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A whirlwind #workation in Indonesia: Is travel planning overrated?

One of the interesting contradictions in my life is how little I research my travel before I set off, despite being a researcher by profession. This trip to Indonesia, which Greg and I had planned as a recce visit to explore collaborations and case sites for a new project, was one of those in which I literally landed up at the airport with a lets-see-how-this-goes attitude. Part of this was related to how much we had riding on this trip work-wise, the nature of the visit was exploratory. We didn’t even have a fixed itinerary- except for the knowing when we arrived in and departed from Jakarta, we were literally making this up as we went along!

Far from being apprehensive, I was enormously excited about this trip. It felt like a true adventure, which would entail seeing a bunch of places I had never imagined going to and a couple that I didn’t even know the existence of! There were a few comforts though. One, Greg speaks Bahasa Indonesia and had spent enough time there to act as guide and interpreter (he did a fantastic job of that!). And I had been to Bali and Surabaya earlier this year (yes, this is my 3rd trip in a span of 3 months!), gained an initial understanding of Indonesian people and had a few reliable contacts there.

My expectations about how much I would be able to “see” on this trip were low from a touristic perspective and because I really enjoy the urban wandering as much, if not more than straight-jacketed tourism experiences, this wasn’t much of a concern.

And so I land up seeing four Indonesian cities and some of its countryside in eleven days. First: Jakarta, the sprawling capital and primary city, where the country’s economic and political power concentrates, where young people dream of living and working, where life is buzzing and traffic is painful. Second: Yogyakarya, fondly called Jogja, city of universities and students, a special region where the Sultan still rules, once laid back and pretty, now seeing new wealth. Third: Kupang, out there in eastern Indonesia, capital of the province of Nusa Tengarra Timor (NTT), a sleepy city with hilly outcrops and stunning beaches. Surrounding by hinterland that is arid and poor. Fourth: Semarang, a large industrial port city in Central Java, a city that celebrates its colonial history even as the part-rural counties around it pulsate with the excitement of promised new industrial investments.

 

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We do this by buying tickets hours before we fly out, sometimes even deciding on the go! We use Whatsapp shamelessly to contact NGOs, academics and government officials wherever we go. We end up working long stretched in cafes, using their free Wi-Fi connections to take Skype calls, write emails, consult collaborators and download data, all for the price of a few cups of coffee! We try budget hotels and budget-budget hotels and laugh at the Spartan decor and not-really-there breakfasts. We meet people who go out of the way to help us (some of them were meeting us for the first time!), giving us their time, inviting us into their homes on weekends, finding us contacts and even accompanying us to difficult meetings. Everything works out and we accomplish nearly everything we had hoped we would, with minimal pre-planning, mostly by being able to take reasonably quick decisions, by keeping our wits around us and by listening carefully to what our Indonesian contacts had to say to us. In my opinion, the Indonesian cultural traits of respect for outsiders, gentleness of manner and inordinate helpfulness were our biggest assets on our trip. And since we weren’t overthinking the trip before we started, I think we got a lot of the ‘pleasant surprise’ factor out of it than if we had had everything perfectly lined up!

 

Watch out for more posts about our experiences in beautiful Indonesia!

 

Already published: Crumbling legacy, so much potential: In Jakarta’s Kota Tua

 

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Sweet and sour escapades in Bali

This short trip to Bali presented a set of varied and interesting experiences. I had heard from friends and family about the quaint Balinese worship rituals and sure enough, the carved stone statues and beautifully decorated offerings to the Gods and demon spirits were everywhere. So was the tourist-oriented commerce with its plethora of souvenirs and knick-knacks, though the large number of designer clothing and accessory stores with high quality products and tasteful displays were the icing on the cake during our sojourns through Seminyak and Kuta. And, of course, there was the glorious sea!

We had done little advance planning for this trip, and I had the sense of floating from experience to experience over the three days we were in Bali. And because we had known each other so long, we were able to laugh at the imperfect decisions just as well as we savored the ones that turned out well. Which is just as travel ought to be, spontaneous and rich in detail, and stress free to boot! Presenting a set of small stories from our Bali sojourn….

The kindness of strangers

Bali offered us the perfect escape into anonymity, allowing us to have a reckless element to our capers on the beach. One evening, a couple of us were caught in strong currents and taken a tad further out to see than we had anticipated. Reaching the shore rather breathless (and a bit shaken) after a strenuous swim back, we were touched to find that the man from whom we were renting our deck chairs was already in the water, genuinely concerned for us and ready to get help!

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Laughing at ourselves

One night, we ventured into Kuta to sample the nightlife and got lost trying to walk our way to Hard Rock Hotel. Now this is hard to do in Kuta, which is small and linear, but clearly we have talent! After resorting to an exorbitant cab ride to get to our destination, we caught the last one and a half songs of a talented rock band at Centrestage, in Hard Rock Hotel. After the band wound up and we downed the drinks we had hastily ordered, we moved to Hard Rock Café, only to find that the live band there, the one producing screechy noises in a language that was hard to identify, was also on its last song. And so, much amused by our pathetic attempts to enjoy Kuta’s nightlife, we spent a few silent and awestruck moments on the beach, watching the bright moon and sparkling stars reflected in the rhythmic waves, before heading back to the hotel.

 

 

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For happy senses, go to the local Warungs

With two vegetarians in our midst, one of them prone to a number of allergies, we were slightly skeptical about food. We need not have been. We delighted in the local Warungs (equivalents of dhabas in India) as well as the streetside cafes and restaurants we found. The Warungs specialised in local Balinese and Indonesian food. Our first meal, in the tiny Warung opposite our hotel, was chosen from a limited menu but was deliciously prepared, happily customised and served with side dishes of conversation and friendliness! My favourite meal in Bali it was. Warung Ocha in Seminyak allowed you to pick what you wanted from a buffet and the most tasteful dishes were the salads and veggie stir fries.

There’s also a lot to be said for the highly developed sense of aesthetics in Bali and the sinple Warungs capture this well. In Ocha, the landscaping and interplay of indoor and oudoor spaces would put most high-end restaurants to shame! Warung Damar in Kuta was more upmarket and the beef redang and veggie gado gado were memorable. Dinner at La Sal, the Spanish eatery down the road, with its sense of space, stood out for its careful preparation and assembly.

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The aesthetics at Warung Ocha vetted the appetite, certainly!

Unexpected celebrity status

That Indian cinema is popular worldwide is not news. Two young girls who offered us a share of the their offerings at Tirta Empul giggled about Salman Khan and Shahrukh. But we were all rather surprised that soap operas from Indian television seemed to really capture the Balinese imagination.

Wayan, our taxi driver for the day trip we took to Mount Batur, had me down as his contact person. Even as we discussed how common his name was in Bali, he expressed how delighted he was to have met a person called Mukta in person! Now this was a bit strange, as mine isn’t a particularly common Indian name. He murmured something about Mukta being a character in a daily Hindi soap called Utaran that he watched (dubbed in Bahasa, of course). At the buffet lunch we ate that day, our server Putu (another common name in Bali), was ecstatic when I introduced myself. She beckoned to her friends in excitement, pointing to me and saying “Mukta Rathore, Mukta Rathore…” once again referring to the character in the soap. I sure did not expect to be a celebrity in Bali!

 

So much more than a vacation

I’m still a bit disbelieving that we pulled off a vacation in Bali as a reunion of our gang at the School of Planning and Architecture and though it was disappointing that more of our inner circle of friends could not make the trip owing to family and work commitments, I’m glad this short break worked out. Traveling for two days and vacationing for three has certainly taken a toll on our sleep cycle and exhaustion levels, but we’ve all come back richer and wiser for making the effort. Reconnecting with friends who know you well, sometime even a tad better than you know yourself, has the peculiar ability of bringing the most challenging aspects of your life into sharp focus even as you revel in gratitude for everything that has worked out well.

For me, the intense discussions we had on an astonishing variety subjects—politics, gender, sexual freedom, family and social structures, tourism, food chauvinism—were not merely informative (on the last night entertaining too, as two among the four of us proceeded to have an enormous noisy contest over the popularity of food from two different regions in India while the other two alternated between collapsing in giggles and worrying about the neighbors waking up and yelling at us!). They helped me look inwards and overhaul some assumptions I’ve been making in life, re-evaluate some priorities, refocus. As I flew the last leg toward home, I realized that experiencing Bali like that, among friends who are well read and intelligent (and opinionated may I add, with the caveat that I wouldn’t have them any other way!) added a certain variety and sharpness to my own perspectives.

Moreover, it made me realize how much strength it’s possible to draw from people you know. To hear about how each friend faced a particular set of adversities is hugely educational. More than that, it is reassuring that I’ve been able to surround myself with people who are die hard optimists, rock solid in their ethics and belief systems (even if rather varied), non-judgemental as well as unconditionally supportive to each other.

In the end, this trip to Bali for which I risked a precious working week and some, was not just a vacation. It was so much more!

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Last weekend in Kochi, a memorable slice of time

To me, travel is therapeutic at many levels. Whether I travel for work or leisure, or even to meet family obligations, I revel in the sensory overload that travel brings. Earlier this month, I was in Kochi to serve as external jury member for 3rd year architectural students at a relatively new private college. While that was an interesting experience in itself, the highlight of the trip was spending time with one of my closest friends and her family.

College buddies, especially if you’ve shared hostel rooms, clothes, intimate secrets and much more, have an understanding of each other that is rare and precious. Both of us found we had saved conversations up in our heads for years and years for the time we would meet and have a chance to have a leisurely conversation. So that was super fun. Just as much fun was interacting with her kids; who felt familiar after only two days of time together.

The ease of being with people who feel like family seeped into the one day we had free. We visited the touristy part of town, Fort Kochi, but we hardly had tourism on our minds. Instead, we wandered through artist Paris Mohan Kumar’s art exhibition at the iconic David Hall, a restored art gallery and cafe that was once a Dutch bungalow. The paintings, which were largely monochrome revolved around the themes of nature and human relationships with an emphasis on the female form, were fascinating in their ability to be complex and simple at the same time.

We then hung out in the cafe part of the building for a while, cooling down drinking mint iced tea and gazing onto the patch of Kerala green and the pristine white stone wall, solid like they built them in the 16th century. Talking, laughing, thinking. And having some unexpected deep conversations.

Soon enough, phone calls came in, errands were run and appointments were rushed towards. The afternoon went by in a tizzy of sushi tasting, professional commitments, shopping and driving around a city temporarily scarred by the construction of the Metro line.

A week later, I’m still carrying that slice of time at David Hall with me. Memories are not necessarily made of a famous piece of architecture, high culture or amusement parks. Nor of expensive meals, cruises and moonlit walks. They are equally made of ordinariness, of words exchanged with an 11-year old child wise far beyond her years, of time spent with someone who understands you better than yourself. Of laughing over spilt cold coffee and of counting ants climbing up a tree. And in the day of smart phone, of taking a goofy selfie.

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Who’s your best friend?

“Who is you best friend mumma?” Aadyaa asked me today. It’s a recurrent question, one that girls her age seem to be particularly curious about. Today, she came back with an interesting story from the park, an incident that made me really think about friendships and what they mean to us. The story, whispered in my ear as it was a ‘secret’ goes thus….

“We saw V reading something in the park. Some time later, we saw her crying and going home. Later, we found torn pieces of paper lying around. We put them together. Her group of friends had voted and decided to throw her out of their group. We found a big piece that had everyone’s signatures on it also.”

She seemed intrigued rather than upset about this. The girls she was talking about are older than her and the world of their politics is currently fascinating!

To her recurrent ‘best friend’ question, I come up with different answers everyday. I also evade and distract every now and then because it is a difficult question, isn’t it? I’m never entirely comfortable answering it….

And yet, I know I’m lucky in the friendships I’ve made and been able to keep over the years. In a moment of nostalgia and emotion, I created this little collage of my ‘besties and me’ and sent it to them. Sharing it with you and hoping that the carefree spontaneity seen in these pictures is preserved throughout our lives till we grow doddering and old…. (the pics were taken at the same occasion, we’re all either subject or photographer here…)

Now, that’s what I call friendship!

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#GirlyRoadTrip Day 0: Madness, bonding and nostalgia

After a crazy dash to the Delhi airport thanks to a truck turned turtle on NH8. Nupur and me took the flight to Mumbai with a distinct feeling that adventure was waiting for us with a vengeance!

Friday afternoon in Mumbai was dedicated to winding up Rachna’s house. After all, the trigger for the road trip was her big move back to Gurgaon. The three of us reached Juhi’s place one by one, after completing the errands that had fallen in our kitty. Juhidi as well call her is Nupur’s cousin, but also our buddy from the good old school days in Lucknow. Loads of nostalgia to fall back on, but also a genuine bonding. From sharing life experiences to politics and finally, just plain old giggle-fest, the stopover at Juhi’s was a perfect launch pad for the Girly Road Trip.

Gosh, even I will miss this house with the view!

Gosh, even I will miss this house with the view!

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While the last few cartons were being packed!

Rachna and Nupur- While the last few cartons were being packed!

Brain dead, but trying to look like she's thinking! All that packing must have done her in!

Brain dead, but trying to look like she’s thinking! All that packing must have done her in!

 

 

Girly Road Trip: Where do I begin?

Being on the road is fun, but it also offers the opportunity to be in the traveler mindset. That particular state in which your disconnection from the ground realities of your life (the mundane stuff, the routine), offers the chance for your mind to wander in a free state. So many thoughts passed through my head on this journey from Mumbai to Delhi that I cannot even figure out where to begin writing about it.

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Broadly, I’m thinking about the experience in three buckets.

The physical experience: A travel log that documents the route, the stops, what we saw, what we did. Food, sights and sounds. Conversation.

The social experience: Three women on the road, no male company, a whole lot of positivity that I definitely want to share about how its possible to be who you are, do what you want to if you try, plan, do… and also about the meaning of friendship, which is perhaps the most important social experience we have as humans.

The spiritual experience: In the interstices of the above two lies the most meaningful bit about being out there on the road. What passed through my head, a new view of life, a fresh attitude, a big step in the pursuit for the ‘centre’ inside me. And now, my struggle to retain the peace and balance I felt out there as I pick up my routine again!

It’s all very interesting, this journey. And it wouldn’t have been possible without Nupur and Rachna, my two best friends. They, who  never intrude, always encourage, they who empathize but also call your bluff, they who are rock solid and who are always happy to be part of my journey. And me of theirs.

With that (and after I’ve sorted the zillion pics on camera and the trillion thoughts in my head), I’m going to let the posts roll…… 🙂 Stay with me!

Emotional outpourings on New Year’s Day! #friendship #happiness

I ushered in 2014 with a warm fuzzy feeling of being surrounded by love and laughter. From the party last night with all our closest family and friends (and many not in town who we missed hugely) to the picnic at Lodi Gardens today with college friends, I kept thinking about how my sense of well being is hugely impacted by the kind of relationships I have with the people around me.

No words can express what he means to me...my best friend by far!

No words can express what he means to me…my best friend by far!

The fulcrum of my life

The fulcrum of my life

Bringing in the New Year, drunk on friendship and happiness!

Bringing in the New Year, drunk on friendship and happiness!

Who we hang out with says a lot about us? What are the values that bind us? That’s the question on which hinge most of the relationships in my life that I have chosen to nurture. And because I am driven by people and relationships (including the one with myself), I find it important to introspect on these lines on the first day of the New Year.

Respect, honesty, loyalty, empathy and integrity. These are the five values that I feel most aptly describe what I have in common with my dear ones. I value the friend who can say the most unsavory truth to me, the one who can accept my silliness without judgement, the one who stands by me in my hour of need but also the one who seeks me out when she is in trouble.

A big thank you to everyone who has, in the past year, held me together when I fell apart, shared in my happy moments, been sensitive to my feelings and needs. To those who let me be, to those who held my hand, to those who pulled me into their lives. To those who cemented bonds that long stood strong, to those that forged delightful new ones, to those who dipped their feet into the pool of friendship.

I feel upbeat about 2014. I have never felt so sure about myself before (must be something about getting closer to the big Four ‘O’)! Looking forward to more work, more fun, more writing, more travel, more introspection, more outreach, more joy in the small things of life, more big decisions……

Practices evolve, but the spirit of holi endures: Innocent love, playfulness and looking beyond appearances- March 8, 2012

Holi has always been a festival of complete abandon and enjoyment. It always strikes me that people transform on holi, letting themselves go and allowing the spirit of the festival to take over.

Traditionally, holi is strongly linked to the bhakti tradition and is chiefly about love—in the guise of romantic, mortal love, we indirectly express love for the creator. Krishna dominates holi as its chief hero. Innumerable songs express Krishna’s naughtiness, how he teases the gopis, how Radha and he celebrate holi in dance and song. Sufi tradition also worships pirs like Hazrat Nizamuddin I the context of holi and the worshipper imagines himself in a state of bliss, playing holi with the pir.

It is interesting, this concept of innocent love and though we no longer consciously link our celebrations to the story of holi’s evolution; we usually practice holi exactly in this spirit of congeniality, bringing out our inner impishness on this day, letting our more formal facades drop to let in and give out the love, share the moments even with people we have no relationship with ordinarily. With close friends and family, of course, holi serves to cement our bonds further, creating more wonderful shared moments to commit to memory.

Today, Aadyaa was upset by her parents being unrecognizable; she didn’t like the smeared and strangely colored faces. After she was done with playing with colors and she was comfortable again, we talked about this being another facet of holi. To recognize that appearances are superficial; you relate to people from the heart, not by how they look. She agreed and Udai voiced this, “Mumma bhoot ban kar bhi meri mumma hi hai! (Even if she looks like a monster, she is still my mother)”!

Indian culture gives considerable importance to festivals. And while Diwali, the chief festival, starts with a family puja and culminates in community fireworks; holi is an out and out community festival, to be enjoyed out in the galis and streets. In the suburban context I live in, holi entails a DJ belting out the latest Bollywood hits intermingled with familiar holi-centric songs. Families gather in a common space, dance, throw color, create a mess, kids run around with pichkaris, squirting water on everyone, people drag others out of their homes to smear them with disgusting stuff, you get the drift. The DJ replaces the beating of the drum (dholak, dhol) and the singing of traditional songs that no one remembers anymore, sadly. But otherwise, the spirit remains intact. I hope modernization, globalization, the new economy and all of that stuff they tell us will happen doesn’t change holi!

Brother sister washing each other after holi on the terrace

Holi is about meeting friends, cementing friendships

Aadyaa's impressions of holi

 

 

Action, performance and deep friendships at Udai’s sports day Feb 24, 2012

Today was all about watching the extreme sense of confidence in our children and the tremendous skills, flexibility and balance their bodies have achieved in the past year. Every time I have the occasion to observe my son Udai with his school friends, I am struck by how deep and genuine their friendships run. On sports day, it’s particularly gratifying to see how well they work as a team, how encouraging they are when their friends struggle with a challenge, how whole-hearted their enjoyment of the activities. The spirit of fun rubbed off on us parents as well as we tried out some of the activities, with some help from the kiddos! Reflecting the bonding between the kids is a genuine sense of friendship and camaraderie that parents enjoy as well. See for yourself…

A Shikshantar sports day is about displaying skills and having fun

Check out the poise! These are grade 3 kids; Udai is in grade 2

Deep run the friendships- Srijaa and Nitya watch their friends do front rolls

Candid conversations- Samsara and Khushi

Sharing secrets? Yugantar and Udai

Mums catching up

Watching the fun

Hoopla, gymnastics and finally, the obstacle course- Udai navigates it....

Mommies and daddies doing the obstacle course 🙂

Totally involved- cheering, clicking....

Two kites overhead flew in formation, inspired by the music and fun!

Beautiful flowers in the school!

 

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