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.
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!)
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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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!
It’s almost here. Just a week to go. Well yeah, for Valentine’s Day too, but more importantly – MY FIRST TRIP TO KERALA BECA– USE I WON THE KERALA BLOG EXPRESS 2016!!!
Q. What’s better than winning a 2 week, all-sponsored trip, to a state you’ve always admired, by the State Tourism Board?
A. Being the only blogger from India, among 27 travel bloggers from across the globe! Isn’t that super exciting?
So, being the only Indian on this trip, I felt it is my moral duty to give my fellow-participants a small sneak-peak of Kerala (Hey NaMo, see I’m trying!), by showing them a glimpse of Kerala from our movies!
You’re probably wondering what level of crazy does one have to be to build a travel bucketlist from Bollywood references. Well, you’re talking to a girl who left Mumbai to live in the mountains after watching Highway! So yeah, call me crazy, but trust me I’ve done worse.
So here it is, my Kerala wishlist / bucketlist, as compiled through any / every Bollywood movie I have ever seen with the tiniest Kerala connection!
PS: I’m sorry I included GUPT, Karma will come get me one day! On the bright side, I didn’t include Nishabd.
PPS: Crazy “north-Indian girl sees South India” stereo-types coming your way. Filter kaapi, anna. Pardon me, Kerala’ites.
Location: Alleppey Backwaters Movie: Dil Se
EVERYONE has to agree – Preity Zinta dancing on that Alleppey houseboat raised the bar of hotness in Bollywood, matched only by Malaika Arora Khan dancing on the train, in the same movie! This is also my first memory of Kerala on celluloid (Even though Bombay released before Dil Se, I watched this first!)
Location: Athirapally Falls, Thrissur
All my personal hatred towards Aishwarya Rai aside, this is possibly the most beautiful picturisation of Athirapally waterfalls, which also turns out to be the most common / famous shoot site in Kerala. (The village scenes are not from Kerala)
Guess I should just rename the article to “My Kerala bucketlist via Mani Ratnam“. Here’s another masterpiece!
Remember Abhishek Bachchan’s secret hideout in the middle of a forest, a river passing by, with that huge Vishnu (or was it Buddha?) idol in the middle? I would kill to camp there for a night, or ten. Shot in the Silent Valley Forest Reserve in Kerala, that one place gave me Kerala wanderlust goals for life. I doubt we will be allowed to visit though (It’s supposed to be a restricted forest zone).
PS: I couldn’t find a video of the said hideout, but here’s a song from the movie shot at the Athirapally Waterfalls. How gorgeous is this place 😀
Location: Munnar Tea Plantations, Munnar
Movie: Chennai Express
Dream Sequence: THAT drive along the winding road, surrounded by the beautiful Munnar Tea Estate on one side and spectacular backdrop of the Western ghats on the other! Now Darjeeling sure is my second favorite place in India, so hey Munnar, you really have big shoes to fill!
Location: Periyar National Park, Kumily
Warning: The dance in the below mentioned video is performed by thorough unprofessionals. Please DO NOT judge us Indians by the dance moves in the video below. But do judge us from the beauty of that national park. It’s something about those tree stumps in the middle of the lake, and the simple boat floating over the quiet waters, that got my attention!
Location: Bekal Fort, Kasargod Movie: Bombay
Hands down THE BEST song of the century! This song has been my favorite since childhood, even before I had watched, or heard, about the movie. And guess what? It’s shot at the largest fort in Kerala – Bekal Fort in Kasargod. C-a-n-n-o-t-W-a-i-t!
Location: Meesapulimala, Idukki Movie: Chennai Express
Forgive me Lord, for I have sinned. I have recommended two Rohit Shetty songs in one article.
But I couldn’t stop myself. This song might have very few shots from Kerala, but you see, it has colors, culture, sarees, filter coffee (I did warn about the stereo-typing), traditional dance, a glimpse of South India’s spectacular temples, in short – it’s everything I’m looking forward to on this trip!
This could be the first (and possibly the last) time I’m saying this: I can’t wait for Valentine’s Day! 😀
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New Years Eve! That time of the year when we’re all getting ready (some reluctantly) to turn over a new leaf, start a new chapter, initiate a new cycle. Of the much-awaited countdown, the name-sake resolutions, the promises and the hopes, and the most-elusive midnight kiss. But amidst all this excitement, a word of caution – the past is not something to be left behind like a forgotten friend; stepping into anything new without accumulating all our experiences and learnings from the past just doesn’t feel right. So here I am, looking back at the year that was, how it changed my life, and how I can look forward to a brighter 2016 filled with many more adventures!
PS: I haven’t edited the pics below because I want to remember them without any filter (#TooMuchEmo)! But I do hope y’all like it that way too 🙂
Help keep our travel trail clean! Don’t litter, motivate your friends to do the same!
The one place that single-handedly kept Spiti on the very top of my travel bucketlist! This will probably sound silly, but then most of the things I end up doing are silly so what the hell. Remember Highway, the scene where Alia is sitting and staring at the mountains on the other side. “Aisa lag raha hai ki woh mujhe bula raha hai, kaash hum waha jaa paate”, and Randeep Hooda very lovingly agrees to take her across. I’m not talking about those mountains, but the monastery in the background – that’s Key Monastery.
I have been lusting over that sight ever since I saw the movie, and I had never imagined that the actual place could be thousand times more spectacular!
Key Gonpa!!! The crown jewel of my entire trip to Spiti. I ended up staying here more than at any other village, and given a choice I wouldn’t have ever left! Technically, all the monasteries in Spiti have lodging facilities for travelers, but none come even close to the experience you’ll have at Key. For one thing, at Key you’re not put up in a guest house, you live in the existing Lama quarters, at Rs. 200 per night, including meals that will be cooked by and for the resident monks. The kitchen at Key Monastery beats every café, anywhere in the world, because here’s where conversations flow over endless cups of butter tea. When I visited, the Lama incharge of the cooking duties was Kunga ji, and he is the most adorable Lama I have ever met. Always smiling, always up for a chat (over a cup of chai, mind you!).
The evening I reached the monastery, I entered the kitchen to try and meet someone who could tell me what are the lodging facilities, and I met Kunga ji running around, serving all the monks. It was only 7 pm, but that’s regular dinner time at the monastery, and the tiny kitchen was bustling with more monks than it could accommodate, and one tiny traveler who looked utterly lost. Kunga ji noticed this and immediately came over with a plate of piping hot rajma and tingmu (Tibetan bread), “baitho baitho, pehle khana khao (sit sit, eat first!)”, and immediately 2 monks got up from the only bench in the kitchen to offer me a seat. I resisted, but I was overpowered by 5-6 monks “aap humare guest hai, aap baitho! (You are our guest, you should have a seat!”).
And I knew in that moment that this place would steal a piece of my heart forever.
I was lucky to be at the monastery on one of their most important days. It was the annual ceremony of Yenne Gaaye (Khetol), – a tradition of the Gelugpa religion of Buddhism, wherein all the 300 monks from Key Monastery visited each and every house in the village to conduct prayers and offer blessings. I was lucky to accompany them through this pilgrimage, visiting houses, indulging in the lovely hospitality of the locals, and chai – lots and lots of chai.
Flashback – May 2014: I visited McLeod Ganj immensely intoxicated by a supreme Highway and Queen overdose. It was my first solo trip as a traveler- my affair with the Himalayas! 2 months of living in McLeod Ganj, and backpacking around Himachal, the only thing I prayed for, every single day, was for one more day. Little did I know this in-between-jobs’ visit to the mountains will change my career graph forever!
I returned to Mumbai only in July, when I got an interview call from a company I had always dreamt of working for. I was to meet one of the owners of the company for the position of a celebrity manager. Having worked in entertainment and lifestyle PR for 3 years, and television production for 1, this job sounded like just the thing I should be doing next! Cracking the interview was not so difficult, but that’s when the tricky part began – the mountains had spoilt me, I wanted to return – I couldn’t chain myself to a 9-5 job again, no matter if it was with my dream company!
So despite numerous warnings from friends, family and my own mind – I turned it down, knowing very well that I was being a fool. It’s easy to fantasize about travel, the difficult part is making it work. I couldn’t travel if I didn’t have a job, but I couldn’t travel the way I wanted if I took up a job either. At the same time, I didn’t want to do something I didn’t love just for the sake of making money. Exactly a year ago, today, after weeks of planning, innumerable meetings and multiple rejections, I started my own PR and communications agency – The Owl Post. In just one year, we’ve grown from a one-person-venture to a 6 member team. I no longer live in Mumbai – I shifted to the very place that inspired the birth of this company, to McLeod Ganj. We have some great clients on-board, some of them congratulated me when I decided to shift to Dharamsala and said they were proud of me (Dream clients, right?). And above all, we have a team that has grown so much in the last year, which is one thing I will always be proud of! The journey hasn’t been all rainbows and butterflies, but I’m not complaining. As I reflect upon the year gone by, I can only thank that first solo trip to McLeod Ganj for changing my life, for making me an entrepreneur, for making me independent not only in terms of career and location, but also in spirit! Had it not been for the will to travel, I don’t think I would have ever mustered the courage to start up on my own. I would have taken up that job, and would probably be running around trying to make some overpaid celebrity’s career work while getting underpaid by some other entrepreneur. Being able to do what you love, and being able to do it your own way, is the best feeling ever. Today, my dream to travel and that of a perfect work life are working so much in harmony, each trying to not come in the way of the other, each complimenting and completing the quest for the other, just like Yin and Yang, opposites but incomplete without the latter.
Today, when people ask me how I manage to live such a life, telling me “it’s not possible”, I tell them this story and ask them to sit back and think what they can do. Not everyone can be a travel writer, not everyone can be a travel photographer, not everyone can get a job as a tour guide, not everyone can start a backpacking company. So what do the rest of us who want to travel do? I have been in your place, and now I am here – I have seen and touched the grass on both the sides, and the only thing I can say is there are no rules and nothing is impossible. If you want to travel, find a way to make it happen, and not by following what I did, or what your favorite travel blogger chose to do. Do what you think you’re best at! A person who saves for months to travel once in 6 months is as legit a traveler as the one who makes money on the road. Give yourself some time, jot down your strengths, look into our skill sets, figure what you can do, and then go do it! If I could do it, I believe anyone can. The only trick is to never let your love for travel die, that flame will guide you through the tough times and lead you to your destination. Keep traveling, keep dreaming, keep living!
National Geographic Traveler India recently conducted a travel meet about slow travel, of which my friend Natasha was a panelist. She asked me if I’ll be in Mumbai for the session, but that was the week I moved to Dharamsala. She said she would love to use my example in her talk, and that – for the first time – made me realize how much I enjoy slow traveling!
When I made the decision of moving to McLeod Ganj, some of my friends and everyone in my family instantly reacted – “AGAIN?” I don’t blame them. I first visited this place exactly a year ago. What started as a volunteering trip for a month, ended up being a two month stay during which I hardly worked. For the sight-seeing and travel I did in those 2 months, I could’ve easily completed the trip in 15 days. But I didn’t, I couldn’t, and given a choice I’d still go back and do the same thing again. I came back to the same place again within 3 months to stay for a fortnight. And 9 months later, when I made a conscious choice to live in the mountains, I didn’t have to think twice about the place I wanted to call home! I wonder why that is?
Some think it’s weird that I go back to the same place, meet the same people, spend days and weeks at stretch eating at the same café. Some would say this isn’t travel. But what really is travel, I ask? Very simply put, isn’t it just a way to relax, unwind, and experience life in a different way than you have? Isn’t it about meeting new people, gathering new experiences, learning about new cultures? Isn’t the main reason we travel, to step out of our comfort zone and live life the easier, healthier way? Isn’t it about the journey, and not about the destination? “Sight-seeing” as we popularly know it in today’s world, can’t possibly be the parameter for travel. If it were, I wouldn’t ever feel the need to leave the ever-changing city of Mumbai that offers unique sites and experiences on a daily basis! For the longest time I thought I enjoyed traveling alone as opposed to traveling with a group of friends. But then I have enjoyed the company of my friends when we backpacked around North-East India in a short span of 15 days, or a short weekend trip to Pondicherry with my Bangalorean colleagues. No, it’s not as simple as being alone or with a bunch of friends. It’s about the time you invest in really “knowing” your destination.
Back in the city, we are so time-bound, that every time we get a chance to step out and explore, we try cramming our itineraries with every possible “must-visit” site, not realizing that we’re involuntarily planning an even more hectic schedule than the one we’re trying to escape. We try putting everything on the map, 4 days in Cherrapunjee, visiting so and so site in a stop-over at Shillong, 3 days for north Sikkim, 2 days for West, 4 days for Darjeeling, a quickie with Kolkata on our way back. You end up coming back home with more pictures in your DSLR, than memories in your heart.
Haven’t you ever imagined what it would be like to not care about which day of the week it is? Monday morning blues, mid-week inspirations, TGIF, Saturday brunch, Sunday hangovers?
No morning alarm, no weekend plans, no agenda, no schedule, no “dressing up”, no formalities! Waking up at crack of dawn, to the sound of chirping birds, and the sun peeking through your window pane.
Staring at the same mountain ranges every morning and noticing how different they look by the passing hour.
Walking back home in a lane with no lights, with fireflies lighting up the way and the moon shining down the street.
Like-minded people you met here, that understand what you’re trying to find without you having to explain it to them!
Spending days at your favorite café, chatting and playing card games with the owner and his friends, not a single worry in the world!
The Café staff knowing exactly how much food you usually have, and packing it for you if you miss a meal.
Meeting new people from across the world every day and marveling over how incredibly unique each and every person is!
Lifting your bag any time and going away for the weekend with a random stranger.
Walking 2 kms to eat that perfect chocolate mousse at Kunga, and walking 4 for seeing the sunset at your favorite resort in Naddi.
Shared cabs, state buses, and asking bikers for a lift to the city!
Knowing most people by face and not by profession.
Bird-watching, star-gazing, finding faces in the clouds, walk in the forests, trekking in the mountains, photowalks.
Learning macramé, reading books, yoga in the morning, street jams at night, and maggi by the waterfall.
Soaking your feet in the river and listening to the Highway soundtrack.
Judging people on first appearances, then talking to them and realizing how fickle city life really makes you!
Above all, I love how I can do nothing all day and not feeling guilty about it!
Slow travel is all about discovering the discovered. About spending some quality time with a place you’ve given your heart to. It’s about marriage, and not about dating. It’s about a career, and not about a job. It’s about family, and not about relatives. It’s about soulmates, and not about infatuation. Slow travel is about companionship, and not about company.
Maybe it’s just me, but maybe you should try it too?
Help keep our travel trail clean. Don’t litter, motivate your friends to do the same!