Saturday, 31 December 2016

2016 Travel Calendar

I spent all of 2016 wishing I could travel more, and feeling that I hadn’t travelled much. Penning these travel memories down has made me realise that I have indeed travelled a fair bit this year, and a few trips had actually just slipped under my radar because they were disguised as ‘work’ or ‘wedding trips’ or ‘just going home’. I visited many cities and metropolises this year, something I don’t do too often, as I seek tranquil places most of the time. 2015’s food theme did continue strong this year. I also managed to visit places that had been on my travel wish-list since many years, some literally since my childhood! To top it all, I finally set foot in the northern Himalayas, having only travelled to the eastern Himalayas before. What more can I say? I’m ending 2016 on a cheerful and nostalgic note!

Here's hoping that 2017 brings this beautiful world of ours some much-needed happiness and peace.
                                                                                                                    Ranthambore National Park
A last minute travel plan to a national park which is notorious for being booked out months in advance should logically never work out; fortuitously, it did! Though my late booking meant that my safaris weren’t in any of the zones with Ranthambore’s famous monuments, or even the Rajbagh Lake, this trip gave me a fair idea of the forest’s unique topography. And I did see one of Ranthambore’s gorgeous tigresses.

Bharatpur & Chambal
When wildlife tours to Bharatpur were called 'Magical Bharatpur', I dismissed the description as just another tagline. Having visited Bharatpur now, I can vouch for the magic, and can say that 'magical' doesn't do the place enough justice. Beginning each of my three days with foggy rides in cycle-rickshaws at dawn, and ending them with multi-coloured sunsets, there wasn’t a dull moment spent at the Keoladeo Ghana National Park. For me, the highlight of the trip was witnessing an out-of-season mating dance by a Sarus Crane pair; the love they expressed for each other was – you guessed it – magical! I also visited nearby Chambal on a day-trip, finally seeing the region’s infamous ravines, the Chambal River, toothy Gharials, and the endangered Indian Skimmers.

Jaipur fell into place by accident, when I decided to fly in and out of the city while visiting Ranthambore and Bharatpur. Never one to miss chances like these, I decided to spend a day in Jaipur, for my first taste of the city which had been on my wish-list ever since I was enamoured by a cut-out of the Hawa Mahal as a child. A day is way too short for a holiday, but I thoroughly enjoyed ambling around the old city’s vibrant bazaars and monuments, gorging on local delicacies which my host had painstakingly listed for me. And of course, I fell in love with Hawa Mahal all over again.  

When a friend announced that her wedding would be in Kolkata, I lost no time in planning an extended trip to the ‘City of Joy’. With a little over two days at hand for enjoying the city, I splurged to stay at the Oberoi, in the heart of Kolkata, with all the landmarks just a stone’s throw away. The city is immensely easy to negotiate by walking, using the metro, or the classic yellow taxis (my personal favourites), though my friends didn’t really share my enthusiasm for these slow and rickety behemoths. We visited some of Kolkata’s classic landmarks, enjoyed Park Street’s weekend vibe, ate ghoti gorom while walking along the ghats of the Hooghly River, and over-dosed on authentic Bengali mishti, which has spoiled any mishti outside of Bengal for us. Kolkata’s street food was a revelation: delicious, available at every corner of the city, and light on the wallet.

Malnad region, Karnataka
I was grumpy during summer, due to my lack of travel plans because of having just recovered from a back injury. A sudden call from my wildlife mentor to travel to Sagar and Shimoga districts in the Malnad region had me bounding out of bed. With promises to my family that I would be extra cautious about my back, I set out on this four-day trip through lush forests and rolling hills, appreciating some lesser-known wildlife areas. The beautiful Jain temple at Nagarabasti, surrounded by verdant vistas, was a find. It drizzled incessantly throughout the trip; however, the famed Jog Falls was bone-dry, much to my dismay!

Home to me, but an intriguing metropolis to my husband, Mumbai (still Bombay to me) was a sudden trip in summer. What lured hubby and sealed the deal was the promise of Alphonso mangoes every day. I used this opportunity to walk around all my favourite hangouts in the city, with weary hubby trudging along in the muggy May heat. Exploring the Fort region to the CBD, Marine Drive to the Gateway of India, Juhu beach to Dadar, I relived my life as a Mumbaikar. Of course, how could food be far behind? Authentic Maharashtrian dishes, Irani restaurants, Gujarati food and Bambaiyya dishes, we savoured them all, washed down with copious cups of aamras and mango milkshakes. By the end of the holiday, my husband was a convert.

BR Hills, Karnataka
I’ve visited this forest many times, and the JLR property at K.Gudi is one of my favourites. Since my husband had never been there, we decided to take a short break mid-year. The probability of encountering elephants along the forest’s narrow, winding, hilly safari route always excites and scares me in equal measure. This trip, to add to our excitement was the cottage we had chosen to stay in – farthest from the other cottages, and where leopards are routinely sighted. One of our most memorable experiences was sitting in our stilted cottage’s balcony after 10 pm, in pitch darkness, surrounded by bats and fireflies, listening to frequent alarm calls and the rustling of leaves. Sometimes, the things you can only hear scare you more than the things you can see.

For an architect, Chandigarh is something of a holy grail. When I planned my trip to Spiti Valley, I jumped at the opportunity to spend a day there. My impression of the city, garnered mostly from school textbooks and architecture books, now sprung alive. In just a few hours, Chandigarh bowled me over with its cleanliness, orderly traffic, soft-spoken people, and joie de vivre. Nek Chand’s Rock Garden was a childhood dream come true, and every bit as crazy as I had imagined! Seated on the bund at Sukhna Lake, legs swinging over the edge, surrounded by locals enjoying the tranquility, I could see why Chandigarh’s residents love their city; I love it too!

Lahaul and Spiti, Himachal Pradesh
My trip to Spiti Valley was one of the highlights of the second half of the year, and I returned smitten by the beauty of the region, the stark landscapes, its ever-smiling people, their hospitality, and their simplicity of life. Spiti is raw nature at its best, and its worst; yet, the locals embrace everything as a part of life. Involving high-altitude travel on gravelly roads where traversing 200 kms takes 12 hours, the tranquility of Spiti’s tiny villages, the sparkling azure of its lakes, and the serenity of its monasteries are some of the many memories etched in my mind. Since my return, I remain deeply introspective.

Hampi never ceases to surprise me, even on my third trip! Having seen some of the main monuments on a ‘fun only’ first trip with a bunch of friends, and Hampi’s and Daroji’s wildlife on my second trip, I was third time lucky. With an excellent guide and lovely accommodation in serene Anegundi, I brought in my birthday just the way I liked it – walking all day through the treasure hunt that is Hampi, stumbling across picturesque ruins, pristine banks of the Tungabhadra River, and negotiating through herds of goats. Hampi’s scale is staggering, and this is the closest I have come to feeling like Indiana Jones. Hampi’s vast expanse also meant that in spite of the Dusshera holiday crowds, I always managed to find a quiet spot for myself.  

Thursday, 4 August 2016

Seeking Nostalgia in Kodaikanal

Published in the August 2016 edition of Discover India magazine, as 'The Big Misty'.

The fireplace crackled, spewing out untamed flames, and sparks that spat into the room like energetic fireflies. I smiled and sank deeper into my easy-chair, cupping a bowl of hot soup. I was enjoying every bit of the cold weather, having arrived here from the scorching plains. Just a few relaxing hours in Kodaikanal had afflicted me with a languor that was quickly becoming second nature. As my hosts spoke animatedly about life in Kodaikanal, their favourite long walks, secret nooks, and scenic views, it became abundantly clear that I had a battle on my hands to shake off my slothfulness, if I wanted to explore Kodaikanal.

Sepia-tinted photographs and meticulous black-and-white sketches from the 1800s, dotted all over my hosts’ living room, enticed me with the promise of pristine landscapes, fleet-footed Nilgiri Tahrs and Sambar deer in grasslands, and humungous Gaurs surprising me at road bends. As a compulsive nostalgia seeker, the thought of attempting to experience 19th century Kodaikanal immediately caught my fancy, and soon, I was consumed by the idea. So I pored over the photographs and sketches, noted details, and armed myself with directions and tips from my hosts, to help me recreate the memories held by these images.

Morning dew on my window
The next morning, I forced myself out of the snug comfort of my quilt, only to be greeted by the croaking of cicadas. When I left at 6 am, there was barely enough light to discern and open the padlock on the property’s gate, while simultaneously trying to prevent their resident pet from running out with me.  Kodaikanal had not yet awoken from its slumber, except for a dimly-lit tea shack from which wisps of smoke emanated.

From its viewpoint, Kodaikanal Lake was seen shrouded in mist, which had coagulated over the water like gigantic, unruly candy floss. All around, trees emerged, many of them distinctly pine and eucalyptus. The sunrise vista was like watching film slowly develop in a dark-room: monochromatic at first, segueing from pastel pink to sepia, with the other colours choosing to reveal themselves only an hour later, as I drove back past the viewpoint. The lake’s shape as seen from here corresponds exactly to its 19th century photograph. Not much has changed in the view, barring low roofs of Kodaikanal town peeking out from between layers of trees.

Pillar Rocks lay at the end of a long, winding drive from the lake’s viewpoint; save for a couple of houses, the road was deserted. Crepuscular rays streamed in through thickets of trees, from which I heard langurs swinging. I was shaken out of my reverie by the appearance of a barricade - the road hadn’t yet been opened to vehicles for the day.  I approached Pillar Rocks on foot, with heightened anticipation.

Pillar Rocks sketch by Douglas Hamilton, 1862.
Source: Wikipedia. Larger image: click here
The two separate pillar-like rocks from the sketch now stood a little less distinctly, the 150 years that had elapsed having allowed plants to grow over the rocks, reducing the gap between them. The grasslands of yore were also overgrown. There were no gambolling Tahrs or Sambar, and the metal railing all around the viewpoint kept threatening to make my time-travel difficult.

The valley, however, lived up to its promise of being mist-filled, revealing parts of the escarpment of the Palani Hills on which Kodaikanal is situated. A howling, bone-rattling wind made my jacket and gloves redundant, but helped clear the clouds; the sky then turned a picture-postcard blue and gifted me the sight of Pillar Rocks crowned by the setting moon. When I said gifted, I meant it – just a few hours later, eager visitors to Pillar Rocks saw nothing, as fog hid the rocks until the next sunrise. My hosts had been right in egging me on to leave before dawn.

Enthused by how my morning had panned out, I was less averse to exploring ‘modern’ Kodaikanal and decided to see the picturesque lake up-close. The lake is the focal point of life in Kodaikanal, for residents and visitors alike. With restricted vehicular movement on the road encircling the lake, it comes alive with cyclists whizzing past, people chatting, residents jogging, and couples enjoying quiet strolls. With the lake on one side and many palatial heritage buildings lining the other, the lake road exudes an old-world charm.

The sight of bicycles brought out the child in me and I spent a greater part of the afternoon giggling over our clumsy tandem-bike riding skills, while resolutely cycling around the lake. To perhaps continue kindling the child in you, the boat clubs have ensured that most pedal-boats have gigantic cartoon characters built on them. With Mickey Mouse for company, I pedalled across the lake to one of its quieter arms. Families had turned up in droves to enjoy the pleasant evening; in spite of the crowd, the large size of the lake allowed me to have a piece of Kodaikanal to myself. And I had to admit - the Kodaikanal of today had provided me with as much excitement and relaxation as the Kodaikanal of the past.

That didn’t stop me from resuming my pursuance of the next black-and-white photograph, though. Dolphin’s Nose, so named because of the shape of the rock overhanging the valley, promised an interesting trek, and I decided to undertake it early the next day. The narrow trail took me past bustling hutments, cheap lodges with bewildering Hebrew signage, refreshment stalls, and locals gathering firewood, before meandering through trees and losing all sight of habitation.  Which is why, it startled me to hear a voice behind me say “photo, madam?” barely ten minutes after I sat near the edge, lost in quiet contemplation.


Once an Enid Blyton-esque picnic spot for Kodaikanal’s residents, Dolphin’s Nose now attracts many visitors who enjoy posing in the ‘Titanic pose’ at the very edge. A few enterprising photographers not only orchestrate photogenic poses, but are also equipped with instant printers to give you copies within minutes. Upon my refusal, the photographer too sat down to admire the view. Coaxed by him into experiencing the feeling of sitting at the actual end, I slowly overcame my fear and swung my legs over the edge, hands gripping the ground next to me for dear life. Though decades had elapsed since my reference colonial era photo had been taken, Dolphin’s Nose still felt like the end of the world.   

If Dolphin’s Nose whetted my appetite for more solitude, Berijam Lake surpassed it. With highly restricted access to the lake, you are almost guaranteed to be the sole individual there if you time it right. The long drive to the lake passes through precariously surviving shola-grasslands; I was pleased because it increased my chances of spotting wildlife, if not the elusive Tahrs. Mist engulfed the road for quite some time, considerately lifting at just the right viewpoints. 

Berijam Lake sat in the valley like the grand prize at the end of a journey. To stroll and sit at the water’s edge, surrounded by hillocks and dense clusters of conifers, with no sign of ‘civilisation’ in sight, made it the perfect end to my quest for nostalgia.

Driving back from Berijam Lake, lamenting that it was time for me to leave Kodaikanal, I passed the golf course. Despite being mid-day, mist rolled over its gentle undulations, even as a lone golfer persistently played his game.  

That is when it dawned on me - the 19th century still existed in Kodaikanal: in its pristine landscapes, its capacity to offer solitude, and its flair for surprising you. And then, almost as if to chide that obsessing about the past wasn’t healthy, Kodaikanal drops a misty curtain on it all, nudging visitors to experience its present – its people, its lake, and its activities. I realised that Kodaikanal morphs into what you seek from it.

Thursday, 31 December 2015

2015 Travel Calendar

‘Short trips’ was this year’s recurring theme, making the best of my sparse holidays and sparser travel money.  If the last two years had been about discovering the joys of road-trips and solo travel, this year led me down a new path – food trips. Having always been a foodie, enjoying regional cuisine whenever I travelled, this year’s trips took this passion to new heights – trips where we ate like there was no tomorrow, hunting down the tastiest local specialities a place had to offer. I had more than enough food to savour, despite my supposed ‘drawback’ of being a vegetarian.

In between gorging on food, I photographed these delicacies, resulting in outright bad photos at first, but improving slowly by the next trip. This has made me want to better my food photography skills, something I’ve resolved to practice next year; not your glossy, studio set-up food photos, but photographing food on the streets. I love how travel brings such new challenges my way!

With a trip already planned for the first month of 2016, I sign off excitedly for this year, wishing everybody a very happy, healthy and travel-filled 2016.
I travelled to Madurai by chance, as my husband, who spent a few years living there, wanted to visit the city to re-live his childhood memories. The trip quickly snowballed into a larger agenda, of also enjoying Madurai’s famed food. The city takes its title of 'thoonga nagaram' (the town that never sleeps) very seriously, buzzing from the wee hours of the morning, well into the night. Catering to the teeming mass of people are hole-in-the-wall eateries and road-side vendors, with a wide array of meals and tiffin items. While meals include a lot of non-vegetarian dishes, tiffin is predominantly vegetarian, and can be a meal in itself. Madurai's residents have a discerning palate, which reflects in the food they prepare, and it is almost impossible to get bad food anywhere in the city. I ate my way through Madurai tiffin, which offers a mind-boggling variety of dishes and beverages: from popular dishes like kotthu parotta and idli to unique local items like jigarthanda and thennangkuruthu. 

The best way to atone for indulging in such excesses at Madurai was to walk it off, I thought. What better way to do that than to spend a few days at nearby Kodaikanal? Kodaikanal’s crisp winter weather and laidback weekday disposition proved to be the perfect setting for rambling walks, energetic cycling around the Kodai Lake, and a sweaty hike to Dolphin’s Nose. Our determination to not focus on food, however, was thrown out of the window thanks to our gregarious home-stay hosts, who broke our resolve with every lip-smacking meal they cooked for us.  All the food sent us scrambling for more walks, and we returned to Bangalore refreshed by Kodaikanal’s charm and natural beauty.

Read about this trip:

Kabini, Karnataka
This quick jaunt to Kabini in the monsoon was intended as a rejuvenating break after a strenuous first half of the year, and to celebrate hubby’s milestone birthday. As usual, Kabini lived up to its promise. Threatening clouds loomed, but it never rained hard enough to foil our plans. Four safaris into the forest, short walks around Kabini River Lodge’s campus, and contemplative sessions gazing at the Kabini reservoir got us fully recharged for the latter half of 2015.

Dilli ki sardi was something my friend would often poetically rave about. I decided that it was finally time to experience it first-hand, inviting myself over to my aforesaid friend’s home. Research prior to the trip had armed me with a list of over 40 eateries to visit, many serving winter specialities, and I lost no time in dragging my friends along for the food mania. Over three days, we systematically chomped our way through the list, walking for hours through Old Delhi, seeking out nondescript push-carts and not-marked-on-any-map eateries, all serving some of the cheapest, freshest and most delicious food I have ever eaten. When we could walk no more, we took breaks at some of Delhi’s lovely monuments, catching forty winks and resting our tired legs, only to resume our mission soon after. Not for the faint-hearted, this trail!

Sunday, 1 November 2015

Wild Postcards from Sri Lanka

An unedited version of my story published in the November 2015 edition of the in-flight magazine, JetWings

I furrow my brows, as the ringtone interrupts my hectic deadline. The number displayed on my mobile is unknown, but I continue to stare – something about it beginning with +94 seems deliciously familiar. I answer. Silence. Just as I return to furiously typing out the remainder of my email, it rings again. I absently answer the call, only to be greeted by rapid-fire talk in a language I don’t understand. Then it comes back to me, rusty as the memory is, from months of disuse. I get up from my chair, smile at no one in particular, and say “ayubowan.” The relentless chatter pauses. “No Sinhala,” I continue, like I’d repeated for three weeks, many months ago. The voice begins talking in an endearingly halting and lilting Hindi, “Main Prasanna bol rahaa hoon.” I can hear a smile, a shy smile. “Aapka letter aaya.” Instantly, my deadline is all but forgotten.

Sinharaja Forest Reserve, in south-west Sri Lanka, is the country’s only surviving primary tropical rainforest. Its pin-head size belies the fact that more than 60% of the flora and fauna found here are endemic to the region. Due to this high endemism, the forest has been declared a UNESCO heritage site.

Prasanna was my eyes and ears in Sinharaja, where the earth was as slippery as grease, and battalions of leeches clung to every human who dared brave the incessant rains. The sky flickered between innumerable shades of grey, and could barely be glimpsed through small gaps in the tall, dense rainforest canopy. The highlight of my trek was witnessing a mixed-flock hunt, with raucous drongos, frisky babblers, belligerent Blue Magpies, and even the dignified trogon, feasting on worms and insects emerging from the rain-battered earth. The forest trail yielded birds, fungi, flowers, snakes, and lizards of such varieties, that we were constantly surprised at every turn; even the endangered Purple-faced Leaf Monkey revealed itself on my last evening at Sinharaja.

At the end of each tiring day in the forest, I’d return to my room at Martin’s Simple Lodge, a place which is exactly as its name suggests, swapping sightings and experiences with fellow birding enthusiasts while savouring refreshing tea in the terrace overlooking Sinharaja’s dipterocarps, or while nonchalantly plucking leeches off our persons by the communal tap. The owner, a former guide and a wealth of information, is a man of few words; what makes him smile though, is visitors’ childlike enthusiasm at having seen a Red-faced Malkoha or a Ceylon Frogmouth up-close, in the forest he holds dear.

"Sinharaja’s villages don’t have pin-codes; how will my letter be delivered?" I’d asked, while saying goodbye. Prasanna just smiled, answerless. I needn’t have worried: the letter, along with photographs of Sinharaja, had reached him within a week of my convincing my neighbourhood post office that I was not ‘wasting eighty rupees in postage’.

“There is an error in your identification” Prasanna says, alluding to the contents of my letter, “This is a Purple-faced Leaf Monkey, not a Bear Monkey.” I apologise sheepishly for my rookie mistake. The mention of the Bear Monkey, though, swings me along to another place, another day.

Horton Plains National Park, located in Sri Lanka’s central highlands, is the country’s only montane grassland and cloud forest. Due to its high elevation, fog and clouds deposit a large amount of moisture, creating a unique ecosystem of moist grasslands, swamps and wetlands. The endemic flora and fauna have evolved to suit this peculiar habitat. Ohiya is a convenient base for exploring Horton Plains. However, due to extremely limited accommodation here, most visitors prefer to stay at the popular hill station Nuwara Eliya, almost two hours away.

The mountain railway at Ohiya snakes through dense foliage, from which peek colourful tin roofs. An occasional curlicue of smoke from a cooking fire is the only sign of habitation. Hiking along the tracks brought well-preserved, century-old sleepers and metal components my way. I was also rewarded with an encounter with the endemic Bear Monkeys, cousins of the species in Sinharaja. Over twenty of them, jumping from branch to branch, with a wary eye on me, looking improbably like monkeys with bear ancestors - to think, I wasn’t even within the national park boundary yet!

At Horton Plains National Park, the 9 kilometre trail meandering across grasslands, seasonal ponds, over undulating rock, sometimes gravel, and finally through dense forest, can be completed in 3 hours. However, stopping to admire bright orchids and gnarly trees, while looking for Bear Monkeys and elusive birds, meant that my trekking time doubled. My guide and I trekked anti-clockwise, beginning at the grasslands, moving on to Baker’s Falls, Large and Little World’s Ends, and finally, through dense vegetation. 

Old-man’s beard, a characteristic of Horton Plains, festooned all the trees in the last stretch, whose trunks and branches were also decorated with lichen and moss. A Sri Lankan breakfast of rotti, jam, and bananas, devoured while staring into World’s End, added to the air of fulfillment and quiet contemplation; the sheer escarpment here offers views till the coastline, on one of the rare clear days like that day.

I sigh, looking at the digital clock on my computer screen. The sun has long set, and I’ve been caught up in Sinharaja and Horton Plains. A flick of the switch illuminates the room. The paperwork on my desk lies un-tackled, held down by a pebble, smooth and rounded, as grey as the sea was that day. With white specks, as white as the sand looked, reflecting the sun’s generosity beating down on it. There I go again, carried along by a wave of memories.

Mirissa, a tiny fishing village in southern Sri Lanka, attracts visitors for two reasons: its laidback, picturesque beach and its whale-watching trips. Since it lies at the southernmost tip of the entire Indian subcontinent, whales migrating east to west must cross Mirissa. The abundance of food in the Indian Ocean makes it a favourite with these cetaceans, and even the otherwise-elusive Blue Whales and Sperm Whales are routinely spotted.  

At 5:30 am one morning, travellers gathered at the whale-watching agency’s office, upbeat at the prospect of guaranteed sightings of whales and dolphins. I, however, couldn’t bring myself to ignore the knot in my stomach, as I don’t take well to open seas. On the two-decked boat, all around me was laughter, anticipation and colourful life-jackets. The tantalising omelette station on board was crowded; just an hour later, the boat’s only restroom would be; so too the railing on the deck, with nauseous travellers bent over. Despite having resolutely stayed away from breakfast, I could feel my innards churning - quite an indication of the roiling Indian Ocean.

By the time we returned to shore after six hours at sea, we had become a statistic – the only boat in forty days to not sight a single whale. I held on to precious, fleeting memories of the dolphin pod we had seen, unfortunately far enough to look merely like grey flotsam. The next afternoon, travellers were agog at having spotted multiple whales. One had even breached the water, excited voices told us. All I could do was close my eyes and picture it, the waves lashing Mirissa’s beach adding sound to my thought. I smiled, as my imaginary Blue Whale emerged from bluer waters, magnificence personified. For this, I will brave the Indian Ocean again someday, I decided, sanguinely.   

“Wapas aaoge tab milenge” is Prasanna’s parting shot. He knows Sri Lanka’s allure – you just MUST return.  Sometimes, that’s all it takes to travel in time – a call you hesitated to take.