For my Assam Tribune Column/January 2009
I wonder whether I should comfort myself imagining you’ll say – “Isn’t this the same Nidarshana who used to write here regularly?” or face it – “who Nidarshana?” Considering my unpunctuality, I very well deserve the second scenario and any attempt of self-accreditation should be scraped off impromptu. But this time I have a valid reason – I just got married and was waiting to hit base with my honeymoon story! And here I go...
Looking at my then fiancé’s purse shrink as the “the Day” approached, I expunged all hopes of a honeymoon and half-heartedly packed my bags for Hyderabad (my present settlement). And it wasn't till we reached the airport, that Don (my husband) bombarded me with: “Did I tell you, we’re going to Goa”! Over and above my usual tearful overwhelm, I goaded him with my hows, whens and wheres. Well I both love and hate this habit of his – had I known earlier I wouldn’t have bloated my bags with heaps of mekhela-sador and gifts.
It was long past evening when we reached Goa. We drove down South through sparsely lit narrow roads, fringed with coconut trees and stretches of hinterland, interspersed with sloping roofed houses – that reminded me of my hometown, Nagaon. Even the air smelt like home.
The next surprise was – Don had taken a Club Mahindra life-time membership and we’re on a weeklong vacation at their Varca Beach Resort. What followed was too dramatic for a travelogue, but I cannot resist – he walked me into a studio apartment (kitchen attached), ornate with balloons, a huge bouquet of reddest of roses, a bed flaked with petals, Al Di Meola (jazz guitarist) in the backdrop and like the cherry on the cake – a bottle of my favourite port wine (San Andrés). Coming from an otherwise far-from-romantic, geeky husband (for a hopelessly romantic wife) the surprise-spree was far too much for an ambit of some 10 hours. I was knocked out, of course!
The first thing we did the next morning was raced for the sea (just a stone-throw away from our apartment) and ran on and on till the waves would not let us dare further. That remained our favourite sport during our brief stay, besides playing beach volleyball, watching sunsets, digging crab-holes, lazing on the hammocks and biking through the winding lanes of South Goa.
The Resort had just about everything to keep a vacationer hooked – multi-cuisine restaurants (one at the beach), swimming pools with Jacuzzi, putt golf tracks, electric buggies for transport within the club, Massage, Sauna and beauty parlours, Gym, Wi-Fi, souvenir and grocery shops, discotheque, children play rooms, an activity centre with library, cyber cafe, carrom, chess, TT and pool tables, and a hall that hosts cultural programmers, team-building games et al every evening. You also have an array of hobby classes to choose from – painting, salsa, guitar, yoga and meditation, clay modelling, swimming, being the best picks. Their private beach was one of the neatest I had ever walked upon and with activities like parasailing, windsurfing, jet skiing, dolphin watching rides, banana rides, and campfires at night – one just wouldn’t want to go anywhere else. Don won the Carrom and Pool tournament, while I was miserably beaten at both and my proposed Ludo tournament never happened.
Club Mahindra service and hospitality was impeccable. There too the Security Guards were Assamese (like in most metros) and my nightmare of the Nepali “Shalam Shaab” getting replaced in Bollywood movies with some Assamese version got further reinforced.
Sight-seeing buses clubbed up at the main entrance, but we preferred exploring on rented bikes (Rs. 350 a day). Kentuckee (for reasonably priced grand food) and Mickey (for great live music and ambience) at the neighbouring Colva beach became our favourite dinner joints and for the hog in me it was a “nirvana” of sorts gorging on fresh seafood (from shark meat to lobsters), Goan cuisine (Pork Vindaloo, Chicken Xacuti, desserts like Dodol, Bibinka) with sips of coconut or cashew Feni.
One morning we rode some 50 km all the way to North Goa, via Panjim, did some sightseeing, spent the evening shopping at Anjuna flea market and danced the night away at Mambo’s by the Calangute beach. Swaying together with the swanky crowd made of tourists, hippies and who not, I was reminded of those Goan beach parties I would so gape at on the TV as a kid. Yet another evening we walked along the beach all the way from Varca to Colva (some mighty 8 km!) and came back walking (read “crawling”) through roads so dark and devoid of humans, that I cannot think of any place I have visited which had such roads and we felt as safe. Unlike most tourist hot-hubs, I found simplicity and a happy-go-lucky attitude written all over the local Goans. Their land exuded that same spirit and perhaps that, along with the sea, the sand, the sun, the carefree abandon, replete your Goa experience that you carry along and want to come back to, again and again.
Back in Teleguland, one noon the door bell rang and a Sony Bravia 32” LCD coloured TV came in – the last instalment of our holiday package (with affordable EMIs that package was a steal!). Hallelujah Club Mahindra! And thank you dear husband for everything! Goa travel guide in my next column! Also, feel free to mail me for more on Club Mahindra Holidays.
For my travel Column (Travel, Horizon, The Assam Tribune)
My previous record of hitting man and animals, lamp posts and walls - impromptu, has laid a full stop to my association with the steering wheel. And since nobody lends me their vehicles, I have no alternative but to wait for the day I buy my own, perfect my driving skills and set the streets aflame – this time, sans collisions, hopefully! A recent flick, The Fast and the Furious - Tokyo Drift has especially got me enamoured with speeding machines.
So today's feature is for those whose adrenaline starts pumping at the very mention of "S.P.E.E.D"!! Please note, I am not encouraging letting loose the fast and the furious in you right at the GS Road or the Chandmari fly over. Choose winding hilly tracks and a time when they remain comparatively free of passersby. I remember Don, my biker boyfriend (now husband), amuse me endlessly with his biking travelogues and his grand, long sweeps through the length and breadth of the nation, at times financed by bigwig travel agents as a publicity stunt.
The most challenging biking route in India, I have concluded, is the Manali to Shimla one via Khardungla pass (18370 feet) - the world’s highest motorable road laced with lush grasslands, endless expands of apple orchards, villages and steep climbs. Choose summers for this ride. Another track that I found exciting is near Kanchenjunga from Sikkim to Darjeeling, with plush tea gardens and snow capped peaks flanking your tracks. Another one for nature lovers is the route from Mussourie to Dhantoli, with the greater Himalayas in the backdrop, and amidst antique villages of Guptakashi, gurgling streams, highlands of Chopta in the Kedarnath musk deer sanctuary. On route you can even halt at the pilgrimage haunts - Rishikesh (great place for white water rafting) and Haridwar. If you are looking for easy and smooth rides, try the stretches at the Terai forests along the foothills of Nainital and the hills of Himachal Pradesh. Alternatively, you can also find yourself a travel agent who will provide you an entire tour plan, vehicles and necessary guidance. Group trips are also arranged by these agents that take off at regular intervals.
Non-bikers, take that rugged jeep out of your garage or rent one and set out on those winding, wooded, dirty, lonesome and weathered Indian roads. Jeep safari tours are best enjoyed when clubbed with trips to wildlife resorts en route and other adventure options like camping in the wild, trekking, photography, angling and what not. Even better if it is your own vehicle as you will have all the leisure and the comfort to suit yourself to your interests, like Don loved halting on and off to explore the varied geomorphology, clusters of travel villages, ruins of ancient monuments and so on. Himalayan regions like Leh, Ladakh, Kinnaur, Spity, Manali, Kumaon and Garhwal have abundance of such safari expeditions. Rajasthan’s forested valleys and arid hills also give you a different kind of safari flavour. The Shekhawati and Mewar region, Udaipur and Jaisalmer are options you should give a check. Once again, you can approach travel agents you want to take a driver who will double up as a guide, in case you do not want to depend entirely on the map. But getting lost and finding your way back adds to the thrill of the safari, doesn’t it?
Winding routes cut out on steep hills for travel, deep gorges, where if you have time to stop and listen minutely, you will hear the soft gurgle of some stream that snakes through it, the endless terrain expands of the desert where your journey might transform into a quest for an oasis. All you need is a zest for adventure, control of your vehicle, a good company who shares your spirit (optional) and of course financial resources (compulsory). Winding up, I am reminded of Che Guevara’s The Motorcycle Diaries. A real story of Guevara and his friends’ exploration of north America on their antique hot wheels in their early 20s. Check the movie by the same name, for the book is rarely found. This one, if not biking, will surely set you dreaming about it.
Till next time, keep your wanderlust fuelled.
Knowing my much expressed detestation to be bracketed as “Religious”, or even “Atheist” for that matter, my colleagues did not consider counting me in for the Vaishno Devi Yatra! It could not have escaped my ears and I raised hell at how can they conclude without even consulting with me, but at the same time, admitted that it was the trek that I cared for.
The year was nearing its end and spending the Christmas-eve at Vaishno Devi sounded a little queer, but we had to cache on the holidays. The promised Volvo coach never arrived (how we cursed our tour manager) at its Connaught Place (Delhi) bus stop, and the one that did, had seats so uncomfortable that I spent the entire night dreaming of sleeping in a soft bed layered with quilts. We reached the base camp, Katra (Jammu) by mid-day and after jostling our way through hordes of vendors, pilgrims, cows and mules, reached a decent looking hotel that charged some Rs. 300 per double room (per day).
Some 15 km uphill from Katra was the much aggrandised sanctum sanctorum. After a quick shower and snack we, the “pilgrims”, set off. Unlike my previous treks, this time I carried nothing along, just sealed my body from head to toe to beat the December bone-biting wind. After the ritualistic queuing and frisking (some 1 hour activity), the journey began.
The cemented pathway laced on both sides with small dhabas, shops selling every thinkable Vaishno Devi souvenirs, woollens, dry fruits, prasad and what not, lasted for some 2 km uphill, before it was just us, and the likes of us drudging up the indomitable hill, squalling “Jai Mata Di”.
I was befuddled to see pilgrims (including small kids) walking barefoot (our colleague, Sachin, being one of them), some even crawling chanting mantras, some so old that they went up in palkis and mule-backs, and all in that December chill (2 degree C). And there I was, amongst believers, wondering what was it that moved them so, that moved me not! And to tell you the truth, I felt envious of them and so wanted to feel that fever, that zeal.
If you look at it as an adventure activity, except for the biting cold and the ubiquitous smell of mule excreta, it was the most posh of all treks I have ever undertaken – cemented and well lit pathway with abundant shades, benches and restrooms at regular intervals, Cafe Coffee days and Nestle kiosks, and innumerable small dhabas. But we decided not to halt much, else the fatigue so tends to numb your body. Initially it felt like automatons climbing on and on and on, but gradually I began to enjoy every moment of it and the “Jai Mata Di” chant felt like some life-force and I could actually feel the “propel”. They call it – “Mata ne Bulaya Hai”.
It was some 1 am when we reached the Vasihno Devi Temple. Some joined in the bath brigade, while most of us stayed back queuing for the “Darshan”. Another series of frisking and we had to leave our belts, shoes, wallets behind in a locker. The hour-long wait inside the temple, barefoot, standing on the wet carpet felt so hellish that I thought Mata is punishing me for my streaks of atheism. What turned the tables was when we actually reached the kernel – it was an enclosure so small that I had to stoop to enter, the pandit tucked in a flower into my hand and before I could even see the “pindies” (three cone shaped stones each representing Durga, Parvathi and Saraswati), a uniformed man literally held my head and pushed in out through another door. I was infuriate – was this that much brouhaha’ed “darshan”? This definitely wasn’t worth the arduous 15 km climb – I concluded and walked out fuming.
The climb wasn't over – legend has it that Mata Vaishno Devi yatra is incomplete without visiting the Kaal Bhairabh temple 2 km further up hill. This one was comparatively peaceful and less crowded and it was actually here we could actually join our hands and meditate for some time.
The climb downhill was fun. But me and a friend started running and we weren’t even half way through (Ardh Kuwari), when my ankle for cramped and I had to drag myself on till I could find a pony.
I was all body-aches for the next few days and my friends joked that the cramp was Mata’s was of punishing non-believers. I don't know if they were right, and if Mata granted their wishes for walking 30 km up and down a hill on foot.
For me it was a wondrous trek, but I was too boggled with too many questions. I headed for Vaishno Devi once again and this time, alone. When I reached, I did not enter the temple, but walked further ahead and found myself a quiet place to meditate. And for that peace that I found there, I am ready to go there again and again – next time with something to scribble on. As I walked down I looked for the “faithless” so that I could tell them – “trust me, it is worth the climb”!
This one was an anniversary dedication to Maa Pa...
Published: 31st May, 2008 - Horizon, The Assam Tribune
To make their 29th Anniversary a tad more special than the ones before, I finally convinced Ma Pa about a trip to Nainital – just Maa and Pa, without the usual 5”4’ kabab-meh-haddi (yours truly). Their being with me in Delhi for a short vacation and a long debate as to ‘why not’, however, were the main reasons that made it a success! Besides, Nainital, for reasons I can barely translate into logic, feels like one of those places on earth (I’ve not had the luck to trot the globe much yet, though) which is best walked hand-in-hand with one’s beloved. And I so wanted Ma Pa to feel youthful and romantic again! Only a night’s journey away from Delhi, Nainital (Naini=eye, tal=lake, supposedly referring to Parvati’s eye) is a lake scooped out of a lush valley surrounded by the Kumaoni mountains in the North Indian state of Uttaranchal. It is roosted at an elevation of 6,350 ft. (1938 m) and the hour-long approach road from Kathgodam railway station to the main spot is so winding and sans any stoppages, that even with two Avomins, Maa ended up with intermittent ‘volcanic upsurges’.
A stroll by the lake: Walking down the Mall Road, all flaked with crimson chinar leaves (remember Aditya Chopra’s Mohabbatein?), nibbling on sweet corns or lapping ice-creams is a must-do!
Boating: Mallital has boats (paddled ones or with a boatman each) for hire at some Rs. 100 for a trip from one end of the lake to the other (Tallital) and back. Besides the almost ‘Edenic’ experience of floating amidst sparkling waters laced by a valley hued in just every shade of green, the ride is the vantage point for capturing Nainital on film.
Gondola (Cable Car) Ride: This 10-min ride from Mallital to the Snow Point and back, promises ecstatic eagle-eye views of the lake-town – tiny ant-like boats crawling on the Naini-lake peppered with gold-dust, for example!
Snow Point: It is an entertainment joint with myriad options like bungee jumping, paragliding, video-games, telescopes for a closer-view of the Himalayas, shooting and so on. Do not miss dropping by for a photo shoot with rented local Kumaoni attires on.
Jeep tour: Board an SUV from Mallital for some Rs. 300 and you’re in for a tour that encompasses almost all of the tourist attractions in Nainital uphill – Lover’s Point, pony-ride to Land’s End and back, Eco Caves and a trip to the snowing zone (if you made it in winters).
Cheena peak: At 8566 ft. (2611m), Nainital's highest peak (named so for it was so high that they thought they could see China from there) is for the trekking enthusiasts and though Pa was one, Maa wasn't and so they never got there.
Getaways: Two days at Nainital and Pa planned a side-trip to Corbett National Park (closed from mid-June to mid-November), some 63 km away. Ramgarh (26 km), Almora (62 km) and Ranikhet (60 km) are some laidback hill-stations in the neighbourhood – the kind writers would want to retire for penning books.
Travel Tips: Travel light and if required, bag woolens from the Tibetan Market and live closer to the main tourist spot (Mallital).
Lows: You’re constantly bugged by somebody or the other trying to sell something or take you somewhere, low-budget hotels come without room heaters (confirm before booking) and the cold there is unbearable.
Getting there and coming back can be nightmares for those not used to travelling on winding roads. Assuming that you are travelling from Delhi, you have an overnight journey (8-9 hours) to Nainital with options like a hired SUV, buses or Volvo coaches (from Anand Vihar Bus Terminal to Nainital) or the train (the Ranikhet Express to Kathgodam).
I went to receive Maa Pa at the station and felt elated to see their faces so impeccably happy! Nainital sure did set some old flame burning!
The very thought that March is slipping out of hand and it will be April in no time and May, June will speed in as promptly, makes me want to go into a hibernation locked in an AC room (with somebody sponsoring the electricity bills), till the winters are back. I stopped at June, because July has my birthday and I remain too busy promoting my wishlist so that dear ones get a fair chance to pamper me with gifts. But, how did I sin to deserve the demotion from “Dilli ki garmi” (read “summers in Delhi”) to “Hyderabadi garmi” (summers in Hyderabad), still remains a secret! It could have been “Bangalore ki garmi” (summers in Bangalore), but my employers would not have it. A vacation to beat the heat becomes imperative, what say?
I rarely travel solo, but when I do, I prefer picking some holiday package with pre-designed itineraries and bookings. And if you keep a watch on the latest offers from different Travel Agencies and choose carefully, you end up saving good moolah which can be put to better use like shopping (so believes the shopaholic in me). Take my trip to Vaishno Devi for instance, where I booked my air tickets from Yatra.com and saved 20% on my 2 days/1 night Hotel stay. The only risk factor is you pay before looking at the product. So cross checking before you type in the numbers of your credit card by reading reviews from real travellers in community sites like mouthshut.com, virtualtourist.com, tripadvisor.com, travel.sulekha.com, travel.yahoo.com really helps.
From my travel experiences over the years, I have zeroed on makemytrip.com, yatra.com, coxandkings.co.in and thomascook.co.in as the best places for fishing holiday packages in India and abroad. Of Make My Trips’ latest tax free packages, the Malaysia, Singapore, Thailand tour in 9 Nights for just Rs. 49,500 (with minimum deviations as per the departure city), and with inclusions like free international SIM card with the ticket, accommodations at nothing below 4 star hotels, Singapore Visa Fee, sightseeing et al, sounded absolutely tempting. Their “Book a Hotel on Make My Trip and get money back on your Train Ticket” also looks like a hot cake. Yatra’s 3 Nights/4 Days Honeymoon Special Package in Switzerland for Rs. 1,38,560 and 51% cash back on the companion, made me wish two things – I am married and my husband doesn’t mind splurging on travelling. A healthy competition is Cox and Kings’ 40% Cash Back on Europe tours.
For domestic holidays, travel deals so abound that writing about them would take up columns and you might end up thinking I am commissioned to promote each. Surfing the sites yourself is the best option. Now, this reminds me of the internet inhibitions in Assam. For example, if MaPa considers going on a pleasure trip (I’d have a mild heart attack out of joy), he would never surf the internet for the best deals. He would rather consult the local travel agent near his ASEB office than trust some website with his credit card details. I am not saying the local agent will dupe him or my referred sites are the best. But having worked with travel agencies and understanding how they design low-cost tours, I would rather travel with one of these and either take a package and ask them to customize it as per my preferences or plan my itinerary myself and just make flight bookings through them. Sitting right where I am, I can chart my entire travel itinerary with a few clicks of the mouse! The facilities don’t end here. You can also find like-minded travel buddies online or join traveller groups and get, set, go. Oktatabyebye.com and wowsumitra.com (for women travellers) are the recommended ones. For cruise vacations in the Brahmaputra, the offerings from jungletravelsindia.com look lip-smacking.
Travel smart with the world wide web! Your help at hand (yours truly) is only a mail away.
Makemytip/Oktatabyebye (from BSNL & MTNL phones): 1-800-11-8747
Cox & Kings (from BSNL & MTNL phones): 1-800-22-1235
Thomas Cook: 011-23416580/23344617
Jungle Travels: 0361-2602186/2602223/2540995Post Script: I and a few other NRA (Non Residential Assamese) Kolongporiyas (I am a Nagaonian, by the way) have joined hands to volunteer as career counsellors for the aspiring lot back home. So far we have a travel writer (me), a bevy of well established Engineers (Amar Saikia, Gaurav Dey and Arnov Hazarika) and a Management Specialist (Subho) in the group. Be the first one to boost us up or mail your education/career queries related to the said fields at firstname.lastname@example.org. Phenomenal enthusiasm so far and I am anxiously waiting to watch us in “action”. More about the Kolonporiyas next Saturday!