Been There, Done That ? – 5 Reasons to Rediscover Goa!

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Serendipity. That’s the word. That’s what keeps bringing me back to this place. In all probability, even you’ve been there, done that. And each time you went, you decided not to come back. Enough of beaches, shacks and casinos, you told yourself. All in vain though. Next season, you’re back. If you live in Mumbai, Pune, Bangalore or have simply visited it multiple times, you know I’m talking about Goa. Frankly, I don’t even know why I have been to Goa as many times, each time deciding not to come back. The only reason that I can think of, as I write this, trying hard to look for one, is this whole ‘Serendipity’ thing. You know, when you go to a place and find something altogether unexpected ? Something awesome, which perhaps makes the entire trip & its experience come alive. Even after decades of wooing Indian (& of course Russian) tourists, Goa retains the ability to deliver this ‘thing’ each time you visit it. Goa, my friend, is only as old as the traveller in you.

And so, here I list down some of the more interesting (or delicious) ways of experiencing Goa that I came across on some of my last visits. Let’s see if these have featured in your umpteen trips to Goa. :)

 A.) Slept There? – How about sleeping (if at all you do that in Goa!) at a youth hostel?

Now, this whole thing about youth hostels is hardly as much a phenomenon in India as say Europe or South America. But off late, we do see some brave & enterprising souls taking the plunge. The Asterix hostel in Vagator represented one such beginning. Clean, inexpensive and above all, a good place to meet other travellers. In the two days I stayed there, I met an Argentinian, an Australian, an American and, needless to say, a few Indians. Thing is, I can’t find it online now! A bit of google search seems to tell me, it’s now replaced by the Prison Hostel. (I haven’t yet been there but it seems to be run by the same guy as Asterix). Now that the hostel culture is finally catching up in India, why not try it once? It can be a whole new way of exploring Goa than the beach side shacks you may anyways have stayed at countless number of times.

 B.) Woke up There? – How about waking up with a Breakfast at Cafe Inn?

By all means, my favourite beach in Goa remains Palolem, even after all these visits. Apart from the secluded location, scenic vistas, and clean waters, it is the presence of some really good eateries in the vicinity that draws me back. Most of all, Cafe Inn, just after the final left turn to the beach, serves a wonderful breakfast. I’ve been visiting them ever since they were a modest establishment and even now, when the cafe has expanded into far larger seating area, they continue serve one thing best – their Peanut butter croissant, the freshest I’ve ever had.

Where?  – Palolem Beach Main Road. Go straight instead of taking the left for the beach.

ImageWake up to a surreal view at Palolem!

C.) Shopped in Anjuna?? –  How about spending an evening at the Arpora Flea Market?

I haven’t understood this. People have talked so much about the Anjuna flea market. Truth is, the Arpora flea market is the big daddy of all flea markets I’ve seen. It’s full of – I don’t have a word to describe it – lets just say, arbitrary stuff. From absolute junk, that’d force you to invent a use for it before buying, to musical instruments, to cuisines of the world ranging from Bulgarian to Belgian to Punjabi, the market has almost everything to ensure that you’d rather party here than at an expensive club elsewhere. And, there are live music performances too. It’s probably the one place where local tribes and the firang hippies of Goa come together as an enterprise. You have to be there to know it.

What – The Saturday Night Flea Market

Where – Arpora, North Goa. Be prepared for traffic jams on the road. (& in Goa, they happen after midnight!)

ImageThe wide range of food available at Arpora Flea Market

 ..

ImageAnd there’s music too!

D.) Ate there? – How about eating to your stomach – no – heart’s content at La Plage?

The La Plage at Aswem is like going to a good friend’s big fat wedding. It has all the ingredients, a huge setting in vivid colours, an exotic menu, a caring crew, the peace to sit around & have a wonderful conversation with friends, except that the food isn’t free (not even inexpensive). But then, if you are at Aswem, I’d assume that you weren’t looking for cheap stuff anyways in the first place. A hearty meal at La Plage followed by a walk on the clean beach just beyond the restaurant is one of the most pleasant experiences I’ve had in Goa. I suggested it to my food-blogger friend from Beingdesh and this is what he had to say after being there – Am I at Sea?.

ImageThe wonderful setting at La Plage, Aswem

Follow this up with a dessert at Cafe Nu in Mandrem. Though the menu has a lot of gastronomic delights to offer, but I can vouch for at least the Chocolate Ganache that I had. Their gooey chocolate filled in extremely thin phyllo dough rolls served with scoops of ice-cream will simply melt in your mouth. It is probably the best dessert I’ve had in a long time (And this comes from someone who has raved about the desserts of multiple countries on this blog several times earlier) (Read : Veg-tripping around Turkey & Of Sweetness That Travels : Dubai )

ImageThe most amazing Chocolate Ganache at Cafe Nu

Where –

La Plage in Aswem

Café Nu, Mandrem. Keep an eye out for the sign boards for Café Nu on the road to Mandrem beach.

E.) Swam there? – How about swimming in a lake & paragliding at Arambol?

Yes & no, respectively. Yup, I tried the paragliding and came back with a close to surreal experience. But only later did I realise that I hadn’t asked my pilot if he had any certification, not even for experience for that matter. Was it a registered company? I don’t know. Frankly, I’d suggest against it. Unless you’ve ensured that the company you are flying with has convincing credentials & you are willing to risk it. Do go around the ghetto-esque setting of Arambol though, towards the north, to discover a tiny fresh water lake behind its hills & maybe take a dip or two. Goa is all about discoveries anyways. Isn’t it?

ImageFreshwater lake at Arambol

Happy Rediscovering! What are your Goa Secrets?

A Surya Namaskar to end the day at AswemA Surya Namaskar to end the day at Aswem

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Listening to Rajasthan

A barren land stretches to eternity on both sides of this empty road. Pale and lifeless, like the sands we just left behind, to the extent that the only semblance of life seem to be the tufts of the dead grass, rendered a golden hue by the Sun which refuses to relent even in the winter months. Remorseless. And as we have crossed Jaisalmer on our way to Jodhpur, the horizon is marked not by sand dunes but by several windmills, in all directions. My friend from Mumbai has taken a liking to the cool morning breeze and is off to sleep. And so I’m left with little more than these windmills and the music of 90s Bollywood movies to give me company. From the foothills of the Himalayas to the desert in Rajasthan, 90s Bollywood music is the all- time favourite of bus drivers in the Indian countryside. And I must concede here that it’s not always soothing. For instance, the driver in this bus is playing, ‘Teri yaad satati hai.. milne ko bulati hai’. My friend’s lucky he’s off to sleep.

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A Rajasthani Flautist

As the bus stops at a ‘phatak’ – a railway crossing, (and there is no stopping the painful music), my thoughts wander back to the other music that I’ve heard in Rajasthan, far more mellifluous. Coming from a boy in Mandore, the ancient fortress, where he played a sonorous rendition of ‘Ud ja kale kawa’ on an instrument he called ‘Ravanhattha’. Divide this word into two and you’ll have a legend of music dating back not hundreds but thousands of years. To the times when once the legendary Ravan lost his veena & cut his own forearm (hattha), to turn his fingers into tuners, his veins into strings and his elbow into a resonator!  Ah! The sacrifice for that one strain of music that today resounds through every street and gully of Rajasthan, from Jaipur & Jaisalmer to Udaipur, at the entrance to every fort and in the courtyard of every palace. Yes! The land of palaces has more than its share of native musical instruments than you’d have thought.

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The ubiquituous Ravanhattha of Rajasthan

Meanwhile, the bus stops at a village where local women board, bangles all over their hands, and veils all over their faces. Behind them, a group of army-men enters. Yes, the border with Pakistan and the historical town of Pokharan are both close by. The bus restarts and with it, another rendition of excruciating songs – ‘Tumse o hasina kabhi mohabbat na humko karni thi’. And with this I switch again to the ‘other’ music.

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A description of the folk music in the Jaisalmer fort

This time the music in my mind takes me back to a concert in the Mehrangarh fort of Jodhpur, where classical and folk came together one melodious evening.  A team of talented musicians with Nawab Khan on Santoor joined another equally talented one, of the Langas, with their Sarangis and Khartals. And what began with a devotional recital in Arabic, gradually turned into an immaculate performance by Nawab Khan on the Santoor. But the greatest symphonies were to be created when the Langas would join in. The Langas, with their vocals, brought about a geniality that only the rusticity of folk music could, their Khartals at one instant, rattling their way to find an expression above the percussions of the dhol, and at the very next, losing themselves in the pulsating voices of the singers, akin to the applause of the enraptured audience. A Sindhi Sarangi played behind, lending serenity to the ensemble and the falling evening, much like its player, the other Khan sahib, probably the eldest in the group. The Sarangi, as he later told us, was his grandfather’s. Music survives way beyond us mortals do.

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Nawab Khan, his band & the Langas at Mehrangarh Fort

And, as I remember those songs, with a mix of Urdu and Rajasthani thrown in, I see the land outside my window turning greener, the grass being replaced by shrubs, the dunes with the first sights of leveled lands. And soon, the bus halts at Pokharan. The army-men alight and we follow, to be greeted by signs of the ‘Famous Cham-Cham of Pokharan’ at eateries all around us. Excited by the prospect of another culinary discovery, we try it, and it turns out disappointing, its taste embittered further by the lame ‘radio-active cham-cham‘ joke from my friend. He is clearly better off sleeping.

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The years old Sarangi of Khan Sahab

We now board the bus for the last leg of the journey to Jodhpur(& hopefully of the painful music). I remember the narrow approach with which I had come here, for attending the World Sufi Music Festival. The only musicians I intended to listen to were those from outside India. And so I had skipped the Manganiyar concert. Only now, after listening to the Langas and reading about both communities in Jaisalmer, I rue my earlier decision. The Maganiyars are musicians from villages around Jaisalmer & Barmer and embody a tradition of music centuries old, where they, Sunni Muslims, would sing for their Hindu patrons. They still continue to sing in several parts of Rajasthan. It’s still not difficult to spot an old Manganiyar with an even older Kamaycha in his hands singing ‘Moomal’ somewhere around the mud houses of the desert.

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A Kamaycha preserved in a haveli in Jaisalmer

Meanwhile, the view from the window turns more vivid as I now spot a few cranes flying outside. The area is close to Khichan, which witnesses annual migration of Demoiselle cranes during this time. The music in the bus has stopped. Soon I’d be reaching Jodhpur & it’d be time to leave. But I will go back with more fertile ears than ever before. I take with me the music of the deserts, at once plangent, at once buoyant, of longing and belonging alike. I hope that the next time you come here, you don’t just stare at these palaces, but listen to them too. Don’t merely hear the legends of the royals, but also hear the echo of those who sang for them. Don’t just pass by the next Ravanhatta player beside you, but sit with him & ask him to play your favourite song, or may be join along, a ‘moomal’ or a ‘ghorband’ perhaps ( & it doesn’t matter if your singing is hit only in the bathroom). This is music that has lasted centuries, may be millennia, not the Bollywood music that you’d run way from in a few years!

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(This post was earlier published with Yahoo India Lifestyle Travel blog)

Have you been to Rajasthan? What was your experience like? Has the music of a place ever left an impression on you?

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The Many Faces of Mumbai – The wait for Thee!

Over the past few days, I have been obsessed with Mumbai. It’s the city I have been living in for quite a few years now. I have hated it. And at those times, when I’ve been away from it, I’ve missed it. I’ve cursed it. And those times, when I’ve roamed around carefree at odd hours in the night & still managed to find something to eat, I’ve thanked it. Quite frankly, it’s an enigma, the more you try to understand it, the more it puzzles you. It’s an elusion, the moment you think you have made it in Mumbai, it brings back to ground with a crash & a thud. It’s a confusion, of people and their ambitions, of cultures and their religions, of emotions and their manifestations. Perhaps the only place that gives an Irani and a Bihari equal opportunities to aspire for and realise their dreams. It’s a deluge on the senses. More than 18 million voices to be heard, faces to be seen, their minds to be understood and their hearts to be felt, their cuisines to be devoured, smelled, and relished. 18 Million! It is with this objective that I set out starting this section of the blog. To bring to you a picture, every now and then, of the many faces of Mumbai, its people and its places, and everything around, that they find their expression in.

Today, we start with the iconic Haji Ali Dargah in Mumbai, a belief for several, and an inspirer for several others, including the Oscar award winning music composer, A.R. Rahman and his songs! The title of the pic, ‘The wait for Thee‘ tries to capture the spirit of the Sufis that this landmark signifies.

The wait for Thee..

What would you want to see more of here? Do leave back your suggestions in the comments.

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Us & Them – Kashmir

Us & Them – Rajasthan

Us & Them – Kashmir

It is here that I decide to be a Lens. Just the lens of a camera. Period. But I secretly wish I was a human here, in this princess of lands, that an emperor once called ‘Firdaus’ – Persian for paradise.

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How I envy the splendour of the valleys that these locals dwell in, the silent opulence of their lakes and the exquisiteness of their cuisine, the wazwan. But there’s hardly ever a thing called a free lunch. Being a human has its own costs, especially in a land that evokes the strongest of pathos, from the natural beauty of a landscape & equally from the unnatural ugliness of a conflict and as much as I may yearn for it, I can’t afford to be a human here. I’m glad being just the lens, that doesn’t belong to any human, not even an eye, for even then I may end up taking sides!

I’m glad being just a lens, I’d hardly ever have to face winds as fierce in a terrain as tough..

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I’m glad being a lens for all I captured with this nomadic Bakarwal kid was his horse, and not the herculean effort of his family climbing the Himalayan passes up every summer and then down to Jammu every winter

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I’m pleased that I could pretend to just glare incessantly into the eyes of ‘chacha‘ and not listen to his woes of insufficient payments and insensitive trekkers & inefficient travel unions

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I’m glad that I could stare at the faces of these school boys but not at the uncertainty of their future

School Students

Oh and being a lens has its perks too, for I’m the only one an army would allow in its camps to capture whatever I want!

Soldier

But then that’s all that a lens can gather from a scene. And it saddens me. A land like Kashmir deserves far more than my mechanical visions.

I’m sad because I could only capture the innocent look of little Ashfaq but could hardly zoom into his dreams of growing up and becoming a soldier..

Ashfaq

I could take in the mountains and the pastures but not the delight of having a chai in the lap of the very same mountains

Chai in the Mountains

I’m angry that I could only watch with wariness when these eyes approached me, I wish I had emphasized more on the excitement in them while they recalled their travels to other parts of India

Student

And I’m disappointed that even though I focussed on the eyes of the other ‘Chacha’ , I was barely capable of focussing on his pride of climbing those numerous passes and mountains as a Kashmiri

Chacha

Truth is, it’s tough even being just a lens in Kashmir. I’v already been happy, glad, sad, angry and disappointed narrating this to you. Perhaps even as a lens, I was taking sides. May be, being an eye wouldn’t have been that tough. May be then I would have seen beyond the smoke that lies between me and them.  May be if I had been an eye, I’d have known the better of taking sides!

Chai in the mountains

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Have you been to Kashmir? What were your impressions of the place?

My Perfect Road Trip – Indiblogger Contest

I lie here all alone, in this otherwise dry neighbourhood drenched wet by the absurdly heavy Delhi monsoons this year. And I hate having to wade through these filthy swimming pools that the streets have turned into. Instinctively, I latch on the SUV around me and set on a trip that I hope would take me far away from here. Destination?? Unknown. Does it matter? No.

This road leads me to Simla, but I don’t want to stop here. So I move on. Faster & higher into the hills till I’m away from the maddening world into the valley of Sangla, where one wrong turn would send me rolling down the cliffs into the Satluj. Do I care? No.

A drive through the Himalayas!

A drive through the Himalayas!

Onwards to Chitkul, where I spend the night, around the waters that flow from Tibet into India. In the next days, I climb up the passes, run down the hills, brave the coldest of temperatures, to reach Leh, on roads that I feel like making love to. I find a few companions and all we do is race our way to Kargil and beyond. But just then, when the dry air and the burning sun have weathered us out, we enter the valley of Kashmir where, perhaps the joy is not in speed but in slowing down. In taking in the softness of the grasslands and the greenery of the pastures we move over. I spend the night outside a mazaar; it’s only after the slanting rays of a morning Sun fall upon me that I decide to move on. To someplace south, far from here, may be as far as the.. sea! Yes! All the way to the sea from the mountains. That would make this a complete trip.

Through Valleys to take your heart away!

Through Valleys to take your heart away!

I leave the pastures of Kashmir for the fields of Punjab, through Amritsar and onwards to Rajasthan. From the oil fields in Bikaner to the sands in Jaisalmer. I burn myself in heat of the dunes and as I turn further south, I realise the car has given way. A road-trip has its own perils. The car has to be left in Bhuj, to be repaired. I attach myself to a bicycle and onward to a nearby village. The night is spent in the bicycle shed of the home of a poor yet generous family.

Fighting against the deserts!

Fighting against the deserts!

The wanderlust takes me further, now with a bus, towards the coast. Through roads that waded between the Western Ghats on one side and the Arabian sea on the other, between the greenery of the hills and the antiquity of forts that adorn the hills. And Finally I’m here! On the beaches outside Mumbai. I’m tired, worn out, my body creaks, my innards about to burst out of weariness. I lie down on this pier on the harbour and give up. The waves from the sea splash over me. Isn’t it all the same again? What I was running away from when I first started? But I’ve already had the trip of my lifetime. Through half of India, from the mightiest of mountains & the driest of deserts to the deepest of oceans. Yet, I know you’re still smiling over my silly story. How can anybody being a human, travel so much? It’s all fake.

Of course it is. Didn’t you realise all this time that I’m not human? I am however, another traveller like you. I’ve travelled distances and even histories. I am, my friend, the ‘wheel’ that stayed with you throughout your journey. A tyre attached to your car, when you ran away from the city. A steering inside the car, when you curved through the valleys of the Himalayas, the wheel in your bicycle when you slept through the sheds in villages in Gujarat and the tyre cushioned between the ships parked at the piers when you enjoyed a drink sitting beside the harbour! But how I wish, I could have been you, the human. If this was the perfect road trip for me, I wonder how much more perfect it’d have been for you. You, who sat beside the beach and felt its breeze past you, who saw the mighty waterfalls of the Ghats with childlike pleasure, who ate the most thrifty of foods in the huts of Kutch feeling like a King, who left me behind to stride on a camel to watch the most pleasant sunsets in a desert, who woke up listening to the Azan on a morning in Srinagar, who dipped his feet in the Indus that strode besides the road in Ladakh. I wonder how amazingly perfect it was for you who first decided to run away in the SUV, the feeling of liberation when you first played your favourite travel song in the car stereo and the fresh sensation of facebook.com/AmbiPurIndia as you escaped into freshness, while I fought my way through the wide open roads! Lucky me and let’s just say, luckier you! It does remind me of a song by Klak Tik in a Samsung camera commercial –

 

I found city life too loud, 

So away I walked through the urban sprawl

Ears to the ground

Trying to find myself some piece of mind

Now I’ve finally woken up

To the beauty of the world..

The beauty of the perfect road trip!

The beauty of the Perfect Road Trip!