Wanderings

Romancing the rains

Romancing the rains

I grew up walking through the mist. On lucky days, navigating through thick clouds. Now, when I think about those days I get copious dose of nostalgia with a dash of goosebumps.

But at the tender age of 8, I was busy complaining about the rains than romancing it. Because growing up in Himachal and going to school in monsoons meant ugly gumboots to start with. And then there were the snails and slugs that would inevitably get squashed under the uglies leaving behind a trail of gooey innards. Lastly and most annoyingly, the soggy notebooks. It seemed like any amount of raincoats and umbrellas could not keep the drench away from my school bag, and muck away from me.

But even then, while grumbling through it I distinctly remember the rush of glee when a hot cup of delicious something would appear to cheer the blues away. Or an extra helping of pocket money to feast on the roasted bhutta. Or the little shed under which friends would gather half drenched. With stocks of comics and scrabbles pretending to be caved in and stranded on an island, with just a few chocolate bars to keep us alive. With monsoon came fresh new shades of experience that neither summer nor winter could sign up for.

Making most of monsoons

Making most of monsoons

There is a certain romance to the rains that almost tangibly washes away dust from our lives. All we need to do is allow ourselves to rejoice in it more than revolt it. Now as an adult, I crave to walk through the mist. It clears the cobwebs in my head gathered through the corporate routine. I let my dog roll in slush and while I must do the customary yell, I feel her pleasure. I hit the highway and drive 10 hours one way for a 24- hour weekend halt. And stop as many times as possible for fresh fruits, pakoda and steaming tea. I come back tired but happy. Because I have become the adult that does not let the fear of muck, traffic jam, bending roads, landslides become bigger than the beauty of the season.

Misty mornings

Misty mornings

I have done Goa, Pondicherry, parts of Himachal, Uttaranchal & Rajasthan in rain, amongst others. And it has felt like a whole new place than before. So try it, if you haven’t already. Get out of town and go back to a favorite place or haunt that you haven’t visited in monsoons. And allow it to leave its mist on you.

 
Travelling through 2 faiths

Travelling through 2 faiths

 

When a weekend gets you the opportunity to travel through time, in the by-lanes of history, mythology, and a chance to soak in diverse faiths back to back, you run for it. Pack a few things and run. Pick up a few friends along the way, if you are the lucky sorts and get onto that train. In a whirlwind weekend  trip, 3 friends packed in the Ajmer Dargah, the Pushkar temple circuit, many encounters with amusing strangers, gastronomical delights, timeless banter, gluttonous shopping and laughter to last us the whole month.  Whoever said weekends aren’t enough hasn’t felt the pleasure of plenty in 30 hours.

The speeding train. The slow sunset

While I have written about Pushkar before and visited the place quite a few times earlier, this visit had a different flavor. This is the first time I saw the little holy town sans the famous fair. And was pleasantly surprised. Without the crowd and the blare of the fair, it is still a vibrant little town with plenty to do, see and just be, in beautiful little spaces.  But the main difference in this visit was that I packed in this most ancient of Hindu pilgrim sites with the Supreme court of Islamic faith, in quick succession. And what did I discover? That even in such close proximity, they are quite different worlds of belief systems. But whichever way you pray, faith feels just the same.

Dargah sharif

Faith
Ajmer Sharif or Dargah Sharif , as our very articulate and efficient guide Farid bhai told us, is the Supreme court of god. The shrine of the famous sufi saint Moinuddin Chisti. Where people from far and near come to offer prayers on this express highway to the divine ear. Prayers, that many are hopeful, get heard loud and clear above the din of the world. The saint was also known as Gharib Nawaz [ the benefactor of poor].

Dargah Sharif

And this lives on right outside the dargah. In the many by lanes and in their delectable food shops there is a simple mechanism to feed the poor. After you have eaten, just leave some cash behind. You can buy a poor person a meal just for Rs 20. And the moment you do so, they  start handing out Sheermal roti with packed gravy. This promptness of ‘do good’ is by itself a feeling none less than a moving prayer. We went to the dargah, did the rounds, tied the ‘dhaga’ [ red threads for wish fulfillment] sat for a bit waiting for the qawali [ sufi devotional music], watched people sit there and pray, and then got completely distracted with some mouth watering sweets. I guess foodies will be foodies. Anywhere and everywhere.

Way to the ghat, Pushkar

Fervor
And then there was this other flavor not even 15 hours before. Where bells ring to the melodious plenty across many temples. Where pilgrims old and young, rich and poor dip into the holy lake to redeem their souls. Where young brahmins hang around hoping to enlighten the not-so-serious pilgrims like us, with stories that start as early as the 4th century BC.  Pushkar, the vibrant little lakeside settlement has never failed to throw up a new anecdote, each time I have been there.  From the famous Brahma temple and the picturesque ghats, to the Savitri temple situated at a pleasant trek up a hill, to the eclectic little cafes where people of different nationalities sit and chatter exchanging notes on yoga, music, religion. This place has an easy vigor. Not out there. Not competing. But very palpable.

Fellows
There are two kinds of youngsters in Pushkar. One that has embraced the infusion of multiple nationalities, and the one that stays rooted in the religious history. One local youth is looking forward to visiting Spain as he has a girlfriend there [ for sure a tourist who had stayed a while, looking for some learning], while another  17 year old chides me for being a Brahmin’s daughter and yet not knowing that Brahma had two wives- Savitri and Gayatri. One that looks suitably hazy at day time because he ‘needs’ the hazy stuff to make music later [ he is a sort of a DJ at some private party], while another waits outside the temple to help and initiate people into the right kind of Puja that will redeem the soul. The dichotomy is fascinating to watch from outside. And might just be a little bit glaring and worrisome for the town elderly.

To the colourful cafe- Pushkar

So next time you are there, mix a little. It’s quite easy. Do look up Mengo, the very talkative and pleasant young boy at the Hard Rock restaurant. Bump into Mahesh, the young guide, who waits right outside the Brahma temple. Have some earthy tea at the little shop run by the smiling mother daughter, as you start your walk towards the Savitri temple. Ask for help to be taken around the dargah, and there will be many willing members from the trustee committee of the Dargah Sharif to take you around.

And definitely look up the Mouni baba [ the silent hermit]. An old sadhu [ who could be anything between 45 and 95 or more] belonging to the Juna akhara [ a sect of holy men known to be formed by the 8th century philosopher Adi Sankaracharya]. Who hasn’t spoken a word in 12 years. He sits near the main ghat at Pushkar, smiling at everyone with the most compassionate face that one could imagine. With whatever money one leaves behind for him, he feeds the pigeons and the stray dogs. So fascinated were we with him that around 10 in the night we found ourselves drawn to his little hut. His smile warmed our hearts in the cold night. Our incessant chatter and questions about him to his disciples amused him enough to  get up, get his little jar of goodies, and hand out a candy each, to the three of us.
For me, that was the only prasad [holy food]  I carried back with me from the trip.

The smiling owners of the little tea shop, Pushkar

Food
How could I not have a few special mentions, when the 30 hours had such lip smacking highs?
While Pushkar would have the usual flair of multinational cuisines along side the rajasthani delights, let me mention the few Ajmer highs. When in the Dargah, ask for the Makkhan Bade [ they are melt in your mouth Balushahi sweets]. If you can wait till the evening, then you also get to taste the sweet kheer [rice pudding] that is made without milk, in a cauldron bigger than my apartment.
Get out of the dargah, stop in the adjoining lanes, and join the chaos in the small shops. If you are a non vegetarian, this would be an absolute must stop. The mutton korma, sheermal roti and the biryani is a perfect tuck in before you rush for the station

Mutton Korma, Sheermal roti, Biryani, in the lane outside the dargah- Ajmer

Fact files:

Kanhaia haveli

How to get there: Overnight sleeper buses from Delhi or Gurgaon to Pushkar, that will reach by morning. Or early morning Shatabdi that would be in Ajmer by noon.

Where to stay : If staying in Pushkar, try this Haveli [ old heritage home] this time. Kanhaia haveli is in the thick of things, and yet charming, with a pretty rooftop restaurant. Satish, the man at the reception is helpful and hungry for a good review.
http://pushkarhotelkanhaia.com/

 
Shopping : Clothes, Bandhni prints [ I picked up a stunning saree for just 500 Rs], ceramics, leather products- bags, shoes belts. Jewellery- silver and bronze j with really unique designs [ and quite the steal].

3 friends, 30 hours and lots of magic. Ajmer & Pushkar
The moodswings of an itchy feet

The moodswings of an itchy feet

There is this fancy word ennui [ pronounced onwee]. Look it up if you will. Whatever you get out of the meaning, in a nutshell it feels like “damn nothing is moving”. For me, more than a place in life, it is being in a place for too long, without heading out. And it is not a good feeling. It is like how Captain Haddock feels without his poison. Thousands of blue blistering barnacles.  Or a serial relationship person feels being single. That time is slipping away. And he or she is growing old and will never find anyone. Or a workaholic being jobless… you get the picture am sure.


When I was growing up, a juicy pack of orange cream biscuits and an Amar Chitra Katha every week from the good parents kept any form of ennui away. Also the fact that that is not the age this dreaded word strikes. And even if it does, you think you must be just hungry and raid the cake box. With adulthood came the pleasure of free will, freedom and travel. Which fast become the antidote to ennui. But also came jobs, responsibility, leaking pipes, car breakdowns and plumbing weekends. And the ease with which a pack of orange cream or a comic book appeared on my lap every Friday, is not the ease with which I found myself on the highway.

The feeling of being trapped or any form of shackle  tends to play havoc with the sense of well-being. And hence the mood swings. And no, just because am a woman, it’s not PMS. It is more of  EMS. Ennui mental syndrome. It can strike anyone, and is normally characterized by a feeling of listlessness towards life. But if it strikes a travel happy itchy feet, the world suddenly feels moving in slow-mo, or hanging in suspended animation.

For crabby periods like these [ pun intended], I have a few handy tips. If I can drag myself out of the sloth this feeling brings and get on with these, they work fine enough for me to not want to bite people’s head off.

Plan. 
Plan a trip. If you are the breed who likes to delegate it to others, or a breed that likes to just pick up the bag and go without any planning, try this once, if the ennui bug has bitten you. It can be like comfort food. Reassuring, filling of the void, and nostalgic of good times. At the least, it will give you browsing and musings of places you desire to go to. And a hopeful surge of spirits. You will also have a solid plan, that  is raring to go as soon as schedule, pockets and company aligns together.

Discover your own city.
We tend to take the city we live in so much for granted. A classic relationship syndrome. We stop discovering new things. Are quite nonchalant about the easy beauty that outsiders get excited about. Stop attaching the word ‘exploring’ to stepping out, and literally stop digging around.  I remember making a day trip to the famous prison of Alcatraz, in the bay area, from San Francisco. A prison known to house the famous american gangster, the much dreaded Al Capone. A prison featured in many famous Hollywood flicks, with an audio guide so touching that it would leave you feeling wistful about life and lucky to have your freedom. And yet, many of my friends and family in the area who have been there for years, still haven’t taken a ferry across to the island. I grunted at their lack of excitement with this little piece of jewel. But I am yet to visit the Delhi National Museum myself after spending many years in this city. While I have lined up in front of many museums across the world. Guilty as blogged.

The next best thing:
This totally depends on you and what you like. What is almost as enjoyable, if not exactly. The only two rules should be that it should be a longish project [ or else it would be less absorbing], and it should be fulfilling. I find a strange energy flow in getting rid of old clothes, hoarded junk, emptying out piles of redundant paper, refurbishing old furniture or a dowdy looking corner of the house. It is also therapeutic. And takes up a lot of time. And most importantly, productive.

While I do realize in my limited wisdom that any form of restlessness or EMS requires a solution more from within, I also know that a slow learner like me will take my time getting to that state of mind. Till then  am happy counting time with my temporary solution. And as I stuff my backpack for a quick trip to Ajmer I can feel the antidote kicking in. Looking forward to the dargah, sunset over the Pushkar lake, 3 friends and a train ride, life seems the right kind of meaningful again.

The best rafting camp in Rishikesh

The best rafting camp in Rishikesh

When you set_01

When you set out to do nothing, is actually when you end up getting the most. Call it the power of empty spaces, fluidity or no expectations, you know you are coming back with more than you planned or bargained for. I just came back from one of those breaks. When you say “we’ll see once we get there”. From Shivpuri.  And you arm yourself with music, pets, books and other things that can consume the time and space. But in the end do not even feel the need to touch much of them. Because these kind of getaways work like meditation. These are technically called the rafting camps, but these perfectly work as recuperation camps as well. Sitting and staring at the gorgeous view, listening to the deafening sound of the rushing Ganges, feeling the nurturing bright sun on the onset of winter, feeding yourself fresh food off the vegetation, you begin to slow down. In your head, your body language and your speech. It’s almost like a lyrical haze.

When you set_02

Getting there :
5 friends and a dog packed themselves in an Innova and left early morning [ 4 am] the day after Diwali, to escape the din and the speed of the city. Yes, we thought some rafting would be good. But what all of us wanted was to just get away. So we did. And by easy lunch time, we were at the camp in Shivpuri. We could have taken the night train to Haridwar and the camp would have sent a cab. But then if you want to travel with a dog, the highway is the best way. We stayed in one of the few camps that is on the other side of the river. So you have to get there in a raft itself, once you get off the car. But it is totally worth it. Because on the other side lies pristine uncrowded beaches. Against the backdrop of the thick foliage of the Rajaji National park that extends from Haridwar.

When you set_03

What do you do:
I was happy with nothing, for once. Though there is always plenty to do in places like these. There is the now popular white water rafting. And while you are at it, jump off the raft and body surf[ it is perfectly safe, with life jackets, and an expert following you closely] in the gorgeous fresh waters of the Ganges. This time of the year, the water still isn’t freezing. It is just about right to wake you up, and send tingling feelings down your spine. Once you are done with the many rounds of rafting over a couple of days, and you know the rapid names by heart [ which are very creative and appropriate], you can settle in for a good game of beach volleyball, or badminton. Or try the flying fox and the bungee jump in that area. There is also plenty of scope to go for tiny treks. Into the villages. Up the hill. To a waterfall. So, the place is packed with activities, for the adrenalin oriented.

When you set_04

What did I do:
I sank into the sand. I played with my dog. I did one set of rapids one morning, and body surfed in the water. Played some badminton. And pranced around the trampoline trying some photography tricks. But mostly, I ate copious amounts of fresh food, stared endlessly at the beauty right under the nose, sunned myself in a hammock, read a little, walked and chatted up with friends and strangers around a bonfire. And woke up fresh each morning, feeling the dead layer of the city peel off me. And allowed myself to be taken in by the very little somethings that we completely miss, while running around in the concrete. Little birds and their incessant chatter. The riot of colors that these birds can be, beyond the shades you know. The brightness of the stars on a dark night. A faint automobile sound in the night, passing above on the highway. The light pattern it’s headlight makes on the dark foliage. Simple things, actually. But with the nudge to open up sight sound and other sensory perceptions that a TV or a smart phone won’t do.

We came back a happy relaxed bunch. Not quite happy to be back in the rat race. But also knowing that we can always race back to the place, since this is THE season to max it. Hope some of you make it.

Footnotes: 
I have stayed in many camps on the shores, but I keep going back to this one. Try MHE Beach camp [ Mercury Himalayan Exploration]. It is not only reasonable, but very hygienic, systematic, with a fantastic staff running the place, and a great cook. The pleasure of a hot water bath in a cobbled stones tent is as invigorating if not luxurious as a bubble bath in a fancy tub. Their tents are spacious, with firm comfortable beds. And they also add the soft touch of a hot water bag on really cold nights, tucked into the warm quilt. There is a beautiful sprawling beach to bum around in. And it is situated right next to one of the rapids called ‘Return to the Sender’, so the noise of the water is loud enough to drown out the cacophony in your head. They also have very good guides for rafting, treks and other physical activities.http://www.mheadventures.com/mhe-beach-camp-stay–ganga-rafting-combos.html?utm_source=newsletter&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=Looking_for_a_safe_and_quiet_family_Diwali?

When you set_05
10 types of good travel companions

10 types of good travel companions

I find traveling alone fun. More than fun, it is enriching as a self discovery.
But traveling with people is a whole different type of fun. Like minded people. Complimentary opposites, and all those who do not clash with what you are looking for. And there is plenty of space for self discovery as well. Such as, which personality type can you take for more than 5 hours, 5 days, 5 weeks. Which type can you kill before 5 hours and so on. What is your gagging or breaking point. And more lessons in that league.

I have been fortunate enough to travel with a wide array of personalities. Friends, colleagues, loved ones, family, strangers, sometimes even a large herd. And over the years, I have started spotting a few distinctive types. Am sure there are more, and many different ways of expressing them. These are just a few. And one way of looking at the many interesting travel buddies that one could come across, or make.

The joker

You might be short on cash or time, but you will never be short of laughs. One of the most important ingredients you need to make a trip memorable. The joker comes in various designs- the one with the pjs and little tricks, the mimic, the perfect timer, the one-liner, the witty wicked one. Whichever the type, they are thoroughly enjoyable and every group needs one.

The soak-er

This one is usually a people, art, music, culture junkie. They mostly effortlessly seem to land up talking to strangers, making friends at the restaurants, stumbling upon freebies, spending hours at shops not buying anything. And they are lovely to slow down with.

The planner

This person is loaded with research and is not afraid to use it. Knows about the place before landing up. Feels familiar with the street names before walking on it. Has google-earthed the place out of his mind. And most probably has a list of must-dos, must-eat, must-shop, must-watch and another bagful of musts. Very useful. Warning- can get a little obsessive.

The doer

It is easy to spot the ‘so what are we doing next’ person. Any spare time makes this one a little bit uncomfortable. At any given time he has to be eating, or walking, or shopping, or partying, or figuring out how to fill any visible space in the itinerary. They are high on energy which tends to rub off on the others.

The chiller

Mostly  agenda-less, and will just hitch a ride along. Usually does not have a plan, and does not mind if he misses out on a lot of must-dos. Just being around a place, being on the road, being with the people he likes, or a place he has been wanting to visit, is trip enough. And most interestingly, he finds his own space even in a herd,  runs on his own tune, and finds his own things away from the must-do list.

The mother

Or father. Will happily manage the money. Will order for everyone. Will have extra medicines. Might also carry an extra pepper spray. Will chide a few people a few times on the trip, and might be a tad bit sentimental.

The loafer

The loud one. The desi one. The robust appetite one and not just for food. He is the party starter, the campfire fuel, the one who usually carries a mini music system and a loaded ipod, instead of a book and a notepad.

The pet

Literally, the pet. Laterally, anyone who enjoys that cuddly squishy position in your life. I have one. And every time I travel with her, I come back high on soft hormones. They can be exhausting but delightful. This kind of bonding has less words and more goosebumps.



The lover

Of course, this is not a personality type. It is actually a state of mind. When you are on a rising high with a person, do a trip. It can be trippy. Music, food, weather- somehow all seem to be on their best behavior. There is no guarantee how long will that state of mind last, but in that moment, the world is a waltz.

The companion

Again,  not a personality type. Neither a state-of-mind. But an invisible designation that you have given to a certain someone, after many successful travels and travails together. This one is the safest bet. You  never get bored with this person, understand spaces, moods, likes, dislikes, and quite naturally fall into an enjoyable rhythm. If not ecstatic, the trip is definitely fulfilling.

It is difficult to choose just one type to label a travel buddy and the truth is that we are all combinations of at least a few of the above. Even then, there would be one distinctive type that is more dominant that the rest, and more clearly visible to others.  So try it, if just for fun. Which type or combo are you? And who are you traveling with next?

I also have a list of the 5 types that should be dropped from the list 😉 Coming soon.

That elusive affair called train journey

That elusive affair called train journey

I don’t like flying much.
Well, the shopping, the food joints, the in-flight entertainment make it more than bearable. And sometimes enjoyable. But it’s never touched my soul. Not like a train journey does. Even though they leave me exhausted, grungy and dying for a deo and a leisurely pee, I still look forward to a train journey. And if I am taking it with friends and loved ones, I feel a faint flutter. Even now.


Why?

I think it’s like Bollywood. Loud. Colourful. With an assortment of interesting characters. And oh-so-musical. Ruskin Bond eulogized it. Malgudy Days entrenched it for a few of us. There is something very covertly organic, hugely nostalgic, endearingly chaotic about our train journeys. For me it is quite the breeding ground of little neuron sparks. I naturally switch to observation mode, oily pakora and kullad chai mode, effortlessly eavesdropping mode, and all things quintessentially middle class India that feels alive and fertile.

But then, why is it elusive?

Middle class India is also large and over populated . And now-a-days, everybody is travelling. All the time. Which is why there is that devil called The Waitlist. And his more amicable sidekick RAC. Who tend to play havoc with journeys. I have come back dejected from the station when not allowed in, done the cool but not comfortable sleeping- bag- in- the- corridor thing, spent a good distance perched on a hard base waiting for the Ticket checker to come and haggle etc etc. And, it just doesn’t leave you with the same feeling. It’s like a date gone wrong. Like onion breath at the least.

What’s the way out?

If you would like to keep having the one-off affairs more frequently, here are a few things you should keep in mind:

  • You should have an IRCTC internet account [ Indian Railway Catering and Tourism Corporation limited] . It takes only 5 minutes to sign up. And it is very easy and way  more reliable than an agent or the office travel desk.
  • Train bookings usually open around 63-65 days before the journey date. 
  • If it is a popular sector, or during a popular holiday season, it gets booked out on the first day itself. Sometimes in the first one hour [ the population strikes again].
  • If you really want a lower berth, or a side lower[ my favourite, where i get two windows to dream out of], then you have to book before the Waitlist strikes.
  • The sleeper waitlist moves the fastest, followed by AC 3
  • There are  times when  I have moved straight from waitlisted 25 to confirmation during the last chart preparation. And then there have been times when I have got stuck at 1 for many days without any conversion [ yes, the lover has a cruel sense of humor]. So be prepared for anything
  • If you are even vaguely interested in travelling to a place, just book it. Or block it is more like it.You can cancel as many times, till the last day of travel and get your full refund.

These are little things, but they have made a big difference to my love affair with train journeys. It is far less disappointing now. Am right now doing Kolkata to Delhi, with my dad who refuses to fly. And as soon as I finish this piece, am going back to eavesdropping on some kitchen politics
and Puja shopping.

I say, try the train more. You will have grunge but more colour. Noise but more music. At times, irritating crowd, but definitely more stories to tell.


Stop waiting. Travel now

We procrastinate. We get sucked into our routines. We stare at our targets, gather around water coolers and coffee machines, share a few laughs and get back to our targets. We keep ‘that plan’ a little down the year. Maybe for that long weekend. Maybe when friends are free. Maybe when family has time. Maybe when the boss won’t mind. And many maybes down the line, ‘that plan’ feels like a bit of a parchment paper. Very dear but very faded. I say, leap. Do not wait for the perfect moment, the perfect partner, the perfect weather. Take what you get and get out. As often as your life permits. Because what lies at the other end are tiny realizations that add to your ability to smile. One small step at a time.

 Here is a collective of my 13 realizations. And am collecting more every month:

  1. Once you feel the beauty of varied people and culture, vastness of the Universe and the wow of nature, you know that the world is a much bigger place than your crummy problems.
  2. That passions, if at all they differ, is expressed in exactly the same way.
  3. That lovers fight and make up in a language that you will understand anywhere in the world.
  4. That the language of friends is the same everywhere. They giggle and gossip over a cup of tea, coffee, beer, sunshine, sangria…
  5. That all modern art can be mind numbing, whichever country it is in.
  6. That all kinds of artists are endearingly eccentric.
  7. That music makes more sense to you when you find it suddenly. Whichever country, whichever genre, whichever language. 
  8. That when you are in ‘traveler mode’ you can adapt to strange and unfamiliar  much quickly. And with great ease. 
  9. That strangers are helpful. Very. Specially if you have had the good sense to pick the opposite sex for directions.
  10. That experimenting with food reintroduces you to the rusting curious in you.
  11. That what you have left behind at home is worth returning to.
  12. That what you have picked up while travelling, gives you your money’s worth in many intangible ways. Through many stories, rich encounters, a flare and that inner glow. 
  13. That this is probably the only right kind of wrong. An addiction that is nurturing.

This note is for all my friends, readers and procrastinators at large. There will always be time problems, visa problems, travel partner problems, money problems, work commitments and all the works. The trick is to keep it simple and not over think it. And if at all think much, then think about it as a learning process. Or as I do. A therapy in itself for all the problems that crowd you.

Hence, whenever there seems even a tiny possibility, I would say… just do it. 

IMG_5073

Travelling solo through Paris on a world cup weekend

 

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