About Harsh Mehta
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It was a bright Ladakhi afternoon and she was boiling Maggi when I first entered ‘Rangdum Hotel’, called ‘hotel’, even though it hardly seemed to have any guest rooms. It was lunch time, but one probably didn’t need a taste of the noodles to say that they were disappointing, a look at the pan was enough. They were soggy and unappetising, somehow devoid of all the life that a sunny summer day in Ladakh embodies. When she spoke, there was a palpable sadness in her voice:
“Why does everyone eat at the café in front? Is his food that good?”, she asked in Hindi.
Couldn’t have been closer to the truth, I thought. Her Maggi just didn’t seem appealing. The man on the other side of the road, in contrast, served a neat Rajma chawal (and Maggi too on demand). I just tried ducking the question by focusing on her kids instead. Literally. The twin boys were excellent subjects for photography.
After half a dozen pictures, I could have taken another dozen of the two of them, together and singly, had the taxi not honked an equal number of times to call me. Rangdum, you see, is only half way through an almost heavenly but treacherous and 14 hour long ride from Kargil to Padum, the administrative center of the valley of Zanskar, that’s open to the outside world for only a few months in a year. Your heart could fall in love with the beauty of the landscape as many times as it could skip a beat staring at the gushing Suru river steeply beneath the road. As I rushed to the taxi, covering the camera lens, she beckoned,
“Will you simply take the photos or ever send them back to us at all?”
Quick to pick up a defensive note, I replied, “This place is so far off. How can I even send the photos back here?” and hastened my approach to the taxi. I got in, opened the windows to let in some fresh mountain air that was accompanied by her calls,
“Posts do arrive here. We have a postal address as well.”
I was just glad the taxi had taken off.
We moved on, crossing the 200 years old Rangdum monastery, through vast dried river beds, ambling our way past hordes of sheep every now and then. Crisp glacial air kept gushing into our little caravan of 9 men just like the words of the mother and my guilt associated with them. I had chosen probably the most inaccessible place in India for this one week, Padum. Even Leh was full of low-cost airlines, roaring Royal Enfields and a mish mash of mobile phone networks. Deep in the Zanskar valley, in Padum, you needed to line outside a phone booth to make calls to home. How on earth could I have taken the print of a digital photo?
The coming days I spent roaming around Padum. (Padum’s market itself though, could be wrapped up in a couple of hours, including spending 5 mins at every possible shop you can find) To my astonishment, I did manage to find a photo studio which helped me with the prints. I took not one, not two but four. In one, a kid darted stones around the huge expanse of ladakhi grounds, in the other, the second kid bent over to show his face upside down, and in the last two photos, they both stood staring there, in blue sweaters, their noses running most endearingly all the way to their lips and further.
In one instant I knew these fresh faces were the highlight of my trip, more than the two thousand years old Buddha carvings in Padum, or the millennia old Drang Drung glacier we encountered on our way there. I couldn’t have imagined their mother’s delight at seeing the photos.
Drang-Drung Glacier, the largest glacier for public view in Ladakh, a magnificent sight
A week later, when the day to leave Padum came, I couldn’t hide my excitement. As always, a taxi was ‘made’ with 9 passengers – 5 of whom were those who had come with us a week back. To my chagrin, it wouldn’t just move, because the 9th passenger failed to arrive in time from a nearby village. It was almost an hour before we finally set moving. And surprise, surprise, the other fellow passengers, all Ladakhis, didn’t even utter a word of displeasure to him! I, however, had little intentions of making any secret of my unhappiness that beautiful Zanskari morning. It turned out a little strange though. Just my first sentence had all of a sudden silenced not just the late-coming passenger but every other local as well. It wasn’t intended.
We passed again through the same mountains, but a previously barren landscape had changed within a week of our stay in Padum. It had rained and snowed, the mountains revealed a much different façade of varied shades of brown as white and grey clouds engulfed their peaks. Himalayan marmots sat kissing each other on wet rocks, school kids late for their classes, lined the single lane road, and waived their hands, in a bid to hitchhike in the first taxi that way. Reminded of my own school days spent waiting for (read missing) buses, I ensured the driver picked up each of them, only that their schools were literally villages away! They’d get down with several ‘Ju-Ju‘s (thanks) to the driver. The passengers would reply back with another set of Ju-Ju‘s. You can get half your work done in Ladakh with just Ju-Jus and Julays.
“Isme toh dono bachcho ki naak beh rahi hai, isme kaise achhe langenge‘!, she replied.
(“They both have running noses in these pictures. How are they supposed to look good?“)
It took me a while but then slowly it all came back to me. Those weeks spent in Ladakh five years back, that plain lack of emotions of the locals when we most expected them, that slight sadness for everything great in life, that still undying spirit of serving their guests.
For a Ladakhi, life didn’t come that easy. Beneath those local faces that seem so cute to a traveller, lie the cheeks burnt by a harsh combination of severe Sun and extreme cold. Beneath all those cozy hut-like guesthouses, lies a harsh terrain that’s disconnected from the whole world for 8 months in a year. In all those days I spent in Ladakh, I didn’t see a single Ladakhi angry. I didn’t see any Ladakhi jumping with joy either. Very few actually go all the way to express their emotions. Ladakh represents life in its barest forms, the most beautiful and the toughest at the same time. It takes time and patience for a city dweller to understand this fully, or even partially. After all, how many of us walked miles, to another village, to spend a day attending classes at school?
I could just smile at the motherly tone of her reply as I sat there letting all of these thoughts sink in.
I went back, in, to where she was making the same brothy maggi. I picked up a bowl from the table, and extended to her.
“Would you serve me a bit of that?”, I asked.
It is in the bus to the Freedom Square that Tbilisi first gives us its glimpse. If you’ve never heard of it, Tbilisi is the capital of Georgia. Its mazelike, cobblestoned old town reflects a long, complicated history, with periods under Persian and Russian rule. Its diverse architecture encompasses Eastern Orthodox churches, art nouveau buildings with ornate balconies and Soviet Modernist structures. Looming over it all are Narikala Fortress, a reconstructed 4th-century citadel, and Kartlis Deda, an iconic statue of Mother Georgia.
No 37 from the airport, coloured in a tinge of an orange that I have somehow only associated with the Eastern bloc. Last time I saw it, it was on the tram in Budapest. The bus is old, weary and worn off from the trips it has made through the airport and probably through the eras, a Soviet one, a post-Soviet one and a post-war one.
As the lady conductor, clad in green, helps first timers around with the ticketing, an old bald man watches us enter the bus with an expressionless face and then dozes off. As a morning Sun glints through the man’s head, our bus is off on its rickety journey to Tbilisi.
The outskirts of Tbilisi resemble a countryside from a 60s movie. Old manufacturing plants, ramshackle garages, abandoned(or so it seemed) buildings, rusted sedans. The bus stops at regular intervals, a few people boarding at each of them. On one such stop, fat woman clad in black enters. Within moments, there’s garrulous chatter in bus and all of a sudden it seems that everyone who got in already knew everyone inside.
Closer to proper Tbilisi, the first signs of a ‘city’ are visible – towards the right, a huge winged complex, perhaps an upcoming shopping mall, then old multi-story buildings, one apartment lined after another, like a stack of matchboxes, their balconies adorned with drying underwear and bicycles and toys and all other things sundry that define the notion of a city life for a local as much as they defy it for a tourist.
As we stop outside one such building, the fat lady gets out and at least two more aboard to stand in the space vacated by her. The bus moves on. A few hills are in sight, and perched over them, the signs of an ancient city, orthodox churches with conical tops, houses donning hats of terracotta roofs, further ahead on a hill, in the far distance, the tall statue of a lady with a bowl of wine in one hand and a sword in another, Mother of Georgia, they call her, who welcomes friends with the wine while at the same time warding off enemies with the sword.
The bus then turns and veers deeper into the streets of Tbilisi, awarding a closer look at the very same houses. They’re different – old, in colours of grey, blue, black and brown, worn out. In some of them, patches of peeling off plaster reveal brick stacks of a different era, somewhere else, the balconies hang precariously as if they’d fall off any moment and in some others, the paint has given way revealing a not-so-ancient call for attention to itself.
The doors and windows of the houses are a story in themselves. Large and sturdy, at places wooden, at places metallic, all with carvings on them, somehow inviting us into a world that could run decades back. If Georgia were a time travel story, its doors and windows would certainly be the time machines.
We get down at Freedom Square, called ‘Lenin Sqaure’ in Soviet era, which is a completely different facade of the Tbilisi that we just crossed on our way. The square glitters in the pride of a millennia old land celebrating a more recent independence.
Off to the Rustaveli avenue from there, named in the honour of Georgia’s 12th century national poet, Shota Rustaveli. His poem ‘Knight in the Panther’s Skin’ (or Vepkhistqaosani, leave a comment if you can pronounce that!) is a national epic, describing a story of friendship and love that transcends Arabia & India.
On the avenue, old, stout ladies with as much a preponderance of wrinkles on their faces as the lack of them on their stark orange uniforms, clean the footpath alongside the street and stare at us foreigners roaming aimlessly at this hour in the morning. Further ahead we peep through the closed glass doors of the Georgia National History museum that exhibits the legends of this country from pre-historic times. (Just so you know, Georgia has a history of wine cultivation dating back some 8000 years!)
Meanwhile, our curiosity (and hunger) pushes us to explore the darkest of alleys even in morning. Most of them lead to closed residential compounds with a common center-court, something reminiscent of the chawls of Mumbai and similar residential buildings in Budapest. In one such alley, members of a famous Russian heavy metal band, Aria, stare back at us from half torn posters of their upcoming concert in Tbilisi while jostling for space with mindless scribbling on the walls of the alley.
We follow the scribbling and the signs of a ‘possible’ eatery inside, only to find two pot-bellied men, one of them topless, standing in the courtyard of the building and staring at us. A little intimidated, we swiftly rush out and find a basement cafe to try our luck at some breakfast. There, a certainly sloshed lady at the counter first nods a yes to our queries for a breakfast, then no and then exasperatedly falls into the arms of the man sitting beside here, equally, if not more, sloshed. (Some party it must have been last night.)
Eventually, we do find a simple breakfast of puff and coffee in one of the cobblestoned backlanes and while the city is still only waking up, make our way to Didube, the main bus station. The journey begins at the Rustaveli metro station where the vertigo inducing escalators run deep and deeper into the ground, and into the history of this city, as it happens in most East European cities. The first metro line between Didube & Rustaveli, was built in 1966.
And even though, almost seventy years apart from Buapest’s UNESCO heritage status metro line, this one has no less a charm of its own. The old train grumbles as it runs through the dark tunnels & shrieks as it stops while young college kids in the train kiss each other on the cheeks to bid hellos and goodbyes. Tbilisi is both ancient and young at the same time.
At Didube station, a cute little well-dressed kiddo is amused by the chocolate in my hands. I possessively hide it while my friend lets go of the wafers in hers for the kid. Having cleared ourselves of our guilt, we make our way out.
The subway from station to the bus stand is a revelation in itself, of old hags clad in black from top to bottom asking for money, of the numerous hawkers who all want a pie of your wallet, however small it be; those who sell candles for a silent moment with the Lord, those who sing with a guitar and a hat, for a few laris for the beer in the night perhaps.
At the bus station, men sit behind stacks of coffee beans pitching the best ones to their customers, grannies sit on footpaths selling fresh berries and apricots, ladies stand behind huge kegs selling drinks I can never figure out the name for, in spite of asking several times and in all this, they jostle for space and volume levels with taxis and their drivers, Marshrutkas (buses), shops and hoardings. I walk up to an old lady selling a big range of fresh fruits.
I take a picture of hers, though I know it is the lady beside her who is more eager. She prompts me and poses (above shot). I focus on her eyes, and something about them hits me. Probably it’s the eagerness in them or their simplicity, so similar to that of the young kid who came asking for our wafers & chocolate earlier. Somewhere in the deepest of its emotions, Tbilisi blends its old and its young, the ancient and the new, even though it’s a place, to put it in the words of an old Floyd song, ‘lost in thought, and lost in time‘.
Meanwhile, our taxi driver’s calls grow louder in the distance and we make a run past all those stalls in the station, for the taxi, while a sleepy Tbilisi from the night before, is just coming back to life.
He pushed a long pole into the shallow bed of the sea shore as the dighi (boat) slowly drifted into the blue-green waters of the Arabian Sea. ‘Ghai naku kara, ghai naku kara’ (Don’t hurry, don’t hurry!), the boatsman had shouted when this bunch of enthusiastic school children from a nearby village had tried to barge their way in the boat all at once, along with their ‘Sirs’. I sat right in the middle of the boat, at least seventy-eighty more people sitting in every possible direction around me. A noon sun glinted above us making the white cloth of the sail shine way beyond its cleanliness otherwise permitted.
There were no grunting Yamaha generators propelling the boat here. Only a wide sail that swerved around, veering the boat through the waters. For a while, one could hear the wind and the waves whistling to each other, the quiet harmony among the sail, the sea and the wind like a sweet unsung lullaby, a tranquiliser to the senses of almost everyone present. This peace, however, was short-lived, interrupted soon by the flutter of a mobile camera. And then it started.
Mobile phone after mobile phone being extracted from pockets, passed from hand to hand, clicked from one end of the boat to the other. As the boat neared the Janjira fort on the island in front of us, the entropy only increased. ‘Ghai naku kara, ghai naku kara’, echoed the pleas of the boatsman again, in vain, this time in the grand entrance of the fort of Janjira, as people offloaded from the boat.
Kamran, our host at the Golden Swan Beach Resort had suggested taking the Dighi rather than a steam boat to the fort from the nearby village of Janjira. And that had experience had made all the difference. As I stepped out of the boat into the fort, a realisation dawned upon me. Years, infact, centuries back, another group of sailors would have arrived here in those Arabian ‘dhows‘ that brought everything from spices to slaves with them. Inside the fort, garrulous guides, huge canons and ruins told the story of a state that had outlived attacks by all those who came in those dhows, dighis and even ships.
Five canons, each weighing tonnes, lay one after the other, un-rusted inspite of being in the middle of the sea for more than five centuries. Twenty two watch towers circled the twenty two acres over which this three-storeyed fort was built long back – approximately six hundred according to official websites and a thousand years back according to our guide. (Guides in India are always allowed some indulgence, aren’t they?) The fort of Janjira, first built by a Maratha warrior, has a curious history. The stamp collection at The Golden Swan Beach Resort displays fourteen postage stamps from the old Janjira state, each of them bearing a pre-independence era seal. January 2, 1946, 5-10-1935, 18-6-1933, go some of the seal dates. While the stamps themselves were printed in Urdu, most seals were in devnagari script.
The top line print of some of the stamps read ‘Nawab Siddi’, written in Nastaliq (Urdu) script. Unlike most other forts in Maharashtra, Janjira was not ruled by the Marathas. Instead, it was ruled by the Siddis, who came centuries back to India with the Arabs, as a part of the slave trade, according to some accounts. Though originally belonging to the Bantu tribes of east and central Africa, they are today an integral part of the society in Gujrat, Maharashtra & Karnataka states in India and even speak Indian languages.
View from the windows of the fort
One of the Siddi chiefs of the court in Aurangabad was able to retain the fort of Janjira and surrounding the area to setup an independent kingdom, with some sort of allegiance to the Mughals later on. Legend has it, that even after several attempts by the Marathas, British and the Dutch, the fort couldn’t be won back! In itself, Janjira looks like a formidable bastion. Its outer walls, their stones, haven’t given way even after years of corrosion by sea water.
In its hay days, it would have been a small civilisation in itself, with two huge ponds, one Rajwada(palace), three mosques, one temple all housed within the same complex. Our guide informed that the fort was in occupation till as late as 1970s after which the government took over, and ever since, it seems to have languished in apathy. The nearby Rajapuri village’s name not only signifies the royal association but even has a few individuals living who were born in the fort. Surnames in the village reflect the professions they were in, associated with the fort. The ruling Siddis later moved out to their palace, just at the outskirts of Murud.
While I heard the ruling prince moved to New York, the community of Siddis continue to have villages to themselves in coastal parts of India. That morning, while walking bare feet over the serene beach of Murud just behind the Resort, and overlooking the palace of the Siddis, I had wondered what a strange concoction this was- tribes from Eastern Africa, reaching India during the ages of the slave trade, speaking Indian languages, and very much a part of India’s social fabric as any other people.
Later that day I left for the jetty to Mandwa. First a taxy to Alibag, on a route that hug a beautifully clean and slightly rocky coastline to its left for several kilometres. This reminded of my coastal tuktuk rides alongside the western coast of Sri Lanka.
Then, a rickety bus trembled, jumped and rattled through the Konkan coast to Mandwa jetty. To my left and right, blackboards with typical Marathi scribbling of ‘Jewan taiyaar ahe’ in chalk kept pointing towards rustic lunch houses flanking the road. My mind wandered back to the previous day at the resort when the chef had organised a ‘Konkani’ cuisine session. I had been a little disappointed as he chose ‘okra’ (or ‘bhindi‘) for the vegetarian part of the session. Such a done and dusted dish, I had thought. (Even I knew how to make it!) But after all the cooking was done, the chef had added some ‘konkani’
masala to it and then topped it with some Khopra(coconut scrapings). A bite was enough to tell that it was a different twist to the whole okra tale as I was used to it back at my home. Slightly less cooked, which put the whole focus on the warmth of all those chillies, peppers and cinnamon that the konkani masala comprised, the khopra, more like a signature, that sealed the idea of food besides a clean Konkan beach. A little like the story of this region’s people perhaps. If only I had known then, that the Okra itself had travelled from East Africa to the west and south before reaching India, probably with the Arabs, sometime during the slave trade, the word ‘Okra’ itself derived from African terms for the vegetable. Does it sound (or should I say taste) a little similar to the story of the Siddis of ‘Janjira’, which itself is a corruption of ‘Jazeera‘ – Arabic for island??
The Cooking Session
Disclosure – I was hosted by the Golden Swan Beach Resort during my stay in Murud. The experiences, as you can already guess, are all mine.
The sundry details –
Murud-Janjira is approximately 150 kms from Mumbai. One can drive (4 hrs) or take State Transport buses from Mumbai (6 hrs). I took the catamaran from Gateway of India to Mandwa (40 mins), followed by bus to Alibag (1hr) and then another bus to Murud (2 hrs). All in all, it took me 4 hours to reach Murud from Gateway. The Golden Swan Beach Resort is on the main road for the bus, just beside the local government hospital of Murud.
‘Photo bhejoge ya yuhi mere judwa bachcho ki taswire leke ja rahe ho?‘, the mother retorted. An english translation would put her words as “Will you even send back these pics or are you taking pics of my twin boys just like that”. I didn’t have an answer to that.
I was at Rangdum, a tiny village (if it could be called one), in the middle of a road (if ever there was one) to the valley of Zanskar from Kargil. For miles at a stretch one doesn’t come across anything alive here. Padum, the administrative center of Zanskar valley, is a hamlet light years away from what you call ‘civilization’. How in the world could I have sent back processed pictures of these kids in Rangdum where even cell phone networks didn’t work (forget photo printing)?? My guilt knew no bounds here. Shamelessly, I just backtracked my steps to the taxi which was waiting for me to finish the photo session.
I had volunteered in Ladakh five years before and had returned with some wonderful pictures of kids then. I wondered if I’d go back with guilt ridden pics from the current trip. This time, the trip to Zanskar had started with a drive from Leh to Kargil. It’s an arid route. Dry as a desert. Stark as moon. One would wonder how any life sustained here. Yet, one realises, that it is regions like these, far off, on the fringe, that preserve humanity at its best and humans at their warmest. A chai break on the road to Kargil gave a wonderful opportunity to meet a group of kids on their way back from their school.
Strangely, I never understood the reason for this but all the way around Kargil and the Suru valley, there were so many kids out on the roads, streets, highways everywhere. My friend later surmised that it could be due to lack of too many entertainment options, that they were out. No PS3s, laptops, Counter strikes. But only the legendary Views of a valley, grand mountains, gurgling rivers and apricot-loaded trees. Talk of trade-offs.
And then there were those children in the Zanskar valley, who probably walked kilometers at a stretch every morning to get to their schools, some of which could be in different villages altogether. These two kids we met during an early morning car drive, stood on the edge of the road, frantically waving their hands joined together in the gesture of a ‘namaste’ or a prayer. It was dramatic enough to remind me of those days as a kid when I’d miss my school bus and sadly wait for a friend to pass by in his car and give me a hike. Here, I had to force the taxi driver to stop and offer those kids a ride. Their thanks in the form of ‘ju ju‘ , ‘ya ju‘ still echo in my ears. And ofcourse, there was a bunch of school boys with whom we hitchhiked in a pick-up truck to go from a far off monastery to the local grounds for Independence day celebrations. Such a vibrant bunch, all of them.
Some other children we met in Padum, a small hotel owner’s son, a candy crazy little girl, a kid perched upon his father’s shoulders ..
And finally the twins with whom this story started. To my amazement, I did actually manage to find a photo studio in Padum and print those pictures. I handed over a couple of those to their mother while returning back to Kargil. Expecting a hearty thanks, I asked her what she thought of those pics. Her reply – “Kaha achhe hain, naak toh beh rahi hai dono ki inme” (“Hardly good, both have running noses in these pics”). But this time I’m not upset. I just smile. I know better of the Ladakhis than to feel let down by her reply. They have known enough hardships in life to feel too elated or too sad about most things. I had just forgotten this in these five years. Nice to be back, finally.
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Beautiful Mumbai in India.
On a cool winter morning, as one walks down the road to the Sewri jetty in Mumbai, it seems more like taking a guard of honour from the oversized trucks that line both sides of the road. Pass them, and the road opens up.
Towards the left, a smattering of old ship wrecks marks the foreground. And beyond them, a rising Sun glints upon the Arabian Sea, trying to figure its way between the clouds and the smoke that mark the usual Mumbai sky. But there’s so much here that’s unlike the usual Mumbai. Flamingos for example.
It’s the east coast (yes, Mumbai has one!), and in a city known for its evening Chaupati sunsets, we are here to witness a sunrise and so, even the Sun is atypically benign. But more than that, we are here for a glimpse of nature in the otherwise industrial area of Sewri.
A Sunrise through the wrecks
A keener look at the sight reveals those thousands of birds that we’ve come looking after. They stand, in row after row, at the edge of what’s called the Sewri mudflats – wetlands formed by mud deposited after tides. Eyes marvel at the congregation of the white birds as we walk past rows of worn out and junk ships, or rather, large boats. Once at the jetty, the Flamingos are closer, their white bodies contrasting with the grey landscape and the nuanced pink flavours of their wings gelling with the reddish hues of an early morning. It’s like a sea of several curved dark beaks & long necks craning down to find fodder in another sea.
Every now and then, one of them flaps its wings, to reveal a plumage of white, pink and black, all woven together by the careful & yet seemingly effortless precision that only an artist, or the nature itself, can afford. They come in huge numbers, an entire colony of tens of thousands that lines the swamps. The question really though, how did they land up here & why?
A colony of flamingos against the Sun
So here’s the thing. Every year, Mumbai witnesses a migration of Flamingos, mostly lesser Flamingos (more populous with darker bills and white-pink plumage) and a few greater flamingos (less populous, plumage is pink-red). Though one can’t be sure, it’s being said that these migrate from the Rann of Kutch in Gujarat, already known for its Flamingo sightings.
They usually look for swampy habitats & mangroves, which are easily provided for in areas such as Sewri and Thane creek. From the start of the winters till May, these are the abodes of thousands of these birds and several other species. Egrets, Sandpipers, Ibis are some of the other species of birds that can be easily spotted here.
A black headed Ibis and an Egret look for food
Living in the constant grind of a city such as Mumbai, it is sometimes difficult to grasp that such natural beauty may be lying in your backyard. Sometimes, one just needs to look around.
Take a moment to catch one of these birds in flight and ponder at the amazing story of migration that Mumbai is, of birds that flocked from all other parts of the country, to find food & shelter here; of the swamps & marshes, of mud & concrete alike, that provided them all of this; the mud-flats that in a way, represent the richness & also the shallowness of our city lives that all drain into the urban sea called Mumbai. Look at them, an Ibis here, an Egret there, at one moment flocking together, at the other competing for a piece of the same food.
Aren’t you and I, birds here too?
This is a superb vantage point. I stand here and look around. All I can see is several cragged peaks, of huge snowy mountains, lined one after the other. A placid lake lies at their feet. Clouds move in and out, sometimes just hanging around half way through to their height, in suspended animation. Snow smattered across the gradient of adjoining mountains melts, then solidifies again to form saucer like silvery platforms of ice between them. Had this been a larger mountain system, this would have been a glacier.
There’s little I can hear, no animals, no birds at this height. I open my eyes. I stand facing the Mumbai skyline. The blaring horns of vehicles and massive drum beats of a festival celebration regain focus. All this while, I have been here, closing my eyes, trying to recede into a picture of the Himalayas that I’ve witnessed so often.
I run away from Mumbai almost once every year to these mountains. Only recently did I realise that they aren’t just a place high in the northern altitudes where I seek to hide. They’re somewhere around, high and north yes, but closer, in my head. I seek refuge in them each time I want to run away. In a still moment of time, I’m there, glaring at their height, their magnificence, thinking nothing but recalling a memory of another still moment when I witnessed them, right there, in Kashmir, in Ladakh, in Nepal, in Himachal. And only yesterday, when I realised about this ‘recession’ of my head, did I wonder if travel is more than just a visit to a place one wanted to tick off the bucket list.
Somewhere, in the Himalayas of Kashmir
Has it ever happened to you that a good time spent at an awesome location kept coming back to mind long after you returned? The lost feeling of running around in the alleys of a European town, a drink with friends at a tucked away cafe, a serendipitous discovery of a lake in the mountains while you mistakenly went astray, the sounds of street-side music that you enjoyed only because you sat down to listen to it since you had all the time in the world, the clap-claps of horses walking on mountain soil or cobbled-stone streets, the wafts of kebab or olive oil or the simple mixture of sugar with butter reminiscent of a sweet you had where you travelled, the terrible songs of the nineties with Sonu Nigam singing for T-Series reminding you of a country side local bus you took in India, or the music of a Rajasthani instrument heard in a movie reminding you of the time in desert, the taste of a paratha dripping in ghee reminding you of a detour in the Parathe wali gali of Delhi, and the list goes on.
A carefree musical performance in Berlin
Do the sights and smells of food remind you of some place you visited?
I live in Mumbai and as awesome as its history is, the city has turned ugly at the hands of people like me and another 20 million who live here. It’s ugly to the extent that we rarely realise that the same cobbled stone streets that line several of those lovely European towns also line Mumbai’s streets. But each time I hear the sound of a trolley being pulled over these streets, I am reminded of Prague. It was there that a friend and I dragged our trolley bags several times from one hostel to another in Prague’s charming old town square for lack of prior bookings. And as tiresome as it was there, it’s just become a wonderful memory, reminding me of all the enjoyable times we had in Prague. As horrible as these Mumbai streets are, now I usually don’t mind dragging my trolley bags around here once in a while.
The alleys of a Bohemian town
And so, I come back to the point that travel isn’t merely a tick mark on the bucket list. It’s an intense thought, a powerful one. Like those very few but profound childhood memories that seem to come back to us in flashbacks; like those instances from our past when we won over our own troubles, or the echo of a hearty laughter with friends or family several years back. Each of them has, upto an extent, the power of influencing our actions or shaping our lives. Travel is just that. Merely, a thought. As simple as that and as complex as that.
At this point, I quote a few lines of a Sufi song
Main ta koi khayal, (I am just a thought,
Main deedar, deedar main wich, I am the vision, the vision is in me,
hun milisaan naal, Now I can be met through
Khayal de, Only a thought
Main taan, koi khayal. I am just a ‘thought’)
What reminds you of travel?
What reminds you of your travels? Sights? Sounds? Memories? Church-bells? Perfume smells?
As I try to figure out a way through the narrow lanes of Dubai, surrounded by the archetypal wind-towers perched on restored middle-eastern dwellings,
Getting lost in Dubai is culturally fascinating. Dubai relishes in its unabashed youth. With its perfectly carved out roads, immaculately laid out signboards in Arabic and English, its sky-scraping buildings that’d rather kiss the sky than touch a traveler’s heart, it’s a little tough to get lost here. Wherever in Dubai you be, you’ll always have the tallest building in the world to show you a way, If nothing else. But what if you indeed came here to get lost, in its medieval past or in its meandering, dusty wadis, or its manipulative bazaars? Wait. Does Dubai even have them? Let’s explore.
This is where the past of Dubai comes to life, in the restored village in Al-Fahdi district. More commonly known as Al-Bastakiya, almost a century ago, it was the abode of the Iraqis, Indians and other communities that arrived then in Dubai. Now, the Sheikh Mohammed Centre for Cultural Understanding(SMCCU), located in the same premises, organizes guided heritage tours & cultural meals within the restored quarter, both of which lend wonderful opportunities for visitors to gain insights into Emirati culture, religion and even cuisine!
The tours take you around Bastakiya, with guided commentary on the old architecture and its pertinence with respect to the culture of the Emirate and usually end with a visit to the Diwan mosque followed by coffee (with Arabic dates!) in a Bastakiya house. Needless to say, all of these, including the time at the mosque and the coffee time, are great chances to have a candid conversation on the Emirati lifestyle and the SMCCU guide and host will most probably ensure that you don’t return unanswered.
And if (like me), you too get lost in Bastakiya, you may just find yourself in a charming art gallery or its quaint café! The XVA art gallery and the Arabian Tea House cafe are two such places and can help with some great breakfast.
If this wasn’t enough, there’s accommodation at some of the guest houses within Bastakiya. Ever thought what it’d be like to stay in a (at least) 100 year old restored village in the heart of a bustling metropolis like Dubai?
‘Outdoors’ is a good question in Dubai where even the ski-resorts tend to be indoors and probably the best answer we have heard to this is the ‘evening desert safari’. Ditch the desert and instead try out the morning Hatta safari. No, there isn’t any belly dancing music here, only the beeps of your international roaming cellphone to tell you that you’ve crossed the UAE-Oman border multiple times. Take some time off the phone, to have a look at the Hajjar mountains among which Hatta, the exclave lies.
Hatta boasts of an array of Wadis (valleys) and to add colour, pools of blue-green water among them. One can hike, one can bike, and if nothing else, at least take a morning dip or two in the waters of these pools before stopping at the Hatta heritage village on the way back. This is another restored village with a museum of sorts to exhibit the old village life style. The return route is a scenic ride through muddy mountains, best enjoyed through a self-drive.
As a separate itinerary, one can also head to the Musandam peninsula, where camping, fishing and snorkelling are the norm of the day. Do check for entry rules for your passport though, for both Hatta and Musandam will involve border crossings between UAE & Oman.
Yes, there’s one inside the Dubai mall also and that’s not the one we are talking about here. The Souks (local markets) have been an important part of the middle-eastern lifestyle and continue to remain even today, albeit only a little more charmingly. Cross over the creek to the other side of Dubai, quite literally, where the old markets, of gold and spices promise to bedazzle at least two of your senses, optical and olfactory.
And if your taste buds feel left out, wander in the lanes till you stumble across a camel milk ice-cream shop tucked away in a quiet corner. Eat to your heart’s content and then head out, haggle for the Persian and Kashmiri zafran, smell in the Arabic coffee, gaze & gap at the magnificence of the jewellery in the gold souk and lose yourself in the aroma of spices flowing in from every direction in the spice souk.
And after all these sensory overloads, end the day with a stroll along the creek, where the water front buildings light up with bridal elegance in the night and watch the dhows pass by with an ease that’s in stark contrast with the speeding SUVs behind you. Spend some time wondering which of these is the real Dubai. That, of the tallest tower tearing through the winds into the sky or that, of the wind-towers of Bastakiya? Either ways, you’re already lost in (the thoughts of) Dubai!
I imagine myself standing in front of this narrow yet vast ocean and take a deep breath. The waters here smell of a certain legend (apart from sea food of course!) No wait. Actually several legends.
For these waters are no less in significance to the Silk routes, or the Grand Trunk roads of the world. These are the waters that once connected the greatest civilizations of the world. India with China, the near east of Arabia & Persia to the far east that lay beyond.
It was here, in Melaka, in front of the very same waters of the Malacca Strait that a Hindu king from Sumatra made friends with a Muslim king from China , to create a city that became a living embodiment of vibrant and bustling cultural mix of the Malay land. This is Melaka and I can’t help but wonder what a treasure chest of culture this would be. But this, alas, is just a dream. For I’m still here, in my room, with nothing but a laptop at me, forget the treasure chests.
But then, what’s a fantasy without a flight, what are wings without some wind? So I lent some wings to my fantasies for a dreamy flight to Malaysia to figure out those five experiences that these folks at Blogadda seem so keen to know about. Let me take you through a tour of the flight here –
1. Welcome to Tioman. An island once rated as the best in the world. It’d be perfect to just laze around in the peace of Tioman, sit at the beach, and give the mind & body a perfect detox from our city lives here. Tioman is like that quiet paradise that just quietly got forgotten somewhere. (Just like those aisle seats that thankfully no one chose in front of the window ones!)
An evening at an island in Malaysia
2. The Window Seat – Known for its unparalleled views! Melaka. For a view into the Malaysian society and its tenets. Into the religions, ethnicities, cultures that make up this society. And for a view into its rich and absolutely unmatched history. To take a peek into the stories of the traders who came generations back all the way from Gujarat & Arabia to Malaysia and further. And the spices that flew through the Straits of Melaka.
3. The Middle Seat – Known for, simply put, being surrounded all around! For a middle seat experience, my dream takes me to Taman Negara, one of the oldest Tropical forests around on earth. For spending a few days ensconced by greenery all around and spotting some of the rarest mammals & avifauna around. Imagine waking up to a different sound each time you do. (Middle seats are known for that though!) And much like a middle seat, you’d need to take permission to get in the forest!
4. The In-flight food – Known for its assortment of multiple cuisines for everyone. Penang! The city that wins the hearts of all foodies. With a food culture that boasts of Indian, Chinese & Malay influences all at the same time, I wonder if it’ll be as much a lesson in history as in gastronomy. Food for heart and food for thought both!
5. And last but not the least, the oxygen mask – Known for giving goose bumps & adrenalin jumps. A dive in Sipadan! Yes, the fact that Sipadan is one of the best diving sites in the world keep luring me. Imagine being surrounded mid-water by a school of Barracuda! And then topping off the day with a good time with the folks at the stilt huts over the clear waters of Mabul. Bliss!
And now that this list of experiences gets over, I realise that it’s almost midnight on 24th March and the ETA of the flight is close. Cabin crew at Malaysia Tourism, please prepare for landing and friends, fasten your seat belts. We may soon be landing in Malaysia!