Welcome to this travel blog which is inspired by the wandering clouds effortlessly gliding through distant lands. Sometimes almost still as if watching the beauty of the earth below and at times rushing to some place far away – as if on an endless travel mission. This is where I share my observations, experiences and thoughts gathered during my travels

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Coorg - the inspiration

This blog came into existence soon after our last trip to Coorg. Due to heavy work schedules, we were unable to take a long vacation last summer and therefore we decided to drive to Coorg for a few days to get some quiet relaxed time. We had booked a hotel in Coorg and had even made an advance payment but due to some mistake made by the booking clerk, our booking did not show on their record. Fortunately, the hotel had another resort, a better and more expensive one and at a better location; so to correct their goof-up, they put us up in the best suite at this brand new resort. The suite was very large, perched exclusively on the top with plush and luxurious interiors. We could not have asked for more and were in our hearts thanking the clerk for the goof-up.

Although we had not planned to, we made trips to usual places like the Raja’s Seat overlooking the valley and the Abbey Falls. But the place which offers the best view is Tala Cauvery located in Brahmagiri hills where river Cauvery originates. The pathway next to the temple leads towards the stairs and although the climb appears daunting, it is worth going up to the top. On cloudy days, the pinnacle gets surrounded by thick white fluffy clouds and one can actually feel the moisture brought by the clouds. On clear days one can see the distant mountain ranges. We stopped on our way back at Bhagamandalam- confluence of rivers Cauvery, Kuniki and Sujyothi for a short break.
Abbey Falls

From Raja's  Seat

But the best part of this visit to Coorg was lazing in the verandah and watching the clouds drift over the verdant hills like an empty boat floating over the river. That’s when I realized that a traveler should be like clouds – drift, wander, glide and float - be prepared to get carried away with winds and current or sometimes just hang there and watch patiently. That’s when I decided the name for this blog and that’s when my profile picture was taken. Coorg will remain special for many reasons.                            

Footloose in Prague

After spending almost 18 hours travelling to Prague, the first thing I did after checking into Hotel Astoria was spreading out all the tourist maps and brochures and planning what to do over the next two days. Due to some mix-up about the dates and bookings, the organizers of the conference I had come to attend were putting me up for two additional days and I was not complaining. There is just so much to see in Prague that two months may also not be sufficient. I decided to use the two full days for visiting the ‘must-sees’ and leave the rest for the evenings after the conference sessions. Fortunately, the hotel is located within the Old Town and is walking distance from many attractions. I have always believed that the best way to experience a city is on foot so I decided to keep the metro and tram travel to the minimum.

First, I walked to the Old Town Square. It is a vibrant place lined with several small stalls selling food, flowers and gift items. A 360 degree view of the Old Town Square gives a glimpse of multi-styled architectural constructions. At one end of the square, is the famous Astronomical Clock Tower. Considered to be the third oldest clock in the world (built in early 15th century), it is fascinating and intriguing to observe how it works. I wish I had someone with me who could explain it to me because I spent a lot of time trying to figure it out. I also realized that one has to see it over different seasons, at different points in time to appreciate all its features. It has a calendar dial with paintings and notings for all twelve months (but too tiny to read from ground level). There is an astronomical dial with the earth in the background, the view of the sky, the sun and the moon; then the clock also shows time as per 24 hour style, showing the adjustments due to varying times of sunrise and sunset in summer and winter. There are also figures depicting vanity, greed, death and pleasure that move every hour. On the top are figures of the twelve Apostles who also make an appearance every hour. Wish I had more time, I thought.

Then I walked over the Charles Bridge constructed over 600 years ago across River Vlatava. Standing on the bridge, it is easy to understand why Prague is called the ‘City of Spires’ with countless spires of different architectural styles dotting the skyline. Among all the bridges over Vlatava (we can see a series of them), Charles Bridge is the most famous and historic one. The fact that it has survived after so many years, despite the wars and floods makes it special. There are 30 statues placed on either side of the bridge. Like others, I too touched the statute of St. John of Nepomuk, wishing for good luck and hoping to come again to Prague. Only pedestrian traffic is allowed on the bridge and I spent hours watching the artists painting and sketching, musicians playing instruments along the bridge and tourists posing for pictures.
View from the Charles Bridge - Prague Castle in the background

I decided to spend the entire next day at the Prague Castle, considered to be the biggest castle in the world. I bought myself a ticket that allowed me to see all attractions open to public.  Built in 9th century, it has been a seat of religious and political power. Crown jewels are also kept at the Castle under heavy security and are rarely put on display for tourists. St. Vitus Cathedral has beautiful stained glass paintings and also houses the relics of St. Wenceslas. I climbed up the steep narrow spiral staircase of the tower to get an aerial view of Prague. After taking a quick bite of packed fruits, I was ready to explore the other parts of the castle- the Old Royal Palace, Royal Gardens, St. George’s Basilica and the Powder Tower. I missed seeing the change of guards! By the end of the day, I decided I had walked enough and took a tram and the metro back to the hotel room. In the evening, I set out again to see how the old Town looked like at night. It seemed like it had just come to life all over again and near the Charles Bridge the party had just begun. After taking in the sights, sounds and smells of Prague, after walking up and down the streets of Old Town, I felt at home and forgot that it was less than 48 hours since I had first stepped into this beautiful city. I had enjoyed being footloose in Prague and staying outdoors. I was now ready to attend the conference.

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Oops…we almost missed it!

Antibes beach
Antibes is simply astonishing and oops, we’d almost missed it while driving from Nice to Cannes. Frankly speaking, we must have done poor research of our route as we had not even registered Antibes as a place to check out along the way. Therefore, discovering every corner of the town by walking through its web-like lanes was a delightful surprise.

We felt like children eagerly opening heaps of presents, one by one, showing each other what we had found, what we had seen, touched and felt.
Shopping musical trinkets at Antibes
Located along the French Riviera, Antibes is an old town believed to have been inhabited since more than 2000 years ago. The town with its old rampart walls, narrow sloping lanes and impossible curbs is ideal for walking, although some confident drivers do zip around flamboyantly. Small shops selling antiques and trinkets sit cozily next to museums interspersed with residential quarters belonging to the locals and hotels for outsiders, seamlessly blending commerce, art and society. The white sandy beaches and the blue Mediterranean Sea along the Antibes look picture perfect. We made our way to the Picasso museum (Picasso is believed to have stayed here!) albeit a little late as the museum was closed. We sat in the square, bought some trinkets and tried to absorb the vibrancy of the old town before we got back on our scheduled route plan. Moral of the story: (1) poor research is sometimes good-that’s the only way you can see the unexpected; (2) happily deviate-sometimes it can actually make you forget your planned destination; (3) Remember and be thankful about such small surprises along the way-they keep you hopeful throughout the journey.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Sinful yet Divine!

The first time I had a cheese fondue in an authentic style was at Fribourg, Switzerland. Last January, when I was at the University of Fribourg for a lecture, the students planned to go out in the evening for a fondue and I gladly joined in with the other faculty. I don’t think most of us were particularly in need of building excess fat or carb reserves, given that academic life is generally sedentary. One of the women colleagues accompanying us confessed that she treated herself to cheese fondue only on the weekends after cycling up the hills and only after building up a serious appetite. Generally, the Swiss people are known to claim their right to eat a fondue only after first exhausting their body reserves through some serious physical exercise. And here I was, sitting at the table waiting for the fondue to arrive – having done no physical exercise in the past couple of days and without any intention of doing so over the next two days given the snowfall outside. 

Sculpture with Swiss products
Enjoying the fondue

The restaurant was one of the best ones serving fondue and had some interesting sculptures made out of Swiss products-like knives, sewing machines, special pots and pans etc. Soon the special cutlery was laid out and a portable stove with a pot of molten cheese was kept in such a way that two people could share from a single pot. One had to stir the cheese continuously to prevent it from sticking to the bottom and getting burnt. Pieces of bread or whole small boiled potatoes are dipped in the molten cheese and eaten immediately. I was told to opt for potatoes instead of bread as bread tends to absorb more cheese and gets heavy. I found there was a gender divide with the men going for the bread and women going for potatoes. The fondue was completely divine. The thought that it was absolutely sinful to eat the fondue without earning it perhaps made it more enjoyable. 

I realized that eating fondue is also a social thing-sharing from the same pot of molten cheese brings folks together. There is plenty of light-hearted fun   and competitiveness associated with it like who eats the most or who cleans the pot first. If your bread or potato happens to drown in the molten cheese, you are expected to sing a song. Amazing how sharing a hearty meal together can melt down boundaries!

Monday, June 20, 2011

Runners, runners, everywhere...

What is common between Senegal and Japan? I would say, the sight of ordinary people (and perhaps also some professional athletes), running on the streets and main roads, at anytime of the day! Young and old, men and women, in groups or as singles and really at any time of the day! In many countries, the cheapest and the most common form of exercise is running, especially long distance running because it helps to build stamina and endurance. Ordinary people running for physical fitness in large numbers creates a unique fitness culture and I often wonder what constitutes the “fitness culture” of my city?

A few years ago, I was visiting Dakar, Senegal and one of the sights that amazed me was that of runners under the hot afternoon sun with their glistening muscular bodies and long legs effortlessly running in almost a rhythmic fashion. A couple of my friends also decided to go running around Dakar in the morning and I really regretted not carrying my running shoes and a pair of track-pants. Then later the following year when I was visiting Tsukuba, Japan, the emphasis given to physical fitness by ordinary people of all ages was like an eye-opener. At any time of the day, the streets and parks have runners, of all ages, with ear phones on, doing their regular rounds. This time in Tsukuba, I had carried my shoes and was therefore able to immerse myself in the “fitness culture” of the place.

Every place has its own specific “fitness culture”. If one wants to understand and experience the place as a traveler (and not just as a tourist), slipping into the local “fitness culture” offers unique sights as well as insights. Burning of calories is an incidental bargain.  

Saturday, June 18, 2011

Deeksha Bhoomi, Nagpur

On October 14, 1956, Dr. B. R. Ambedkar and his wife Savitribai embraced Buddhism along with lakhs of followers on an open ground in Nagpur, Maharashtra.  This open ground came to be known as Deekshabhoomi (literal translation is the land where religion is embraced) and it has what is said to be one of the largest hollow domed Stupas in the world. The place attracts thousands of followers, students and scholars of Buddhism. When I visited this historical place, there was a photo exhibition depicting the events around the time of the mass conversion. What struck me was that firstly, it was one of the largest voluntary mass conversions to have happened anywhere in the world and secondly, Dr. Ambedkar passed away within a couple of months after this ceremony.  
Inside the quiet Stupa, standing peacefully in front of Ambedkar’s picture, my head naturally bowed to the great man who remains a guiding light of hope and inspiration to millions of Indians. Standing erect outside the Stupa, the Bodhi tree not only protects the visitors from the blazing hot Nagpur sun, but with its spreading branches it seems to be showering blessings on all those coming under its shade while on their path to liberation.  

Monday, June 6, 2011

Just trust...

How much can one trust the claims and competence of totally unknown people, and that too for no obvious gains or compelling reasons? Not much, as doing so would border on plain stupidity or true adventurism, right? Some years ago, when I was visiting Wilfred Laurier University, Waterloo for participating in a summer workshop, some of us decided to take a Greyhound and go to Toronto over the weekend. We could not resist the temptation of going up the CN Tower, an imposing yet elegant structure characterizing the Toronto skyline. The tower is indeed an architectural wonder standing over 553 metres and having the world’s highest glass floor at the height of 342 metres (according to Wikipedia). Although, several assuring notices put up on the walls indicated the weight the glass floor could take (14 large hippos), the annual load checks done, etc. there was a palpable anxiety among all the tourists who had come all the way up - should I trust the claims made by the architects of this famous tower, stand on the glass floor and see the height of 342 metres below my feet OR should I just stay out of this madness because what if my weight happens to be like the last straw on the camel’s back? Finally, all those including me who decided to step on that glass floor - either gingerly on tiptoes or jumping boisterously as if jumping on one’s living room sofa - had reposed complete faith in the claims and competence of not only those who built this marvel decades ago but also trusting those faceless technicians who guarantee us such safe thrills even today.

Saturday, June 4, 2011

Timeless Guhagar

Guhagar is not my native place. I am not visiting this scenic village as an urban tourist checking out a quick getaway. I am here to witness how life in this laid back Konkan village has remained almost unchanged over the years. Coming back to Guhagar after 30 years, it is delightful to see how it has more or less retained its own special character.

Guhagar is a small village located in Ratnagiri district, Maharashtra. Stretching along the Arabian Sea with clean pristine sands, it offers a panoramic view of the Konkan coast. Early one day, when I went for a jog on the beach, I was pleasantly surprised to see I had no company, except a dozen odd fishing boats trying to get a decent morning catch. Sometimes, we do tend to be indifferent towards the most beautiful sights in our own backyard, I thought as I tried to handle the rigours of running on the dry sand. However, the beach did see some visitors in the evening – mainly local college goers and a few tourists – each getting ample space of their own on the long stretching sands. I watched myself basking in the sun’s setting rays and drowning in the sense of vastness that solitude by the seaside offers.

Back in the village, the two important nerve centres of Guhagar are the local State Transport Bus Stand and the single main road that runs through the village leading upto Varcha Paat, an adjoining habitation. The Bus Stand also doubles up as an open air movie hall during important village events and I remembered as a child watching “Main Tulsi Tere Aangan Ki” on a curtain-screen sitting on the ground. The Vyadeshwar Temple and the Durga Temple are important religious destinations. I was able to attend the annual celebrations at the Durga Temple and the experience offered an intensive induction into the socio-cultural life of Guhagar.

Some of the other interesting must-see places around Guhagar include: Modke Agar which roughly translated means Broken Station and is created due to backwaters of dam built over river Vashisht; Velneshwar temple and beach; and Dabhol which can be accessed by ferry from Dhopave.  I also visited the Khatu Masala factory at Patpanhale and picked up loads of local specialty spices.

Back home in Bangalore, a city that has changed almost beyond recognition in the past two decades, I am wondering if the variable of time uniformly applies to all geographical spaces. And if it does not, should it really?