Festive Travel

This article was first published in BW | Businessworld Issue Dated 18-11-2013. And is available online.

Planning your vacations abroad early next year? Team them with festivals that will give you insights into the local culture

Spring Festival, China
30 Jan – 5 Feb
While perpetually in the news for its economy and population, this star of the Orient encompasses within its borders a most fascinating topography and — if you take the time to get under its skin — culture, with its quaint rituals and rules. But experience the mystique of the Chinese lanterns during their lunar New Year, when the country offers a bite-sized version of its legends, foods, dragons and red lanterns, of course. Beijing, Guangzhou, Xian and Pingyao are some of the preferred places to visit during the Golden Week.

Crush Festival – Cellar Door Wine Festival, Australia
19 Jan – 16 Feb
If you’re a foodie and looking to swim in the coral reefs early next year, consider attending the Crush Festival — one of Australia’s premier food, wine, fashion, music and art festivals. While the European countries uncork their finest wines in the autumn, Down Under it’s in January. Start with the Crush, when 30-odd wineries open their cellar doors. If you crave for more, then the Cellar Door Wine Fest offers unlimited food and wine tastings from over 150 producers. There are master classes with celebrity chefs and interactive sessions for serious gastronomes.

Masked Lovers at Mardi Gras in Venice by Frank Kovalchek (Wikimedia Commons)

Masked Lovers at Mardi Gras in Venice by Frank Kovalchek (Wikimedia Commons)

Carnival/Mardi Gras, Venice, Italy
15 Feb – 4 Mar
The mystical city of Venice takes on a whole new persona during this three-week-long annual extravaganza. Home to the renowned Venetian mask, around 3 million people from across the world flock to this canal city during the pre-Lent period to lose themselves in the anonymity of the masks and elaborate costumes. There are parades, balls and masquerades that transport you to a different era altogether, and a special array of food and drinks are laid out for the masses. The festivities culminate with Mardi Gras (Fat Tuesday), the day before Lent begins on Ash Wednesday.

Rio Carnival, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil
24 Feb – 4 Mar
For travellers (and even hard-core party-goers), Brazil is anyway one of the most coveted destinations. Not diluting the extremely rich cultural experience of the Latin American country, it would be safe to recommend that if you’re planning a trip to Brazil, it should be during the Rio Carnival. A capsule of the vibrant rhythms and culture, the Samba parades and masquerade balls are a once-in-a-lifetime experience. Dance on the streets with the exotic dancers, while seeing the sights.

Cherry blossoms in Japan and the US
March – April
All year-round, Japan’s attractions are many — from anime conventions and tea ceremonies to museums and bullet trains. But head towards the Land of the Rising Sun during end-March and April, and your eyes can feast on the gorgeous cherry blossoms in full bloom, especially in the garden city of Kyoto. There are a series of festivals organised here during this period projecting a very a different aspect of this eastern nation. But if your floral trail is Westward-inclined, then fret not. As a mark of Japan-American friendship (the former had presented the US capital, Washington DC, with 3,000 cherry trees), the National Cherry Blossom festival is celebrated across the city for three weeks. Next year’s dates are 20 Mar–13 Apr. So, while waving at the White House, stop by the various festival venues as well, for a slight taste of Japan in America.

Eboshiyama is one of the 100 places in Japan to view cherry blossoms. This picture shows the illumination of the mountain during the peak viewing season. By Fantasy Leigh (Wikimedia Commons)

Eboshiyama is one of the 100 places in Japan to view cherry blossoms. This picture shows the illumination of the mountain during the peak viewing season. By Fantasy Leigh (Wikimedia Commons)

Hay-on-the-Wye Festival, Wales, UK
22 May – 1 Jun
Known as the ‘town of books’, Hay on the Wye has been playing host to one of the world’s most popular literature festivals since 1988. With its inception from the winnings of a poker game, the festival draws around 25,000 visitors, including the crème de la crème of the world’s litterateurs. The quaint little town is a delight for book lovers, with pop-up stores, live music, author interactions, lovely food and the chance of bumping into your favourite author walking down cobbled streets. Romance out of a book!

Feast of St Patrick, Ireland
14 – 17 Mar
This can alternatively be called the ‘green festival’ because of the predominance of the colour across all festivities — inspired from the shamrock, which was used by St Patrick to explain the Holy Trinity. So, if you land during this festival, be prepared to be enveloped in a sea of green revelry. The magic comes from a smorgasbord of events — crack up to the quintessential Irish humour at the many comedy clubs, sway to street music and folk concerts, be moved by the theatre, applaud the fireworks and be enchanted by the many parades.

Chocolate cupcakes decorated with green icing for St Patrick's Day. By Kristin Ausk (Wikimedia Commons)

Chocolate cupcakes decorated with green icing for St Patrick’s Day. By Kristin Ausk (Wikimedia Commons)

Rainforest World Music Festival, Sarawak
20 – 22 Jun
There are music festivals aplenty, but what sets this one apart is that it’s nestled in the beautiful rainforest of Sarawak, Borneo. Set against the Sarawak Cultural Village, artists from across the world converge as attendees dance to the rhythms of the rainforest, drink and dine under the canopies of trees, away from the rest of the world. It’s magical.

Advertisements

The Pondicherry ADVENTURE

(Pic from the Net; Source unknown)

(Pic from the Net; Source unknown)

I walked up the creaking metal stairs. Initially painted bright red, but which have faded over time to a dirty brown with spots of rusts spattered all over. I tried holding on to the railing for support, but the rickety tubes of steel did nothing to ease my nerves in preparation for what was to come next. Oddly enough, at that moment I felt a special connection with Rose Calvert (played by Kate Winslet) in Titanic as she climbed towards the ship’s Starboard, trying to save herself from drowning. A Rabbi behind her, morbidly murmuring, “…As we walk to the valley of the shadow of death…” Those were the very thoughts going through my head. Unfortunately, I didn’t have my Jack Dawson saving me; instead, I had seven heartless friends who’d make me walk the plank if it gave them enough amusement. And the knowledge that a ten year old child was in charge of the controls didn’t help much.

We were in Pondicherry for the weekend, and on our way back to the bus stop. Already late for catching a bus to Chennai, it was then that Srijoy had an ‘aha moment,’ “Let’s go back to the fair…I want to go on the Mary Columbus.” Now for the uninitiated, ‘Mary Columbus’ is a huge boat that swings 35 feet into the air, from left to right to left to right and on and on and on. Bad memories. Something always went wrong when I boarded any of the ferries wheels in the fairs.

The last time I boarded a Columbus was when I was 12 years old. Appu Ghar in New Delhi is a famous children’s amusement park and a must visit for any child living in or visiting Delhi. I was not to be left behind. The prospect of boarding a huge ship that swings in air can be a very daunting thought for anyone, but for a 12 year old, it seemed as if her life was in peril. The Columbus in Delhi is painted in beautiful vibrant colours of red and blue, with a base of black, and three layers of gold coloured waves painted on both sides. On one side is a gorgeous red dragon head breathing fire…not a heart warming sight…but magnificent nevertheless. While at the other end is its tail beautifully painted in red green and yellow fiery designs.

Sitting in this behemoth with at least forty other screaming children, securely pinned down to my seat with a handlebar, life wasn’t at its best, but it wasn’t at its worst either.

Wait…

I spoke too soon…

The ride was to be for five excruciating minutes right? Why wasn’t it over?

A throb of fear stuck in my throat, I looked down for some explanation. Something had gone wrong with the machinery, and the mechanics could not be found.

We were stuck in a perpetual purgatory upon a swinging boat!!!

.

.

.

I don’t know why these boats have to be called “Columbus.” No one in my group knew why. After all, Columbus didn’t fling himself 35 feet in thin air when he set out to look for India– ramblings…but that was all that I could do sitting squished in between Shutapa and Leon. It was all I could do to stop reminding myself of my last ride in Appu Ghar.

I held on tight to the handlebars, which were uncomfortably a little far from the seats. Oh! How I wished these people had the Delhi handlebars, which would pin you to your seat. The four rows of seats in front of us were empty, and I could see straight into the eyes of a middle aged gentleman, wearing a yellow shirt who was with his son.

The ride started with a slow and ominous prolonged screeching sound.

Screeeeeeeeeech….Once….we went left…10 feet in the air

Screeeeeeeeeech….Twice…we went right…15 feet in the air

Screeeeeeeeeech….Thrice…we went left again…more than 15 feet in the air

And suddenly without a moment’s notice the boat lunged upwards at angle that was as close to 90° as it could get. Gravity was taking over as I was slightly lifted from my seat. For a terrifying moment I thought I might fall, when the boat went the opposite way, but the relief was short lived, as I was once again thrown up in the air, in a precarious position of half hanging on a rickety handlebar. One…two…three…four…five…that was supposed to be it.

Stop…

Stop it…

Ohkay….this is enough…

Just Stop…

Why isn’t it stopping?

Oh My God!!!

C’mon stop already…

Looking down towards the controls, I couldn’t see the boy who was supposed to stop the swinging boat and get me down. I panicked…my knees were knocking…my voice was hoarse with all the shouting…

“Look at the light,” said Leon, and I did. It was so beautiful. The huge lights…reminiscent of the fairy lights that are supposed to beckon you when you’re dying. The thought was NOT comforting. I looked down to the seemingly flimsy strip of rubber that was responsible for the machinations of this particular Columbus, only to see the boy who was supposed to be handling the controls, climbing on the engine and tinkering with the rubber strip. Life did not seem promising as I once again looked at the incandescent light alternating it with the eyes of the gentleman with the yellow shirt sitting in front of me, seeking solace in both.

Screeeeeeeeeech…the boat slowed down…

I looked down at the controls again…the darling little boy had returned to his position.

Screeeeeeeeeech…he pulled one of the levers and the boat slowed down a bit more…

Screeeeeeeeeech…he pulled another lever and we almost stopped…

Screeeeech….he pulled the final lever and we stopped.

My legs wobbly and hands shaking, I carefully got out of the menacing boat, holding on to Shutapa for support. Walking down the creaking tin faded-red stairs and onto terra firma…I vowed never to get on a Mary Columbus again.

Time had never passed so slow, making myself aware of each passing moment as it did from 8:30 pm to 8:40 pm on January 29, 2006.

First published as Agateophilic on 7 February 2006.

A Different Life

Kasol Dream

It’s a different life,
the one I dream of.
It’s like the rolling clouds over the verdant hills,
beautiful as they are, stark white across a clear blue sky,
still nothing but air to hold when I stretch out my hand.

It’s a different life,
the one I dream of.
It’s like the high from a joint, rolled up in a scroll.
The elusive bliss from the seamless nothingness beyond,
a neverending chase for the ethereal je ne sais quoi.

It’s a different life,
the one I dream of.
It’s the one born out of the reflection from my tears.
The thoughts unleashed like the walled river released from its bounds,
its gushing, rolling stream giving life to uncountable saplings on a desert plain.

It’s a different life,
the one I dream of.
It’s the walk on a wonderfully chilly winter morning.
Question is… is it the road that goes endlessly on, melting into the horizon
or is it the one that goes winding up to a doorstep… the doorstep I otherwise call home?

Sasi Restaurant, Kasol, Himachal Pradesh
14.30, 8.10.11

One from the vault, this was first published on Agateophilic.

The Fasting-Feasting Month

The Jama Masjid is brightly lit up at night

The Jama Masjid is brightly lit up at night

It’s funny how certain events mean completely different things for different people. Take, for instance, the month of Ramzan. For Muslims it’s 30 days of sombre remembrance and spiritual reverence. They fast all through the day, and eat only after sundown and after doing their namaz/maghrib prayer. For me, and there is absolutely no disrespect meant, it’s about “iftaar” — the first meal of the day. This is ironic because it’s never the first meal of the day for me, but then who bothers with technicalities.

But then, given the fancy iftaar parties that grace the numerous Page Threes and Fours and Fives, at least I’m not the only one with the following ‘chemical’ equation:

Ramazan = AWESOME FOOD!

There's nothing to beat the traditional Tandoori Roti and Korma!

There’s nothing to beat the traditional Tandoori Roti and Korma!

 

Traditionally, the fast is broken by consuming dates (because Prophet Mohammad was supposed to have broken his fast with three dates), following which there is a feast of the most delectable kinds of foods, had together in a social gathering of sorts. So, in a way, it’s actually 30 fancy dinner parties in a row!

This makes it all the more imperative for a true foodie to visit the brightly lit gully of Matia Mahal, in front of Delhi’s imposing Jama Masjid as the angled rays of the sun give way to the blue hour. The evening azaan pierces through the air, calling out to devotees who scramble across the vast courtyard of the 357-year-old mosque offering their prayers. Within minutes, though, the same courtyard is filled with numerous picnic spreads.

After the maghrib prayer, there's a whole community picnic, where families spread out to break the day's fast together.

After the maghrib prayer, there’s a whole community picnic, where families spread out to break the day’s fast together.

Friends get together to chat before the maghrib prayer

Friends get together to chat before the maghrib prayer

Step out, and the entrance of the famous Matia Mahal (of Karim fame, among other things) is brightly lit up to rival Diwali, as people call out to each other — wishing them, hugging them, crowds gathering around the various hotels shouting out their orders, the air full of the delicious smells of chicken fry and mutton qorma (that is also SO characteristically Old Delhi), towers of soft and fluffy tandoori rotis grace the countertops, the sizzle of marinated meats being tossed into massive woks of bubbling hot oil, mounds of freshly fried, golden brown, succulent chicken wings glisten in the festive lights — beckoning, making your mouth salivate.

There are different types of tikkas available for your choosing

There are different types of tikkas available for your choosing

Succulent meat balls are freshly fried and served piping hot!

Succulent meat balls are freshly fried and served piping hot!

As you cut through the stream of bodies, adopt the robot pose (both arms on the side with the fore-arm jutting out like an L), keep a lookout for anything and everything that strikes our eye, and triggers the palate in anticipation.

Ideally I would recommend the vegetarians to stay away from this part of town, especially during Ramazan because, let’s face it, there isn’t much to have. Except for the absolutely brilliant Shahi Tukda. If Marie Antoinette had savoured this delicacy, let’s just say, history would have been a tad bit different. Made from the rather proletarian bread, bumped up the tasting order with a generous dosage of ghee and malai and all things nice, these bites of heaven simply melt in your mouth (while the calories head straight down south!). There are, of course, quite a selection of dry fruits, a fusion version of the roti with coconut filling and fresh hot pakoras to choose from as well. Although, be warned that the latter just about lasts 20 minutes after the evening maghrib prayer. So you’ll have to stand ready to jump at them the minute they’re up for sale.

Take your pick from potato, spinach masala, paneer and a host of other pakodas

Take your pick from potato, spinach masala, paneer and a host of other pakodas

Give in to the hevenly taste of the Shahi Tukda

Give in to the hevenly taste of the Shahi Tukda

During this month, Matia Mahal is open till the wee hours of the morning as the smells of haleem waft through the air — the traditional “suhoor” fare, which is had just before dawn. Of course, the festivities keep ascending in lights, choices and decibel levels closer to Eid, but that just means you can pace yourself and your stomach out over an entire month.

So, as-salamu aleikum and bon apetit!

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

99,99,999 — The god number

Unakoti entrance

When I first took the decision to visit Tripura — the smallest of the Seven Sisters of the North-East, even India — it was primarily because no one I knew had ever gone there. Somehow that made me kind of sad, because I have the privilege of knowing many people who keep going to offbeat places, and here was this one, whole state where no one I knew had been.

So, basically, that did it. In the December of 2010, my parents and I set off to Tripura — which means Three Cities (quite like the Greek word Tripolis), or maybe it takes its name from Tripura Sundari, the presiding deity of the region, and also a Shakti Peeth (more on that later). It was an extended road trip which took us through the length and breadth of the little state.

As strange and whimsical as the reason for trotting across India, right to the other end, was, it was not one that I regret for even a moment. Because hidden in the deep recesses of the Twipra Kingdom is one of the most magical and majestic places in the country. In fact, I insist on calling it India’s answer to Machu Picchu. Okay, so maybe a slight exaggeration, but any amount of reading does not prepare you for what you will find at the Lost Hill of Unakoti.

Around 178km from state capital Agartala, Unakoti — meaning one less than a crore, or 99,99,999 — is a Shaiva pilgrimage spot which is unlike anything you’ll find in India. Imagine MASSIVE images of Lord Shiva carved ON the hill. And when I say images…there aren’t just 20-30 of them. There are supposedly 99,99,999 of them. Arguably dating back to the 7th-9th centuries, these carvings have some interesting tales associated with them.

Shiva and Parvati

Story 1

Legend has it that Lord Shiva with his entourage of other gods was headed towards his heavenly abode, Kailash, and decided to spend the night at the point, which is now known as Kailashahar (8km down the hill from Unakoti). He warned his fellow travellers that they would have to leave before the break of dawn, but after a night of revelry, Shiva was the only one who managed to get up. Known for his rather short temper, Shiva cursed all the late sleepers (I shudder to have him as a travelling companion) to an eternity on Earth and walked off to Kailash in a huff, all by his lonesome self. That entourage now adorn the hills of Unakoti.

Story 2

The second story is a classic one about god and devotee. According to this version, the images have been carved by a sculptor by the name of Kallu Kumhar. He was a great devotee of Parvati, so when Shiva-Parvati and the whole entourage were passing through this region (again en route to Kailash), Kallu Kumhar asked to accompany them. Since the big man was fairly wary of this proposition, Parvati made a deal with him. She suggested Kallu Kumhar make 1 crore images of Shiva (to appease him) overnight, and should he be able to do so, he would accompany them, if not, then tough luck! As it would happen, as the sun rose the next day the Kumhar fell just one short of a crore — and that gave Shiva the loophole he needed to rid himself of this unwanted fellow traveller. (Although, if Mr Kumhar was supposed to make different forms of Shiva, don’t know how Parvati, Ganesha and the rest of them got on those hills.)

Whatever the story behind these carvings, the logistics of how they were actually made is a mystery quite akin to that of the making of the pyramids. Most of the bas-relief sculptures are around 30-40 ft high, and have a rawness that differs from the classical Indian style, and is more tribal. I found it to be similar to statuettes from the Aztec civilization — especially the way the eyes, teeth and headdresses have been depicted. Several still grace the sides of the hills, some have given in to the ravages of time and broken off and now lie as wounded soldiers, others apparently are buried and need to be excavated. I counted around 130 of them. There’s one with three Ganeshas, which appears to have a rivulet flowing atop it — making it seem as if he’s bathing.

Unakoti priest

Ganeshas 3

Unakoti bridges

As we walked from one side to other, navigating our way through the staircases (hundreds and hundreds of steps!) and bridges joining the two hills over which the statuettes are now scattered, I felt as if I’d chanced upon an old worship place that was supposed to be hidden from the rest of the world — a secret domain where entry had to be earned. One could see signs of springs and rivulets criss-crossing through entire area, and I couldn’t help but imagine how beautiful the place would have looked centuries ago with the flowing water, verdant hills, incense smells, sounds of the temple bells, chanting of mantras, kings (possibly from the Pali dynasty) and tantrics… the mind wanders further.

Even the main priest over there (they have a daily puja, morning and evening) was quite forbidding in his attitude. The most he did was give me some prasad and glare at me. The other two sadhus, who live higher up in a hut, seemed a lot more interesting — especially considering the sweet smell of weed emanating from their rather humble abode. Jai Bum Bhole! 😉 Such saffron-robed citizens are a delight and must-have any religious place to make it mysterious. What makes them even more interesting is the folklore that these two are, in fact, a famous dacoit and his aide who had gone missing from the hills of Tripura around a decade ago — just a couple of years before the two ‘sages’ were seen at Unakoti. It is said that once they disbanded and were running from the border forces and local police, they went into hiding and then resurfaced as ‘babas’ at Unakoti, where they have been living ever since.

A house of bandits or trapped gods and goddesses, think of Unakoti as you will, but it is a definite fixture on the must-visit sites in India. Pity, that neither the state nor the Centre has been able to successfully put it on India’s popular tourist maps. But then again, maybe too many tourists would just spoil the rather pristine, untouched, secret allure that this place has.

So, have I managed to convince you to visit 99,99,999 yet? Let me know.

(The usual travel specs are at the end of the photo gallery)

How to get there: Tripura has just one airport, in Agartala, the capital city. Unakoti is around 178 km North from there. (I believe Kailashahar, 8km away, has a private runway. So if you own a plane, you can fly down there instead!) You can take a cab from Agartala to Unakoti/Kailashahar. If you prefer the train, then Kumarghat, around 41km away, is the closest railway station. Check out IRCTC (https://www.irctc.co.in/) for the train time table.

Tourism website: http://tripuratourism.nic.in/ (PS: We found the guys at the Tripura House in Delhi most helpful)

You can also see: Agartala (ehhhh. I would just use the city as a stopover), Jampui Hill (lovely place. The highest tourist place in the state. Try and go there during orange season, which is Oct­–Dec), Udaipur (Check out the Neer Mahal, the Light & Sound show there is particularly BRILLIANT; Tripura Sundari Temple, where you can see goat sacrifices, so it’s not for the faint-hearted; Bhubaneswari Temple is an interesting location); Sepahijhala Forest Reserve and National Park (for us, this was a waste of time, but you may think differently)

The route we took: Agartala – Kamala Sagar – Sepahijhala – Udaipur – Neer Mahal – Unakoti – Jampui Hills – Agartala (6 Days in December 2010)

Also, another post on Tripura will come up soon! So keep visiting.

The Incredibly Strange India

An interesting installation by Anant Joshi has all-outs emanating wonderful scents while the inner sanctum of the temple with Rama's slippers.

An interesting installation by Anant Joshi has all-outs emanating wonderful scents while the inner sanctum of the temple with Rama’s slippers.

Although I thought I wouldn’t bring in outside content till the 10th post in this blog, but the recent mid-year special cover story by The Week, called “We, Quirky Indians was just too brilliant not to be shared.

I’ve been a huge fan of The Week’s reporters, reporting and story selection ever since my family started subscribing to it more than a decade back. Oddly enough, the reason for taking the magazine was not because of its brilliance, but because we wanted the phone that the group was being given free with its three-year subscription. Then, of course, I fell in love! But, I’m digressing… Back to Quirky Indians.

Now, as much as we gallivant around the world, not many of us have explored the wonders of our own country — India. And WE are delightful. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. Initially I thought I’d introduce everyone to the bizarre Indians over a period of time, leetle by leetle… But The Week went ahead and did this cover, so I figured, why not feature it. They chose over a dozen villages with various idiosyncrasies, from one where the bride and groom cross-dress before the wedding, another which is built to facilitate the movement of snakes, and yet another where the people are named Coffee, Hotel or Court.

So, without much, ado…we present to you Incredible India…

Bhadrapura and Guaripara, Bihar — Now there are people who crowdsource the names of their children, while others go through elaborate astrological calculations, but there’s a place where a newborn’s name can be dictated by something as simple as the parent having recently bought a ‘cycle’, or because the kid was born near a restaurant or ‘hotel’. What does this give you? A village full of people in the Hakki-Pikki tribe called everything from Court, Coffee, Shaadi, Laayu (short for Love You), Congress, Pistol, Japan, and Cycle and Hotel, of course.

Shani Shingnapur, Maharastra — Now, this is one that has been written about before as well. It’s the village where trust rules all because there are no doors. (Of course, if they simply own a locker each in the bank and/or have all their money locked up in Swiss accounts, we don’t know about it!) Apparently the local deity, Shani, doesn’t like to be in confined spaces, so to appease him, the inhabitants don’t lock their doors. Even the UCO Banks’ doors aren’t locked.

Gunalli, Karnataka — Meryl Streep as Miranda Priestly in The Devil Wears Prada would have loved this place. If she didn’t like the botheration of having to remember her secretary’s name, chances are, if they came from Gunalli, she wouldn’t need to because for most people, it’s a case of one name fits all. The men are called Gynappa, the women Gynavva, and these names belong to at least one member of each family. So, should you wish to visit this small village, make sure you know the surname too, else you’ll probably go around knocking on various doors trying to find the right guy.

Punsari, Gujarat — This is probably what Village 2.0 would look like. Wi-Fi at Rs 10, areas demarcated for shopping complexes, schools fitted with CCTV cameras, 24×7 water availability, a centralized sound system, among other basic (or not so basic, if the rest of the country is to go by) amenities.

Khejuri, West Bengal — I’m guessing this can be called India’s doctorsville. According to the report there are around 40 ‘orthopaedic doctors’ in this village. And before you start imagining a sea of white lab coats walking around, farming, etc., please note that none of these have even seen the inside of a medical college, nor do they know what a “gigli saw” is. Their method includes traction and massaging to set the limb, with support from a boiled rice and white cloth wrap, followed by bamboo sticks and string. There’s the involvement of a coconut oil-based paste somewhere, but let me not give out the WHOLE secret!

Sathyamurthy Nagaram, Tamil Nadu — After 40 doctors, it’s 40 days (and how many times have I said I wanted to research this recurring No. 40 phenomenon in different cultures? I should do something about it soon!). The inhabitants of this village just stop by for 40 days a year to celebrate a festival dedicated to the local deity, Jakkamma. The rest of the time, the nomadic tribes move around the country, with their families, to make a living. This annual get-together is when all the important decisions and rites and rituals take place, marriages are solemnized, etc. The cool factor is that when a man and a woman want to get into a relationship, they simply start living and travelling together (*sigh), and get married the next time they get to the village! Now, how COOL is that!?! 😛

Mattur, Karnataka — Now this is a place that’s been written about before, but since I’m particularly partial to Sanskrit, I thought I’d make end my list with this. A hamlet in the Shimoga district of Karnataka, Mattur is (in a way) stuck in the classical times of Sanskrit. The residents are all masters in this ancient language, which is also hailed to be the most scientific language in the world. Although the local language here seems to be Sankethi, people from across the globe come by to learn and understand the scriptures here.

As I said, the cover story covered many other villages, but it’ll be unfair of me to give you the list here. So, if you like what you read, I suggest you either buy a copy or just check out the piece online. In the meanwhile, I will write about the village below… Do you know where this fantastical place is? A hint — 99,99,999.

Guess where this place is.

Guess where this place is.

What to do when you’ve arrived?

After you get yourself that soothing coffee, remember some basic things you gotta do!

After you get yourself that soothing coffee, remember some basic things you gotta do!

So, the vacation is now a reality. You’d been planning for months (or not at all) and had thought of every single hurdle that could put this much longed for and needed vacation in jeopardy — but nothing happened! Or even if they did, you have surmounted all, and have blissfully arrived at the destination of choice. You’ve checked into your hotel, settled in and feel like you can conquer the world.
But before you do just that, here are a couple of things that make the experience all the more better and hassle-free.

1. Grab your hotel’s business card: You’ve skimmed through Tripadvisor and gotten yourself a great deal on a quaint little hotel in the heart of the city that not many know about. Discovery! (Please pat yourself on a job well done.) But the flipside of such fortuitous discoveries is that when you’re lost wandering the city, soaking it all in, you can’t really ask people for directions to the hotel! ‘Coz it’s a secret remember?! To avoid such a situation, make sure you grab a couple of visiting cards from the hotel and place them in your wallet, between the sheets of the book you’re carrying around, in the pockets of your several coats, and anywhere else you can think of. This way, even if you have a language problem, you can whip out the card and get proper directions, or show it to the cabbie, etc., etc.

1a. GPS it: If you’re a techie and work well with your GPS map apps (and they can be lifesavers!), “Favourite/Mark” your hotel location before venturing out. This will see you through any wrong turns, drunken stupors and over-smart cabbies that would like you to contribute generously to their day’s income.

2. Walk around your hotel: Take some time out on Day 1 to familiarize yourself with the hotel locality. You never know when you get a sudden craving for coffee or need something from the deli. If you’re a budget traveller (like moi) then it may be possible you’re staying in a h/motel with no kitchen (this is fairly common in European countries), get an idea of the 24×7 shops around the place, and the general time when they open and close.

3. Chat up the receptionist: Most receptionists are founts of information, and they know how to get the stuff, and where to get the stuff — so be nice! (Plus, they also have a key to your room!) If you like local flavour and cultural amusements, ask the receptionist/concierge for tips around the city — there may be special events or festivals that you could check out, breweries/restaurants that are new and haven’t quite made it to your edition of Lonely Planet. The guy will probably be able to help you out with reservations/tickets and the other paraphernalia.
Also, you’ll be surprised to see the kind of stuff people have left behind, and most receptionists would have stored them — from phone chargers and books to playing cards. So, if you’ve forgotten some essentials, just ask them and they may have it.

4. Grab a map: Of paramount importance. You may have the latest smartphone, and a cracking map app, but it’s always good to keep a hardcopy backup. Most hotels have city maps, so make sure you grab one or two. These not only help you plan your way around the city, but you can also mark places like your hotel, and other must-visits on it, so that you don’t forget. Also, once the trip is over, marked maps make for awesome souvenirs.

5. Grab a transit pass for the city/state: Taking public transport is a great way to get a feel of the city. It’s also a safe way to get lost (if you like doing that on a regular basis — and you should. It’s fun!). Most cities have day/week passes that work for different types of transport services, and they’re also very cheap. These are usually available at the terminus or even the mom-n-pop stores and kiosks. If you find a booklet with details like bus/tram/metro routes, get one. Teemed with a map, they can be a formidable weapon in your pocket.

6. Get a local number: If you’re travelling in the same country for around a week or more, then I have found that the initial investment into a local GSM SIM card with data connectivity can give great dividends. Not only do you save up on international calling rates, but it gives you great security while travelling by yourself. In fact, a prepaid plan with the primary focus on data connectivity with a basic call balance is optimal. Use Skype and Viber to make the calls, and a zillion other apps increase mobility. Most hotels usually have Free Wi-Fi (yes, yes, India still has to catch up on that!), so you would basically need to make calls of short duration. Check out these links for some detailed info (Rick Steves; Slow Travel); Telestial (specially good for Europe), Cellular Abroad (for multiple countries on the same card) offers some decent options for those intending to travel across Europe. You can also rent phones from these sites (and other places as well. These are just a few examples I’ve given). Also, there are some plans excluding text messages. Now, “I’m a let’s talk, instead of message” kinda person — especially since a 1-minute conversation is a LOT more enlightening, than six text messages — and economical!
Please note, most service providers have country-specific calling cards, which makes calling home EXTREMELY cheap. In fact, more often than not, it’ll be cheaper for you to call home, than for them to call you! No kidding!

And if there’s anything I’ve missed out, please do let me know with your comments! 🙂

I must! And I will! Travel.

I’ve been on my dream (well, almost!) vacation since the past two months (well, again, almost!). I quit my job of five and a half years to take time out and travel. I took the plunge and I haven’t looked back ever since. And it’s been every bit as fabulous as I thought it would be, and sometimes in the most unexpected of fashions.

The good life.. coffee, beach, serenity!  (Juara Beach, Pulao Tioman, Malaysia)

The good life.. coffee, beach, serenity!
(Juara Beach, Pulao Tioman, Malaysia)

A few years back, when I was drifting a bit at my job, my editor had asked me “What do you really want to do?” I thought for a micro-second, and answered: Travel and get paid for it! His answer: I want to lie on a chair in Hawaii and smoke a cigar. When you have something more serious in mind, let me know.
I never went back with a “serious” answer.
Around three years later, when the plunge towards self-discovery has been taken, a few wonderful trips made, and “serious” thought to my ultimate goal in life paid, I finally have a serious answer: Travel and get paid for it! I kid you not.
The end of the world? It did seem like it! (South China Sea)

The end of the world? It did seem like it! (South China Sea)

I realize that I am not the only one with this dream. In fact, over night-long drinking sessions, coffee meets and telephone conversations this very same sentiment has been voiced countless numbers of times by too many people that it may form a sizeable chunk of the employed and even a part of the unemployed populace. But the difference between them and me is that I now know that THIS is IT! My life’s goal. It’s not a whimsical wish. Not a dream. Not an item on my bucket list. Travelling is what I was born to do. I don’t care how I travel, where I travel, when I travel, with whom I travel… as long as I am travelling. Well, don’t get me wrong… travelling does not mean continuously be on the road…I like a relaxing sojourn every now and then and DO NOT want to be zipping across the globe without experiencing anything at all (my recent trip to Malaysia made me realize that this, too, is possible! But more of that in another post.).

I know I must visit new places. I must meet a lot of different people. I must be constantly amazed. I must walk around ruins and imagine the most fantastical stories that happened there and people who must have lived there aeons ago and then drift off into thinking I was one of them. I must change my mind in the middle of a trip and end up at a place I hadn’t even heard about. I must savour each and every delectable taste that this world of mine has to offer. I must know the history of these fabulous places not by reading about them or drooling over pictures others have taken, but by sitting and listening—fascinated, open-mouthed, and wide-eyed—to a person who was a stranger just 10 minutes ago right there on ground zero! I must bombard random people with my questions, sometimes with the danger of getting thrown out (more of that later, again!).
The coffee lady who taught me how to  make this beautiful paper star!  (Milan, Italy)

The coffee lady who taught me how to
make this beautiful paper star!
(Milan, Italy)

I must fall in love over a riverbank or the edge of our books. I must have my heart broken when I leave, only to smile again because of that guy in the next table at the café the very next day. I must live in the moment and breathe in all the air at all the places in this world, dig my bare feet into the wet sand as the water splashes against my entire body and the waves pull me towards the vast ocean. I must relish in that panic when I’m just about to give in to my urges to let go and sink, especially when I don’t know how to swim, or hang over the edge of the mountain, and slightly make a tilt in favour of gravity, when I know not how to fly…well, physically, at least. I must be alive when I know that every atom in my body is dancing to the rhythm of the world that is not just the one around me, but the core that moves this entity we call the universe. I must makefriends with the stars (the celestial kind!). Imust break into a dance when I feel the rhythm that just makes me want to dance (okay, so I do that already. But not always! I swear!). I must see, live, experience, everyone and everything and everywhere! I must. And I will!
I know it! I don’t know how. But I know it!
Days when working in a cargo ship and travelling across the seven seas was an economic option are not around anymore. I know. I checked. A year back, desperate to do anything to set sail, quite literally, I checked with some cargo ship companies, and turned out, if I wanted to travel with them, a trip from a Mumbai port to an African port would cost me more than INR 12 lakh! And this was over and beyond the work I was expected to do on deck! Oh, how I ached for simpler and wallet-friendlier times.
Falling in love with a roving musician? (Venice)

Falling in love with a roving musician? (Venice)

Among other, more sane options, get a corporate job that pays a LOT of money; invent a muggle-version of the floo network; become the secretary of some super high-falutin’ CEO; do super yoga and perfect out-of-body travelling; get married to uber rich guy; fall in love with a wandering musician has also been suggested!; become a flight attendant; turn back time, not bunk classes, study real hard, become smart, do research and go to conferences; better yet, invent time machine!; transmogrify into an aeroplane; ooooh, become pilot and fly planes!; swap places with S’ dad; kill only friend who is living this dream, get full-body plastic surgery and take over her life! *evil genius laughter in the background, accompanied with thunder and lightning*
Spin on a bull's testicles for good luck! (Milan)

Spin on a bull’s testicles for good luck! (Milan)

There is the more obvious option of travel writing. Yes, for all those who’re thinking, finally she’s come down to it, well, I can say one thing: it ain’t easy! No, ironically it’s not that there isn’t enough work. Surprisingly, there is a lot of work. Alas, the past month and a half has made me realize that I have no discipline. Ahem! Yes, I’m admitting to it! I haven’t been able to sit ONE day to write out ONE piece about the places I’ve been to. Just because I have had no one to crack the whip on me. Sad. Very sad. But there it is. I can churn out a piece in 20 mins once the panic button’s been hit, but tell me to work at my own pace, and there will be no work at all!

Anyways, many deliberations and debates and furious conversations with myself later, I have not, yet, hit upon an answer. But as I said, I will travel. I will make it work for me. I might not know how, but I will figure it out!Wish me luck! I’m going to make my dream happen! I’ll leave inter-galactic travelling for the next life, for now, or, maybe not! 🙂

Endless possibilities. (Photo courtesy: Sharmistha Deb)

Endless possibilities. (Photo courtesy: Sharmistha Deb)

 

 

(This post was first published on 12 July 1012 on my primary blog
I Swear on Scarlett‘)