Describing the indescribable- Pangong Tso

20160602_131250

There are times in our life, when we are left searching for words to fill in a near adequate description. And failing. Pangong Tso, is one such experience. Whether to call it a lake or an experience is confusion enough. No adjective is adequate enough to describe the sight of it or the over whelming feeling that goes with it. Yet, let me try my best to tempt everyone to get rid of any inhibitions and get going on the next flight to Leh, before you get too old to combat the altitude sickness!

Not a journey meant for the queasy or soft bummed, a five hour drive on one of the scariest and weirdest roads lead you to Pangong Tso (by the way, ‘tso’ is lake in Ladakhi- and I really love the way it sounds, so Tso it is!). Weirdest because, the landscape changes from one extreme to the other within the span of a few kilometers.

20160602_124849

You just get used to seeing endless barren brown mountains, when with the sudden flick of nature’s fingers, you see really rocky ones (the kind that scare you of an avalanche). This is followed by snow capped peaks near the Changla pass, which is then replaced by dusty ones which blow sand storms. Suddenly, from nowhere are green closed valleys with boggy streams, which are home to handsome, sleek stallions –right in the middle of nowhere leading to nowhere! The valley then turns into a grey sandy desert followed by another green stretch filled with half mongoose half dog like creatures called marmots!Phew!

20160602_115919
Marmots!

 

 

grassland-pangong-lake
Boggy streams, with the horses far away!

 

The weather is equally quirky- as if playing with us! One moment you are huddled in sweaters with the windows of the car drawn up to the next, when you are fanning yourself hard with the sleeve of your sweater and then suddenly you are wishing fervently that you have not left your windcheater behind in the hotel!

The only solace all through the journey is provided by the driver stopping over at a small joint for some very much needed and equally yummy honey ginger tea near the Paagal Naala bridge( apparently called so, owing to the difficulty in assessing  the moods of the stream!).

Just when you are resigned to watching the whole spectrum of browns around you-BAM-you are zapped with a sudden sparkle of vibrant blue visible from between the mountains. A blue that is so dazzling that it blinds- the first sight of Pangong between the mountains.

20160602_122044

Pangong means “High Grassland Lake” in Tibetian. Situated between three lands, India, China and Tibet, we get only one third of the lake which then flows into Chinese territory. The line of Control runs somewhere in between the 134 kilometer long lake which is almost five kilometers at its broadest and situated about 14270 feet above sea level.

Seeing Pangong lake can turn an atheist into a staunch believer in God. I say this because, though most things appear to have a scientific backing, there are things which are so extra ordinary that they almost seem impossible.

Take for instance the fact that it is a SALT water lake! Apparently because there is no outlet for the water,  and so salt deposits have built up over the years.

Or the fact that though there are almost NO fish or aquatic creatures in the lake, there are hordes of Brahminy ducks, geese and sea gulls cackling around  looking extremely well fed and healthy! What do they even eat???

20160602_145210

20160602_131516

Or the fact that the lake even got formed, because Ladakh gets almost no rain! So how did so much water happen to be?

And the best  lies in the changing colors of the lake which very much looks like the shade card of asian paints. Suddenly vibrant blue to suddenly green to turquoise and then a moody angry grey in a span of two hours –a visual feast.

20160602_142843

20160602_145122

20160602_142801
I can count atleast five shades of blue in this pic!

You suddenly realize that you are really miniscule in nature’s scheme of things, and begin to understand the vastness of the universe! Though there were a minimum of two hundred tourists around, there was such a sense of tranquility. The others seem so far away and no sound reaches you apart from the soft lapping of the crystal clear waters on the shore.

The only regret about the trip was that we could not stay back to see the sunrise or the sunset, which are supposed to be spectacular! And the fact that, at the beginning of the summer, the lake is still frozen enough that you can have dinner sitting on it (if you are willing to risk a frost bitten back side).

Nevertheless, Pangong Tso, seems as close to heaven as it gets…or probably is actually a small piece of heaven that God sent for us as a sample! Truly, the indescribable!

20160602_134750

Advertisements

A lesson in simplicity from the land of Julley-Leh.

20160529_072308
The first sight of the mountains from the plane-close enough to touch!

Nestled in the midst of a ring of mountains, belonging to the Kunlun region of the Greater Himalayas, is a land whose landscape and ethos are startling different from what we are.-Ladakh.Watching these people makes me feel a tad jealous- because they have mastered the art of living in the most barren and difficult of places without a complaint. Infact, with a smile and a julley(which is hello).

To say that the landscape is barren, would be an understatement. There are barely any trees or water bodies around. For around six months of the year, there is hardly anything to do, but bear the brunt of the weather. Children do not have school for almost four months, in lieu of the winter. Travel is tedious and fraught with the danger of avalanches and bad weather.

20160531_090316

But once you set foot into Leh, you are swept away by the magic that Ladakh is. I have always been a conformist –my idea of nature has been green, lush and abundant. Never in the wildest of my dreams had I imagined that I would include barren, rugged, and stark under the list marked beauty! But then, Ladakh does that to you.

20160530_103350

 

A place where monasteries dot craggy peaks, the sun shines blindingly bright and all you can see are mountains in varied hues of brown!

20160530_112437
Monasteries right on top of the mountains
20160603_114413
Higher than the monasteries are the living quarteres of the monks

Amidst all this, are the people who are so unassuming, simple and endearing. Going around, we found that there are no glamorous displays of wealth that we are so used to seeing around. All houses looked the same-boxed with wooden windows-basic and minimalistic.

20160529_162526

Most food is barley, cooked in different forms-as bread, stew and beer! Most people rely on tourism for their livelihood. There are no mobile networks for large stretches of land and hardly any hospitals around. But going by the happy pink cheeked faces, you would hardly guess that people lived in such hardship.

20160530_124800

We had the opportunity to visit a Ladakhi home for dinner. The hosts had kept their ancestral home intact-built of mud, stone and wood. The house was three storied, but mainly because of necessity. One floor for living, the one below for storing (you guessed right-barley) and the one above for praying! Apart from the rudimentary but sturdy apparatus for cooking, there was hardly any furniture around.

The only excess was seen in the prayer room which was filled with huge masks, head gear, cymbals and conches- as though the simplicity of their life was compensated for, by their extravagance in praying. Maybe because they have to live at the mercy of nature, they tend to invoke the Gods with as much vigour as possible.

20160531_162429

Apart from this world of difference, the basic concerns of the people seem the same. The lady of the house was taking in tourists to support her children’s education. Huddled in her living room, with hot cups of butter tea, we watched, as her daughter performed a traditional dance for us (albeit in her PJs).Her face glowed when we clapped and praised her child’s performance. She spoke about the long commute her children had to undertake to reach school, and how despite this, her daughter comes first in class.

Experiencing Ladakh does many things to you at a visceral level. You come back changed imperceptibly outside, rather deep inside. You learn to be comfortable with silence. You learn to accept life, as it is without frills and fancy. You learn to calm down. You lose the unnecessary sense of urgency cultivated with years of hurried living. Mostly, you learn a lesson in simplicity. That come what may, you can be happy with the bare minimum that life gives you, and the happy sound of Julley.

20160602_180743

 

Five special things about Gangtok.

20160404_114019

After the muggy heat of Kolkatta, the anticipation of climbing through the mountains for a glimpse of the Himalayas is tantalising. As a prelude to its beauty, we see beautiful tea estates just outside the airport of Bagdogra, the closest airport to Gangtok, the capital of Sikkim.

Twisty, winding, uphill roads and a slowly changing landscape from the flat plains crowded with villages, to the mountains awash with fresh rains and a chill wind, increase my anticipation. More so because, I have been told by trip advisor that the hotel that we have booked into, gives us a direct view of the “Kanchendzonga” , as she is called locally. I am waiting for an uninhibited view of the mighty mountain, which caught my fancy when I saw it in Darjeeling long long ago.

20160404_110149

Our visit to Gangtok, though a very short one left indelible memories. This was one of the first times that we had ventured into a North Eastern state, and had no idea of what to expect.Not only was our holiday enjoyable, we ended up learning very new things about the people and place, so different from us in culture, but still bound by a common country.

Five of the most unique things which made Gangtok special for me were:

1.The churpi.

20160404_221429

 

As we entered Gangtok, the first thing that struck me was the amazing capacity of the drivers (some as young as eighteen, but look younger still) who manouvered  with ease, huge vehicles, on almost ninety degree inclines. Narrow roads, which are two way streets and also double up as pedestrian walks, make for slightly scary viewing. Our driver, a sprightly eighteen year old revealed to us the secret of his alertness- apparantely, a weird kind of chew called Churpi. Made of yak milk, it can be chewed on for hours together, and works the way betel nut works for us, people down south! Unfortunately, the taste of it, is not something that you can get used to, and one tiny cube of churpi lasted me about two hours of trying to analyse the flavours and failing! I had to rest my poor mouth for atleast an hour from all the chewing!

2. The cleanliness

20160405_062328

Gangtok is a quaint town with a population of about a lakh of people. The whole town is built on the incline of a hill. Apart from being the only state which has adopted organic farming, it also appears to be a state which takes its cleanliness pretty seriously. Even the back alleys of the the town have barely any trash lying abandoned on the roads.

Where else would you find quaintly painted bus shelters, roads lined religiously with flowers and parks hidden in the middle of two mountain roads?

20160405_062251

20160405_062004

3. The profusion of flowers.

Though Sikkim is famous for orchids, there are other flowers which bloom in gay abandon and look so pretty, that they almost look fake. None of the pictures have filters, and  though hard to believe, all the pics are of real flowers. Even the roads are lined with flower pots!

 

4. A new kind of market

20160405_191514

The M G market is the hub of most activity, situated at the center of the town. But, a chance discovery led us to the Lal Market – which is a huge shopping mall cum cinema cum vegetable market cum parking place. It seemed like everything under the sun including a whole floor dedicated to rows and rows of tailors who stitch up almost anything, was available! The grocery stores lined up an interesting array of stuff- rows of stringy spaghetti, churpi, different kinds of lentils, noodles and sweets lined up in neat rows.

5. The elusive Kanchenjunga

20160405_180621

Over the next few days, though we saw the Himalayas up close and personal, the Kanchenjunga remained elusive. Staring hard could only give me a faint glimpse of it, and in a flash even that would dissappear! When you wake up to the Himalayas every day, maybe, just maybe, you get so used to it that it ceases to be a wonder, but I really envied the people of Gangtok their view, if nothing else! If you get used to the view of the mountains, and find it non exciting, then watching the city at night is yet another experience you get to compensate for the loss. The whole hill looks lit up with fairy lights and smells of thukpa and momos being cooked. The warm smells of the food wafting from tiny windows of closely lined homes, the biting chill in the air and silence leaves you in a state of stupor that you never want to break! Ah, for the peace!

 

20160405_204303

 

 

 

A walk down the lanes of history – Kolkata

I have always loved history. Somehow, it has the power to enthrall, excite and make me humble all at once. I think the interest developed because we had a teacher in school who had immense talent for making history interesting. It wasn’t only about battle dates and mugging. It was more like watching a“Troy” or “Gladiator” or “Jodha Akbar”every day in school. Hence, I have always loved places which have history entwined in their existence, much more than shiny new skyscrapers and state of the art technology.

I had been to Kolkata; then Calcutta, when in school. The only images that stayed in my mind out of that trip were ones of intense heat, grime, people washing themselves nonchalantly on the roadside in the middle of busy midday traffic and hordes of people trampling over my feet in the temples. Little wonder then, that I was not so keen on Kolkata as a holiday destination.

Summer holidays bring out the wanderlust in me. It’s a time when I can take off and wander with a legitimate excuse that I need to take my kids out for a holiday. So this year, when we decided to see Sikkim, our transit halt had to be Kolkata. This time though,I was blown away- both by the heat and the place;).

If there was Satyajit Ray’s house at one corner of the street, Mirza Ghalib stayed at the other when he came to seek his pension. We saw the first newspaper printing press of India, the place where Ronald Ross first discovered the life cycle of the malarial parasite, the first office of the East India Company, The first supreme Court of India, the town hall where J C Bose displayed his experiments to the world, Swami Vivekananda’s room ,the Eden gardens and much more in just one day!

It was as if I was taking a walking tour through India’s turbulent past, albeit in much more calmer circumstances! Every road, every lane and every building reeked history. It looked as if the youngest building was almost a hundred years old. And had some great name associated with it!

There is a laid back vibe to the place, which is endearing. No one seems much bothered by the fact that there is so much history lying around.They just go about doing their work. It’s all so matter of fact.Like our driver who says “ Oh, we’ll just take the turn on the road near Netaji bhavan” kind. Takes you a moment to realize that the Netaji is Subhash Chandra Bose!

There is no way I can capture what I saw and imbibed in Kolkata in one blog post. There is so much I want to share about the place, which is an amazing amalgamation of history, mythology,revolution,sport and culture. Hence, I thought I will share my best six experiences of Kolkata.

  1. Visiting the Mother House.

20160401_173515

This is a given, as I have idolized Mother Teresa ever since I was a kid. Her ideology of offering “Death with Dignity” was a major influence on me wanting to get into a profession which involved caring for the diseased. When in school, I was a huge fan of the Tinkle comic. The address of Mother house was mentioned in one of the issues. On a whim, I wrote a letter to Mother Teresa indicating my desire to become a nurse (well, that was my first ambition!). It was written in the spirit of the summer holidays when I had nothing better to do and there was no cable tv, and I completely forgot about it, till one day a letter arrived for me from the Mother herself, encouraging me to take up the profession of caring! I was over the moon, and a mini celebrity for a while at home.

When I saw her spartan room with a writing desk and a small neatly made bed, I imagined her writing that letter to me sitting in that room! It was a transcendental experience.

We got to meet Sister Prema, who is in charge of Mother house now, after Sister Nirmala’s death. A nun from Germany, she gamely obliged when we asked for photographs with her. Definitely, the highlight of my day!

20160409_150450

  1. The Netaji Bhavan

During our struggle for independence,one of , if not the most controversial freedom fighters was Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose. His death and the mystery surrounding it has always fascinated me. With the furore regarding the declassification of his files in  recent times, I was intrigued as to why he was so very important.

netajii-3-650_041015022752

Well, as an answer to my questions, and to add fuel my craving for the romantic, we saw the Netaji Bhavan, aka Subhash Chandra Bose’s home before he fled from India. The two floors of his house have been preserved intact. The bed chambers of the two brothers with their slippers, umbrellas and pristine white dhotis lying just so,give you goosebumps. The museum contains documents and photographs of his times. I was surprised to know that he was extremely widely traveled and hobnobbed with most dignitaries of those times. The British Government’s letter which gave permission for his assassination by two British officers and his escape route from the house in his car have been well depicted. With his speeches playing in the background, and seeing the house intact as it were in those days, would definitely bring out the patriot in any one of us!

20160402_160727

  1. A ride along the River Hoogly

Thanks to road repair work, we took the boat (called the Bhutbhuti)to ferry us from  Belur Math to the Dakshineshwar temple. This, in fact turned out to be one of the best experiences of the trip. I would go so far as to recommend it, even if the road was functioning well! It was a half hour ride, watching the people on the river bank go about their business of living, taking bath right in the open, praying, smoking beedies and swimming. Seeing the room in which Swami Vivekananda lived on one bank of the river and the small room in which Ramakrishna Paramahamsa stayed at the other is inspiring.With the Howrah bridge in the background, many temples dotting the shoreline, the wind in your hair and sudden splashes of the waters of Hoogly, it is a great experience!

20160402_133315

20160402_120251

20160402_113610 (2)

  1. The institute of Tropical medicine.

I had recently read The Calcutta Chromosome by Amitav Ghosh, and so this place came alive for me. In small letters , on the side walls are names of bigwigs including Ronald Ross. This was the place where the life cycle of the malarial parasite was discovered and where Robert Koch discovered that the bacteria causing cholera was comma shaped!

tropical medicine

  1. A stroll along Park Street

Any holiday of mine is incomplete without good food and books. Everyone from the hotel staff to our tour guide to the driver to a passerby recommended Park street for food.The street is a vision at night. There are hotels from one end to the other, starting with “Trincas”, a bar where the famous Usha Uthup started her career. The street is brightly lit, the atmosphere is festive,and  each time any door opens onto the street, heavenly aromas of food waft through and tempt you to go in. Huge long waiting lines outside each restaurant are the only hitch. But you will definitely not mind as each bylane has an amazing array of street foods like puchkas, kathi rolls and biryanis. There are famous places for savory deserts as well like Flurys, Mio Amore etc.

Park St

And the icing on the cake is the Oxford book house, which has a café on the second floor where you can browse and watch the world going by while sipping on a cuppa. Must do for all food and book lovers!

Oxford-Bookstore-Park-Street

There were many more things to do and see, but as I had not anticipated falling in love with Kolkata, I had kept very little time to spend. Back home, I’m repenting it and eagerly awaiting my next visit to the City Of Joy!

 

 

Six fun ways to explore Coorg with kids.

 

Solo travel seems to be the flavor of the season. Unfortunately, a lot of us have caught the bus, or rather realized that there is a bus, a little too late. At this point of time, the craving to just  take a long walk without a purpose, daydream and travel according to my own whims and fancies is as irresistible, as is close to impossible.

Almost all the books that I have read recently, a lot of blogs and newspapers give accounts of people who travel and explore places and generally enjoy being by themselves, coming back rejuvenated. The introvert in me gets mighty excited at this prospect because, I really really enjoy being by myself. But the pragmatic side of me knows that probably this kind of travel is only possible for me when my kids outgrow me and when my work responsibilities are lessened.

In a world of uncertainties and with my level of impatience, waiting so long to travel and see the world seems like a gross waste of time. Hence, to take the road often traveled, I planned to travel bag and baggage,with my kids and enjoy them, myself and the place all together. A tall order,but no harm trying.

Our first such sojourn this year was to Coorg over the weekend.

I had been to Coorg fifteen years ago and had fallen in love with the place. And as I had explored it then quite a fair bit, it felt easier to plan and navigate this time round. For the uninitiated, Kodagu or Coorg is a district in Karnataka, famous for coffee, spices and the natural beauty. The district has about five principal towns by name of Madikeri, Kushalnagar, Somwarpet, Gonikoppal and Virajpet, all at close quarters to each other.

Coorg, is usually considered a honeymooner’s,coffee lover’s and  backpacker’s paradise. Despite not fitting into any of the above categories this time around, we enjoyed ourselves far too much. Definitely, we made it our own family paradise!

Though we stayed surrounded by a forest and coffee plantations,this is how we made it one:

  1. Harangi backwaters:

We planned our stay in a jungle resort in Kushalnagar, right on the banks of the backwaters of the Harangi river. The only problem with this being the commute for the last stretch of the road, which was quite bumpy. But the resort was such a pleasure. Well maintained, and clean food being the basic two necessities for the kids, it fit the bill perfectly.

The resort provided boating and kayaking facilities in the backwaters, and a great play area for small children. For the older ones, there are huge playgrounds created by the receding waters of the Harangi, which served as badminton and volleyball courts.

Meals in the garden, watching the birds and the vegetation scored over Doremon, in their novelty value, hence, making my job of feeding my younger one easier and their tummies fuller.

DSC_1149
a view of the backwaters early in the morning
DSC_1182
a bed of soft green ahead of the waters.

DSC_1217

  1. Dubare elephant camp.

Situated about 15 kms away from Kushalnagar,is an elephant camp on the banks of the River Cauvery. Owing to the amount of people who visit it, it has developed a touristy feel with junk food stalls and others selling locally made handicrafts. Nevertheless, nothing can take away the happiness of seeing and touching the huge, but seemingly gentle beasts swaying their trunks gracefully about.

Alongside this, there are other things to do in Dubare, like still water rafting (as a compensation for those mothers with kids less than five, who are not allowed to be on the riskier but more fun version of white water rafting). The vast expanse of green all around, cranes abound and the rhythmic sway of the oars create a tranquil atmosphere.

Right in the middle, the boatman allows a stop at a place where the kids can jump into the water for a small swim  and enjoy themselves. There are also places in between where you can cross the expanse of the water jumping over boulders and play in the water. (I’m told this is only possible in the summer and winters when the water levels are low).

DSC_1289

  1. Trekking up the Bhramagiri hill.

The word trek here, is what I am using quite loosely. Near the Talacauvery (the birthplace of River Cauvery), is a hill Brahmagiri, which offers an amazing view of the mountain range around it. You only have to huff and puff a few hundred steps to reach the top. Carrying a small picnic hamper, plonking yourselves right on top of the world and having a bite, all the while watching the clouds pass next to you is a lovely experience. The top of the mountain gives you a view of three states , one on each side- Karnatka, Tamilnadu and Kerala(Though all you can see is mountains and lush green, making you wonder as to the farce of man made boundaries!).

DSC_1323
Picnic with views like this atop the Bhramagiri
  1. Spice farms.

Being born and brought up in a city makes for a slight amount of ignorance regarding the place of origin of many of the things that we confidently stuff into our mouths. Like the kid who thought that milk came from the closest milk booth and all that. Tucked away in an expanse of green, we saw a small board reading “The Indian institute of Spice research”. It appeared desolate, but on getting in, we met up with a research student who was doing work on growing vanilla. He showed us around huge plantations of spices right behind the building. Brown fragrant vanilla beans, bright yellow nutmegs with a burst of red within, peppercorns looking like a small bunch of grapes… It felt really good. Bye bye, spice dumbness!

nutmegft

  1. Cycling through the coffee plantations.

They say that you know a place only when you know its by lanes. Cycling through the small roads of the coffee plantations, stopping over every time we saw something new was great. With almost zero traffic, we could stop to watch every bright colored unnamed flower, coffee beans, small bugs and spiders. Houses with chillies spread out to dry, curious dogs looking at us and birds calling out ever so often into the silence, make for a great experience. Quite safe for young kids, as there is almost no traffic. Most resorts offer cycles, hence you can enquire beforehand, instead of lugging your own around. The only risk here is the condition of the bicycle. Make sure you find out ones with the best brakes!

DSC_1160

DSC_1375
unnamed berries between the plantations
DSC_1232
the dew finds beautiful places to settle on.
  1. The honey farms.

This was one thing which I wanted to  show my kids, but had unfortunately disappeared this time. On the way to Bhagamandala, on our last trip, we found a small dilapidated museum and a honeybee farm. The museum was dusty and had a weird smell, but was manned by an enthusiastic old guy who explained to us in great detail the history and the progress in the area of making honey. The museum was home to many artifacts and boxes in which the bees are kept. This time, however, the museum was not to be found. Have any of you seen it??

All of the above were really short trips saving us a lot of time to laze, relax and sleep of all the week’s tiredness.

As a mother, it was important for me that my children enjoy their trip too. And we realized that it did not matter whether the tv was on, or that we did not have internet for most part or that there were no amusement parks around, our weekend in Coorg was one of the most memorable ones in the recent past.

Cycling in Pondicherry

pondicherry-city-bike-tour-with-breakfast-in-puducherry-200050
There are certain memories in life which stay with you vivid and clear. You remember even the smallest details of the memory as distinctly as if it just happened. Oxford, UK was one such memory. I was hardly eleven at that time, but it still made an enormous impact. The majestic stone buildings with ivy climbing on to the walls, the mild chill in the air, people casually walking into cafes with satchels slung on their backs, neat tidy rows of houses which looked similar to each other,just as though they had stepped off the rack of a toy store, cobbled roads, and CYCLISTS.

In India, the only people whom I knew cycled were us school kids, and people who could not afford a better means of transport! That cycling would be a preferred vehicle of choice for professors, students who actually owned cars to ferry them back to their hometown and even really old people, was something I could not fathom.The way they locked their cycles with chains to the parking place oh so casually impressed me. And to know that they called their cycles “bikes”,a word, which in India meant a motor cycle, made it sound ever so cool!

We generally outgrow most of the fetishes of our childhood as we mature, or so I believe. My love for cycling was something which stubbornly but secretly stuck on. Secretly because, generally and practically speaking in most towns of cities in India, we do not encounter doctors or bank managers or teachers or chartered accountants whiz away on their cycles for work. I am not saying this as a snob. It is just reality. And staying right across from the place where I work takes away from me, the freedom to rebel against this cliche!  On occasion, I have also had his fear of being branded as a “weird” shrink(I do worry about my practice, you see) if I did go against the norm! I also do not live in a place like Bengaluru, where cycling in super stylish cycling gear complete with a helmet and radium piping, would be considered cool. I would be stared at on the road, as if I were a two headed alien who had suddenly landed on this earth!

Hence, sadly,my love for the bicycle remained in the closet for long into my adulthood. I would vow to myself that, when I went to Amsterdam, I would cycle to my hearts content( maybe, going to Amsterdam would be so expensive that I could only afford to cycle across!).

Till, I went to Pondicherry. It was surprising to see cycling still existed as a prominent means of transport for both the young and the old, saree wearing aunty to an expat!

street-portrait12

Even more exited to hear of a cycling tour of Pondicherry, offered by Sita Cultural center which is a one stop shop for everything you want to do.From scuba diving to bollywood dancing to cooking lessons, this hole in the wall, blue, building which I failed to find despite whizzing by it thrice, is a hub for all adventure.

cycle tour

DSC_0851

DSC_0853

And so my adventure started at 6 in the morning with my guide Manisha and a cycle.

To start the day cycling into the small gullies of Pondicherry was not on my agenda when I went, but I really ended up enjoying my sojourn. Pondicherry is divided into a tamil quarter, a french quarter and a muslim quarter. I have no idea what the last quarter of the whole comprises of!Maybe the christian quarter(just to round off the national integration part).

And this is what I saw

DSC_0867

Large houses built in Chettinad style with embroidery like wooden  panels adorning them. These were houses of Soldas, the Muslim tamils who worked in the Portugese army. They were given a dual citizenship, based on which most of the descendants are now staying in Europe, and come only in the month of July for trading in spice. Rest of the time, the houses are restored and maintained as they were hundreds of years ago!

DSC_0804

That the buildings in Pondicherry are colour coded. For example, the Aurobindo institutes are grey in color, the Government buildings are yellow, the French buildings are orange and the like.

DSC_0893

For the film buffs,this is the house where the crew of “The life of Pi” stayed during the shoot.

DSC_0905

An artist’s depiction of how to make the best of waste! Made out of plastic bottles he found in the trash.He also apparently made a sculpture of a huge boat with people depicting how the city was saved during the tsunami.

DSC_0926

Courtyards with a beautiful mix of French style architecture and the very Indian rangoli blending smoothly with each other

DSC_0946

Temples on the roadside with fierce looking Goddesses, not yet open for the day’s prayers

DSC_0950

The beautiful sunrise, yet again.

Huge cathedrals, mosques and temples residing in harmony, with devotees quietly going about their business.

DSC_0939

A bakery with fresh morning produce.

DSC_0896

Fisherman's wharf.

I enjoyed myself so much, that ending the ride was saddening. But as the saying goes, "When you want something badly enough, the universe conspires to give it to you”, I discovered a cycling club back home.So despite the lack of coffee shops, designer gear and Victorian buildings,now, every weekend I relive the memories of my childhood, cycling early in the morning with the wind gushing on my face and drinking tea from the dhaba on the roadside. Fair enough deal, if I could say so!

A little bite of France and a big gulp of the sea -Pondicherry

DSC_0805

I remember reading a quote by Kurt Vonnegut which said “Bizarre travel plans are dancing lessons from God”. I did not even know who Kurt Vonnegut was, at that point of time (though I did google him and found out that he was an American writer!), but the quote somehow stuck in my mind.

I was sure, given my obsessive traits, that such travel was never going to be a part of my existence. After all, super planning was my forte.

Cut to October this year, after six months of working myself to the point of exhaustion, the craving to take a break was immense. With unexplained logic, I decided that Pondicherry would be the place to refuel me. I knew there was not much there to entertain my kids, and that it was really far off to go (around 400 odd miles from where I live), just to put up my feet and rest! The idea was so uncharacteristic of me, that people around kept asking me if I had a conference there or would be meeting my friends, perhaps!

Slow, lingering holidays were hardly a part of my previous agenda in life. Off late, I have been reading books like “Falling off the map” by Pico Iyer and have been an ardent follower of Shivya Nath, who writes a  travel blog “The shooting star”, which may have subconsciously influenced me to visit a place, just because!Or maybe it was just sheer exhaustion which made me travel without anything specific to do, but be!

And Pondi ( as I now call it fondly) did live up to all my expectations and more.

Revisiting forgotten pleasures of watching the sunrise with a cup of coffee for hours, waking up to watching the sea in front of you, listening to the waves when you sleep at night and gorge on cuisines as diverse as the fiery Chettinad and subtle French make being in Pondicherry a divine experience!

DSC_0570

DSC_0579

Whenever I used to read about Pondicherry or see pictures, it would seem to me as if the city had a quaint, old world charm to it. In reality, the city is sharply divided into a bustling, crowded,typical Tamil neighborhood and a smallish French quarter, which is rather racistly called “White town”.Strange though it was,within five short days, I got used to seeing a Tamilian lady speak fluent French and Frenchman haggle for veggies in a liberally accented Tamil!

Needless to say, all the tourist attractions and the hotels are located in the French Quarter. Most of the hotels are restored homes of the French governors and other officials, and hence stately,huge and grand.

view of the hotel foyer- complete with a fountain and wrought iron chairs
view of the hotel foyer- complete with a fountain and wrought iron chairs

The hotel which we stayed, was on the Promenade road, just across the beach. Every window we opened gave us a magnificent view of the beach, and this was perhaps the best part of the trip. I have never been a big fan of the sticky, salty ocean, but this experience transformed me! Just watching the magnificent sunrise ( sunsets are not visible on the sea, as we were on the east coast!)was enough soul food.

DSC_0950

DSC_0809
watching the sea as i wake up

One of the best things about the Promenade Road is that it is home to most of the attractions that are to be seen! The Gandhi statue surrounded by intricately carved pillars (which were apparently scoured from a fort conquered by by Shivaji, in Gingee, Tamilnadu- never knew Shivaji travelled that far), the French war memorial, the old eighteenth century light house, the Cathedral of Immaculate conception,the half sunken pier and the Aurobindo ashram institutions  all are neatly placed one next to the other on the road, making it easy to tick off the things on our to do list in the span of a day! The rest of the stay hence, was used to explore and laze!

DSC_0607

the long stretch of promenade road
the long stretch of promenade road
The war memorial
The war memorial

The road is off limits to traffic from 6 in the evening to 7 next morning owing to the amount of people who throng the beach every evening! The road is brightly lit through the night and boasts of a cafe which is open twenty four seven to feed any hungry visitors! Waking in the middle of the night and looking out of our hotel window gave me a glimpse of the road which was still teeming with people at 3 AM!

coffee and sea at Le cafe
coffee and sea at Le cafe

The French quarter is picture perfect. The worst camera would probably still give the best picture! Every building is clickable and vibrantly colored! And one in almost five buildings is a cafe serving mouth watering food!

neat picture perfect buildings in the French quarter
neat picture perfect buildings in the French quarter

Back after the holiday, I was reading a blog on Pondicherry, when I realized that there were quite a few touristy places that we had not visited. Any other time, it would have made me squirm at the lost opportunity, but somehow, this time, it felt okay.

I had carved out my own experiences. I had explored the by lanes and alleys with an old battered cycle and knew the best place to eat street food! I experienced riding a bike on the scary, honky,busy roads with my daughter and watching rows of glaring neon signs and really really huge jewelry shops(each one the size of any respectable mall!).

neon neon everywhere
neon neon everywhere

I had unearthed stores which sold old vintage furniture, a convent  where destitute women made exquisitely embroidered clothes, discovered a never before seen insect and watching my kids’ excitement, taken a selfie with my son and a hundred year old banyan tree and read peacefully for hours while watching the sea!

DSC_0969

With Pondicherry,I think I have discovered my love of soaking up the feel of the place with my seemingly bizzare travel plan!

my partners in crime - a red vespa and an old cycle with hardly any brakes!
my partners in crime – a red vespa and an old cycle with hardly any brakes!

Myths are my thing!

The entry into Sirigere
The entry into Sirigere

Off late, I have been reading a lot of books on spirituality and mysticism. Probably, this is why I got thinking about how and why myths, legends, tales of kingdoms bygone are generated. Are these true stories? Or did they grow as tales of strength and valor passing from generation to generation,peppered with liberal doses of imagination of the people who had no better past times than story telling? Or were they trying to glorify these stories just to get a proxy ego boost? Somewhat like, “Though I have not done anything great, wait till you hear about my ancestors!”. The glory of past achievements trickling down into their blood, giving them the confidence to carry out with their mundane existence.

Which ever way it goes, the best part about these stories are that, they are interesting to listen to. And if you are like me, in a way that anything history and mysterious fascinates you, they can lead you into the past of your imagination so many hundreds of years ago, when levitating sages and magic potions were probably as common as roadside cows now!

I first had this feeling when I visited Hampi, in Hospete. The ruins of the Vijayanagara Kingdom, the plains, the rocky mountains, the silence and the fact that most of the city is so well preserved, make it easy for you to suddenly imagine those times when they would sell gold in bushels on roadsides, the swish of the King’s silks as he entered the Vittala temple and generally,the grandeur of those times.

The same with the fort in Chitradurga, where one look at “Obavvana Kindi”(the crevice in the wall of the fort named after Obavva ) is enough to push me into a world where Hyder Ali’s treacherous plan was spoiled by a soldier’s wife with a wooden pestle.

Recently, this feeling caught me when we went to an almost unheard of place called Sirigere, about 30 kms from where I live. What started as a long drive in the rains became a lesson in history and mythology.

Sirigere looks like any common village in the heart of malnad, with one road,a couple of houses,and a temple on the top of a hill.But what sparked my interest was this board:

The board which reads"Pandavas prayed here"
The board which reads”Pandavas prayed here”

Which reads, “This is the place where the Pandavas(yes, the same ones from the mahabharat), prayed”. Trudging up the hill, we found a makeshift temple and an over enthusiastic priest. The temple consisted of a mound covered in red with a trident and some rudrakshis wound around it and another mound next to it.

DSC_0303

DSC_0321

In front of the temple on top of the hill
In front of the temple on top of the hill

The priest explained that we were actually standing on the top of a temple which had been buried underground. He showed us a closed trap door entrance to the temple underground, which was not accessible to visitors, as they had seen and caught a lot of them trying to steal into the tunnel in search of treasure! (Only if it were so easy!). He claimed that this was indeed the place where the pandavas prayed last before their exile ended. And that there was a whole sect of people replete with a swamiji (Godman), who had grown on and into that belief.

A stream from up the hill finding its way out of a cow's mouth!
A stream from up the hill finding its way out of a cow’s mouth!

He pointed to the other mound and said that this was the place that the swami took his Samadhi. In other words where he died. But the concept of this again, is part spooky and part exciting to me. Taking samadhi means that the seer would have known by divine intervention that his time on earth was coming to an end. At which point he would crawl inside a cave on a self imposed fast and meditate for days on end. There would be a lamp placed at the mouth of the cave, with instructions that, once the lamp extinguishes(which meant that the swami’s soul would have left his body), the cave would be sealed.  I had recently also seen Sri Shankaracharya’s samadhi in a cave of a hill in Kashmir! Again, this is impossible for me to imagine, but apparently happened quite often!History or fantasy?

DSCN2236

Parrots in abundance
Parrots in abundance

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

We become instantly suspicious about the fact that we can be in a place so famous and deep in history which no one has heard about, when he comes out with yet another explanation.” If we let the Archaeological Department into this secret, they would most certainly dig out the temple from underground and spoil its aura. Why do we need a scientific body to prove something that we know as true and believe. Hence all this secrecy!” Put that way, it makes a weird kind of sense. Who are we to burst the bubble, if it is giving solace to so many??

DSCN2216

He went on to show us the weapons which were apparently used by the pandavas, hands us a visiting card of the temple, complete with a website, which some techie from Bangalore(who is also a devotee) has created with a detailed description of the miracles which have happened in the temple and tells us about a cave right on top of the hill in which Arjuna meditated, and is off bounds to visitors(but not to him) due to the divine energy it radiates.

 

DSC_0337

Dazed and part unbelieving,we clamber down in the rain.One part of me wants to believe that I have indeed been living close to a very important, magical, mysterious,mythologically significant place.The fantasizer in me is glowing, and how!The rational side, plays spoilsport though. I wonder how the pandavas strayed so far from their course, in exile. Then again, fourteen years is a really long while. And they did not have GPS for sure!

I had once met a scholar who told me that most of the stories of bravery and valor recorded as history in our textbooks and the like had actually never happened in that exact same way. The people existed, and so did their brave spirit, but the story was, in fact blown out of proportion to impress upon the lay people, the strength of spirit! Being the emotional country that we are, any talk of changing the story would erupt into a fight or convert into threats for the scholar!

Hence, our myths and legends have stayed. And grown. And enticed me into their mystery. Fleetingly making me forget that there is a line between fact and fantasy. And that sadly,most times we need to boringly stay with the facts. For the rest of the time, there is places like Sirigere!

The many moods of monsoon.

It is finally monsoon again. After playing truant for nearly a month, it has started pouring cats and dogs. And how the landscape changed! Trees that were wilting have suddenly sprouted green. Stone paved paths suddenly have grass nudging from their edges. The skies are grey, waiting to open up at any moment. Suddenly, there are cranes aplenty pecking their way through green expanses of paddy without a care for the poor soggy scare crows, farmers working in the rain with plastic raincoats and sheets of rain making the road gleam.

The earth smells fresh and green. Forests look lush and waterfalls erupt onto roads as if to please us. Clouds float low and make travel seem dream like.

I love rain in its many forms. I love the slight drizzly kind, when the wind blows chill and you get rain in your hair, and you can walk in the rain without getting fully drenched. Long walks in such rain rejuvenate me. I also love the angry kind when the sky suddenly decides to open up and pour barrels on poor unsuspecting me, and before I realize it and can open my umbrella, it is done. I am soaking wet and still standing with the umbrella half open! It used to happen all the time in Mangalore, and used to come at the end of a hot spell which made me hot, sweaty and irritable. And there is also the insistent, consistent middle of the path rain which keeps on for hours at the same speed, neither too much nor too less. Granted, life becomes depressing then, but on the positive side, this is the best for plonking myself on the ledge of a window with a hot cup of tea, a great book and roasted corn.

If there is anything I enjoy more than rain itself, it is the opportunity of travelling during monsoons. This time, I had the pleasure of traveling along the almost virgin forests of Gerusoppa in Uttara Kannada district for the upanayanam of my nephew. I was so zapped by the natural beauty around me, that I did not want to blink for the fear of missing out something more beautiful. No words can do justice to what God, or nature or some supreme power out there decided for the world during the rains.

Hence the photographs. Enjoy the many moods of monsoon.

The elephant camp at Sakrebail, was wet and beautiful. The elephants seemed to be good spirits with the cold weather, and did not mind visitors.

DSC_0146

Sudden rains marooned a motor boat in the water. Looks exciting, like a wreck with treasures, waiting to be explored.

DSC_0151

A sudden burst of green along a paved path.

DSC_0150

The sight of the grey skies. The silver lining behind the clouds. donotwanttoblinkable!

DSC_0181

The back waters of the river Aganashini.

DSC_0184

Can you see the water fall on top, between the trees? A lovely view of Gerusoppa ghats.

DSC_0211

A walk in the clouds…

DSC_0170

DSC_0165

There is small, old, slippery, mossy stairway leading to a lookout point just at the beginning of the mountain road. The top is really filthy, but the view more than makes up for it!

DSC_0214

DSC_0216

DSC_0214

DSC_0215

Green carpet of paddy for miles and miles.

DSC_0208

DSC_0220A lovely temple pond with still mint green waters.

DSC_0195

RIP Padiyaar mam

IMG-20150619-WA0002

The beauty of the Western ghats is unparalleled. The different shades of plush green, the cold chilly wind, the clouds taking a walk with you, the mist shrouding the trees and the gushing sounds of a hidden waterfall somewhere close by. If this picture makes you yearn to take a trip right-away, hold on, this is not all! At the beginning of the ghats, there is a small quaint police station across which a lovely lake and a garden exist. Just across the garden, the aroma of hot vadas frying in hot sizzling oil, wafts towards you and pulls you along towards the ramshackle cart. Hot vadas, spicy chutney and hot milky tea – now we are talking heaven!

Since my childhood, whenever we would climb down the Agumbe ghats to enter hot sultry Mangalore, we would have a customary, compulsory stop at Padiyar mam’s vada stall. Through globalization and commercialization, the stall, which actually is rather a fancy name for a tin pushcart with plastic sheets hung across to prevent the drizzle, remained the same. Rows of cars, bikes and buses would be parked across the already small, winding road. Weary passengers who would climb down to stretch their legs would invariably be drawn towards the stall and the tasty aroma emanating from there.

The USP of the stall though, was without doubt its owner. Mr. Padiyar, who knew each and every customer by name, somehow with great clarity remember where each one’s child was studying or getting married. It somehow made you feel as if you had wandered into an indulgent uncle’s house in your neighborhood.

And the vadas. Exactly the same taste year after year, decade after decade. No expansion of the menu, no fancy improvements of the stall and no HR people. It was a sort of niche place, with only one item which was world class. Whenever we would go, he would en quire about our education, how our parents and far flung relatives were faring, and introduce us whomsoever around was interested in listening to his banter. As a teenager, this used to embarrass me greatly, but not enough to forgo the vadas! I would mutter under my breath as to why he could not just leave me alone. Every single time when we passed the ghats by bus,(which was, I am ashamed to say, was quite often, given the extent of my homesickness!), I remember, I wouldn’t go home, without the vadas sitting comfortably in my stomach.

After my MBBS , I went to Mangalore quite less. Though the trips were less frequent,when we would occasionally pass by for a wedding, a meeting or a conference, we would eagerly look forward to the stall being open. Padiyar maam (mam,which meant uncle in Konkani and kannada) would always remember. It was like homecoming. What was irritating earlier, seemed like warmth later on. He would have ten conversations side by side with different customers, but still manage to remember them all! We got to know that with this tiny business, he had managed to educate his son and daughter, who were in excellent positions. When a patron questioned him as whether he would close down to go and stay with his son, he nixed it aggressively. This is what he loved, he said, and what he would do till the end!

I met him about a fortnight ago, on my way to Manipal. Little did I know that it would be the last time. A week later he was admitted to a hospital in Shimoga with fever and delirium. It was so sad to see him and realize that he was unable to recognize anyone, let alone the thousands of friends he had made over the years. In a span of one week, he deteriorated, was diagnosed to be having a rare disease, and died. It was unbelievable. Someone whom I had seen hale and hearty, and in the pink of health , suddenly disappeared.

I never imagined that I would experience a deep sense of loss about his death. After all, he was not related to me, nor was I in constant touch with him. But feel sad, I did. I could not shake off that heavy feeling through the day. Later on, I happened to see  condolence messages on whatssapp and facebook, and realized that so many more must have felt the same about him.

He was an integral part of the travelling experience. Somehow the forest and the landscape feel incomplete without him, the hungry traveler bereft. The eager wait for a few minutes respite, a soul warming snack , and comforting conversation is no more going to happen. Padiyar maam, we miss you. RIP!

a whatsapp pic of padiyar maam
a whatsapp pic of padiyar maam