Monday, June 8, 2009

Freewheeling through India’s beach capital

The Sun, Sand and the sea are three very basic components that make for a fantastic summer vacation. And boasting of the best location for a holiday to soak up the sun while in the lap of the sea is Goa. The beach state has been on my must-go list for a while, but it was the potential expense that had me hesitating. Huge portions of the tiny state have been taken over by multi-starred hotel chains, rendering it a destination for foreigners with foreign exchange and NRI’s. However, the truth is that you neither need to be unusually rich or a green card holder to enjoy a holiday in Goa, as my cousin and me found out.
It was an uneventful beginning to a long weekend that led us to Goa on more of a whim than anything else. Jumping onto a second-class compartment, we found ourselves in Vasco station. The train journey in itself is scenic and you also get to see the Doodhsagar falls, which true to its name are milky cascades. Vasco station is a lot less crowded than Madgaon, which is the principal station. Yet it has its share of touts and crooks in the guise of unauthorized tourist guides and capricious cab drivers. Warned in advance by a Goan friend, we headed straight to the Vasco bus stand. Our destination was Panjim, home to Mandovi River and a tourist hub for those interested in the beaches of North Goa. The one and a half hour bus ride to Panjim is not anything to write home about in terms of exotic locales or scenic beauty. You might as well be riding on a bus in pretty much any suburb in any part of India. However, the one distinct impression that stays on is that of the constant smell of fish in varied forms. From fresh seafood to dried fish, the smell has enveloped the region and is part and parcel of the Goa experience, whether you decide to hike up to the forts or relax in the sun.
My cousin and I had called up the Goan Tourism Department Corporation (GTDC) to check whether rooms were available in their Calangute hotel. Calangute beach was known as the hub for all things happening and fun in this side of Goa. Heading to Calangute, in a good old 1988 vintage ambassador, the GTDC person’s non-committal grunts were ringing in our ears. But the sights, sounds and smells on the way to Calangute, which showed off the vibrancy and the energy of the beach state kept our spirits high. The first glimpse of Calangute is a surprising one. After various twists and turns on a winding route, the road suddenly straightens out for half a kilometer or so. And at the end of the road, the beach suddenly rises up to meet the road, which stops a few meters shy of the sea, at a series of steps which head to the sand. The GTDC has been lucky enough to build a hotel right next to these steps facing the dark waters. We decided to bunk there for the trip as we were a couple of hours away from sunset and we wanted to be near enough the beach to catch our first sunset in Goa. Also a stone’s or rather shell’s throw away is Souza Lobos. One of the oldest eateries in the area, they not only serve mouth watering Goan cuisine but also boast of a traditional live Goan band. We chose to sit at a table outdoors, with our toes sinking into the sand, tucking into Chicken Vindaloo, with Konkani melodies and the crashing waves in the background.
The next day we were up early and rewarded by a near deserted beach with the water at just the right temperature for a dip. And the best way to get yourself dry is to take a walk along the shore. A brisk walk further down takes you to Baga, the tranquil extension of the beach, known for its fisherman’s village. Yet at night, the beach transforms into one of the liveliest night scenes around with popular hangouts like Tito’s and Mambo’s staying open till the wee hours of dawn.
Next on the agenda was roaming around the countryside Goan style. With neither the money nor inclination to pay overpriced cabs, we decided to hire a scooter, a service available in most stalls around Calangute. Zooming off to the nearby beaches of Anjuna, Vagator and Candolim are easiest, if one decides to take this mode of transport. This way we got to discover picturesque looking by lanes looking like postcards from Portugal and feel the sea breeze in our hair and sun beating down on us. It was like an actual slice of Goa as opposed to the sanitized guided tour.
A fort we came across by chance, on the road trip was Chapora. While it’s Fort Aguada which most Indian tourists head to believing it to be the fort immortalized by the Bollywood hit Dil Chahta Hai (2001), locals told us that it was Chapora which was actually the scene of all the action. Riding the scooter up an impossibly steep hill, with nothing vaguely touristy anywhere near, we reached Chapora’s foothills. Confronted by the prospect of a vertical trek up loose dusty stones and dry grass, it was only the dream of photographing ourselves as the stars did, that made us climb up. A fabulous view of the sunset over the waves of Vagator made the effort worthwhile.
At the end of our weekend it was a multitude of experiences that we took back from Goa. From flea Markets and English Breakfasts to clear and rocky waters and excited masses trying out banana boats and water scooters, there’s something for everyone in Goa. And no matter which part of the state you head to, you don’t need to be a millionaire to experience it.

The New Indian Express, April, 2009

Footloose in Palawan

I confess! The only thing I knew about the Philippines or cared to read about for a very long time was about Imelda Marcos’s vast shoe collection. Little did I know that I had a very different kind of Filipino education in store for me in my future! So come circa 2009, finding myself in Manila, I realized that it was time to discover the nation for myself and perhaps uncover a few of its enigmatic islands. Now being a nation made up of 7,107 islands, it’s inevitable that the Philippines can boast of beaches of almost every kind. From those that seem to be hand crafted by the Creator for diving and snorkeling to surfers haven. Topping the tourist’s must-see list in the archipelago is Boracay. Yet the more I looked at travel information to the beach known for its powdery white sands and amazing water, the more I felt like heading to another lesser known destination- Palawan. Located in the south of the Philippines, Palawan was touted as a collection of 1,780 islands with exquisite beaches and foliage, which could be likened to Borneo rather than the Philippines. Two birds with one stone thought I. Next step book flight tickets and make reservations at Club Paradise, a private island eco-resort in Dimakya Island in Northern Palawan.
One of the hardest things of packing for my three nights and four days package tour at Palawan was how I had to voluntarily travel light. Now this gave my husband a lot of glee, as he certainly did not want to be the one lugging the bags around. And giving him this reason to smile was the flight that we had to catch. The Philippines airlines flight to Palawan only allows you to take ten kilograms per person. So swinging our negligible luggage and breezing past security, we finally boarded the quaint looking Bombardier turboprop to Palawan, which promised to take us there in little over an hour. Bagging the window seat certainly worked out in my favour, as flying out through the clouds looming over Manila I was treated to the first glimpse of Palawan. And what a promising one it was, as it was not only the turquoise waters and the white sand that we could see, but also the coral reefs bordering the isles.
One hour after photographs through the cubbyhole which aeroplanes call a window, we touched down at Busuanga airport, one of the airports in Palawan. Walking out of the charming wood paneled airport, our very tropically dressed (read that as orange shorts and a sky blue floral t-shirt) resort guide greeted us. He then promptly bundled us into a Jeepney to drop us to our ferry. Jeepneys, which are open-air oversized jeeps, are used quite a lot in Palawan, which does not have a lot of vehicular traffic, and therefore no tarmac roads. The ride to the ferry was eventful to say the least- dusty, punctuated with sudden bumps and passing by some of the most amazing grasslands with exotic trees and the occasional villager waving at us.
However nothing in any tourist brochure could have prepared us for the first look of the river we were supposed to cross to reach our island destination. Bordered by mangroves on both sides, looking out of the ferry was a surreal experience. An hour-long boat ride on the river and then on the high seas, suddenly the resort guide pointed out the speck in the distance that would be our home for the next three nights. With each bobbing motion of the boat, the anticipation and excitement rose a little bit higher. And finally we were there.
To the background of an island welcome song and the accompaniment of a fresh mango shake, we tiptoed along the narrow ramp of the boat and happily jumped onto the island.
Overwhelmed by the natural beauty of the spot, the first thing we decided to do was soak it up and that too literally. The waters surrounding the island are perfect for swimming and better still snorkeling. The area is known for its coral reefs and the resort made sure that we could enjoy them to the fullest by handing out free snorkeling gear. Call it voyeurism of a different kind if you want, but watching different kinds of vibrantly coloured reef fish swimming around their habitat, blissfully unaware of the humans around is quite thrilling.
However soaking in the warm waters aside, the island is also a great place for trekking. We even chanced upon a monitor lizard while hiking up to the highest point of the isle. Though it frightened the wits out of me, don’t worry the lizard as well as the fruit bats that are in abundance on the resort are not at all interested in the humans that tend to cross their path.
Located at the northern most tip of Palawan, Dimakya is also a great place to plan island hopping trips from as there are quite a few ones that you can explore while you are there. Yet according to me, the best way to enjoy Palawan is by pulling up a lounge chair and losing oneself in the stunning sunset you can see from here.
Time seems to stand still in this paradise at times, but for me it passed much too fast. And on the ferry ride back to traffic lights and zooming cars, all I could think of was the memories of being barefoot in paradise.

The New Indian Express, March 2009

In the company of fallen monuments

As the car rolls down the approach road to the famed ruins of Hampi in Karnataka, an involuntary gulp of expectation arises. Set in a forbidding backdrop of boulders precariously perched on one another, Hampi is the seat of the 15th century Vijaynagara Empire, capital of the famous King Krishnadevaraya.

The ruins wrought mainly in stone are scattered over 26 kms with the river Tungabhadra as a boundary in its North. Declared a world heritage site in 2002, this medieval city has also been identified as Kishkinda, the monkey kingdom mentioned in the Ramayana.

The first stop in Hampi is always the Virupaksha temple, the only active place of worship in the ruins. The temple has a 120 feet tall tower and houses the shrines of Shiva, Pampa and Bhuvaneshwari. Replete with carvings and ancient vegetable dye paintings, some parts of the temple are supposed to predate the Vijayanagara kingdom.

Moving on, one can see the 9 ft monolithic structure of the Mustard Ganesha and the 6.7 m tall monolith of the Ugra Narasimha, which for many is the symbol of Hampi. These are but two of the many monuments, which fell prey to the swords of the invaders who finally felled the city.

Driving on through the dusty terrain, one reaches the Hazari Rama temple, believed to be one of the finest specimens of South Indian temple architecture. As the name suggests, it boasts of 1000 exquisite stone carvings of scenes from the Ramayana.

A pathway from the temple leads to the striking Mahanavami Dibba seated on which the royal family is said to have viewed the nine-day Dasera festival parades. The structure is a huge nine storied platform with carvings detailing the art of warfare inscribed on its walls.

The next stop is the famed Lotus Mahal, a summer retreat made for the queens in a lotus flower like structure. A fusion of the Indo-Muslim styles, the monument has a unique air cooling system. Within the same grounds are the huge and elaborate Elephants stables which housed the king’s 11 elephants.

Next is the most anticipated stop, the Vittala temple complex, known as one of the most splendid monuments of all times. A magnificent stone chariot with movable wheels in the temple complex is a shining example of Vijayanagara Architecture. Another testimony to the same is the Sangeeta Mandapa made of 56 finely carved stone pillars which emit different musical notes when struck.

As one says farewell to the city there is awe and silent admiration for those ancient builders. Thanks to them, today, more than 500 years after it was silenced, Hampi is still a city with many stories to tell.

Hindustan Times, June, 2005