Athens, Greece :
A modern city caught in between development and poverty. A huge International Airport, world class underground Metro right from the Airport, streets that are cleaned every evening with modern equipment, well dressed people, preservation of their archeological wealth with extreme care give us an impression that Athens is just another developed and well-to-do European city. But, a tete-e-tete with any localite reveals the not so impressive underbelly. Beggars in the same world class metro, again right from the Airport, tourism as the only flourishing industry, their unsuccessful attempts to attract IT industry, failure to cash-in the Olympics for which, apparently, they spent obscene amount of money etc., explain the current state of Greece.
If we keep out the poor economy story away, Acropolis hill and the surrounding areas, allegedly, one of the oldest and most important places in the human history, are well preserved, maintained and taken care of. A museum has been built right on top of archeological excavations, close to the Acropolis hill, that unearthed an underground city, with transparent glass floor for visitors to see the unearthed city underneath, while exploring the museum. Undoubtedly, a brilliant idea. Many underground metro railway stations and Airport, where during construction a lot of archeological artifacts were found, have shelves full of those spoils.
Santorini / Thira, A Greek Island:
Apparently, Athens is only an entry point into Greece for Tourists, due to its International Airport. Tourists typically head to one of the several popular Greek Islands right away. We spent a couple of days at Santorini, a small half moon shaped island of around 30 KM in length and a KM or two in width. A less than one hour flight from Athens took us to Santorini, in the middle of sea, to an almost unmanned airport. There is absolutely nothing, other than what tourists need, on that island. The island has only car/bike rentals, fuel stations, hotels and restaurants and an airport and seaport. Every place on one side of the half moon is categorized as sunrise point and of course, the other side as sunset point. With sea in every direction and a few small islands in the vicinity, sunrises and sunsets are routinely mesmerizing.
The island is formed due to volcanic eruptions over the years. So, very minimal vegetation and absolutely no drinking water at all. One has to depend completely on packaged water. Interestingly, contrary to our common sense, vendors don’t exploit the situation and the price of packaged water is same as in Athens. Sand in beaches is either red or black, again due to volcanic eruptions. And, water is crystal clear. At a 20 minute cruise distance from the island is a well studied, live volcano. I have seen a fuming volcano for the first time in my life, and spent an hour roaming around on it, visiting the vents through which lava had erupted at various points of time in the past. With nothing other than driving around (mind you, one end to the other end takes not more than an hour) and watching sunrise/sunset, drinking abundantly available home-made wines, and exploring Greek delicacies (Gyros-Pita, Moussaka, Souvlaki, Baklava etc.,), one can have a perfect lazy holiday. Riding the 4-wheel All Terrain Bike for one whole day is the best thing that I did on the Island.
--- Amish Tripathi
The Immortals of Meluha is about a near perfect imaginary kingdom that follows the dictates of Lord Rama, some where in Northern India, in 1900 BC. The Suryavamshi kings of Meluha and the entire kingdom, who think that they are under threat from the neighboring Chandravamshi kingdom, believe in a legend that Lord Neelkant will incarnate for them and take on the neighbors and protect them. Shiva, the hero of the story, leader of a tribe in Himalayas, is identified as the Lord, by a Meluhan soldier and is brought to their king. Shiva's romance with Sati, a widow and daughter of the Meluhan king, eventual declaration of war on behalf of Suryavamshis and defeating Chandravamshis concludes the first part of the 3 books (that form a Shiva Trilogy).
Though the story sounds so uneventful, author's story telling abilities, well intertwined incorporation of Indian mythology make it an interesting read. He came up with an entirely different way of running the kingdom as per imaginary dictates of Lord Rama. The message after the supposedly conclusive war is the best part of the story, which is relevant even today.
Though I stopped even browsing through the shelves with fiction in Landmark / CrossWord, when a colleague recommended and offered a copy of it, I grabbed it. And, I don't regret.
12000 runners, representation from 88 countries, a repeat of an event that happened exactly 2500 years ago (just a legend, but, a very convincing one), and I was fortunate to be part of it. I dreamt of it, 2 years before the event, when I came across such a thing called Athens Classic Marathon, that happens on the original Marathon course every year. And, 2010 is going to be 2500 years after Phidieppides' legendary run to convey the victory message of Battle of Marathon, shouting Nenikekamen (We won).
The day started at 5 AM. We (I along with Harish and Karthik) reached the assembly area in front of the Greek parliament. Thousands of runners were already there waiting to get into the buses lined up to transfer them to the Marathonas village (the starting point of the run). The bus took the same route that we have to traverse back. As Harish pointed out, after a few KM the driver could very well have switched off the engine and we could still have reached Marathonas at the same time. The road was steep downhill for almost 20 KM. And, we will be running back uphill that long.
We haven't visited the Marathonas village proper. But, the assembly area still looks like an ideal battlefield for old fashioned battles. A wide and flat area surrounded by tall hills, which can accommodate a million people. I was in the last wave, and it started at around 9:30 AM. It was so cold that we had to wear plastic sheets given by the organizers to keep us warm till we start running. First 10 KM was almost flat and the weather was pleasant. With a 1 minute walk break after every 10 minutes, I was cruising at a comfortable pace to touch finish line in 5 1/2 hours. Well stocked fuel stations with water, electrolytes, fruits and energy bars and gels, were located at every 2 1/2 KM. There were people to cheer the runners, almost through out the course (till we reached Athens city). 'Bravo, Bravo...' is one rhythmic sound that we could hear continuously ('Well Done' in Greek). There were kids handing olive branches to the runners, through out. (An olive branch used to be placed on the winner's head in ancient Olympics, it seems). The course between 10 and 30 KM was uphill and sun was getting harsher and harsher. With the protective polythene sheets long gone, I started pouring cold water on head to take on the heat. 28 to 32 KM was the toughest for me, with the mid-day heat and the killer uphill course. I slowed down a bit and recovered after 32. This was the first full Marathon, where I was comfortable even in late 30s.
The part of the course that I enjoyed the most was the last 2 KM. After taking the last turn and with the Olympic Stadium in my view, and 1000s of people cheering, I was ecstatic to say the least. I entered the stadium with a broad smile on my face. Probably for the first time, I crossed the finish line with a smile on my face and didn't stop after crossing the finish line and just continued running. And, there comes that long cherished dream true.
I overcome the last hurdle to enter into Greece; the Greece Visa has been approved, though only after an unnecessary personal interview in Delhi. Next week by this time, I should be in Athens, waiting eagerly for the run with around 36 hours to go. The elevation map looks as follows.
Around 70% uphill and 30 % downhill and almost no flat stretch at all. A daunting task for me by any standards. But, the best part is, they are going to keep the course open for 8 hours and that's much more than enough to enjoy the route, run, mild winter weather and of course an exotic and historical place.
Dilip is joining me for the run and we are going to visit few more places after the event. Madrid, Barcelona, Baden-Baden (Germany) and Paris are part of the plan. Depending on the time and convenience, I may visit Amsterdam as well.
The last few weekends have been quite engaging. A weekend office outing at Kabini Jungle Lodges and Resorts, another long weekend visit to home town and my little darling, and of course a Marathon. Kaveri Trail Marathon occupied a weekend, though the show was poor, with me doing only half-marathon (though aimed at full). But, it really helped me get out of mediocrity and take the next step towards the real stuff. Though 2 years is not a big time for distance runners (particularly for people like me, with very modest beginning. I remember keeping my legs in hot water with a lot of salt for an hour, after doing a 6 KM dream run in Mumbai Marathon 2006 :) ), it is time for me to aim at the next level. I have started working towards a sub 5 hour Marathon (I have been saying this for a year, but, started only now). It may take a year with my current fitness levels. But, I will be there.
Athens Classic Marathon is just a couple of weeks away. Itinerary, tickets, plan etc., are ready. (Thanks to Dilip, an expert in planning Europe trips, who is also running his own venture: http://backpackingtoeurope.com/ ) The final hurdle is Visa. Visa interview is scheduled on 20th at Delhi. I don't see any reason for not getting through.
Another test run at Nandi Hills is calling this weekend. 6.7 KM uphill and downhill through the same route, with a bit of higher elevation than Athens course. Though it would be torturous, I will get a first hand experience of a long downhill run, which I can't do on a treadmill.
During that drive of a lifetime, I missed the last part of the Pacific Coast Highway between Monterey and Half-Moon Bay. And, I have the last Sunday without any plan. Quickly finished breakfast on Sunday and was out to cover the missed part. I took a deviation from a highway and reached Redwood city. The route between Redwood city and Half-Moon bay goes through a scenic forest with tall trees and full of bends, making it an excellent drive. Frequent cyclists keep a tab on speed. Half-Moon bay -> Santa Cruz -> Monterey completes Pacific Coast drive. Visited the famous aquarium in Monterey, and could catch a glimpse of different types of Jellyfish, Octopus and a lot more. For the first time, I saw a few penguins and the funny penguin walk.
Everything, good and bad, has to come to an end. So is this three month holiday (Hope, my manager is not reading this. He actually complained sometime back that I have not been updating my journal of late. So, should be fine). Just few more hours left before catching a flight to Hong Kong. I am looking forward to the 12 hour break that I have in Hong Kong. Thanks to Ripul and his cousin, I already have a tightly packed itinerary for 12 hours there :) Should be reaching Bangalore on Sunday, the 5th September.
I stayed back on Saturday for my own adventures, while the rest headed for Universal Studios, Hollywood, in the car that we came in. I wanted to go to Santa Monica, a lively beach with a lot of activity and a buzzing down-town next to it. With no car to take me there, I quickly checked for public transport and found that I have to switch 3-4 buses to reach there (around 20 KM). As it was one month since the last Marathon and I have one more month to go before the next Marathon (Kaveri Trail Marathon, SriRangaPatnam on 19th September), I decided to walk across the city to reach there, with some vague idea about directions. I ended up walking for around 4 hours across the city through suburbs, palatial houses, high rises only to find that I took a wrong turn after 15 KM and I was 15 KM away from Santa Monica. In no mood to spend the rest of the afternoon also walking, I waved at a taxi and reached the beach. Treated myself to some divine spirits and lunch at an open air restaurant in down-town, Santa Monica, from where I could oversee a bunch of crazy activities on the pedestrians-only roads. Took a beach cruiser cycle on rent at the beach and I was back to my favorite pastime
We decided to leave early on Sunday and take CA-1, a slower and very scenic route, to get back to Sunnyvale. And, that led us to the best drive so far in US. CA-1, also known as Pacific Coast Highway, is adjacent to Pacific ocean along the coastline of California, with a mountain range on the other side. With absolutely nothing between road and ocean for hundreds of miles and innumerable hair-pin bends and breathtaking views, and a highly responsive Nissan Altima, we felt, a drive just can't get any better. We spent whole day driving with frequent stopovers. This route is classified as one of the Drives of a Lifetime by Nat-Geo's Traveler :)
Yosemite National Park is one of those beautiful parks under National Park Service of US Department of the Interior whose mission is "To Protect America's Great Outdoors". And, they do their job really well. A peek at the numbers gives us some idea of the scale. The park is spread over 700,000 acres (1000+ square miles), around 4 million people visited in 2009 and the budget for 2009 was over 28 million USD. All this is about just one of those many such parks. These guys are really resource rich.
Yosemite, a grand valley with great waterfalls (though almost dry after July), boulders, bike trails, hikes, lakes, winter sports, camp-sites etc., makes a perfect weekend getaway. Ideal visit should include at least one night camping in the wilds. As the above numbers speak for themselves, it is hard to get a booking for a camp-site. So, we planned just a day's visit. We started very early in the morning (at 5 AM), as it is a 4 hours drive from our Hotel, and reached the park by 10 AM. Spent some time in a nearly dry, still beautiful waterfall and played around the boulders. Overwhelmed with the number of hiking options, we struggled a bit to choose a couple of them. Almost all trails lead to one of those peaks around the valley and the grand views from peak tickle a handful of philosophical bones, as usual :)
After a late, hard-to-name continental lunch in a restaurant on the floor of the valley, we just had a couple of hours left before it gets dark. While we were on a random walk to spend those 2 hours, we got to know that there is some 'Mirror Lake' near by. There is something really mystic about that lake. Though a reflection in still water is just natural, the reflection in the Mirror Lake is crystal clear, almost like a mirror. May be something to do with the type of sand at the bottom or purity of water. Though, we reached just before dusk, still could witness the miracle.
Another 5 hour long drive brought us back to the Hotel. And, it was mid-night.
I didn't refuse his service to save a few dollars TIP that I might had to give, but, I refused out of habit (or saving everywhere itself is a habit ?). The bags were too small to take help from somebody (Not that I would have yelled for a bellboy, even if I had a bit bigger bags). I don't know whether I should have got out of the taxi and explained him the cultural & habitual differences between India and Las Vegas and cleared the mis-understanding :). I am sure he understood that it was an Indian (The Mexican taxi driver who witnessed the scene started the conversation, asking about Indian economy and population problems, with out even asking whether I was an Indian). Next time when that bellboy sees someone like me and hesitates to offer his service, he would surely be called a racist :(