Travel

Bhutan & The Art of Chilling - Stories from The World's Happiest Country

In March of last year, a night of drinking turned interesting when two people in Gurgaon booked flight tickets for five without their consent. I booked mine soon after. And thus, next month, six of us hired motorbikes to venture on a road trip to Bhutan. 


BAGDOGRA/SILIGURI

The first part of the journey was a flight to Bagdogra. It is the nearest airport to Siliguri where we hired the bikes from. As I waited for my friends to pick me up from the airport, I started writing in my notebook.

Sidenote 1: Here's a problem I have with travel writing - the real emotions and details of a noteworthy time can only be expressed if you capture them right then. Otherwise, the perfect words are lost, the true feeling is forgotten. But, if you do write them at that instant or soon after, it impacts your experience of the moment. Thus, I chose to just live the following days and not think about how I want to write those down.

We found our bikes at a tiny garage which was the size of a small tea-stall. As I took one out for a test ride, a massive hailstorm appeared out of nowhere. After much struggle, and in near darkness (the electricity had gone out) I found respite under a shop’s tin roof. Those few moments, I felt like a character out of a Bangla movie - rain dripping off my clothes, cigarette smoke and 20 people huddled together under one tin roof. All that was missing was someone reciting a Tagore poem. 

Eventually, after rounds of adjusting the RPM, brakes and such to our liking, we tied our luggage with the bungee cords on the bikes and proceeded to find a hotel for the night.


RIDE TO Phuentsholing

The next morning, after a heavy breakfast, we loaded our bags on the bikes. This is mention-worthy because we had to tie them carefully otherwise we ran the risk of a wobbly ride.

Ready to roll

 First Ngultrum received from an Indian Pan shop

First Ngultrum received from an Indian Pan shop

As we made a move, wide open roads lined with tea estates on either side greeted us. The traffic was sparse and it was bright and sunny. We raced along at a fairly quick speed, albeit with quite a few breaks in between and reached Jaigaon in about 4 hours. The roads were a dream, except for the last half an hour stretch. Scenery changed from tall trees to wide open fields through small villages. The geography is completely flat - no mountains yet.

Jaigaon is the border town of India and shares its boundary with Bhutan’s counterpart, Phuentsholing. We stopped there to withdraw money from the ATM. There, if you need to buy something, people return you change in Bhutanese currency. But if you want to pay in Bhutanese Ngultrum, it costs you 6% extra.

The border


Phuentsholing

 

Two guards stood at a wide gate. It didn’t look anything like a country’s border - you would expect more security at one. We entered Bhutan through this gate, riding on our bikes, making heads turn. As soon as you enter, the roads climb up and mountains appear after the plains of India. It is as if they divided the countries based on where the mountains begin.

Phuentsholing gave us a preview of what to expect in Bhutan. A quiet, slow motion of people, vehicles and life in general. From the cacophony of noises at Jaigaon, we arrived in the clean and noiseless world of Bhutan. It was like entering a cocoon, and the sounds from just across the border, a mere 100 metres behind us, seemed like coming from far away. The picture of their King stared at us from everywhere.

Sidenote 2 : Every household, shop, bar, office, event has a picture of the Royal Couple or The King or both. Today, Bhutan is a democracy which was in fact brought in large parts by an earlier Monarch. The present King is well loved among the masses.

You can enter Phuentsholing without anyone asking for an identity proof. But, if you want to travel further, you need a permit. We had been told that the permit office is closed on Sunday so we went around looking for a hotel. We jumped a signal and a traffic cop immediately came to confront us. And man what a cop he was! Chatty, friendly and apologetically nice. He informed that the permit office was open that day because of high tourist frequency. So, that's where we headed first.

The permit process is painless. You fill a couple of forms, give a proof of your identity (Passport, Voter Id, Driver's License - anything works), get your picture clicked, finger prints are taken and you are done. We noticed a pattern that was to become a constant theme in Bhutan. Everyone we met seemed to have all the time in the world. You became their complete focus of attention. The permit officer chatted with us and told us of stories of the celebrities who came to his office. We exchanged our Indian Rupee for Bhutanese Ngultrum even though most places accept INR too.

View from the hotel

We had still not found a hotel. Guess who helped? The traffic cop. He left his spot and spoke to a couple of hotel owners to find a place for us. Who does that? I mean, really, who does that?

Anyway, we ended up going to a different hotel - Hotel Druk. All this while, we had left our bikes unattended with our luggage on them. And there was never a moment when we were scared of losing our stuff. And I think that's mention-worthy too. Bhutan feels safe and welcoming.

In the evening, we roamed the streets and found a dance bar called Sonam Trophel. Dance bars are a common sight in Bhutan. And lot of them are run by women.

Sidenote 3 : This is where I should point out that Bhutan is primarily a matriarchal society. Most shops, restaurants, hotels, bars that we came across were run by women.

At the bar, we had a few beers and constantly refused to entertain the girls who solicited our money in exchange for a dance. After these shenanigans, we came out, drank and chatted with the funniest locals. 

Sidenote 4 : Let me add one thing which would make the rest of this travelogue easy. Whenever I say 'locals', always add the adjectives funny, friendly, chatty, and helpful to it. 

It was raining and we were hungry. So, we ran in the rain to find a place to eat. Unsuccessful, we returned to our hotel. And that's when something awesome happened.

Beautiful Story 1
One of us was very hungry. Very, very hungry. So, like a bad-ass, he knocked on the next door and asked for something to eat. Anything. A biscuit, even. The man named Jimmy, who was a local (did you add the adjectives?) understood the gravity of the situation. He asked us to wait for a bit. A little later, we looked outside from our windows and saw a woman on the street walking towards our hotel under the shelter of an umbrella. It looked like she was carrying something under her arm. This was past midnight.

Her name was Kay and she was Jimmy's friend. She had brought with her packets of Koka, Bhutanese version of Maggi but much better. The man had a stove and they freaking cooked for us. We spent the night hanging out together. And there we sat, eating Koka, sharing Old Monk with them (which they liked very much, who doesn't?), and appreciating the kindness of this country's beautiful people.

Next morning, we checked out of the hotel to get permits for our bikes. Meanwhile, some of us got local SIM cards and bought some stuff for the rest of the trip (Druk beer, Druk ketchup, Druk chips, Druk everything).

Bike Troubles

Once this was sorted, we headed towards our next destination - Paro. But, as luck would have it, one of the bikes broke down. It was an old Enfield model and we had been skeptical about it from the beginning. So, there we were stranded a few kilometres from Phuentsholing and wondering what to do next. Just then, we saw a mini-truck passing by. One of us made the smallest of gestures, and almost on cue, the truck stopped. The locals then helped us carry the bike down to Jaigaon (where they had no business to go to ) to get them repaired. They refused our offer of money for their troubles.

After this ordeal, we postponed our ride to Paro. We returned to Phuentsholing and found a cheaper, nicer hotel where the receptionist-cum-owner spoke in the dreamiest of voices. We called it an early night to catch up on sleep for an early start the next day.

Food to try: Emma Datshi, is a delicious spicy gravy made of chilli and yak cheese. We tried this and variations of it with Rice. Second and third servings were required.


RIDE TO PARO

 

Except for the first few kilometres, the ride to Paro is bliss. Smooth tarmac, meandering across the mountains, no noise of horns (horns are banned in Bhutan) and few truck drivers posing mortal threat to your life. 

You can click on each picture in the blog to view an enlarged version

A little traffic just after Phuentsholing

Traffic Issues

We crossed a management college high up in the mountains. The students just sat outside chilling, doing nothing, enjoying the fine weather. A local came up to us and started chatting. He told us that 'Yahan padhai nahin hota, bas bang bang hota hai!' What did I tell you about the locals?

It got foggy really soon and all we could do stay on track was follow the taillight in front.

The Management College. people are just chilling outside

Lunch at Karma Hotel. 2nd from left

The policemen like our bikes

The roads were gorgeous

 A friendly, curious old man

A friendly, curious old man

 Entering Paro Valley

Entering Paro Valley

Just before Paro, there is a small village where we took a short break. A friend of ours was flying into Paro and we enquired some taxi drivers if they had seen her around. The next moment, they thrust their cell phones in our faces to show a porny GIF. #facepalm. They laughed like maniacs. Who are these people man? Why are they so happy, so friendly (over-friendly?), so out there?

We left for the airport to check if our friend was still there waiting for us. It turned out that the Airport had closed for the day. Wow! Where does this happen? We came back to the village and after much banter between the cab drivers and us, we got news that our friend had hiked up to a monastery and would be back soon. So, we spent our time playing football with some kids. Archery is a big thing in Bhutan, so there were some people playing take-aim at a stone with some kind of arrows as well.

They were two cool kids

Our friend arrived and we spent time in the nearby Snooker Parlor. Boy, it was fun. Not in the least because of my love for the game. Beer flowed. Games ensued. Did I mention that you get liquor everywhere in Bhutan? Even the tiniest retail shop would have a table, 4 chairs and a big stock of beers.

At the parlor, we met a Dentist who looked anything but. His job was a 11 to 4 after which he was free to do anything. So, he played Snooker. They all told us of the crazy Wednesday parties in Paro. Yeah, Wednesdays. Bhutan is awesome.

Sidenote 5 : Education upto Grade 10 and Primary Healthcare is free in Bhutan. Even complex procedures are relatively cheap. Couple this with the relaxed work arrangements and you start to understand why people are happy here.

Beautiful Story 2
On the way to Paro, one of us got into a minor accident with another bike which got a little damaged in the process. The fault was completely our own. Now, if this was in India, it would have become a big scene. But, Bhutan being Bhutan, that guy took a chill pill and actually helped us in our search to find a Helmet (which were in short supply there).


PARO

 

In Paro, we went straight to Hotel Sonam Trophel. It is just across the river and has good rooms and great food. The waiter-cum-errands boy also asked us if were going to the Wednesday party, he definitely was. It seemed like the whole town goes to the same party.

 The Hotel at Paro

The Hotel at Paro

The stream across the hotel

Next day we trekked to Tiger's Nest Monastery. The monastery hangs on a steep cliff edge at 10,000 ft above the Paro Valley. The trek is about three hours of moderate climb. At the beginning of our climb, we saw a local coming down. We asked him of the route and he suggested that we should take the short-cut he was coming from. This was the gravest mistake we could have made. Seriously, don't ever take the short cut. It is steeper, and harder. At half way, there is a cafe which is exorbitantly priced, even for a bottle of water. So, I'd recommend carrying your own snacks and water.

The monastery is a picture of quiet and peace. A lot of tourists ply on the route. It was almost crowded at some points. But, inside the monastery, it doesn't feel like there are many people. It is noiseless, clean and windy. If you stay still at one spot and just breathe, profound moments emerge aplenty. You might pause and question the validity and importance of the decisions in your life, if not life itself, even if just for a few moments.

We begin the climb to The Small White Thing on top

To this big imposing structure

The route was interesting

The cafe at the midway was a good place to rest

The view was grand

And we made it

It was magnificent

As we came down, we saw locals climbing up, even in the light rain, carrying supplies up. The knick-knack sellers near the base of the trek kept requesting our attention.

This was a Wednesday -  the night of the hyped up party. As some of us got ready, a couple of us went down to the nearest Snooker parlor, played guitar, beat the owners at the game and got ourselves free beers.

More of Paro 1

More of Paro 2

The party was the bomb. It was in the basement of an ordinary building. Inside, it was one big dance floor in the center with some seats on a raised platform around it. We were a little early, arriving there at about 10.30 pm. We got chatting with a couple of girls who told us that they have studied in Bangalore and they miss the slow pace of Paro. As the night progressed, it got more crowded and we found interesting people to talk and dance with. The music, mainly EDM, was good. We came back with some locals who were kind enough to walk us to our hotel. 

Next morning, we left for Thimpu.


THIMPU


It was a brilliant day for riding. Bright sunshine, cool breeze and the road hugging the mountains. We did not rush and drove at a leisurely pace of 50km/hr. The speed limit and speed detectors along the way was a big reason. Also, by now, we had a little bit of Bhutanese chill in our soul. 

Entering Thimpu

Street lined with shops and hotels

A diligent traffic cop. But, where's the traffic?

A great view welcomed us as we entered Thimpu, an organised village, as the locals call it. The Buddha statue high up on the mountain overlooked the city. It felt like we were in a video game - no randomness, everything moved slowly and in incremental steps. All the carslooked robotic, self-driven vehicles moving at a pedestrian speed of 25 km/hr. The roads were clean, and the areas to park bikes and cars were marked clearly. The feeling of having arrived in the Capital of the happiest country in the world was wonderful.

Sidenote 6 : Most of Bhutan till this point had great weather and clean air. Being a proper city, I expected Thimpu to be a more polluted. It wasn't, at least not enough to be bothersome.

The Buddha Statue

The view from the top. That's a nice football ground

After a great lunch, we looked for place to stay. Hotels in Thimpu can be cheap or expensive without being very different from each other in terms of comfort. Being the capital, things were a little pricey. Most hotels had a curfew time of 11 p.m. which we wanted to avoid. We asked a passerby for a hotel recommendation and he stopped doing what he was doing and almost took us to the hotel himself. Finally, we found a nice, cozy place run by women, young girls, a boy and a dog. They were the sweetest people who treated us like gods. The Bhutanese hospitality is amazing.

As the evening set in, we roamed around the streets, drinking soup from the roadside vendors, shopping for Bamboo pickles, Yak cheese, prayer flags and handmade bags. I stopped to get a recharge for my phone and found the girl listening to Honey Singh. Yeah, bollywood is popular in Bhutan. We spent some time watching a SAARC cultural festival. The Indian group told the story of Goddess Kali and her nemesis.

The Indian contingent

We spent that evening in a dance bar which was run by an Indian woman. The girls there soon figured that we were not the kinds to pay for a dance. So, they employed a different tactic. They sat next to us and said they were thirsty, and can we buy them juice? How can you no to that? So we did give them money, no idea if juice was bought and the thirst was quenched. We were the only customers at that time. The matron of the bar invited us to dance on stage and we joined her reluctantly. In all honesty, it felt a little weird though and she sensed that. So as we were leaving, she was kind enough to come out and apologise. People in Bhutan are amazing. Kind and polite.

Next morning, we drove to Dochula pass just before Punakha. We couldn't go all the way to Punakha because our bike troubles ate our days. At the pass, 108 stupas are built in three concentric circles. A cafe stands opposite it where we spent our time relaxing. It was a nice drive and the weather was perfect.

Dochula Pass

As we returned in the evening, we found refuge in a bakery. The girl at the bakery told us that the King likes to meet Indians. She insisted that we must try to meet him. And the fools that we were, we began our mission of meeting the King of Bhutan. We thought he might even invite us for dinner. After all, who doesn't love to break bread with mysterious travelers from an exotic land far away, who have seen a thousand suns and crossed a hundred seas?

The King keeps traveling so we asked people if he was in town. We looked for his palace but instead found the late Royal Grandmother's palace grounds. But, we did not lose hope. We were adventurers of an indefatigable spirit. Next place we looked was a Dzong which served as the administrative centre of Thimpu. A guard threw suspicious glances at us and looked angry when we asked him how we could meet the King. So, we decided to give up on our mission. The guard sensed that, and immediately he came into his avatar of a Bhutanese local with all the adjectives. He was interested in photography and showed us his pictures clicked on a VGA phone. 

The imperious Dzong

In the evening, we visited a pub called Mojo Park. A band was playing good covers and a few originals. The vibe was brilliant. We half-joked that it would be fun if we could play on the stage. So, one of our over-enthusiastic friends, ended up asking the manager if we could play. And he said Yes!

Shruti and I, both were going to play the guitar and sing. I think we were quite poor. There was a lot of passion and little coordination. But, our passion evoked a fire in the hearts of the audience, or so I would like to believe. They all sang along with us every step of the way. After our renditions of Wish You Were Here and BC Sutta,  we heard cries of Encore! Then, Shruti did a solo of Zombie.

Drunk performers. In other words, normal humans

High on adrenaline, we went to a nightclub, danced the night away and roamed the streets drunk in spirit and happiness. It was a magical night. 

It was past 2 a.m. when we returned to the hotel and the door was closed. So we shouted and banged the doors until the boy came down to open the door. That was embarrassing and we felt sorry to have woken up the poor chap in the middle of the night.


RIDE BACK TO INDIA

 

Still in Bhutan

The next morning was our last in Bhutan. We took the bikes to the now routine task of getting them repaired. At the repair shop, we met the King's official rider. He drove a Desert Storm. Apparently the king was fond of bikes. Finally, we left around noon. On the way we met a couple of young boys - perhaps 13-14 years of age cycling their way from Thimpu to Paro, for no reason. We rode at a fairly decent speed trying to catch up on the lost time of our late start.

Yup, still there.

We stopped for food at Karma Hotel - the same place where we had lunch while coming from Paro. The girl at the hotel recognised us and enquired us of our trip. It is nice to make acquaintance with people on a trip and be able to meet them again.

Reluctantly, we bid adieu to Bhutan and entered Jaigaon. Just a week away from India, and the crowd, noise and dirt felt alienating. It was dark already and our bike troubles caught up with us soon. Some kilometres away from Jaigaon, one bike's battery died in the middle of nowhere in complete darkness. We parked our bikes in the compound of a villager's hut/farm. The two men were generous enough to offer us water and leave us in peace. The croaking frogs did not.

Stuck in the middle of nowhere

We called our bike guy, Noel, who was in Siliguri. It took him more than two hours to arrive with spares. It was past 1 am by the time the bike was repaired and we began for what would be the ride of a lifetime.

You see, Noel and his two biker friends were pro bikers. And we were not. They conveniently chose to ignore this fact and rode like the wind. It was completely dark - cloud cover in the sky and no streetlights. They drove at an insane speed and we followed the only thing we could see - their taillights.

Noel rode in front in the center with his halogen headlights switched off at times. The other two flanked him with lights switched on to show the way. The rest of us followed. It was wonderful. In the cold, dark night, 7 bikes went weaving on the roads, overtaking trucks, jumping over rail lines and logs of wood without slowing down a bit. 

Just follow the taillight and do as the guy in front does. Trust the light

We lost our way a bit and found beautiful countryside roads. By this time, the cloud cover had lifted and there was a hint of moonlight shining upon us. The reflectors on the road were hypnotic. The adrenaline was pumping and fueling our exhausted bodies and minds. 

Midway, we stopped to eat something at an all night dhaba and shared stories of our rides with each other. It was super. We got going again and went through an elephant populated area. So, we had to be careful of the ones who had strayed on the roads. Fortunately, we didn't encounter any.

We arrived in Siliguri at 5 in the morning. And after a couple of hours of sleep, we headed to the airport.


DAILY RITUALS

 

Every day, we had a few rituals that made the trip memorable.

  1. Tying/Untying the luggage on the bikes. This took upto 30 minutes daily.
  2. Switching bikes. Some bikes were great, some were not. So, it makes sense to give everyone a chance. We drove CBR 250, Enfield Electra 350, Enfield Thunderbolt 500, Enfield Classic Old model 350, and the humble CBZ 180.
  3. The new overtaking maneuver. Bhutan has smart drivers. If you want someone behind you to overtake, you switch on the left indicator. If instead you want to warn them of incoming traffic, you switch on right indicator. All of us followed it religiously and it made for a wonderful driving experience.
  4. Early morning laziness and screwed up plans. We are lazy people. We spent a lot of time at night discussing and agreeing to waking up early and making a move. It never happened.
  5. Stops for stretching the muscles and banter every hour.
  6. Hotel room chilling. We spent ample time drinking, chatting and goofing off together.

LEARNING THE ART OF CHILLING

 

A few days after returning from Bhutan, its effect had not worn off. We drove slower without honking, smiled more and had more time for everyone we met. We craved to go back often. There are some places which make you feel like you are inconsequential in the grand scheme of things. Bhutan is the opposite. It helps you appreciate the beauty in life's small details and human interactions.

Bhutan taught us to:

  • chill, to slow down - in some cases, quite literally. It taught us to respect outsiders and treat them with the kindness and love you would expect in return. 
  • be simple-hearted and be without your guards-up all the time. 
  • not rush to go to some place when you are already where you need to be. 
  • leave the place and the heart you enter a little better than you found it.
  • be sincere but not serious.
  • be humble without being servile.
  • enjoy our nights.

We've forgotten most of it. But, every once in a while, whenever a Bhutan memory resurfaces, a smiles finds its way on our faces. I hope you all get a chance to go. It's a wonderful place.

Tada!


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An Elaborate Guide to Spiti Valley - Part 3

In the third week of August this year, 6 of us embarked on a trip to the less popular, but equally surreal cousin of Ladakh: Spiti Valley. We drove about 1200 kms on motorbikes plus 800 kms by car to and from Gurgaon. What follows is an attempt to create a guide to Spiti with a generous topping of my experiences sprinkled over it.

This is the 3rd and final part in the series. 

Read Part 1 here

Read Part 2 here

All pictures in this post can be clicked on to open an expanded version.


6TH LEG: KAZA TO CHANDRATAL

 

After a slow, elaborate breakfast, we loaded our bags on the bikes and left for Chandratal lake. Upto this point, the roads weren't great but manageable. The scenery was what you would come to expect of Spiti - huge, barren mountains highlighted by a single snow capped peak and wide open fields all the way with the river lining the side.

Our first stop was at Losar. There, you should halt for lunch at the first shop on your left as you enter the small town. They serve delicious home made food. As we were chilling outside the cafe, soaking in the warm sun, we chit-chatted with a biker returning from Chandratal. He said that Losar was the first sign of a road he had found since Gramphoo (which is on the way to Manali). This should have been our first hint of what kind of route lay ahead of us.

Human flag at Kunzum Pass

It was a difficult ride up to the Kunzum pass which stands at a height of 4551 metres. The wind will be quite strong, so more layers are recommended, even in the scorching sun. In our exhausted state, it seemed like a non event to cross one of the most sought after bikers' milestone in India. We clicked a few mandatory pictures and rode our way down the trail.


CHANDRATAL

After a long, gruelling and the toughest ride thus far, we reached here at the last stroke of sunlight. At an altitude of 4300 metres, life here can get difficult. Chandratal Lake isn’t exactly where you would pitch tents. But, there is a vast sprawl of flatland 3 kms away where you would see a small tent-town which would serve as your resting place for the night. 

On the way to Chandratal. Your camps would appear in one such flatland to your left

We stayed at Parasol Camps which is the most reputed and popular tent around. The people at Deyzor can help you get a place there so you don’t need to worry about it once you get there. The caretakers are jovial folks, much like most of the locals we found on our way. When questioned that whether 6 in the evening (which is when we had arrived) was a good time to go see the lake, Bishan (the chief over there), answered that the sun dried up the lake yesterday. Some of us weren’t attuned to that kind of humour. Suffice to say, the lake wasn’t dry, it is never dry, it will never be, and we now have one less joke to fall victim to.

At the camps

There would be a lot of bikers and car-riders at the camp. You would chill with them at the common tent area where you would all huddle together for hours around a heat source since it would be so cold outside. There would be booze, music, good food, nice stories and stuff from all over Himachal that people have brought along with them. It would be fun.

Having traveled so far, and only a 3km hike away, next morning, we decided not to see Chandratal against our wishes. Don’t raise your brows, our schedule (damn you schedule), didn’t allow us that. I still have a little regret left from it. Additionally, the high altitude wasn’t helping. At any time, at least 2 amongst us had headaches, shortness of breath, dizziness and a general sense of discomfort.

Breakfast is served, you bid goodbye to the nice folks and they wish you smooth journey ahead as if they meant that we might need it (or was it just me who understood it that way?). Those few words from them should have been our second hint.


7th Leg: Chandratal to Kasol

 

Via: Kunzum, Gramphoo, Rohtang, Manali, Kullu

THE MOST HORRENDOUS JOURNEY RESUMES

Leave early in the morning from Chandratal. It would be a long ride to Manali and beyond. The roads ahead are the worst you would have ever set a wheel upon. Hold on. Allow me to rephrase. There are no roads. All that you would find is a narrow trail of stones, boulders, nallahs climbing down and up all the way to Gramphoo. The scenery around you will be surreal but you would hardly have enough spare attention to look at it. 

On this route, we covered about 60kms in 6 hours. You could go for a run and outpace the bikes. It’s not just that the roads were bad. They were also unpredictable, constantly rising and falling, twisting and turning, and we had to be extremely alert while riding. It was miserable. We don’t often hear people acknowledging that a part of their trip was less than perfect. Personally, I think there is no shame in accepting that this route was bad. In hindsight, like all things, I look at only the positives - how it tested our riding skills, the adventure it presented, the immense feeling of solitude. But, in those moments, we really were on the edge. Luckily Chandra Dhaba came soon enough on our left where we halted for refreshments, some shopping and to relax our nerves. 

Approaching Gramphoo

As you approach Gramphoo, the scenery would change drastically. The bare, rocky mountains would be replaced by lush green peaks with signs of life in the form of shepherds, sheep, goats and sheep-dogs. A massive traffic jam caused by these cute creatures would make you chuckle and irritate at the same time. 

Gramphoo is a non-existent signboard of a town where we couldn’t even find a place to eat. Not that we tried very hard. We were in rush to move on. A gang of 15 American bikers, who had ridden along side us thus far, bade us goodbye here as they turned right for Ladakh and we took a left towards Manali. 

Unlike yesteryears, the traffic on Gramphoo to Manali route is minimal. Once you get closer to Rohtang pass, you would find dirty snow hanging over the ledges of the roads. The pass itself is unremarkable (or perhaps this judgement was caused by exhaustion). I mean there is a vantage point but we passed through it without stopping. I am told that a few years back it used to be alive with tea stalls and various shops, but now it’s blank save for a few parked vehicles and people clicking pictures. The roads were finally strong, reliable concrete and we made good speed to a highway eating joint. My feet were wet to the core on account of having traversed many nallahs and balancing the bike on my feet across them. Shivering and teeth chattering, I took the shoes off and laid them out in the feeble sunlight in hopes of drying them. It didn’t work too well.

Resuming our journey, we crossed the pine-tree rich mountains that overlooked the Manali Valley. I had not been to Manali earlier, so I was thoroughly surprised by the massive commercialisation that had eaten up the valley in the form of endless hotels and cafes on both sides of the roads. Perhaps it was just me, but there was a distinguishable, even if faint, smell of marijuana in the air. This is Himachal after all. So, don’t be surprised to find Marijuana plants on your way all along the route. 

Some dude paragliding around Rohtang

Next stop was a cool bike repair workshop in Kullu. We refilled our food supplies and headed to Kasol. It was a day before full moon. The moonlight bathed the streets in gentle white light. The small huts we saw along the roads resembled a ghostly town. It was a good ride. 

Entering the Parvati Valley, the loud roar of the flowing river to the left of us, a smile crept out of me under my helmet. We still couldn’t see it, but the feeling of finally approaching our destination late at night was brewing inside. 


KASOL

I had fantasised about reaching Kasol all day long. Two of our friends (not on this trip), planned to visit Kasol around the same time we did. I imagined entering Kasol, roaring on our bikes, and our friends welcoming us outside Evergreen Cafe. Hugs, smiles and happiness. I imagined going into the cafe to chill before checking into a hotel. And that’s exactly what happened.

This was my second visit to Kasol. The first one happened at a very different time in my life. Luckily, I had written a post about my trip. Here’s where you can read it. 



FINAL leg: KASOL to SHIMLA TO GURGAON - SIGH!

 

Nothing remarkable to report here except that driving back from Kasol to Shimla late at night was a little spooky. I wouldn't recommend it - way too many trucks ply on this route, much safer to leave early from Kasol and arrive at Shimla in the late evening. 


 

AFTEREFFECTS

 

Traveling, going on adventures, seeing new things, meeting interesting people - all this is fine. But, few people talk about what happens when you come back to the reality of everyday life in the big city.  The fixed schedule with 5 days of work and a weekend of drinking. Well, I’ll tell you - life becomes boring.

Boring, not in your regular definition of the word. But, boring in a way that constantly nags you to do something extraordinary again. The comfort of your bed becomes suffocating, the monotony of daily grind becomes a veiled attempt at living life. This is what I call Travel Withdrawal Syndrome or TWS.

Common symptoms of TWS:

  1. Soon after your return, even before the expenses of the trip have been detailed out and money owed returned, plans of a new trip begin taking shape.
  2. The number of work related tabs on your browser shrink to a small percentage, the majority being taken up by blogs of people describing beautiful new places and experiences.
  3. You start wondering how to travel full-time without having to beg for food and accommodation.
  4. At least once, you seriously consider quitting your job and doing something more interesting.
  5. At least once, you seriously consider moving permanently to the place you just returned from and opening up a cafe.
  6. You start dissociating yourself from all the others around you who are not doing something similar.
  7. You think of taking up another activity along with your work seriously - biking, photography, travel blogging.

How to cure TWS?
The answer lies in the last symptom. After a rush of adrenalin on your trip, there is a lot of residual energy in you. Channel it in learning something new. Acquire new skills by investing time in not just doing them but studying their deep lying concepts. Immerse yourself in it as you did with your travel. Say, for example, you were to take up photography. Watch some YouTube lessons, join a common class, do a small day photography trip. 

This allows you to not only grow intellectually, but also, gives you a reality check on how passionate you are about something. Especially if you considering an alternate vocation, this helps to answer the question of whether it is just a passing fad or something that you could seriously consider.

And write. Seriously. Even if you don’t consider yourself a writer, just noting those experiences down in your private diary helps.


END NOTES

There’s not a lot to do in Spiti if you don’t count chilling as something. You see beautiful places, get a lot of time to be on your own. Read a book, look at the scenery, talk to friends, talk to the locals. Meet fellow traveler, share stories.  Your travel would be often and taxing. So, be prepared to be very tired throughout the trip unless you take proper rest. Drink lots of water, it’ll help with acclimatisation. The novelty of the scenery might fade off just a little bit, the adventure will not. Don’t go there with a constricted schedule. Go with some time on your hands. 

Finally, here are some vanity pictures. And Spiti in 10 bullet points.

 

Spiti in 10 bullets:

1. Landscape is surreal. Looks like a painting.
2. Altitude sickness is a real thing.
3. Roads are tough. Horrible even.
4. Food is slow but delicious.
5. You’d be constantly amazed by how fit the locals are.
6. There are bikers all around you and you share a genuine feeling of being in a community.
7. The locals are funny people.
8. With time, the landscape becomes so common that you stop noticing it.
9. Your plans will go haywire on account of unexpected changes in the road condition.
10. Many times, there will be no one around you for hours. Absolute solitude.

Hope these series of posts was helpful ( Read earlier posts: Part 1 and Part 2). Have a great trip yourself!

If you like this post, please consider sharing.

Apathy is worse than criticism for a writer, thus I would love to hear what you thought of it - leave a comment below or email mj at mayankja.in

More Travel Stories:

An Elaborate Guide To Spiti Valley - Part 2

In the third week of August this year, 6 of us embarked on a trip to the less popular, but equally surreal cousin of Ladakh: Spiti Valley. We drove about 1200 kms on motorbikes plus 800 kms by car to and from Gurgaon. What follows is an attempt to create a guide to Spiti with a generous topping of my experiences sprinkled over it.

This is the 2nd part in the series. By the end of the first part, we had laid down the basics. This, Part 2, is where we immerse ourselves completely in the journey. There are tons of beautiful pictures too. 

Read Part 1 here

Read Part 3 here


THIRD LEG: KUMARSAIN TO KALPA

 

Suggested Route: RAMPUR to KALPA

Again, the distance isn’t much, but the roads get very tricky at the fag end of this route. Since this would be the first day of your trip when you tread a difficult mountainous course, doing smaller distances is recommended.

Roads for the first half of this leg are solid tarmac and predictable. Good to ride on

Another hour after this natural tunnel, less friendly roads await

For most parts, you will find concrete roads, reasonable traffic and you would traverse at good pace. We led the group ahead and and took a few minutes break to wait for the rest to arrive. That spot was about 30-40 kms before Reckong Peo which in turn is about 10 kms from Kalpa. It took us close to 3.5 hours to cover that distance.

Chilling is important

A stream to your left before Reckong Peo provides an opportune moment to take a small rest

The concrete roads gave way to rock laden pieces of land which we call roads. Thick mud lined the roads. Our overloaded bikes squelched and squealed as we navigated our way through it at a cautious pace. The pillion kept mum lest they distract the rider. The bikes' lower-sides took the majority of the brunt of the stones scattered by the wheels. We narrowly missed two shooting stones which shot down from the hills just a few feet ahead of us.

A scissor appears on the road here, one leading to Kalpa, other to Nako

At Reckong Peo, climbing up to Kalpa

Eventually, it got better. We climbed mountains and then came back down again, only to climb up again into Kalpa. Slow moving trucks ahead of us threatened to slip back down. Sharp turns, overlooking the steep drop into the valley below, waited for us longingly. Young school kids waved us goodbyes with a smile on their chubby cheeks. 

A river to our left was a welcome sight. We relieved ourselves of the dirt with the cool, refreshing water, took a status check, and went on ahead to Reckong Peo and further ahead to Kalpa.

 

KALPA

Kalpa is located at a height of 2960 metres. Height is important throughout this journey because we climb high enough to cause altitude sickness in the city-dwellers that we are. 

Like most hill-towns, it is remote and not easily accessible. However, it is still untouched by the mass commercialisation that you find creeping in most hill stations. Our navigation for most of the journey (at least till our cell phones worked), was a friend who had stayed back in Gurgaon, fondly named Chunnu - the one who knows it all. Chunnupedia told us that the best place to stay would be Kinner Kailash, a Himachal Tourism guest house named after the mountain it overlooks, and boy was he right.

Kinner Kailash is at the dead end of Kalpa. Seriously. There is nothing beyond it. Thus, it provided us with an uninterrupted view of the imperious mountain ranges. The Kinnaur Kailash mountain stood tall, majestic and wore a white snow cap which was partially visible through the clouds engulfing it.

The view at the cottage

The guest house has spacious wooden cottages which we negotiated down to 3000 bucks for a company of 6 (2 cottages). The host is a chirpy, good-natured middle aged man with one glass eye. His hospitality was genuine and warm. At night, when he came out in his monkey cap and pyjamas, he looked liked a caretaker of a Dak Bungalow from a scene in a dark Bollywood movie about snakes and rebirths.

The food is delicious. They have a nicely placed garden where you can rest your tired asses and talk with fellow travellers. Just sitting there filled us with energy. And what do you do when you are filled with lots of energy without anywhere to let it out? You drink. A word of caution though, you won’t find any thekas near the guest house. You would have to climb down 10kms, to find the first sign of a market. Thus, be well stocked. 

What not to miss: Sitting outside your cottage at night, looking at the well-lit starry sky, soaking in the light reflecting from the mighty mountain snow-cap. Talking about your little place in the Universe is also recommended. 


4TH LEG: KALPA TO TABO

 

Distance: 150 km
Time taken: 7 hrs (including multiple stops for rest, food, and a long stop at a beautiful lake just before Tabo)
Via - Pooh, Nako

Make sure to get your petrol cans, and bike tanks filled up at Reckong Peo since this would be your last petrol pump before Kaza. Moving out of Kalpa, the roads improve at Pooh and are lovely to drive all the way to Nako and then some. 

The landscape changed quickly from light vegetation to completely bare mountains

You can stop to eat at Pooh at a small dhaba. It is closed on Tuesdays and guess which day we went there - yes, Tuesday. But, we found the lady who runs the place walking nearby. And she was kind enough to make Chowmein and Parathas for us. You can also get your water refrigerated at her shop since you are going to be driving in scorching heat. But, if you have reached Pooh, you would have realised it by now.

Some pictures of the route

Some people also stay at Nako lake camps. But, we overlooked that even though it was on our itinerary. One reason was that we were short of time and secondly, that place isn’t that great anyway. 

So, we went straight to Tabo.

The river

What not to miss: A few kilometres before Tabo, you would find a river to your left. Park your bikes on the side of the road, and walk down the hundred metres to the lake. The water is cold and clear. The surrounding mountains are smoothed by years of flowing water and the rushing winds. It is a good spot to chill for a while. 

 

 

TABO

Suggested: Spend a full day in Tabo

You know what, Kalpa, Pooh, Nako are all fine. They are all great places, no complaints. But, the careless abandon of travel that you unknowingly long for would present itself to you, for the first time, in Tabo. 

You should enter the hard to miss, huge Monastery gate on your left to find a rest for the night. The first place you find to park your vehicles would be your resting place. That would be Tiger's Den Guest House.  

Tiger Den Guest House

The moment we arrived there, we didn’t even unload our bikes to keep the bags in our rooms. Straight up, we headed to a theka nearby to buy some Beers. Then, we pitched ourselves in the Tiger's Den cafeteria.

It was evening and the faint light of the overhanging bulbs reflected against our oily, dirty and happy faces. There were smiling faces. Or maybe it was just me. But, the point is, it felt great to be there. The beers were opened, the food was served, and the conversations resumed. 

What not to miss: Visit the monastery. Lounge around the garden for hours at length. Meet the fellow travelers who stop by at Tabo in their journey to nowhere. 


5TH LEG: TABO TO KAZA

 

Next is a short 3 hour ride from Tabo to arrive at Kaza. You will be climbing down into the valley for most part. Here are some pictures. 

 

KAZA

You have arrived. The first big town, or, the only relatively big town in Spiti Valley. This would be your base for the next 3 days. A lot of places to visit nearby, good places to stay, and great food all around makes this a perfect place for you to pitch base.

As you enter Kaza, the Spiti river will run along your side. The roads leading up to the town have a lot of trustworthy straights that you can race your bike on. The river bed would make you want to climb down off the road and lie there for hours at a stretch. And sure enough, one amongst us did do that in spite of the searing heat of the afternoon. 

The local market welcomes you inside with its narrow lanes, lined on both sides with sundry shops, cafes and hotels. We stayed at Hotel Deyzor which is quite popular among the travellers. The free WiFi probably has something to do with it. 

A word of caution: Everything about Deyzor is cool, except the food. No, I don’t mean that it’s bad. Rather, it is quite delicious. But the slow service is a pain in the ass. And your abdomen. We had not ridden a long distance but had alighted on our bikes with a light breakfast. So, we were super hungry by the time we reached there. Upon reaching Deyzor, we left our bags on the bike and went straight to their garden cafe. But, the service was so damn slow. It didn’t help that the altitude was high enough to cause headaches in some of us. Sadly, this trend remained for the rest of our stay at the hotel. So, just be sure to not be hungry to the point of becoming cranky. Your food will arrive in its own due time.

You would meet a lot of interesting folks at Deyzor. Some who organise bicycle tours, others who go on bicycle tours, writers, an Israeli group with a guitarist among them (not stereotypical at all), a military trained dog, a group of high school Australian graduates traveling the world and riding bikes in Spiti when only one of them actually knew how-to, and the rest of them learning as they go - on only the most treacherous roads in the world. Weird world. 

What to do in Kaza:

Key Monastery

En route to Key Monastery

Your first excursion from Kaza should be to Key Monastery. It is about an hour’s drive from the hotel and the route is picturesque. Literally. I mean this route inspired my intro to this series of posts (ref: Part 1). I found myself lost in the surroundings even as I was driving. It is so easy for that to happen to you. And if you try to bring your focus back on the road, which you should, your head spins around itself. Luckily, the roads are predictable and smooth winding up to the monastery. 

Key Monastery is situated at a height of 4166 metres. I wonder why they make monasteries so high up. Last one I went to was in Paro, Bhutan which we reached to after a particularly taxing hike of 2 and a half hours. You don’t really do anything in such places. Just soak in the peace and the quiet. Have a chat with the monks, get some water into the system. Sit inside the prayer hall and watch the monks do their preparations. It doesn’t sound much, but trust me, it is a lot. My friends had to pull me out of the trance to ask me to go back to base. 

This is where you will again have one of those - ‘What’s this life for?’, ‘Why do we work so hard to make money’, ‘What should we do with our lives?, ‘Let’s quit our jobs and settle in a monastery’ - moments. I’ve been told that the food inside the restaurant adjacent to the monastery is particularly fulfilling. You might want to give it a try. 

Kibber

Kibber is a tiny village close to Key. Ride into the village, go as high up as you can and then park yourself in the restaurant there. Have tea in their cafe, look around as you see small houses you can count on your fingers, and people which you cannot since there won’t be any. Seriously, there was not a single soul to be seen when we arrived there. Only after some time did we see a few people milling about, probably coming out of a conference since they all appeared from the same corner in a beeline. 

There isn’t much to do in Kibber (sleeping in the wide open fields is a recommendation which comes from a friend) , which itself is quite a nice thing to have on a vacation. But, it can get old soon, so you can come back by the evening. Here, I would like to highlight that driving at night isn’t a good idea anywhere in Spiti. They call these roads the world’s most treacherous ones and not without good reason. 

Couple of other places that we couldn’t go to were Hikkim (apparently, India’s highest post office, send your loved ones postcards from here) and Gue Monastery (where a 600 year old Mummy of a monk resides; legend has it that it still grows its hair). Google will tell you more about it than I can.


End of Part 2

Read Part 1 here

Read Part 3 here

In the next and final part, we look at the journey back from Spiti valley via Kunzum and Rohtang Pass. We also made a 2 day stop over at Kasol.

To be notified of more such stories, leave your email address below. 

If you like this post, please consider sharing.

Apathy is worse than criticism for a writer, thus I would love to hear what you thought of it - leave a comment below or email mj at mayankja.in

An Elaborate Guide To Spiti Valley - Part 1

In the third week of August this year, 6 of us embarked on a trip to the less popular, but equally surreal cousin of Ladakh: Spiti Valley. We drove about 1200 kms on motorbikes plus 800 kms by car to and from Gurgaon. What follows is an attempt to create a guide to Spiti with a generous topping of my experiences sprinkled over it.

This is the longest piece I have written on a single topic yet. For ease of reading and for my own sanity, I have broken it down to 3 parts. This is the first one.

Read Part 2 here

Read Part 3 here


INTRODUCTION

 

Imagine the world of Gods. They live high up in sky, a million galaxies away. 4.54 billion years ago, their council decided to manifest a planet with life. They would call it Earth. The responsibility of the creation of this planet was assigned to a promising young artist called Vincio. His method of creation was to paint vivid, meticulously detailed pictures of Earth. Once finished, Vincio would breathe out a lungful of air into them to bring them to life.

At first, Vincio created the different landscapes that would form a habitat for Earthlings. Mountains, rivers, deserts, great oceans and their meeting points. He then progressed to creating simple life forms like bacteria, viruses and weeds. As he developed his art skill, he started making more complex life forms culminating into humans. But, the true test of his skill was when he would devise a sophisticated mechanism of co-habitation of these life forms with the aforementioned geographical landscapes. This gave rise to agricultural societies, villages, towns and eventually the big, shiny cities that we now inhabit.

After a millennia he came out of his self-imposed solitude where he painted the most complicated planet ever seen by the Gods. The Council was impressed. They decided to hold an exhibition of his work for the whole Gods community to see. The critiques would be invited too, so that they can comment on this elaborate plan of bringing the first life into the Universe. All that was left for Vincio to do was to let out a gentle breath into each of his pictures to bring them to life.

Here’s what Madre, an acclaimed critic, wrote about his work.

Review - Vincio's Breath of Life, An Exhibition

It is not with regularity that one sees work of this magnitude by a single artist - both in terms of the sheer amount as well as the complex patterns and their interplay with each other. Today, we have seen a work of extraordinary brilliance from a prodigious talent. By creating the human life, Vincio has outdone himself. We see that human life will build mega colonies and call them cities. They would build modes of transportation and communication which would surpass anything ever built outside of the Colony of Gods. Their collective intelligence as a species would generate great progress. However, this would come at a cost.

Humans, even with their advancements, would feel a certain emptiness in their hearts. Cities after cities which look soulless burial grounds of dreams and contentment have been a constant theme in Vincio's work. These big cities would stifle humans. The irony of working hard to seek progress and yet feeling shallow inspite (or because) of it would not be lost on them. Thus, a small number of them would frequent out into the unexplored.

Beaches, mountains, forests - they would all serve the humans as a reservoir of peace of mind, joy, even exhaustion yet fulfilment. However, they would all lack a sense of wonder which could move the human race to contemplation. In creating these, Vincio had been predictable and seemed afraid to break his boundaries until we chanced upon his work titled Spiti.

Carefully situated in the Spiritual Heartland of Earth - India, surrounded by the Great Himalayan mountain ranges and fed by the river Spiti, it would be a view to behold. Men traveling to the valley would gape in wonder. For many years, Vincio’s breath, in the form of winds, would create intricate patterns on the mountain ranges. It would not be easy for the men to reach there. But once arrived, they would experience profound moments that most would find difficult to express.

It is in Spiti that they would first come close to Vincio. They would see the landscape as not just another geographical form. It would seem to them as if they are the brushstrokes of a masterful painting. Yes! That would be, in opinion of this humble critique, the true pinnacle of Vincio’s work. Spiti would elevate humans from merely existing as yet another life form, to being truly one with the God’s process of Earth’s creation.


GURGAON

We were to leave at 2 o' clock in the night. I turned in early to bed to get some sleep before the long ride ahead of us. But, it was futile. Before a trip, as you await the time of your departure, multiple thoughts run around aimlessly inside your head. Have you packed enough? Have you packed too much? How dangerous would the roads be - Did I mention this was going to be a motorbike trip? 3 riders + 3 pillion.

I had planned to write about my experience after coming back. But, writing about Travel on a blog which which professes the value of mindfulness is tricky. On one hand I preach living in the moment but on the other, I also realise that travel writing requires capturing the moments as they are lived in the form of timely notes rather than just writing about them later by recalling the incidents from memory. 

As I struggled with these thoughts, eyes wide awake, mind racing from one thought to another like a distracted toddler, tossing and turning, I also had an evil thought. What if, at this moment, I decide not to go altogether? It would be easy to do so. No sleeplessness, no uncertainty about the roads, I could stay tucked inside the safe comforts of my bed. Had I not so meticulously planned the trip myself, I would have probably given those thoughts a little more weightage. I have done this kind of thing before. 

If we try to look for such patterns in our life itself, it leads to a philosophical introspection. How often do we ditch the brilliant, exciting, if only a little dangerous, step we think of taking, to settle for the monotony, ordinary and the familiar. Perhaps moving out of our comfort zones, to give ourselves a jolt of adrenalin, and some vitality to our existence might be just what we need.


First leg: GURGAON TO SHIMLA

 

Unlike Manali, Shimla doesn’t have many bike rental companies. Thus, it is advisable to book your bikes beforehand. So did we. A word of caution: Please research your rental company thoroughly. Some of the companies out there lend bikes which are in poor condition, unserviced and might have potentially dangerous hidden flaws. It is a matter of your safety so please be careful.
 
We left Gurgaon on Thursday night to arrive in Shimla the next morning. We had not slept the night before. But, a healthy dosage of Red Bull, music, adrenaline and the open road kept us awake and interested. 

We drove rash, we drove safe, depending upon the depth of our conversation and the tempo of the music we were streaming off the internet. The Internet. The Fucking Internet. Our hyper-active, frenemy, like a faithful dog, which because of its constant attention craving, sometimes becomes a nuisance, following us even this high up in the mountains. 

Mountains ornamented with carpets of green welcomed us all the way. Trees ubiquitous to highways across India formed a natural tunnel. The casual playfulness of light and dark flora on the mountains seemed like shadows formed by a play of light and clouds. Perhaps they were shadows. Trucks, with their poisonous exhaust fumes and life-giving one-liners on their backside never left our company. Roadside cafes, with their unoriginal names but fulfilling food greeted us at every few steps. One of these is Nik Bakers, just outside of Chandigarh and to your left. They serve one of the best Cold Coffees I have ever had. In case you are looking for something more filling, Haveli, the highly popular restaurant would be your best option. 

 

SHIMLA

At noon, we arrived to the quiet air of Shimla. We had not yet entered the main bazaar area, so there was still scope for us to enjoy the peace away from the cacophony of noises at the Mall Road. Most part of the day was spent on checking bikes, test riding, get any repairs done and buying spare parts if needed. 

Our stay was at Hotel Achman Regency. An average hotel on the highway by all means. The reception stood on what they called the 4th floor. The elevator took us down to our rooms on the 2nd floor. As we sat on our damp beds, the quiet engulfed us only to be broken by incessant spam calls offering me credit card limit enhancements. 

Ready to roll

As we looked out the window towards the erect pines craving to touch the blue sky, we felt that we could just spend the next 7 days here. Again, this is the comfort zone talking. At night, as we sat in our room, a cloud engulfed us. How did we know? Well, for one, the window shut itself. And second, we couldn’t see a damn thing beyond a few feet outside the window. It was all hazy, misty, and cloudy. We were floating high above the idiosyncrasies of daily life, if only for a few days. I wish I could have seen ourselves from a hill 500 metres away with a binocular. That would have been cool.


Second leg: SHIMLA TO KUMARSAIN

 

Suggested Route: SHIMLA TO RAMPUR
Pass through: Kufri - Narkanda

One thing you should set very concretely in your head is that your average speeds would be very low. It is reasonable to assume an average speed of 20km/h including the stops. If you are not riding pillion, you can probably push it to 25km/h but that’s it. The roads from Shimla to Rampur are good. But, beyond that, things get rough.

Apple orchard along the way. Freshly picked apples are delicious

We had planned to leave early from Shimla and arrive late evening at Rampur, but because of some unforeseen bike issues, we had to halt at Kumarsain.

The Incident

 

KUMARSAIN

We spent two nights spent in Kumarsain for reasons which were out of our control. One of our bikes gave up, and for us to rearrange something else took time. Not much to report here except that the folks were super friendly and arranged a place for us to stay at the Forest Reserve Guest House, kept their shops open for us to get dinner and happily helped us repair our bikes - without expecting anything in return. There's just one single thread of conversation here that the world should know about:

The Dynamics of a Human - Pizza Relationship

Shruti: You know I read a funny news story recently. A girl in the US married a Pizza!

Mayank: Dafaq! (Laughter) Man, people are weird. 

(Laughter all around)

Mayank: I have a question. Did the girl marry a single pizza or pizza-breed in general?

Shruti: Oh yeah! That's an important question. I don't know. Perhaps pizza-breed in general otherwise she'll have to keep the single pizza deep-freezed and never eat it. That defeats the purpose of falling in love with and marrying a pizza.

Mayank: Hmm. Suppose the girl is traveling on a flight. She knows she is going to be hungry once she deboards the plane. So, she had called a pizza place in advance to get her pizza ready. Then this would be called a long distance relationship.

 Shruti: (Laughter) Yeah, and if she has a pizza in the flight then that's cheating.

Mayank: (Laughter) And if she has more than one, then she is just a whore. 

Both Shruti and Mayank laugh uncontrollably at the brilliance of their own jokes hoping that they remember this exchange of intellect to share with the world. The world needs to know this.


End of Part 1

Read Part 2 here

Read Part 3 here

To be notified of more such stories, leave your email address below.

If you like this post, please consider sharing.

Apathy is worse than criticism for a writer, thus I would love to hear what you thought of it - leave a comment below or email mj at mayankja.in

Jodhpur Riff Music Festival

Picture a massive fort with imposing walls that stands upon a hill accessible by roads that climb up, zig-zagging their way to the top. Inside that fort, musicians from all over the world have assembled bringing their own unique style of music with them. You are seated on chairs in a wide open courtyard surrounded by the tall, erect walls of the fort that stand cocooning you away from the world outside.

  Mehrangarh Fort at 7 in the morning

Mehrangarh Fort at 7 in the morning

But, it is not morning when you are in there (as it is in the above picture). Instead, it is midnight. The moon is waning, having seen the first day of the music festival in all its full glory.

You are not alone.

To the left of you are your friends with their eyes, ears and minds glued to the stage in front of them. To your right is a tiny 3-year old foreign kid with sunset yellow hair in an Indian kurta and pyjama. He sits on the floor, claps, leaps up, dances and plays with whomever he wants, oblivious of the rest of us. Carefree and obviously having the time of his life, he doesn’t smile though. It is as if the scene in front of him was one of the secret rituals of a ceremony that only he knows and was created just for him to take part in.

His mom is somewhere at the back. You know this because you had seen both of them eariler in the food courtyard. He looked sleepy then, probably waiting for things to get started. The mother looked like many years ago, she must have gone through a similar procession. Ragged clothes, pierced skin, a backpack, flip-flops - she exudes charm and natural cool that many of us can only look at, admire and idolise.

Behind us is a swarm of people equally interesting and completely interested in what was unfolding in front of us. Some are standing holding their drinks while others, their lover's hands. Rest are seated on a stone platform at the base of the walls surrounded by strangers wanting to strike up a conversation, smoking, listening to the music. 

The Royalty of Jodhpur sits on one side against the wall - impeccably dressed in their regal attire - turbans, sherwani, swords - the works. Guards with curled up moustaches stood protecting them from the common folk. 

The main attraction was lit up by an amalgamation of colors dispersing out of various strobes shining on the performers on the stage and reflecting against the walls. 

Who the performer is on the stage is immaterial. You don’t remember much of how it sounded like except that when you were there, the music was solely what you thought about. No other thoughts entered into your head and you feel glad because of it. 

The music lifts you up, drowns you down, moves you - takes you in circles, makes you smile, wonder and smile some more. You don't really know which category to place this music in. There is Rock, Sufi, Soul, Folk and many others. Often, they collaborate and produce unique sounds. 

It is not too cold , just warm enough for a thin sweater. You take a sip of your drink. But, it is only customary, you don’t really need it.

Earlier, you sat at a ledge outside with your friends, legs dangling in the air. 200ft below, looking ahead in the distance, you see the many houses and people that make up the city. People dance on the roofs for a reason which you are not privy to. City appears a box full of more brown boxes with a few specks of color scattered around on top of people’s houses. 

And it is midnight. 

This is Jodhpur Riff Music Festival. I was there for only a night and day but it is already among one of my favorite live music experiences. I didn’t click many pictures of that night, there is no point. You have to be there to truly appreciate the grandeur of the event. 

On the way to the fort at 4.30 in the morning

That night, we stayed at the fort till 3 am then came back to rest for an hour before leaving again for the finale at a different venue. Unlike most music festivals, this one didn't end with a grand last night. Instead a beautiful morning show ended the proceedings. It was by the brilliant Kabir Panthi Prahlad Singh Tipaniya whose work we are already a big fan of. 

Prahlad Singh Tipanya - Tu Ka Tu

This was a completely new experience for me. We arrived at the venue for the morning show, Jaswant Thada which is a mausoleum, early in the morning when it was still dark. Tipanya Ji sat on the floor of the courtyard with his group. 

Different shades of Jaswant Thada during the performance

The sun had not yet appeared, probably waiting for us to assemble before emerging. We lay our bums down on the bright green wet morning grass, others on the mattresses. Gradually, the light grew brighter and we shut our tired eyes and let the music sink in. Although, honestly, we couldn't really hear all of it - the exhaustion from the night before resulted in a few small naps interspersed with Tipanya Ji's booming voice and the sounds from the instruments of the rest of his group. 

Eventually, we got up, roamed around, had a cup of tea, looked on the other side from where, again, the whole city and the Mehrangarh fort could be seen - all this time, the group kept singing songs of Kabir in devotion to God.

As it ended, we broke into an impromptu jig. The rest of the day was comparatively uneventful as we came back and rested for a bit before catching the train to back home. 

From Jodhpur, we took back some fine memories and delicious sweets and kachoris. And left behind a promise to do this again. 

For more photos of the festival, check out their Facebook page.

Hampi

If Stanley Kubrick made Star Wars, Hampi is where he would choose to shoot at. 

Sitting in an auto for the half an hour ride from Hospet station, as I entered Hampi, the words ‘Wow’ leapt out of me. My jaw dropped and I sensed the feeling of wonder swell up inside me. The scenery before me was surreal - a vast area of land showered with huge boulders and ruins which still looked magnificent in every direction your eye could see. I was awestruck at the scenery and I don’t remember any other place having such a strong effect on me at first look. It was something completely other-worldly.

A friend of mine had told me, “Hampi is not a place to just travel to, it is a place to live in”. Naturally, I went there with high expectations. And, I wasn’t disappointed. Many centuries ago, Hampi was the seat of the Vijaynagara kingdom and the ruins of the grand empire are what remain today. The river Tunghabhadra separates the two sides of Hampi with the majority of temples on one side and most of the ruins on the other. A boat carries you to and fro across the river. The place is pretty much a tourist-only destination. I presume that all the industries that exist there are meant to cater to the tourists - the numerous cafes, bike rental shops, guest houses and the numerous grocery stores. Phones don’t work too well so if you plan to split up from your friends, it is advisable to decide on a common meeting ground and time. Food is an important aspect when I travel, and I am happy to report that Hampi served us delicious food. 

I stayed on the temple side of the river in a guest house at the edge of the river, overlooking the flowing stream. The sound of the rushing and gushing of water was such a joy to the overworked mind and ears. The place has a very good vibe about it - relaxing and chilled out. People seemed nice and friendly. The best way to explore the place would be to hire a moped and roam around. The 'hippie' area is on the other side of the river if you care to know. Although, some might argue that you can build your own hippie haven wherever you are depending on whom you are with. 

During my stay, I climbed up the ruins/mountains whenever I got a chance. On the hike up the runis, you could relax in the shades of what might have been temples long time ago. I went in one such temple and there was a sadhu of some sort who sat there contemplating. He wasn’t praying but just sitting there casually in complete darkness. I joined him and sat there in silence. At this point, you probably expect that I got some life-changing insight. I did not. But, it was good to just be quiet for a while and feel that the whole world is just a small place inside that dark temple ruin consisting of two people who are sitting silently contemplating on their own lives. 

Another time, as I was writing in my journal, under the shade of one such temple, I had a brilliant scenery all around me. The Tungabhadra separated me from the coconut trees in the distance. In the horizon, I could see huge boulders sprinkled like oregano on top of your pizza. A small climb awaited me on my left beyond which another one of these many temples peeked out at me. On the right, downhill, were some more stone structures and I wonder how they were made. To top it off, the cool breeze in hot sun was a godsend. 

While writing, a small kid came up to me to sell me maps and other souvenirs. I struck up a conversation and one of the first things he asked me was my mother's name. That's not something I expected. I mean, I don't go around asking people their mother's name as a conversation starter. But, for this little kid, I guess it was pretty normal. He told me his name was 'BaSaVaraJa' and his mother's name 'KaNaKatna' - that is how he wrote it in my diary. Meanwhile, a Spanish couple collected memories in their cameras and we exchanged a few pleasantries in my primitive Spanish. 

I made friends with an Englishman, Jasper and we went riding on our mopeds together. We stopped to hike up some mountains. And we kept climbing higher and higher. The thing with mountain climbing, we discussed, is that once you start, you just want to keep on climbing up. We eventually did find a spot to rest. In our 360 degree view, we could’t see a single other soul. We sat together talking about life and sharing stories. He was traveling in India for quite some time and had worked in a Kerala guest house for 3 weeks in exchange for a place to sleep and 3 meals a day. This, I feel is a good arrangement. You can do it too, there is a site for that: Workaway - this is available in many countries and it seems like a great way to travel and explore other cultures. 

We met a french dude who had bought a dog during his travel in India and was carrying it around wherever he went. The dog was called Singham. Often he would run away and after coming back, people would shout "Singham returns" - I don't think he ever got the joke. He spoke like there was no tomorrow and told me a story as to how he got the money to travel. He had had a motorbike accident and the insurance company paid him some money. The exchange rate did the rest. An economics dropout, he was going to go back and study art. 

I stayed in Hampi for only a day and looking back I feel I did so much in that one day. But, never for a moment did I feel that I am rushing through things. Would I go back? Umm…maybe. Would I want to climb those ruins on which stood many centuries ago the empire of a major South Indian kingdom? Hell yeah!

Auroville

Words and Pictures from my stay at an international township building human society from scratch

 

The day after leaving Auroville, I am catching up on my sleep at a friend’s place in preparation for the party later in the night. It is going to be a great night, I can feel it. The next morning I am set to leave for Hampi with a few friends. And from there on, wherever the wind takes me. Inspite of all these plans, I feel a little sad and nostalgic. It feels as if I’ve just left home to travel. That is what Auroville does to you — it makes you feel like you belong there.


INTRODUCTION

 

Auroville is an experimental township in the erstwhile French colony of Pondicherry. It belongs to no one in particular but the people who manage its affairs are influenced by the words of Sri Aurobindo, poet, nationalist, philospher and The Mother, who was his spiritual partner. 

What I’ve experienced in Auroville is that it is as close to an ideal society as you can get — this is of course based just on the 11 days that I spent there. It has its pros and cons but people have accepted it as the realities of life. Most people that I met there were happy or more accurately, content. This could either be put to the social dynamics that are prevalent there or the strong spiritual atmosphere or a combination of both.

Life there is unhurried yet efficient. People are laid back but productive. They are also very occupied with their work but you can also find time for an hour long breakfast conversation. Whomever you meet and greet, will have a smile on their face and enough time for a short but comfortable conversation with you. I feel they value human connections a lot over other aspects of life but at the same time are very inward focused in terms of personality improvement. They don’t want to change you, but you feel a different person yourself around them. 

There are 5 kinds of people in Auroville — Guests, Volunteers, Newcomers, Aurovillians and Locals. About 50% of all are non-Indians. Guests are people like me who go there on a vacation, pay for their food and accommodation, do some activities there and come back. Volunteers work on different aspects of the society ranging from office accounts work to reforestation and body healing. In exchange, they get room and board. Aurovillians are the residents who have bought a house in Auroville and now spend time building up the society in whatever way they can. Newcomers is a one-year long status before you can become Aurovillians. Locals work there just like any other job and live either inside Auroville or in the nearby villages.

I arrived in Auroville as a guest and this is what I would recommend to first timers who just want to take a vacation to relax and chill for a couple of weeks. If you want to explore a different style of living, then maybe Volunteering for a couple of months is a good option for you.  


Living

 

I stayed at Vérité Guest House  which is an easy to miss place surrounded by trees. Most of the area inside is covered in green and the architecture of the place is simple yet tasteful. It runs purely on sustainable energy — we had our own Solar cells and a full blown wind mill. Rooms are simple, clean and functional. The intention of my trip was to sort myself out, figure out what to do next and find my purpose. And funnily enough my room’s name was Purpose. Other rooms were also interestingly named such as Humor, Gratitude etc.

There was a decent enough library which was, unsurprisingly, populated in majority by books on spirituality or about life from a 10000ft. view. There was a Guest Lounge where you could make your own tea/coffee, access the internet and just relax and talk to people. Vérité Hall was a big multipurpose hall where a lot of activities, which I am going to talk about later, took place.

The food was the rare combination of healthy and delicious. We were served vegetarian organic meals with some of the fruits and vegetables plucked right from the farm inside the premises. We ate together huddled around one big table. If not, you can always join anyone’s table for a good meal-time conversation. And since, it is less of a guest house and more like a community living, after meals, you wash your own dishes.

 The kitchen and indoor eating area

The kitchen and indoor eating area

There is no direct internet connection into your room, you have to go to the guest lounge and access it. This was the best thing that could have happened. Technology detoxification did me good, not to mention that I broke my smartphone on the trip as well. 

It was a no smoke, no alcohol, no drugs place. And frankly, I didn’t feel like taking any. The fresh air, good people, nice food were reasons enough to stay aware and in your senses. 

You don't carry cash around much for the simple reason that it is useless over there. They have the concept of Auro Card which is what you use to pay everywhere. It is basically a sort of card where you feed in some money and for every transaction, money is debited from that card.

Commuting is either by motorbike, bicycles or by foot in that order of preference. People do have electric bikes as well. The distances inside Auroville aren't great (usually around 2-4 kms from one point to another) but the roads aren't pucca and go uphill and downhill, so riding a bicycle or walking could become tiring after a while, thus a motorbike is what I'd recommend.


DOING

 

Since Auroville is a proper society of people and not just a tourist destination, it provides for its residents activities which engage them physically or mentally or both. I am a sucker for trying out new things, hence I took part in a lot of them and saw a lot of mini industries thriving inside. 

In the mornings, you could do group meditation or take part in one of the many classes of Yoga of different forms (Hatha Yoga in Iyengar tradition was the most common one in our guest house). One of the days, we attended a South Indian Cooking workshop. I enjoy cooking so it was fun to learn cooking from the locals. We made delicious Dosas, Chutney, Rice Pudding, Banana flower cootu and cutlets. 

Come afternoon, and you can visit the small industries like Swaram - a music instrument production space. These guys create their own new instruments and you could go in their workshop and see how they do it. If you have some skill that they can use, you can volunteer as well. And if you want to buy some, you can do that as well. 

The Bamboo centre was an incredible place. I never knew that Bamboo is such a useful plant. It grows really fast - up to 100 cm a day. It was thus used as a torture method in earlier days - tying up a prisoner above a growing Bambaoo, you can imagine the rest. It has strength of steel yet is very flexible - a quality that it teaches everyone of us - bend but do not break. You can eat it, make clothes with it which are better in material than cotton, make soap out of it, charcoal, houses and a thousand other things. It stop soil erosion much faster than any other plant and gives 30% more oxygen than other trees. They say that you can just live off Bamboo if you want. 

Evenings can be spent doing things like watching movies of all languages which are played daily inside the community theatre. There are dance parties - mostly Salsa and Tango. Or you can enjoy watching shows like Kathakali. If it is full moon, you can go for a moon bath and meditation.

There are a lot of therapies which keep on happening like the past-life regression therapy which I was interested in ever since I read Dr. Brian Weiss. It is basically a therapy where the healer takes you to your past life and tries to figure out parallels from that life to this one to solve any of the problems you have, not that I had any in particular. But, I eventually decided to ditch it as per recommendation of some people.

Sound Bath

I enjoyed two things specifically - Dance Space and Sound Bath. Allow me to elaborate on that. Sound Bath is where guys from Swaram bring in their instruments and give an aural experience that quite literally shakes you to the core. You lie down with your eyes closed forming one piece of a circle while Swaram does its magic. They start by playing a Sitar and then move higher with bringing in more instruments. And all this music moves around you as they move around in the circle with the instruments. Your body can literally feel the vibrations of the big chimes being played right over the top of your body. And goes without saying, these guys were masters of their art.

Dance Space is a form of improvised dancing where you lose your inhibitions since nobody's going to judge how or what you are doing. There are on instructions, no rigid form - you do what you want. It feels very liberating.

A lot of people go to Sadhana Forest to work on reforestation. Just like in my guest house, which uses completely sustainable resources of energy, Sadhana forest is building a way of living as we used to when we were in earlier societies —  the gatherer phase of humans.  

One afternoon, I even cooked lunch for all the people in the guest house - of course with the help of the Ammas and volunteers - people who diligently took notes of what I would need for cooking. I taught them how to cook proper Aloo Parathas, made Aloo Pyaaz Rasa and Vegetable Pulao. I was so glad and relieved to see that they enjoyed the food. They even had to put a sign "Each one take one" in front of the parathas to ensure everyone gets to eat at least one.  


PEOPLE

 

I’ve said this earlier, saying it now and will say it again in the future - the people you meet are going to make or break your travel experience or for that matter your day to day living. You could work in a shitty job and still feel happy if surrounded by nice and happy people - vice versa holds true as well. I was lucky enough to find nice and happy people in Auroville. I don’t know what it was about the place but most people I met there were genuinely content with their lives. Be it the guy who has stayed there for 22 years or a newbie who is just visiting the place to our auto rickshaw driver. Here are a few snippets about their lives:

Out of all the people whom I met there, no one had a bigger effect on my experience there than Paola, my friendly Mexican neighbour. She had returned from Australia after a year of study+work in Sustainable Development which she was very interested in. She taught me how easy it is to be happy and content with what you have, where you are and whom you are talking to. She told me Mexicans are like that - friendly and like to celebrate life. We used to spend time singing songs on the bike ride, waving and shouting Hola at everyone on the street.  Or we used to chill in the guest lounge telling each other stories - like the ones she told me how she sky dived solo with just a day of training. Or we would make tea and discuss Indian mythology. Or she would bring her skipping rope and show me some cool tricks. Or we would chill in our rooms, listening to music and showing each other pictures of our childhood. Once, we read our diaries to each other and it was interesting to read how the same incident could be viewed by two different people. Mexicans know Salsa like Punjabis know Bhangra. So, she helped me out with a few moves as a preparation for the Salsa party. 

In Auroville, I encountered the question — Is the purpose of life to be happy? I had met Dhanya, who was a very happy man in Holland. But, he was looking for more but didn't know what. He has been in Auroville for 22 years and seemed to be the calmest person I have met. We had good long chats about how to live life. I asked him about the ‘purpose’ of life and he gave me an advice which works well for me and I would like to share with you - We can either pick one thing and focus on it completely thinking this is the purpose of our life and constantly seek change. Or we can be OK with where we are and seek to do our best. And by doing this, our purpose will emerge. If we find ourselves in conditions which we don’t like, we can try and make the most of it and find the best out of it but if we can’t, we can try and find a way out of it. 

I guess, for us, happiness is not enough. We are always looking for something more. There will always be a conflict that arises in our minds. 

Ivana was a very funny Czech lady who was a budding painter and took our meditation classes. 
Ivana checked my heart coherence too which is a device used to track how well you are doing in meditation. Coco, a South African lady runs the art gallery in Auroville and she was such a sweet person who has finally started to like India.

Met Mila, spanish woman of 51, who had closed a book of her life and moved to India to open a new one. She said she is happy at Auroville and her happiness was effusing out of her infectious smile. A lot of people come to Auroville to unwind and explore a new way of living. Some of them have closed their earlier chapters of their lives and have moved here in hope of finding something new. 
  
Marcella, a Brazilian who has just sold off her car rental company told us stories about the death of the Brazilian presedential candidate in a flight crash and the conspiracy around it. Rajaveni, was a very funny lady who was in charge of the kitchen. She used to be a dancer and had toured the US in her younger days. Inge, Dutch, travelling in India for a long, long time and a damn good photographer. She told me about the Ultimate Frisbee competition that happens at the beach in Auroville. I never knew there were proper international Frisbee tournaments. 


Beach

If I am anywhere near a beach, I cannot not go in and take a swim. And since, the beaches at Auroville were much cleaner than the ones I have seen elsewhere, say Goa for an example, I spent an insane amount of time at the beach. They are less crowded and if you rise up early enough, you can find yourself to be the only one at the beach and soak in the morning sun which rises up from the sea and sets behind the trees. There is a decent surfing scene as well. By the end of my trip, I was totally tanned, sunburnt and happy. 

Marcella taught me a phrase in Spanish - Vamos a la playa! (Let’s go the beach, it is used whenever you venture out to do something interesting and adventurous). At the beach, Paola, being Paola, introduced herself to a few people and became friends with them. She even befriended a gang of Rajasthani boys with whom I played football.  

The evenings beach visits were very different from the morning ones. In the evenings, the dusk sky becomes a plethora of colors as if god’s own children had spilled bottles of color across it. Not sure if it was the darkness or the high waves but we found ourselves in reflective mood.

Afterwards, we used to go out for North Indian meals. These girls loved it and made a point about how Indians use the breads/rotis as forks to lift the food. I find it funny because I never thought of our eating habits like this before. Marcella wasn’t sure about having Indian food because she is not into spicy food. But, I talked her into it and it was a good decision. Sometimes, when you know you are doing something based on your knowledge (more than the other person), then you should take command and make a decision for the group without worrying about the outcome. You went in with the best of intentions and good heart and that is all that counts. 


Pondicherry

True that

The people in Pondy were nice too — I went there with Paola, Rajaveni and her small son Samaran. I roamed the streets and drank coffee as I waited for these ladies to get a haircut. As I sat there in the coffee shop and thought of how to thank the lady for the coffee, it didn’t come naturally. Anger and sadness comes naturally to us — whereas being happy is almost an effort. Gratitude is not a thing that comes naturally to us. I eventually did say that it was nice coffee. This simple appreciation was reciprocated in a loud and clear thank you sir which felt real. It feels great to give out positive energies — you get lots of them in return.

Lakshmi, The Ganesha Temple

Pondy has a nice enough promenade where we went. There, looking at the litter thrown around everywhere, Paola asked me why are the beaches so dirty and why do people not care about it. I think it is not just because people are not educated. I believe there is a deeper reason — we haven’t experienced economic prosperity, our basic needs aren’t met yet — maslow’s law, thus rest of the things such as behavior, culture etc just don’t come into our minds. This is obviously an inference from a result. 

Ganesha temple — we were told the story of the elephant Lakshmi, who is tired but still stands there day in and out. I found it sad but maybe likes doing what she does - blessing people in exchange for the food they give her.

Aurobindo Ashram is also located in Pondy where there is the Samadhi of Sri Aurobindo. I am always amazed at how one person can yield so much control over the way so many people live their lives. For the sake of understanding it better, I bought a few books by Sri Aurobindo. The thing that I like about him is that to me, he feels like a poet first and a spiritual leader later. He had served in the army and written lengthy, beautiful poems, Savitri being the magnum opus. However, what impressed me most was his book praising Bankim Chandra's poetry. I took his fanboyism and respect for Bankim Chandra as a sign of humility from a great leader.


MatriMandir


With its construction beginning in 1968 and coming to completion 40 years later in 2008, Matrimandir is a magnificent structure. Other than the one at the top, I don't have more pictures of it but you should definitely look it up online to understand its beauty. It stands next to the Banyan Tree which is the geographical centre of Auroville. Matrimandir is an architectural wonder to behold with numerous golden discs covering the whole outer surface of the dome like structure. Everything is well maintained and you have to take permission to go inside especially when you are a first timer inside the mandir. It is named after the mother (matri, matre in french) since she had dreamed about setting up a place like this. Once you enter the mandir, you become aware of the quiet and calm that floats in the air - and first timers like me are also left awestruck.

The inside of the dome has water running down along its pillars. There are passages through which you move up a steep, spiral walkway to the inner chamber where people assemble to concentrate. You would be amazed to see what’s there — nothing. Well, nothing except a crystal ball which has a beam of sunlight falling upon it straight at the top. This sunlight alone provides for the light in the room. As you focus on the light and the ball, everything else seems to dissolve away. This beam of light then passes through the crystal and falls on another crystal ball which is placed in a pond, outside in the garden.

The dome is surrounded by 12 petal shaped structures each one of which has a meditation chamber of its own. And all of this is located inside a huge garden of unity which again has many smaller gardens. You can also go to the Banyan tree which has some good and powerful vibrations about it. Hugging and touching the tree to feel the vibrations is a common sight. Overall, it felt as if the visit to matri mandir helps to give a perspective on our place in the universe. But, I guess this experience is personal to me, others might feel differently. 


Mahabalipuram

Shore temple in Mahabalipuram is a place of importance which I've been reading about in my textbooks since my school going days. And since Mahabalipuram is an hour and a half away from Auroville, we decided to visit the place. It has some fabulous sculptures and the craftsmanship of the people of that time is breath taking. Mahabalipuram also has the cleanest beach I've been to in India - white sands, clear blue water and few people. Here are some pictures from the visit. 


A Day in the life

Time at Auroville flies very fast. Even though you feel like there is a lot of time to do things, it flies by you without making you feel restless or rushed. My usual day at Auroville used to begin with a knock on the door by Paola. She woke me up every morning before 6 so that we can go for meditation together. Half an hour of that and I preferred to catch up on my sleep. After about an hour of napping, we were served a breakfast of freshly cut fruits, curd, porridge, multi grain bread and home made jams of fruits which I had not even heard of. 

The rest of the morning we had to ourselves. We spent it in the guest lounge, telling each other stories of our lives. There was one time when we were chilling and sipping tea, we were making plans to go to Mahabalipuram and I started telling Paola about Indian mythology. While talking, it felt as if I am in love with our culture and country all over again. People from all over the world come to India thinking that it is the spiritual centre of the world but we fail to realise how culturally rich our history and our present customs are. 

Lunch was simple yet delicious — all organic food with great quantities of salad along with it. The non-Indian non-vegetarians eating with us said they would convert to vegetarian if they get this kind of food everyday. There was one particular old man from China who used to eat just white rice and vegetables. He didn’t speak English so our conversations were limited to smiles which was at times more than enough to understand his state of mind. 

 Outdoor eating are at Vérité

Outdoor eating are at Vérité

Sometimes, a siesta followed lunch. If not, there was always the option of going to the beach. Evenings were spent socialising, meeting new people during the various events and all the activities that kept on happening .

On most days, we visited the cafes inside Auroville, howling at people — “Hey Mate, join us”, drinking copious amounts of coffee which probably explains the aforementioned behavior. The coffee was great — it’s south india,  this is pretty much what you would expect. 

  Le Morgan Cafe

Le Morgan Cafe

There was one evening which I clearly remember. I was riding my bike under the moonlit sky, with open fields to my left and right and a dense space of trees ahead of me. It felt like a scene out of a Hayao Miyazaki movie with me as the main character. 

The Dharma Bums by Jack Kerouac kept me company when I wanted to read something. And I couldn’t have picked up a better book. Even then, I spent more time meeting people and listening to their own personal stories. 

I wrote a lot on the trip — it helped me notice my thoughts. There used to be times when I wanted to write one thought, I used to start on it and then even before it was over, another thought would come to me. Like right now, I was thinking about some random email I got in the morning. Now, I’ve learnt to notice when my thoughts take me away from the task at hand. How to bring it back in the present is a much more difficult task which I have to learn.

As I was writing one evening sitting in the garden under an orange sky with sun peeping from behind the clouds, with sound from a session of Sound Bath leaking from inside the hall, I kept taking breaks to talk to people who came to say Hello to me. 

Each day’s diary entry felt like the perfect way to spend that day. It felt that I wouldn’t change a single thing if I could from that day. And I am grateful that I got a chance to spend my time like that. In fact, this is a line (or a version of this) I find in my diary often - “I am in a very good space right now”. "I feel content and blessed." "I am grateful for these days.”


Closing

Auroville is not a cult, though it can seem like it at first glance. It is simply a group of people who want to experience a new way of living by coming together and building a new culture and society from scratch without the conventional dividing issues such as color, nationality, language etc.

All the good things about Auroville doesn’t mean there is no problem with it. But, it is as close to a utopian society as I have ever seen. Also, my experience has been so good because I wasn’t doing any work over there. I think that people who actually work over there might have a slightly different version of Auroville than mine. But, even so, most people I met there were enjoying their lives and seemed content and at peace with where they were. 

This trip made me realise how a good vacation and travel especially alone is not about the places you see or the architecture. It of course does play a part in your overall experience but it is a lot about the people you meet, their stories and the friendships spanning across continents that you make along the way. It feels good when you know that across different cultures, the basic qualities for friendship are still the same — love, respect, trust and I was lucky enough to make a few friends along my journey. 


Notes to Self

Here are some of my notes to self during my time at Auroville. I hope they are of some use to you.

  1. Don’t rush into one moment from another
  2. Be in the moment, that moment is unique and will never come back
  3. Be unequivocal in your thoughts and speak what you are feeling, it helps solve a lot of things
  4. Let the possibilities of future problems not worry you in the present moment in case you can’t do anything to solve them right then.
  5. Don’t judge people for being different — more often than not, they have a reason to do what they do.
  6. Make yourself a schedule
  7. Focus on the task at hand and forget about the rest. One moment can only be occupied by one single task
  8. Sit in proper posture, use sunscreen
  9. Walk towards people to greet them with warmth in your heart, smile on your lips and eyes and no preconceived notions and an unjudgmental attitue and devoid of any -ve thoughts. greet them as they are already your friends
  10. Take small portions of food instead of wasting.
  11. You don’t have to agree with everyone to avoid conflict or continue small talk. This does not mean you have to contradict someone every time their opinion is different from yours. Choose your battles.
  12. The importance of universal human quality is the ability to make people smile and natural warmth. This is a universal quality which transcends boundaries and cultures so it is a good habit to develop this skill.
  13. Discover that one thing that will make you happy whenever, wherever. Paola’s was 'sharing'. Find yours.
  14. Easiest way to feel nice is to make others feel nice.
  15. ‘Big, Open heart’ came up in my conversations often.
  16. Don't rush yourself into planning something for the future while wasting away the present. Find a balance.

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Kasol

Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness. 

Mark Twain

The 4-day trip to Kasol with a friend was meant as a stress-buster, to find new perspectives and to just BE. It turned out to be much more amazing than I had imagined. Listening to crazy stories of other travellers first hand had a huge impact. These stories are what made the trip memorable. So, instead of talking about the touristy stuff - what to do, what to see, where to eat, I would like to share with you, some of these very real and personal stories.

Ivan, pronounced Eevan was a storyteller. 40, divorced, father of a kid he had with a girl he married because he got her pregnant, Ivan is a traveller. He studies chess books and recreates moves between Kasparov & Kramnik but says he doesn’t understand why they made this move or that. He sailed from the Africas to the Carribbean with a friend and 2 other people he had just met. He comes from a country where he says “ Israelis have had the worst”, with his family moving from Bosnia after the 2nd world war because the forces wanted people to build houses and infrastructure. He got me into reading Osho books and says they are cinema for the mind.

Kent, a young South African, IT guy, travelling alone and with a crop of hair which would put David Luiz to shame. I asked him how he feels about travelling alone and if he ever gets bored. He said something which stayed with me till long after - “You have to like your own company. I like mine and so I enjoy travelling on my own”.

Zooey, British, still has her accent but doesn’t know it, left home when 18, fell in love with an Israeli in India. Travelled with him for two months, broke up, went to Cambodia and Vietnam to travel where she bumped into some people she met in Kasol. Now lives in Tel-Aviv a floor below a drug dealer and studies psychology. Talks fast, doesn’t care if someone’s listening or not.

One of our many Israeli neighbors was Shachar. During her time with the army, herresponsibility was to ring the alarm whenever Palestine shoots a missile towards Israel. Just 21, she dreams of having her own farm full of dogs and training them to be with and aid blind people. 

Another one of them was a dude whose name I forget. “I’ve had too many loves (sic), they all break my heart”, he tells us. Guitar strumming, didgiredoo playing, drum beating, ‘McShit’ tee-shirt wearing, with the most brilliant tattoo on his arm, he sits outside his room playing with the little kids. He was a very happy man.

The owner of the guesthouse we stayed at was a sweet lady with long dark hair and in the words of another person the ‘smile of a queen’. She sits with us listening to our stories and sharing her own while her two beautiful little daughters who played with us while we and the neighbors did you-know-what in Kasol.

Perhaps the most interesting character we met was a Baba, who called himself a Naga Sadhu. He wore aviators, grooved on ‘Badtameez Dil' listening to it on his high end phone, and wore a tiger skin print cloth around his waist.  Devotee of Lord Shiva, he told us of the number of years since he left home and now finds his residence in a cave high up in the mountains around the place. 

Jaipur

A couple of weeks back, I took a weekend trip to the pink city, Jaipur with a couple of my friends. It turned out to be one of the most relaxing and fulfilling trips I’ve had. And this was a sentiment shared by my friends as well. For a man who has lived in Mumbai, Bangalore and Delhi for the last 3 years, Jaipur’s slow pace was a breath of fresh air. The place seems relaxed, running at its own pace and has a nonchalant charm about it.  

This is a short account of what I experienced. All the information is based on what the locals there told me and intentionally not verified from any other source. Excuse the quality of pictures, the three of us are noob photographers. 

1. Jal Mahal, The Lake Palace:

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This is a beautiful, glowing palace in the middle of a lake. What amazes me is that the place was so deserted. You know how many people were there except the three of us — 5. And three of them were street food and ice cream vendors. If  this was somewhere in Mumbai, it would be perennially crowded. Marine drive in South Bombay, for example, has a pretty similar feel minus the quiet. 

2. The climb up the hill 

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Rajasthan is known for its forts. And jaipur being the capital at the time, has some of the most amazing ones. The route, like all hills, is pretty awesome and makes for a pretty comfortable ride. We stopped at a place on the way where we clicked this. The big glowing thing is the Lake Palace. And the best part, there was absolutely no one else there which is crazy and immensely relaxing. This lack of crowd and being able to just be was a constant theme on the trip. The peace and the quiet was almost overwhelming.

3. Nahargarh fort:

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Goofy friends: Mohit and Nishit

On the way up the forts, we had an option of going to Amer or Nahargarh. We chose Nahargarh and man was it worth it. I was so surprised by the fact that the place was still open at night at 10. Again, there were not too many people, just one small group of 4. And guess what, the open air cafe served beer! For a token entry fees of 50 bucks, we got some refreshments as well. The whole city is obviously visible from the fort and looks beautiful.

4. Choolgiri, The Jain temple

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View from the top

Most of the cities in Rajasthan are surrounded by mountains. So, the roads are often made by cutting out a part of the mountains as you can see in this. This place is a pretty steep climb with some sharp turns. And it is usually hot so even though you can walk, I’d recommend taking a car up to the temple. The temple itself is pretty much what you’d expect from a Jain temple if you’ve ever been to one.

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Tunnels shaped in royal arches

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New ride

5. Prem Pan Bhandar

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Mouthful of happiness

The happiest guy you would see is right in that picture, behind the two of us in that photo frame. Who wouldn’t eat at that shop after that picture. This place had the most delicious paans ever and we made it a point to go there both the nights. 

 6. Lassiwala 

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Out of stock at 3 in the afternoon

I wish I had a close up picture of this place. Lassiwala is supposed to be the best lassi place in Jaipur. When we arrived there at 3 in the afternoon, his stock had finished up, all the instruments packed and the shop owner was still sitting there doing absolutely nothing, smiling at us as if saying, “Yes, I am that good”. Like any good thing, this shop also has its share of copycats who have opened up shops next to it where we eventually had mediocre lassis. They still have to slog through the day while the guy next to them finishes up a day’s worth of business in the first few hours.

8. City Palace

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The City Palace was an extensive tour of almost 3 hours. The yellowish palace is the actual current residence of the king who happens to be 15 years old and studies at Mayo. The flag hoisted is the official flag of the kingdom. Whenever the king is in the palace, an additional blue flag goes up. The rest of the place is open to public viewing. We got to see old pictures, robes, courtyards, weapons and lot of interesting stuff. The kings of Jaipur are called ‘Sawai’ - translated literally it means one and a half. They were known to be extremely strong and could take on more than one man in a duel, hence the name.

Other places we visited:

Food was a major part of the trip. Here are some other places we went to.

Rawat Kachoriwala - Started the trip with the must haves onion kachoris at probably the most popular mithai shop in Jaipur

Tapri: A very chilled out teafe serving good tea.

100% Rock: I wasn’t expecting much from Jaipur’s pubs which was a wise decision. This place played the same songs you’d hear over and over again in most places. And I think they were trying to copy Hard Rock Cafe but did so with much less taste - they had crappy pictures of guitars instead of real guitars hanging on the walls.

Laxmi Mishthan Bhandar:  Even though I am a Marwari, I am not a big fan of Dal Baati, unlike my friends. And according to them, the daal baatis they had here were some of the best.

Another kachori shop: They used to serve the kachoris in Raj Mandir,  Jaipur’s oldest movie theater.