Fun things to know about Ladakh.

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Three months after I took a trip to Ladakh, I had a serious  case of nostalgia over the weekend. I have discovered that after any holiday, there are a few special things which stick around in my mind. The rest of the memories slowly, lazily, fade away leaving behind these interesting bits and pieces which turn into symbols of that holiday. Sort of, like watching the highlights of a cricket match and remembering only that exact ball and wicket that led to the win!

So also, in the case of our holiday to Ladakh, where well wishers fed us with stories about the difficult terrain and people dying because of the all too famous mountain sickness! When we actually reached, half scared half excited, it was an anticlimax. We found the place welcoming, beautiful, safe, chilly (which was welcome because it was blistering hot back home) and luckily, experienced very little ill health or wooziness!

Seven days disappeared before we knew it, and the land and its people embraced us so warmly that we felt a wee little bit Ladakhi at heart, by the time we returned. Though remote in a lot of ways and sans the most traditional (pun intended) forms of entertainment like malls, fast internet and cinemas, we happened to have most fun exploring Ladakh and learning her ways like….

Julley.

The ladakhi are known to be a very friendly race and the friendship starts with a “Julley”, which is a blanket term for  “Hi, Whats up?, How are you doing ?, How’s life ?” and anything else that falls into the category of a greeting. The meaning is circumstance based, rather than rigid. So simple, yet so beautiful. Importantly, easy for us toursists, who find it difficult to run our tongues around difficult, lispy tibetian words. Learn one word, and work miracles as a conversation starter! In a span of seven days, I said ‘Julley’ more times than I did ‘Namaste’ in the past year of my life! To the driver, our guide,the shopkeeper, the vendor on the road, my tour mates(till the novelty wore off) and to any stranger! No one found it strange and returned the greeting with grace and a warm smile!

This made me want to try harder to learn some more, and ended up with “Thuk che che”, which is thank you. Not much more! The people and the language make a nice contrast, as the language sounds harsh but the people look friendly!

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The unpredictable weather.

There is a saying in ladakhi which goes “Never trust a vendor’s promise, a girl’s mind and the ladakhi weather- all three change colors fast”. Though the feminist in me wants to snip off the “girl” part, I can mostly agree on the other two! Especially the weather! You never know what to wear when you tour Ladakh. I browsed through books and websites telling me what to carry, before I packed. Half of my luggage was filled with sweaters and caps of various sizes and shapes- one for little cold, one for moderate and one for really cold! Armed with this arsenal, I felt pretty confident that I could conquer the weather and its whimsies! Little did I know that the weather would beat me to it! What started off as a warm day suddenly turned very windy, and vice versa. Heck, just walking out from direct sunlight into the shade would lower the temperature by significant degrees! Well, to make the long story short, I landed up wearing atleast three layers of clothing and repeatedly peeling them off or putting them on – and looking a minimum of three sizes too big in all the photographs! I learnt the hard way that “layering” only looks good in fashion magazines and is not meant for mere mortals like us!

 

The funky Tees

Well, one of the most important assignments on any trip is the shopping for the extended family that we have left behind in the pursuit of satisfying our travel lust! Aargh,the apparent selfishness of this act makes me want to buy some more, to appease them and beg forgiveness!

T shirts with “My mom/brother/uncle…went to so and so place and only got me this t shirt” which were cute about a century ago, never much appealed to me. But Leh has something unique to offer in this respect. The market place is strewn with shops which actually embroider funky stuff on to t shirts of different sizes! Their savvies lie in the fact that they take orders by the day and deliver them the next, with the embroidery that you want! No prizes for guessing what I got for my entire family!

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Thanks Punegetaways for the click which I did not remember to take!

The jewellery.

Through the week, there was not one time that I saw people wearing anything made of gold. The traditional tibetian jewellery uses silver, wood, bronze and bark inlaid with semi precious stones, corals and beads. From roadside flea markets to shops which store the more valuable pieces, we saw some of the most exquisite craftmanship. Turquoise, which is found in the mountain ranges of Tibet- is one of the most common stone used- in the making of filigree ornaments, earrings, necklaces, and jewellery boxes with intricate inlay.

The experience of shopping in stores is also unique. Most traders are nostalgic Kashmiris, who have difficulty in adjusting their mindscape to the barrenness of Leh after growing up in the lush pastures of Kashmir. They work for six months of the tourist season and migrate back home for the winters.

Once the trader realizes that the buyer is serious, he offers hot kahwa and a chat, till the customer finishes deliberating. By the time you are through with the free kahwa, the hole in your pocket is threatening to grow to enormous proportions!

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The whole brouhaha about altitude sickness.

Exactly opposite to Voldemort and in equal proportion, is the scare about Mountain sickness. For the uninitiated,’ Acute mountain sickness’ is a syndrome caused by the thinning oxygen levels in the atmosphere when at high altitudes. The symptoms range anything from shortness of breath to no breath at all! It takes some amount of acclimatizing to withstand it.

Now, before we set foot into Ladakh, the travel company gave us so many pointers to start diuretics (as a preventive measure) that we started to wonder if the pharmaceutical company was working hand in glove with the travel one, to promote their product. Each one of us had atleast three strips of the drug!

Then came the pro travelers with horror stories of people dying on the trip.

Followed by the Leh airport authorities- who play the symptoms and warning signs of mountain sickness on a loop,religiously, on loudspeakers , in between flight announcements.

We almost developed psychological breathlessness, because we thought that we had live up to their expectations!

Jokes apart, yes, mountain sickness did exist. We got exhausted faster and found ourselves gasping for breath after climbing a single flight of stairs,but that was about it. Over two days, we managed to conquer most of it.

The trick is to drink a lot of water, pop in the diuretic and take as many toilet breaks as you want into basic but functional pit toilets, with your breath held and eyes closed ! A feat which you will no doubt learn over time! After all, necessity is the mother of invention.

Ladakh in many ways, is not the ideal luxury destination for a break. It is harsh, barren and basic. But when the holiday includes fresh mountain air (though scantily), clear skies with a gazillion stars and the company of amazing friends, the whole holiday becomes priceless.

These are my memories from Ladakh. Have you learnt anything fun there?

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

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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!

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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.

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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!

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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!

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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!

Memories of kashmir.

Every time I visit a new place, there are a few things about it that I end up storing away between the folds of my brain. These memories are unique, customized and last me forever. There may be things which everyone remembers, important monuments  which I may forget, but these special memories stay with me and make my experience unique. Thanks to digital cameras, (the old ones meant that I lost quite a lost of my pictures because of over or under exposure) and now smart phone cams, most of what I want to retain comes easier to me. Kashmir gave me many such favorite moments which I wanted to share.

A few of the photographs have been borrowed from our friend Dr. Deepak, courtesy a better camera to capture the same scene as compared to my phone cam.

1.This photograph was taken early in the morning from our houseboat on the first day of our trip. It was a cold chilly day, and we saw this couple start their day of work as usual. They seemed oblivious to the scenery around them, concentrating steadfastly on their work of fishing. They worked in harmony, no words needed. The mountains in the back, the bluish light of dawn and still waters made for a beautiful click.

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  1. On the way to Pehelgaum, we spotted a roadside stream and stopped for a photo shoot. There were some girls from nearby villages watching us curiously. We were reluctant to approach them at first, wondering how they would react. Finally when we did ask them, they were really excited and did an entire photo shoot with us! I love the smile on the first girl’s face. Such happiness!

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  1. This was a lovely sunset at Nishatbag, Srinagar. All of us tired after a long day. We were supposed to go to a Kashmiri friend’s home for dinner. There was a little bit of unease owing to the fact that, the area we were venturing into was a little unsafe, within the old city of Srinagar. Most of us were worried, but had no energy to think of an alternative. So we just sat and stared. And then came across such a lovely sunset,that it left me spell bound.
  2. 20150504_190840Well, the old city did come across as a scary place. There were no street lights, small gullies, houses packed against each other, and an eerie silence. There were broken down dust coated maruti cars, old scooters and small joints where boys stood smoking cigarettes and staring at people passing by. But, on the plus side, we got to see an authentic kashmiri house, which is so different from the ones we live in. There are huge completely opaque gates in front of every house. There are innumerable neat glass windows, but all are firmly shut.Even if a few of them are, they hide the innards of the house with gossamer thin lace curtains from which you can see some partly hidden faces peering out! On the first floor of this house, there was a small kitchen cum bedroom. Then on, upstairs a room with a single light bulb and huge pillows to lean on to while sitting on the floor. The floors are made of wood and carpeted. Food is served on a mat, and we need to pick whatever we want sitting around it. But the food compensated for any fear that we might have experienced. Our hosts, in an attempt to make us feel comfortable told us that they had stopped eating non vegetarian fare three days ago, to prevent us from feeling uncomfortable when we ate from the same china! Though we had not even thought about this, we were touched that they had been so thoughtful and hospitable!Each dish was finger licking tasty and we felt royal washing our hands from a huge samovar (a kettle like apparatus made of silver).
  3. 20150504_211601This photograph is my favorite. It looks like the snow is starting to form a wave and trying to move on. It almost seems alive to me.
  4. DSCN0384We trekked on to a mountain about 7000 feet above sea level at Sonmarg. We were out of breath, cold and out in the open with frozen nose tips.Though it was beautiful, there seemed to be a hidden element of danger lurking somewhere. A sudden thought came unbidden that if we were actually trapped on to this mountain with no one around, it would have been really scary. This was when, as if on cue, we happened to spot a small hut across the expanse of snow. Our guide informed us that it was both a mosque and a temple for people who had strayed to pray for their survival. Unfortunately it was closed, but the image stayed.
  5. 20150505_151350This is a Chinar tree up close and personal. The leaves resemble maple trees and the color is a vibrant green belying the fact that the tree is at least 400 years old according to the board stuck on it. It feels so new and so old at the same time.
  6. DSCN0358 Kashmir is such a photographers paradise that you cannot help clicking away continuously. It is one place where you wish your eyes had inbuilt cameras to film what you saw continuously to remember for a later day. Choosing these few were a difficult task, so I hope you enjoy it and feel a little whiff of kashmir inside you:) .

Small breaks, Big fun.

I have been so busy over the last three weekends that I had no time whatsoever to sit down and write. The great thing is that this time, I feel I have been busy doing things which make me really happy! Sunday afternoons of mine are generally spent moping about the loss of a promising weekend which turned out be finally the same combination of grocery shopping, spring cleaning (eternally through spring, summer and winter!) cooking and keeping things ready for the next long week, all done in different order every week to allay boredom! The last few weekends have effectively changed that!

My perception of a holiday was to go to on a long vacation. Small breaks used to put me off, because the time taken to prepare for a holiday would seem to be too much in comparison to the holiday I actually took. This, keeping in mind packing extensively and intensively for my kids, especially my younger one, who is quite finicky about her food! (that, with me being extremely finicky that she eats well!).

As a kid,I used to read and fantasize about picnics on river banks with a variety of fancy sounding food (courtesy Enid Blyton), trekking and exploring unknown places, not knowing that I would get to realize this dream close to my middle age! I have always found rivers and mountains fascinating. Images of misty mountains, sparkling streams, gurgling brooks, a house in the middle of long pine trees and forests make me go into a state of dreamy stupor. Therefore it was great to discover many such places so close to my home town which I had not explored.

The first experimental weekend started with a long drive on the banks of River Tunga on to a small hamlet called Keregade about 70 kms from home. The riverside was clean, unpolluted and had a makeshift, scary but surprisingly steady launch boat to take us to the other side of the river. The afternoon was sunny, bright and perfectly picnicky. We walked along the banks of the river, explored, went on a trek, listened to forest sounds and found footprint fossils of unknown animals. I had almost forgotten how good silence felt and how soothing was the sound of water, gently lapping the bank. The picnic we had was the icing on the cake! Home made bhel, cakes, juice, fruits and chips never tasted so good. We came back super charged and raring to go back to work.

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So great was this euphoria, that we ventured a little further out and reached Chikmagalur, for the next weekend. Chikmagalur is a town famous for its coffee and natural beauty and is situated about 250 Kms away from Bangalore and hardly a two hour drive from Shimoga. Thanks to techies from Bangalore who visit for short weekends, a whole lot of homestays have mushroomed all over the place. The weather is awesome, the route is scenic and green, the air smells of the mountains and to top it all we found a charming little cafe on the way where we ate what seemed like the tastiest noodles ever(I strongly believe that Maggie tastes better when eaten in out of the way places!) and drank yummy smelling coffee. The highlight of our trip was our trek to Mullayanagiri, the highest peak of the Sahyadri range. The mountaintop has a small temple and the view from the top is amazing!

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In the aftermath, a dull, delicious sort of calf pain(from the trek) which persisted the whole week kept reminding me of the weekend. By the time it subsided, we whisked ourselves away to Dandeli in the district of Uttara kannada. We got together with some of our friends to stay in a jungle lodge on the banks of River Kali. Dandeli is famous for river rafting on the rapids. It is also known for its almost untouched forests and its hornbills. The resort is right on the banks of the river and bang in the middle of the forest. For the first time, I realized that doing nothing also takes some effort. In the beginning, there was this unconscious urge to finish some task, call someone, check on something and so on. Gradually, I settled down into a lazy routine of enjoying nature, taking long walks and cool swims, listening to the sway of the trees, watching an early bird get a fish, just looking at the mist raising from the calm river, watching the water glide smoothly over a rock, wondering about how birds maintain an exact formation while flying and basically just BEING.

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Today, I am a super happy soul. Just the memory of these sweet short weekends puts a big smile on my face. They gave me a chance to connect with myself and my kids full time. When we enjoy our work, we forget that, how much ever we do like what we do, our body and our soul need some time to recharge. And that we need to make memories for later. And that we need a change in perspective to start working all over again. So, people, get up, get going. Take a break, have fun and relive!