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This is a superb vantage point. I stand here and look around. All I can see is several cragged peaks, of huge snowy mountains, lined one after the other. A placid lake lies at their feet. Clouds move in and out, sometimes just hanging around half way through to their height, in suspended animation. Snow smattered across the gradient of adjoining mountains melts, then solidifies again to form saucer like silvery platforms of ice between them. Had this been a larger mountain system, this would have been a glacier.
There’s little I can hear, no animals, no birds at this height. I open my eyes. I stand facing the Mumbai skyline. The blaring horns of vehicles and massive drum beats of a festival celebration regain focus. All this while, I have been here, closing my eyes, trying to recede into a picture of the Himalayas that I’ve witnessed so often.
I run away from Mumbai almost once every year to these mountains. Only recently did I realise that they aren’t just a place high in the northern altitudes where I seek to hide. They’re somewhere around, high and north yes, but closer, in my head. I seek refuge in them each time I want to run away. In a still moment of time, I’m there, glaring at their height, their magnificence, thinking nothing but recalling a memory of another still moment when I witnessed them, right there, in Kashmir, in Ladakh, in Nepal, in Himachal. And only yesterday, when I realised about this ‘recession’ of my head, did I wonder if travel is more than just a visit to a place one wanted to tick off the bucket list.
Somewhere, in the Himalayas of Kashmir
Has it ever happened to you that a good time spent at an awesome location kept coming back to mind long after you returned? The lost feeling of running around in the alleys of a European town, a drink with friends at a tucked away cafe, a serendipitous discovery of a lake in the mountains while you mistakenly went astray, the sounds of street-side music that you enjoyed only because you sat down to listen to it since you had all the time in the world, the clap-claps of horses walking on mountain soil or cobbled-stone streets, the wafts of kebab or olive oil or the simple mixture of sugar with butter reminiscent of a sweet you had where you travelled, the terrible songs of the nineties with Sonu Nigam singing for T-Series reminding you of a country side local bus you took in India, or the music of a Rajasthani instrument heard in a movie reminding you of the time in desert, the taste of a paratha dripping in ghee reminding you of a detour in the Parathe wali gali of Delhi, and the list goes on.
A carefree musical performance in Berlin
Do the sights and smells of food remind you of some place you visited?
I live in Mumbai and as awesome as its history is, the city has turned ugly at the hands of people like me and another 20 million who live here. It’s ugly to the extent that we rarely realise that the same cobbled stone streets that line several of those lovely European towns also line Mumbai’s streets. But each time I hear the sound of a trolley being pulled over these streets, I am reminded of Prague. It was there that a friend and I dragged our trolley bags several times from one hostel to another in Prague’s charming old town square for lack of prior bookings. And as tiresome as it was there, it’s just become a wonderful memory, reminding me of all the enjoyable times we had in Prague. As horrible as these Mumbai streets are, now I usually don’t mind dragging my trolley bags around here once in a while.
The alleys of a Bohemian town
And so, I come back to the point that travel isn’t merely a tick mark on the bucket list. It’s an intense thought, a powerful one. Like those very few but profound childhood memories that seem to come back to us in flashbacks; like those instances from our past when we won over our own troubles, or the echo of a hearty laughter with friends or family several years back. Each of them has, upto an extent, the power of influencing our actions or shaping our lives. Travel is just that. Merely, a thought. As simple as that and as complex as that.
At this point, I quote a few lines of a Sufi song
Main ta koi khayal, (I am just a thought,
Main deedar, deedar main wich, I am the vision, the vision is in me,
hun milisaan naal, Now I can be met through
Khayal de, Only a thought
Main taan, koi khayal. I am just a ‘thought’)
What reminds you of travel?
What reminds you of your travels? Sights? Sounds? Memories? Church-bells? Perfume smells?
As I try to figure out a way through the narrow lanes of Dubai, surrounded by the archetypal wind-towers perched on restored middle-eastern dwellings,
Getting lost in Dubai is culturally fascinating. Dubai relishes in its unabashed youth. With its perfectly carved out roads, immaculately laid out signboards in Arabic and English, its sky-scraping buildings that’d rather kiss the sky than touch a traveler’s heart, it’s a little tough to get lost here. Wherever in Dubai you be, you’ll always have the tallest building in the world to show you a way, If nothing else. But what if you indeed came here to get lost, in its medieval past or in its meandering, dusty wadis, or its manipulative bazaars? Wait. Does Dubai even have them? Let’s explore.
This is where the past of Dubai comes to life, in the restored village in Al-Fahdi district. More commonly known as Al-Bastakiya, almost a century ago, it was the abode of the Iraqis, Indians and other communities that arrived then in Dubai. Now, the Sheikh Mohammed Centre for Cultural Understanding(SMCCU), located in the same premises, organizes guided heritage tours & cultural meals within the restored quarter, both of which lend wonderful opportunities for visitors to gain insights into Emirati culture, religion and even cuisine!
The tours take you around Bastakiya, with guided commentary on the old architecture and its pertinence with respect to the culture of the Emirate and usually end with a visit to the Diwan mosque followed by coffee (with Arabic dates!) in a Bastakiya house. Needless to say, all of these, including the time at the mosque and the coffee time, are great chances to have a candid conversation on the Emirati lifestyle and the SMCCU guide and host will most probably ensure that you don’t return unanswered.
And if (like me), you too get lost in Bastakiya, you may just find yourself in a charming art gallery or its quaint café! The XVA art gallery and the Arabian Tea House cafe are two such places and can help with some great breakfast.
If this wasn’t enough, there’s accommodation at some of the guest houses within Bastakiya. Ever thought what it’d be like to stay in a (at least) 100 year old restored village in the heart of a bustling metropolis like Dubai?
‘Outdoors’ is a good question in Dubai where even the ski-resorts tend to be indoors and probably the best answer we have heard to this is the ‘evening desert safari’. Ditch the desert and instead try out the morning Hatta safari. No, there isn’t any belly dancing music here, only the beeps of your international roaming cellphone to tell you that you’ve crossed the UAE-Oman border multiple times. Take some time off the phone, to have a look at the Hajjar mountains among which Hatta, the exclave lies.
Hatta boasts of an array of Wadis (valleys) and to add colour, pools of blue-green water among them. One can hike, one can bike, and if nothing else, at least take a morning dip or two in the waters of these pools before stopping at the Hatta heritage village on the way back. This is another restored village with a museum of sorts to exhibit the old village life style. The return route is a scenic ride through muddy mountains, best enjoyed through a self-drive.
As a separate itinerary, one can also head to the Musandam peninsula, where camping, fishing and snorkelling are the norm of the day. Do check for entry rules for your passport though, for both Hatta and Musandam will involve border crossings between UAE & Oman.
Yes, there’s one inside the Dubai mall also and that’s not the one we are talking about here. The Souks (local markets) have been an important part of the middle-eastern lifestyle and continue to remain even today, albeit only a little more charmingly. Cross over the creek to the other side of Dubai, quite literally, where the old markets, of gold and spices promise to bedazzle at least two of your senses, optical and olfactory.
And if your taste buds feel left out, wander in the lanes till you stumble across a camel milk ice-cream shop tucked away in a quiet corner. Eat to your heart’s content and then head out, haggle for the Persian and Kashmiri zafran, smell in the Arabic coffee, gaze & gap at the magnificence of the jewellery in the gold souk and lose yourself in the aroma of spices flowing in from every direction in the spice souk.
And after all these sensory overloads, end the day with a stroll along the creek, where the water front buildings light up with bridal elegance in the night and watch the dhows pass by with an ease that’s in stark contrast with the speeding SUVs behind you. Spend some time wondering which of these is the real Dubai. That, of the tallest tower tearing through the winds into the sky or that, of the wind-towers of Bastakiya? Either ways, you’re already lost in (the thoughts of) Dubai!
I imagine myself standing in front of this narrow yet vast ocean and take a deep breath. The waters here smell of a certain legend (apart from sea food of course!) No wait. Actually several legends.
For these waters are no less in significance to the Silk routes, or the Grand Trunk roads of the world. These are the waters that once connected the greatest civilizations of the world. India with China, the near east of Arabia & Persia to the far east that lay beyond.
It was here, in Melaka, in front of the very same waters of the Malacca Strait that a Hindu king from Sumatra made friends with a Muslim king from China , to create a city that became a living embodiment of vibrant and bustling cultural mix of the Malay land. This is Melaka and I can’t help but wonder what a treasure chest of culture this would be. But this, alas, is just a dream. For I’m still here, in my room, with nothing but a laptop at me, forget the treasure chests.
But then, what’s a fantasy without a flight, what are wings without some wind? So I lent some wings to my fantasies for a dreamy flight to Malaysia to figure out those five experiences that these folks at Blogadda seem so keen to know about. Let me take you through a tour of the flight here –
1. Welcome to Tioman. An island once rated as the best in the world. It’d be perfect to just laze around in the peace of Tioman, sit at the beach, and give the mind & body a perfect detox from our city lives here. Tioman is like that quiet paradise that just quietly got forgotten somewhere. (Just like those aisle seats that thankfully no one chose in front of the window ones!)
An evening at an island in Malaysia
2. The Window Seat – Known for its unparalleled views! Melaka. For a view into the Malaysian society and its tenets. Into the religions, ethnicities, cultures that make up this society. And for a view into its rich and absolutely unmatched history. To take a peek into the stories of the traders who came generations back all the way from Gujarat & Arabia to Malaysia and further. And the spices that flew through the Straits of Melaka.
3. The Middle Seat – Known for, simply put, being surrounded all around! For a middle seat experience, my dream takes me to Taman Negara, one of the oldest Tropical forests around on earth. For spending a few days ensconced by greenery all around and spotting some of the rarest mammals & avifauna around. Imagine waking up to a different sound each time you do. (Middle seats are known for that though!) And much like a middle seat, you’d need to take permission to get in the forest!
4. The In-flight food – Known for its assortment of multiple cuisines for everyone. Penang! The city that wins the hearts of all foodies. With a food culture that boasts of Indian, Chinese & Malay influences all at the same time, I wonder if it’ll be as much a lesson in history as in gastronomy. Food for heart and food for thought both!
5. And last but not the least, the oxygen mask – Known for giving goose bumps & adrenalin jumps. A dive in Sipadan! Yes, the fact that Sipadan is one of the best diving sites in the world keep luring me. Imagine being surrounded mid-water by a school of Barracuda! And then topping off the day with a good time with the folks at the stilt huts over the clear waters of Mabul. Bliss!
And now that this list of experiences gets over, I realise that it’s almost midnight on 24th March and the ETA of the flight is close. Cabin crew at Malaysia Tourism, please prepare for landing and friends, fasten your seat belts. We may soon be landing in Malaysia!
Who am I? I wonder. A pearl perhaps, in a necklace of history, woven by the oldies around me, who cease not, to boast of their past. Who am I, but just a tear drop, in an ocean of identities, of claims, of conflicts. But a dream, in a sea of confused realities. They called me ‘Serendib’, that which was discovered by chance! And I wonder, again. You could have been lost, traveler, but I have always been here.
Forever, in temples that store a tooth of the Buddha, in the folklore of the tears of Sita, in the spirit of a legendary Ashoka’s Dhamma. I was always here, as a thought, a belief, a land in the legend of your legends, the pearl of an island, the keeper of a stories thousand.
Did you forget me traveler?
For I was here when you brought the Dharma to my fortress, dressed as Mahindra. I was still here till so late when those waves struck us together..
But did you forget me traveler? For I waited for you in those green hills..
Waited to shower you with smiles, when all you wanted was just a glimpse
I stood here, while you painted my walls with colors of thee, Dutch somewhere, somewhere else Portuguese.
And colors I did have of my own, those splendid hues of blue, which men & fish alike, would day after day cling to.
I was there In the taste of the cinnamon, sweet and savoury both, akin to that of a conversation with the family that grew this ‘kurundu’
I was there, in the sheer astonishment of my folks so humble at anything new..
In those headlines of a newspaper that’d soak the occasional morning dew.
And also among those lines that divided my children..
But even today my friend, I continue to remain in those cricket-loving roars of “I AM KUMARA SANGAKARRA!” that unite them!
Yet, I wonder, did you forget me traveler?
A barren land stretches to eternity on both sides of this empty road. Pale and lifeless, like the sands we just left behind, to the extent that the only semblance of life seem to be the tufts of the dead grass, rendered a golden hue by the Sun which refuses to relent even in the winter months.
Remorseless. And as we have crossed Jaisalmer on our way to Jodhpur, the horizon is marked not by sand dunes but by several windmills, in all directions. My friend from Mumbai has taken a liking to the cool morning breeze and is off to sleep. And so I’m left with little more than these windmills and the music of 90s Bollywood movies to give me company. Above The ubiquituous Ravanhattha of Rajasthan.
From the foothills of the Himalayas to the desert in Rajasthan, 90s Bollywood music is the all- time favourite of bus drivers in the Indian countryside. And I must concede here that it’s not always soothing. For instance, the driver in this bus is playing, ‘Teri yaad satati hai.. milne ko bulati hai’. My friend’s lucky he’s off to sleep.
As the bus stops at a ‘phatak’ – a railway crossing, (and there is no stopping the painful music), my thoughts wander back to the other music that I’ve heard in Rajasthan, far more mellifluous. Coming from a boy in Mandore, the ancient fortress, where he played a sonorous rendition of ‘Ud ja kale kawa’ on an instrument he called ‘Ravanhattha’.
Divide this word into two and you’ll have a legend of music dating back not hundreds but thousands of years. To the times when once the legendary Ravan lost his veena & cut his own forearm (hattha), to turn his fingers into tuners, his veins into strings and his elbow into a resonator!
Ah! The sacrifice for that one strain of music that today resounds through every street and gully of Rajasthan, from Jaipur & Jaisalmer to Udaipur, at the entrance to every fort and in the courtyard of every palace. Yes! The land of palaces has more than its share of native musical instruments than you’d have thought.
Meanwhile, the bus stops at a village where local women board, bangles all over their hands, and veils all over their faces. Behind them, a group of army-men enters. Yes, the border with Pakistan and the historical town of Pokharan are both close by. The bus restarts and with it, another rendition of excruciating songs – ‘Tumse o hasina kabhi mohabbat na humko karni thi’. And with this I switch again to the ‘other’ music.
This time the music in my mind takes me back to a concert in the Mehrangarh fort of Jodhpur, where classical and folk came together one melodious evening. A team of talented musicians with Nawab Khan on Santoor joined another equally talented one, of the Langas, with their Sarangis and Khartals. And what began with a devotional recital in Arabic, gradually turned into an immaculate performance by Nawab Khan on the Santoor. But the greatest symphonies were to be created when the Langas would join in. The Langas, with their vocals, brought about a geniality that only the rusticity of folk music could, their Khartals at one instant, rattling their way to find an expression above the percussions of the dhol, and at the very next, losing themselves in the pulsating voices of the singers, akin to the applause of the enraptured audience. A Sindhi Sarangi played behind, lending serenity to the ensemble and the falling evening, much like its player, the other Khan sahib, probably the eldest in the group. The Sarangi, as he later told us, was his grandfather’s. Music survives way beyond us mortals do.
And, as I remember those songs, with a mix of Urdu and Rajasthani thrown in, I see the land outside my window turning greener, the grass being replaced by shrubs, the dunes with the first sights of leveled lands. And soon, the bus halts at Pokharan. The army-men alight and we follow, to be greeted by signs of the ‘Famous Cham-Cham of Pokharan’ at eateries all around us. Excited by the prospect of another culinary discovery, we try it, and it turns out disappointing, its taste embittered further by the lame ‘radio-active cham-cham‘ joke from my friend. He is clearly better off sleeping.
We now board the bus for the last leg of the journey to Jodhpur(& hopefully of the painful music). I remember the narrow approach with which I had come here, for attending the World Sufi Music Festival. The only musicians I intended to listen to were those from outside India. And so I had skipped the Manganiyar concert. Only now, after listening to the Langas and reading about both communities in Jaisalmer, I rue my earlier decision.
The Maganiyars are musicians from villages around Jaisalmer & Barmer and embody a tradition of music centuries old, where they, Sunni Muslims, would sing for their Hindu patrons. They still continue to sing in several parts of Rajasthan. It’s still not difficult to spot an old Manganiyar with an even older Kamaycha in his hands singing ‘Moomal’ somewhere around the mud houses of the desert.
Meanwhile, the view from the window turns more vivid as I now spot a few cranes flying outside. The area is close to Khichan, which witnesses annual migration of Demoiselle cranes during this time. The music in the bus has stopped.
Soon I’d be reaching Jodhpur & it’d be time to leave. But I will go back with more fertile ears than ever before. I take with me the music of the deserts, at once plangent, at once buoyant, of longing and belonging alike. I hope that the next time you come here, you don’t just stare at these palaces, but listen to them too. Don’t merely hear the legends of the royals, but also hear the echo of those who sang for them.
Don’t just pass by the next Ravanhatta player beside you, but sit with him & ask him to play your favourite song, or may be join along, a ‘moomal’ or a ‘ghorband’ perhaps ( & it doesn’t matter if your singing is hit only in the bathroom). This is music that has lasted centuries, may be millennia, not the Bollywood music that you’d run way from in a few years!
This post was earlier published with Yahoo India Lifestyle Travel blog.
Serendipity. That’s the word. That’s what keeps bringing me back to Goa. In all probability, even you’ve been there, done that. And each time you went, you decided not to come back. Enough of beaches, shacks and casinos, you told yourself. All in vain though. Next season, you’re back. If you live in Mumbai, Pune, Bangalore or have simply visited it multiple times, you know I’m talking about Goa on the coast of India.
Frankly, I don’t even know why I have been to Goa as many times, each time deciding not to come back. The only reason that I can think of, as I write this, trying hard to look for one, is this whole ‘Serendipity’ thing. You know, when you go to a place and find something altogether unexpected ? Something awesome, which perhaps makes the entire trip & its experience come alive. Even after decades of wooing Indian (& of course Russian) tourists, Goa retains the ability to deliver this ‘thing’ each time you visit it. Goa, my friend, is only as old as the traveller in you.
And so, here I list down some of the more interesting (or delicious) ways of experiencing Goa that I came across on some of my last visits. Let’s see if these have featured in your umpteen trips to Goa. :)
A.) Woke up Where? – How about waking up with a Breakfast at Cafe Inn?
By all means, my favourite beach in Goa remains Palolem, even after all these visits. Apart from the secluded location, scenic vistas, and clean waters, it is the presence of some really good eateries in the vicinity that draws me back. Most of all, Cafe Inn, just after the final left turn to the beach, serves a wonderful breakfast. I’ve been visiting them ever since they were a modest establishment and even now, when the cafe has expanded into far larger seating area, they continue serve one thing best – their Peanut butter croissant, the freshest I’ve ever had.
Where? – Palolem Beach Main Road. Go straight instead of taking the left for the beach.
- Wake up to a surreal view at Palolem!
B.) Shopped in Anjuna?? – How about spending an evening at the Arpora Flea Market?
I haven’t understood this. People have talked so much about the Anjuna flea market. Truth is, the Arpora flea market is the big daddy of all flea markets I’ve seen. It’s full of – I don’t have a word to describe it – lets just say, arbitrary stuff. From absolute junk, that’d force you to invent a use for it before buying, to musical instruments, to cuisines of the world ranging from Bulgarian to Belgian to Punjabi, the market has almost everything to ensure that you’d rather party here than at an expensive club elsewhere. And, there are live music performances too. It’s probably the one place where local tribes and the firang hippies of Goa come together as an enterprise. You have to be there to know it.
What – The Saturday Night Flea Market
Where – Arpora, North Goa. Be prepared for traffic jams on the road. (& in Goa, they happen after midnight!)
- The wide range of food available at Arpora Flea Market.
C.) Ate there? – How about eating at La Plage?
The La Plage at Aswem is like going to a good friend’s big fat wedding. It has all the ingredients, a huge setting in vivid colours, an exotic menu, a caring crew, the peace to sit around & have a wonderful conversation with friends.
A hearty meal at La Plage followed by a walk on the clean beach just beyond the restaurant is one of the most pleasant experiences I have ever had in Goa.
- The wonderful setting at La Plage, Aswem
Follow this up with a dessert at Cafe Nu in Mandrem. Though the menu has a lot of gastronomic delights to offer, but I can vouch for at least the Chocolate Ganache that I had. Their gooey chocolate filled in extremely thin phyllo dough rolls served with scoops of ice-cream will simply melt in your mouth.
- The most amazing Chocolate Ganache at Cafe Nu
La Plage in Aswem
Café Nu, Mandrem. Keep an eye out for the sign boards for Café Nu on the road to Mandrem beach.
D.) Swam there? – How about swimming in a lake & paragliding at Arambol?
Yes & no, respectively. Yup, I tried the paragliding and came back with a close to surreal experience. But only later did I realise that I hadn’t asked my pilot if he had any certification, not even for experience for that matter. Was it a registered company? I don’t know. Frankly, I’d suggest against it. Unless you’ve ensured that the company you are flying with has convincing credentials & you are willing to risk it. Do go around the ghetto-esque setting of Arambol though, towards the north, to discover a tiny fresh water lake behind its hills & maybe take a dip or two. Goa is all about discoveries anyways. Isn’t it?
- Freshwater lake at Arambol
Happy Rediscovering! What are your Goa Secrets?
- A Surya Namaskar to end the day at Aswem
Over the past few days, I have been obsessed with Mumbai. It’s the city I have been living in for quite a few years now and at time, I have hated it. And at those times, when I’ve been away from it, I have missed it. I have cursed it. And those times, when I’ve roamed around carefree at odd hours in the night & still managed to find something to eat, I’ve thanked it.
Quite frankly, it’s an enigma, the more you try to understand it, the more it puzzles you. It’s an illusion, the moment you think you have made it in Mumbai, it brings back to ground with a crash & a thud. It’s a confusion, of people and their ambitions, of cultures and their religions, of emotions and their manifestations. Perhaps the only place that gives an Irani and a Bihari equal opportunities to aspire for and realize their dreams.
It’s a deluge on the senses. More than 18 million voices to be heard, faces to be seen, their minds to be understood and their hearts to be felt, their cuisines to be devoured, smelled, and relished. 18 Million! It is with this objective that I set out starting this section of the blog. To bring to you a picture, every now and then, of the many faces of Mumbai, its people and its places, and everything around, that they find their expression in.
Today, we start with the iconic Haji Ali Dargah in Mumbai, a belief for several, and an inspirer for several others, including the Oscar award winning music composer, A.R. Rahman and his songs! The title of the pic, ‘The wait for Thee‘ tries to capture the spirit of the Sufis that this landmark signifies.
Kashmir. It is here that I decide to be a Lens. Just the lens of a camera. Period. But I secretly wish I was a human here, in this princess of lands, that an emperor once called ‘Firdaus’ – Persian for paradise.
How I envy the splendour of the valleys that these locals dwell in, the silent opulence of their lakes and the exquisiteness of their cuisine, the wazwan. But there’s hardly ever a thing called a free lunch. Being a human has its own costs, especially in a land that evokes the strongest of pathos, from the natural beauty of a landscape & equally from the unnatural ugliness of a conflict and as much as I may yearn for it, I can’t afford to be a human here. I’m glad being just the lens, that doesn’t belong to any human, not even an eye, for even then I may end up taking sides!
I’m glad being just a lens, I’d hardly ever have to face winds as fierce in a terrain as tough..
I’m glad being a lens for all I captured with this nomadic Bakarwal kid was his horse, and not the herculean effort of his family climbing the Himalayan passes up every summer and then down to Jammu every winter.
I’m pleased that I could pretend to just glare incessantly into the eyes of ‘chacha‘ and not listen to his woes of insufficient payments and insensitive trekkers & inefficient travel unions.
I’m glad that I could stare at the faces of these school boys but not at the uncertainty of their future
Oh and being a lens has its perks too, for I’m the only one an army would allow in its camps to capture whatever I want!
But then that’s all that a lens can gather from a scene. And it saddens me. A land like Kashmir deserves far more than my mechanical visions.
I’m sad because I could only capture the innocent look of little Ashfaq but could hardly zoom into his dreams of growing up and becoming a soldier..
I could take in the mountains and the pastures but not the delight of having a chai in the lap of the very same mountains
I’m angry that I could only watch with wariness when these eyes approached me, I wish I had emphasized more on the excitement in them while they recalled their travels to other parts of India
And I’m disappointed that even though I focussed on the eyes of the other ‘Chacha’ , I was barely capable of focussing on his pride of climbing those numerous passes and mountains as a Kashmiri
Truth is, it’s tough even being just this lens in Kashmir. I’v already been happy, glad, sad, angry and disappointed as I narrated this to you. May be, being an eye wouldn’t have been that tough. May be then I would have seen beyond the smoke that lies between me and them. Perhaps even as a lens, I was taking sides. May be if I had been an eye, I’d have known the better of it!