All the TV in 2019

Happy 2020!

As I make resolutions for the new year, it seems to me that if I hadn’t seen TV in 2019, I could have done a lot with my life. No, I am serious. I’ve spent anywhere between 25-30% of all waking time watching content (TV, Movies). I really need to fix this and get myself to do more useful / productive things.

But, since I’ve spent all that time anyway, I thought I could at least put it to some use - listing down all the TV i’ve seen, rating them, calling out what I liked (and what I didn’t) and letting this serve some purpose for someone. 

This is only TV as I’ve defined here: Does not include the dozens of stand-up specials I saw (call out to Alex in Wonderland for being spectacular), any episodic TV (E.g. Shark tank, Brooklyn nine nine, John oliver, Hassan Minhaj), explainer series (E.g. Buzzfeed Explained) or documentaries. No movies are included too. Should Irishman rank as TV given its length? Also, this is the TV I saw in 2019. It’s quite possible they could have released earlier too. 

Netflix has been the clear winner on amount of time spent and content consumed watching TV (and as a consequence, overall). Lowest is Prime Video where TV sucks (I can’t bring myself to watch its Indian shows yet). On the other hand Prime Video and Hotstar rank higher in terms of movies I saw this year (purely because of better regional content there). Hotstar purely survived on HBO + Mallu movie collection combo. Given a choice, I wouldn’t mind Netflix acquiring all of them purely because of how good the platform is. Maybe a separate post on all the movies if I have the enthu. 

This post has been a while in the making starting back in december. In between, I had some pesky tasks like moving my life to a new country, joining a new job, etc. Hence the post’s a bit delayed.


The Exceptional

Chernobyl (HBO/Hotstar, Rating: 4.75/5)

I remember watching the first episode when it was telecast on TV in the US without knowing anything about what it was going to be and was gripped. The knowledge of the impending nuclear disaster makes it all the more frightening and intense. One of the best TV I’ve seen. 

Succession Season 1 (HBO/Hotstar, Rating: 4.5/5)

It is becoming evident that I am a sucker for HBO. They know how to make great TV. And what a TV succession is. Does extreme wealth go hand in hand with dysfunctional, psychopathic humans? Succession’s greatest achievement is to make you root for the kind of characters you normally despise on TV and perhaps in real life.  

Succession Season 2 (HBO/Hotstar, Rating: 4.75 / 5)

For much of this season Kendall is a ghost of a man - looking broken and vacant - a dog that obeys his father. And in these moments, succession season 2 became a ticking time bomb. There’s an almost endless supply of depravity and collateral impact of the family on regular joe. Then there’s all the sadness. This season gave the best 10 hours of content I’ve experienced in 2019. Period. 

The cast of HBO’s Succession.

Fleabag Season 1 & 2 (Prime Video, Rating: 4.5 / 5)

Dark, gut-wrenching and funny af. It’s like watching Charlie Chaplin entertain us to laugh so hard and also present us with the dark, downward slide of his personal life at the same time. The fourth wall breaking quips send you squealing with mirth. 

Dark (Season 1) (Netflix, Rating: 4.5/5)

A time travel story peddling mysteries surrounding the intertwining secret-lives of multiple characters. It evokes the same kind of magical, sci-fi amazement that Lost managed to evoke but with the kind of delicious what-if plotting that Blake Crouch does. Be prepared to have your mind twisted quite a bit. Perhaps have a notepad and pen in hand for this one.  

Ozark (Season 1 and 2) (Netflix, Rating: 4.5/5)

In some ways, Ozark is a true (perhaps darker) successor to Breaking Bad. Trades the magical realism of Breaking Bad for some small-town, lost-in-the-woods vibes and at times, unrelenting series of shitstorms that Jason Bateman handles with surprising ruthlessness. 

The Great 

Watchmen Season 1 (HBO/Hotstar, Rating: 4 / 5)

Watchmen combines the gravity of its amazing source material and the serious real-life stuff of white supremacy, police brutality and racism. This show goes across time, space and merges the real with the fantasy so effectively that we feel entirely breathless. It’s twisty final episodes are a delight. 

Dark (Season 2) (Netflix, Rating: 4/5)

After that spectacular season 1, there was no way I was not watching season 2. Season 2 takes you through more Penrose stairs folding onto itself. Dark builds slowly and methodically without trying to over-explain a complex plot but at the same time seems to devolve in the end to plot contrivances that made it feel a little YA. 

The Boys Season 1 (Prime Video, Rating: 4 / 5)

Based on the comic series, the TV series supposedly dials back on the gratuitous violence and explicit content.Ha ha ha ha.Rotten Supes (superhumans) rule the world. There’s corruption, drugs, narcissism and of course superpowers that perhaps drive this behavior. The scariest thing about The Boys is the fact that the Supes are mere puppets, engineered on their fragile egos to serve the purpose of the ultimate evil that’s relatable to us - the corporation.

You (Season 1) (Netflix, Rating: 4/5)

Internal monologues that are smartly written are always fun. What if it’s that of a sociopathic stalker? Delicious. There is a sense of coziness in the den of books and literary references interspersed with the insidiousness of all-revealing modern-day digital lives. Occasionally, the show snarls into shocking moments of derangery. 

Love, Death and Robots: Volume 1 (Netflix, Rating: 4/5)

It’s first unsettling. Is this all animation or real? Is this the future of TV? Then there are brilliant episodes that are so deliciously pulp with the joy of ‘twist ending’. When the Yogurt Took over qualifies for best 6 minutes of TV this year. But, there are some average episodes hidden amongst the ranks. The good thing is that it’s all super-short.  

Street Food (Netflix, Rating: 4/5)

Wow! It’s not about the food, it’s about people. Amazing stories are told through the lens of street food and those vendors across Asia in Bangkok, Singapore, India, Japan, Vietnam and more. The production quality is beautifully cinematic with some great music.   

Street Food (2019)

GLOW (Season 1 & 2) (Netflix, Rating: 4/5)

So much fun! The spandex-wearing, glitter dusted gorgeous ladies of wrestling is based on the 80s show by the same name. GLOW is funny, intelligent and downright silly at the same time. Yet, it grazes an emotional core to keep us vested in the characters. Season 2 continues its terrific run. I quite enjoyed the wrestling set pieces (of which there are more of, in this season) too. 

Marvelous Mrs. Maisel Season 3 (Prime Video, Rating: 4 / 5)

There’s a certain aesthetic to Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, a kind of colorful, elite and sharp tongued boisterousness - like a polished Christmas movie. Funny, of course. Mrs. Maisel is adorable. Yet, in season 3 you wonder if the aesthetic is feeling a little cloying now and we’ve stopped taking everyone seriously see them as mere caricatures. Where it goes in season 4 would be very interesting to see. 

Criminal: UK (Season 1) (Netflix, Rating: 4/5)

Fantastic crime series that focus on the interview in the interrogation room and surrounding drama. Intense, twisting and makes you marvel at the intricacies of interviewing and seeking confessions from suspects. David Tennant in episode 1 is the boss.

The Good

Good Omens (Prime Video, Rating 3.5 / 5)

If only all doomsdays came with such fun and heart. Good Omens does as much justice to its material (which had its fun and heart literally come from the two master practitioners of it) as it possibly can and David Tennent and Michael Sheen perhaps even elevate it between them. Outside of these two, the rest of the stuff is just incidental. 

The world’s most extraordinary homes (Season 2) (Netflix, Rating: 3.5/5)

While N likes watching pure fiction on TV, I love watching stuff like this too. It’s the ultimate escape-reality TV showcasing exotic houses of incredible architecture set in amazing locales. Unlike the typical reality-TV trash, this one, hosted by Carolyn Quentin and Piers Taylor has the kind of newbie fun and also the wry British humor to keep it un-cringey.   

Russian Doll (Season 1) (Netflix, Rating: 3.5/5)

What a fun twist to the time-loop trope! RD is a darkly funny show that takes you on a trip that’s quite bizarre. “The universe is trying to fuck with me, and I refuse to engage!” One downside: It got a little tiresome for me - all the looping - and the ending was a bit meh.

Happy! (Season 1) (Netflix, Rating: 3.5/5)

It’s from the maker of Crank. It’s as insane as you are imagining it. Starting from a silly premise, the show just goes overdrive on a booze addled, violent trip that makes your head spin and laugh with deranged merriment. 

Trapped (Season 1) (Netflix, Rating: 3.5/5)

The cold, desolate beauty of Iceland is the backdrop to this gripping narrative. Binge-worthy series that gives you a taste of icelandic culture (which we’ve probably never seen in popular culture) and leaves you hunting for warm blankets and hot tea. 

Black Earth Rising (Season 1) (Netflix, Rating: 3.5/5)

This was bloody intense! This should ideally have a higher rating but I was constantly shocked and uncomfortable by how ‘real’ the anger of the protagonist was (as it should be if you are a survivor of a genocide). Visually stunning, black earth rising is a must-watch but don’t treat it like just another evening binge. 

Mindhunter (Season 2) (Netflix, Rating: 3.5/5)

David Fincher. Tight, well-made series. I know I am supposed to like and rate it higher but it just feels emotionally cold (as David Fincher’s other stuff usually does). In season 2, Mindhunter continues with its slow, calculated and often intentionally frustrating detective and profiling work as the lead characters continue immersing themselves in the world of serial killers. It’s smart and polished, but at times gets a little too plodding with more-of-the-same vibes. 

Living with Yourself (Season 1) (Netflix, Rating: 3.5/5)

Paul Rudd doing less Paul Ruddy things. The premise of the show veers between silly comedy and science fiction but hints just about at darkness and malice that it keeps you gripped.  

Living With Yourself Season 1, Episode 2 - Made in a Strip Mall

Our Planet (Season 1) (Netflix, Rating: 3.5/5)

David Attenborough. Stunning visuals of our planet and its inhabitants. Our Planet tries to bring the glorious visuals of BBC’s Planet Earth but shocks us more by call out the depressing facts clearly. Must be prescribed watching for the era we live in. 

The Average

Silicon Valley Season 6 (HBO/Hotstar, Rating 3 / 5)

Honestly, didn’t find this as funny at all in the final season. The fun quotient began to drastically drop the moment Erlich Bachman left the show (I am yet to forgive T.J. Miller for this decision). With Gavin Belson being neutered and Dinesh-Gilfoyle setup getting predictable and boring, it only had its satire left to carry the humor and it sticks to its promise doggedly rather than flamboyantly. Call out to Veep on making a show that’s hilariously funny every single season (it has a place in the pedestal of funniest shows ever)

Salt Fat Acid Heat (Season 1) (Netflix, Rating: 3/5)

The kind of comfort TV I love watching once in a while. SFAH combines travel and culture with basic food in a stylish but non-pretentiousway.Feel like you are standing in a bright, sunny Italian kitchen and making warm focaccia bread. 

High Seas (Season 1) (Netflix, Rating: 3/5)

The show promised to be a fun, closed-room mystery. Cruise ship. Mysterious characters. Strange events. It’s mostly stuck to its promise of fun. The plot keeps moving forward a little bit as if the writers perhaps thought episode by episode to come up with stuff.  

Watch the High Seas Season 2 Trailer: An Exciting New Mystery

You (Season 2) (Netflix, Rating: 3/5)

Personally found this a little disappointing. It had nowhere to go after S1 and I kinda saw the final ‘twist’ coming on episode 1. So, there. 

Leila (Season 1) (Netflix, Rating: 3/5)

Loved the world building that was presented fairly subtly but the plot was one dimensional and characters were mostly black or white. Leila could have asked us more complex questions but instead chose to go with predictability.

The Bad

Black Mirror: Bandersnatch (Netflix, Rating: 2/5)

There’s the trademark Black Mirror horror and the excitement of choosing your own story narrative (like those books from childhood) but honestly it felt plodding and conceited. I just couldn’t immerse myself in the story nor care for it. The constant interruptions to select random choices just made it less interesting for me. This form of content has some way to go. 

High Seas (Season 2) (Netflix, Rating: 2.5/5)

Season 2 devolved into something even more campy and silly. By the end there were ghosts appearing for real and weakly explained closure for the open mysteries. The characters kept repeating their role-definitions with no surprises. Skip. 

Sacred Games (Season 2) (Netflix, Rating: 2.5/5)

Honestly, the second half is a huge let down. The whole Guruji arc was too random and snooze-worthy. The characters didn’t really evolve after season 1. And it seems like all Kalki Koechlin ever does are the exact same role. Skip.

Sacred Games season 2 review: Saif Ali Khan, Nawazuddin Siddiqui and Pankaj Tripathi in a still from the Netflix series.

Game of Thrones Season 8 (HBO/Hotstar, Rating 2.5 / 5)

I knew it before it happened. The moment they went away from books, this would devolve into a predictable snoozefest. The final season was ample evidence of that. They tied up all plots with an almost predictable cliche and turned this into some sort of campy fantasy series with lots of action instead of the dark, medieval tale of scheming that it was.  

True Detective Season 3 (HBO/Hotstar)

I think I saw this but have no recollection so can’t rate. Either I gave it up halfway through or it was so unmemorable. Either way, can’t have been that good. 


So, that’s it. What amazes me is the sheer volume of good content we get to watch. Imagine and compare this with just about a decade back. I am not sure if it’s a good thing or bad. What if we had only the fascistic governments and climate change and none of the good TV. All I’m saying is it could be worse.

Tyag

Travel Escapes Part 2: Japan edition

I am still to resolve Japan in my head. When I travel to most countries, I eventually ‘get’ it. I can reasonably predict what would come in the form of their art or architecture or food after a while. But Japan keeps me on my toes - mostly in a pleasant way.

If you’ve read even a little bit about its past (including the violent parts), you are likely to be thrown by how different Japan feels today. This ‘different’ is pleasant and striking in its contrast to living in India where you eat chaos for breakfast and thulp post-apocalypse scramble for lunch. So, modern day Japan feels too good to be true.

The polite and friendly Japanese are often thinking of the larger good in a social context (what?). Cities are built with thoughtfulness. It’s clean. It embraced hi-tech decades back that our future feels like their ancient. Order. Empathy. Words that often exist only in dictionary social communities in India. Not that I’m dumping on India - we have our own thing going.

Japan is also too weird to be true and that is why the trip to Japan should always start at the mecca of weirdness - Tokyo.

This is part 2 on a series on best travel escapes. You can read Part 1 here: Sun, sea and mountains. Once again, treat more as inspiration than as a travel guide.

Tokyo - There’s Earth and there’s Tokyo

Image result for neighborhoods of tokyo

Japan is way more than Tokyo. But, the rest of it can wait (and it does wait more patiently) until you’ve been to Tokyo. Tokyo is the most credible proof that all of our civilization’s is a simulation. More than 100 years back, Tokyo was used as an old English slang for Cocaine. Makes perfect sense. Tokyo isn’t snorted but rather you let it infuse through your senses. It’s a revelation of human weirdness and ingenuity.

On an average more than 6,000 people live in every square kilometer of Tokyo. And yet, the densest place on the planet sprawls endlessly over an estimated 13,000 square kilometers like an epidemic of awesomeness across Honshu, the Japanese mainland. You are tiny in Tokyo; an ant lost in the world’s weirdest mall. 

Getting lost, both literally and metaphorically, is the thing to do in Tokyo. Having arrived from the airport by train, N and I had one simple objective: Get out of the Tokyo station. Yet, a week had passed and we were still wandering endlessly. While I am joking, I am only half-joking. The good thing, though is that Tokyo station has everything for you to live endlessly in its ever expanding maze of levels and malls. [If you’ve calmed down enough to make some sense of where you are in Tokyo station, head out to the T’s Tan Tan for some of the most delicious vegetarian Ramen you can find]

Tokyo’s neighborhoods are mini-cities with their own personalities. Radiate out from the Tokyo Station into Shinjuku and you have infinite skyscrapers or wander into small alleys (like Omoide Yokocho) to find ultra-cozy eateries (50 sq. ft.) huddled together for comfort. Warm and inviting, you’ll find people bunched in bent over steaming blows eating off a wooden bar presided over the lone chef in residence. It’s the kind of dichotomy of big and small that pervades all of Tokyo.

Talking of big, we scrambled in Shibuya pedestrian crossing (more than a million people cross every day) and scrambled again. Shibuya crossing proves that humans can flock too. In Akihabara, I found a type of heaven. Filled with thousands of shops dedicated to gaming, VR parlors, electronic devices of kinds unknown, manga, anime and comic shops and millions of other pop-culture dispensaries, my proposal to spend the entire Tokyo visit there was vetoed by N.  In the warp zone of Takeshita Dori in Harajuku, you can eat monstrous cotton candy, ice-creams with weird flavors and crepes filled with 25 types of awesomeness.

If all this stimulates you too much, not to worry. Tokyo shapeshifts effortlessly into a serene destination in the Meiji shrine. If like me, watching the big barrels of Sake placed in the shrine fills you with the desire to taste sake head over to Meishu center to do some sake tasting from nearly 100 varieties. Continue to dwell serenely in any of the dozens of large parks and gardens in Tokyo (Ueno park, yoyogi park or Shinjuku Gyoen). Walk around the Imperial garden and see the palace. Can one city have such contrasting moods?    

But beyond all this, it’s the little things you see in Tokyo that really grab your attention, like watching 70 year old men line up for a slot and gambling center to open at 8 in the morning or old men in suits riding the train at 10 pm after a long hard day at work (I even saw one take a few sad swigs off a hip-flask). You see people dress up into anime characters, hairs of all shades and head-gear ranging from bunny ears to elven hats. Stop by any of the millions of shops selling food and you see sweets and desserts in an explosion of colors, shapes and flavors that could only be dreamed up in Tokyo. There’s restaurants themed along all sorts of weird things and little Ramen places with vast electronic kiosks. Gacha-gacha slot machines line up along the road and in shops in most places. Throw in a coin to see what quirky toys turn up. The place, in short, is a surreal assault.

For instance, take the Japanese toilet. Russian nuclear power plants have fewer buttons than these. The first time I was mildly terrified. One couldn’t be sure if pressing a button didn’t cause a tsunami in the Pacific. The button-press bidet, however, ranks among the top things that have made me reconsider humanity in positive light. The fact that the rest of the world hasn’t adopted this is the strongest argument against a nation-state model of development.

To add to our surreality, we met a batch-mate couple in Tokyo in a happy accident and decided to partake in the most popular exhibition of Tokyo’s strangeness - The Robot restaurant. For 90 minutes, you are assaulted by crazy robots, strange characters, lights and fireworks that all leads to a transformer-like finale where Robots try to maul each other.

Ah, Tokyo. Arguably, the greatest city in the world.

Hokkaido - Skinny dipping in volcanic water

Sapporo, Otaru, Noboribetsu, Lake Toya, Lake Shikotsu, 

The second time we wanted to see nature in Japan. Hokkaido, the northernmost of the five main islands of Japan, with six national parks and countless hot springs and lakes with breathtaking scenery was an easy choice. 

Things didn’t start on a great note. Given the spread out nature of the island and the sparse public transportation available there, we’d settled on a road trip itinerary. The only complication - Japan did not recognize Indian license and I had to get an international driving permit. So, after a week of enduring the RTO, I secured an IDP. We were all set for 2 weeks of driving in Hokkaido - we’d start with the western and southern parts of the island, and then proceed to the less-inhabited national-parks to the east and then complete the circle over a two week period. 

Except, Japan did not accept the IDP that Indian RTO deemed as the correct format. The car rental in New Chitose airport was apologetic about not being able to help us out. Even N’s bully-mode didn’t work. This was Japan, after all, where rules really were rules. Despite the disappointment, we couldn’t help but admire the fact that the rental guy drove us to our hotel. That was Japan, too. 

In a feverish few hours in the night, we replanned our whole trip loosely but this time only based on public transportation. A few national parks were dropped as they were impossible to do without a car and we rejigged our trip to be more relaxed with time in each of the places we went to, figuring things out in real time. 

Turned out to be a blessing in disguise. For, Hokkaido is an island of exceptional beauty that’s best soaked in slowly. While the largest city in the island is Sapporo, getting out of it is the best way to explore Hokkaido. Hokkaido is volcano country. Most of Japan’s volcanic mountains, caldera lakes and hell valleys are found here.

South of Sapporo is Noboribetsu, a hot spring resort town set amidst lush green hills with a sulphurous smell that reminded me of school chemistry lab. The source of the smell - Jigokudani (hell valley). This ominously named placed looks like a literal hell with white smoke oozing out of a Jupiter-esque landscape. This is the source of mineral-rich, hot springs that the town is famous for.  

Noboribetsu is full of Onsens (hot spring baths). While the sound of dipping in mineral-rich hot bath sounds deliciously fun, the catch is that most of these Onsens were public in nature and are meant to be partaken the same way one came into this world, with not a shred of clothing. This South Indian man and woman were too chicken to do it and instead opted for a private onsen in a smaller room where we dipped in lava-like mineral-bath for an hour. Yet, the fact that we hadn’t really done an Onsen quite authentically nagged at us in our mineral-enriched delirium.

And Hokkaido was full of Onsens everywhere, taunting us. Our next stop was lake Toya, a massive caldera lake with a small resort town next to it. Here, N and I decided to plunge into the world of public nudity (gender segregated - thank god for small mercies!). After just a few terrifying moments of nudity, you realise that no one cares. Within five minutes of stepping into the hot pool, I’d forgotten all about it. Yet, navigating the etiquette of public onsens while being completely naked is a whole another post which I will get to soon.

Hokkaido is also lake country (a lot of them are caldera lakes) and they are all beautiful and serene places. In most places here you could stay in Japanese style rooms and sleep in tatami mats. When hungry, walk out to the nearest delicious Ramen place (Hokkaido is the home of at least 4 types of Ramen noodles). There are numerous places to trek near Lake Toya or Lake Shikotsu that are spectacular landscapes with little to no crowds. Trek up mountain Uzusan near Lake Toya is especially spectacular with little to no crowds and amazing views of the sea and smoking volcanoes. 

Otaru is crowded and more ‘touristy’ (its canal is not that big a deal) and yet in the dusk it’s supremely beautiful. More importantly, here you find a collection of the most insane desserts assembled. Just walk into all of the ‘sweet’ shops (LeTAO is headquartered here) and eat as many of the desserts as you can find (eat the delicious double fromage cheesecake from LeTAO), eat an ice-cream, have some coffee, drink some home made wine and generally have a good time.

The middle of Hokkaido has farm lands, deep blue pond and lavender and melon farms that are beautiful and make for a great day trip (Furano and Biei). Further beyond is national parks and more wilder country which we didn’t get to try. There’s always next time!

P.S: I’ve not talked about Kyoto here, which is another place N and I visited and enjoyed immensely. I wanted to focus on a few and in the process left out Kyoto. It’s a bit of a travesty, honestly. In Kyoto, I was blown away by the zen gardens and still rank the walk in Philosopher’s path among the most verdantly serene experiences. Not to mention hopping over its little canals and walking in it’s traditional streets and geisha-watching. If you are heading to the Japanese mainland, don’t miss Kyoto!

There’s so much to see,

Tyag

Travel Escapes Part 1: Sun, Sea and Mountains

A few years back, sitting on some train in some part of the world, I was watching beautiful countryside zip past with AR Rehman classics playing in my ears. N sat near me reading a book. Our lone suitcase was stashed away in the luggage rack. I was so gleefully happy in that moment and being possessed with the time of a man gazing out of the train window, I wondered why I was so happy right then. It was just a train ride. Sure, the scenery was beautiful but it seemed insufficient as the source of so much mirth. That’s when I had an epiphany on why Travel gave me such a high. 

People wander for various reasons. Some do it for learning. Some for experiences. Others to meet new people. There are also those who travel because, well, FOMO. I’ve done a bit of all of the above but my primary motivation has always been the escape. Like books, movies and day dreams filled with superpowers and magic, travel, to me, is a fantasy escape on steroids. 

Nothing makes me happier than living off a bag, un-tethered to the mundanity of daily responsibilities, and encountering interesting places, people and experiences. My mental model for the world was largely shaped by travel. Escape, counter-intuitively, served as a lesson to learn about who I am and why I am.

All escapes need a suspension of disbelief. And so does travel. You need to forget the EMI waiting for you back home or the piling unread mails in your inbox and give in to the trance. Cord-cutting rituals help. For me and N, it begins with immigration and is fully realized when the wheels of the plane lift off. We step out of our existential reality.

This newsletter is part 1 of a series on such escapes, the best ones in my experience. There’ll be more parts. The list isn’t comprehensive or rank ordered. It’s not a travel guide nor suggesting that one MUST see these places. The idea is to entertain and inspire if you like reading about places and mulling your next trip. Consider it inspiration for 2020. And ask for an itinerary if you’re feeling too lazy to create one yourself.  

Part 1 is sun, sea and mountains - French and Italian Riviera, Lofoten Islands and Tasmania.

Fair warning - this is longish and self-indulgent.

Best escapes - Part 1

French / Italian Riviera - Maybe, money can buy happiness

France: Monaco, Nice, Villefranche-sur-mer, Eze, Antibes, Roquebrune-cap-martin, and any little place on the coast

Italy: The villages of Cinque Terre - Monterroso, Vernazza, Corniglia, Manarola and Riomaggiore

I have a wild bucket list fantasy: live in a small cottage perched on a crag by the azure sea in Italian or French riviera and do nothing much but read, write, drink coffee, some wine and listen to music. In more heady days, I’d add a small Yacht to this mix and imagine floating in calm waters, sipping on a cocktail.  It’s become a running joke in the household. Whenever I bring up the topic of quitting my job to write, N makes it a point to ask ‘how will you buy the cottage in French riviera then?’. 

I just like being there, doing nothing. I can spend days estimating the price (and wildly getting it wrong) of yachts parked in the Monaco bay. There’s something to wearing chappals, cheap shorts and t-shirt, and staring at the multi-million dollar Ferraris and Lambs driving up to the Casino. But Monaco is not why I love the Riviera. 

The copper-sulphate blue of the sea here, billowing white clouds in an equally blue sky, the little villages perched on the cliffs overlooking it all, a train system that hugs the coast all the way across the two countries (France and Italy) and the pervasive, mild racism of old restaurant owners who have no choice but to serve the hairy brown dude from India all add up to making me an extremely happy person.

We keep going back to it. The very first time was a slam-dunk. On recommendation of a friend, we added Cinque Terre, a cluster of five villages perched on the mountainside overlooking the sea on the Italian riviera, to our honeymoon trip nearly a decade back. When the train stopped at a little station that was perched near the ocean, I was sold. The villages look like a dream - pastel colored cluster of toy houses, improbably built on mountains, hanging over the sea. The trek from Monterroso to Riomaggiore (around 16 kms), along the mountain, overlooking the sea and occasionally through vineyards and squares is the most scenic walk you could take.  

On the French side, if Monaco is a crass portrait on luxury and Nice offers a nicer, more earthy bustle, it’s the little villages that dot all of the French riviera that truly stun. Board a train and get down at any of them and spend the day climbing up, walking around the cobble stone paths, staring at the sea and eating good food. You’ll find little lanes that have rendered out of fairy tales and gardens which stun in their beauty and location overlooking the never ending ocean. 

Things to do: Stare at super cars in Monaco. Walk the unending Promenade des Anglais in Nice, especially as dusk settles in, preferably holding hands with your partner (or anyone of choice for that matter). Stroll in little villages like Eze or Villefranche with dramatic sea views and cute little alleys. Hike down to and along the coast (including Nietzsche’s path) and in light headed moments seek answers to life. Eat Gelato, Pizza, Pasta, cheesy things, have a coffee and make a mess with fresh croissants and desserts. Travel along the coastal train watching the sea. Visit Jardins and manicured little squares. 

Best way to travel: You can travel up and down the coast as day trips. For Cinque Terre, you could be based in Florence or Pisa and make a day trip or two to cover all villages. Stay in the villages is expensive, difficult to find and even overrated in my opinion. For the French Riviera, there are many places one could stay including Monaco and Nice and make multiple day trips to all the places along the coast. 

Lofoten Islands - Norse Gods live here

Svolvaer, Kabelvag, Trollfjord, A, Henningvaer

There are places that you need to fall in love with and then there are places that are instant infatuation. They come in strong, take your breath and a little piece of your heart in the process. 

We visited Lofoten in the summer - not quite unending days but quite close. We landed at 10.30 PM and have a two hour drive from the airport to where we stay. Its raining mildly and already looking dark leading my anxiety rising up a few notches about the drive coming up. Rentals done, we head out of the airport and into something quite otherworldly. 

The weather is cloudy with a light drizzle in the air. The filtered storm light makes everything look like a painting. I suspect that our flight went into a wormhole and landed us in an alternate world. Not five minutes from the airport and the road’s already winding through steep crags and fjords. Occasionally there’s ocean, and a massive bridge over it. Everything’s coming up at the speed of Crazy Mohan jokes in a Kamal movie - before you fully take in one scene, it’s gone and there’s something better, more dramatic. 

Then we crest a little hill and a new fantasy-scape awaits us. Two imposing mountain-lets come into view, their tops lost in wintery mists. To the left is the ocean, the road winds around these crags. And then through a gap in the mountains, with the parting of the rain clouds, sun light beams down - like manna from the heavens. Lofoten had us then. We were certain we were trespassing into the God’s country - how else do you explain no other car on the roads to nowhere. 

Have you ever ordered a massive portion of your favorite dessert, and then gorged on three-fourths of it while orgasming mildly and then suddenly sat back too full and realized that it feels cloying now. Lofoten is that level of gorgeousness. By the third day we were like, “that’s just another dramatic Fjord with an imposing mountain.” 

We did a ‘moderate’ hike up Fesvagtinden - an imposing crag near the village of Henningsvaer - found a lake on top, saw beautiful blue seas, the village of Henningsvaer as a tiny cluster. On the climb down, found that the word ‘moderate’ has been abused. With a prayer on our lips and N being caught by me jumping across rocks, we somehow reached level ground. Standing on top of majestic, tall bridges we could spy little villages and Rorbuers perched among the wilderness. We drove to a western edge of the island to catch the setting sun at midnight. (If you went in a different season you could catch beautiful, unadulterated northern lights). We drove all the way A on its southern end, punctured our car tyres and had two old men help us change them. 

Things to do: Visit the fishing villages. Live in a Rorbuer and wake up to otherwordly views. Hike up the mountains. Chill by a Fjord. Eat and drink. Drive up and down the long coast taking in endless dramatic scenery. 

Best way to travel: Fly into Harstad-Narvik airport Lofoten and rent a car. The island itself is very long but a vast majority of dramatic sights lie between Harstad-Narvik and A, which is its southernmost tip. This drive in itself is nearly 300 kms and would take you 4.5 hours if you never stopped. This is impossible in Lofoten. You’d be stopping every 10 minutes for a new, grand vista. The best way to explore is over several days by choosing a different accomodation every couple of days to shift base and explore.  Plan to be there for at least a week. 

Tasmania, Australia - Unsupervised little heaven

Hobart, Launceston, Tasmanian Peninsula, Freycinet national park, Tamar Valley

Did you know that Australia had five different PMs in five years? It’s very unlikely that you did know that because Australia is the forgotten continent that we in India think about only when David Warner scores a big one. Now then, imagine being Tasmania. The little, thong-shaped island, floats unsupervised in the shadow of continental Australia. It’s like being the innocuous younger sibling of a forgotten cousin. 

Tasmania, by virtue of being aloof from continental Australia (and as a consequence, the rest of the world) is more Tasmania than anything else. It feels wilder, the communities more local and the seas prettier. The Tasmanians I’ve encountered have often been friendly and pleasant. The moment you land in Hobart (if you plan to land there), you are now in a whole new world. 

Surrounded by blue seas and spectacular landscapes, Tasmania is the perfect road trip destination. It’s the clandestine offspring of Australia and New Zealand. On the one hand you’ll find signs of the Tasmanian Devil (a little carnivorous, dog-sized marsupial that’s battling a unique cancer that’s spreading across its population) and on the other you’ll see friendly Wombats and peaceful Sheep across rolling hills. 

The car is your friend in Tasmania. Rent it and drive around the large island, exploring its national parks, the capes, hiking paths and quaint little towns that you may encounter. Two weeks would still not be sufficient to cover the entire island, especially if you plan to take up any of the wildscape’s seductive suggestions to hike, swim, climb, surf, kayak, whale watch, etc.  

We went once to Tasmania, fell in love wildly, and went again. Yet, we’ve reliably covered just the eastern half of the Island which is a good place to start if you need any signs of human habitation. 

The largest city of Tasmania, Hobart, is still a cute little town that lies in the shadow of Mount Wellington. In the unshackled brightness of Australian summer (the sun seems brighter there, and the seas bluer), its waterfront glows and bustles. Being of the disposition to dream of yachts, I spent the days gazing away at the boats, drinking beer and strolling around. Kids, less than 8 years old, raced in little boats while the crowd cheered on. That’s fucking Australia.  

The views of Hobart from Mt. Wellington are gorgeous and the wind, fucking, freezing. MONA’s a trip (quite literally). I am a philistine who’d rather hike or drink than go to a museum, but MONA is...something. A pleasant ferry ride later, you’ll see most quirk per square feet than anywhere else.  

In the North East there’s the town of Launceston, quainter and smaller than Hobart with an expansive waterfront and hides away a spectacular Cataract Gorge just minutes from town. This was the base for our second trip to Tassie (as the locals call it). On the eve of New Year 2019, we witnessed beautiful fireworks here. 

But Tassie presents is most spectacular self when you start driving out of the cities. Start driving from Hobart down the Tasmanian peninsula to see alien landscapes like Tessellated plains and hills that fold into themselves. Eventually, you’ll reach Cape Raoul where you can hike serenely (our only company was a Wombat and Hedgehog) to stand on top of Tasman sea.  

Similarly, drive out of Launceston and you hit the beautiful Freycinet National park and the wineglass bay. In an unforgettable trek, we went from one bay to another, a 15 km moderate hike which turned dangerous in the 50 degree Australian summer sun. Freycinet, though, hides away a million trails with astounding views. 

Drive in another direction from Launceston for the wine route in Tamar valley. With scenic views of rolling vineyards, the glistening Tamar river and many hundreds of wineries to stop and taste, it’s the pleasure day to balance the physical exhaustion of a trek. After polishing off lots of wine and cheese, we bought more wine which was promptly polished off in the room later. 

Things to do: Wander around the historical Salamanca markets by the waterfront in Hobart. See strange art at MONA. Drive down the Tasmanian peninsula and see alien-scapes. Trek up quiet peaks and watch the ocean like you’re the last people left in the world. Pet a Hedgehog (nope). Encounter Wallabies in the wild. Drink lots of wine in Tamar valley. And hike the beautiful Cataract Gorge. Stop in the middle of an empty and never-ending road and soak in the beautiful landscapes. Take a selfie with a sheep. Keep driving. 

Best way to travel: Get into a major Australian city (Sydney, Melbourne, etc.) and take a flight out to either Launceston or Hobart depending on where you want to start the trip. Rent a car and just drive. 

Phew, more to come

Tyag

Ejecting from the Death Star

I was the final clearance item in The Great Indian Diwali sale. I was Cooper in Interstellar who found a Tesseract in the black hole to emerge from. I was the man who parked the car on top of the jammed Silk Board flyover and decided to walk away.

Just saying that I left Amazon end of October. 

When I told my manager I was leaving Amazon, he said “oh”. I think his only surprise was in the fact that I was leaving Amazon as opposed to just leaving the team I was part of to move onto another one in the company. My gathering discontentment had been so obvious that others in the team went, “We were expecting this.”  

So, why did I leave? I could talk about how Amazon felt like being strapped to a mildly toxic drip. Or about how people have weaponized ‘leadership principles’ or how increasingly, the customer is a pawn for internal games, but I am not going to (at least for now). It came down to the following: a) It was just too large and mammoth now that the only way to grow was to stick to the program (do your time, suck up and let the stars align), b) It was increasingly not for me and c) I was bored.

Not learning any sense 🍨

My choices in life has been a source of great bewilderment for my parents, especially my dad. So this time: “You’re leaving Amazon? Again?” I felt bad about how incredulous he sounded. “I thought you learned some sense from the last time you quit?” He doesn’t mince words and it is quite apparent that I hadn’t learnt any sense. 

Since 2010, our parents have been hoping for some version of me and N being ‘settled’. This involved being in one place for the rest of our lives, sticking to a job and doing other required ‘settling’ things like having a kid. Since shuttling between US and India for Deloitte a decade back, N and I have had a series of accidental and random career moves that’s kept our family on their toes.  

In their books, we were currently getting close to being settled (Both working for the same big brand corporate master and live close enough to walk to work). It was the recipe for rooting down and building a life for the next several decades. “Why would you go and disrupt it once again?” asked my dad. Maybe he has a point. 

My new phone purchase cycle (around 2.x years) and new experience change cycle is syncing up. My resume looks like the Falooda at Sreeraj Lassi Bar - not for everyone but definitely more interesting than a great Lassi. At some point the excitement of putting myself in a new, uncomfortable situation and trying to ‘crack’ it will wear off and I might just settle in to an ‘ideal day’ routine I’ve defined for myself. 


My ideal day doesn’t pay ✍

My ideal day begins in a location that’s either up in the mountains or by the coast. The weather is moderate and the only debates I have is whether I should jog or sleep-in every morning. If I do decide to jog, I do so to great views (of said mountains or shore line) and then maybe get a coffee. The rest of the day would involve reading, writing, meeting a few select, interesting people, watching a movie, and then just when it gets a little too comfortable, work on a project that’s high intensity for short term and involves enough of the left or right brain to give myself that high. E.g. do some consulting that involves building a business or a product (or) work with some people to write movie scripts (one can dream). Throw in some frequent travel at my discretion.

I’d like to own my own time, please. 

As you may have noticed, my quest is not so much to do something but to be able to do nothing much as soon as possible. You may have also noticed that that this ideal day really doesn’t pay all that much. So, before I settle into this, there are things that are best sponsored by an ongoing paycheck: 1) Continue traveling to more parts of the world, 2) Do more of my experience bucket list (including living in another country) and 3) Have the joy (and learning) from working across several interesting problems. I think I’ve about a decade of intense work left - a decade too many in my opinion. I am clear of one thing though. I’ve had the most value added to myself as a person whenever I’ve transitioned into something new.

Amazon has a 4 year vesting cycle for stocks. The first time I left in 2.3 years. Now in two. This meant that both times I’ve left behind a sizable chunk of unvested stocks. Could I have stayed on for 4 years, have those stocks vest and been more wealthy? Sure. Would that have been any fun? No. Am I an idiot? Maybe.


Bye bye, Bangalore 🏙

So, where next? I hear the sing-song Savadikaa floating in the air and a muggy metropolis beckoning. From Bangalore to Bangkok. One jammed-up city to another. 

I’ll miss Bangalore. Despite discovering that I have new expletives to offer the world every time I go on its roads, I’ve come to love the city as a home. Its weather is a cool and pleasant middle-finger to all the heftier metros in the country. Bangalore should be a summer destination for parched Europeans. At heart, though, Bangalore is a small-town kid pretending to have a good time at a SoBo party. Stray away from any of the five large roads and you’d end up in little gullies that are just wide enough for a car. Cow willing, of course. But, that’s also what makes this place feel homely. 

The gardens and lakes in the city (whatever’s left of it) are its ultimate treasure only narrowly beating the hundreds of its tiffin places. An ideal morning involves completely nullifying the health benefits of a pleasant jog by a lake with an ultimate carb fest at one of these breakfast places. The biggest trick kara bath pulled is to slide into your throat and into your gut before you could as much as close your jaws.   

Every once in a while, you may be sick of eating the watery, sweet and insipid sambar in Bangalore. Even here, Bangalore’s got your back. You can drive down to Chennai in just a few hours, have some great Sambar and come back. That’s just the ideal amount of time to be spending in Chennai, anyway.  You could also drive just a few hours and end up in amazing places like Coorg that almost makes you forget the horrors of Hosur Road. 

More importantly, I’ve pretty much spent a majority of this last decade here - about 10 years in total and second highest time spent in any city (apart from Coimbatore where I grew up) and this certainly feels like a place I’ve made my home. It gets me and I get it.    

But, what’s home if you didn’t leave it to come back to later. I’m kicked about Bangkok, mostly because it would be a whole new city and culture to get used to. Also, I am looking forward to all the travel we could do in South-east Asia.

I will talk more on the transition to Bangkok in the coming editions. In the meantime, here’s a fun fact to stew on:

Do you know that Bangkok’s local name is Krung Thep. But also that this itself is a shortened version of the longest city name in the world: Krungthepmahanakhon Amonrattanakosin Mahinthara Yutthaya Mahadilok Phop Noppharat Ratchathani Burirom Udom Ratchaniwet Mahasathan Amonphiman Awatansathit Sakkathattiya Witsanukamprasit.

This roughly translates to something like “The city of angels, the great city of immortals, the magnificent city of the nine gems, the seat of the king, the city of royal palaces, home of gods incarnated, erected by Vishvakarman* at Indra* behest.” (Source: https://chaohostel.com/fun-fact-week-bangkok-longest-city-name-world/)

Erected by Vishvakarma. Hehehe.

Life is fun,

Tyag

Adulting part deux

A teenager comes to stay with us

The true test of being an adult is the ability to take care of another life. Nitya and I have tried. There was that tomato plant which sprouted four tiny tomatoes over a period of six months before giving up the ghost. Then there was the mystery of the overnight shriveling of a Tulasi plant. Notwithstanding such failures, we kept trying and were rewarded with a few successes including a now lush Tulasi, a Spinach potter that fed us for many, many months before we decided that its life was done, and a couple of rugged, desert gals like Karpuravalli and Aloe Vera. 

This smattering of success had made us believe that we’d graduated from completely inept adults to taking care of low-maintenance, static life forms that are built to survive the harshest places on earth. We were not going to have roses blooming in our balcony garden anytime soon, but succulents and rhododendrons are good to go. We’ll water it, prune it and occasionally pretend like we are gardening by moving a bunch of soil around.

Next step: A more difficult plant, perhaps a flower? But life was having none of the learning curve bullshit. Just as our Tulasi crossed its well cared for sunk in, we had a new project to step up to. Nitya’s niece, a teenager, was going to stay with us for a week. 

‘A’ visits

Let’s call her A for the purposes of anonymity. When the plan that A could stay with us for a week was floated by her parents a month before it actually happened, they were tentative about it. But never ones to let our lack of capability diminish our enthusiasm, we welcomed the opportunity with open arms. Tickets were booked.

True to form, we looked forward to all the fun we’d have. As a kid, I always had the best time on holidays staying at someone else’s house. The relatives usually went out of their way to do fun, new things and parents were more lenient. 

But, this was 2019 and a long way from the 90s I grew up in. To say I was unsure of what a teenager in 2019 considered fun was putting it mildly. I was racked with so much self-doubt that I even solicited feedback from twitter. Eventually, I decided to stick to what we considered fun which included a whole of lot of eating out, going to bookstores, watching movies and more eating out.

Meanwhile, in parent land the worries were piling up. I could imagine an internal mind voice saying ‘what have we consented to?’.  Having a reputation of living like a couple of college kids, Nitya and I hadn’t earned their confidence to take care of a tortoise, much less their kid. As the date of A’s arrival approached, hundreds of doubtful questions were raised checking if we indeed were Ok hosting her and that we could always change our minds even at the last minute (subtext: Are you guys really sure you understand the responsibilities and are ready to take it up?). 

I presume a private investigator was hired to observe us for a week so that when the time came the parents would be confident that we can get through the phase without collapsing all of the known universe. After the inquisition, the department of parenting finally greenlighted project ‘A stays with Nityagus’. 

A manual with a strict regimen of “dos and don’ts” was handed over like A was a visiting ensign on deputation. This included things like not more than one ice cream per day allowed (rule was broken at some point),  A to update us every 30 minutes if she is meeting her friends outside our supervision, rules on communication, etc.

Entertainers or entertainees

A is 13, smart and surprisingly mature. She likes reading. Loves Harry Potter and Percy Jackson. And is a Kumbakarnan for murder mysteries and detective procedurals. Her appetite for Pasta too belies her stick-thin frame (which is a house for infinite energy). She likes a whole bunch of pop music stars whose names I didn’t know and cannot recall. She participates in debate competitions and dreams of starting a band. Ideal career involves living in a new place every two years. She writes short stories and little poems. 

As it turned out, all the worrying was for naught as A knew to take care of herself. She also knew how to have fun. She already had friends in the apartment where we stayed and on day 2 had a meetup planned. And as a friend quipped on Twitter, “if you have wifi, you don’t need to worry about entertaining her.”

Much fun was had in the pretext of entertaining her. We dragged her off to Churchstreet to shop for books at Blossoms and food at Social. As it turned out, it was Gandhi Jayanti and Social was closed. After roaming the street up and down looking for a place to eat, we ended up at Tatacha. Many books were bought. An animated movie was watched. Benne Dosa was had at CTR. Through the course of the week, a lot of icecreams were consumed. In downtime, A prepped her debating and did some school work. And we sat and watched a million police / murder procedural on Netflix and Prime video.

In short, we probably got entertained by A rather than the other way around.

Lessons from hosting A

Energy🐱‍🏍: I suppose parents would concur with this but the energy of a kids could power a mini-country. You don’t realize how much your energy has dropped as an adult until you see a high energy kid like A who is an akshayapatharam of enthusiasm. As you catch-up with that level of need for mental and physical stimulation, you feel somehow alive and exhausted at the same time.  

The Internet has changed the game🕸: And the Berlin wall has collapsed. Sure, it’s obvious, but really, the Internet has elevated kids into a level I can barely comprehend. Growing up, my interests revolved around 4 different TV programs, things within a radius of 10 kms in Coimbatore, Cricket and a small lending library. Every once in a year, we’d travel on Dad’s LTC to other parts of the country and see new cultures / places.   

A, on the other hand, is a child of the connected age. She is connected to people across cities in real time, explores ideas at the mere tap of her finger, has streaming services with infinite content at her disposal. As a consequence, she is mature enough to have conversations across a range of topics from climate change to capitalism. We could comfortably ‘chat’ with her as opposed to talking ‘kid’.  

Everyone should learn debating🥊: A is into debating. I’d never really done it in life and found it fascinating. Being asked to take a side on a topic (even if you disagree with) is a fantastic starting point to develop critical thinking. I feel like in this current “outrage as a form of communication” era, debating might be a necessity skill for all kids growing up.  

There’s a whole new universe📡: The world is big. And you are mostly clueless about what’s happening in it. Sure, you may be watching the news and know who got funded to run a marketplace for dogs, but you realize how clueless you are about pop-culture and content, games, music and books you were not really paying attention to, dance moves that look like an octopus flailing on land and celebrity references that go over your head. There is a larger world beyond your cozy circle of importance and it’s strange and new. A staying just briefly opened up so much of this world that I wonder what else is going on.

Pulling an “old uncle”👴: A consequence of the previous point. Nothing gives you the opportunity to pull out the old uncle that lives inside all of us like living with a teenager. When A tries to desperately get me to like her favorite pop bands and I shake my head muttering “music these days”. I feel old! 

What you say / How you behave👓: When you have a young teenager living with you, all your actions suddenly come to the limelight. The things you do on a daily basis (and subconciously) are all under your own scanner being reflected upon. Should I be saying this or doing that? You suddenly feel like you shouldn’t be sitting on a couch and binge watch TV for several hours because you may be setting an example for the kid. 

They say behave like your mother is watching you. I’d say, behave like an impressionable teenager is watching you.  

In any case, we managed to return A unscathed back to her parents. But even as we were basking in the glory of our success, a succulent that had been gifted a few months back shriveled up and died😒. Life has a way of putting you back in your place.

Could be worse though,

Tyag 

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