Tuesday, February 23, 2010

To god's own country

This new year I visited Kerala for the first time with my family - given what I had heard/seen/read about it, this was shamefully overdue. We took advantage of the very convenient invention of the travel gurus - aka 'package tours' which have completely invaded the tourism landscape in the past 10 years. They get you to enjoy all that is great about traveling minus the hassles, essentially all the non-fun stuff is transferred to the tour operator for a good compensation.

We left the cold confines of delhi weather the moment we entered the portals of the brand new IGI airport and then there was no looking back, at least for the coming 5 days. The flight on the spicejet airlines was quite smooth (even the overpriced coffee served in the aircraft was reasonable) except for the boring one hour 'inside-the plane' stopover at Mumbai's chhatrapati shivaji airport. But that's the charm of traveling with ma's- and-pa's - it never ceases to amaze me how much food the deceptively little bag carried by my mother can accommodate! I employed myself gainfully by eating all that I can for a substantial part of the hour long transit. For the remaining time on my flight, I fought hard to keep up with my reputation of a 'phoren-returned desi' and cover my almost rudimentary (non-existential might be more appropriate actually!) knowledge of angrezi songs in front of my highly informed brother who oblivious to the pleasures of food and my plight, kept asking me about rock bands which I had never ever heard of in my mortal life!

The next whiff of fresh air was at the Kochi International airport. It is a really small but functional place. The first glimpse of Kerala lifestyle was just there- `keep it simple' - and this way of living made itself evident to us in varied ways in the coming days. After getting our boria-bistar (Indians can't travel light!), we had a driver waiting for us with a car. He was a shy and soft-spoken guy named Joseph. As we drove to our first stop located in the Munnar hills, we discovered that he belongs to kochi itself and drives tourists like us around in peak seasons. Our drive through the coconut-trees lined roads was a very charming one. As we went up the hills, the coconut trees made way for shorter and thicker shrubs which were finally replaced with the beautiful and dense tea gardens. They are really a site - entire slopes of these hills are covered with carpets of tea leaves which were in full bloom then. The aroma could be felt even in the air and it had a quality of freshness which a delhite like me finds difficult to describe. Our resort was the topmost one on the hills and completely enlivened its name 'Misty Mountains'. From the hotel porch, we could actually see the clouds almost touching the lush green carpet of tea gardens underneath making the horizon one continuous fabric. A plaque in the reception area announced that the resort owed its exotic location to the tastes of British officers who frequented it during torrid summer months in South India. We had a fantastic pair of rooms to ourselves which were equipped with all the good saas-bahu channels besides a string of `Sun-TV', `Vijay TV', 'Surya-TV'...all showing south Indian songs. I settled for the latter kind just out of curiosity initially and was contemplating the natural resonance frequency of the jarring pelvic thrusts of dancers before my brother opened revolt and switched to sports...how unimaginative !

We shelved our plans to roam around the markets in the evening and instead decided to relax for the remaining part of the day. The only other thing which rivaled for attention with the beautiful locales surrounding the hotel was the brilliant food (I love south indian food anyways,!) . The dinner comprising a cocktail of chinese, north indian and south indian cuisines was great. The following morning an even better meal awaited us - I had a mouthful of the soft idlis and amazing chutneys and dived on the crisp dosas subduing all internal protests. After the delectable breakfast, we drove to the Eravikulam national sanctuary which is the only home to Nilgiri Tahr - a kind of horned deer. We left our car with Joseph and took the shuttle ride which ferries tourists to a point on the hilly route leading up to the reserve. This ride gave some breathtaking shots for our memories. Post this, we walked up the remaining distance to reach the park, where contrary to my expectations and their endangered status, Nilgiri Tahrs were not only easily visible but seemed pretty interested in getting photographed with the tourists. (I have been to N number of national parks doing crow watching and came back believing that the rare specimen I actually wanted to see was asleep around some corner!). Our rendezvous with the Niligiri tahr was followed by a drive to Mattupetty lake and dam, located 13kms from Munnar. It is a nice touristy site with lots of small shops and a beautiful view.

Following a drive through the markets, where my father stocked the specialties of the region (spices, tea, sandalwood, banana chips etc. etc.) for himself and at least 10 links down the family bloodline we came back to our rooms after a long and exhilarating day. The following morning, we started our drive towards our next stop - the town of Thekkadi. We almost felt a sense of surreal attachment with the nature's bounty around us while driving out of Munnar. Joseph informed us that Nilgiri range or the blue mountains (of which Munnar forms a part) are called so because of `Neelakurinji' - a kind of rare blue flower which blooms on these hills every 12 years. After a drive of around 4 hours we reached Silver Crest - our abode for the next 24 hrs in Thekkadi. It was on the opposite end of spectrum with respect to our experience in Munnar . Located in the busiest place of the city, buzzing with people, and different shades of life all there - together and disparate at the same time. It was quite a remarkable contrast and we thoroughly enjoyed it. Our hotel too contributed to this flavor of life - while the misty mountain resort had the kind of elegance of a resort of an erstwhile empire, the hotel at Thekkadi with different blocks of rooms sharing a common square courtyard felt more like a large family home in suburban India.

Our last and final stop was the village of Kumarakom, located in the world-famous backwaters. The resort where we stayed was called waterscapes - located on the banks of Vembanad lake inside the Kumarakom Bird Sanctuary, it draws migratory birds from as far away as Siberia. We did not spot any siberian intruders, but the resort was breathtaking - yes just the resort! For a government owned and managed resort, it was surprisingly well kept. The 'rooms' were actually independent huts which stood on stilts and gave the impression of tree houses amidst the surrounding mangrove vegetation. We had two neighboring huts booked in our name with conveniences to match the most elite hotels I have ever been to. Still, it never obscured the charming simplicity intricately woven into the Kerala lifestyle. After a short and amazing north indian lunch (both men in our family are ardent admirers and begin to show withdrawal symptoms from food if kept away from their staple diets), we went for a boat ride in the backwaters. It was a lazy ride in the almost still waters lined by local villages on each side. Looking at the simple villagers going around with their usual daily tasks, untouched by the fact that their haven of existence can be a tourist attraction to millions around the world and exchanging a smile with any face that cares to look upon them was the most unique experience. It was like seeing a live panorama of life at its simplest and probably the happiest too.

After pulling ourselves back up to the hotel (unwillingly), we enjoyed a very nice musical program organized by the local artists. They played some very famous old bollywood tunes on different kinds of flutes and mridangam which made them sound as melodious or more than the original. It is amazing how talent sprouts in most unassuming and unexpected places.

I had a very good sleep that night but was a bit grumpy to leave the next morning. Alas, time to say a goodbye to god's own country. I know I am definitely coming back though!

Friday, February 19, 2010

Thoda music ho jaaye...

Indian politics is second only to aka bollywood in providing masala for otherwise monotonous lives of ordinary indians. Just in this league, the latest comes from Nitin Gadkari, the newly elected president of BJP. He sang to a surprised audience at the party's conclave in Indore with the yesteryear song Zindagi kaisi hai paheli haaye... waah waah! In general, he sang to a different tune otherwise too with comments like we will help muslims build a mosque in return of generosity of sentiments... more waah waahs! Good to hear a singing voice from the asphyxiated BJP ...

But that led me thinking how entertaining it would be if all our election campaigns, parliamentary proceedings and thousands of politburo meetings of hundreds of indian political parties make this a routine affair. Being a responsible citizen, I have a few musical suggestions for our netas:

Manmohan Singh - Ye honsla kaise jhuke, ye aarzoo kaise ruke...

Sonia Gandhi - Saare deewane mane Na dekhi koi aisi girl
Dekhi lakh lakh pardesi girl, Ain’t nobody like my desi girl

P. Chidambram - Suno, kaho - kaha suna,
kucch hua kya - Abhi to nahi, kucch bhi nahi..???
(in wake of yet another terror attack catching us unawares, in spite of the warnings !)

L. K. Advani - Chhod aaye hum woh galiyan, ...

Rajnath Singh (the outgoing BJP chief) - Chingari koi bhadke, to saawan use bhujaye
saawan jo aag lagaye use kaun bhujaye
(so much for BJP infighting...alas!)

Rest of India to Raj Thackeray et. al. - 'pardesiya', pardesiya ye sach hai piya,
ki mumbai is still a part of india ....

and the good old ............

Laloo Prasad Yadav - Main aisa kyun hoon, main aisa kyun hoon
Main jaisa bhi hoon waisa kyun hoon

How about passing a bill in the parliament on this?... Aye Aye Mr. Speaker Sir.

Saturday, February 6, 2010

New Year Trip to Haridwar

Alright, I am back. I did not blog for over three months (my god!) and little did I hear from people that they missed me writing. So I felt that it's time to pack my books, take charge of the keyboard and knock my words down your throats once again ... hence here am I whizzing my cursor across the screen.

The past months have been quite eventful and it will need me to open anther account to pen all the reminiscences. I got busier with research - learned some scanning electron microscopy which is used to write structures as small as my patience with yet another 'bharatvasi' referring to avatar as ewat-(-as-in-tomato)-aar, cryogenics to keep the dilution refrigerators as cold as the feelings of Raj Thackeray towards the rest of India outside Mumbai, and some pulse engineering used to engineer microwave pulses as sharp and precise as shahrukh's comments regarding the current feud about non-inclusion of Pakistani players in IPL teams. What a list!

Amidst all this business I did something heavenly - traveled back home and visited Kerala for the first time besides revisiting our favorite family vacation spot Haridwar. I thought a good way to start my blog in this new year is to share these experiences with you.

So let's talk about haridwar first (Kerala trip deserves to be a separate blog). Our short but memorable trip began on a foggy Friday morning, with clouds racing against our car and emerging clear winners. On the pretext of waiting for the struggling sun to emerge, and in reality propelled by the mouth-watering billboards of roadside dhabas we stopped at a small little hotel for a break and breakfast. The walls scrawled with an assortment of ads about 'pepsi cola' in bright red blue and orange colors greeted us in the modest setting. We ordered a generous serving of various kind of stuffed paranthas with tea and coffee (didn't know that starbucks has arrived in the indian dhaba culture too). The results were exotic and everyone overate without exception. We topped our overstuffed bodies with black-forest cake which we were carrying as it was one of our friend's birthday.

We continued our journey with aching stomachs and smiling faces interspersed with a few leg stretching breaks for the welfare of 6 feet talls cribbing constantly on being crammed in a place half their length (dont give too much attention in case you encounter similar phenomena while traveling- in fact it is a useful tactic to keep people awake and hence keep the boredom away till you get hoarse singing antakshari songs/ threatened to be dropped off from the car by others with aching heads). Our next stop was for lunch in a much seedier shop where we feasted on dal roti and an assortment of indian vegetables.

It took us another two hours to reach the Jairam ashram in Haridwar which was our abode for the next two days. It is one of the oldest and the best in its league. I would strongly recommend staying at one of the beautiful ashrams lining the banks of ganga near har ki paudi as a must-have experience. And given the facilities they cost just as much as a hearty meal at McDonald's for a day, making them quite a deal! We booked four rooms for our contingent - each of which had an austere but functional furnishing with cold beds (dat made us request them for 8 extra blankets which were arranged promptly). After relaxing for a few hours we went down the ghats and strolled in the market with my mother buying a beautiful shawl for herself and wrapping herself right away to beat the cold - the chill there had taken us by surprise but the energy and the warmth typical of any indian religious destination remained undiluted. We had a reasonable dinner at the famous chotiwala's - there are so many of them these days each proclaiming themselves as the 'pracheen aur mashhoor' (meaning ancient and popular) chotiwala that it is impossible to tell one from the other. While coming back I saw many sweet shops with piles of laddoos, rabri and all those sinful indian delicacies one can never get enough of, and made a solemn promise to myself of coming back the next day.

I started my day early the next day, listening to the temple bells of morning prayers and the fantastic tea made by the chaiwala at the ashram. This was followed by a walk around the ashram which was spent appreciating the artistic murals adorning its various corners and depicting some or the other story from indian scriptures. Post this we energized (I did not want to use the word stuff for the third time) ourselves with more paranthas, makkhan and even more cups of chai accompanying them (on the last count I had at least 5 cups of that amazing tea that morning) at the ashram bhojnalaya and set off for our next destination - Rajaji National Park, famous for wild asian elephants. It is spread over an area of 820.42 sq. km and is a home to 23 species of mammals, along with 315 species of birds, like the Asian elephants, tigers, king Cobra, panther, bear, chital, sambar, wild boar, kakar, python, monitor Lizard etc. etc. So much from the website - we did spot a few of the above in the nondangerous variety and some sweet little birds but the jeep safari itself is too much fun even if you are like me and start scanning the ground when someone yells 'hey look at that bird!'. And if you do not spot an elephant which really depends on their mood (which I am sure will be tricky to guess), there is provision for elephant rides just outside the park where you can pretend that you really are sitting on a wild elephant just tamed into submission by your infinite bravery. I resisted the temptation as I was not entirely sure of the mood of even that tamed huge fellow.

After lunch we had a welcome card-playing break in which I was introduced to a new card game - I managed to make a respectable comeback after a torturous start. In the evening we went to the world-famous har ki pauri well ahead of time for ganga arti and hence were able to get vantage seats unlike the last evening. We stationed ourselves on the opposite bank from where the artiis are performed every evening. It is a breathtaking view really - if there is one thing you should not miss on traveling to India, this is it. The infinite number of colorful heads which dot the banks of ganges amidst the chants of 'har har gange' and the big flames which are swung rhythmically in a synchronous fashion by the priests is a rare spectacle. After this ethereal experience, we went ahead for fulfilling more mundane concerns like hunger and gulped down samosas and rabri in the adjoining bazaar. I also gave in to my poorly-concealed temptation and ended up buying a set of red and green bangles from one of the numerous glittering shops.

After shoving the elders in rickshaws the rest of us had a lazy walk back to the ashram, where we spent our last night of this amazing trip in the now-warm beds.

Wish some things never change...

P.S.: Promised: I am not sure if blogspot allows pics to be uploaded - if it does, I have some beautiful shots which will find their way in this article in not so distant future ! .. Delivered :)