Some spectacular sunsets from across the world

I am not a morning person – there, one confession down right at the beginning. I try – I earnestly do. I have tried going to sleep early, all I end up is sleeping for 10 hours instead of the required 7 hours. I have tried alarms away from my hand or literally in the bathroom by the washbasin. I go in, pee, even wash my face, then wonder if that morning walk or even reading for work is really worth the half hour of delicious snuggle in a warm bed and you know which side of the debate wins, don’t you? So even if I wanted I couldn’t do a post on the spectacular sunrises I have witnessed across the world. So I thought why not flip it? Show you the most spectacular sunsets I have seen – a few I captured too.

With this post I shall take you across the globe. The sunsets that I have witnessed while much younger when my parents wielded the camera and not me – I will hope that my power of description will paint the pretty picture. I don’t intend to use representational pictures for sure – does not make sense does it? This is a travel blog – my travel blog. 🙂

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Surviving the chaos in hilly Dharamsala

If you are the kind that scours the work calendar for long weekends to escape from the daily humdrum – away from the urban chaos, you also need to be the kind to plan it weeks (if not months) in advance. Or you’ll end up doing what we did!

Not that it is not fun, but like N says – there’s travel adventure/backpacking fun that you enjoy when you are in your 20s. You decide on a destination on sheer impulse, head to the nearest bus-station, wangle your seat and head off – reservations be damned, hotel bookings can wait till the destination is reached..and the return – well, let the journey begin before that? In your 30s, caution weighs over recklessness. Being in office Monday morning is as important as taking that quick holiday, travelling in comfort is essential and having all your bookings in place – that does mark the transition over travelling years.

12105906_10153015800280044_7337891648933710417_nSo we tried recapturing our younger selves – packed our backpack, took a Metro to Vidhan Sabha, a cycle rickshaw to Majnu Ka Tila and plunged into a sea of confused humanity of backpacks and tired office faces eager to escape the plains for the hills – just like us. We’d booked Volvo buses only to realise private operators are mostly an amorphous set of boards- they most likely have panchayats, where they decide how to fill seats on buses to optimise their operations. Tip 1, if you plan on a weekend away madness, choose government buses – most state governments run Volvo buses to tourist destinations. Brings me back to point in the intro para – plan it weeks in advance. The government buses get sold out really really fast! But the first view of the hills and the valleys through the large bus windows as the sun rises makes the overnight trip really worth it.

It also does not help that your weekend and the destination you chose also happens to be the time and place of  an international T20 match featuring India. So apart from the backpackers heading in the same directions as us, there were also horn-happy youngsters out in their swanky cars – the width of the bonnet just about the size of the width of the narrow mountain roads winding up from Dharamsala to McLeodgunj.

Friendly tip: While people say they are off to Dharamsala, what they don’t tell you is that they sp12107819_10153015800470044_120085182443405240_nent hardly any time in that town. Everyone drives up to McLeodgunj a few kilometres uphill. Yes, you can walk it up, but I’d suggest take a taxi and save your breath for the gorgeous panoramic views of the Kangra valley.
McLeodgunj is far more than just a hill station – it has political significance too, for it’s the seat of the Tibetan government in exile – a government trying to fight Chinese annexation of Tibet. Since the annexation in the 1940s, there has been amass exodus of ethnic Tibetans to escape persecution. When the Dalai Lama fled Tibet, India offered him asylum and several thousands of them settled in Dharamsala making it into a little Tibet. To understand the struggles that Tibetans went through, there is a Tibetan museum just by the Dalai Lama temple. So when you visit the temple, do spend an hour there. It is an on-going struggle for autonomy – a demand that China has refused to entertain, calling Tibet an inalienable part of its territory. Across McLeodgunj, you’ll come across posters seeking a boycott of Chinese goods to show solidarity with the Tibetan cause.
12107289_10153018620920044_6861516932402625779_nWe stayed in one of the hotels managed by the Norbulingka Institute- The Serkong House, so a visit to the Institute was part of the deal. There are daily shuttles from their two hotels in McLeodgunj to the Institute, which is in Dharamsala. Spending half a day in the institute is definitely recommended. It’s like a little haven, with the sounds of gurgling waters, chirping crickets, huge fish and abundant greenery, giving it a surreal feel. The Institute also trains local Tibetans in several ethnic arts and crafts, which are then sold through their shops. It’s fairly pricey on the Indian wallet, but all the proceeds go into preserving a culture in a home away from home. That perhaps makes the premium that you pay for owning their handmade artifacts worth it.  The guides say Norbu in Tibetan means precious and lingka refers to picnic. A precious picnic, for sure! While there, sit in the cafe, soaking some sunshine with a glass of ginger-lemon-honey tea in the winter. That’s all you’d perhaps want to do through the break.

wpid-20151004_114558-01.jpegMcLeodgunj was once an important British station – but today, you will hardly see any signs of it. A massive earthquake in 1905 not only killed several officers, soldiers and their families, but also reduced most colonial buildings to rubble. And the Raj decided to move their summer capital from Dharamsala to Shimla. This church, among the last straggling remnants of the days of the Raj is a must-visit. St.John in the Wilderness can look neglected if you try to visit it over a working week-day. But on Sunday, the church doors are opened for two services. And looking at the altar, the sun filtering in through stained glass decorations, you can’t but imagine how the services would have looked a century and a half ago, when families would have congregated in the Sunday best to reaffirm their faith and mingle. Don’t miss out on walking through the gravestones, some hidden by the spreading wilderness. Some ornate descriptive ones will tug at your heartstrings – young families wiped out within days of each other – you wonder if it was illness or an accident or perhaps even suicide? There’s one memorial you can’t miss. That of Lord Elgin, the second Viceroy of India, who spent his final months in Dharamsala and wanted to buried here.12144826_10153018620995044_1993878872900690071_n

Set aside the dark thoughts and in the time that you are in McLeodgunj, take as many walks as you can to admire the Kang12112461_10153015800380044_6123973573794063356_nra valley from different angles. You can trek up to Dharamkot – the town where people head to for accommodation when McLeodgunj is fully booked. You get lovely views of McLeodgunj and Dharamsala down below.

You can also walk towards Bhagsu, an old village famous for an old temple that is reverred by the native Gorkha populations settled here. There is also a waterfall, the Bhagsunag falls. We walked till nearly there and then turned back – wondering12079242_10153015800730044_7930648840543261001_n why – the snaking traffic, the honking and the steadily billowing dust from the stomping tourists and their huge vehicles clogged my asthmatic lungs pretty bad. Rather than fall ill, we walked back!

This post cannot end without a mention of the food you can hope to eat in this hill station. Eat in the small eateries that dot the place. Some are definitely better than the others, but one thing that stood out across most places, big and small that we ate in was that food was always cooked fresh and has a vibrant, rustic taste that increases your appetite a tad more! Where did we eat? Well, we tried the Clay Oven (for Tibetan and Nepalese fare), Jimmy’s Italian (yummy wood-fired pizzas) (they are owned by the same family), Moonpeak Espresso and a few smaller places that Tripadvisor had rated high. The spinach and cheese momos – you rarely see that in the plains and the wholesome flavourful Tibetan flat-noodle soups and the spongy steamed Tibetan bread.

What do I love most about my three-day break in McLeodgunj? Apart from the fresh food and the cleansing honey-ginger lemon that I tanked up on, it has to be the Kangra valley views- the glorious sunsets ( I can never rouse myself up for the sunrise) and the walk through the cemetery – remembering men, women and children who lived over a century ago. This quaint hill station, today is the keeper of their memories.12118809_10153015800765044_7345200711533632008_n

 

Brush Your French Up For Pondicherry!

SignpostsEver felt a sense of serenity while walking on a beach front that thronged with several thousands – where every step that you take is matched by a few hundreds walking in the same direction? Waiting to watch the sun go down to chalk down another day as well-spent on the planet? The city is rather over-hyped, only some bits were explored over weekend, but amid all this, I took a walk with myself, thought a lot of thoughts while waiting for that perfect moment to capture a photo to keep the evening fresh in my head for years.

Gandhi StatueThe promenade along the sea face of Pondicherry is not for the feeble hearted on a Sunday evening. We didn’t have another time – three women on a trip away from spouses and kids and assorted family worries. So we went. One look at the crowds and my friends chose to sit and soak in the humid sea air and talk a bit more. I trudged on, jostled by little kids and their toys, trying hard not to step on pint-sized pups that people had brought along on their evening walks. At one end of the promenade, is  the Gandhi statue. Across the street is another statue of Pandit Nehru,

But was Pondicherry about that walk alone? Not really, but it was largely centred around the quaint French Quarters, the yummy eateries and Auroville. Some say there’s little else to see in Pondicherry. For many Auroville and Pondicherry are synonymous. What have you done if you haven’t been to Auroville? Few people know its a way away from the city. But do venture that way. The vast expanse of forested civilisation is a world apart. AurovilleImagine living your life on a bare stipend that is expected to keep the body and soul together, while contributing to the society’s various occupations – join the bakers, the carpenters, leather designers, paper makers – or work at their schools. There are jobs for nearly all kinds of skills. And if you are a guest visiting, you could chose to stay at Auroville – bicycle your way through the dense thickets, spend time meditating at the Maitri Mandir or even explore the eateries serving up some great food from across the world. I ditched the Maitri Mandir, my meditation is best done amid the madding crowds – you’d have got an inkling of that from the first half of the post itself, right? Did I mention the Auroville bakery? Get there well on time, or you might not get what you have set your mind on. A recovering stomach kept me away from the buttered-sugared delights, but that shouldn’t worry you now, should it?

Considering we only had two days of downtime, don’t think we did all that bad. What did bad though was my wallet first and then my credit card. How do you head to Auroville and not buy their exquisite leather (or for that matter Hidesign?). If you are part of the anti-leather brigade, you’ll still splurge on the amazing paper and other products from Auroville. Or you could be like me, averse to neither leather nor the exquisite paper and other handmade products – do I need to explain what the results of that were??

French QuartersDid I say it was also about some great food, insanely girlie conversations late late into the night and two days of walking all around the French Quarters? If you didn’t look at the Tamil script on the nameboards under the French Rue’ names then like me, you’d be lulled into thinking you were in Phnom Penh. The French made their colonies quite identical, didn’t they? Young groups who flock to Pondicherry swear by the cheaper alcohol. Well, not a drop of alcohol was bought that weekend in Pondicherry, I might add. But eat well, we did. If you want to explore the good continental cuisine, Villa Shanti’s restaurant is worth a try. We were recommended that place by local Aurovilleans. For the authentic Tamilian fare, no better place than A2B, Adayar Ananda Bhavan – two As and it becomes A2 ( get the drift?) We did try some good desserts at Baker’s Junction and some coffee too ( all are places at walking distance within the French Quarters. We told you we didn’t move around much, didn’t we?)

Choose why you want to head to Pondicherry. It’s a quiet coastal city, beautiful in parts like many others. If you happen to stay in the pretty part, like I did, I’d tell you to go back time and again. But do it in short spurts perhaps, if Auroville and their way of living isn’t your biggest attraction to visit Pondicherry. As a destination to catch up with your girls, well, that’s gets a big two thumbs up!!

Quick ReckonerAuroville Bakery

Accommodation – We stayed at Neemrana’s beautiful Hotel de L’Orient ( a 10% discount in peak season for Friends of Neemrana made the bargain sweet. When splitting the fare three ways, you can splurge on the biggest room in the villa. Just what we did! The spacious Karaikal was worth the money we spent on the room!)

Transportation – You’ll need to hire a rickshaw or taxi to take you to Auroville and other places. Bargain hard, or stick to a hotel arranged taxi. The rickshaws charge you a hand and a leg if they know you are a tourist. There are no fixed rates and running by the meter unheard of!

Things to do – Eat well – lots of lovely places to choose from – Must mention Cafe Xtasi – unpretentious pizza joint but they kind of go out of their way to help you – we had one vegetarian and two non-vegetarians in the group and very little appetite – so they graciously made us a half-half pizza – one side was a veggie garden while the other a hunting ground of local chicken. The other places were mentioned earlier too, let’s not make it look like anyone’s paying me for this! 🙂

Another must visit is the Auroville Paper Factory – its in the city itself and not in Auroville. If I could, I’d have brought back the entire shop. We spent about 3hours and wished there were more days to go back to pick up some more.

Oh..and the last tip – if Hidesign stores tell you there is no factory outlet where you can get yummy stuff at a bargain, look them in the eye and say stop lying. There is one in the city itself. It’s a little hole in the wall, but you might just find yourself a good piece of bag or baggage at lovely prices!

So there, bidding au revoir from sunny Pondicherry,  ( that’s about all the French I brushed up!)

D

 

 

 

 

Living in Art – Life in Shekhawati

Sometimes you need a getaway from your mundane life – a quick de-tox from the pace of life in a metropolitan city. I feel the need for a detox every month. Since I’m yet to strike on a happy working formula that allows me to just up and go every month, I try to take off as often as I can. The plans for the next holiday – destination, days needed and who to go with – usually get jotted down in my little notebook on the return journey from the current one! The biggest advantage of living in Delhi is perhaps the ease of packing a backpack, checking the fuel in your car and heading out to the mountains, hills, plains, jungles or even the desert.

For long, I’d heard of the Shekhawati region, in the heart of the Marwar in Rajasthan. Marwari businessmen, known for their business acumen and enterprise, settled across the world still maintain their ancestral homes spread across this region. It was these ancestral homes that I wanted to see. Reading up a bit about the painted homes of Shekhawati could be an added incentive for your roadtrip!

N and I set out for Bagar near Jhunjhunu, about 4 hours away from Delhi. The region of the painted havelis is called Mandawa and Jhunjhunu, is perhaps the most famous town here – famous for the only Sati temple across India. ( For those who don’t know about the Sati system – the short of it is dutiful wives were expected to commit suicide by jumping into the funeral pyres of their dead husbands. PS: the husbands never committed sati, they just married another one! If the short description makes you want to know more, here’s more. )

The Piramal Haveli in Bagar

We love staying at Neemrana properties and have been to a few – that they are a fair bit off the beaten path is an added incentive. There are several hotels in Mandawa – big and small. Most of them painted havelis – renovated and refurbished to attract tourists. The Piramal Haveli in Bagar in Shekhawati is about 13kms shy of Jhunjhunu – a lovely painted haveli built in the 1920s by a Marwari businessman, who had made his fortune in Mumbai. On the scale of 1/10 of judging painted havelis, the Piramal haveli would rate a 6. The old frescos have been lovingly preserved, a new coat of paint has been carefully done without disturbing the original artwork. The newer hotels in Mandawa have a similar style of art, but if you are a connoisseur of the old, try out the grander Mandawa fort.

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The Fateh Sagar reservoir – once the symbol of ingenuity in water conservation, now mouldy and in disuse

We couldn’t thank technology enough. Had it not been for the GPS on our phones, we’d have struggled to figure out which diversion in the state highway leads to Bagar, just another dusty town on the road to the bigger towns of Mandawa and Jhunjhunu. Most of the institutions in this town, the dispensary, schools etc was courtesy charitable trusts set up by the Marwaris. There’s an abandoned old reservoir, the only other ‘place of interest’ in the strict sense of exploration – the brainchild of the rulers of an arid region where water was dependent on seasonal rains and its conservation a practical necessity. Things have changed, now with water running through pipes and taps in every home, the old water reservoir has green and mouldy water. The beautifully carved steps leading to the water are littered with empty liquor bottles- any guesses who are the nightly visitors who frequent it? Another bit of history -a much needed lesson in clever water conservation goes down the drain! Literally.

The quaintness of the town is perhaps its biggest charm. True to its Marwari heritage, at the Piramal haveli, don’t expect to be served non-vegetarian fare! But if you like some good old-fashioned Marwari cusine, then the cooks at the Piramal haveli won’t disappoint you. (The Mandawa fort, on the other hand, where we had our lunch one day does serve non-vegetarian food and also offers a good selection of alcohol!) Your most frequent companions at the haveli are the peacocks that wander about as if they own the land. N and I spent an evening, with a hot cup of chai on the terrace of the haveli trying to spot peacocks by following the sound of their incessant chatter – I remember spotting seven across three trees! And as I walked down the stairs, there it was – a beautiful peacock feather – perhaps left behind for me as a memento of my little expedition to spot them!

The havelis have been leased out to families, who act as caretakers for the rich Marwari owners

The havelis have been leased out to families, who act as caretakers for the rich Marwari owners

Mandawa is about an hour away. Walking around the town, in and out of painted homes, can give you a feeling of being an intruder. The owners of several of these painted havelis live in far away cities like Mumbai or Kolkata. The tenants, who live in some have perhaps become immune to the painted legacy around them. While some owners, realising the potential of converting their old homes into hotels have begun investing in refurbishing them, several others are in a sad state of disrepair – a glorious past slowly rotting away. All across Mandawa, you can see friezes – a steam engine here, planes elsewhere – in fact, at the Piramal haveli, there is a painting in the main courtyard of gods flying in a plane – an interesting commentary of how the artists of Mandawa tried to merge their traditional styles with modern ideas. I’m told by artists I spoke to there that they are the most skilled and highly in demand for the growing interest in mural-painted walls. The gold work, a symbol of the rich Marwari household has been replaced by easily available gold paint, but the finesse of work still survives – the families that painted Mandawa into a living museum still ply the trade!

The land is changing, cars and internet (intermittently available in Bagar, better in Mandawa) are changing the preferences and ways of life everywhere. Some painted havelis have survived better than the others, but if you ever do head out to explore Rajasthan, a day or two in the Mandawa region could be a lesson in art and architecture favoured by the rich Marwaris of Rajasthan.

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Quick Reckoner

Places to see in Shekhawati – Piramal Haveli in Bagar, Mandawa Fort ( also a hotel), Sati Temple in Jhunjhunu, the painted havelis of Mandawa

Distance from Delhi – 4-4.5hrs

Budget – Hotels available to suit every budget

What to do there – Eat, drink and spend some time vegetating, while not exploring the painted havelis!

2014: The Travel Flashback

Among journalists, December is a year of much joy and also haste – putting together year-enders (especially for TV journos like me) meant looking back over the year archives, picking and choosing incidents and stories to cobble together into one-hour year-ender shows – so the order usually is research, amassing the footage, writing over visuals, editing the script to 42-45 mins of running time( you need to account for commercial breaks too!) and then finally sitting down with the editor, choosing music, audio, voice overs and finally the piece is ready!

I miss the buzz of the newsroom. So I decided to boo the winter sloth and write the first piece before 2014 ends. The Flashback, yearender, thanksgiving – call it whatever.. like Shakespeare wrote, a rose by any other name would smell as sweet! Travel nostalgia is fragrant, smile-inducing and often results in affirmative action (if you know what I’m hinting at with that loaded phrase!)

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