My Second Solo Euro Trip – Afterthoughts

My second Euro trip ended yesterday. The last one was exactly a year back when I traveled to France, Belgium, Netherlands and Czech Republic. This time, I chose Italy and Slovenia. As I sit down to look back at the last 11 days of solo exploration, I cannot help but pen down a few thoughts arising out of introspection and retrospection over the days gone by.

Like life, a long travel has its own share of ups n downs and isn’t about having fun all the time. This writing attempts to make you aware of the experiential dichotomy that is a characteristics of long journeys. It isn’t a travelogue but merely my reflections after completing a much-awaited Euro trip from India.

Let’s get into the details now.

Countries visited : Italy and Slovenia

Places visited : Milan, Florence, Siena, Venice, Ljubljana, Bled and Vintgar

Mode of stay: Couchsurfing in Milan, Ljubljana and Florence. Airbnb in Venice. Hotel in Venice. Hostel in Ljubljana and Milan. Well, this time I did a full circle when it comes to types of accommodation.

Mode of movement: Flixbus services for inter-city movements and local transportation (buses, water buses, subways, tram, cycle) for intra-city movements.

What I ate: Local food as much as possible – Burek, Kremsnita, Gibanica in Slovenia; Pizza, pasta, spaghetti, Gelato, wine, bread etc. in Italy.

Since my last Euro trip was a success, I had a benchmark to compare to this time. Not everything went hunky-dory this year. To start with, I felt somewhat uncomfortable in Florence during couchsurfing. Then, I had several tiffs with my travel-companion in Venice and had to part ways soon. My hostel in Milan wasn’t well-chosen in terms of location and was not conducive to my return journey. I had set off to Postojna to see the Caves without doing research and had to return empty-handed owing to the serpentine queues for tickets. To summarize, some things definitely could have been planned better by me. However, it’s important to keep in mind that not everything can go as desired over a long travel period. A traveller should be as much prepared to handle the unpredictable circumstances as he/she is to embrace the beautiful ones. In introspect, I believe that the not-so-good experiences made me appreciate the good experiences even more. 🙂

What went well? Well, everything other than that.

The things I got to experience – cathedrals, bell towers, Renaissance buildings and statues, palaces, museums, cobblestone pathways, lakes, gorges, countryside and mountains were undoubtedly one of the most beautiful things I have seen in my life so far. My trip was an eclectic mix of natural and man-made wonders. Could I have asked for more? Nah! And, how did it make me feel? In one word, carefree! I would roam around by myself in the streets of Italy and Slovenia till late in the night without being concerned about safety. It was a liberating feeling. It bestowed upon me a huge sense of freedom and empowerment.

The things I got to eat and the way I lived and commuted over these days made me aware of the local lifestyle and choices.

Small compliments here and there from Italian and Slovenian men were flattering, to say the least.

I met some really interesting and kind people in Milan, Florence, Siena and Ljubljana who made my trip unforgettable. The people I struck conversation with were from all corners of the world – Canada to Bangladesh, Europe to Australia. The most common reaction from them when they would hear I am from India was an astounding “wow”. They would go gaga over how much they love the colors of India, its cuisine, its diversity and most importantly, how much they wanted to visit the Taj Mahal! These reactions made me feel more proud and blessed about being born in a country which is admired across the world. However, they had one pertinent question for me – “Is it safe for women out there?” I upheld my travels as an example to make my answer credible. I explained to them how I travel alone in my country and how all tourist areas are safe and the people very welcoming. I shared my contact details with some of them to help them plan when they decide to visit my country.

To conclude, this was definitely one of those life-events which gave me powerful lessons and beautiful memories to cherish at the same time. I look forward to what life has to offer next.

Cheers.

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How I travel alone but I am never lonely during my travels

Every solo traveller, invariably, gets asked one or more of the following questions – Why are you alone? Haven’t you got any friends? Don’t you get bored while travelling alone? Don’t you feel lonely? I wouldn’t criticize this stereotypical thinking. Rather, I would have echoed the same thoughts a few years back when I had not discovered the joy of travelling alone which, as you will discover soon, is as sociable and convivial as travelling with friends or family can be.

Therefore, even though the title of the article might sound paradoxical at this moment, by the time you finish reading this article, I believe that you will be convinced of its plausibility.

Let’s go back to the start.

It was April 2016 when I first took up solo travelling. Orissa, a less popular tourist destination and an even lesser solo-travel-friendly state was my haunt for a 4 days-3 nights sojourn covering Bhubaneshwar, Puri, Konark and Chilka with the base being YHAI hostel in Bhubaneshwar. I had planned this trip with my parents but when they decided to drop out, I resolved not to abandon the plan for the mere lack of company. It would be presumptuous to say that I was not apprehensive about travelling alone. I was, very much. However, the irrational side of the brain quashed the rational side (as always!) and I found myself giving in to the temptation of taking the road less travelled.

As a lone woman wanderer, I went through a few unfortunate episodes during the trip. Let’s not discuss those over here. However, the hospitality, kindness and support extended towards me by the locals surpassed the negative experiences by a big margin. During the entire trip, I did not have the privilege of meeting another traveller (blame it on the lack of solo travellers in Orissa). However, I met a whole bunch of local people – some amused, some shocked , some happy-to-help, some incredulous, some concerned – in trains, buses, autos, hostel etc. and struck some delightful conversations with them. I never felt lonely during the trip. When I was back, I realised I would want to do this again and again. My first solo trip had satiated my zeal of experiencing the unknown in unforeseen ways.

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Konark Temple, Orissa, April 2016

Then came August 2016 and I found myself planning a full-fledged solo vacation covering Amritsar, Dalhousie, Dharamshala, McLeod Ganj, Chadrataal Lake in Spiti Valley and Kasol . In Amritsar, I met Tarun and we hung around Wagah border and dined together at the famous Brother’s Dhaba. Next day I was off to Dalhousie where I met up with a friend called Alex who was staying nearby. Two days later I packed up to board a bus to Dharamshala, when I chanced upon Shalini, an inhabitant of Himachal and she introduced me to Sahaj Yoga – a powerful meditation technique practised by the local people. She urged me to visit the secluded Sahaja Yoga Ashram in McLo. I eventually did that and there I was taught the meditation technique by a Guru. While I was put up in a hotel in Dharamshala, the hotel manager who had been interacting with me, took me out one night to help me buy dinner and dropped me back to the hotel in his scooter. I was unlearning some of my childhood lessons. I was learning that trusting strangers can augment life perspective in remarkable ways.

During my trek to Chandrataal Lake in Spiti, I befriended Bru (that’s what I named him), a four-legged brown ball of fur, who accompanied me through the entire trek showing me the way and protecting me from other mountain dogs (No kidding here). I met a whole lot of shop-keepers, hotel attendants and pedestrians over the ten days of my trip who made me feel “special” through their encouragement and sometimes, subtle flirtations (harmless though), after knowing that I have ventured out on my own.

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At Golden Temple, Amritsar, August 2016

In October 2016, I joined a group of strangers to hike to Buran Ghati Pass at 15,000 feet in Himachal. After the trek was done, I had two days to roam in the region by myself and I made the most of it. I went to Kinnaur District and Sangla Valley of Himachal Pradesh till Chitkul, the last inhabited village near the Indo-China border. I came across Borun Da, the manager in Deblok Hotel in Chitkul who showed me around the pristine village. He also took me to the waterfall area coaxing me to climb a one-feet wide, rickety, stone bridge to click a picture telling me, “ If you are not afraid to travel alone to the most remote village, you shouldn’t be afraid to climb that bridge.”(nice ploy there, huh!) I am grateful to him for making me feel at home with a delicious Bengali spread comprising of Rice, Lentil Soup, Fish Curry, Chicken at a time when it was Durga Puja back home. On the way back, I spent a day in Chandigarh where I bumped into an uber-friendly Uber partner who showed me the best Durga Pandals of Chandigarh and drove me to the best eateries of Chandigarh as well. I felt blessed or what! 🙂

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At Chitkul, Kinnaur, Himachal – Oct 2016

In December 2016, I packed my bags again to travel alone in the Rajasthani cities of Jaipur, Bikaner and Jodhpur. During my stay in Zostel, Jaipur, I stumbled upon Carolene, a Canadian, Alejandro, a Mexican and Ling Ling, a Chinese, all travelling on their own like me. We grouped up and went around Jaipur for sightseeing and local food-tasting. I had booked a guest house in Bikaner where Mr. Rakesh Kumar, a professional photographer was put up. I found company in him for the entire Bikaner tour. Here goes the entertaining part – while I was roaming around in Bikaner with him, I was asked plenty of times by the locals if he was my husband. Pretty embarrassed at the beginning, I later realised that a young lady hanging out with a middle-aged man is not a common occurrence in that part of the country. Making peace with this kind of curiosity was my only option. Nevertheless, I had a lovely time in Bikaner, thanks to the hospitality of my guest house folks. In Jodhpur, while I was appreciating Mehrangarh Fort from the terrace of my hotel, I was greeted by Darian, a backpacker from New Zealand with whom I hit it off instantly. I roamed around Jodhpur with Darian for two straight days. He took me to the least touristy and most beautiful areas of Jodhpur. We watched the sunrise, navigated the congested bylanes of Jodhpur, had deep long conversations about life and even attracted undue attention for looking like a “Firangi-Indian couple” (Oh, I had seen this coming.).

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At Nahargarh Fort, Jaipur – Dec 2016

Since I make all Augusts of my life augustus (just playing with words here :P), I executed a grand plan of travelling to Paris, Brussels, Ghent, Amsterdam and Prague over 13 days on my own in August 2017. This time I discovered Couchsurfing – a community for travellers around the world which connects members to a global population. Through Couchsurfing, I made requests to hosts in my visiting cities to accommodate me for the duration of my stay. The spirit of Couchsurfing lies in the cultural exchange between the visiting traveller and the hosting member and does not involve a monetary transaction. Thus travellers can mingle with the natives of different countries and save money at the same time. During my entire Euro trip I couchsurfed, meeting some delightful French, Belgians, Dutch and Czechs. Most of them were intrigued by an Indian woman daring to travel alone in a foreign country and I became an implicit representation of how women in India have come a long way. They were more than happy to become my travel partners, showing me their city and making sure that I experience what only the lucky few can in terms of cuisine, places and other regional typicalities. As a mark of gratitude, I did some Indian-style cooking for some of my hosts. I am grateful to the Couchsurfing community for making me feel Europe through the eyes, ears and tongue of locals viz. Charles, Remi, Tom V., Jonathan, David, Jan, Tom, Michael, Pierre C. and Pierre who gifted me the most beautiful memories of my life and taught me the true meaning of kindness through their actions.

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With my hosts and the people I hung out with in Europe – Aug 2017

Varanasi was always in my list and I fulfilled this travel wish in October 2017 by visiting the city over 3 days and 2 nights. Leah, an American, Michael, a German and Liron, an Israeli became my travel companions in Varanasi. Together they made my Varanasi trip one of the most memorable one of my life till date. We walked down the Ghats at dawn, took a morning ride on the Ganges, went on a food trail, explored the impassable alleys of the archaic city and visited Buddha haven Sarnath. Everything about this trip was perfect to the tee.

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During the morning boatride in Ganga – Oct 2017

I celebrated the anniversary of my solo travel in Rajasthan with a solo travel in Rajasthan in December 2017. This time I explored Udaipur and Jaisalmer. In both Udaipur and Jaisalmer I found companions again, at times in some foreigners and at times, in some desi people. The most notable among my adhoc travel companions was a family I met in Jaisalmer during my stay in Sam Sand Dunes. Together, we drove till the Indo-Pak border in Rajasthan to witness the unexploded bombs, which were dropped by Pakistan on India in the war of 1965, at Tanot Mata Temple.

In 2018 so far I have made two solo trips – one in Bir-Billing and the other in Jibhi-Tirthan valley of Himachal Pradesh in March and May respectively. If you have got the drift, you would have guessed by now that I met a whole lot of people both the times and created some unforgettable moments with them.

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At Chaini Hill Fort, Himachal – May 2018

Now, let’s set the expectations correct..

Do I invariably find company every time I travel alone? No, I do not. I do not travel alone with an expectation that every time I will be lucky enough to meet people and have a fantastic time with them. In fact, there have been times when I have met people and I had to bid goodbye to them instantly because of the gross difference in thinking and outlook. That’s why to travel alone, you have to be extremely comfortable in your own skin so that even when you are sitting, eating or roaming alone, you are not carrying a longing for external company in your heart. After moving to Mumbai in 2014, I had joined several groups (like Indiahikes, Trek Mates etc.) for trekking in the Himalayas and the Sahyadris, with no known person to accompany. The friends that I made during these treks went on to become a part of my closest circle with time. Looking back, I would say that trekking with strangers gives you a chance to forge meaningful friendships as you get to know people through the most challenging situations. Having said that, I would not urge any of you to undertake solo explorations (hiking, touring etc.) unless you are sure that you love your own company.

Do I become best friends with all the people I connect with during my solo trips ? No, I do not. Encounters of this kind are mostly transient. You meet and connect with numerous people because of one obvious common interest – travel. But this doesn’t engender deep or long term associations. That requires much more discipline and nurturing over time.

What about safety, especially because I am a woman? I am cautious about my actions when I am out on my own. For example, I would not venture out to a secluded area for the sake of adventure or I would not indulge in alcohol/substance when I am on my own in an unknown place. My life is my responsibility and I know that imprudence can cost a lot. Having said that, my experience tells that most tourist places in India are safe and friendly towards solo women travellers. This question becomes less obvious for places in Europe.

Let’s conclude..

Whether you take up solo travelling or not is a different question but you now know that this isn’t a lonely, unsocial, friendless affair at all. People who travel alone are as sociable as any other person who travel in groups. Insularity isn’t even a desired state as humans are, by default, social creatures. However, the desire to be social in solo travellers manifests itself through the cross-over of the defined boundaries of the usual and the familiar. They are not the outlaws but the ones who push themselves out of their comfort zones because they know that the biggest life rewards lie there.

The greatest opportunity you can give to yourself to know strangers, their culture and their way of living is through solo travelling. You will be surprised at how easily you will expand your network and world-view in the process. Perhaps, the biggest impact will be on your personal growth and mental well-being. So, if you are committed to self-improvement, commit to self-travelling. 🙂

Travel Records: Bir Billing

The second travel and my first solo trip of the year – Bir Billing, was a as-good-as-it-can-get encounter with nature, people and adventure. Here’s recounting the memorable four days through this blog.

Dates: 2nd March to 5th March 2018.

2nd March being a holiday on account of the festival of colours, I just required a day off to plan my escape to the Himachal. Himachal Pradesh, or Devbhoomi, remains my most favourite geographical state in India to travel alone for the sense of safety, friendliness of people and the ease of commute in the region. This time my plan was to paraglide at Bir-Billing, the paragliding capital of India which is also a home of meditation and spiritualism.

Day 0: I had an Air India flight to catch in the evening and a HRTC bus from ISBT Kashmiri Gate on the same day after landing. After a host of exciting occurrences like flight delay, long queues at the Delhi metro, panic attack on not being able to find the right bus, I finally managed to locate the bus I had booked till Mandi at the nick of time. I usually find it difficult to sleep in these AC Volvo buses but the “exciting occurrences” throughout the day had made me tired enough to doze off for the night.

Day 1, 2nd March: The bus reached Mandi at 6:30 am and one of my co-passenger showed me where to catch a local bus to Bir Road. I was in for good luck as I got a bus within no time and thus started my journey to Bir. The weather was playing spoilsport as dark clouds loomed large threatening the activities planned for the day. Nevertheless, the sight of the mountains against the grey clouds, the deep valleys and greenery lining it made the journey worth losing thought of the destination.

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The first mesmerising view at Bir village! Do you wish that house was yours? 😉

I was going to put up in Zostel Bir for the next two nights. Zostel Bir was welcoming with its friendly staff and a host of travellers all of whom were ready for conversations. I came across a group of three friends – Sid, Ani and Nik. (Get comfortable with me using short forms of names as I rarely call people by their full names.) Sid suggested that I join them for exploring the place and we teamed up for our first monastery visit – Nyingma Monastery near to the Zostel.

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Inside Nyingma Monastery

After the monastery visit, we took a long walk in the area and satiated our voracious hunger at just around 200 bucks. Food was cheap and tasty. It was time to take some rest (I had spent the night in the bus from Delhi to Mandi, remember!). I returned to Zostel with the promise of joining them back for dinner. During dinner at a roadside hotel, I met Jatin, a friend of my new friends who, coincidentally, was in Bir to practise solo flying, which is his passion. He suggested that we hike the next day from Bir to Billing through the forest trail. I was totally sold on the idea and after some coaxing my three new friends agreed on the proposal as well.

Day 2, 3rd March: The day commenced early as we were supposed to start the hike at 9 am. Ignoring the dark clouds that loomed over us, we started our steep uphill climb moving slowly through the thick jungle of Rhododendrons (I tasted the flower and it was delicious :D) with intermittent rests. No exaggeration, but this was one of the difficult ascends I have done in the last three years of my Himalayan trekking experience. It tested our stamina to the fullest. Nevertheless, none of us gave up and we reach the top of Billing at 1 pm.

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During the trek from Bir to Billing. From left to right clockwise: Manik, Siddharth, Jatin, Aniket and me 😀

Weather had gone worse and freezing cold winds hit us with vengeance. The first sight of a host of tourists with colourful gliders ready to embrace “flying” was fascinating and it filled me with an unbridled anticipation about my own impending experience. We had a quick round of Masala Maggi and Chai which tested delectable after the hard climb. The weather deteriorated sharply in the next few minutes and the authorities shut down the tandem rides impairing my wish of tandem paragliding for the day. With nothing left to do, the four of us climbed further up to get a better view of the Billing valley and on reaching there discussed and exchanged views on life, aspirations, travel, marriage and so on. It was beginning to rain and therefore we decided to go down quickly by asking for lift from the tourist vehicles. The late evening was spent chitchatting over plates of Pakora, Chilli Paneer, Sandwiches etc. and literally rolling on the floor laughing over Sid’s hilarious anecdotes.

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The place at the top of Billing valley where we discussed so much!

Day 3, 4th March : Today was my final day at Billing and therefore my last chance at tandem paragliding. Sun peeped from beneath the clouds to my relief. Ani and I took a vehicle to reach Billing before the weather could spoil our intentions for the day. While seated at the back of the open jeep, we were tossed from one end to the other like sticks muddled in a matchbox. With each big jerk, any light-weight could have been easily thrown into the adjoining valley. Later I realised the jeep ride was more adventurous (read dangerous) than the actual paragliding. Thankfully I survived that ride to tell this story!

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Mountains capped with fresh snow from previous night’s snowfall at the beginning of Day 3

After a brief introduction session with my pilot, I was strapped with the gliding gear and was instructed by him to run till I was off the cliff. I obeyed without questions and guess what, I flew! Undoubtedly, one of the most beautiful experience of my life was those 15 minutes when I was 2400 metres above the ground looking with awe at the miniature stretches of jungles, villages, fields harnessed to just a man-made wing and surrounded by mountains. It felt like the sky was within hand’s reach. A sense of great calm descended on me. Nothing worried me anymore. And in that moment of carefreeness, I experienced unparalleled joy. I laughed and giggled to the amusement of my instructor and refused to be brought down.

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My moment of ecstasy when I flew.

The 15 minutes of exhilaration were over in what seemed like seconds and I joined the group at Silver Linings Cafe to plan the rest of the day. This cafe is run by a guy who returned from US to settle in Bir and opened a picturesque cafe in the middle of nowhere with no one to accompany. Not to forget, the appetising food it served and the relaxation it offered to travellers who hoarded Bir-Billing! This made me ponder over the unconventional ways in which people choose to live their lives (discounting the conventional wisdom of career-money-marriage-kids-property etc.), some of which still remains implausible for people like us.

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Silver Linings Cafe

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My sumptuous brunch at the cafe

Tripling on a scoot, Nik, Ani and I (Sid wanted to go back) headed for Palpung-Sherabling Monastery which is one of the largest and most beautiful monastery in the region. Apart from having an impressive design on the exterior, Sherabling Monastery houses the most eye-soothing idol of Buddha which left me agape with wonder. We spent quite some time inside the premises as Nik wanted to know about the meditation courses there.

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One of the pillars at Sherabling. Photography is not allowed inside the monastery.

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This was one beautiful spot near to the monastery – an abode of peace and serenity

Later Nik took Ani and me to a spot near to the monastery which was lined with prayer flags, prayer wheels and a series of Stupas. The environment felt beautifully surreal. I utilised the opportunity to do a quick photo-shoot. 😛 (Cut me some slack please..the trip was about to end..) Gratitude towards my travel mates inundated me as, I felt, without them I might not have been able to make it to this remote monastery.

It was time to return as I had a bus to catch from Joginder Nagar and had to reach there from Bir on time. Nik, Sid and Ani headed to Dharamshala to catch their return bus. The return to Delhi was minus any hiccups. In the bus, I came across a co-passenger who kept me engaged with his life stories and also promised to undertake solo travelling soon. (No, I did not push him to! :P)

The trip was over. I had a day to spend in Delhi and I utilised it fully meeting up with my Delhi friends. Looking back, I could not have asked for a more fulfilling travel experience and a more wonderful start to the year. Cheers to more such solo explorations!

P.S.: While I was buying snacks at Joginder Nagar bus stand, a shopkeeper who was watching me for a long time popped the most predictable question “Akeli ghum rahi ho?” I simply smiled. 😉

Travel Records: Aurangabad-Ajanta-Ellora

I have resolved to document all my travels of 2018. Therefore, here I am, talking about my first trip of 2018:  Aurangabad-Ajanta-Ellora done on 24 and 25th February.

This was my third time in the City of Gates – Aurangabad, India. However, I was up for it as my Amsterdam friend David was visiting Mumbai (I had couchsurfed at his place in Amsterdam) and he wanted to travel with me within India over the weekend. So I quickly cooked up this plan, booked to and fro AC sleeper tickets, a place to stay in the city centre and we were ready to hit the road. Thus my first trip of 2018 was kind of an unplanned and unanticipated tryst with the rich history of India.

Day 1: The bus reached several hours late which sapped all our energy. For the rest of the day we hired an auto-rickshaw which took us around Aurangabad and Ellora caves.  I was seeing Bibi ka Maqbara and Ellora caves for the second time but they were as awe-inspiring as the first time I had seen them in 2009.

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Bibi Ka Maqbara

 

Ellora, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is a monolithic rock-cut temple cave featuring Buddhist, Hindu and Jain monuments and artwork. I am not a big fan of history but these monuments make you ponder about the enormity of execution in an age minus computer technology or machinery. In one word, incredulous!

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Ellora Caves

The day ended with dinner at Sagar Restaurant gorging on the local cuisine – Naan Khaliya and Biriyani, which, frankly,  did not suit my taste buds much. I blame it on the preparation.

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Naan Khaliya and Biriyani

Day 2: This day was dedicated to exploring the Ajanta Caves locally called “Ajanta Leni”, situated around 2.5 hours away from Aurangabad. The Ajanta Caves are around 29 rock-cut Buddhist caves dating back to the 2nd century BC. The caves have paintings and rock cut sculptures standing as a testimony to the finest form of ancient Indian art.

We caught the local bus at 7 40 am from the City Bus Station to Ajanta Caves and returned back to Aurangabad by 6 30 pm.  An accident on the road had delayed our schedule and the heat of the noon made the exploration difficult. However, we managed to take a glimpse of the most notable caves before bidding adieu to Ajanta.

 

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Ajanta: Cave No. 26

The return journey was non-eventful and we reached Mumbai in the early hours of Monday, 26th February.

P.S: During the trip, I was questioned by several locals if I am a guide to the accompanying foreigner, to the extent that it actually made me contemplate if I can be a guide to foreigners! 😛

How I manage a Full-time Job with Part-time Travelling

My Instagram feeds are full of my travel pictures. More often than not I get remarks on how my friends would like to have a job like mine which, they assume, allows me the privilege of plenty of holidays.

To set the context right, I work full time in a global MNC in Mumbai as a Consultant which involves occasional business trips and revenue targets. I get my weekends off (thankfully!) which I utilise to nurture my interests – travelling, trekking, community initiatives, learning new things etc. When it comes to planning my vacations, I face a lot of resistance if I want to take more than 2 days off at a stretch. Sporadic leaves of one day/two days are more acceptable by my manager. Then, the question is, how do I travel so much?

To start with, I look for long weekends in a calendar year. If there is a national holiday on a Friday or a Monday, I just need one day off to make it a 4 days’ travel plan. Four days are not a lot if you want to travel far and deep. But over time, I have realised travelling, for me, is not about taking a break to indulge in luxury. It is, instead, a way of life. Hence, I do not seek convenience when it comes to planning my adventures. I can very well fit a plan of Mumbai to Bir-Billing (in Himachal) and back in a 4 days’ plan managing with less sleep over the period. Travelling makes me happy and when a person is happy, he/she can manage with less sleep and comforts! To make a plan of this kind work, I catch an evening flight to Delhi after office and on the same night catch a bus to Himachal from Kashmiri Gate. While returning, I take an early morning flight to Mumbai from Delhi and go to office directly to attend to my work. This way I fully utilise my off day(s) and kind of force-fit a longer travel schedule into shorter number of days. Some people ask me, ” What is the point of going so far for such a small duration?” The answer is, you got to do everything to make use of every day of your life. It does not matter whether it is a long or a short travel schedule. The only thing that matters is I am doing what I believe in which is enriching my life to the fullest. Life is too short to wait for long vacations to fulfil your travel dreams!

Secondly, I do not look for company. I know my friends might not be available when I am planning my off days and hence travelling alone is the only option. Over time I have started enjoying it as it gives me the opportunity to make friends in every place I visit, even though I may not be accompanied by any!

My travels are not about relaxing in a resort, roaming around in AC cabs or fine-dining in a new place. They are about knowing new places, new people, new ways of thinking and new ways of living. So I jump at the slightest opportunity to travel, which may be as small as a weekend.

Therefore, people, when you really embrace travelling as a way of life, you will wholeheartedly embrace the inconveniences associated with the fierce and aggressive ways of travelling. You will realise that travelling requires discipline and it is dependent on your level of commitment to it. It is, however, less dependent on whether you are able to manage long leaves from office or not. Till that realisation sinks in, enjoy my Instagram feeds!

Travel Records – Udaipur and Jaisalmer

Foreword: Here I am jotting down the experiences that I gathered during my recent trip to Udaipur and Jaisalmer in the Rajasthan state of India. This is record of what I did, ate, saw and encountered over four days of my solo exploration in the land of the Rajas, which, I feel, needs to be shared with my readers.

Day 0, 21st Dec 2017:  My direct Indigo flight to Udaipur at 5:30 pm from Mumbai was on time. Getting an Uber cab from the Udaipur airport was pretty effortless and I started a 20 Km long journey into the old part of the city where I had booked a guest house for a night. Nukkad Guest House turned out to be an old Rajasthani Haveli skilfully converted into a neat accommodation for travellers, seeking a taste of  old-fashioned arty mansions.  Travellers like me, who cannot afford the overly-expensive luxury palaces, sought resort in these old havelis-turned-guest houses. I was impressed by the colors, the intricate artwork and the curios that were preserved in my night haunt. After choosing a room, I quickly headed for Ambrai Restaurant to taste the famous Laal Maas. The wait was long but the sight of the lit-up palaces lining the Pichola Lake more than made up for it. It was a setting to die for; where even the most unromantic heart would wish for a special company. While returning to the guest house at around 10 pm, I came face-to-face with a funny-looking man offering “stuff” openly on the road. I realised this may be one of the reasons why Udaipur gives tourists a high! 🙂

Day 1, 22nd Dec 2017: I found myself wide awake at 5 30 am for no reason and spent the next three hours looking around the haveli and loitering in the roof (basically, doing nothing). At around 9 am I set out on a long walk to Gulab Bagh to locate the Sai Baba Nashta Center, known for its Parathas. On my way, I asked for directions from several people, one of whom, immediately after giving his response, asked me nonchalantly “Madam panty lenge? Udaipur mein bohot famous hain”. I had thought that Udaipur, being a tourist hotspot, is accepting of solo woman explorers. This was quite an unpleasant surprise. The humiliated me dished out an expletive which got suppressed in the din of the city. Probably, pricks are everywhere and more (as I found out later) were to come my way.

A plate of one big Methi and one Paneer Paratha was enough to serve as brunch. After a little stroll at Gulab Bagh I headed to Doodh Talai and later moved to a view-point to get an eyeful of Lake Pichola, Jag Mandir and Taj Lake Palace encased by the blue mountains and the infinite sky. Next on the list was Taj Lake Palace which took a solid 2 hours to explore. I was terribly tired after this and pushed off to my guest house to catch a quick nap. In the evening I again resorted to walking through the old bazaar in Hathi Pole area and went till Delhi Gate to taste the fresh super-crispy Jalebi at Bhole Misthan. As darkness descended, I returned to my guest house area and stood at the bridge on Pichola witnessing the last rays of the fading sun with the temple bells forming a perfect background music. I must have been there for 15 mins when a middle-aged man (shabbily dressed with unkempt hair) walked to me and said “hi” in a burly tone. Before he could continue, I turned around and scurried in the opposite direction till I reached  a more crowded area. That probably was the shortest conversation the guy would have had with anyone in his life.

I had a bus to Jaisalmer at 8: 45 pm from Reti Stand. As planned I went to Chandpole to catch an Uber from there to the stand. As I stood there lost in my Uber app, a tall hippie-looking fellow initiated a conversation with me starting with “Where do you want to go?”. Though I was answering him at the beginning, his out-of-the-blue suggestion that he would drop me to the bus stand on his bike did not sound benign to my ears. This was a situation where I had not even asked for help from him. I maintained my disregarding attitude and thankfully to my relief, he left from the scene with time.

The bus operator had not shared the bus number with me. I called their office several times only to be snubbed each time. I was at the verge of missing my bus but luckily the conductor’s “Jaisalmer” summons reached the ears of my Autowallah and he managed to stop the bus for me.

As I lay on the 6 by 2 feet shoddy bed in the so-called AC Sleeper bus, I recounted all the “exciting events” of the day in my head only to pray to God for a less exciting night.

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Lake Pichola, while the sun descended on Day 1.

Day 2, 23rd Dec 2017: Having been charmed by Satyajit Ray’s Shonar Kella at an early age, I was very excited about Jaisalmer, the Golden City! I had booked my night stay in a desert camp in Sam Sand Dunes, around 20 Kms from the city. Since check-in time was 3 pm, I had the entire morning to explore the place and the golden fort. Jaisalmer fort is a “living fort” with a lot of the city population still residing inside the fort. The fort and the old areas of the city are a treat for the old-fashioned vintage-loving hearts. By the time I finished checking out the fort and tasting Ghotua (a traditional Jaisal sweetmeat), the owner of my desert camp had arrived in the city. He picked me in his car and we started our journey for Sam Sand Dunes. On the way, he was kind enough to take a small detour to show me Kuldhara (probably because I could not stop blabbering about how badly I wanted to see it). My excitement died an unnatural death with the very first glimpse of Kuldhara. Err.

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Inside Jaisalmer Fort, this elderly man was churning out the most beautiful local tunes.

The first view of the luxurious tent in the middle of endless sand dunes was exhilarating. In the evening, I was clubbed with a family of four for Dune Bashing in an open jeep and to watch the sunset in the desert. Watching the sunset in the desert was a beautiful experience but probably,  would have loved it more if the place was less crowded and wasn’t strewn with beer bottles! In the evening the two hours’ long cultural program at the camp and the delicious traditional Rajasthani dinner (consisting of Ker Sangri, Rajasthani Kadi, Daal Bati Churma and Mutton Saag among others) thereafter, rendered a perfect ending to the day. I slept like a kid in my super-comfortable tent bed.

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This is how the inside of the tent looked.

Day 3, 24th Dec 2017: I was up at 5 30 am again, this time to see the sunrise in the desert. Well, this was my first time in the middle of ‘sandy nowhere’ and I wanted to make sure I had enough of it. My four-legged companion, Sultan and his owner arrived at 6 30 am to take me on a ride into the yellow infinity. Sunrise happened an hour later and I was right there to appreciate it with all my heart.  After a quick breakfast I tagged along with the family, whom I had met the day before, to see the Longewala border post (battle place of Indo- Pakistan war of 1971) and Tanot Mata temple which is famous for being the site where the bombs dropped by Pakistan did not explode. I hung out with them for the entire afternoon till they dropped me at Jaisalmer Air Force Square from where I supposed to catch my overnight bus to Udaipur. What felt good was the bond (albeit temporary) that I built with them, which transpired into some beautiful memories.

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Sultan and I after our morning rendezvous!

Day 4, 25th Dec 2017: I reached Udaipur early at 5 am on the day of Christmas. Since my guest house would not allow an early check-in, I decided to head to the Karni Mata Temple on the top of a hill to visualise the sunrise. This time I found company in a Brit called Thomas, whom I met at the guest house. Though we kind of missed the sunrise for reaching 5 mins late, the hike nevertheless released endorphins and set the mood for the day. After descending the hill, Tom and I rampaged the breakfast scene with Poha, Aloo Paratha, Mirchi Vada and Coconut water. It felt great to see a foreigner dig into the local street food so heartily.  Late afternoon, we visited the Fateh Sagar Lake and gorged on some local fare again. Next in the list was Sajjangarh, where an hour long queue to go up the  hill tested our patience to the fullest. The fact that it was Christmas made things worse. However, witnessing the sunset in Monsoon Palace atop the hill was worth all the effort. The Sun created waves of the most delightful colours on the Aravallis as it disappeared slowly – a precious beautiful consummation of the day with night.

My day ended over a hearty dinner with a company of three by the Pichola lake over some Christmas music.

Day 5, 26th Dec 2017: This was a no-frills morning when I flew to Mumbai at 12 noon and got mired again in the hustle of life.

Looking back, this was my fourth time in Rajasthan and, honestly, the previous three times had a deeper impact on my mind. However, I am grateful for temporary bonds I formed with the people through the trip and the permanent moments they created in my life. Cheers to solitary wanderings!

 

Be kind. Surprise people. 

I had gone to deposit my exam fees at the German Institute some time before  Diwali.  Reached at 9 30 am because the website mentioned the opening time as 9 30 am. The lady at the reception refused to take my exam fees on two grounds – 1. Fees are only accepted by courier 2. Opening time of the institute is 10 am. Even after repeated requests and explanation of my situation (that I am a working professional like her, was traveling for a week and have to reach office on time),  she declared that she will not entertain anything before 10. By the virtue of being in a position of power she could afford to be rude and non-cooperative. Without a word,  I obeyed and waited. 

While I sat observing the office,  people came in with big smiles greeting each other and spreading Diwali wishes. Her colleagues complimented her on her dress and the lady could not stop basking. The same person was smiling, laughing and engaging with her colleagues in cheerful banter. Everyone was in a Diwali mood including her. 

After the clock struck ten, she called me (in a rude tone again) and accepted my application fees. As I was about to leave i told her she is indeed looking very beautiful. She was shocked and her blank face could just spurt out a “what?”. When I repeated the compliment, she managed a smile. I continued giving her Diwali greetings and wished her a great day. While I left,  she didn’t look me into the eyes. 

P.S.: It is so easy to take people by surprise with a reaction opposite to what they expect specially when that reaction is of kindness and love. Feeling happy to have put the theory into practice. 🙂

Trek to Kuari – A story of making merry, being wary and B-n-W Fairy

This might sound a little incredible but I have been craving to see the Himalayas since the time I witnessed the Scottish Highlands in my last trip to United Kingdom in March this year. May Day falling on a Monday created a perfect long weekend to escape to my comfort zone – the lap of Mother Nature! In fact, close proximity with the mountains, jungles, streams and other natural elements fosters a feeling of extreme content and gratefulness towards my cosmic journey and that makes living worthwhile.

On 27th April, an assorted ad-hoc group of five people were ready to conquer Kuari Pass and get back to the plains in five days to get conquered by routine! Errr.. A last moment dropout left only four to embark on the trek. Kuari Pass being an easy-to-moderate Himalayan trek, these trekkers hadn’t expected anything but a smooth trekking experience. But then, life surprises you in unexpected ways!

I took an evening flight from Mumbai to Delhi and then scampered to Kashmiri Gate to catch the 11:00 pm Volvo to Rishikesh with my co-trekkers. – Pramit, Manish and Arijit. The bus reached the destination on time at 5 am the next day. Thereafter began the perilous 10 hour journey to Joshimath, where we had to rest for the night before starting the trek on the next morning.  Our guide was Sohan Singh Bisht  whom we respectfully christened “Sohanji”. Apart from exemplary guiding skills, he had a quirky a sense of humour which we used on people from time to time,  including me!

The next morning after a quick breakfast of wholesome and delicious Aloo Paratha from a roadside hotel we boarded a vehicle arranged by Sohanji and got dropped off at Dhak village. The trek started from Dhak with the mesmerising views of the Garhwal mountain ranges. I am really poor at identifying names of mountains. Nevertheless, with help from Pramit and Sohanji and by observing their shapes, I gathered that the snow-capped ridges of the Pangarchula, Hathi-Ghoda and Drona Giri all lay right there to feast my eyes on. It was a gradual ascend without much drama and we first stopped at Tugasi village. A glimpse into local life, a click here and there with the kids and a refreshing tea later we proceeded towards Gulling. Our first camp was to be at Kulhara which was a steady up-climb via the oak and rhododendron forest of Gulling. We had our lunch at Gulling under the forest trees and by the flowing stream ( so awesome right!!) and managed to reach Kulhara by 3 pm. Even Sohanji was impressed by our performance!

The next day was the famed “Pass Day” and the plan was to start at 4 am, reach Kuari Pass and trek further up towards Pangarchula Peak mini ( Don’t go by the word “mini”; it stand at 4300 m!!). The climb to Kuari Pass was pretty much manageable and we were at the Kuari top by 9 am. We knew the next leg to Pangarchula is a steep climb and we braced ourselves for the same. The 10 Kg backpack made things twice as difficult. The body complained incessantly but the mind was unrelenting. After ascending for about a kilometre we noticed dark clouds hovering over our heads, probably with disapproval. The weather changed within minutes and snowfall accompanied by rebellious wind hit us. This soon catapulted into a snowstorm. Sohanji said we must descend as quickly as possible. Because, if the snow starts accumulating at gargantuan speed, we might lose our way altogether. Panic ensued. Sohanji held my hand firmly and started descending with me. Unable to keep balance (blame it on the anxiety and unsuitable shoes), I grazed the ground every now and then. The unforgiving cold bit into my hands(I had removed my gloves to get better grip), the snow blinded me and slippery ground made every step difficult. Notwithstanding the circumstances, we continued our descend towards Kulhara. By the time Kulhara was in sight, I had slipped and plunged into the snow ten times, though none of it was fatal! (thanks to the cushion in the derriere! :P) . The snowstorm continued raging for the next 2 hours, almost sweeping away the tents. We were dripping with water from head to toe but managed to keep a grip on ourselves. The stove in the ‘Kitchen Tent’ provided some warmth while Sohanji’s stories on black-and-white fairies raised my temperature more. As per Sohanji, the black fairy of the Garhwal mountains pays a visit to people who sleep alone in their tents for some unearthly purpose. By the virtue of being the only woman in the group, I had an entire tent to myself and no prize for guessing that the story was directed at me! Only by evening the snowfall reduced a little, leaving us relieved, but still apprehensive. Without much ado, we quickly finished our dinner and retired for the night.

A clear sky greeted us on the morning of  Day 3. The decision to descend to Auli via Tali was taken and we started the downhill trek at 8:30 am. I cannot describe in words the beauty of nature that unfolded in front of our eyes during the day. The cursed snowstorm was a blessing in disguise because its culmination had spawned an immaculate bright day. The majestic snowy peaks of the Garhwal mountains revealed against the backdrop of a vast blue sky with puffy white clouds dotting it’s infinite form. At Tali Lake, the most splendid view unfurled itself through a panorama of tall mountains, dark jungles, snowy peaks, drifting clouds and their reflection on the crystal-clear water! Next came the 1.5 Km ridge walk to reach Gorson Bugyal where the copious Rhododendrons in full bloom reddened the white-n-blue canvas. Being able to watch Mother Nature in Her full glory made me feel blessed! It’s a rare privilege which probably only Her truest loyalists get to experience and we had been granted that. The trek ended at Auli from where we opted for an exclusive mode of transportation – the Chairlift  to get to GMVN and packed up for the night in their dormitory.

From Auli we had to catch the 4:30 am bus to Rishikesh the following morning. By the time we reached Rishikesh, exhaustion had crossed normal levels. Nevertheless, we managed to explore Beatles Ashram admiring the quirky and spiritual graffiti all around the place. The evening was spent by the sacred Ganges watching the holy river engulf the big blinding blaze. We took a local bus to Haridwar to catch the Nanda Devi Express to Delhi at 12:50 am.

The four days of myriad life experiences were over in what seemed like a jiffy, leaving an insatiable desire to go back to the mountains again.

Here’s the photo story:

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The four of us at the start of the trek in Dhak village. Introducing from front to back – the un-trekker Debasmita, the pro-trekker (ya, the guy with the goofy hat) Manish, the semi-trekker Pramit and the non-trekker Arijit.

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Me having fun with the Tugasi kids – Ayusha and Sneha

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The view at Kulhara campsite\

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The climb to Kuari Pass

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A click taken during the snowstorm at Pangarchula Base Camp

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This is how Kulhara looked after the snowfall ended

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This is Tali Lake. The beauty is surreal.

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My co-trekkers and the guide resting at Tali Lake

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Oh the heavenly 1.5 Km ridge walk to reach Gorson Bugyal from Tali!!! If you look closely you will be able to make out the path. Also, if you happen to be a little careless on this path it can be the first and last bungee jumping experience of your life. 😛

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It is sights like these that make you believe that life is worth living!

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A stunning graffiti at Beatles Ashram, Rishikesh