A Rustic Interlude in Rajasthan

From Jaisalmer, we headed onwards to Jodhpur. The magnificence of the fort of Jodhpur was dazzling, but my memories of Jodhpur, interestingly,are dominated by a very different experience. To the extent, that I will park my experience of the fort, and head straight on to where we went next.

After the tour of fort (which is for another post) we headed from Jodhpur to a homestay “The Chhotaram Prajapat homestay” in the tiny village of Salawas. In fact Mr. Chhottaram (I will refer to him as C) himself came to escort us to his village, which was well over 20 kms from Jodhpur. The air was getting progressively chilly as it was nearing dusk when we left Jodhpur and as the jeep finally turned into the small homestay entrance,we were quite eager to see what it would entail. C’s mother put the traditional tika on us before we entered the threshold and then we stepped onto a different world.

There were small mud huts to stay,which was built by C himself, and were also equipped with nice clean western bathrooms. The rooms were basic and rustic as one would expect, but were also comfortable enough for the village sounds to lull you into slumber. There was a central courtyard where some welcoming charpoys lay under the undulating branches of a tree, enough to seduce one to catch a leisurely nap.

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All the meals were made over a slow fire on the earthen chulha and took at least 4-5 hours. Food was served on small wooden tables on the floor and we ate with the family a meal consisting of delicious hot bhakri and the very flavorful sabzi of Ker Sangri.

What was slated to be just an overnight stay for us, changed into a 2-night stay.We hurriedly shuffled our dates, as we realized what a treasure we would have missed had we proceeded to Jaipur as per our original plan. As it turned out, it proved to be one of the main highlights of our Rajasthan trip.

The sounds of the village stirred us awake as we awoke to the rhythmic milking of the cow and crowing of the roosters. C’s brother came to take us on a jeep ride to the village. As he drove, he narrated several tales of how people lived, of which one was about a religious group of people called Bishnois. Bishnoi stands for ‘Bish’ (20) + ‘Noi’ (9) – 29 rules which are staunchly followed.One of them states that every person should have a bath very early before sunrise and apparently the rule is strict enough to include small children and infants. Among the other rules, there was also one which shunned them from cutting trees.And what followed was a legendary tale about a Bishnoi woman, who hugged a Khejri tree , refusing to let go, when the erstwhile rule Maharaja Abhay Singh’s soldiers came for cutting wood. She died in the process and so did 362 other Bishnois who were hacked to death. The King was deeply saddened and declared the cutting of the trees illegal.

Another transgression to the Bishnois holy beliefs, which has recently made for a lot of news, was the killing of the Black buck by actor Salman Khan. Black bucks are considered to be the reincarnation of their Guru, Jambaji and a Bishnoi would die to save them.We were taken to the very place where the incident apparently happened and we also had the good fortune of spotting some handsome Black bucks.

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The Handsome Dude !

We visited the potters and the traditional dyers, where we were shown the process of creating beautiful pots and also the method of creating the traditional block printed Rajasthani prints.

We then proceeded to the house of the village headman, where we had a chance to observe their daily life.The old man sat on his charpoy under a tree observing life as it went by. The cattle was tied outside and the harvest laid out in the sun, ready for threshing. Time seemed to have slowed down and it passed at a meandering pace, a far cry from the frantic bustling of our city lives.

And then we noticed this curious looking thing right in the center of a room, and we were told it was the “Khad” – an appliance used to filter opium. Supposedly the Khad is not something one can buy, but is only passed from one family to the other,purely as a symbol of status and importance that the family was accorded in the village. As we listened with growing fascination, we realized the importance of opium in these far flung villages in Rajasthan. Be it a marriage or a death, no ceremony is complete without serving opium. It’s considered an insult to refuse the offer of an opium and prospective brides or grooms could well find themselves unfit for marriage, if their guests weren’t served opium.We were informed that 1 Kg of opium costed nearly 4 Lakh Rs. and it was jaw dropping to think of what such expenses could entail for the poor villagers.

Rajasthan,probably on account of its strategic location in the trade route, was exposed from the very early times to opium ,an important trade commodity.Its usage has been traced back to the 16th and 17th century where it was commonly used as a drug and later progressed to being used as a narcotic drug during the 19th century. The drug in the form of a drink called Kasumba was quite popular among the Rajputs and also the Mughals.

Our own cup was full with all these rich experiences, but one still remained. That of the sighting of some visitors from distant lands – the magnificent Demoiselle Cranes !

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After a day well spent, it was time for us to leave the hamlet of Salawas behind, but along with the memories of magnificent forts, the jungle and the desert, this amazing rural experience will also be etched in our minds.

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The Salubrious Sojourns

My visit to Denmark was finally materializing and I was browsing the flight options on Yatra. Vacation planning is now at one’s fingertips – from the comfort of the home, one can plan the minutest detail – be it national or international travel, stay, food or daily itinerary.For a compulsive planner like me, I heaved a sigh of relief as I could now pose as many irrational questions and what-if scenarios to plan a vacation, without a travel agent threatening to sue me for causing a nervous breakdown.

Our last trip to Gethia near Nainital had entirely been planned remotely, as have been so many other vacations in the past.It was such a complete contrast to the vacations that I recollected with my parents when I was a kid. Vacation planning was an exceedingly hectic activity back then – dollops of advice from friends and relatives on where to go and stay, peppered with numerous calls , running around reservation counters and the action finally building up to the long awaited day of travel.But it was awesome fun all the same and as kids, it was the event of the year.

Of my trip to Agra back in 86′, besides the Taj, I remember the smell of red chillies because we stayed at a Mirchi Wali Gali(Street of chillies) and surprisingly enough,memories of us walking in the hot sun and eating fresh Kakadi (cucumber) with a dash of salt and red chilli powder.It had been a moment of camaraderie and laughter.

Funny, the things that stay with us.

Agra

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As we were chatting over tea, a close friend posed a hypothetical question. If I could take my family and friends to any place on the planet, where would that be and how would I make the trip the happiest one ever.

There were lot of things to ponder on that one.To my mind, there is a difference between traveling and a vacation. Traveling is more about the journey than the destination whereas vacation is more centered around the destination. Since this question was centering around the destination, I figured this was more of a vacation question.

To respond to that, I had to first examine what constituted a memorable vacation. Each vacation that we have had was precious to me, in its own unique way. Would I swap one for the other? Maybe not.

We loved road travel whenever possible as it offered complete freedom to do as we chose.
I still fondly remember an awesome 7-day road trip across the Nilgiris – through the picturesque ranges and coffee plantations, discovering hidden brooks and the most amazing getaways.Amidst the cacophony of the frenzied lives we used to lead, a 7-day vacation had been an absolute manna from heaven.

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So number one on my list was freedom – to choose where to go, what to do or to just sit staring at a spider weaving its web if that’s what I wanted to do. No frantic checklist activity, this. Not surprisingly, we hated packed vacations.

Short weekend vacations in the lap of nature were more frequent and each one had been memorable.Nature is probably the common trait in all the unforgettable vacations we had. Give us the smell of the earth, a walk in the woods, the chirping of the birds, the whispering of the trees or the gurgling of a stream any day.

So the next on my list is nature.

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The importance of a comfortable stay cannot be refuted.In this regard, we had developed a fondness for home-stays. A comfortable, cozy, homelike atmosphere along with delicious home cooked food were what home-stays promised.The best ones are those which have developed the fine art of giving the guests ample space and freedom to be themselves, and yet, accord a personalized home experience.

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So with that I could count out the ingredients of a great vacation for my family & friends – Freedom, Nature, comfortable stay and food.

If I could take my friends and family anywhere on the planet, then my top pick would be South Island,New Zealand. One of the most dramatic and breathtaking sights New Zealand has to offer, the majestic Fjords featured in the Lord Of the Rings, JRR Tolkein’s movie. It offers some of the purest natural landscapes one can ever experience – braided rivers, snow-topped peaks, turquoise-blue lakes, sun-drenched beaches and the magnificent Fjords.

Pic Curtsey: Forbes
Pic Curtsey: Forbes

 
 
Now for the happiness bit.Could I guarantee happiness by putting all these ingredients together ?

I remembered a short vacation to Jungle resorts where we had heard a neighboring room couple’s incessant arguing punctuated by intermediate sobbing. They cut short their vacation and left shortly after that. There was nature, good food and everything else the place had to offer, and yet, it wasn’t enough.

Last year, on a week long trip to Kerala, we had stayed at different locations. Each of the places were heavenly and we envied the owners who could stay there.
As we got talking, the owner in one place gave a glimpse into her life – life was hard with her husband being away at work in nearby metro for a substantial part of the year while she had to manage the home-stay and take care of her daughter on her own.The beauty around her became an afterthought.The lady who owned a dream place right by a beach, told us about how she felt tied down due to continued tourist traffic and how she had no time for anything else in life. The owner of yet another place, was an old man who was in charge one of the most scenic backwater resorts I have ever seen.But his forehead was creased with worry for his son who was struggling for an IT job.

It sure was an eye-opener. We had implicitly assumed that people living in places like these were blessed.We can travel all we want and stay at the best hotels and still not be happy if we are not happy from within.And we can be living in our own homes and still be having a vacation !

So if the vacation has to be the happiest trip, I would rely on each one of us to look inwards and find the happiness, to enjoy the wonder that is around us.If we have the ability to see and find joy in the small things – a beautiful butterfly, the breeze chasing the wisps of cloud in a blue sky, the call of a cuckoo, a meandering brook, I am sure each vacation would be nothing less than the ‘happiest’.

Pic Curtsey : Google
Pic Curtsey : Google

Call of the Mountains

A vista of mountains unravelled before us as the Anand-Vihar Shatabdi express chugged into the small station of Kathgodam at 11.50 AM.Kathgodam, the last stop in the foothills of the mountains serves as the gateway to the various hill stations dotting the outer Himalayan range.

When a trip to Delhi finalized, a frantic search ensued to search locations for a 2 day getaway in the lap of the mountains.Searching for a perfect vacation spot always posed a challenge as we loved tranquil laid-back places, far from the maddening crowds and liked to experience a place as compared to zooming from point A to B.
Websites of different home stays & resorts to see what they chose to speak about and what they didn’t, traveler reviews, weather – everything had to examined with a fine toothed comb along with casting furtive glances at our budget. And we wait till a place chooses us.

And it did.

The platform had emptied out quickly giving it a desultory look.The sun scorched us with the burning intensity of April as we waited for our cab which would take us to our destination.Soon we were on our way in a small Alto and as it snaked its way through the twisting roads, the breeze became cooler. We tasted delicious strawberries and mulberries sold in quaint leaf baskets which our driver, Mr Kailash, had thoughtfully bought for us.

Our destination was Gethia, a small place situated 26 Kms from Kathgodam, slightly ahead of Jeolikote on the Haldwani-Bhowali Road. Gethia is situated close enough to the bustling Nainital yet thankfully, not close enough to attract the typical tourist crowd of Nainital.

A turn in the road and we had reached our destination – Two Chimneys at Gethia. Two Chimneys is a boutique homestay overlooking the valley on both sides.It has 7 rooms , each done up tastefully in a unique style. We chose First Things, situated on the first floor with its door opening out to a verandah overlooking the garden and the back door leading to a small sun-kissed balcony sitting atop the valley below. The room also had a lovely loft with ample space for a double bed where you could lie looking at the sky peeping through the sky light and listening to the sounds of the Blue Whistling Thrush.

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Loft

Sit Out

The place weaved its magic around us, as we explored various cozy sit outs overlooking the valley and stone steps which led to hidden treasures. There was a small library tucked away in a corner which had a nice collection including Tarun Tejpal’s books, who incidentally is also the owner of Two Chimneys.The house overlooks a patch of garden ornate with trees and flowers. Its a bird watchers paradise and we were enamored with the beautiful Red-Billed blue magpies.
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We took a cobbled path and passed a small grave inscribed Baloo, the gaurdian of the house, 1999-2009. Baloo was indeed lucky to have such loving owners who still treasured it. The path led to a games room which had table tennis, Billiards and a TV set.Suddenly, came a loud barking and we were inspected in all thoroughness by the canine mistress of the house, Bijli. It was love at first sight for my son, who followed her with a love-lorn look everywhere after that.
Nish With Bijli

Dinner was an elaborate affair in a long table laid out by the fireplace. The next day, we hired a cab to take us to Nainital which was a mere 3 kms away if you trekked but 19 kms by road. Nainital was crowded and bustling with tourists which we were told was just the tip of the iceberg which would land in May.

We did boating in the scenic Naini lake nestled in between lush hills. Naini lake is also the water source for entire Nainital and its cleanliness is maintained by not allowing any motor boats, swimming or fishing. The cable ropeway affords a panoramic view of the lake with its smattering of small boats and the surrounding hills rising majestically. As we reached the top, we could see the tips of the majestic Himalayan range swathed between thick whispers of clouds.

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We pottered around the small Tibetan market adjoining the lake buying some candles and soaps. The Mall road winds along the lake connecting Mallital (northern side) to Tallital (southern side) and we walked back to Tallital where our cab waited.

Soon we returned to Gethia, to be greeted very warmly by Bijli and the smells of hot pakoras wafting from the kitchen.
As I sat on one of the wrought iron chairs in the garden, time and space were suspended in a lazy twig floating down and the sunlight playing hide and seek between the trees.
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A Vacation in the Mountains, Seas and Backwaters

It was a dream to have a weeklong vacation in Kerala with all the flavors of nature – The mountains, seas and backwaters.Thanks to Kissan for sponsoring the vacation and to Indiblogger and India Untraveled who enabled the same ! India Untraveled arranged all the bookings and went that extra mile to tailor the whole package to suit our requirements.

We (Me, my husband and my 7 year old son) started our journey by road on 28th October,6.30 AM from Bangalore. We stopped for breakfast at Kadambam (78 Km from Blr,Sarjapur Road) which serves excellent south Indian dishes. Their specialty is a delicious sweet Pongal.We passed through Mandya, Mysore,Nanjangud, Gundalpet and reached Sultan Bathery in Wayanad by 1.55 PM.

Treasure Trove Cottage

We were at Treasure Trove, our first destination at 2.10 PM (280 Km from Blr).Treasure Trove is a homestay located near Meenangadi and has two lovely bamboo cottages on stilts. These cottages were built by Uravu, which is a small scale bamboo industry in Wayanad. They have all the modern amenities and a nice bamboo balcony surrounded by a canopy of trees where one can just sit and listen to the chirping of the birds and see the sunlight filtering through the trees. The cottages are located amidst coffee plantations and provide ample opportunities for sighting different birds and butterflies.
Bamboo Balcony

Our hosts, Sunil and Reena and their two beautiful children were warm and hospitable. Food consisted of simple but delicious Kerala food served in the main house. In the evening, we went for a plantation walk which culminated in a spectacular view point of the distant Chembra peak.
View from the plantation

There are lots of places to see in Wayanad like Pookote Lake, Banasura Dam, Soochipura Waterfalls, Chembra peak. Some of them we had seen on earlier visits and some of them were closed like Edakkal Caves (closed on Monday) and Kurva. So we decided to explore the nearby places. Phantom Rock is a rocky mountain which looks like the rock in Phantom comics. It affords a scenic view of the nearby peaks.
Phantom Rock

Karapuzha Dam is another place situated close by. We visited the Wayanad Heritage Museum which houses archeological artifacts including some, dated 1 and 2 AD. Since the deep forest trek which had been the initial plan, was suspended, we took the Jeep safari into the Muthunga Wildlife Sanctuary. You have to reach the counter really early (preferably by 6.30 AM) as it’s on a first come first served basis and only 40 jeeps are allowed in the morning. We spent well over 1 hour in the safari but didn’t spot anything much, other than some deer and peacocks. The only highlight was a fresh kill of a porcupine by a leopard with the spot marked by fresh blood stains, lot of quills and the footprints of the leopard.

My painting of the treasure trove cottage

We started from Treasure trove at 10.30 AM on 30th October for our next destination – Blue Mermaid, Kannur. We took an inside road as the highway road was riddled with pot holes. We stopped at an old Jain temple on the way and found it very intriguing though it was obviously not maintained and was surrounded by overgrown vegetation. The road from Wayanad to Kannur had breathtaking scenery, surrounded by thick vegetation and tall trees on either side.

Blue Mermaid, Kannur

We reached Thottada village near Kannur and as the winding roads twisted and turned, the vista opened and suddenly there was the sparkling blue Arabian Sea ! We reached Blue Mermaid at 3.00 PM, located deep within Thotada village, 130 Km from Wayanad. We were warmly welcomed by Indu and her staff who runs the homestay. We took the room on the first floor as it had a very scenic view of the sea. The room was nice with clean sheets and linen and a nice bath.
Beach at Blue Mermaid

The beach was secluded and had only a few people from nearby resorts. The golden sands and the sparkling sea welcomed us and we spent most of the day at the beach. The food at Blue Mermaid was authentic, lip smacking Kerala food and had a decent spread. It included dishes like Drumstick leaves Mologoshyam, Theeyal, Puttu, Stew and Vazhapoo curry.
My painting of the scene from Blue Mermaid

Since we didn’t want to rush around seeing places, we decided to limit ourselves to just one – Fort St. Angelo situated quite close by. The fort is massively built with laterite stones. It boasts of a rich history and was inhabited by the Portugese,Dutch, Ali Rajas of Kannur and British at different periods.
Fort St. Angelo

After 2 days of soaking up the sands and the sun, it was time to start for our third & final destination – Oyster Opera, Chervattur. The route from Thottada village to Padanna village near Chervattur took us through several small and sleepy Kerala towns, backwaters, quaint bridges, discreet temples and interesting roads.
And the last stretch was a turn from the main road which led to the island and then the sight took our breath away. Backwaters and lush coconut trees flanked us on both sides and we finally reached Oyster Opera at 1.10 PM,73.5 Km from Kannur.
Oyster Opera, Chervattur

Oyster Opera is a resort run by Mr. Gul, who owns several mussel farms. It consists of 5 or 6 cottages, each with its own individuality based on its placement and the material used for construction. We stayed at “Shrimp”, a quaint cottage built with laterite stones with an open-roofed bathroom, facing the backwaters. The beauty of the landscape cannot be described in words and the photos possibly depict a little of what we actually saw. The cottage with its stone steps almost kissing the backwaters, with a lazy hammock swinging between coconut trees was a dream come true.
The afternoon we reached, cyclonic winds and rain hit the waters. Though, we were confined to the room, it was an experience to watch the winds and the dark clouds swirling on the horizon and the waters reflecting several strange and mysterious colors.
Backwaters at Oyster Opera

The next day, we opened the door to be greeted by the shimmering clear waters and a blue sky. We spent the time in Oyster Opera, just drinking in the beauty, canoeing in the small inlet of water and boating in the backwaters. The food was also amazing with a full Kerala sadya, idichipuzhunja payasam, kappa and several other delicacies. The owner, a very humble and unassuming man, himself served the guests.
Morning sunlight

It was soon time to leave and we bid adieu to the beautiful place.
We took the Ranipur route via Madikeri which was supposed to have better roads than the main roads. But the road after Panathur in Kerala, was rough. The mountainous forests amidst pouring rain with bad roads combined with the threat of wild elephants would have been arduous , if it were not for the fantastic scenery and the fact that our car was the only vehicle for hours on end. After we stepped out to admire a hidden waterfall and got back to the car, we were in for a nasty surprise when we discovered some un-invited guests – 7-8 leeches in the car !! We had donated quite a bit of blood to three of them who had become round and satiated! We painstakingly searched and deposited them back on the grass and bid them a hasty goodbye.
We had a break journey at Mysore Infosys campus for one night and returned back to Bangalore on Saturday evening, 2nd November after a 1040 Km road trip and our hearts and minds full with the beauty of God’s Own country !

Route Details:
Bangalore to Wayanad


Wayanad to Kannur

Kannur to Chervattur

Chevattur to Bangalore

Bad stretches : After entering Kerala on the Bangalore to Wayanad route, road is not so good. Panathur to Talacauvery near Madikeri approx.68 Kms, Ghat road through wildlife sanctuary is filled with pot holes.