Five questions with Farley.

From visiting a Witch doctor in Bolivia to hiking the Volcanoes of Catalonia, food and travel writer David Farley has travelled far and wide and written really interesting pieces about his trips. His most irreverent achievement, however, remains his quest to find the holy foreskin that went missing in the Italian town of Calcata. He wrote a book about it called An Irreverent Curiosity: In Search of the Church’s Strangest Relic in Italy’s Oddest Town.

David Farley, Pic: Facebook profile
David Farley, Pic: Facebook profile

Though, even for Farley, it’s probably hard to outdo the wackiness of his holy foreskin investigation chronicles, he is nothing if not witty and engaging in real life. During my stay in Berlin recently, I got to meet him and hang out with over beers in the city’s hipster bars. He sweetly agreed to answer a few questions about why he moved to Berlin and what it is to be a travel writer today. Here they are.

You recently quit your teaching position, sub-leased your apartment in NewYork and moved to Berlin. How often do you challenge yourself like that?

Whenever I’m feeling complacent and stagnant I start to get very restless – not just a restlessness to travel or take a trip but to actually shake up my life and change my environment. I did that when I moved to Prague in the 1990s. I did it when I moved to Rome in the last decade. And now, Berlin. The fact is, though, that I had decided I wanted to move to Berlin in Spring 2014 when I was here on a magazine assignment. After that decision, I hemmed and hawed about it for a while – I think, in a Buddhist sense, I had to work out my attachment to New York and everything associated with it – but eventually I did it.

Berlin
Berlin

How did you start your travel writing career?

I was studying for my master’s degree in history in San Francisco and my girlfriend was a writer. I had asked her to proofread one my long (and probably boring) research papers. After, she said, “I don’t mean this in a bad way, but I was surprised how good the writing is.” She encouraged me to start writing and the first things that I felt compelled to write were about unusual incidents and circumstances that we end up in while traveling. Eventualy those stories began getting published in travel publications. By default, I became a travel writer.

My advice to people who want to be a travel writer is to not quit your day job.

How did the irreverent subject in one of your earlier pieces, ‘A sort of Happy Ending‘ in which your brother takes you to a Mexican strip club to make you a man, come about?

Simply this: an editor for a travel publication emailed to say they’d give me a large sum of money to write something and I could write whatever I wanted. The night before I was just telling a friend about that crazy story and so I decided to write about that.

Calcata, Italy - Flickr, Maurizio Bonanni
Calacata, Italy where Farley’s first book is located. Pic: Maurizio Bonanni, Flickr

How has travel changed you on a personal level? How has it affected your writing?

It has left an indelible mark on me and changed me in ways that I cannot fathom or calculate. It’s changed my life in every big and small way. It is hard to say how it has affected my writing because traveling and my writing are so intertwined. They have a symbiotic relationship.

Travel has changed my life in every big and small way.

How did you go about looking for Jesus’s lost foreskin relic for your first book? Give us a little backstory on how your first book shaped up?

I had been living in Rome and went on a day trip to this small medieval hill town called Calcata. There, someone told me that the village church housed, until recently, the Holy Foreskin, the only piece of flesh Christ could have left on earth. You don’t often hear the words “holy” and “foreskin” in succession to each other, so it was quite hard to forget about that. Because of my interest in history, I became fascinated with this relic, which used to be a superstar relic on the pilgrimage circuit: popes granted indulgences to those who came to venerate it. Pilgrims flocked to it. And it went missing in the 1980s under mysterious circumstances. I ended up writing an article about all this for Slate.com that went viral. From that, I got a book deal.

Irreverent Curiosity

Weigh in on the travel writing market of today. How are the opportunities for someone new to break into publications and become a travel writer?

The paying travel writing market has definitely shrunk since I first got into this about 15 years ago. There are far fewer paying publications. My advice to people who want to be a travel writer is to not quit your day job. Or quit your day job and dive into the writing life but don’t cannonball into the genre of travel writing. Instead, write about other things and make “travel” just one of the things you write about.

If you’d like to know a little more about Farley, he has a really cool self-interview published on his homepage, read it here.

Click here to read his award winning piece on Varanasi for Afar magazine.

Seven somewhat offbeat things to do in and around Interlaken, Switzerland

If there is a Bollywood pilgrimage an Indian wishes to do, Interlaken would figure prominently on the list. And many Indian tourists seem to be doing just that. With snow capped mountains, jade green rivers and lush greenery, Interlaken and the region around have been  fertile playground for Indian movies – Bollywood started the trend and the regional movies have caught on soon enough.

With fountains sporting sculptures of marmuts, charming store fronts, church spires and petunias in different colors on its streets, Interlaken couldn’t get any prettier if it wished. In the odd scenario of you being overwhelmed by this cuteness, here are 7 other things you could do in Interlaken.

PS: I’d say, visit Jungfrau, but it’s probably already on your list anyway. 🙂

1) Visit Lauterbrunnen

The Trummelbach falls in Lauterbrunnen valley alone is responsible for draining the mighty glacier defiles of three mountains – Eiger, Monch and Jungfrau. As a result, in summer, the glacier water melts and comes down with huge force in 10 cascades inside the mountain. It is rendered accessible by a tunnel lift and also illuminated for the sake of viewing the mighty force in which water drops down. Also the rolling meadows of the Lauterbrunnen valley is a sight to withhold.

lauter brunnen2
The Glacier river at Lauterbrunnen
Ariel view of the Lauterbrunnen valley
Aerial view of the Lauterbrunnen valley

Note: Lauterbrunnen is 20 minutes from Interlaken on the SwissRail system.

2) Take a river cruise on Thun / Brienze

The lake and castle cruise on the panoramic Thun River in west-central Switzerland spans the distance from Interlaken to the town of Thun in about four hours, providing glimpses of Swiss riverside life and its beautiful castles. Situated west of Interlaken, Lake Thun is picture postcard material. Crested with mountain peaks capped with eternal snows of Brenese Alps, its turquoise blue waters are fed by the glaciers and hence always cold. A cruise on Lake Thun takes one past picturesque fishing villages and castles steeped in history.

thunc ruise
Cruise on river Thun
thun cruise
Castles like this pass by as you cruise Thun

Note: You can use the Swiss rail pass on scheduled cruises. The day pass for the Lakes of Thun and Brienz cruises is available for a special price on Mondays for CHF 39 (INR 2500) for 2nd class tickets.

3) Explore the old town of Thun

If you take the sunset cruise on a summer day, the cruise boat arrives in Thun as the sun dips down leaving you with options to explore the town of Thun when there is still light. River Aare splits Thun into two and there are surfers in its unruly waters tethered to the wooden bridge across the river, practicing surfing in the waves. Set about walking the tiny alleyways of the city that has 45000 inhabitants and its old town, said to be formed in 12th century when Berchtold V of Zähringen built the Thun Castle.

the thun castle
Thun Castle
IMG_0922
Drehorgel, shown here, is an ancient musical instrument
A river surfer - thun
A river surfer – thun

4) Hike to the BachalpSee

Bachalpsee is at an elevation of 2,265 m can be reached from the First gondola station. Legend has it that Yash Chopra (who made around ten movies in the country, spurring an onset of Indian tourist arrivals in Switzerland) planned a Katrina – SRK number for his last movie Jab Tak Hai Jaan at the Bachalpsee. He passed away before the completion of the movie and the Bachalpsee shoot never did happen.

Views while hiking Bachalpsee
Views while hiking Bachalpsee
Views of Bachalpsee
Views of Bachalpsee
That's yours truly hiking Bachalpsee
That’s yours truly hiking Bachalpsee

Note: The hike can be done on your own. From Grindelwald station, take the gondola to First station and hike up to the lake.

5) Take an e-bike tour

If walking around Interlaken tires you out, do sign up for an e-bike tour. It covers a lot of ground and you can cycle on the gorgeous tree canopied streets and by the beautiful waterways of the town. You could stop at the town center, taste water from its fountain, take pictures wherever you feel like. It is of course, beneficial if you have a guide, who will explain you things and take you around.

Cycling in Interlaken
Cycling in Interlaken
That's me cycling in Interlaken
That’s me cycling in Interlaken

Note: Try the Flying Wheels (www.flyingwheels.ch) service in Interlaken town that also houses a quaint little shop that sells local produce (cheese, herbs and even organic cosmetics).

6) Try tandem paragliding

Two decades ago, Interlaken used to be known as the backpacking destination. Americans that love outdoors used to come in hordes. And then, quite suddenly, it became popular with Japanese. Japanese that love soft outdoor activities started discovering Interlaken and the opportunities for adventure sports. Now, it is more a family tourism destination for Indians and shopping destination for Chinese. There is still a large number of tourists that try their hand at tandem paragliding, jet boat, base jumping, mountain biking and so on in Interlaken.

Tandem paragliding
Tandem paragliding

7) Visit a dairy farm

If you are an urban product, who has never seen a cow in its elements, this will interest you. Even if you are not one, you will have to see how the Swiss treat their cows. The barns are really well kept and neat. The cows are treated well so much so that they are even provided with huge plastic brushes in the barn to rub themselves against if they so wish. The cows are also let loose in the meadows for three months during summer for grazing.

Cows in a farm
Cows in a farm
Left over bread recycled, for the cows
Left over bread recycled, for the cows

Have you been to Interlaken? What is your opinion? Why not leave a comment and let me know?

PS: I was kindly hosted by the Jungfrau Railways on this trip. I would love to say ‘opinions expressed in this article are mine’ but there aren’t too many of them in this, are they? Rest assured, I am not obliged to say anything I didn’t want to. 🙂

Lessons in travel – After being (an almost) nomad for a year!

I hate to say it but this is going to sound familiar. I quit my job a year ago to travel. (There I said it.) Partly to satisfy my wanderlust and partly to gain travel experiences so I can write about it. I wanted to develop a mutually agreeable relationship with my travelling and writing. Looking back, I mostly have achieved what I set out to do. I have been travelling considerably well in the past year and have been published as often as I’d like to be. However, what I did not think about this whole plan is whether it is a sustainable model for my livelihood. Now I know it as clear as coconut water that it most certainly is not. I am still mostly burning through my finances hoping to figure out a viable plan for life sooner (hopefully not later) than I go broke. I pacify myself by saying that we were not born with a plan! And I am not exactly a nomad. I do live in a house, albeit spend much less time in it than I ever used to. Fortified by the travels in the past year, I feel I have suddenly become eligible to dish out some travel gyan. Go on, read and let me know if you agree or disagree with any of these.

You don’t need A LOT of money to travel

Who am I kidding? You do need money to travel. The stress here is on ‘A LOT.’ No, you do not need a lot of it. The secrets to save money are of course to couchsurf, stay in hostels, use public transportation and eat street food. Additionally, I also sift through my network to see if I can find anyone related to the place that I am visiting. Perhaps a friend or a friend’s friend could be of help. They have been of help for me. I have stayed with them and they have provided me with insider tips on where to go and what to do.

A bunch of teenagers in Inle Lake, Myanmar
A bunch of teenagers enjoying a boat ride in Inle Lake, Myanmar

The best experiences are had when you have fluid plans

I am increasingly ditching the guidebook wielding, well-planned route to travel. Partly because I am lazy but also because I discovered that such unplanned trips have the potential to surprise you. Recently I went on the Sandakphu trek only because I had the time in hand and decided to play it by the ear. Trekking in the wheezing rain amid a burst of bright rhododendron flowers, straddling between Nepal and India, that trek turned out to be among the memorable experiences I had this year.

En route Sandakphu trek
En route Sandakphu trek

Working while travelling is easier than you think (WiFi is also easy to come by)

I have turned in articles, written blog posts and met deadlines without a glitch while travelling. I have found WiFi at the oddest of places. For instance, in Loikaw, East Myanmar, the internet was so fast I could even catch up on my latest episodes of Better Call Saul and Broad City.

A Sri Lankan tea plucker
A Sri Lankan tea plucker

You’re never going to have enough money. Like ever.

I didn’t have to tell you this but hey we all need a push, don’t we? It is a fine thought to want to have enough money in your account before taking a break to travel. Our salaries are never going to make us millionaires.  Ever. The ideal way to do it is to decide upon a realistic bank balance. To achieve that, you might have to give up on a few movie night outs / dinners / shopping and so on and so forth. You get the drift.

Monsoons in Coorg
Monsoons in Coorg

You make friends even if you are an introvert

Here is a confession. I am an introvert. You might know me as a jolly good fella but I bet I needed some ice breaker before I became your friend. During my travels, I have found conversations happening with amazing fluidity with strangers. When you travel everyone is a stranger and everyone is willing to strike a conversation with you. People are nice and more importantly, they don’t bite.

A shy child in Kalap, Uttrakhand
A shy child in Kalap, Uttrakhand
Two introvert Chitals in Kanha, MP
Two introvert Chitals in Kanha, MP. How do I know they are introverts? I guessed 😀

Sometimes side trips can be great

Recently, after a two-week long trip to Arunachal, I along with my friend decided a little detour on our way back to visit the gibbon sanctuary in Jorhat, Assam. Watching those gentle creatures swing from branch to branch gracefully in the wild is the most adorable thing I have ever seen. Also, it helped that they had silver eyebrows.

Hoolock gibbon in Jorhat, Assam
Hoolock gibbon in Jorhat, Assam

Even the unlikely place has interesting parts

Recently, I was in Bihar tracing the Buddha trail and visiting the buddhist monuments peppered across what is the most underdeveloped state in India. If you manage to get beyond the notorious traffic, the blaring horns and the killer instinct of the drivers on its road, Bihar has some interesting archaeological sites to offer.

Choti Dargah, Maner Sharif, Bihar
Choti Dargah, Maner Sharif, Bihar

Every experience, good or bad, teaches you something

In Bagan, Myanmar, children are enterprising. They are poor and they need to make a quick buck to survive. “Where you come from,” a little boy asked me at a pagoda. He showed me his currency collection, from different parts of the world, and asked me if I had the Indian currency. He had a ten rupee note but he wanted one of a higher denomination. I obliged and gave him a hundred that I had. He whisked away happily. A little later, at a different pagoda, another little boy came up to me with the same request. I realized I was conned. But what other options do these children have? They are so crushingly poor that they have to employ devious ways to make money. Talk about starting young.

A child at Hunnas Giriya, Sri Lanka
A child at Hunnas Giriya, Sri Lanka

Every sunrise is worth waking up to

As dawn breaks, the day stirs to life. Forget the fact that the soft golden light of the day break gives you incredible pictures, it is also a unique part of the day to people watch. There is a certain mellow energy that thrums up to life as the day starts and it is worth experiencing.

A sadhu in Varanasi at sunrise
A sadhu in Varanasi at sunrise

Trust me, you will hate coming home

Of late, I have started to dread the thought of coming home. The stillness of my house doesn’t excite me anymore. The familiar smells and visions of my house is supposed to comfort me but it is increasingly not. I don’t know if it is a sign that I am going to pack my bags and hit the road permanently, but trust me constant travelling will make you not want to come home. Because, you know, home is only a feeling. As long as you feel home wherever you are!

Going home, Myanmar
Going home, Myanmar

Have you been travelling for a long time now? Have you experienced any of this? Leave a comment and let me know.

Bagan mystique – the ruins of Bagan, Central Myanmar – Part II

This is the second and last instalment of pictures of Bagan ruins. Get there before Bagan catapults into the tourist circuit (it already has and tourist footfall is only going to grow). I did it by horse cart but if you have a slightly bulky wallet, get on a hot air balloon and watch the ruins from above. Balloons over Bagan offers rides, click here to visit their website. Once done, hire a horse cart with the help of your hotel front desk and take a ride along the ruins to give yourself a different view. It is quite an experience.

Do buy the February’2015 edition of Outlook Traveller (India) to read my story Bagan by Horsecart.

Click here to read the earlier post about Bagan (or simply scroll down).

Monks seeking alms
Monks seeking alms
Sundown in bagan
Sundown in bagan
Skies painted blue and orange at sun down
Skies painted blue and orange at sun down
Sulamani
Sulamani
Souvenirs for sale
Souvenirs for sale
Ruby with her cart
Ruby with her cart
Sundown in Bagan
Sundown in Bagan
Sundown in Bagan
Sundown in Bagan
Sunset cruising in Irrawadycc1
Sunset cruising in Irrawady
Thatbyinnu framed by the azure skies
Thatbyinnu framed by the azure skies
Thatbyinnu
Thatbyinnu
The structures are scattered across the plains of Bagan
The structures are scattered across the plains of Bagan
The ananda phaya
The ananda phaya
The abayadhana temple
The abayadhana temple

PS: Some of these pictures are generously provided to me by my travel companion and friend Kiran Kannappan who was with me during the first leg of my Myanmar travels.

Like what you see? Leave a comment.

Why freelance? A personal essay.

As days drew nearer to my month-long trip to a village called Kalap in the Himalayas, my feelings about quitting my desk job grew stronger. I had been contemplating it for a while but did not yet take any serious steps towards leaving the job. Liberal work-from-home policies at my workplace ensured freedom but on the days I had to go to the office, I could not but feel being constricted inside the cubicle. If I did leave my job, I would have no backup plan on the monthly mortgage payment for the house that would tie me down for ten years. I had only finished one year of the mortgage and nine remained.

Just one day short of my trip, my brother called me with news that my father had fallen sick. He had had a surgery to remove his infected kidney a year ago and now he was experiencing pain in his abdomen. Pain so aggressive that he could not walk straight. He was to be taken to the doctor. And I’d be high in the Himalayas with no access to phone nor internet for a month.

Those were the circumstances in which I boarded the bus to Kalap – a tiny settlement in Garhwal Himalayas. Anand Sankar, who has a responsible tourism initiative in Kalap, agreed to host me for a month. Having my basic cold protection gear covered, I still had to buy a sleeping bag which I did at a store called Cliffhangers located in the narrow side streets of Dehradun. I explored the streets of the town that was known as the boarding school capital of India and home to hundreds of schools. The Doon valley, Dehradun, surrounded by hills, was experiencing unseasonal rains in March.

Uneasy Contemplation.
Uneasy Contemplation.

The rain delayed my trip from Dehradun to Kalap but when I eventually left in a rickety bus early in the morning, for a five hour journey, there were no signs of rain. The bus crawled through the windy mountain roads flirting dangerously close with the gorges. I met Guddu, my minder in the village for the duration of my stay, at a dusty mountain town called Netwar. With his incandescent smile and hair curls bleached golden by the mountain sun, the amiable Guddu immediately inspired confidence in me about the trip. I was practically a stranger, but that evening, over home-cooked meals and the drone of his children studying, we got to know each other slightly better. Guddu’s children, like children in other mountain villages in the vicinity, went to school in Netwar – the only school available for miles in any direction.

The next day, we began a 5-hour trek to reach his village high up in the mountains. The trek, through an unpaved, boulder strewn, steep mountain path made me thirsty while the sun beat down heavily. The weight of my backpack pressed me down and threatened to crush me but I persevered and arrived at the village to the curious glances of village kids who, upon sighting me, a stranger, joined their hands in respect and said ‘namaste’ as a welcome gesture.

After reaching Guddu’s house and getting acquainted with it, I quickly fell into a routine. I spent my days reading and writing on the sun deck of Guddu’s wooden house overlooking the valley. I accompanied him to his field along with his horse to spread manure before the onset of the sowing season. I took long walks and tried to identify the plants and bird life around the village. On these trips, I mostly stood glued to the grand vista of the mountains, its terrace fields, while the deafening roar of the Supin River way down in the valley played backdrop to this setting.

I met strangers in the village and accepted invitations to visit their homes. Sometimes, I was taken to their kitchens, dining rooms, or halls and fed sweet, milky tea and whatever else happened to be on their menus.

I became the official photographer for the village’s Holi festival and, by the end of it, although I survived without being doused in color powder, my camera bore the brunt. I helped make Gujjia – a Holi special that’s like a sweet calzone. Its deep fried packets of dough are filled with a roasted mixture of semolina, desiccated coconut, jaggery (a traditional sugar) and raisins. By the end of it, Guddu’s wife, Pathuli – meaning butterfly in the local language – had thawed towards me after witnessing my able handedness at rolling and sealing the Gujjias. I asked extensive questions about what grew in Kalap and what didn’t, what kind of fruits could be cultivated, and compared their food with that from the plains. I also became accustomed to Guddu, Pathuli, and the other villagers switching to the local language in the middle of a conversation, unmindful or uncaring of my presence.

Lead by the master.
Lead by the master.

In all this, I forgot that I had an alternate existence – an existence that is punctuated by staring at different screens for ego-inflating status updates in social media outlets, a liberal dosage of pop culture consumption, and I also forgot about my sick father.

I watched myself in the mirror, the magnificent hills framed behind the reflection of my overgrown facial hair, gaunt face, sunken eyes, tanning skin, and cracked lips that needed moisturizing. In the cold, I rationed my shower to once in two days. My toiletries bag sat untouched, unused. I went to bed and woke up based on the sheer diktats of my body clock. The hand-drawn calendar I brought from the plains to keep tab of time, like all gadgets up here, also sat next to my bed, abandoned.

Most of the time the loud conversation of the villagers – which sounded like yelling at each other to my untrained ears – interrupted my silence. Even so, the rhyming dialect of Uttranchali was oddly comforting to my senses. It characterized the mountain to me – its cadence like the deep blue expanse of its skies, the whooshing of wind through its cedar trees and the chirp of the birds.

If Winter comes, can Spring be far behind?
If Winter comes, can Spring be far behind?

I tried to make Rotis, the Indian flatbread, without a rolling pin in Guddu’s kitchen, learning the tricks of it from Pathuli.  She said, by way of instruction: take a bit of dough, roll it by hand and flatten it, pinch it round with the thumb and slap with both the palms to stretch the dough into a perfect round shaped roti. At best, I could only make ragged edged Rotis.

At night when the sky was clear, I sometimes stepped out. The gazillion stars in the sky resembled a crowded Indian railway station with numerous tiny stars and constellations jostling for space with each other.

Sometimes I saw raging forest fires in the night – bright orange and red flames spreading across the forest at a distance. But the icy cold night extinguished the fire, no matter how widespread, and normality returned in the morning.

The unpredictable weather in the mountains ensured drastically different days. One day the sky was clear blue with sunshine, while on the other, streaks of dark clouds obstruct the sun throwing out only weak sunlight. Some days thick grey clouds billowed past and a blanket of cold rain came down with occasional hail or snow falls.

All this notwithstanding, the predictability of my life remained the same. My dad’s illness did not vanish as I did momentarily from their lives. He was now prescribed to undergo two surgeries – one to fix the hernia and the other to remove his stone-infested gall bladder. Both keyhole, albeit. The world has been just as I left it. But I have changed a bit – adapting a bit of the matter of fact, yet laid-back, attitude of the hill people.

I knew this couldn’t last forever. Oases do not a desert make. While Guddu and Pathuli secretly longed for a life in the plains, I longed for more time in the mountains.

When I rejoined work, a month later, I felt something inside me was bottled up. Where before I negotiated craggy, bridled, forest path, I now climbed concrete stairs. Where I’d lifted my eyes for tumbling vistas against the backdrop of deep blue sky, I now lifted my eyes to see cubicles and torsos hunched over laptops. I sent my resignation in less than a week of my return. I traded a reasonable paycheck for wide open spaces, fresh air, opportunities, and a financially dicey, extremely uncertain career of freelance writing. Wherever I go in this new phase, at least I will be certain that I wanted this.

A version of this appeared in the last edition of the Outside In Literary Travel Magazine and can be accessed here.