Posted in Rajasthan, travel

Zostel? – For a GenZ travel experience!

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I have been traveling around my country since 14 years now. I often find myself in places that would either be extra ordinary or out of the ordinary.  India is a beautiful country and the people here are all the more beautiful, anyone who has been here will vouch for that. We are the perfect example of hospitality and not just traditional but also blend it with a pinch of modernity. If there was one thing that I had to pick up about India from a travelers’ perspective, I’d say, we are naturally hippie!

We are the messengers of peace and brotherhood, propagators of love and warmth. We open our hearts and let everyone in. And we like it that way, we are proud of our hospitality, of all those small and big things that we not only care about but also share. I sometimes dream of another life where I am born in another world and I am drawn to this country and get amazed as I see these cultures like an outsider. Yet again I fall in love with this land.

Whether born as an Indian or not, the heart is forever Indian. And I witness how men and women from the west are attracted to the east. We welcome them, sometimes be one of them and let them be one of us. We celebrate being together, and spread the joy that comes from wandering.

It is during these wandering tours that I end up meeting people who love India. Whether it is tent pitched under the stars on a lonely hill, a chamber hall behind a popular temple where you can spend the night for free, a verandah of the only school in the village, a 150 year old traditional house in the forest or a bunk bed shared dormitory, I have tried them all. Life actually happens in all of these interesting and not so luxurious accommodations.

One such exhilarating experience came from a recent stay at a Hostel in Rajasthan. Though the state is known for its luxurious homecomings, there is space for the traveler on road. At Pushkar and Udaipur, I booked myself a shared dormitory bed at Zostel. An upcoming and expanding chain of hostels across India, this brand is catching up fast with its must have presence in must go places.

For me, it was the first time that I stayed at a traveler’s hostel and within no time I could see how it was adding value to my solo trip. First things first, it was very economical, commendably clean and a fantasy perk for the eyes. The moment you enter, you see those big cushions lined up across the wall with a low bedding, and all you want to do is jump on them. The hanging bulbs from the ceiling and the mythological graffiti on the walls were making it look very attractive. The house has the local aesthetics, the people have local warmth and the cuisine has local taste, all that a global traveler needs.

The rooftop restaurants besides the ‘cook your own food’ facility is also the chilling zone and the heart of these Zostels. Great food is accompanied by great music, a fantastic view and an amazing company. Friendships strike over everything here – be it your book, your collection of country music, a drag of your light or simply a lemonade. There is a breeze of stories, mild as well as wild, that gives a great vibe to this place. I spent a soothing afternoon at Zostel Pushkar and a chirpy talkative evening at Zostel Udaipur. When conversations get a view, they sound more intimate and the comfort zone builds up flawlessly at Zostel.

Apart from the relaxing and chilled out scenes at this traveler’s hostel, they also offer other travel related services like ticket booking, travel inquiries and nearby offbeat day trips. Another add on is the wifi service which enables a ‘work on the go!’ which is a booster for many who travel. If you are not looking for something formal and can adjust to the free spirit, then I am sure, Zostel is your hideout.

The next on my mind is Zostel @ Varanasi, it is a city that is said that every Hindu should visit once in their life.

 

Posted in Life Travel, Rajasthan, shiva, travel

Is Pushkar the new Hampi ?

I have been to Pushkar a long time ago and I vaguely remember the colorful bazaars and the saffronized Ghats of the Pushkar Lake. However, I distinctly remember the Brahma temple, the only Brahma temple in the world, making Pushkar a uniquely important spot for the followers of Hinduism. The atmosphere here is very spiritual, there are stories about the cursed creator, which almost everyone lives by and there is a lake in the desert that amazes everyone. Despite its relevance in the religious circles of India, it has managed to remain a tiny town with no real projection of its own. This perhaps, brings Pushkar on the world tourist map, especially for the ones who wish to disconnect. And this is precisely what I wanted for myself. I have been following the social media posts for Pushkar lately and I wonder what attracts the young to this undeveloped and undisturbed town that sees almost no action all day long.

The town of Pushkar is spread within a few kilometers only. The road from Ajmer that leads to Pushkar is a hilly terrain with some simple curves. The hills that you would be turning around are dusty, rugged and uprooted; they are rather rocky than tall making themselves very distinct from the skyline, they look vulnerable, dry and dead. They are not yet parched by the sun for the summer heat will snatch away any of the life left in them. They are spread far and wide, commonly also known as the Pushkar Tirathgarh Forest. There is an enticing route leading in that you would come across on the way. If only I was not sitting in the bus and had a bike to ride inside, it would have been an adventurous day.

Nevertheless more adventures were waiting for me up ahead. In no time, I reached the Pushkar bus stand. I had already made my bookings with Zostel, one of the most upcoming hostel chains in India. A GenZ concept, this one had all the cues of a cool and free spirited stay. A bunk bed cleanly prepared, just next to a rooftop restaurant, sharing the dormitory with travelers across the globe, bean bags and floor beddings everywhere, creative graffiti and posters, the ambience was just right to spend the day.

As I spent the breezy afternoon, lazing on a yellow bean bag, listening to some psychedelic music, I suspended myself to this carefree atmosphere of Pushkar. With no one around and no thoughts on mind either; I was smiling for being there. Sometimes, these simplest of experiences become the most precious of all. Being alone and yet not lonely counts as one of the richest moments of life.

The evening was spent exploring the town of Pushkar which spreads in only a few kilometers. As I walked out of my hostel towards the main bazaar, I kept revisiting my time in Hampi.

Is Pushkar the new Hampi? I wondered.

Amidst all its innocence and ignorance, Pushkar boasts of significant global attractions, a culture of peace, a carefree attitude towards life and no signs of fast paced urban development making it a hotspot for the hippie tourists. I could see another Hampi in its streets. Randomly spread rocks, unfinished houses, cows everywhere, open drains, selfless people, command over various languages, a sun that bakes the place during summer but keeps the sky bright, the hindu trails, a long treasured history, all those small yet noticeable things were coming to my mind. These places refuse to accept the urban phenomenon but happily embrace the humans of the world.

While Hampi has more historic signs, Pushkar is witness to the spiritual signs of life. There is a sincere sense of devotion towards the Hindu Gods, there are sadhus who withdraw from the conventional life and accept the beggars’ lifestyle and there are tourists, both Indian and foreign who want to be a part of it.

These long bearded Sadhus are found at every nook and corner of the town. Many immersed in high spirits most of the time, they keep a possession of their own delusions, it never seems like they have any kind of connection left with the rest of the world and yet they are pretty much a part of the Hindu clan. They are the true wanderers of our planet; they are the ones without motives and plans.

The Chota Bazaar of Pushkar that also leads to the Pushkar Lake and further to the Brahma Temple is the major attraction of Pushkar. I entered the colorful Bazaar and reminisced the last time I came to this vibrant corner of the world. It is only the name that calls this place small, actually the market stretches a long way and makes way for 52 possible ways to reach to the lake. Varaha Ghat, one of the most sacred spots, appears suddenly on the way inside the market and gives a wide angle view of the Pushkar Lake set in the valley. From the steps that lead down to the waters, one can see the far end of the lake, and the sun that seems to set in the forest beyond.

The Chota Bazaar of Pushkar that also leads to the Pushkar Lake and further to the Brahma Temple is the major attraction of Pushkar. I entered the colorful Bazaar and reminisced the last time I came to this vibrant corner of the world. It is only the name that calls this place small, actually the market stretches a long way and makes way for 52 possible ways to reach to the lake. Varaha Ghat, one of the most sacred spots, appears suddenly on the way inside the market and gives a wide angle view of the Pushkar Lake set in the valley. From the steps that lead down to the waters, one can see the far end of the lake, and the sun that seems to set in the forest beyond.

Mythological tales of this lake suddenly appearing in this deserted region makes it all the more significant. Endless stories of Lord Brahma and his encounters with his angry wife, the falling of the two lotus flowers and the lake that appeared overnight, every being here has grown up knowing these facts and the belief is stern. It is the strong faith that people live by, keeps the spiritual fire alive.

The Brahma Temple in Pushkar is the only Brahma Temple in this world. The God of creation is praised, adored and shown reverence in this otherwise insignificant town of Pushkar. Not only is there a Brahma temple to be visited here, as I checked the map of this place I also happened to come across a mosque and a sikh dham (Gurudwara) in the vicinity.

The beauty of Pushkar, and even Ajmer for that matter is the coexistence of and the attitude of sharing the space with other religions, despite the stronghold of one of them.  This was a trip dedicated to witnessing the spiritual symbolism, only differentiated from one another by means of culture and old established religions. Starting my trip by visiting the dargah, followed by the visit to Brahma temple and ending the journey in the warmth of Gurudwara, it became a kaleidoscopic journey into the rituals of peace.

I concluded this solo voyage at the bazaar of Pushkar, brimming with colorful vibes that is so in tune with Rajasthan. The picture postcards, the loosely hung bags with glass and thread works on them, the usual handprints on the modern designs of clothes, all of them make this bazaar a concoction of new and the old. There are newly opened cafes serving world cuisines that typically reminded of Hampi and how the remotest of places in India are accepting the farthest of cultures.

Italian food was on my mind since morning and I was affirmative to get it. I looked at the pale blue evening sky as I relished olives, jalapenos, mushrooms all wrapped in the molten cheese over a thin crust. I walked back happy, though a bit confused about the way back as there are too many forky ways that dissect and are hard to identify after dusk.

If unwinding is a part of your plan, then let Pushkar be on your list. You can be with the wind and your own thoughts at just the pace that you want to be in. If you are a solo female traveler, you can leave behind the safety related worries and have the peace in your mind.

Posted in Rail Journeys, Rajasthan, travel

On a winter morning, At Ajmer Sharif Dargah

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Are you a solo traveler in India? Are you a female solo traveler in India? More so, are you a female solo traveler paving your way towards Ajmer? Here are a few generic insights culled out from my recent trip to Dargah Sharif, where was laid the foundation stone of Islam.

The distance to Ajmer can be set in an overnight train from Delhi, if you are a loner, prefer booking your berth in the AC coach for a few logical reasons. The co passengers are more trustworthy, you can trust them with the luggage in case you want to use the loo. If it is a wintery night, you get clean bedding that makes your night journey more comfortable.

Once you reach Ajmer, use the G-maps to find out the way. Dargah is at a walkable distance from the railway station as well as the bus stop. Beware of the rickshaw-walas who might want to charge you a hefty amount knowing that you are a tourist in their city.

There are different gates to reach the Dargah. The Laxmi Bazaar entrance is the nearest from the station. It is absolutely safe to cross check your way with the locals there but make sure you ask at least a handful of people to get a confirmation on the way. There are quite a few twists and turns on the way; the bazaar lanes branch out into a multitude of routes which the G-map might not be able to identify.

Once you are closer to the Dargah, you would be approached by many shop owners to buy items that you can donate at the Dargah. Be very conscious of buying, in case you do not want to donate, do not be bothered by their constant nagging. In case you change your mind later, there are shops within the Dargah as well. Many of them will also trick you into removing the shoes and keeping it in their shop; make sure you do not fall for one of those. There are proper facilities available within the Dargah and it is best to use them. They are safe and closest to what you can get.

If you are one of those tourists who like to spend a lot of time understanding the history and architecture of the monument, or if you are one of those who like to immerse in the spiritual vibe of the shrine, or even if you are one of those who like to spend a comfortable time with the God within the shrine, make sure you carry minimum luggage with you and in fact nothing significant. Ajmer Sharif Dargah is usually a very crowded spot, owing to its significance in the religious history of India. Even though luggage deposit services are available, it is hard sometimes to manage everything manually, which can lead to an increased probability of losing the stuff. The crowd is immense during the Urs and other Islamic festivals. A high alert level should come in handy at a place like this.

Usually one tends to be immersed in the sufi vibe of this place but being a solo visitor can make you lose the carefree vibe. While it is important to enjoy the peace of the place, it becomes equally important to not lose the peace of our own mind. Personally, I chose a mundane Monday morning to visit the Dargah; it was not surprising to find a lot of walking space and yet witness the sincere dedication and offerings of the faithful.

There is a tint of green in everything you see inside the Dargah. The old monument is intact and holds the history of many generations within. Many emperors have witnessed the rise of Islam through this very land. A faith of many centuries is visible and strongly held in the practices followed even in this modern age.  Some of the archaic traditions are still in practice. From invocations to blessings, many there have something to seek from Allah; many also are searching for themselves, within their soul. It is a common sight to see humans rolling themselves on the floor, crying out loud, just so the God hears them, accepts them and give them what they want. Some of these traditions seem to be unnerving in today’s age.  But then there is also the most natural, and always within range, the sufi music, which is soothing and soul touching. It has the shine of the sun and the depth of the ocean. It has the divinity which not only reaches for the clear conscience but also touches the surreal depths of the heart. If I had more time and no further travel plan, I would have waited in the shrine to see, hear and absorb more of this music that fills the air.

I was getting somewhat conscious being alone there and was not up to the highest mark of my carefree capabilities. I decided to take an early bus to Pushkar, 15 kilometers from Ajmer, where I was looking forward to explore some of the more unique pilgrimages of India.

As I found out my way out from the Dargah, the first thing I saw was a Hindu temple and a little further, on the main road, was a church. It fills me with wonderment every time I see these tiny yet significant examples of the national integration and harmony. In a pro-Islamic area, there is space and an open heart for the other cultures to co-exist. This is the true India that the world needs to see!

Posted in European Trips, Life Travel, road trips, travel, UK Dairies

10 things that crossed my mind, in Nottingham

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Nottingham happened long after my Scottish holiday. I was mostly sauntering at the Rising Sun Country Park in New Castle, because it was the most accessible and the most peaceful around my home stay there. I conversed with the strong, gusty winds if I should do the next leg of the trip. There was a lot more to see and experience in this town but the south of England was luring too. The winds convinced me that it was yet another chance to be on the road, meet a few people out there you haven’t seen in a long time and no one really knows when will be the next chance to do so. A large wave of thoughts swept my mind and this led to book my tickets. I was ready to see the next high street, Next River and most importantly the next deck of hills, but this time more residential than solitary.

It was a short stay at Nottingham; life here was a bit fast paced than New Castle. At first sight, it appeared to be a hub of the Asian community, a bit too crowded and a bit too untidy. There were lesser countrymen and more immigrants visible. Very soon it also started appearing to be a student city, not just because of the display advertisements of the colleges in the city but also because of the part time jobbers who fill up the supermarkets and food joints. Many a things that I was observing around were regular, daily bits of life for them and yet appeared to be so different and sometimes strange for an outsider.

Here are a few things that I took note of in Nottingham, however, I wouldn’t hesitate in saying that they pretty much define the life around this country.  Though they are common in the West, I wish the East, especially India picked them up.

  • World Radio Frequency – Radio never fails to surprise me. It is a forever young idea to listen to a song that pops up on the radio out of nowhere. What was even more surprising was to catch a bollywood number on an international frequency. It was probably the last thing that I would expect in a foreign land but made me the happiest of all. Radio, the communication stream that can never go out of fashion, and carries these little bundles of joy. I was happy to hear a Shahrukh Khan’s movie song playing here in Nottingham and what would be equally interesting will be to catch the latest Ed Sheeran’s song reaching out to me when I reach back home.

 

  • Skateboarding – The kids live by their boards, no matter where they go, they want to be on their own two wheels, even if it means an extra luggage to carry around. The feeling of being able to fly, of being on their own and the one of being unstoppable, all come in a package. The fun lies in being able to twist and swipe through the herds and yet not losing the speed. English kids have certainly mastered the skill.

 

  • Cycling – A city without a defined cycling path is a city that needs restructuring. A city with a cycling path is the one that never turns old. Cycling, in my opinion, is the most natural expression of freedom and independence. Whether you are competing with the wind or you are slyly moving the wheels and singing along, the joy of riding was visible around the city of Nottingham. Besides, there is never an age for it; it is something that everyone here loves to do. As I see the rising number of cyclists back home, I only wish there were safer paths.

 

  • Running – Runners need no set paths; they only need destinations and clean air for their lungs. It is a sport without props; all that I saw in people here was the motivation to run.

 

  • A central river – Though it is a natural historic phenomena that cities in their early days developed around the source of water, in modern days, many cities are losing the sheen and shine of their rivers. That however is not the case with Nottingham. Trent River flows through the center of the city, the embankment is well covered with the greener shades and the river is put to use for some really interesting activities. As I walked along the embankment, I saw some houseboats, which I was told were the permanent houses of the families living within them. They, apparently, loved the idea of being on water rather than being on earth. I even feel, it is a great idea to have a home which is just easily movable. Apart from these floating families, there were rowers, speedily rowing across the length of the river. They caught my attention for a really long time. They were fast, moving in an organized way, synergized in their actions. All their energies were put in just one act and whosoever did it the best was always ahead. It may be too much to demand for developing this sport back home but it would not be wrong to demand for the redevelopment of the central river of my city again.

 

  • Country Parks – Country Parks are the proof that we are able to maintain the natural habitat of our area and that we are still closely connected to nature. While we may not be able to go on adventure holidays all the time, we would not mind to get a glimpse of dense, forest-like, natural trails around the house. The green cover of Nottingham is worth the attention it gets from its people.

 

  • Pet-walking – Talk about dogs, cats and rabbits and there is none you will not find here in Nottingham. While some need hand holding, some others are sincerely obedient. There are not just dog lovers around the city but also bird lovers and animal lovers. From horses to rabbits, everyone is pettable. The love for animals is unavoidable here; there is a pie of cuteness in every living being here. My favorite was a rabbit named Jessica, who is fond of strawberries and can chew on them all day long.

 

  • Old Age Enthusiasm – It is not just the animals that are being cared for, everyone who needs attention are entertained here. I happened to witness some feeble, old souls with a very strong heart and a desire to live. Their spirit of life, their will to keep going, their bodily incapability being supported mechanically and the ever shining bright smile that they never forget to carry is evidence that the city never ceases on hope and happiness.

 

 

  • Intended Politeness – This is the one I wish I could pack in my bag and take along with me. What they taught us in our childhood, is practiced all their lives. The mannerism, the amiability, the expressions that kills the ego, they have it all in abundance. It is totally harmless here to be polite; in fact it is a bit negative to be mean and arrogant. It is very easily assumed here that you too will maintain the politeness, but what wrong does it do! It is one of those things that they say speaks aloud of your character.

 

  • Public Display of Affection – And this one is my most favorite. This is the one that brings a wide smile to me. If only love was more acceptable in everybody’s eyes, would there be lesser hatred around. I see it as a sign of hope, as a sign that we all need a little bit of expression in our lives. And an expression of love is also an expression of freedom. The more we can feel it around, the better we are.

Nottingham is the quiet kind of place where I sat and observed. The home stay where I was staying was situated on the hill top, the one that descended downwards and with each descend spread out far and wide, with little houses built in this expanse where the people who carried these small acts each and every day lived. The window of this room opened to the whole city, the city that was vibrant yet simple. No matter how much I was enjoying the simple acts of life here, many of them making the mundane life interesting, I had already started missing my kaleidoscope; my plethora of cultures, food and people. But hey! Not so soon! The Kaleidoscope of England; the city of London was still undone. And that is where I was going to bunk for the next few nights.

Posted in European Trips, Forests, road trips, travel, UK Dairies

Scotland; The Highlands!

See more in UK Dairies

Imagine your routine life in one of the cities of Northern England. Biting cold, uncanny rains, football fever and running and cycling in the country park are some of the most common experiences that you would live by. The other commonalities will include your frequent visits to the local grocery stores, spending the evenings by the river that flows through the city and enjoying an after work beer in the neighbourhood pub on Fridays. While some may be interested in digging deep into the local history and heritage, some others are keen on drowning into the night life and yet feeling high. Most of you would agree that this pretty much looks like the highlight reel of a common man’s life in any of the cities that they may be residing in. But what takes me particularly to the “Northern” part of England is its proximity to the Scottish landscapes.

Analogically speaking, it is like having an urban life in Delhi and dreaming of Himalayas almost every alternate weekend. In my opinion, it is the holiday destinations around the establishment that makes any location unique.

For a city like New Castle, towards the Northern coast of England, planning a holiday in Scotland is the most obvious thing to do. The summer of 2016 shaped some of my imaginations to reality. During my stay in New Castle, I spent a week amidst the gorgeous glens, lustrous lochs and the wanderous woodlands of Scotland. My ideal holiday was recreated, though very far from my own home and yet close to my home stay in Europe. I lost myself on the spectacular streets of a Scottish village, raged on the road to Fort William, the dream drive that should have never ended, posed for a ‘pretty’ and ‘touristy’ pictures on the banks of Loch Lomond and strolled onto some of the many nature-trails that attracts the explorers to Scotland.

Unlike the weather which always remains unpredictable, the enthusiasm to explore remains a constant here. Whether you are a novice or a seasoned traveller, whether you are a nature lover, adventure lover or culture lover, there is a bit of every taste on the platter. And though five days would never feel enough, I could gladly sweep through some of the popular spots in the centre of this coastal country. During my stay in Scotland I mostly belonged to the clan of nature lovers adding only a flavour of cultural and touristy activities.

Here are a few things that you may be keen on doing depending on the permit granted by the Weather Gods.

Loch Lomond and Trossachs National Park is one of the most popular and easily accessible travel destinations in Scotland. We pre-decided the driving route, crossed the English-Scottish borders in style; received a musical welcome from a Scottish piper as we officially entered Scotland but it was miles to go before we reached our destination.

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After a six hours long drive, we reached at a holiday park in Rowardenann, where we had our cottage booked. A word of caution for the travellers, it is advisable to reach here before it gets dark as you would drive amidst a dense forest and the road tends to be tricky towards the end. No, it is not the lochness monster but the tipsy topsy roads, some of which lead nowhere. We ended up on one of these roads, it was nothing less than an adventure, with the water body on the left and a fierce forest on the right, we were almost frozen with fear inside the car. Dark is a dangerous hour to drive, yet somehow we managed to find ‘The Hoot’.

The Hoot, our home for the next five days, on the banks of Loch Lomond, was a wooden cottage owned by Fiona, a Scottish lady who we did not actually meet. Very similar to caravan holiday, this felt more like a complete home to ourselves. As I cuddled myself up in the blanket, I thought of the next five days, they were going to be exciting. I was at one end of the forest, there was a loch outside the cottage adjoining the hills, a broken internet connection, a pub outside the cottage that plays live music, a cute village at the other end of the forest and the zillion of walks that I could do to explore the greeny side. Not to forget, I was sitting at the foot of Ben Lomond, one of the most popular highland walks in the region. But here I was, engulfed inside the velvety blanket, two pegs down, still thinking of what all should I be doing. There was so much to do that I did not want to rush myself into everything. After all, I was on a holiday and the idea was also to chill along with exploring.

Day two, I lazily woke up to the view of a tall tree behind which was the loch widely spread. The wooden deck was wet but the Robins visited us quite often. As I stepped outside the glass door on the wooden deck, I was mesmerized with the dusky clouds that were settled onto the hills. The sun light made sure it pierced through the clouds making the hills even more noticeable. I was absorbed into the view for a while, a screenshot was placed before me and I did not want any icons on my screen.

It wasn’t very cold and windy, the weather prediction of the day was pretty much suitable for a day out. In a jiffy, we decided to hit the road towards Ben Navis, Fort William. Fort William is one of the very popular towns in the Scottish highlands, towards the western coast. The road to Fort William takes you through the Glen Coe mountain ranges, the ones that cast their spell on you. At first, they seem lonely and barren, as if untouched and uninhabited. But they are not soulless. They proliferate through the highlands, standing erect and uniformly shaped; they do not go out of sight. Some make way for the seasonal rivulets that come to life during the monsoons and traverse a long distance. Many are covered with long grasses that make it challenging to climb them on wet days, nevertheless hold the gravel on the slope. It was a delight to see people hiking in random directions for reaching to the top was something very attractive here.

Some of these mountains were desolate, as if they never needed a company. The sun shone brightly on them as well, and they stood tall with pride. All throughout the way, the clouds darted a dark shadow on these mountains, they were varied in shape and intensified by the sunrays.

As I absorbed this gorgeous beauty of the journey, I also immersed myself in the music; there was no chattering and these hills whispered slowly to us. They diverged and converged, making enough space to embrace us. The awestruck expression flashing on our faces and the glittering eyes admiring the nature were the proof that we were grateful for this day in our lives. As a token of thanks and as a way of hugging these mountains back, we stepped down from our car and climbed one of these hills. They greeted us with warmth and we became unstoppable as we stepped down. The trail went up as far as the eyes could see; we were glued to the trail for as long as there were no stones to block our way. Once the way blacked out, we turned around to witness what we had gained – view and peace. Certainly we were not on top of the world, nevertheless we were still standing at a spot from where the world was visible. We were on a highland.

The day came to an end too soon. We were still in awe of what we saw when we reached home. What tempted us now were some freshly baked pizzas and a bottle of scotch.

Day three came soon; a little drippy and drowsy. The clouds populated the sky so intensely that we couldn’t muster up the courage to explore around the loch. It was best to bring out the board and card games while still stealing a glimpse of the Loch Lomond. After repeated failures to take a walk outside, we finally settled down with a cup of coffee on Uno. We enjoyed the drizzle from within the closed doors, without cold and without wet. Only the sound splattered on the wooden deck and the drops trickled down the glass windows. The old hills exhibited new colours; in some places new waterfalls sprung out and the clouds started to dissolve as it poured.

Once the sky was clearer, we decided to explore a few natural trails around the loch. International Youth Hostel was just outside of our holiday park, on the foothills of Ben Lomond. It is as peaceful as a forest and yet very close to the road. On one side the view opens to a loch with a dock for ferry taxis, and on the other side was the path to Ben Lomond. Up and up it went, for a few miles, as if touching the clouds, like the beard of a man in his fifties, slightly white and slightly grey, entangled into each other with no definite proportions.

The more I looked towards Ben Lomond, the more I got intrigued. I wanted to climb it and see what was beyond the clouds. Probably there was another milestone to reach for it was a long long walk to the top of Ben Lomond. I surely was curious but I did not have the right gear. Soon it was going to rain and I would be not ready to face the harshness. I cuddled it through my eyes and decided to walk back. It was a bit sad walk while going back but not a long one. I opened up another Beer on the dining table, along with some Punjabi beats to uplift my mood again. As the sun set further down, I rolled back through the day in my head.  The Clansman bar must be full of Scotch lovers cosily sitting by the fireplace. The Rowardannan Hotel, by any chance do they serve Indian Food? I doubt them. How very exciting it would have been if I was in one of the caravan parks, along with a tent. It would have been perfect to pitch it under the stars now. But the clouds are being nasty again, so I guess Hoot is just perfectly warm for me. Besides, I have never stayed in a wooden lodge before. All the thoughts kept running through my mind like a fast speed bullet train. This is a place I would visit again in this life. Don’t know when but I am hopelessly optimistic about it. And what adds to my hope is the Youth Hostel in the vicinity.  They only cost 20 Pounds per night for a dormitory accommodation (and 23 pounds for non members). Sadly they do not rent out bikes but they compensate by being located on the foot of Ben Lomond. And around next time, I am not stepping out without the trek gear, I whispered to myself before slipping into my sleep mode.

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Day four arrived with sunshine, accompanied with a lot of wind. We were yet to decide our plan of action for the day. It was a bright day to explore the vicinity; we could have taken a walk on one of the few natural trails in the forests. There was one besides the loch; another one was into the forest reserve and a few more circular trails which were long. I surely wanted to be in the jungle but I also longed to witness the city around. Since, there was no major town in our vicinity we decided to touch upon the local culture by driving to the nearest village. Drymen, a local town, twelve miles away from Rowardannan is a cute little thing that exists on the outskirts of the forest reserve. We parked our car in one of the local car parks and started to walk around. It was a weekday and so the children were busy at school. The walls of this primary school were not high, they were bricked to a level where the little ones could simply lean against and gaze at the outside world. Their smiles attracted us to them; we moved forward and exchanged greetings. Soon the lunch break got over and they had to run back to fall in queues. There is never an enough site of happy children, full of energy and freedom. While the kids were having a busy day at school, the nannies and the grannies were enjoying the sunlit day with their pets. It is one of the most common sights to see people walking with their pets, looks like a moment of de-stress in their lives. The happy heart is extended to the pets and also to the oldies of the town here. As I walked forward I came across the public community hall where there are held weekly meetings for fighting against dementia and depression. People are encouraged to spend time with the oldies by making it a part time profession. Young blood can bring the positive energies to the lives of the others, they feel.

On walking a little further down the road, I saw the cutest bicycle shop ever. It was a shop painted red, with some really groovy bicycles hanging around. There were merchandise too, like coffee mugs with bicycle handles on the sides, the dry fit jerseys and many other things. But it was mainly the bikes that were sturdy. Across the road there was a garden where we sat on the bench and ate our sandwiches. Suddenly we were in the picnic mode, but with a lot of quiet. We maintained the quiet ourselves and focussed just on our sandwiches and juice followed by the chocolates. No one seemed to take notice of us. There were hardly any humans seen around, most of them kept busy with their work. And then we saw a few backpackers walking around, giving a touristy feel to the place. At first, they seemed to have lost their way but soon they picked up bicycles from the red shop and made their way. I was astonished to see that the shop did anything and everything related to biking, even rent some of them. And when I took my eyes off this shop, suddenly my eyes fell upon the Drymen Village Shop. I took no time to see what was inside a village shop. It was quite clear to me by now that villages in India and villages in Europe have a totally different outlook. Inside the Drymen Village Shop, there were souvenirs and other cultural nuggets that reflected Scotland in every ounce. Scottish bread, scotch blends, picture postcards with yak on them, the red cheque hats; every little thing there said to us – Take home a little bit of Scotland, with you! And I could not resist buying the postcards from there. It was the best place to send memories home. And with a bag full of memories myself, we drove back to the Hoot. On the way back, we took a break in the Sallochy car park and fed bread to the ducks.

The energies of the forest and the whispering of the winds in my ears convinced me to enter the green tunnel. The trees were dancing to the tunes of the wind, the water of the loch was singing along with the wind, and I was the witness to this mesmerizing show of the nature. I along with my silence took that path, the one that was visible only for a mile. And the rest of it was a hunt for a treasure.  The hidden treasure that was glorious, the one that is found again and again and again, but only on these paths, in the fragrance of the loch, in the fall of the leaves, in the chirping of the birds and above all in the silence of the nature. I decided to get lost into the divine and fearlessly walked in. In no time, I had lost the network zone, any human sight or contact and was all by myself. There was some sort of curiosity as I climbed up, and slowly some fear also peeped in, what if this is not the way. The arrows helped but they were only a few. The sun was going down, adding more to my anxiety. The natural surroundings were calming me down but being alone was making me freak a bit. I took a deep breath and poured all my senses into what was around me. There came a moment, when it felt beautiful and in that very moment I knew there is nothing to be scared of. There were no assumptions, no hypothesis as to what would happen. I left myself on the mercy of nature and I know someone up there had a close watch on me. For the next two hours I walked on the path, a few drops of rain also fell on me. On one of the turns I found myself closer to the loch. I could see a larger part of loch from this edge and it was here that I took a sigh, Bingo! I was on the right path. But it was miles to go before I would be back to the human settlements. I crossed a bereft old hay factory, which was now a part of the forest. It belonged to old Mr Bill, he who did not seem to be bothered about it anymore. As I crossed it, I met an American couple hiking into the forest. We exchanged glances and for a moment wondered as to why are we the only ones here. It was quite a popular trail but none to be found here. That is probably the beauty of Scottish forests, there are people around but they do not bump into you so easily. There are enough routes and channels to get lost and then be found again. We never met again and yet reassured each other of the presence. Soon after I hit the main road and left the forest behind me. It was a long and tiresome walk, once I was back on the road, I took charge of my senses again to be careful on the road. Rowardannan was just around the corner, a few steps away from the exit. I gladly paved my way towards the Hoot and with a big smile on my face, entered in.

Day five, I woke up with the thought of soon saying good bye to this place. It has been going pretty well till now but as they say all good things have to come to an end. Nevertheless, today was not the end. Today was another unplanned day which we did not want to spend inside the lodge. The weather was unpredictable but still left some hope for us. Hope for no rains. By now, we had become well versed with the kitchen and breakfast skills came in like a quickie. The eggs and bacon were ready, all we had to do was toast some bread with butter. On the breakfast table, the discussion was all about the rest of the day.

The important question to ask was if we wanted a long drive or a shorter one would suffice. Some of us still wanted to walk more and explore on foot. Internet was reaching out to us in bits and pieces and we were making judicious use of it. A safari park nearby popped up on doing a closer research. The public reviews of it also seemed very positive. For us, it meant a perfect blend of driving and walking. Till the park, it wasn’t a very long drive, suited us aptly for the day and within the park we walked around quite a bit. Located in the Stirling area, it was a one hour drive from the Hoot. We didn’t pack much food along, except for the munchies. Rains distorted us for quite some time but as we purchased the tickets, the day gradually started to brighten up. I was astonished to see that they handed us the map of the park, it was the first time ever that I was going for a safari. To call it a zoo would definitely be an understatement. The natural stance was maintained here by a huge team, making it a grand show in itself. From Asian to African, all sorts of animals and birds, big or small are stationed here. There are wild animals, calm animals, never moving animals (rhino), always busy eating animals(elephants), show presenting animals(sea lion show), animals across the river(apes), free spirited animals, anything that you may think of, is found here. The only drawback is that each time you have to park the car to visit the bay. Though it was a good walk, it was a bit too tedious at times. It would have been a little bit more fun had it been possible to take the car a bit closer, we could just roll down the window and say hello.

But never mind the walking, I had not seen so many animals in one place before. The drive from Stirling to Rowardennan is a straight one. It feels like put your favourite music on and put the car on cruise control. Enjoy the view on the sides and munch your muffin while looking at the odd shapes of the clouds. As we reached back to our cottage, we were slightly tired and slightly sad. Tired from the day’s walking and sad about this being the last day of our holiday. Tomorrow will be the last sunrise that I will see over the loch, I said to myself. Without much a thought, I put myself to sleep, cuddled under the blanket.

As we started our journey on Saturday, some jolly good thoughts hovered over my mind. Past few days were really the days that I always dreamt of while sitting back in India. The Scottish hills are one of the firsts that I have seen, apart from Himalayas, though they are more comparable to the Western Ghats of India. They are stout and dry but the monsoonal rains fill them up. They do not hold any of the mythological or warrior stories within themselves but they do hold the spirit of climbers, walkers, lovers, and the tiny feet who would run to reach to the top. The feeling of being an achiever remains strong, irrespective of the continental plate that we stand upon. The mountain chest always welcomes the human feet. The color of the hay fields change every few miles. From light golden to dark brown their expanse is huge. But they are rolled up uniform, they are placed equidistant. They are sturdy, they are cute. The end of the field meets the blue end of the sky and they make for a perfect background for a portrait picture. Hence, we stopped the car and posed. With the glares and without the glares, with pouts and big eyes, of smiles and curiosity, candid and perfected, individual and family picture; everything happened on this trip. After all it was a holiday, the one with regular stuff made excited with our stories.

 

Posted in European Trips, Forests, road trips, south india, travel, UK Dairies

When I spent a weekend in Leeds

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A sunny day is a luxury here in England. Come what may, it must be celebrated. On observing closely, I saw numerous pedals, jogging tracks, dog walks, prams, wheel chairs, kids’ scooters and many other similar things. My favourites are the cyclists of all age groups (No wonder, Team GB had the highest number of gold medals for the cycling events at the Rio this year!). As I hit the road, I wasn’t very amazed to see the cars full of kids making merry, caravans tied to the rear and the open spaces outside McDonalds being crowded. This time I was exploring a new neighbouring town, Leeds. I happened to be there by random chance and had decided to stay there the previous night.

For all those, who love to experiment with food, the Leeds City Centre brings on to the plate some authentic South Indian food. Tharavadu, a super speciality in Kerala food, offering delectable and original recipes from the tiny tropical state of India, is highly recommended. They have a menu full of variety from different regions of Kerala, the taste of food travels straight to the brain and releases a good amount of endorphins for you. The ambience is synced with the aborigines of Tharavadu, you could easily notice the authenticity of the music and the brightly painted walls, Kerala style. Since it is catering to a large number of people in one go, the place is a bit noisy (That is how we Indians can be sometimes!), and the service tends to be a bit slower. But once the food arrives, you would forget the world and shift your focus to the food. Yummy, Mouth-watering, delicious, it was everything that they say about Indian food. With an edge towards keep the taste buds turned on, the south Indian delicacies make sure that the appetite is satisfied way beyond the capacity. Just when we ousted our limits of binging, we decided to get up and take a walk, on the lowly streets of Leeds.

The high street in the City Centre boasts of many big brands. By the time we reached here after our dinner, most of the showrooms had already closed. It was better this way for there was hardly any crowd and yet it was brightly lit. The winds took upon themselves to cut short our stroll; it was a long road, broadened for the walkers as well as hawkers. We let the winds gush past us, setting a bit of cold in us. It was a starry night, the winds were strong and the cars were racing on the empty roads. We were on the crossroads many a times, wondering whether to look at the stars or be alert on the sides. The street lamps made it a bit difficult to spot the stars, so we focussed on crossing the roads carefully. The walls on the sides were painted with graffiti, not the best ones, but still represented some old world charm.

Very soon we reached our hotel and crashed into our beds. It was the sunrise, the next morning that woke us up. The sunshine poked us quite a few times before we managed to leave the blanket for good. A good English breakfast was perfect to bid farewell to our hotel. We ate in abundance and carried the fruits along. The plan was to be picnicking at the Golden Acre Country Park.

Though initially we wanted to see the steam engines at the Middleton Railways, the badminton racquets in our boot convinced us to move towards the country park. If there was anybody who was the happiest about the sunny day, it was the pets of Leeds. They were everywhere in the park, with their masters who carried their throw balls. There were mothers who walked the prams too. While our badminton racquets kept us busy for a really long time, it was the never ending walk across the woods that made our day. There were trees that were magnificent; there were logs of wood that were never moved hinting towards the era when these would have actually been planted. These logs would date back to the grandmothers’ days, how the sapling would have grown to be a beast of a tree, serving beyond dead, the sturdy and the strong one, once deeply rooted and now lazily resting. What startled me was the density of the trees, there was only a thin line of difference between a forest and this country side, some part of it even opened up to a wide expanse of the fields that were actually golden in colour. Perhaps they were the reason, the park was so named.

The wooden bridges that led to the other side of the park were cute. Only one by one could we cross it, and the traffic of the pedestrians made little sense. One path from this bridge led to the lakeside, where were parked the prams and the wheelchairs. The grandparents and the grandkids together fed breads to the ducks. There were parents who could let loose their kids towards the railing of the lake, for the kids got too engrossed in looking at the ducks who were moaning for more bread. The joy of giving was clearly experienced. What we had was the joy of appreciating. We sat there for quite a bit, enjoying the sight, of the little ones handholding the elder ones and giving away something of their own to the needy ones. It was a happily perfected sight.

The next when I started to move, it was towards the ice cream bar that served tall scoops of vanilla. I was tempted to ask for a double scoop but I realized even one would serve me good. I wasted no time in asking for just the flavour I wanted, without exploring the other flavours that the healthy girl over the counter wanted me to buy. If vanilla is good, life is good. With that mantra, and trying to escape from the heat of the sun, we sat on the wooden benches that were lined under the line of coniferous trees. Licking the vanilla makes me forget the world around me. I was meditating upon my cone until the crackling of the biscuit in my mouth made me come back from my stage of nirvana. With a happy heart I walked towards the parking. It was a blissful day, these country parks are a way to enjoy the local spirit of a place. I wish there were some like these in India as well. Though there are large gardens and parks within my city as well but a little more intense like these would have been another level of fun. They are richer, greener and a little wilder.

I stepped out of Leeds with a great day to remember. It was a perfect chilling out day for me, without much a thought and close to nature. I was talking to the trees, smiling to the bridges and playing over the logs. The child in me didn’t want to go home but the adult in me could see the couch at home. So homeward bound I was.

Posted in European Trips, road trips, travel, UK Dairies

A day out at Souter Light House, Sunderland

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Summers in England are very different from those in India. A summer-y day here introduces you to the sun that is being shying away under the clouds all this while. The wind takes a break from its routine and people can wear the floral prints that have been in the closet for a really long time. One of my first outings in the UK was on a typical summer day. It was a Saturday afternoon; the sun was out and there wasn’t much traffic on the road. I along with my Indian family (living in the UK) drove to Sunderland, only 14 miles away from the city of New Castle. Though the plan was to spend the day at the Sunderland beach, something more exciting struck our minds – the Souter Lighthouse. Only 5 miles (10 minutes’ drive) ahead of the beach, in the sleepy village of Marsden, lays a vibrant picnic spot – the Souter Lighthouse.

As we reached Marsden after an hour’s drive from our home, we were delighted to see a lot of families enjoying the sun and the home made food packed in lunchboxes. On the coast road, by the sea, it is a building of historic importance, standing tall since the 19th century. It is a tiny campus amidst the fields, edging the North Sea on one of its boundary walls and on the opposite side across the road is a beautiful residential estate with the view of the lighthouse.

A quick research on the web about this lighthouse suggests that there are two kinds of people who would be itched to visit this light house – science freaks and ghost freaks! While the science side of it claims that it was one of the first lighthouses of its time to work on an advanced technology including the alternate electric current, the quirky side of it holds the rumours of the building being haunted by the ghosts of a maritime celebrity and the strange incidences that have been reported by a few. Though both sides were interesting to know, I did not belong to any of these clans. I was happy to enjoy my homemade cheese and tomato sandwich, sitting on one of the wooden tables, which had a bit of everything – the breeze, the sun and the view of the sea. The Lighthouse Café on the ground floor of the light house, though serving minimum variety on the menu, was seeing a busy day. I entered through the green door, hurdled through the loud voices, looked around the tall walls, and came out carrying with me the aroma of hot pancakes.

Post my lunch and a game of hide and seek with the local kids there, I decided to climb inside the light house. A 10 pound for entry ticket is worth the view from the top of the structure. At the very entrance, you would find the memoirs of 19th century shipping marvels, the machinery and the naval equipment that was once put to use, but now only find its use in the museum placements. As you enter further, you may spend some time on the history of the kingdom that ruled the Souter point and the wars where this light house played a significant role in waving the ships away from the land. There are ancient maps and routes being displayed along with the pictures of the emperors that look more like pirates. If you are a history nerd who gets excited with the mention of dates, then this section might entice you, I merely scrolled through it and ran towards the artefacts in the office space of the light house. A typewriter and a telephone caught my eye the most, their buttons were beautiful. They represented the comfortable pace at which men once operated, it is things like these that take your imagination to people who would have valued them so much for they were pretty much the base of inventions. I get a bit too excited in the antiques section and wonder if the bygone era could return once more.

Anyhow I started climbing the staircase that led to the top of the lighthouse. It’s a long way to the top. The spiral staircase becomes riskier towards the top. The last few stairs turn sharply and end on a wooden plank with a hooter in the middle, surrounded by huge glass windows. Through the windows you can see the far and wide of the sea on one side, a walk way by the sea on the other, the city on another and a grey sky that covers everything. It is a distant view of everything that is there on the ground. This part of the city seems to have a medieval appearance because of the light house, though it is modern in every sense. After enjoying the peace and the view for a while, we descended back to the ground. As we moved out towards the car park, we also saw many of the locals indulging in fun filled family activities; reading the book, cycling in the fields, playing with their young ones and the likes.

A lot of people crossing the town also take a break here at the lighthouse. It is an ideal stopover for stretching the legs for a while during a long journey. Once we were back on the motorway, we could not get our eyes off the windmills that just appear out of the blue in the fields on both the sides of the road. Sometimes they are lonesome, sometimes a duo and sometimes a family. They are huge especially when they are near to the road.

A good day out is the one which is nearly the same as imagined; a long drive, picnic basket full of sandwiches, juices and fruits and a beautiful new place to explore. This was one such day.