Thursday, July 20, 2017

Tragic Travel Tales (The Italian Job)

This story has all the ingredients that make for good entertainment. Drama, intrigue, thrill, couple of police encounters and beautiful connections with complete strangers.

Sitting in the plane back to Singapore, I can't help but feel a huge sense of loss. I lost money. I lost time. I lost plans. I lost experiences. All these losses stemmed from one catastrophe- my passport and identity card were stolen in Florence. Luckily it was the last leg of the trip, but the sense of loss was indescribable. Losing a document that is the very foundation of your identity has a soul crushing effect. Not to mention the various practical considerations of losing a passport together with credit cards and a chunk of cash, makes one realize the high dependence we have on all our financial objects.

In Sept last year my clutch was snatched in Vietnam, by two hoodlums on a motorbike. I lost a credit card, some cash and my brand new Samsung S7. I thought travel horror stories could not get worse, but then I had never faced the crafty Italian thieves well-versed in the art of pick pocketing.

I was warned by everyone (especially knowing my history of being a drama magnet), and I was super careful. Not carrying all my money in one bag (thank God for that!), using a sling and clutching it close to the front of my body, using a bag with a zip (my dad does not understand how there can be any other kinds of bags), keeping my passport safe locked in my suitcase, etc. I travelled through Italy with all these precautions from Trevi Fountain in Rome to the Path of Gods in Positano and charming villages of Tuscany. I avoided touts, was extra careful in touristy areas and I even advised  random tourists to be careful of their unzipped bags (dad would be proud). Unfortunately, in Florence I forgot to lock up my passport and walked around the city with it. We ended up in a trashy store which was selling dresses for 10euros. In the frenzy that can only be attributed to cheap shopping, my cousin and I got distracted and someone unzipped the sling and fished out my wallet. Completely unnoticed by either of us. We were in a holiday euphoria supplemented with shopping excitement to even realize what had happened.

After I did, I cried. On the street. On the side walk. By the fountain. In the church. The impact of what that happened came in bursts and I thought I couldn't breathe. My sister was a rock, who reminded me that losing a passport did not mean losing my identity. Wise words, alas, lost in the tragedy of the moment.

I berated myself for being foolish, immature, inept and totally incapable of looking after myself. I was at my lowest ebb when I started feeling that I did not even have basic competence to travel alone and I needed a male companion to protect me. I had sunk so low in that one hour that I vowed to never leave the security of home ever again. (Bye bye college friends reunion trip to Barcelona planned in Oct).

Then I got up. Wiped my tears. Heard my little sister praise me for being a 'woman with ten arms' (translation: goddess/ woman who can multi task effectively) and then I did the one thing that calms me the most. I made a list (yes I am a nerd).

The below list has no drama (which comes in later in the story, so stick with me). This list is useful for anyone else who may go through a similar experience. (I pray it never happens, but if it's Italy, chances are very high)

1. Lodge police report (this is most critical as you will need this for all purposes including claiming insurance)
2. Cancel credit cards
3. Borrow money
4. Inform relevant people who should need to know (choose people who will find practical solutions and not berate you or make you feel like a sorry loser that you are)
5. Go to your embassy to get a temp passport

Indian embassy in Rome looked like an Indian government office from the 80s. Snaking queues of people with strained faces waiting for their passport/ visa application, holding bunch of documents, in a tiny dusty windowless room. I shamelessly used my elite privilege and victim card (I know Karan Johar would not approve) and went straight to the counter, from where I was directed to the 'office upstairs'. I was one floor closer to a solution.

The officer was rather unperturbed, shrugging his shoulders he informed that 'this happens everyday'. So I was not even special! Just another lousy tourist target. There was a clear system in place- including a travel agent across the street who will prepare all the necessary documents for a temp passport, for a small fee is 40euros. Within an hour it was all done! And I would have two full days to enjoy Rome and move on to my final vacation destination- Dubai. After the walking around Italy in canvas shoes and cargo pants, I was so looking forward to being in the lap of Dubai luxury strutting in heels and flirty summer dresses. With a spring in my step I skipped back to the embassy.

The staff greeted me like an old friend and took my application- competed in triplicate. And then came the bombshell (didn't I warn you the drama will return?). My lost passport which was issued in Singapore just last month, did not exist in the Indian government portal!! The dilemma facing the efficient officer was how does the Indian embassy in Rome issue a temp passport when the stolen passport cannot be cancelled in the system?

At one time the officer also questioned how I had made it from Singapore to Italy on a passport that 'does not exist'. Being snarky and saying that I stowed myself in a container on a carrier ship leaving from Singapore to Amalfi Coast wouldn't have been funny. I was advised to wait and then meet the senior officer. And you guessed it! I moved one more floor up. To a beautiful colonial styled room with plush carpets and an adjoining terrace which offered breathtaking view of the city.

The lady was absolutely lovely, sympathetic to my situation but puzzled by the predicament. "You don't exist in the system Madame." At that point tears threatened to flow again, when she added "But we will help you. Don't worry. Give us a day." And they did! They wrote to Indian High Commission in Singapore who confirmed my identity and after two more trips the following day to meet my embassy friends (we were in first name basis by then), I was holding a passport again! I was sweetly requested to let the world know about my positive experience through the marvel that is Twitter. Kindly retweet- https://mobile.twitter.com/seemapunwani/status/887338188301361152

Ironically, I felt more exposed not having my credit cards than my passport. I know it sounds frivolous but the lack of financial independence was rather unnerving. No longer could I pick up whatever my heart desired or enter a restaurant without looking on the right hand side of the menu. I still used my secret stash of money for the necessities- wine, a few dresses and of course the last Euros were spent at the book store.

I told my sob story to anyone who would listen, even attempted to get a discount for my handbag purchase. But it appeared this was a common woe in Italy, and I was unable to cash in on the victim card, except for the lady at Western Union who gave me a half-decent rate for my USD exchange (which went towards the handbag).

There were other kind strangers like a Chinese-American couple from Singapore who offered to loan me money to change my ticket at the airport. The Singapore immigration service staff who gave me the most pertinent advice to transfer my re-entry permit online so there would be no issue to board the flight. A process that can take between 1 to 5 days was done in under an hour.

Friends from different parts of the world offered to wire me money, give me their credit cards, come pick me at the airport, take me shopping, in addition to their much appreciated care and concern.

I missed meeting some of these friends in Dubai, as the airlines only allowed me transit in Dubai but not the planned stopover. My visions of indulging in Sukh Sagar pau bhaji and heavenly kebabs, came to a grinding halt. 12 days of pizza and pasta have taken their toll. And how does one survive on pastries for breakfast?! I longed for a cooked breakfast of masala omelette and toast. Being low on cash also meant that last meal in Rome was mini sandwiches and convenience store bought wine. How the mighty had fallen!

The key realization in all (besides ALWAYS keeping my passport under lock and key) was how our privilege has made us weak. The two other people who had their passport stolen at the same time, could barely afford to pay the temp passport fees. Their concern was basic survival. Mine was elitist inconvenience.

The incident left a long-standing mark. In one tragic stroke, I went from a seasoned solo traveller to a weepy inconsolable nincompoop. From savoring every moment in Italy to begrudging the small part of the holiday that I missed. From being privileged to checking my privilege.

Italy, you took away a lot from me. But you left me with a humbling experience. One that I hope will teach me to rely less on documents and objects, and more on human compassion and friendships. And you did give me a beautiful holiday with my lovely sisters, one that I will cherish forever.










Wednesday, March 22, 2017

The Independent Princess

Meet the independent princess. 

She likes being indulged. She wants a fairy tale romance. Yes she desires a Prince.

But she is not spoilt. She is pragmatic, sensible even. And yes she knows her life is great even without him.

She likes to cook for her man. But is scared to admit it. She might be considered a door mat. But then what about the times she cooks for her children, her friends, her parents, her colleagues? Why is she only judged for caring for that one person? 

She wants a magical proposal. Planned to perfection. With a rock. The whole deal. But then she also likes the fuss her girlfriends make on her birthday. Or how her mother still bakes her favorite cake for her. And you know what, she takes twice the effort to do thoughtful things for them all, the boyfriend, the child, the parents, the friends, the sisters, the brothers, hell even the in-laws. Why is she then only accused of being a complying girlfriend? 

She loves frilly frocks, stilettos and dangling earrings. She also sports a dragon tattoo (and not a butterfly one). She still sees a rainbow in wonder. And also wonders about effect of climate change on rains. She likes Barbies (blasphemy!) and admires Malala. She wonders why both cant co-exist in her daughter's world?

She is whimsical but has will power

She is dainty but deadly

She is diet conscious but cheats on her diet (occasionally)

She is a drama queen but a jack of all trades

She daydreams but has no nightmares

She can be a nightmare (but that's when she is not allowed to cheat on her diet)

She earns, she saves but she also splurges when she caves.

She impulse shops online, but likes to be taken shopping by her man

She likes receiving flowers in office but whatsapp messages during office hours annoy her 


She adores tiara and she participates in triathlons (sometime both at the same time)


She cries while watching rom-coms but keeps her wide open during The Exorcist

She breaks glass ceilings but covets Cinderella's glass slippers

She gets nail art done but ruins it by doing art with her toddlers 

She worships fashion but she cherishes her PJs (and her boxers even more) 

She enjoys doors being held for her, but she can kick open any door she wants

She believes in magic, but has no qualms creating it for herself

She is a conundrum. A mystery of sorts. Feminists hate her. Romantics mock her. She can't pick a side. She wants a man, does not need one. She relishes a whirlwind romance, but that does not define her. 

Yes she is a Princess. She is an independent, career minded, self-financed, home-owner. So if she wants to be a Princess, full power to her! 





Friday, March 10, 2017

Aapke Baad- Ek kavita

Jis subah aapko yaad nahin karenge
Jis shaam aapka naam nahin lenge
Us din se hoga yeh ahsaas
Ki aap nahin hain ab humare aas paas

Lekin tab tak kya karein yeh dil?
Kaise savrein? Kaise sambhlein?
Kaise yaad karein woh pyaar bhari nazarein?
Kaise bhoolayen woh guhm bharein nagme?

Humari rooh mein aap ho samaye
Humare zehn mein ho sada shamil
Har ek nagme mein hai aapki yaad
Har ek saans karti hai yeh farman

Ki aapki kahani na kabhi ho khatam
Aapki ghazalon mein doobe har mehfil
Aapki muskarahaton ka no ho koi qatil

Pur ab hum toot se gayein hain
Ab toh ijazzat de do
Chalo jaon, aur le jaon
Apni kahaniyan, apni ghazalein, apni muskurahatein

Chod do humein tanha
Aapke bina jeene ki aadat dalne do
Aakhir, saayon ke saath nahin guzarti yeh zindagi



Monday, February 13, 2017

Life, I don't have time for you

I was told everything is transient
I know nothing lasts forever
But I still try and keep
Memories close to my chest
And regrets in my back pocket

I fish these out regularly
And then I reminisce and smile
Or remember and weep
I sometimes get the blues
And other times red in anger

While my memories and regrets take over
Life takes a backseat
It waits patiently for me to take notice
To have a conversation, to share a laugh

But where do I have the time?
There is so much to mull over
So many anecdotes to recollect
Few heartbreaks to get over

And then tragedy strikes
I stop dead in my track
I take stock

I store the memories in a corner
I discard the regrets in the bin
I slowly pick up the threads of conversation with Life
It responds hesitatingly
After awhile I shake its hands confidently, "Can we spend more time together?", I ask
With a hint of a smile, Life replies "I have been waiting for you to say that for years"



Friday, January 13, 2017

Follow your heart

It's a slippery slope
It's a messy design
A convoluted journey
And sometimes there are no signs

But follow your heart
Oh follow your heart
To find that spark
Just follow your heart

Your coffers may dwindle
You'll become fan of minimalist
But your soul will soar
And life will turn out fantastic

So just smile your way to following your heart

It's a mixed bag
Walking on clouds one day
Living in grunge the next
The music is sometimes soft
But sure never fades
You waltz one day
And tango the next

So just dance your way to following your heart

You are able with paint with no brush
Write your own life story
Weave a future with no fabric
Compose a never-heard melody

So just sing your way to following you heart

But it takes courage
It needs patience
Quitting is not an option
Keep moving the only solution

So just work your way to following you heart

It will never be smooth sailing
Self-doubt will be your companion
You may wake up in cold sweats
But will go to sleep dreaming

So just dream your way to following you heart

To find that spark
Just follow your heart

p.s. if you don't trust me, trust HIM (and no I don't mean God)



Friday, January 6, 2017

What crappy 2016 taught this

1) We live in a digital bubble

Our friends on social media are similar to us, their friends are similar to them and thus making our immediate and extended social circle in the digital world not too different from us. Thus we believe what is being shared, liked, discussed on our Facebook posts and Twitter feeds to be the way the rest of the world should think, worse behave. Hence Trump winning the elections came as a shock to so many of us. We voiced our support for Hillary unequivocally, expressed aghast on Trump's opinions loudly and rallied our views on social media (without any voting power whatsoever) truly believing it would make a difference. 


We forgot to look at the real world i.e. 90% of people who live outside our digital bubble whose issues are different from ours, whose views are radically apart, the ones who voted Trump to power. We could not fathom this turn of events and many of us are still reeling from the after shocks.

We all need to understand that there is a world outside the digital bubble we've built for ourselves and our friends and their friend's friends don't make up the all of the real world. 


2) Sharing on social does jackshit


Changing your profile picture to represent LBGT colors, adding the national flag to your DP, posting and re-posting pictures and news articles about Paris attacks and Syrian refugees does not make you an instrument of change. You are a sympathetic observer at best, an armchair activist at worst. 


I am not dissing social media or its users. I am leveraging it too to share my views. But time comes when we need to step up to take action and move out of the Facebook walls. 


What did any of us actually DO to affect change on miseries that 2016 bought on the world? Jackshit! 


Instead of having our fingers fly on our keyboard to lambaste the next atrocity, we can keep away our devices and using our hands and heads to affect change. It can be as simple as volunteering at a soup kitchen or a random act of kindness towards a stranger. Hell, start by being kinder to the Uber the driver who turns up late or show more compassion to your household help.






3) Believing everything we read on our smart phones is not smart

For any world event from Brexit in Europe to Demonitization in India, there are not only several views, but multiple 'facts'. It's almost impossible to distinguish what is accurate and what is misrepresentation. 

The problem of 'fake news' is ironically real and even Mark Zuckerberg is finding it hard to deal with it. Fake news leads to real profits. And these fake new sites stand a chance to make lots of money by providing false information and using channels like Facebook to make it go viral. While both Facebook and Google have taken steps to block many such sites, there are still several corrective measures needed before this issue goes away. 


So next time you want to forward that video, post that saucy news article, stop and have a think. Who exactly is benefiting from your this? Besides making you sound like a pseudo intellectual and providing social currency to trade for likes and comments, you are really doing anything.


4) We live in terrible times


Which show no signs of abating. Why would anyone drive a truck through a Christmas market in Berlin? Or open fire in a night club in Orlando? What sick perverse people and organizations think and act in such heinous manner? I cannot for the life of me understand. But what is clear is that this is the world we are living in. And while we can't change things at a macro level and find solutions to Syrian refuge crisis or ISIS, we can do much more on a micro level.


We can exhibit more tolerance. Tolerance towards to people who look different from us, who talk a strange language, who pray to different God. We need to start seeing more oneness in each other irrespective of race, religion, color, caste or what us urban elite are usually guilty of, class. 


We can teach our children to rise above these differences, to stand up to any form of bullying, to become color blind, religion agnostic and class tolerant. We need to deliberately curb any ill feelings while having an open conversation with our kids, so they are better prepared to face the challenging times we live in today.


5) We gotta have faith, faith , faith

In the eternal words (though taken a bit out of context here) of the legendary George Michael who 2016 took from us along with several other stalwarts, we gotta have faith.


Faith that despite the craziness around us, we can still rely on each other. Isn't the sharing economy of Airbnb stays and Uber pool rides testament to that?  


Faith that we all can modify a bit if not change completely in these trying times. 


Faith that we are just one tiny spoke in the hub and we need to each do our part to keep things moving.


Faith that there is a beautiful world outside social media which we need to relate to more. With that am getting off my iPad and heading out for a morning walk.

Happy new year folks! 

Friday, December 30, 2016

Just Read

Read a book
Any book
Every book
Just pick a book and read

Read for a lark
Read to smile
Read to cry
Read to think

Read to question
Read to challenge 
Read to debate 
Read to change 

Read for pleasure
Read through pain
Read to hide
Read to escape

Read to change your world
Read in lieu of travel
Read to step into the future
Read to walk back through history 

Read a classic
Read a short story
Hell, read a comic
Just pick a book and read

Read a book
Any book
Every book
Just pick a book and read