Tuesday, March 28, 2006

Falstaff meets the Pacific

Falstaff, our superhero* goes and discovers Washington and meets the Pacific.

"As the sun goes down, the sky is bathed in gold, with great swathes of purple cloud drifting across. The rock formations around us seem ossified and timeless, set in an endless twilight of stone, trapped in the shapes of their sorrow. I think of Lot's wife. As the sun vanishes and the sea gleams in waves of gold, these rocks are the only thing that can resist reaching out to the sunset, going forward to the very edge of the tide to try and touch the glory of the sky at dusk. Here at last is the moment made timeless, and I begin to finally understand the vision, the intuition that drove Yeats to write Byzantium. Here it is - the dolphin torn, the gong tormented sea, here are the golden smithies of the Emperor breaking their flood, here is the flame "that no faggot feeds, nor steel has lit, nor storm disturbs". In this shining, spectacular instant all you have to do is to open your heart to the distance in order to fully experience the majesty of the Pacific, its ageless, immutable presence. That this is the high point of the trip is unquestionable, just watching the changing colours of the sky and the shoreline would have ensured that."

Read on if you want to plan a trip in his footsteps.

*this term is under trademark and thus I can't use this in the title. But I couldn't call him what Boingboing wants me to call him

Monday, March 20, 2006


When I was a kid, I used to hear about Niagara in references to some magic trick or the other - magicians bound in chains jumping off and getting free miraculously. And the Maid of the Mist and the yellow raincoats!

So when my parents shifted to Toronto, I got an excuse to travel to that part of the world. My first trip was in July 2005. Middle of summer. Canadians living it up, the few months of summer they get. Clear blue skies (which is such a contrast from winters - will get to that too), warm sunshine on your back. Sometimes as warm as back here in India. Best part about a new place is if you have old friends. Shaun Mehta. My old friend who had come on exchange to India and we kept in touch ever since. He plays the part of an immaculate host superbly. Took me around town. We talked. and then he offered to drive me down to Niagara. It sounded good and my brother tagged along too.

If you are driving from Toronto to Niagara it should take you around 110 km (from Mississauga) which is around 1 hour and 30 minutes by car. You would need to take the 403W to Hamilton (around 8km) after which you would need to travel 24 km on 407 ETR W which would lead to the QEW ramp to Niagara. Keep going on this for 70 km and you should be there. You would pass the towns of Grimsby, St. Catherines The best place to park is just opposite the entry for the Caves; you cross the falls on your left.

The first thing that hits you when you walk to the railings is the spray. The good kind which makes you smile. We were grinning at eachother as we got wet. Made me remember when I was a kid, coming back from school, walking in the rain. It was a nice feeling. This tops it. And the noise. Some serious tonnes of water going over. How things like these transfix us, I don't know! Shaun suggested that we do the caves instead of the Maid of the Mist as according to him, its much better. So we nodded and got our tickets.

Tip: As soon as you land up there, and want to do either the Caves or Maid of the Mist, buy your tickets as usually it'll be anywhere 3-5 hours before your turn comes. In those 3-5 hours, walk around, go to Clifton Hill, get some coffee or some beer at the Hard Rock Cafe. Its a nice place to walk around and explore. If you are a WWE fan, theres a retail store on Clifton Hill you might want to check out.

When our time came, we trooped down this serpentine queue where you go down the stairs and pick up your personal yellow raincoats (basically a polythene sheet to put over yourself). There are 3 areas in the cave to explore (if I remember correctly). The best is the deck where when you step out, the falls are on your right gushing down furiously. Awesome. Only someone who's been there can understand what I'm talking about! Spend as much time here because its an out-of-the-world experience.

When I was back there during the winter with Sunil on Christmas day, the falls were a different sight. A pretty picture. Ice everywhere. White. But the spray still hits you. So come prepared with a jacket unless you wanna freeze to death after getting wet. And get one with a hood. Leather gloves are preferable. In the evening they shine colored lights on the falls.

You should try and do both the summer and winter trips if possible. But at least one. Then you would know what you had been missing!

Friday, March 17, 2006


The following is an article I wrote for a magazine sometime last year. It derives from two different trips to the same place. The first was with dhoomketu sometime in 2004, and the second was with a four friends on New Year's Eve, 2005.

Sand in My Shoes

It takes a certain kind of determination to turn one’s back on the establishment to minimise revelry and hit the sack early on New Years Eve. It takes a little more than that to wake up at five in the morning on New Years Day and make one’s groggy way to the Gateway of India to catch the first ferry to Alibag. The moral high ground from which one looks upon the remnants of a festive Mumbai night does little to please my sceptical fellow travellers.

The first ferry leaves at six from Gateway, and we make our way to the upper deck of the Nazia. The bracing sea air, the imperfect chill in the air, and the gathering light join hands and set about attempting to affirm the fact that this was actually a good idea. The ninety-minute crossing across the bay seems like much less, with the island of Elephanta, assorted ocean-liners and the occasional fishing boat all passing us by at a leisurely pace, setting down the leitmotif of the weekend.

The short bus-ride to Alibag has us warming-up to the salty air. The city and its various lures are readily forgotten. The small but busy coastal town has little in store for us weekend road-trippers. We wait in the bus-stand for the next State Transport bus that will take us southwards down the coast.

Most of the two-hour journey to Murud is spent staring out of the window in wonder. This is an awe-inspiring drive around half-hour out of Alibag. The highway makes its unhurried way between the hills and the sea. There are places where the highway is barely ten metres from the high-tide line, while gently sloping hill and dale commence immediately on the other side.

Murud is yet another quaint little coastal town, with a significant weekend crowd, recent tidal disasters notwithstanding. The palace of the Siddi king, atop a hill just before the town begins, looks interesting. But it’s private property, not for tourists. The town and its unobtrusive beach do not excite really. Its narrow lanes are animated with an equal mix of weekenders and townsfolk. We decide to move on, piling into an auto-rickshaw that proceeds along the same road, towards Janjira. “It’s just two hills away sa’ab”, the smiling driver informs.

Twenty minutes later, the auto groans around the bend that reveals Janjira fort, and the vision proceeds to place itself into our minds forever. Standing proud amidst crashing waves is a majestic fort in the water, roughly a kilometre from the coast. The imposing sight from high up in the hills looking down on the tiny town and large fort reminds our shutterbug of his mission, and he makes good time with his equipment.

We reach the little jetty and pay our twenty-rupee fare. An entire tourism economy of vendors and peddlers thrust everything from potato chips to soft drink at us as we pile into the crowded sailboat, which is frighteningly low in the water. Riyaz the smiling boatman doubles up as resident guide, and proceeds to narrate the proud history of the 16th century Siddi fort, which took a century and half to build, and was never conquered since. Janjira is a mangled form of Zizera, Arabic for island, we learn. The sailboat pitches and rolls, as we drift surprisingly quickly towards the impending monument.

We wet most of our lower halves getting into the small entrance of the fort at the uncomfortable makeshift jetty. The architectural marvel, however, is impressive. The impregnability of the fort makes itself readily known. Salim, in the meanwhile, regales us with the tale of the deception of Perim Khan and his two Abyssinian followers who entered the fisherman’s makeshift island fort as traders. After plying their hosts with sufficient wine, they captured the island and kick-started the construction of the fort. The Kalal Bangadi, an eighteen feet long cannon with eight-foot diameter, was built to impress, and it does such duty with pride.

The dilapidated queen’s quarters, more large guns, steep turrets and green stagnant bathing pools do their rounds. Our guide proudly points at the wreck of Shivaji’s descendant Sambaji’s attempt at a rival fort, further testimony to our bastion’s powers of defence. We wish to see the underground tunnel below the sea that leads back to the town of Janjira. No one really knows where it is, says Salim. It’s been years since it was used. “But it really exists”, we are reminded. Hunger coaxes us away back to the waiting sailboat.

You must eat at Patel’s Inn in Murud, everyone replies. Patel’s affirms the faith the populace have in it, and does well to reinforce our belief in coastal cuisine. The place is packed all through the lunch hours on weekends, and we’re lucky to get a table within ten minutes. The open-air feel below thick foliage, simple décor, and quick service reinforce the cooking, making it a popular choice. The limited bill of fare makes our order an obvious one. The best idea is a full meal (chicken, fish or crab) supplemented with one or more of the side dishes. Fried Prawn, Surmai curry compete with kokum juice and soul curry for attention. The well-worked appetites make room for all and more. The cooking is predominantly malwani, in keeping with the rest of the coastline. The seafood, expectedly, is very fresh.

After some post-lunch deliberation, we take another auto-rickshaw back up the coastal highway to Kashid, our last stop for this weekend. Kashid is a simple fishing village, barely a few square miles wide. The highway is less than a kilometre from the waterline; silvery sand and palm trees cover the intermediate portion. The compact little village is on right on the other side of the road.

Kashid’s beach tops off the weekend in style. Everyone and everything is on the same languid plane of consciousness. It is a beautiful world, one is gently reminded. Hammocks are quickly settled into, while the sun takes her time to down the lights. One eminently cinematic sunset and too many bun-omelettes later, we head back to the silent village, and turn-in for the night.

The plan for day two is obvious. The hammocks on the beach beckon, and are obliged as soon as is humanly possible on a Sunday morning. The sea is not rough, and the temperature is just right to laze about in the water. We walk the entire two-odd kilometre gentle curve of the beach, ogling wistfully at the row of picturesque beach houses, a stone’s throw from the water’s edge. We reach the end of the beach, where a tiny picture-perfect creek pours out into the sea.

There are a reasonable number of weekend getter-aways from Mumbai on the beach today. A group of European families arrive in their station wagons, and set up picnic table under the palms. The children jump readily into the water. The beachside shacks serve up a restricted, yet sufficient assortment of refreshment.

The delightful weekend draws to a gradual close. We decide to avoid the buses and use the auto-rickshaws back to Alibag. The open mode of conveyance is ideal for the ride, the bracing sea air being better accessible. There is a change of vehicle at an intermediate town. The soporific Sunday sunshine, and insistent waves cajole us to stay, or at the very least, return.

Thursday, March 16, 2006

Songs of the Road

"That's one thing about my life; it has a great soundtrack", said Roddy Doyle in The Woman who Walked into Doors. Similar affliction affects my friend, Falstaff, who has a soundtrack to his Vermont trip. Served with cookies, dal, biryani and various other assortments that he had across the way. Do read anytime you have a weekend off and are wondering what to do in New York.

"Further north, we stop at a sweet little roadside bakery, pick up fresh scones and cookies (and some of the best Cappucino I've had in a long time). The stereo is playing Bismillah Khan. The shehnai swoops and peaks with the control of a true master; as we listen, the music takes over, we close our eyes, hang suspended in its shrill, swooning universe, in the endless labyrinth of its variations."

Consider the following paragraph, which captures Beethoven and biryani (though I must remind Falstaff that chicken biryani is like chicken sausages or IMFL, completely full of falsehood and non-deserving of a place in your exquisite tummy.)

"Consider strangling V and T when they finally arrive, Beethoven blaring blithely from the car stereo. Actually start to pull out belt of raincoat as they wax eloquent about awesome South Indian meal they had and which, it seems, was the reason for their delay. Then discover that they've brought me some food. Thoughts of homicide disappear amid loud munching sounds from the back seat as I make steady progress through a monster helping of chicken biryani. It's a robust and bracing biryani, the kind where the cook believes that liberal quantities of chilli powder are a valid substitute for more delicate seasoning. Half way through the meal I discover that V and T haven't bothered to bring any water. My mouth is burning with the spice. I consider sticking my tongue out of the window. I think I may have abandoned the strangling idea too hastily. Then I make the important discovery that the best way to deal with spicy food is to have more of it, thus temporarily drowning out the burning sensation."

Do pay a visit to Falstaff, a fellow traveller, if there ever was one!!

Tuesday, March 14, 2006

Venice by Dawn

Come after the summer’s over, come on a weekday and come early in the morning – was the advice an Italian I knew gave me when I told him that I am going to Venice. That was our best chance of catching Venice, instead of watching millions of Japanese with camera-wearing eyes and Americans with trainer-weary feet.

Since the advice seemed reasonable, I and two of my friends found myself getting off an overnight train at Mestre at five-thirty in the morning during our week-long Italy trip on a November morning, going towards the most serene of cities. 15 minutes and another train later, we got out of Santa Lucia station in Venice, trying to figure out how to reach Grand Canal and St. Mark’s square fast. However, no one was around in that dark hour and we decided to walk out to the bus station. On the Grand Canal.

Now, findings canals in Venice is as expected for a traveler as snake charmers in India (thankfully, not as hard to find). Yet, it is difficult not to react when you look past an ordinary looking bus-stop and catch the first sliver of water shrouded in a light mist. We let out a few whoops instantly.

We had to wait a bit for our first vaporetto (the famous number 1, which goes round the Canal) and struck up a conversation with John, a Brit living in Milan, who was here for a day. He wanted to capture the morning light off the lagoon and take a few pictures of San Giorgio Maggiore before the tourists made the city look ‘appalling’.

Now, however, it was dark and city didn’t look anything at all. Which according to a lot of people who have come here, isn’t bad. The houses which are worn-down at the edges (all of them are) and the dark canals look dirty to them. The same people turn up their nose at old towns that are not treated with a coat of varnish every year. However, John and I had no problems with the melancholy. The noise of the approaching bus shook the mood out though.

Right then, child-like excitement of being in Venice and catching a waterbus gave way to wonder. Silvery mist which had hung around the canal turned to pale gold, as the light and the bus arrived at the same time. As the bus started winding past the lovely classical buildings piled one after the other, we took the best seats at the bow.

Thankfully, the bus moves slowly allowing the eyes to take in all. Just as you notice Ca’d’Oro, with pink walls, does the Rialto bridge decide to take over. The bridge made in 1500s by Antonio Da Ponte (whose last name means Bridge) has enough space below for boats to pass and enough shops on it for it to become the centre for souvenir hunters. Right now, however, all the shopping was happening on the fish and vegetable market on its bank. In the morning light, the fish looked lilac and gold.

As the light grew in the morning sky, the mist, which had shrouded the statuettes on the corners and the carvings above the doors, gave way. As we looked ahead at the Venice’s city hall, made in the 12th Century, the city was coming to life. And John became suddenly worried that the sun would have removed the fuzziness that Monet saw when he peered across the lagoon at San Giorgio on Castello island and started taking pictures of the multitude of palaces and buildings on the banks.

He need not have worried. Just as we passed Galleria del’Accademia on our left, did the Santa Maria della Salute appear. Resplendent in the salmon light, the massive church built in 1682 as a dedication to Virgin Mary, looked like a gatekeeper. Just besides the church, the Canal melts into St. Mark’s basin and as we passed the misty outpost, we were torn between the Palazzo Ducale (Doge’s palace), the bell tower and the basilica on the right and an eerily similar San Giorgio (with its own domes and bell towers) on our left.

As we were going to St. Mark’s square anyway, we decided to side with John and looked out into the mist towards the beautiful island. Soon, our vaporetto gave a hoot signaling St. Mark’s.

It was almost seven when we sat down in the middle of the ‘most beautiful drawing room’ in the world – the St. Mark’s Square. Sharing the space with us were a few locals and lots of pigeons.

The coffee tables were just being laid and the four copper horses in St. Mark’s basilica looked out into empty space. Just above the horses, the culmination of styles marked by Byzantine domes presented a contrast to the Doge’s palace. The palace actually looks like a brick warehouse, supported by delicate stone arches. The bell tower, from which criminals and heretics used to hang for days in cages, completed the curios brew. The sun was just behind St. Mark’s and we decided to rest there, looking at the sky grow lighter.

We closed our eyes for a bit. Suddenly, we were surrounded by noise of pattering feet. We were in the middle of the invasion. American old men and Japanese groups had taken over, forming lines to enter the basilica and climb the tower. The seats would not be empty for some time. Sellers of gondolier’s hats were setting shop.

It was seven-thirty and for a couple of hours, Venice had lived up to its name of the most serene one. It won’t be the same again, whole day.

I wrote this for an Indian travel magazine in December, 2004. The trip still stays fresh.

Monday, March 13, 2006

Travelling light

Thats something most of us have not been able to master. I would love to do with only one bag but I often end up carrying other people's stuff. Ok, thats something I can't help. But if you are looking at ways to figure out what to take, maximise space and pack well and as such travel light, you might want to visit OneBag.

They claim to offer exhaustive (some might say exhausting) detail on the art of travelling light, living for an indefinite period of time out of a single (carryon-sized) bag.

Get wise, get light!

Missing the Mardi Gras

The Plan: Fly to Chicago on Friday evening, meet a couple of friends, then drive out to St. Louis early Saturday morning in time for the Mardi Gras parade. Stay overnight in St. Louis, drive back Sunday morning. See the city (if you can ever see a city in one evening) on Sunday. Fly back early Monday morning and head straight to work.

The Problem: Meeting friends on a Friday evening, and expecting to drink sufficiently little that evening to wake up sufficiently early the next morning.

The Reality:

R wakes up at 6, as planned, and begs, grovels, for an extra hour's sleep. Since he's going to drive, and since we're all in the same shape as he is (but too dignified to beg), we aquiesce.

R wakes up at 7, and begs for another hour. We agree to half an hour.

By the time we're all ready, it's 8:30. After stops to buy coffee and food and for smokes, we reach St. Louis finally at 2:30 p.m. The parade is over, and only its junk remains - debris from the floats, broken beads on the ground. We settle for being tourists, go up in tiny steel cubicles to the top of St. Louis' arch. The view is strangely disappointing, as the trip has been so far. As must be, when strangers decide to be friends taking a trip together somewhere. Starving after no meals throughout the day, there is, really, only one option: alcohol.

The TrainWreck:
We walk into "TrainWreck" - a restaurant / pub / nightclub, and things begin to get happy. Copious amounts of beer and vodka are consumed, happy people at the next table join us, and we all get up and dance (around the tables, thankfully, and not on them), and exchange phone numbers. S calls from Delhi, and I speak to him for half an hour, but have no idea what we spoke about the next day - I only have a vague memory of using the F word fairly often.

R wants to drink on the way back, so I drive back part of the way on Sunday. Open roads, miles of nothing all around, wonderful driving. R plays DJ, inserting CDs and going ga-ga over some song before losing patience and skipping to the next one, till we are at the end of our tether. (It is annoying, when singing along loudly and tunelessly with Billy Joel, to suddenly find oneself singing loudly and tunelessly on one's own while the CD searches for the next track.)

The Madness:
Chicago is big, and R doesn't know his way around yet. But we manage to find our way to a comedy club, where there are some decent performances, then onto downtown Chicago. As we drive around, R, who can barely see straight by this point, shrieks at us desparately to keep our eyes open. "Quick, what's that road? what's that road? Is it Michigan?" "We're on Michigan already, aren't we?", I ask, poking my head out of the window to check. "Shit. OK, so is it Congress Parkway?" And so we navigate on.

The Sight-Seeing:
And so, if you visit Chicago, let me recommend that you see (based on my somewhat unconventional tour, which comprised coming across things more by accident than design, and my even more unconventional and somewhat pickled tour guide who made up for his lack of information with liberal doses of scorn, alternating with careless inventiveness) the Millennium Park (which we saw from a distance, and which, as per R, "has some structures and shit"), the famous Chicago theatre (which is "famous for some shit") and the Magnificent Mile (a mile of road on Michigan avenue, famous for shopping, but with some old architecture that is interesting). The Millennium Park, R says, letting go of the steering wheel and gesturing grandly with his arms to the near-detriment of the car in front of us, is the biggest park in the US. P and I both look suspiciously at him. "Bigger than Central Park?" "Oh, Shentral Park!" says our guide, "yeah, that might be bigger. OK, sho it'sh the shecond largesht." Moments later, he tells us that Chicago's Hard Rock Cafe is the second oldest in the US. A moment of thought, while we just look at him suspiciously. "I jusht made that up", he tells us proudly. "Do you even know this city?", I ask him. "Not really", he says in rare moment of honesty, following it up immediately with another whopper. But to do him credit, he does find his way to the House of Blues (where we missed B B King playing the previous night), entirely by the hit-or-miss method of "that looksh short of familiar, let'sh go that way", and eventually does manage to find his way back home.

The Epilogue:
I sleep through the ride to the airport the next morning, and all the way back on the flight. So we missed the Mardi Gras parade, and so we didn't end up doing anything we couldn't have done in New York or Chicago... but it was a fun trip anyway. And it's fun to have strangers become friends.

Pictures are here

Cross-posted here

Sunday, March 12, 2006

First Entry

Start of a long journey, I hope. A pic, what else? By T.

Thursday, March 09, 2006

A new journey...

Progga had posted this a few days back. And Kau posted this. All of us love travelling. But we keep our travel memories hidden in those small boxes in our head. Progga reminded me of our train travels in 3-tier sleepers (non-ac) during college days. On an average there would be 15 of us travelling to Shimla, Goa, Hyd, Ahd, Mumbai, Digha etc etc. And each of them were an adventure. Then we all went our seperate ways. But travelling didn't stop. For some, work alone takes care of that. This blog would try and capture journeys, old and new and hopefully make for good reading! So let the jouney begin...

This pic was taken in Helsinki; the town centre which was converted into a global village.