The Nizam city of Hyderabad – What to see in 2-4 hours

The Nizam’s city of Hyderabad is famous for many things. Biryani, Chandrababu Naidu, Satyam, the Charminar and the Golconda fort. I have visited Hyderabad several times for a day’s trip to the corporate Hitech city so aptly named for all the major IT firms that are housed there.  However, I never had the opportunity to stay for more than a day at work.

The past week however, I got a chance to go around seeing this buzzing metropolis of Hyderabad and getting a feel of what it was even if it was for just a few hours in the wee morning.  Hyderabad is divided into five parts – east, west, north, south and the central zone. The picturesque Hussain Sagar lake with its tall misty fountains and the Buddha statue in the middle is at the center of the city. Most affluent neighborhoods such as the Banjara hills, Jubilee hills etc. lie around the lake in the central zone. The old city of Hyderabad lies at the south of the Musi river and is vastly different from the cleaner Hitech city, Banjara hills, and cantonment part of Secunderabad.

The tranquil Buddha in the Hussain Sagar lake

For the couple of hours I had, and with the couple of foreign visitors accompanying me, I decided to go to the Charminar, the Birla temple and the Hussain Sagar lake. Charminar is much touted as the symbol of Hyderabad and is displayed magnificently on travel posters at the airport and outside. Quite honestly, as I neared it, I was totally not impressed. Apart from creating a hype about it the Andhra Pradesh government has done nothing to maintain it the way it should be. This ancient structure which was built by Sultan Qutb Shah more than 400 years ago is in the sorriest part of the town. From the outside, its walls look crumbling and dilapidated and a tiny not-very-old temple is built right adjacent to it and sadly is the cause for many riots.  The market is not clean, and hawkers, and beggars throng the streets jeering at and harassing tourists.  The day after my visit, there apparently were even riots and police firing happened around there.  It is a pity that such a highly touted tourist spot is in such a sensitive area to scare away any tourists and is simply not secured or preserved well enough. Even taking photos wasn’t as simple as it should have been with the milling traffic and crowd.

A romanticized photo of Charminar

A romanticized photo of Charminar

The market nearby, the ‘Laad Bazaar’ was just opening up when I went and I hear there are lots of bangle shops, pearl shops and in season, kite-maker shops.

The old mosque, the Mecca masjid near the Charminar looked much more ancient and charming than the Charminar itself, but again, we could not go in because of much scaffolding and maintenance work going on there.

Charminar amidst the morning chaos

Charminar amidst the morning chaos

Our next stop at the Birla temple was much nicer.  The Birla temple in Hyderabad was built of lovely pristine white marble. The temple on a hill offered panaromic views of the city in several directions, and one could see how the city of Hyderabad had grown in size over the years.

Birla Mandir courtsy wikimedia commons

We took a final round of the city around the peaceful Hussain sagar lake before we returned to the hi-tech city.

This is what I did in the 3 hours I had at Hyderabad. If you have the same time constraints if you visit, I suggest you visit a few alternate places

  • The Golconda fort – check the lights and sound show in the evening which is supposed to be quite good (and really as told by other tourists and not just as advertised).  The fort will take a minimum of 2 hours to see.
  • The Chowmahalla palace in the old city is a great place to see and I had many recommendations to visit this.
  • If you are a museum fan, the Salar Jung museum, one of the biggest museums in India is the place to go to.
  • For a whole days visit, the Ramoji film studio is a fun theme park to hang out and see different film sets from different eras. Guided tours can be booked right from the airport.

Eating options – Being a modern city, Hyderabad has plenty of places to eat for all palates. Hyderabadi Biryani is particularly very famous. To eat the best biryani, do go to the immensely popular ‘Paradise Biryani’ at Secunderabad where they even pack the biryani in special packages for travelers! Don’t forget to pack baked goodies, particularly dry-fruit biscuits from the 60 year old Karachi bakery to share back home. On the way back, I particularly enjoyed the ‘idlis’ of Idli Factory at the airport with all their accompaniments of different ‘chutneys’.

Idlis of Idli Factory

Overall, I was quite impressed with most areas I went around in. The Hi-tech city, with all its IT software parks, beautiful roads, hardly felt like the dusty, grimy India that is better known!  The Banjara hills and the Jubilee hills are a verdant mass of foliage and beautiful houses.   I wasn’t exactly wowed by the 2-3 touristy places I went to, but I liked the overall feel of the city to want to visit again.

Categories: Andhra Pradesh, India | Tags: , , , | 12 Comments

Disney Magic

Cinderellas Caslte

What kind of superheroes will an Indian a la Disneyland have, I wondered, when I visited Disneyland in Orlando, Florida.  Some friends of mine instantly recalled our very own Chacha Chaudhari and Sabu.  Instead of the simulated launch on to Mars in the ‘Mission Space’, we could go to Jupiter ofcourse after traversing the planets that come in between. We could have a 3D movie with Sabu throwing off evil villains off peaks.

Or how about a Rajani ride…It would ofcourse include rides which would flout all laws by Newton, Einstein or any scientist!  If Disney had an Epcot World Showcase, our Bollypark could have all the locales which SRK spread out his arms and sang to his heroines. That would pretty much cover all the gorgeous places there are in the world.
Instead of delving into the fairy tales of Snow White, Cinderella, we can always dig into our treasure trove of popular mythological characters like Ganesh, Hanuman, Bhim, Ram, Krishna who have already been animated too.

Anyway, I guess, there is no point in me speculating about what can be, when I have just returned from a trip to this truly magic kingdom…a kingdom for the kids actually.  It was fun walking through the Main Street, Adventure Land, Frontierland, Fantasyland, Liberty Square, Mickeys Toontown and Tomorrowland in this fairyland.  It certainly made me wish I was back there as a kid.  However as an adult, I did enjoy the two Parades, the one in the day time and the electric parade at night, which were fabulous and I enjoyed watching them and calling out to my favorite characters swinging by me.  The electric parade was a dazzling display of illuminated floats and wonderful lighted up costumed dancers and characters.  The shows ended with a spectacular display of fireworks with the backdrop of Cinderella’s castle. Unforgettable. Amongst the rides and shows, I did enjoy the 3D movie with the popular Disney characters, the jungle cruise on the boat, and the Space Mountain rollercoaster ride.

But as an unfortunate adult in the world dominated by kids in this magical land,  most of the rides such as Winnie the Pooh, the Magic Alladin carpets, Peterpan, Snow-Whites adventure etc, were for ages 2-8.(we read to  our consternation after enjoying them earlier!). The lines were long and winding and the waits were intolerable 30-80 minutes for each ride.  Though after the first crazy wait, we discovered using our ‘Fastpass’ to beat the lines. And this was supposedly in the off-peak season.  I reckon, the lines would be even worse in the vacations and summers.
Epcot was the other Disney Park I visited, and though the Rain Gods spitefully tried to dampen our spirits and us all day, we still managed to have a great time, especially as the crowds thinned and there were no lines as compared to those in the Magic Kingdom!  Epcot was certainly one targeted to adults and teens and was an educational as well as a fun experience that helped kids and adults alike learn about a variety of burning issues.  It taught environmental consciousness through the ‘Circle of Life’ short film through the eyes of Simba, Timon and Pumba. Another show explained power and energy sources with the Ellen DeGeneres dream that took us through a journey from the Dinosaur jungles to the nuclear age today in a vast moving theater. The fun rides were the space mission ride to Mars, the fast paced drive on Test Track, the entertaining 3D video by the King of Pop Michael Jackson as Captain EO and the Soarin’ ride to California. However, the best part about Epcot was the World Showcase with its miniature country pavilions.  Dining at an Aztec temple in Mexico, riding a Norse boat in Norway, seeing miniatures of the Teracotta warriors, and learning about the various other cultures of France, Germany, Itay, Japan, Morocco, France, UK and Canada through short films in huge theaters were highlights.  I particularly enjoyed the China video that was very well done and was projected in a 360 degrees absolutely humongous theater. All in all, a wonderful experience for people of all ages.
How I wish I were back there as a child! Some snapshots of my trip here.

Walt Disney- The Man behind it all.
And the fun started with the Parade!
The Genie to grant wishes with Alladin
Dancing with the stars
Lighting up the day at night!
Dazzling lights and illuminating memories
Hola! At an Aztec Temple
A German Square
A Japanese Pagoda
A spectacular show at the Magic Kingdom
The Epcot dome
Categories: United States | Tags: , , , | 21 Comments

Architecture at Muscat, Oman

Buildings and architecture are a part of every visit to a city. The charm of a city is in a way defined by the beautiful buildings it has. If New York is remembered by its towering buildings, Chicago is all the more beautiful in its stately but tall buildings.  Victorian architecture is well recognized in many countries where the British ruled. Europe is renowned for its distinctive Greek/Roman and several other forms of architecture which make its towns and cities such a visual treat indeed.

The Middle-eastern countries have their own flavor of Muslim architecture which sets it apart from the rest of the world. Muscat, in the Sultanate of Oman showed me examples of some lovely architecture in its fine mosques, homes, forts and office buildings.

I am no expert on this topic, but the simplicity in fine lines, arches and curves defined elegance for me in all its buildings. Fortunately, His Majesty, Sultan Qaboos, the ruler of Oman, apparently was not in favor of the high rises that abound the neighboring prosperous UAE.  With a few high-rises only in the city, one never feels cramped as compared to being in modern day glass and cement cities. The shorter buildings here are not just square brick structures, but a medley of arches, and graceful straight lines at the right places. What also helps is the fact that surroundings are sparkling clean adding to the aura of the buildings.

The Grand Mosque in Muscat that was built after a competition for its design is one of the most popular destinations for worshippers and tourists alike.  However, my favorite mosque in Muscat, was the one I saw frequently by the main road. A gleaming off-white color, the Zawawi mosque in Al-Khuwair with its gardens around was a treat to see in the day and delightfully illuminated by night.  Some pictures are below.

Zawawi Mosque, Muscat

The Sultan Qaboos Grand Mosque, Muscat

A quick walk in the neighborhood left me spellbound as I saw the homes around me, each more beautiful than the other.

Local residence, Muscat

 

Local Residence, Muscat

Local Residence, Muscat

Another notable point was the uniformity in coloring of the buildings. As compared to the peeling reds , greens, blues and yellows found rampantly in the buildings in most Indian cities, most of the colors used were pale –with shades of white or sand being the most common. Perhaps it is the hot climate of the city which is the deciding factor. I wish such uniformity were present in Indian cities too.  There was no graffiti in the city and walls were spotless clean. A few rules (that were obeyed) such as not drying clothes where they would be visible to outsiders was a balm to eyes used to seeing garments of all forms in India!

If you get a chance to visit Muscat, and love seeing buildings, do try and visit some of the famous landmarks such as the Sultan Qaboos Grand Mosque, the old area of Corniche, old forts – the Sohar fort is my favorite and one of Muscat’s neighborhoods (preferably near the sea, that is where I went!). I am sure you will delight in the various forms of buildings you see.

Categories: Oman, World | Tags: , , , | 21 Comments

Local Tourists at Maximum Mumbai

Busy days, late hours and horrid traffic left me and hubby SS exhausted on the Friday evening. Thus came many pleasurable and contented ways of spending our weekend. That of ‘relaxing at home’, ‘chilling out with a dvd’ and getting chores done.  With the onset of winter and chill in the air, we finally decided to finally get out of our contented monotonous chilling at home and explore what was closest to us – the city of Mumbai. What first came to our head was the symbol most popularly associated with Mumbai City – The Gateway of India and and decided to start with areas around it.
The Taj and the Gateway from the Sea

Colaba Causeway

It was walk down memory lane for me as I passed the legendary Regal theatre and the Alibaba Restaurant that was adjacent to an office where I once worked right after my engineering on the way to the Gateway. It was wonderful to walk on Colaba Causeway and hear the vendors speak expertly in English and French and still see them target only the white tourist population and almost ignore the brown skinned locals!  The array of gaudy necklaces, trinkets, scarves, marble and wooden showpieces that have not changed for a long time now continued to be there and continued to fascinate me. Only most of them were pretty pricey targeting a dollar audience dollars and not for local Indians!
The Taj Hotel
Right across the Gateway of India, The Taj has stood like a shining beacon of lovely architecture in Mumbai city and a balm to eyes tired of filth, peeling paint, slums and box like buildings with matchbox apartments. From the Gateway it looked grand as always and a testimony to what Mumbai has withstood, repaired though not healed. The luxury hotel has attracted distinguished visitors in Mumbai and it was always a pleasure to enter its luxurious, and rich interiors even if it was for just a cup of late night coffee or for a conference in one of its grand ballrooms.
Wah Taj!


The Gateway of India
Coming back to the Gateway of India, my earliest memories as a kid were walking right under the Gateway and buying puzzles, tricks and such paraphernalia from a thriving market of encroachments even back then.  Now, amidst security concerns, there is a large police barricade and siege with elaborate screening, constant security vigil and a heightened awareness although it was fortunately pervaded by much laughter and photographers asking couples to make various funny poses to hold the Taj and the Gateway.
The Gateway of India

The Gateway of India was built to commemorate the visit of King George V and Queen Mary to Bombay back in 1911, a 100 years back from the approaching March 11, 2011. The last of British troops to leave India also passed through the Gateway in 1948. In earlier times, the Gateway was the first glimpse of Bombay that visitors arriving by Bombay would get.  The architecture of the Gateway is Indo-Gothic representing the cosmopolitan culture of the city of Mumbai even today.

Elephanta Caves and the Ferry ride
Our next destination was the famous Elephanta caves, which are on an island across Bombay, reachable by a ferry ride in the sea from the Gateway. It is funny how most locals including us have never seen these caves despite residing in Mumbai for so many years. It never helped that that those who had visited only disparaged the place saying there were just a few broken idols and little else to see. Well, but look at it this way, it really is fun to be a tourist in your own city and see things from a new perspective, understand history and see where the roots of your city indeed lie. The Gateway is one part of understanding the city, the Taj another and the Elephanta caves set in an era long bygone adding yet another dimension to this huge city.

Cruising in the Arabian Sea on an hour long ferry ride, fanned by a cool zephyr, watching the Mumbai skyline recede and trying to make out major landmarks in the city all added to our really touristy experience.
We reached the Elephanta Island by boat and clambered on a toy train which really ran the distance of a 5 minute walk but was again, a part of the experience! We then had piping hot tea from the ubiquitous tea stalls and then proceeded to clamber the many steps up the hill that led to the caves. As usual, the entrance all along the steps was lined by a huge market of souvenirs that sold everything that can be found at any souvenir market in India I suppose. We saw rows and rows of endless ‘handicrafts’ that we had bought foolishly in Rajasthan at high prices  as something unique and refused to buy more ‘unique items’.

Toy Train to Elephanta Caves

We finally reached the caves and found a guide (unauthorized guy since there were no official guides!) to tell us the history of the place instead of us looking blankly at the statues. We learned that the Elephanta Island as it was now known is known originally and referred to by locals as the Gharapuri Island which means literally island of caves. The island consists of Hindu and Buddhist caves with the Hindu caves depicting tales from the life of Shiva.

The Portuguese called the island Elephanta on seeing its huge gigantic statue of an Elephant at the entrance. The Statue is now placed in the garden outside the Jijamata Udyan at Byculla in Mumbai. This cave was renovated in the 1970s after years of neglect, and was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1987 to preserve the artwork and is currently maintained by the Archaeological Survey of India. If the Portuguese used the sculptures for target practice blowing them up for most part, Indian ruffians scribbled and carved their names and declared undying love to their beloveds and desecrated the statues. ASI has done a good job however in cleaning up a majority of these names, though on close scrutiny, one can still make out English letters in the haze.
The guide told us several interesting stories about the sculptures most of which could be confirmed by the guidebook or Wikipedia. The ones I liked are Ravan lifting Shiva and Parvati on Mount Kailash, Wedding of Shiva, Shiva slaying a demon named Andhaka, and the most famous one, the Trimurti. The Trimurti is a 20 ft rock sculpture that depicts a three headed Shiva manifesting creation, preservation and destruction and thus the three important deities Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva respectively.

The Trimurti Idol

It took us around 2 hours to go around the entire place, take photos and listen to stories besides indulging in chai, and look at knick-knacks in the souvenir market. The ferry service starts early in the morning and continues till around 5:00 pm in the evening in winters. I suppose this time gets extended in summers.

The ride back thrilled us again as sea gulls swept up and down, and in circles with their cries over the lapping waters. We disembarked at the Gateway and headed back into the chaos of the city. With a few hours left to kill on that perfect weekend, we ate pav bhaji at one of the tiny restaurants at Colaba Causeway, ate a really yummy looking pan and watched a movie at the historic Regal theater.
I would definitely recommend this trip to anyone who wants to become a tourist at Mumbai. Go Out Mumbaikars and take that ferry ride!
A Glorious Sunset

This post was re-posted from my other blog Richland Talk

Categories: India, Mumbai | 18 Comments

Eating out at Indore

I recently visited Indore, the commercial capital of the state of Madhya Pradesh. Indore is possibly the food capital too. Of all the highlights of the visit, eating blurs out all other memories!  Indians are overly fond of snacks and sweets and at Indore more so.

I had taken the Duronto Express train from Mumbai to Indore. The cheerful looking colorful train set the mood for a fun visit and I was not disappointed. I reached Indore at about 11 a.m and was welcomed by family with steaming chai,warm jalebis and ‘Alu Kachoris’ and Poha.  After this heavy meal, I was surprisingly hungry in about a couple of hours again and ready to eat!

I am told the ‘Indore ki hawa’ or atmosphere at Indore is naturally stimulating to eat more and food gets digested faster! Well, I don’t think I disagree as I almost always had room for more for each of the meals and the variety of food I had.

One of the highlights and must-do’s of Indore is a visit to Sarafa. Sarafa is an area in the old town on Indore near the Rajwada or palace of the Holkars. Originally a market of jewelers, Sarafa is now known as the foodie bazaar. Late in the evening at 9 p.m when businesses start closing down, jewelers down their shutters, Sarafa starts getting festive. Smells of gulab jamun, and hot frying oil start wafting and appetites are aroused.   Traditional ‘Chaat’ houses open and sweet sellers sit with their huge assortments of freshly made gulab jamuns, rabdi, kalakand and malpuas.  One can see people gorging on ‘Kachoris’, ‘Samosas’ and ‘Tikkis’. Along side the traditional chaat places, a slew of cuisines have set up shop in the form of Indo chinese stalls, Sandwiches and Pizza stalls.

For the uninitiated, NRIs or foreigners, it is hard to actually explain what ‘Chaat’ is. Well, Chaat is a variety of food that encompasses a range of savories that are usually sold at roadside stalls.  Most savories also have a motley of ingredients in them with a variety of spicy sauces.  Some popular ‘Chaat’ varieties in Indore are –

  • ‘Samosa’ chaat – Samosas are dough stuffed with a spicy potato filling in triangular shapes and fried. Accompanied by a chick pea gravy, onions, coriander and tomatoes, makes it a ‘chaat’!
  • Dahi vadas – Vadas are fried savories that can be made of many varieties of flours. Fried and then dunked into yoghurt sprinkled with chilli ‘chutney’ and tamarind chutney makes for delicious dahi vadas
  • Pani puri – Known by various names in different parts of the country, Pani puri is one of the most popular dishes found at the roadside stall. Thin hollow dough crispies are stuffed slightly with a potato or boiled chick pea filling and dunked in sweet and sour spicy water, one at a time. Each individual stuffed puri is eaten whole at a time.
  • Alu Tikkis – Potatoes are a favorite ingredient for all chats. Mashed potatoes roled into balls or chopped potatoes, are deepfried, sprinkled with spices and served hot.
  • Papdi chaat – Dough crispies, this time flat, are know as papdi or puri again. Loaded with potatoes, onions, puffed rice and some sauces and ‘sev’ make for a papdi chat.
  • Kachori -Kachoris are round dough balls stuffed with ‘masalas’ and some base ingredient of mashed peas or lentils or potatoes. Kachoris can be eaten dry or with the usual chat accompaniments of onions, tomatoes, coriander, ‘sev’ and chutneys.

Bustle at ‘Samosa’ chaat house

Frying Kachoris

Namkeen Sev

Well, chaat is ubiquitous in all of India, but Indore certainly had a fabulous ambiance that made us want bite into sweet and spicy savories.

Apart from the chat and the roadside stalls, Indore is also very famous for its ‘Namkeen’. Namkeen is a term given to long lasting savories made of flour and subtly flavored with cloves, garlic and several spices.

Even more tantalizing at Sarafa were the sweets that were sold openly. Mostly made in pure ‘desi’ ghee, even looking at them was a feast to the eyes.  You can get notably jalebis, imartis, gulab jamuns, malpuas, rabdi, kulfi, kalakand, and cold or hot drinks made of milk. A unique drink was known as ‘Shikanji’ which was a veritable mix of all the goodness in milky form there can be! Shikanji is made of evaporated milk, rabdi, shrikhand, and dry fruits making it very delicious.  With the advent of winter, a host of other goodies such as mattar or pea kachoris, ‘gajaks’ and hot milk products are also available and must-eats!

Delicious Gulab Jamuns in Sarafa Bazaar

Milky goodness – Rabdi and Kalakand

Moong Dal Halwa in Desi Ghee

My favorite! – Piping hot Malpuas dripping with ghee

Apart from Sarafa, another popular hang out  for youngsters in Indore is ‘Chappan Bazaar’ which originally consisted of chappan or fifty six shops.  Although the variety of food was similar to that of Sarafa, the feel of the place was new and less charming as compared to Sarafa.

One would think we would end up with upset stomachs at the end of all that feasting, but thankfully, we all returned well satiated. I am keeping my fingers crossed that I soon have a chance to go back again just for those steaming hot kachoris and melting-in-the-mouth malpuas.

If you were to visit Indore, some suggested places and food are –

At Sarafa –

  • Alu Patis at Vijay Chat
  • Dal Kachori near Vijay Chat
  • Rabdi at Bhairavnath
  • Jalebi and Malpua near the end of Sarafa near Bhairavnath

Some non Sarafa and Chappan Bazaar places are

  • Aspee on Racecourse road for ‘Mirchina’ a local drink not unlike a spiced up Coke but milder and Icecream Soda
  • Hira Lassi – near Shri Krishna Talkies
  • Ravi’s Aloo Kachori – Anand Bazaar
  • Damu Anna’s Kachori at Sikh Muhalla

My advice if you are planning a trip to Indore is to be that glutton you always wanted to be and have a feast!

Categories: India, Madhya Pradesh | Tags: , , , , | 30 Comments

Inca Land Explorations – The Classic Inca Trail Trek

Now for the final part of my blog on the Inca adventure and the highlight of our trip, I chronicle the much looked forward to or dreaded trek which was called the Classic 4 day Inca trail or Pilgrimage that we had booked way back in February.

Map of trail: courtsey traveltocusco.com
Off we go!
The first day, we were still happy and had smiley faces in our photographs, as we started out from Ollantaytambo on the Inca trail. Here are some pictures from the first day of our trekking. It is certainly amazing what nature presents when out in the open outside of the din of the city. These photographs are certainly barely representative of the sights we did see there. Mountains, rivers, Inca ruins, Clouds and forests live in a 360 degree view is really quite difficult to capture on a lens. But well, this is what we have to do with once we get back to the city! We tasted Chef Caramello’s food for the first time starting with lunch which was an elaborate affair starting with an avocado starter, going onto a soup and entree of Pasta, Creamy Potatoes and Rice followed by some chocolate pudding for dessert. We certainly didn’t want to hike after that sensory meal! We fortunately did get a few moments of rest though after that before we started off again rejuvenated.
Day 1
Llactapata ruins
During the course of our trip, we got to know our fellow trekkers who were fortunately a wonderful bunch of people including Americans, Australians and other Indians! For 12 of us trekkers, there were 17 porters, one chef and two tour guides. I must say they all did a wonderful job despite how difficult it really must be. In fact, things like food which are a luxury during camping, actually became a highlight as we received full elaborately prepared three course lunches and dinners as well as breakfast and snacks. All we had to do was really, just climb, as all our food was cooked for us, stuff carried up for us! Even that was not easy I must say. Especially, since I conveniently missed the step of training in the gym forever before that! It was quite incredible, that while we climbed up, the porters cleaned up our lunch, washed up, scurried up with the tents and all those other hundred things, set the tents all up, cooked our dinner and we arrived only much later.

Porters scurrying up
Lunch!

The second day was the toughest part of the trek having to climb to a high elevation of 4.200M to the Dead Woman’s pass as it is called. Was that the high point otherwise for me? Well, honestly, it was the most difficult thing I must have ever done physically! I had to break after every 10 steps when I was some 100 steps away from it! The air being pretty thin at this altitude affected many of us in the group attacking us with migraines, nausea, sickness and the like. But well, we still grinned when the photo was clicked! :)

Dead woman’s pass

What goes up has to come down, and the next phase of the trekking was just down down and more down till lunch! Even that was tiring! And to think, while climbing up all we wanted was to go down! Going up is more work, but coming down is scary and makes all those muscles really ache! I had almost given up hope of ever making it through the day after which we not only made it to the camp for lunch but revived by Chef Caramello’s food, we hiked up the mountain for another 3 hours before we finally could celebrate the end of the toughest part of the trek with coca tea, popcorn and crackers!
Ruins at Phuyupatamarca – Don’t I love the names!
The third day of the Inca trail was personally my favorite, since there was less climbing up, and less steep steps although there was a lot of climbing down. We went through a lot of verdant jungles and took in breathtaking vistas every few steps. But then, it started raining. And rain it did, …it rained right till the moment and possibly beyond the day I took my taxi to the Cusco airport to depart Peru! The positive side of the rain however was the fact that everything looked far more mystical and magical with the floating clouds as we traversed through the hills and vales. We almost felt in the middle of an Avatar movie or an Indiana Jones movie amidst all that beauty. We reached the campsite early in the day and in time to visit a beautiful Inca site known as Winaywayna. Our chef made a special farewell cake for dinner as it was the third dinner together. Well, he certainly kept his high standards of food right till the last meal at the camp!
Runkurakay ruins
Mystic clouds
Rain Trek
Flowers on the way
Winaywayna Inca site
Happy travels to Machu Picchu!
On the last day, we had a short trek to our final destination Machu Picchu. Unfortunately it was still raining, and there was little hope of really seeing sunrise. But we all started off at 4:30 am to beat other hikers at the gate that opened at 530 am. Wasn’t an easy hike again as was expected. Plenty of climbing, and a lot more urgency to make it to the lost city soon. We crossed the Sun Gate, and there it was… Machu Picchu, in all its glory. The clouds that enveloped it, made it all the more ethereal, and we were enchanted.
 
Machu Picchu
Morning Haze
The lost city – Machu Picchu
The lost city nestled in clouds
Machu Picchu was indeed much bigger and far more different than the other Inca sites. It looked royal and awe-inspiring. There was an ancient aura about the place and amidst all the clamor of the tourists and the photo snapping din, it felt peaceful. Machu Picchu was surrounded by
mountains on all sides, and watching the clouds play hide and seek with it took our breath away.
 
Thus ended the highlight of our trip there, and we left with exalted minds thinking about all those who lived and fled there wondering how it must have been back then. I wonder, would it have been any different had the Spanish not forced them to flee? If they could create all these wonders in just a century, I wish I could imagine, the marvels the great Incas would have created had they ruled for longer. On a closing note, here are some beautiful words from a poem by Pablo Neruda that I read somewhere in Cuzco -
 
“Then on the ladder of the earth I climbed through the
lost jungle’s tortured thicket upto you, Machu Picchu.
High city of laddered stones,
at last the dwelling of what earth
never covered in vestments of sleep
Mother of stone, spume of condors
High reef of the human dawn
Spade lost in primal sand
This was the dwelling
this was the place
here the broad grains of maize rose up
and fell again like red hail
Here gold threads came off the vicuna
to clothe the lovers, the mothers
the king, the prayers the warriors.”
To read more about the Incas and Cusco, their capital city, do have a look at my previous two blogs.
To read more about Machu Picchu, here is a wikipedia link http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Machu_Picchu.
Categories: Peru, World | Tags: , , | 27 Comments

Inca Land Explorations – Cusco

I continue on my exploration of the Inca-world, in the second part of my Inca adventure blog, and this time for real and not through the million articles I waded through, the books I read and the documentaries I watched!
Why did I really choose Peru as a country to visit you may ask?  When I was in grade 8, I hated studying history said my mum.  But now that I am older and wiser (hopefully), I have actually developed an interest in our ancient world.  This, coupled with an interest in exploring a whole new country and wanting to step onto a new continent, made me pick Peru, the land of the great Incas for my trip.
Our trip started off rather well and having a consultant husband really helped in getting us upgraded to the Business class in the flight and hotel points got us to a five star hotel. Well, it was certainly getting pampered before our ordeal began!  By ordeal I mean, the 4 day arduous trek that we had decided to undertake in our week there!
Cathedral at Main square
On a bright sunny day, we arrived at Cusco. Cusco that I have spoken about already, back then was the capital of the Incas, and in the modern world is a teeming tourist town with vestiges of Inca Pride.   Cuzco is at an altitude of 3,400 meters above sea level and is the base location for several places of interest including the starting point of several important hiking trails. This city retains many colonial buildings, plazas and streets, Inca walls and ruins, which led to it being declared a World Heritage site by UNESCO
Main Square
Old Inca Palace walls
We undertook a trip to Sacred Valley of the Incas first where we saw our first Inca ruins at Pisac.  There is also a wonderful Sunday fair at Pisac where the local people come together to sell their handicrafts.   Everywhere in Cuzco too, we came across wonderful shops selling Llama wool rugs, woven cloth goods, purses of all sizes, symbolic souvenirs and super knick knacks.  I must say my husband had a really hard time pulling me away from buying everything possible in the shops there!  I certainly was far more interested in the fair rather than the ruins! We must have exchanged our dollars for Peruvian ‘Soles’ at least 10 times in 10 days at the many money exchanges at every turn, each time spending more than we anticipated!
Sacred Valley
Local shop
Pisac ruins
After Pisac, we went to Ollantaytambo which like I had described in my story earlier, had been established as a stronghold of the Incas and a raging battle took place there.  Ollantaytambo (don’t I just love the Quechua names!), was a gorgeous Inca site with walls so finely built and without the use of mortar that not even a knife could pass through them (as you can see in the picture). In 1950, an earthquake had occurred in Cuzco, during which a lot of modern structures including colonial structures came down.  However these Inca walls stood mighty and strong standing testimony to the engineering prowess of the Incas. This site also had well built terraces and granaries.   All the terraces were also wonderfully engineered with varying temperatures at different levels for different crops.  Irrigation was also done using a fine system of canals and aqueducts.  Our guide told us, that the holes seen in the mountain across from where we were were burial chambers for the Inca dead.
Fine Inca wall with niches
Ollantaytambo terraces

Man holding mountain and burial holes in there
Near Cusco, we also visited the South valley to see more sites.  We stopped at Piquilacta or the ‘town of flies’ which was a pre Inca site. I do wonder why it was called so, it certainly would not attract many people to stay there, if it really were full of disgusting flies! This town was a large town, and what remained today were the huge walls they built around the city and the houses.  There even were entry gates to this city and everyone coming in and going out was monitored.  We also visited a few churches around Cusco.  Although, honestly they did not interest me as much as the old Inca structures did, for the sake of memory, we visited the Chinchero and the Andahuaylillas church which is called the” Sistine Chapel of South America.
Piquilacta ruins
Gates at Piquilacta
We began on the next part of our trip, the four day Classic Inca trail, but I will chronicle our journey there in another blog.  When we returned from our trek, tired and with exalted minds more fun was in store for us without our knowing it!  1911 being the year Machu Picchu was discovered, 2011 was the centennial year of its discovery, and we were perfectly in time to be a part of the festivities. We were able to witness a grand spectacle of a military parade and a cultural celebration.  The whole square and streets were full of mirthful dancers and musicians in their eloquent costumes of lions, clowns, traditional Peruvian, colorful flumes of birds, elegant Spanish dancers and masked jesters who swirled about gracefully around us in a parade.  Ah! I can almost hear their lilting melodies and the beat of the music they danced to.
Machu Picchu discovery centennial celebrations
Machu Picchu discovery centennial celebrations
Machu Picchu discovery centennial celebrations
Machu Picchu discovery centennial celebrations
Machu Picchu discovery centennial celebrations
Before I conclude this post on the picturesque town of Cusco however, I would certainly like to make a special mention of our tour agency Llama Path who had made all the bookings for us and were our trek operators.  I have certainly never ever seen the exceptional level of service that they provided at the trek and outside of it.  They did goof up on not booking our hotel, but certainly made up for it by going the extra mile and we had no grouse whatsoever.  At the trek of course, the service was indeed superlative.  Every day, we even had hot water and soap in front of our tents to clean up, tea served on our waking to our tents, warmed plates to eat from and our every need tended to. The guides and porters were courteous and knowledgeable and the chef Caramello’s food couldn’t have been finer in taste or presentation.  I almost feel sorry for our guide Jose, who accompanied us and patiently encouraged the battered miserable us in difficult moments with ‘My champions – you can do it!’ even though we were taking breaks after every 5 minutes, after everyone else in the group were at the top of the mountain already! Llama path certainly was a very commendable and enterprising tour company and I would certainly endorse it to anyone who would be interested.
Like all good things come to an end, our trip did to and it was with a heavy heart that we walked away from the welcoming city with warm people and back into the world of work and humdrum existence.
If I haven’t tired you enough already, do stay tuned for the next blog on the exciting four day trek that we undertook from Ollantaytambo to Machu Picchu. The pictures will certainly not disappoint you!
This post is re-published from my other blog Richland Talk.
Categories: Peru, World | Tags: , , , | 16 Comments

Inca Land Explorations – The story

Travelling in history is a wonderful thing.  As I hiked down the Andes, in the highlands of Peru, I could not help, but wonder how it must have been during the Inca times.  The Incas were the Romans of the South Americas. Brilliant builders and engineers, they created Machu Picchu, the most sophisticated road system in Americas and masterpieces of gold.
Inca terraces
What I write next is a pre-read to my next blog on my visit to Peru. Most of the information here is from a wonderful documentary I saw namely ‘Conquistadors’ by Michael Wood which was featured on PBS and insights from the book ‘Inca land Explorations in the Highlands of Peru’ by the discoverer of Machu Picchu, Hiram Bingham.


During their short rule from Peru from around 1400 to 1525, the Incas built a 40,000 km road network, wonderful cities and monuments, and converted steep wastelands on mountains into terraced farms. They used a variety of methods from peaceful assimilation to aggression to incorporate a large portion of western South America including large parts of modern Eucador, Peru, Bolivia, Argentina, Chile and Colombia into a large empire

Inca Empire – courtsey google
 
In the winter of 1527, a boat arrived at a lonely island on the coast of Peru. Its leader was an old conquistador called Francisco Pizzaro. He had come to seek the gold from a previously unknown world, not knowing he would lead the conquest of the most powerful kingdom in South America, the conquest of the Incas.


Atahualpa who was the king of the Incas was proceeding with his army towards Cuzco. He met Pizarro at Cajamarca. Being a band of 150 people Atahualpa did not consider them a threat. Atahualpas army was 30,000 strong. The Spanish told the Inca ruler Atahualpa that they would help him against his enemies. However, in reality the Spanish were plotting to kill everyone then. An accompanying priest made a speech on the cross and the pope, and asked Atahualpa to convert to Christianity. ‘I follow my religion’ said Atahualpa and threw the Bible he had been handed on the floor. Pizarro was waiting for just this provocation and attacked. Crude Inca weapons of sticks and stones were no match for Spanish guns and steel. Blood ran freely and some say 6000 people were killed. Atahualpa was captured alive. He made an offer to the Spanish. If they set him free, he would fill the room with gold. He thought Pizarro would simply go away if he did so not realizing it would make the conquistador even greedier. Atahualpa filled his ransom room with 7 tons of gold. He kept his word, but what would Pizarro do? Pizarro put Atahualpa on trial for treason. The jury was the Pizarro brothers and their friends. The verdict- the Inca must die. After his execution, Pizarros men, went across Peru looting the greatest shrines of the Peru. Pizarro marched his army on the royal road to the capital- Cuzco (modern day Cusco).  In November 1933, they reached Cuzco. The streets were grand, and the palaces wonderful.  Pizarro looked at the ceremonial squares and palaces and set about systematically ransacking them all. 
Inca Ruins
As news reached the shores of Europe, Spaniards flooded Peru in their gold rush. Pizarro brothers were exalted as they tightened their grip on Peru. They appointed a puppet Inca king Manco, Atahualpas half brother to placate the local population.
 
But the Spanish treated the Peruvians with contempt. Gonzalo Pizarro raped Manco’s wife the queen. Discontent rumbled around and word spread of war of liberation. Manco summoned his subjects in 20 days to attack the Spaniards. Above Cuzco, a vast Inca army surrounded the Spaniards. Spaniards were outnumbered, one Pizarro was killed, but in the end, the Incas were outgunned. It was a heroic battle and is still remembered as the great rebellion.
 
Pizzaros rule took savage reprisals against the civilian population for their revolt. A massive exodus followed into the Sacred Valley in the footsteps of the fleeing Inca king. The Sacred valley was the Inca heartland. Here they built their finest palaces and terraces to grow maize and coca leaves. Here Manco could call on for help of the ancestors. Manco built more houses and terraces to feed the many pouring in. These terraces can be seen at Ollantaytambo. Here was where the Spanish attacked next. The Incas rained down the walls everywhere. For the first time, the Incas beat the Spaniards in a battle. Manco planned to build a new Cuzco in the Sacred Valley. But he knew, he needed to flee further as Spaniards continued to pour in. He decided to retreat into the valleys and jungles of Vilcabamba. It must have been a heart breaking moment for the young Inca as he made a moving speech to his followers. He asked them to remember his ancestors had been good rulers. ‘I know’ he said, ‘One day in the future, a time will come, when they will force us to worship their Gods. But in private, do what you have to. If they destroy our shrines, keep them forever in your hearts.’ With that, Manco with his army began their long march into the Andes and the jungles demolishing the road behind them. Pizzaro went in search of him into the jungles. The road was weary with high altitudes, dense jungles, and landslides. When Pizzaro reached Vilcabamba, Manco had retreated further into the jungle. Gonzalo Pizzaro searched for 3 months till sickness and starvation threatened them. In his fury, Pizarro took revenge. He shot Manco’s wife and sent her down the river to be found by the Inca king. Manco was grief stricken. However, he fled further and made his capital at Uiticos. The Spanish described this place on high mountains with wonderful views. On top there was a substantial flat area, where majestic buildings were built with great skill and art. Manco held court here for 7 years but in the end they got him. With him, the supreme reign of the Incas ended as his descendants were either mere puppet kings or executed.  
Ollantaytambo terraces
Thus the mighty Inca empire came to a fall as the political structure ended. However what lasts still today is the long lasting tenaciousness and deep rooted culture of the people. The Inca people survived, and beliefs survived just like Manco Inca had said they would. Nearly 500 years on, the people of the Andes still respect the ancestors of the Incas and worship the sun. Every year in June they go to the glaciers in the mountains. Like their ancestors, they still greet the rising sun.
Categories: Peru, World | Tags: , , , | 13 Comments

A trip to Washington DC and the Shenandoah National Park

With family visiting us in May 2011, when I was in the U.S. , we set out to shortlist all the ‘touristy’ locations on the East Coast to show them around.  Most itineraries of people visiting the east coast include New York, Washington DC, Niagara falls, Boston and if budget/time permits Orlando theme parks. Throw in an Atlantic city, and the US visit is complete!..rather if they don’t go for a ‘Tirth yatra’ to any of the above places, they have seen nothing at all in the US!

We were on our way!

So, as Memorial Day (the day to honor war heroes and veterans) dawned, we packed up our bags and our assortment of snacks of sandwiches, gobi parathas, pickles, ketchup, cheese, chips, laddoos, bananas, oranges,strawberries, water, frooti, ‘fast’ snacks, halwa, cake and chocolates!  Yeah, I can’t believe we actually finished all of that! It took far more time to make and buy all that than gobble it up!

I dozed off almost immediately in the car to wear out the weariness of all that food preparation and refused to wake up till lunch time at Maryland where we stopped for a picnic lunch.  That power nap did me a world of good, as I took up the wheel in the next leg of our drive to Shenandoah National Park. As we got on to the Skyline Drive of 105 miles, the cool mountain breeze and the scenic vistas greeted us all along.  Although we did not spend as much time as we would have liked to hiking and biking, I did enjoy the feel of wild grass under my feet, the bloom of the wild yellow flowers, deer peacefully chewing away in natural surroundings and the balmy breeze.
A short hike at Shenandoah
The sun peaking through the lush trees at Shenandoah
A Shenandoah wildlife sighting
The woods are lovely, dark and deep
Day two and three of our trip had been set aside for Washington, and we set forth after a heavy breakfast at the hotel.  Well, again, it being a purely touristy trip, that translates into getting off the car, taking photos and getting back to the car, we thought, we would do it in no time at all! But fortunately or unfortunately, the city had other plans for us!  Memorial Day is a big deal in USA, and I was hoping to witness something of this day in the capital city to reflect some of Americas traditional celebration.  I was not disappointed.  As we drove in, people with waving flags greeted us as we crossed overhead footwalks and bridges, several Harleys zoomed past us everywhere making us wonder what was in store.  As traffic moved to a snails pace, we pulled out and took the metro route.  Riding a city’s trains has always excited me, be it New York, Kolkata, Mumbai or Washington as it is something non-touristy, something that citizens use to go about their life everyday anywhere. The stations here were much cleaner and spacious and far less smelly than NYs stations.  Being Memorial day, well, only tourists clambered onto the train and took away the charm of the locals travelling! We got off at the station near the White House, and started our act of clicking away to glory in the usual silly poses. Barrack and Michelle must certainly be uneasy in that fortress with snipers patrolling its terraces and with all that security and tourists and even protesters constantly outside their windows. Never a moment of peace to enjoy those lush gardens outside!
The White House

The next halt was the George Washington memorial which is the tallest structure in Washington DC.  Here is the exciting part.  As we neared it, the vroom of motorcycles was heard nearby. As we recollected the many bikes we saw on the road, we hastened towards it.  It turned out to be a spectacular rally of 400,000 bikes (these huge mean machines- Harleys or look alikes) aptly known as ‘Rolling Thunder’ that was paying tribute to American war heroes in their own style.  That certainly was a super show!

George Washington Memorial

 

Rolling Thunder
The Capitol

For the remainder of the day we proceeded to visit the Smithsonian museums.  I went to the National Gallery of Art and tremendously enjoyed seeing master pieces of Impressionists as well as Modernists. I particularly enjoyed seeing the Chester Dale collection that included works of great masters such as Monet, Renoir, Picasso, Van Gogh among others.  I was also pleased to see special exhibits by Gauguin, who I was first fascinated by’ on reading Maugham’s ‘The Moon and the Six Pence’.  Apart from these that I admire, I also managed to find the ones I didn’t and took pleasure in rebuking Rothko’s and Barnett Newman’s modern (non!) art which I wrote about in a recent blog! I finally left the museum after it closed and dragged myself to the Air and Space museum to join the others and find out about their sojourn to the Natural History museum which I skipped seeing.  We ended the day with a meal at an Indian restaurant with a snooty manager and driving around in Washington , uh..driving around was not out of choice, but because our GPS kept taking us round in circles and all over the place!

The Air and Space museum
Our trip drew to a close the next day when we saw the lofty memorials built in honor of US Presidents Abraham Lincoln, Thomas Jefferson and the Vietnam and Korea war memorials. With plenty of memorial spots dotted across town, we had to skip most of them albeit with no regrets really!
Thomas Jefferson Memorial
Abraham Lincoln in his towering seat

Well, again, for people out to visit places for the sake of the photo, Washington DC was a pleasant place to be in.  However, as always, I always believe, cities are to be experienced by living there and a couple of days’ visits will never capture the essence or the culture. However, all in all, this was a lazy fun trip that kept everyone contented for all the things they saw.

Categories: United States | Tags: , , | 22 Comments

Guest post for the Cybernag – Ganapati Bappa Morya

Zephyr is one of my favorite bloggers for a long time.  She writes about social issues, families, kids and a host of things that will  make you sit up, take notice and react.  She gave me an opportunity to do a guest blog on her famous blog ‘The Cyber Nag’ and I was thrilled to do just that!  Here is a snippet of what I wrote on the Ganapati Festival in India- 

The festival of Ganapati is around the corner and the entire atmosphere is suffused with festivity. Shops selling Ganapati have cropped up all over the city of Mumbai, from main markets to narrow alleys, where rows upon rows of painted and unpainted Ganapatis of various sizes and shapes sit, waiting to be taken home. Kids and adults wander about looking for the one they want to install in their homes.

To read the rest of the blog go to http://cybernag.in/2012/09/ganapati-bappa-morya/

P.S.1  – This post was selected by BlogAdda as its Spicy Saturday Pick  :) .

P.S 2 – This post was published in the newspaper DNA, Mumbai edition on Sept 24. :)

Categories: India | Tags: , , | 1 Comment

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