervening castles.
La Plice is a small town which claims the legacy of Don Quixote. Here, windmills, apart from producing energy, also attract tourists. Don Quixote memorabilia sells like hotcakes and hotels are made as replica of old inns and castles.
The most important city and the capital of this region, Castilla (pronounced as Castiya) La Mancha, is Toledo. For a town to be called beautiful, you need it to be on the hills or close to water bodies. Toledo has both. Toledo is perched on a impressive hill with the river Tajo (pronounced Tahoe) flowing deep down in the valley. Beyond the walls and on the opposite banks of the Tajo is obviously the newer modern part of Toledo.
Toledo is backed with history of more than 2000 years. After the intial Roman rule, the Muslims invaded Southern Spain and captured Toledo like the many other kingdoms in Southern Spain. It i interesting to realise that the Arabs from Damascus once ruled Spain. Isnt it pathetic to see the same Syria in ruins at present?The other Muslims, the Moors, came from North Africa and Mauritiania. Southern Spain flourished during this peiod from 750 AD till around 1450 AD. Arts, medicine, business and trade flourished with confluence of cultures of Muslims, Jews and Christians. Recently, had come across a whatsapp message questioning the contribution of Muslims towards science, humanity and arts. However, looking at the monuments in Toledo, Cordoba, Grenada and Seville (and other parts of the world), there is no doubt that the ancient Muslims were master architects. They built some wonderful monuments Alcazar ( Al Qasr is the Muslim origin of this word), Alhambra and once you see them it is no wonder that they have made it to the UNESCO heritage list.
In mid 1400 came the era of Christian Inquisition when the emperors from North conquered the Southern Muslim kingdoms one by one. It must have been a situation similar to the current situation of Muslim jihadism and ISIS. The Jews and Muslims then were given an ultimatum either of conversion, leaving or perishing. There were only a few Jews and no Muslims left. After the destruction spree of mosques, better sense prevailed in the voice of King Alfonoso. Further constructions were added to the mosques and converted to churches and cathedrals. Bell towers were added to minarets and statues of guardian angels adorned the highest perches of the places of worship. Of the old masoleums are now left a scores of cathedrals and chruches and a couple of synagogues. Still, these cathedrals are a treat to watch. Their magnifcience, serenity, crosses, altars, stained glasses add to the grandeur and peace. One of the churches converted to a monastry proudly showcases the iron chains and cuffs on its outer wall, which were used to restrain Christian prisoners in Muslim jails (picture below). The way they are hanged, even the handcuffs appear elegant now.
The only downside of visiting Toledo in this season is its warm climate. Perhaps Nasik at 30 degress at this time is much better than 38 degrees in Toledo.
More about Spain, Madrid and Andalusia in future posts.
Some things appear so trivial in life. But when they happen, they can teach a lasting lesson.
Packing for travel is one of them. Its a thing which is taken for granted and never given its due importance.
So the next morning on reaching UK, when I realised that I had forgotten to pack my antihypertensives and metformin (for IGT), I was aghast. The world came crumbling down. Remaining under the mercy of high strong familial BP for next 10 days was going to be huge risk.
Ignorance is bliss. It is me as a physician who used to get bugged if any of my patients missed their BP meds under the pretext of a travel. But now, it was me myself. How, in the world, could I have missed something which I sermonise? What if my BP shoots up and I suffer a stroke? Will I land up in ICU? Who will look after my young kids? For the first time, I realised the meaning of ‘ empty mind is devil’s workshop’. “Lets go to the emergency. And get a prescription for your meds”….was one of the many suggestions I received. Or may be, lets go to GP….Though, I had an insurance, I envisaged a huge blow to my time and money…
So, when I saw Avinash next day at the BSR meeting, it was a big relief. I had known him from the Saturday meetings at Hinduja and his monthly visits to Nasik. “Are you permitted to write prescriptions?”, I asked coyly. He looked puzzled and lost and wasnt sure if he could do it. It was understandable as he was a new entrant to the UK medical fraternity. Though he wanted to help, he wasnt sure of how he could do it. But he got hold of Nilesh, the older colleague and who had been in UK for more than a year. Even Nilesh hadnt encountered a similar request earlier and was baffled. But he was young, dynamic and resourceful. He made a few phone calls and found out that he indeed could write a prescription using his GMC number on a plane paper.
Now, the next task was getting to find a plain piece of paper. It was then I realised that in this digital age, paper is a redundant commodity. There was no paper sheet in the conference kit and no paper found anywhere. Went to a apremilast stall with the alibi of listening to the product. But in the end, when I put my request for a sheet of paper, the young MR was baffled and clueless. Somehow, she tore a page from her workbook and offered me a paper.
This was one step closer to victory. Though Nilesh wrote a nice generic prescription of Telmisartan and metformin, we were all unsure if this whole effort is going to work…
The next task was to locate the pharmacy. It was half an hour walk away. Decided to bunk a lecture and walk down the breezy streets of Liverpool towards the pharmacy. It was just about 7-8 degrees Celcius, but bearable. Boots, I thought, is a renowned pharmacy and hopefully luck should work. The pharmacist kept on gazing at my prescription and I started to get this sinking feeling. “I am sorry, but we are out of stock for telmisartan. Why dont you try a couple of blocks ahead”, said the cute pharamcist. So at least, the prescription was working. Decided to brave the cold and walk down to the next pharmacy.
Couldnt imagine my joy when this pharmacy did stock my meds. It was a battle was won when the pharmacist checked, double checked, packed, wrote instructions, and explained me how the meds were to be taken. The next fear was of a big hole in the pocket. But it came to an affordable £7.50 for 10 days. God bless the UK medical system. Took the first dose there itself with gulps of diet coke. The battle having won, sent a victory signal to Nilesh as a ‘Thank you’ message. He seemed happy too.
This supposedly trivial incidence had an important lesson. Never under estimate the importance of packing before travelling overseas. Second lesson is for Indian patients. It is so simple and cheap to get any prescription and buy the meds in India. They will only realise the importance of Indian doctors and pharmacy system when they travel abroad. I wish doctors and the medical system is not taken for grant for granted as is being done now. I hope they realise how lucky they are in availing the medical system in India.
We, those who have lived with the British legacy, believe that the entire world runs in English. Though many of the non English speaking countries have their own languages, majority use English as the second language and most of their international business is transacted in English. However, this idea of English dominance gets shattered while you are in Spain.
There is a whole big Spanish world out there. Spain may look relatively small on the world map. But there is a huge Spanish speaking population; mainly from Spain’s previous colonies in Latin America. Surprisingly, Spanish is the second most spoken language in the world, second only to Mandarin Chinese. Whereas Chinese language dominates due to the sheer number of its followers in China, Spanish is spoken in more than 22 countries. English is the distant third with 10 million fewer speakers than Spanish. So, in the group of more than 50 international tourists, when most of them spoke Spanish, the initial curiosity turned into an awe. The Argentinians, Mexicans, Chileans, Portuguese in the group made the English speaking tourists look pygmies.
Most of the important European cities are located on river banks or lake shores. The locals are proud of their water bodies, nurture it and try to weave a culture around it. They build promenades and walkways, which make a lovely backdrop for the musicians, pantomimes, artists, jugglers, and painters to showcase their art. It is only us Indians, who take pride in building lavotaries and crematoriums on river banks and try to deface them as much as possible.
Madrid, however, cant boast of such a privilege. So, it was quite understandable that Marina, the tour guide, was rueful showing the lone emaciated Manzanares river running through the city. It literally looked like a nullah. There is no raincheck in dry Madrid. It hardly rains there. With only 65 wet days in a year, and no water around, Madrid would have been doomed city. Here, with each delaying day in the onset of monsoon, we skip our heartbeat and start worrying of the impending drought. However, there is no such fear in Madrid. Their taps don’t run dry, their water is absolutely clean and keeps flowing throughout the year. The numerous fountains in the major squares of Madrid give life to the city even at the peak of harshest summer. Obviously, this is because of a very efficient water management system from the springs of surrounding Sierra (mountain) Guadarrama and Canal de Isabella. In fact, it is around the fountains of Plaza de Cibeles, an important landmark, where the Real Madrid team celebrate their numerous unending victories.
Madrid has its own share of gardens and public squares, monuments and palaces, theaters and arenas. Plaza Mayor and Puerta del Sol could draw similiarities with Times Square or Trafalgar square, yet have a charm of their own.
The lake in Buen Retiro Park doesn’t give a clue of Madrid’s arid antecedents.
The small lanes of downtown Madrid reminds you of its very ancient heritage. The well sculpted and maintained buildings lining the tiny lanes take you back in the medieval days. In terms of narrowness, some of the lanes could well match the lanes of Dharavi. But any comparison beyond that would be a huge crime. Unlike the dull name plates of the street elsewhere, each street begins with a marble tile adorned on its first building, engraved with a painting and name of the street signified. Each of these street wears a heavenly look with a rich heritage.
The streets are dotted with road side cafes and bars. Tapas, signifying a small snack, is the most popular dish and beer is the staple drink. Beer is cheaper than in India and akin to drinking water.
In Madrid, perhaps, the biggest attractions would be the Flamenco dance and the bullfights. Unfortunately or fortunately, there were no bull fights scheduled during our stay in Madrid. Would have avoided it anyway. While the Matadors have all the tricks under their sleeves to protect themselves, the poor bull is punctured and gored to death with their piercing sabers, blades and swords. Serving it as dish after the show makes it even gorier. Fortunately much of Spain agrees with me and there is a big debate on to ban it.
Visit to Spain and Madrid would be incomplete without watching a Flamenco show. Its dance steps were glorified in Zindagi milegi na dobara. In the movie, much of its appeal was in its Hindi lyrics. Though it was difficult to appreciate the Spanish story told in the dance show, the passion of the performers was quite obvious. The flow, tempo and cadence of the tapping feet, snapping fingers and guitar sojourn made it a rhythm divine. Very rewarding to perform, …and to watch. Indeed, a very tiring form of art requiring a huge stamina.
The best way to get to know a foreign culture would be to live with the locals. For the first time ever, took an opportunity to use Airbnb to stay for a couple of days. Though had to sacrifice the lavishness and luxuries of a hotel room, the people were quite friendly. One of the lasting impressions in one of the house was of a picture of Ganesha and Aum in the hallway. Ganesha was quite popular there. Monica, a Mexican pharmacist in the tourist group also adorned a T shirt depicting Ganesha and claimed to worship Him for good omen.
There are some personalities who have the power to change peoples lives, their thinking and their personalities. Those who do it for masses, become leaders and those who do it for people coming their contact, become teachers.
Geoff, short for Prof Geoffrey Tofler, was one such bloke.
I landed in USA, the unknown land, as an underconfident, introvert and a diffident guy who knew no one. Had a very hard time initially. My first supervisor was an elderly spinster who was a workaholic and knew nothing except work. One day, I gathered courage and approached Geoff to see if i could work with him. He was doing a fantastic work on triggering of heart diseases and circadian variation. He readily agreed.
Teachers set examples by their own bearing, conduct and deportment. He was a workaholic to a point. Apart from taking care of patients, he did exemplary research. And he was good at both. He used to work long hours. It was never a surprise to see the lights of his office on late nights.
However, it was a different Geoff when it came to weekends, parties and picnics. He was really disappointed when I replied that I am not good in any art. He was a very good puppeteer and a ventriloquist. His collection of puppets was great. Cricket was our common talking point. He was an original Aussie. I would have expected that it would turn into our rivalry, but he removed the whole fun from it by acxepting the Aussie team as braggers ans swaggers.
He taught me perfection. All the examinations, tests, documents, and procedures we did, had to be perfect. We had to prepare power point slides for presentations in meetings and for NIH. The presentations had to be precise. So, each word in each slide, each punctuation mark had to carry a purpose.
He taught me writing. My initial writings were vague translations of my Marathi thoughts. Whenever I wrote a paper, it used to come back with a lot of red marks. We wrote many papers together. Eventually the red marks decreased and I my writings could carry a meaning. The climax of this capability was a chapter we wrote for a cardiology book. Thereafter, WRITING became easy for me.
He made me bold and self confident. He always appreciated our work and always acknowledged us publicly in all of his presentations. I was a very poor orator and used to tremble while speaking in front of a audience. However, I had no choice but speak in public whenever my turn for presentation arrived in our weekly meetings. Perhaps, the climax was when I had to present our paper at the American College of Cardiology meet. This is the most prestigious cardiology meet in US and perhaps the world. He helped me with all the slides and made me practice a million times, asked queations and saw to it that it was a fluent presentation. I took a tablet of ciplar before the presentation. Surprisingly, the presention went so very well. By then, i had gotten the American accent. All the questions asked, were what we had anticipated. Geoff hugged me after the presentation. The talk got widely acclaimed, inluding a clipping in the press. Of course, one of the reasons was that it was on the mechanism of beneficial effects of alcohol on heart disease. Since then, I have never shied away from public speaking thefeafter, except when it is impromptu.
There was this incidence which got etched in my mind. It was a party meet of all hospital Harvard staff and professors. I, being shy and introvert, was totally lost. After sitting in a corner for a while, I decided to leave. Met Geoff in the doorway. I dont know anyone here, I told him. “O, forget it, you know me Praveen.”, he said, offered me a drink, and introduced to a few Harvard professors. We had a good chat, especially on India. Of course, the drink was contributing to it too.
Geoff taught me fairness. I wrote a paper to published, kept him as the first author and inserted my name in the middle of the list of the authors. “Whats this Praveen? You are the main worker and contributor to the paper. You should be the first author”. At that very moment, I remembered how a KEM professor got his name in our paper for JAPI when he didnt knew the ABC of the topic. I further got the taste of this Indian unfairness, when I started practising in Nasik. After giving my opinion or performing procedures, nor was there any acknowledgement, nor did the patients got to know that I had performed a life saving procedure.
These teachings helped shape my life and thinking. Have been trying to implement Geoff’s teachings in life. Have been successful in most and unsuccessful in a few.
Since then, Geoff has moved back to Australia. Met him a few years back, when I visited Sydney. He was as warm as ever. He still has a plaque I had gifted him when I left. It had a picture of Krishna telling Arjun – Karmnye wadhikaraste, ma phaleshu kadachan…