Posts Tagged With: Leisure

Mumbai Cycling Diaries

Fitness has been on the top of my agenda for this year and I have finally won bragging rights on achieving my goals! It has been an interesting journey starting with a crash diet that completely backfired and I gained weight instead of losing it! There on, it was all about eating healthy and going all out to shed those kilos. And I was surprised that it was fun all along thanks to Cycling!

Cycling around Mumbai as many of you know has been part of the journey. And what a great ride it has been. While the cycle was purchased purely with errands in mind almost 5 years ago, I took to cycling for fitness only this year.

And as usual, with everything one does, there are bouquets and brickbats! But my takeaways from them –

  • No matter what they say, one can’t be too old to do anything, including cycling.
  • If Indian roads are unsafe for cyclists, they are also unsafe for pedestrians, motor bikes, cars and buses. Just get the right gear – a helmet and a flashing rear light at night are bare essentials and you will be set. 
  • If you cycle, you tend to discover amazing breakfast places that serve authentic cuisines at great prices. And trust me, that breakfast after a long ride is the most satisfying and guiltless as it can get! You can dig into that extra buttered pav at an Irani café in South Bombay, hot steaming batata Vadas at a Maharashtrian joint in Dadar and have extra helpings of the sugary filter coffee at Matunga all in a day.
  • The urban jungle may suddenly seem greener and cleaner as you discover quiet shady neighborhoods with signs of ‘Birds twittering, quiet please’ or the like, secret massive gardens that nobody knew about and nooks that have amazing views.
  • It is possible to be motivated to wake up at 5 am in the morning to go for a spin. I usually still get the feeling of anticipation of a Himalayan expedition the next day.
  • Go Solo. One does not need company for cycling. Solo cycling means you can ride at your own pace, feel the wind in your hair and do all that introspection. Although it is great if you have the company for breakfast.
  • Random bikers and rickshaw wallahs will come and tell you to not ride the cycle even if you are on the extreme left of the road on a straight path. Incessant honking will happen even if you were an inch away from disappearing into a wall riding on the leftmost inch on the road. Claim your space and learn to Ignore. 
  • Join a cycling group for that extra push, learning and great breakfast sessions. There are many such groups budding across the city. They are great avenues for getting to know different people, learning much from them and great company for breakfast!

And while you ponder over if it is a great idea for you to start cycling, here are some pictures of roaming around Mumbai on the saddle. 

If you need any further motivation, let me know!

Ahoy Arabian Sea

The iconic David Sasoon Library

Early morning rays on a Victorian building

A sneak peak at the Queen’s necklace – Marine Drive

Hearty breakfast time

Categories: India, Mumbai, Other Travel Blah | Tags: , , , | 7 Comments

10 steps to a solo trip for the Indian woman traveller

After the last post I had written about women and independence, where I solemnly decided to undertake a solo trip, I did go on one! It probably isn’t a big deal, it was also not about ‘self-discovery’ and it wasn’t because I wanted to be a tad adventurous. It was a trip of pure pleasure to do what I wanted, eat as many chocolates as I wanted to with no one watching, go where I pleased for as long as I wanted and also not have to change the baby’s diapers and manage the trip between her eating, sleeping and pooping times!

While the trend is catching up in India, there are still a lot of inhibitions, some warranted for and some unwarranted for. Although there isn’t much that hasn’t been unsaid about solo travel, here are some of my experiences and tips from this trip.

 

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Cycling at Brugge, Belgium

 

My 10 tips to having a great international solo trip for an Indian woman traveler –

  1. Choose the right destination – For a first trip I wouldn’t choose a city in Afganistan or a Naxal ridden city or a solo hike to a crocodile infested place in Australia somewhere. I would rather choose a girly destination that would allow me for luxurious travel without hardship! After all, it is the toil of home I m taking a vacation from! Paris ticked off all the girly boxes for me – security, shopping, slickness and simplicity of public transport!
  2. Manage the family – If you have kids, see that they can be well taken care of in your absence. Plan around a long weekend when the hubby will be home, plan around when in-laws or parents are visiting (especially ;)), or just leave your kids at your really nice parents/inlaws! Your kids really can survive a week without you. Mind you, don’t tell them immediately as you start planning! After you have booked the airplane tickets and done the visa, break the news to your parents, in laws, husband/boyfriend etc in order of heavy opposition and convince them it is not unsafe, bad, you are not having a break up or have gone crazy etc. Once the tickets are booked no ones gonna stop you! I had quite the mix of reactions when I announced my trip (which weren’t unsurprising!)
  3. imageResearch or no-research – The easiest strategy is to go to the tourism office at the airport or station and pick up all the brochures and maps and ask them how to get wherever!  But for all those deals and cheap prices (and cheap thrills like seeing where a Bollywood movie was shot), toil a little and read up before you go! I even watched a you-tube video to check out how to take the train from the airport to the hostel and re-read a Somerset Maugham to be able to go to the places his protagonists frequented. But that apart, research  to find the right places to stay or visit, read safest areas. Reviews are a plenty on all sorts of websites now. I stayed in a hostel so I barely felt alone with a lively atmosphere wherever I stayed with plenty of young travellers all around. And I or anyone else didn’t have to be worried about ‘staying alone’ at night in a strange place.
  4. Do everything you haven’t – like packing really light because you are gonna have to lug that bag yourself, wander around at wherever you want to go, do fun stuff like cycling, and spend as much time as you want without having to push a pram or pull a husband along at the museum they find really boring, shop for an entire day (or till your money runs out)..but don’t get get carried away and do anything you will regret!
  5. Use Technology – Offline google maps is a boon, there is wifi everywhere at coffee shops, restaurants…will all let you have more fun and let you stay connected, read up on stuff you are visiting, looking for directions, posting photos etc.
  6. Be narcissistic for a change! – Take lots of selfies. Oh well, one won’t be young forever! You will always look better today without make up than in 5 years with make up! And please buy a selfie stick or else like my photos, you will be in the ‘face’ with the same grinning expression for each photo! I had a selfie stick too when I started out – the first day the stick did not work, the second day the phone did not, the third day I lost it! So maybe keep a spare!
  7. Dine alone – I never felt this strange, but really, it is not weird to be dining alone or sitting by yourself in a coffee shop. Shed those inhibitions and soak in the atmosphere at a lively place by the street. Some creepy Russian tourists (who may not be Russian or tourists) may approach you but hold tight to your purse and passport always whatever you say!
  8. Being by yourself may get a trifle boring maybe. So a way out may be planning some group activities like walking tours, a cooking class, etc. There are all sorts of group tours organized which are really nice and you could meet some interesting people on those. I did a couple of walking tours which were really nice.
  9. Don’t follow the advice given to little Red Riding Hood in its entirety. Talk to strangers, but really, not on the road and streets. Maybe at the hostel. Be safe. Be wary. Be conscious and keep that purse and passport safe. Always!
  10. Very importantly, stay in touch with your family every day and let them know you are safe…or they won’t let you do this again!

If my visit inspires any of the women who know me, I will certainly be delighted! All I can say is, there is never gonna be a good time to take a solo trip. If you like the idea of having one, just start planning even if it is for next year!

Categories: France, Other Travel Blah | Tags: , , , | 3 Comments

A weekend trip to Nasik

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Where next? …The Ramayana Trail at Panchvati, Nasik

It is better to make plans to local places that work rather than grand plans to exotic places that don’t work.

With that as the motto for a long weekend, we embarked upon zeroing on a place at drivable distance from Mumbai that wouldn’t have us paying an arm or a leg or at least a very fat undeserved amount!

We zeroed in on the not-so-sleepy city of Nasik at an easy driving distance from Mumbai to be our first quick vacation distance. Nasik is a city at about a 4 hour fabulous drive from Mumbai.

My memories of Nasik from the days bygone, was a place I had visited before I got married to ward off the evil eye and basically indulge my parents in eliminating the evil ‘Kal Sarpa dosh’…some terrible planetary alignment that would have made my marriage prospects really bad! And all the evilness foretold could be done away with a mere Pooja at the holy city of Nasik at the ancient temple of Trimbakeshwar. That simple! Well, if it were not for superstitions, I guess, half the religious tourism wouldn’t be what it is today!

Religious tourism aside, Nasik has a lot to offer in terms of non-religious place to see as well, and one can easily spend 2-3 days exploring the city.

Fun facts about Nasik –

  • Nasik has one of twelve Jyotirlingas at the famous temple of Trimbakakeshwar – A Jyotirlinga is considered to be a manifestation of Lord Shiva. It is believed that the Jyotirlingas are columns of fire piercing through the earth.
  • Nasik is the largest wine producing district in India with the most well-known Indian brand Sula. Also home to winefests such as the SulaFest during harvest season
  • The Currency note press and the India security press are located at Nasik to print Indian currency notes and government stamp paper
  • Houses a unique Coin museum
  • Is one of the four destinations in India that hosts the largest peaceful religious congregation globally – the Kumbha Mela
  • Panchavati in Nasik is the setting of one of the most loved epics in India – the Ramayana
  • The father of Indian Cinema – Dadasaheb Phalke was from Nasik. You can visit a memorial in his name here

 

Religion/Mythological sites –

The Kumbh Mela

Legend has it that the nectar from the famous churning of the ocean by the Devas and Asuras had fallen in four of the places, where the Kumbh mela is held today. These include Ujjain, Allahabad, Haridwar and Nasik. The Kumbh mela is touted to be the largest congregation of religious pilgrims in the world and has put Nasik on the global map for religious travel. The city is replete with temples, some really ancient, some less so and some really quite new to fool gullible tourists into parting with their money under the guise of religion.

Ramayana trail

In addition to the Kumbh Mela, Nasik is where the most important parts in the Ramayana played out. Panchavati and Tapovan where the trio of Rama, Sita and Lakshman had made their home is a part of Nasik. Earlier the picturesque forest, Panchavati is now alas, yet another urban jungle. In Panchavati, there is an entire Ramayan trail which traces the ‘Aranya Kanda’ (Book of Forest) from the Ramayan. On the trail, you can find out where Lord Rama, Sita, Lakshmana had stayed while at Panchavati, the location of the infamous cutting off of Surpankha’s nose, where the ‘Lakshman Rekha’ had been etched by Lakshman and where Sita was carried off by the evil Ravana. You can also see the banyan trees which give the forest its name of being the forest of the Panch or Five Vata (Banyan) trees.  Another spiritually significant place is the Ramkund, which is a holy tank where Lord Ram and Sita used to take a bath during their exile. This is a place where ashes of the deceased are immersed to help them achieve liberation. However, I would take most of these supposed spots with a pinch of salt or kumkum or whatever! Apart from a few, many of these seem to have cropped up as modern structures in a concerted effort by all the tourist stakeholders in Nasik to add to some spots worth viewing. Of all the places on the Ramayan trail, I frankly liked only the spot on the banks of the Godavari below. Who’s to say it is real or not. But I don’t think the GPS really existed at the time, for us to be able to drop pins on where exactly these purported spots are.

A warning to those uninitiated into the religious travel – Most ancient temples in India are super crowded – probably seem to be more real than the modern ones. The temples of Trimbakeshwar, Someshwar, the Sita Gupha (cave) are ridiculously crowded with throngs of devotees lining up for an exalted ‘darshan’ or viewing of the Lords for ‘blink and miss’ facetime lasting roughly between 2 seconds and 10 seconds depending on how strong you can be to resist the pushes when you least expect them. So for a 2 second darshan you can expect to be in the queue for 2 hours and yet be contented after the darshan. You can also try paying your way (Rs 200 per person at Trimbakeshwar) into an express queue that will still take you 1.5 hours for the darshan. Thankfully, there are plenty of people manning all the queues and with the numerous barricades there is little possibility of breaking the queue and starting arguments.

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Trymbakeshwar Temple (Wikimedia commons)

Popular religious places at Nasik are the

  1. Trimbakeshwar temple where the river Godavari originates. This temple is one of the 12 Jyotirlings in India
  2. Ramkund
  3. Kalaram temple at Panchvati,
  4. Someshwar temple
  5. Muktidham temple
  6. Sundarnarayan temple
  7. Kapileshwar temples
  8. Sita Gumpha at Panchvati

A point to be noted is that most of these religious places do not allow photography, so whatever pictures I have are from wikimedia commons.

Wine tourism

Nasik is now purported to be the wine capital of India. One of the warmest regions in the world to create wines, Nasik offers in India what Napa offers in the US. A wine tourist destination (if not the finest wines in the world)! As late as the 1990s an entrepreneur Rajeev Samant, set up the first vineyards in Nasik noting its conducive climate and soil. From a few acres in the 1990s the Sula vineyards are now a whopping 1900 acres of land and one of the biggest wineries and brand of Indian wines. The Sula vineyards now offer wine tours, wine tasting and a snazzy resort with lively restaurants. Expect hordes of tourists on all weekends!
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Other attractions

The Coin Museum – The Coin museum set up in 1980 is a vast collection of coins tracing India’s evolution and history through the ages through its various currencies, dynasties and rulers.

The Pandavleni caves – These 2000 year old caves are a group of 24 buddhist caves built atop a hill. You need to climb about 200 steps to reach the caves and also feast on picturesque vistas osf the city below. These caves may not be as grand as the Ajanta-Ellora caves at Aurangabad, but they are quite amazing to visit if you are around.
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The Pandavleni caves (Wikimedia commons by Mrunal12)

There are also plenty of other places around Nasik that are picturesque to visit. Amongst these are

  1. The Saputara hillstation
  2. Dudhsagar falls
  3. Bhandardara hillstation
  4. Bird Sanctuary

All in all, a great weekend destination from Mumbai/Pune with plenty to see and do. Not much to do for kids, but well, one needs to just find a park to keep them entertained.

Categories: India, Maharashtra | Tags: , , , | 5 Comments

Idle Thoughts of a Desi Mind

This post is republished from my other blog http://www.richlandtalk.blogspot.com. Although this is written a few years back  and I am back to India now, I think this still holds true!
 
 
Well, it’s been almost half a year since I moved to the US from India, and I continue to marvel at the differences between the two countries.  I guess, I am about to say what every Desi who comes to this land goes through. 
 
On Conversions
 
 
The first thing that hit me in a week was the number of conversions I kept doing to get my perspective right.  Fahrenheit to Celsius, Miles to Kilometers, Pounds to Kgs, Ounces to Grams, Dollars to Rupees, Gallons to liters…  I know we are used to the difference in the spellings now, with due thanks to Bill Gates who points out not coloUrfully but colorfully in red and all of a sudden I was flummoxed when everyone resorted in India to saying XYZeee instead of XYZed that I had learnt years back! Here even the switches get turned on the wrong way..On is up and Off is down!
 
On Beggars
 
 
Our local beggars endeavor to be as pathetic as possible singing sad songs in pathetic voices and generally making everyone feel guilty about being better off. Believe it when I tell you, here beggars wear weird costumes and have smirks on their faces with placards which say ‘Gimme $5 for a glass of beer!’ or ‘I need my Dope’ or sit with a dirty dog with a placard saying ‘Help me care for my dog’ and yes, they mutter maybe ‘Ass****’ at each person, loud enough to hear if you pass them without giving them anything.  Local train beggars aren’t dissimilar to our Local buggers.  They come with their musical instruments and make speeches and stories all starting with ‘Ladies and Gentlemen. I am homeless.  Please help me’.  Of course, this being a far richer country, the numbers are far less than what we have.  But it’s funny to see ads of ‘Please donate a used car for the poor’.  I could use one of the donations!
 
On Prices
 
 
And now for my long pent up emotions on the horrendous prices here, even though I have recuperated from the shock now.  People back home said we would be really rich in the US!  But consider this. Back in India we were supposedly in the upper middle class having a 3bhk, a car, never used the local train, and had 2 maids to cook twice a day, pack our lunches, clean up, tidy up and do everything that enabled us to lounge around only watching TV.  And here, we live in a 1BHK, have a four wheeler..uh, I mean 2 bicycles, no maids (if you discount the dishwasher) and commute in the packed subway trains.  Now that life on the other side of the ocean was certainly comfortable!
 
I reckon getting past the currency conversion from the $ to the Rupee was a challenge given the fact that ‘everything is so cheap back home!’  It started with the bread being $4 (Rs200) for a loaf (@#* I paid Rs 20 back home!), onions being $2 a pound (Rs 200 for a kilo) (@#&; Governments have been brought down back home because of the rising onion prices!), well you get the idea.  I won’t even speak about the unspeakable amounts we pay as rent!  Okay, even if you don’t convert, sometimes the rates that are charged for some piffling labor are downright absurd.  There was a cleaning ad saying they would clean up rugs or carpets really well and remove all stains etc in just $150 (Rs 7500).  Well!  I could get a new carpet for that price!  In fact there is no concept of MRP or any sort of standard pricing.  It all depends on the rate the store wants to fleece people!  You could get the same brand for half at some other store or for 1/10th online.  Perhaps it is because I am around one of US’s most expensive cities.
 
On Healthcare
 
 
Well, I am one of those really unfortunate people who are underinsured due to ignorance, and now may have to shell out some $500 (Rs 25,000) for a single sitting to have an ear cleaned!  A doctor charges a cool $150 (Rs 7,500) to prescribe an OTC balm for an aching hand.  I have not known a more screwed up healthcare system than that exists out here. Wikipedia told me that it is in US that 62% of all personal bankruptcies are due to Medical Debt.  I don’t blame them.  If an uninsured or underinsured person were to fall ill, he would sell everything he has to pay it off or die of a cardiac arrest on seeing the bill!  Well, there is health insurance, and since 85% of the people have health insurance, all doctors charge astronomical amounts, and because they charge astronomical amounts people have to rely on health insurance. And, since the docs get sued all the time, they have to make up for the money they spend on litigation!  So, I guess, being a lawyer is the best profession there is in the US!  I am now contemplating a flight to and fro from India to have my ear cleaned!  It might just be cheaper.
 
On Labor
The other thing that struck me, was the fact that despite the unemployment numbers being supposedly high, the labor rates here continue to be just phenomenal.  There is little wonder that there are so many drop outs in America.  I hear that truck drivers make around $100,000 to $200,000 a year in this country!  I mean that’s really wow!  They certainly can compete with educated PhDs flaunting all their degrees or investment bankers or make even more! Babysitters charge some $15 an hour in cash, that’s around $32,000 tax free. Women who earn around $50,000 a year, which is a decent amount, quit as their babysitters charge more!  I think all the girls on H4 out here who cannot really work, but do like kids should offer their services in this field!  It never amazed me in American TV serials when they showed plumbers and handymen living in the best of the suburban houses with manicured lawns..(if you are guessing, that’s Desperate Housewives)! Now as my building doorman drives down in his car wearing a tie and a designer suit, I have ceased to wonder!  What I don’t understand is, why can’t the unemployed unskilled workers, just offer their services for a lower wage?  I am sure there will be a lot of people willing to employ them.  The unemployment rate will certainly go down.
 
On Cabbies
Something that is similar though is the sport of fighting with the Cab driver. There was this cabbie who wanted to charge a cool 100 dollar bucks (~Rs 5,000) for a 25 min ride with one stop on the way, the unreasonableness being, he would charge $50 without having to stop! Add to that, the ridiculous ‘tips’ that are mandatory to the tune of 20-30% of the total fare.  No wonder, people prefer renting cars and driving around the whole day for a maximum of $100.  Most cabbies are either Pakistanis, or Indians or Bangladeshis and the seats are dirtier and mustier than in Mumbai.
 
 
On Shopping
 
 
Finally, once I entered the acceptance mode after the denial, anger and resignation stages of shock of prices, I discovered shopping was a pleasure here, thanks to the huge departmental stores around here.  There is no dearth of brands and consumers are spoiled for choice in every category.  Furniture, cosmetics, Electronic goods and all the capital investments that go into a new home are relatively still cheap because mostly everything is Made in China. The awesome part is you can always return goods, no questions asked for up to 90 days!
 
 
On Gadgets
 
 
Thanks to the technological advancements here, most happening products such as the iphone, ipad, e-readers, Wii, GPS Navigators and other cool gadgets get first released in the US, and then trickle down much later to India.  It’s pretty cool to be connected on 3G everywhere and the large number of wifi hotspots there are.  I can’t wait for 3G to get to India and download books on my Kindle e-reader as easily as I do here.   Browsing the internet is a pleasure, since the ultra fast speeds allow me to stream videos really fast, watch movies on Netflix etc. 
 
On People
People are so much more civilized here.  The very Indians who wouldn’t blink before they discarded chocolate wrappers from their car window, pick up their dog’s shit with gloved hands (that part is really ewwwwwwwwwww for me) and discard it wherever designated.  Even though the subway is really crowded, no one really jostles to get in or cause any stampede to get out.  People don’t spit on roads or consider the outside of their homes as the garbage can.  They are always polite and smile and hold doors and the smiling does not arouse any suspiciousness. Everyone is interested in sports and not everyone wants to become an engineer or a doctor. 
 
On Dogs
 
 
Talking about dogs in the previous blurb, US is a dog obsessed country.  I have never seen dogs pampered as much as they are here.  There are dog birthday parties, dog sitters, dog walkers, dog designer clothes, prams for dogs, beauty products, cosmetics, and accessories for dogs, dog beauty parlors, dog restaurants, dog toy shops, dog playgrounds…It really gets disgusting the amount of pampering that goes on!
 
On Sports
One thing that is apparent is the evident enthusiasm of everyone in sports.  Each match is attended with gusto and the subways overflow even when there are obscure local matches and there are Cheerleaders for most matches. Even the sports Americans play are different from what the rest of the world plays.  While the world calls Football, Football, the Americans call a game they play with their hands, as football, and the actual football is relegated as Soccer. And that American Football is actually almost like Rugby, but with extra protective gears, helmets and padding. I’ve heard few Europeans call it a sissy sport.  While the world played cricket, they invented Baseball.  In Baseball, they have something called as a World Series in which the local teams compete with each other and the winner becomes a World Champion! No wonder many Americans think they are the world in themselves and everyone else is an alien! Thankfully, basketball which is another popular game here is still the same.
 
On Roads
In India I used to look left and then right before crossing.  By the time I realized my mistake, I shifted here, and I now look right and then left which is like all other things opposite to what it is in India.  I guess I can attribute whatever misfortunes I might have to the curses of the motorists in both the countries!  However, the roads here are truly beautiful.  The infrastructure is simply superb, the highways are a pleasure to drive on, and connectivity is great. And the good news is there are good clean restrooms to stop by.  That is so very difficult back home to find! It is sad that we can boast of a few good highways, such as the Mumbai-Pune Expressway.  Imagine all of India being connected from every village with such roads. Travelling would be so much easier.
 
 


On Natural Beauty
The country on the whole is so gorgeous and there always huge forests they call National Parks around everywhere in the country, an endless number of weekend getaways and a host of weekend activities to indulge in. With the fact that this is such a huge country, there is so much to see and appreciate.  The terrain varies from the rugged Colorado Desert to the blue water beaches of Florida to the verdant greenery elsewhere. I certainly can’t get enough of the beauty around me!
 
All in All
All in all, I reckon, living in each country has its pros and cons.  As I remove my rose tinted glasses to look at India, I reckon I can point out fallacies there for all my criticisms above with the rising inflation and low transparency and a million other reasons in our governing system.  Each country has its pros and cons.  While I miss the culture that I grew up in, I have grown to appreciate the country I am currently residing in.  Fulfilling the American Dream is still aspired by many, and I don’t blame them. After all, it is a beautiful country with much to explore and excellent facilities and infrastructure to explore it.  Cleanliness and less pollution add to better living. It is quite an experience to live in the multicultural vibrancy of this country.  India isn’t quite there yet, but I am optimistic, with all the leaps  taken towards development, will one day fructify and it will be a more pleasant place to live in. Right now, I reckon, I will just indulge in everything that India doesn’t offer, and then when I don’t have time to do that, I shall come back and live a life of luxury with maids and cooks and drivers to serve me!
Categories: Americas, Other Travel Blah, United States | Tags: , , , | 22 Comments

Mount Abu – Keeping cool in Rajasthan (Part 2)

This is a two part series on Mount Abu. This post includes some more sight-seeing places at Mount Abu and tips for travelers. See my earlier post on Mount Abu here.

We continued with our leisurely excursions of Mount Abu on Day three.

Like every hill station in India, there were ‘points’ that offered panoramic views. These included the ubiquitous ‘Sunset point’, the ‘honeymoon point’, and Guru Shikhar. I must warn you that though the Sunset point though offered lovely views, was extremely crowded and dirty with people eating and dumping their garbage right where they stood.

Views from the Honeymoon point

Views from the Honeymoon point

Other points of interest include the Mount Abu wildlife sanctuary, a fort ‘Achalgarh’, and the ‘Achleshwar temple’. The Achleshwar Shiva temple built in the 9th century has an idol of the Nandi that is made of five metals and weighs 4 tons. Near the temple is a lake which has the idols of 3 buffaloes which were supposed to be demons in disguise. Legend goes that the lake was once filled with ghee <although I have no clue how that is possible!>

The Buffalo trio near the Achaleshwar temple

The Buffalo trio near the Achaleshwar temple

The Four Ton Nandi at the Achaleshwar Temple

The Four Ton Nandi at the Achaleshwar Temple

Mount Abu is also the headquarters of the Brahmakumaris spiritual university, an organization that teaches spirituality and meditation. The Brahmakumaris have several centers at Mount Abu that host visitors from all over the world in their residential programs. They also have a fabulous garden with an exquisite display of roses and other flora.

A Brahmakumaris center

A Brahmakumaris center

Mount Abu also has a little known museum with several artifacts and sculptures in it not far from the Nakki Lake. However the condition of this museum was not very good. Most of the artifacts were carelessly kept without proper labeling or descriptions. We were the only ones in the museum for quite a while and the caretaker had to literally switch on the lights when we reached there. Inner rooms of the museum (that were open) revealed what must have been ancient artifacts dumped and dust laden.  The sheer callousness was apparent in the whole upkeep of the museum and it was quite sad.

Artifacts at the Mount Abu museum

Dumped artifacts at Mount Abu museum

Dumped artifacts at Mount Abu museum

Other information

Mount Abu certainly makes for a weekend or an extended weekend excursion. With convenient modes of transport cheaply available to Mount Abu and for local transportation, and hotels to suit all pockets, Mount Abu can certainly be included in a budget travel destination list.

Accommodation – Most resorts and hotels are around the Nakki Lake. For those looking out for boating activities or prefer to be near the market, restaurants etc., there are a large number of hotel options around the lake that would suit all pockets right from Rs 1000 a night to Rs 10,000 a night.  We stayed at Hotel Hilltone, which was an excellent resort with good facilities of a garden, game room, swimming pool, and good restaurants. Rooms in several formats were available and the service was quite good. I would highly recommend this resort to families.

Food – Being a tourist destination, most eateries offer a pan India cuisine from South Indian to Punjabi and even Indochinese. However, it was nicer to eat some of the traditional Rajasthani fare of Dal Baati and Churma which was much less unhealthy than the rest. ‘Baatis’ are baked/roasted tandoor balls of wheat flour dough that are broken up to eat and dipped in warm ghee (clarified butter) with the spicy dal or lentil soup. Churma comprises of broken baatis mixed with ghee and jaggery to make for a simple but delicious dessert. It was funny that the eatery owners on the way called out to us to grace their restaurants exactly when we were out to have our dinner and ceased to call us when we had finished! Another couple of things Mount Abu claimed were famous there was the ‘Rabdi’ (thickened flavored milk) and the Softy ice-cream. The Softy ice-cream easily available in the market at Mount Abu came in all flavors and toppings and was quite a delight!

Traditional Gujarathi meal

Traditional Gujarathi meal

Getting around – Tourist taxis are available for about Rs 1,000-1,500 to be rented for a day and they typically show you everything that is to be seen. These taxis can also be shared.  There are options of bus tours and jeeps that are quite easy on the pocket too. Bikes can be rented for about Rs 100-500 depending on how much time you want them and the make of the bike. Getting to Abu road station from the top can set you back by Rs 500 in a private taxi or one can opt for the much cheaper shared jeeps that stuff them with passengers for a much smaller amount.

Tourist Information – A Rajasthan tourist information office is situated next to the hotel Hilltone and the police station. One can get information on what to do at Mount Abu, get maps and other information.

Reservations -A train reservation office is also present in the same building as the tourist information office. We booked our return tickets in a Tatkal booking so this office was God-sent to us with the train booking IRCTC site always super slow or down! There are also several tourist offices near the market that can make reservations and transport arrangements for all modes of transport.

To read my first post on the primary two attractions of Mount Abu -click here.

Categories: India, Rajasthan | Tags: , , | 23 Comments

Mount Abu – Keeping cool in Rajasthan

Leaves droop, dogs lie languidly in the middle of roads, birds come by the flowerpot in the balcony attempting to siphon off the few drops of water that haven’t yet evaporated, Taxiwallahs sigh as they use their napkins to wipe off that unending stream of perspiration, and the only happy person that seems to be quite happy with the oppressive heat is the ice-cream vendor where a  steady stream of people make their way to at all times during the day.

A few days away from this sweltering heat is what I wanted!  With a few holidays in sight, we explored options to go to near Mumbai for an extended weekend to a nearby hill station other than Matheran, Mahabaleshwar and the other usual suspects of Lonavala-Khandala that have become as bustling as Mumbai itself during summer. I also longed to go somewhere clean, green and a place that had good roads. After much procrastination, we finally zeroed on the hill station of Mount Abu in the state of Rajasthan which seemed to offer peace, fresh cool air and relief from the sweaty dirty megapolis. Mount Abu is the highest point in the Aravalli mountain range at about 1220m above sea level making it a cool getaway from the searing summer heat in Rajasthan, nearby Gujarat and Mumbai!

Getting to Mount Abu

Mount Abu is accessible by excellent roads, trains and is about 3 hours away from the nearest airport at Udaipur. Mount Abu is conveniently located at about 750 kms from Mumbai (11 hours by train or road), and at about 230kms from Ahmedabad and 170kms from Udaipur. One can have their pick of mode of transport of trains, driving down, taxis and buses from major cities.

Mumbai to Abu - courtsey Google Maps

Mumbai to Mt. Abu – courtesy Google Maps

After a hasty tatkal booking, we were finally on our way to Mount Abu one evening.  The next morning the train chugged along to Abu Road station which seemed to be quite a busy station with several tourists like us getting off and on.  On getting out, taxiwallahs immediately hounded us to take us up the hill station. A few minutes later, we grouped up with a family going the same way and we were on our way for Rs 500 for the taxi.

A few curvy roads later, we reached our hotel and were content in whiling away our time for the rest of the day at the peaceful resort in the very pleasant weather.

A leisurely stroll down the road took us to one of Mount Abu’s main attraction, the Nakki Lake. The market near Nakki Lake is a bustling hub of activity where one can get everything from traditional jewellery, garments, bedsheets, artifacts and souvenirs at good prices.  Plenty of restaurants dot the little market and all seem to do brisk business!

The market side of the lake is in no way tranquil or peaceful with hordes of tourists, eateries, hawkers and boatmen creating plenty of noise. However, a walk around the lake brought us to several peaceful perches from where we could smile at the hullaballoo on the side of the twinkling lights of the market place. For suggested walking and trekking routes/maps visit the Tourist office nearby.

Our day ended in the hotel sitting outside in the evening without the ubiquitous mosquitoes bothering us and enjoying the cool breeze. The holiday was just as it was meant to be – relaxing and cool!

Peace at Nakki Lake

Peace at Nakki Lake

Catch me if you can - by Nakki Lake

Catch me if you can – by Nakki Lake

Fun at Nakki Lake

Fun at Nakki Lake

The next day, after a morning of lazing around, we decided to venture out to see what was touted to be even more beautiful than the Taj in its interiors – The Dilwara Jain temples. These breathtaking temples were ‘paisa vasool’ for the whole trip! On the outside, they seemed to be like any other, but once we entered the sanctum, we were awestruck by the magnificence of the artwork.  I have never seen such intricate workmanship ever before. Such finesse, such grandeur and such beauty carved in marble.

The Dilwara temples were built between the 11th and 13th centuries and consist of five major sections or temples devoted to the five tirthankaras of Jainism. Each temple is decorated with intricate marble carvings of Jain saints, flowers, petals and designs on ceilings, pillars and temple walls. One can get quite a crick in the neck staring up at those gorgeous chandelier designs on the ceilings! Unfortunately, photography is not allowed inside the temple and you have to be content with memories and bad quality picture postcards.

Here are a few glimpses of the Dilwara temples courtesy Wikimedia commons.

Door at Dilwara

A door opening into the inner sanctum of a deity, Dilwara

Dilwara

The gorgeous Dilwara temple

Ceiling on Dilwara

More on the other places at Mount Abu and tips for travelers in the next post of this two-part series. To read click here.

Categories: India, Rajasthan | Tags: , , | 13 Comments

Mighty Chittorgarh and Blasphemous Indians

Massive, Mighty and Magnificent.  I loved Chittorgarh fort.
Morons, Miserable, Miscreants – Those Indians who desecrated its walls.
I speak of the Sunils who love the Nehas and are joined by that cupids arrow through the heart on the Ramayana etching, Chandraketus who visited the monument on July 7, 2009, Swapnils, Pankajs, and Rahuls who found it fun to use a permanent marker to scribe their names and present their autographs to the grim 1000 year statues. I speak of the Rams and Mohans who left their legacy on Mumtaz Mahal’s tomb.
I speak of the mother who instructed her kid to throw away the pepsi bottle in a corner of the monument and not carry it out to throw in the many dustbins stationed. I speak of the vile pan chewer who spit on most marvelous engraving in the fort.  I speak of the snacks vendor at the Rana Pratap memorial who discarded his trash outside his window on a hill which he thought was not visible to tourists. I speak of the literate but uneducated girl who did not think twice before throwing out tissue paper out of her car on the road after seeing the monument.

 Can we even remotely call ours a civilized society?  We harp about the ‘Mahaanta’ of Bharat and the rich culture and heritage and in the next instant trash it with our waste.  I am so indignant and disgusted at this apathy and this lack of reverence.

I had trekked earlier this year to a wonder of the world named Macchu Picchu to see some ruins which I have described in an earlier blog.  Those ruins, mere walls of stone, have been preserved with utmost care by Peruvians.  Peruvians who are from a similar poor country, are proud of their heritage and have not taken it for granted as Indians have.  In eras older than the Inca empire of the Peruvians, our emperors and kings were far advanced in their art forms and built structures which withstood not just battles and attacks but the test of time.  I could go right upto the Victory tower and I could only gaze in wonder at the art forms in the masonry and sculptures that were not valuable enough for the British to plunder.  But can we say that we have preserved them well enough? Sure, the Architectural Survey of India (ASI) has done a great job in digging out similar structures and maintaining them.  But what about the vast majority of the people who do not understand how privileged they are to be able to see them?
 I almost feel India and Indians are not worthy of this rich heritage.  All these beautiful ancient monuments and gorgeous art forms would have been preserved far better in countries such as USA or in Europe where people admire, appreciate and respect them.
Merely studying history is not enough.  Can we inculcate enough pride in our heritage so as to only be able to at least very mildly respect the wonderful history that still stands today and not desecrate it? If this cannot be imbibed, can more punitive action be taken against the cowardly sociopaths who carry out their ‘rebellious’ pranks covertly? Perhaps a fine of Rs 500 to be enforced by a wiry thin watchman standing at the entrance may not be the right way.  Can the government have CCTVs which are monitored and enforce more stringent action, say a non bailable imprisonment?  Is there anything we citizens who love and value our country can do more than turning away indifferently for fear of getting into arguments and then tsking tsking behind their backs? In this blog I speak of only our tourist places, but on a broader level, I question, why is it that the very same Indians who break all rules in their home country are able to even pick their dogs shit with their hands to throw it in the dustbin in another country? If only, everyone respected in their own country what they did in foreign lands, India could come somewhere near being called a civilized society.
A few glimpses of the magnificent Chittorgarh fort below –
Vijay Stambha (Victory Tower)
Hanuman ‘Pol’ (Gate)
Carvings in Victory Tower
Carvings in Victory Tower
Kumbha Shyam Temple
Trimurti
Padmini Palace
Jain Temple of Mahaveer
Meera Temple
Picturesque view near Gaumukhs Reservoir
Categories: India, Rajasthan | Tags: , , , , , , | 30 Comments

‘Scubadooing’, Louis and Nola

The little island country of Mauritius is an island country and a very popular destination for everything related to H2O and the sea. Swimming, fishing, scuba diving, snorkeling, water skiing, dolphin watching, sea food, sunset cruises are widely enjoyed by tourists and locals. Very very unfortunately, I don’t know how to swim and being a vegetarian, cannot eat seafood! So, from all the above, all I could attempt was a cruise, and that too gave me a headache! I was pretty sad that I couldn’t behold all the wonders that the sea world held below under a few hundred leagues under the sea, till technology intervened in the form of a ‘Scubadoo’ scooter that promised to take me down under without me know how to swim!

Driving along, we stopped by a little board on Scubadooing near the beach Trou aux biches where we first encountered Louis. This cheerful gentleman gave us an appointment the next day for going under the sea on the Scubadoo scooter without being able to swim.

We wore our watersuits to keep us warm in the water we were to enter in and away we went in Louis car to the beach for a little ride on a boat. The trained divers helped us on to the sea scooter and lowered us into the water. My heart rate certainly went up and I thought I would drown not being used to so much water! And once in there, it was a whole new world and the equipment let me breathe normally with the water not even going above my neck.  It was fantastic to see nature in a new setting and I marveled at the gorgeous fish that swam by. I do feel, the creative department of the Creator has crafted the most gorgeous patterns, colors and shapes in the sea world rather than on land (if one were to except butterflies). Fish with yellow polka dots, silver streaks, gold stripes and endless other unique designs flitted by as I watched in wonder and the 30 minutes went by without my realizing it.

True to his word, Louis, took us back to his home where his talented wife Nola had prepared a feast for us with delicious ‘wadas’ and samosas with chutney and coffee.  There our host started talking to us, and boy, was he entertaining and knowledgeable! Louis and Nola were originally South Africans we learnt, who had come to Mauritius when Louis quit his lucrative corporate job at an insurance company to start his own business. His love for the sea lured him to start a business around water activities. He proudly told us that he was one of the two or three service providers in the world for the Scubadoo which he had brought from Australia.  Being in the service industry for so long, he had realized that service quality was of utmost importance and that’s why the best divers, perks such as photography included in the fees, and even the snacks. He genuinely wanted to make people happy and went the extra mile to do it. In fact we were amazed to know how they customized even the snacks for their clients and even served Jain food!  There certainly were several lessons in importance of service quality learnt in our conversation with him.

Thanks to the Sunday being his weekend (Mondays being off for their service), Louis and Nola were relaxed and chatted on about their surprise that most Indians (even the migrant islanders) did not know how to swim and we had to shake our heads and mumble about bad infrastructure in India. But apparently he knew about India more than we did including histories of Manmohan Singh, the Congress party, the businesses, the culture, and problems! An islander he certainly was, but had his eyes and ears across the world.  It is rare to meet people as lovely and hospitable as Louis and Nola! I hope Nola gets to meet with her grandkids more often (again across the world in South Africa, France etc.) and Louis does really well in this business of his!

If you do visit Mauritius, do visit Louis and Nola for Scubadooing and a host of other services they provide.  I am sure you will have a great time! Check out http://www.scuba-doomauritius.com/ for more details and contact.

Louis and Nola

With the fish

Pretty fish – pic courtsey Scubadoo team

Sunset at Trou aux Biches

Categories: Africa, Mauritius | Tags: , , | 14 Comments

Mauritius Ahoy!

Blue, green, moving, dynamic, awe-inspiring, dark, rocky, fishy, slimy, pebbly, black, beautiful, scenic, moving, exciting, dangerous, calm, soothing, vast, ceaseless. If there is anything that is truly awe-inspring, and reaffirms my faith that there has to be a supreme power to create something like it, it’s the Sea. The Sky, the mountains, the desert, are no doubt vast, and imposing, but the sea is different. It moves. It contains life, it has moods of its own, it is alive.

After a long hiatus, I finally took off to that dream foreign junket to Mauritius. Exceedingly happy to escape the monsoon traffic in Mumbai and the humdrum work and chores, I eagerly awaited that Air Mauritius flight that would take me away from chaos to the tranquility and excitement of a lovely beach!

Why did we choose Mauritius?–
– A destination where most honeymooners go, although, I wasn’t on my honeymoon, Mauritius was certainly a place we decided that would be the one to relax and rejuvenate.
– Fantastic pictures from other travellers, made us sit up and want to go there
– The falling rupee made Europe very expensive
– South east Asia being at the equator, was way too hot for my liking at this time
– We only wanted to relax and rejuvenate and a beach at an exotic locale sounded like a great idea
– Hubby SS had accumulated plenty of Starwood hotel points which we needed to finish off this year
– Visa on arrival for Indian citizens allowed for one less time-consuming hassle for a visit!

The Flight
The Air Mauritius flight in the wee hours of the morning (4 am) in the middle of the week, saw me fighting to the finish to send off that last email and then rush to the airport at midnight. The visa being on arrival was one less hassle and we were relieved to have chosen this destination. The flight was full (of honeymooners as expected) with girls in huge red bangles, green bangles, and there were hardly any girls without the mehendi on their hand and feet! How easy it is to tell newly weds in India I realized than anywhere else where they only have a tiny hardly visible ring to indicate they are married!

Immigration formalities completed, the flight left in time for our destination as we tried to get a few winks in the 6 hour flight. However, dear reader, the flight was frightfully uncomfortable with cramped seats and little leg room. A snack was served immediately after take-off and before they dimmed the lights. Thankfully, they served an Indian vegetarian breakfast consisting of upma, sambaar and dosa in the morning which was the only redeeming factor in the whole journey! I would have recommended booking an Air India flight if it were not for the striking pilots, but then, Air Mauritius also has a tie-up with Air India, so one might end up in the Air Mauritius plane after all, so unless you are flying business, expect an uncomfortable flight!

On Arrival
We arrived in the morning bleary eyed and tired but looking forward to the long day that stretched ahead. As I entered the Mauritius airport, I noticed all the Mauritians looking no different than Indians! Infact, they even dressed like Indians – The women wore salwar kameezes, bindis and sindur! That was my first brush with the Indianness in Mauritius and I went on to discover more that I will describe in my next blog.
Several money-changing personnel assailed us as we got off, not unlike the vegetable market style of yelling their exchange rates perceiving which countries tourists arrived from. We changed some of the Indian Rupees for Mauritian Rupees (yes, their currency is Rupee too) and then looked for the next step – transport to take us to the hotel. Unlike us, most tourists, had booked package tours which are usually inclusive of accommodation, transfers, and sightseeing. But well, we have never enjoyed that form of tourism where everything is mostly tailored for you and there is less chance of discovery and self-exploration. As the crowd disappeared we ambled to taxi counter and bargained for a taxi . The taxi charges were around Rs 1700 Mauritian for a 1.5 hour ride to the hotel – this is around 3,400 Indian Rupees.

First Impressions
The first impressions imprinted in my mind on the road are the breezy heads of crops billowing in the wind, lush green sugarcane crops spread over long stretches, peeks of the blue ocean and green stretches on both the sides of the ‘motorable road’ as we were to call it later. Ten minutes down the road, the taxiwallah asked us if we wanted a car on rent. Well, we did, and he took us to a private car dealer outside the airport where we got a shiny red car after plenty more haggling and a tattered map to get to our hotel. Thankfully, driving on an Indian license was permitted, and we got our means to roam around without worrying about the high taxi fares. Petrol was pretty expensive at nearly Rs 100 (Indian) for a litre and for once, we didn’t grumble about high petrol costs in India!

Quite a large chunk of Mauritius’ coastline is lined by hotels, and our hotel, Le Meridian was situated in the northwestern part of the little island in a place called Pointe Aux Piments. Most of the names in Mauritius are French and utterly unpronounceable for the ones like me uninitiated with the silent letters in French language! After passing the main city of Port Louis with its picturesque harbor and office buildings, and many twists and turns later, we finally made it to our hotel a couple of hours later.

A magnificent view from the hotel room beckoned us to stay awake and the exceedingly plush room beckoned us to recover from the long flight, but well, the hotel stay is worth another blog.

Stay tuned for more on Mauritius.

Tips and lessons learnt
– The best time to visit Mauritius is in their Summer – October – February. We visited in their winter (July). Although it wasn’t very cold, and got mildly chilly in the evenings, you might not be able to get into the water as many times as you would like to.
– Air Mauritius is not a comfortable flight. Carry an extra cushion, wear socks. Get those few hours of sleep. It will help.
– Check out foreign currency rates in your home country and try to get the best possible rate. If it works, withdraw in dollars if you have a dollar account somewhere.
– If you are comfortable with group tours, go for it, they usually turn out cheaper and hassle free
– If you like to discover things on your own, book only your flights and hotels in advance and also find out the best modes of transport available.
– Mauritius allows driving on an Indian driving license. You can rent a car here. Check out options before arriving here since airport rentals might be a bit more expensive. We got a car for Rs Mauritian 1000 a day whereas at the airport they charged nearly Rs 1400-1500 for a day. Public transport is quite weak and I wouldn’t recommend taking the few buses available there. Taxis cost about Rs Mauritian 500-600 (Rs 1000-1200 Indian) for even short distances of 5-6 kms.

Categories: Africa, Mauritius | Tags: , , | 11 Comments

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