Sunday, October 17, 2010

Soorti Saturday

A very, very brief trip to Surat on Saturday. Some first impressions - 
Change is a difficult thing to find. 
A unique Surat speciality - ice paan. Which is regular paan filled with crushed ice. Have it on a hot afternoon and your whole head fills with this ice-cold liquid feeling, flavoured icy water trickling down your throat. Brain freeze. Numb gums. Chill tongue. Then as the water melts away, the paan flavor emerges... awesome. 
Sosyo. A slightly spicy-flavored fizzy drink, and the only way you will be able to digest all the food you eat, because Surat, like the rest of Gujrat, is all about
Food. Everywhere. Anywhere. Anytime. All the time. Food stalls, line the streets, fill the malls, tempting treats, eat them all. I can't even begin the describe the sheer variety of Surat-specific snacks. Which also why you will find
Picnic Roads. Roads are meant, in the classic sense, to travel along, usually in a vehicle. In the Indian context, they can be places to set up business, do your business, eat, pray, live. In Surat, they're also picnic spots. Dividers become tables, railings become backrests, the baskets and tiffins are opened, and awash in the illumination of a thousand malls 'n stalls, the Surat citizens have a gala time sitting, eating, chatting, girlwatching, flirting, drinking, socializing, and connecting. It's a permanent food festival. 
Traffic Rules. While the above is happening, what happens to regular traffic, you ask? The answer is not easy do describe without getting into quantum physics. Like purely theoretical particles, Surat cars and several quadrillion bikes can somehow occupy two places at the same time, pass through each other, affect each other's speed and position randomly, as they transport themselves and their passengers through the crowd in a chaotic Brownian Motion of zips, scrapes, near-misses, music and horns. Right of way is determined by speed, size, nerve, and horn volume, traffic lights are amusing entertainment at best, and helmets, seatbelts, and carrying capacity are the gentle suggestions made by snowflakes in hell. 
And lastly, add the world-famous Garba. Being the last day of Navratri, Gujratis from Surat to Syracuse will be out on the street dressed to kill, a thousand floodlights blaze in every field, park, and society parking lot, and a million variations of Phalguni Pathak float in the evening air. It's awesome. The entire city is out, and unlike the Cal Pujos, it's not limited to specific localities with travelling in-between; the festival is literally everywhere. 

Friday, October 08, 2010


Don’t stay in NYC; it’s expensive, unnecessary. The suburbs are far better, connected via subways and trains. You need to make an early start, but it’s just once a day; we make every minute count, heading, shivering in the chill at dawn from Linden, to Penn St., New York. NYC can be really explored only on foot. If you’re in a cab, bus, any vehicle, you’re disconnected, don’t get the feel of the city.

You think you’re ready for it, having seen it in a hundred TV episodes and a thousand films, but trust me; nothing prepares you for that first step out of the subway’s humid, crowded cacophony into the vastness of the Greatest City On Earth, where buildings rear up ruler-straight, man-made cliffs, geometry on steroids.

A quick breakfast, a brisk ten-minute walk, and we’re at the Empire State Building, exactly in time to catch it opening to the public, but too early for the crowds. We spend almost an hour at there, watching the sunrise over the megapolis, hearing the rising humming, buzzing susurration of the city waking up 80 stories below.

By the time we’re down, it’s warm, sunny, and beautiful. We walk down to the Museum of Modern Art, another quintessentially NY event; it’s definitely a must-see, summing up all of NY’s modernity, avant-gardism, and also it’s quirkiness, the ability to make bare functionality into art.

Lunch, and we spend the afternoon in Central Park, strolling, watching people. Skaters in a open rink, dancing on wheels, whirling around in bizarre costumes; dancers, a family of singers under a bridge, filling the dim space with ethereally beautiful music; street musicians; live statues that suddenly, startlingly, come to life to acknowledge you with thanks if you drop a tip for them; a guy blowing giant soap bubbles, to the delight of an admiring crowd of kids on rollerblades; horse-drawn carriages, joggers, cops, picnickers… it’s an awesome experience, if you sit back, relax, and soak it in.

Tip: don’t try to visit everything, you’ll end up missing all of it. Get into a place, spend time, absorb it’s essence.  

Over the next few days, we visit Ground Zero, the nadir of ‘disaster tourism’, which turned out to be a disappointment; just a giant hole in the ground, surrounded by security and scaffolding. We also did one of the must-do’s of a NY visit, the Statue of Liberty, but via the Staten Island Ferry going past it, saving half a day, instead of the tourist boats, and an evening in Times Square. They say that if you stand here long enough, eventually you will meet everyone in the world; looking at the size and diversity of the crowd there, you know this is true.

The golden Bull in the financial district was a conveyor belt of tourists posing and taking snaps;  Chinatown was slightly shady, very interesting, and in character, world apart from the other streets we’d been on, with English taking a very poor second place to Chinese text on all the signs and shop boards, and where every face on the street, and every conversation overheard as we passed, was Asian; Little Italy, a little further northwards, was filled with interesting little boutiques and shops with fascinating window displays (I remember a twenty-foot high wall of beautifully polished sewing machines in one) with nice shopping, lots of small exotic dogs, and awesome bakeries, which are a must-try; Magnolia is one where the line stretches around the block and you have a good chance of finding yourself waiting in line next Andre Agassi and Steffi Graf, who are huge fans of this place. During lunch, we saw Sex and the City’s Mr. Big on the sidewalk catch a cab – can’t get more classic NY than that!

The East Village is the counterculture hub, with goths, psychics, music and comic stores filled with fascinating memorabilia, roadside cafes and pubs in profusion – another new world to explore.
And, of course, no New York Experience will ever be complete without a taste of the famous subways; At least once, try to buy a ticket and find they appropriate train to get from one place to another. In Penn St. station, amongst the labyrinthine corridors, platforms, levels and sublevels, and searingly bright lights, the chatter and hum of millions of footsteps, public announcements, cellphones and conversations mixes with the deep subterranean rumble and clatter of the trains whooshing through the dark tunnels, and everything is a hurried, humid, deafening and blinding kaleidoscope of confusion until you finally step out into the crisp, chill air, glowing with the self-satisfaction that comes with having come that one step closer to becoming a native New Yorker. 
If you have time, don’t forget to visit the Meatpacking District, Greenwich, the Upper East Side, and Soho; all familiar places from Hollywood and TV, not to be missed in real life either.
NYC is supposed to be fast and rude, but by America’s standards, not India’s; growing up in the midst of crowds and the constant fight for space and free time, we felt right at home. We saw it as it is – brisk, efficient, and so incredibly diverse, you could be lost here a lifetime and still never see it all.

Two very important pieces of advice for new visitors to New York, from a local – one, walk fast; two, take all the pictures you want, but don’t block people. These are two critical things tourists forget, becoming irritants to the city that has things to do, places to go, and all too little time. Besides, who wants to look like, as the locals say for the overawed tourists, that they stepped right off the boat?
Stroll around, wear walking shoes and carry an umbrella, use the subways, eat mustard-laden hot dogs at roadside food carts, talk to the people. And most of all, don’t be afraid, and explore. The city is a microcosm of Earth - everyone is here.

And there’s everything to discover. 

Tuesday, October 05, 2010


It’s early morning. Streamers of mist slide over the car, rippling past in the wet air as we race down Route 476. The landscape’s shrouded in fog, dim, eerily silent, and empty save the occasional car whipping past, driver in his private four-wheeled warm cocoon, and rarely, a behemoth eighteen-wheeler lumbering past like Star Wars’ opening scene.

Then, gradually, the sun’s warmth pierces through, the mist dissipates, and as we move North, the glorious autumn colors begin to emerge. Lush greenery gives way to brilliant yellows, vivid browns, and fiery reds; entire tracts of forest flame, blazing color in the sunshine. We’re driving up to one of the planet’s great natural spectacles, the largest waterfall in the world – Niagara Falls.

Reach early evening, just in time to catch the last Maid of the Mist tour boat. These boats take you into the basin beneath the falls, in the center of the falls’ horseshoe curve; there, you’re surrounded on 3 sides by a wall of water so gigantic, it defies description. At four million cubic feet a minute, the experience ceases to be something to see or feel; you become a part of it, a tiny particle in an awesome display of elementalism. The foaming spray blinds, drenches, deafens, and drowns you, the closest you’ll get to breathing water. It’s not the flying rain of monsoon storms. It’s heavier, more mineral; smells, tastes, feels different. Snow-white, chilling cold under cloudy autumn skies, the falls tower up almost two hundred feet… and everything you worried about for so long, work, money, everything, suddenly feels… insignificant. All you can do is just be, exist in the face of grandeur.

We walk later through caves on the American side, along wooden walkways constructed around the base – the only way to get close enough to actually touch the falls. Luckily, there’s enough sun to let us dry off before evening, when the October wind carries a sharp bite.

At night, a light display is switched on; as glowing reds, and soft, powdery whites play across them, the falls transform into something unearthly, alternating between heaven and hell. It’s a surreal vision, and never to be missed; and if you can, get a Canadian visa, because the US might have the falls, but it’s the Canadians that get to enjoy the best view.

Apart from the Falls, there’s not much to do in Niagara, so we head back next morning. It’s a day’s drive to New York, a brilliant experience. The Amish countryside, as you pass through Pennsylvania and Delaware, is vast, flat, and spread open for hundreds of miles, all directions. Lightning flickers on the horizon; being autumn, it’s Halloween season, and all the towns and houses we pass are putting up decorations. Pumpkins everywhere – on the roadside, in the markets, lit up as lanterns, in bread, cakes, even ice-cream and tea. After some irresistible stops at farm diaries for natural, fresh icecream (mmm!) and lunch, it’s late evening by the time we reach our New Jersey hotel. 

Tuesday, April 06, 2010

From A to B, to the sea

Mathematically, the shortest and most efficient distance between A and B is a straight line. 
Leisure-wise, the longer, quirkier, and more circuitous the line, especially if it happens to go through some interesting places, is the most fun. Like this round-trip... starting and ending at the same place, the Gateway of India... but going in a large, crazy circle around Mumbai Harbour. In a brand-new, state-of-the-art, racing-grade French sailboat. 

Some photos follow. 

It begins with the Gateway

And it's riotous carnival atmosphere

From where the intrepid sailors step forth.

Every class of technology coexists from this - 

to this...

to this. (Mukesbhai ni navi navdi it is)

Our ride - the Storm Rider, a 25-foot Beneteau sailboat

we outboard out of the crazy floating traffic jam

and it's time to race the wind!

easily outpacing our competition, 

we glide, whisper-silent, over the arabian sea

relaxing in the sun

under the able guidance of Abhishek, our captain


and taking control of the boat. 

we also learnt a bit about how modern sailing happens by watching R almost get whacked into the sea with the boom.

Ropes - the most critical part of the boat

then, as the evening wore on,

the sun dipped,

and the sky softened into evening colors

it was time to head home

back to the shore...

winding up with a Kasab's-eye-view of Mumbai.

The End.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Dry Hampi

The Amazing Vibrabus
It's evening, and we're standing in a little group at the side of the road, waiting for our bus and co-passengers, trying to have a conversation. Since it's the Western Express Highway in rush hour, we aren't succeeding - so we stand around and smile at each other through the horns, engines, smoke, and shrieking agents trying to fill seats. One asked me very aggressively if I was going to Goa. Maybe I had a 'going-to-goa' kind of face... he looked so desperately furious I almost went, had R not called me exactly then asking how to get to the meeting point. No agent scorned has a wrath more terrible than an R denied directions, which is how the trip happened at all... 

Ah, here comes our bus... it's a gigantic (ever notice how buses look so monstrous inside the city?) black-gold VRL with snarling radiator and antennae-like mirrors, like something out of Starship Troopers bearing down on us... step inside, whoa, it's an icebox! Huddle into seats and thank VRL and God for blankets. We stop, idling at a signal, and the bus' true USP emerges - it's vibrating like something out of a demented honeymoon suite on a caffeine-amphetamine cocktail. Teeth chatter, body trembles, vision blurs, and speech stutters. 

And here we go - I was wondering when this person would show up. Ever notice, on any bus ride, there's always be one person who will have some kind of violent physical aversion to his seat, and will stand in the aisle as long as he can? He blocks the passage! He lurches! He stuffs bags into the overhead compartment! He drops stuff from the bag! He picks them up, and, whoops, now drops the bag itself! He cannot keep his balance! What does he do?! Aha! He wedges passenger A's shoulder into the crack of his ass, put's one hand on Passenger B's head, and one foot on Passenger C's crotch! He is stable! He drinks water! He spills water! He searches for towel! He... anyway, let's go on. 
R sets a record - 2 hours straight on the phone. And the kid in the seat next to us starts vomiting. 

At the food court on the highway, we get screamed at by our bus driver - "Jaa apne aadmi ko bula! Ina time khaane ko kya lagta!" Suitably chastened, we troop meekly to our seats, and the bus driver tortures us hideoulsy for the next 2 hours with the mandatory awful trip-movie. Ever noticed there's a whole class of movies that appear to have been made for the sole purpose of inflicting hideous pain upon trapped bus passengers, locked into a chilly, reverberating iron shell roaring along at 90 kmph, where certain death by leaping, screaming in horror, from the window is only marginally less attractive an option as staying inside and watching 'Do Knot Disturbb'. 

The morning introduces us to Hospet and a bright yellow-and-chrome minibus almost as old as the ruins of Hampi itself. Many a bone-shaking, tooth-rattling and soul-vibrating mile later, we are in Hampi. 

Hampi... is a strange place. There are no buildings - just rocks, hillocks, scrub, and shanties. And, sprawled through it all, rearing up in the middle of nowhere - deserted, silent ruins, all around. It's... more than a little surreal. 

Hampi was the capital of the ancient Vijaynagara Empire from 1336 to 1565, and was a large, sprawled-out city, with markets, palaces, forts, temples, the whole hog. Today, it's a deserted, silent ghost town, with a small village nestling in it's center around the main Virupaksha temple complex which has the only habitation. Venture out beyond that, and you will find yourself walking through a silent stone necropolis, bereft of any life apart from the some signs of repair work by the ASI, or the occasional overawed tourist group. 

Our 'hotel' is a virulent pink color on the inside, with blue doors and red sheets on the bed. The overall effect is very, almost disturbingly, womb-like... and it's not helped by the sight of a mosquito net hanging off the ceiling like a giant used condom. 

An interesting menu.

Recycling ancient structures

Start walking around. Past the bazaar, which has cheerfully colonized the ancient marketplace pillars and used them as support in their own shops, there's a brief rise and a gigantic Nandi. This is supposed to be the largest monolithic bull sculpture in the world. The titanic taurean Must be 15-20 feet high, carved in a reclining posture, complete in great detail and anatomical correctness. ;)

A giant load of bull

Further on, cresting the rise of the hill, we come face-to-face with a scene straight out of Tomb Raider: In the middle of overgrown jungle, a series of buildings rears out, a lost city among the palms. 

The ancient market road

All we need is Lara Croft

Support for the sky

Carved history

Royal dog

Standing in Ruins

Soft lightplay

ancient grinding-wheel surface

Cool shades

Changing perspectives

Entertainment center

Dream sequence

Lunch is followed up with crisp, fresh jalebis from the market, and then a tour of the main Virupaksha temple. Here we see the makara-yadi - the seven-in-one animal guardian of the city, India's second-largest gopuram (temple gate), an ancient pin-hole camera that projects the image of the gate onto the opposite wall in an underground room, best seen at 6 am and pm daily when the light is perfect. 

The Makara-Yadi - 
elephant's trunk, crocodile mouth, peacock's plumage, rabbit ears, horse's body, lion-claws, and the all-seeing eyes of a Narasimha

Gopuram - 1

Gopuram - 2

An ancient pinhole camera projection

The main hall is still used to perform marriages for the village couples; imagine getting married under the thousand-year-old frescoes, feeling the history of a millennium around you. The adjoining chamber inside the actual temple, however, is closed, and is opened only for visiting royalty once a year.

reserved for royalty

There's also an underground chamber, which has two gods - Hari and Hara - Vishnu and Shiva - which again occurs in only one other place in India, Varanasi. This makes Hampi a major pilgrimage spot as well.  

The underground temple

At the gate there's a three-headed Nandi - the Trikaladhyananandi - the only one of it's kind, representative of Bramha, Vishnu, Shiva - the past, present and future - which used to be worshipped inside the temple until it got damaged. 

the trikaladhyananandi

Also in the temple courtyard is Lakshmi, the friendly local temple elephant. Feed her bananas you can buy outside, or give her cash; food goes into the ever-smiling mouth, cash goes to the handler sitting next to her looking bored out of his skull, and the trunk comes up and gives you a quick pat on the head as a 'blessing'. Only for cash, though. Bananas earn you elephantine goodwill, but that's it. 

May you return with bananas next time

As we step out of the temple, I walk into a pair of bulls fighting, and get stepped on. Those things are heavy! I limp around for the next half-hour. 

Behind the temple, there's a tableland filled with pillars, pagodas, and skeletal stone structures standing silent in the whispering wind, through which the last rays of the setting sun fall on the hordes of monkeys playing. The city had been been lost for three hundred years before being rediscovered by a british hunting party during the Raj; for those three centuries, these simian citizens were the sole inhabitants, lords and masters of the stone. I think of Rudyard Kipling's Jungle Book - the monkey kingdom - and the effect is simultaneously saddening and a little eerie. A sense of greatness and mystery - not defiled, but passed beyond such trivial concerns. We can today see only a fraction of a fraction of what it must have been like... and it still inspires awe. 

the plateau of memories


sunset of an empire

last sliver of sun

absorbing the atmosphere

stone skeletons

There's another connection to monkeys one that I don't find out until afterwards, and the serendipity of this above observation is hammered home - Hampi is identified with the mythological Kishkindha, the Vanara kingdom identified in the Ramayana. The original monkey kingdom. So I guess the primate population really was the original owner... 

mother-son monkey

exasperated-with-tourists monkey

monkey see monkey doo

grumpy Hampi monkey

Another kind of inhabitant makes their presence felt extremely strongly at this point - hordes of mosquitoes, fed up with months of monkey-blood, descend on us like an Alfred Hitchcock special effect, crazed with the thirst for human blood! But fear not! For I am armed with bthe mighty Odomos! I am invincible

Asif loses his camera during the day; a carload of Bongs arrives, the essential component of any tourist spot; and R meets some people she knows, again. This is getting freaky

Early next morning, a small group of us decide to trek up Matanga hill. It's a clear, chill dawn, the air pure and clean with a slight trace of mist. A minor wrong turn delays us, and we miss the actual moment of sunrise, but the view that early morning from the hilltop is awesome; a complete panorama of all the places we spent yesterday exploring. 

Hampi wakes up in the pre-dawn chill

In the distance, the mist is still rising from the valleys, while the low hills blaze with sunshine; flat black and white bars of sky, mist, mountain, cloud, and valley. We sit for a while, accompanied by an elderly European gent, the sun shining off his bald pate like a spotlight.


the first sun touches the temple

view from the top of Matanga

the view-watchers


Then breakfast, followed by the largest glass of coffee I have ever had, including the Latte Grande from Kosta Koffee. 

Later in the day, head for another temple complex - the Vittala temple. Walking along the banks of the Tungabhadra, we are accosted by a Voice. There's no-one around for at least a hundred feet - yet it rings out, loud, clear, and reverberating back and forth between the hills - "Hello sir! Where you going? Boat coming! Please waiting!" It turns out to be coming from a boatman in a coracle in the middle of the river, apparently blessed with iron lungs and a dolby surround-sound voicebox. 

A disgruntled deity

the King's Balance, where he weighed himself in jewels to give to charity
Good incentive to diet?

delicate carvings

Vittala temple has one of Hampi's most-photographed landmarks - the stone chariot, in the middle of the main courtyard. Huge crowds of tourists. They are all getting group-photographed; the cameraman has to stand forty feet away to get them all in the frame. Wouldn't be surprised to find the group visible on Google Earth. 

the stone car

huge crowds

But away from the chariot, the crowds thin, and we find the peaceful side of the temple - ancient, twisted, gnarly trees, straight out of Running With The Demon's haunted foliage, and places where you can sit on the cool stone in the shade and watch the circus of humanity dance around you, laughing, chattering, posing, pointing, photographing. And if you sit there for a while, not doing any of these things, you feel a sense of peace, connect with the place. 


demon tree

You can see in your mind's eye what it was like during the abandoned years, what it must have been like at the zenith of it's existence. And then the past than the present run together, and the true age, the timelessness, of the stone is felt. Savor that feeling when it happens, because everything else you see can be found on Wikipedia and Flickr. That feeling is the reason why you travelled here. 


the musical pillars - 
9 identical pillars, each of which would produce the sound of a different instrument when tapped. 

Lunch is at MangoTree restaurant, the restaurant for the Aam Junta. A series of concentric terraces around a central (you guessed it!) mango tree. Full on crowd, harried waiters, massive rush, but excellent food. The trick is to order what is easiest to deliver - usually the main thali, or the day's special. You know it's good, it's there, and it will be served fast. 

the Blair Witch tree

local color

Royal Indian hunting-dog

G.I. Joe

Take an alarmingly lurching boat across the Tungabhadra to Anegudi. Saw an interesting huge ceremonial chariot, but the rest of the trip was a let-down; just a lot of getting your bones rattled in autos. Maybe we just didn't know the right places to go to. 

ceremonial chariot

Last day. The Elephant Stables, a row of huge doorways in front of a parade-ground, and the royal zenana - The Lotus Palace - glowing a soft, organic pink in the sunshine, looking almost alive. (and I'm wondering why the two are in the same compound? Wouldn't the ladies object to effectively sharing quarters with a bunch of elephants? Or vice versa?) 
Both are in a far better condition than the Queen's quarters across the river. I guess some things don't change - when you're into cars and women, the first priority is to relocate the wife out of the way. 
elephant stables

an idea of the height of the door.
still didn't stop R from accidentally cracking her head on the edge

friendly locals

the Paan-Supari market

the temple of a thousand Rama's - 
a three-tier graphic novel of the Ramayana, in stone

black marble pillars

Acoustic Elephant - 
makes a ringing noise when tapped

bathing tank

Return of Terror
Finally, packed up and ready, heading for Hospet. This time we're gunning all-out, roaring down the highways in a cataclysmic cacophony, roaring engines, rattling windows, lurching roads, cursing driver, hysterical horn, whistling wind, shrieking passengers... this bus is a shock to sanity. Every half-hour, we stop for 5 minutes for the driver to head into the bushes; apparently something he ate earlier didn't agree with him. 

the medieval minibus

We make it just in time, with seconds to spare before the Volvo leaves for Mumbai. Ahhh, the Volvo... air-conditioned, air-cushioned, silent, stable, cool and comfy... after the terror of the rattletrap,  feels like, as the ad goes, Heaven. 

Then they turn up the volume and switch on Mission Istanbul



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