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May 02, 2016

Rahul daCunha on The Disasters That Follow Him

The inveterate traveller pens how disasters — man-made or environmental ­— tend to erupt in his footsteps

It all began in 2005. It was the year that I grew travel feet. I had discovered the twin joys of a Leica camera and the Lonely Planet books. Till then I had holidayed, I had vacationed. But I had never truly travelled. Exploring a place, not merely ticking it off on a bucket list. Meaning not just clicking a selfie on the Eiffel Tower and posting it on FB. But sitting in cafes, watching people. Hanging around Notre Dame, sometimes a whole morning, capturing street life as it emerged. Not the usual, you know, Dubai, Phuket, Singapore…the shopping malls, nyet, nahin, no more. Hitherto, unexplored lands.

My first stop on this journey was our neighbouring country, Sri Lanka, Ceylon to the old-timers. The terrifying tsunami had struck the shores of Sri Lanka. This was a country that had been through every conceivable trouble known to man, and then some. Riots, LTTE rebels and now a raging sea. No one wanted to visit this idyllic island nation. Fares were unbelievably low and hotel rooms were easily available.

I remember looking out at the ocean, now frighteningly calm, and thinking two things:
1. Due to your sudden tumultuousness, Ocean saab, this penthouse suite with a wrap-around terrace, has cost me one tenth the rack rate as you’ve frightened away tourists.

2. We are finally totally at your mercy, courtesy of global warming. Because of the sea storm, this island nation was a mere shadow of its former self, houses razed brutally to the ground.

Little did I know then that disasters, both man-made and environmental, would follow me on my travels for the next 11 years.

A week later, I was closer home, in Jaipur, the Pink City, driving around the market. I had barely stepped onto the flight back to Mumbai when a bomb went off in the same place I had been, not two hours ago. Six months later, a play had taken me to Hyderabad. I bought some bangles, marvelled at the wonderful Charminar. Once again, within an hour of landing home, in Mumbai, the capital of Andhra Pradesh experienced riots. You cannot fault me for thinking maybe I was a prophet of doom!

This went on. Every place I was thinking of going to or had gone to seemed to erupt. By now I was on a roll. The Mr Bean of Bombay.

Cut to January 2011. I had planned, along with my pal, Anuvab Pal, to do Syria. Spend New Year of 2009 in Damascus, the original seat of the caliphate. We chose Vietnam that year instead. Wrong decision. In a year, civil strife occurred. And that wonderful country full of tradition and touristic sites became un-visitable. The situation hasn’t changed.

So, I was determined that the Middle East had to be ‘invaded’. Egypt had been beckoning for some time. For its pyramids, pharaohs, palaces had embedded themselves in our psyche from the time we were kids. So photographer buddy, Prashant Godbole, and I, armed with our Canons, headed to Cairo. And we feasted on the food and the broken-down city. Eighty million people. Living in total harmony. Or so we thought. We hung around Tahrir Square, soaking in the hurly-burly of Egyptian madness. In the news, we saw, Tunisia had erupted. The Spring Awakening had just begun. But we figured, we’re so far away in Egypt. That’s a whole new country. And we flew back to India.

A week later, the Nile nation had gone berserk. Its capital city had exploded with collective anger. And, unlike us, it had brewed quietly like the Ahmedabadi chai. But, finally, it boiled over. Truly we never saw it coming. Cairo was quiet, and then boom, from out of nowhere, the people took to the streets, anti-Hosni-Mubarak agitations rent the air. And we’d missed the revolution by a week. Indians who’d come to ‘Enjoy Egypt’, couldn’t get a flight home. The city square, where we’d spent so many chilled afternoons, had 70,000 angry Cairenes.

Turkey is like a second home. Istanbul, actually, is a city nestled between Europe and Asia. This was my repeated destination of choice. Again a superb venue — mezze, mosques, the Marmara Sea. Another city centre — Taksim Square. I had spent more man-hours in this space than certainly the Gateway of India. I even had a favourite hotel, where one side faced the square, and the other, the Bosphorus. You won’t believe me, but once again after I returned to India, in a few days, the Turkish people spilled onto the streets, rebelling against the government.

And there’s been no let up. We were set to go to Burma a few years later. Changed our minds and went to Laos instead. An earthquake hit the southern tip of Yangon.

I think very carefully where I travel now.

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