Strawberry Overdose

A Couple of Days in Mahabaleshwar

It was the summer of 2019. We had to visit Mumbai for a family obligation. But a long weekend lay just a few days later. We packed our bags for a week-long trip with a couple of days thrown in for sightseeing around Mumbai.

Now, it was May. Most of India sizzles this time of the year. If there was any scope for a cooler climate, it was in the Western Ghats. (Back in 2017, we cruised on these Ghats during monsoon. Read about our splendid experience here.)

Mahabaleshwar is a hill station tucked away in these Ghats. It is not too far from Mumbai either. So, we rented a self-drive Jeep Compass from MyChoize & left for the Strawberry Town.

Mahabaleshwar may be unknown to many in India but it is an oft-frequented paradise for Mumbai & Pune dwellers. We hoped the weather would be pleasant if not cool. Having visited Panchgani earlier, we knew the hill station would be enchanting – green hills, sunsets & juicy strawberries.

What we also sought was some quiet & peace with maybe a wee bit of hiking thrown in. This blog post is an attempt to see if Mahabaleshwar lived up to our expectations.

Affair with self-drive continued

Day 1

En route Mahabaleshwar, we halted at Pune for lunch at a restaurant called Dhonewada. A wada is a traditional mansion; the restaurants with the names ‘wada’ serve the local food in a setting reminding you of an old house. Here, despite the heat, we hogged on Malvani cuisine.

Food is such an integral part of travel. & it is a good teacher too. Now, we know, when traveling in Maharashtra, if we crave for Marathi cuisine, we need to look out for a ‘wada’.

As we entered Mahabaleshwar, we crossed the Venna Lake. The Lake is surrounded by hills & trees. It is dotted with boats called shikaras. We saw hordes of tourists taking boat tours & enjoying the breathtaking views.

There was an equal number of tourists thronging the eating joints lining up the lakeside. We did not stop here as the Sun had already begun its downward journey & we still had to locate our resort, Forest County Resort.

Our accommodation was inside a forest. By the time we reached, it was dark. Driving through the forest with no streetlights & without a soul in sight made delicious shivers run down our spines. Anyhow, we reached safe & sound (boring!) and called it a night.

The road to Forest County Resort

Day 2

The day of our Strawberry Overdose!

N had a few work calls but there was no cellular network in our resort. So, we made our way to the Mahableshwar main market after breakfast, parked in a designated spot, & while he attended his calls, P took in the daily humdrum of locals.

Strawberry OD begins!

Travel is possibly the only thing that teaches us that we are not so different from each other. We wake up, scramble to find roti, kapda & makaan (food, clothing & shelter), spend time with loved ones, & sleep.

All of us experience happiness & sadness, pleasure & pain, magnanimity & pettiness, kindness & cruelty etc. It is just that the degree varies & so does our audience.

N broke P’s reverie & we made our way to Mapro Garden.

Green gardens of Mapro Garden

Mapro Garden

This Garden is known for its strawberry produce. It was founded in 1959 & has grown manifold since then. One of the things we loved seeing there was the family – like feeling amongst the employees. Mapro also supports the education of their employees’ children.

Behind the visitor areas are large farms where one can do strawberry picking in season. It was not really the strawberry season when we visited. So, instead of picking strawberries, we roamed around & watched an AV on strawberries.

Fresh Strawberry Icecream

Strawberries are not the only berries produced in Mapro Garden. You can eat your way through blueberries, mulberries & raspberries too. The food park stocks delicious berry products – jams, marmalades, sauces etc.

All that talk about strawberries & seeing so many strawberry products & cutouts made us crave for something strawberry. We headed to the deli & picked a strawberry ice-cream. It was different from the ice cream we get usually – so creamy & fresh! What could be a better way to chill?!

That reminds us of the weather.

Braving oppressive heat

It was quite hot during the daytime. We had not expected this. We knew it would be warmer compared to monsoon, but this time of the year was oppressive! The nights remained pleasant though.

The Western Ghats are delightful in the rains. That is also the time when it sees the maximum influx of sightseers. If you do not mind the crowds (after 2020, this seems unlikely for some time to come), then visit during the rainy season. If you do mind, choose the winter months. & if you are crazy like us, anytime of the year is good!

Coming back to our trip, we wanted to capture a beautiful sunset. We left the strawberry paradise & headed to Lodwick Point.

Drama In The Sky

Lodwick Point

It is not far from the main Mahabaleshwar market. We drove to the Point, parked our car & started walking to the actual point & to the Elephant’s Head Point beyond. This is about a KM long but easy walk through a forested trail.

Domeshwar was rechristened Sydney Point & further renamed Lodwick Point. General Lodwick was the first British officer to climb the hill in 1824. The Sun had started its descent & there was literally a drama in the sky.

The Elephant’s Head Point gets its name from its resemblance to an elephant’s head. Here, we were at the end of the mountain range – a perfect spot to take in a 360-degree view. But the Sun soon captured our attention. It worked its magic as it set.

No Caption Needed

The mist began to rise too. In the valley below, we could spot terraced farms. The serenity of that moment & of the scenery was such that a nature lover could not help appreciating its charm. There were a handful of other sightseers here & they seemed to be in awe too!

We soon realized we should leave before it got dark as the hiking trail might become unsafe. It being a forested trail, there was always a chance of wild animals. & it went from romantic to eerie in minutes. On the hiking note, it is a little bit of an uphill climb. So, wear comfortable shoes & have a bottle of water handy.

The Forested Trail
Going from romantic to eerie in minutes…

Just before complete darkness, the sky turned magenta. Like it was in as much love with us as we were with it…

The Sky Was Magenta!

We then arrived at Le Meridien for our drinks & dinner fix.

Le Meridien

Strawberry Margarita

Longitude 73

We continued our strawberry fixation at Longitude 73 with a Strawberry Margarita which was delicious. We also opted for a Cucumber Wave Cocktail which was refreshing. The ambience was perfect for a sundowner while the decor was chic.

Our server ensured we never felt unattended to.

Chingari

A delicious prawn biryani dinner followed at Chingari, the Indian restaurant in Le Meridien. We loved the ambience. Nice music added to the dim lighting. Our server made us feel at home & was a pleasant fellow to chat with.

We left Le Meridien feeling impressed by it – quiet location, ample parking, lush green compound, the grand staircase, beautiful architecture, & dim lighting.

Last Day

The morning we left Mahabaleshwar, we sighed a last time at the hot but blue sky. We spent a little time admiring the flowers at our resort.

On our way out of Mahabaleshwar, we stopped at Wilson Chikki, Fudge and Baba Chana.

Wilson Chikki, Fudge and Baba Chana

While this shop is known for its chikki, we picked up Chocolate Walnut Fudge & Garlic Chana from here. Best decision ever! The Fudge was absolutely melt – in – mouth. & the Chana was tangy. We have become fans of the unbeatable fudge. The store is large & you will be spoilt for choice.

We then stopped at Bagicha Corner.

Bagicha Corner

We first bought Strawberry Crush & Strawberry No – Sugar Jam at the shop & then got a Mulberry with Ice – Cream made at the restaurant. The Ice – Cream was a perfect way to re-live childhood. Take a glass, layer the bottom with a large helping of fresh mulberries, add a scoop of mulberry ice-cream, repeat the mulberries & the ice-cream layers, & top it off with a 🍓 syrup. Yum!

Once home, we used the Strawberry Crush in our shakes & they tasted divine.

We stayed a night in Pune on our way back at JW Marriott Hotel. We had carried a bottle of Strawberry Wine from Mahabaleshwar & continued our strawberry fixation.

Strawberry Wine

In the evening, we went to Paasha for a round of drinks.

Paasha

We were mesmerized with the view the lounge offered. We sat inside but next to the windows & soaked in the city view. We drank Mojito & Pina Colada, both made well. The service was equally good. Perfect for a date night!

We then went to J1 for dinner.

J1

A small parking is available. The exterior itself made us feel we were in for a good time. We luckily got a table without hassle. The service was exemplary. We had Chicken Rassa, Ghadichi Poli & Mutton Sukka washed down with Kokam Sharbat.

It is difficult to decide which was the best dish. Everything was finger-licking good. The Rassa was quite aromatic while the Poli was a different take on the usual flatbread. We would love to dine here again.

& this brought our Mahabaleshwar trip to an end.

Accommodation

Upside Down Flowers

Mahabaleshwar

Forest County Resort

True to its name, the Resort was inside a forest. By the time we reached, it was night & the route had seemed a little scary. But the Resort itself was well – lit & seemed welcoming. The room was a cottage. It was sparsely furnished – just the basics. But the AC worked fine which was a relief.

For dinner, the first night, it seemed nothing was available except Dal Khichdi. The breakfast buffet was decent however – Chhole Bhature, Fried Egg, Omelet, Sabudana Khichdi, Uthapam. But the breakfast area was quite cramped.

The location may be a consideration for many, especially if you do not have your own vehicle. The resort is almost half an hour away from the Mahabaleshwar town & public conveyance may not be easily available.

Also, we did not get a cellular network in the resort.

View from our cottage

We give it

Rating: 3 out of 5.

Pune

JW Marriott Hotel

Breakfast Buffet Love

We stayed for one night, but the hospitality & luxury made us wish we were staying longer. The check in was smooth. Our room was superb with a panoramic city view. It was comfortable & had all the amenities we would need for our stay (& more).

The hotel had pleasing interiors. All the staff members greeted us with a smile. We absolutely loved the breakfast buffet at JW Marriott. It was a finger licking, substantial breakfast.

We give it –

Rating: 5 out of 5.
A short video of all the driving that we did!

Strawberry Overdose Let's Go Sightseeing!

How can you spend a couple of days in Mahabaleshwar? This episode tells you how. Also available as a blog post: https://letsgosightseeing.blog/2021/06/03/strawberry-overdose/
  1. Strawberry Overdose
  2. 10 Reasons Why We Love The Mountains

Buddham Saranam Gacchami

A half-day excursion to Sarnath

“Buddham Saranam Gacchami. Dhammam Saranam Gacchami. Sangham Saranam Gacchami.”

(“I go to the Buddha for refuge. I go to the Dhamma for refuge. I go to the Sangha for refuge.”)

parikrama, bodhi tree, mulagandha kuti vihara, sarnath, varanasi, uttar pradesh, india
Do a ‘Parikrama’ of the Bodhi tree.

We have been drawn towards Buddhism for a long time now. As we visited places like Bhutan, Ladakh & Spiti, we came to know more about Gautama Buddha & His teachings. Siddhartha by Herman Hesse further increased our fascination.

In a world of extremes, we find Buddhism to be a balanced religion. The basic premise of ‘looking within’ & ‘introspecting’ appeals to us. It was, thus, only natural for us to visit Sarnath on our travel to Varanasi.

After spending a couple of days in Banaras, we hired a cab to take us to Sarnath. We had a flight to catch later in the evening; so, we wanted to utilize the few hours we had in an effective manner.

Dhamek Stupa, sarnath, varanasi, uttar pradesh, india
The Dhamek Stupa

Sarnath is located ~10 KMS from Varanasi. It is the place where Buddha first taught the Dharma. Thus, it is an important pilgrimage center for Buddhists. After the chaos of Varanasi, Sarnath is a sea of peace.

Once you reach the deer park, most of the sightseeing spots are at a walking distance of each other. Engage a guide in Sarnath who can brief you on its history.

Archaeological Museum

We started our Sarnath sightseeing at the Archaeological Museum. You need to buy a ticket from across the road. There is a locker room to deposit all your things, including cellphone.

In the museum, there are stunning artifacts dug up from excavations. Fine Buddhist art is housed. You can see the Asoka Pillar as well as a Buddha sculpture where He sits with eyes downcast, and with a halo around His head.

The Asoka Pillar is, of course, from where the Indian National Emblem is adopted. Four Indian Lions sit back to back on a circular base; a Horse on the left, the Asoka Chakra in the center, and a Bull on the right on the base.

If, like us, you are a history aficionado, you will love the Archaeological Museum. It houses figures from Gupta, Kushana & Mauryan periods.

Chinese Buddhist Temple

Our next stop was the Chinese Buddhist Temple. It is located a little away from the other sightseeing spots. The temple is beautifully painted in red and yellow in the Chinese architectural style. You can see Chinese lanterns hanging on the walls. The surroundings are calm.

Beautiful, paint, red and yellow, chinese buddhist temple, sarnath, varanasi, uttar pradesh, india
Beautifully painted in red & yellow…

The outer wall has a painting depicting the route taken by Huein Tsang to come to India. Interestingly, the land on which the Chinese Buddhist Temple stands used to be a mangrove. You can see a lot of Chinese/ Japanese pilgrims/ tourists here.

Dhamek Stupa

The huge campus is a delight for history & heritage lovers. The Dhamek Stupa was built in 500 CE to commemorate the Buddha’s activities in Sarnath. It is a thick, solid & tall cylinder of bricks and stone. The wall of the Dhamek Stupa is covered with exquisitely carved figures of humans and birds.

commemorate, Buddha, Sarnath, varanasi, uttar pradesh, india
Built to commemorate the Buddha’s activities in Sarnath…

Legend has it that if you manage to fling a white prayer cloth atop the stupa, your wishes will be fulfilled. While it may seem impossible to passersby, there are lads here who do that for a fee.

Apart from the main structure, there are innumerable small but significant ones. The Asoka pillar with an edict engraved on it stands nearby. The excavations do not even seem to be complete & yet, the magnitude stuns you.

Mulagandha Kuti Vihara

Shakyamuni Buddha, relics, Mulagandha Kuti Vihara, sarnath, varanasi, uttar pradesh, india
Shakyamuni Buddha’s relics at the Mulagandha Kuti Vihara

The Mulagandha Kuti Vihara is a monastery & temple surrounded by gardens. It is enshrined with Shakyamuni Buddha’s relics. The Buddhist architecture is worth gaping at, specially the frescoes. The frescoes depict scenes from Buddha’s life & are quite pretty. There is, thus, little doubt why Mulagandha Kuti Vihara is a tourist attraction.

You can hear the chants which bring about serenity. The well-maintained precincts are lined with Buddhist prayer flags. You can do a ‘Parikrama’ of the Bodhi tree. Legend has it that this tree is a descendant of the tree under which Lord Buddha achieved enlightenment.

As we were short on time, our Sarnath visit was for just half-a-day. But, if you are a history buff or are spiritual, you can spend days here.

What We Loved Seeing In Bali

We hope Bali Basics turned out to be helpful to you. Now that you’ve figured out where you want to stay on your Bali holiday, we help you with the sights we saw in Bali & loved. The attractions below are tried & tested, & advocated (& not mentioned in any order of preference)!

Beaches…

morning, chill, kayu aya beach
Morning spent chilling at the Kayu Aya Beach

Bali is, of course, all about beaches. So, it doesn’t really make sense for us to get into these. Nonetheless, we visited the Double Six, the Kayu Aya, & the Nusa Dua beaches.

Double Six Beach

In Seminyak, as a subset of the Seminyak Beach, is the Double Six Beach. It is a relaxed one offering umbrella rentals & a chill ambiance. Perfect for just sitting & watching the activity happening around you & the Indian Ocean. The water wasn’t too cold when we visited; so, one could opt for a dip.

sunset, double six beach
A riveting sunset at the Double Six Beach

Sunset is when the crowds start thronging in. Being on the west coast, the Double Six Beach offers stunning sunset views. The Beach is also home to La Plancha Bali, the beach bar that’s famous for its colorful parasols & beach bags.

Kayu Aya Beach

Kayu Aya Beach is a part of the Seminyak Beach. It is located behind Ku De Ta.

blue sky, Kayu Aya Beach
A blue sky at the Kayu Aya Beach

The beach is peaceful with quiet activities available like body art & kite-flying. Or you can simply carry your book & relax. The ocean was fairly calm when we visited; a few splashed around in the water. There are a few restaurants nearby if hunger strikes.

However, at one spot, we saw of stream of black water coming from inland & getting released into the sea. Not good! We must keep our beaches & oceans squeaky clean.

Nusa Dua Beach

cheer, kite seller, Nusa Dua Beach
A cheerful kite seller at the Nusa Dua Beach

The Nusa Dua Beach is one of the public beaches in Nusa Dua.  The general public can access this beach to try their hand at water sports. However, we found the prices to be expensive here. (Goa has better prices!) Having said that, the water sports facilities (changing rooms, toilets, waiting areas etc.) are well-developed at the Nusa Dua Beach.

Being on the east coast, you can get magical sunrise views.

Heritage

Silver jewelry, UC Silver
Silver jewelry being made at UC Silver

Our favorite bit! Bali is a treasure trove for those inclined towards culture, heritage & history. Dance, metalworking, & painting are just a few of its mainstays. Bali has had a Hindu influence from ancient times, which reflects in the scores of temples found on the island. In fact, Bali is called the island of a thousand temples.

Puri Saren Agung

The Puri Saren Agung is better known as the Ubud Palace. The palace is in the heart of Ubud, with restaurants all around it. The road that it is located on is busy; so, note that you will not get a parking spot here.

puri saren agung
Ceremonial Chairs at the Puri Saren Agung

The Puri Saren Agung is the residence of the royal family of Ubud. The architecture is preserved well & is worth gaping at. The rust & grey-colored buildings are set amidst a charming garden.

Entry is free; so, you can go in & click photos. However, there is a lack of printed information in the Palace, making it a guesswork for sightseers.

Satria Gatotkaca Statue

Ghatotkach Temple, Himachal Pradesh, India
Ghatotkach Temple in Himachal Pradesh, India

You can’t miss this statue. You’ll cross it once you’re on your way from the airport to your accommodation in Kuta/ Seminyak. The statue depicts Gatotkaca, the courageous son of Bheema (one of the Pandavas in the Mahabharata, the Hindu epic) & Hidimbi (a man eater who wanted to eat Bheema but, instead, fell in love with him).

Gatotkaca was powerful & had magical powers. He not only helped the Pandavas win the Kurukshetra war in the Mahabharata, but also sacrificed himself as a victim of Karna’s deadly weapon that could be used only once (which Karna was saving for Arjuna, Gatotkach’s uncle). Hence, he is regarded with respect in Hinduism.

(Bonus – You can find a Gatotkaca Temple & a Hidimbi Temple (both perhaps the only ones) in Manali, Himachal Pradesh, India.)

pura tanah lot
Pura Tanah Lot

Pura Tanah Lot

Pura Tanah Lot is located on a rock formation called Tanah Lot. Tanah Lot itself means ‘ land in the sea ’ in Balinese. True to its name, the rock formation juts out into the sea, with azure water all around.

The Tanah Lot Temple is ancient & a popular pilgrimage spot. The Temple is a 16th C marvel, dedicated to Balinese sea gods (along with Hinduism influence). Thanks to the setting, it has become a cultural & photography destination as well.

Indian Ocean, Pura Tanah Lot,
The Indian Ocean that the Pura Tanah Lot overlooks

The Pura Tanah Lot is accessible during low tide when you can simply walk till it. The main temple is out of bounds for tourists but a small cave with ‘ holy water ‘ is accessible. The priests will expect you to donate & will give you a nasty look if you don’t.

There is another cave with a ‘holy snake’. Legend has it that venomous sea snakes guarded the Tanah Lot Temple from evil spirits. You again need to make a donation to see & touch the ‘holy snake’.

During a high tide, the Temple becomes inaccessible. Then, the Pura Penyawang, an onshore temple is used as an alternative. Don’t forget to visit the Pura Batu Bolong, a temple built on a rock formation, similar to the Pura Tanah Lot.

Pura Batu Bolong
Pura Batu Bolong

As you walk down to the Tanah Lot Temple, you will cross Balinese souvenir shops & restaurants. We’d some refreshing coconut water at one of the many stalls.

The Temple is located in Beraban in Tabanan Regency.

Pura Luhur Uluwatu

Sunset, Pura Luhur Uluwatu
Sunset at the Pura Luhur Uluwatu

Pura Luhur Uluwatu, another sea temple, is located on a cliff on the Indian Ocean, in Pecatu (Badung Regency). In Balinese, ulu means ‘ tip ’ & watu is ‘rock’. True to its name, the Uluwatu Temple is erected on the tip of a rock. The Temple construction year is disputed, but goes as far back as the 10th C.

It is dedicated to Lord Siva, one of the Holy Trinity of Hinduism. Legend has it that the Pura Luhur Uluwatu guards Bali from evil sea spirits. The Uluwatu Temple is accessible through a serpentine pathway. Sightseers end up taking an hour or more to reach the Temple as they can’t help halting at the numerous lookout points along the way.

It is surrounded by a forest with monkeys (who are believed to guard the Pura Luhur Uluwatu against negative influences). The Uluwatu Temple is scenic & a magnificent sunset spot. The Sun dipping into the ocean is something you will remember for years. Thanks to the setting, the Temple has become a splendid photography destination.

sunset, uluwatu temple
Sunsets to die for at the Uluwatu Temple

You need to cover your legs while visiting it. Sarongs & sashes are available at the entrance. If you’re wearing pants, you don’t need a sarong; a sash will do.

Kecak & Fire Dance

A Kecak & Fire Dance is performed every evening at a stage adjacent to the Pura Luhur Uluwatu, lasting an hour. The iconic Fire Dance was a high point of our trip. Against the sunset backdrop, the dance is magical. Dancers enact episodes from the Hindu epic, Ramayana. The background score is provided not by any instrument, but by the ‘chak’ sounds emanated by the performers.

dancer, Kecak & Fire Dance, Lord Hanuman
A dancer in the Kecak & Fire Dance plays Lord Hanuman

We loved the Kecak & Fire Dance from beginning till end. The chanting has stayed with us. The Ramayana episodes were enacted well. Seeing one of our epics beautifully enacted stole our hearts. Definitely recommended!

Go early if you want to see both the Pura Luhur Uluwatu & the Fire Dance. Or, even to get a good seat. Else, like us, you would have to sit on the floor & then have the inflamed husk coming toward you. Also, keep following the story in the pamphlet, else you’ll be lost if you don’t know the Ramayana.

Nature

Gunung Batur
Gunung Batur

At the cost of inviting sniggers, we state that Bali is a lot like India. That is, it’s something for everyone. (Of course, better weather. Of course, fewer people. Of course, smaller distances.) If you’re done with lounging on the beaches, or tired of visiting temples, you still have the option of soaking in nature.

Cantik Agriculture

We knew Bali was famous for its coffee. So, when we got a chance to taste different kinds of coffee, we jumped at it. Cantik Agriculture is a cooperative of local farmers. The coffee bean is processed traditionally. We sampled more than 10 types with each having a strikingly different flavor than the other. The tasting helped us decide which ones we wanted to buy.

luwak civet
A Luwak Civet Image courtesy: Our friend Tushar Belwal

We sampled the popular Coffee Luwak, understood the process by which it’s made & saw the Luwak Civet from whom this coffee comes. (At that point of time, we were unaware of the probable conditions the Luwak Civet is kept in. Knowing better now, we would discourage our readers from opting for the Coffee Luwak. Or, at least find a place where Coffee Luwak is processed ethically.)

The farm had spices of different kinds & a shop where you can buy all their produce. It was on the expensive side but then, it’s once-in-a-lifetime!

Gunung Batur

Mount Batur, dusk
Mount Batur at dusk

Gunung Batur (also called Kintamani volcano) is an active volcano located in Bangli Regency. We visited the volcano at the time of sunset. The mist was settling in slowly, making the picture look surreal.

It’s famous for its sunrise trek, but we chose not to do it. The feedback we’d got was ‘the trek’s difficult’. But even from afar, the Gunung Batur looks spectacular. & who gets to see a volcano everyday anyway?

It got chilly at Mount Batur when we visited in the evening; so, do carry something warm.

Danau Batur
Danau Batur

Danau Batur

Adjacent to the Gunung Batur is the Danau Batur. The Lake Batur is a crater lake, located along the Ring of Fire of volcanic activity. The Lake is considered sacred by the Balinese. It is possible can take a winding road down to the shore.

Danau Batur is a striking color, no matter what time of the day you see it at. As you stand at any of the lookout points, the crisp mountain air & the majestic, crescent-shaped Lake Batur will stun you.

Mandala Suci Wenara Wana
Outside the Mandala Suci Wenara Wana

Mandala Suci Wenara Wana

Mandala Suci Wenara Wana is a natural habitat of the Balinese Long-Tailed Monkey. The Sacred Monkey Forest Sanctuary is a blessed site located in Ubud. We can summarize the Monkey Forest Ubud in one word – enchanting!

It was love at first sight for us – lots of greenery & Long-Tailed Monkeys (also called macaques). The Monkeys usually mind their own business but like they say for every living thing – don’t provoke them. The Forest is beautiful. The moss-covered ruins are lovely. The ruins are of Hindu temples (which are actually still in use).

Temple, Sacred Monkey Forest Sanctuary
Temple inside the Sacred Monkey Forest Sanctuary

While the Sanctuary is well preserved thanks to a community-based management program, signboards displaying the history & significance of the ruins will be beneficial for sightseers.

In the next post, we’ll bring you a few of our favorite places to drink/ eat in Bali. Till then, happy sightseeing!

The Journey, The Traveler

What is it about travel that entices me so? Be it global or national; by air or rail; long or short; with family or friends; official or personal – every single time, my eyes light up. It is not just about travel; it is also about the thoughts that rush to me when I travel. This dawned on me during my travel for an engagement to the hinterlands of UP.

When I tumbled my way in the Bolero from Jagdishpur to Lucknow at sunset, there was a smile on my lips. ‘Riding into the sunset’ was the theme in my mind. The roads were neither great nor poor; yet, I was at peace. I had seen rural youth learning skills to become employable. Their sincere faces were etched in my mind. When I closed my eyes, I could visualize them toiling under the hot asbestos roof, trying to make themselves productive. I thought of us, the privileged ones, how we still curse our lives…

symmetry, like, bada imambargah, lucknow, uttar pradesh, india
symmetry to my liking

When I traveled from Raebareli to Lucknow, my thoughts wandered to the video I had seen of the poorest of poor. They strove to make a better life. They fought to overcome the odds. In a land where women are still exploited, harassed and oppressed, it was heartening to see groups of women come together to rise from the ashes. Even at a towering 5’8″, I felt small in front of them.

In Amethi, I stayed at a guesthouse which was austere but the hospitality freaked me out. The cook stuffed us with the tastiest food possible. The tehzeeb, I realized, was not limited to Lucknow alone.

Lucknow brought back a sense of belonging, though, frankly, I did not remember a thing from my childhood. Still, it felt like home. Tunde kebab and kulfi at Aminabad, walk at Hazratganj, sightseeing at Bada Imambargah, crossing Cantt, kulfi at Chhappan Bhog, Chikankari shopping at Chowk, Walk in Ambedkar Park, and kulfi (again!) at Nishatganj – spread over 5 days. Courtesy from the most unexpected of quarters. Masha-Allah! Being disappointed with the ‘sandstonification’ of Lucknow. And still being enchanted with how Laxman ka Teela became Teele wali Masjid!

restore, bada imambargah, lucknow, uttar pradesh, india
much needed restoration work going on…

I had thought that the beauty of Bhutan brought out the poetess and thinker in me. But I realize it happens to me every time I travel somewhere.

 

History comes alive, Battles of yore resound

The walls conceal mysteries infinite, I realize as I walk up the stone steps;

The India of today, not very different

Similar battles, similar mysteries, I realize as I walk down the stone steps.

It Took a Spell of Rain to Make Us Love

We have been to Goa before. You must know Goa. The city that is synonymous with India, and incorrectly so. Sure, Goa has sand, sea, skin and Sun, and attracts a large share of domestic and international tourists. But is this all that is there to India?

What about the heritage, the culture, the colors, the smells, the sounds, the jostling and pushing, the hospitality, the monuments, the history, the diversity, the religion, the dirt and grime, the easy smiles and so much more?

IMG_8775
We tried photography at various locations

We do not imply Goa has none of these; it does, yet it cannot accurately represent India. So now that we have established how fastidious we are, let us continue where we left off. Yes, we have been to Goa before.

The first time was when we wanted to heal ourselves. We wanted to escape the sudden pain that had been inflicted on us. We wanted to find our inner peace. Or simply put, when we did not want anybody to see our tears.

It was in April; tourist season had not really picked up. We were happy to escape crowds. We lodged ourselves in Panjim, a quiet part, going out to even quieter places, wishing to find our solace.

Consequently, the memories of Goa do not stand out for us from this visit. That trip was more about us than about the destination.

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We soothed our eyes

The second time was when we were in full spirits, gung-ho with life, and ready to take on whatever came our way. This was a more Goa-esque visit. We stayed in Baga, the heart of the city, buzzing with life, days starting late, and nights ending even later.

We thoroughly enjoyed but we asked ourselves if we would not have enjoyed as much elsewhere if we were in the same frame of mind and perhaps had similar company. So, you see Goa did not impress us much.

Sure, for a one-time visit, it is as good a tourist destination as any other. But we know people who go there every year, and perhaps even more than once a year. This fills us with discontent. There are so many exquisite places in India.

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We put our feet up

Why then would one waste one’s effort, money and time on the same destination over and over again? But then, that is us. We cannot repeat. We need our variety. We need new destinations. We need new experiences. We need new journeys. That is where we get our ecstasy from!

But this time, it was different. We think it was the ‘third time lucky’ adage working. We stayed from Friday till Sunday, a short trip. In our experience, these little breaks help tremendously in rejuvenation.

Given that we had not stepped out of Delhi for more than two months, we were not complaining. We were glad to get away.

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We counted the trees

The connectivity from Delhi was rotten. The earliest non-stop flight was at 10:25 AM. You reached after 1 PM; half a day was effectively wasted. Nonetheless, as we had been trying to see the upside of everything, we realized that taking such a flight meant we did not need to get up at an unearthly hour.

True to our nature, we were at the airport with about an hour to spare and used that to gobble down a breakfast at Fresco.

We had a page three crowd in our flight which was on its way to attend a wedding in Goa. We were forced to observe the wedding party as they were dripping with brands, air-kissing quite heavily and were loud. Ah, of course, when did money guarantee class? We immersed ourselves in our books.

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We reveled in the warm glow

Our hotel was only an hour and 10 minutes away. We were staying at Vivanta by Taj – Fort Aguada in Sinquerim. They had sent a pretty little bus to pick its guests up. As soon as the bus started moving, we started falling in love.

It was drizzling; my surroundings were lush green. The rains had washed away the dust; it seemed the plants and trees had been given an extra coat. The narrow roads had been washed clean; Goans were going about their daily lives covered by raincoats or protecting themselves under colorful umbrellas.

We could not take our eyes off. What also drew our attention was the array of colorful houses. Memories of Burano came back to life. Oh how young were we! How ‘in love’ were we! Truly, nothing can recreate the magic of a honeymoon. Or even of courtship.

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We gaped at the clear reflections

We wondered why so many colors, ranging from orange to pink to green to blue. Was it something to do with fishing communities? Fishermen returning at night with their hauls had trouble identifying their homes in the dark? Or were they too drunk?

What was it? Wikipedia told us that coloring the exterior of the house signified the economic well being of the owner. Also, the erstwhile Portuguese rulers fined houses that were not painted. Lastly, white was reserved for the churches.

We were, somehow, not convinced. There had to be a drunk fisherman angle. What is life without a bit of spice!

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We swung in hammocks tossing our worries to the wind

We had not imagined the Taj property to be as pretty as it turned out to be. Located at almost a tip of Goa, flanked by the walls of Fort Aguada, Taj Fort Aguada is sprawled across acres with cottages dispersed throughout its premises.

It is built on a hillock and so the elevation of cottages differ, making thus possible different views. Our cottage was at a fair height. The sea view was unobstructed from there. At that moment, we knew we had finally loved Goa. What the beach, shacks, parties could not do, the greenery, the rain and the sea did.

That evening, we also hit the gym after almost two years. It felt good to get our blood, heart and limbs going. The gym is located between the two Taj properties- Fort Aguada and Holiday Village. The hotel car provides the pick and drop.

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We looked up to see this. A small voice in our head said – duck!

The hotel is one where you need not step out. You can just flit from one spot to another, catching the cool sea breeze, listening to the crash of the sea waves, sipping on something and reading a good piece of fiction.

There are multiple activities arranged at the hotel itself but we, unfortunately, were unable to participate in any. Though, we did avail their spa services. We had visited Jiva before and were thoroughly impressed. This time too, we were not disappointed. It is good to leave yourself in the hands of an expert. Hmm! We reminded ourselves to do this more often.

Our next evening was spent sitting next to the sea, with music playing in the background and the warm light of the candles bringing a glow to our faces.

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We strolled in the lush green gardens…

We traveled to a lot of corners of Goa, either to buy or eat or see. Being on the road is our elixir. Being on the road in a pleasant clime with raindrops falling is perhaps divine. Plants, trees, puddles, earthworms, the smell of wet mud- all brought us to our knees.

Our road trips have brought us closer and closer to Mother Earth. Her beauty is unparalleled. She knows when to be gentle and when to unleash her fury on those who mess with her. This visit was not about us Goa; it was about you in your full glory.

We have no itinerary to provide; we are still mesmerized…

Beauty in Barrenness

There is such an emphasis on adornment. Cakes are expected to be decorated. Clothes are required to be embellished. Girls are supposed to be ornamented. Presentations are expected to be beautified.

Amidst all these trimmings, we forget about the innate beauty of people, of places, and of things. We do not, for a second, imagine there can be attractiveness in simplicity. In our estimation, a plain Jane cannot be beautiful.

Unless we garnish our dishes and make them look pretty, we are dissatisfied. We purchase knick – knacks to be kept around the house; these will, presumably, make our dwellings worthier.

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Emu in such an unlikely place…

When we are conditioned thus, it was exciting to find beauty in barrenness. We had had our eyes set on the Rann of Kutch for quite a while. The white salt desert was enticing. We found the miles of nothingness inviting.

But, going to the Rann of Kutch needed time, and we were not getting any holiday which was of more than three days. So, patiently, we waited. October threw up an opportunity and we found ourselves on the path to Gujarat.

Rail journeys have caught our fancy as we realize it is quite convenient to undertake them as long as we can book in advance. And, well, our travel planning is in ADVANCE! So we booked ourselves onto the Ahmedabad – New Delhi Rajdhani and sat back for a comfortable ride.

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This beautiful thing wanted a ride.

From Ahmedabad, it took us about four hours to reach Dasada, a hamlet on the edge of the Rann of Kutch. We had booked ourselves at Rann Riders, which turned out to be one of the best places we have stayed at. But, more on that later.

We cannot even begin to describe the beauty of the Rann. And, mind you, we were at the Little Rann of Kutch. The Great Rann of Kutch is supposed to be grander and prettier. We went to the Little Rann for a sunset safari; everything they show in photographs and movies is cent per cent real.

For miles and kilometers and a few more miles, there was nothing except the parched land of the Rann, crusted white due to the salt deposits. This was immediately after the monsoon. We cannot imagine what the land would be like during summer.

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A Black-Shouldered Kite

At the far end was a lake, on which the Sun was slowly setting. A flight of flamingos brooded on the lake, wondering surely what we humans found so interesting in them. Or, perhaps, they wondered, how after destroying their natural habitats, humans create sanctuaries to ‘protect’ them.

No matter what the flamingos thought, they were a sight to behold. The curved beaks, the pink bodies, the slender legs- all proving, yet again, what a great artist the One above is.

Coming back to the Rann, the precise barrenness was what we found beautiful and calming. We are so used to chaos around us, and the need we feel to be constantly doing something, that these moments, and these spots, where time stands still, are rare.

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An international sales conference in progress

We felt at peace with ourselves. We felt one with nature. For our eyes, there was the Sun, mellowing down to a soothing yellow. There was the lake, shimmering against the rays of the Sun. There was the earth, cracked and white, and yet moist underneath.

There were shrubs, providing a splash of green in the somber setting. The only sound around us was the patter of the hooves of the wild asses running around. (The Little Rann of Kutch is home to the Indian Wild Ass Sanctuary.) And, once in a while, when the flamingos took flight, their wings flapped to create a symphony.

The only smell we had was of the dry, salty earth. The only taste we had was the salt on our lips. And the only sensation we had was of pesky insects trying to bite us. But we felt complete. All our happy memories rushed back to us to make us smile.

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This one we know. We made friends with one in Jammu and Kashmir.

All our pain disappeared for that moment. And yet, we neither felt great joy nor great sorrow. We just felt peaceful.

The Rann wildlife was another aspect that caught our fancy. We could not imagine a landscape as arid as that supporting any kind of flora and fauna. But, surprise! God must have thought- let me make a few patches of earth unfit for human survival, but let me create a few gorgeous animals who will thrive in the same ecology. Good move God!

Among mammals, you can see the most gorgeous wild asses, nimble desert foxes, shy rabbits, and even more shy nilgais. We are not great at identifying birds but we had some help from our safari guide.

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The gorgeous Wild Ass. Not an iota of fear from the hoomans… It knew this was its turf!

You can easily spot ducks, flamingos, and francolins among many others. Of course, they are all wary of human beings, and will fly away the instant you step closer to them.

Lastly, our resort- Rann Riders- was a delight to stay at. We were in the midst of a lush green setting, making us wonder how such verdure could survive the harsh weather condition.

Acres of plants and trees, the names of which we would take a lifetime to find out, surrounded us. Playing hide and seek in these trees were a plethora of animals – dogs, cats, horses, ducks, peacocks, emus, monitor lizards- all living in harmony with each other and with us human beings.

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Flying flamingos… Ooh! Alliteration!!

Our dwelling was a little mud hut called ‘kooba’, a typical village house but with modern amenities. We woke up to the sounds of the animals and slept to the gentle hum of the air conditioner. Truly a step in the Eco-tourism direction!

We are all the more determined now to visit the Great Rann of Kutch, but it will have to wait, and also for the winter months. Even October smoldered here…

 

We suggest a four days, three nights itinerary to the Rann of Kutch and surrounding areas:

Day 1: Arrive in the morning at Ahmedabad. Take a cab to Dasada; you will arrive here by afternoon. Time permitting, take an evening safari of the Little Rann of Kutch. Overnight at the Rann Riders.

Day 2: Take a morning safari of the Little Rann of Kutch. Come back, refresh & head to Modhera & Patan. You can spend the day gaping at the Sun Temple in Modhera and the Rani Ki Vav in Patan. If your pocket allows, indulge in a Patola sari at Patan. Overnight at Rann Riders.

Day 3: After breakfast, checkout & head to Ahmedabad. Try to get to Agashiye for a typical Gujarati Thali. Spend the evening sightseeing through the Sabarmati Ashram & the Sabarmati Riverfront. Overnight at Four Points by Sheraton.

Day 4: Morning will be a great time to check out the Sarkhej Roja. By afternoon/ evening, prepare to leave Ahmedabad.

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