Southern sojourn (2)

From Mamallapuram we headed south to Puducherry along the ECR – and here the stay was in sharp contrast! We had a comfortable, but austere room inside a convent. This was the fallout of the fact that I failed to find  a single room in the “White Town” (the French part of the town) in late September.  This particular place was recommended to me by a local contact. It was a large, old French style house, in which the Sisters had had 5 rooms for rent. The convent was known as the embroidery house, and it provided employment to more than 30 women of all ages who spent the day doing exquisite hand embroidery. It was obvious that the shop, selling these works of art, was not doing so well – and the decision to rent rooms to augment the income, must have been a difficult one for these Ladies of God!

The house was situated on a quiet road, just opposite the famous De L’Orient ( Nimrana group hotel) and offered basic amenities (no room service, for one) at 25% the cost. At the heart of the French quarter, and a street away from the sea front, it suited us fairly well. The cafes and restaurants within a few steps from the door were many and so the lack of room service was not really missed.

This part of the town, still retains quite a few of the original buildings, partly  I think because a substantial number of the buildings belong the Mother’s Ashram. The Ashram itself is one of the biggest draws of the town, although we did not venture to visit it – we were there on 31st December and 1st and 2nd of January – since the town was teeming with tourists, day trippers and the lines to enter were winding down the street. It was also the season of the bougainvilleas, and the shaded streets with the characteristic European colors on the houses, have an old world charm about them.

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The Seaside promenade is another attraction of the town. It is one of the few ‘traffic-free’ zones anywhere in the country – albeit only for 2 hours in the morning and 2 in the evening. One morning I had a wonderful morning walk and a cup of filter coffee, and then of course a couple of leisurely strolls at other times of the day as well. It has the mandatory Gandhi, Nehru, Ambedkar statues, but also an old lighthouse, the cathedral and a few other interesting buildings.

Across a small canal, which is now dry, lies the rest of the town, including the original Tamil part. In earlier times, the two would have been tightly segregated with the ‘servant’ class living in the Tamil part and crossing the bridges to work for their French masters. The Tamil quarters are less well preserved, although a couple of streets do give a flavor of a Tamil theruvu. 

Within the quiet streets of the White town are also a number of interesting shops, many of them selling the wares from Auroville. A visit to Auroville itself should be on the list of things to do in Puducherry, but somehow we felt a quick day trip may not be sufficient and so postponed to another time. But on the whole, a few days in this town are really relaxing, with the many restaurants serving excellent local Creole food, the many cafes and bakeries, the shops…… how I wish, it could be possible to make this whole section free of vehicles – I am sure it will add to the tourist lure!

A brief Southern sojourn(1)

shore templeA family wedding took me to Chennai in late December – and I stayed on for a few extra days to relax by the sea – first at the Radisson resort in Mammalapuram and then at Puducherry. Both destinations were busy with the holiday tourist crowd –

The Radisson is an upmarket resort which has been around for some years. It is comfortable with very average food options – but for water lovers like me, the 2 great swimming pools make up for all the other deficiencies. The 2 mornings we were there, I had very different experiences on #mymorningwalk. The first morning, I stepped on to the beach, hoping to walk southwards, to the shore temple which I could see in the distance. However, in the many years since my last visit, this approach is no longer possible as the temple complex has been barricaded from the beach side. So I turned around and walked north for a few kilometers. The weather was great and the sun was just coming up and although the beach was narrow at high tide, it was a lovely walk. Except for the landward sights – the whole distance I walked was a continuous series of resorts – of variable shades of elegance/or the lack of it. Many had constructions jutting onto the beach, including the State Government one – what of the ‘500 meter law’ (a 1991 law by which building in the 500 m from high tide line is prohibited) I wondered! The total lack of greenery was not all man made – the cyclone had ravaged this coast just a month previously.

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The next morning, I walked out of the front gate of the resort and into the town of Mammalapuram – with the intention of visiting the shore temple. After enjoying a fresh cup of filter coffee, I walked past the bustling tourists jostling for their street side breakfast, to reach the gates of the shore temple.

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The ticket office was open and here I was in for a surprise! The notice above the booking window said, Rs 30/ for Indians and Rs 500/ for foreigners.  Me in my tack suit and T, requesting for a Rs 30/ ticket in Tamil, was requested to produce ID proof of my Indianness!  I am sure the same was not demanded of the many in their sarees and veshtis – and no amount of arguing in the local tongue, would convince the very diligent booking clerk. He pointed out the large notice board which said somewhere said that an ID was required. So I had to be content with the distant view of the shore temple and closer view of the many fine pieces of stone carving, which are on display in the many shops along the main street.

And then we moved on to Puducherry for the rest of the sojourn!

So near and yet so far…..#mymorningwalk

A few weeks ago (mid-December, 2016)  a group of us (35-40) senior citizens, got together for an unstructured get together at a resort close to the NCR. It was 50 years since we first met as entrants to the medical college and  traditionally, the college which celebrates its alumni meet every year on 20th of December,  honours the Silver and Golden Jubilee batches. And the batchmates themselves plan to spend time together and catch up – in other words a total nostalgia trip!

The resort was about an 8-10Km off the Delhi-Jaipur highway, not more than an and half by road from the heart of the Capital. It was a reasonably furbished and run place (how many stars, I’m not sure), and although the food was not really great, the group was so excited about meeting after so many years that the minor faults/inconveniences did not seem to matter.

Mid-December was cold, but I a morning walk addict. So the first morning, I ventured out to walk around the resort. To one side of the hotel was a golf course around which were holiday villas and the whole place was green and picturesque – but the short distance around them was not very interesting.

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The second morning I decided to venture out of the resort and a short walk of less than a Kilometer, through the dense morning fog,  took me into the local village, Sarai. And it was a typical Haryanvi village – with a pleasant surprise thrown in.

The village road meandered inwards, and as I rounded the first corner, I cam across this wonderful old fort. I could not locate any specific history of this area – but in all probability it dates back to the 17th century  when the Jat Kingdoms were ruling many parts of present day Haryana.

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Of course, I could not gather any information from the local people with whom I interacted. For them these were some old ‘kandhars’ and a convenient location for the biggest local industry – cow dung cakes.

Conversing with these women,  I learnt that for them life revolves around cattle.  All the women, young and old, spent large amounts of time collecting the dung and making the cakes. Of course, many Government schemes had reached them, and all the houses had gas connections – but the gas was saved for making chai (which was made many times a day) and other emergency needs. Cow dung cakes continued to be the major fuel for their cooking, supplemented by collected wood, which was segregated and stored systematically. The importance of their cattle was evident, as every house had a large water tank at the front of the house and in temperature around 10 degrees C, the buffaloes were being washed down. The children looked less washed….

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As I talked to the women and children, an offer of tea was made, accepted, the charpai put out, a fire lit and we had a little chat session going.

It was school going time and I commented on the number of private school buses plying. I was told that the local Government school was upto class 8, and had good teacher attendance. But everyone preferred the private schools, and these were in  the nearby towns. 10-12 buses came to pick up children, and the fees could be anything upto Rs25,000/month for KG. But all girls and boys went to school, the Government high school was some distance away. The young men sitting and drinking tea with me rued the lack of  any job opportunities – the only local jobs were as cleaners, waiters, gardeners etc. at the resorts (like the one I was at) that have come up. The access to health was limited, the closest Government dispensary was 6 KM away and as in most of India, there is limited faith in the Government system. The private clinics were also in the nearby towns and so not very close by. Everyone was aware though, of the various schemes of the Government, like the ambulance system, payment for hospital delivery etc. Their biggest lament was the poor electricity supply  – they are happy if they have 6-8 hours a day.

By this time, the tea drunk , I  said my goodbyes and walked back to the resort,wondering how  so much has changed – like the ubiquitous TV dishes and TVs in every home, cell phones with so many, no one tills the field with a plough, threshers have replaced hand threshing and so on… yet so much remains unchanged. How near and yet so far…

Summer sojourn in Europe (1)

This is a long overdue post – am not quite sure why! I am usually enthusiastic about travel and have also been fairly regular about recording the experience through these blogs. But, following the fortnight I spent in Europe in late May/early June, I seem to have just overlooked recording the visit. In fact, I have uploaded very few posts since, for reasons I seem not to find! So, as I was hunting for some pictures, I saw the ones from the trip and decided to write about it, albeit with some loss of details.

My primary destination was Netherlands, where I have family. So there were get-togethers, meals, family visits etc. But apart from these, we also had some fun  outings – enough things to see and do, in spite of my many previous visits.

We had a day trip to Enkhuizen, a harbor town in the north of Holland. This was an outing of a group of 8 women in their late 60s and early 70s, who had started their working life together as nursing professionals, almost 50 years ago. They meet up once a year, in the summer to spend the day together, catching up on news and much else. This I found really interesting – being a small country, with limited emigration, people stay in touch for decades. Although of the same age group, I am in  touch with only  one of my school mates and of the 4-5 of my college mates,  we have lost 2 to cancer. Being from the  middle class background, many of us moved away from Delhi and met sporadically over the years. And in the pre-internet era, the occasional birthday card, letter was our only link. But even more importantly, culturally we tend to get drawn into the circle of husband/children/families and the expectations of society that endorses this – this being truer for the women than men.

Enkhuizen is itself an interesting town and was once one of the leading trading centers of the country and  a busy fishing town. However, the trading activities declined over time and today, the town is a tourist center. It has a large marina, where many boats are berthed. It also has the Zuiderzeemuseum, a cultural-historical open air museum, giving an impression of life around the former Zuiderzee in the late 19th and early 20th century. Central to the museum is a reconstructed fishermen’s village, with both authentic and replicated buildings from various places around the Zuiderzee, and where demonstrations of old crafts are given.

img_5752 You can reach the museum only by boat, and once you get there you are transported back in time. Great efforts have been made to reproduce the total ambience, even the after effects of a flood!

There are a host of people in traditional attire, and ongoing performances of traditional dances, music etc. – unfortunately the various talks and demos are all in Dutch. The  the ambience is well created and reminded me of Colonial Williamsburg in Virginia, USA which I had visited many decades ago. Its all in the open and so, you have to be lucky that the weather is dry!

The other day-outing was to the city of Rotterdam. While, many Dutch towns have the ‘preserved in time’ look, with the tall buildings only on the peripheral areas, Rotterdam is distinctly different. It was almost completely bombed out in WWII and has seen a large part of its centrum rebuilt. And as this has been an ongoing effort over many decades, it show cases some marvelous examples of modern architecture spanning these last 4-5 decades.Very little is left of the original Rotterdam, and they stand out in these fairly modern streets.

npls0703The Markthal was the most amazing market I have seen – totally walk through like a street, with wonderful murals on its walls, the outer wall being apartments.

img_6390The very new public library is amazing too, with magnificent interiors, open for all to wander through. And of course, the brand new central station is the pride of the city.

There was also a special installations to mark 75 years since Rotterdam began its post-war recovery – the impressive 29 metres high and 57 metres long scaffolding to  climb up onto the roof of the Groot Handelsgebouw –providing a magnificent  view of the city.

We walked for many hours and many, many kilometers and I am sure we had not  seen it all.  Walking is always the best way to see a city, and its wonderful that you can do it in so many European towns. One of the highlights of the walk was the street art – which just popped up – and there was also Picasso at one  street corner. It was a lovely summer day and so we did not waste any time indoors – no museums etc….. but what a wonderful day it was, ending with wine by the harbor!!

Its not all about booze,beaches and seafood- Goa (3)

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Sunset over Miramar, Panaji Goa

There is no doubt that its beaches are Goa’s major attraction. Although India has a long coastline and many other States have equally attractive beach destinations, the combination of its reputation as a laid back easy going society combined with the easy, low cost availability of booze  and sea food have made it a great favorite for many foreign and Indian tourists. It is a special favorite for many landlocked compatriots from North India. I do the Delhi-Goa-Delhi trip 2-3 times a year and there is never a flight without a few newly wed couples heading for their honeymoon (unless it happens to be one of the inauspicious months in the Hindu calender) and in the wedding season I have counted as many as 15 on a single flight.

On a recent short trip I made, I was surrounded by a group from Punjab, mostly first time fliers who were heading out on  a ‘monsoon’ special – a low cost offer made to fill un-booked rooms. Sure enough it being  June, we landed in pouring rain. It was raining almost continuously for the next 3 days, and it is doubtful if they saw anything but the rain on their 3-4 day trip. But, the booze and food would have helped them watch the rough seas and fulfill their  dream of having seen the sea. But, even in good weather, most visitors do not stray far from the seaside. Most of the tourist activities have come up along these beach resorts. But there is much more to Goa than just its beaches.

Being a coastal State, the Western Ghats are not far away and the flat coastal strip is fairly narrow. The whole region is always green, more so during and after the monsoon. While Gulf inflows and increasing incomes have led to a lot of modern construction, a drive inland away from the sea side,  takes you through the lush green country with its varied flora. Your drive will take you through small, villages where many old houses are standing as they have for a century and more. Recent prosperity and awareness are leading to more of them getting renovated. Away from the highway, traffic volumes are low as is the population pressure.

Due to its historical baggage, most of the temples one passes are recent additions – what is more evident are the churches and chapels. This gives visitors a false idea that it is a Christian culture, but Christians only constitute a third of the population and their influence culturally and politically has declined in the decades after liberation. Of course, it is a syncretic culture and many Catholic events like the Panaji Fest in February is a big event on the State calendar.There are many others as well and the remains of St Xavier which lies in Old Goa (a UNICEF World heritage site) are a huge attraction for the CAtholic devout from around the world. and many  small and big ‘jatras’ or fairs spring up of both along temples and churches at various times of the year.

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There is also some misconception regarding Goan food – there is far more to it than vindaloo and sorpotel, cafreal and xacuti. The Hindus traditionally, ate fish but not meat – when I first went as a bride to Goa, I don’t remember being served even chicken in any house. While coconut is a common feature, Hindu dishes are less spicy and use tamarind and kokum for the zingy taste rather than the vinegar used in Catholic cooking. We should remember that the although Indian food is famous for its spicy flavor, only pepper is native to India and we need to thank the  Portugese for bringing  in the green chilli, which we have appropriated as ourown.

Of course, over the last 3-4 decades, most of the younger generation of Hindus have taken to chicken avidly, pork is still mostly taboo in Hindu houses. Even the standard Goan fish curry, tastes different in different restaurants! The vegetarian cuisine is overshadowed by the fish-pork-beef trio, but has its own flavors and there are many unique dishes for the vegetarian palate as well. Just the taste of the vegetables and fruits, the long beans (vaal), the local giant sized bhindi (okra), the non-graft local papaya etc. are themselves a treat for a Delhiwalla. And finally, the local breads, pao, uno and poiee, are unparalleled and needs a write-up of its own.

And then there are the towns of Goa – few (Panaji, Mapusa, Margao) but interesting to wander around. The town centers are compact and bustling and are busy commercial hubs. I am not very familiar with the others, but Panaji has much to offer. Many of the old Portugese buildings are still used as Government offices like beautifully renovated old Goa medical college which is now the home of the International Film Festival. The area of Fontainhas is a protected area and gives you a flavor of Lisbon. And if you stroll along the covered corridors, you could peek into shops with original teak cupboards standing unchanged for a century.

The markets should be visited in the morning, when the fish sales are at their peak. Other produce is also fresh and often off the farms. You can get hand pounded rice, poha and hand made papad, all of which I stock up on these visits.

There is also a fair share of cultural activity, with the highlight being the annual International Film Festival in November. Goa is the home of the Mangeshkars and has a strong tradition in the classical arts and many artists perform through the year. Panaji has the beautifully Charles Correa designed Kala Academy to host these events. For the last few years there is also a Literary festival which is fairly highly rated. The unique Konkani Tiatr, a mixture of song and short skits which of late address current issues with wit and humor.

And there is much more, and since I am not doing tourism promotion for Goa, I will leave it there. But, being a second home for me, I felt that I needed to voice my feelings. I trust that some of you out there will try and go beyond the beaches and try to see more of the State.

P.S. And I forgot to mention the recent addition to the culture scene, the Museum of Goa. Set up by Subodh Kerkar, a well known GOan artist at Pilerne Industrial Estate, Bardez it is an interesting exhibition space which displays his own work as well as many other contemporaries. It also hosts a variety of cultural evens and workshops related to art and artists. Its big negative is that it is a bit off the track and one has to make a special effort to get there!