Mar 13, 2014

The Best Days of My Life !

I was introduced to Sakshi’s Blog 'Between Write and Wrong' by a friend. To be honest, I opened it in a very bored and desultory manner not really knowing what to expect. I read the first few lines of her post and the next instant I was sitting up in sheer delight. For finally, finally here was a blogger who wasn't blogging simply for the sake of it. Sakshi writes, truly writes and uses her language masterfully to create utterly captivating works of art.

What also amazes me is how prolific she is. She can make you laugh out loud with her sparkling wit and then turn around and very casually, very effortlessly churn out a post that will astound you with its deep perception.

The love of travel is something Sakshi and I have in common. So when she asked me to write a travel post for her I wanted it to be something special. I went through a whole lot of travel destinations in my mind choosing and then discarding the places I wanted to write about. Finally I chose to write a memoir on Kobe, not a well-known tourist spot but a place that is very close to my heart. Somehow it seemed very appropriate for her blog! 

I do hope you enjoy reading it! 



I have spent many happy years in the Land of the Rising Sun and have lived in almost all its major cities, but the place that remains the closest to my heart is a quaint little city called Kobe. 


Kobe lies on the southernmost tip of Japan. It’s almost at the other end from Tokyo, but what separates the two cities is not only the physical distance but also their two totally different characters. Tokyo is all about big corporates, high rises and technology. Kobe on the other hand is quiet, laid back with an old world charm. If we were to assume that these two cities are people, Tokyo to me would be an aggressive Businessman but Kobe would be a graceful and elegant lady dressed in a Kimono.

Read the rest on Sakshi's blog using the link below. 

http://www.sakshinanda.com/2014/03/guest-post-best-days-of-my-life-by.html

Mar 7, 2014

When Two's a Crowd !

The normal, saner members of our society usually travel with family or friends. The more daring ones travel with strangers and then there are some wanderers like me, who at times prefer their own company over the company of others.

My first solo trip was out of necessity. I was in Japan and wanted to go to Kyoto to see the Shinto Shrines in their autumn splendor. None of my friends had any inclination to “spend our time shivering in the cold watching the leaves turn red” as they put it and so I just decided to go on my own.

That trip was a revelation. I was amazed to discover how much I enjoyed being by myself.

Perhaps out of anxiety because I was traveling alone, I had planned my Kyoto trip meticulously – right from where I wanted to stay to exactly what Shrines I wanted to see. But for some reason, as soon as I got off the train, I decided to throw caution to the winds and just follow my whim. I wandered all over the city on foot, stopping where I wanted for as long as I wanted. I whizzed past the more popular and crowded temples that were on my itinerary and instead spent hours walking through smaller lesser known temples deep in the woods where the beauty of the autumn colors had to be seen to be believed. I ate at odd times at the small kiosks selling traditional Japanese food without having to worry about the food choices of anyone else.

 It was an exhilarating experience.

Usually when we travel in a group we tend to fit ourselves into the company we keep. We mould ourselves to adjust to the likes and dislikes and wants of others. And I suppose this is how it should be when you travel in a group. But at times, I also like to “revel in my selfishness” .

Traveling alone gives you an incredible sense of freedom. Stay in a hotel or a quaint B&B. Walk when you want, or take the train. Skip a museum or spend your whole day wandering in them or simply sit in a café watching the world go by. Indulge in fine dining or eat the local food off the street. Get up at five in the morning to catch the sunrise or sleep till midday. It’s all up to You!

The biggest myth about traveling solo is that you will feel lonely and get bored. No you won’t. There is a great difference in being alone and being lonely. I have spent many perfect hours simply being with myself but not feeling lonely even for an instant. And no one who has a soul of a wanderer can ever get bored in a new place.

Traveling by yourself is a chance to step away from our daily life, away from the people we usually interact with. When you travel alone it is not just a journey to a new place, it is a journey within yourself. You will discover things about you, you never thought existed. Being on your own changes you, makes you a different and I dare say a better person. It gives you that sense of space so lacking in our lives.

You also become more aware of your surroundings, more observant. I really believe true appreciation of nature needs solitude. I have seen wonderful things while on holidays with others but the sights and sounds that have stayed with me the most are the ones I saw alone.

I went to Ladakh with a group of people but decided to steal a few hours to walk around Pangong Lake on my own. The time I spent there in utter solitude just watching the play of sun and clouds over the water will stay with me forever.



When you are on your own, you learn to savor the moments, discover your own piece of happiness. At the very crowded Toronto harbor, I found happiness by sitting on a bench eating fresh cherries and simply watching the boats.

I left behind the crowded Stonehenge and found a greater delight in walking through the woods alone, reveling in the sunny day that is as rare in UK as unicorns ! 


When you travel with others, it is not truly travel, It is simply a holiday. 
To wander about a new place with just your thoughts for company, with no compulsion to follow a plan, to conform or adapt to anything - Now that is travel!


Pic curtsy Indian Home Maker 

Feb 28, 2014

In Nature we Rejoice !

Every once in a while, I get this urge to run away from the urban jungle I live in and spend some time in Nature. This time I decided to head out to the Bharatpur Birds Sanctuary. The timing was perfect as this is when our feathered guests from the colder regions of the world pay the sanctuary a visit ! The usual way to see the sanctuary is to take a rickshaw. Some of the rickshaw wallah have actually been trained by Salim Ali and act as fantastic guides. But we decided to do things differently. We decided to walk, to savor the natural surroundings around us at our own pace. 

At first everything seemed to be in different hues of brown and green. The ancient trees with their barks crumbling and brown, the leaves a monochromatic green. The water almost white, translucent and speckled with green moss. 


The surface of the lake seemed like some exotic green and white carpet, the moss breaking to form small emerald islands as the birds swam through it.





After a while, it seemed as if our feathered guests had decided to take a liking to us, because they started to make an appearance, Slowly at first, as if they were shy and reluctant and then in groups once they had decided we were harmless !

And they added such a dash of colour to the brown and green landscape.

I loved this Duck, with 
a bright orange rim around the eye, the tip of its beak a bright yellow, as if it had dipped it in yellow paint by mistake. 
The spotted brown and white of its plumage livened by a just a daub of blue.




A kingfisher dazzles us with its Spectacular Blue. 



The Painted Storks paint a perfect picture ! 





 We walked on through the woods, giving up the usually followed path to venture into wilder, lesser known trails. We felt almost surreal, as if we had been transported into another world, another time.

We saw some pelicans sit proud and regal on a small island,as if doing us a favor by letting us click them.


A little further down I saw four pelicans take flight over the water. There was something totally enthralling and mesmerizing in the way they seemed to hover above the lake, almost motionless, their pristine white wings stretched taut, their orange  beaks glistening in the sun. 

They made a breathtaking sight framed against the perfect backdrop of green trees and the untarnished blue sky.It seemed as if they were suspended in time – till they decided to soar away in a graceful arc, leaving perfect reflections in water that was as smooth as glass.

I couldn't capture the flight on camera, but the image will stay with me for a long time ! 

The wide expanse of the lake as well the trees and the birds had a very soothing, calming and strangely a very humbling effect on us. There is a lot we can learn from Nature about existing in harmony as also about the impermanence of things, about transformation and change.

But there is also some permanence in the earth and the sun and the water, in the deep rooted trees and the birds that come year after year in a cycle unaltered over ages.



The two days in the sanctuary left me totally rejuvenated. We all have different ways to deal with our turbulent life styles. But it is towards nature that I turn to uplift my spirit!


There is a pleasure in the pathless woods, 
There is a rapture on the lonely shore, 
There is society, where none intrudes, 
By the deep sea, and music in its roar, 
I love not man the less, but Nature more. 

                                                - Lord Byron 

Jan 24, 2014

Caged Within



On a recent visit to Mumbai, I spent a lot of time wandering about in South Bombay with a friend, soaking in the historic British era architecture. Our wanderings also led us to Crawford Market. Once a magnificent piece of British Architecture, it is ramshackle now, dirty and unkempt. As we walked through it, we inadvertently found ourselves infront of the pet market. The place was a cacophony of noise with the animals shoved in cages and baskets much too small for them. The worst were the birds, in small cages with hardly any space to even flutter their wings. It was not pleasant to see and we left in a hurry.
Later, while having dinner at one of South Bombay’s famous sea facing Cafes, I still couldn’t get the caged animals out of my mind. The cages made me remember something I had read once and I asked my friend if she had heard about ‘The cages of Falkland Road’. Falkland road lies in the heart of Kamathipura - the notorious red light district of Mumbai. It is said that in some of the hovels the girls are actually kept in rooms with iron bars on the windows. Just like cages. They are not allowed to venture out on their own and are beaten and abused till they ‘break’. Then they are pushed into prostitution.
We got talking about it I don’t know how or why we decided that we must go and see if it is true for ourselves. I don’t know what it was, a morbid curiosity or perhaps we were just trying to prove something to ourselves. At first the idea seemed preposterous, almost ridiculous. But soon we found ourselves out on the road flagging down taxis to take us there.

The driver of the first taxi looked us up and down and positively leered at us when we told him where we wanted to go. We stepped back and let the taxi go. Still determined, we stopped the next one, the driver, although curious and surprised, told us that he would take us. We told him we needed him to drive us round and round the area and then drop us back here. “Aap log journalist hain” he asked us, eyeing our backpacks and cameras. “Haan haan” we lied conveniently.

We drove through South Bombay, with its glittering high rises where land prices vie with those in Manhattan. It was difficult to imagine that just beyond this shine and glamour lay kamathipura.

We turned off into one of the smaller roads and suddenly the mood of the street outside changed drastically. The first thing I noticed were the buildings. There were no high rises here. Just old, shabby buildings. Squatting on either side of the road, dingy, dirty, the paint peeling. The streets became narrower. There were signs of filth and squalor everywhere. We looked out of the window expectantly although we were not really sure what we expected to see.

Did we expect a scene out of a Hindi movie? Shops selling gajra and paan and music floating out of the houses?

There were infact shops selling paan and cigarettes, also a few small grocery shops and even a small mobile store. And suddenly there were a lot of men on the streets, sauntering down the road, standing grouped near the shops, smoking, talking. A few even peeped into our Taxi. Unconsciously both of us shrank back against the seat.

Still everything seemed as it would in any other slum in India. Clothes dried in balconies, children ran about on the streets or peeped out of the windows in the top floors.

Then we saw them. The women of Kamathipura.

Some stood alone, on street corners, or in front of the houses. Some stood in groups of two or three chatting nonchalantly. It seemed as if they were normal working women out on a normal day. Till we looked at their faces. The faces were caked with makeup. Bright, red lipsticks, eyes thick with mascara. Most were provocatively dressed, bare bosoms and bellies everywhere. Weaving in and out of sight as the lights from the passing traffic picked them out, They looked garish, almost hurting the eye.

What hit me the most was the fact that their faces seemed without emotion, almost harsh. Or perhaps the emotions were ruthlessly shoved down and suppressed. May be that is the only way they knew how to survive here.

The taxi continued to move slowly through the crowded lanes.

And then we turned a corner and perhaps saw what we had come to see. A few dilapidated buildings, tightly packed together. Almost tottering under the weight of the rooms piled haphazardly on top of each other.

In one of the buildings, the rooms on the ground floor had huge windows with bars on them.Women stood inside, looking out. Some sat on stools. We could see some children. Girls who seemed as young as 12-13 years old, made up like grownups, skimpily dressed. Showing themselves off – when they had nothing to show off still!
Out on the road, I saw a young girl talking to a pot- bellied middle aged man almost double her age. She looked ill at ease in a tight black skirt and red sequined top. Her young face ridiculously comic under the heavy make-up. Turning she led him inside a room.

There was decadence everywhere. Both within and without.

Suddenly we felt ashamed of ourselves, sitting there protected in our taxi, staring at them like they were on display. We had our cameras ready but we couldn’t bring ourselves to click any pictures. Somehow it seemed indecent to do so. As if by clicking them and putting their pics for the world to see we would be invading their privacy, insulting them further.

I felt physically sick. There was a horrible feeling in the pit of my stomach as if someone was twisting my guts. I was horrified by what I saw and yet I couldn’t take my eyes off the scenes in front of me. It was like looking at a stinking, festering sore – something which repulsed me, but fascinated me at the same time.

Finally we decided to head back. We had not spoken much to each other, my friend and I. This drive had shaken us both more than we were willing to admit.

We decided to get off at Marine Drive and walk. There was an unexplainable need to feel the fresh sea breeze on our faces, to look at the wide expanse of the sea stretching seamlessly in front of us and perhaps try to forget what we had just seen …..

Jan 15, 2014

The Japanese and the Art of going Dip Dip Dip !

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 and surprise all foreigners.
Through my 'Japan and I' series, I attempt to talk about the Japan I saw and experienced!

Previous posts on the series can be read Here. 

Today we talk about the Japanese and the Art of Going Dip Dip Dip. But is it really about what you think? Read on to find out ! 

If you have come here looking for a post about Japan and the art of making Tea you are in for a disappointment. This post is about another dip dip dip that the Japanese like to indulge in. The Hot water bath! 

The Japanese take their baths very very seriously. I am sure so does the majority of the human population who wants to maintain a certain level of hygiene, but the Japanese make soaking in the humble bath tub almost an art form.

The first time I stayed in a Japanese home was during my university trip to Japan. The orientation that was given to us about the Homestay had one whole hour dedicated to Bathroom etiquettes.

The Japanese don’t shower in the mornings but most of their evenings are devoted to spending time in the tub where they unwind and try to get into a Zen like state of Nirvana. Japanese homes usually have just one bathroom so the whole family shares the same bath tub. The tub is filled with piping hot water and then one by one the family members go in to have their bath. Now if you are a bumbling foreigner, this is where you need to be careful. Instead of plonking yourself straight into the Bath Tub, you have to get under the shower first, scrub the grime of the day off you and only then get in the tub. 

The catch here that once you are out of the tub, you are not supposed to let the water out. Most foreigners are fooled into thinking that their host has solicitously filled the tub only for them without realizing that the same water will be used by all family members. The Japanese bath tub is not used for bathing but strictly for soaking oneself, so using soap while you are in the tub is also a No No. 

There is no dearth of water in Japan but the logic is since a person has already cleaned himself under the shower the water is not contaminated by the germs of his body so the same water can be used by the next person.

Also, the Japanese like their water really hot. I have known people to get in a Japanese Bath humming to themselves and then jump out like a scalded cat the next moment.

For someone like me who doesn’t even swim because I can’t stand being in the same water as so many people, the mere thought of getting into bath water used by others was petrifying. Luckily, the guest is always offered the chance to use the Bath first and needless to say I never refused!

Japan also has a large number of natural hot water springs or “Onsen” as they are called in Japanese. Most of the onsens are in the mountains or in areas with spectacular natural beauty and this is where majority of the ‘Onsen Ryokan’ or ‘Japanese style Hot spring Inns are located. The Onsen Ryokan is a marvellous concept where the Japanese have combined their love for nature and a hot water bath. They are considered as peaceful and tranquil getaways where one goes to indulge oneself in the greatest form of relaxation known to the Japanese –Soaking in Hot Water.

The hot water springs also have strict Bathing etiquettes. The first and the most stringent rule is that one is not allowed inside the hot spring with any clothes on. Yes, you read that right! Though the hot spring is open to public you need to be totally au naturel before you get in. There are even notice boards reminding you to take off your swim suit or bathing trunks.

Most of the hot springs have separate sections for men and women but the Japanese are a race without much inhibitions and they don’t think twice before stripping in front of a whole lot of strangers. For foreigners though, this can be painfully embarrassing. But once you get over your initial modesty the Onsen experience is one not to be missed in Japan. The water has natural minerals with restorative powers and since the hot water spring is in beautiful natural surroundings, you literally are nestled in the lap of nature while you soak in the bubbling hot water.

The Japanese use their time in the water for quiet contemplation so there is hardly any conversation around. It’s like being in a library sans any books and of course with nudity! 

A Japanese Hot Spring

 

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