Category Archives: Travel

Ireland Diaries

The temperamental Irish weather behaved itself during all of the 12 days that we visited this small island country with a big turbulent history.

Officially summertime, with just the right nip in the air to enjoy long walks enabled by clear sapphire  skies patterned with white tufts of clouds that seemed easy to pluck like vanilla candyfloss from the open blue space.

That and the lovely long stretches of the Atlantic Ocean lapping up to the cliffs and hugging the roads as the coaches and trains we travelled in made their winding way around towns of the island.

No better way to explore a new place than through its public transport as our experience has proven time and time again. So, we hopped on to the hop-on hop-off buses, caught the trains into different towns, and once within it, felt our way around it by its metro coaches.  We pored through maps standing at street corners trying to align ourselves to its direction. Found the numbers on the buses and where they stop at, names of streets and areas, all converging in our minds to make a map of the place, to accustom ourselves to its layout and pulse. We got lost several times, but then that was the fun, to get back on track, ask around, and discover other things that we may have missed. It’s surprising how well, and how soon we can get into the groove of a place this way.

The bright modern cafes and stone houses and statuesque churches of Dublin that hark back to another era. The port city of Waterford and its stunning museums alive with stories contained in exquisite 17th century artefacts, the famed Crystal Factory, dazzling in its artistry and the waterfront, lined with magnificent ships. Killarney, the scenic town flanked by mountains and frozen in time, with carriages drawn by plump, bushy-legged horses, each house straight out of an Enid Blyton book with lace curtains and window ledges strewn with gorgeous flowers; the porcelain crockery, very old-world British.  The city of Galway, the outskirts dotted with the ruins of medieval castles. And from it, a short ride away brings you to the stunningly scenic Cliffs of Moher, where an hour’s walk up takes you to a landscape open to the endless sky and sea and the gale winds that blow into the cliffs as they stand sentinel for ages over the ocean and grasslands. Right at the edge, where you stand buffeted by the strong wind, the seagulls come swooping by.

Through it all, there are Irish breakfasts of pudding, crepes with applesauce, French toasts served with a generous portion of strawberry syrup; Irish lunches with fresh fish and chips accompanied with tartar sauce and kipper; Irish dinners of seafood chowder with chunks of lobster. Every eatery we visited had their own version of apple pie, some tart, some sweet, served with scallops of light cream, each as different and delicious as the other. And of course, who can forget the Irish coffee, served on a bus halt at a charming café, the light drizzle and cold outside, and the frothy warm coffee shot inside!

As you leave the cities and towns, lush green fields stretch for miles into the horizon, and sheep with black snouts marked by different colours to distinguish them, graze under the watchful eye of the farmer who rounds them up as the day ends with his well-trained collie dogs.

Poised on a phase of transition, where a ferocious but rich past blends with a gentler, calmer today, the future hinges on a brink of divide as part of Ireland now belongs to Europe and the other, to UK. So strange is this rift, that some shops and houses will soon have an official border going through them.

But that’s tomorrow. For now, the horizon is smudged with orange grey clouds and night comes in at 10 in the evening and a gentle peace descends on the island. And it’s tempting to re- imagine your life here, flanked by medieval castles and meadows, stories and silence.

 

 

 

 

 

The last of the flamingoes

They came flying from far away
Now I’m under their spell…. (Abba)

Though the famed Abba number sings about the Eagle, the words are equally true for the flamingos that flock to the city during Mumbai’s tepid winters.

Flying all the way from the Rann of Kutch, where the cold gets severe, mainly during the nights to avoid predators, often covering 600 kms at a stretch, they swoop to shelter in the city, foraging for food at the Sewri jetty where they feed off algae produced by phosphorous and nitrogen deposits in the mud flats. 11051928_10153359977961723_8697071791885289040_o

Surrounded by thick mangroves on one side, and huge industrial ships spewing out oil, they dig into the waters with beaks that contain a unique filter that takes in nutrients and efficiently separates what they don’t need. The shrimps they eat give them their lovely hues of pink, for when they are born, they are a pristine white.

Early evening, and it was a different Mumbai that I saw. The jetty is an isolated strip of land. The land is muddy and uneven, and the only sounds you hear are the hooting of ships in the distance, and whirring of machinery on those docked around, as men in overalls repair them -sparks flying into the evening air. That and the cry of birds – terns, egrets, seagulls, sandpipers, bringing the hums of faraway lands. 12719228_10153359977316723_2342653058880565526_o

Fisher boys crawl through the mudflats on their bare knees, hunting for crabs and oysters and shrimps, coming up with unusual water creatures which they quickly bottle after taking a shot from their mobile phones. For a find is a find, and they want no one else to take credit or possession of what is theirs.12747903_10153359976961723_9046310924171318618_o

I have come here to watch what I think will be the last of the flamingos on this land. Their pink outline on the horizon breathtakingly beautiful, as close to 6000 of them peck at their food, and take off in flocks across the wetlands, as graceful as a bevy of pink attired ballerinas. 12711242_10153359976786723_5280684763256899056_o12747475_10153359976931723_7169098207106753908_o12764794_10153359977551723_3776085556577776955_o

The proposed Nhava Sheva sealink that will run straight through their migratory habitat will destroy the mudflats where flamingos and many other migratory birds feed. As they leave our shores sometime during April and go back to their home in Kutch, will they turn back and look for the last time? Will they know that they will never be able to find their way back again next year?

Light Play

Wake up to the melody of gurgling cold streams gushing over sinewy rocks in the rainforest. Their soothing murmur ushering you into a new day.

A welcome song with a live orchestra of a chorus of birds, the chirrup of squirrels and the hoot of monkeys. The light broken up into patterns by leaves filters into the room, entering in subdued patches and fragments at first, and as the sun climbs higher into the dense foliage, saunters in boldly with strides of beams that nudge the comfort of your blanket.

You watch the light play all over the day, shifting like a kaleidoscope over snug cane chairs, the veins of leaves, shading petals, forming arches over windows, creating mirror works of art on the ground and falling in love with faces, painting them with depth and character.

Transforming everything it touches, as if waving a wand over the day.

In its presence, each moment acquires a wondrous quality, connections are seen for the first time between previously disparate things.

You sit by the still waters and watch time dissolve at dusk. And as the year draws to an end, and the last light smudges and leaves the sky, the excited chatter of the birds returning to their nests dies down, and the sky sleeps on its bed of deep velvet embroidered with stars, you realise that time is a continuum. We have divided it into days, weeks, months, years-giving it a linearity, held it in place by a regimen of segments. Time goes on in an eternal circle without boundaries, without enclosures.

Nothing has begun, nothing has ended.

886378_10153283267886723_3277770219213027700_o

 

Monsoon Symphony

14054406_10153740420016723_3551005237697922918_oThe Sahyadri Hills come alive with the sound of the monsoons.

A rich carpet of the deepest greens soak in the bounty of the rain gods as they come over the valley, painting the landscape with the most breathtaking water colours.

It starts with the rustle of breeze circling through the trees, picks up crescendo as the wind swooshes through the landscape, gathering a concert of clouds, singing through the ebb and fall of rain drops that cascade over the valley.

The birds add their unique accompanying parts, the brooks too slip in their murmur and the waterfalls gush in unison.

And just like that, a surreal symphony is born…

13923427_10153740488226723_6081639189185658404_o

Splendid New Zealand

Across miles of emerald meadows spread in lush waves as far as the eye can see, white fluffy lambs straight out of a fairy tale picture book graze through the day under their mother’s watchful shelter. When she moves, they quickly leave the grass they are eating and scurry behind her, and when she finds a good spot to stop, they contentedly bask in her shadow once again, nibbling at the grass from where they left off, and all is right with their world.

This single visual encapsulates all that the very picturesque New Zealand is.

Harmonious, homely, healthy and happy.

Puffing up their cheeks, tufts of cotton candy clouds move cheerfully across powder blue skies. Spring is over the horizon, but the winter chill hasn’t left the wind and almost without warning, the skies gather grey clouds behind the mountains and rain hailstones, and just as suddenly, the air turns clear and crisp as the sun beams through the valley.15068414_10153981376926723_7948001987441045556_o

There’s a feeling of space, for there will be miles where no one seems to inhabit the expanse save neat rows of trees, perfectly trimmed grasslands, a house here and there, horses, sheep and lambs grazing as the sun warms the icy wind that ruffles through the open fields, punctuated by bird song, and contented bleats; and a serene silence that runs through it all.

Scattered throughout the scenic drive that invariably accompanies us when we shift towns, are niche restaurants (like salmon farms) and bakeries that turn out farm fresh goodies, – fruit filled scones served with fresh cream and delicious jam, and fruit stores that are laden with the choicest handpicked home grown fruits; the apples we ate seem to have fallen straight from heaven’s orchards, the delicious strawberries, full-bodied and blood-red.
15055650_10153992126071723_8089984348409058227_n
The people are very warm, smiling and helpful: open-hearted like the lovely land they inhabit. Though volcanic-prone, the shifts have given birth to some of the most magnificent landscapes – from geysers, sulphur springs, mud pools, fjords and glaciers, gigantic waterfalls and layered mountains that flank sparkling turquoise blue waters, and at some points, they all come together in a single breath-taking frame.

Such a sweeping expanse calls for activities that make the most of the terrain, and the honest-to-goodness skies.

So, we rode the Segway all through stunning Queenstown, zipped down on the Luge and the more adventurous of us did the Bungee jump and skydived from 12000 feet. And of course, the invigorating treks and ambling walks fuelled by the snow-scented mountain air.

New Zealand. Really little else can lift the senses, move the spirit and speak to the soul more easily, more happily, and more exquisitely.

Kashmir : Fragile Beauty

As the dusk falls deep into the Valley, the azaan of at least a hundred muezzins rises across the fading twilight, ricocheting against the walls of the Himalayas and echoing off each other, till entire Srinagar , right up to the sunset skies is filled with a surreal crescendo, a concerted symphony that belongs to some faraway time. 12238467_10153201284006723_8351631154536445056_o

In many ways time has stood still at Kashmir. It’s an arrested beauty. Fractured, yet full of fortitude. Ravaged by dissent, yet retaining an elegant eloquence. Fragile, yet summoning up a rare grace, as the sun’s rays slant across its snow peaks, and the mist covers its bruises like a blanket on a child who has silently cried himself to sleep. Kashmir is still stunning, hauntingly so, inspite of everything that’s happened to it. 12095132_10153201283431723_6526167267430942338_o

No words or pictures can do justice to the experience of Kashmir. It’s roohani essence. Its restless magnificence, its tortured soul, its broken story. Its innate tehzeeb and tameez that weaves into its dialect the way snow melts on the slopes in spring and meanders through the colourful blooms. The hope still lingering in the eyes of those who row the shikaras, the rosy cheeks of children invested with innocence, as red and cheery as the apples in the meadows. The desperate longing for freedom as eagles span their ominous wings and circle high across the valley. And the poignant life that each and every Kashmiri native lives each day, clinging to the mirage of security, yet surrendering to fate, while toiling to eke out a living in a land that is, but a heartbreaking shadow of its former self.

Sikkim : The Abode of Gods

To say that Sikkim is breathtakingly beautiful is to state the obvious. However, its beauty is almost schizophrenic, sometimes serenading you and at others, grabbing you rudely, as it encroaches on your consciousness and overtakes your mind, making you slave to its lurching landscapes and picture perfect vistas that spring on you at every hair pin bend. Just before you have the time to take in this startling and stark beauty, the scene changes in a flash, the road narrows excruciatingly, and another view fights for your complete attention.

It’s simply overwhelming, this constant tussle between the powerful beauty of the land and its untouched territory, which darts exclamation marks at every jeep that dares to traverse its roads that are virtual cliff hangers. A mere 40 km jeep ride from our hotel in Gangtok to the Tsango Lake takes close to 2  hours, our nerves rattling as much as the tyres that skid, settle and skid again as they come to grips with the boulders that double up as roads in this terrain that defies every man made contraption. We marvel at the chatty jeep man’s driving prowess as he takes us from 4700 feet to 12400 feet, deftly willing the jeep into submission.

It’s man versus nature in Sikkim.

Tsango Lake strikes you as an oasis, albeit amidst huge rocky mountains. It is tranquil, serene and after the haranguing trip to reach there, you need that dose of calm and peace. It’s almost as if the landscape has laid out a haven for you after testing your mettle – and the sight of the lake is a reassuring reminder that you’ve made the grade. As a reward, you are treated to the Lake that is flanked on all the sides by snow capped mountains. It’s still here, very still. The waters offer you a crystal clear ripple-less reflection as we unmount from the yaks who have trudged there with us. Or rather on whose back we have in turn precariously balanced and clumsily sat on! The gear doesn’t help much in any of these adventures. It’s bitingly cold and though the snow has melted on the lake, its nip and brace is very much present in the air. So we, like all good tourists, trudge to the makeshift shops that line the path to the lake, and equip ourselves with colourful and warm coats, mufflers, monkey caps, gloves, boots – the works! The boots and the not-made-to-order apparel does get in the way of wading through the melted snow that flows through the pebbles dotting the lake, but then again,  we are more than thankful for their shield in protecting us from the icy winds and the chilling temperatures that threaten to make icicles of us.

The 360 degree panorama of snow laced mountains, and the languid lake nestling protectively in its centre, makes for compelling visuals. So we get trigger happy, and the yaks too trudge happily into the frame. 2544683

Sikkim is a small state. Just 2740 square miles is neatly divided into East, West, North and South Sikkim. Its capital, Gangtok is in the North. In fact the entire North Sikkim is strewn with waterfalls, and frighteningly rough roads, which make them slippery as well. It’s easy for an atheist to become a devout here, I muse, as the mind turns to the almighty once too often to take you through safely to your destination!

Gangtok is, unlike most of Sikkim, pretty well developed. 5 star hotels, internet cafes and offices dot this hilly capital. Orchids are in full bloom, and an annual orchid show is organised at Gangtok, that attracts international tourists. You mind boggles at the sheer variety and colours on display- and any trip to Sikkim should always coincide with this flower show.

Lachung, around 120 kms from Gangtok is as remote and cut off as it is magnificent. The hotels are basic and we have been warned that there is no provision for hot water in the rooms as electric supply is erratic.  We arrive at a hotel called Le Coxy, which doesn’t live up to its exotic name. The room can accommodate exactly 4 people and 2 suitcases, provided those 4 people do not move around too much. A creaky bed, a creakier wooden floor, and a basic bathroom form the hotel ‘room’. Food facilities are equally basic but fresh. We know for a fact that the food we eat is actually cooked a couple of hours ago and not something that the refrigerator relinquished after a long wait.

But then, people don’t brave the roads and the basic amenities that Lachung offers for creature comforts. Nature lays out a resplendent show at the Yumthang Valley at 14,000 feet above sea level. Yumthang is home to the Shingba Rhododendron Sanctuary, and has over twenty-four species of the rhododendron, the state flower. But much more than that, Yumthang is a vast grazing pasture enclosed on all sides by the splendour of the ice peaked Himalayas, a tributary of the river Teesta gurgling through the pebbles – framed by the grandeur of the open clear deep blue skies. Except for the wind chill that engulfs us, everything is perfect – and all is right with the world. Some enterprising souls have put together a makeshift stall of hot chai and soup and nothing warms the heart and tides us through the next couple of hours as much as these steaming cups.

In fact time tends to stand still at Yumthang Valley. Or more accurately, it ceases to have meaning here. Verdant grasslands are waiting to be walked on; little hillocks throw up myriad photo opportunities, white polished pebbles spring deftly from our hands to be swallowed after rippling in the icy flowing waters – and Yumthang has all the makings of a paradise waiting to be discovered. So discover it, we do. In our own way. Stop, stare, internalise, marvel, meander, drift, dream  – the green meadows flanked by the whiteness of the ranges bring home the sheer magnitude and exquisiteness of nature with startling clarity. At Yumthang, nature seeps into your being with astonishing ease.

A large part of Sikkim, with the exception of Gangtok is largely untouched by the advances of the modern world. You come to a land in which nature rules.

If North Sikkim is marked by its gushing waterfalls, West Sikkim is cloaked in mist, a bouquet of fauna, and awash with clouds. Pelling, where we halt, is quaint, straight out of a picture book. Day excursions take us to the Rimbi waterfalls, the Pemyangste Monastery, rock gardens and Yuksom, which means ‘the meeting place of 3 monks’ and was the first capital of Sikkim.

But to really enjoy the solitude of Pelling, simply soak in its array of flowers that make a colourful carpet on the road, take a walk along the wooden houses that line the mountainside. Pelling is also the trekker’s delight, with its scale worthy peaks, crisp air and challenging trekking terrains.

A holiday to Sikkim in effect means bowing to the nature of nature. Acceding that it is more powerful, compelling and wondrous than us. And then surrendering to its temperament, totally.