Saturday, March 24, 2007

Varkala Vignettes

In café Italiano, a cafe like many others, is on the cliff and faces the sea

I, the only Indian, chose to sit under the thick green foliage of a badam tree, to enjoy the cool breeze and a hot ginger-lemon tea, living on borrowed time, as I ignore the call to finish a paper that I should have finished 10 days earlier.

The scenes around the tables…

Mom and her teenage son finishes their breakfast leave with a 10 Rs tip. Unlike many in his generation, the kid seems to be properly dressed and well behaved.

An optimistic romantic pop number (to love, to love…) is now on.

Chap with white cap and black sleeveless t-shirt staring out into the blue sea. The waiter waves an acknowledgement, to which our man gives a tiny nod.

The young bearded chap sitting alone watching the sea while a bearded tramp wants him to purchase a ticket. The chap politely refuses.

A 30s couple, with the guy making his intentions clear about what he wants - by pecking his girlfriend’s ear and wet tresses - while she is more concerned about balancing the coffee cup.

The music changes to Spanish guitar

A girl in her late 20s in pink tanktop showing a part of a tattoo on her back is waiting for her order to come in. she has a pierced lower lip and matted hair. She eats quietly, leaves the money under the chilli sauce bottle, picks her bag and leaves.

A german couple beyond have shared one breakfast bowl of yogurt and fruit. The girl, while paying tells the waiter that it was the best dish they have had till date. They walk out with their shades on, giving a good demo of a parting kiss before heading in opposite directions.

It is now Jesudas singing with music that is partly classical and partly ‘tamil-ish’. Some waiter has increased the volume as well.

A chap with shohaib aktar hairstyle, selling drums walks by belting out some tuneless beat. I wonder who purchases them and when, for I have never seen any transaction take place. Last year, they were in the same business. I know that since we ate at the same thali place in a shack in a coconut grove. This year, while the shack is still there, the grove has cottages that can be rented out. Perhaps the drum-selling is just a façade and they may be involved in selling something more ‘high flying’ stuff as the dusk falls.

A couple sits in front of me. The chap with thick absolutely white hair and the lady with dark brown. They speak in Italian and order espresso and indiano cafe along with sandwiches. They, amongst all seem to be laughing and speaking in fast clipped Italian. Well I assume it is Italian more because of their clothes. I assume Spanish or Portuguese would not be so fashion conscious.

A chap with a bandanna comes and a thin yet tapering pigtail, waves away the menu card and order one lemon tea. Unshaven and certainly belonging to the flower power times. The waiter messes up his order, brings him something else but our man refuses to pay extra. Flings a 10 rupee note on the table and leaves in a huff.

A new group of two men and a woman come in and one of the men wants real strong coffee! With a warning that he will turn it back if it is not strong enough. More updates when the coffee arrives.

Its now vintage Jesudas with a strong ‘ayyappa’ lilt to it.

One contented soul amongst all of us is a dog that is happily dozing resting his head on the crossed-support of a cane chair. Well almost, the fleas seem to get jealous once in a while.

A middle aged couple sit in the next table. Probably from Switzerland or has recently been to Switerland as the man wears a red cap with swiss flag on it. He has his shirt inside out and has an ‘osho’ colour jhola slung across. They get their omelette with large unevenly cut slices of fresh bread. Looks very appealing!

Our german coffee friends get their coffee (no problem with it) and bruschetta, which they eat with strong chomps and talk with clipped animated gestures. They seem to be oozing confidence that comes with being more successful then the rest or perhaps because each Euro they have in their pockets is about 60 times the local currency.

Yesudas with alapana, veena and mridangam in the background.

That’s life in Varkala. Or atleast in one part of it. There are two more parts to this town. Perhaps four if you count the normal life of the locals. The other parts are to do with the spiritual side. Pundits performing puja on Papanasam beach for the departed souls to cleanse away their papams (sins) is one. The other is the abode of Sri Narayanaguru, a social reformer. He has mainstreamed the toddy taper community Ezhavas and his birthday or the day he attained samadhi, lakhs of people descend on this town.

Perhaps in reverence to Sri Narayana guru or to the Papanasam beach, for many years alcohol was not served openly but in tea pots! In an era where we wear our attitudes and flash our brands and where qualities like respect, humility, etc. may soon be considering ‘endearing old fashioned qualities’, the bottles have come out into the open but the permits have not. Well it is boom time for the cops and the local leaders!

And so goes on Varkala, the beach resort in the God’s own Country.

vizag - varkala 07

Thursday, December 28, 2006

Closer to Kedar...

The previous posts First one / Second one

The day did not start well: first we were woken at 4 in the morning by a rather enthusiastic waiter, who, the previous night took his tea order right but not the room to which the order had to be delivered. Instead of realising that it was improper to wake people up so early, he was insisting that this was the room to which it had to be delivered. Half believing me, he yelled to his friend who must have been at the end of the corridor to double check the room. His friend yelled back that he got the room wrong. “Sorry sir-ji”, our ‘polite’ youth said and went to loudly knock the room few doors further.

This woke me up completely and I realised I had a frog in my throat. Not a good sign since that means a cold is around the corner. I have a strange warning mechanism for a cold: first I wake up with a sore throat that too on ONE side (I am not joking), then as the pain disappears the nostril on the erstwhile sore part starts to go on an overdrive and then the next nostril suddenly remember it needs to act in tandem with its sibling . Strange isn’t it? Well each of us are as strange as our own ailments.

After tossing around for a while on the bed and when it was light enough, I went to inform the manager that he can arrange to send hot water to my room, he was not in his seat and the kitchen folks casually mentioned, while warming themselves at the cook-stove, that the boiler broke down and we have to make do with cold water, if we intend having a bath at all. The water was freezing to say the least. I then remembered my bathing scheme in Pune/Hyderabad in winters (we did not have a geyser): pour water on feet first… then on knees… shiver… then stare hard at the water in the bucket expecting to warm it a la superman and in a swift movement douse the entire body supported by appropriate squirms and screams. I must add that after the first few mug-fulls the batch actually starts to be enjoyable. I tried to emulate the same routine here but it was more pride than cleanliness that prompted me to perform the drill.

Having accomplished this feat, I went over to adjoining room where my friends were still lolling in bed, told them that there is no hot water and that I went through my ablutions with cold water, as befitting anyone wanting to scale the might Himalayas. One of them was not amused. He had a fight with manager who promptly got hot water organised for him and others. Wife gave me icicle laden stares for she succumbed to my motivating talk a little earlier. Anyway, casually casting those stares aside, and with a head stuck out like a proud rooster, I went to the restaurant and polished few hot alu-parathas not-withstanding the sore food passage. With mango-pickle burps and a satisfied stomach, I limbered up a bit by walking around the campus taking a snap here and there as I waited for the rest to take a short ride to Gaurikund where the path to Kedar starts.

The ride to Gaurikund with some spectacular views of the sun-kissed mountains, in ideal conditions should have taken ten minutes. In reality it took close to an hour. The first seven minutes were close to the ideal state but the next three minutes weren’t as we ran into a long line of vehicles, all at a standstill, waiting to get to Gaurikund. Two of us jumped out to do some restless and pointless activities. Before we could get a porter to haul our luggage to the main gateway, the vehicles started to inch ahead. The brown kucha road was little wider than two vehicles and there were whole bunch of people (porters, drivers, cleaners, bhel-wala, etc.) creatively taking up all kinds of spaces – tree stumps, jutting rocks, rubbish mounds. A slow and careful ride (not to knock other vehicles into the steep valley or spread smiling Nepalese nicely along the mountain wall) took us to a little square half the size a foot ball field. To say it was chaotic was to say the least. There were about a 100 vehicles, half of them discharging their load of giggling enthusiastic families all eager to jog up the 14 km path to Kedar; other half picking up weary families wondering why on earth were they so enthusiastic and eager to get some brownie points, that too for a supposedly next life. In between these vehicles were families waiting impatiently for their vehicles to turn up so that they can put behind as much distance as possible from this place. In total it was chaos of a new order. The fact that all this happens without much ado is a miracle in itself. Actually there were also some folks with that ‘been there and done it” kind of look but they were the fat folks who did the trek on other beings.

We gave the customary dip in the Kund before the trek to Kedar a miss, and went on to pass through the welcoming arch and throbbing crowds onto a stone paved path with varying commercial activities on its sides. Lugging our loads to the GMVN (the state run guest house), where our driver said that the staff will help us get a good porter. They were trying to palm some of their cronies who were asking more than normal rates, which obviously included some generous kickbacks here and there. I enthusiastically volunteered to keep an eye on the luggage so that the others can span out to find a porter willing to transport our luggage at a price that was comfortable for us. I love my friends when they fall for such displays of unbridled enthusiasm.

Each of us kept a small backpack with a bottle of water. I volunteered to carry two extra bottles of water. Folks, you may smile at my brag about these bottles, but let me tell you hoisting two extra kg all along the path that winds 14 km in length and two km up into the sky is no mean feat. This is the kind of trek, half way through lazy bums like me would have realised their folly of not cutting those finger-nails and thereby shedding few grams.

Anyway, the first km was the hardest part thanks to the crowds. In addition to the normal demography found at the Gaurikund square, the path also houses ponies, dholies (palanquins) with their fat inhabitants and lean carriers and porters carrying very young or very old in baskets tied to their foreheads and waist. And doing their wee bit to give a quaint farm smell were the pony droppings. Amidst all these, sights and sounds of gushing, milky Mandakini on our left was the only positive

Wednesday, December 27, 2006

Chettinad trip (made a year ago)

There are two ways to experience Chettinad heritage. For the sake of comparison let me say one is easy and the other is difficult. Naturally, the experience each one offers is slightly different from the other since the efforts involved are different. The easy way is to experience it in Chennai and the difficult way is to experience it in Chettinad itself. There are places in Chennai where one can eat Chettinad food, visit a traditional Chettinad house and then purchase Chettinad crafts. Perhaps, as it was for me, starting out in Chennai may be an easy choice for many.

There are many places to eat authentic Chettinad food (I am a sucker for food, so I believe what the blurbs on name boards and menu cards say). Some of the more prominent ones are Anjapaar, Ponuswamy and Kaaraikudi. These hotels have a number of branches and hence are well spread out in the city. So if you want to eat a Chettinad meal, It is quite likely that the area in which you are will have a branch of these restaurants nearby. Then to visit a Chettinad house, you could visit DakshinaChitra, an open air museum of South Indian Culture started by an American lady Dr. Deborah Thiagarajan. This centre is now the home many authentic houses from Kerala, TN, AP and Karnataka. They have been dismantled, numbered carefully and reconstructed to the original form. Along with these architectural experiences, one can browse around in the craft shop that showcases handicrafts from these states. On weekends and during festival seasons, one can see how some of these crafts are produced. To pick up exclusive crafts from Chettinad, one can head towards M.Rm.Rm Foundation set up and run by Mrs. Visalakshi Ramaswamy. She has revived many crafts forms and has received International recognition. One can purchase Kottans (lovely woven baskets for which UNESCO has given their seal of recognition for this crafts), Attangudi Tiles (floor tiles made in vivid colours and designs that don the traditional houses) and handwoven sarees both in cotton and in silk with typical Chettinad designs. One can set aside a day to experience at a leisurely pace or can run through these sights and tastes in half a day.

There are many ways in which one can experience Chettinad heritage in Chettinad region and my Chettinad experiences have been in bits and pieces over the years. The source can be traced to Chennai years ago. I was in this city for a cousin’s wedding and I a missed opportunity to eat at a ‘Chettinad’ restaurant. Considering that I like food very much it was quite natural that I felt disappointed and wanted to make amendments the next time I was in the city. I had to wait for about 12 years for that. Due to some chance happening I moved to live in Chennai and after we settled I wanted to fulfil that desire of eating Chettinad food. Naturally as a newbie to the city, I asked acquaintances about which restaurant to go to. In addition to some names of restaurants, I was told that this cuisine is more renowned for its non veg preparations and that I, a vegetarian, will have limited choice. Nonetheless, when an opportunity presented itself, I took a Dutch friend of mine, who appreciates many good things about India including the spicy food, to Kaaraikudi, a restaurant chain that specialises in Chettinad cuisine. During the days that preceded this dinner, when my friend and I ate out, kozhambu (tamarind based chutney) was something both of us liked very much. So we were quite happy to order poondu kozhambu (with large pieces of garlic in it) and kathirikai kozhambu, (with eggplant) along with Chettinad Biryani and Malabar Parata. The waiter recommended crispy valiapoo vadai (banana flower vada) as starters. Frankly, there was not much of a choice for a veggie but then when the food did arrive, we did not speak a single word during the entire meal; it was just appreciative nods all the way. Although I ate this meal over a year ago the fact that I can still recall the menu seem to indicate that I have an elephantine memory but it is not so. Considering that I have gone back to this restaurant few times and considering that there is little to choose for a vegetarian, it is not difficult to jog the memory (and the taste buds too)

Taking into account that we were to take a group of Dutch tourists on a food tour of south India, after the first meal itself, we decided to explore possibilities of including Chettinad in the tour. My friend left for his home that night and it was my responsibility to investigate. After couple of months of casual research, I had some information and few cancelled train tickets. With time not entirely on our side, my friend, who arrived just before the trip started, managed to organise a day long trip for himself from Madurai. Strangely, I was in The Netherlands then. His feedback was that the roads were bad but it would be extremely interesting for the group to spend a day visiting some of the temples and then to have a meal at Bangla, a restored mansion in Karaikudi that now operated as a heritage hotel. The plan was to leave early in the morning from Madurai, go to Pilliarpatti, where the morning aarti is carried out at 9 AM. Then go to Kundrakudi a Murugan temple on a large rock. Subsequently we planned to go to Kannadukattan, the main Nathukottu Chetiar’s village and finally to Bangla for lunch.

Although we started early, we could not get to Pilliarpatti by 9AM, we were little late. We jumped off the bus and rushed straight into the temple, the aarti was just getting over. We saw the last part of the aarti and even that was quite impressive. The plate with burning camphor circling around an impressive 6 ft Karpaga Vinayaka idol, accompanied with live music and temple bells was quite celestial. Since the group could not enter temples in Kerala or the Meenakshi temple in Madurai, this was the first entry into a Temple for some of them, they I am sure would have been more impressed then I was.

Pillayarpatti temple

Although, the priests told us we could take snaps as long as the deity is not in the picture frame but the guards and the security personnel did not allow us to do so. Since I could not speak Tamil, it was not possible to explain that the priests gave their consent. The next best thing to do was to look for the priests but they were nowhere to be seen. We wandered out and then walked around the temple for a little while. I took some surreptitious snaps as I walked out but none of came out right. Meanwhile, the group got even more disbursed - some members were busy buying trinkets from the shops, couple of others were busy taking snaps of the cows, few were walking around the temple zone and some headed back to the bus. It took a little while to gather them and be on the way to Kundrakudi.

Kundrakudi is famous for a Murgan temple situated on a large rock. At the base of the rock is a small temple with lovely paintings all around, including on the roof. To get to the main temple one has to climb a flight of steps carved into the rock. Even though it was the middle of the day, the climb was not difficult, with gentle breeze and sylvan sights to assist you.

Temple steps

On the right side of the rock was the village with its ‘country tile’ roofs and the left side was natural landscape that extended for quite a distance. Amidst the village one could see the large temple chariot towering over the roofs. It was festooned with mango leaves from a recent temple festival. Once in the temple, I sat in a corner to watch the people. The group wandered around smiling and saying hello to the people. Little kids encouraged by the family came up shyly to shake hands with them. Some of the lesser shy ones asked the group for their names, as the rest of their family stayed in the background, beaming with pride. I can tell that it takes a lot of guts to go up to a stranger and ask for their names, that too strangers from distant lands. I don’t think I can still do that, so I thought the families have all the reason to beam and be proud of their kids.

After few more km of bad roads, we finally arrived at Kannadukattu. A winding path from the edge of the village lead up to the main attraction: the raja’s palace. As we drove into the village the sights the villages had to offer were quite surreal: considering that the village was middle of no-where it had some of the most massive mansions I have ever seen. The group must be even more dazed to see them. The palace where the wealthiest of the Chettiars lived was newly painted. I guess, it was more because of the wealth and the land this family controlled, the head of it was called the Raja and his residence has come to be known as ‘the palace’. Later on I came to know that this place gets painted every January. Since we visited in mid-February, the paints were still bright. While the group went in, I walked around the village to take a few photos. Two more bus loads of overseas tourists came in.

The raja's palace

The passage from the entrance to the 'palace'

Athangudi tiled passage

Verandah in Bangla

Waiting area in the Bangla

One of the heritage hotels

I guess Chettinad is finally getting onto the tourist map of the country but unfortunately it is the overseas visitors that seem to throng to this place. The only other people who throng this place are antique hunters who carry the dismembered parts of a Chettiyar house to where ever they can sell at exorbitant prices. Next time I am in the Chettinad region, I will make some time to pick up some good deals so that a part of Chettinad is always close by.

Monday, July 10, 2006

up the hills...

The next morning we were woken by early by the GMVN staff to let us know that our Sumo has arrived. We quickly got into the act of leaving by making arrangements for breakfast (food has to be ordered at least half an hour earlier) and then packing. While K and I munched on the alu parathas, the rest decided to have a 'fruit breakfast'. So our first stop on the trip was the fruit market.

At the fruit market, three of us headed in different directions to pick up banana, litchis and other exotic fruit (which were quite expensive). Here I noticed that most of the mangoes were banginalpalli and speaking as a Vizag-ite, these were from my own backyard: Vizianagaram (Could see it on the boxes). Mango wars have been going on for years between my wife and me. This time she had a lot of support from my friends who are from Bombay also. Like a true blue Andhra-ite, I think Banginalpalli is a great variety. I would never term Alphanso the king of all mangoes. So, this was a great way to start the trip. I pulped my opponents into submission that while the western Indians think Alphanso is great, the rest of the country swears by the likes of Banginalpalli (I threw in some fake statistics for good measure). Well with this tirade, I kissed goodbye to the few A mangoes my friend lugged all the way.

Getting back to the story, we soon went past the two famous suspension bridges: ram and lakshman jhula and headed into the mountains. The day was cloudy and the chances of rain up in the mountains were high said the driver. We stopped to wrap our luggage in tarpaulin. He wrapped and we looked around. My friends went to Gangotri few years ago, and the start was similar: cloudy and wet but once the sun came out the next day, they said, it stayed dry throughout.

cloudy skies...

Soon we started the assent into the mountains with the river Ganga next to us, growing smaller as we climbed higher. As we moved, we could see how it wound around mountains, flowed over stony beds, frothed in exuberance and playfully meandered as it ran down into the plains. Along some of the banks was tented accommodation for the more adventurous folks and for those who wanted to raft. As we went higher, clouds shielded the rest of the ranges so all we saw was a mountain or two, which were close to us. This was not one continuous assent, we went up a hill, and then went down only to climb up another. At no point of time, we were away from the river or its tributaries.

Meandering Mandakini

In the excitement of the sights around and more due to the dizzily changing landscape, I felt motion sickness for the first time. Since lemon is said to have some curative properties to this ailment, I sucked on one with my eyes shut. It helped a bit but the queasiness in the stomach stayed. It stayed until we reached the surroundings of Rudrayprayag where we had our lunch. Strangely, I did not feel it afterwards.

Tried to get the patterned landscape but failed.

The only stop we made before lunch was Deoprayag where, Alaknanda (from Badrinath) meets Baghirati (from Gangotri) meet to become Ganga. My friend wanted to go down to the sangam; we thought it would be a good break. To get there, we had to walk on one of the many suspension bridges that span these rivers to get onto the other side. Then walk along the narrow sloping road that leads to the ghats. However before doing so we had to get past the pandas. They insisted that we perform some puja or other. The only thing that worked was to ignore them completely. I wonder why they cannot not be polite, ask once and let go. It is not that everyone who comes here performs puja. On our way back I purchased some more lemons as a precautionary measure. Last thing I wanted was to seem like a sissy by throwing up.

Alaknanda meeting Bhagirathi to become Ganga @ Deoprayad

We were to stop for the night at Rampur, a few km from Gaurikund. The trek to Kedar starts from Gaurikund. We reached this place amidst drizzles while clouds covered all the ranges and the wonderful sights these mountains could have been providing us. Normally, we could have noticed one or two snow peaks by now said the driver to add to our misery.

The GMVN was located on an edge of a small hillock. A small rivulet flowed past the foot of this hillock and the gushing sounds of it filled the entire guest house. One of the two rooms we had, had a balcony that looked down upon this scene. On the other side of the rivulet, rose a fairly large hill covered with thick greenery.

View from the balcony

After a quick cup of tea, we walked along the road until the next village, logically named Sitapur. While we were walking, we were given a sneak preview of the ranges hidden by the clouds. A near range comes out first. Having seen this, we started to look for formations behind the clouds to spot ranges. Our conversation was like this, "hey, see that! that looks like a range, wow"... "what wow? look a little above that point, doesn't that looks like a range that is even higher?".. "yeah, I think so". By the time we walked back, we could distinctly identify some of the ranges we 'wowed'.

The next morning when I woke up the temp was crisp and invigorating. The whole place was filled with the sounds of many song birds while the gushing sound of the rivulet provided the background. I get up to look out of the window and I see the sun striking one of the ranges. It was a lovely feeling. On the flip side, I had a bad sore throat.

Early morning sun


It was going to be a big day: we will be climbing 1800 mt over a 14 km trek. In all excitement, we pack and headed off to Gaurikund. And that will be the next part. This was the sight that greeted us as we went out...

Himalayas @ 1800 mts

Wednesday, June 21, 2006

Himalayan (mis)adventure

When my friend called early January to ask us if we would like to join them for a holiday in the himalayas, both of us said yes at once. I was sure I would be able to make it but we were not sure if K (my wife) could join us for the entire trip. Although it was at the back of our mind, we did not think about it until we have a mail from our friend giving us the dates and the possible itinerary that the trip started becoming real. Booking the trains and the places was a flurry of activities, where I had a very small role to play. Even though the trip was months away, some of the train tickets were waitlisted. Talk about the country on the move during the holiday season.

Something that I should have done first was to ask my friend what kind of route we would be taking. Later on when I did eventually ask her, we were to be going through the pilgrims route of Kedar, Badri and Hemkund. This certainly did deflate me. I am not too religious and the last thing I would like to do on a holiday is to jostle around for elbow space with faith-filled-pilgrims. I have nothing against them, just that I, a faithless fellow, would like to avoid taking up space that can be filled by a devoutee. I have stopped going to the Tirupati temple for that very reason. Once in a while, I go visit my friend who lives very close to Tirupati, visit some nearby temples (usually Kalahasti) and then head back. I like to go to temples where I can see the architecture, look at the sculptures, soak in the ambience, watch devotees mill around. Basically not too popular temples. So I told my friend that this route was not too exciting to me. She explained that although there will be many tourists, the sights and sounds are out of the world and that I should experience them atleast once. Yeah?, I said sarcastically, but why on my first trip to the Himalayas. She said, "come on, dont be such a spoil sport". Although that conversation ended my sulking trip, I nevertheless was not over excited about the 'sights and sounds'

The day finally arrived when we had to get to the station and be on the move. The trip to Delhi was OK. Would have loved to take the Rajadhani but thought TN Express would be more comfortable due to the timings. Well I dont know how Rajadhani would have been but TN was certainly not the best of the trips. The train doesnt stop anywhere, the food inside the train was lousy and we were not carrying food like the most of the other passengers. The only two high points of food during the trip were, a lovely mango juice at Nagpur and a great puri-subji at Itarsi. Ater reaching Delhi and after managing to get a dorm for four at the Rail Yatri Niwas, we waited for my friends from Mumbai to reach. After they arrived, after we chatted, after we checked out what munchies we got for the trip, after we finished our baths, we headed out to check out the Delhi metro and get some food at CP.

The metro was great. It was swanky, neat and quite well worked out. We were very impressed. But then because we could not read the signs properly and because the local could not direct us to the right exit, we had to walk a bit before we got to where we wanted to go on CP: a food joint. It was too expensive. The next one was too dirty and also served meat. Since one of us was an animal rights activist, we did not want to hurt his feelings too much by hogging at these veg/non veg joints, although all of us were veggies. Finally ate a meal at the Nirula bar. We had a veg buffet and ran back to the station to get our train.

The AC in the train to Haridwar was too cold and the fan was right above my head. When I wanted to switch off the fan, the lady beind me complained that she was not getting enough air. Ended up having a heavy head. I wondered later, why did I not ask her to swap seats. It was while on train, I realised that we had our room in Rishikesh and that the train does not stop there. So, soon after we got off at 8.00 PM, we hired a strange looking autorick, which that northern part of the country is full off, to drop us at our hotel in Rishikesh. While A and R were bargaining, K went off to buy some litchis. I sat in the front with the driver while the rest squeezed at the back. We went past the Har-ki-pauri, past some temples and some forest before reaching the hotel of GMVN (garhwal mandal vikas nigam), the tourist wing of uttaranchal govt.

While getting here, my first sight of Ganga, was when we went onto a bridge. So, here was a majestic river, in full flow with ghats on my left and a lone lamp floated by, twirling in an eddy. Dont think I will forget that sight for long time. Then later I thought, there was Ganga, which for many people who come here, is a body of holy water that orginates from the lock of the god himself, that in the past has liberated the souls of many of Rama's ancestor, and who will wash away all their sins and help them relieve the burden of karma. But for me, a faith-less fool, what did I want to remember it by? A visual of a lamp floating by. Well I slept that night thinking there are many that make this world and I am one of them.

Anyway, early in the morning we were woken up by one of the GMVN staff , saying that our sumo has arrived. After a breakfast of tea and alu-parathas (which, incidentally we got sick of by the time the trip ended) and a small altercation with the driver, we were off to the hills.

So why was this a mis-adventure? keep watching this space for more... Here is a picture of the hills.

Looking down into the vales

Wednesday, May 03, 2006

Along the backwaters...

If a tour operator delivers what he promises, tours will be a success. Doesn't matter if the tour belongs to the champagne-after-a-tiresome-balooning category or peel-your-own-potato category, tell them what they'd expect in the tour and give them that, the participants will be happy. How much they have been charged for it is incidental. People take on tours for experiences. Delivering what is promised, in India that too in Kerala where time is stretched beyond limits, is not an easy task. Calls have to be made weeks before, the concerned people have to be met the previous day, more calls have to be made in the evening before. Then finally when the day comes up, more calls have to be made as the person hasn't turned up.

After being cooped up in a resort across the backwater for couple of days, the group was to go to Kottayam, by a boat along the canals, with breakfast on the way. We were to leave at 7 in the morning, the boatman was instructed to take us along the various canals until 9 and then get us somewhere for breakfast after which he was to drop us in Kottayam. It was all simple and straight with little cause for any confustion or misinterpretation.

For the group to be ready by 7, they had to pack the previous night and wake up early. Last thing the group on a holiday would like to do is to wake up early. So not wanting to make a mess out of this, I made number of calls to the boat owner in Kottayam to drive in the idea that the boat has to, has to, be on time. When the morning came over it was not the case. The boat kind of sluggishly made its way to the pier at 8. Meanwhile, I made few more calls to the owner and he was becoming increasingly reluctant to take my calls. Kept saying "he will come in 5 mins saar". Naturally, when the boat finally arrived, we were mad at the boatman. He countered us by saying "breakfast" and quickly realised what he said and changed it to "fishing nets in motor".

After taking us around some canals, it was time for breakfast. We left some good restaurants on the way since the chap said we could have it in R-block. This is a stretch of land that is below the canal level, which must have been reclaimed. The first one he took us to was serving ' kappa ' and fish masala . Kappa is a mashed tapioca with lots of turmeric in it and did not at all looked appealing. Later on I came to know that these two are favourites at the local toddy shops. The next one had Kappa and mussels. The next had only fish masala. It was way past breakfast time and one of the members was diabetic. RJ and I were getting angry and concerned. We made few more angry calls to the owner, who then directed the boatman to take us somewhere. How long was it to take to get there? 15 mins. We should have been wiser and told the group 30 mins. It took 45 mins and was about 5 min from where we started! Thankfully the place served lovely omlette and chapati for the group. I had veg curry and chapati. I guess, the group wasnt sure when they would have lunch so they had another round of omlettes and then topped it with extra strong coffee. Now they were a happy bunch of people again. Not that they were miffed earlier but they were certainly unhappy a bit. I guess next time I will suggest that they should carry lot of dry food for occasions like these.

The canals got completely covered with water hyacinth as we got closer to Kottayam. The boat had to stop often and the motor reversed to unshackle the roots to go entwined in it. The group was quite happy with the sights and sounds they experienced along the canals: women washing clothes and utensils, kids swimming and screaming 'give me pen', kids in dresses going to their schools screming 'give me pen' and women canoeing past... houses, temples, churches, small kirana stores with little packets of goodies hanging from the awning that doubles up as the shop-window shutter.

View of the main waterway to Vembanad Lake

View of the by-canals...

A government busboat that plys between various places

Fisherman along the canal

Fisherman in Vembanad Lake whose nets supposedly stalled our boat's motor

Houseboats anchored for the night...

green fields and blue sky

green fields, blue sky and white birds...

By the time we reached Kottayam it was mid afternoon with the sun blazing. While I was helping to unload the luggage RJ went to boatowner with the intention of giving him a piece of his mind. Instead he could only meet the assistant who promised that he will make the owner call and apologise. We were in Kottayam for two days but that did not happen. We hired seven autos to deliver us to the hotel - a simple but clean hotel bang on the main road in Kottayam. We'd check out this town in the next blog.

Tuesday, March 28, 2006


As I am off to Vizag after a long time, this blog will mostly contain pictures. Also, nothing much happened at this place other than the fact that the group had their first fill of fish. The only trouble was that the portions were too tiny. Each person could only get a small piece. Unlike other resorts, this one touts itself as an ayurvedic one, and hence stipulates food orders atleast 4 hours in advance. So RJ had to apologise and promised that the next meal will have more fish!

The place that we stayed was bang opposite the backwaters. Those of you who watch Nehru Cup, the snake race starts exactly at this point.

View from resort

I had lots of pending work to do so excused myself from most of the city outings. Actually, I was not too eager to join them after RJ told me that there is nothing much to do. This was surprising considering that Laurie Baker, the famous architect had written an entire booklet comparing Alleppey to Venice. I wished I had it then. Since I was not in the city and since I slept early, I woke up early to watch the sun come up.


The first rays of the sun

The sunrise

The sun-kissed verandah

Sun-kissed Tharavad

Sun @ small aperture

The lawns in front of the backwaters

Some time in the afternoon I went for a walk around the resort and then met RJ for lunch at India Coffee House.

At the pond


Other than the fact that this is now a cooperative venture owned by the people working in it, there is nothing spectular. As I walked back to the resort, some of the group members were sitting out in the lawns watching the water world go by.

Public transport

House-boat @ the jetty

While it is nice and quieter during the day, it is unbelievable during the early and late parts of the day. The backwaters is filled with house-boats going into the Vebanad lake and back. The continous sound of the motors can take the fun out of a holiday. For some of the group members who had their rooms close to the water, it did.

The way to relax (its not me)

Relax (Take 2)

This is life!!

Actually before the tour started, I was sure Alleppey would be the best and the group will talk a lot about it. But it was not so, while it was the most expensive place we stayed in, it was certainly not the best. There were niggling details that made the stay a tad uncomfortable, atleast for RJ and me as we had to drop names just so that the staf behaves properly. Really, it is not the place that makes a great holiday, it is the people who run it who can make an ocean of difference.