Himachal Pradesh – Day 3 – Shimla

We took a nice long walk that morning exploring roads that lead onto smaller roads, going up windy bendy paths to sometimes end up where we started from. We passed cottages that form part of the hotel we were staying at. At times you come to a spot on your path from where you see just valleys and hills for miles around.

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After breakfast , we checked out of the Chail Palace and began our drive to Shimla. Time has wrought many changes in this old favourite holiday destination and the erstwhile Indian capital of the British conquerors. If you are looking for peace and quiet, this is not the place for you. Yet the bustling town holds much by way of historical import and some architectural structures are not worth missing when you are visiting the area. It would be a good idea to stay in the outskirts and take a day or two to look around.

On the way to Shimla, we’d decided to visit the zoo at Kufri. But it was closed that day and we made our way past scores of holiday-makers sitting aloft ponies that were to take them to a temple further uphill. We arrived at our room and as we were yet to have lunch, we headed towards the Mall.

The bustling Mall

The bustling Mall

The Mall, along with the Ridge, is popular for its shops and restaurants. It also has some old structures like the Gaiety Theatre, the Town Hall and the Library. The Christ Church on the Ridge is the second oldest church in North India. Vehicle entry is restricted in this area. So one has to walk along those steep sloping roads.

Time to pray - Christ Church

Time to pray – Christ Church

The amazing stained glass windows

The amazing stained glass windows

After lunch at Baljee’s, we walked to the Kali temple. Then we began our drive up to Jaku Hanuman temple. This temple boasts of a giant Hanuman statue that stands at 108 feet and can be seen from the Mall and most other places in Shimla. A diversion on the road led us onto narrow roads that were inconvenient when there was oncoming traffic. This was followed by a steep climb a flight of steps. The temple complex was definitely worth a dekko and the Hanuman statue is spectacular.

 

The library

The library

That evening, hubby and I went for a walk taking a steep path that led up to the main road. This part of town isn’t particularly suitable for that kind of walking and unless there is an absolute need for one to walk, it is avoidable. It was twilight by the time we returned and with no street lights to brighten up the paths, we tread carefully till we reached the room.

Note : Beware of monkeys in areas like these. We were warned not to make eye contact or carry anything in plastic packets.

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Himachal Pradesh – Chail – Day 2

The weather was perfect for a sleep in but instead I found myself awake well before 6 AM. This seemed to be the trend through out our stay in Himachal Pradesh. That morning, it was the monkeys that woke us up. They ran noisily on the roof and in a state of half sleep, I realised it was pretty bright for that time of the day. Hubby and I went for a short walk that morning, taking in the sights from the edge of the lawn from where we spotted Shimla looking like a miniature town. We were told by Ms.Chopra, whom we’d met the previous day that one should look in the evening after the sun has gone down and the lights have come on in that bustling town. Hopefully the evening would be a clear one.

The lobby of the Chail palace

The lobby of the Chail palace

After a heavy breakfast of stuffed parathas and chole bature, we took a drive up to the Chail Kali temple which is on one of the higher peaks. Look beyond the temple complex and you can see for miles around. An eagle swooped by towards its nest further away as we gazed at the neighbouring peaks and little towns.

View from the Chail temple

View from the Chail temple

Following a futile search for a wildlife reserve, we arrived at a breeding centre for the endangered cheer pheasant. Shy and timid by nature, few among the fledglings survive the frequent stormy weather that the region is exposed to. Out of every batch, as many as five or six chicks grow into adulthood. A blue bird much like the ragtail we saw in Aanavilasam flew past us as we left. We headed next to see the cricket ground which is supposedly the highest in the world. The ground though was closed for public and there were a few school children playing there just then. As we wove our way through the many narrow roads after the mornings visit, we saw the Chail palace at a distance.

The shy cheer pheasant

The shy cheer pheasant

It was now time for lunch. We landed at a very ordinary looking Soni Dabba in a little nearby town. The food here comes strongly recommended and after the first few bites it was not hard to see why. The owner of the dabba himself came to greet us. “No menu card,” he said when we asked. Could he just make the food, he asked and we said ‘why not?’. It took but a quarter of an hour for piping hot and delicious looking food to arrive at our table one after the other. There was chole (chickpeas in gravy), paneer(cottage cheese), black dal and a dry potato dish to be had with warm and fluffy phulkas that came straight out of a wood fire. I’d rate this wide but simple spread the best of that entire trip and one of the best we’ve ever had. The owner’s daughter sat and cooked in the adjoining area. I got to see the open wood stove (no pictures unfortunately).

Grub to die for at Soni Dabba

Grub to die for at Soni Dabba

Back in the hotel, I wanted to put my feet up and maybe catch a few winks. I retired to the room while the rest of the family went to the billiards room. I closed my eyes thinking of the many stories those walls must hold and the people who must have occupied these rooms in the days gone by and suddenly I was not sleepy anymore.

Sidh Baba temple with its pretty garden

Sidh Baba temple with its pretty garden

The weather was perfect for a cup of tea that evening. So we took a drive down and sipped on sweet masala ‘chais’ out of glass tumblers at Anand Bhojanalay. The samosas beckoned, but better sense prevailed and we let it pass. Then we drove from there to Sidh Baba temple, an ancient temple that dates back to the times of the Maharaja. There was immense peace to be found within the shrine and the garden surrounding it.Just outside the temple there is a water tank that was also built during the Maharaja’s time and still serves its purpose well. We spent the rest of the evening in the lawn until Ms.Chopra mentioned how she’d spotted a leopard in the morning on the way to the Chail Kali temple. We decided to try our luck. But when we reached the small lake by which the leopard had been sighted that morning, we only found a few locals hanging around there.

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After dinner hubby and I took a little walk and far away in the distance, one could see the twinkling lights of Shimla. It’s not just white light but sometimes you can also spot a red or a green or a yellow light winking from afar. Then I remembered to look up at the sky. The previous evening had been too cold and cloudy for that. The stars were out alright and I’d forgotten there were so many where the city lights of Mumbai subdue most of it.

And if a tree could tell its story

And there was a time and day in the lives of men when they didn’t know why the stars twinkled, why the moon waxed and waned or why the sun went to sleep every night. And it made them wonder and think and pray!

A beautiful end to a fascinating day

A beautiful end to a fascinating day

PS: Although a few locals said there was no wildlife reserve in the area, I believe there is one indeed (or so says many travel sites on the internet).

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Himachal Pradesh – Day 1- Chail

In all the time we’ve travelled I’ve never been to North India barring a visit a long time ago to attend an interview at New Delhi. We love Goa; Coorg is fabulous and Kerala has always been a favourite destination. But this once we single-mindedly focused our attention on what North India had to offer and the options and combinations were endless. After weighing the pros and cons, we zeroed in on Himachal Pradesh.

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Before I begin my account of our wonderful experience in that peaceful and gorgeous state, I’d like to mention that there were many people who helped in making this one of our most delightful vacations ever. A big thanks is due to everyone, right from the person who recommended our destination and those that took us around there, our skilled driver who kept us safe on some very scary roads and of course the preemptive set of homeopathic medicines that kept altitude-related discomfort at bay.

Our flight on the 25th morning of May was slightly bumpy. The seatbelt sign was on most of the time. Through the airplane window, we espied as we neared our destination, various mountain ranges.

“Are those the Sahyadaris?” Sid asked. I was not very sure. I never was very good with places and maps. And then we began our descent into Chandigarh, one of the first planned cities in India. As we left the airport, we drove past various army cantonment areas until we were on roads that twisted and turned making its way into the state of Himachal Pradesh and by the time we were halfway through to our destination we had already passed through the union territory of Chandigarh and the state of Haryana. When we set off from Chandigarh, it was hot. It was still warm most of the time as we slowly ascended the hilly state of HP.

Mid-way, we stopped for a lunch at Gyani Dabba. A dabba is a place that serves quick and delicious Punjabi fare. The place was packed and the tables were full. More people were waiting around the large room for their turn. The waiter pointed at a four-seater that was occupied by a couple who were in no particular hurry as they finished their meal and began to sip post-lunch tea in a leisurely manner. We were seated after a good fifteen to twenty minutes wait. We were ravenous by now but thankfully the butter chicken with naan that the children have ordered and the paneer do pyaaz and roti that hubby and I were having arrived in no time. And I’d decided on dessert even before we were seated at the table. ..the stick kulfi on the advertisement I’d been eyeing since I arrived there. Even before we finished our meal, a family with a little kid were waiting to occupy our table when we were done. In a way, they were breathing down our necks without being too obvious just like we had the couple who were there before us.

It was all pine woods from here on. Here and there, the roads were lined by trees with purple or dull orange blooms. There were apple orchards every where. Further up we rolled our windows down and listened to the birds and smelt the fresh air even as we drove up the hill. As we neared our destination, clouds began to gather in the sky which had been clear all along and a light drizzle broke out. It was raining as we checked in. By the time we arrived at our large spacious room, it was pelting not cats and dogs, but little hailstones the size of tiny pebbles. Some of them landed inside the room through the windows that we’d opened and they began to leave little puddles on the floor.

“Please don’t leave this open,” the attendant said as he closed the window, “They’ll come inside.” And we gathered he was talking about the rain.

The view from our room

The view from our room

We’d booked ourselves into the Palace Hotel at Chail a few weeks before we left Mumbai. The room we’d opted for was the Rajkumari (Princess) room. It was large and spacious with a chimney that goes alive during winters, by request.

Thanks to the rains, the weather cooled off considerably and the warm clothes were taken out without further ado. The ground floor of the palace is open to public viewing during the day and on display are several beautiful pieces of furniture that includes a grand piano and a billiards table that is placed in a separate room and can be hired by the hour. The Chail palace was the summer retreat of Maharaja Bhupinder Singh of Patiala. Much of the old world charm has been retained.

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Even as it grew darker, a few monkeys that dwelled on the rooftop began to congregate here and there and we now knew what the attendant was referring to when he closed all the windows. For a while they scampered on the rooftop just outside our window noisily.

Sleep came fast that night. It had been a beautiful start to a great holiday.

Twilight

Twilight

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Rising…shining

It was ten years after my last visit that I arrived in Mumbai on a late evening flight in November. At this time Mumbai is usually experiencing its second summer that precedes the slight chill in the air that passes off for a Mumbai winter. The city-that-never-sleeps was still wide awake and my husband pointed out the Ghatkopar hills and many other landmarks as we descended into the city. Friends had come to pick us up and take me to my new home that on a good day would take about 20 minutes. The roads were fairly empty.

Think Mumbai and this is what comes to mind ... Chatrapati Shivaji Terminus which was once known as Victoria Terminus

Think Mumbai and this is what comes to mind … Chatrapati Shivaji Terminus which was once known as Victoria Terminus

My first impressions of the city were though very confused. Images that flashed into my mind when I thought Mumbai were huge high rises and sprawling bungalows (Bollywood seemed to say so). Instead I found old buildings that refused to rise above six or seven stories high and in the locality where I began my new life, the buildings were old (most of them at least 40-50 years at the time), charming and pretty! I remember losing my way on one of the many bylanes thinking it would take me to another road and being hopelessly lost. And I kept walking until I reached another road that I knew. But that’s how it used to be…every building, every road looked the same.

Funnily enough soon after I arrived in Mumbai, an era of redevelopment of old properties began. It took days to bring down the old buildings. Those were load bearing structures with walls that were three times thicker than what we see today. The rooms were placed in a haphazard format. People didn’t believe in privacy and privates spaces obviously. You lived in large joint families and the more space there was for the family to spread out and sleep and wash and eat, the better. So basically you had more space and fewer rooms.

Flyovers have made distances shorter

Flyovers have made distances shorter

A visit to the suburbs to meet certain family members was always a revelation as to how quickly the city was spreading and growing. Each time we went that way, my husband would point out something new and say, “This was never there. Do you know a large part of this space was barren land?”

In 1998, I spent a weekend with my uncle and aunt in Powai in the same house they used to live earlier. The trucks and cars that plied the road all through the night kept me awake. It was the same room through which just about a decade ago, I’d peeped out and admired the Powai lake from and the same road that then had been so quiet and nearly empty even during daytime.

An old talkie that is yet to feel the onslaught of time

An old talkie that is yet to feel the onslaught of time

Powai, as people living here would know, is these days a pretty up market part of Mumbai and like several other areas in the suburbs have grown to be self-sufficient irrespective of its distance from ‘town’ as we call the lower tip of the island city that once signified ‘Mumbai’.

And this city that doesn’t sleep doesn’t actually need its beauty nap to grow and thrive. In the last nineteen years the city has seen more tall buildings, plush housing complexes, freeways, malls and flyovers coming up. And it is not without its disadvantages. Read ‘more cars on the road, more pollution, more people, less space’ !!!

The old and the new...a balloon vendor looking for a customer hangs around outside a branded store

The old and the new…a balloon vendor looking for a customer hangs around outside a branded store

But it still shines bright and beautiful…much like that first vision I had peeping out of the aeroplane …twinkling delightfully and beckoningly at one and all.

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Ever Changing – First Impressions

I remember arriving in Mumbai with my parents and brother when I was a little girl. We visited India every 3-4 years and home-coming was always a big event.

Our flight usually took 3 – 3 ½ hours to arrive in India…that plus check-in, security and the usual 1 hour wait to board the flight. The first sight of Mumbai, Bombay those days, was the one I got peeking out of the plane window. Two or three men in overalls, looking somewhat like half-baked spacemen would be lumbering along the aircraft. I don’t remember what exactly they did, but it just meant that we would be out of the plane and stepping into arrival lounge of the airport soon enough. We’d have arrived in the wee hours of the morning, probably 5 AM, but after the longish immigration and customs procedure of those days, we’d be out only by 7 or so.

A lot of shopping was done prior to the trip and I almost always carried a talking doll with me. The doll never traveled back though getting a new owner in a cousin or some other relative. I was a naughty kid and liked to pretend that my finger had accidentally got the doll in singing, laughing or maybe just a chatty mode. And inevitably I also almost always got frowned upon by my dear parents. Poor them! How embarrassing it would have been to have that sweetly mechanical voice say something smart even as they approached the severe-looking immigration official.

“Hi! My name is Jenny. Will you be my friend? Ha! Ha! Ha!”

Our halt in Mumbai lasted for about four days. After that we took another flight to Kochi (Cochin those days). Passing through Mumbai, we stayed with my uncle and his family in Powai within the college campus where he taught. Funnily my earliest memories of Mumbai were therefore the quiet, scenic and laid-back streets, open spaces and buildings of the campus. There was a park right below their building and there were always lots of children to play with in the evenings. On each visit, my uncle and aunt would take us for two very essential activities — meeting a handful of friends and relatives and most importantly shopping. I’m not sure where my aunt took us for shopping but the streets were always crowded with cars, buses and autorikshaws (I am guessing it was either Bandra or Ghatkopar). My mother must have shopped for friends back in Kuwait and even for us. She probably bought sarees, clothes, shirts, trinkets, accessories, the works. I always had a great time even if it was only for three days because I had my two cousins to play with when we were in the house and when we went shopping or visiting too they’d tag along which meant loads of fun on the road or in houses where I was not likely to know people.

We’d also visit a cousin who lived next to a film star’s home. I had a serious crush on this actor and would peek down from their flat into the actor’s yard hoping to catch a glimpse of him. Obviously he wasn’t there to wave out like I’d hoped in my mind. You see, no one told him I’d be looking out for him…

And then there were those things that shocked me. Living in Kuwait, one never came across poverty the way you did in our country and especially in our city. I remember stepping out into the pick-up area and heading towards the taxi my uncle had hired to take us to his house. The airport was not too crowded those days. An old man in rags began to follow us holding an arm out. The pitiable look on his face both scared and saddened me. I waited for my uncle to give him something. But he didn’t and even as we were getting into the car, a security guard with a lathi arrived to chase the beggar away. I still remember the alarmed beggar hastening away.

Then there were the crows. For a little girl who saw only the non-intrusive sparrows where she lived, the crow seemed a fascinating creature with both its scraping voice and unattractive appearance. Standing in my uncle’s balcony, I’d watch each one swoop onto the grill where it stood by boldly, very close to me and cawed demandingly.

Till my cousins got back from school I’d while away time peeking out of the window in the guest room. From not far away the Powai lake would gleam back at me and on the road between the lake and the building, a single autorikshaw or truck would rattle by noisily once in an hour or two.

So the Mumbai I saw as a little kid was a far cry from the noisy polluted crowded and glitzy images that one heard of or saw in still pictures or movies. It was spacious and quiet but for the crows. 

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Quaint Kochi – last day of a fascinating trip…

We had a most delightful sighting on our last morning at Natakom. About an hour or more before we left for Kochi, we found a mongoose prying around in the undergrowth close by. Sensing our presence, he became a little wary yet hung around realizing we meant no harm or more likely because the food that had enticed him there was not worth losing.

The interesting homes of Kottayam

The interesting homes of Kottayam

The beautiful kackwaters

The beautiful backwaters

The road toward Kochi from here on was a photographer’s delight. The homes we passed by were made in some interesting styles that distinguished old Kerala homes. We made  short halts to take pictures. I think the people living there must be used to it by now. Once again we drove past Vembanad lake and all those beautiful paddy fields. We went past the Sluice gate. Picturesque waterscapes followed little crammed streets until we reached Kochi.

The famous Chinese fishing nets of Kochi

The famous Chinese fishing nets of Kochi

A lady makes papads

A lady making papads

Kochi has been a city that has always fascinated me. Going back to my childhood days when I spent quite a bit of time there with my cousins, the city has a charming quality that wins you over despite its typical crowded city roads. It was always several steps ahead of many other towns in Kerala. It was nice to note that it had retained that quality after all the years that have gone by. Kochi is also a shopper’s paradise and it may be a good idea to research so that you know what to buy and where. *

The shops in Jew Town

The shops in Jew Town

The Synagogue

The Synagogue

An antique shop with one of its usual visitors

An antique shop with one of its usual visitors

Jew Town

Jew Town

JewTown was our first destination. It’s not the first time I’ve visited the Jewish synagogue and it remains as striking as it did the first time I went there. Panels displayed in an adjoining room enlighten you as to how Jews first arrived here. An usher will then guide you toward the Synagogue. The last time we were here, they’d allowed us to take pictures. Photography is prohibited within the premises now. We spent a few minutes there admiring the fascinating hand-painted tiles on the floor that were imported from China during those days and the beautiful crystal lamps that hang from above. Veils and curtains shroud balconies on the upper floor where women stood and watched religious proceedings. We left walking past quaint-looking antique and clothes stores, many of them seem newer as I cannot recall them from my previous visit some fifteen or more years ago.

Pictures taken of the Synagogue many moons ago

Pictures taken inside the Synagogue many moons ago

The Mattanchery palace

The Mattanchery palace

View of boat jetty from the gates of the Palace

View from the gates of the Palace

We headed next to the DutchPalace also known at the MattancheryPalace that in the years gone by belonged to Cochin Rajas. Currently it has been converted into a museum and portrait gallery. For a small fee you can glimpse the life and times of the royals and their subjects of yore and you also get to walk through the rooms and chambers they lived in.  A few Malayalam speaking men and women stationed at various corners ensured that an over-enthusiastic spectator didn’t get too close to the displayed items and wouldn’t think twice before telling you off in the local language like they did a naughty little boy.

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Some interesting buildings in the city

Some interesting buildings in the city

From here on we were just driving through. Only Sid got off at the spot where a couple of Kochi’s famous Chinese fishing nets were on display and right then they were demonstrating how it works. He came back complaining that they caught but two fish. Driver Babu also took us past the gates of the Kochi office of East India Company, a Dutch graveyard from the 19th century, an old church and several lovely old structures most of which are now tourist homes or restaurants. We made a mental note to stay in Kochi for a longer time on our next visit.

St.Francis Church where Vasco Da Gama was buried originally...this church is said to be the oldest European church in India

St.Francis Church where Vasco Da Gama was buried originally…this church is said to be the oldest European church in India

Old Dutch cemetry

Old Dutch cemetry

The entrance to the office of the old East India company

The entrance to the office of the old East India company

We headed next to BTH’s Sarovaram. After a short wait of fifteen minutes we were shown to our table. While hubby and I gorged on the superb and sumptuous Kerala feast served off plantain leaves, the boys opted for dosas.

Enroute to the airport where we stayed overnight we visited my uncle and a friend of ours from Mumbai. It was time for so many goodbyes and most of all to the beautiful state of Kerala that I’ve always adored and will be home to me even though I live so many miles away from there.

*Handicraft, antiques, textile and I’ve heard even items made from lace can be bought here. But do be sure that you are not being overcharged.

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City Life – a celebration

Nineteen years in this city and if I were to pinpoint what I loved about the place, what would it be?

With the first sound of drumbeats filling the air, I think I’ll mention the festivities out here. What marks this city distinctly is its willingness to drop everything, deck up in its Sunday best, take to the streets and celebrate life.

The rains have left and there’s little chance that it will be back to play spoilsport. And again, I don’t think anyone will be unduly bothered either. So it will be time soon for little fairy lights to be pulled out of closets, put an extra shine on brass ware and stir the sinful mixture of ghee, sugar, condiments and other ingredients while keeping a watchful eye on the weighing scales.

Ganpati goes home

Ganpati goes home

And it was no surprise that the air was filled with the fragrant aroma of something being deep fried on Janmashtami day(the Hindu festival celebrating the birth of God Krishna). The roads which are bad enough with all the potholes was filled with groups of young people in colour-coded T-shirts and bandannas. Their mission to form human pyramids and shatter pots of water tied by various societies and groups at formidable heights; their reward a sizable cash gift that the group that  manages to break these pots win and divide amongst themselves; and last but not least, the grand prize that is won by the group that breaks the most pots. [This reminiscent of the habit the naughty boy-God Krishna along with his friends had of breaking and stealing butter from pots tied from ceilings in other peoples homes]

That over, it’s now time to bring in the elephant god, Ganpati Bappa!

And there is always a prize to pay for these indulgences. Roads will be blocked by cheerful bunches of revelers, shoppers and families out just for a dekko. Leaving home half or even an hour early for an appointment may not make for much. Smaller roads are to be avoided like the plague. You will find temporary shrines set up even by people living in hovels and here every evening, the locals will come to dance and rejoice. And it’s always a source of joy to see celebrations of this nature that prevail over regional, cultural, religious or economical diversity.

The Ganpati at a friend's home

The Ganpati at a friend’s home

A friend's home all decked up to commemorate 75 years of celebrating Ganestotsav

A friend’s home all decked up to commemorate 75 years of celebrating Ganestotsav

In a few days temporary shrines will be set up all over the huge city. This will brim over onto the pavements and people may have a difficult time weaving their way in and out of looming crowds of devotees that throng to these shrines. But like I said, most people are patient, they may complain a little bit, but they won’t be bothered too much for too long. The high energy level that permeates the air probably makes up for these minor inconveniences.

Hence it is that more than seven days before the actual celebration, hordes of people are out on the streets preparing for the grand festival. And I don’t think it is wrong to say that this is probably the favourite festival of most Mumbaites. In the last two days, we’ve come across a handful of Ganeshas. Some of them even have their faces covered as they make their way home. Here they will remain hidden from public view and go through final touches before being revealed to an adoring mass of devotees on September 9th. After that for ten whole days the city will celebrate life and renewal.

A procession of Jainism followers below my building

A procession of Jains below my building

Ladies awaiting blessings

Ladies awaiting blessings

And from now on, it’s celebration time. The joyous and colourful Durga puja will come next followed by a noisier, messier but definitely cheerful Diwali festival , then the more sober yet exhilarating Christmas that builds up fervor for the last of the almost endless festivities to bring in the new year. So here’s to the many holidays and festivals that will be coming up soon! Frankly, I love this part of the year the most.

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A little old world, some religion and lots of rain

A canal that can tell a hundred tales

A canal that can tell a hundred tales

After lunch we lounged around in the lawn watching the children catch fish but mostly chatting. The heavy rains had filled the ponds some more which meant the boys weren’t as lucky as they’d been the previous day. Tea came and an hour before she left Manju made an offer. Would we like to join her when she went to visit her in-laws’ house?. And the icing on the cake? On the way to their house was the famous Vaikkom Shiva temple. So here we were – tired, just wanting to put our feet up and probably even watch a little television with kids, forgetting all thoughts of rest and agreeing whole-heartedly to an outing that could take no less than three hours or more under those wholly unpredictable weather conditions.

Boys a-fishing

Boys a-fishing

Cat-fish in a bucket

Cat-fish in a bucket

We left at around 4 PM heading first towards Manju’s house. Twice we made halts, once before a vast stretch of paddy field that was filled with various species of birds. There were at least three different types if not more. Then again, we stopped the car to check out a monitor lizard that stood by the side of road until another passing vehicle made it run for cover.

Views during an amazing drive

Views during an amazing drive

Where there's a field there are birds

Where there’s a field there are birds

Kottayam district produces the largest quantity of rice in Kerala. The people of Kerala are mostly rice-eaters and rice is had for both lunch and dinner. Most of their snacks too are made with rice that may or may not be mixed with other grains and ground to make a batter or powder. There was a time when the roads of Kerala weaved through bounteous fields of paddy crop in various stages of growth, from young shoots to the fully grown crop that would be waving its head in a random breeze. But these have given way to redevelopment with farmers opting to sell their lands to people wanting to build homes, hotels and other establishments. Kottayam still signifies what Kerala stood for once upon a time — wide open fields of crops and coconut groves where those fields end. [In fact, the name ‘Kerala’ comes from the word “Keralam” meaning the land of coconuts] Most of the time we went past the same water bodies that we’d done earlier that day on the boat.  Clusters of houseboats lay idly along the river banks as the holiday season was just about ending with the onset of rains.

Manju’s parents-in-law are from a traditional Namboothiri family, the equivalent of Brahmins in Kerala. They lived in huge joint families that dwelled within large walled compounds with sprawling homes that had but a single entry, a narrow doorway. The  structure also enclosed a shrine. The Namboothiris were well versed in the scriptures and conducting rituals. In modern times they’ve also proved to be highly accomplished, educated and talented people with whom you can have an intellectually stimulating tete a tete.  Manju’s father-in-law has authored text books on Mathematics and writes poems in Hindi. As we had our second cup of tea for the evening, he told us about the many magazines he contributes to and showed us copies of the same. Later on accompanied by him and Manju, we had a look around. The old plot of land that held the ancient illam or ancestral home has been partitioned in keeping with the times and allotted to the various family members. A few of them opted to move away as they lived outside the State but most of them still live together having built newer and more modern homes. We paid obeisance before the temple in the compound. Manju’s father-in-law and in his absence his nephew conducts the morning and evening rituals. The temple door is never left open and closed as soon as the prayers are done. We also went to see the bathing tank, a common feature in most old homes in Kerala where the people bathed and even learnt to swim.

After about an hour, we said our goodbyes and left for Vaikkom temple. Vaikom temple has been built in typical Kerala architectural style, the sprawling temple complex also comprises several shrines and is flanked on one side by a large bathing tank. The main deity of the temple, Lord Shiva, is endearingly referred to as Vaikathapan. We were there for approximately 15-20 minutes, offering prayers and circumambulating the shrine when it began to drizzle gently. [You can check the internet for further information on this magnificent temple] A special offering of multi-coloured organic powder placed on individual leaves before one particular deity had me intrigued. I am still trying to find out its significance.

It began to pour as we headed back for Natakom. With the rains beating its own rhythm outside and some old music from the 80s belting out from the cars music system, it was nostalgia time for me. We got back, had dinner and crashed early. There was just one day left now for our break to end and we were going to Kochi the next day. Or rather driving through it! We wound up for the day.

The remarkable view from our verandah

The remarkable view from our verandah

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Vembanad Lake – There and Back

It was still raining the next morning. The options were thus : Stay put in the cottage or visit my parents in Trichur after a five hour long drive and stay there for a day or go back to Kochi and stay there instead. On our way to Kottayam, I’d called up a friend of mine, Manju, who lives in Mumbai but visits her parents at Kottayam every year around that same time. She’d been seemed on joining us for the boat ride we were to take the following day. When I called her that morning, she was still interested in visiting us there whether or not there was a boat ride. So that was settled then. If indeed no boat trip happened, then we would just hang around at the home-stay, watch the views and sights the place offered and eat some good food. By 9 AM, the rain had subsided and the caretaker informed us that we could take a shorter boat ride up to VenbanadLake and return by lunch time. The proposed eight-hour long boatride would be over in half the time. That suited us just fine.

By the time Manju arrived with her two sons, aged 10 and 8, our boat did too. It was a closed boat. There were probably two reasons why they had arranged for such a boat. The intermittent rains which was often quite heavy would not be a bother then. But more than that the safety factor seems to have been the main reason as we were traveling with children aged 10 and less in the group. The view on either side of the boat was amazing. The rains often simmered down to boil over again. Between conversation and watching the view, we had a wonderful time. The interior of the boat was divided in this manner. The driver had his own cabin that was separated from the passengers’ area. The passengers’ cabin itself was divided into a small space that could hold about two people at a time and the main area that could seat at its fullest capacity about 10-15 passengers. Sid found a spot in the small space and sat there quietly watching the river from what he called the vantage point. Soon enough the other three children began to complain, “Why is it that only Sid gets to sit there?”

The beautiful colours of Kerala The rains didn't keep people at home as you can see

Sid insisted on continuing to sit there…sometimes he sat there alone, but mostly the rest of the pack were with him either chatting or wondering aloud about when he’d vacate the space. I was hoping to sit there myself when all the kids were done with their turns. But there was no such luck.

The birds take a break from flying and searching for food Pied KingfishersThe Boatman with the country boat

Different varieties of birds were a common sight down the river and its banks. We came across slightly perplexed looking cranes with beaks that varied in colour from a chrome yellow to a bright orange and almost red and anything in between. There were weaver birds, the common kingfisher, black cormorants, egrets and once we spotted a pair of pied kingfishers. Similar looking houseboats cruised down the river and at one point it poured so heavily a boatman on his country boat with a single customer sought help from our boatman. They tied up his little boat to ours and traveled several miles before reaching close to their destination. There they untied the boat and went their way struggling through the choppy waves.

R-Block Seafood at R-Block

We took a stop at a place called R-Block. Now R-Block serves seafood and on enquiring what a vegetarian would get there, I was told boiled and seasoned tapioca as well. Anyway the place is good if you want the unique experience though personally we opted to return to our homestay for lunch. We were also informed by driver Babu that the place is unreasonably expensive. We left the place but with a bottle of fresh toddy.

Despite the rains, country boats continued to ply the canal A houseboat

As we got back into the boat, the boatman began to show us around. He was one proud owner especially as he showed us the place the kids were sitting in. “The toilet,” he announced with a flourish. No one sat there after that.

The edge of Vembanad Lake People living along the river found these tourists amusing

From there we went up to the edge of Vembanad lake. All this time, it kept raining, sometimes drizzling gently, sometimes pelting like nobody’s business. By now, everyone was tired, both of the rains, the river and even otherwise. It was a quiet ride back with the three younger boys settling down with the PSP Manju’s boys had carried along. Sid and the rest of us stood outside, letting the light rain drench us when it wasn’t raining too heavily. Back at the homestay a delicious spread of Kerala parottas, chicken curry, vegetable korma and sautéed prawn Kerala style was waiting for us.

Another little country boat

[For a day that started off looking like it was going nowhere, this day was one of the busiest days of our trip. Hence I’ll save the events and happenings of the evening for the next post]

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How not to be sick on curvy roads

The worst thing that can happen when you are on a holiday and driving down windy bendy roads is to feel sick. Nothing can be as bad as making those stops (and it’s difficult to come by an appropriate place to stop most of the times) when you feel queasy and sick in the stomach. You not only miss out on a major chunk of the fun but also end up spoiling the trip for your co-travelers. Here are some tips, a few things I learnt on the many occasions I was sick or when someone else with me was sick…

Roll your glass down whenever it's possible

Roll your glass down whenever it’s possible

Never ever read in a moving vehicle. And don’t even think of picking up a book on roads that curve all the way up or down. Saying which, texting on your cell-phone is also like reading. The small fonts on the phone make it even worse. So avoid that at all costs.

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Look out of the window when you are in a moving vehicle especially on curves and bends. Then the eye confirms to the brain that the body is indeed moving is circles, curves and hairpin bends which would then enable the body to handle the uneasiness better. By the same logic, always sit in a vehicle facing the direction in which it is moving.

Take in the sights outside rather than read or text

Take in the sights outside rather than read or text

When there is the option, roll down the window and breathe in the fresh air. Please make sure that the air outside is indeed clean and non-polluted.

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Two things with regard to food that is absolutely important; Eat well but never too much; But do eat something…an empty tummy is another stomach churner.

Drink plenty of fluids. Carry enough with you while on the trip as well. Hydration is imperative but caffeine wholly avoidable especially if you are prone to migraine and headaches.

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If you are prone to motion sickness or anyone in your family or group is, remember to meet the doctor before you travel and to carry required medicines. It’s always better to be safe than sorry in this case. My homeopath used to prescribe a preventive medicine especially when the children were smaller. Carry a few plastic carry bags for emergency use only.

And last but not least here are two special tips from my mother. Smell a lime. But it is not often that you find a lime when you need one. So the other thing to do would be to smell your hair. This would be possible only if you have long hair because you don’t want to sniff someone else’s. By the way, these may be old wives’ tales really, but they have always worked for me.

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