Somewhere in the heart of Gwalior, just a 4 hour train-ride from Delhi, stands an exquisite heritage 17th century landmark – open for lovers of nature and solitude. A place where trees sway, butterflies frolick, peacocks dance and friendships flourish with every step! Where silence is a spoken language and playful winds breathe fresh life into the walls that once provided shelter to the revolutionaries fighting under the reign of Rani of Jhansi. Our combined lives will fall short in summarizing the countless stories these lawns have witnessed or the many historic conversations these arched doors have eves-dropped on. And that’s the beauty of the Neemrana philosophy… a chance to live and love (pseudo ही सही) the royal life!
As an ardent admirer and advocate of slow travel – which automatically directs you towards budget and solo travel; this staycation was very interesting for me because it broke all my travel stereotypes. Not only did I get a fresh taste of luxury (and boy, did I love it!,) but this was also a trip where I was, for a change, not alone – and that sure made me very nervous at the onset! Two months ago, as a birthday present for a dear friend in Delhi, I planned a short staycation at Neemrana Deo Bagh in Gwalior. All my pre-travel jitters and anxiety went galloping back to Delhi the moment we stepped foot inside the Deo Bagh campus. I remember reaching our room and the first thing we both said to each other was “let’s not go anywhere!” It was that moment when I knew that traveling with Carly was the best decision and this staycation was going to be amazing!
And while it was definitely her awesomeness that made this trip so memorable, I cannot not mention the charm and beauty of the place that was just the perfect icing on the cake…or as we fondly say in Hindi: “सोने पे सुहागा”
The sheer grandeur of Deo Bagh combined with the impeccable hospitality of their staff made us dream and think of princesses and life as royalty; and that’s exactly how we felt during our short but overwhelmingly serene stay at Neemrana Deo Bagh! The staff went out of their way to make sure we had a good time. The way they took care of us, looked after everything we wanted, pampered us with so much love and attention – it truly felt like we were living the royal life! So much so that we specially went to the market to buy anarkalis just because we wanted to walk around the gardens acting like the princesses we felt we were. And the FOOD!!!!!! How can I not mention the food… hands-down the best meals I’ve ever had! The lovely (color-coordinated) staff and impeccable hospitality mixed with the beauty and serenity of the property made our staycation just what we wanted: calm, relaxing and very very indulgent.
My dearest Carly,
Here’s to you, your charismatic personality, your beautiful aura, your uncanny sincerity and your heart-warming conversations. I remember and cherish every moment of these 3 days with you: The messages from the green tea-bags, the picnic in the garden and “two girls and two bananas. Wonder what you’re up to!”, the beggar on the street asking you for a cigarette, the royal photoshoot, being the only two people who loved seeing the bats at the fort, you giving yoga lessons to Narayan ji, the walk on a super sunny afternoon and not getting a ride back, the butterfly viewing and the peacock chasing….and that thing we did that night dressed in all-black with our torch lights on? I can’t say it here but you know what I mean *wink wink* ! You’re the girlfriend I never had and the girlfriend I always needed …and given a chance I’d turn back time and take a trip with you several years ago! I’m so glad you came into my life and you inspire me to be a better person and a better friend with every small thing you do. Here’s to you, to our ever-growing friendship and to a never-dying love! 🙂
I know it’s been AGES since I last updated my blog, and I also apologize for being very ignorant with replying to comments too, but this post is my way of saying that I’m back and I won’t be missing in action again!
Now that this mandatory and much-needed apology is out of the way, let’s skip to the topic I’ve been dying to discuss! My very recent trek to Kareri Lake in Dharamsala!
I want to start by saying that this was the first trek I’ve done in the last 2 years (third trek overall – after the Living Root Bridges & Triund). Now, you might wonder why I am emphasizing so much on my inexperience as a trekker. That’s because if there is anyone out there who is keen on taking this trek, but feels demotivated because it sounds difficult / taxing, don’t give it a second thought and just go for it. Like I always say – if a tiny, petite girl like me can do it, so can you, and lucky for us, so did some of my friends from Bombay & Chandigarh (some had never been on a trek before)
Having said that, yes – the trek is taxing (if not difficult), mainly because the terrain is quite rough and wild including a lot of heavy climbing (STEPS!!!) for a very steep part of the way. If I am being honest, I did try to turn around and return once during the trek, but like all the best tour guides out there, mine too did not let me give up, and I willingly agreed to fall for the “just a little more” trap laid out before me. Was it worth it? Why don’t you take a look at the pictures and decide for yourself 🙂
All pictures in this post have been shot using Google Pixel XL 2! It’s the first time I traveled without a DSLR, and I swear, I did not miss it for a second!
You will find the details of the trek (relevant contacts, itinerary etc) below the pictures.
Trek level: Beginners Start from: Kareri Village, Dharamsala (1.5 hours from Dharamsala main market) Trek duration: 5-6 hours (Going up) 4-5 hours (Coming down) Brief Itinerary: Day 1 (suggested, can be done without this too): Instead of traveling to Kareri early in the morning and starting the trek immediately, we chose to reach Kareri village a day early, and stayed at a village homestay for the night. The homestay had 3 rooms, and we were 9 people, so Arjun and I ended up setting a tent in the verandah for ourselves. This (in my opinion) turned out to be a good prep for the camping we had to do the next day.
Day 2: Wake up at the crack of dawn to see a very beautiful sunrise right outside our tents. If I can be honest, with Arjun snoring next to me, and Abhinav and Stuart snoring from the rooms behind me, I hardly caught a peaceful shut-eye throughout the night, and so the idea of it becoming brighter outside really came as a welcome escape for me. While everyone started segregating their essentials into trail backpacks and night bags (to be loaded on the khachchars), our house hosts busied themselves in preparing our breakfasts, enabling us to to start the trek on the right note! We left our homestay at approximately 8 am, and reached the lake at 1 PM. Whatever happened in-between can be seen in the pictures below.
Day 3: Another early start and this time we divided our group into two – 1) the ones who wanted to stick back and do some photography and 2) the ones who wanted to reach the toilet first! I was in the first group, and on leaving around 11 AM, we reached the village at 4 PM. It shouldn’t ideally take this long, but this was partially my fault, as I wandered off on the wrong path and that was an easy 1 hour penalty. I also tend to stop a lot on the way, talking to trees and soaking in the views, as opposed to most friends who can just run back to the destination.
If you need a tour operator to organize your trek (relieves you of the tension of carrying your own tents, food etc), you can contact Amit: 85797 20373
We were a group of 9 people, and we each Rs. 3,000 per person – this included the cab pickup and drop (ex-Dharamsala), the dinner + accommodation at the village, breakfast, trail food, and dinner the next day, and a simple breakfast on day 3, payment for the animals, tents & sleeping bags.
What happens when 30 travel bloggers from across the globe sign up for one crazy road-trip in Kerala? It’s what you call the “Trip of a Lifetime”!
And when, as the onlyIndian blogger in the bunch, you get a chance to see your own country through the eyes of 29 foreigners, you return home feeling nothing but immense gratitude and pride! India is such an enchanting amalgamation of culture and chaos, it’s hard to not fall in love with this place even as a foreigner (more so as a foreigner!) What with our “little spicy” food and deceiving head-nods – being a part of Kerala Blog Express with all these amazing travel bloggers made me see India for what it really is – a melting pot of beautiful traditions – a country that can mesmerize you as much as it can drive you towards the edge of insanity – the perfect recipe for instant love 🙂
Most of what I point out below might sound very redundant or cliche to my Indian readers, but I will do so anyway because I think we need a constant reminder of how beautiful such “cliches” are and why we should be grateful for our lovely country! On the last few days of our trip, I went around with my camera, asking each blogger three things that they will remember India for, and the answers were quite unanimous.
On going through those videos again, I noticed these are the 5 things that made all the heads turn, cameras click and pens scribble during the Kerala Blog Express 2016!
Even before I stepped foot on the coast, a birds-eye view of Trivandrum, looking absolutely glorious and unabashedly GREEN no matter where your eyes turn, made my heart leap with joy!
Kerala is so photogenic and colorful, and I’m not speaking only of the hill-stations like Munnar that are filled with tea plantations – even commercial cities like Cochin had much to offer. My fondest memory of Kerala will be of the Kumarakom backwaters, where we went kayaking, and even the water was lush green covered in water plants! Colors follow you everywhere you go – whether it is the breathtaking sunsets of Alleppey, endless lines of palm trees at Kumarakom, scenic tea plantations along winding road of Munnar, the stunning wall murals on the Cochin streets, or the traditional outfits of dancers at the Kerala Kalamandalam – that’s a blessing only a few places in India can boast about!
“Is this spicy?”
(After one bite) “OMG this is too spicy!!!”
No, that wasn’t me! But that was every other blogger on this trip, and it was so amusing to watch these reactions! A quick visit to the spice plantations of Kerala gave us all a fleeting taste of how many spices actually go into a simple Indian curry, and most of the westerners had never heard of them before! While the 29 bloggers had a love-hate relationship with Kerala’s spicy food, the best part was seeing them asking for more by the end of the trip. Even more amusing was seeing pictures of biryani’s and curries being shared after they returned to their own country, and went scouting for authentic Indian restaurants!
Cattle in the middle of the street, elephants leading religious processions, monkeys scaring the living hell out of you by popping up from nowhere – it’s amazing how animals are just about EVERYWHERE! As much as I dislike the domestication of elephants, I can’t deny being awestruck every time I saw one – whether it was in the wild at Periyar Wildlife Sanctuary, or on the streets during religious processions! Watching an elephant in the wild is one experience every single person in the world should add to their bucket-list; the sheer magnanimity and glory of the sight cannot be explained in words!
Ladies dressed in colorful sarees, men walking on the streets in lungis, young girls in bindis, people eating “sadya” with their hands – a reflection of how the locals take pride in their traditions! The streets of India are always bright with colors and celebrations! In our short 2 weeks, we witnessed multiple religious processions, carnivals, traditional dances, and musical performances! People at these functions will invite you to be a part of the festivities, join in the dance or take over the drums. Call me sentimental – but when I saw fellow bloggers give up the comfort of our air-conditioned bus and luxury suites, to stay back in Kochi on an excruciatingly hot afternoon just to get their hands painted with henna – I realized how we as Indians take our own culture so much for granted!
Easily the one thing almost every blogger definitely took back with them! It could be because we stood out naturally being a huge bunch of 30, but it’s fantastic how we were greeted with smiling faces no matter where we went! It was nice to see how curious people were, to know where we’re coming from, what we’re up to! It was also funny to see how locals would be so excited about taking selfies with the bloggers, not knowing that the bloggers were actually more delighted about doing the same! People in Kerala know how to treat their guests – and this is one thing each and every blogger cherished the most during their stay here! “Atithi Devo Bhavah”, or the age-old Indian tradition of treating your guests as equal to your Gods, is a practice we should all be very proud of!
Vote for Kerala Blog Express 4:
You still have 2 more days to vote for contestants competing for this years’ KBE! Visit their website and make your vote count 😉
PS: Thank you Jinson Abraham for letting me use these amazing pictures for the article!
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Growing up in India, one does know that we love our overly-extravagant weddings. For those who don’t, here’s a small insight: the wedding industry in India is over Rs 100,000 crore and a regular person spends one fifth of the wealth accumulated in a lifetime on his/her wedding ceremony. Decorators, caterers, make-up artists, costume designers, choreographers, henna artists, hair stylists, it’s all so crazy! I saw my older sister organizing her wedding a year ago, and just the craziness of it all made me make a not-at-all-grand-wedding pact (I’d much rather splurge on traveling!)
And then I attended a traditional Gaddi-style wedding in Himachal earlier this year, which easily was the most beautiful, life-altering experience for me! The sheer simplicity and amount of love I observed at this one wedding, made me see more clearly how fickle and pretentious everything at our regular wedding functions back home is.
Minni Di, as she is known to everyone in the tiny hamlet named Khirku, is one of the most beautiful Himachali women I’ve met. She’s an independent young woman, working odd jobs to look after herself and her brother, while also saving for her own marriage. The first thing I noticed about her was her relentless love for animals, ALL kinds for animals! She can just naturally sense their fears and needs, like a psychologist of sorts for animals, and this positive vibe always attracted them towards her.
Gaddi’s are a tribe in Himachal, essentially the shepherd tribe, people who move from one settlement to another with their families and flock of sheep. Things have changed for them over the years, and so you shouldn’t be surprised that most Gaddi men are not wandering shepherds anymore, but have settled in villages like Khirku to bring a little stability to their lives. Minni Di belongs to one such Gaddi family.
Minni Di ki “Chhayi”…
The excitement of attending her wedding began in April, when I was living in Khirku for a good fortnight, which was also when her first wedding function took place and got me hooked to the beauty of it all.
This was going to be a wedding where neighbors were family, men of the house were decorators, chefs and servers, women were makeup, hair and henna artists, and almost every person at the wedding was sans-makeup & jewelry – the true and purest emotions of a union came to the fore! And I wasn’t going to miss it for my life…
(A month later) First ceremonial shower!
After the shower, the bride is made to eat her food, because she won’t be able to for the rest of the night (Mehendi ceremony begins right after!) Here, it was interesting to see little kids come to the bride and ask her to offer them food (like asking for prasad at a temple).
So, about the crying!
Now one thing I have to mention here, while the bride is being “made to shower” by the women, the brides only task is to cry! YES, to CRY HER EYES OUT! It is considered as some kind of a ritual almost, wherein the bride is intimated 2 mins before any ceremony begins, so that she can get into the mood and begin to bawl. I will be honest, the first time I actually saw this I was so taken aback (which explains why I have no pics of the showering ceremony). Ladies around me didn’t find this odd at all and no one tried stopping the poor bawling bride. In fact, I could overhear stories of women boasting about how they cried louder, or “almost fainted”, when it was their turn! And mind you, this continued before EVERY SINGLE FUNCTION until the wedding, and then there was the bidaai which was even more disturbing to watch.
So I tried asking everyone why is crying so important for the bride. No one could answer reasonably. And I was convinced that just like any regular Indian tradition, the original reason for the tradition has been twisted manifold over the years, and no one now knows what the actual reason is anymore! But one of the more sensible friend of mine offered the argument that maybe (and I kinda like the sound of it) the crying tradition began as a means of catharsis to allow the bride to enter her new life with a clean slate. What d’you think?
Ok, now back to the wedding…
Preparing for the feast!
Dhaam, Baaja, Baraat!
Swagat nahi karenge humara?
Would you look at that gorgeous, gorgeous outfit? Yes, it’s a shirt with an embroidered ghaghra / skirt, and a beautiful sehra / headdress!
Over at the grooms’…
PS: I thought I should add that this is a love-marriage. So please don’t think that she’s crying because she was forced to marry someone she didn’t approve of!
Also, this post is nothing but my observation of a Gaddi wedding, as a total outsider, and someone who was witnessing the culture for the first time. So if I have made some errors, feel free to write to me and I’ll be happy to edit (and learn!)
It’s true! As much as I once complained about water balloons and air pollution and goat sacrifice, I have now realized how festivals, when celebrated in the right spirit, are just another reason to have fun! Laugh a little, know your neighbors, forget about your work stress, dance with strangers on the street! And you know what’s more important about festivals? How they can become the reason someone falls in love with a city!
Hate the traffic all you want, but you can’t deny how joyous Mumbai is around Ganesh Chaturthi or Navratri. I visited Vrindavan during Holi this year, and even while I continue to hate being colored by known AND unknown people alike, I will count it as one of my top travel experiences. And you know another such great city-festival match made in heaven? Durga Pujo in Kolkata!
Now, I have visited Kolkata several times over the last few years, and not once did I enjoy it as much as I did over the 4 days of Pujo 2015! The city is alive, every face is lit up with a smile, every stranger has a greeting and every step has a bounce. Pandals go all out, not just with decorations and festivities, but also educational and environmentally friendly themes. In fact, ironic as it is, even while a vague attempt is visible at maintaining the religious motive of the festival, worship is the last thing on anyone’s mind. People are out there with their families, dressed up to the T, enjoying the lavish feast laid out at every pandal, dancing to the music, feasting their eyes to how colorful and vibrant the city is. Pujo in Kolkata is more a community gathering than a religious celebration.
And above all, what I loved about Pujo in Kolkata, the symbolism attributed to every idol of the imitable Goddess. 4 days of celebrating Durga as a mother of Saraswati (nowhere else do you see this), Durga as a warrior defeating the demon Mahishasura (Thus earning the title of Mahishasura Mardini), Durga as a daughter returning to her homeland for the autumn break, and Durga as our dearest motherland, basking in the glorious cries of Bandemataram (Hail Mother)!
I saved these pictures for all of last year, waiting to feel a little nostalgic while browsing through them, waiting for the start of Pujo 2016, waiting for Kolkata, and the rest of India, to welcome Mahisasuramardini once again! And today it is, Shubho Mahalaya everyone! 😀
A lady sitting on the street, making idols for Pujo!
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I am writing this article while combating severe flashback scenarios taking me back to my two weeks in Kerala, back in February 2016 – which were nothing short of a fairytale! When I signed up to participate in Kerala Blog Express 3, I only expected an all-sponsored trip to the state that I had seen only through Mani Ratnam’s eyes, but what I received in Kerala was so much more! I was the only Indian on the trip, and traveling in your own country with 29 international bloggers hailing from 24 nationalities, each curious and some absolutely clueless about your culture – is an experience words cannot describe!
So, flashback to 15th February 2016 – when 30 strangers from 25 countries set upon one epic road-trip, to a strange land in a strange continent, to the world’s biggest democracy, with nothing in common but an intense craving for adventure – and the rest, as they say, is history! Here are my top 10 unforgettable memories from this amazing adventure:
The traditional welcome we received at every resort
It all began at the official press-conference where we were swarmed by the paparazzi – it was a teaser of the two weeks to come. And sure enough, the Kerala Blog Express made each and every one of us feel so special at every step of the journey. Every resort we stepped into, would have a red carpet laid out just for us, with traditional aarti, live drums, traditional dance and welcome drinks (coconut water, obviously)! By the end of the trip we were so used to this royal treatment that when I returned to Mumbai, I was a tad disappointed at the sheer lack of recognition from the airport authorities! Let me show them my Instagram…
Our very own luxury floating house
I don’t know who (and why!) named those gorgeous waterbodies “backwaters” (it just sounds so wrong!) But I’ll stick to the common term. The famous Kerala backwaters – easily the crown jewel of the state! The one experience I was most curious AND skeptical about – because once any place is too famous, it usually ends up as a disappointment as it never matches up to the high expectations. But not true in this case. We stayed on a luxury houseboat owned by Spice Routes at the Alleppey Backwaters, and that one evening was easily the most peaceful sleep I had throughout the trip!
Village experience in Kumarakom
My blog, Untravel, is all about off-beat travel and learning a little from every place I visit. And so, our little village life experience in Kumarakom had me jumping around with joy like a little kid at the candy store! I volunteered to do every activity, including climbing a palm tree, and while I failed miserably at choir making (thrice!), I’m proud that Amma passed me in my mat-making tutorial! She didn’t speak much hindi, but she told the organizers in Malayalam – “She’s good. Let her stay here with me!” Mission accomplished, I’d say!
Kayaking on the Kumarakom backwaters
While kayaking can be fun no matter where you choose to do it, I would highly recommend doing it at Kumarakom backwaters! Kerala is so breathtakingly beautiful in so many ways, kayaking in Kumarakom was another gentle reminder of the same. As we made our way through the picturesque water alleys, we were greeted by locals residing by the banks of these canals, just as the sun blazed an amazing red getting ready for sundown! The canals was choker-blocked with waterplants for most parts, and while that does make kayaking here a little difficult as you have to really use all your strength to wade through the heavy roots, it also makes it all the more memorable!
Planting a tree in Thekkady
How many places can claim of keeping a part of you even after you’ve said your goodbyes? Thekkady does now, because the lovely folks at Greenwoods Resort got us to plant a sapling, which they will name after us. This way, any time I return to Thekkady, I can go check how my lovely “mitti” tree is doing!
Seeing elephants in the wild!
Strangely, the day I entered into an argument with the organizers about using an elephant to welcome us at a resort, also turned out to be the day when I saw one happy family of elephants in the wild! OH YEAH! BEST THING EVER! I also saw a wild boar, deer, several exotic birds and a bison! All while we cruised in our boat over the manmade lake in Periyar Wildlife Sanctuary!
Meditation and camping amidst the tea-gardens of Munnar
Being a mountain child at heart, I was delighted to be back in familiar territory when we reached our campsite in Munnar. Cozily tucked amidst lush green tea-gardens with a mesmerizing view of the western ghats, our campsite was a scene right out of a dream. I thoroughly enjoyed catching the sunset away from the crowd with two fellow-bloggers. It was so serene and calm, we just sat there admiring the beautiful landscape, opening our hearts to different sounds of nature.
Winning the lucky draw to Pranavam Homestay
Ah, yes, that had to happen! Anyone who has read my blog will know how I prefer homestays over any other accommodations, and as much as I was enjoying the unfathomable luxury of the many resorts we were staying at during this trip, I was way out of my comfort zone! And luckily for me, I won the lucky draw (yes, we picked chits) to win a stay at the only homestay that was a part of our itinerary – Pranavam Homestay in Pozhuthana, Wayanad! I had the greatest time in the company of our affable hosts – Mr. Ravichandran, Rema Amma and Anwer – as we discussed politics, our families, local stories, their royal connections, India’s partition and Ravi-ettan’s Gandhian principles! Homestays are meant to offer a home away from home, and that’s exactly what Pranavam will do for you!
Appreciation of traditional arts at Kerala Kalamandalam
You think of South India, you think of classical dance! And so, when we visited the Kerala Kalamandalam in Kochi, the only government authorized arts preservation/promotion university in the state, I was excited like a little kid in a candy store! I remember how famished I was because we had not had lunch, there was no water or fan / AC, but that didn’t stop me from running around with my camera! We saw demonstrations of some of the best Indian classical dance acts like the best of South Indian dance forms like Kathakali, Mohiniyattom, Kudiyattom, Kuchipudi, Shiva Vandana, Bharat Natyam, among others!
The paparazzi and the celebrities
Last but not the least, in fact the most important of them all – THE EXPRESS! Like I said before, and I can’t emphasize enough, the experience of traveling with bloggers from across the globe is what truly made this trip one to be remembered for a lifetime! It’s amusing how we were the paparazzi as well as the celebrities on this trip. While we were the most excited about capturing every moment with our cameras; everyone else – from locals on the street to hotel staff to the media itself – seemed equally excited about getting us on camera! I’ll give all credit for this attention to our super-attractive bus that got all heads turning no matter where we went. We started this trip as 30 strangers and left as 30 friends. Rest assured, our love for travel will ensure we do cross paths very soon…after all, this world is a little too small for people with restless feet!
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Most of you are probably tired of hearing about how I quit my job to move to the mountains. I’m not going to bore you with the same old talk again! The inspiration behind this post today, as Facebook memories has gently alerted me: I complete 1 year of living in Dharamsala, and 2 yrs since the day I first came here as a tourist. DOUBLE YAY!
I often receive emails and messages from curious readers, listing a hundred how’s and why’s about my new-found lifestyle. (I have answered the “how” in this post last year: How traveling made me an entrepreneur!)
Now about the why… I usually just avoid most of such messages, not because I don’t want to answer them, but because living in the mountains is more than anything I could explain with a 160 character limit. And like everything else in this world that’s worth its while, this lifestyle that looks all rosy and happy on the exterior, doesn’t come without its own set of challenges. However, today being the anniversary to my renewed happy state of being, I thought I should try and share why (for me) living in the mountains is no longer a matter of choice! At the risk of sounding pompous, I do hope this inspires at least someone to quit the rat race of the urban space for the allure of a simpler life!
What I’ve learned from my short blessed time in Dharamsala!
Your work is not your life!
I can’t emphasize this enough! When you’re raised in a metropolitan like Mumbai, every decision of your life, whether intentional or not, is about that perfect career! And in order to achieve that, you’re always on the run – a race, where you always want to win! So brainwashed are we by this glorified everyday grind, we seldom realize how far behind we lost our peace of mind. In fact, even the slavery becomes a competition – who stayed back in office after working hours, what a hardworking person!
Living in the mountains away from the infrastructural luxuries of the city made me take that blind-fold off! Your work is just a part of your life, it doesn’t define you, IT ISN’T YOUR LIFE! Sure, you have a job, who doesn’t? But that’s not why, or what, you are about! The freedom we boast of in our city lives is the most superficial invention of mankind. We take pride in being free, while in reality – we are tied down at every step of the way to the very lifestyle we believe is a mark of our freedom. Next time you’re introducing yourself to a stranger, try not including your resume in it, and notice how that makes you feel about yourself 🙂
My friends here are my mirror to reality, to life beyond the superficial. They don’t care about which client has signed my agency, or what I’m blogging about. How many followers I have on twitter, or how many likes do my posts get on instagram. Trust me, a few of them don’t even know what twitter/Instagram/facebook is, and I had to convince some to join Whatsapp.
It’s amazing to be around people who hang out with you for you. Conversations form the base of every relation here. People invite you over for chai, not because you’re someone special, but just because it’s a cold evening and aunty feels like talking. They’re as curious and fascinated about you as you are about them. Whether it’s strangers on the bus, or acquaintances at a café – people always have time to talk, and that’s a beautiful quality which is slowly dying in the cities!
Silence is beautiful
If first impressions really were last, I don’t think I could have survived life here! Noisy streets, traffic torture, loud music – you can’t take these away from any city. From there to complete, absolute, impenetrable silence of my humble abode tucked away in the middle of wilderness – that’s a transformation one can never prepare for. In my initial few weeks, I found the silence so jarring, I would play music on my phone, all day long, even while I was sleeping, just to have something going on. 4 months later, I left a perfectly comfortable house, village actually, and shifted to a place far away even from tiniest influence of tourists – just because there was construction nearby and I couldn’t tolerate the noise of stones being hammered. That’s how addictive the company of silence can be, and once you’re smitten, there’s no turning back!
Nature is an addictive companion
I live in a mudhouse that has no brick or metal in its foundation (except in the washroom). A house that I have to mop with cowdung every fortnight to save it from falling apart! Our garbage is divided into wet and dry waste, the former is used as compost, latter is buried or burned (no other option). The water I drink comes from a mountain stream nearby. The milk comes from my neighbors cow. My meals almost always have home-grown veggies. The most regular visitors in my house are exotic moths, lizards, scorpions, rats – which also attract our neighbors cat – trust me, it’s a mad house! Getting my hands dirty in the farm is far more satisfying than any promotion / appreciation I have received in the past! My room is surrounded by so much greenery, someone smoking a cigarette would feel like air pollution. When my aunt from Bombay came to visit me last month, her first reaction was “why the hell are you living in this jungle?” I took that as a compliment and smiled the biggest smile! Living in such close proximity to different elements of nature is addictive, a habit that teaches you how much we complicate our lives in the city, a healthier, happier addiction!
Inspiration beats competition!
I always looked up to starlets and celebrities, my bosses and managers, my friends who were doing remarkably in their line of work. It was only when I moved here that I realized how shallow I was. I was taking inspiration from people I’d like to be one day, people I’d like to compete with – be that successful, that rich, that famous. When I moved here, I felt very proud of myself, I was breaking barriers, doing something no one in my circle had. And here, I saw reverse migration is huge and it’s incredible! They might not be huge in numbers, but the ideas these city runaways are trying to sow, will truly be a path-breaking one day! There are local women who were earlier victims of domestic violence and are now winning national awards for slapping patriarchy in the face, techies setting up camps here to make local lives easier with renewable power and recycled materials, westerners starting day schools and mesh for kids of construction workers, youngsters setting up libraries in the remotest villages of Leh-Ladakh, one school at a time! I’ve had the honor of meeting such incredibly inspiring souls, devoted with all their heart to making a difference, bringing a change – not because they’re getting paid to do it!
Pav bhaji and Kheema pav – Dharamsala has no pav and even after 2 years, that’s one thing I can’t forgive or forget!
High-speed internet – Can’t do with, can’t do without. Fortunately or unfortunately, my work depends on the mercy of the internet Gods, and Devbhumi is quite weak in granted those signals!
Auto rickshaws – When you have to pay 150 bucks for a mere 2km distance, you know you miss your Bombay rickshaw walas!
Movies – Throw a girl from the Bollywood city, into a place that has no movie theatre. Not a single one! You have no idea how much that hurts.
Family & friends – All the challenges mentioned above might be super materialistic, but that’s because life in Mumbai feels just that now! Perhaps the only true connection I feel to the city now is my family & friends!
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I look on. Beyond the twisted lanes, cluttered brick houses and blocked pipelines. I look on to tales of my childhood that bloomed in this very place…Agra! An identity I always tried running away from, not realizing how much a part of me it is. As I look around today, it all looks so new, and yet, exactly the same! How can that be?
Is it possible that the universal reality of time is somehow not applicable to this part of the world, of my world? How can it be that nothing here has changed, as if I were playing in these lanes just yesterday, but no, it sure has been 15 odd years. Really, has it? HOW!
Some faces I can’t recognize, but they know me. They say I have played in their home as a kid, did I? Where is your home, can I go with you? I remember this room where I now sit scribbling my random musings, it belonged to my grandfather. I stopped visiting Agra after he left us, but seeing his room today makes him feel alive, like he’s still here. Funny how that works, I don’t remember the last time I remembered him so clearly!
Tring Tring! I’ve heard that sound before. OH WAIT! I run to the gate, Divya realizes it too. She runs after me. Is it what we think it is? We want candy!
Which reminds me, this is where I fell from a cycle once. It was Shaina’s older brother’s big cycle, I had a little crush on him even as a kid. A part of me used the cycling lessons as a reason to stick around, strange how I can’t even remember his face anymore. Shaina. She used to be my closest bestest friend, and I just never tried staying in touch. How silly is that? Why do we take our childhood friendships so lightly?
My grandmother is so excited, she stands by the gate, telling everyone who will listen “Yeh Renu ki chhoti beti aayi hai. Haan, badi ho gayi. Yeh events mein kaam karti hai” I don’t really work in events, but it doesn’t matter what I do. I smile, say a salaam, and let them tell me tales of my childhood.
This was my first trip to Agra as a traveler. This was also the first time I fell in love with Agra for everything it is and is not! Traveling has changed me at so many levels – the places, the people, the locations I always dismissed and disregarded – today I can’t be more grateful for their presence in my life, even while I have been absent in theirs. These are the people who loved me when I was no one, these are the people who will love me when I will be no one, and this is the first time I am learning to appreciate the value of people in my life – both family and extended. I am being invited to chai and dinners. Let’s go visit Khushbu’s house? Why don’t you wait for Aarif bhai. Nazmeen baaji will be happy to see you, why don’t you wait?! Shaina-Sheeba are at home, why don’t you go meet them? Until today, I didn’t even remember any of these folks, and look at them now, trying to make me happy. And what for? What do they get out of it?
That’s the point, not everything should be done with a selfish motive – and this is one lesson I will take back with me from here!
Come, take a walk, quite literally down the memory lane, where my childhood blossomed, and is somewhere still alive! A lot might have changed as the photos are captured now, but the stories and memories they inspire and rekindle, shall, inshallah, remain!
HOLIDAY!!!!, is what Holi meant to me for all these past years. For others, it meant colors, pichkaari, water balloons, pool party, lots of dance (and bhaang)! But one Holi spent in Vrindavan, has changed my perception about the “festival of colors” altogether!
What is a festival of colors in other parts of India, is a festival of love in Mathura-Vrindavan! Here, the festival is celebrated for more than two weeks, in the memory of the eternal love of Radha-Krishna! This is evident in the way the locals celebrate the festival with so much love and adoration for the divine couple. Radhe-Radhe greetings greet you everywhere you go, sweet bhajans rise from every temple that reach your ears like a beautiful medley, people hugging each other, even strangers, and applying gulaal (without being creepy / lecherous), flocks of devotees walking from temple to temple with nothing but Krishan bhakti on their mind, the water of Yamuna and the winds of the land of Radha-Krishna dance along, as if watching and admiring this festive gathering!
This year, I broke the tradition of hiding in my house on Holi, with more than 1000 Vrindavan widows, who were themselves breaking every myth and tradition imposed upon them by the society! In a spectacular gesture by the NGO Sulabh International, this was the first time these widows celebrated Holi with colors and flowers, within the premises of a temple – and what a celebration it was! Watching these women smile, many of whom were disowned by their own families after the death of their husband…watching them dance, play, enjoy, be FREE…I can’t find the right words to explain that feeling! Many of these widows have spent all their life here, away from their family, only living one day at a time, the life they have now devoted to Lord Krishna – and today, it’s Holi, the celebration of Radha’s love for Krishna ji, and you see a Radha in each of them, all Radha’s dancing to the tunes of the flute of Krishna, like in a trance! I will stop trying to describe something that just can’t be, and leave you with a few pics that try to reflect what the festival of love in Vrindavan is all about!
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I’m back to Dharamsala after a roller-coaster ride that was the Kerala Blog Express 2016 – an all-sponsored trip across God’s Own Country – promoted and organized by Kerala Tourism for selected travel writers! I have so many stories to share, but I’d like to begin by this recommendation, which was the sole thought that kept raging in my head throughout – I wish this was a couples’ retreat.
Kerala is just so breathtakingly stunning, dreamy and romantic!!! If you’re getting married this year (or not!) and are tired of the same old honeymoon spots every second couple in India is nowadays vacationing at, take my word and opt for Kerala! You remember all those gorgeous landscapes from Mani Ratnam movies? They’re not just good camera work, they’re really REAL!! And you have to go see it yourself. What with its clean beaches that look like little corners of heaven, the surreal canals (“backwaters”) weaving through tiny civilizations, colorful towns and hillstations covered in tea plantations – Kerala has enough ammunition to deport you to your childhood fairytale fantasies! The best part of it all is how you can find peace in the most crowded places, thanks to the many gorgeous resorts across the state, some of which I am reviewing below to help you plan your trip! From lake-side rooms, to rooms with a pool floor, and if that doesn’t do it for you – there’s the floating houseboat for complete privacy! Here are my top picks from the best luxury resorts Kerala has to offer, perfect for a romantic getaway from your busy city life:
Vivanta by TAJ, Trivandrum was my pre-arrival accommodation, and I was like WHAA? If this is pre-arrival, what will happen once the trip really begins? I was welcomed with a traditional aarti, shell necklace, coconut water, and a smiling staff! It was almost time for the sunset, so the staff quickly arranged for my luggage to be sent to the room, and arranged to send Raul and me to their “private beach” (WHAT!?) And sure enough, the hotel has its own small little piece of heaven, even after 15 days from that evening, I very clearly remember how happily I sat by, with no sound but that of the waves hitting the rocks on the shore. Being a mountain girl at heart, it was the closest I have ever felt to loving the ocean! They also have a pretty infinity pool, two restaurants, a spa that offers complimentary morning yoga sessions, and a perfect little coffee shop.
It was the perfect seed to what was going to be my blooming love-affair with Kerala!
Hands down the one place that will stay in my memory for a very long time! Why? How can you ever forget the first time you stayed at a cottage with an open shower and your own private pool and Jacuzzi? YES! Kumarakom Lake Resort oozes luxury in every aspect – be it the opulent cottages with a vintage yet modern feel, an infinity pool which is the perfect sunrise spot, early morning relaxing yoga session by the lake or a world-class property so huge, you need a car to take you around! If there’s only one luxury resort you want to save up for, let it be this!
Price Range: Rs. 13,000 (Luxury Pavilion Room) – Rs. 48,000 (Presidential Suite with Private Pool)
Honeymoon package (3N/2D): Rs. 63,000 (Luxury Pavilion Room) – Rs. 1,55,000 (Presidential Suite with Private Pool)
Just when I thought no amount of luxury can beat my stay at Kumarakom Lake Resort – Enter The ZURI Kumarakom, Kerala Resort and Spa, with a super tempting “Maya Spa” – one of the largest in South India and offering Ayurveda, Western and Oriental therapies, on the platter! This also turned out to be the first afternoon I had free in all the days on the trip, so I jumped at the prospect. I won’t go into unnecessary details about my massage (I think it deserves a blogpost!), but I will say that it was pretty darn perfect!
By this time in the trip, I had seen rooms with a private pool, Jacuzzi, lake, and a luxury cruise – you can understand how high our expectations were by now. But what Greenwoods lacked in appearance, they more than made up with hospitality! My my, if I had to choose one hotel that could teach all the others a lesson or two about what “serving” your customers really is, it would be Greenwoods! The staff was so sweet, accommodating and curious about our everyday experiences, they instantly won the hearts of every blogger (EVEN the ones who weren’t staying at other resorts) The property was quite pretty, with a lot of greens, a gorgeous treehouse coffee shop, and a swimming pool. They organized special activities for their guests like saree draping, traditional dance, and the best of it all – sapling plantation! YES, we all got a chance to plant a sapling in the resort, which will be named after us, so that there is a little something of us that stays at the resort even when we don’t! Now what better way to begin your married life than with such a heartwarming memory?
The Vythiri Resort in Wayanad knows exactly what everyone wants to hear! A perfect eco-friendly, jungle hideout, the choice of rooms ranges from treehouses to rooms with a private jacuzzi! Just watch the video, I need not say more!
They had me at “Ayurveda Heritage”! Kunnathur Mana Ayurveda Heritage Resort is a Government approved Ayurveda hospital in Kerala with GREEN LEAF Certification. One thing I most vividly remember about Kunnathur Mana is feeling relaxed even while I was so tired and sick – the place is full of positive energy! The 130 year old heritage of this ancestral property can still be seen in the way the property has been maintained. And GUESS WHAT? Remember all those Mughal “hamam” baths we have only seen or heard about? This place has one and they actually let you swim in it (under the supervision of a life guard of course as it is 25 feet deep!) This makes it the only heritage place all over India that offers this experience!!! The biggest plus of this place though is, regular tourists will never choose to stay here!
Now, we visited this property only for our farewell dinner, but I have confirmation about their hospitality from other bloggers who chose to stay back a few extra days in this property. Xandari Harbour in Kochi was the most chic and classy hotel we saw during our trip!
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