- Country #55! Let’s get it done!! Nov 14, 2023
- This airport is special to me Nov 15, 2023
Exactly 30 years back, I landed in Frankfurt airport – completely dazed and out of sorts after staying awake most of the night on a Lufthansa flight. That was my first international flight. This was my first international airport.
I did not understand the language. Nor could I follow the instructions. And the scale of operations were unnerving to say the least. I had started from Bombay airport the previous night. Most people today will not realize how small Bombay airport used to be those days. I doubt it handled even 100 flights every day then. Today, it handles 1000 daily.
My first reaction watching two airplanes take off within 30 seconds of each other in Frankfurt was that there must have been a big mistake. Surely, the next day there was going to be front page headlines about a flight accident. Except I noticed that the pattern continued. Plane after plane kept taking off and landing. I figured that was what the famed German precision was all about.
Later in life, this airport became my monthly calling. A quarter million Lufthansa miles from all those trips to Asia and India ensured that I knew every nook and corner of the terminals and the staff at the lounges and some stores in the airport.
Now that I think about it, I think this was Natasha’s first international airport too. Lufthansa used to fly to Kolkata those days and Natasha’s first trip to check out her grandparents in 1999 at the age of 18 months was thru this airport.
- Zebra crossing on the runway? Nov 15, 2023
- Sometimes the logos lead to intersection points! Nov 15, 2023
I had been walking inside the terminal for nearly 45 minutes to get some morning exercise in when I thought I saw a young lady with a familiar shirt. Well, at least the college logo was familiar. Having seen how Nikita used to wear Natasha’s NYU and USC shirt (which she had bought as a souvenir), I realized that the shirt may not have anything to do with the lady.
Still, I walked up to her.
“You go to GW?”
“Yes!” She was a bit surprised.
“I am a freshman!”
“Ah! My daughter is in GW too! She is a sophomore!”
“Really? What is her name?”
“Nikita Roy. Which dorm are you in?”
“That is exactly where Nikita was! This year she is in Shenkman.”
“Oh! that is where I want to go next year!”
And thus I struck up a friendship with this complete stranger. Crazily enough, Sofia Dayan (my new friend) lives literally under the room Nikita was in. Same room number. She is in 7th floor. Niki was in 8th floor.
Even more coincidences… Sofia was born in Atlanta. Although her parents moved to Pennsylvania eventually.
“What do you want to study?” I asked her.
“International Policy is what I am thinking. How about Nikita?”
“I think she is veering towards Public Health. Either the policy side or legal side.”
“That is very exciting”
“So, where are you headed all by yourself?”
“No. I am a figure skater. I am going for a competition there!”
“Oh! I think you are the first figure skater I have met!!”
My flight to Vilnius was called out the second time. I quickly gave her Nikita’s number and took a picture of us.
“Make sure you meet Nikita after Thanksgiving. I will send her this picture too.”
“Sure. Also, look me up when you come to see her in DC”
“Deal. Now best of luck for your competition and safe flight!!”
We went our own ways. But I am sure this is not the last time we have met.
There is some merit to wearing logos of your company or schools then. There is an old story about how my company logo on my T-shirt once helped me locate my in-laws who had gotten lost in an airport terminal – after landing in a foreign country for the first time!!!!!!
But that is a story for another day.
- Vilnius!! Airport #162 Nov 15, 2023
- Kaunas – checking out the small town Nov 17, 2023
- Nemunas river by night Nov 17, 2023
- Off to check out Klaipeda, sand dunes and the Russian border!! Nov 17, 2023
- This level of precision is a bit perplexing Nov 17, 2023
- Chief place to visit today: Curonian Spit Nov 17, 2023
My driver and guide friend – Gintautas – assured me that the Curonian Spit is the best view Lithuania has to offer. You climb up the famous sand dunes and get a brilliant view of the Baltic Sea. He himself had not done it in 20 years.
Moment I checked into the hotel in Klaipeda, I dropped the luggage at the check in counter and heade d out for the Curonian Spit. To do that, I needed to cross the waters and reach the Neringa island. The distance is very short – but there are no bridges.
So, as you see here, my friend and I waited patiently for 30 minutes for a ferry to pick us up with our car.
- Reached the island of Neringa Nov 17, 2023
A short ferry ride later, we drove off into the one single road that runs thru this island. It is a very beautiful island that is only 2 km wide and 100km long. Reminded me of Eleuthera island. Verdant green and full of natural habitats. Sand dunes on either side bordering the Baltic Sea.
Now the trick is to not overspeed. If we fail to stop at Nida (our final destination today), we will be in Russian territory. Not exactly prepared for that this trip!!
- Baltic Sea!! Nov 17, 2023
I had read so much about the Baltic Sea in my school years. I could, even then, name all the countries that surrounded the Sea. Although, at that time, it was much easier. I would just replace Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania and the exclave of Kaliningrad simply as “Soviet Republic”.
It was cold as heck. Biting wind. Which was whipping up some menacing waves. Look at the foam all the waves lashing the concrete was creating….
- Admittedly, sand dunes and I have a checkered history Nov 17, 2023
First time, I tried scaling up the steep sides of the sand dunes of Michigan lake with my friend Aditi, I did so successfully. Except that I blacked out in the end.
Second time, I tried another very large sand dune in Mongolia with my friend Roger. I had explained him the details… “Roger, the sand is so loose that for every one and a half foot step, I am going to slide down about a foot. Which means, I am going to spend too much energy. Mt heartbeat will soar. Being the idiot I am, I am not going to give in. I will keep doing till either I reach the destination or my brain decides to put the whole body in unconscious state to stop the idiocy. It will last a minute or minute and a half. No need to panic. No need to throw water on my face. I will come around and and then we can go down like nothing had happened.” He thought I was kidding.
You should ask him what surprised him the most – my prediction, my blacking out like clockwork or climbing down like nothing had happened.
I faced the sand dune challenge third time in my life – The Curoninan Spit. It seemed like the slopes were not that steep and mit was not that high. Plus the sand was fairly firm.
Also, I did not come to this country to simply walk away after looking at the sand dune.
So, the trek began with my friend…
- We are one third way up Nov 17, 2023
- The steepest part is behind us Nov 17, 2023
- We reached the top! This is the South View Nov 17, 2023
Try zooming in to the top of the sandline. You can clearly see a foot of sand dust being kicked up by the unbearably cold and strong wind! We did not spend too much time there. Like I said, it was just too frigid and sand was being kicked all over our face. But we did reach the top. It is a good thing we stopped there. A few false steps and we would be tumbling down the sand dune side to the icy cold Baltic waters before we could cry “Uncle”!
- The North View from the top of the Dead Dunes Nov 17, 2023
- The Baltic Sea God was angry today Nov 17, 2023
Look at how it has already flooded the cycling and walking path. But that fury is nothing compared to the Russian fury we will face if we walked a mere 2 kms to that land mass you see. That is Russia!!
In case you are wondering, that is actually not the mainland of Russia. It is the exclave of Kaliningrad that is part of Russia. We are at Nida – the furthest we can go before entering Russian territory.
- Fun fact about Nida Nov 17, 2023
- Back in Klaipeda, went for a walk along the Danes River Nov 17, 2023
- The road not taken Nov 18, 2023
With all due apologies to Robert Frost, I suggested to my friend – “Gintautas, today, let’s take only rural roads. We will avoid all the highways.” My friend was excited by that. Apparently he has not done that in a long time. He mapped out all our destinations choosing only the rural, bucolic roads. Many of those roads, he mentioned would be a first time for him too.
Saw some incredible beauty of the countryside of Lithuania. The clouds were constantly overcast. I can only imagine how much more beautiful it would be in summer.
One thing – Lithuanians have a very high sense of civic duty. Went thru nearly 400 kms of rural roads. Did not see a single piece of trash. Anywhere!!
- Does anybody know what this is all about? Nov 18, 2023
During the drive on rural roads thru Lithuania, multiple times, I saw trees that looked like the ones in the picture. First, I thought those clumps were birds’ nests. Then I realized they are not. My friend mentioned that this is a result of some kind of disease in the tree.
Does anybody know what this is all about?
- Stopped by Nava lake to take in the completely quiet beauty Nov 18, 2023
- Cannot say I am into castles much Nov 18, 2023
- Front view of the castle from the bridge that lets you cross the lake Nov 18, 2023
- We exchanged empanadas from our own countries!! Nov 18, 2023
After touring the castle, Gintautas and I decided to try out some local food. Went inside a place and checked out the menu for Kibinai. Apparently, Trakai island area is famous for this. Well, the surprise element in the menu was Samosa!!
We ordered both so that we could try out each other country’s food. Turns out Kibinai is very similar to empanadas that you can get in Spain or Portugal. I remember enjoying some great ones in Argentina. I had the Kibinai with local chicken broth.
Gintautas became a fan of samosas. However, this was a bit different from what a typical Indian samosa would be. The big difference was that the stuffing was not primarily potato – it was some vegetables. Which is a surprise. Since potato is fairly common here – especially in traditional foods like Cepelenia.
The one thing I could not get is the famous pink soup (Šaltibarščiai) of Lithuania. Every restaurant that I enquired in asked me to come back in summer!! (It is a cold soup made from beet and buttermilk, I believe)
- My route in Lithuania Nov 18, 2023
- Can you spot what is wrong with this picture? Nov 19, 2023
- Keeping up with another old tradition Nov 19, 2023
Unless I rent a car in a new country, I try to make friends with the driver who picks me up from the airport and see if he/she can stay for the whole duration of my stay. Basically, then I have them become my local guide and translator. Throughout the journey, they help me understand the local language, culture, food and answer all those millions of questions I always have about a new country.
After my trip, I usually keep up with them thru WhatsApp calls – certainly on birthdays – and then often refer them to anybody who wants to go to that country. I have 19 such friends.
Well, I had 19 such friends.
Gintautas is now my 20th such friend. On Wednesday afternoon when I met him at Vilnius airport, we were complete strangers. By Saturday evening when he dropped me at the hotel, I knew his whole family history uptil his great grandfather and all his likes and dislikes. What is remarkable about him is how an unfortunate incident in his life (lost his dad at 16) completely changed his outlook towards life.
By his own admission, his priorities changed. He started to understand the important from the unimportant. And he started becoming an introvert. Like me, he does not like parties or is very uncomfortable in group gatherings.
“You are very young. Why did you choose this profession?”
“After my dad died, I concluded that I do not want to work for money. I want to do what I love the most. Because I do not know when I might die. As a child, I loved cars – we had those old Russian cars then. I loved how cars went on roads. I loved how drivers would control the car. I used to sit on my dad’s lap and pretend to drive his car all the time. This is what I am going to do all my life”
“Good for you”
He introduced me to the local food and picked the roads and places to go. Without Gintautus, this trip would not have been half as much fun. If any of you ever want to visit Lithuania and would like a guide and a very safe driver, let me know!
- My stash from Lithuania Nov 19, 2023
Lithuania is famous for its bread and honey. It is especially known for its mead – which is an alcohol made from honey. The claim is that this is the oldest alcohol. Apparently, it is mentioned in the Rig Veda – which is a religious scripture in India from 6000 BC.
The part I do not get is this – honey is one of those food that is indestructible. Pure honey will stay as is for a million years. It never breaks down. How the heck do you ferment it then?
Well, I need to do some research.
- Even by my standards, this is over the top crazy Nov 19, 2023
Draw up your chairs and grab a cup of coffee/tea/wine/beer/favorite poison. This is going to take me a bit to go thru the crazy details.
Well, remember how I collect fountain pens, write letters and have pen friends all over the world? One such friend I have lives in Lithuania. Now, as pen friends, we do not exchange phone numbers or email ids. You know the whole purpose is to keep up communications thru hand written letters. Some of them even purposely control the speed (do not respond immediately).
Rita – my pen friend in Lithuania – and I have been writing to each other for a couple of years. From her writings, I had gotten to know a little about life in Lithuania (she lives in a rural setting). I also got to know about her family. She is my age group, has been married for almost the same time as I and has kids ranging from 31 years to 10 years. One of her daughters is non-verbal and differently abled.
Well, I had this brilliant idea that I will go surprise Rita and her family and show up at her door one day. I told her Gintautas what I wanted to do.
First, he was not sure what pen friendship is all about.
“That is a thing?”
He was not convinced. He was afraid that I had fallen for a “scam”, as he put it.
“Scam, for what?”
“I do not know. You do not know them?”
“No. for all you know Rita is actually a 20 year old school kid who writes to me pretending to be somebody else.”
“Did you call them?”
“I do not have her contacts. Besides. This is supposed to be a surprise.”
“Do you know how she looks?”
“No. She never sent me a picture. That is not uncommon among pen friends”
“Does she know how you look?”
You could see that disbelief written all over his face
“But I have the address I write letters to. Let’s go there”.
Well, then we hit a snag. Google Maps was showing a place and Apple Maps was showing a different place. They were nearby – both near a small town called Taurage – but we did not know where to head to. That is when he became very resourceful. Using the address, he went into some property records and found out the exact location. Apple Maps was right.
This was the day we were taking all the back roads. A nice, leisurely drive thru the sylvan beauty of west Lithuania later, we showed up at a building. The building certainly looked very tired.
I needed Gintautas’ help with the language. “You want to come in?”
“I am not so sure.”
“You call me if you need any help.”
As Gintautas explained to me later, he was convinced this was some sort of a scam. And he told me over dinner that if I did not come out in 30 minutes, he was going to contact the cops!!
One thing I failed to mention to you. I had picked Saturday as the day to visit Rita since I knew she worked and consequently, I felt weekdays might be inconvenient. But I was surprised that on a Saturday, even at 10:30 am there was not a single person to be seen anywhere. No kids outside, nobody walking on the streets. It was like either everybody was sleeping or they had gone to the church.
Well, as for me, I entered the old building. At the entrance, I went past a car with a lady sitting there and the car running. What if that was Rita and by the time I talked to her folks inside, she was gone?
It was a two story building. I was to go to 15-7. Building number, I guessed was 15. I assumed 7 is the apartment number. There were two doors on the ground floor. They did not have numbers on. Luckily for me a gentleman was coming down the staircase. I immediately asked him about Rita. He promptly said “No English” and walked away.
That put me in a bind. If he could say “No English”, his English was vastly better than my Lithuanian. Scratching my head, I opened up my phone to the page with Rita’s name and contacts written and decided to go door to door.
First door on second floor. Knocked multiple times. No response.
The second door was open and seemed to open into a corridor. But there were no lights on. I put my phone light on and knocked on the first door. No response whatsoever. Second door had “8” written. Knocked hard. No response.
There was a part of me that felt that they were looking from the peephole inside and was having flashbacks of the Soviet days of strangers showing up with flashlights in a dark corridor and knocking heavily on their doors!
The third door had loud music blasting from inside. There had to be somebody there. But not sure they could hear my knocking.
Well, I was fresh out of doors on the second floor. And if one of them said 8, I was sure 7 was nearby and I might have already tried it.
Not knowing any better, went downstairs. Knocked on another door. Nobody responded. By now, I was desperate. Knocked again.
Just then the original gentleman who had come down, came back into the building. This time I showed him my phone with Rita’s name and contacts. He pointed to the door that I had just knocked. So, I had the right door, FINALLY!!!
Knocked yet again. I thought I heard some noise from inside. I kept waiting. Eventually, a gentleman came out. Looked like he had been asleep. Without any words, I showed my phone. He nodded, signaled me to wait, went inside and locked the door.
And I was going “Now what?”
Well, there was more noise. I figured this gentleman went to the lady’s door and was trying to get her. [Much later, I found out he went and told her that some idiot had a phone with her details on it looking for her]
Eventually, a lady who had clearly gotten out of bed, came out.
“Taip” (that is yes in Lithuanian, that much I had learnt)
“I am Rajib Roy. From Atlanta. We write letters to each other.”
Completely blank stare greeted me.
“Rita Sudeikiene?”, I asked again showing her my phone with her details.
Then I took my phone to my contact page.
“This is me. Rajib Roy. Atlanta. Pen friends”
You could see that she was slowly starting to make sense of it. I figured she was wondering what the hell was I doing there. Her written English was very good. But Gintautas was very surprised I actually communicated in English with somebody from here. I calculated that maybe she is not as confident in her spoken English.
I tried with my halting English – “I come to visit Lithuania. I came to say Hi to you. I leave now?”
As she told me later… she was shell shocked. As she should have been. But finally she gathered herself enough to ask…
“How long will you be here?”
Not wanting to disturb her after sleep any further, I said “I was in Klaipeda. I am on my way back to Vilnius. I Will have to leave now”.
But she kept asking the same question.
“Wait here. I will get my friend”
I went out and called in Gintautas who was very happy to see me in one piece.
“I found her. I need your help with the language”
Rita and Gintautas talked.
“She is asking if she could meet us in a place for coffee in Taurage after an hour”
“Do you think we will get late?”
“Not at all”
I turned to Rita and said “No problem. Bring your family”
And that is how I got to meet my pen friend’s family in Star Pizza in Taurage. We had a great time together. Laughing about the whole thing. Her husband and Gintautas were speaking in Lithuanian all the time, laughing and looking at me. I had a great time with Rita’s younger daughter. Her non-verbal daughter was a little more difficult- but looked like she was having good time with some pizza and coke. We missed Rita’s 31 year old son who was busy with other things.
Most of the time we spent getting to know the family and shaking our heads at what we had just accomplished.
Gintautas took a picture of us before we left. I promised to bring Sharmila some time to Lithuania and meet the family again.
On the way back as we proceeded for more rural driving, my friend blurted out…
“I cannot believe this”
“What can you not believe”
“You were total strangers. You had not seen the family ever. They did not know you. And you were sitting down talking and laughing and having such a great time together. Even I felt I was part of the excitement.”
“Well, take this from somebody who is a quarter century older than you. Most of the beautiful things in life make absolutely no logical sense”
We focused back on the road again…