Crossing the uncharted territory: Chaari Dhaand

Its 4 am and I am driving on a surface that looks more Martian than that of our planet. The baked, grey earth over which we are driving is the Rann of Kutch. The stars are shining overhead in an ink black sky. We have no maps, no road signs or signals, no GPS coordinates and no roads to take us to the destined place. Our SUV, racing at a speed of 25 Km/hr looked like a space shuttle on the rugged surface of mars.

Being blessed with the beatific sight of huge flock of flamingos at Lake Neruru in Kenya, my yen for catching a glimpse of them in the Indian mainland was fuelled. This brought me to probably the most arid and tantalizingly beautiful landscape in the country – Rann of Kutch. I reached Bhuj with a set goal of capturing flamingos. From the beginning of my trip, the omens were bad. I had landed in the wrong season and this being a dry year hadn’t attracted many birds. But situations like this, often compel you to take the less travelled by route. A grand revelation came when I learnt that the manager of the Royal Orchid resort, Mr. Neeladri Das, was himself an avid birder and adventurer. It didn’t take me much time to rope him in this booty business. And that brought me, at 4 am, in a completely unknown surface with no landmarks, in search of flamingos. I am at Chaari Dhaand, a lesser known wetland in the midst of Rann. It does find a mention in the travel map of Kutch, but looking at the desolateness of the place, one can spot, that it is a less travelled by place.

handofcolors_Flock of Flamingos

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A sip of coffee in Coorg….

Kodaimelanadu or Kodagu or Coorg: the name itself conjures up images of verdure – gushing cascades, babbling brooks, green hills, gorgeous dales, gurgling rivers all together flaunting the munificence of Mother Nature.  Oh! Add coffee plantations to it. A compulsive coffee drinker like me cannot find a better place than Coorg, for a sip. After an hour of drive from Mysore our chauffer announced that we are entering Coorg.

The scenery is mesmerizing. The winding roads take you through a maze of greenery. At every labyrinthine, you meet a collage of colours which explode into shades of greens, browns and yellows. The roads seem to have no particular destination. They just lead you from one part of paradise to another. As we squint though the green fabric, we pass plantations of coffee, cardamom and pepper which merge with forests, foliage and fauna. There are no villages, no people, no shops, and no cars. We deliberately slow down to take in the moment. It is an ode to nature and no wonder it has been attributed the sobriquet, Scotland of the East.

Coorg is all about coffee with a fair amount of cardamom and pepper thrown in.  As we drove in, the sylvan surroundings hit us. Our destination is Siddapur.

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Not just another walk: Fontainhas, Panjim

A visit to Panjim’s Fontainhas neighbourhood is nothing less than a journey through a postcard from a European city. This small little atmospheric place, squeezed between the hillside of Altinho and the banks of Ourem Creek, with its colonial aesthetics, winding narrow lanes, tilted roofed houses in spectacular shades of red and blue with overhanging balconies and a quaint Mediterranean air, is an open door to Goa’s Portuguese past. Though Fontainhas can be covered in two-three hours, but to do more justice to these alleys, pencil in some more time.

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Wood framed houses in saturated colours in these haphazardly designed narrow streets predominate Fontainhas

Fontainhas has taken its name from the fountain of Phoenix, which stands near the Maruti temple, leading upto the Altinho hill. Wood framed houses in saturated colours in these haphazardly designed narrow streets predominate this area and the 17th-century Church of Our Lady of the Immaculate Conception stands like a jewel in Fontainhas Latin-style crown. Built atop a hill, it stands like a giant torch of faith guarding the aesthetic riches of the neighbourhood. Built in 1541, it is believed to be one of the oldest churches in Goa. The four tiered zigzagging stairway was added three centuries later.  The magnificent bell of the church weighing over 2000 kgs is second only to the golden bell of the Monastery of St Augustine (now in ruins) in Old Goa.

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17th-century Church of Our Lady of the Immaculate Conception stands like a jewel in Fontainhas Latin-style crown.

Mediterranean culture pervades every street in Fontainhas; houses are painted in bright cheerful colours, beautifully written nameplates outside homes, galleries, neighbourhood bakeries, churches, blue petal curls in white ceramic tiles and residents greeting each other in Portuguese. Fontainhas is full of such delights, to be explored at leisure. Old wooden bakeries trickling the aroma of Goan breads, often doubling up as a work of art of the bygone era; small cafes at the corner of some alley to sit and engage oneself in casual talks with residents over some handmade ham sandwiches, with Goan music in the background and cheer of a world which is unimaginably open to strangers.  Sample street food there, everything that is accommodated in carts from sweet beef samosa, prawn cutlets, squid soup to grilled ham sandwiches or pop into some random bar or old taverna with live music, great food, random strangers ready to open up for a talk.

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Tilted roofed houses in spectacular shades in Fontainhas

There is a kind of amusing history overflow in the streets – there is a Rua 31 de Janeira (31st January Road) street which relates to the date of Portugal’s independence from Spain in 1640 and Bustling 18th June Road named after the date in 1946 on which Ram Manohar Lohia (an Indian independence activist) called a meeting that led to the end Portuguese rule in India. So if you find a differently sounding street name or a street named on a date, don’t hesitate to know the history behind its naming.

Art Galleries – Undisputedly an obvious reason to be in Fontainhas. One shouldn’t miss the Gallery Gitanjali, adjacent to the Panjim Inn. It has a collection of contemporary art and Scandinavian lithographs, lino prints and etchings from the 1950s and 1960s, plus it often doubles up as a cool venue for poetry readings, art discussions, launches, movie screenings and numerous courses on movie and art. Plus there is a cafe.

Velha Goa Galeria is another beautiful place to stop by to shop for gorgeous traditional hand-painted ceramics, including azueljos (tin-glazed ceramic tiles).

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A little towards the main city is the Gallery Attic, where period furniture, pottery and antique glassware are painstakingly restored to their original glory. Here the new sits alongside the old to put to display the rich multi-cultural heritage of Goa.

To eat – Ah! How can I miss this? While the thin, winding streets of Fontainhas are an open invitation to shrug off your beachy itinerary and explore; the aroma from the decades old establishment perched in old buildings, provides the eclectic chronicle of the past and the present of the place. It is said in Fontainhas past and present lives under the same roof. So let your exploratory mind do some more work to find these hideouts.

One must stop should be Hospedaria Venite, marked with its graffitied walls and beer chandeliers and authentic Goan and Portuguese cuisine. On 31st January Road, Venite is one of the oldest lodging and boarding establishments in Panjim. Their sea-food and chicken steak is recommended.

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Graffitied walls of Venite, Fontainhas

The next on my list is an old ancestral home of Linda D’Souza, converted into a restaurant, tucked away in a rather small, unassuming corner of Fontainhas. The place retains the old world décor, the rich dim interiors, pop music of the 60s and 70s, makes dining so different like taking you back to an era long gone by. Tables are also set on a patio, from where you can see all the activity of the street. And the food is delicious and not heavy on pocket. Try their crab xec-xec and kingfish steak or just any sizzler, and be assured you will not stop with one. A repeat of the order is quite common here.

Confeitaria 31 De Janeiro, anytime for sweets and savouries. The oldest bakery on 18th June Road in Fontainhas is famous for its sweets, pav and traditional Goan cake called bebinca.

Panjim Inn – achingly serene and steeped in history, this is perhaps the best place to immerse yourself in the never ending love with Goan cultural charm. On 31st January Road, overlooking the Ourem Creek, this is undoubtedly the prettiest buildings in Fontainhas. Sit in the verndah restaurant here, soak in the intimate interiors, and take in the seconds and the rich cultural heritage that it stands for. Then think of the food, which is an absolute desire here, no wonder if you feel like taking one of each from the small menu. Kingprawns and Pork is recommended here.

Baba’s wood café – No one can say no to pizzas and Baba wood café brings the Italian taste and intimacy to you. The colonial atmosphere, the earthen appeal of the décor and the furniture, rare Italian wines brought straight from the Mediterranean and above all the enticing aroma of wood oven pizzas – is irresistible. The prices are a little on the higher side but this place offers a rare dining experience.

To stayPanjim Inn will always be the first name on this list, a heritage property with every room different in style and décor and a promise to take you back by an era.

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Gallery next to Panjim Inn

La Maison, with only eight private heritage rooms, this promises a place all for yourself. The elegant interiors, informal atmosphere and spacious rooms with expressive works of art and gracefully minimalist, makes La Maison a good place to settle in.

Want to ditch the hotels altogether, welcome to the old quarter hostel, light on pocket and eclectically on par with its European counterparts. Set your holidays with lively smiling faces, backpackers from different corners of the world and a refreshingly different experience. And there is a little organic café too and a wide assortment of teas and morning yoga classes too. So, sink in, take a break, sniff the aroma, and share room and smiles with strangers.

Say a morning prayer in Old Goa

The Portuguese arrived in Goa around 500 years ago and left their unique footprints. Their influence can be felt in every corner of the state, in the cuisines, architecture, heritage and lifestyle; but nowhere it is felt more than in Old Goa.

Old Goa’s effect was purely transcendental to me, my pace changing from brisk hops from one point to the other to a more languid, circuitous, absorbing stroll. It seemed my legs clamoured for a long walk in this heritage town where number of tourists at any point of the year can outnumber the number of residents. The town is so steeped in history that it is best to slow down and admire the details.

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A simple combination of mud stones-straw and the seat of archdiocese of Goa, the Se Cathedral.

Once a city of 200,000 (more than the population of London at that time), Old Goa was the epicentre of all trade for the Portuguese. Over the course of a century, Goa became one of the important trade centres outside Europe. One Dutch visitor compared it with Amsterdam for its wealth; and the grand churches won it a sobriquet ‘Rome of the East’. However, its fall was just as swift as its rise, epidemic of plague and cholera led to abandonment of the old town and what remains today of this Portuguese legacy is a UNESCO World Heritage site.

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Church of St Francis of Assisi

Not much of old Goa is left today but you absolutely must take a day to explore the flaking churches and crumbling colonial mansions. Along any winding back road, you will find colonial mansions and villas, painted in vivid primary colors, with bright-red tiled roofs and lacy wooden trim, hidden behind banana or coconut trees. Goa still maintains its cultural exceptionalism, a part of it explained by the fact that it became an official Indian state only in 1987; almost 40 years after greater India coalesced.

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The highlight of the trail of Old Goa is the Basilica Bom Jesus, which enshrines the mortal remains of St Francis Xavier.

The highlight of the trail of Old Goa is the Basilica Bom Jesus, which enshrines the mortal remains of St Francis Xavier.  Its towering facade, inlaid marble floor, ornate altars and an otherwise simple interiors, make Basilica Bom Jesus, one of the finest examples of baroque architecture in India. Marty, my guide, detailed out the finer nuances of the church, I pretended to listen, but was more lost in absorbing the astounding beauty and the detailed interiors of the church. Portuguese had lavished their pride and alacrity upon Goa – towering buildings that could shame the giants, richly gilded work, put to show probably by the greatest artists of that time and richness and warmth in designs and patterns; all spoke of the opulence Goa enjoyed in that bygone era. The church also houses the remains of St Francis Xavier, a Portuguese missionary charged with evangelising the Indies, who became Goa’s patron saint. His remains lie in one darkened corner near the altar, in a jewel studded casket. Crowds congregate to catch a glimpse of the Saint’s remains. The face is a rusty shade of orange now, greatly contorted but mysteriously there is still flesh on the body. No doubt, pilgrims flock from around the world to look at this miraculously well preserved body of St. Francis, who died more than 450 years ago. And if you think his body must have been embalmed, the church proclaims that nothing has been done to the body. So what should it be called – miracle, as pilgrims call it or just some unsolved mystery.

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Chapel in the Basilica Bom Jesus

Right across the road, is Asia’s largest church, a simple combination of mud stones-straw and the seat of archdiocese of Goa, the Se Cathedral. The huge interiors are surprisingly plain, there are four chapels on either side of the nave, with the Chapel of the Blessed Sacrament, which is richly gilded and decorated, quite contrast to the otherwise plain interiors. Every ten years, remains of St. Francis are raised from its home in the Basilica and brought to Se’ and kept here for 44 days. At the back of Se’ is the Church of St Francis of Assisi, which is now an archaeological display.

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Chapel in the Se’ Cathedral

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St Augustine, with broken stones, nameless tombs and probably left with only an outline to speak of.

A short walk from Basilica is the holy hill, a different territory from the much crowded Basilica. It’s a leisurely walk uphill, followed by hypnotic chirps of birds and whiff of coconut oil from the mission. There is Museum of Christian Art, midway on the hill, with a rich display of art works salvaged from the old churches. As you walk further, remains of a vast, ruined bell tower come to sight. This complex dedicated to St Augustine, with broken stones, nameless tombs and probably left with only an outline to speak of, now turned into a large space for wildflowers to blossom and stray dogs to doze, was once a home to a saint; left to crumble, after the Portuguese packed their bags and moved to Panjim.

Another haunting beauty is the St Cajetan’s church (on way to River Mandovi), standing as a lofty imitation of St Peter’s Basilica in the Vatican. The dome is not as vast as the one in Rome, but it has some exquisite Islamic masonry on the front door to boast of. Standing close to it is a lonely arch propped up in the churchyard, a reminder of Adil Shah’s palace, the ruler of Belgaum, who was defeated by the Portuguese to gain control of Goa. Enroute to the river, you cross the Vasco de Gama arch, built by his grandson, Francis de Gama, the then Viceroy of Goa. Halt a minute there in respect of the great explorer, who told the world about India and brought the Portuguese to our doorstep.

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St Cajetan’s church, an imitation of St Peter’s Basilica in the Vatican.

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Vasco de Gama arch, built by his grandson, Francis de Gama, the then Viceroy of Goa.

Old Goa can easily be done in a day, but it remains with you forever. It has stories to fascinate you and its slow life and timeless charm binds you. The churches stand as raconteur, eager to share stories of a time when Goa was among the wealthiest cities in the world and the wood-framed row houses in saturated hues in the winding lanes, promise an experience of an organic indo-Portuguese culture.

Dwarka – of Krishna and Meera

A long drive across flat, featureless, arid landscape of west Gujarat brought me to Dwarka. The last stage of drive from Rajkot was material less, offering nothing to capture my attention. My interest pecked up as we passed salt panes and our guide announced that we are in ‘Dev-bhoomi’. As you cross a rivulet, the road rises, and the town is suddenly in front of you. The bus halted and I popped my head out of the window to take a shot of the temple. Sheer excitement!

I am not a very religious guy, I had gone there to find stories, to release the bond of love between Meerabai and Lord Krishna, to live stories that are eternal and to find a city, historians call India’s Atlantis. The remote seaside is one of India’s holiest places, where Krishna lived for over 100 years and where Meerabai met her eternal love when she mysteriously vanished in front of thousands who had thronged to offer prayers to Krishna with her. Dwarka’s soul lies in these stories and the bond of spiritual love, this place has seen between a devotee and her deity. Dwarka, is otherwise, a flat, barren land, washed by both sun and sea, and very tranquil, unlike other holy cities of India. The colours are few here – limited to beige sand, blue sky and silver sea. The frenetic pace of Indian towns especially the holy towns is missing here. Minutes in this place and you find yourself in warm embrace of the sun, sea and spirituality.

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I took in the spirit of Dwarka instantly, the spiritual air hung over me, had started working magic on me. I took to the seaside, mostly colourless, lined with concrete wall, dotted with temples and bespattered with cow dung. You won’t call that picturesque, but it is inviting in its own way. I started my journey with the Meerabai temple.

“Meerabai’s love was different; she never expected to be loved. She wished a bond, a holy bond between Aatma (soul – mortal) and Parmatma (God – Immortal). There were no boundaries in that love, she forgot herself to remember the divine.” Harish our guide told me and the other foreign tourists who were with us.

We walked through the modest town of Dwarka to reach the point that defines this city Dwarka (Dwar = gate and Ka = moksha (salvation)). Even on the stairs, far from the main building, you can feel the sacred air. One look at the spire covered with ornate carvings, and a flag fluttering in the breeze, makes you feel a bit special about the place. I went directly in to the heart of the temple, the inner sanctum, to see the black idol of Krishna, in colourful garments, decked on a recess with frames of gold and silver surrounding the idol. The whole experience is overwhelming. There are many smaller temples that surround the main temple, all in grey sandstone, with the same medieval charm, giving a very dreamy look in unison.

Dwarka Temple

I took a quiet corner for myself to look at the activities. Lulled by the evening sea breeze, I tried imbibing the calm of the place, somewhere in my mind, picturing Meerabai singing for her Krishna.  Harish had another story for me, again of the eternal love of Meera. When she disappeared in Dwarka, a piece of cloth of her saree was left behind on the Krishna idol. She had merged with the god she loved and prayed. Some say she fled away, and it is only those ‘some’ who believe in their saying, for the masses she had found her love.

Three kilometers away from the main temple is the Rukmani temple perched on a breezy stretch of backwater. Mythology puts that Goddess Rukmini opted to stay here and bless the devotees. The temple is an architectural masterpiece. Taking religion out of the story, Dwarka teaches you the different forms in which love existed in Krishna’s life – there was Radha’s ecstatic love, then Rukmini’s love which existed as commitment, Draupadi’s love which was respect and then Meera’s love which was devotion. Only a feeling like love can exist in so many forms and still be worshipped.

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I went further in search of ‘Atlantis of India’, Bet Dwarka. Various marine excavations around Bet Dwarka have indeed revealed a good and planned city. I shared glances with Harish, he looked eager to share the story. Vedic scriptures say that Lord Krishna settled here with his Yadav clan to save them from Jarasandha, the evil king of Mathura (Krishna’s home place). Since Bheema was ordained to kill Jarasandha, Krishna had to leave Mathura with his clan and establish a new fortified city. With the help of Viswakarma, the divine architect, a dazzling Golden City was erected and christened as Kushasthali or Dwaravati. It later became Dwarka. After the death of Krishna, the city was submerged, only to excavated centuries later.

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I looked at the temple again, the steeple towers, the huge flag and the throng of devotees on the stairs – images of bhajan singing saffron dhoti clad boys, women in long queues who must have travelled distances to come and offer their offerings, children who had been told stories of Krishna and men for whom God is the only one they can trust, flash before me. What had they all come for in this remote western town? Isn’t there one thing that binds all these stories and images? Devotion or say faith or call it love. You feel that buoyant joy here, a feeling that you have been dragged out of the stream of life, the continuous time and space continuum you live in, to a place where everything has settled, where you find calmness in roaring sea and pace in the mystic stories of Meera and Krishna. And standing in the midst of this divinity, staring at how all the life processes condense into devotion or love, you realize that love is the central force where all forces mingle. Love is devotion. Love is awareness. Krishna is awareness, Meera is love.

Olaulim: Your own private space in Goa

It’s eight in the morning and I am driving past the misty coastline of Goa into the lush green terrain of Pompurpa, riding past verdant paddy fields, desolate roads and sleepy hamlets. Church services are coming to an end, the congregation would soon aggregate among the palm trees, gossiping and giggling; men in their dark suits and well ironed shirts and women sporting their satin dresses. It’s still early for shops to open except for the local bakery, where the baker has started getting the hot pois (wheat breads) out of the earthen oven. Soon a steady stream of customers will enter the front room to collect their orders. Slightly distracted by these feelings and the silent commotion that is on play, I am following the GPS directions, winding my way into a Goan village called Olaulim.

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Endless green cover, birds chirping, meandering paths, , a lone chapel at a distance draped in pure white – this is Olaulim in first look

GPS brings me to my landmark, Mhambre shop, and I can see Savio Fernandes, waving his hands to guide me to his house. “You are too well dressed for Goa” he exclaims looking at the denims I am sporting. I smile, inside cussing myself for looking so ungoan.

His home looks like punctuated between the serene backwaters of Mapusa River and the greens of Goa. Music is flowing in the mountain winds dutifully mixing with the rapture of the calm waters. And Savio and Pirkko aren’t the only ones to welcome me, Richard Parker, their cat, purrs her joy and Max, the silent giant, a cuddly Labrador, welcomes me with his strutted bark. And if you think, two forms a company, this charming little house, has a party waiting for you. There are four dogs to get playful with, three cats wearing an expression of ‘mind your business, I am happy being myself’, a goat to take care of the unruly weeds and an obstinate donkey Mantra, ready to nibble your fingers. And the couple are a great host, ready with their stories, maps and travel books to set your itinerary in Goa, tell-tales of Goa’s best hops and their never-fading, courteous Goan smiles.

“Do you have any plans to increase the number of cottages?” a guest from Mumbai asks Savio.

“Four is good; I don’t want to make it a hotel, anything more than this will make it over-crowded, something Olaulim doesn’t stand for” he answers. And ask him what Olaulim stands for; and with a quaint smile, set on his face, he would say ‘deafeningly quiet and so different you can’t believe it’.

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Hornbill cottage_Olaulim resorts

Endless green cover, birds chirping, meandering paths, gushing stream, an infinity pool extending into the stream and an amazing view of hills beyond that, a lone chapel at a distance draped in pure white – this is Olaulim in first look. I set out for my cottage – the Golden Oriole, perched on top, the brilliant view complementing the eco-design of the cottage. There are only four cottages, all named after birds, Golden Oriole, Hornbill, Sun bird and Indian Pitta: easy to guess you can see the birds’ play from these cottages. A staircase takes you to an outdoor wash-room below, from where you can watch the hornbill pair at play.

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My den for two days – Golden Oriole cottage_Olaulim resorts

A cool shower and then off to lunch, something that Savio says, is the most family thing to do in Olaulim. Sitting in an open dining area, overlooking the stream, food gains a whole new epicurean meaning in these settings. And then the food itself: wholesome organic and fresh, cooked over traditional wood fire, typically Goan veneered with fascinating siesta, topped with Pirkko’s smiles and hospitality. In an instant you become a part of the family.

I don’t think I have ever seen Goa look more beautiful, bathed in rain, the countryside is a shade of green, yellow, oranges, bright reds and blues all thrown in, commanding a unison. The roads are inviting, winding and wet and I am out on a bicycle, draped in my poucho, looking around for activities. Men in their oversized raincoats go about the normal business; women shyly look at me and children giggle, their monsoon plays are on. The rain bathed, beautiful Portuguese styles houses and drizzle dappled cathedrals look more inviting than ever. The lovely winding hilly village streets, oh, I can trade them any day for miles and miles of boring highways.

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The lovely winding hilly village streets, oh, I can trade them any day for miles and miles of boring highways.

The entire village is a birder’s paradise, set out with your camera; every corner is a revelation, life reaching out to you with open arms from every branch, the whole village blossoming with colours. Go for a walk along these narrow roads, lined by greens on both sides, with magpies hovering over you and cuckoos announcing your arrival, venture out to nature, to a small hill standing tall, keeping a guard on Olaulim or just relax on a hammock by the backwaters, letting nature to extend its reach upto you – there’s so much you can do here to satiate your longing soul.

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Weaver birds at play. Olaulim is a birders’ paradise.

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Golden Oriole. The entire village is a birder’s paradise, set out with your camera; every corner is a revelation, life reaching out to you with open arms from every branch.

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Oriental Magpie @ Olaulim village

I choose the next morning for a kayaking session. Pirkko excitedly instructs me and says “If you reach the extreme end, you might get lucky to spot otters.” Otters, now that excites you. As Pirkko says evenings and mornings are the best time to get your boat and rows and leave out for a spin in the waters, and if lucky enough, with the otters.

Now something from sheer experience – don’t miss the gorgeous evenings here. Back from a village tour, I decide to lounge around in the dining space; the chill wind caressing me and just then Savio comes and says “Should I make a drink for you?” His feni cocktails are a must try. Soon other guests join us for long conversation over drinks and snacks, Max and Shibu are playing in the background, Richard Parker in the distance with her same ‘Mind your business’ look and Mantra, watching us with some classic singer’s warmth on his face. The sun comes down, turning from grey to shades of orange (dominated by grey) to ink black, no trace of moon or stars, a downpour starts; we sit in the shade of ‘Taverna Hama Hama’ or the ‘honesty bar (where you can drink as much as you want and whatever and are expected to honestly note that down in a register), drinking and chatting, before getting down for a sumptuous meal of fresh catch from the fish, fresh vegetables from the farm, Goan rice and warm smiles.

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Indian Patita cottage at Olaulim resorts

Being in Olaulim, you realize, that it’s not just a bend in river or a creek, there’s more to it. It’s poetry of life, its silence is music to ears, there’s pleasure in losing your way in the winding streets, there’s  story in swinging paddy fields and grazing cattle and above all, it’s God’s gift to you to honour your own privacy.

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The inviting Portugese houses in Olaulim.

Fast facts

To reach: Olaulim is only 12 kms from Panjim. Riding is the best option otherwise you can take a bus to Mapusa that goes through Pomburpa village and get down at the old ice factory; Olaulim is a walking distance from there.

Know more about the Olaulim homestay.

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The Golden Oriole cottage

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Taverna Hama Hama or the honesty bar

Jodhpur: Drenched in blue

An intensely romantic city, filled with history and memories of a glorious past, Jodhpur rides high on every traveler’s mind. I had first set foot in this blue city more than a decade back as a child. A lot has changed now, yet the intensity of this place has somewhat remained the same. Though, the winds of modernity has taken away some of its delectable taste of a small, historical town; it still entices with its charm. Everything was colourful, a typical trait of the city. There are things which have not changed; the traditional homes pained in pale indigo, locals wearing artistically designed multihued costumes, women dressed in wide gathered skirts and men with colourful turbans on their head. This regal city of Rajasthan still echoes with antiquity in the vacuum of the desert.

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Though, the winds of modernity has taken away some of its delectable taste of a small, historical town; Jodhpur still entices with its charm.

While climbing the staircase to go out of the railway station, I caught sight of the formidable Mehrangarh fort looking down from its imposing height on the hillock. A 15 minutes drive, and I reached my hotel. ‘Khamma Gani, Ranbanka hotel’ welcomes the comely receptionist with a diaphanous cloth as garland. Khamma gani is a term used to greet the guests whereas Ranbanka attributes to ‘the invincible’ or ‘master of battles’. Continue reading

Hippest cafes in Hauz Khas

New Delhi’s Hauz Khas village is a bit scruffy, with its narrow, over-crowded alleys, but it is also the funkiest place in the capital for an eat-out or to enjoy the city vibes.

Activities in Hauz Khas hum around the deer park, the lake and the crumbling monuments. While the monuments provide it the old world charm and a hint of seclusion, the chic restaurants and cafes lined on both sides of the boulevard transport you to an entirely different inscape.

Over these years Hauz Khas has become the center-point of the alternative creativity. There is a sense of camaraderie here, a feel of liberty; a place where you can relax in a café, sit down for some great music, whet your creative instincts following the art-houses, designer showrooms or plain graffiti or hop over to soothe your taste buds.

Hauz Khas Imperfecto

Let’s save you from tromping around this place to discover the hideouts. Well, there is hardly anything that you can think of and not find here and predictability has literally no space in these vibrantly painted and lighted alleys. To save you from some tireless google search and pinging friends to know the places to go to, I have prepared a sweet list of the hippiest cafes in Huaz Khas – Continue reading

Jungle in my backyard: Mumbai

Yes, I am talking about a real jungle and not the clichéd concrete jungle, which has mostly become synonymous with our cities. Wherever you are in Mumbai, whichever suburbs, you are never too far away from a healthy, thriving National Park. Sanjay Gandhi National Park is a 40 sqaure miles of green life, in the middle of the burgeoning, sprawling grey metropolis of Mumbai. A sprawling neighbourhood with a line of tall apartment buildings stand just opposite the park border, making the boundaries between the wilderness and the city bleak and dangerous.

flora_Sanjay Gandhi Park_Mumbai

A thriving Sanjay Gandhi National Park in the middle of the burgeoning, sprawling grey metropolis of Mumbai

The park living in the suburb of Borivali, is a home to over 40 leopards, more than 150 species of butterflies, around 40 types of mammals, different types of spiders, the ‘karvi’ shrub that blooms only once in 8 years and over 1000 types of plants. Continue reading

Grace in wood: Padmanabhapuram Palace

Austere aesthetics, monochrome design, wooded architecture and minimalism in interior décor are some qualities we don’t usually associate with Indian palaces. However, Padmanabhapuram palace of Travancore, stands as a testimony to this minimalism. Infact this minimalism is hard to miss in keralite architecture, which is more wood based than bricked.

Our entry to the Padmanabhapuram palace was quiet and unnoticed. I looked at the wide swathes of latticed wood, polished wooden flooring looking more like inky pools with shadows of history, and floral designs that followed no pattern; and wondered how could such humble structures be destined to get vanished from the tourist map and get clubbed in the ‘off the track’ places league. The palace has long been forgotten, yet the glory of this beautiful building, built about 300 years ago, remains. The structures are as strong as they were when built and the entire tour is as enticing as any palace tour in the country. Padmanabhapuram palace is one of the finest existing examples of traditional Keralite Architecture, a fine specimen of traditional architecture of Malabar replete with teak, granite and stone all combining in a symphony of elegance and simplicity.

Padmanabhapuam Palace_interior-Optimized

Padmanabhapuram palace is more wood based than brick

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Dine with Giraffes in the Manor

A loud screech of our car wheels and the scrunching of gravel beneath it announced our arrival. The sun settled on the manor draped with ivy. With a name like ‘Giraffe Manor’ you expect a more African décor, but it looked straight out of a Scottish folk tale, and only the red dust betrayed its Scottish charm and lent it an African touch. It has nothing of an African appeal, except for the name which it lives upto. Giraffes are not hard to find, looking at you with a friendly gaze. Giraffe Manor lives in the Langata area, a bit outskirts of Nairobi, amid an area of 12 acres, bringing the African safari experience live in surreal charm of English architecture. It is a perfect stop-over after a long flight, to lull the heart and prepare the mind for coming wildlife adventures in the country.

Giraffe Manor_Safari Collection

With a name like ‘Giraffe Manor’ you expect a more African décor, but it looked straight out of a Scottish folk tale.

I was greeted by the punctual warthogs, who had arrived at dot five’ O clock for their share of free snacks, scurrying past me with their tails held straight, like lightning conductors. Continue reading

A wild charm – Lewa Safari Camp

I descended from the ‘green capital of the sun’ as Nairobi is fondly called to the lush greens of the Lewa wildlife conservancy, Kenya’s largest private wildlife conservancy, and the canvass of this place was enough to transport me to a different world. The safari started before I could unpack. As the land rower bumped among the half an hour drive from the conservancy gate to the Lewa safari camp, the animal spotting began. And even before reaching ‘the other paradise’ in this paradise land, I had clocked a family of elephants, herds of bachelors’ impala, Masaai ostriches and many a reticulated giraffes.

Lewa Safari Camp - Triple Tent

Lewa Safari Camp – triple tents

I breathed in the moment as I reached the Lewa Safari Camp. Both stories of conservation and royal romance followed by a fairytale engagement of Prince Richard brought me to this place. Situated against the dramatic backdrop of the snow-covered massif of Mt Kenya, in the midst of the forest, Lewa Safari Camp is a busy place. A main lounge constructed of cedarwood, housing the dining area, is busy and frequently visited by avian visitors. I say your game drive starts here, with weaver birds, spotted doves, skinks, large mongoose and even dik-diks, coming from time to time to say ‘hi’ to you.

Weaver bird@Lewa conservancy

A main lounge constructed of cedarwood, housing the dining area, is busy and frequently visited by avian visitors. Here’s a weaver bird weaving a nest to impress female.

The recipient of several awards, Camp has on offer twelve en-suite safari tents, accommodating up to 27 guests at a time. Each thatch-covered tent is well equipped with modern amenities to make your stay comfortable, embellished with impeccable décor and an designer’s eye for details – the ensuite bathrooms with power showers and flushing loos and roll-up canvas walls to maximize game viewing, these small elements in designing add to the natural charm of these luxury tents. My tent faced east to make moments of memorable sunrises and morning light for me. From my tent I could see the greener and flatter Massai land. Continue reading

Lewa: Handpicked Africa…(Part II)

In the next morning safari, I was shamelessly focused on spotting the big cats. Tom wasn’t enthused, he knew cats are elusive, but out in early morning meant more chances. We hadn’t gone much, when we came across a small herd of elephants and in Africa, you couldn’t help but stop when you come across elephants. There is nothing ‘enough of it’ for elephants. As we looked, a young male started walking towards us. He raised his trunk up in the air to familiarize itself with our scent, walked towards an acacia tree, knocked it down to show his prowess and looked at us with intense gaze. It wasn’t giving any signs of a charge, but his actions, by that time, had scared me. He walked closer and was soon within a meter of distance from us. We literally shared glances, like first time lovers on a valentine’s day. I don’t know if elephants smile, but I would still prefer calling that a smiling gesture: or rather a welcoming one. He raised its trunk again, blew a low trumpet to which Tom responded, he jerked his trunk and flapped his ears and the next moment was running his trunk on my face. No issue that my face was covered with elephant’s mucous (being an ardent hindu, I would take that as a blessing of Lord Ganesha). He moved around the car with his usual gesture, seemingly enjoying our company. It was a too close, too personal moment for me.

Elephant@Lewa conservancy

He raised his trunk up in the air to familiarize itself with our scent, walked towards an acacia tree, knocked it down to show his prowess and looked at us with intense gaze.

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Lewa: Handpicked Africa…

The knee high dry grass glistened like burnished gold as first light stretched across the hills. The sky exploded into brilliant shades of oranges and yellows and a cold tension hung in the air. I pulled over my hood and shimmered in the anticipation of heat. It can get unbearably hot in the afternoons and dead cold in the nights here. I had set off for an early morning safari to watch the big cats’ play. We paused, as we moved, to scan the forests, peering hopefully through our binoculars.

The vehicle paused. I looked around unwary of the pause but certain that it was justified. Tom, my safari guide, must have seen, heard or smelled something. And while he tried making out the source of sound or sight, I breathed in the moments; the raw appeal of a rugged mountainous landscape, the rolling meadow like savannah grassland, with acacias playfully interspersed; culminating into basalt hills, with a stunning Mt. Kenya standing as a royal guard. Ah! With every breath I took in the charm of Laikipia: central Kenya is so different from southern. Occasionally, I would ask – “Did you see something?” and then survey around to see that myself.

Bully Ruby@Lewa conservancy

Together with its neighbors like Ol Pajeta, Borana and Laisaba, Lewa Conservancy has been on the frontline of Rhino conservation.


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Khonoma: The land out there…

This historic Angami – Naga village was the site of two ferocious Anglo – Naga war in 1879 – 80 and Indo-Naga war in 1956. Fondly tucked between towering mountain ridges, with emerald paddy fields carpeting the valley, Khonoma looks artistically traditional.

Ever heard of a village that twice, brought the British army juggernaut in the North East to a halt and forced the Indian Army to suspend its military operations (though for some time) in the 1950s, at the height of battle against insurgency in the state. This is Khonoma, some 20 Kms off Kohima, with a population of 3000, and a past dating back to centuries. Fondly tucked between two mountain ridges, with a liberating view of terraced paddy fields, forming a sea of yellow tufts in the valleys between the crotches of the mountain ranges.

 

Khonoma_Nagaland

Battle lines are still drawn in Khonoma, but this time between sustainability and long held traditions. This story began two decades ago, with the slaughter of around 300 Blyth’s tragophan, a pheasant with stunning plumage and the state bird of Nagaland. This massacre made the village elders cognizant of impending eco-war and Khanoma’s conservation movement was born. Today, it is India’s only eco-village. Logging and hunting stands banned today, a herculean task considering hunting is a cultural right of the Nagas. In 1998, Khanoma village council reserved an area of 20 sq. Km as Tragophan Sanctuary, India’s one of the first community led sanctuary. Soon, the forests which had gone silent, was alive with the calls of Tragophan and other birds. But a ban on hunting in Nagaland, is a rich affair. There is increasing pressure from the youth to revive the hunting culture. They forced the council to open a hunting window in the last years. Hunting has revived but is limited and only to maintain the carrying capacity of the forests.

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Majuli: A disappearing island

Fondly tucked between the sister rivers Subansiri and Kherketia and nursed by the mighty Brahmaputra, lies a landscape of Majuli, simply inescapable from the eyes of intrepid travelers. It is an island of pristine sublimity, offering vistas of freedom wrapped in nature’s warm embrace, unlocking the hidden mysteries, exciting imaginations, swaying as the river swells, breathing in its vast openness and smiling at every bell that chimes in the satras. An expanse of land shaped by fortunes and fury of Brahmaputra, Majuli’s story is as sublime as the river it stands on. Several stories innocence, optimism and disenchantment, knitted as one, are played out on this land every day. A day is lived in the rituals and songs in satras, in the paddy fields, in the colourful tapestry of Assamese silk and breathes through the fisherman’s mesh. Life is quite simple here, yet elusive as the island is slowly disappearing, some inches every year, losing itself to the river that nurtures it, living its full circle of life. Already reduced to a third of its original size, it is predicted that Majuli will disappear within twenty years.

To get to this largest river island, a huge ferry is boarded from Jorhat in Upper Assam. A slow boat ride of two hours, is spent in breathing in the freshness and the rawness of the riverine landscape created by the mightiest of Indian rivers. And when you are in Majuli, ditch the vehicle or a guide to explore the island, hire a bicycle and cycle your way through the cultural ambiance of the island. Majuli is the seat of neo-Vaishnavite culture, a monotheistic offshoot of Hinduism. Since 15th century, followers of Saint Srimanta Sankardeva have been building monasteries or satras here. Twenty satras stand today, with almost twice of the number lost to the river. These ancient buildings pulsate with dance, drama and songs and have to a great extent defined the lifestyle in Majuli. Houses in Majuli have a central space in their house, called Namghar (taken from the satras), where people gather, sing, dance and pray. That’s how most of the Majuli lives, draped in spirituality.

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Tales from a headhunters’ land

Conversing with a nonagenarian is like collecting some pages off the calendar or redrawing some history from a person who barely remembers what he had in the morning for breakfast. Indeed a tedious task. But, the moment you ask of his good old fighting days, the geriatric time machine turns a raconteur; the years dissolve and clarity returns and tales of old fights pour as if it was all yesterday. What a dilemma to see a person, who barely remembers his age or for that matter his name, but is eager to give an account of his fighting days, tales from his youth and all with exacting clarity.

Headhunter@longwa_Mon_Nagaland

A headhunter – old but turned a raconteur when asked of his old, fighting days.

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