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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!

 

Click-click under the Flamboyant trees: An afternoon in OCT, Shenzhen

Our first few hours in Shenzhen were a gentle transition into the city’s messier spaces, its urban villages, which were the staple fare for our week-long exploration. But before I tell you this particular story, let me introduce to you our talented research collaborators in Shenzhen, whose expertise and insights made it possible to take in a phenomenal amount of information about the city and its context in a fairly short period of time. Mary Ann O’Donnell is an anthropologist, American in origin but a resident of Shenzhen since the mid ’90s (read her fantastic blog Shenzhen Noted for her insights into the city). Fu Na is a Chinese urban designer. Both are associated with the Shenzhen Centre for Design, a city think tank that promotes innovations in urban and environmental design. During Mary Ann and Fu Na’s visit to Delhi, a few weeks before ours, we had already interacted intensively over common areas of interest and established an easy rapport. And so, we found ourselves headed for lunch to the Tibetan restaurant that Mary Anne had promised to take us to, eager to hear about the itinerary they had chalked out for us!

Our hotel, and our current destination, are located in an area developed by the Shenzhen Overseas Chinese Town Holding Company popularly called OCT, short for Overseas China Town. Financed by investment from overseas Chinese, the area contains a set of theme parks (Windows of the World, Happy Valley and the like) that are popular among tourists, high-end housing, landscaped pathways, restaurants and parks. In general, it gave the impression of an upscale planned neighborhood and we were not surprised to learn that Singaporean  companies were involved in the design and landscaping of these spaces.

The lush green of a tropical urban landscape is refreshing and despite the extremely uncomfortable levels of humidity and the lack of sleep, I was happy to be out there, getting our first glimpses of Shenzhen. At the public park within which the Tibetan eatery was located, we were greeted by a beautiful array of Flamboyant trees, in full bloom. These Flame of the Forest or Gulmohar (in Hindi) trees are a familiar sight back home in India as well, but unlike in North India’s dry hot climate, the fiery orange flowers were particularly vibrant and attractive in Shenzhen’s coastal climate.

What’s more, the park was dotted with people on their lunch break, taking pictures of each other for an ongoing photography contest. Smartphone cameras and DSLRs went click-click-click, as women and children (not a single man!) preened and posed, hoping for a perfect frame. We took a bemused spin around the park, watching this wonderful set of happy people (the first among many ‘happy people’ we would meet in Shenzhen), before settling down to a fantastic lunch (the first among many delicious meals we had).

thumb__DSC0419_1024thumb__DSC0430_1024thumb__DSC0438_1024thumb_IMG_9546_1024Later that night, after Mary Ann and Fu Na had left for home, we returned to the park with some packed street food and watched some more happy people dancing. They dotted every bit of the park, some five or six groups dancing distinct styles (from Tango to Zumba) congregated close to separate boomboxes playing different types of music. We learnt later, as we came across more evening public dancing sessions in different parts of the city, that there could be a scramble in certain spaces as to who comes and sets up the boombox first, that some of these were paid dance lessons and others dance enthusiasts who had just come together to have a good time. That night, as we walked back to the hotel, I thought about value that different cultures place on certain types of community activities and whether public space design adequately catered to these practices and preferences.

Shenzhen Diaries: In anticipation

I first heard of a possible trip to Shenzhen in mid-March from Partha (we work together at the Centre for Policy Research) during a taxi ride from Delhi to Gurgaon. The name Shenzhen triggered memories of conversations we had about the buzzing Chinese city across the water from Hong Kong back in the early 2000s when Amma and Papa (my in-laws) lived in Macau. Those were the years shortly after Hong Kong (in 1997) and Macau (in 1999) were handed over to China and much was changing in the Pearl River Delta. Papa was flying helicopters for a private airline at the time; and in addition to his usual stories of the rich folks he ferried between Hong Kong and Macau on the famed casino circuit, he was talking about the rich business investors he was flying to Shenzhen and Zuhai, both among 5 Special Economic Zones set up by China along the Eastern seaboard in 1980 as key elements of economic reform. On my trip to visit them in 2000, a year before my wedding, they even took me on a day trip to see the wonders of Zuhai’s swank streets, tall glass buildings and sparkling amusement parks. I wondered if I should expect Shenzhen to be something similar. Over the next few days, however, Shenzhen slipped my mind and I got busy with other things.

Then, in the last days of April Mary Anne and Fu Na arrived in Delhi from Shezhen, full of immense curiosity and enthusiasm, surprisingly unaffected by the oppressive heat of the Delhi summer. Over the intense conversations we had while showing them around the urban villages and slums of Delhi and Gurgaon, I began to piece together a different picture of Shenzhen. Of spaces similar to the ones we work in here in Delhi where migrants and long-time residents squeeze together, feeding off the glitzy growing city and yet, strangely distanced from it. Of a city of hope and entrepreneurship but also struggle and despair.

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Our plans to visit Shenzhen began to crystallize over the month of May and I crammed as much reading about the city and its environs as I could. The picture became fuzzier with every paper I read. Facts and figures, strains of urban history and theory mingled together, shapeless and drifting. I stored as much as I could in a mental shelf labelled “Shenzhen, China”.

We landed in Hong Kong airport in late May and the mountains rising out the water greeted me like familiar friends. On the ferry across to Shenzhen, I finally allowed myself to give in to the excitement of anticipation coming to an end, of the relief of seeing and feeling a city that I’ve tried in vain to conjure out of mere words. Join me on my journey as I attempt to synthesize and interpret what we saw over an intense week of exploration in Shenzhen. Presenting, the Shenzhen Diaries.

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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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Kolkata’s delights: Eclectic Fairlawn Hotel

I’d only been once to Kolkata before, a long time ago. And I’d been dying to go. Our team at work had been engaged in a field study on auto rickshaws in Kolkata and a consultative workshop in December was the perfect occasion for us all to go in an engage with the project a bit more.

My colleague Manish, who is never satisfied with the usual run-of-the-mill stuff, bullied us all into booking what he called “a quaint heritage property on Sudder Street”. It’s only when we got there that we realized this was the famous Fairlawn Hotel. With its interiors painted a bizarre green, its walls cluttered with newspaper clips, photographs and paintings, and its rooms full of eclectic curios, Fairlawn is a sensory explosion indeed!

We spent quite a few amused and excited moments recognising famous faces, including Patick Swayze and Shashi and Jennifer Kapoor (who apparently spent their honeymoon here!), several photographs of British Royals (I’m not they ever visited though!) and some very detailed water colours of Fairlawn that I particularly liked. Fairlawn’s infamous owner Violet (Vi) Smith, who was well known as a talented racconteur and host, passed away at the ripe old age of 93 only in 2014! One could see, standing there in those rooms full of atmosphere, that Fairlawn had seen some really interesting times! The building, I gather from news reports online, is over 200 years and was inherited by Vi from her Armenian mother. Through its history, it has been a home, a barracks and mess for Canadian airmen during the World War II and finally, a hotel that was a must-visit for foreign visitors in Kolkata for years. Vi’s daughter Jennifer runs it now.

Amid our busy work schedules, we managed to sneak in some crazy pictures of ourselves in Fairlawn as well as some moments of leisure chatting while standing in its historic corridors.

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Manish and Persis lunching in the outdoor area of Fairlawn’s restaurant, a popular hangout for the hip and cool young of Kolkata

 

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The dining area….green is the signature colour of Fairlawn!

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Persis, all ready for our workshop, in the hotel’s breakfast room

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Post-workshop goofiness! Ming vase? Ooh la la!

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And the Bankura horse too!

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Lovely water colours, my favourite wall art in Fairlawn

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Another one…

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The upstairs living room where Vi held court

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The stairs going up to the rooms

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Outside the rooms, hangout space

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The goofy selfie- Moi, Persis, Manish and Shamindra

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Grins in the mirror

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A World-Map folded into several layers: Travelogue of the Point I reached by Rikhia Pal #TheCityasMuse Runners-Up

Rikhia Pal is a Gurgaon-based homemaker who describes herself as “an ex tax consultant, part time traveller, freelance painter, occasional singer and future writer”

Comment: Rikhia’s construction of the city as a journey across the world is skillfully done and full of little details. A pleasurable read.

A World-Map folded into several layers- Travelogue of the Point I reached

The airport looked like a runway through the ocean when I peeped down the windows of my flight. It almost crashed over the voluptuous, chocolate skinned, bikini-clad women on the beach, as it prepared to land.

Near the airport exit, I could see several tourist information centers. Women, with small eyes, thin lips and orchids in their hair, greeted me with folding hands and warm smiles.

After gathering information, I headed towards the nearby Grand Bazar. Since I was hungry, I ate breakfast- a Vada Pao and a plate of Missal Pao. Full and happy, I loitered around some more in the market and bought a small replica of the Eiffel Tower as a souvenir for my folks back home. The mall was huge and soon I lost my way.

I came out of one of the gates and found myself on the side of the river Nile. Its blue waters dotted with numerous black gondolas rowed by handsome men. I got into one myself. The man started singing a song called “Amore Mio” as we passed by numerous monuments, palaces and ordinary homes. The streets, corners and houses were decorated by hanging paper-cut dragons, tigers and red ball shaped lanterns. I was amused to see a red telephone booth being guarded by red-coated black-hatted men standing like statues. As the river approached a bay, I got down just round the corner. The house in front had long glass windows lit with red lights. There were beautiful women standing in front of those windows waving at people.

As I came in front of the bay, I was awed by the stately opera house built on a piece of land protruding into the bay. It looked like a series of shells stacked together. It was backed by a red colored suspension bridge called the Golden Gate Harbor Bridge.

Soon after, I entered the state museum shaped like a pyramid. I learnt that the city was built when the mythical Lion-Mermaid drank the oceans and spilled the water over the lost city of Machhu Pichhu, which was earlier destroyed by Mount Vesuvius, a conical mountain sprinkled with snow on top. The present Tsar of the city, was of the lineage formed when the 5th Tsar married a local Geisha. They were married in the Royal Peculier, St. Basil’s Cathedral, a grand red structure with a cluster of decorated onion domes. 10,000 Cherry Blossom trees were planted to mark the occasion.

It was almost evening and I felt hungry. I went to a restaurant inside a park on the star shaped Liberty Island in the bay. A huge statue of a woman holding a book and a torch was at the center of the park. There were celebrations everywhere as the people were heralding the new year of the Tiger.

After finishing my dinner, I headed back to the airport. I bid adieu to the ember-red city of Brasilia. Rabindra Sangeet played on my ipod as I flew home to Calcutta.

One more week to send in your entry #TheCityasMuse

We’ve got in some interesting entries for #TheCityasMuse contest.

I’m excited that all sort of fun people are writing in…from teenage schoolchildren to professionals, from travel enthusiasts to foodies, from bloggers to those making their first attempts at writing. The entries are pouring out straight from their hearts and that’s exactly what the ethos of #TheCityasMuse is!

What? You haven’t sent in your entry yet? What’re you waiting for?

Just take half an hour out from your super busy schedule. Transport yourself to that place you love, admire, yearn for, detest, want desperately to improve….. And then write or draw your feelings and experiences! Mail it in to ramblinginthecity@gmail.com

It’s really very simple!

Look forward to seeing your entry in my mailbox soon:)

Southwark through a local’s eye: A walk along the Thames in #London

I’ve anticipated this London trip for so long and yet have had little time to plan an itinerary. A work trip for the most part, I knew my touristic experiences would need to be squeezed in. I’ve opted to live with a friend, someone I’ve known since college and so, by default, I’ve been let into her little world. I let her lead me through her neighbourhood on my first day in what locals consider “the greatest and most beautiful capital city in the world”!

We started our stroll with a visit to her local square. Kids kicked a football around, a few stalls were selling trinkets and toys. The residential neighbourhoods we walked past were still and sleepy. A dog barked at us, a baby gurgles, the locals stood out in the sun in bunches, satiated with pints of beer and lazy lunches.

The neighbourhood square

The neighbourhood square

Riverward..on the way

Riverward..on the way

My friend lives in the London Borough of Southwark, south of the Thames and close to the London Bridge. And our walk took us river-ward. An area with Roman origins, the riverfront we walked onto is rich with wharfs and restored warehouses. On a surprisingly sunny yet balmy Saturday afternoon, the place had a zippy, young feel to it. Families out with their children, friends catching a drink at the pubs and restaurants that lined the Thames, that sort of thing.

Posh apartments,  redeveloped from the docks that lined the Thames give this area a unique flavour

Posh apartments, redeveloped from the docks that lined the Thames give this area a unique flavour

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The ramps that took the cargo from the qyayside to the warehouses. Pretty dramatic huh?

The ramps that took the cargo from the quayside to the warehouses. Pretty dramatic huh?

My first glimpse of the Thames...gasp!

My first glimpse of the Thames…gasp!

Love the clutter!

Love the clutter!

View across the river

View across the river

Wine stop!

Wine stop!

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Public art, lots of naval stuff like enormous anchors strewed around for kids to clamber over...

Public art, lots of naval stuff like enormous anchors strewed around for kids to clamber over…

The sun lit up the Thames and the famous landmarks that were spotted out to me dazzled and shone. The Tower Bridge, of course, the City Hall designed by Norman Foster and, as my friend put it, a miniature of the Bundestag Dome we saw in Berlin, and the HMS Belfast right there in the centre of the river. We walked across and around the Tower of London where, along with the swarms of tourists, the sea of ceramic poppies greeted us, a recently installed commemoration of the World War I in its centenary year.

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City Hall, HMS Belfast, the sights and sounds of the river...

City Hall, HMS Belfast, the sights and sounds of the river…

Walking around the Tower of London.  I was here 15 years ago...

Walking around the Tower of London. I was here 15 years ago…

The poppies...oh the poppies!

The poppies…oh the poppies! Blood red and stunning

Caught the Shard between the turrets! It's Renzo Piano's latest addition to London's skyline

Caught the Shard between the turrets! It’s Renzo Piano’s latest addition to London’s skyline

A surprising detour through the upmarket St Katherine Docks where the Queen’s gilded boat rests and where I was amused to see The Dickens Inn, rebuilt in the style of a 17th century timber-framed building and apparently inaugurated by the famous writer’s grandson. That the author spent a part of his life in this part of London is well-known but it was had to reconcile the images of Dickensian London in my head with the extensively redeveloped swank sights before me!

No longer serene, but still quaint, St Katherine's is a lovely little marina, apparently the playground of the rich and famous

No longer serene, but still quaint, St Katherine’s is a lovely little marina, apparently the playground of the rich and famous

err....like the Queen, whose gilded craft is on the right side of this pic

err….like the Queen, whose gilded craft is on the right side of this pic

Ceramic panels we walked by...

Ceramic panels we walked by…

Posing in front of the Dickens'

Posing in front of the Dickens’

An aside: A lovely little fountain and a peaceful square. Seeing the city through a local's eye is the BEST way to do so!

An aside: A lovely little fountain and a peaceful square. Seeing the city through a local’s eye is the BEST way to do so!

No, can't wipe the smile off!

No, can’t wipe the smile off!

And thus, after being introduced to this delightful part of London, I dragged my jet-lagged self back at last night, happily tired and looking forward to more good times here!

 

 

From dread to delight in Shimla, the Queen of the Hills

It was a rude shock getting back the heat of the plains after a weekend in Shimla and Mashobra. It rained quite a bit while we were there and though it cramped our sightseeing attempts a little, we weren’t complaining about the cold at all! A couple of us had to acquire more clothing, a jacket here, a pair of pajamas there, a small matter in the joy of being in the Queen of the Hills, Shimla.

I’d only been to the famed hill station as a very small child and had no memories of it at all. It seemed strange to me to have lived for so many years in the environs of Delhi and never having been to the most popular holiday destination of my fellow citywallas! So I grabbed the chance.

What struck me most getting into Shimla is the sheer density of the city and how precariously positioned it is on the massive mountains. As my friend Henri said in his comment on my Instagram pics from Shimla, it is a “disaster waiting to happen”! Certainly, it is a city run wild, with its older cramped parts intermingled with the recent multistorey additions, hotels and government offices all crowding together helter skelter.

The sheer density of Shimla hits you as you drive in

The sheer density of Shimla hits you as you drive in

Much of the building stock is old and diaplidated

Much of the building stock is old and diaplidated

The city rests helter skelter in the midst of the most stunning hillside scenery

The city rests helter skelter in the midst of the most stunning hillside scenery

We stayed at the Club Mahindra property in Mashobra, which is a quiet village ahead of Shimla. When in town, we parked and took the elevator up to the Mall, which is the only sensible thing to do! Because is it entirely predestrianized, the Mall in Shimla (despite the summer crowds) has a certain old world charm. I enjoyed the old colonial buildings and the ‘sense of place’ in the city. The weather, which turned from rainy and windy to sunny and bright in the few hours we were there, showed us the city in many different lights. I don’t want to crowd this post with too much info and I’d rather highlight some of our experiences separately. But here are a few glimpses!

It's hard to reconcile the incongruity of the crowded city gainst the magnificant backdrop of the majestic Himalayas beyond

It’s hard to reconcile the incongruity of the crowded city against the magnificent backdrop of the majestic Himalayas beyond

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Christ Church

 

The Town Hall and the Mall

The Town Hall and the Mall

The most darling little buildings in the Mall

The most darling little buildings in the Mall

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!

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