Have food, will travel: Egypt

Of course travel entails physical movement from one place to another. But some of the most experiential ways to travel is of course the culinary travel, one of my most favourite ways to see and smell and experience the new cultures.

Egypt was a delight of a discovery if the cuisine appeals to the palate, like it did for me. Egyptian cuisine consists of the local culinary traditions of Egypt and makes great use of vegetables and sprouts of many kinds. Probably because of the rich Nile delta that produces large quantities of high quality crops.
Bread forms the backbone of Egyptian cuisine, consumed by all classes is largely accompanied with beans. Bread was central to all food in Egypt, just as much as the roti or rice is as a staple to India. Infact an interesting anecdote was narrated to me about breads in Egypt – more than an occasional fight has broken out over bread, leading to fear of bread riots in Egypt. So yep bread is serious business there. Very central to food consumption

The one dish that caught my fancy so totally in Egypt was Kushari made of lentils, rice, macaroni, chickpeas and tomato sauce and yummy fried crisp onion shavings as toppings to add the right crunch to a tasty wholesome meal. For a vegetarian this dish is full of goodness and nutrition, tasty and has a delicate flavour, very close to home grown food for me:)The other favourite of mine was and is the fresh herbs mixed with spicy tomato salad (almost like the salsa) which is stuffed in aubergines and then baked or deep fried in butter. Lip smacking yummy! Mulukhiyya is another popular green soup made of finely chopped leaves, coriander and fried garlic that gives it the bite needed for the locals to feel the food. I find the garlic to be over powering and hence not one of m most favoured among the many dishes I absolutely loved there.

While I was there and did not partake in the non veg fare I could see that non veg food is a way of life there just as much as eating fresh vegetables is. In many nations I have seen people slant one way or another but in Egypt the Egyptians eat in a balanced manner, the kebabs and the koftas are accompanied with a healthy helping of veggies and salads that make for wholesome food.

The other dishes that blew me away so completely - the famous rice dish! It’s a dish where spicy rice is stuffed into vegetables like bell peppers. Absolutely divine and melts in the mouth experience. Then it can also be prepared with rice and tomatoes which in turn is rolled in grapevine leaves and is unmistakably tangy in taste. The same preparation had a variation - can be made in cabbage leaves if you cant deal with the tanginess of the grapevine leaves (I prefer the cabbage leaves) – I found this dish delectable. It is time consuming labour of love, but the ultimate result is a craft and precision that allows for a gastronomic delight.

If you think India is delight for the sweet toothed,think again, India has competition! I went into a pretty similar halwai shop (like our very own Chappan Bhog or Ghasitaram) and the result was I brought back kilos and kilos of fabulous sweets from Egypt into India through customs! The deserts are to absolutely die for! Their pastries and puddings dripping in honey, soft and gentle, tatse that makes you want to over indulge and give 2 hoots about calory intake! Mahallabiya is the Egyptian version of Indian kheer (milk pudding) , Asbusa is like a lovely flaky cookie to have with a good cup of coffee, Asabi gullash has lots of nuts, spices and syrup , these are little finger food snacks and is …yum. Baklava is made in ghee and is horrifically rich, sinful, divine and demands a second helping! As you can tell the food in Egypt is wide varied and something you fall in love with very easily. Basbousa another favourite of mine - a semolina cake coconut based (and to think of it I am not really too fond of Indian coconut based sweets but loved this Egyptian sweet!) with almond, vanilla, rosewater. The true test of good food is when a vegetarian like me endorses that food:)

If I don’t stop writing right away, I will be adding more weight to myself just thinking about all this food. So! My closing thoughts … while all that you have heard of Egypt about its mysticism and what not is true but the real Egypt lies in the food - give me my last morsel from Egypt and I will reach jannat!

Stories in motion, at Airports

So what do you do, when you have time on your hands after reaching the airport, as defined by the travel agent or the airline, many hours in advance? Or if you are an anxious passenger and like to be well on time, then how do you use your idle time, effectively at airports? Ever wonder what happens to those couplea hours you have, before boarding an international flight? Everybody says we’ll keep busy; there is enough to do around duty free’s! But how much can you really do around duty frees? :)

After walking the entire length of the airport and peering into suped up shop windows, maybe even buying a few things you don’t need, with feet finally saying enough is enough, how do you still keep yourself entertained given you are much time away from boarding yet?:)

This pre flight time has always been a time, of much work for me. I wander around. I enjoy a good cappuccino amongst a world of strangers. I observe the hustle bustle and chaos and orderliness around me. And make mental notes of cultures and people and behaviors and law. Most importantly I allow the trip highlights to rotate in my mind and etch the good memories forever with a flourish while seemingly, aimlessly walking about the terminal.

This once, time flew by once again, and I actually chided myself for not figuring my boarding gate, before wandering around the airport. I saw a young toddler taking her first few baby steps on the walking elevator. The near fall and then the fine delicate balance to stay standing – was a joy reflected in the child’s eyes and mirrored in her mum’s eyes. The child was zapped, felt weird, there was confusion on the child's face, and then finally it exploded into a 300amp gurgle and a 200watt dimpled smile. Then there was this young 19-20yr old back packer sitting on the airport floor despite many empty seats all around, painting her nails and drying them at an arms length with a small motorized fan which looked most incongruous with her grunge look. This young girl sat in her cargo's and gators cross legged n the floor, most unaware of the ripple she was causing amongst curious fliers coming closer to their boarding gate. A litle distance ahead, as I wandered further, a young couple were walking on the walking elevator facing each other. They were so absorbed into each other, not worried about the scowls given to them by harried co- passengers who had come to a grinding halt behind them. They stood across the elevator with their hands on each other effectively blocking the path for the others. Many people started queuing up on the right side of the elevator which should have been open to them to hurry past. But this couple was so intent on each other none of the queuing up world behind, disturbed their reverie, and then once they were off the walking elevator, the rest of the queued up public hurried past from either sides of this couple. It is rightly said that the world waits and looks on, when love is in the air:)

Watching people say goodbye is most difficult for me. I saw a military family bidding adieu to their young handsome son. They all looked smiling, strong and confident. But as the Marine moved into the deeper recess of the airport I saw the family from the coffee shop where I was perched, they were white, nervous and worried for him. I could see their thoughts- they knew he was off to a tough job full of dangers. My heart reached out to them and I sent a silent prayer to God to keep this young soldier safe and happy for his family.

Emotions are on full display at airports. Happy scenes have to be balanced with sad goodbyes. Life evens out. And you walk matter of factly into your craft, looking to arrive at your next destination, the perfect disguise falls in place again.
Such an exciting world we live in. With as many interesting people partaking in our lives without them or us realizing this. People want to talk, especially when they are traveling alone. That’s how I pick up human behaviour. Watching silently. Making mental notes. Tucking it away for future reference. Everyone has a story and it is all being unfolded right in front of us.


Land of ready smiles and incredible contrasts - Malaysia!

Landing into Sarawak one can’t help but notice the abundance of beautiful not seen before birds, flowers, and even pepper, cocoa, palm oil, timber which are aplenty all over Malaysia. If I had to describe Sarawak in one word I would say - verdant green. Sabah and Sarawak are located on the island of Borneo. Kuching where we stayed is the capital of Sarawak, one of the most charming towns I have seen. It has beautiful colonial buildings elegantly merging with gracious modern architecture, a bit like Pondicherry or Panjim if you will. Its wide ethnic communities give Sarawak the character and its uniqueness – they are a very tolerant and diverse communities living together here. Islam is the official religion; however Hinduism, Christianity, Buddhism all pervade and are respected. English is the spoken language and hence as a tourist one always feels connected. Sarawak is known for its multitude caves and museums of which I saw none, because my agenda was always clear. Beach bum and no more

And of course there was this cultural village where the ethnic folks lived and sold their wares. One got to see lifestyles, handicrafts, clothes, music, games, arts of many different cultures. Plus there was this fantastic restaurant which we went to a couplea times – great ambiance and personalized service. And of course without fail there had to be a handicraft shop to splurge on – so if I had to buy souvenirs and memories here’s where I’d go. I didn’t buy anything from there as on my multitude visits to M’sia before, I’d done enough and more crafts shopping.

Sabah on the other hand has sanctuaries, mountain climbing and lush surroundings which if you are a nature lover - can be a great elixir for you (I am a water body). Mount Kinabalu is the pride of Sabah. It lures climbers to peak the 4000m scale and many trekkers do this with joy. There is also a thermal – pool here that gives Japanese kind of hot spring bath but in open air. Quaint and cute:)

The beaches are lined by palms and are mercifully not populated, one odd person you may chance upon if you really look! Gives you the privacy, the quiet serenity and uplifting calm you seek. Totally my kinda place. Though I wish there were some arrangements for food nearby. Yes I remembered Goa oft. My friends went diving into Sipadan island nearby and they were gung-ho about the colourful tropical fish and corals in its crystal clear waters.

Genting was not my cuppa tea (which I don’t drink at all!) If you got spare cash to lose and if you want to relive your childhood, then I guess this is your kinda place. The rides at the amusement park were a sham compared to my childhood days- so thanks but no thanks, you go to Genting if you pretty much have nothing to do. Though if it were left to me, I’d probably stay in my hotel room and watch some trashy B-grade soap than go to Genting which was o-so-not- happening. It’s like going to a picnic spot in Bombay imagine a visit to Goregaon Aarey Milk Colony or some such place…

So if you are headed to Malaysia then I would recommend less time in KL, no time at all in Genting and a must see for Sabah and Sarawak. These are virgin places, full of folklore and stuff to discover, touristy to some extent but – breathtaking nature which you hardly get to see and feel and imbibe if you are a city dweller like me. Smiling land of people blessed by nature!


Malacca – a Malaysian Gem!

The action that is drummed up at night time here in sleepy Malacca made me wonder, could Malacca be the small town, that everybody told me about?! There is entertainment galore here…clubs, pubs, discos, casinos you name it. We sang till the wee hours of the morning in some karaoke lounge, then hung around in some Irish pub and had a perfectly pleasant time. After a high adrenalin evening when the tummy demanded food, we headed to Jonker street. During day time this street sells wares from antiques to bargain buys for the eternal hungry shopper. By night on weekends, after 7pm, this street shuts to traffic and transforms to a long stretch of eating places with variety and buzz for the foodie. By moonlight you see people thronging to this street for a night out, of food and merry. There is this Portuguese square right in the middle of a buzzing area which impromptu has live bands strumming their stuff, and before you know it, a large crowd gathers for free entertainment. The crowds sway to the hip hop or rock beats of the bands music with beer in one hand and a cigar/cigarette and watnot in the other.

We rented a car from KL and drove down to Malacca. There were umpteen signboards to direct us on the way but despite that many a times we wandered off:) Traffic within Malacca is easy but because there are many one way streets it tends to get a wee bit challenging but fun. We were not dependent on any local transportation to get us back at night and for just that we were glad to be public-transport-free.

Malaccan food has spices and coconut milk plus everything is non veg, so veggies pls be warned, go prepared to either starve or be wise and carry some stuff that can keep you alive there! I was wise to carry a food hamper from the hotel so my dinner was veggie sandwiches while on the street tapping my feet listening to the rock band and eating away a mouthful every now and then. Every food item there has fish, or fish oil, or coconut milk in it, and that makes the few veg dishes too, not palatable for me.

We visited the tiny island of Upeh in Malacca. Folklore has it that it used to be a stop for pirates looking to hide from the law during old times. There are a lot of water sports on offer here but I took none as all of them or well nearly all of them, are available in Goa! The other interesting tit bit I heard was that the rarest of sea turtle species come to this island between March and June to nest – so during this time this place attracts many peering eyes who come here to catch a glimpse of such rare sea turtles (Hawksbills). I hope Mr RN Tata is listening.

A beautiful spot full of rustic charm has much character in look and feel, it’s conveniently located from KL, and everything is actually within walking distance in this tiny town. The trishaws were cute but we never took a ride in one, we even skipped the river cruise as there was a longish queue for tickets. The people of Malacca are very friendly and meethinks that’s what keeps the tourists welcomed here.


English beat that is London

Aha! It so happened that I had an entire day free ahead of me before my flight from Heathrow at 915pm. A Sunday at that. And in London, not a very favourite city with me because of the weather which is so extreme or dreary

Faced with 2 choices – laze around in the hotel, paying minimal extra for late check out. Or make the most of the day by being outdoors and enjoying London. Of course I chose the later. It was a glorious sunny day, bright and cheerful, light fluffy clouds flitted lightly and the world beckoned.

I had a light breakfast of fruit and cereal, and decided in my mind that while I am going to spend time here in the city it will be haute and not massy. So, Tita picked me from the hotel at 10am, my baggage was nicely locked in the boot of her car, and we were now hands free, baggage free.

Tita’s surprise for me was the appointment she had taken in advance, she knew the marketing head of this fantastic spa in Mandarin Hotel, Hyde Park, so we headed straight for a snappy consultation and I was ready for the Life-dance routine that the spa offered.

Jane, the therapist assigned to me, informed me that the Life-dance ritual was based on Ayurveda but was modified to get the most out of one session. I confessed to overwork and exhaustion and sound sleep and was led to this heavenly smelling room which was obviously made with Rip Van Winkle in mind. The soothing colours, the fragrant candles, the gentle lamp lights and the soft bed with flowers strewn all around made me sleepy instantly. A combine of hot stones and soothing milk cleansers massaged with gentle strokes did me in for the next couple of hours. I was asleep for over two hours and when I finally surfaced they got me invigorating honey blended coconut water with mint, refreshing!

One of the nicest things of wrapping up at the Mandarin was being right in the middle of the shopping district. The sales were on, Jimmy Choos caught my fancy so I strolled in looking for something simple and stunning, but did not get my feet size. All sizes surprisingly were for large feet. So along the road was Harrods, where we made our next stop and here I bought a couple of beautiful gifts for family and a lovely red tote for Tita who was happy with my thank you We walked out armed with bags in tow, and headed in to Gerard Darrel for a beautiful cream silver trench, my favourite piece from this trip.

We then headed to a café and slurped my way through a lovely soup and salad and a huge gelato sundae, and then walked a mile to shed it off. Having rested and having consumed high energy stuff, the day came to a close and we made our way to Heathrow I felt a twinge of sadness (UK is not my favourite destination) for a beautiful day had come to a close. Purse and heart lighter, I stepped into my flight, watched a movie, ate some short eats and slipped into my i-pod dreaming of home and my own bed on landing:)


Bon Apetit in China

I thought being a vegetarian, this country - China, was not my cup of tea. So am putting what I saw there, to test with you guys. Duck's tongue. Pregnant frogs eggs. Snakes. Imagine any bird, animal, sea fish... and you have it on the table!! I was part of many sit down dinners and I know I looked bad not touching the food, not one morsel, but no wild horses could have made me either:( - the chef would feel bad and not understand why I wasn't eating, but I couldn't:( , all I know is in the 3 odd weeks I was there I survived- barely - on cheese, some breads and ice creams. And I was so missing home. If ever I go back to China I am carrying a truckload of food with me and I don't care what people say!


Beijing – a fascinating rush

What I saw in Beijing testifies the city’s power as the nerve center of the country. The Tienanmen Square is buzzing with security, No cars are allowed to park close to the historic buildings. The capital city has more security, barriers and policemen than normal Chinese people, I think. The mama mia factor when you see the Tienanmen Square, despite the effort and the long walk are unreplicatable! It's bigger than life.

Tienanmen Square is the world’s largest public square (the size of 90 football fields); it still reverberates with the ghosts of recent history. The vast inner city of 24 emperors for almost 500 years, is China’s most impressive treasure house. Only occasionally an emperor would venture out, And no one was allowed in without permission.

The Forbidden City is located in the center of Beijing and is surrounded by a chessboard of roads, including five 'ring roads', which circle the city center in concentric circles. I liken this to Delhi for some obvious reasons. Roads lined with trees that create beautiful facades and avenues. All buildings of national heritage or government offices bearing the national flag. Zany cars with sirens that go off suddenly in the middle of the road signaling vip movement.

Cameras track everybody. They follow you in the foyer of an office building, they trace you to the landing you get off, tracks you inside the floor visiting people. The cameras are not subtle. They are un-missable, making no bones of the fact that they are watching one and all.

Beijing also has some unique shopping areas. My friends took me to this mammoth horizontal (one storied) building that boasted of fake branded goods. From I-pods to steam irons to clippers to beaded ornaments to hi-phone to chinese arts and crafts to fake Nikes and Adidas’s to all imaginable designs in jeans - the list is endless. And there were takers. The parking lot was full. People were making a beeline into this market because soon it was going to be closing time and the trader/shopkeeper doesn’t want your business if it is past his shutting down time! I walked away from this market with tiny ceramic Chinese figurines which I distributed amongst my office colleagues. Crafted beautifully. Looked authentic. Were lil china men smiling and fishing.

The Kunming lake at the Summer Palace is another bewitching huge site a complete must for a tourist like me. Such scenic beauty, such calm waters, history in every nook and cranny. Ornately decorative architecture from both inside and outside. There are dragon boats and marble boats used for cruising on this lake. Even these boats have a history which the Chinese are not too fond of speaking. I discovered that the Marble boat which is moored at one side of the lake was built from money that was allocated from some other purpose. Very India like, I said to myself most amusedly. Corruption is not spoken about openly here. But exists in equal gigantic proportions.

China is a land of overt discipline and subjugation, a land where people may question the authorities in their mind but never openly or ever in rebellion. It is regimented and authoritarian. Maybe that’s why the billion plus nation can produce world goods at a pace no one can match? Works for this country I guess


Watching your every move - Singapore

This island city, in olden days, was managed by the East India Company. In its marshy heydays it was a trading outpost. And over the past decades Singapore has transformed itself to a plan. As a result today you see this tiny land, flourishing in prosperity and success. It’s a curious blend of ancient and modern sights. At first glance it’s the modern that meets the eye. Gleaming, shiny, tall almost scraping the sky, buildings. And then you see these tall structures dominating the diminutive squat Hindu and Chinese temples in the interiors of this land.

Am not a big fan of Singapore. In fact quite the contrary. However there is one thing that I wish we in India could emulate. And that is their strict no nonsense laws! Generally, the laws are strict and it is because of those stringencies, why Singapore has risen to a World class city status. There are always pros and cons to the strictness for sure. No arguing that.

Singaporeans don't mind the strict laws one bit. Big brother is always watching you in Sing. You can't see them. But you know they're there. Undercover. Watching. Scanning the crowd. That's why the locals are very careful.

Chewing gum is not a sin in Sing, but taking gum into the country in large amount is illegal and the person can be sent to jail. Try going nude or topless when sunbathing, even if in your own back yard. It is forbidden. Jay walking maybe the favourite past time in India, try doing that in Sing. And watch the undercover guys swoop down on you. There are many reminders - posters are put up at eye level everywhere - you cant miss it, telling you what you should do, and if not done, how much you will be fined if you break the rules. That is the reason why Singapore is called "the fine city"

The government in Sing has obviously discovered that the only way to keep the small country clean, safe and manage it efficiently, is by, enforcing some strict rules. A densely-populated city like Sing has thrived to prosperity because of its regulations in all aspects of life which in turn has helped them maintain high health standards, low crime rate, and intolerance for corruption. They have a disciplined work-force and a credible judiciary and police systems to ensure a high level of law and order. Orchard street the most famous shopping street has many plainclothesmen hidden in the crowd. Some 400 plainclothes officers from the government's National Environment Agency. Their job: to pick out those who let things slip out of their hands.

Such an approach has made Sing high on the list, as one of the most livable cities in the world, to attract both tourism and investment. Only with strict laws and efficient govt administration have they managed to maintain high stability in the political, social and economic stratas. It is seen as being one of the very safe and orderly countries by many. There is virtually no crime; no corruption and you are safe even when walking alone at night. Unless you happen to be unlucky and be in some crowded area where pickpockets thrive.


Chennai a land of large things. Huge, larger than life, cut outs of politicians and kitschy film posters both staring from great heights at the commoner. The film stars have a special place in peoples hearts probably equal to God. People pronounce an extra `a' with all words ( well almost) where none is required. Can you imagine how my name would be pronounced if they could with an extra “A” ?:)

Chennai has perpetual water shortages since I can remember, and old wars with neighboring states over rivers and boundaries.

The jasmine flower is seen in almost every hairdo of the Chennai dweller, its smell bewitching and enticing. You see this flower in heaps at every street corner. Chennai is about filter kapi connoisseurs who will just as easily indulge in a cup of cappuccino at one of the thriving coffee lounges.

Chennai Mahabalipuram still has ancient fishing villages ( akin to Chimbai of Bandra) and these share the same space as the new age sedans and the nike-clad joggers. Chennai is quaint, bemusing and demands affection in return for an array of unexpected sights,sounds and flavours.

Then there is Saravana Bhavana
This was recommended by SimpleVinni to me. It is a hugely renowned food chain (its like finding an ATM my colleague from Chennai said) and I had no clue of it. Saravana Bhavan was started in 1982 by a grocery merchant Mr Rajagopalan who decided to cater food on a small scale. Maybe he is responsible afterall for the culture of eating out, in an otherwise conservative Chennai

The food here is hot and hygienic. The place is clean but with zero ambience. The menu was very interesting. I was tempted to over order, more than I could eat. I got a superb cuppa of the best filter coffee I’ve had in a while. Service is not very good. The people who serve there thought I was a foreigner and so kept staring at me, and spoke to a colleague of mine in Tamil to ask if I wanted a Coke Light or a normal Coke. They were astute to know that I would not drink open water.

The manager proudly proclaimed to me, their claim to fame was consistency in food quality. Something our cricket team certainly cannot claim


Australia -Whitewash

Here's something that has never been seen before and given that I saw the Climate Crisis movie once again, just a few days ago, this was worrying - so its up for everyone's benefit, thanks to a friend who forwarded this alarming mail

Suddenly the shoreline north of Sydney were transformed into a Cappuccino Coast. Foam swallowed an entire beach and half & the nearby buildings, in a freak display of nature at Yamba in New South Wales

One minute a group of teenage surfers were waiting to catch a wave, the next they were swallowed up in a giant bubble bath. The foam was so light that they could puff it out of their hands and watch it float away.

Scientists explain that the foam is created by impurities in the ocean, such as salts, chemicals, dead plants, decomposed fish and excretions from seaweed. All are churned up together by powerful currents which cause the water to form bubbles. These bubbles stick to each other as they are carried below the surface by the current towards the shore. As a wave starts to form on the surface, the motion of the water causes the bubbles to swirl upwards and, massed together, they become foam.



Straight road
Gentle curves
Breathless view
Long tunnels
Stone bridges
Highway clouds
Bodiless trucks
Toll plaza
Lake at Khopoli
Valley and hills
Fog and rain
Six lane highway with a lane shoulder on either side
The Mumbai Pune expressway lacks the Indian road chaos; almost feel one with the wind. Makes me want roads like that in Bombay – just the roads, where I can drive for 10feet and not find a single ditch, crater, pothole. Possible you think?


Visions of earth

I am definitely putting this on my 'must visit' ever expanding list! This is courtesy NatGeo!

Shodo Shima, Japan: Huddled for warmth, the macaques press their bodies into a vast ball of fur. The monkeys’ relaxed social hierarchy allows high - and low – ranking individuals to share the same tight space.


O! Calcutta

A city with warm memories. Supe food. Warmer people. Mishti language Bengali! New roads. Old traffic jams. Cops being bribed. Near accidents. Misti doi. Yum yum yum. Graceful old ladies. Rich Marwaris. Old world. Yellow Ambassadors. Spewing black bursts from the exhaust pipe. Glorious monuments.Delayed flights. Delayed further. And further. No sight of take off.



A quick word for those who are reading this, do pls read my second blog when you find it convenient, and tell me what you think of it


Since I have time on my hand for another few days before I go back to the "working" life, I decided to have more fun with blogging:-)

I hope, I will be able to blog frequently!


Bhutan- The last Shangri-la

The king is revered here. The GNP takes a rear seat.
National happiness is of prime importance. India possibly can take a few lessons from its neighboring country.

This country is a delight for people - who love walking.
Paro - the beautiful city of colour and joy. This city’s numerous legends coaxed me to take on yet another flight of steps. Peace envelops regardless of the altitude sickness that hit me, 18000ft above sea level! There is an energy that gave me the oxygen burst to trek uphill at my own pace even puffing and panting. The purity of the mountains edges one closer to the top, above the valley. To Taktshang Monastery, also known as the Tigers Nest, from where the view felt sacred!

The clouds at times played spoilsport and hid the majestic view from the eyes. And on other days the clouds honoured me, by showing off the gigantic snow capped Himalayas, Mount Everest and Kanchenjunga which rose above beautiful Paro. We went to Paro to witness the colourful festival that started at dawn. Pitch dark, cold - brrr, priests in orange robes busily chanting. The sunrise in Paro, most spectacular - molten gold bursting in the sky. Lighting life. The sun was very welcome as the morning mountain cold had me shivering despite the many layers of clothing. By 9am the sun had risen high, and the heat had started pinching my skin! When you are high up in the mountains the sun is closer hence, and can get very hot! One by one I shed the layers on me; where did the cold disappear, I wondered a bit wistfully?!

At tea break, I lean against the car and look around this deep valley, forestation everywhere. I hear a growl. I froze. My first thoughts – will this beast kill this beauty!?! The driver came to my rescue and shushed the animal a distance away. This animal was a cross between a goat and a cow. Wearing socks! So I thought then! I think while he was grazing he was equally stunned to come across me, and I froze seeing him appear from nowhere so close to me! Later I was told this was the national animal for Bhutan- the takin, a gentle beast.

I came across an interesting folklore around this animal, once in the 15th century the Lama Drupka was visiting Bhutan, when his devotees gathered around him, urged him to show a miracle. He demanded that he first be served a whole cow and a goat for lunch. After eating he was satisfied, he took the goat’s head and stuck it onto the bones of the cow. And then he snapped his fingers and commanded the strange mix up beast to rise up and graze on the mountain side, thus was born the Takin.

Bhutan is a hidden treasure waiting to unfold to the world; Indians don’t need a passport to visit this country. A definite ‘must visit’ for those who are bit by the wander lust!


Varanasi – a reality check

Varanasi (Benares) gets its name from Varuna (Var) river and 80 (assi) ghats – hence Varanasi. Why is Benares such a venerated immortal city I wondered on my journey there, very keen to discover more. It’s the combination of Kashi the holy city, Ganga the celestial river and Shiva the supreme God that makes Benares such an attractive sought after destination.

The ghats are beautiful and the most striking of them 80 ghats is the Dasarwamedh ghat. By early evening the ghats come alive and are buzzing with people from all walks of life. Shopping. Conversing. Praying. Donating. Singing. Meditating.

Approaching 7.30pm, thousands of devotees gather on the steps of the ghats, offering flowers and prayers and singing in devotion to the river Ganges. The priests in their orange robes set against a glowing sunset, add reverence and anticipation, as the Aarti is about to begin.

The priests (5of them) start by praying to the river Ganges and then is followed by thousands of lit lamps floated on the river. The priests begin the hymns and the aarti takes on a reverential hue. With the sun having gone down, it’s the flames of the aarti that are most mystical yet real, that light up the ghat steps and the river waters, announcing to all that the one source of life is being revered and given the highest status man can give.
This image is going to my grave with me; it was so beautiful, so true.

The long sweep of the ghats by dawn was equally fascinating, there aren’t too many people around at dawn and for the second time in Benares I felt the calm n quite which was pure. I saw many devotees performing rituals, worshipping the river Ganges and praying to it. Benares before sunrise is another world altogether! Charming. Peaceful. Devotional.

Another day, by a rowing boat, we saw all the 80 ghats. Idyllic. The calm balmy waters, made me feel like I was at peace with myself. On one Ghat they burn dead bodies and I was warned about this before I reached Benares. We saw it from our boat and strangely for the first time I did not feel any fear and calmly accepted what I saw. The significance of people wanting to die in Varanasi is that they reach heaven and attain moksh soon after. Hence it is seen as many Hindus’ last wish.

We crossed the river onto the other side and saw a village on the other side,
We were free floating in the middle of the river, soaking in the quietude, the peace, the stillness, the calm of a river which is felt to be pure and of a city which is holy.

Another day. And we made our way to temple of God Shiv, Vishwanath.
Our friend from the hotel who accompanied us, had prepared us for the tour ahead, so we stayed focused on our prayers and ignored all other elements such as the pundits and their askance for more.

He narrated how the Muslims had plundered and razed this Vishwanath temple to the ground zillion of years ago, and how they had left a small little portion of the wall intact for the Hindus to realize how potently powerful they were.
The story has it that they constructed a mosque on top of the destroyed temple.
Someone had said to me that religion is the biggest vote bank for politicians in our country – sadly for us, this narration was the biggest live example:- (

It is said that Shiv’s first original “ling” was discovered here in Benares and the temple was built for this reason alone. The Vishwanth Temple.

This trip to Benares taught me some patience and tolerance, a higher need for calm and quiet. Did I feel transformed, did I come back to feel more spiritual? Am not sure cause as humans we don’t change overnight, we allow experiences and images to soak into us and if they have made a deep impact on us, we slowly adapt to them. Definitely a reality check.


Holy madness that is...Benares

Call it Kashi, Varanasi or Benares all these names are the key to after life. This is believed to be the greatest ‘tirth’ or the crossing over from earth to heaven, for a Hindu. Benares is the oldest living city in the world and one has to leave behind one’s city attitude to take in this holy madness

No frowning or irritation allowed- get rid of your city attitude, I had to constantly remind myself so as to not ‘lose it’

The (a)incessant honking, every nano second by scooters, rickshaws, bikes, cars, jeeps, buses makes one feel Bombay is a veritable haven on not just the road transport mechanism but also on noise pollution it is probably the most silent city in India. (b)The splash of ‘paan’ on the streets and walls because they don’t chew their paans there, they keep it in the mouth for 2 hours or more, and relish the juices that collect and then, splash it outward when the mouth is full. (c) The manner in which every outsider is seen to be a total ignoramus and ‘educated’ about the Ganges is masha-allah too endearing. (d) The filth, the beggars, the touts, the greedy pundits, and the general madness many times had me see sawing between being amazed and wanting to run home (e) the humungous population in this tiny area of the ghats was difficult to deal with despite having lived in this country for years!!

Nothing prepares you for Benares honestly, I had read up a lot, asked friends more, and more, but the live experience is so very different from hearsay and second hand impressions, I almost feel Varanasi is a ‘concentrated’ India with all its colour and chaos. I think am still reeling with the onslaught on my senses, and in order to make some sense of all the jumbled up thoughts about Benares in my head, I need to step back a bit.


Concluding on Russia

Olga and Illina accompanied me to the Bolshoi theatre because I threw a fit one evening as it occured to me that I had yet to see Moscow by day! So in crumpled day clothes I very sheepishly stepped out of the car towards the Bolshoi theatre as if anticipating drumbeats and music to welcome me :-)

Bolshoi means ‘large’, ‘grand’, it was intended for opera and ballet originally, as these were considered nobler than drama. With excitement bubbling in me, I looked around me in awe:-)

The exterior of this building was magnificent resplendent with grandeur, a great example of fabulous Russian architecture. The interiors were breath taking and bold too. This building now, is state owned and I found out by reading some granite slabs in there, that it had a turbulent history to it. Apparently the first owner of this Imperial building not only became bankrupt & penniless, the entire building was gutted by a fire forcing the State govt to take over the reins, and reinstate its lost glory

Happily I entered this magnificient theatre looking for a stupendous experience… and The Swan Lake delivered it! I was lucky to have 2 local friends with me, who gave me a thorough understanding of what was to unfold which is why I enjoyed it much. It is worth doing some research before a show to enjoy the details and to have a memorable evening out. I still have the tab of the ticket to Bolshoi, kept with me, as if to remind myself that I saw a bit of history too:-)sitting up there in the dress circle with those binocs to get a closer glimpse of each and every move of the dancers- O twas magical!

At interval break I got speaking to some local theatre personnel and felt that, with its reconstruction and past glory set in place, the Russians are now hopeful that the Bolshoi will be back at the centre of world stage. I certainly wish them well!

...more on Russia

St Petersburg, one of the most fantastic cities I have seen, cool, picturesque, impressive architecture, I dont know anybody who doesnt like this city:-)

We walked into our hotel, one of the finest the city had to boast of, and surprise - as one enters the doorway- I was surrounded by a hundred (atleast) gambling machines in combination with those blinking lights. Everyday this casino beckons the gamblers from all around the world as it works round the clock, and as you'd expect pretty women and smart looking men hang out in such places as they were hanging out here this afternoon

For a minute thr I sincerely thought the driver had got us to a wrong place, I kept turning at him looking askance - are you sure we are at the right place?! And at the end of this very large casino area we come to a very small inconspicuous reception area, as if trying to almost, not exist! There were few people standing thr with their passports for check in, and within minutes I was shown to my room, efficiency personified

A lovely room, with a view of the Neva river with trees lining the both sides of the river, getting sprayed gently by white fluffy snow, and, despite the snow I could see joggers in full track pants running by the side of the river.

The first day passed in a haze with meetings and more mtgs. The second day early morning I came down for breakfast to the cafe restaurant to find not too many people there. So I guess I was happy sitting in one of those brightly lit windows with sun streaming in and making the cafe look warm golden yellow- the sun was most welcome after a hard day of snow! I found a table that had a wonderful view :-)

A couple tables away was another guest waiting for his breakfast.

After looking at the menu which I couldn’t read a word of, I asked the steward there to help me understand what was for breakfast. And he couldn’t speak a word of English so I asked for a cup of coffee and walked to the buffet area to check what was on offer

You got to believe this- about 40 odd platters with not a single vegetarian offering, not even cheese! :-( You got to believe this honest! I came back very despondent to my table and sat there heavily, wondering where will I get food here for the next week

Soon the Unilever client was at my table and with glee serving himself breakfast!:-) While I waited patiently hoping someone will ask me what I would like - "maybe a hot crisp aloo parantha with a tall glass of mango milkshake?!" - there is no harm in dreaming, right?

And now my eyes fell upon the table where the other guest was sitting, and by now he had a large, very large portion of a leg? Horse rib? or smthg? In front of him digging into it, like he had not seen food in years. Hungrily!

That did it for me, I asked for another cup of coffee and my breakfast was done, I had absolutely no desire for breakfast no more :-), not even mums aloo parantha!

It was time to get away from this hotel towards some english speaking folks and maybe some cookies during the meeting. O yes, the meeting was sounding promising and I was looking forward to the meeting now:-) On the way to the office I was overwhelmed by the dimensions of the buildings I saw, absolutely fabulous!


Russia, with love

So, this trip, it was to be Moscow, Ekaterinberg and St Petersburg

Ekat is a small town with not too many top notch hotels to stay in, largely populated with middle class or lower class
(Economically speaking), with very warm hearted people, and not too many choices to spoil one!

If you are looking to be spoilt, then you need to get to Moscow, and see how the rich and famous and the infamous live:-) I had heard about the mafia there and in this trip I saw and interacted with one too

I felt that while the Russians liked me cos I was from the land of Mithun Chakraborty and Raj Kapoor, there is this undeniable distrust of foreigners. They don’t open up easily, they need to spend a good amount of time tracking you, to know you are trustworthy

Luckily for me given the folks I had to deal with had seen me around a couple of trips, twas a wee bit easier to bond with them.
My faithful driver Sergey could not utter more than a "yes", "no", 'sorry' & "thank you" in English, could still communicate with me and reach me the right places uncannily!
He was a thorough gentleman, who during work trips, would point out things of historic value to me and that’s how I saw the Red Aquare and the Kremlin:-)and discovered Moscow by day

One evening the boys decided they had to go clubbing and no amount of me pleading out, got me off the hook, so I had to tag along with this male group to the clubs

We started by getting to some posh club the second night there in Moscow. While the locals had to grin and were waved in, I was whisked through a dimly lit corridor where I had to submit my passport through a dark slit window, and then suddenly the thick doors closed behind me, then through some mic/speakers I was told to walk through the next set of automated steel doors with bullet proof glass, and wait. And then suddenly some air whooshed and my passport landed with a thud at another dark window - not a single person right thru this process interacted with me, was a bit scary and in my head I was thinking all weird thoughts, that Jodie Foster movie, where somebody puts some dope into her bag and how she is caught and put behind bars in Bangkok (Bangkok Hilton?) and how no matter how she pleaded not guilty nobody gave a rats ass for
her! While I was standing there looking blindly around me, wondering where is my passport, where the hell have I landed myself in when the steel doors opened and 2 leather clad drop dead gorgeous looking blondes came my way with my passport! I was bemused, and stoopidly relieved

They now escort me through another set of doors into this fabulous bar area where the pole dancers are doing their number and the guys are busy looking! As I reached towards them, they got busy telling me about this club, the owner and the guests at the club that night. Apparently this was a club owned by one top notch mafia man
in Moscow, backed by some politician. And here comes this leather clad 6'5" tall man to greet us and is introduced to us as Tony!
Tony waves amd guides us to a table which has a full view of the podium where the dancers are teasing the men, and I look around bemused

Now the guys are busy with their drinks and the women and I am wondering what I am doing in this place, when my phn rings and I dart to the quietest corner of this room and away from all that tease! Call over and when I get back to join the group, to see some of the women who have perched atop few of these guys. ha-ha

I decide to amble around -Tony gracefully has one of the hostesses accompany me to 'show me around', so I move away from this central bar room and into a area that can be best described as a vast courtyard but beautifully lit and very gracefully done up

We walk into one room and my guided tour has begun, the hostess opens the lace curtains and signals me through - wo! A threesome!

Flushed in the cheeks I walk out , she walks ahead of me into another room, gay men had their act going on here in this room and there was a crowd gathered in that room watching them. And the next room had slave girls and slave boys, and the next room had a full fledged orgy! And soon I couldn’t stomach this anymore, I excused myself, I have no idea how I got outside the club at 2am! It was snowing hard and I called Sergey who promptly brought the car around and dropped me back to the hotel! Merci gnite and the safe haven of my room finally!

I wasn’t afraid of where I was, I was repulsed to see this cold display of sex and flesh. I was hugely embarrassed to be with male clients; maybe it would have been different if I had gone to this club with friends. I don' know ( still wondering!):-)

That night was put down to "another experience". A
4 wheel drive bullet proof Mercedes had picked us up, only to realize early in the evening that it was sent by Tony the mafia dude, everything that looks sexy is far far from being sexy up

Garden of Eden

We all have our favourite teams in the Premiere League right? Well I had been rooting for Kol Knight Riders since day 1. Reason 1- Dada, Reason 2- SRK, Reason 3- my fave city.

So here we are - the setting- Kolkatta. A match between the Kol Knight Riders (KKL) and Kings XI Punjab. The result has to be a no brainer right? It has to be advantage most definitely, for Dada and his men...

Well, if you were sitting amongst the mammoth crowd there, you wouldn’t be so sure till the last ball was bowled! Tension in the pit of stomach, the match result right up chasing the wire, the game swinging sometimes the Knight Riders way and more often than not Kings XI way!

Glorious Eden Garden packed to capacity, with over a lakh plus people, all rooting for Dada and his team of valiant Knights. What an evening it was. Large screens covering the ground, the hoi polloi and the masses of Kolkatta rubbed shoulders with each other, all reveling in this mammoth party zone, the night sky was beautiful and clear, the air was expectant with tension and drama.

A day & night game, the public willing the Knight Riders to go for it,
Eden Garden, with its floodlit huge night lamps was picture perfect, the deafening roar of humans mixed with drumbeats and stereo sound; made for a mind-blowing wonderful atmosphere. Am a total convert to this T20 format - what an absolute experience watching this game LIVE

Dada had a competitive total to chase, and a wicket that he and his men were familiar with. But the second innings didn’t go the scripted way!

Wickets toppled, runs were not scrambling on the score-board, the strangled muffled sounds of a 1 lakh plus crowd in the stadium was close to suffocated silence, shuffling restless feet, willing the Knight Riders to ride the storm.

And Umar Gul takes strike, and whoosh! Did he make the crowds start to breathe again? His first six off the first ball he faced, had the crowds on their feet with elation as if they had won:-), the next six off the second ball had the voice box of this 1 lakh crowd, restored:-) There was palpable tension now. Then came Dada with his fabulous six as if to say "nothing comes in my way to victory, I swear!":-)

This saw the Knight Riders turn the heat on, and get a fabulous, inspirational win, that helped restore battered pride. I promise you, nothing compares! The Premiere League is here to stay:-)

And of course having accidentally eavesdropped into a high octane debate happening around where we were seated- so vehemently some agreed and disagreed to " IPL wants to mix sex with cricket", another said "so what’s wrong with it", another said " they will make cricket more juicier than Bollywood if they do that" speaking of the cheerleaders. Infact one individual also remarked that " native Indian men are sex starved. When they come to US for a short visit, first thing they do is go for ‘escorts’ and call girls. It gave IPL a clear idea how to sell these western cheerleaders and make some more money”. And soon the game had started and all eyes were trained on the pitch:-)

Well, not withstanding this sex and cricket debate, what a sensational victory that was in the Garden of Eden:-) Folklore will be made of this Sunday game and the creators were none other than Dada and his golden men!


Goa and Music

There is a palpable excitement I feel, when I land in Goa, almost instantaneously, expecting something magical to happen.

The cab that takes us to our hotel has lovely konkani music playing as if to signal the party is on! He played traditonal songs, folk music, right through our 45min ride to the hotel- mwaah, lovely!

As we enter our hotel there is lovely local music streaming through the doors!I think music flows through the blood of every Goan. I later understood that, in schools, music is encouraged whether it be singing, playing an instrument or creating beats.

Goans love for music can be heard round the clock, not only in the houses but at social occasions. The talented goan musicians dish out popular Indian and western hits and not forgetting the show stopping, foot stomping goan manddos which get goans of all ages up on the dance floor.

Goan music merges Indian and Western traditions, and the Mando is a treat to hear. Starting with a sad beat, gradually it ends on a faster beat known as 'Dulpods'. Based on the Latin American tune, Mando is sung by girls and boys in chorus or sometimes one line of the song one after the other. Beckons one to move:), just as we did on the boat, on the river Mandovi.

At lunch time in the hotel coffee shop we met some fellow holidaymakers who let us know that Roger Waters was playing LIVE the same evening. My God Pink Floyd , well not entirely, but nonetheless Pink Floyd legacy in the flesh!

We made our way that evening to see Roger Waters, a rock concert like I've never seen before. An unforgettable night , probably one of my favourtite rock shows amongst the ones I have seen all over the world. All credit goes to the fact that it happened in Goa:-), the people, the swaying, no smashing bodies or puking adults, the production of the event, roger waters himself, the open spaces, near the water front, all of it cast a spell on me, marvellous:-)!

I went to the flea markets by day and another by night, and o boy! I was surrounded by trance, hip hop, psychedelic beats, with many shop keepers selling mp3's and so many locally composed cd's, that I was quite baffled by it all and not sure which one I wanted to buy, because truly, any music in Goa, sounds pretty awesome!

Finally all this gave way to my kinda day - I slump in a shack by beachside, find myself a super vantage deck to worship the sun, request for the music to be louder from inside the shack, and it all merged so well with the sounds of wind, surf and voices- Goa- ah! Where time passes slowly and the music keeps you company:-)