Thursday, July 1, 2010

The 7 day weekend in the clouds

What started off a couple of months ago as 'We need to take a break'  soon crystallized into a holiday up in the mountains in the beautiful state of Himachal Pradesh - more specifically, we gravitated towards McLeodganj and Dalhousie after the usual virtual travelling on the Internet and ruling out the more adventurous options such as Leh ; the fact that we had a toddler with us also limited our options of where we could go and a week-long holiday (that's all the time we could afford to take off from work, and this is a real-time excuse which we would later regret!) was carefully planned (mostly by Gayatri, which is strange because I'm the project manager!!)

 Anyway, our travel plan was to fly to Delhi, then a train to Pathankot and then a car to McLeodganj - the idea was to explore the different modes of travel (I'm lying, this was the cheapest!!). As usual, all the best laid plans eventually get screwed up, and this was no exception - a couple of days before our holiday, we realized that our train tickets were nowhere close to getting confirmed, and the back-up plan was to rent a car directly all the way to here we go!

12th June 2010 : Up, up and away

 As always, we were all set for our holiday the day before itself - and we even got to the airport early enough so that we could get some breakfast and Nikhil (our two and a half year old son who runs on Duracell) could enjoy his Disneyland (Hyderabad airport!?!). Once we got our tanks full, Nikhil got down to business, and remained stuck to the glass windows at the airport making announcements to us about every airplane that was either landing or taking off - this pattern he continued till we boarded our flight! One thing to add here - I have completely switched loyalties from Jet Airways to Indigo- this has been proven time and time again, and once again Indigo proved true to their USP - not only did we board bang on time, but the flight also landed at Delhi airport a few minutes ahead of schedule! OK, before I start sounding like a salesman for Indigo, I better stop! Nikhil had a lot of fun on the plane, especially since he had his own window seat - he was even very social with the crew, and managed to even get a 'Cho chweet' out of a couple of them! Thus having earned his brownie points for being well-behaved, he was certainly content to get off the plane when we landed at Delhi a few minutes post noon.
The next part was the car journey - we were told that this journey would take well over 10 hours, and renting a spacious Innova turned out to be a good decision. Our driver met us at the airport with a sign that firmly said 'Gayatri Natarajan' and truth be told, I was a little disappointed that he had missed out Nikhil and me (hey, we were part of this holiday too!). Anyway, I got past that one in a few minutes, and our driver he wasted no time getting the hell out of the city - with the temperature being an uncomfortable 40 degrees, I sort of agreed with his plan! Once we got out of the city, we got some lunch at a dhaba - a couple of points to make here - the dhabas of today no longer retain the old charm of these roadside 'cafes' that serve authentic North Indian cuisine ; the zillion dhabas that dot the highways today (at least from Delhi) all now have air conditioned sections (what the #%^#@?), they sell imported chocolates and colas, have music stores - so like a very modern pit stop without the rustic charm. Secondly, trying to appreciate good food at the dhaba with Nikhil in tow was like trying to get a tooth pulled without anesthesia - OK, it wasn't that bad...but you know what I mean. Anyway, lunch done, we were back on the highway towards Dharamsala ; there was nothing exciting about the drive for the next 6-7 hours or so - pretty much zipping along the highway and tackling the endless diversions due to all the road works etc. By the evening, our driver was starting to look pretty jaded, and we realized that this was because he had driven all the way from Dharamsala to pick us up and he was pretty much doing about 15 hrs straight of driving - this definitely called for a cup of chai for the poor fellow, so we took a little break for a few minutes to give the guy some time to recharge. By this time, Nikhil was up from his nap as well, so he tucked into a pack of chips while we all enjoyed our cuppa. 
Back on the road, and we were starting to lose track of time and distance ; frankly, the car was extremely comfortable, but the thought of having to traverse another 200 odd kms was starting to tire us out...pretty soon, it was dark and we seemed to have started our journey through the hills - i wish I knew the route so that the fact file on this travelogue would've sounded better, but I hadn't asked the driver for this information, and by this time, I was starting to feel too tired to care! One thing to mention here is the absolute adeptness and confidence of our driver in taking us along the curving, winding roads all the way up to McLeodganj - it was as if he knew the roads like the back of his hand, and almost as if he could do this blind-folded! For a while, I sat upfront so that I could keep an eye on whether he was falling asleep at the wheel - I soon realized that there was no need for me to do this ; plus, my knuckles had turned white just holding on to my seat while this guy maneuvered the roads like he was born to do this stuff! There was one particular stretch just ahead of McLeodganj before our guest house which was a completely hair raising experience (can't prove it because I'm bald, so you'll have to take my word for it!) - the path (I'm being careful not to call it a road) was so narrow that it was almost impossible for an Innova to make those turns, especially at night. We were actually scared that the car could go off the path any time - but none of this happened, and we did make it to the point from where our hosts were to pick us up....more about our guest house later on, but access to the guest house was only by a 10-15 minute walk through the little (blink and you'll miss it) village of Heini ; most of the walk was also semi-rugged terrain, so when our host met us with a porter and torches, we were like 'Oh my god - there's more adventure??'. Bavinder, our host, carefully guided us along the path which was lit only by our torches, and we finally reached our guest house where we were showed our room and wished a good night. At 1:30 am, I'd say 'Good Morning'! Well, we had made it, and the only thing for us to do was to crash....until the next day!

13th to 16th June 2010 : McLeodganj - The global village

First, the McLeodganj factfile: McLeodganj is a suburb of Dharamsala in Kangra district, and is located at an average elevation of 2000 metres above sea level. It was named after Sir David McLeod, a Lieutenant Governor of Punjab. In March 1959, Tenzin Gyatso, the 14th Dalai Lama, fled to India after the failed uprising in 1959 in Tibet, led by his brother against the Communist Party of China. The Indian Government offered him refuge in Dharamshala, where he set up the Government of Tibet in exile in 1960, while McLeodganj became his official residence, and also home to several Buddhist monasteries and thousands of Tibetan refugees. Over the years, McLeodganj evolved into an important tourist and pilgrimage destination, and has since grown much in population.

I want to start by describing our accommodation for the next 3 days - Jagatram Niwas is pretty much McLeodganj's best kept secret - the name itself is so simple that no one would guess that this was a family run guest house that provides neat and well maintained rooms, a shared kitchen where you can help yourselves to tea, coffee or make a little snack, completely unadulterated views of the mountains and surrounding countryside and makes you feel like you're at home….and all this for a mere Rs. 800 per night including breakfast! Unbelievable, but true…..

However, this is not a place for a typical commercial tourist - especially so because you can't just drive upto the lobby and order room service at midnight. Access to the guest house is only by a 15-20 minute walk through some rugged terrain (at least it's rugged for city folks), and we found that the walk was pretty intimidating at first, especially the first night that we arrived - but once we had walked back and forth a couple of times to the town etc, we started to get used to it and even enjoyed the refreshing walk! Our host and owner of Jagatram Niwas made sure that we felt right at home from the time that we arrived ; and Nikhil made some new friends immediately - Bavinder's kids and dog (a lively pug named Taffy), who wasted no time in welcoming Nikhil to their fold.

From the time that we stepped in the first night, we both knew that we had made the right choice by staying at Jagatram Niwas, and even on the first day we somehow also knew that this is where we'd want to stay when we come back the second time around…..

While Gayatri was up bright and early on the first day, me and Nikhil started off on the lazy foot by hiding under the blanket till Gayatri woke me up with " You have to see this"…..I rubbed my sleepy eyes and when I stepped out onto the balcony, all I saw when I looked down were the hills covered with a dense layer of green, and the clear blue sky when I looked up, not to mention the clear, crisp and fresh air that entered my lungs as I stood there thinking " Wow, this is one hell of a morning!" - this certainly woke me up like nothing else has for a long time now….imagine being able to see this every day and not your neighbour's house or another highrise building that doesn't even let you look at the sky….. 
While digging into a simple, yet tasty home made breakfast of toast, omelets, and paranthas we talked about our plans for the next couple of days - while we still wanted to explore a few places of interest, we didn't feel like spending the entire three days in a car doing the typical sightseeing trips. For the regular tourist, the Kangra valley has a number of options and at least a couple of different itineraries for day excursions - while we discussed this with our host, he rattled off a number of places that we can't even remember, so we thought we would just go with the flow and follow what our host had in mind. So off we went, in the small Omni that he had arranged, and this time, the path down to McLeodganj didn't seem that scary, most likely because we could see ahead of us! Anyway, our driver first took us to 'downtown' Bhagsu, which is known for its Shiva temple, a waterfall and an outdoor pool that is fed by an underground spring. So, this was our first mistake - the place was absolutely teeming with tourists who seemed content to disturb the tranquility of the place, not to mention the outdoor pool that was covered with about 4 tourists per square foot! We also took a short walk behind the temple where the waterfall was supposed to be - we were disappointed that there were only rocks and pebbles where the water should've been flowing; a thin stream of water from somewhere above was the only indication of a waterfall. But I must admit, this would've been an awesome sight in the monsoon, and definitely worth trekking up to the source as well!

We got out of there in a bit of a hurry, and our next stop was the Dalai Lama's temple, or Tsuglag Khang.
Access to the temple involved a nice walk through a small lane, and a series of steps taking us to the temple above. The first thing that struck us here, in stark contrast to Bhagsu was the silence and tranquility - people were indeed exploring the temple, but were doing so in a calm and quiet manner ; we could even see a couple of monks meditating out on the temple courtyard! The temple shrine is housed inside a huge room filled with vivid colors, statues of the Buddha and a large meditation area. In fact, we felt that the temple had a very calming effect on us, and even Nikhil seemed to enjoy the peace - so we took some time out to sit down in the meditation area, and take in the peace of the ambience before we departed from the temple. Another one of Gayatri's main reasons for picking McLeodganj was to see if she could get a glimpse of HH the Dalai Lama - right across from the temple is his office, so we walked across to the gate where there was a notice stating that HH would not be available till the 15th of June, so although Gayatri was disappointed, at least it was for a legitimate reason! Gayatri has since vowed to study Buddhism and come up with some very insightful questions so that she may seek a private audience with HH - well, one of the many things to do before we say goodbye, I guess!

Our next stop of the day was the Norbulingka Institute, which was on our 'must visit' list - the institute is chaired by the Dalai Lama, and is also named after his summer palace. Essentially, the institute seeks to preserve and showcase Tibetan traditions and literary arts in a beautifully constructed environment with an abundance of greenery and serenity typical of Buddhism. In fact, the Norling Guest House inside the institute was our first choice of accomodation at McLeodganj - the main attraction of this guest house is that each room is decorated to depict a Tibetan theme and would've thus given us a great feel for Tibetan culture; unfortunately, all the rooms were booked during our trip, so we'll have to do this some other time. By the time we arrived at the institute, hunger pangs had taken over, so we headed straight to the Norling café, which serves a variety of Tibetan and continental cuisine in an area that is tastefully decorated with Tibetan paintings - they also have an al fresco section, but it was naptime for Nikhil and it was easier for us to manage him inside. So we settled down, and got ourselves some soup, which came with some delectable garlic bread (Pizza hut, on yer bike!) as well as some 'momos' which are traditional Tibetan steamed dumplings with a choice of fillings. I think the delicious aroma of the food awoke Nikhil who went on to appreciate a tangy pasta and a banana milk shake, much to our relief - we had considerable trouble trying to get the little guy to eat a wholesome meal the last couple of days, so it was very heartening to see him dig in as well!

We spent the rest of the afternoon exploring the institute at length - the main temple inside is wonderfully decorated with murals depicting various religious themes, and had a huge gilded copper statue of Buddha that towered over everything else. The temple also housed a library where over 5000 Buddhist religious texts were contained in around a 100 books, and were available for visitors to read in both English and Tibetan, which was pretty amazing to see as well. One of the major highlights of the institute was the Losel doll museum, which houses a collection of dolls handmade by Tibetan artists, and arranged to depict various scenes from life in Tibet, and also scenes of historical importance. It was pretty amazing for us to take a walk through this museum, and we were able to gather some snippets of Tibetan history through this wonderful exhibition of talent. We also browsed the various works of art available for sale at the gift shop - including some very beautiful Thangka paintings, and some intricate Tibetan artefacts ; one thing to note here is that the gift shop here is very expensive, and it is certainly worth walking around the local market to get similar stuff at more reasonable prices, and it is easier to haggle for a good bargain! So we decided that we would perhaps come back here once we've taken a look at the local market as well for a good Thangka painting (Gayatri was most interested in one depicting the 'Kalachakra Mandala', which is the wheel of time)

Having experienced the serene ambience at the Norbulingka, we headed back to Jagatram Niwas for the evening - Nikhil had a splendid time here with Bavinder's kids, while we took some time off, sat on our verandah and enjoyed the peace and quiet of the evening. Dinner was a traditional home cooked meal served on our verandah by our hosts - after this, we had nothing much to do (no phones, no TV) so we retired for the day, and were peacefully asleep in a few minutes!

It's surprising how well one can sleep when the mind is at peace without the usual stresses of everyday life, and we woke up the next morning bright and early, feeling wonderfully fresh and thinking about why we burn ourselves out every 6 months and then take a break for a week to 'recharge our batteries' - how come we don't pace our lives evenly at all? Well, these were just some of the thoughts we had when we were sipping a hot coffee on the verandah in the morning, and all you can hear is the sound of silence, only interrupted occasionally by the melodious chirping of the birds….

 Our only plans for today were to visit a couple of places - one of archeological interest, and the other of religious interest (which also had a natural phenomenon angle to it). So after a simple, yet filling breakfast, we set off to explore the rock temple at Masroor, which is about a 40km drive from McLeodganj. The rock temple at Masroor are a heritage monument, and conserved by the Archeological Survey of India - the temple is a group of 15 monolithic rock cut temples – these richly ornamented cave temples are the only rock shrines in the north of India. When we got there a couple of hours after we set off, we were immediately able to appreciate and admire the sheer size and complexity of these temples - the structures also had a number of intricate carvings on them, and it was a very interesting experience to walk around the temple, and even climb up to the top of the temple where you can have a clear view of the surrounding countryside. The main shrine contains three stone images of Ram, Laxman and Sita but the presence of the figure of Shiva in the centre of the lintel affords a strong presumption that the temple was originally dedicated to Mahadeva. The temple also has a large pool in the courtyard, which has an unusually big population of trout - Nikhil had a gala time feeding the trout who seem more than happy to munch on coconut cookies (no wonder they look so healthy!) Anyway, almost an entire pack of cookies were exhausted before Nikhil agreed that it was time to move on to our next destination for the day, which was the Jwala Mukhi temple - this was another 30 kms further south and since the roads were not in great shape, this was predicted to take another hour or so. We did take a quick lunch break on the way, where once again Nikhil proved to be the troublesome toddler and did his best to skip lunch (five spoons of daal-rice does not constitute lunch!) and succeeded in getting his way once again - with this, he has now missed at least 6 meals in the last 3 days, and I decided that it was best to stop counting for our own sanity! 
One of its own kinds of temples, the temple has no idol in it. An eternally burning and shining blue flame emanating from a rock sanctum is only worshipped here as a manifestation of the goddess. Dedicated to the deity of Flaming Mouth or goddess Jwalamukhi, the temple is one of the 51 power spots or Shaktipeethas of India. One of the most revered temples of the Hindus, the temple possesses a golden dome, gifted by Mughal Emperor Akbar. The temple complex itself is quite uninteresting, and the fleecing of tourists seems to start almost as soon as you leave your car - first from the rickshaw guys who assure you that you can't walk 3/4th of a km upto the temple, and once you fall for this, they drop you halfway there where the second round begins with every shopkeeper pointing the shortest route to the temple and trying to convince you that you need to leave your footwear in his safe custody. Well, we got as far as we could get without falling for any of this, but eventually gave in and bought a basket of offerings from a shop where we could also leave our shoes (I wasn't so sure that I wanted to leave our Nikes out there in the open). Anyway, we spent a few minutes inside the shrine and were able to get a glimpse of the flame that made this temple so famous.

Disappointing as that was, we thought it was time to head back to McLeodganj, especially because we knew that it was a fairly long drive back, and we weren't too keen to continue along the regular tourist itinerary for the rest of the day ; true to our prediction, we were back at Jagatram around 7ish that evening, and the rest of the evening was quiet once again, with a simple dinner and some general conversations with our neighbors at the guest house (a Punjabi family from Seattle who were on a year long family sabbatical, and a European couple ) - this was another nice feature of Jagatram, where we were able to socialize with other families/people as much or as little as we wanted, much unlike a commercial resort.

We still had another day at McLeod, and the day dawned bright and early for me because I had decided that I wanted to explore the terrain by foot at least once, rather than spending had the day being driven around. So I was off at 5:30, and I headed down the hill through a series of stone steps which had been cut into the hill - this path was to lead me down to Bhagsu, and my plan was to simply walk down, get a refreshing cup of tea and head back up. As you can expect, walking down the hill was easy enough, and I thoroughly enjoyed the freshness of the early morning, descending quickly down the hills - what occurred to me when I was walking down was the number of small houses and cafes that existed to serve tourists, and offered something for everyone, regardless of nationality! The cafes seemed to serve cuisines ranging from Italian to Iranian, English to French - I saw one café even offering visitors the chance to watch the latest World Cup football match! It felt like you could be of any nationality, yet feel at home - at the same time, it felt like a place where you could lose yourself at any time, and then rediscover yourself at any time - it was a strange, heady feeling… anyway, by this time, I had reached the bottom of the hill and spotted a chai shop which seemed very inviting ; a cup of steaming hot tea later, I felt ready to walk back up to Jagatram. Well, if the walk down was easy, climbing up was even more difficult, and I found myself short of breath at least a few times before I made it panting and puffing to the top of the hill (so much for the illusion of my being fit!) - I did make it back to Jagatram niwas in one piece, and tried to put on a brave front in front of Gayatri who saw through me almost immediately, and suggested I re-evaluate my fitness if I wanted to try some of the real treks!

Our only agenda for the third and last day here was to wander aimlessly around the market in the hope of picking up some interesting souvenirs - one definite buy was going to be a Thangka painting depicting the Kalachakra Mandala, and the other definite was some authentic handmade paper. So off we went, and once our cab driver dropped us off near Nowroji and Son (one of the oldest shops in the market area - the shop is filled with all the relics of the old times, and definitely deserves a look-see), we began our bargain hunting browsing through several street shops. The market road is also lined with several cafes that serve Tibetan/continental snacks and food, so we took a break after a while to experience one of these as well - it was a good idea, because Nikhil ate most of our grilled cheese and tomato sandwich (this was a significant achievement from his diet history the past few days, hence a good idea) - he also promptly befriended a Tibetan girl (probably around his own age and refused to leave the café after that! Well, we managed to get out somehow, and get back to the market - eventually, we did find a beautiful Thangka painting at a very reasonable price, so that went straight into the shopping cart, as did a few other collectibles such as handmade paper, and an intricately carved 'Om' bell (when the bell is rung and the rim of the bell is brushed with a wooden stick, the resonance caused sounds like the 'Om' chants - very fascinating!). More than happy with our purchases, we were content to head back to our guest house to spend the rest of our stay quietly. When we got back, Gayatri and Nikhil promptly declared 'naptime!', while I settled down with a book on the story of Tibet for the next couple of hours. The evening was equally quiet, and spent chatting with Bavinder and his father who reminisced about how the town has evolved over the last 20 years. Nikhil enjoyed himself with the kids and Taffy, so we could relax and spend a peaceful evening.

 As our stay in McLeodganj came to an end, both of us felt that the three days there were well spent – we had a great time with our hosts, and were able to appreciate the unique Tibetan culture that seemed to embrace everyone, regardless of nationality. As we prepared to move to our next destination, I think we both made a mental note to come back at some point during the future….
16th June to 18th June 2010: Dalhousie – Hill station extraordinaire

We set off for our drive to Dalhousie soon after breakfast on the 16th morning – our drive to Dalhousie was to take close to 3 hours, and we settled into our comfortable Innova once again - truth be told,I wasn't too sure about Dalhousie, because it just seemed like a commercial hill station, and I wasn't expecting the experience we had at McLeodganj – but I was to be proven wrong!

The drive through the winding roads upto Dalhousie offered some lovely views of the Chamba valley, and along the way we also noted with some disappointment some of the effects of deforestation – there were vast stretches of the hillside that hardly had any trees, and the terraced slopes of the hills showed signs of the way that our species had consumed many of the natural resources – all this suddenly changed as we entered Dalhousie ; the pine trees were back in all their grandeur, and fresh air permeated our lungs – now that's what I'm talking about! Located at approx. 8000 ft above sea level, Dalhousie is built on and around five hills - established in 1854 by the British Empire in India as a summer retreat for its troops and bureaucrats, the town was named after Lord Dalhousie who was the British viceroy in India at that time.

Now that I'm done with the fact file, let me get on with it….anyway, we reached Dalhousie close to lunchtime – our hotel was right near the bus stand (capacity of 4 buses only!), but it was impossible to guess how beautiful the hotel would be till we actually got to our suite – a huge living area, big bedroom with 4 poster bed …hold on, plus a porch to appreciate the pristine and unobstructed view of the Dhauladhar range of the Himalayas and the Chamba valley – no wonder the hotel was called 'Grand View'!! The other thing about the hotel that is worth mentioning is that the whole place had an old charm and felt like we went back in time to the British Raj – the architecture itself was very Victorian, and the whole place had a unique character with its wooden exteriors and interiors ; the warmth and comfort of the original Devdar wooden flooring and high ceilings embraced us as we tried to get to terms with how beautiful the place was!

 We were all starting to get hungry now, so we headed straight to the restaurant for lunch – once again, we were absolutely delighted by the ambience in the restaurant and lounge, not to mention the friendly and prompt service along with absolutely delicious food! Even Nikhil got into the act here, and nibbled away at small portions of food perched on his own high chair….lunch done, we all took a little nap and towards the evening, we set off to explore the town a little bit. Right next to the hotel was the Lhasa market, which was set up and run by Tibetan refugees – surprisingly, all the shops seemed to sell duplicate foreign goods (except a couple of shops offering authentic 'momos'!) – that didn't take us much time to bypass, and we headed upwards a couple of kilometers towards where the Gandhi Chowk and market were located. It was quite interesting to walk up and down the narrow lane with shops on either side, selling all sorts of local and not-so-local stuff ; I think the highlight of the evening for us was to sample some of the street food, especially the 'paani-puri' which was just fantastic ; the highlight for Nikhil was his new paper windmill with all sorts of attractive colours on it….it was a simple, lazy evening, and we did pick up some very nice souvenirs (we later realized that we also need to buy a bigger bag to take our stuff back home!) and ended up walking downhill back to the hotel – this is actually a very nice walk (especially when I didn't have to carry Nikhil) with wonderful views of the surrounding hills, and fresh air….anyway, it was back to the hotel in time for a room service dinner and early to bed for us that evening…
The day dawned early for both of us, and as we sat on the porch looking out at the majestic mountains and green valley sipping a hot cup of tea, we first reflected on life and the universe in general, then changed tacks and talked about what we could do to make our day memorable. The nearby hill station of Khajjiar had come highly recommended, so we decided to take a day trip. Khajjiar is only about 24 kms away, and appears one of the several tourist itineraries in the area – what was also particularly nice about Dalhousie is that all the tourist routes are operated by the taxi unions, so the pricing is reasonable (about Rs. 1100 for a day trip) and extremely well-organized, so there are no concerns about whether the hotel is ripping you off and so on…  
The drive towards Khajjiar is simply beautiful, and as we ascended above Dalhousie, the landscape seemed to change – the hills were enveloped in a dense cover of pine trees which offered a soothing blanket of green; panoramic views of the valley below and the mountains in the distance kept us speechless for a long time. On the way to Khajjiar, we bypassed Kalatop – this is a beautiful forested area literally covered by a thick forest on the hilltop (hence the name Kalatop), and is a well known sanctuary for a number of wild animals including bears and leopards. It is possible to trek through the path leading upwards to Kalatop, and apparently this is a wonderful experience offering splendid views and oneness with nature – so this got added in another mental note for us to try some other time. Our driver suggested that we also visit Jot Pass (a few kms ahead of Khajjiar) so that we could spend lunchtime at Khajjiar on the way back, so we headed upwards - Jot Pass is a very scenic viewpoint from where we took advantage of clear views of the Himalayas (this is getting a little repetitive, even for me!), captured a few 'Kodak' moments, and then headed down to Khajjiar just in time for lunch….

Khajjiar is a teeny tiny hill station set against the backdrop of dense pines, deodhars and green meadows – interestingly, Khajjiar has been christened as the 'Switzerland of Himachal Pradesh' by the Swiss Ambassador in 1992! Well, I must admit that the place was indeed very beautiful, and being in the middle of a huge green meadow surrounded by dense forest does feel a little like Switzerland (can safely say this, having been there!) – however, I'm sure the Swiss ambassador hadn't made his visit during the tourist season, otherwise I personally doubt if he would've christened it so! The place is absolutely teeming with tourists, hawkers, people offering pony rides, tourists on the ponies yapping away on their cell phones, a zillion cars honking for parking – well, I think you get the picture! Lunch wasn't that great either – just a couple of restaurants (not very clean) and some questionable food to offer – but Nikhil was very excited – it was almost as if he had seen ground that wasn't either going uphill or downhill after a long time, so he couldn't wait to get out there and run around in the meadow; he even managed to hold a couple of rabbits for a snap (from the rent-a-rabbit man) and pose next to a sheep which was contentedly grazing! By this time, the sky had turned cloudy, and it was starting to drizzle, so we had to take a raincheck on the rest of the plan (to laze out on the grass) and had to head back to Dalhousie… We stopped by at the market to buy a backpack which was now essential if we wanted to carry all our stuff back (and perhaps useful for our trekking holidays – watch this space!) The evening back at the hotel was entertaining – the hotel had arranged for a get-together for the guests, with some live music and 'Housie' – Nikhil certainly enjoyed the music and the coloring book that he got (he didn't let go of it till the next day!) ; then we got back to our suite for some dinner and that was pretty much it for the day…

 Our last day at Dalhousie started with the usual morning, welcoming the sunrise on the porch and then trying to stuff all our things back into our bags – we did have a lot of time to kill before our train back to Delhi later that evening, so we decided to visit one more place in the area – Chamera Lake, which is an artificial lake and reservoir of the Chamba Hydroelectric Project built over the river Ravi. The view of the lake is strikingly beautiful – the lake is almost star shaped, and is surrounded by green hills on all sides….we were able to take a walk on the dam, and hardly able to control Nikhil's excitement on seeing so much water (Didn't I mention it? Nikhil is crazy about lakes, rivers and anything that is bigger than a glass of water!). The project is protected by the military (!!) and photographs were not permitted, but we did take some lovely pics of the lake from a vantage point above the lake. That was all the sightseeing for the day, so we headed back to our hotel where we just lounged around in the restaurant for what seemed like an eternity, and got some lunch in time for us to leave for Pathankot station – although we knew that our holiday was officially over, we were all content with the experience, and felt refreshed enough to get back to reality…
The train journey to Delhi was entertaining enough thanks to a bubbly 15 month old girl who shared the space with us, and Nikhil was absolutely delighted to play with someone his own size for a change…back in Delhi the next morning, we were able to refresh ourselves at the retiring rooms at the station and get to the airport early enough to catch our flight back to Hyderabad….as we landed back in Hyderabad, it did feel good to be back home, and get back to the madness for just enough time to want to head out for our next vacation….so watch this space as I keep sharing our memorable experiences with you! 
My sincere acknowledgements to Gayatri – firstly for picking the wonderful places we went to, then painstakingly researching and coming up with suggestions on places to stay and see, and finally nagging me enough to make sure that I finished writing this travelogue before our memories faded!

I would not consider this complete if I don't give due credit to Nikhil for his immaculate behavior at all times, and enjoying the holiday as much as we did. I also owe him an apology for getting upset with him a few times during the week – he was just being a kid, and I guess I was just being a parent…

Written sometime between 12th June to 30th June 2010
Written somewhere between McLeodganj, Dalhousie and Hyderabad

Please feel free to visit the web page below for the photo album:



Friday, December 12, 2008

Am I really worthy of being an Indian?

This is my first foray into the world of blogging ; I certainly don't claim to be a writer - I am a simple man with simple thoughts. I consider this space to be a medium for me to pen down my thoughts - I do not expect people to read this, understand this or indeed even appreciate this.
I don't know for sure if the content of this blog has been inspired by the tragic events that unfolded in Mumbai not too long ago...however, I keenly followed these events as captured by the media as also the anger and outrage expressed by the Indian citizens across the world - somewhere, somehow, this has triggered a chain of thoughts in my head that forms the contents of this blog...

I do not wish to talk about 'patriotism' - I believe this word has been trashed so much by our own citizens that it has no meaning anymore. I believe that we Indians are the most unpatriotic people in the world - however, I am not about to talk about 'us' or 'we' ; this is the usual high road that is nothing more than an excuse not to do anything constructive for our country. Today, I ask myself the question - "Am I really worthy of being an Indian?"

I was born in India and therefore legally qualified to be an Indian citizen. That's it, the qualification ends there. The first thing I do when I study for my 12th is to prepare for the GRE and TOEFL so that I could go to the US to study because I do not believe that the education system in India is good enough. I am happy to spend thousands and thousands of rupees on applications to the US, but I will not even consider studying in India. I am delighted to get my first admit in the US, and am ready to sleep outside the US embassy overnight to ensure that I get my visa interview the next day. I am prepared to face the interviewer at the consulate who would take a look at me and think 'Another Indian who wants to take jobs away from my people' because I do not believe that my country could give me the education I need. Am I really worthy of being an Indian?

I complain constantly about the system and corruption, but I am not prepared to get off my back and do something about it. I am prepared to pay the gas delivery man an extra 10 bucks just in case he gets pissed off and delays the next delivery, and I complain to everyone about corruption. I am ready to 'tip' the telephone guy who does his job (and gets his salary from the government) and then I justify it by comparing my salary with his. I am too damn lazy to get through the process of a voter's card and even if I do, it is just so that I have another 'ID proof' and not because I give a damn about casting my vote. Yet, I consider it my birthright to bitch and moan about the politicians who are screwing our country - after all, I am legally Indian.
Am I really worth of being an Indian?

I am always looking for overseas jobs - the H1/B1 or whatever else they call it in other countries is my only objective ; I have the nerve to live outside my country (to be polite, be an NRI) and earn in much stronger currencies ; however, I cannot be bothered with directly contributing to the economy or the society of my country ( I do not believe that an NRI investing in properties or the stock market in India is in any way a direct contribution to the country - it's nothing but semantics anyway you look at it) However, I will consider it my right to pass judgement on my country sitting in comfortable homes in developed nations. I will 'sponsor' an underprivileged Indian kid somewhere from the cents and pennies that I wish to spare for India and be satisfied with 'having done my bit for the country'
Am I really worthy of being an Indian?

I will work at a petrol station or a supermarket in the US, but I will not be prepared to do the same in India, I will spit on and litter the streets of India but follow all the rules in Singapore, I will pay extra money not to attend my driving test but still get my license, I will drive like I own the roads in India but give way at every pedestrian crossing in another country....

Am I really worthy of being an Indian?

Are you?

12th December 2008
23:30 IST