A home away from home, ‘The Retreat’, Bhimtal

While I was looking for homestays during my last summer’s travels to Uttarakhand, I had stumbled upon ‘The Retreat’, Bhimtal. They were sold out, but I was already in love with the place. I am a daydreamer and often last year I kept visualizing myself at the quaint colonial homestay. This year, when I started working on my project of waste management, (where I am working with the village women to remove waste from the world ecosystem and convert it into something useful and beautiful; adding livelihood and pride to lives of village women), the first place that I had written on my list was Bhimtal. Though, I am still at the primary stage of the project, I wanted to visit Bhimtal, to look at the villages around.

I had quite a few e-mail communications and telephonic conversations with Padmini Smetacek, the host at ‘The Retreat’, Bhimtal, about my accomodation and I got some good vibes. There are times, when you do not need to see something to believe in it, the energies that you receive are convincing enough. This is so true to this place. My general OCD-self was completely relaxed before reaching this place. From the moment I reached, and all over my stay, I promise, this has been the best experience of a homestay.

Away from the constructions surrounding the Bhimtal lake and nestled in the foothills of the Kumaon’s Lake District, amidst a forest estate, ‘The Retreat’, Bhimtal is a home away from home. It takes a lot of things for me to call something ‘home’, and this place has everything to call it a ‘home’. It is an old British bungalow, maintained well, keeping the historical feel alive. If you love to unwind, wake up to the chirps of birds, get excited at the sight of colourful blooms, soak in the sun, smell the rain,  feel the pebbles under your feet, read and daydream, gaze at the starry night and paint stories in your mind, this place is for you. So, if this summer, you are looking for some digital detoxification, pack your bags and head to ‘The Retreat’, Bhimtal. For queries and bookings, contact  http://www.theretreatbhimtal.in/

I have travelled to Kumaon, Uttarakhand quite a few times, but every time I fall in love with the place like an old wine in a new bottle. I believe it is not only the place, but it’s the people who make the place. And this time, I give all the credit to the host and her family at ‘The Retreat’, Bhimtal. I think my descriptions would fall short to describe how enchanting the place is and you should make time for a visit to experience it all by yourself; and you would not regret it.

This place looks exactly like my childhood sketches, an old bungalow amidst pine, cedar and oak, filled with flowers and all plants I could name. It is the place I would think of, if I ever write a fairy tale. There is a ridge behind the homestay where you could go for leisurely walks, I enjoyed most of the mornings and evenings, watching the sunrise and the sunset while walking on the ridge. Breakfast used to be lavish affairs in the verandah, getting childlike excitement at the sight of colourful birds of varied species. If you are a bird or butterfly spotter, this is the perfect place. You have your complete privacy to sit and drown in your thoughts or choose to unfurl the artist in you. Or you may join for long conversations in the evenings with the host about her family’s splendid history. The best part for foodies like me is you are spoilt by exotic homemade food from locally sourced vegetables and meat. The taste will always linger in my soul. The family makes the best food and will give any Michelin star restaurant run for their money. From shakshuka, to kadi chawal, from pot chicken roast to focaccia bread, from lemon cheesecake to pumpkin soup, they make food that you will crave once you leave this place. The best part, surviving all odds, the host and her family is always smiling, warm and eager to help you out. They will guide you for walks to the Sattal lake, arrange a cab to nearby villages, make you rhododendron juice when you are back from a hike. They will even spill the beans about some secret spots nearby, which you can explore.

The home and the people breathe an atmosphere of comfort and peace. This is a  perfect get-away for nature lovers, botanists and entomologists, bird watchers, yoga and meditation enthusiasts, trekkers, walkers, campers, couch potatoes, dreamers, artists, and writers. If you are looking for a laid-back atmosphere, with the world class hospitality, this place is a must visit. I appreciate innocence, I appreciate an organic growth. And this is something you will find in abundance here. The kids of the family are so well-behaved and so full of love that it moved me. I feel sad, that in cities these days we are losing that innocent, unadulterated charm in the younger generation. I definitely love to travel to explore a new place, but it’s more because of the people like of ‘The Retreat’, Bhimtal; there is always so much to learn from them.

The family strives consistently to conserve the forest and wildlife in the area. If you are planning to visit this place, please travel responsibly and respect the privacy of the host as well.

The parts of Bhimtal I explored during this trip, we will talk about it in my next post, because I have already started daydreaming of ‘The Retreat’ again. I celebrated my  birthday here. When Padmini, got to know about it, she baked me a cake and I had the most heartfelt celebrations in years. More than work, I relaxed here and on the day of departure, I didn’t feel like getting back, but with the hopes of going back sometime soon for a family vacation, I think of this place and the people fondly.

Every place stays with us, but some are special. Which is the best place that you have been to which you can call home?

 

I travel solo in India, and I feel safe

In the current scenario of India, it is very strange on my part to come up with this article. I feel ashamed, helpless and angered by the increasing number of rape cases in the country. It has given me sleepless nights and at times I have wondered if I should reschedule my travel plans. But holding on to my urge to travel, I didn’t allow my fear to overpower me. I travelled solo this month and I have been doing this since I was eighteen. I travel solo in India and I feel safe. I wish no one goes through the horrendous situation and everyone feels safe, be at home or in a distant land. As a traveller, I would tell you how and why I feel safe for solo travels in India.

1Carry a self-defence equipment

To be on the safer side, I always carry a self defence equipment, even when I am travelling within the cities. I still carry a pepper spray and have even upgraded to a taser gun. I make sure to place them in the most conveniently reachable part of my bag. And if you know any self-defence art, it’s cherry on the cake.

2. Dress according to the culture

I have always been a rebel about wearing clothes and have never stuck to the conventions of Indian society about my dressing. But while you are travelling, it is always wise to dress according to the culture of the place and not hurt the sentiments of the locals. That does no way mean that a dress invites a crime. I am totally against the notion. But I like to dress comfortably and according to the local culture. That doesn’t even mean wearing a kurta or a saree while you are hiking in the jungle. I prefer wearing t-shirts and tracks. I would suggest to wear anything that doesn’t grab attention. While travelling in a rainforest, I would not like to be in my LBD or stilettos, I would rather be in something that is comfortable for a hike and not seeking attention.

3. You will meet people who will worry for your safety

When we have a perception about something or someplace, we tend to think of the place like the way we have read. It’s better to ignore the perception, let go of your jitters and be on the road and experience. You will know how to avoid the nasty ones. And don’t you think we will meet jerks if we are living in the comfort of our city lives? You meet them at nightclubs, schools, colleges. Avoid them. This time, when I was staying at Ginger Hotel in Delhi, because I had to catch the early morning train, I was a bit worried to walk or to take a cab to the station alone before sunrise, though the New Delhi Railway Station is a 3 mins walk from the hotel. So, I asked the person at the reception to help me with a security guard who could give me company to walk to the station in the early hours of the morning. I am grateful to the employees at Ginger for being sensitive about the issue. On my return journey, my train was to reach the Old Delhi railway station at 4 o clock in the morning. The lady of the homestay, where I was staying, informed me that there is a McDonald’s outlet at Platform No 1 and asked me to wait there till there is daylight. This information was helpful and I did accordingly. People are nice to solo travellers, especially female travellers all over the world and in India people really worry about you and want you to be safe.

4. You will find ‘women-only’ everything

From the queues at bus depots, to seats at metro rails, you will find ‘women-only’ everything. You will find cabs driven by women to homestay run by women. When I booked the first class train compartment  and got up in the train from Kathgodam, I was worried to find the entire compartment empty. I panicked for a moment. I sat on my berth hoping that the cabin shouldn’t be filled with men. And thankfully, the cabin was reserved for three other women, solo travellers. Later, we discussed we all had shared the same worries. Happily, we made our night journey discussing everything and even reached safely.

5. People in India are friendly

Of travelling over the years, I have always found people in India to be friendly and caring. They would take you to your home and feed you with the humblest meal, but would not allow you to stay hungry. What we consider as over-peering neighbours at times, turns out to be the most life-saving people in the country. They will constantly remind you to be safe, not to be vulnerable to strangers and will always permit you to contact them for emergencies.

Leave your jitters at home, tie your shoe laces. Sitting at home, worrying over the perceived notion of the world would not lead to any experience. Work towards a better and safe place and walk fearlessly.

 

Itachuna Rajbari: A Weekend Getaway

Itachuna Rajbari, literally meaning brick and lime palace, was built in 1766 by the Kundu family who supposedly descended from the Bargis, the dreaded Maratha clan who invaded and looted Bengal time and again annually for a decade (1740s to 1750s). They were originally, “Kundaan” clan but since the time they settled, they embraced local culture and through word of mouth, it has become “Kundu”. In the present day, you can experience living in a heritage house.

A few steps from Kalyani across the river Ganges you will wade into the heritage Hooghly district. People from different places came and settled here. You will  find the elegeant monuments of the Portugese colonies in Bandel. Apart from that, you will find heritage of Dutch, French and Greeks. There are confluence of regional races & cultures too. Jains adored the place and even Pathans admired and left their traces here.

This heritage mansion is in thee village Itachuna, originally known as Bargi Danga. After the downfall of Mughal era, after the death of Aurangageb, Marathas became powerful. Many a times they used to attack Bengal,Bihar & Orissa. The erect watch-towers  from Singur to  Arra, Purulia witnessed the threat of Maratha warriors locally called Bargis centuries back.  Bargis used to come, loot and collect taxes. However, many of them never left Bengal and began to settle here embracing local culture. A sect entitled “Kundaan” settled in the remote village of Hooghly now known as Itachuna. They amassed  huge wealth and property by their wit and strength. Subsequently they became powerful zamidars/rajas of the locality. Over times they lost their original identity of Kundans, it turned to Bengali title Kundu.. They cultivated Bengali culture, Bengali cuisines, Bengali language and local deities. They became friend, guide and protector of local people here. They were pious and liberal. Their behaviour towards local people became a folklore even heard at the nook and corners of Itachuna. Still, people in the village put them on a pedestal.

The palace was made by ita (bricks) and lime (chun) and hence it was called Itachuna Rajbari. The majestic, splendid architecture and structure is intact  although it is about 250 years old. Currently, a part of it is being used as heritage-stay.
The Vishnu temple within the palace is  another attraction of the palace. Still now the deity is worshipped.
The caretaker of this place was guiding me to the artefacts kept for visitors. When I was exploring the huge property, its nooks and crannies and the rustic stairways at times I thought I was lost and couldn’t remember the pathways, but I was lost for a better reason, I was blissfully disconnected from the urban jungle and digital connectivity. The palace is a self-contained entity. There are rooms for royal families. There are space for amusement and dances. The visiting room has a magnificent outlook .
A night stay here will  certainly refresh your mind. If you spend seeing the village from the roof, you will stumble upon delightful oddities, when the afternoon gives way to dusk.

This place is just the perfect getaway if you are looking for a quiet, peaceful and scenic weekend. Away from everyday chaos this is the place to just be. The areas around the Rajbari is green and there are quite a few water bodies around it and one within it. It is a perfect place to rest, recuperate, and spend time enjoying nature, good food, and music! Yes, music of the flute variety! There is a person who comes in every morning and evening and he plays the flute. It was a lovely experience and somehow added to the ambience!

In the evening I was provided a tour of the Rajbari and the areas around it.
To sum up, it was a great experience to spend a weekend indulging in history and gorging on delicious Bengali food.

The rooms are pretty good. The experience of staying in a house over 300 years old with so much of  history was quite something! At present, mud huts have been built near the waterbody and people can experience night stay even there. The mud hut are each named after different flowers.

The food was excellent. They served Bengali food and the menu is fixed. You can choose between veg and non-veg food. The spread was very good. If you want to taste authentic Bengali cuisine this could be the perfect place and setting to experience it. You get to experience eating on old traditional dinnerwares and feel royal.

If you live in Kolkata and don’t know where to go next weekend, try to visit Itachuna. For more details you can visit the website of the Itachuna Rajbari: http://www.itachunarajbari.com/

Do not visit Itachuna Rajbari if you are looking for hotel-like amenities and modern comforts.
Come visit if you want to meet characters lost in a time gone by in a sleepy little town that houses a mansion full of charm for those that seek it.

Have you ever stayed in an old mansion?

Scuba Diving Puerto Galera, Philippines

Puerto Galera is located on the North West coast of island of Mindoro and is about 130 miles south of Manila. One of the main destinations in Philippines for scuba diving is Puerto Galera. There are more than 30 dive centres. It is also a marine sanctuary with a great marine life and coral reefs. The area has been a Marine and Biosphere Reserve of UNESCO since 1973 and has some of the most diverse coral reefs in Asia. While scuba diving Puerto Galera, big fish like white tip sharks, tunas, barracudas, eagle rays, turtles can be seen at the popular dive sites. Thriving fish life like angelfish, wrasses, surgeonfish, batfish, butterfly fish can be seen at house reef wrecks. You can also spot exotic fish like spanish dancer, harlequin ghost-pipefish along with camouflaged frogfish, fire gobies and blue-ribbon eels.
Scuba diving Puerto Galera is a heaven for underwater photographers, marine biologists and divers. You get to see a diversified marine life of soft corals, gorgonians, crinoids, colourful sponges, tunicates, crustaceans and shrimps and the most popular is the invertebrate, ‘nudibranchs’.
It is also a great place for night diving.
Most of the dive sites are located in Verde Island passage. Here the current is strong and the water is clear. It is a great opportunity for drift dives along the deep walls.
The other popular dive sites are in front of Sabang beach and are accessible via a 5 minute boat ride.
There are many places at Puerto Galera where you can learn technical diving.


How to get to Puerto Galera

You can travel to Puerto Galera from Manila. The preferable transport is the bus. There is a bus terminal along Taft Avenue, Pasay City. This is nearest to the Ninoy Aquino International and Domestic Airport. The other bus terminals are in Cubao (Quezon City), EDSA corner Kamias Street (Quezon City), Alabang(Muntinlupa City).
You can also avail the ferry going to Puerto Galera. Travellers may also opt to use private transfer.


Best dive sites around Puerto Galera


Hibo Reef: The depth is 40 m. This is located in the Manila Channel. The wall is covered with gorgonian sea fans and large black coral trees, unique to this spot in the locality. Eels and blue triggerfish have made small holes in the wall their home. stingrays are common below the wall, on the sandy patch. A variety of soft corals can be spotted while scuba diving Puerto Galera’s this dive site.
Tamaraw Rocks: The depth ranges from 3 to 16 m. It is a shallow dive. You will find barrel sponges and colourful reefs on your way while scuba diving. On the sand there are stingrays. This site is home to leaf fish, frog fish and is a good site for night dive.

Odies Wall: The depth of this site is 33 m. The ocean floor is white sandy with large bommies and rock formations. The contour slopes off gently. You will find large number of staghorn coral, basket sponges, plate corals and sandy areas are covered with long whip corals and a variety of small tropical fish. Reef sharks and turtles can also be spotted.


Manila Channel: The depth is 18 m and the site is abundant with gorgonian sea fans and colourful sea whips. You can also see hard and soft corals in a variety. While scuba diving, groupers are hard to spot because they are well camouflaged.


Coral Gardens: The depth is 10 m and this is one of the best dive sites of Puerto Galera. It is excellent even for drift drive. Coral strewn terrain shelves out from the beach and some of the crevices are home to ribbon eels and even turtles can be seen.


Alma Jane: It has a depth of 30m. A liveboard which had sunk in 2000 is home to giant frog fish and even batfish hang out here. Turtles can be spotted too.


Sabang Wreck: With a depth of 18m, this is an old wooden fishing vessel sunk off in front of Sabang beach. Home to bat fish and surgeonfish, it is a popular dive site. Trumpets, stone fish, stargazers, flounders, sea stars call this dive site home.


Sabang Point: It has a depth of 24m with stoney corals, fish, invertebrates such as cuttlefish and octopus. A ridge is covered with crinoids and corals. It is a good site for night dive.


Monkey Beach: A coral slopes down to 18 m. This site is good for beginners. Small coral heads have crinoids, nudibranchs and reef fish.


Dungung Wall: A wreck sits at 27m, at the bottom of the multi-level wall. The wall rises to 12m where the bottom extends into the bay. A good area for colorful corals and reef life.


Hole in the Wall: Situated at Escarceo point, this dive is normally performed as an 18m profile. You descend in several drop offs, each about 3m, and reach the hole at about 13m.The hole is about 1.5m wide, covered with multicolored corals and crinoids. While scuba diving Puerto Galera, you will find this as a world class dive site.


The Canyons: An advanced dive site with 30m depth. Drop offs are covered in soft corals and sponges.You will find a variety including snappers, emperors, sweetlips, barracudas, jacks, trevallies and the occasional shark, that make this a high-light Dive. The dive ends at a large anchor embedded in the coral where the group can gather before being swept off before the safety stop, in the current.


The Atol: This large rock has several small crevices on the bottom side, reef sharks and stingrays have made these crevices home. On the other side the rock overhangs, it is a good place to explore with a flashlight. You will find eels, lionfish, nudibranchs and octopus. A large grouper also lives here and also the occasional larger pelagic fish. It is good for nitrox diving.


Shark Cave: It has a depth of 27m. It has a large overhang which is a favourite spot for white tip reef sharks. It’s also home to blue spotted stingrays, moray eels and octopus. This site is usually visited at the beginning of a multi-level dive to the Pink Wall or as a stop on the way to the canyons.


Pink Wall: It has a depth of 12m. A very pretty site with many corals. When dived on the correct tide, it is a paradise for photographers and beginners.


What to expect while scuba diving Puerto Galera

The conditions on many dive sites are pretty easy and therefore ideal to learn scuba diving. Puerto Galera is famous for its drift dives along the beautiful walls.
Since Puerto Galera is considered as warm water diving area, 3 mm thick wet suits are the norm. The tide exchange is from a few centimetres up to 2 meters. For scuba diving Puerto Galera, selection of the dive sites depends on the tidal exchange and the slack tides, which is an important part of dive planning.
The currents which is common in the area are often brisk and unpredictable.
You will find gentle currents in most of the local dive sites ideal for training. It is fierce in the straits in the channels between the Islands.
The Verde Island Passage is known as the “centre of the centre” of the world’s marine biodiversity. Life enhancing nutrients from the Pacific and waters of the South China Sea mix together. Underneath the surface are vivid reef formations which consists more than 300 species of corals. It also has underwater rock canyons that host nearly 60 percent of the world’s known shore fish species. It is described as the marine counterpart of the Amazon River basin,” by World Conservation Union. The passage is at the peak of the “Coral Triangle” that consists of the Sulawesi and the Sulu Seas in the southern Philippines and nearby Indonesia.


Other things to do and see in Puerto Galera

Apart from scuba diving Puerto Galera, you can indulge in other activities like sailing, kayaking, sunset cruises, beach hopping, volleyball, golfing, snorkeling, banana boat, trekking, buggies and motorcycle rentals and even paintball. There is also a zip-line in the area.

 

Best times to visit Puerto Galera

It is possible to dive all year round in Puerto Galera. The visibility ranges from 10m to 30m depending on the season and the tide.
The best time to dive is from April to September. During this period you will enjoy great visibility, good sea conditions and warm water.
During winter and especially in December, the water temperature is much colder with minimum around 23°C on certain dive sites.

 

Mawlynnong, The cleanest village that transformed my opinions 360 degrees about North-East


Till 2016, I considered of northeast India as poorer China, where people eat noodles and momo and lead an unhygienic lifestyle. My premonition grew from the pupils of north-east who comes down to study in urban centres, a considerable part of them living in Kolkata (that’s the closest metropolitan city to northeast India). If I wouldn’t have travelled to the north-east, which I wasn’t particularly eager upon, but ended up travelling alone, I would have never known about the jewelled beauty of our land. Now when I consider, I feel embarrassed about my subjective attitude and the way we treat north-east India as a detached body from the full country. Many other touristy places in India is not preserved well, and it doesn’t make me extremely honoured to claim, it’s often, we Indians who are culpable for causing dirt and transforming the place into a commercial hub. I was thinking the same for the North-East, but I was left dumbfounded and appalled. In my North-East trip, I explored Arunachal Pradesh which was a complete pleasure for the eyes and mind. But the place that left me to reevaluate my opinions, instilled me to explore more of real India and altered the traveller in me is Mawlynnong in Meghalaya. I was an Indian who was a touristy person and was more keen on travelling overseas. The charm of the place, the beauty of people and their drive to keep the place clean brought an upheaval in me. I commenced travelling the rural India to explore it and to understand the real country beyond cities, urbanization. This inspired me to encourage responsible travelling. A tourist transformed into a traveller. But yes this is not about me. This is about Mawlynnong, a village in East Khasi Hills district of the state of Meghalaya, India. It was awarded the “Cleanest Village in Asia” in 2003 and till date, it has retained the recognition of its award.

After spending few days in Shillong, I could not wait to reach and spend some time in this village, away from the urban jungle. I had heard a lot about the two-tier living root bridge but it takes 4 hours to trek down. My schedule was tight. I wasn’t informed, there was another single tier living root bridge at Mawlynnong. When I reached, the first thing I wanted to have breakfast. At a dead-end and there were two small huts. I was sipping water from a mineral water bottle. When I wound up, a boy turned and gently advised me of putting the bottle in a waste bin located near. I was dumbfounded by his attention and sensitivity. Then he escorted me inside the village. I walked on the cobbled road flanked with thatched Khasi huts and moved past the gardens adorned with colourful blooms. Not only is this the cleanest village but one of the prettiest that I have seen. To keep the village clean there is a bamboo basket outside every house. I was greeted warmly in the guest house made of bamboo. The best part was I was in a digital detoxification mode amidst the luxury of nature, there was no internet. After my lunch, I went out for a walk and hiked down to the most spectacular natural bridges made of roots of gigantic rubber tree. The roots make a pathway cross a stream. The hardy roots have grown to form a cantilevered and intertwined mesh helping villagers to commute. I was astounded to be face-to-face with one of the living root bridges. This place is also kept clean and I was in awe to see kids walking up and down removing fallen leaves and carrying water bottles for hikers. What took me 45 mins to hike up back to the village, took less than 30 mins for the kids. They guided me back to the village because it started raining. I realise it’s the simplicity and the warmth of the people that make Mawlynnong special. They were beaming with happiness while serving me early dinner of rice, dal, potato and red chillies.Cleanliness is a way of life here. All houses have functional washrooms, plastic bags are banned, smoking is prohibited. The rules are strictly followed and defaulters are charged heavily. The village gets its own manure which is converted from the garbage dug into a pit. People not only keep their houses clean, they step out to sweep roads and plant trees, which is a part of their lifestyle. I was surprised in a very pleasant way to know, here the children of the family get their mother’s surname and the wealth is passed down from the mother to the youngest daughter of the family. It’s a living example of women empowerment and the village has acquired 100 percent literacy rate.Since this village is on the India-Bangladesh border, we are able to view the landscapes of Bangladesh as well from the place. They have constructed an 85 feet high viewing tower, but what’s special is the tower is made of bamboo and you will be overwhelmed with breathtaking views.What we expect in an urban society, but fail to achieve, Mawlynnong has achieved it all. There is cleanliness and there is simplicity. It teaches you a way of life. It makes you think. It instils the urge in you to achieve what you dream of. The only thing that I left the place with is respect. The trip and the place lingered in my mind for days. If India is so beautiful and simple, the one that I have always craved for, I need to explore each and every part of it. This journey not only changed my mindset about North-East India but also as a person. I am not only in awe of the beauty of the place but I have become a traveller, travelling to the remotest corners of India, discovering it like never before. In my later posts, I will tell you stories about the unseen India, which is more than the crowded streets, the colourful markets and the Taj Mahal. And most importantly, the visit to this place, Mawlynnong, had given me the drive to promote responsible travelling in different parts of India. You may ask me what is responsible travelling, by responsible travelling I mean :

• Pack your bags with environmentally friendly things. Carry as little plastic as possible.
• Do not leave behind any non-biodegradable waste.
• What you wear has an impact – environmentally and culturally – dress ethically and appropriately.
• Respect the local culture and refrain from physical intimacy in public places.
• Carry a good water bottle. Purified drinking water is available at homestays and hotels for filling your bottles. Refrain from buying numerous plastic mineral water bottles.
• Local food is great. Try it as much as possible and avoid packaged food. Ask for modifications in the food according to your taste, instead of wasting it.
• Avoid excessive consumption of alcohol and refrain from drugs, especially in public places.
• Seek permission before photographing people, so their privacy is respected.
• Do not pluck any medicinal plants & flowers, and do not disturb the wildlife. It’s a broad concept. In my other stories, you will read about it more. The main concern of mine is zero-waste living and travelling.

Mawlynnong not only mesmerises you with its natural beauty but also in its endeavour to maintain one.I am sure, most European countries and other developed nations strive and achieve in doing so. But India is an overpopulated nation, still is behind in the race. But if you have a will there is a way. This place is the example for that. To those who fear of travelling to India because of its crowd, pollution and waste littering everywhere, we are working towards responsible travelling and if you want to visit the real India, life in its truest form, put your guards down and travel, I promise, you will want to visit again.

Off-beat Destinations in Himachal Pradesh: A home has a heartbeat

You cannot turn people into homes. This myth got busted while travelling to the off-beat destinations in Himachal Pradesh. I always thought people are rivers, ever changing, ever flowing. During my recent travel, I learnt homes do have a heartbeat.

  • Experience peace & tranquility while living in the lap of nature at Kotgarh

This little village is the perfect interlude from the city as well as the over crowded hill stations during the summers. Kotgarh is the heart of Himachal’s Apple Orchard Country, it is where the famous Samuel Stokes began the apple boom. It is about 70 Km ahead of the state capital, Shimla and about 15kms from Narkanda, which is famous for skiing during the winters. The further you move ahead of Shimla, you realize that you have left the tourists far behind and reached a peaceful region with astounding views all around. Surrounded by apple orchards, and the simplicity of village life, Apple Orchard Homestay at Kotgarh offers all the urban comforts that we city dwellers are accustomed yet maintaining its old world charm.

There are  tastefully done wooden cottages, each with a shared long balcony overlooking the apple orchards and a breathtaking view of the mountains. I had spent hours just sitting in the balcony and gazing into horizon. There is a suite with an attic and a room in the old house as well.

A common dining room below one of the wooden cottage rooms serves delicious meals cooked by the homestay helps in the supervision of Meenakshi.

Breakfasts are typically a hearty affair with a range of juices, paranthas, eggs, sandwiches, sausages/baked beans. One can also have puri- aloo etc on prior request.

Lunches are served on prior intimation as most travellers prefer to explore the region during the day and usually end up eating out.

Dinner is again a lavish affair and one non-vegetarian dish is served along with the usual Indian vegetarian food.

Bonfires are also arranged for groups to escape the evening chill.

One can choose to spend time hiking on short treks around the village or just live the village life. I spent time chatting with your hosts over tea, meeting the village folks and learning about their simple yet happy lives. The village of Kotgarh has quite a few heritage sites to visit, like the Oldest Missionary School, Heritage Church Building, Oldest Hospital, Oldest Apple Valley.

You may indulge yourself in the activities:

  1. Short treks
  2. Picnic in the scenic regions
  3. Trip/Trek to Hatu peak
  4. Plucking fruits (Seasonal)
  5. Bird watching
  6. Reading/ Writing/ Painting

 Minimal pesticides and chemicals are used in the apple orchards, vegetables used in meals are sourced from local growers/ neighbors. Rain water harvesting is practiced at the homestay. Garbage and waste is separated into bio degradable and non-biodegradable waste before disposal. Local people are employed at the orchard for the upkeep of the orchards as well as the homestay. Meenakshi, the hostess is also actively involved in promoting local produce like jams and pickles, dried apples etc. I bought a few to savor the taste of the mountains for a long time after my trip.

 

  • Recharge yourself at a quaint little village hidden in the mountains of Himachal

The Village homestay at Fagu, is a home to witness the traditional Himachali lifestyle, to taste the authentic delicacies and to take a break from your city life and enjoy with a splendid view of the Himalayas.

The homestay is divided into two parts, the traditional and the recently renovated one. The host family itself lives in the traditional house which is about 80 years old. The old house is attached to the newer renovated portion that houses travellers by a hallway lined up windows to let the sunlight in. There are three rooms for accommodating travellers. The interiors of the rooms are tastefully done by locally found wood and stone. The mud room has walls done up in mud and thereby providing breathing walls. The rooms are spacious with a row of windows to let the sunlight in. The homestay is abundant with milk, buttermilk, ghee and the likes thanks to the cows owned by the family. The hostess Ritu is an expert when it comes to traditional Himachali dishes like Siddu and Patanda. The local cuisine is served if one is willing to indulge in local delicacies. Otherwise, simple yet delicious vegetarian dishes are served. Depending on the season, self-grown vegetables like cabbage, cauliflower, peas, etc are served in the meals. The homestay is situated in the village of Cheog and is just on the outskirts of the forest that occupies most of the region. A scenic part-road part-dirt track of about 30 Kms in is the most exciting activity one can indulge in on cycles. Some other activities that one can consider while at the homestay are:

  • Visit Narkanda for Ice Skiing in winters.
  • Hill stations Kufri and Shimla are a short drive away.
  • Horse Riding on tracks in the nearby jungle.
  • Visit ancient temples of Tungish and Dharech.
  • Picnic in grasslands near the homestay.

It was an experience of a life time while staying at home Stay in Fagu. Wonderful property but more than anything else it was the generosity and hospitality of the host family that made the short vacation memorable.

Karam Singh, the host, is popularly known in the village “Highlander” The history behind the title takes you back in time when Karam Singh’s father and grand father took part in the freedom struggle. Because of his progressive farming techniques and efforts Karam Singh is a major contributor to the development of the area.

His son Sohan Singh Thakur is a social activist and an ex-Zila Parishad member.

Both father and son with the help of co-villagers have put the village on the world map as the largest contributor to the production of vegetable in Theog Tehsil.

The homestay rooms meant for travellers have been made from recycled or locally sourced stone and wood.

This off-beat destination will charm you endlessly.

 

  • Rejuvenate your senses at this hidden retreat in Dhauladhar Himalayas

The Lodge, Palampur is an eco-friendly home in the middle of a beautiful tea estate. You will love living with the hosts on a working tea estate, knowing about tea and eating delicious meals cooked from local and homegrown produce.

Wah Tea Estate has been part of the Prakash family since 1953. The previous owner, Sir Sikandar Hayat–Khan was the son of the Nawab of ‘Wah’, a town in Pakistan, from which the estate derives its name. The estate is one of the largest manufacturers of tea in the Kangra region. The teas are completely pesticide free, and carefully hand–plucked.
The Lodge came into existence when the owners decided to build themselves a home at the estate They were inspired by the local artisan’s craftsmanship with mud, wood and stone and decided to put their skill to use. The river stone and slate is hand chiseled and crafted to give it the feel of the local Kangra architecture. The bricks used to build the cottages are from the mud which was excavated when the foundation was being built. These bricks are all naturally dried in the sun. Even the white colour of the walls has been done with a natural formula, after extensive research on homes around the world.
The wood used at the lodge is originally from the Old Palampur Courthouse, which was demolished to be rebuilt a few years ago. Roof lining details, banisters from witness stands, and even whole doors and windows are originally from the Old Courthouse. Rest of the wood is pine and cedar from the Estate, in place of which multiple trees were planted.

Meals are an intimate affair at the Lodge. Almost everything served is grown organically in the kitchen garden or the green house which is a short walk into the tea estate from the Lodge. Get ready to bite into healthy as well as delicious meals from different cuisines. From local Himachali dham to continental baked chicken to a wholesome south Indian meal! And not to forget, never ending cups of tea originating from the estate was all around me! Guests can share any dietary requirements and the hosts strive to cater to guests preferences for all meals.

Palampur is at a distance of 250 Km from Chandigarh in the Kangra region of Himachal Pradesh and is famous for its tea plantations. One can see the Dhauladhar range of the Himalayas from here and enjoy a host of activities in and around it. Listed below are a few of the activities that one can indulge in this off-beat destination while staying at the lodge.

  1. Visit the tea factory
  2. Tea tasting session at the tea estate
  3. Paragliding at Bir-Billing
  4. Treks at Triund, Billing and Barot, with options for overnight tented stays
  5. Visit Andretta, a village world famous for pottery and Sobha Singh’s art gallery
  6. Try your hands at the potter’s wheel at Andretta
  7. Angling at Barot
  8. Picnic near the river
  9. Cycling tour of the Estate
  10. Cricket or badminton at The Lodge at Wah
  11. Board games at The Lodge at Wah

The Prakash’s are highly inclined towards eco-friendly practices both at the lodge as well as in the Tea Estate. The Lodge was built with the aim of providing a luxurious stay in the tea estate without harming the environment in any way. The villas at The Lodge are made of mud, slate and wood. The food prepared at the lodge is locally grown. Most ingredients are from the kitchen garden and the green house, both of which are completely organic.

The hosts also invest in cooperative farming, the tea estate workers have been given plots of land and seeds to grow their own produce. Only what is needed for The Lodge (less than 10% of what they grow) is requested from them, rest is for them to sell or use as they see fit. The Lodge has also provided for job opportunities for the locals. All the workers in the garden, kitchen and housekeeping are from the neighboring villages and have been trained on the job by the hosts and the manager, Nikita Patel.

To know about more experiences at these off-beat destinations, Stay Tuned!!

If you want to experience it yourself and plan your journey, visit http://pheritales.com/d-i-y-journeys/

 

P.S: Some information has been sourced from different websites on the internet.

 

 

 

 

Where Days are made of Sun, Sand and Sea

Sun kissed beaches lined up with white sand, turquoise shaded transparent sea water, minimal human intervention and activity, far ahead of any competition of what you call paradise.

Lakshadweep islands are a group of 36 coral islands. For all those who aren’t travelling by cruise, Agatti is basically the entry gate to Lakshadweep. The airport which is one of the smallest I’ve ever seen is one of the most charming you’ll ever see. At times, beauty lies in small things, doesn’t it? As the aircraft descends, you get a feeling that it will land on the water, so close is the beach from the strip of runway. You can see the waves breaking down and forming lagoons. It’s beautiful, to say the least. I wanted to sail on a cruise but I didn’t prefer taking one because then your itinerary is scheduled.

From Agatti, I took a speedboat ride to one of the other islands and chose the Kadmat Island as the destination solely because they have a diving school and my intention was to do just that. The more the hardship while travelling, the more beautiful the destination appears. The speedboat ride from Agatti to Kadmat was worse than any experience on the most convoluted roller coaster ever designed. It’s difficult to describe a journey where you are being tossed in every conceivable direction every minute. But I got there! Finally! I could sit there for ages looking at them and may be would free the anchor someday and let them sail away. The first sight of Kadmat was breath taking; I approached the island just prior to sunset. Clear turquoise, rather almost green, waters calmly embraced the pure white sands. Every few moments the waters came and hugged the sand with joy, only to depart with a pang of separation, but with the hope to be back to spend some time with the shore. As this game of hide and seek went on between the waves and the shore, I disembarked on what turned out to be the most picturesque jetty that I have seen in my lifetime.

Nowadays on a holiday like this one, I prefer getting up before the sun rises. I did that on the first day morning and saw an enthralling sunrise with is orange-red reflection making the ocean look as if on fire. The increasing warmth of the sun in the background and some wonderful dry branches on the shore made for some amazing pictures. After breakfast, on our first morning, I was all set for our first dive of the trip. Pure enticing waters and a promise of colourful marine life were enough motivation for me to overcome the little fear that had settled in as I had not dived for about 18 months. The oxygen tanks, the buoyancy control device and the amazing divers all set with their dive watches tuned for another dive made us more restless as we took our boat ride 45 minutes into the ocean. My instructor Shamsuddin, rattled all the instructions I was supposed to follow without considering how nervous I was. Reminded me of the time when I was teaching a tough skill procedure to some of my team members in Accenture, and how narrow my tolerance was for their fear. When you are geared up and in water, there comes a command from the dive master to go down. At that point, I deflated the life jacket and allowed my weight to take me down. The descend requires you to adapt your breathing style and keep equalising the increasing pressure on your ear drums. Once the first few seconds pass, you open your eyes to the surrounding. The first glimpses are of all the little things that live under water. The fish are colourful, to say the least. Several are named after animals, so you have the leopard fish, the tiger fish etc, but what took our breath away was the large turtles that gracefully swam past us, as if to show us that big can be beautiful too.

On some of our dives, we saw spiky lobsters, the spikes of which resembled my childhood hairstyle. The schools of fish too seemed to be busy going about their daily business. I have still not understood why they swim a few feet one way and then turn back to return to the point of origin. I feel they play out the choreographed dance steps from time to time. In one of those silent moments under water I looked up to the sky from the ocean floor and I saw the fish shimmering in the rays of the subdued filtered out the sun. Even the sun does not like to be harsh on these underwater creatures. At that point, everything seemed to be in slow motion. You know your time under water is limited to the amount of oxygen in your tank and those few minutes you want to see as much as you can and more than that try your best to remember everything you see.

On the last dive, we went to this dive site called “The Wall”. It was a dive in which I started on the mountain peak under water that had a steep 20 feet fall into the valley. It was great to be under water but at the top of the mountain at the same time, falling down into the valley full of beautiful creatures. Buoyancy control is the name of the game under water. You have to strike a balance between floating up and sinking further down, almost like how we do it in real life on land. You don’t let your failures take you down and the success to make you rise up so much that your feet don’t touch the ground.

Good friends can share a lot of silence with each other very comfortably. I made few friends while diving for those few days. There were few travellers from Portugal and Mexico. When we came up from our dives generally for a few minutes no one talked after the pleasantries are exchanged. Each one got lost into reminiscent images of the beauty witnessed underwater.

My thoughts usually get more philosophical and these are the times I question the reason of my existence, the purpose of my life. The answer is usually very harsh as my inner voice tells me that in this big universe I am too small to take myself so seriously. I think my purpose now is to ‘just be’ and travel as much as I can to see the natural designs that are attributed to be of divine origin.

Kayaking into the glorious colourful sunset was an activity I have never done before. In Kadmat, the evening invited us to spend the time rowing towards the setting sun that only looked humble as it got ready to be engulfed by the water. It surprises me every time how the harsh beating sun can be humbled by the passage of the day, a quality many of us humans should learn. We had our snorkels with us, so we took a dip into the water to observe some superficial corals with their rich marine inhabitants. The bright pink colours of the live corals were, fortunately, better than the grayscale corals I had seen at Andamans. I was surprised to see so much beauty just a few feet under water. The fish must be finding us humans so colourless, with our shapes really funny and sounds that we make while breathing must be a pain to their ears. I saw some of the fish looking condescendingly at me, just the way I would look at an intruding stranger in my world.

So our days went by, from waking up before sunrise to see the hope of a new day unfold in front of our eyes, taking our morning dives and being impressed with all that we saw, to having some great simple local seafood for lunch (and during dinner we ate the fish we caught) with a relaxing afternoon nap and then as the universe gets energised to call it a day, we sat on the beach with some warm conversations and saw the beautiful sunset scenes orchestrated in front of our eyes. As the darkness of the night took over we laid there on the beach and looked at the stars in the busy sky, trying to make sense of the subtle messages we receive from them.

On our last morning, we went on a tour to see the Kadmat Island. The tour was over in 2 hours. We found the North end of the island rocky with the smallest lighthouse on the shore I have ever seen. It was almost as if the light house was in hiding, trying to prevent people in the sea from finding Kadmat. The highlight of the tour was the wonderful hospitality we received at the house of the tour operator with some local sweet dishes and a special item called coconut apple.

At the far end from where I was, I saw some of my friends talk to each other and a few minutes later as the sun bid us the last goodbye for the trip, I saw them get up to leave; as they did that, they left their soul there. I did the same and walked back to my room to pack up, the next morning will see us depart from Kadmat and arrive at the cacophony of the mundane, materialistic city life. I still feel great reaching home, I know I will rest and travel soon again.

 

 

 

What travellers don’t tell you about coming back home

“There’s nothing half so pleasant as coming back home again.”

In my childhood, I loved Calcutta, today better known as Kolkata, the city I have grown up in. The city had grown with me too. I grew up nurtured by its old world charm. In my teenage years, I wanted to escape from this place. And so I did. In my 20’s, I didn’t appreciate the pace at which the city was moving, neither its work culture nor its efforts to westernise, the pattern did not match its rhythm of its history. Looking for a city that I can call home, I have been a nomad, travelled far and wide, and lived out of a suitcase. In my 30s, I am re-discovering Kolkata and falling in love with every part and even cracks of it, finding it back like a lost lover, catching up with the years lost by, and falling for the way it’s evolving, still maintaining its old world charm, that I have seen while growing up. I have found my old love in a completely new song.

I went to study in Chennai, I worked in Bangalore. And when I quit my job, I travelled across India and other far-flung places. I never thought I would come back to Kolkata. Yes, I would have come back, to see my parents, who are settled here, to meet my family, to meet my old friends from school. But in the wildest of my dreams, I  did not imagine to come back to the city, falling in love with it again and travelling within it, lanes after lanes. Everyday, waking up to a new sun under the same sky, it is like resting my head on the old familiar pillow. I found the lap of Kolkata. I realised it’s a funny thing. It seemed Kolkata was waiting for me. Actually no. It wasn’t waiting for me. Everything is same, looks same, feels same, and smells same. What has changed is me. Every time I travel, I come back home to appreciate it more.

I returned to Kolkata, struggling with everything and even my Bengali to communicate.  It wasn’t comfortable. It even did hurt. But, now, every time I travel, I take something of Kolkata with me. And I leave something behind, hopefully good.

There is an informality about the way people interact with each other and there is a casual acceptance and friendliness that you don’t see outside this place. You can walk into a shop and people will laugh and joke with you as if they know you. I feel a real sense of connection with the place. I can go back to my ancestral village near Kolkata and walk the same dusty path that my great-grandfather probably walked on and that gives me a sense of being rooted. The mornings are early and the evenings are late. And in the day, the auntie next door smells what’s cooked in our kitchen, and knows for sure we have a guest today. When clothes have not been hung for drying in my neighbour’s balcony my mom’s intuition never goes wrong that their maid is absent. She sends a box full of a dish that’s been cooked for our lunch. Where do you get such love that’s so unconditional, though a little barging affair at times. In the bus, the passenger next to you will almost take your shoulder granted to be as his pillow. In the train, the old uncle would ask for your newspaper and forget to return to you, as if it was his. Initially, all these bothered me and bothered me a lot. I realised, now I have found innocence and warmth in these behaviour patterns and accept this pattern as much as I accept the iconic heritages of the city.

I wake up at 5o’ clock in the morning to travel to the other end of the city in a bus, something I would not do ten years back. I detested taking a bus ride. I like to see the lung power of men, in the wake of the dawn, travelling from one end to the other, to fetch their daily needs. I sit at the Mullick Bazaar Ghats,(one of the famous flower markets near the river Ganga and Howrah Bridge) most of the times turning my face away when people answer nature’s call. But nowhere on earth sunrise is as beautiful as it is here, blooming out like a hidden gem from the lap of the river and rising softly kissing the bridge and leaving it to glitter. I hate city rains; I hate how the puddles leave marks on my trousers and skirts till my hips when I walk. Yet, it’s a weekend regime for me to go to Maidan (the largest urban park in Kolkata) to sit under the open sky, rest my ears on the green grass and hear them beat. If people complain about the polluted metropolitan cities they need some detoxification, they need some dosage of this place after the rains splash the city and leave it drenched in all shades of green. I take the leisurely tram journeys and get down at the old vintage houses in North Kolkata. I cannot stop mesmerising at the colonial houses from the British times, look at their architecture like an awestruck traveller, the verandas, the pillars, the red-cemented floors, the shuttered windows. I start a friendly conversation with the elderly person in the house and welcome myself to their abode over a cup of tea and lots of stories and legends. Like a kid, I often vanish to Nahoum’s, the legendary Jewish bakery in town. The best part about Kolkata is its food. From chicken cutlets to fish fries, to the traditional luchi, alurdom (deep fried flatbread with potato curry), to the lip-smacking phuckas (round, hollow puri, fried crisp and filled with a mixture of flavoured water), the array of street food stalls never stops luring me. I find a cheat day, every other day to treat myself to these gastronomical wonders.

The hand pulled rickshaws in Kolkata are British heritage in India’s colonial treasure. Irrespective of the stories of the inhumanity of city’s unbarred use of man-powered rickshaws, tourists regard it as a cultural icon along with the famous Howrah Bridge and Victoria Memorial. Yes, they are my favourite too. But the more I fall in love with the city, the more I feel like contributing for my love towards the city. With collaborative efforts of few talented and thriving souls, I am stepping into an initiative and drive ‘Aamar Sohor‘ (My City). This initiative includes photo series, capturing the growth and decay of the city, appreciating imperfect, impermanent and incomplete, a journey of transience and imperfection, finding beauty in everything that is Kolkata. I do not want the millennial generation to grow up without knowing and enjoying the parts of Kolkata that I loved while growing up. I feel sad when I see most of their lives revolve around gadgets and malls. I want to show them the Kolkata through the eyes of the one who calls Kolkata home, even after travelling the world. And with all these we will be promoting responsible travelling in Kolkata, spreading awareness about keeping the city in a zero-waste condition, doing our bit in beautification and taking care of city’s icons like the tram, the vintage buildings, its monuments and its local artists. You can find that being updated through my works over time. I will be happy sharing those stories.

Coming back to my city, if you ask me my favourite place in the city, it’s the Ghats in the city, the Outram Ghat, the Prinsep Ghat, that witness the flowing of river Ganga through time and tide. This place creates the same wonders for me what 3D movies do to the kids of this generation. I grew up visiting these places every Sunday, like a ritual in my childhood. I practise the ritual even today. Travellers tell you, they return home either finding it awkward to adjust to the life there or they return home valuing it more. I say, we, travellers evolve. Seeing the beauty and the ugly in our journeys, make us more tolerant and grateful. At least, it has happened to me. Do you like smelling a new book?? For me, falling in love with Kolkata, after every journey, is like smelling a new book, falling in love with a long-distant lover. Do you love your hometown? I am curious if you have rediscovered yourself and your place over time.

The North-East India changed my patriotism

Before March 2016, I haven’t been to any part of North-East India. I was with a premonition that it’s more or less like a poorer China, where people use imported products, eat noodles and momos, has an unhygienic lifestyle. I was completely judgemental. Now, when I think, I am embarrassed by myself and my hypocrisy. If I wouldn’t have taken this trip, I would not have experienced, what I now call, the best part of India. This was completely a life-changing experience for me. Though I always travelled, you can say, this is what literally pushed me to explore travelling.

In March 2016, I was supposed to take a family vacation to Arunachal Pradesh. I was reluctant in the beginning, given my narrow judgment about the place. But my family insisted and I agreed. I was in a pathetic state of mind, due to personal setbacks. I wasn’t much interested in the planning of the trip. The only contribution of mine was going to Arunachal Bhawan and getting the Inner Line Permit and permit to visit Bum La Pass.  As Arunachal Pradesh falls under restricted area, official permission is required to enter the state. There are two kinds of official permits prescribed by Government for entering into any area within Arunachal Pradesh. They are:

  • Inner Line Permit (ILP) and
  • Protected Area Permit (PAP)

The Inner Line Permits are required by Indians other than natives of Arunachal Pradesh for entering into any place in Arunachal Pradesh. All the foreigners are required have the Protection Area Permit or PAP for entering into Arunachal Pradesh.

Later, due to unavoidable circumstances, my family could not make it, but now, I wanted to escape from my situation and I wanted to take the holiday. Everyone warned me of the road conditions, the weather conditions and health hazards I might face at a high altitude. I could not have listened to anything because all I knew was, I wanted to breathe under a new sky, I needed some fresh air. I insisted and took a leap of faith.

Though I had a minimum expectation of some wonder, I took the flight to Guwahati and then hopped into the pre-booked cab from there to head to Bomdila. Bomdila is located in the northwestern part of the state of Arunachal Pradesh. It is set amongst the mighty Himalayas at an altitude of 2,530 m above sea level. When I reached Bomdila it was six in the evening and it was very cold. Nothing could be seen around and I wasn’t even curious. I got into my room at the circuit house and wanted to sleep after a tiring road journey. It was chill, piercing my bones. Blankets and heater weren’t enough to keep me warm. Moreover, the dogs were barking the whole night. I didn’t manage a good sleep. I already decided that the journey ahead was going to be pathetic like the state of my mind.

Next morning when I woke up to some nice fog laced with sweet sunshine, my mood changed. I was pleasantly surprised to see the small town adorned with colourful flowers at every household. The smiling faces of the people touched my heart. It was like the magic hour, where everything transformed for the better and I was then looking forward to the journey.

Feeling the fresh air, whirling up around my face and hair, we headed towards Tawang, the mountain town in Asia and the smallest of the 16 administrative districts in Arunachal Pradesh. As our car, criss-crossed through winding hills, I kept humming my old favourite song,

“Almost heaven,…

Blue Ridge Mountains

Shenandoah River,

Life is old there

Older than the trees

Younger than the mountains

Blowing like the breeze

Take me home, country roads”

And I knew, I was struck by pixie dust.

There were hardly another car or people on the road because there was no civilization on the way and the season for the tourists was yet to start. When I reached Tawang, it was already dark. The caretaker at the circuit house informed that it had snowed last night. The weather was better and colder than normal. The best part was it was not raining.

Next morning was lit by gorgeous sunshine, could see the mountains clad in fog and the peaks shining with glitters of sun rays. I had never experienced a better weather. ‘You are fortunate. It’s a cold day but a bright one.’ Exclaimed the care taker. He insisted to pack my lunch for the day and when I refused he said ‘You won’t find anything up there.’ I keep myself stocked with dry food so I did not worry. We headed toward Bum La Pass. Roads were free, the only place we had to stop was to show the permit. The best part was, Kalikacharan, the person who was driving me around is a shy person, did not speak much unless asked. It allowed me to soak in the beauty of nature and my thoughts. As the rugged hills changed into snow covered mountains, I was enthralled like a child seeing a black forest cake in front of me. All I could see was frozen lakes and snow clad mountains. My mind was cart-wheeling with joy. I was missing my family and was disheartened for the experience they were missing. There was nothing on the way apart from army camps. I have been to other mountain towns, but this place is unbelievably beautiful. Untouched, pristine and paradise on earth it is. Bumla Pass is one of the four official border meeting posts between India and China and about 40 km from Tawang. It’s at 15,200 ft above sea level. It boasts of an army regiment at the highest altitude in the world. I was filled with pride. When I reached there, the army officers welcomed me with a lot of care. They briefed us about the history, the stories of the place, the wars, and the memorials that make it memorable. They even treated me to some hot paranthas and tea. I used their washroom. I mention this here because I was surprised that the water in the commode was frozen. At such critical conditions, our army officers fight not only with enemies but basic needs, to ensure that we Indians are safe. Respect was the only thing that I was filled with. I could not thank them enough for giving me company. I was heading back to Tawang filled with pride and humbleness. On the way, road construction work was taking place. We had to wait two hours, to move the car, but to my astonishment, I wasn’t restless and anxious. I felt evolved as a human and I could spend hours by the lakes and sitting on the rocks, looking at the bare mountains. I wanted to stock my eyes and memories with as much of nature’s bounty, as much I could.

I reached Tawang by four in the afternoon. I went around the town. I was seeing North-East India in a new light.  The town is kept so clean, no litter and waste, that I was embarrassed about my mindset. Next day, while heading back to Bomdila, the rugged hills transformed into a wonderland. It was Christmas in March. It was snowing. On my way back, we stopped at Sela Pass. At an elevation of 4170 m, windy, enjoying the landscape there is once in a lifetime experience.Blue water lakes surrounded by snow mountains and echoing tales of legends and patriotism, this place romances you with a charm unseen. It’s truly said, “When you want something, all the universe conspires in helping you to achieve it.” I wanted things in my life to change and it changed me and my perceptions for better. This trip showed me a new world, an India that made me proud, it has made me tolerant as a person and it has pushed me more into travelling, travelling more of India.

After Tawang, I visited Meghalaya, which amazed me, but you have to wait for another day to hear about the wonders there.

It’s 7 o’clock somewhere…….

I have an insane calling to be at places I’m not. When it’s 2300 hours on my watch and I am tucked in my bed, I think it is 7 o’clock in the morning somewhere. How would the sunrise be there!! How would be the clouds floating across from one mountain to the other!!

When I see travel images, read about them, like the other day I was reading about Lorvy’s visit to Cameron Highlands, Roni’s Batanes trip, Michelle’s story of the village of JB sea gypsies, Ana travelling to a non-english speaking country, I was imagining myself there. I slip into the place through the frame of words and images.

Imagine stepping through the frame into a phosphene-tinted haze, where you could sit at the cafe, by the road and watch the locals passing by; who lives there, grazing eye with few of them perhaps locking a smile and nodding your head as a gesture, looking up at the same moon, the same air. I think I often go through such an obscure feeling. It’s like getting nostalgic, but with a much more stronger feeling, because you know you have never lived the life and that life you do not know if is going to come to you ever. Now research suggests that this is the case for music, too, but with a twist. And I am musically challenged. So for me, it’s not music but everything else.

I miss teas I haven’t tasted,
I miss hands I haven’t had the chance to hold,
And tears I never cried.
I miss dreams I don’t remember,
And things that flickered out of sight.
I miss the hours of sleep I’ve lost,
And flowers that I have not smelt.
I miss pictures I never took,
And dreams that I let die.
I miss places I haven’t been to yet,
And the things that I didn’t try.
I miss many things,

That I wish could be mine.
I miss many, many things,
That I have never tried.
I miss everything I don’t know,

When I will ever have.

This is kind of an obscure sorrow, I feel as a traveller. Some suggest this is called “anemoia”. But “anemoia” is a stronger sorrow for things you know you will never ever experience. Do any of you relate to my sorrow??

Well, this kind of sorrows don’t make me melancholic, it makes me long, something that you call far-sickness. As a traveller we often experience what is best described a far-sickness. Our whole being craves the mountains, the sea, the sunshine between the trees in the forests of the Earth, even if we don’t know what to expect from the landscapes and the cultures themselves. We long for moments and experiences and are filled with the need to discover all that all the molecules in our body can soak up.

I suffer from far-sickness of two types, for places I have not been and for places I have already travelled.

When we experience different places and cultures and have them touch us in indescribable ways, that feeling stays with us. We can be sitting in a coffee shop a thousand miles away from Lyon, but its smells can still linger, its energy can still ignite. We could be in a completely different place, city, state, country, but the sights of Munich will still swirl within our blood like a vitality that will never cease to move us. What does dill-dally in every traveller’s heart is the distance, the love for those places that we have allowed to burrow within us like old friends.

There are different words for each of them in different languages, and they are beautiful without being translated into English. We can talk about those terms some other day for sure.

It’s not always during long distance relationships that you experience the craziness of time zone difference. As a traveller, I experience it even sitting at my home, thinking about, as I said “it’s 7 o’clock somewhere.” So, when I talk about love, I always do not refer it to a person, it’s the place, the travel or stories that I meet there, that I talk of. I start soaking up in the smell of the filter coffee brewed in Thailand and I wish, I woke up to a morning there. I start imagining myself sitting beside a wrecked boat on a lonely shore feeling the saltiness of the waves when I curl my toes. I get anxious to know the shade of orange of the sunrise in Iceland, I could smell the wine wafting through the air in French Riviera. When I was reading about Jan’s “A Love Affair with Vietnam’s Pho”, I was there, anxious about trying out an unfamiliar dish but enjoying as my taste buds were embracing each spoonful of the dish. On the day of the conference with Trisha Velarmino, and other fellow bloggers, it was 7 o’clock, in the evening IST. I was excited and fully devoted my concentration to the conference, but in the back of my mind, I was wondering what time would it be in Tel Aviv, Israel ?? Does that sound idiotic?? You can be thinking, we can always check that on google. But, yes, that’s how a traveller’s heart beats. How would 7 o’clock be at Noel’s place??

I am poor in Mathematics, but a traveller always knows to calculate the time of the other places at the back of the mind, and can smell the monsoon and see the autumn leaves changing its colour.

And how do I treat it?? I treat it by taking off to the place where the story started. I treat it by travelling. Soon, I will be away to treat my obscure feelings and will get in touch to tell you stories from there. For now, I would like to know, if any of you have an obscure sorrow??