Out on a limb

We were at the sanctuary much before the gates opened at 6. The end October  sunrise was in itself a reward.

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The Reserve, located in the  Vindhyachals had a thick cover of Teak & tawny grassland. And the Karnavati/ Ken flowed through it plunging over gorges of limestone & granite, in ever changing shades of pink & grey.

This, at the Raneh Falls which has a dormant volcano next door.

Panna had a count of 28 tigers. We were lucky to spot a family; tigress & cubs frolicking together while the male went out for the kill.

Leopard & spotted deer were also sighted.

And the call of the Sambar in the wild!

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Find him silhouetted ‘midst the foliage – Do you spot him?

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The crocodile inside the river – partially submerged & cleverly camouflaged between rocks – was barely visible above the water.

I got him none the less, as I did all the others, with  Iphone 5C – distance ranging from a few yards to over 500 meters.

(Which will explain the hazy contours no doubt)

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Gates of Heaven

Kalind Parvat

Yamunotri – Gangotri

May 2-16, 2017

 

Day 1 Delhi – Dehradun

Day 2 Doon – Janakichatti

Day 3 Janakichatti

Day 4 Janakichatti – Hanumanchatti

Day 5 Hanuman chatti – Maneri,Uttarkashi

Day 6 Maneri

Day 7 Maneri – Gangnani – Harsil

Day 8 Harsil – Lanka – Bhaironghati – Gangotri

Day 9 Harsil

Day 10 Harsil – Uttarkashi – New Tehri

Day 11 New Tehri – Rishikesh – Dehra Dun

 

Janakichatti

The Doon valley was always ‘idyllic’ space, if only in the mind. The approach is green & wooded arousing expectant hope in a first time visitor; hope that is soon belied. For it’s the same old story that is the bane of all our towns & cites. Tales by Ruskin Bond made one expect litchi trees at every bend & turn but you are hard put to find a single one.

Dehradun became the state capital of the newly formed Uttarakhand in 2000. It is a classic example of opportunity lost: not only to create something beautiful & new but to re create, decongest & improve.

 

The Doon – Janakichatti stretch is what I looked forward to. A 6 hour drive, the road was good & the first 2 hours – up to Yamuna bridge – scenic. Denuded forest-land took over thereafter with trees giving way to shrub & barren rock. And a scorching sun beating down upon sun burnt faces. We pass a gas station which is purported to be the last en route to Yamunotri. It is a little short of Barkot. There are roadside eating joints & places to stay all along the way but we go right up & halt at the GMVN guest house, Janakichatti. There are 2 of these, both very basic & functional & we opt for the lower one as it is closer to the parking. The cook turns out to be really good, serving fresh, hot vegetarian food; a welcome respite for the weary, especially at 15 degrees C.

The ride up was pollution – litter free. A strong stench of horse dung now assails the senses. There is noise & traffic too with bus loads of pilgrims trickling in steadily. The 5 km trek to Yamunotri (3291 meters) will be tomorrow.

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The next day dawns bright & clear with rain forecast for late afternoon. As we begin the climb it becomes abundantly clear that the yatra this year is disorganised. There are people from all over the country & all walks of life. Walking up a narrow mountain track, men & women, palkis, basket bearers & ponies jostle for space with multitudes coming down the same way. Sudden death strikes early in the day causing panic, making some call it off altogether while others plod on. A pilgrim has been hit by a rolling stone fallen off the mountain side & he has succumbed to the injury.

It becomes the talk of the day.

( Govt rates: Palki Rs 4000/- Basket Rs 1200/-)

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River Yamuna at Janakichatti is a clear bubbly stream that flows beside the GMVN. I take a leisurely walk down to the temple by the river. It is smothered in wild flowers & boasts a hot spring not many know about. Our next stop, Hanumanchatti, is a mere 10 km away. We drive down after lunch, in the middle of rain, & cold & arrive just as the lights go off. Electricity does not return for another 4 hours so we sit comforting ourselves with tea & pakoras.

 

Hanumanchatti is a small nondescript town with a few houses & a row of tiny shops. It’s main feature is the Sankatmochan temple atop a hillock overlooking the river with barren rocks all around. That must be how it derived its name  – Hanuman for the temple & chatti, as in rocks.

The priest turned out to be highly erudite & knowledgable, with wide interests ranging from the ancient to the modern. He had a view on everything – spiritual, historical, local, political, scientific – and a well informed one at that. Like an emperor surveying a kingdom he pointed out distant geographical features : “ that snow capped mountain peak is the Kalind parvat. Legend has it that Parvati……….. That is the holy sangam, the confluence of the Hanuman Ganga & the Yamuna. The two rivers part here & continue on their individual path, to meet once again at the sangam at Allahbad…..”

 

I had so far, been starved of factual information. Now here was a gobful !

The temple was inside a cave with a corridor connecting it to another that served as living quarters. And what do you know ? Along with roses transplanted from Darjeeling & Himalayan Kedar Patti, Panditji had all the trappings of modernity. Just name it – gas, solar panels, dish antenna, mobile, TV, water, electricity, internet – he had it all. I was enthralled.

It was a strange encounter of a rare kind. Strange, because the place was so remote & far out. Panditji had an aura & a ‘presence’ & he did something quite strange. When about to leave we were asked to wait while he went into the cave & came out with 2 Hanuman Chalisa’s. One was given to my husband but he held on tightly to the other while I looked expectantly on. Should I have asked for it? I didn’t & he did not give it to me. I wonder why. Because it rankles.

 

 

From Hanumanchatti it took an hour reaching the Barkot Bund, then a detour via Radi Top to Uttarkashi. Great road, dense pine forests, lovely weather, scenic drive. We halted at a Gurkha dhabha at Radi Top. Lunch consisted of rajma–chawal, salad, pickle, vegetable, all for a measly Rs 35/- The Dharasu – Uttarkashi stretch is a bit drab but gets better a little further. And lo & behold, there is the Ganga, a mere trickle at Uttarkashi.

The entrance to the town has a new tunnel but we go another 7 km past to halt at the beautiful GMVN guest house at Maneri. It is newly built & is beside the lake. Truly quite lovely, the perfect place to rest & recoup from the rigour of the trip. To laze about, walk around & to read. I have Khalil Gibran. Pure bliss!

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 Maneri lake

And onwards to Harsil via Gangnani, a 3 hour drive passing by giant Deodars, fresh water springs, waterfalls & the Ganga, which is a constant right up to Harsil & beyond. There was some kind of a traffic snarl at Gangnani – known for its sulphur springs. Except for that the views got more & more scenic with tall snow capped peaks, meadows & bugyals, the closer we got to Harsil.

There is nothing quite like a military camp in the middle of nowhere. We were guests of the Unit stationed there, a true home coming. The camp had poor connectivity but it was located in a thick forest beside the river, the waters icy cold & brimming. Harsil, among other things is famous for apples & its unique wind–chill factor. Harsil ki hawa, as locals call it. Day breaks with clear blue skies & winds that still around 3pm, after which comes the storm – rain, dark & cold.

 

Bagori

To Gangotri ( 3200 meters), penultimate destination today,  via Lanka – Bhaironghati. With an excellent road it does not take more than an hour. The drive up is phenomenal & overwhelmingly beautiful with fantastic glacial views all along.  Parking, is about a km short of the ivory white, gold domed temple dedicated to Ma Ganga. One either trudges up therefore or hires a wheel chair. Beggars line the route, displaying small change ( for everyone’s convenience) while a myriad shops sell puja samagrihi. The atmosphere is both festive & religious. A mela. Faith, seen to be believed.

 

Back from Gangotri, the next day which is also our last, is spent enjoying the place, walking to Wilson’s cottage & to Bagori, a village a km away. 7 picturesque little culverts have to be negotiated to get there. It is a sweet little hamlet of 400 families & old wooden houses. Most of the inhabitants leave during the harsh winter months & return in time for the sowing. Mountain streams have been channeled & pucca canals built for the purpose – a pretty cool picture. (Harsil – 2620 meters – offers a panoramic view of peaks, Bhagirathi 1,2 3 & Shivaling. It must also be the only place where pasta – mamma mia –  is stacked & sold from open gunny bags.)

 

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A Bagori knit

 

Off to New Tehri tomorrow, then back home via Rishikesh – Dehradun. A long, uneventful drive. The Sainik guest house at New Tehri is at a commanding height & offers a birds eye view of a town that could have been. Another wasted opportunity? After Old Tehri was submerged & residents relocated to make way for the largest dam in Asia, this was the chance – like Bhuj after the earthquake. But that requires imagination & foresight. Leave alone creating a beautiful new town they have not as yet given it a proper name.

New Tehri.

New ??? Uhh!!

 

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 Tehri Lake & Dam

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ALLORA….

Italia, here I come.

Rome, we know was not built in a day, but where are the Gladiators? There are carabiniere – armoured vehicles only. Forget about strutting, these chaps don’t like being photographed.

 

A ‘Night by Rome’ tour was a great idea. It was semi walking through city sights via narrow lanes & by lanes with little or no traffic & small crowds. The historic places – brilliantly lit up – appeared to have better visibility too.

So also a boat ride down the Tiber, music, food & wine included. We started at the bridge near Castel Sant Angelo & finished at Isola Tibertina near another historic bridge, the Ponte Cesare.

 

On the go, meet – eat –shop one must & no place better than the newly opened ‘Mercato Centrale’ (Roma Termini) Its size & scale will astound. What absolutely caught the fancy was a leisurely day out in Trastevere. Absolutely enjoyable wandering aimlessly – gelato in hand –scouting the Sunday Flea market & riding a tram back to the train station.

Trastevere: Steps                                                 And the tram

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Ponte Cesare

Most people visiting Italy make it a point to include Pisa & Pompei in their itinerary but they make day trips, basing themselves elsewhere. That, I think is a mistake for both towns deserve better as they have much to offer. Sleeping – awaking in a place is in any case an entirely different experience. Little things like having a cappuccino – croissant at an outdoor café as the town comes alive. Or watching the streets swept & washed. In Pisa they did it everyday.

A word about ‘M Gorkij’. Having checked in I was handed a set of 3 keys – entrance, corridor, room – & shown around before Elena vanished never to be seen again. Neither she nor any other hotel staff, all the days I was there. Not even when I finally checked out. I simply deposited the keys & whamooshed. But, who’s complaining. It was a nice, quiet place. Room cleaned & linen changed every day.

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Doors, Florence

                         Roof tops, Pisa                                               River Arno, Pisa

Pisa, was my base for day trips to Chianti /Tuscany & Cinque Terre. The small towns of Siena, Luca, Castellani & Monteriggone were a delight, more so with generous amounts of Chianti red wine, cheese, salami, olives & balsamic. All of it, followed by more wine & 3 course meal at a country resort.

Luca, with its old Renaissance walls is especially memorable. It was a lovely day. I had missed the 10.20, it was an empty platform & I had it all to myself so, a few yogic stretches & bends seemed perfectly in order.

(Luca to Pisa is a mere 30 minutes & the train brings you right inside the ancient walls.)

Monterosso, Cinque Terre

Renaissance walls, Luca                 Monterigione

Chianti, wine country

Traveling solo is ideal but a little company gives variety. We were a group of 7 doing Cinque Terre along with Amy, our young, vivacious guide & we ended up using every mode of transport – minivan, train & ferry. Starting at La Spezia, a port town from where the hill climb begins ( also famous for the white Caracas stone used by Michelangelo) & onwards to the 5 picturesque towns wedged between mountain & sea. The first of these was Riomaggiore where we switched from van to train, journeying along the Tyrrhenian coast to Vernazza & Monterosso with brief halts everywhere. Monterosso is the largest in the region but Riomaggiore, with its quaint little train station & murals is special. A break for lunch, some souvenir shopping & a ferry, to Porto Venere, going past Lord Byron’s alcove (he liked swimming there), bidding goodbye to the gorgeous coastline. Cinque Terre or the Italian riviera is stunning, the landscape more real & authentic than its counterpart on the French side which, comes across as a cluster of ultra rich towns & designer villages. 5 Terre is a UNESCO heritage site hence any new construction or alteration is forbidden. Consequently, there are no lifts or elevators. Flights of stairs that look like gateways to heaven lead to precarious homes atop cliff hanging villages. The inhabitants, all old, retired fishermen continue to toil up & down,visiting friends & neighbours et al.

 

A small, mixed group is also jolly good fun. And Americans are outrageous fun. Naïve, simple, generous, Robert hated walking. He was, quite obviously there on account of his wife who nagged him – sweetly & constantly.

“ Rob – Bert. Where arrrr U Rob-Bert,” she’d drawl, looking around.

“O, F—k off”, he’d respond.

Robert was of Italian origin & mouthed aphorisms like – “a happy wife is a happy life,” & “water for lungs/wine for the heart.”

Said with a straight face, his favourite was, “ Italians never divorce their wives. They simply murder them”

There was this other wearing flimsy, skimpy clothes & fanning herself on a cold windy day.

“you must be cold?” I say.

“No Dear” she replies. “I have the hot flushes”

 

Cinque Terre

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Train station, Riomaggiore

Pompei can only be described as picture perfect. Mute witness to the splendour of the Roman empire, a smoking volcano in the background, it has the most spectacular ruins anywhere in the world. And Iside, the lovely family owned property was precisely 10 minutes away from the Scavi. It was a boutique hotel, gave personalised service & breakfast that included an assortment of fresh fruit, juice, home-made cakes & jam.

Pompei Scavi

The pleasures of strolling in traffic free Venice – best place ‘tween earth & sky – can only be experienced not described. One easily gets lost, then miraculously finds the way again. I soon got a hang of it, which was that Venice essentially revolved around 3 major pivots – VSL station, San Marco Square & Rialto bridge – One simply followed clearly marked arrows leading to either of these places. Venice is in any case too small. Getting lost is therefore an impossibility. It is quaint, it is strange, it is above all like none other.

I did a Chichetti /wine, walking tour of the Jewish ghettos walking from Osteria to Osteria & Bacaro to Bacaro tasting wine & small eats that can hardly be termed small.

Venice: San Marco, Bridge of Sighs & Rialto

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Capri’s iconic swimmer

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Murano:  glass blower in action

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Burano

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Torcello

Naples, a city I hardly researched or expected anything from turned out to be full of surprises. From the moment of setting foot all & sundry warned – ‘do be careful’. Total strangers even, setting off a panic scare but the reality was something different. Anything untoward can happen anywhere. Lets just say that Napoli is as safe or unsafe as any other city. It is vibrant & full of energy, with fair amounts of noise, speeding & honking. It has, to top it all, Mt Vesuvius – the best view by far. There are other memorable vignettes, like the eye-catching metro at via Toledo & the balcony singer on via Trebunale who had every passer-by enthralled. There definitely is something in the air that spells music, soft breezes, romance, abandon & laughter. No surprise therefore that it was the scene of movies like ‘Yesterday,Today, Tomorrow’ & ‘Scent of a woman.‘

My one big regret? I did the unthinkable. I did not have a Neapolitan. This, in the birthplace of pizza is an unforgivable sacrilege. ‘Antica’ Trattoria, Pizzeria & Frigettoria inundate the place, so what was I thinking?

 

Naples cannot be signed off without a big thank you to Gabrielo, Cristina & the team at ‘B & B Sweet Sleep.’ Go for it guys! This B&B is money’s worth. Not just the breakfast & service but rooms on the top floor with balconies overlooking Piazza Garibaldi. The terrace with a roof top garden had a jacuzzi, restaurant & bar & a tantalising glimpse of Vesuvius.

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Mt Vesuvius from Naples sea front

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via Toledo, Naples – adjudged best metro station in Europe

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Naples, Balcony singer

I arrived at Salerno on a feast day – the feast of St Mathew, patron saint of the city. There were marching bands, firework displays, tableau, crowds & an entire city decked up to witness the saints taken out in procession.

Salerno was meant to be a spring-board to Amalfi, because of its proximity & because it was budget friendly. It is a city of churches & fountains & has a long, arching promenade. There is a ferry to Amalfi, Positano & Capri by the hour. Avoiding hair pin bends & traffic jams this is the best & least tiring way to enjoy the beauty of the coastline.

Sorrento, Amalfi, Positano –  all lovely, albeit touristy & overwhelming. The real steal is Ravello. Gem of a mountain town Ravello assaults the senses. The bus from Amalfi climbs steeply up the sea-coast offering sudden & breath taking views. It boasts a beautiful Duomo, castle & square & has cafes, bars & ceramic shops along with quiet corners & walks. Only 30 minutes from Amalfi, it is neither crowded nor touristy.

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Salerno

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Positano

Ravello: Ceramics galore

Hotel vs Air B&B vs Home Stay, what should it be? What would Salerno have been without Annarossa?. She met me on arrival, hauled luggage up 40 stairs, served a bountiful Feast day lunch & opened hearth & home in the most generous of ways. Anna was bohemian & care free & spread good cheer much like Amelie who gave every visitor a friendly ‘meow’ before settling on the sofa. Anna was like, ‘ prego…….make yourself at home…. all yours….’

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Amelie on her perch

21 days in Italia. What does one make of it?

May or may not make sense but Sophia says it best

                                     “ Everything you see I owe to spaghetti”

 

Single Jingle

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Travel we all. Except that some of us enjoy doing it alone. But the strange thing about going solo is that one is never really quite alone. You are single & by yourself, not alone. As for fears of getting lonely, don’t even think about it, for there is no such thing.

 

Wandering off on your own allows freedom ‘to be’. To be completely & honestly yourself. Nobody knows you. Nobody judges you. Which is also to say that, you are not carrying any ‘baggage’. Meet people at will or shun them altogether. Talk if you must. Walk the streets or join a local tour. The choice is yours. There is no one you must humour, or pander or make compromises with. You are your own.

 

All I ever need is a room with a view, a journal to scribble upon & a book, related to the place – no matter how remotely. Preferably, a work of fiction.

 

After months of research, sifting through facts & details & sorting out travel nitty-gritty it is well to loosen up & relax. Therefore fiction. A book of your choice. Always the perfect companion.

 

My trip to Cameron Highlands, Malaysia would surely not have been the same without Tan Twan Eng & ‘The Garden of Evening Mists.’ Tan turned out to be the perfect soulmate & that greatly enhanced the experience.

 

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Take F Fitzgerald Scott & ‘Tender is the Night.’ A light, frivolous companion to anyone traversing the playgrounds of the rich & famous – the French Riviera. It was amusing to hear two characters argue the merits & demerits of Paris vs Rome. Which was more crime infested? The story plays out in the first decades of the last century & here am I  – France 2015 – robbed & taken to the cleaners over a 100 years later.  Clearly some things never change.

 

At another, more sober level is Graham Greene’s ‘The Quiet American’. A novel set in French Indo-China. A different matter though that Vietnam (2016) does not care about wars long past & forgotten. Buddha-like almost. Talk of living in the present!

 

Closer home, if visiting Kerala, I suggest taking along Arundhati Roy, if you can stomach her or Salman Rushdie. ‘God of small things’ & ‘The Moor’s last sigh’ are both excellent reads & will give that extra zing & flavour.

Amitav Ghosh did just that to Gangasagar – Sunderbans – 2013.

‘The Hungry Tide:’  Boy O Buoy, did it shore up EQ! (emotion quotient)

 

Where to next? You may ask. And, with whom?

Italy this Fall. With Buzzati.

Dino Buzzati & his “strange & haunting novel” ‘The Tartar Steppe’ that has been described as “an eccentric classic”.

Eccentric?  Let me read it first.

 

Note: Russia is in the pipeline for 2018. I have heard of a Russian tale where the protagonist collects water from the major rivers of the world & stores it in little bottles, all kept in a row. Book, author, story writer – unfortunately unknown.

But it’s what I have set my heart upon & will take along to read.

Help! Anyone out there? Would be ever so grateful.

 

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Down in a Valley

IMG_3445Lambadi tribesman

IMG_3428IMG_3461IMG_3460Maniappan : Tribal King

 

IMG_3455Karpanna : Black brother temple

Sittilingi is approachable by train, bus & car from both Chennai & Bangalore. It is 220 kms from Bangalore & takes about 5 hours via Hosur, Krishnagiri, (take a left from the highway here) Kariamangalam, Morappur, Harur,Theerthamala & Kotapatti, the closest town, a mere 8 km away, where a last hot cup of stimulating coffee may be had. The forest begins soon after, a 5 – 6 km stretch of parched jungle. Enter & drive right through giant bamboo whodunits of mind boggling scale & size – mile after withering mile. Tall, sapped & dying stalks interspersed with bushes of keekar & lantana.The very forest seems asleep. Or dead. There is not a living creature anywhere around. Still & soundless the forest suddenly vanishes & makes way for a valley. Green, as far as the eye can see. Emerald green & wedged between low, blue hills – the Kalrayan range.

It has been a therapeutic drive in many different ways. Past little towns & tiny hamlets with tongue twister names, temples to powerful tribal kings, small ornate churches, an abundance of roadside mango stalls, elephant crossings, swaying palms, outlandish outcrops of rock & boulder.

Cruising along the highway to the strains of old Bollywood numbers the 5 hours have gone by in a flash.

‘You understand any of this’? I ask in shocked surprise.

‘Yes’ replies Murugesh.

‘I must congratulate you then. This is poetry. Ek dum high brow”.

Never imagined I would live to see a young Tamil, a driver, rock to Zafar & Azmi – “ na kisi ki aankh ka noor hoon……../   yeh duniya agar mil bhi jaye to kya hai?”

Sittilingi valley, is greenest of things green. Rural, pastoral, agrarian. It is idyllic. (17 villages in all, 1 Dalit, 2 Lambadi, rest tribal)

Dr Regi George & his gynecologist wife Lalitha moved here in 1992 & set up ‘Tribal Health Initiatives’ an organization that promotes tribal health & addresses societal & environmental concerns. This dedicated duo have over the years given fully of themselves, with positive results while, managing to keep their work both secular & apolitical.

The ‘Farmers Initiative’ introduced farmers to organic methods of farming, the crops being several varieties of rice, ragi, lentils, corn, millet, turmeric & vegetables. This is marketed under the brand name SVAD, mainly in the south.

There is a fully equipped medical facility with trained staff where every contingency involving in/out patients is attended to. Everything from surgery, to ICU, to Lab tests, to medicines & health care. Even yoga & meditation. Not only that, THI trains & employs nursing & support staff from the general area. As for the sprawling hospital complex – it is like none other in that it is aesthetically designed using local material, keeping tradition in mind. Man & nature in harmony.

I quiz Lalitha about ‘Porgai’ the pet project she manages after hospital hours. ( ‘Porgai’ translates to ‘pride’ in the Lambadi dialect.) How does she reconcile the two? Her medical profession with managing an art & design store.

“Isn’t it one & the same,” she avers with a smile. “The sick & ailing have to be healed so there is a hospital. The healthy require sustenance & work to stay healthy & happy. So we have ‘Porgai’. Creative work is health/preventive care – you will agree”

Centuries ago the Lambadis came here from north west India, bringing with them their distinct culture, language & art. Lifestyles changed over time and with it was lost the elusive ‘stitch,’ a heritage of Harappan origin. Caught in the whirlpool of daily toil there was no time for beauty or art, hence the craft began to die a slow natural death.

Until it was revived by the Regis with the help of older Lambadi women who remembered a stitch or two from their childhood. Collective memory took over, the endeavor paid off & ‘Porgai’ is a witness. It not only provides sustenance but empowers the women folk, restoring dignity & pride in their craft. It keeps families together preventing forced migrations to ugly urban centers. Above all, it keeps them healthy for in the valley the air is pure & clean with no shortage of either food or water.

(Sittilingi boasts excellent roads, school, health facilities, electricity, connectivity – you name it.

And ‘Porgai’ sells exquisite clothes & linen woven with organic cotton & embellished with Lambadi embroidery. It has a tie up with a young designer from Bangalore who incorporates the traditional to create the modern & trendy.)

Murugesh, makes a keen observation.

“ You must be bored” I console him. “ Bear with me for just another day”

“ No”, says he. “Not bored.

How clean everyone looks. How happy.

Also. No religion. No politics”.

That’s it. No religion. No politics.

No wonder!

(The entire valley had only one church & a temple.)

 

 

 

 

 

IMG_3449PorgaiIMG_3453IMG_3426IMG_3435IMG_3441Down the village street

IMG_3454Clean air  longevity

Along an Eastern Seaboard

 

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Going by bucket lists this was a long time coming. My Lai, Gulf of Tonkin & a terrified little girl running naked under a shower of napalm bombs. Remember? And, Bob Dylan singing ‘Blowin’ in the wind’?

So, to the land of the Dragon, the Tortoise, Unicorn & Phoenix.

Sen Chiao Vietnam. Hello, how do you do?

It is a casual, rhetorical greeting that need not be answered. But what follows in rapid, quick fire succession does & must be answered. Namely –

How old are you?

Are you married?

Yes? Do you have children? How many?

If not. Why not? And, Holy of Holies –

How much do you earn?

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Poor language skills can be a hindrance anywhere but can never deter a keen, avid traveler. Communication therefore never really breaks down, for the Vietnamese are a friendly chatting people. Engage in banter and conversation that is in any case going nowhere, dissolves in laughter. There is no Vietnamese script, yet reading road signs is simple & easy – not only because of ‘Translate’. Mind your words though for each takes on a different meaning depending upon the scale – high, low, flat.

My ‘Umbrella Hat’ is an instant hit, inviting friendly smiles & stares. The reason I am certain, is to do with the traditional concept of beauty where girls must be very fair (Yellow race?) & have long black hair. Which is why you see so many peering eyes from beneath the body,hands & face ,all swaddled up against the sun.

A typical Vietnamese home will have one large bed in every room. It is used both for eating & sleeping. The toilet is the ‘happy’ place. Ask me why? Because, everyone goes in unhappy & come out relieved.

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Local Beauty

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World heritage site, Halong Bay.Volcanic outcrops rising 250 meters above sea level

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Elephant Eye Fish

One can survive on the great variety of tropical fruits but this is a food paradise. Vietnamese eat everything that walks, crawls, flies or swims. The menu at ‘Diem Phuong’ a restaurant on the Mekong had – among other things – a rice paper wrap with filling of Elephant Eye Fish, pineapple, salad & dip. The pancake had duck eggs & pork. Not much of a Foodie I was the only one asking probing questions until someone shut me up with a ‘ never mind. Just eat’. And  I did & it was delicious.

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railway platform, Hue

An overnight journey by train is highly recommended. I did Hanoi – Hue/ Hue – Saigon with a halt at Hue, most charming of medieval cities, steeped in culture & history.

Train stations/ GA are clean & orderly. There is a waiting area as gates to the platform open half an hour before the train arrives. You simply show your ticket & board. No rush, no porters, no fuss. I didn’t know what to expect & ended up having a great time. A food trolley would come by every now & then laden with everything from meat, chicken & fish to beer & wine. And there was 24 hour cold/ hot water for coffee, tea, instant noodles.

The two & half-hour ride from Hue to Danang  is stunning & can be ranked among the most spectacular in the world especially, the 21 km segment where the train goes through seven long tunnels & crosses the Hai Van or the Ocean Cloud pass. So named as it evokes the mist that rises from the sea. The landscape alternates between mountain & sea, at times both on either side, mountain on the right, ocean to the left. It is magical.

Low hills & rolling plains with men & women in non lai, (traditional conical hat) working fields & vegetable patches. Dense forests, orchards, picturesque homesteads, paddy fields,  family tombs whiz by. There’s  never a dull moment. Gazing long hours out of the window has never been such a real & simple pleasure.

The train arrives at Ho Chi Minh City early next morning – to the strains of loud revolutionary music. A rude wake up call that is in itself an experience.

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Entrance, District Halong

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French era bridge across the Red river, Hanoi

Vietnam has moved on after the ravage of war. It has world class infrastructure, super highways, roads, water & electricity. There are coffee shops, bars, massage parlors, gardens & parks with varied gym equipment for free public use.

Sets one wondering on the significance of the lotus in  national psyche. It is found abundantly & has a Buddhist connect, but the reason for it holding prime importance in local culture is because it motivates. Mired in slime & muck it inspires to rise above circumstance.

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Flower Seller, on a Cyclo

The young are not religious. Mammon is God & most homes have altars where incense is lit, for prosperity. The government, no less, runs ‘Humanity’ Centers that are located  along the tourist trail. These showcase hand made weaves, arts & crafts created by the physically & mentally challenged – victims of American aggression, chemical warfare that maimed & killed over 3 million. The products are beautiful but smacks of rank commercialization. One comes away feeling sad at the crass milking of human misery.

A bus ride into the countryside has us gawking at a church like structure with a Swastika on top. It turns out to be a Cay Di place of worship. Cay Di, being a new faith that purports to combine the best from all religions.

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The Museum

And what of the ugly war that continues to fascinate & attract? There is little talk about it for though it belongs to the recent past, the past is history. The world however loves to remember, the only country to have defeated three super powers. Is it now gearing up for another round, in the South China Sea, perhaps. “That’s not what we call it”, says an official correcting me. “It is our Eastern Sea”

A motorcycle ride through the broad, tree lined streets of Saigon brings us to the war museum. It is on three floors & is an unabashed no – holds- barred display of the futility & ugliness of war. Heavy duty, full on stuff with documentation that makes one cringe. Unspeakably moving, there is pathos, real politic, heroism, tragedy, crime & bestiality. Along with lessons – on patriotism, the necessity of peace & respect for the tradition of war (when an absolute must)

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Cu Chi tunnels

And so, to the Cu Chi tunnels. In the middle of thick green woods it owes its inventiveness to the inhabitants of Cu Chi itself & to the genius of Ho Chi Minh. Constructed at three levels, underground, it is an over 200 km labyrinthine. A network of design both intricate & simple, like a spider web. Only the puny can enter; which is what an average Vietnamese in any case is. (Also noticed: puny bees that do not sting & a historic obsession with Bonsai)

The day ends with a drink at the ‘Gecko’ a backpacker favorite in the Old Quarter. I order ‘Sorrows of the War’ – a cocktail of Cointreau, gin, lemon, sugar, cinnamon, aniseed, cardamom – that is priced at a whopping 88,000 Dong. (Don’t be aghast, works out to very little.)

Maggie loves it all. I encounter her in the back lanes of a Saigon alley, sitting on an armchair, reading a novel, unmindful of the hurly burly surrounding her. At 70 plus, this old lady from New Zealand has been here for 5 years.

How did she like it?

“ Love it”

Learn Vietnamese?

“No need to. A snap of the fingers & everything’s there”

 

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Eastern Sea/ South China Sea: view from the train

 

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Punky Funky Monk: Thien Mu Pagoda, Hue

Roady Toady

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national highway

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Bombay – believe it or not

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Heritage train Matheran

Vroom, vroom…… off we go, full throttle. The car surges onto NH 22 which becomes a 6 lane a short distance further. Hazy mountain outlines hover into view then become large, dark looming shapes.The first glimpse of approaching destination is always an adrenaline rush. Strange as it sounds, this to me is love of country. Gripping patriotic mania. Nothing quite like a road trip to bring it on.

Needless to provoke & annoy with forced vande matarams & bharat mata jais? Do a ‘Bharat Darshan’ instead. The countryside is beautiful.

“Vindhya, Himachal, Yamuna, Ganga……

Punjab, Sindh, Gujarat, Maratha

Dravid, Utkal, Banga”

I could be on the road forever. Taking in colour & sound, meeting ‘real’ people – away from it all.

Whoever called us lazy? We are most industrious. Seriously. Imagine another country with our kind of weather & see if they could slog it like us.

I have seen Biharis break stones on the heights of Ladakh. Sleeping out in the cold, eating ‘khichri’, laying roads. Stretches of highway with milestones marking the distance to the farther most posts.

Mana:100 miles

500 miles to Mana

Mana:1000 miles.

In the cities traffic is chaotic. Adding to the cacophony is dust, heat, noise, pollution & people. Hordes of them. Men & women, full of zest, energy & drive.

Trust an outsider, a foreigner to point this out & who better than Kristoff, a third time visitor who revels in the chaos.

After getting his fill of madness he will return to the dreary orderliness of existence back home. The soap opera meanwhile…….

(He was outside an ATM, patiently waiting his turn, knowing fully well that the machine may soon run out of cash, as it had, all over Goa that season. Sundance, X’mas, New Year, peak holiday time – no matter.)

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inside a restaurant – no kidding

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India: could be anywhere

 

Step out of the national capital & notice the stark rural – urban, agro – industrial divide where Bharat, not India wins.

Ever seen a Maruti 800 or an aircraft upon a rooftop? You never will until you begin to stir out, for both these are prestige & décor items in rural Punjab. So is the truck parked inside a restaurant with headlights on. Free interior decoration tips, anyone?

Never heard of ‘Maruta’?

A contraption used by farmers, it is in effect, a cross between tractor & car – the ubiquitous Maruti once again.

Make no mistake both Bharat & India are changing –  fast. Hop on to the bandwagon, join the roadshow, take a trip – physical & metaphorical & witness the change.

There is a new cockiness in the air.

A Rabari woman in Gujarat, begging for alms, gives up with a disgusted “eh, mara Babo ne chocolate aapo na”. Don’t miss ‘Babo’ – her darling son. And what does Babo want? Chocolates. Not milk.

In Chakrata, I go scouting for a medicine the lone chemist does not have. He cannot provide a substitute, nor does he think it’s available anywhere up in those hills.

Try Dr. Joshi, instead.

I walk down the road & ask for Rosave 20 or anything else the doctor can recommend.

“You won’t find it ”, says he.

Why not?

“Because nobody here has high cholesterol. Take my word. ‘chiknai kam karo’.

And yet. Some things never change.

In the Prime Ministers constituency there is round the clock activity involving infra structure. All day one hears, the roar of engines going up & down the river, dredging & cleaning the Ganga & the ghats.

Getting off a rickshaw at Assi ghat, I ask, “ how much’?

Adjusting a mouthful of swish n swim saliva, he answers ——

“Don’t spit,“ I yell, seeing the intent “ you are not to spit”.

Yes, he nods in agreement & smiles.

And out comes the spittle. Jet like. Right there, next to me. Juicy red stains on the floor.

Kya karein!

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time on my hands

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Homestay

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still hoping