Pining for those Pines

When ‘Liberty of the Seas’ docked at ‘Civita Vecchia’, our excitement leapt unbound. Rows of buses lined & ready to transport us into town. Details of that drive are blurred, not the moment of entry, first glimpse & impression. Watching knee deep crowds from a high seater bus, a Romanesque extravaganza unfold, made me want to jump out in frustration. All I did was gawk at the grandeur that was Rome. The guide drew attention to the unending line of monuments on either side of the moving bus. Not knowing whether to look right or left. Or in front. Whichever way one turned one would miss something or the other. An architectural trove. An open air museum. Was it for real?

A first visit, seeing Rome this way was heartbreaking. I could have killed myself.

The second time, five years later, was a definite plus. A month long solo trip that involved a lot of research & planning. Wanting to pack-in as much as possible I over stretched to include Florence, Pisa, (Tuscany/Chianti countryside), Cinque Terre, Venice, Naples, Pompeii, Salerno & Amalfi along with Capri. Which in effect left just four – five days in Rome.

Difficult choices. What’s to do?

*Onboard Apertivo. A boat ride down the Tiber past Romes’ only island – Tiberina. Under ancient bridges offering splendid Vatican views.

A midnight walking tour especially enjoyable without daytime hordes that practically take over the city.

Double flavour gelatos (past midnight) around Trevi, the fountain lit up fairy – like.

The metro to the Colosseum, a walk around & the tram to Trastevere.

Caffe & trattorias for the Carbonara Rome’s known for.

And a last ride on ‘Leonardo’ – to the airport, going back home.

Got a sense & feel of the city that left me asking for more.

Soon it was time to leave.

Arrivederci Roma.

Another five years & I was back with a clearer idea of what I desired. I wanted to roam around at random. Care-free, unmindful. To experience the city first hand. With a plan & a will it was doable. Only 4 days once again. Even so.

Aided by self guided walking tours were curated.

Jewish Ghetto Tour. I got pickpocketed aboard Bus 64 going to Largo Torre Argentina. It was bound to happen. What’s Rome’s without hiccups. Jokes apart, I should have known better than board a crowded bus.

Piazza ‘Largo Argentina’s an archaeological site not many visit or know about. Hollowed out ground off the main street, it has ruins of four Republican era temples. Overlooking it is Teatro Argentina, a modern state-of -the -art theatre built on the remains of another – Pompey’s – ancient one. Home to a large colony of cats, one can hardly believe it was once the seat of the Roman Senate. The spot where Julius Caesar was stabbed – 23 times (44 bc) – The Ides of March. “Et Tu Brutus !”

A busy transport junction it has cafés, parks, bars & restaurants. A cool place to hang around.

I begin walking from Torre Argentina – ‘via Arenula’ to reach the Tiber, turning left to walk along the river front – ‘lungotevere,’ – the Vatican & Sant’Angelo across the river to the right. At Ponte Fabricio, the oldest Roman era bridge (62 bc) still in use, one could take a right to go to Trastevere & the Vatican or simply cross the road taking a left for the Jewish Quarter. A Catholic Church at the corner the landmark, onwards to the Synagogue, museum, theatre Marcello, Portico Octavia & Piazza Mattei. The last with its absolutely must – see Turtle fountain: Fontana Tartarughe

Old cobblestone streets, buildings in rich ochre-orange tones, the Jewish Quarter is fascinating. Largely traffic free, vibrant & alive it is best to walk it’s maze of lanes & by lanes, soaking in the atmosphere. With stone benches to sit & people watch & outdoor eateries that provide the best Jewish traditional. All Kosher of course. Even coffee & sushi – whatever – The deep fried zucchini flowers were best.

The main attraction is the Synagogue & Museum. A pleasant way to while away the afternoon, the place has history. And, it makes a statement. Portico Octavia’s where a thousand plus Jews were rounded up for deportation. On Oct 15, 1943. Never to return. Along the walk one stumbles upon brass plaques embedded on cobblestones. Called ‘tripping’ stones for you to slow down & ponder. They bear names/dates of victims, stirring both remembrance & feeling. A short walk distance-wise, one ends up spending hours. Such is its charm.

Rome Jewish Ghetto Tour
The Tiber
Ponte Cesare
Entrance to the Jewish Quarter
Portico Octavia
Turtle Fountain
Jewish Quarter

Tour 2 Via Napoli – via Nazionale – via Fontane, across back streets to the ever popular Fontana Trevi. The crowds seen to be believed. But crowds can sometimes be fun. I plonked myself on the steps of an adjacent church and sat down to watch & enjoy. (One of the many advantages of travelling solo)

When I’d had my fill of crowds, time again to strike out alone. On to via Condotti, Romes’ upscale shopping street, to the Spanish Steps and ……… more crowds. How does Rome cope, I wonder.

Been here, seen that. The sights – piazza, church, obelisk, monument & fountain. Each clicked & written over a thousand times. I’ve come looking for the Keats- Shelley House however. ‘Casarina Rosa’ as the locals call it. A memorial to Romantics it was for me a place of pilgrimage. A bright red banner proclaims its presence on the second floor of the building to the east of the Steps. Alas, for a yet to be recognised poet to die at twenty five. Keats spent his last days here, with a clear view of the Steps, the Square & Bernini’s boat shaped fountain. I looked around the museum, watched a documentary on his life & left – for Piazza del Popolo. Walking all the way back to the hotel having clocked over twenty thousand steps, hurray!!

Largo Torre Argentina
Keats – Shelley House
Keats House Interiors
From Capitoline Hill
Spanish Steps
Around Bernini’s Boat Fountain
Via Condotti
Piazza Popolo

Tour 3 What could be nicer than walking the streets accompanied by a local? One born & bred here. Who better than my one time language teacher (Italian)? Architect by profession, Carlo loves the city. We spent the day walking & chatting – history, culture, arts – step by measured step, stopping by places, breaking for lunch. Pizza-beer at an ‘antica trattoria’.

Food’s no trifling matter, going by the category of eateries. A ‘trattoria’ for instance is not as formal or high end as ‘ristorante’ but it’s a notch superior to ‘osteria’. A ‘Pescaria’ serves fish based cuisine & the difference between ‘caffe’ & ‘bistro is small but significant. If you wish to sit & eat out in the open you must go to an ‘Al Fresco’. And if it’s fast food you crave there’s ‘Tavola Calda’. A ‘Pizzeria’ is simply what the name states. And ‘Enoteca ? – the closest to a tavern, pub, bar.

Grazie Signor, that was quite an education.

A mild October sun radiating warmth & joy we started near Piazza Cinquecento, crossing streets & back streets between via Nazionale & Piazza Venezia. Right across stood the building from where Duce Mussolini had addressed crowds, giving fascist speeches from the second floor balcony. To its right was the Tomb of the Unknown soldier, a monument many years in the making. One every Italian loves to hate. Some call it the wedding cake, others the typewriter. Not surprising in a country with fastidious taste. Foreign tourists flock to it however. Its humongous size the attraction perhaps.

Crisscrossing streets & alleys we arrive at Piazza Navona & Bernini’s ‘Fountain of Four Rivers’ – a remarkable piece of baroque. From there to Capitoline hill for an uncommon view of the Roman Forum.

Despite belonging to different periods of history a noticeable feature of the architecture is that it comes across as a harmonious whole. The modern alongside the ancient & renaissance, medieval, baroque, all juxtaposed side by side. Friendly & approachable and without arrogance. These monuments were never meant to intimidate. They exist for everyone’s pleasure. Walk you must. The only way to truly enjoy the city.

City of palaces & squares, fountains, gardens & springs. Everything on a grand scale, everything captured & documented a zillion times. The little things too draw attention.

Never before had I seen construction sites camouflaged so aesthetically. Giant posters with post completion images cover entire walls. Even before completion. To enable passersby I was told, to familiarise themselves with street/ corner/ place & not feel disoriented on coming upon it suddenly.

Practically every road had a sunny & shady side, giving pedestrians the choice of walking whichever side they preferred. A practical lesson in urban design – planning.

Anyone visiting Rome would have noticed the Stone Pines. Those beautiful, stunted, umbrella like trees that standout amidst a sea of ochre. The pines seemed taller than before. Had they really grown or was it my imagination.

Back home in India the trademark pines are the first thing I sometimes see on waking up each morning. Stark – dark & strangely alluring. Some kind of a karmic connect surely.

The infamous balcony (view blocked unfortunately) & the Wedding cake
Under construction Site with Advt et al.



No love for Paris. It was first port of call only because France gave Schengen V. Forty eight hours, no more I swore & ended up wasting half a day tackling post Covid challenges. Travel no longer easy, the pandemic had wreaked havoc on the psyche too.

I did manage a few delightful hours at Montmartre, walking up the 200 odd steps to the ‘Sacre Coeur’ for a fantastic view. Watched little children run, play, ride the carousel & chase pigeons in the sun.

Then off to Sicily, the largest Mediterranean island.

Why Sicily? It is the birthplace of the Mafia. It is also fifty years of ‘Godfather’. Long exterminated, the mafia no longer exists. There is instead a ‘No Mafia’ museum. A citizen enterprise open everyday, entry free. Unsurprisingly there is a lot of ‘mafia’ nostalgia. The hugely popular ’Don Corleone’ tour cashes upon it showing visitors around places where the film was shot. Sound business sense. Why not?

I solo circumnavigated the island in 20 days. From Palermo the capital to Stromboli, Catania, Taormina, Siracusa – Ortigia & Agrigento.

Alluring landscape, delicious food, fascinating history, varied culture. Sicily has it all. Every ethnic group that ever came here – Arab, Norman, Byzantine, Greek or Roman – left an indelible mark on its cuisine & architecture.

A blend of Italy & Greece, a cocktail of cultures, there is something robustly magical about it. As for the average Sicilian, he is passionate about everything

Italy’s fifth largest city, Palermo comes across as chaotic & grimy. It scores high on charm not cleanliness & can best be described as a city upon cities going deep into the earth one below the other. There are buildings with glass floors under which are visible ancient walls, fortification, artefacts from layers of history. The pride of a city in its well preserved past.

Music fills the air at the historic centre, ‘Quattro Canti’. An opera singers’ deep tenor serenading crowds from Romeo – Juliette balconies. Around the corner is ‘Fontana Pretoria,’ the Fountain of Shame with statues of nude men & women from Greek & Roman mythology. Defying convention, cocking a snook at the seminary, nunnery & church nearby. Nobody seems to mind nor is anybody scandalised. The priests & nuns least of all.

It’s a pleasure walking streets & back streets, soaking in the atmosphere, going in & out of churches (leg & shoulder fully covered), idling by roadside cafés. Granita in hand. Or an Aranchina. Perhaps a coffee – Canola. Palermo is easily the street-food capital of the world. And Sicilian tapas has great variety. You cannot miss having ‘Panificio Pollicino’ the local pizza. I liked trying something new everyday & chanced upon ‘Polpette di Sarde’ a dish of sardine cakes stuffed with pine nuts & raisins & served in a rich herb infused sauce.

No Mafia Museum, Palermo
Palermo Harbour
Archeological sites under shops & buildings
Film shoot at the Fontana Pretoria

Italian railway is streamlined, efficient. It is also the best way to see the country. Train cancellations happen but with systems in place disruptions are rare. I experienced it first hand when a connecting train was suddenly cancelled. A Flix Bus arrived transporting passengers to their destination, taking us cross country with the added pleasure of seeing places we never would otherwise.

The trip up the Tyrrhenian coast from Palermo to Milazzo must rank among the most beautiful train journeys of the world. It takes 2.30 hours, the tracks running closely parallel to the coast, less than five yards in places. With a window seat facing the direction in which the train was moving stunning views flash by.

Palermo to Milazzo by train

The highlight was of course crossing the straits from Messina (Sicily) to Villa San Giovanni on the mainland. The Palermo-Rome ‘Intercity Notte’ takes 12 hours & is a memorable experience. Bedding, water, chocolate bar, juice provided, as is a mug of steaming hot coffee early next morning. Not to forget breathtaking views along the way, the stretch from San Giovanni to Naples especially.

At Messina the entire train (8 bogies) is loaded on to a ship in a precise, clinical manoeuvre. The exercise takes about 2 hours including a 30 minute halt at Messina. Thirty minutes loading, thirty for the crossing & another thirty off loading & assembling. The train rocking gently on the ferry one is literally shipped to Italy. Passengers have a choice of continuing inside the coach or coming out on the deck for a breath of fresh air – coffee.

The Strait of Messina is narrow – barely 30 kms. It is therefore unclear why an underground tunnel or overhead bridge cannot be made. Reasons like the meeting of seas are often cited, as are currents & geological fault lines that cause the mainland to drift.

Loading the Inter- City Notte on to the ship

A quiet seaside town, Milazzo is the gateway to the Aeolian islands. I took the hydrofoil, negotiating choppy waters at terrific speed, a 2.30 hour ride to the farthermost island – Stromboli. The first thing to catch the eye is the mountain/volcano looming large over the tiny isle. It has been bellowing smoke & fire, spewing lava for over 2000 years. I am lucky to get a room with some kind of view but the fireworks are best observed at the opposite end from around the island. I plan to do it from a boat bobbing on the waters.

A perfect holiday destination Stromboli is barely 8 kms end to end. Scenic, remote, beautiful, it has wild flowers & rare botanical plants. One can spend time walking, hiking, trekking up the mountain, swimming or spending happy hours drinking, eating, reading & relaxing. Shopping too, for souvenirs made of black lava. Besides a picturesque lighthouse, church, village & observatory there is a museum dedicated to screen pairs down the years, inspired by Ingrid Bergman & Rossellini the lead pair of the 1953 classic (‘Stromboli’)

The sea around Stromboli
Stromboli in all its glory

Sicily’s second largest city Catania was the springboard for trips to Taormina & Etna. (A meter gauge train goes right up to the foot of Mt Etna). In the shadow of an active volcano that rumbles & spurts, Catania is compact & easy to walk, a favourite among tourists many of whom prefer it to Palermo. I enjoyed walking the main street Corso Emanuele & Duomo Piazza with the black lava Elephant Fountain. Catania’s subterranean river, Amenano, surfaces at a baroque fountain in the corner of the square. Carved with mythological figures it separates the piazza from a bustling fish market. Adjacent to it is Sicily’s oldest university (1434). Great Baroque architecture, great food, I liked Catania but didn’t find it exciting. Not many will agree. The shortcoming mine for not giving it enough time, being in too much of a hurry to get to Etna & Taormina.

Piazza Duomo Catania
Amenano fountain – spring

Atop a promontory on the Ionian sea the latter is a gem. A charming mountain town with shades of Amalfi & Cinque Terre but less crowded & touristy. A cable car connects Isola beach to Corso Umberto the main thoroughfare ( €3 / every fifteen minutes). A fifteen minute walk end to end Taormina quite literally has beauty spilling down its mountain slopes – enormous sea views, Mt Etna views, medieval ruins, a Greek amphitheatre, churches & cafe lined squares. A ‘passeggiata’ of sorts, the most popular activity strolling, people watching, window shopping. A one street wonder it is wonderful.

Caricature artist. Taormina
Taormina views
A superb example of Baroque. Taormina

Among Italys’ famous three, Mt Etna at 3350 m is the highest (in Europe). Also the youngest (1000 years). It has been erupting for centuries, the last big eruption in 1669 when Catania was completely destroyed. It is a six hour day trip from Catania. Three hours to and fro & another three for a halt 2000 metres up. The wind – chill factor is high. There are eating & staying places, a bio-park, birch woods, vineyards & citrus groves. One either treks up from 2000 m or takes the cable car upto 500 metre’s short. OR, circumnavigates from the comfort of a small train. Silvestri the central crater is active as are fourteen others. There being 260 scattered craters in all.

And…. taking ‘work from home’ to a whole new level, a fellow with a laptop. One begins to wonder…

Mt Etna @ (1000’). Hut made of lava

A reference to St Paul/Siracusa stored in hidden memory, Ortigia had entered the consciousness long before reaching there. Along with a very definite connect was the mystery of the unknown. Small seaside towns enamour. This was perfect.

Two little bridges connect this magical isle (1000 x 500 meters) to Siracusa, birthplace of Archimedes. A lovely Baroque town, world heritage site, Greek, Roman, Jewish & early Christian influences visible everywhere. One can imagine it some 2000 + years ago. Not very different I guess. There – in lies its charm.

A no traffic island with parking along the periphery, it is immensely walkable. And walk I did exploring it end to end, tasting each & every flavour of Granita along the way. Negotiating streets & alleys, map in hand for better navigation. Doing the forbidden – talking to strangers. You simply cannot get lost, would find your way if you did.

500 m from the train station, Piazza Pancali’s the hub. Six streets leading to six different directions radiate from here. It has cafés & bars, an ancient market & St Paul’s church that overlooks the ruins of the Temple of Apollo (6 BC). My walk starts here going past the ruins & the church to Dianas’ Fountain in Archimedes Square. Onwards to the Cathedral (former temple of Athena ) & Arethusa Spring. It has a really evocative sculpture of ‘The Chase’.

Sea winds, sail boats, blue waters, bluer skies, I am at the southern most end in front of the supremely imposing Castello Maniace. A military base, one can wander around nonetheless. Turning the corner at the castle the walk continues along a splendid marina, the waters of the Ionian washing against the shore. A tiny ‘spiaggia’/ beach along the way surprises. It has a few bathers & swimmers. Wandering & wondering I stroll into an alley to find myself in the fascinating Jewish Quarter. A feast of sights & sounds. Then out again into a large Square that has the temple of Minerva – a place of Christian worship today.

Time to treat myself to a beer (Peroni) / Tuna – pasta, don’t you think?

Self guided walking tour, Ortigia
‘The Chase’ Arethusa Spring
Beach head, Ortigia

A train to Noto leaves every four hours – €5/30 minutes. Another heritage site, Noto is early 18 century Sicilian Baroque – churches, palaces, squares, architectural sites. I took an early morning train hoping to spend an entire day out but a sudden downpour spoilt the fun. An enchanting train ride across rain washed countryside the only consolation.

Siracusa to Agrigento – just about 150 kms as the crow flies. One ends up clocking 250 instead. Thanks to poor connectivity. There are no flights or direct bus/train connections. One has to travel back via Catania. A bit of an annoyance considering that moving from place to place never took more than an hour or so thus far. And to think that Agrigento was just about 2 hours from Palermo, I certainly could have planned it better. On the flip side was the thrill of going deep into the interiors, never mind that it took more than 6 hours doing so.

The Sicilian heartland is a kaleidoscope of hues – black, brown, tan, shades of green. Wide, bowl shaped contours, fields of yellow & green interspersed with dark magna rich soil. Sweeping downs & gentle slopes leading to mountains on the rim.

A small, quaint town Agrigento’s main street has flights of stairs ascending to higher streets & alleys. Full of cafés & bars, restaurants, book stores, shops selling jewellery – fashion brands & churches. Church bells ring out every half hour but there are no candles to light, churches having switched to an electric system where candles light up when a coin is inserted.

The Valley of Temples, a 2500 year old archaeological site is on the outskirts, 3 kms away. It has remnants of the ancient Greek city of Akragas (5-6BC). Spread over an area of 13 sq metres there are Greek & Roman statues, seven Doric temples & a series of Byzantine tombs built into city walls/fortifications. The temple of Concordia 430 BC is the best preserved, a fallen Icarus & a gnarled 800 year Olive tree by its side.

A lush green, shady corner of the site, history & nature meet at the Kolymbetra gardens – A citrus grove with over 300 + labelled species of Mediterranean plants

Devoid of natural vegetation walking under a harsh sun can become an ordeal. It was a rainy day luckily making the 5-6 km walk pleasant & enjoyable. A blessing of sorts that cost me a visit to the ‘Scala dei Turchi’. Just about ten kms away I got to see it only in passing. Wedged between two sandy beaches these stunning limestone cliffs are in the shape of a staircase. Called Turkish Steps as it became a safe haven for Turkish pirates who boarded, landed & took shelter here.

Piazetta della Camilleri, Agrigento
Section of Akragas city walls 5-6 BC
Valley of Temples Agrigento
Over 800 year old Olive Tree

Some Takeaways

*A 20 day solo trip with an 8.5 kg backpack.

*Visa delays & woes. Well laid plans out for a toss. Impromptu travel instead.

*Delicious food everywhere. My vote however goes to ‘L’Ambasciata di Sicilia’ Agrigento (1928) for the best Ravioli ever.

*Sicilians have winsome ways. This one goes to the unknown stranger handing me a 10€ note & scurrying off hurriedly. Thought me a beggar or was he just being nice. I’ll never know.

*Towns. All charming. Have to hand it to – Ortigia though. It was the best

*The weirdest thing, Sicilian breakfast of course. Ever heard of Brioche with a filling of Granita?

*A Sicilian proverb lastly. Unable to recall the exact words it would translate as “do not dwell on the good you do. Move on. Give serious thought to the evil in you”

Shantiniketan: Red Earth

The Master himself

Tagore did most of his writing under this tree

Sunit, Toto driver-guide

A Santhal village

Sonajhuri Forest

A Noble laureates’ refuge, Tagore-Vishwabharati-Shantiniketan are inextricably linked.

Essentially a university town it has a homely feel, students from around the world giving it a special flavour.

There is no public transport. You either commute by E Rick or cycle or walk. For a nominal Rs 500, the ubiquitous Toto takes you everywhere. Driver cum guide, Sunit knew people & places & had facts on his finger tips. He showed me around at a leisurely pace every day. Tribal villages, Kankalitola, Surul, Kopai, Vishwabharati, Amar Kutir, Srijan. Cool wind in the hair & face, where’s the hurry after all.

The trip happened after a year of waiting & watching. Waiting for the right time so as to avoid both summer heat & winter rush. The Poush Mela – Durga Puja crowds too. Zeroed in on the monsoons therefore, when the heavens descend in a celestial downpour, creating magic everywhere.

It’s the last day of June. The last day also of my stay and I’m still waiting for the rains. For the skies to open & the magic to begin. Unlucky me!

“Not so,” corrects the Toto-wallah. “You are not unlucky. But ‘His’ blessings are missing.

One and the same thing I thought but to him there was a clear difference.

Shantiniketan is three hours from Calcutta. I prefer to drive down from Durgapur instead in just an hour & half. Rain or no rain, rural Bengals’ flat, lush green countryside, forests, water bodies & fields are guaranteed to mesmerise. A pretty good road too which was a surprise, as was the eight kms stretch of forest along the way.

I am staying at a traditional mud villa. An architectural style particular to the place. The outer walls, decorated in what has come to be known as Shantiniketan art, depict local flora & fauna & carved panels & doors show scenes from folklore. Sadly, very little of it survives.

The interiors are modern & comfortable. It has wifi that works and splendid cuisine, Bengali & Santhal both. As authentic an experience as one can expect.

Coming in late Friday I decide to sit back & enjoy the quiet beauty of the place. The sole reason for being there in the first place.

Khoai Shaniberer Haat’ is lined up for next day. A weekend market where artisan & connoisseur interact in the hope of a meaningful transaction. Spread across a vast swathe of forest land, goods sold range from handcrafted jewellery & textiles to musical instruments & leather-ware. Watching sellers bring in stuff on mo-bikes & accept payment via portals like ‘phone-pe’, was quite an eye opener. A result of being so out of sync living in the city

Under a canopy of Sonajhuri trees, tribals decked in finery dance to the beat of cymbals & drums. A plaintive cry rings out from somewhere. A Baul, his Ektaara tugging at the heart strings as he belts out a tune. I roamed about soaking in the scene. Munching on ‘Jhal Muri’ – a puffed rice concoction I was having for the first time. There is always a first time.

Everyone liked & noticed my pink umbrella-hat. The tribals especially who inspected it minutely to understand how it worked. Would try replicate it, they said. Sell it for nothing less than Rs 200, I advised. A start-up hopefully.

Owl motifs & figures abound. Here an owl, there an owl, everywhere an owl-owl. In most parts of our country the owl stands for stupidity. In Chinese culture however it is a symbol of ill omen. A bird of wisdom in the West, it’s significance here was largely unclear. Being animists, tribals worship nature. This night bird too is worshipped.

Kankalitala temple on the banks of the Kopai is one of the 51 Shaktipeethas. A little out of town, it was a huge disappointment. “Never again”, I swore. How often have I said that before? I never seem to learn.

The terracotta temples at Surul are a delight however. Over 300 year old they are privately owned & are being restored by artisans brought in from Murshidabad. Skilled craftsmen working on it for six months & will take another six to complete. “They are like family” says the Thakur who hired them.

(Surul, Supur & Itonda, are the three places that have temples made of terracotta.)

Wandering into a Santhal village I chance upon a film crew shooting a Bengali serial. And further down the neat row of mud huts is Lipis’ studio. An alumni of the Faculty of Arts Baroda, her creations are lovely, the ceramic studio a piece of art in itself. One of the joys of solo travel is meeting people, encounters that add value & make for a memorable experience. Here was a qualified young person who had chosen to live & work among tribals in a remote part of the country. No doubt enhancing their lives as well.

Most of us have phobias. We harbour unfounded stereotypes. A stereotypical Bong to me was one into music, art & culture. Rabindra sangeet, rosogolla, fish. Not off the mark completely but to that I shall now add ‘lottery’. Seeing is believing.

Who doesn’t love a sudden windfall? But this was something else. Lottery tickets from all over bought & sold everywhere. Within the precincts of Kankalitala too. The temple was a disappointment I said. Not so the sight of diehards seeking divine intervention. Young & old, high & low. All come here. Buy lottery tickets, bow in prayer & leave. Beaming & smiling. Prayer answered ? As if. Wish fulfilled? Almost.

Easy come, easy go.

Roads Less Traveled

Approaching Jammu

Aren’t books just marvellous? Terrific companions that kick start dreams. Inspire. I put down ‘The Savage Hills’ to be assailed by a savage urge – to dash off to Bhaderwah/Kishtwar (J&K).

“It’s the wrong time of year” said everyone. “In November it’s neither green nor white”

So be it. Brown is beautiful. And, it’s doable.

In no time was I flying across snow capped mountains into Jammu, an ordinary but prosperous town with neat, low roofed houses and a lot of cars. A taxi mafia unfortunately holds it in its grip. Life could be that much easier.

The hotel overlooks a historic gurudwara that is said to have given shelter to Rani Jindan, the last queen of Punjab. The effect is soothing. Pleasing too the sight of young girls on the move, a sizeable number having joined the work force. Food – tastes also look to be changing. While pasta may not as yet have replaced ‘rajma’ it is slowly making a dent. Never mind if it looks & tastes nothing like the original.

Under the shadow of Covid, shopping either for jhumkas, panjiri or saffron (regular Jammu staples) is completely out of the question. I therefore hit the road, the Jammu – Srinagar highway to Bhaderwah 190 kms away. It’s a 4-5 hour drive, network connectivity is poor, there isn’t a toilet on the way.

Into the Pir Panjals & beyond, past Gujar huts, grassy meadows and valleys. The Chenab giving company upto Pul Doda where one takes the turn for Bhaderwah. It’s a smooth ride on a good road, the Niru flowing alongside. We make brief halts at soldier homes, the first in Udhampur & another later in the day. Necessary breaks that uplift and stir for these are martyr homes. Each having sacrificed a loved one for the country.

Arriving in freezing cold to the warmth & welcome of a village home we are seated around a crackling bukhari, sipping salted tea, chatting. Inexhaustible travel tales that continue around the dining table and into the night. Dinner’s a simple, homely spread of rajma beans, rice, Karam saag & rotis. Rounded off with a saffron rich rice pudding. Never before have I had either salt tea or Karam, a green leafy vegetable and local delicacy. And never has rajma-chawal tasted better. Something to do with the air, water or cooking perhaps.

It’s time to hit the sack. I’m handed a hot water bottle that my host insists I use, along with the quilt & blanket. “Temperatures drop you see”

This is a landed family, educated and well – to – do. It is also a ‘joint’ family. Soon to be a thing of the past. A much loved matriarch rules the roost sharing space with three sons, daughters-in-law and grandchildren – a well knit, harmonious whole who chat, eat, pray together.

I get talking to the youngest daughter in law. Madhu is pretty and shy. She is 22 and has been married two years.

How was it growing up in these environs? Was she allowed to follow her dreams or coerced into matrimony? Does she get time to herself or does she feel cabined and cribbed within these confines?

“No, No” she replies laughing.

She had aspired to be a nurse & married only after becoming one, rejecting several suitors in the meantime. Happy & contented she did not feel restricted in any way.

“I have ample time for myself…….After a girl marries the husband’s family and home become hers.”

A young widow at a J&K policeman’s home
Local tawa – upturned at the edges
Temple Bhaderwah
River Chenab

The next day we are on the road again. To Kishtwar, a 2-3 hour drive. Without a place to stay, I had considered giving it the go by but Providence willed otherwise, the army as always, coming to the rescue.

Resting on a plateau Kishtwar is surrounded by stark, barren, humps of mountain. Dark & foreboding the mountains loom large, the Chenab flows quietly by and in the valley beyond lies Kashmir.

The military post located some distance away from town is a nice little perch. Literally at the back of beyond it has everything from piped water to solar heating. I have always wondered at the soldiers ability, not only to adapt and make-do but create and transform. Not to speak of hospitality that is legendary.

It was heartening to see them live that way, jungle mein mangal – a far cry from the not so distant past when basics like water and electricity were hard to come by.

“Absolutely,” concurred the Captain. “My father was a JCO. I remember filling buckets of water before leaving for school. We were without electricity for an entire week once. This in Agra mind you, not some far flung, God forsaken place.”

Cheers! Here come drinks and snacks.

Kishtwar is known for its 2 S’s – Namely sapphire & saffron. Did I buy some? Not a chance. Curiosity alone brought me here together with the opportunity and urge to connect with real people.

The little pleasures of life. The wonder of it all. Travel ultimately is about people and places. It can touch you in strange ways

Here comes the bride

Rajasthan On the Rebound

In Bishnoi land. Pic says it all

Staying home-bound is doable for just about 6 months. Impossible after that.

Wave 2, ‘21 had us boxed in but a window of opportunity had to appear. And it did. April – July was hard, come August, bags packed, vaccinated, I was raring to go.

Pushkar for the umpteenth time.

Once, never enough. Never, during the cattle fair either.

An eight hour drive across rain washed countryside, beyond the Aravalis.

(The Monsoon I am convinced, is the best season to travel. In the plains at least. Not winter, as many believe. The sun being quite harsh then)

What’s not to like about a heritage hotel with rooms overlooking the sacred lake, a view of the Brahma temple and hills along the periphery?

Where dawn is welcomed with a chiming of bells and sun bid adieu in a crescendo of drums.

Kailash & his son are ‘nagara’ players who regularly perform outside Sunset Cafe, where everyone meets to catch up over ‘chai’ & watch the sun go down.

Essentially a one-lane town, Pushkar is full of bookstores, rooftop cafes & hair braid parlours. As famous for Gulkand – Malpua as it is for pandas & sadhus. One of whom took me on rather zealously, wanting to know if I did not see the difference between Brahmin & Bhangi. His words alas, not mine.

“None. To my mind” was the reply. An upper caste advantage emboldening the retort.

And did I detect something akin to Covid effect in the little town’s sulk at the loss of tourists?

Why then had people suddenly become so apathetic & uncaring?

Don’t ever remember seeing littered ghats either (the reason for that altercation with the panda)

Less than 8 kms away is another Holy of Holies. Ajmer Sharif. Corona or not the crowd is knee deep and almost everyone is without mask. Time to scuttle and scoot, for if the virus doesn’t get you beggars and touts certainly will.

The magic hour

Jodhpur is four hours away. The drive through dull countryside and semi desert vegetation. A grey monsoon sky completed the picture. Or saved the day?

Everyone makes a beeline for the charming, ‘old’ town with a clock tower. It’s historic gullies and lanes crowded with heritage havelis & step-wells. The magnificent Mehrangarh looming above it all.

This time however the old vibes were missing. The flavour gone. Abandoned by travellers, shops & cafes closed, without the regular hustle and bustle the place was dead.

Apologising profusely, I checked out after a single night & moved to a great place near the Circuit House.

One word that best describes Jodhpur is ‘order.’ A strange term in the context of an Indian city but I cannot think of another with its mix of history, heritage, beauty, modernity – ‘order’ and ‘discipline’.

The Royal Estates are managed by a Trust headed by the Maharaja. The great Gaj Singh. Be it the many palaces & museums, the Mehrangarh Fort or the royal cenotaphs (Jaswant Thada). Or even the gardens at Mandore. Each exceptionally well maintained, traveler friendly. Signages, ramps, lifts, bins, toilets, kiosks – everything in place.

Move about freely, without fear of harassment. There isn’t a beggar or tout in sight.

Pushkar happened simply because it was along the way. The prime attraction, the Bishnoi villages near Jodhpur. The entire trip planned around it.

The Bishnoi’s love of environment is well known and well documented. They stood up to a Raja’s diktat ordering the felling of trees. The year 1730 when 363 villagers were killed endeavouring to protect trees. Making the ruler retract. At the forefront was Amrita Devi, hugging a tree, proclaiming, “a chopped head is cheaper than a chopped tree.” The episode, the inspiration for today’s ‘Chipko’ movement. Not to forget the more recent killing of a black buck that sent Salman Khan to jail. For Bishnois, environment is everything.

The main villages are Khejarli, Guda, Kankani, Rebari, Salawas and Singhasni. Each known for a particular trade. Inhabited by about 2500 families.

Guda has a lake, home to myriad bird & fowl, the Great Indian Bustard, Brahmi Duck & Siberian Crane among them.

Guda Lake

Khejarli has the martyrs memorial, a tribute to Amrita Devi and her companions. A man-made oasis of green in a landscape of Keekar, Pathar and Kankar. Populated by trees, mainly Neem, Peepul and Bargat, squirrels and birds abound and peacocks strut about vainly. A cool breeze picks up and blows. Bird-calls fill the air.

Step-Well, Old City, Jodhpur

Jaswant Thada, Cenotaphs

Village Kankani

The Khejarli Memorial


A road trip from Delhi to Udaipur. Return by air. Kumbhalgarh and Ranakpur enticingly along the way.

The route should have been – Jodhpur-Ranakpur-Kumbhalgarh-Udaipur – along the national highway but an oversight made me do Kumbhalgarh ahead of Ranakpur. Resulting in a choppy, four hour drive across State Highways. A lucky mistake that took me into the interiors. Inside villages nestling in the lap of the Aravali. The mountain high and mighty. How high, I had quite forgotten.

Kumbhalgarh has the world renowned fort with incredibly long – wide walls. A wonder, no less than the Great Wall. If only it was better managed. I had expected a lot and felt cheated of what could have been a memorable experience. Spending a night there was another mistake. It gets noisy because of visitors who come solely to drink ( Gujarat, next door having banned liquor)

Village Narlai would have made a better stay option.

The Kumbhalgarh Fort

On to Ranakpur and it’s architectural wonder, the 15th century Chaturmukhi Jain Temple in the middle of a forest. It is a lovely drive (90 minutes) through villages with stone huts. Where custard apples grow wild.

It’s impossible to capture the beauty of this wonder in marble. The Derasar has 80 sculpted domes, 446 columns and 1444 intricately carved pillars. There is one without any carving at all. An artistic imperfection to ward off the evil eye. Also, no two pillars are alike.

As in most Jain temples there is a Rayan tree inside. Data apart, what truly touches a chord is the pillar inscribed with Emperor Akbar’s Din- Ilahi. A late 16 century addition.

Ranakpur was a fitting finale to a wonderful trip, ending with the satisfaction of knowing it was worth it.

Entrance to Chaturmukhi temple

Pillar No: 13 Akbar’s ‘Din Ilahi’

Wave 2

mice and men

holed up





passage ways






as mice shall they the

distraught desert


fighting beat down

the scourge.


hope afloat.

Shekhawati Calling

Mandawa Haveli
Khejri Trees
On Celestial call
Spot the deer. IPhone image
Bangle shopping
Sheesh Mahal, Samode Palace
Rain water harvesting

Tough times. Tough calls. The lockdown was precisely that. What d’you do but crawl indoor & wait it out. Surfacing afterwards to revive & restore.

Between Covid waves 1 & 2 was Shekhawati. Logam! Off I go, taking chances but playing safe. Balance is everything. Pick up – drop off at the door step. Sanitised car 24×7, the driver never removing his mask.

The entire region was contagion free. Which was surprising ‘cos India’s first case of Covid had shown up here. Coming in from Jaisalmer, a group of itinerant Italians took suddenly ill. Realising it was the deadly virus the whole of Mandawa went into a tizzy. But that was March ‘20. Come October – November & lucky me. All about taking chances. Striking when hot.

Samode was the first port of call. I was booked at the ‘Bagh’ not ‘Palace’ which is everyone’s favourite. About 5 hours from Delhi I arrived to be shunted away – upgraded to Samode Palace because I was the only guest. A story repeated everywhere. As a people Rajasthanis are too decent & polite to turn anyone away. A guest least of all, especially a woman. I turned out to be the sole occupant at every castle, mahal & haveli. Welcomed and upgraded everywhere. Dining alone, was like being seated at a banquet after all the guests had left. This too had its moments.

Fairy castle – like, Samode Palace is stunning, grand & opulent. It is the namesake village in its midst that saddens & shocks. At total variance one wonders how such a beauteous Palace can co-exist alongside squalor & dirt and ruins that hark back to a splendid past.

Two nights at Samode & onwards via Sikar to Nawalgarh – a 2 hour drive.

It is the gateway to Shekhawati, a semi arid region bordering the Thar, known for its havelis, murals, frescoes, chatris, wells & Sati Mata temples. A visit to Poddar Haveli Museum is a must. A small & dusty town, a short walk around was an eye opener in that beauty parlours & girls on 2 wheelers were far removed from my idea of interior Rajasthan.

Mandawa is about an hour away from Nawalgarh. It boasts an 18 century fort castle & exotic havelis. I was booked at ‘The Mandawa Haveli’. Built in 1726 it has retained its original structure, design & ambience. It was like living in an open – air art gallery, part of the joy of waking up each day being to open ones eyes to countless murals & frescoes. Fading colours & threadbare rugs notwithstanding, the place spelt comfort. It was old world and – elegiac.

A word about the frescoes. Painted over an extended period of time most have religious themes or scenes from the epics. There is folklore & festival – Teej & Ganghor – and scenes from everyday life. Signalling the coming of the British, later murals depict white men & women in formal western attire. The advent of the motor car, rail carriage etc all captured in art & colour. My personal favourite was a birthing scene showing a group of women help one of their kind in labour. I also liked the Krishna series. There was Krishna on the telephone. And Krishna with the Gopis, making out with one or the other while a disgruntled third looked on. All this within the confines of a coach.

Most of the havelis are empty & dilapidated. The ones in Sikar have been demolished I’m told, to make way for – of all things – malls.

It is quite possible to suffer haveli fatigue. The best thing then is to venture out into the adjoining villages & get a feel & taste of the ‘real’ India. The countryside anyway is beautiful, especially from the window of a moving car.

‘Khejri’ along with Keekar covers a wide expanse of landscape. The ‘Khejri’ has multiple use, every part meeting a need. It’s fruit – kair sangri – a desert bean grows in clusters, the leaf is fodder for camel – cattle & the dry branches take care of farm boundary & fuel. The tree looks particularly beautiful when pruned – and that is often.

Enroute to Alsisar I stop at the Rani Sati Mata temple in Jhunjhunu. It is one of the oldest of its kind. I do so out of curiosity. Wondering what makes for the kind of faith & belief that persists.

Simpler to respect another’s feeling by far than try figuring out something clearly beyond comprehension.

Stopped for a wayside meal too. Not the regular lal maans – safed maans, gatte what have you. This was simple, homely fare. It was vegetarian & it was delicious. The meal consisting of bajra roti, batiya, khichri, Kaddi, Kaachra sabzi, lasava pickle, chilli – garlic chutney & peda.

Alsisar stood out like a redoubtable outpost. The stone ‘mahal’ magical, its tinge of pink matching the colours in the horizon. Remote & quiet both village & castle cast a spell.

A jeep safari that last evening was the perfect end to a beautiful day. Speeding cross country across low dunes in an attempt to spot black buck, deer & sambar, then watching the sun go down over steaming hot mugs of coffee. There was a quiet thrill to it all.

One of several wells
Mandawa Haveli

The Grand Haveli, Nawalgarh
Don’t miss the ‘Khejris’

Locked:Down Not Out

Swami Rampuri Maharaj

Sankatmochan Temple Hanumanchatti


2020 is the inauspicious year of the Bat_Man. A virus mutated in the badlands of Wuhan traveled from bat to man, grounding entire populations, halting the world in its tracks, forcing it to perceive itself anew- vis-a-vis life, work, travel.

Luckily for me, the year began quite auspiciously. Or so I think. Holiday, Dec’19 went into ‘20 & beyond, right up to Feb. Which is why the sledge hammer impact of a complete travel ban thereafter, fell with gentler effect.

The first month of the New Year had been spent loitering in and around the Cormondal coast. And here was I, relishing every moment, nine months later.

Coming to think of it, very little time is spent on ‘actual’ travel. I’d say only about 3-4 months a year – in real terms that is. One is however in perpetual travel mode, either planning journeys or savouring them, recalling strange encounters and reliving every nuance of an experience, much like poetic emotion,“recollected in tranquility”

I still want to know why that very interesting sadhu at Hanuman- Chatti did not give me the ‘hanuman chalisa’ he had so obviously brought out to give. It’s been 5 years but the thought continues to rankle. Just what was he thinking?

In Covid enforced solitude Eva comes readily to mind. Slim as a reed, she trudged the streets of Karaikudi because, “I want to lose weight……..”

“Do you watch Guru Dutt” she once asked.

I had heard of the French obsession with Guru Dutt. How they loved and admired his work just as the Russians did Raj Kapoor – Nargis-‘Awaara’ I had not however realised the extent of their fascination until Eva broke into song,”jaane woh kaise log the jinko pyaar se pyaar mila………”

It wasn’t merely song & tune, she understood the meaning.

Travel is not – nor ever can be, about ‘places’ alone. It comprises a gamut of imponderables and in-variables that come beautifully together. Take a visit to the Kanchi temple for example. The one that has a thousand and one lingams. This ancient temple is built around an even older mango tree. And mango, leaf and tree get incorporated in the famous Kanjeevaram weave. Temple hopping – imagine, not 1 or 2 but 1008 lingams – and shopping is interesting and fun but nowhere near meeting & interacting with real life characters.

Long black hair & glossy skin, Yellamma was a beauty, except that she often came across unkempt & untidy. Touching a delicate chord, she gave me her reason one day. She did not feel like doing anything, let alone dressing because she had been unable to get over the loss of a dearly beloved daughter. She had 3 sons she didn’t care about. They weren’t any good, much like her good for nothing husband. She had absolutely no desire to live.

Sharing ones private life & thoughts with a total stranger is to give wholly & completely of ones self. The rarest of gifts. Thank you Yellamma.

Or take Erica for that matter. She was from Sweden, a country I had visited the previous year. I ran into her at an Udupi restaurant in Pondicherry. Seated across from me, she was debating what to order, plying the hapless waiter with impossible queries.

What is Dosa? What is Uthappam? What is Idly?

What was each made of ?

Remembering the courtesy extended to me in her home country, I had of course to intervene and help. After that, we met practically every evening, walking the promenade or watching the waves hit the shore.

Foremost among modern, open & free societies, it was interesting to learn Sweden too had its share of MCP’s.

Erica’s marriage broke up because her husband had badgered & pressured her into starting a family. This, when the two had a pre nuptial agreement to the contrary.

With lockdown eased and ‘work from home’ the new norm, young people especially are already on the move. And ‘home’ mind you is anywhere and everywhere. Not only where heart but essentially where WiFi is. Ask the unencumbered Single already on the go, scouring the countryside from Goa to Manali.

Mention Covid to village folk around Manali and come face to face with pure, unadulterated innocence – not lost. They will look at you in wonder and ask “why ?….. are there no Gods where you come from?”

Eyes shut, an unbelievable image hovers into view. It is an expression of yearning & hope. And of regret and envy too.

Walking the African wilds is dear friend Kitty. Alone and unafraid. Staff in hand, among the lions.

You live only once but –

Would I?

Could I?

Dare I?

In another life, perhaps.

Village, Upper Manali

Covidiot 2

Saala Covid! Did a Pinjara Tor today. Visited the parlour & had a complete makeover. And does it feel good? You tell me – after 75 days of staying locked indoor.

The only way forward. Not being foolhardy of course but going by rules, taking care. The bastard likes a good fight. Give it to him. Once again………It feels good.

The salon itself was thoroughly & elaborately sanitized. By the hour, many times over. An elegant space. Unlike a hospital, it looked & felt beautiful. The hair stylist was delighted to have me return, as was I, surrounded by friendly, young, cheerful faces.

To look presentable is to be battle prepared – always. It’s half the battle won. So, on to tomorrow & tomorrow. And tomorrow.


We are in it together. For a long haul to boot. No mistake. So stay home, stay safe. Live to tell the tale. Today’s young will have something for their little ones. Spinning yarns. Of how a virus in far away Wuhan travelled from a bat to a human lung.

Like the many WhatsApp jokes – No Ming Ling. Who the hell is Social Distance Singh?- contagion literature of value too will emerge. Song, story & cinema, in an outpouring of creativity.

One thing’s certain. No one is coming through unscathed.

I am home bound & confined to a dull unused-to-routine that needs must be adhered to.

No way to live. But this is serious man. Seriously!

Household chores are interspersed with yoga – meditation. Also music & books to relieve & enliven.

Doing utensils by the sink I peer out at a clear blue sky. My window to the world outside. Something’s changed. Something’s changing.

On the 12th day of lockdown an unfamiliar cry rends the air. Like wheeling back in time to small town India, a vegetable vendor passes by. Delivering fresh veggies at the door step. At a fair price, what’s more.

We’ll get by, I think. No work. No pay but the poor are slowly finding ways. An auto rick pulls up another time. Passengers no more, the guy has decided to sell. Innovation? Tell me some more.

It’s been peacefully still & quiet. The cacophony you hear is birds. Loud & shrill. Dear, noisy, quarrelsome little creatures.

A sudden roar shatters the sky. Airport’s shut I thought. It’s a lone flight transporting someone somewhere. Stranded travellers perhaps.

A myriad feelings flit through the day. Of gratitude. And guilt. More of the latter. Keeping migrants in mind, specifically. Did they have to leave the way they did? To the imagined safety of faraway homes that just might be unwelcoming. Something would have worked out here. If only they had stayed.

There is a beggar at the gate. The first in years. Three children in tow, he actually rang the bell. What should I pass him through the bars? What should I say?

Everything inside is in limbo.

The country’s watching ‘Ramayana’.