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     Volume 4 Issue 40 | April 1, 2005 |

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Food For Thought

Surprising Cities

Farah Ghuznavi

Most places in the world, particularly cities, have something that make them special. Often, people may travel to places in order to experience those qualities, and sometimes (especially if you are not careful!) you may be surprised by the qualities you come across. The "special-ness" of a particular city may not be evident to everyone, but if all else fails the inhabitants can usually be relied upon to identify something!

For some places, their charms are obvious (occasionally to the point of seeming ostentatious to those of us who call less charming places home!) Thus, supporters of Paris would point to its spacious boulevards, beautiful architecture and of course, the Eiffel Tower. Other places specialise in nature. Melbourne is a city of parks, with beautiful flowers and botanical gardens, and an enviable proximity to both the mountains and the sea.

Then there are the places which are breathtakingly exotic. Luxor, in Egypt, remains vivid in my memory. Not only for its magnificent ruins and temples, and its museum full of treasures, but also for the bustling markets full of vivid colour, the constant babble of haggling and gossip, and the lively combination of sights and smells that make you feel that you are living in technicolor!

Finally there are the places whose charms are more indefinable. For example, the Taj Mahal, which is famous for its architectural splendour, was nonetheless as striking to me for the strange sense of serenity I experienced there (despite the numbers of people wandering around). And perhaps most enjoyably, different places can give you the occasional bizarre or surprising experience, or memorable people, whom you remember for a long time - something that can happen as easily in a familiar place, as an unknown one!

New Delhi is one of my favourite cities. One of the reasons I love Delhi is because when I visited as a high-school student (not by any means my first visit there), fresh from studying my SSC syllabus on history, it was as if I saw the city for the first time. I could not stop myself from wandering from monument to monument - Red Fort, Qutub Minar, Lodi Gardens - and thinking how Qutbuddin Aibak or some other, equally famous character had stood in that very place, at another time. The idea entranced me, for reasons I could not fully understand. After all, Bengal was part of the Moghul Empire, so I considered it my right to claim Delhi's glorious past as part of my own historical heritage, regardless of present-day political divisions!

But if the history of Delhi represents one of its charms, its present-day traffic is another thing altogether! The cheerful insouciance with which cows wander through - and sometimes stop in the middle of - the roads, can make driving a little bit unpredictable. This has led to the development of a manoeuvre known as the "Delhi swerve" -- a sharp left followed by hard-braking to avoid the ubiquitous cows. The presence of these creatures needs to be appreciated in the wider context of an estimated 38,000 wandering cows, which - it has been stated - are soon to be rounded up by the Municipal Corporation for placement in state dairies or auctioning off. Personally, I will believe this when I see it, but it's claimed that this plan is the only way to deal with the "milk mafia" who make money selling cows' milk, but are happy to let their animals wander around without any restrictions, or consideration for others…

Perhaps one of the largest variations between cities is the way that their respective police forces are viewed. While the British "Bobby" on the beat is still largely regarded with affection, in large parts of the world, the police are considered at least as bad as the criminals they are supposed to be dealing with, if not worse. In the Philippines, a novel method of dealing with corruption in the police force is being implemented in Manila. Under a new initiative, corrupt policemen will not lose their jobs if they "repent". Now, at Easter, this means that they agree to be "crucified" i.e. to be tied to crosses or carry crosses on their backs, as part of the Good Friday celebrations! This is undoubtedly a novel way to deal with this particular problem, but its success remains to be judged…

Sometimes, the speciality of a particular city may be less than savoury. Thus, while Bangkok has much to offer the tourist -- excellent shopping, interesting sights and wonderful food -- most may wish to give its seamier side a wide berth. A few years ago, a cousin of mine took his bride to Bangkok for their honeymoon. As innocents abroad, they must have belonged to the small minority of people who are not aware of Bangkok's reputation in the sex trade. Suffice to say, the variety show that they decided to attend in their hotel was not quite what they had had in mind (though it was undoubtedly not as "exotic" as what they might have encountered in Patpong). They left with unseemly haste, and several years later, this story can still not be referred to without a high degree of embarrassment…

Sometimes, people go to a place to experience its speciality (though things may not work out quite as planned). A friend of mine who grew up in Spain frequently tells a story about his teenage years, when he went with a group of friends to participate in the annual bull-run in Pamplona. During this event, (usually) young men run in front of a herd of bulls, in order to outmanoeuvre them, thereby proving their macho credentials (or insanity!). At least, that seems to be the idea among a large number of the young men! Inevitably, some people get hurt -- either being pushed aside or trampled by their peers, or sometimes being gored by the bulls. In this case, one of Jose's friends caught the eye of one particular bull that went after him. He became exhausted trying to out-run it, and finally, managed to get himself tangled in the barbed-wire fence that adjoined the route in his attempts to escape. As he tried desperately to disentangle himself, he could hear the bull's thundering hooves coming closer, and realised that he was about to be gored. Saying his prayers, he suddenly became aware that the thundering had stopped. The majority of bulls had continued past, and the bull that had its eye on him stopped, calmly urinated over him and continued on. Physically, he survived with a few scratches, but his ego has never quite recovered! It's enough to make you stay at home…


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