Goa and the Art of Self-Discovery

I have has been to Goa a few number of times, thinking of each visit is like deep diving into memories of various phases in my life.


Of caves, impregnable forts and the poor man's Taj..


Of foggy woods, gurgling waterfalls and rains that painted the hill green..


Of ferry rides, seagulls and (almost) private beaches...

Andamans (Part 1)

Of Island hopping, underwater adventures and different shades of the sea...

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Matheran: Of foggy woods, gurgling waterfalls and rains that painted the hills green..

Matheran, one of the most beautiful hill stations near Bombay, in my opinion is I guess what resulted when God dropped his green paint all over the canvas (Then again, so is Kerala).

It is weird how my first memory of Matheran is...Well, not mine. My sister had gone on a night trek to Matheran a few years back and what I remember vividly is her saying how wonderful it was to look down from the top and see the valley all lit up with the many many fireflies. 

I have been to Matheran twice, once last year right after the monsoons and this year during. 

The first time I went was right after the monsoon and it was just a day trip. We left early in the morning, after a series of unfortunate events including mixing up Neral and Nerul stations, 5 hours later we reached the foothills of Matheran. A horse ride to the market and a light lunch later we decided to walk around. 

There was the lake, the wild yellow flowers all around, the breath taking view from Louisa point and the echo point. There was rappelling going on, scary, between two mountains and only one among us had the courage to actually go through with it. 

The highlight was the Louisa point. We walked and walked through the dense trees and we had absolutely no idea what we were in for. And then, we were there! Beautiful meadow with flowers scattered all around, you can almost hear people on the other side, the echo point. It fills you with serenity, that all you want to do it to be quiet and be there, in every way. We left after watching the sunset.

This time around, we made sure it was during monsoon and we stayed for two whole days. 
The cab drive till the foot hills gave us a little preview of what we were in for. The clouds looming over the mountains, the tip you can hardly see because of all the fog. We walked in the drizzling rain (oh the joy!) and the fog made sure we couldn’t see beyond 50m at times and reached our hotel by the time it was dark. The roads were all slushy and slippery with all the rain and the horse poop (trekking shoes please, unless you want your feet to smell like horse shit), but it is pleasant on your ears that the only sound you can hear besides the swooshing of the leaves are the horse’s clip-clop hooves every now and then. 

The next two days were kept aside for exploring Matheran. 

The market was about ten minutes from our place and from there we decided to move towards the charlotte lake. From the last time, I remembered a cliff near the Charlotte Lake, this time around the fog was too thick, we could just see the shadow of the lake and the going to the cliff edge was outta the question because the earth was too slippery. We missed the beautiful carpet of flowers that people were going mad taking pictures of last time. 

Walking along, through the woods, one realizes Matheran is one of the best kept hill stations just for the reason there are no vehicles allowed. There are roads diverging all throughout and with hardly any signboards, you just have to go by your gut feeling.

So, we just kept going. The walk in the woods is the best part about Matheran I feel, because take away the horses that come your way every now and then, it’s just you, him and the whole wide world. We walked for hours and yet the cold/fog keeps you fresh, the woods keep you going. 

The Louisa point as I remembered from last time was a beautiful stand alone meadow with yellow wildflowers and trees scattered around. The air is that of silence and contemplation and you can see the echo point across the valley. I was in for a surprise when we reached Louisa point this time. The monsoon had drawn a sensual blanket all over. The long tall grass had dew drops on it making it slippery and dangerous as it was sloping towards the valley, not that we could see it because of the fog. There were people venturing into it carefully, but we weren’t too plucky and choose to sit around watching the fog play hide and seek with the valley.

Nearby is the Lion’s point which true to its name has a large rock shaped like a lion’s head. From the lion’s point also there is a fabulous view of the valley and the river below. We sat around next to the lone leafless tree, squinting our eyes trying to figure out the ‘lion’ in Lion’s point.

Then we were on our way to Sunset point, lost our way and ended up somewhere else. It looked just the same; there was a couple happily clicking away each other’s pictures to glory. Not wanting to be ‘kabab mein haddi’ we left them in their own world and moved on. 

Matheran apparently is one of the favorite weekend getaways for couples and it is pretty obvious if you observe the crowd as well. With plenty of ----around, the various points and the paths that lead to it are beautiful and deserted; the crowd is small compared to the other options from Bombay. Then there is the cold that makes you crave for warmth. Hmm, I guess I can see why.

Finally, the Sunset point. Not that we stood a chance of witnessing sunset with all the fog. But you can see the several mountains that close in on Matheran and because it was monsoon, the very many waterfalls- the small ones, the tiny almost-there ones, and then there was this really long/high one. It is indeed one of the good things in life to watch from a distance a waterfall take life, go in and out through the rocks and join the lake down below. 

And me, come December chills, I will be packing a good book, a cozy blanket and good music to go with the mood and be off. Again. 

How to get there: Get down at Neral station on the central line. Matheran is around 20 km from there and there are plenty of share cabs available from the station till the foothills (Rs.60). From there-on no vehicles are allowed, the options available are the toy train, horse ride (bargain. A lot!)  or a healthy hour trek till the market (recommended).

Where to Stay: We stayed at Hotel Woodlands (around 2k per night) which is a ten minutes walk from the market. Decent place, with good food. There are lot of not-too-expensive places providing good home food. 

What to see:  There are almost 35 points to see around Matheran. The map is printed on the back of the ticket or you can pick up a copy of the hotel. And half the fun is walking from one point to another, getting lost in the woods. One full weekend would give you perfect time to see everything at your own pace.

Sunday, August 15, 2010


Oh Bombay, dear Bombay, where do I start?

I moved to Bombay almost a year back. And Oh boy, did the city grow on me or what. Moving to Bombay from Trivandrum was a major major change and initially I did hate the sudden fastening up of everything. But then again the city has her charm; she will seduce you and make you fall in love with her.

The city that welcomed me with open arms and her mood swings that is the infamous Bombay rains, swept me off my feet with (I am tempted to say spirit here, but I won’t, because spirit of Bombay has been overdone millions of times) the freedom she stands for.

There is the Sea you can run off to whenever you feel like, entire Bombay feels like yours when you are one of the handful of people at Marine drive early in the morning; the wonderful second hand books at Matunga that has tales of its own to tell; the Madras Cafes and the Urban Tadkas; the pubs and the discs when you are in the mood for some loud fun and the quiet peace of nature at Lonavala and Matheran. Take a ferry from the Gateway and bam! you can have the beach weekend you are craving for (there are too many beaches to choose from: Be warned!).

Want to see the real Bombay? Dadar station or Victoria Terminus is the place to be. You will know why Local trains are called as Bombay’s lifeline. Intimidating initially with the uninterrupted free flow of people busy in their own worlds, one might get used to all that in due course of time, I suppose. The good thing about the mad rush is that it makes you huddle next to the person you are with, hold on to their hands perhaps so that you don’t get lost. Travelling in local trains is the true Bombay experience. I still remember with pride the day I travelled alone in a local :)

Then there is Colaba, with all the bright colorful stuff girls would go wide-eyed over, the handbags, the chappals (better hone your bargaining skills, ladies), fake antiques, the endless firangs and what not. Wait, it gets better...Leopold’s café, the mouthwatering desserts at Theobromas (Food of the Gods, indeed!) and more for the post shopping-spree tired soul.

For the art lover, there are the museums and the well established theatre framework. The Kala Ghoda Arts fest- with 9 days of theatre, dance, music, literature, street food and performances is Bombay’s very own street carnival. Then there is the love-it-or-hate-it-you-can’t-ignore-it Bollywood. And the pleasant surprise of running into a celebrity (even if they might not be on your favorite list). Dropping off bombs like you “ran into” Shabana Azmi or Aishwarya Rai the other day, does sound pretty cool, trust me.

Bombay is just so much more than any of this; Bollywood or the gateway and Taj or the yummy street food or the “spirit” put together. Like a friend puts it, “Her allure is like that of a stunning girl you have excellent chemistry with, have dinner with, but can’t have more of.”

I have fallen in love, and not just with the city. But my dear Bombay, you will always be my sweetheart.

Thursday, May 27, 2010

Kihim: Of ferry rides, seagulls and (almost) private beaches...

Beaches have always been one of my favorite things. The place I grew up in, Trivandrum has a couple of beaches. From an over enthusiastic kid with dad holding my hand carefully to hanging out with college friends till dark… I have all sorts of memories associated with beaches. Growing up in a city with beaches has done nothing to dampen my fascination with them. I’m as much in love with them as I always have been.
Kihim beach, near Alibaug is one of the very easy weekend getaways from Bombay.

We had come to hear of it from a friend who had been there and loved it. So the next weekend, yearning for some relaxation, we decided to go to Kihim.

One can take a ferry from the Gateway (Rs.65/person) straight to the Mandwa jetty and the ride itself is quite delightful. Best thing would be to leave in the early mornings, the refreshing morning breeze and if you are lucky enough you might be able to catch the seagulls playfully trying to catch the food crumbs being thrown at them and also because most of the hotels check-in times are 10 in the morning.
But we could only leave in the evening and it was past sunset once we reached the Mandwa jetty. From there one can hire a Rik (Rs.150) to go till Kihim and look around for a place to stay. As it is still very much a non-commercialized beach destination, there is less of hotels and more of cottages with a very warm homely appeal.

We finally got a cottage by the night and settled in. It was right next to the beach, with a tiny little shack right in front, in case we wanted to sit back and let the sea wave over our minds. After a while, we fell asleep with the sound of waves whispering sweet nothings from far.
The morning called for exploring the beach. The single most best thing about Kihim beach is that there is hardly anybody around, so it is almost like having a private beach all to yourself.

We did not go deep into the sea as we were warned that there were rocks throughout. The beach in itself is a pretty good sight and we walked for some distance, resting on some rocks every now and then. The Bombay building coastline/skyline can be seen vaguely, making you feel like you are almost there and here at the same time.

The place we stayed at had very good home-made food (at a very reasonable rate as well) and we had our lunch, sitting on the benches in the shack while watching the sea.
By evening, there is very low tide and sea recedes in a lot. The sand is soggy as if with the memories of the waves and when you walk over it at times makes a squishy noise with water spurting out. There are rocks everywhere and all are covered in moss which looks good in pictures but I personally did not like it because it made the rocks all slippery and slimy and not tough like the way a ‘rock’ should be.

The view of sunset is beautiful, but what I found even more beautiful are the amazing patterns seaweeds (I think) left on the sand that were uncovered by the low tide. Could very well be the scribblings of a mermaid who had to go back along with the tides.

There was parasailing happening nearby, but it was neither on the land nor on water (Hiranyakashipu anyone?) and was not going as high as I would have liked either. So we decided to give that a skip and just walk on the beach watching the sunset.

Soon it was time for us to leave or we would miss the ferry from Mandwa taking us back to the Gateway of India. The same Rik came, picked us up and we were on our way back to Bombay.
Mandwa beach looked inviting, but we sadly did not have time and took a rain check. There were some small boats (yachts?) docked on the jetty and a photo of them against the sunset makes a pretty good vacation picture.

Even though it is not the best getaway from Bombay, there is the advantage of having lots of other beaches near-by and the possibility of beach-hopping.

As for me, I will always remember this trip. As they say, it's all in the company :)

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Aurangabad: Of caves, impregnable forts and the poor mans Taj

Even while being all excited about the trip to Aurangabad, I was a little worried if I would be able to appreciate the world famous Ajanta-Ellora caves the way it’s meant to be, thanks to my knowledge (or lack of it) of architecture and paintings.

Being the very punctual beings that we are, we reached the bus stop by 10 and the bus walas being themselves, reached by 11.30. And then the fact that I just cannot sleep in a bus didn’t make the night look too appealing, but thanks to a good conversation the night was saved and the sleep deprivation made up for.

Saturday morning and we were off to Ajanta. The weather was ..err, very romantic. It’s the kind of cold which doesn’t call for a jacket, but rather an arm around your shoulder.

The view point, where we went to first, was where the English soldier John Smith while on a tiger-hunt chanced upon the Ajanta caves which had been hidden in the dense forest for centuries. His names been made immortal thanks to his signature carved into a pillar in one of the caves.

Ajanta. Be prepared to be overwhelmed.

Besides giving a glimpse into their times, it teaches you patience, what attention to detail really means and what not. From the ingenious way of reflecting light using a smooth metal onto the water collected inside the dark caves to chisel their way into history or the fact that 20-30 generations toiled hard to achieve this level of perfection, everything is a story on its own.

We had to take an “environment-friendly” bus from a certain point to get to the caves and trust me, the only thing environment-al about the buses was the fact that they were all painted green.

Ajanta, which is about 110 km from Aurangabad city, is a group of rock-cut monuments from 2nd century BC. It’s a series of 27 caves, the last couple of which are incomplete.

The first thing that strikes you as soon as you enter the caves is the sudden change from the blaring sun, we went there in the afternoon, to the cool comfort of the caves; not even the best of the airconditioners can give the comfort and peace mother nature provides.

Thankfully we got a guide (from cave 1 itself), which is something I would strongly recommend if you want to do some justice to the magnanimous effort that has been put into it.

There are paintings and sculptures in every cave, lit beautifully with a warm yellowish light that gives it all a life of its own. Huge statues of Buddha in various stages of meditation adorn every cave. The guide pointed out many influences, such as a cave which is built almost like a cathedral or the one which had some Greek architecture thanks to emperor Asoka’s grandmother, a Greek princess. Seems like the world was indeed a small place even in those times.

Ajanta is all Buddhist caves and all the paintings, sculptures have Jataka tales, life and times of Gautama Buddha. Among the many many sculptures the one that struck me the most is the one depicting Buddha, after attaining Nirvana, coming back to the wife, Yasodhara and son he left behind 7 years ago; as a sadhu asking for alms. It is said that he left her in the middle of the night to seek enlightenment; I kept thinking what Yasodhara would’ve been through and how her story is one that in unspoken and incomplete. Would she have been perfectly happy to give up her husband and family all for the greater good or would she be secretly resentful of the fact that she was denied of the companionship of a husband and a father for her child?

The aura inside these caves is such that you’re compelled to just close your eyes and imagine them patiently chiseling their way to their own personal nirvana. One can easily spend an entire day cave-hopping; there certainly is something very very alluring about dark caves. But then come 5.30 and you are (forcibly) done for the day.

It’s a long drive back to the city and I loved it every bit as Ajanta itself. Fields on either side, with few trees, not too many, just enough to see the earth and sky meet somewhere far far away, yet so near...with windows rolled down, the cold air adding to the beauty of them all. Having someone to snuggle next to and keep me warm would've been perfection. Made me want to pull over and spent the entire night lying on the fields looking up at the star-studded sky.

“You'll remember me when the west wind moves
Upon the fields of barley
You'll forget the sun in his jealous sky
As we walk in the fields of gold....

..Many years have passed since those summer days
Among the fields of barley
See the children run as the sun goes down
Among the fields of gold”

Once we got back to the hotel, like it is with big groups, there was some confusion; but mix happiness, some confusion and a little vodka and you’ve got yourself a bunch of laughing hyenas.
And because of the tight schedule for the day after, we called it a night and went back to our own private little kingdoms.

Sunday morning and we were off. First on the agenda was Dautalabad fort, of Mohammed-bin-Tuglaq. High school history flashback kicked in: “something something introduced coins something..” My history teacher would’ve been so proud *sniff*

The fort’s defense mechanism really is something. I remember somebody telling me it was so good that the only way the Mughals could conquer it was by stopping the inflow of food and grains into the fort and thereby leaving them no option but to surrender. We climbed up for some time and then reached this maze sorta structure, from where you need a guide’s help because it’s a dark passage ahead.

As you move along, the road splits and apparently while the enemy soldier would be trying to decide which way to go, hot oil would be poured over from above. If he were to survive that there are holes in the dark passage from within which the spear-men would poke them to death. As if it was not enough, the path again splits up and meets after sometime, but it’s so dark that the enemy soldiers often ended up killing themselves, it’s said. We were all blown off by the ingenuity of it all.

Then we started climbing up again, the highest point which is about 600 feet high, boasts of a big cannon. Even though the cannon isn’t much to talk about, the view from up there was worth it. But you might want to take lotsa water if you don’t want to end up like us, almost considering manhandling a little girl just to get some water.

We had to hurry and have a quick lunch because we had to get to Ellora.

Ellora again is a series of caves, 35 to be accurate, we went to the most famous Kailasnath Temple first (Cave 16). I remember reading somewhere that it’s the biggest monolithic structure in the world. Its made out of a a single rock and carved from top to bottom.

It is so huge and magnificent; it’ll make you feel ridiculously insignificant. We couldn’t get a guide, so we moved around trying to make sense of things on our own (we could, a little bit, thanks to a friend who had been there before) but other than that what started off as I-think-it-is-Dasavathara ended up with oh-god-these-women-had-such-big-boobs by the end of the day.

We didn’t have enough time so we had to rush through the rest of the caves, but somehow Ellora (except for maybe the Kailasnath Temple) didn’t have that much of an effect on me as Ajanta did.

Two days before the trip I had come to know of Bibi-ka-Maqbara (or Poor man’s Taj Mahal as it is rudely called) and was really looking forward to going there. For some reason, I had made up my mind to like it and started taking it as a personal insult when people who had been there told me it looks cheap and not that great.

As you can see, it’s almost the Taj, except maybe less marble and elegance. But then again, considering the fact that Aurangzeb’s son built it in memory of his mother, one has to appreciate the thought. It certainly doesn’t compare to the Taj, limestone’s what been majorly used instead of marble and it has started peeling off, the inside where his mother resides is fully marble by the way, and one can point out faults here and there, but as a friend rightly put it, “there certainly is something beautiful about the imperfections.”

It was getting dark and time for us to get back, pack up and leave. None of us wanted to leave the laid-back city to get back to the fast-paced Mumbai and the Monday blues.

And for some reason, by the time I got back, I knew this was a trip I certainly wouldn’t be forgetting anytime in the near future :-)