Down in a Valley

IMG_3445Lambadi tribesman

IMG_3428IMG_3461IMG_3460Maniappan : Tribal King

 

IMG_3455Karpanna : Black brother temple

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

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

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

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

‘Yes’ replies Murugesh.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Murugesh, makes a keen observation.

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

“ No”, says he. “Not bored.

How clean everyone looks. How happy.

Also. No religion. No politics”.

That’s it. No religion. No politics.

No wonder!

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

 

 

 

 

 

IMG_3449PorgaiIMG_3453IMG_3426IMG_3435IMG_3441Down the village street

IMG_3454Clean air  longevity

Along an Eastern Seaboard

 

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

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

Sen Chiao Vietnam. Hello, how do you do?

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

How old are you?

Are you married?

Yes? Do you have children? How many?

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

How much do you earn?

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

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

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

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Local Beauty

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

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Elephant Eye Fish

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

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railway platform, Hue

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

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

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

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

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

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Entrance, District Halong

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French era bridge across the Red river, Hanoi

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

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

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Flower Seller, on a Cyclo

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

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

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The Museum

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

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

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Cu Chi tunnels

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

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

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

How did she like it?

“ Love it”

Learn Vietnamese?

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

 

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Eastern Sea/ South China Sea: view from the train

 

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Punky Funky Monk: Thien Mu Pagoda, Hue

Roady Toady

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national highway

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Bombay – believe it or not

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Heritage train Matheran

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

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

“Vindhya, Himachal, Yamuna, Ganga……

Punjab, Sindh, Gujarat, Maratha

Dravid, Utkal, Banga”

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

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

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

Mana:100 miles

500 miles to Mana

Mana:1000 miles.

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

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

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

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

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inside a restaurant – no kidding

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India: could be anywhere

 

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

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

Never heard of ‘Maruta’?

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

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

There is a new cockiness in the air.

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

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

Try Dr. Joshi, instead.

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

“You won’t find it ”, says he.

Why not?

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

And yet. Some things never change.

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

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

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

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

Yes, he nods in agreement & smiles.

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

Kya karein!

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time on my hands

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Homestay

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still hoping

Journeys in time

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Honors for ruthless efficiency must go to El Al. Despite before – hand warnings we were shell shocked. Gawd, what a grilling!

A Moshe Dayan look alike, on that Delhi – Tel Aviv flight added to the mystique. He was curious about everything including my reason for not flying my national carrier & went on to explain his country’s focus on ‘terror’ & ‘security’. This was pre 9/11. Early days, yet Israel was all on edge. We touched down at Ben Gurion to loud claps & cheers. Unfamiliar & a bit unnerving but quite the norm apparently. Glad to be home safe, I guess.

Two hostesses met us with placards & food coupons, escorting us to the transit lounge, to rest until the onward flight to Cairo that evening.

But. But. But.

Was there a problem? With multi entry visas, we had no intention hanging around the airport. There was a full day in hand with plans for Jaffa.

Exiting the terminal taking a precise number of steps (as instructed by “Lets Go”, our bible on the move) before us lay ‘this’ ‘that’ & the other. Everything as described – exactly. To our right, was a bus stop, from where we could take Egged bus no: 495/ 3.90 Shekels/ 40 minutes to Jaffa. The landmarks along the way came as mentioned, the lighthouse our ‘get off ’ point.

Wandering around Andromeda fort, St Peter’s monastery & Museum of Antiquities we were back at the airport in time for the flight to Egypt.

Yafo, as the Israelis called it, was a gem. What a beautiful sight, watching young artists sitting & sketching on the stone steps leading down to the waters. Digging into fresh tuna sandwich and the sea, a perfect blue.

Flying El Al was a mistake. It was a pain, entering Israel or exiting. If latter the question sternly asked was whether one had visited Palestinian areas. If yes, the next question was why?

Israel’s a remarkable country notwithstanding. I shall forever carry memories of Yad Vashim, the youthful zest & energy of Tel Aviv, Ein Geidi the perfect relax by the Dead Sea & soul stirring Masada.

Not to forget Jerusalem. It touches like none other. The pinkish hue of your stones Jerusalem – early morning, late evening & into the night.

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Zion Square Jerusalem

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Ein Geidi

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There was no such fuss at Cairo International. Touch down at midnight & Zafar, to meet & escort us to our hotel – ‘The President’

Egypt was tremendous. The size & scale of monuments truly mind boggling. But there was something strangely out of sync too. A kind of historical disconnect. As if the present didn’t quite flow from the past. This, said with the benefit of hindsight no doubt but the feeling was constantly there.

A pity we didn’t make it to Alexandria but lucky we did to Cairo, Aswan & Luxor.

Cairo to Aswan by train is an overnight, 15 hour journey. The smiling attendant on board could not figure out temperature control; hence we were left freezing or stewing to death, depending upon whether the AC was switched on or off. The matter was resolved by keeping it permanently on. Sleeping bags were rolled out (shivering Sahara) and we went silently to sleep.

There is something fascinating about rivers. A kind of magic that uplifts & delights, be it the Mekong, Ganges or the Nile. We did the mandatory Nile cruise of course, though it was disappointing to see a placid & tame river. The Nubians along the banks invited us to their home – invitation declined as intentions suspect.

Tall, handsome & appealing they looked splendid in plain white attire.

And the children with the donkeys, ambling along playfully, calling out to toss them a coin.

 

On ‘Captains Night’, I slipped into a Gallabiya, to surface as queen of ancient Egypt. My prize? A queen. No less. A hand crafted, long necked, elegant Nefertiti.

Sailing into Luxor billboards exhorted us to smile.

“ Smile – you are now in Luxor”. Big, broad, tree lined streets. Houses with ivory white exteriors & colonnaded verandahs. A wind – surf swept promenade along the bend of the river. It was a typical colonial town.

Think Egypt & one thinks Giza, Sphinx, Pyramids – naturally

And Amal, our gorgeous guide – if I may.

On the way to the airport, there was a sudden, fierce & sinister darkening of the sky with winds at over 60 miles blowing sand into the face & eyes. Uprooting everything along its path. We are lucky we discover, for this is the infamous khamaseen – desert storm,  not to be missed phenomenon.

My one lingering memory remains the taste of fresh Hibiscus juice that was served by the gallon, day & night.

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Cyprus happened for one reason alone. AKG. The entire 5 country trip in fact was courtesy him. Rather late in the day for an acknowledgement but a ‘thank you’ is in order, so thank you, Ashok Kumar Ganapaty. Out on a lark for a month & a half, without credit card or insurance, one wonders today at the audacity. What if ? ….. Such ignorance! It turned out was bliss.

Arriving at Larnaca past midnight, my friend Denise breezes past immigration while I am asked to step out of line & wait. The fault is in my stars. The snag, in the passport, where I am ‘male’. How come nobody had noticed? Not even all knowing – all seeing El Al? The joke on them, finally. It was nice to get even.

The moon is up as we hit the 4 lane from Larnaca to Nicosia, Ashok’s brand new BMW adding to the exhilaration. We have three nights in Cyprus with Ashok & Mo who show us around the little isle, everything from Kykkos monastery up in the Troodos to beach resorts at Limassol & Agia Napa.

Cyprus is pristine, pure, and idyllic. A country with zero pollution (UN statistics). State of the art roadways with miniature orange trees planted as road dividers. Does nobody ever pluck the fruit? Or is it mere ornamental?

What surprised one most were the number of Philipinos working as maids, in every second household almost.

Also, the large number of hunchbacks. What could possibly be the reason?

Any guesses, anyone?

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With Mo & Denise: Amphitheatre Cyprus

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As the aircraft began its  descent the outline of the Greek archipelago hovered into view. It was like an atlas laid out before the eyes. The waters of the Aegean & the Mediterranean mingling into a dramatic expanse of blue. Athens – 1997 was an exciting place & time to be.

An airport taxi brought us to 75 Damareus Street. The number 75 emblazoned boldly on the door & Yannis there to open it. He did so with a little Anthony Quinn style flourish.

To find our bearings –  first a recce by tram & bus before exploring the city on foot. In the next 10 days we were to cover every inch of ground almost, much as a local would have done.

Greece is  gorgeously hedonistic. A place where one feels no embarrassment. Where Epicurus thrives & survives. It was once a Phallocentric society & though it has long moved on to several denominations of Christianity, one does not feel the kind of disconnect that one does in Egypt.The Greeks know how to live it up. Athens is alive & bustling with musicians, dancers, street performers, theatre & festival. What to say about finding a real life Organ Grinder on the streets – never expected to see one, ever.

The 70 kms drive to Cape Sounion runs entirely along the coastline. Low hills descend to pine groves on the beach. It is spectacular.

Sixteen Doric columns of the Temple of Poseidon {6BC) is all that remains on the promontory. Sitting on the rock jutting out into the sea there is the Aegean deep down below, blue skies & howling winds above. Did Shelley actually drown here? Or is it, as some believe the site of lost Atlantis? Clearly visible in the far distance is the Bay of Corinth. Breath taking!

Timeless beauty marred as usual by the mundane. The last few days saw strikes & demonstrations. Demonstrations outside parliament & random strikes as buses went off roads & garbage piled high. Greece was in turmoil. It was a mess.

As were we.

After that many days of being on the road, a day was set aside for general admin. Yannis allowed us the use of his antiquated washing machine in which a coin had to be dropped for it to take off with a roar. There was no washing powder but we managed a bar of soap that was grated & used. This, from Maria’s shop. ‘Namaste Maria’, as we called her. Having lived some months in Delhi she knew a smattering of Hindi & always loved to greet us with a ‘namaste’

At 75 Damareus meanwhile, Yannis continued to regale. On May 15, Denise’s birthday, he danced a ‘Zorba the Greek’, offering to teach us the steps. But we were off, to a celebratory dinner at ‘La Bonita’ where Poulos would serve the choicest wine & cuts.

And what of Yannis? One didn’t quite know what to make of him. Much like the graffiti on the walls. The zaniest ever:

“create your own space”

“ forget the housework, come to Greece”

“the same shit – another day”

“no girl, no job, no money – no problem”

and ……..most intriguing –  “Greek men made easy”

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Gay Pari – s

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On the face of it

let’s admit

Paris is

dour

arrogant

stand offish

Oui Monsieur

young & old hesitate

step back afraid

of a handshake.

You smile madame?

“Sorry, no English,

je me parle pas l’anglais”

Ah yes,

I quite forgot

your problem is

historic.

Never mind the

linguistically challenged

traveler aboard

Menton – Nice super fast

waiting to disembark

as stations whistle past.

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The Romanian

 begging

along the sidewalk

Algerian – Tunisian

 nursing

a hare

grateful for sanctuary

Euro to spare.

Make no mistake

Paris

scintillates

clean air

drinking water

everything in perfect order

until the

Unions suddenly

strike, but why

why are there

cigarette butts

‘neath

the sky?

Youth & beauty

go hand in hand

along the Seine

lip locked

padlocked

sworn unto ……….

prised open

recalls

Café de Flore’s

Berthillon

‘lil doggies

neutered clones

streaked, powdered,

groomed, to match

mistresses

walking alone,

obediently in line

passing

each other

without a sigh

no bark nor cry

inside out

allowed

everywhere

salon, café, bar

as vexed as

mademoiselle’s brow,

with never a boo

boogie woogie do

for gawd’s sake

at least

clean up the poo.

The French nation has

a strange

fixation –

all things feline

hence

black cat Noir

prowls the night

alleys, – alone

sneak previews

Moulin Rouge.

Cat burglars

lurk

the streets

picking pockets

by the hour

shutting down

Eiffle Tower

You may well ask

the cause

for such fuss

malign

harking on

downsides,

honey you’ll agree

it is unexpected

quite unprecedented

a revelation indeed

for a first time

third world traveler

like me.

So

let’s just say

there never was

never will be

a city

like

gay Pari

But

one simply cannot

leave it at that.

I’d rather have

London instead

So

 London it shall be

3 cheers!

hurray!

give me London

any day.

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Marialva

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Duoro river Rio Douro
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Ruins Ruins
IMG_3494 village cemetery

DSC01336 From coastal Porto in the north to the interior southeast bordering Spain and into the Douro valley, a river snakes through gorges of granite & stone. Acre upon acre of vineyard meets the eye. Vineyards interspersed with apple & olive, introduced to the region by the Romans in AD 300. It is today the heart of Portugal wine country, producing & exporting the finest port & wine to the capitals of the world. How could one not indulge in a spot of wine tasting then? And, so we did, in the course of a typical regional meal at an estate, the Quinta De Marrocos, where  lunch consisted of varieties of bread, cheese, potato soup, green salad, bean salad & Cod – with baked potato. This, followed by baked apple, cinnamon cake & coffee. Driving 220 kms from Porto past a landscape of low undulating hills, vineyards & river we arrive at the medieval village of Marialva. It is a cluster of soulful ruins dating back to 12 – 13 century, complete with ramparts, Roman citadel, ruined castle, Chapel of Our Lady of Lourdes, watchtower, cemetery, church & scaffold. Perched at 580 meters, there is a haunting quality about a village that appears lonely & desolate. Blame it on the young for desertion in search of greener pastures. The same old story. Life & livelihood in place of hearth & home. No school. No shouts of joy. No children in the empty park. What could one do in a place like this?

For starters, enjoy the serendipity. Learn from the old. If Marialva continues to retain grace & character & exist with dignity & pride it is thanks to its 35 inhabitants who are all in the 75 – 95 age group. No school. No hospital either. Watch them go through the day without an earthly care. Basking in the sun, playing cards, sniffing wine suffused air. The secret of healthy longevity perhaps, as each person is said to imbibe an average of a litre & half wine everyday. So we are told. Not wine alone. Believe me. (Try asking for a coffee at the local café & watch the owner look askance). It’s a charming little place where old folk peer through half shut eyes, out of half open doors & curtained windows, stoutly refusing to be photographed. A suspicion or a superstition. A belief that outsiders ‘click,’ ‘tear’ & ‘throw away’. An euphemism for death. No one is quite prepared for it just yet. Not even the 95 year old up on the hill. Watch him stride down every Sunday just as the bells begin to chime & the chapel doors open. With Bacchus by his side there is no deterrent. It hardly matters that the beautiful stone pathways are uneven & difficult to trod.

All one needs is a pair of decent walking shoes.

Lunch at a Quinta, Lamego potato soup, Quinta De Marrocos Lamego
Portuguese lunch Portuguese lunch
IMG_3499 aesthetic to be sure & do the old manage

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Ruins Ruins
Guided village tour with Paulo the brain behind Casas Do Coro With Paulo of ‘Casas Do Coro’ a rural retreat. History meets luxury with refurbished rooms, cottages, villas.
The Bar: Duoro cruise The Bar: Douro cruise
A village home A village home
Imelda, 72 years.The youngest in the village perhaps manages a Cafe selling Souvenirs Imelda, 72 years.The youngest in the village perhaps manages a Cafe & sells Souvenirs

Thottapallay

 

 

 

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Kala’s coffee service

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Off NH 47, 22 kms from Aleppy, towards Quilon & Kottayam is a charming little hamlet where all the colors & shades of the rainbow contribute to the building of homes & cottages. Giant – pink, blue, green, yellow, purple – garish mansions along side simple thatched huts line the waterfront of Kerala’s legendary backwaters. Almost every family has a working member in the Gulf, hence the glow of technicolor in cash.

I am with Kala & her sister at Omkaram, one of the many homestays that dot the lush green countryside. At Rs 1500 a night one has the luxury of a large sea facing room with a terrace –  no less. It is clean & airy & has marble floors & state of the art fittings. Kala’s prawn curry/ rice combo is to die for. As is the Egg roast, a local specialty. And strong freshly brewed coffee to round it off.

This is essentially a fishing village from where a variety of ‘catch’ is exported. Laze around as you will. Cycle the broad traffic less roads. Join in a game of soccer on the beach. Watch the sun rise or set. Enjoy the cool sea breeze with a morning / evening cuppa to the strains of  classical ragas. A sundowner even. (Kerala Govt I hear is contemplating harakiri with plans for complete state wide prohibition)

Complementing the cool & the laid back ,Thottapallay boasts an old British era culvert of indeterminate vintage. It continues in use, the busy ‘Spillover’ bridge that spans the dark inviting waters swarming with catamarans. Take a walk to the other side . It is equally charming

 

 The Spillover bridgeIMG_0253

On the culvertIMG_0262 IMG_0268 IMG_0269

  Fisherman’s coveIMG_0270 IMG_0271 IMG_0272

The Spillover

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Ouch, I can’t stand still

Man was not born to stay in one place Man was not born to stay in one place

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I once chanced upon a post where the blogger had taken a 2 month trip travelling halfway across the globe in the clothes that he was wearing. Except for an extra undergarment his rucksack contained money & documents, phone, music, camera, medicine & basic toiletries. His self imposed rule was neither to borrow nor buy clothes along the way. That was also his challenge

I threw in the gauntlet – with amends. Well, he was a guy & I was not. He was a kid & I was not. I would permit myself the luxury of 2 extra sets of clothing beside what I was wearing. Everything else would be ditto, for a fortnight of travel to an equatorial country first, then onwards to a tropical one. The rule was to look presentable at all times. And that was my challenge.

Friends laughed it away. ‘Not possible’, said they. The American may have done it but no Indian can ever travel this way.

( I had a bright colourful stole that doubled up as sarong /scarf/bedsheet/ tank top/ what have you. It was my single most important piece of clothing.)DSC00921

beauty of the unstitched garment beauty of the unstitched garment

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So here were my 2 rucksacks, which I carried as hand baggage, weighing less than 6 Kg in toto. Simply loved the idea as did the airline that looked on benignly.

Screen partition Malaysia Screen partition Malaysia

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There is a certain thrill in the unknown. Of landing & walking on distant shores. A whole new world opens up for you to embrace & to explore. Even for a first time solo traveler nothing is intimidating. Look at the myriad faces, rootless souls all making their way to the same backpacker den or thereabouts, a place that is almost always walking distance from the sights & sounds of town. The butterfly in the stomach occasionally flutters but that is mostly during  pre take off stage when travel plans are being fueled & ignited. One shrugs off that feeling with what the heck. Can’t let it happen. There is the added realization that it could well mean the beginning of the end of any future solo travel plans. The remedy is to have Dutch courage. Muster up plenty of it.

Could I ever forget the first time I ventured forth alone?

I look back now and wonder at the sheer audacity of it. Did I actually embark on a voyage to 5 different countries with nothing but school geography as guide? A walking atlas inside the head assisted by such all time legends as The Lonely Planet & Lets Go. Backpacker Bibles both. Those were the days – pre internet days – when ignorance was bliss. To have traveled like that sans credit card or insurance & to be none the wiser. O, the horror of it all!

Budget travel has evolved & backpacker joints have metamorphosed over time. Place to place people appear to interact less & less. It has a lot to do with Wi-Fi, mobiles, tablets & laptops. The result being each person immersed in his own. The old bonhomie hasn’t completely disappeared but the long friendly chats over breakfast or travel tales at the end of day are passé.

Miss you Gary of bread & jam fame – 75 Damareus Street Athens, 1997. A true backpacker young Gary traveled the earth in search of a wife. Bread & jam was his staple & he moved from hostel to hostel as he disliked the idea of spending each night under the same one roof.

Cafes & Bars continue to beckon, entice, entertain & enthrall. They add to the experience. Nothing quite like the local & traditional – food, drink, people – to round off the plot.

At the ‘Geographers Cafe’, Malacca, over a pot of Cameron Highland tea & scones I watch life go by on busy Jonker street. There are crowds, music, banter & laughter

And an entry password to the golden Loo

“Eh Eh, tri tri “ pipes the attendant

Excuse me!

“Eh Eh Tree Tree’’ he repeats

Once

Twice

Thrice

Oh 8833 ?

(Turns out to be a squat toilet in the end. But who cares when it is for free.)

As everyone knows the only way to explore a place is to do it on foot. Just walk, walk, walk. And if you meet a lost kindred spirit from a far away land take time to talk, talk & talk.

Smile. Walk. Talk. Walk the talk. Three simple golden rules.

Remember conversation never did kill anyone. And not everyone is Jack the Ripper.171805_1682378773703_8375429_o IMG-20140810-WA0027 2

Here’s to Kody Kids

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The Himalayas we know are magnificent. What one didn’t know or imagine was the immensity & panoramic sweep of the ghats. Until I got there that is.

Kodi was a delightful surprise.

 

At 6998’ in the Palani hills – the southern most section of the Western Ghats- it was green & serene despite not having had rain in the last three years. (It normally has 2 monsoons)

It is July end & all the waterfalls are dry. Be it Silver Cascade, Bear Shola or Pambar of Liril advt fame. It was here that Karen Lunel had frolicked nymph like. The waterfall, now reduced to trickles of sludge & grime.

 

 

Pambar Falls Pambar Falls

Rain or no rain gardens are in full bloom & the day pleasant & cool with evening temperatures going down 12 – 15 C. Mist clouds the sky then melts down the mountainside. There is sometimes, what passes for a drizzle. A faint drizzle.

 

Kodaikanal is a 5 hour drive from Coimbatore. Giant windmills dot the flat, windy & dusty countryside. The hill section of the road starts only at Palani 60 kms short of Kodi. It is a steep treacherous climb with several hairpin bends & turns that set the stomach churning.

1008 steps lead to the Murugan Karthikey temple at Palani. There is a cable car facility & the rare Kurunji tree that blossoms every 12 years. The next flowering expected in 2018.DSC00681

Bryants Park Bryants Park
 Pillar Rocks. Each 400' high Pillar Rocks. Each 400′ high

We are booked at the Kodaikanal club (Estd 1887) bang on Seven roads junction, beside the lake & in the heart of town. What seems like the height of the unexpected is a working fireplace inside the bedroom, a box of matches & dry wood stacked in a corner. What’s more there is even an attendant to – start the fire. Steaming hot chocolate serves as nightcap. The linen is crested & it smells of lavender. Everything around appears to have either a monogram or crest. Even the tissue paper. The entire town an epitome of ‘colonial’ at its best

The Club The Club
The Lake The Lake

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Kodi kids are everywhere, especially on a Sunday. These are children from Kodaikanal International School. They actually are known as Kodi kids. No brats these, unlike what have you …….but a global conglomerate, here to have an education.

Besides a stunning campus of architecture in stone & landscaped gardens the school boasts a charming little chapel, a local attraction within its precincts.

School Chapel School Chapel

What is your idea of a great holiday? Mine simply is doing nothing worthwhile. Like sleeping, eating, reading, walking & taking in the scene. All worth the while.

Locals from surrounding villages bring in their ware for Sumthal – the daylong Sunday market. This includes a produce of exotic fruit, flower & vegetable. Shops are laden with spices, herbs, oils & home made chocolate & there is ‘Cloud Street’ for the best wood oven pizzas. It has free Wi-Fi too. Or try the Pot Luck café.

 

There is Bryants Park with 325 specie of plant & shrub & an 1857 Bodhi tree. A 5 km walk skirts the lake & there are cycles to be hired. The best walk is at Coakers where one walks on one side of the mountains’ edge in a valley, facing the opposite hill with a gorge in between.

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Potters Shed Potters Shed
Spice Shop Spice Shop

 

Mansions of the rich & famous enliven the surroundings. Everyone from Mani Ratnam to Alagiri Scam of 3G fame is there. Black money also needs a home. No?

 

In the end as always, it is the people that make the place. So shall Kodi be remembered. For all the wonderful people. Foremost being the entrepreneur philanthropist Mr. Mani or Cheez Mani as he is popularly known for his cheese making skills.

 

 

Egg shaped estate Egg shaped estate

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From the Cheese Shop From the Cheese Shop

 

Dagshai Jail Museum

 

 

Dagshai Jail Museum

Dagshai Jail Museum

 

A British era jail used as a  dump yard post independence, was converted into a museum in 2011. It is also unique in that it is only the second of its kind in India, the first being the Cellular jail in the Andamans

Dagshai jail, set up in 1849 has played host to several shades of soldier convicts. Gorkha soldiers of the Nasiri Regt (1857), revolutionaries from the ship ‘Komagatamaru’ (1914), 12 Indian soldier – sympathizers of the Ghadar movement (1915) & Irish Catholic soldiers of the ‘Connaught Rangers ‘who mutinied against their British officers (1920).

James Daly the best known of them all was executed here.

When Mahatma Gandhi visited Dagshai to meet with Irish mutineers he had stayed in a cell inside the jail. Legend has it that his assassin Nathuram Godse too was briefly incarcerated here before being taken for trial to the High Court in Simla.

Bust:Maj.Udai Singh

prototype of the bust

Distinguished Alumni In progress art work.  APS Dagshai

Distinguished Alumni
In progress art work.
APS Dagshai

The museum is the brainchild of its curator Dr. Anand Sethi, a local resident who researched & contributed most of the exhibits including archival photographs from his private collection. A prized display is a pair of bellows that were used by iron smiths to make chains and handcuffs. Its museum value 50,000 pounds today. More material continues to be sourced from Ireland, UK & Nepal.

Dr Sethis’ initiative fortunately, was complemented by the vision & foresight of the then Brigade commander Brig Ananth Narayanan. The army has since been closely involved with the project

Dr & Mrs Sethi

Dr & Mrs Sethi

On a clear bright day we stroll through the two sections of the museum, the Dagshai Jail which contains 54 maximum-security prison cells and an exhibit area that displays archival photographs of the jail and around.

Most of the cells do not have sufficient ventilation or natural light. There is only one VIP cell with the luxury of a fireplace and washroom. This is where the Mahatma had stayed when he came to commiserate with Irish prisoners with whom he felt a especial empathy & bond. Strange as it may sound Ireland & India had much in common, most important being their struggle for freedom against the same colonial master. Making common cause was a subtle political message sent out to the powers that were.

The exhibit area showcases the history of the region. There are photographs of soldiers, forgotten heroes and of the writer Rudyard Kipling, who wrote ‘Plain Tales From the Hills’ here.

APS Dagshai Bust unveiled 29/04/2014

APS Dagshai Udais’Bust  29.04.2014

The newest addition is the picture – citations of late Maj Udai Singh SC, SM, first battalion the Parachute Regt. Udai had spent the formative years of his life as a student of APS (1988 – 1992), the school a stones throw away from the museum.

Today his Bust adorns the main school square & the children have permission to walk to the museum as often as they like.

That being the Principals’ order.

 

*The museum is located at Dagshai cantonment, less than 2 kms from Dharampur on NH 22 going towards Simla. It is closed on Mondays & opens Tuesday – Sunday 09.30 – 12.30 & 14.30 –  17.30