The women of Cuenca

The more you travel, the more you admire the industry and hard work of women. In Cuenca, we saw women carry things and sell eats, flowers and knick knacks on pavements and in street markets. Women manned the entries to churches and museums, sold us tickets and showed us around. Women served us in hole in the wall eateries, scurrying between kitchen and table even as their menfolk cooked inside. Here are some clicks of the beautiful women we met today, many of them clearly from native tribes of the region (like the Otovalos and Canari), distinct in their facial features and ethnic attire.


Cuenca, Ecuador: Night walk

Another city in Ecuador, quite different from Quito. Nestled in a wide valley and not that high altitude-wise, this is a laid back city and a haven for retired expats. That means many more people speak English and it’s rather small, so it’s much easier to get around. We landed here early in the morning and ended up wandering the city for hours waiting for check in time. More on those wonderful and crazy wanderings later. 

After check in and a much needed afternoon nap (call it stone-dead slumber!), we walked to the city centre. Breathtakingly beautiful and full of unexpected sights, Cuenca has stolen my heart in a way that few places have. In addition to the gorgeous churches and squares, endless colonial facades and graffiti, there’s an earthy reality to the city and a sense of pride that is very endearing. 

Here are my shots from our walk around town tonight. Consider them placeholders till I get time to blog in detail about what we are seeing and doing. Much love from Cuenca, Ecuador…..

Stunned by Quito’s old town: Some night clicks

After winding up our event at the Habitat3 conference here in Quito, Ecuador, we tested ourselves to an outing to the old city for dinner. Of course we had read up about the historic centre of the Quito but nothing could prepare us for the sheer unassuming beauty of it. Chok-a-block with people on a Monday night, families and young people out in full swing, the city showed us its lively, warm side tonight. 

We ate at a ‘cafeteria’, an endearing and affordable place full of chattering people where service was prompt and the elevated revolving chairs and continuous platform tip made for a unique experience. And then we stepped out into the stunning streets to see beautifully lit churches, plazas overflowing with life and the happy sounds of little children, a lovely sound and light show playing on the facade of the old theatre building, endless street grids with the lights of the sloping hills twinkling through in the distance. Mesmerised, all we want to do is go back to see historic Quito in daylight. 

Time travel: The longest day of my life

In the build-up to the travel to Quito, I wasn’t really focused on the actual day of travel. But as the 14th of October approached, I found myself wondering what it would be like to travel so far away, literally to the other end of the planet, in a single day! “Exhausting!” was the response I got from anyone I spoke to who had done it before. The word that resonated in my head was exciting. Call it a first timer’s enthusiasm!

Catching a flight out of Delhi at 3:30am means you don’t sleep that night. As it was, we got to the airport early and spent a few hours in the lounge, working! So many things were still pending as we tried to answer emails and take those last minute calls. After an 8 hour 20 minute flight, we reached Schipol (Amsterdam), where we had a little over an hour of time before we caught another 10 hour flight to Atlanta (after nearly missing it because they made a lat minute gate change!). After a stoppage of three and a half hours, we got on our final leg to get to Quito, a flight time of a little over five hours. That’s about 24 hours of time inside an aircraft and another 5 hours at airports. All of this within the same day! As we traveled westward, we kept gaining time and so, over 30 hours of transit only meant we had started traveling early in the day and landed close to midnight of the same day. In reality, it was much much more! Yes, the 14th of October 2016 was certainly the longest day of my life!

Landing in Quito on a cool, misty night felt ethereal; much of that dreaminess I’d attribute to the extreme exhaustion which we sensed but did not feel at the time. We were up the next morning, bright and chirpy and ready to hit the streets. Only halfway through the day did the exhaustion hit us. The legs felt heavy and weary, the head light. Sitting there in the office of one of the Ecuadorian vendors we are dealing with in connection to the event we are organizing here at Habitat3, it hit home to me when she described how high Quito is and how it isn’t easy to breathe here for first timers! Yes, Quito is in a valley at a height of over 2800 metres; it is the highest capital city in the world and also the one closest to the Equator giving it a unique set of weather conditions! In that moment, when the mind realized that the body needed rest, I thought about what it meant to be so far away from home, to experience a new culture, a new place and gain a fresh set of perspectives!

At the end of the first day here in Quito, I’m feeling very lucky and looking forward to a wonderful Habitat III conference where people from across the world have gathered to think about solutions to urban problems.

A whirlwind #workation in Indonesia: Is travel planning overrated?

One of the interesting contradictions in my life is how little I research my travel before I set off, despite being a researcher by profession. This trip to Indonesia, which Greg and I had planned as a recce visit to explore collaborations and case sites for a new project, was one of those in which I literally landed up at the airport with a lets-see-how-this-goes attitude. Part of this was related to how much we had riding on this trip work-wise, the nature of the visit was exploratory. We didn’t even have a fixed itinerary- except for the knowing when we arrived in and departed from Jakarta, we were literally making this up as we went along!

Far from being apprehensive, I was enormously excited about this trip. It felt like a true adventure, which would entail seeing a bunch of places I had never imagined going to and a couple that I didn’t even know the existence of! There were a few comforts though. One, Greg speaks Bahasa Indonesia and had spent enough time there to act as guide and interpreter (he did a fantastic job of that!). And I had been to Bali and Surabaya earlier this year (yes, this is my 3rd trip in a span of 3 months!), gained an initial understanding of Indonesian people and had a few reliable contacts there.

My expectations about how much I would be able to “see” on this trip were low from a touristic perspective and because I really enjoy the urban wandering as much, if not more than straight-jacketed tourism experiences, this wasn’t much of a concern.

And so I land up seeing four Indonesian cities and some of its countryside in eleven days. First: Jakarta, the sprawling capital and primary city, where the country’s economic and political power concentrates, where young people dream of living and working, where life is buzzing and traffic is painful. Second: Yogyakarya, fondly called Jogja, city of universities and students, a special region where the Sultan still rules, once laid back and pretty, now seeing new wealth. Third: Kupang, out there in eastern Indonesia, capital of the province of Nusa Tengarra Timor (NTT), a sleepy city with hilly outcrops and stunning beaches. Surrounding by hinterland that is arid and poor. Fourth: Semarang, a large industrial port city in Central Java, a city that celebrates its colonial history even as the part-rural counties around it pulsate with the excitement of promised new industrial investments.




We do this by buying tickets hours before we fly out, sometimes even deciding on the go! We use Whatsapp shamelessly to contact NGOs, academics and government officials wherever we go. We end up working long stretched in cafes, using their free Wi-Fi connections to take Skype calls, write emails, consult collaborators and download data, all for the price of a few cups of coffee! We try budget hotels and budget-budget hotels and laugh at the Spartan decor and not-really-there breakfasts. We meet people who go out of the way to help us (some of them were meeting us for the first time!), giving us their time, inviting us into their homes on weekends, finding us contacts and even accompanying us to difficult meetings. Everything works out and we accomplish nearly everything we had hoped we would, with minimal pre-planning, mostly by being able to take reasonably quick decisions, by keeping our wits around us and by listening carefully to what our Indonesian contacts had to say to us. In my opinion, the Indonesian cultural traits of respect for outsiders, gentleness of manner and inordinate helpfulness were our biggest assets on our trip. And since we weren’t overthinking the trip before we started, I think we got a lot of the ‘pleasant surprise’ factor out of it than if we had had everything perfectly lined up!


Watch out for more posts about our experiences in beautiful Indonesia!


Already published: Crumbling legacy, so much potential: In Jakarta’s Kota Tua


Crumbling legacy, so much potential: In Jakarta’s Kota Tua

When we found a slice of our Friday free in Jakarta, we seized the chance to walk around Kota Tua, the old city. Located in the northern part of the city, generally considered the poorer part, Kota Tua had a run down but distinctly historic feel to it.

Most predominant here is the old town of Batavia built by the Dutch East India Company (VOC) in the early 17th century around what is called the Fatahillah Square. Over the next decades, the Dutch expanded the city to swallow the old Hindu settlement of Jayakarta (the origin of the modern city’s name). From what I could see, they followed the planning style of the cities back home in The Netherlands and built a town square, public buildings, canals and tree-lined streets.

Standing in that town square, I was instantly transported to the many historic city centers I have visited in The Netherlands – Haarlem in particular, because I am more familiar with it. The clean rectangular geometry and scale of the town square and the arrangement of buildings around it were very similar, but while inner city areas in Holland have been carefully preserved even as modern activities fill them, erstwhile Batavia felt neglected and even desolate, with a smattering of touristy activities.

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Disappointed, we moved on quickly, briefly glimpsing the interiors of Cafe Batavia that offered a peek into what colonial life might have been and then moving out from the square to explore a bit more of the neighborhood. The Kota Tua area has had its ups and downs through history, especially because of posher developments in the southern areas of the city even within the colonial period. Independent Indonesia was not quick to recognize the historic value of this neighborhood, giving it an official heritage status only in 1972. Revitalization plans did start up in 2004 and have received particular momentum in 2014 under Jokowi’s governorship of Jakarta, when a public-private partnership called ‘Jakarta Old Town Reborn’ (JOTR- Indonesian’s LOVE abbreviations) was set up. A section of Kota Tua was cordoned off for restoration work under this project, but to my eyes the scope of the intervention seemed very small.

Greg and I walked along the neglected and dirty canal (Kali Besar), ruing the deterioration of the buildings on either side of it, structures that must have been rather magnificent at one time. Even a building like Toko Merah that have been through successive iterations of renovation and has a rich history stood locked and empty.

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In the lanes behind the mainstreet, we found small factories and godowns, many hawkers and warungs, a quietly bustling working class neighborhood. Walking further westward, we crossed underneath the railway tracks, sensing we were closer to the sea while we were surrounded by dense kampungs on either side. My radar for colonial architecture led me to a set of relatively well maintained structures that had once been part of the VOC shipyard. The shipyard had been shut in 1809, but recently this small group of buildings seem to have been revitalized, housing a cafe, restaurant and a music school (which had intelligently played with the historic acronym to name itself ‘Voice of Indonesia’!). Stepping inside, I felt a distinct vibe. The building felt like a grand old dame, with polished woodwork and manicured landscaping combined with a sleepy old world charm. We sat down and grabbed a beer, taking it all in and gathering our breath before the stressful dash to the airport in Jakarta’s legendary messed up traffic!

We did make it to our plane in time and we’re in Jogjakarta now. Look out for upcoming posts on Borubudur and the special hipster vibe of Jogja!


1740 map of Batavia (Source: Wikipedia commons)


Street life at midnight #Jakarta

After two days of meetings that started post breakfast and went on all day, we felt we deserved some beer and decent music last night. And so we headed to the Camden Bar next door. Great vibe, cold beer, lovely music and lots of energy but the food was nothing to write home about. 

On the short walk back to the hotel, I see what looks like a street party. Music from a mobile karaoke vendor was the start attraction from me but also the wonderful idea of claiming a bit of public space to talk, eat, laugh, click pics and even sleep! I was so excited but Greg pointed out it’s not unusual in Indonesia cities at all. Me likes! Me likes a lot….

Conversations with co-travellers

A journey from Delhi to Jakarta. What’s so special about that? Two flights, some time to kill at Changi. Ho hum….

I’m not one to think like this before a journey starts. I’m always super excited about travel but some journeys are made special by the people you meet and the conversations you have. This one certainly was. Trying to sum them the best I can….

Conversation #1 : book buying advice from a stranger

When someone stands next to you at WH Smith and proclaims that a particular title is ‘the best book in the world’, it’s hard not to pull his leg right? “The best book in the world?” I challenge him. “For now…” says he, with a twinkle in his eye. He is recommending to me Zorba the Greek by Nikos Kazantzakis and I’m skeptical as hell. It sounds very pseudo self-improvement to me, a genre I detest but he protests vehemently, saying it’s just the opposite. At this point we are joined by a 50-something Indian woman who announces her absolute dismay that the book section of the store has been slashed by half. “Change your name!” she cries, waving her hands about at the shop attendants, who launch into a long babble by way of explanations. As I bill and leave, I hear hip Aunty offer free book advice to the free book advice giver! 

Conversation #2 : dreams never die

Looking for a place to drink my coffee, I end up sharing a table with X. I have no intention of chatting but his gentle face and curious smile draws me in and I venture to ask about where he is from and where he is going. Over the next half hour, I hear a story of innovation, ambition, pride and disappointment that moves me. X is from Sydney, Australia. After winning a food innovation award for odourless garlic in 1990, he embarks on a journey of entrepreneurship, manufacturing and selling cosmetic and food products made from garlic, which he believes has medicinal properties especially in regulating respiratory conditions like asthma among other diseases. From what I gather, the business environment changed and one way or the other he ended up losing his business. Now, in the end years of his working life, he is trying to revive his business and traveling to explore partnerships in manufacturing technology, marketing and distribution. He is thinking of new markets and is fascinated to hear about the popularity of Ayurvedic and natural cosmetics and food in india. X is well read and reasonably well travelled but old world, still hoping to sell his ideas basis a spiral bound documentation of his past success. 

We talk about brain drain and economic policy, jobs and aspirations, the world order. I’m struck by his optimism and how his eyes light up when I ask if he has a sample of his product! He pulls out a small box of cream and I rub some on my arm. It’s anti ageing and full of garlic, all natural and aromatic too. He glows with pride as he sees how pleasantly surprised I am. “You gotta have a dream” he says “to do something for your country”. Clearly it’s not profit but something larger that drives him. And the fact that his beautiful wife and daughter have used his products for years is endorsement enough! His parting shot to me: “it was lovely to meet someone who thinks and cares”! 

Conversation #3 : fearless parenting 

The guy sitting next to me asks to borrow some part of my gigantic copy of The Strait Times and I comply. We start talking. Careers, business, the state of Indian roads, politics…staple conversation for two educated urban Indians meeting on a plane.  We even speak about cultural aspects of doing business in south east Asia and I hear him eagerly, soaking in information that might help the project we are starting in Indonesia. And then I ask him about his family. It’s a different guy talking now. A father with a five year old son and a two month old daughter. And we talk about how it’s fear and paranoia that drives modern parenting. To my utter surprise, he agrees with me about how we need to change that and give our kids the chance to find their own survival mechanisms. We argue as well. He loves the tech solutions- get the kid a phone and data card and google maps will be the solution! I argue for a belief system that trusts people, even strangers. It is a delightful and intelligent conversation that I enjoy. 

I end the long day with another long conversation with my dear friend and project partner Greg. This one meanders all over the place like it does with us but hovers somewhere around the themes we work on nevertheless. We can’t be blamed for losing focus! I go to bed and wake up a few times at night, excited for dawn. And here it is….

Tales from Grandma: Are our children missing out?

At the end of a busy day, it was refreshing to go to my mum’s place for a special dinner yesterday. Ma had made a special effort to put together a simple but tasty version of the Onam Sadya, the traditional feast eaten during the Onam festivities in Malayali homes (and now, as food becomes a popular medium of social connection, everywhere!).

Before we sat down to dinner, Amamma gathered us together before her deities for a few moments. She used her walker and slowly lowered herself onto a chair in front of her puja ensemble. She gave us instructions and we performed the traditional aarti together. And then, to our delight, she asked my kids if they knew the story of Mahabali and Onam. Without waiting for a response, Amamma launched into an enthusiastic narration of the legend of Mahabali. With a liberal use of words from Tamil, peppered with Malayali expressions and strung together by some English and Hindi, her narration was driven more by her expressions and gestures than words. The children listened in rapt attention and so did we. Partly because mythology and legend is ever fascinating, but more because the act of storytelling had transformed Amamma from a placid, pleasant and largely inactive old lady into an animated, beautiful and expressive matriarch.

In those few minutes, I watched my children’s reactions but simultaneously I regressed to being a four year old in Amamma’s care, being fed and nurtured by her warmth, enjoying her wonderful cooking and listening to her unending stories about her life and times. That relationship with her remained through my life but of late has stagnated because she, sadly, has withdrawn into a shell born out of partial deafness and an uprooting from her native environment to Gurgaon where language and cultural context are drastically different.


Amamma and me, Diwali 2015

The image of Amamma telling the story has lingered in my mind all morning and I’m thinking of the immense value that grandparents and great-grandparents bring to children’s lives. I worry about the problems arising out of an increasing focus on English, how grandparents are no longer able to communicate as well to the little ones as they used to in my childhood, when the primary languages at home were of their choice despite the pressures exerted by English-medium schools for us to be fluent in English.

The other thought on my mind is how mythology, while certainly mostly religious in origin, is being increasingly appropriated and intertwined with religion. In Kerala, though, the legend of Mahabali is widely narrated and Onam a statewide celebration across religious communities. Growing up in Lucknow, non-Muslims only missed the namaz bit of Eid, participating fully in the feasting that follows. On Diwali, whether children burst firecrackers was more about the economic status of their parents than their religion. Things seem to have changed today, sadly. Wouldn’t it be cool if we could revive traditions of storytelling and shape them into a collective format so children get to share legends across religious and regional lines, and also maybe share storytelling grandparents?

101 and still counting: Ajjee, you are never far away from me

What is one year in a life lived over a hundred years? Only 365 days or so, one may so. In contrast, a year after the loss of someone so great who lived a century but felt immortal, who looked diminutive but towered over us all with the force of her persona- this year has felt like an eternity.

Ajjee left us a year ago. But she isn’t really gone. She was there when I was born, she was there when I struggled through nights of studying and stress, she was with me when I fought to comprehend the grief of losing my father even as she dealt with her own immeasurable loss. And she is there now.

It isn’t her physical presence, but her immense stoicism that I carry around with me like a lamp with a steady flame. It isn’t her material memory but her vast empathy and broad-mindedness that I try to nurture everyday, and use as a shield against the injustices and pettiness around me. I don’t hear her words when I shut my eyes and think about her, but I feel those bony fingers down my spine telling me that all will be well, that I must have faith and the doors will open.

Our ancestors are all within us, giving us the strength we need to go on, to scale those new heights, to conquer what we set our sights on. And of all of them, Ajjee’s smiling presence is the most comforting of all.

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