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

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’

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’.


Northern Lights. White Nights


Helsinki was the first port of call. Also the last. I would be in & out thrice. This the first leg 48 hours only. Three pm already, time was therefore of the essence.


Despite a baggage allowance of 23 & carry on of 8, both bags accompanied me inside. The total weight – less than 8 kg. A feat I am immensely proud of & willing to expand upon – one to one. Marvel at it meanwhile & wonder. Consider time saved also.


Out of the terminal, I am soon heading towards town & getting there in less than 30 minutes.


(The Finnair shuttle operates every half hour from outside Terminal 2 – platform 51, Euro 6.90 cash/card – dropping one off at Helsinki Central Station, a distance of 19 kms. On the return it plies from platform 30, Elliel Square, Central station).

With free Wifi onboard, quick “Landed. All well” calls were made. Could anything be simpler, more gratifying?


The other option is Bus 615 or train – Line I or P. All go to Central Station – the hub of Helsinki life.


The hotel was a 10 minute walk. Bags deposited, I am off to the Esplanadi & Market Square to catch a ferry to Suomenlinna. Everything is within walking distance. Helsinki, with wide open green spaces is made for walking.


Suomenlinna island can only be accessed by ferry- 15 minutes. It has an 18th century fortress & is a UNESCO heritage site. A place to spend quiet time, picnic or wander. I went across (euro 2.80) then quickly grabbed a coffee. That’s another thing. People are constantly grabbing either a coffee, beer or ice cream.


The summer solstice has emptied the city with shops either closed or closing but the island has crowds of holidaymakers & the mood is festive. Young boys & girls sport floral tiaras. They will go berry picking, as is the local custom. Mid summer night, remember?

I have been up for what seems like forever without any sign of fatigue or tiredness. A feeling of exhilaration only. Such being the magic of the midnight sun.


The next day is officially the longest & begins with a leisurely stroll to Kamppi, past the art work depicting 3 naked men at Stockmans, coffee – cake at Regatta, down to the White church, turning towards the harbour & the statue of Havis Amanda where Christina, the guide will meet.



Havis Amanda is symbolic of Helsinki rising from the sea. Sculptured by Ville Vallgren an early 20th century French artist, lady councillors had taken umbrage at her depiction in the nude but quite sensibly decided to let it be. So here was the beautiful Amanda sharing space with four lusty sea lions.


These ‘free’ walking tours – is anything in life ever free? – conducted by locals are a wonderful introduction to the city. An orientation & peep into the life & culture of the place.


Twenty two year old Christina is a student of law with an interest in art, history & culture. She walks us through, discoursing on the neo classical buildings – archtecture. The palace, green dome cathedral, university, senate square etc etc.

I had hoped to squeeze in Seurasaari, the island that has historic Finnish houses but it is not to be. While Turku is a must.


Finland’s oldest & third largest city, Turku was the capital until 1812. It has the pigduck (Posankka) as mascot & the finest Finnish street food: Hesburghers, Karelian pastries & ‘makkara’ – grilled pork sausages.


The Inter city express linking it to Helsinki (euro 34 return) takes less than 2 hours. (Keep in mind the fact that the last train out is at 9.30 pm. Turku after that is a ghost track).


A straight road leads to the river front – less than 15 minutes – where all the major sights are located. A 1.5 km stretch along the Aura with cathedral & castle (13th century) at either end. It is a beautiful traffic free avenue – cycles & segway permitted. Children play along grassy banks while old couples walk hand in hand.


The town has both character & charm & is full of cafes, ice cream corners, quaint art décor, bookshops, Romeo & Juliette balconies & decorative doors. At Ratikka the market square you may get lucky & glimpse the only remaining tram carriage.


Helsinki to Rovaniemi, Lapland is 45 minutes by air. There is an airport shuttle after every Finnair flight (euro 7/kms 9). It dropped me right outside my hotel.


Surrounded by 4 bridges/at the confluence of two rivers, Rovaniemi is a small compact town with everything within easy reach. Europe’s oldest inhabitants, the Sami are purported to live here, though I didn’t see signs of any. They are perhaps so fully integrated as to be indistinguishable from the rest. The town at first gives the impression of the wild west. With names like Hemingway’s Bar, Navy Rum, Roy’s Club etc. its streets & squares were cold, windswept & deserted. It’s the summer solstice again. I enjoyed walking around though & watched a young boy segway in circles, wondering if I should try the reindeer meat – ball dish at all.


Elena, is to pick me up at 11.30 for a midnight sun picnic on Santavaara hill. It was to be a small group but turned out to be just us, Elena & me. Nice of ‘Viator’ to have gone ahead & not cancelled it altogether. The longest day was not yet over & this was especially close to my heart.


Elena was terrific company. We drove some 10 kms out of town, into forests of Birch & Pine with a short 900 metre hike up the hill. Everything above, beneath & around was white & still. In the distance ran a white streak – the river, soundless too. Man & beast have lived & interacted in such close proximity down the ages that the animal at least is shy & wary. He keeps a safe distance.


We carried wood & flint – lit a fire while Elena took out an array of German sausages. Chatting about our lives – woman to woman – dinner was barbeque, salad & coffee. (scent free Birch cones, unlike Pine are ideal for bbq. So I learnt)

We waited past midnight but the sun refused to emerge from behind the clouds. A perfect white night still. One I am unlikely to ever forget.


That Lapland was home to Santa was known. Not so the humongous industry around him. There is a Santa village & a Santa Express – 10 kms/euro 7 -connecting it to town. He has an official address, an office, work hours & Elves to do his bidding. Also a post office handling mail from around the world – over 20 million at the last count. There were parcels, gifts, X’mas decorations & a reindeer sledge that could be hired for a fee. Also a long long queue to meet him. I fall in line too, if only for the fun of it.


Dressed in traditional attire SC is rosy cheeked & chubby & has a twinkle in the eye. “From India of course,” says he. “ are you from Hyderabad? See what I have here” (pointing to the Ganesha upon the shelf.) “We are never too old to live our dreams…….I believe in fairy tales & happy endings.”


I could not /did not take a photograph. An elf had done that already along with a video clip. Would I like a copy? Would I? Not if its euro 40 and 60. Hey Santa, that is a rip off. Dreams die first.

Instead, I walked up to latitude 66*32* N – distinctly marked on the ground – and had a picture taken (euro 4.50). Certificate in hand, to prove that I had indeed crossed the Arctic Circle.

 White nights aside Finland is a winter wonderland. Home to the sauna. Design capital of the world. Have a look around ……

 The people? Introvert, friendly. Also romantic, in an unstated tender kind of way. The happiest in the world, according to a 2019 survey. The secret, minimalism once again. It’s ‘no frills,’ with a deeply ingrained respect of silence & space. Conquered & ruled by outsiders for much of its history, the yearning for peace is paramount. To the extent that it ceded Karelia to the Russians. Anything for peace.

What didn’t I like?

Finnish mustard.

It is neither hot nor sharp, spicy or tangy.

Havis Amanda

Turku: Doors

Olgha on Volga

Olgha on Volgaimg_5088

Russia is large, diverse & different & I was determined to do it differently. My choice narrowed down to taking the ‘Trans Siberian’ to Vladivostok, 7- 8 days on the train from Moscow or cruise along the Volga – Baltic waterway, from Moscow to Petersburg, touching 5 medieval towns & Europe’s largest lakes.

Moscow –  Petersburg is 650 kms or 4 hours by the super – fast Sapsan. I did this one way watching the countryside whizz past in a whirl. The water route along Europe’s longest river, draws one into the heart of the country. Cruising at 11 knots, over 5 languid days, with an additional 3 days each in both the major towns.

(River Volga is connected to the Baltic by an intricate system of canals, lakes & reservoirs. A remarkable feat of engineering.)

Dense forests of Silver Birch line the entire 1000 km coastline. The trees visible night & day like ghost companions, the landscape never varying. Neither bleak nor spectacular it has a quiet beauty that does not get monotonous. As a Russian epic baring the soul.

Summer nights along the river – never pitch dark, the sky changes colour from red, pink & white to every shade in – between. It is the strangeness that enthralls making one fall in love with the quiet of vast uninhabited spaces. The Volga with a rhythm of its own showcases everyday life by the riverside. A lone vessel passes by, hands waving. A solitary log cabin. People swimming, fishing, sun bathing, enjoying a family picnic on a warm day.

The first thing to strike you on arrival at Petersburg is the stark change from rural to urban. The Birch lined coastline has suddenly disappeared.


Along the way. Ruins, Nativity Church, village Krokhino, Rybinsk


‘Lev Tolstoy -’ named after Russia’s famed writer – advertises an 11 day itinerary that has a spew of activities ranging from Vodka – Bliny parties & costumed tea ceremonies to professionals speaking on the art, culture, history & language of the country. Concerts & recitals enliven the evenings. You could be at the bar, on the dance floor or catching up  on social media. The travel brochure does not mention the fantastic range of culinary delights coming out of the kitchen. A big plus & the fact that the ship carries a relatively small number of passengers.

Uglich, Yaroslavl, Goritsy, Kizhy island & Mandrogi are the 5 stop overs, each with a character uniquely its own. The Rybinsk reservoir with sea like dimensions is crossed soon after Yaroslavl, followed by Goritsy on the White lake. This monastery houses Russia’s largest collection of icons. Mandrogi is on the river Svir that flows out of lake Onega into Ladoga, Europe’s largest lake. A reconstructed village, the original was razed to the ground in WW2.

Uglich, a 10th century habitation is associated with Ivan the Terrible & Dmitri his brutally murdered infant son. I liked it that Ivan had proposed to his contemporary Elizabeth 1 & that she had turned him down. A cheery old band greets us on arrival, as we walk down the marketplace where the best bargains are to be had. The ‘Church of St Dmitry on the Blood’, a little red structure with blue domes, is built on the very spot the child was killed. It has iron floors intended to retain heat generated by burning embers from below the surface. Frescoes & nude murals adorn the walls. Hardly shocking to one coming from a country of erotic sculptures. But this is Russian Orthodox. But then again, this church was built for family use.

Yaroslavl is historically a big trading center. It boasts elegant new buildings besides old churches, a Monastery & a Nunnery both connected by a secret passage – if locals are to be believed. It is the art collection at the Governor’s, that takes your breath away. Three lovely maidens in gossamer white show you around their father’s property, ostensibly in his absence. They introduce you to the traditions & customs of the 18th century, replete with ball rooms & gentlemen in tails leading ladies up a waltz.

A world of elegant make belief that transports.

The river section between the 2 great lakes is most spectacular. Kizhy island in particular. A world heritage site it has been described as an open air museum of old wooden architecture, the 22 domed Church of Transfiguration the highlight. It was constructed without using a single nail or metal joint. Legend has it that one man built it using a single tool, an axe that was thrown away on completion. The church houses a fine collection of iconostases. Other relics of the past include 2 wooden houses, 2 windmills & a traditional Russian bathhouse on the shore. Kizhy is about 7 km long & 0.5 km wide. It is covered with meadows & giant Elm trees, marshes & bushes & is surrounded by 5000 other islands, from very small (2×2 meters) to fairly large.


Iconostases, Kizhy


Kizhy island


The Governor’s 3 daughters. Yaroslavl

Moscow & Petersburg are both modern cosmopolitan cities of great historical & cultural significance. Doing Moscow by night, with a local preferably is a good idea. Walking or using the Tube. The metro stations, conceived as people’s palaces are works of art bearing proud witness to people’s aspiration & power. Lenin himself is said to have authorised it.

St Petersburg too is best seen on foot. Either walk the historic city or view it from a Hydrofoil on the waters. Everything is right there along the Palace Embankment. And do stay up for the opening & closing of the river locks. It happens past midnight, every night. Built on 42 islands in the delta of the Neva Petersburg is said to have 4 seasons in a day. Weather is never discussed or taken seriously for it suddenly changes. Just when you are beginning to enjoy it. A visit to the ballet/opera/concert/theater followed by fine dining is the ultimate round off. Both cities have much to offer & compare favourably with others around the world. It is the massive scale & size that astounds.


Metro, Escalator 40′ down


Geographically, Russia is Europe, but not quite. It is distinct & dissimilar & may it remain so. Much is made of the elusive Russian smile, blamed on the weather or the theory that people here are wired different. (Better by far than smiling & not have the smile reach the eyes.) The western world has successfully created & vilified an entire nation, one it terms an ‘enigma’. The supposed picture behind the ‘iron curtain’. Is that the truth? Nyet! Nyet! Nyet! The reality is a warm, sensitive & caring people. A beautiful country. Also the safest in the world.

Russians are simple. They are music lovers & singers with an innate sense of song & dance. Accordion – Bayan players & string quartets greet you at every port playing anything & everything from ‘Lara’s Theme’ to the soulful ‘Song of the Volga boatmen’. A land of churches, domes & cathedrals, choral music & Chants. I was witness to an absolutely mesmerising performance of big & small church bells chiming to distinct orchestral notes. This at a church in Yaroslavl.

Knowing, not knowing a local language can be an asset or handicap. Especially so in Russia. Despite supreme efforts I never did get a hang of the language, the vocabulary limited to just two words ‘Da’ & ‘Nyet’

“But that is all a lady need know” said a friend. Unwilling to give up, I progressed to ‘previart’ & ‘spaceba’, wishing with all the heart Peter the Great was around to force English on his countrymen.  But Ha! Ho! I still manage the last laugh. More than a fortnight later my Russian speaking skills suddenly come alive as another lovely new word is added to the vocabulary.


The meaning? Guesses? Anyone?


Enroute to Peterhof


Staff Quarters. Palace Square. Petersburg


Peter the Great’s little home on the gulf


Mother Volga, entrance Rybinsk

Tale of two cities


Doha airport

Doha airport

CDG Paris

CDG Paris

Inverted Pyramid, Louvre

Inverted Pyramid, Louvre

Do you believe in ravens, omens & signs?

In transit at Doha on an onward flight to Paris we decide on a quick cuppa before boarding. The coffee spills, oops! over the table, the floor & on Chanson’s clothes. No matter. She has a change. Minor mishap. The first & the last, before journey end, we hope.

All seated & ready for take off, there is an unexpected delay. We are informed about a ‘technical’ snag because of which passengers must disembark, only to board the aircraft four hours later, arriving in Paris past midnight instead of 8 pm.

My friend has traveled ‘Business’; I ‘Economy’ & we have agreed to meet at ‘Immigration’. I see her fetching up accompanied by a policeman. ‘Hey, Chanson”, I wave. She indicates that she is unwell so I leave the queue to join her.

‘Parlez vous Francais?

Parlez vous Anglais?

In the middle of the night! Alas! We have just arrived after a grueling flight. (New Delhi – Doha – Paris)


Paris:angular streets

Paris:angular streets


The Seine

The Seine

After a long wait, unending explanations & umpteen glasses of water (my friend is dehydrated) our passports are stamped & baggage collected. This I manage with the help of friendly airport personnel who, manoeuvre me via several shortcuts across, that humongous airport that is ‘CDG Paris’.

We are taken to a paramedic centre where Chanson is made to lie down & get medical parameters checked. Her blood pressure shoots up & down dramatically. This happens over a course of hours. She is anxious & feels dehydrated. Has plenty of water and, wants to use the loo, but no. She is not allowed to move. A bedpan is brought. Fluctuating BP, breathlessness, dehydration, water – bedpan – more water. It goes on into the night. The doctor fears a blood clot from prolonged inactivity on a long distance flight. He cannot take a chance so recommends going to hospital for further tests. We won’t risk the chance either & agree.

Another long wait before an ambulance arrives with assistant & stretcher. It drives us through the dark & empty streets of Paris. An eerie 6 – 10 km ride, on this our first night in the city.

The Robert Ballanger hospital – believe it or not – is blood splattered. Wish I had taken some pictures. And there are patients waiting everywhere. Chanson is moved to a bed & told to wait. It would take time for the doctor to arrive. Those before us would be attended first. A man had been brought in five hours ago & was still waiting. ‘Just relax. Be patient’.

The clock ticks on. Dehydration. Water. Bedpan. More water. Worse, not knowing the blood pressure as there was no one monitoring it.

It is a long night.

Finally. The doctor arrives in the wee hours of the morning. He checks her pulse & voila she is to be discharged.

Just like that?

Yes, just like that. Never mind the BP or the ‘clot’, not to speak of trauma or money down the drain.

Outside, the dawn is slowly breaking & it is another day.

Welcome to Paris.

Old Port, Marseille

Old Port, Marseille

We have six hours before departure. What we must resolve is whether or not Chanson is up for the trip or should it be postponed by a day. She looks & feels better. In any case there are doctors everywhere – if need be, God forbid.

That decides it.

Marseille, the lovely seaside town every travel guide warns you about. Drunken sailors. Muggings. Brawls. Clever sleights of hand. Pick pockets.

Part of the experience.


‘Hotel La Residence’, overlooks the old port. It is a boutique hotel & we are lucky to have a harbor facing room with the Notre Dame in the distance. Despite a bustling port it is tranquil & quiet in here. We arrive around 4pm & spend the rest of the day loitering around La Panier & Canebiere –  simply getting a feel of the place.

Chateau D'lf, Marseille 'Count of Monte Cristo' Remember?

Chateau D’lf, Marseille a la The Count of Monte Cristo’


harbour view

harbour view


The Calanques at Cassis

There are plans for Cassis next day. Cassis, a tiny fishing village 20 kms to the east – along the coast – of which it is said,

“ he who has seen Paris & not seen Cassis, can say ‘I have seen nothing’”

Along the quay fishermen begin to set up stalls early next morning. Displaying every variety of exotic ‘catch’  and – as the song goes, “cockles & muscles alive……. Alive O!” Handsome Catalan faces against an aquamarine waterfront. Weather beaten faces that beckon – come taste the salt of the sea. The Concierge too urges us outdoor on to this, not – to – be – missed scene. I sling a rucksack & go out & mingle with the crowds. Blue skies, bluer seas. It is a beautiful day. Strolling, watching, quizzing, peering, talking, taking pictures, in short enjoying every bit of the action. Fish and Folk.

We would have lingered, but for Cassis.

DSC01173 DSC01171DSC01170DSC01263

What is your worst travel nightmare?

Mine is falling ill and/or losing baggage

In no particular order.

A man at the Metro points to my rucksack warning that it is open. I do remember closing it. However, let me see. Lo & behold, it is wide open, all zips undone. That sets panic bells ringing. I rummage through quickly, turning it inside out, checking each & every pocket, emptying out contents only to find the money belt missing. It had all the cash, credit cards, travel card, medicine and Passport.

I could have kicked myself. As Chanson pointed out, why was I carrying everything in the first place? She advised calm as we walked back to the hotel in the forlorn hope that it had been forgotten there.

Of course it hadn’t. The backpack had not been touched since our arrival. I had picked it up as it lay & walked out into the day.

The tally was euro 1500 cash – lost. Luckily it was too early in the day for merchant transactions. We were able to block all  credit cards & have the balance in the Travel card transferred to a duplicate one. That, fortunately was still in my possession. The next step was to alert the hotel.

Ricardo was speechless with disbelief, as were Eric & Julie. A wonderful lot, they were full of care & concern. Julie, the young manager personally offered help but it being a public holiday there was not much she could do. Worse, it was a Friday, to be followed by Saturday & Sunday. Nobody in the embassy could be contacted until the next working day. We had plans for Portugal (expense paid) but without a passport we were stranded.

Julie thought a meeting with a police ‘higher – up’ was in order & tried to arrange one but, it being a long weekend that too came a cropper.

Police in any case had to be informed just so travel documents were in order.

She accompanied us expressing dismay along the way. No matter what was written & said about Marseille, it was a safe place. She often went home without incident, alone at night. Ours was an unfortunate occurence. She narrated a similar experience in Mexico where she had to borrow $ 2000 to continue with the remainder of her trip. This she stuffed inside a teddy bear, afraid to lose it if she carried it in person. She would stitch/unstitch the bear every night, as & when money was needed. She also told us that every police station in France had a ’lost & found’ cell where stolen goods sometimes showed up.

Julie Pseat

Julie Pseat

Sweet, Julie! her continuous chatter made me forget the problem at hand, to the extent that I actually began to enjoy the walk.

“ Never mind the cash,” I blurted absentmindedly. “If only the passport is returned”

Chanson thought that was a far cry. It never ever worked that way.

“Just a thought”, I murmured, saying a Gayatri mantra to myself.

I am not a religious person yet I said the mantra & I said it without thought of profit or gain. It had been only a few hours since the horrific incident but the mind had reconciled & moved on. Taking stock, the situation did not seem that bad after all. We had scraped through pretty well. The actual loss was euro 1500 only. Perhaps I owed the bloke this money or perhaps his need was more. As for Portugal, that was another 15 days away. I would have a fresh passport by then.

Inside police headquarters Julie immediately got down to the task, explaining everything in detail to the officer on duty. He politely listened, nodding now & then while I stood idly by.

A voice suddenly called out, wanting to know my name.

“Sudha”, I said.

“Voila! Here is your passport”


Come again!!!

The passport??

No kidding. No fuss. There it was, in the hands of a lady officer – the black leather belt with everything in it. Everything that is, minus the cash.

Note: Pick pocketing is rampant in France so much so that the Eiffel tower had to shut down one day. Travelers are constantly advised to be careful. We certainly had several near encounters – that we escaped, if only by a whisker.

The French tend to blame immigrants, especially those of Algerian descent but the 20 year old who found & returned the bag was Algerian. He had gone to dispose a cup after having coffee when he spotted it in the bin & brought it to police.

Bless him always!


Au revoir Marseille. If I return it will be for the likes of, the boy & Julie.



On a dull working day I decide to junk the housework in search of art & pleasure. Here I am at Jogeshwari, in the centre of a road, facing row upon row of antique furniture & curio shops. It is a veritable treasure trove. The auto rick brought me spot on. No parking woes either.

Hayat Ali, with long flowing henna dyed beard, mans shop No:???? He refuses to be photographed as his religion forbids it or so he believes. The first buy is a Japanese teapot in a cheery floral design. A wee bit of haggling & the deed is done. It makes me happy & joyful. Beauty invariably does.

An interesting day it turns out, scouring shops selling everything from antique furniture to curios, lamps, books, coins, stamps, miniatures, paintings, film posters & framed photographs. A frame minus the photograph goes for less than one with a period picture. This is Mumbai. Everything has a price & everything sells. Even empty perfume bottles. I bought one in the shape of a dolphin. And don’t ask me why. There are bargains to be had. Of commonplace household items & freebies if one is lucky. Much like the ‘buy one get one’ scheme at Malls.

A role reversal happens at times, when the seller suddenly & surreptitiously becomes the buyer. “ You have Rolex watch? I give good price,” whispers Hayat

“You have Asharfi? You know Asharfi / Guinea/ gold coin?”


Folding Deck Chair

Folding Deck Chair

Antique Camphor Box

Antique Camphor Box

Silver, embossed Soporo.

Silver, embossed Soporo.

Artefacts include an old time Pressure Cooker

Artifacts. Pressure Cooker (hanging)




Life size chestnut coloured  wooden horse

Life size chestnut coloured wooden horse



Objets d’ art evoking refinement & grace occupy every inch of empty space. However mediocre their lives it must be said that these shopkeepers have a keen eye for the beautiful. Amidst porcelain vases, sculptures & Chinese curios picked up from rich Parsi homes ( from the days of the opium trade) lie everyday household items such as a grater from grandma’s kitchen – made of brass & shaped like a tortoise – Also a pressure cooker, perhaps the first of its kind, polished, sparkling and new.

My prized bargain that day was a ‘Soporo’, a cone shaped artifact with a tiny bird at the pinnacle. It is used in Parsi ritual. This one is in silver & has an embossed Persian design. There is an inscription at the base, a date along with the name of the silversmith, the makers Rustomjee Jahangir. It also, has a name – SN Soonawala – Its last owner I presume.

It is a sad feeling

What could have compelled Mr Soonawala to part with precious family silver? It could not have been penury I am sure. Had he fallen on bad days? Was he emigrating to a far away land? Or could he have died childless? The possibilities were immense.

In any case the shops were all chock – a – block, full of artistic souvenirs from stately affluent homes. And each had a story, a tale to tell.

Exhausted from walking & talking, the heat & the dust I looked around for a café in an area where there was none. A shop owner offered to find me a drink. What would I have?

A Coke preferably or Pepsi. Any Cola

That would be difficult


Unofficial ban. American company. Nobody buys or sells it here.

‘Minute Maid’ pulpy orange then

That too. Same company. Have a Thumbs Up’ instead. Easily available

A ‘Thumbs Up’? Uggh!