Jun 8, 2015

How it All began (Part 1 of the Chail trip)

When I was in school, summer holidays meant Chandigarh. The whole family would gather at my Grandparents with nothing in mind but to spend the long summer days in a sort of lazy stupor, eating mangoes and litchi, watching movies and going to the lake in the evening.

Chandigarh also meant trips to the Hills. The hills that seemed so remote when we were in Delhi formed a constant backdrop for our lives in Chandigarh. We could see them from the balcony, their dark blue jagged outline rising sharply against the summer sky that was bleached almost white by the summer sun, or peeping through the mango and guava trees as we played in the Garden.

The trips were usually unplanned. Someone would complain about the heat and how boring everything was and then gaze morosely towards the hills. And just like that we would be off.

Sometimes we made a picnic out of it, leaving early in the morning, driving all day through the winding hill roads, stopping whenever we were hungry or felt like a dip in the streams that periodically ran along the road. Sometimes we were gone for days, staying in Dak Bunglows, ancient with creaking wooden floors, each with its own personal ghost story.

Invariably it was my mother who drove during these trips. She was passionate about driving. Even now it is very difficult for anyone else to get behind the wheel while she is in the car.

Chail was one of our favorite Hill destinations. Quiet and peaceful, it was not too far from Shimla but with none of the hullabullo and touristy crowds one associates with popular hill stations. The small town is surrounded by woods, deep and dark not unlike Robert Frost’s poem. It is one of the last stops in the ‘Hills’, for the climb after Chail gets very steep and you reach the mountains, snow clad and much less gentle that the rolling hills left behind.

Chail’s claim to fame is the Palace of Maharaja of Patiala that has been converted into a hotel by the government. This pretty little Palace is perched on top of the hill, the area surrounding it levelled to create a huge lawn the size of a football field. The forest comes up to almost the edge of the lawn so that you step off the manicured lawn and straight into the woods.

We used to hike up and down the numerous trails shaded by giant deodar and pine trees. The sky peeped through the thick leaves at intervals, but mostly you got the feeling that you were walking inside a green, airy and cool cave. The trees here were ancient, their barks dark and wrinkled, their branches thick as a man’s thigh.

At places, there would be a wide gap between the trees, a sheer fall that gave us a direct view of the valley below. We could see a patchwork of fields; the green and brown livened by the bright clothes of the women who worked in them.

Our hikes always ended at one of the numerous Chai-Pakora stalls that spring up everywhere in the hills. These small stalls dished out absolutely tasty, crunchy pakoras that we washed down with sweet milky tea.

Chail also meant fruit. Peach, Apple, Plums, Cherries and Apricots. Trees laden with them and the locals sitting right below those trees on small jute durries selling the fruit they had plucked just hours ago. It gave a whole new meaning to eating fresh.

Years passed. Trips to the hills became infrequent as more important things like college and then jobs replaced the simple pleasures of walking through woods or splashing in mountain streams.

Last month, as I battled the traffic on yet another dry, dusty and hot day that so typifies the Delhi Summer, I was seized with an overwhelming desire for silence, to hear nothing but the song of the birds and the whisper of the wind.

What we all needed I decided, was a visit to Chail. That would provide a perfect interlude in our busy lives.

Or so I thought.

To be continued …....

May 12, 2015

Traveling Solo in India - Guest Post !

I am delighted to present a Guest Post I wrote for Roshni of the Indian American Mom fame. 

Roshni lives in picturesque San Diego with her Husband and her two sons (Little A and Big A). Her  blog’s Tagline is ‘Juggling two rich cultures through life and parenthood’. And she does just that – very effortlessly and with a lot of panache! Her blog is filled with anecdotes about Life in America with her family as well as posts that talk about her India connection.  It all makes for very delightful reading!

Guest posts always make me jittery. I just never know what to write. My usual reaction to them is to bury my head under the pillow and mumble lame excuses. 

So when Roshni asked me to write something about being single in India I was rather clueless about what to write. A lot of her readers are Non-Indians. I did not want to portray a depressing picture to them; neither did I want to paint a false rosy one. In the end, I just decided to write about what it's like to travel in India.  I do hope you enjoy reading it ! 

As someone who loves to travel, and often travels solo, I think India is the best and the worst country to do so. With its temples and monasteries, palaces and forts, beach resorts and mountain treks, it has something for everyone.

Unfortunately, India is also a rather inquisitive society. We will make your business our own and take an active interest in your life, often give unsolicited advice and feel offended if we are not privy to each and every detail of your personal life.

Read more at http://www.indianamericanmom.com/2015/05/traveling-alone-in-india-as-a-single-woman.html

Apr 16, 2015

The Japanese and the Sound Princess!

In many ways, Japan still remains a mystery to the rest of the world. For here, the ancient and the modern not only coexist but seem to do so in great harmony. The land of the rising sun is as comfortable with its bullet trains and cutting edge technology as it is with Zen and Geishas.

Japan has a unique culture, with its own peculiarities and quirks that seem natural to the Japanese but intrigue all foreigners.

I have already written about the Japanese love for the Hot Bath. Lets take things a little further today and talk about the Japanese Toilet ! 

A lot of things have shocked and amazed me about Japan but nothing has left me more flummoxed than the Japanese Toilet. 
On my very first visit to Japan, I stumbled off my flight half asleep and entered the airport loo, only to be confronted by a bidet that had so many buttons and controls on it; it almost rivaled an airplane cockpit. 

Scary. Especially when you come from the land of lota and running water! 

Once you have used a Japanese toilet, cleaning your butt will never be same again. Thanks to their fetish for using technology everywhere, they have turned the morning perch on the throne into a total pleasure ritual. 

The Japanese bidet literally spoils you for choice with its various butt cleaning options. By simply pressing a few buttons, you can choose exactly what part of your ‘tenderness’ you want the water to hit. You can also adjust the water temperature as well as the pressure by choosing between a low pressure setting, a high speed jet stream or a massage feature with oscillating and pulsating streams of water(ahem!). After you are squeaky clean, just press another button to let warm air gently dry your behind. It’s rather a surprise that a hand doesn’t shoot out to tenderly pat and powder the said area as well. 

Earlier the Bidet panel used to be only in Japanese leaving most of the foreigners totally baffled and intimidated. Fortunately most of the modern bidets now come equipped with rather graphic pictures or English explanations otherwise the non-Japanese speakers literally wouldn’t know what hit them and where! 

Even now, some of the hotels have signs in their toilets that request the user to make sure he is sitting on the seat before pressing any button. Or the poor unsuspecting, bumbling foreigner might just have water squirted all over him!

The more technologically enhanced washrooms also give you deodorizer spritzers, motion sensors that open the lid when someone walks in and a flush that will run as soon as you get up.

Another fantastic feature that I totally appreciated during winter was the seat warmer. This lets you adjust the temperature of the seat so that you have a nice, toasty warm place to sit on. Infact during the Japanese winters, the throne might be the most comfortable place to be on, since Japanese homes hardly have any central heating to speak of!

In most Japanese homes, the toilet is in a separate area from the bath. Such throne among thrones, you would think, certainly deserves its own space. The toilet enclosure however, is just big enough to accommodate a medium sized person. Anyone taller than average (and the rest of the world is usually taller than the Japanese average) will have trouble fitting in. I know of an almost 6 ft 4 inches tall Canadian friend who actually has to sit with the door open and his knees sticking out!

The Japanese save water as well as space in the most ingenious manner. Most homes have a toilet with a small sink mounted on the cistern. When you flush, the tap on the sink automatically releases water. As you wash your hands, the water goes inside the cistern, to be used the next time someone flushes. 

Something that speaks volumes about the Japanese aversion to anything even slightly indelicate is the ‘Oto Hime’ or the ‘Sound Princess’. Japanese women being the sensitive sort, hate the sounds that betray their activity inside the toilet. The solution till a few years back was to flush continuously to drown all other sounds. 
 Then an enterprising Japanese company thought of a small device that emits a sound whenever activated. So now by just pressing a button, the Japanese ladies can camouflage all noises and do their business in peace and without embarrassment. The camouflaging sound can be anything, a soothing tune, a song, or even the sound of a flush running.

In my humble opinion, along with eating Sushi, taking a dip in the Onsen and wearing a Kimono, using a Japanese toilet should rank as one of the greatest cultural experiences of Japan.

It takes a while to get the hang of such comforts, but once you do, you wonder about the primitive manner in which you have been using the washroom till now. It will make you forget about buying the usual camera and laptops, all you would want to do it is smuggle home a Japanese Toilet!

If you enjoyed reading this post, you might like to read more about quirky Japan !  Please click here to read the rest of my posts in the Japan and I Series. 

Mar 23, 2015

The Leg Room Chronicles !

For the past few months I have been travelling so much that I have been literally living out of suitcases. I usually love travel, even if it is related to work. What I do not love is the bit where I have to sit cramped in flights forever !

Only someone who is as tall as me (or taller!) will understand how difficult it is to fit all 5 feet 9 inches of me into a conventional airplane seat. What makes my life even more difficult is that majority of my long distance flights are to Japan. In my humble opinion, when that country was designing airplanes, they did not even consider anyone over the height of five feet four inches. 

You get in the flight, already feeling out of place because you are towering over the rest of the passengers and then you try to pour yourself into the cramped space the seat provides. The seats are so small, the leg space so negligible that after you have squeezed in along with the pillows and blankets and headphones the airline so thoughtfully provides, your derriere is half hanging out of the seat and your feet are so cramped that your chin is almost touching your knees.
Not Pleasant! 

Invariably, once you have managed to squeeze yourself in, the person infront of you decides that this would be an ideal time to get his money’s worth and reclines his chair as far as it would go. I’ve had people recline back their seats so much, it almost felt as if they were napping in my lap !

And so begins the war between the “Recliners” and the “Legroomers”. You can either (depending on your mood ) politely tell the person in front to straighten his seat a bit or gently but consistently keep nudging the back of his seat with your knee till he gets the hint.

Domestic flights within India are equally bad. Increase in number of seats has naturally led to a compromise on comfort and one gets the feeling of travelling like cattle herded into a cramped space.

Over the years you develop a strategy on how to make your hours in that airless hell as least uncomfortable as possible. The first thing is of course to try and get the seats right in front of the plane or the ones near the emergency exit. My flights are often late night ones and usually the web check in ( that also allows you to choose your seat) opens 24 hours before take-off. I have set alarms to wake me up in the middle of the night so that I can be the first to log in the airlines site and book myself the seat with the maximum leg space.

The seats on the emergency exit usually do not have a window view but then I would rather stretch my legs than sit all hunched up gazing at the beautiful panaroma of clouds floating by.

If you can’t manage the front seat, the second best option is to get an aisle seat and try to sit slightly diagonally. This requires you to be very careful about your jutting knees and elbows that the stewardess is sure to bang into with her food Trolley.

But the battle is only half won if you have got that aisle seat. As soon as you make yourself comfortable and stretch your cramped legs the sweet old lady next to you would need to use the washroom in what seems like every couple of minutes. As there is no way she can hop over your long legs you will have to get up every time and of course every time you get up you bang your head on the overhead compartment.

And it’s not just about leg room. What do you with those long arms and pointy elbows that refuse to fit just anywhere. There have been many subtle wars with my neighbor in the next seat over elbow space. Both of us looking resolutely ahead while trying very hard to push the other person’s elbow aside in order to occupy that coveted space on the armrest.

In majority of my flights, I usually end up sitting with my feet clamped together and my arms jammed on my sides, not unlike a trussed hen.

More travel lined up in April. Suddenly video conferences and telephone calls (however long they might stretch) seem like such an infinitely better option than getting on a Jet Plane !

Dec 2, 2014

The Japanese and The Art of Using Chopsticks

Rachna of Rachna Says fame is one of the finest bloggers I know. Her content is thought provoking and responsible and her writing always impeccable. 

Over the years I have come to admire her for not only her writing prowess but also the very principled and ethical manner in which she conducts herself in the blog world. She is also an extremely helpful and generous soul who will go out of her way to share her knowledge about blogging and blogs with her friends and even people she hardly knows. She is a genuine person, straight forward and honest.

So I was in a quandary when she asked me to write a guest post for her. I wanted it to be something special, something that would appeal to her discerning taste. Then I remembered how much Rachna enjoys my posts on Japan and so I decided to do a ‘Japan and I’ post for her.

I do hope my post has done justice to her fine blog!

In many ways, Japan still remains a mystery to the rest of the world. For here, the ancient and the modern not only coexist but seem to do so in great harmony. The land of the rising sun is as comfortable with its bullet trains and cutting edge technology as it is with Zen and Geishas.

Japan has a unique culture, with its own peculiarities and quirks that seem natural to the Japanese but intrigue all foreigners. One of the most interesting and peculiar things about Japan is that while the rest of the world uses spoons and forks, the Japanese insist on eating their food with two pieces of wood!

Please click on the following link to read the rest of the post on Rachna's Blog !


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