Monday, June 29, 2009

Lively Lisbon

I thought Lisbon would be like most other European cities. pretty but predictable. Pretty it was, but not in the usual made-for-tourists way. It had shades of San Francisco (hilly and and a bridge strikingly similar to that what-is-the-big-hype-about-Golden-Gate-bridge), Rome (charming old structures) and possibly Calcutta (dripping with everyday life). Between the attractions, there were run down buildings, narrow alleys going and up and down dramatically, clothes hanging outside, smells of fishes being cooked, locals hanging out at street corners. Somehow all the imperfections actually makes it all the more charming.

I set out with no clear plan in mind. The overwhelming landmark is the castle (Castelo de São Jorge) at the top of a steep little hill, but rather than climbing all the way up there, I boarded the cute tram #28. It meanders through the densely populated mini hills and the valleys that make up the city, navigating the dramatic slopes precariously, barely wiggling through the narrowest of alleys, passing by the river Tagues, often presenting striking views.

In addition, there was music. Fado is the traditional Portuguese music, soulful songs of love and heartbreak, probably originated in the bygone era of lonely sailors. There were musicians performing live on the tram (link to a recording), as a part of summer festival, with locals spontaneously joining in, vastly outnumbering the tourists.

Hopping out of the tram I walked randomly across the almost maze like Bairro Alto, zigzagging through the cobblestone roads and inclines. And when my feet started complaining from all the climbing, there were these lovely elevators, one going up along a metallic cage (Elevador da Santa Justa), another more like an antique streetcar (Elevador da Glória).

The suburb of Belem was next. The much advertised monastery (Mosteiro dos Jerónimos) was indeed grand, and contained the tomb of Vasco da Gama, who would always have a special place in Indian history.

Standing across the road was the monument to all those brave explorers and discoveries, and a big world map showing the glorious days of the Portuguese domination, from coasts of America to Asia.

The adjacent tower of Belem has a forlorn aura about it, overlooking the river with boats passing by, headed to the sea.

It is interesting how British and Portuguese (and the Spanish, of course), so different in every other respect, ended up conquering so many distant shores. I may be totally wrong, but my feeling is, while the British were more of resource hunters and their reminiscence is one of pride, Portuguese legacy is more of the adventurous spirit, and exploration.

The Berardo Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art was rather small, but worth a quick visit. I also dropped by the Museu da Electricidade to have a look at the world press photo exhibition going on there.

I had no idea what awaited me when I headed to Sintra next morning, an UNESCO heritage town half an hour away from the city, The bus climbed up the hill up from the station and stopped at the ruins of Moorish castle (Castelo dos Mouros).

I always wanted to a visit a real, once functional European castle, and this was it!

This is probably one of he most underrated attractions I have visited for a long while. While I must admit that not too much has survived the time, the remnants are definitely worth the short hike. I walked along the ramparts, climbed up to the towers, overlooking the vast expanse and the stunning Pena Palace at a distance.

The Pena Palace itself was royally gorgeous and more colorful than Disney, and offering nice views of the rather dull National Palace and the lovely Monserrate Palace down there.

Lisbon was lively no doubt and, but Sintra captured by imagination, a living testament to the tales of yore.

Finally to this tiny coastal town calld Foz de Arhelo, for the actual physics workshop. This is Atlantic from the "other" side. And it feels so much more virgin than from overtly commercialized Florida. My hotel room is on a cliff, overlooking the mouth of a lagoon meeting the ocean, and I can hear waves roaring all night. Pure, unspoiled sand and water, a fantastic landscape.

Any trip is not complete without sampling local food and drink. I was asked by a friendly waiter if I want the "beef" of pork or cow -I ended up going with the pork, crisply fried succulent pieces. However, this is a seafood lovers paradise, fresh fish, octopus, squids abound, all fresh and rather affordable. All these years I thought of Sardines as somethings which originate in those tiny cans, and it was a revelation to devour big shiny and tasty Sardines. How would I go back to those cans again? Pastel de Belém is the famous local creamy and ultra sweet pastry, and yummy. Sangria is plentiful and cheap. This is a country where Port wine came from, and while I am no wine connoisseur, the ones I sampled were aromatic and full.

Tuesday, June 09, 2009

The disconcerting eeriness of being thirty

There are things in life you expect to happen. And then there are things you should expect, but never really do. Like turning thirty. Birthdays are generally meant to be happy occasions. One day to celebrate and remind people of your existence. Not for me though. Not anymore, certainly. Growing old is such a scary idea, and thirty seems like somewhat of psychological barrier beyond that I can not just ignore age as just a number. In all these years, I could think of myself as the naive young one, all the carefree mistakes, casual omissions, the general attitude of being irresponsible had that grand excuse. At thirty, I am not sure if one can still claim that(but I am going to try nevertheless). Human lifetime is incredibly short and insignificant when one looks at the grand scheme of things, the and by that benchmark, thirty possibly means I have used up a significant fraction of that. I am mortally terrified of being old, and there are so many things I have not done or experienced. However, rather than start getting upset about those now, let me try to get some transient satisfaction by listing some of things I am proud to have done. This is of course, an incredibly random, and entirely biased list, with no logical order and I am sure I am forgetting more equally memorable events, after all, as some study said, memory starts to decline from around this age.

I have lived in three different countries in three different continents.

I visited so many places. Although I am tempted to, I would not name them all here. But very briefly, major city/cities in 7 different European countries (Switzerland, Italy, France, Germany, England, Belgium, Czech Republic, with Portugal coming up), and major attractions in 34 mainland American states (plus Washington DC). I have driven along along the pacific coast highway in California, seven mile bridge over the seas connecting Miami to Keys in Florida, and from Florida to Chicago crossing the country. I have taken the incredibly scenic golden pass express across Switzerland, saw the pope in Vatican, got my portrait sketched at Montmartre, stood across the prime meridian in Greenwich, saw Mont Blanc right in front me standing at an altitude of 3842m, stayed inside the fort in Jaisalmeer, gambled and won (albeit a small amount) in Las Vegas, just to name a few of the incredible travel experiences.

I have a Ph.D in Physics. Some random estimates suggest that only about 1% of world's population holds a Ph.D. So that indeed puts me into an elite fraction of the population. (And while on that, I consider myself privileged to have Rick Field as my thesis advisor. I could not have had a better supervisor.)

I have been associated with the world's current (Tevatron in Fermilab) and future (LHC in CERN) highest energy particle collider experiments. To non physicists, it may not appear that big a deal, but the LHC turn on is truly an once in a generation opportunity.

I participated and gave talk which was reasonably appreciated in one of the premiere conferences in our field, Moriond at La Thuile.

I was awarded as the best graduate student while in Florida for distinction in teaching and research.

I have experienced the perhaps most incredible and significant political event of modern US history, the election of Barack Obama as the president, up, close and personal. I have also voted in India, so that makes me a participant in two of the world's largest democracies.

I have accumulated enough frequent flier mile to move in to "silver elite" status in delta skymiles, and also had a free India roundtrip ticket.

I have heard Joan Baez sing live. Twice.

I participated in the inaugural "University Challenge India" quiz show on BBC, hosted by the amazing Siddhartha Basu.

I have tried rock climbing and skiing. It is another matter that I faired miserably in either.

By last count, I have collected close to two hundred refrigerator magnets from all the places I visited.

I have seen the space shuttle discovery blasting into space, once at daytime, once at night.

I have eaten alligator, horse, frog, rabbit, ostrich meat (with kangaroo coming up, hopefully soon) among the more unusual ones.

While at Florida, I have lived through two basketball and two football national championship runs. The basketball team was perhaps the best college basketball team, ever. Again to all not acquainted with American college sports, this is unprecedented. (and I was once on the same flight with Al Horford.)

I have won an award for my photography, and one of photos was featured on CNN ireport. While by itself, neither is that big a deal, it is not everyday I get appreciated for being creative.

And, despite being a bitter loner most of the times, I had been amazingly lucky to know and come close to some wonderful people. And wonder of all wonders, someone agreed to marry me too. I have to compliment Saswati for her incredibly courageous decision!