Archive for the 'Travel' Category

Mumbai’s Parsi cafe culture

Rosie Birkett in The Guardian:

I eat the best creme caramel of my life in 26C heat, with life-sized cutouts of the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge smiling down at me from the dining room’s slightly slanting balcony. A pigeon snoozes on the lone chandelier, dusty beneath peeling turquoise paintwork, and ceiling fans whirr above crowded, chattering tables. I’m sitting in Britannia and Co Restaurant (Wakefield House, 11 Sprott Road), one of the last remaining Parsi cafes in south Mumbai (or south Bombay as the locals so protectively still call it), and I’m full of food.

Opened in the 19th-century by Parsi settlers – Zoroastrians from Iran – these cafes, with their magnificently faded, time-capsule dining rooms and speciality dishes, are a gloriously eccentric part of the fabric of Mumbai. They are also democratic and inclusive places, where people of all backgrounds, classes and sexes meet, so you may find a Sikh next to a Hindu or Zoroastrian or a group of young female students dining alone.

They are also a dying breed. In 1950 there were about 550 of them, many of which grew from humble tea stalls; now only 15 to 20 are still open. More:

Suketu Mehta in Brazil: “Then I saw the gun, going from my head to the cell phone”

In the New York Review of Books:

My Brazilian friend Marina and I were picking up a visiting friend from New York, who heads an NGO, in her hotel lobby near Paulista, the most prestigious avenue in São Paulo. It was 7:30 on a busy Friday night last October.

We walked up to a taxi outside the hotel. I sat in the front to let the two women chat in the back. Marina asked me to Google the restaurant menu. I was doing so when I saw a teenage boy run up to the taxi and gesticulate through my open window. I thought he was a beggar, asking for money. Then I saw the gun, going from my head to the cell phone.

“Just give him the phone,” Marina said from the back seat.

I gave him the phone. He didn’t go away.

“Dinheiro, dinheiro!”

I didn’t want to give him my wallet. The boy was shouting obscenities. “Dinheiro, dinheiro!”

The boy’s body suddenly jerked back, as a man’s arm around his neck pulled him off his feet. The man, dressed in a black shirt, was shouting; he had jumped the boy from behind. He started hitting the boy. The taxi driver sitting next to me was stoic. He said that this had never happened to him before, but he couldn’t have been more blasé.

The next thing I saw was the boy and another teenager, probably his accomplice, running away fast up the street. The man in the black shirt chased them a bit, then came back panting to the taxi. “Did the bastard get anything?” our savior, whom we later nicknamed Batman, asked. He wasn’t a plainclothes cop, as I’d originally thought; he was just an ordinary citizen who was tired of the criminals. More:

Bombay dreams

Carl Bromley in National Geographic:

In my basement lie the remnants of an obsession with a city: novels, histories, ethnographies, journals, films, shopping bags, listing magazines, boarding cards, foot creams, CDs, film posters, postcards, video and super 8 footage. There’s also a cancelled passport with the name of the city stamped into it, Bombay, and a date—December 18, 1987.

There were 18 of us, touring India that Christmas and New Year, with a production of Romeo and Juliet. As soon as I boarded the bus from the airport, which took us to St. Xavier’s College, the city seemed to emerge, almost atonally, in short bursts of light, like flashbulb explosions. I was mesmerised by this otherworldly city, a city whose neon light breathed life back into me after a long, motionless day on a plane. I should have felt out of place. But I didn’t. I thought: If I had to be a city, I would be Bombay.

I was a maniacal teenage cineaste. I would make journeys to London and spend days at the Scala cinema in King Cross’s red-light district watching exploitation movies from all over the world. My identity was saturated by cinema then; it was my reference point for everything. During that first hour in Bombay, I thought I was experiencing the real life equivalent of the opening frames of Blade Runner with its belching flames rising from a vast industrial plain. I had, by chance, been thrilled by the Amitabh Bachchan film Amar Akbar Anthony one Sunday morning on BBC television. I fell in love with Amitabh when he burst out of the giant Easter egg and sang, “My Name is Anthony Gonsalves.” This playful, cheeky badmaash was the kind of hero I had always wanted to be. More:

Myths and mountains in Nepal

Edward Wong in NYT:

The tale begins with a demon.

Centuries ago, it destroyed the foundations of a Buddhist monastery under construction in central Tibet. Then Guru Rinpoche, who had brought Buddhism to the kingdom, pursued the demon west, deep into Mustang. The two fought among Mustang’s snow peaks, desert canyons and grasslands. Guru Rinpoche prevailed, and he scattered the demon’s body parts across Mustang: its blood formed towering red cliffs, and its intestines tumbled to the wind-scoured earth east of the cliffs. Later, people would build a wall of prayer stones, the longest in Nepal, atop the intestines.

On the fifth day of our trek, we stood above the demon’s heart. Here, on a hillside, the people of Mustang had built the monastery of Lo Gekar, one of the oldest in the Tibetan world. A lama showed us around. I found no remnants of a demonic heart, but the walls in a dark room at the rear were covered with paintings of fearsome creatures with fangs and blue skin. Tibetans called them protector deities. Our guide, Karma, pulled me over into the shadows and pointed to another wall. I squinted, and saw a statue of Buddha that had been carved from the rock. Or so I thought.

“They say the statue is natural and was discovered this way,” Karma said. “People in Mustang have many stories. They believe everything. There are spirits everywhere you look.”

Mustang was a caldron of myth, as I discovered on a 16-day trek through the Himalayan region of Nepal in September. More:

When the mango bites back

Gardiner Harris at NYT‘s Well blog:

New Delhi — Accepting a just-picked mango from a stranger in Lodi Gardens and then putting it directly into my mouth — skin and all — was stupid. I admit that.

But why did my first horrible case of traveler’s diarrhea in India have to result from a mango? I love mangoes, and India’s vast array of deliciously different mango varieties has been one of the great delights of moving here.

“You didn’t even wash it?” Dr. Paul Offit, chief of infectious diseases at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, asked me later.


“Even by your standards, that was really stupid,” Dr. Offit said.

But what about the local yogurt I had eaten and the probiotic pills I had taken — weren’t my gastrointestinal flora protecting me? Since we all carry 10 times as many bacterial cells as human ones, wasn’t I for all intents and purposes already more Indian than American?

“Yogurt probably won’t hurt you, unless it’s contaminated as well,” Dr. Phyllis Kozarsky, an expert on traveler’s health at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said in an interview. But there is no food on the planet that will protect against an onslaught of toxic bacteria, she added.

Despite decades of immunological research and a recent surge of interest in the bacterial garden of the human gut, diarrhea remains the most unpredictable travel-related illness. There is a grim acceptance among Western expatriates and visitors here that they will be felled by it — often on multiple occasions. More:

Welcoming the tourists back

Jammu & Kashmir is keen to highlight its stunning scenery over its grim insurgency reports Helen Pidd in The Guardian

Two years ago, the old city in Srinagar was the sort of place police would only venture into wearing body armour. A stronghold for violent separatists agitating for an independent Kashmir, it was at the centre of uprisings that left more than 100 people dead, buried along with dreams of peace in the mountainous north-Indian region.

How quickly things change. This week, carefree tourists lined up in the same streets for barbecued mutton tikka and steaming plates of rogan josh. The Nowhatta mosque, where in the summer of 2010 youths would gather after Friday prayers to lob stones at the security forces (an episode commemorated in graffiti on a nearby wall declaring the area Srinagar’s Gaza Strip), is to become a stop-off on an official walking tour focused on heritage, crafts and markets. more

Vasco da Gama’s diary

From Fordham University website:

1498. Calicut. [Arrival.] That night (May 20) we anchored two leagues from the city of Calicut, and we did so because our pilot mistook Capna, a town at that place, for Calicut. Still further there is another town called Pandarani. We anchored about a league and a half from the shore. After we were at anchor, four boats (almadias) approached us from the land, who asked of what nation we were. We told them, and they then pointed out Calicut to us.

On the following day (May 22) these same boats came again alongside, when the captain-major sent one of the convicts to Calicut, and those with whom he went took him to two Moors from Tunis, who could speak Castilian and Genoese. The first greeting that he received was in these words: “May the Devil take thee! What brought you hither?” They asked what he sought so far away from home, and he told them that we came in search of Christians and of spices. They said: “Why does not the King of Castile, the King of France, or the Signoria of Venice send thither?” He said that the King of Portugal would not consent to their doing so, and they said he did the right thing. After this conversation they took him to their lodgings and gave him wheaten bread and honey. When he had eaten he returned to the ships, accompanied by one of the Moors, who was no sooner on board, than he said these words: “A lucky venture, a lucky venture! Plenty of rubies, plenty of emeralds! You owe great thanks to God, for having brought you to a country holding such riches!” We were greatly astonished to hear his talk, for we never expected to hear our language spoken so far away from Portugal.

The city of Calicut is inhabited by Christians. [The first voyagers to India mistook the Hindus for Christians.] They are of tawny complexion. Some of them have big beards and long hair, whilst others clip their hair short or shave the head, merely allowing a tuft to remain on the crown as a sign that they are Christians. They also wear moustaches. They pierce the ears and wear much gold in them. They go naked down to the waist, covering their lower extremities with very fine cotton stuffs. But it is only the most respectable who do this, for the others manage as best they are able. The women of this country, as a rule, are ugly and of small stature. They wear many jewels of gold round the neck, numerous bracelets on their arms, and rings set with precious stones on their toes. All these people are well-disposed and apparently of mild temper. At first sight they seem covetous and ignorant.  More:

From Kolkata to Kaktovik

Ananda Banerjee reviews Arctic Voices — Resistance at the Tipping Point [Seven Stories Press]. In Mint Lounge:

Thirty-nine essays assembled in the new book, Arctic Voices: Resistance at the Tipping Point by world-renowned photographer, writer and activist Subhankar Banerjee, 44, are set to question how we look at this remote part of the world. Through his book, Banerjee, who has won the prestigious 2012 Lannan Foundation Cultural Freedom Award, hopes to create awareness and save the region from industrial destruction. According to Banerjee, “Arctic Voices will make us think and talk about the Arctic differently than we did before. Perhaps we’ll find an answer to the question—should we care about the Arctic?”

Born in Berhampore, West Bengal, Banerjee completed a master’s in physics and computer science from New Mexico State University before joining the Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico, US, as a research scientist. After spending a couple of years at Los Alamos, he took up a research position at the mathematics and computing technology division of Boeing in Seattle, Washington.

All seemed to be going right for the scientist until 2000, when he went to Churchill, Canada, to photograph polar bears. He was happy with his photography skills, but the overall experience of wildlife tourism disappointed him. He was disturbed by the way by tourist vehicles surrounded the bears and people nonchalantly clicked pictures without bothering about the environment or about the inconvenience to animals. Banerjee shot a rare photo of a bear eating a dead bear. This, even he could figure, was not normal. This documentation of ursine cannibalism changed his world and made him want to live in the wild, with the polar bears. More:

Letter from India: The best restaurant in the world

In The Paris Review:

My friend edits a travel magazine. She lets me review hotels. This means that I can stay at nice hotels free in return for a short review. (The magazine doesn’t pay either; it’s done “on trade.”) I can write four or five hotel reviews a year. Whenever I suggest more, my friend (who is a close friend of more than ten years) goes silent.

I recently arranged to stay at the Hotel in Delhi for two nights on trade. Rooms there start at six hundred dollars, and (uncharacteristically) they included everything—food, minibar, spa, airport pick-up and drop-off—in the trade. I mean it was all, to use their very polite and reassuring word, complimentary. Alcohol would have cost, they did say, but I am not a person who drinks anymore. I recently lost my privileges.

The thing about a free hotel stay is that you pay in time, in tours, and in the unspoken requirement that you ask questions, feign amazement, and jot notes about wall hangings, historic meetings, and persons who have sat in so-and-so chair. (“How do you spell that name? So wonderful. So he really sat here? May I sit?”)

The Hotel is the finest hotel I have reviewed, and my tormentors there (two women, one in guest relations and one in PR) were the most sadistic creatures I have ever known. Five hours of touring and talk, man. Then a visit to every grade of room (there are eight). And the whole time I am nodding in Lanvin flats, taking notes in a red Moleskine notebook, and generally pretending to be a person who was not raised by a wolf and would like to run her hand down the fabric of a curtain.

The Hotel has five restaurants, one of which was rated by Condé Nast as among the ten best in the world. When my dungeon master asked me where my companion, Clancy, and I would prefer to dine that evening, I naturally said that we would prefer to dine at the best restaurant in the world. More:

When a little village in Kerala found itself caught up in a panic about the apocalypse

Sidin Vadukut in Motherland:

An hour away from Thrissur, in central Kerala, lies a little town that, to use a popular Indian usage, I call “my native place.” The town of Pavaratty is best known for the massive warehouse-like shrine of St. Joseph, a bustling local pilgrimage centre. The shrine looms over the town with a population of about 11 000, emotionally, geographically and architecturally. Distances are measured from the shrine. Events are remembered in reference to the shrine’s calendar of feasts and festivals. In Pavaratty the shrine is pole star, magnetic north, prime meridian and equator all rolled into one. This pivotal presence of the shrine imparts a certain intensity to the religion of the local Christians.

It is not a hostile intensity – the kind that leads to xenophobia or agitation. Quite the opposite. It is the benign intensity of Star Trek or Star Wars fans who, while acknowledging the unassailable superiority of their own beliefs, are quite happy to play along with your own under-educated biases. So while my grandfather had no doubt that Christians were God’s chosen people, he still believed that the great Hindu temple at Guruvayoor, 30 minutes away, was a source of divinity and power.

There is also a thick syncretic vein that runs through the Christianity of the region. Over the centuries, customs and rituals have changed hands between religions more times than many like to admit. For instance, each year before the shrine’s major annual feast on the third Sunday after Easter, a flag is hoisted up the pole in front of the church. The flagpole lines up almost exactly with the crucifix above the altar inside. But is slightly shifted to one side, out of deference to the deity. More:

American Diary – Mani Shankar Aiyar

In Outlook:

Not All Water Sparkles

My son-in-law had upgraded us to “Premier Class” for our flight from Chicago to Los Angeles. As we settled into the comfortable-looking leather seats, the haggard, harassed, aged air hostess lumbered up to us and demanded in a rasping voice, “Anything to drink?” Why not? So, “Champagne,” said I. “No champagne,” came the response. “A glass of white wine, perhaps.” “Sure,” she said, flinging a plastic cup of the most ghastly plonk at me, and a diet coke for the wife. There followed an unappetising plate of cold pasta (no choice, the lone item on the menu). Arriving in LA, it took nearly an hour for our luggage to surface. Where on earth was the famed excellence of the services industry in the private sector? Oh, Air India, why don’t you fly to the West Coast?

So, we took the train on the return journey from Los Angeles to Chicago. That’s 2,500 miles through six states—California, Arizona, New Mexico, Colorado, Kansas, Illinois—and over 45 hours, about as long as from Thiruvananthapuram to Delhi. My first. To discover that the USA is not, as one had imagined, a congeries of similar-looking airports, but a land of the most amazing geographical diversity and social inequalities. For even as the train pulled out of Los Angeles, the underside of American prosperity came into view, ramshackle shacks housing the really poor and deprived, the railway track, home to the flotsam and jetsam of the unsuccessful, abandoned pick-ups in the backyard, junk and twisted scrap, not suburban gardens, to deck the environment, The Grapes of Wrath in reverse gear. More:

How to use a squat toilet

From World Hum:

 Warning: This article contains language that some will find offensive, but that others will find refreshingly honest.

 The Situation: You’re sitting at a bar in the middle of Nigeria when you feel a rumble below your ribcage: the ominous tremors before the eruption. It’s the distant roar of a train coming down the intestinal tract. Ain’t nothing gonna stop it.

 You look in your bag and see a cardboard tube that used to have white paper rolled around it, paper that suddenly seems to a have had a magical quality, paper that has been your friend and companion since you were a wee one, paper you learned how to use years ago, and which hasn’t been mentioned since.

 But you’re a long way from Kansas and with no idea how people do it here sans paper. This is information that can be extremely hard to come by. It doesn’t come up at dinner. It’s about the last thing anyone wants to talk about at a bar. And it’s a little too weird to ask your host family about it. Besides, there wouldn’t be time for the conversation, even if you could figure out how to bring it up.

 Now, of course, is the worst time to try to acquire this valuable bit of data. But now is when you usually start to think about it. Now is when you grasp the wonder of toilet paper. And now is when you realize you aren’t nearly as culturally immersed as you thought you were.

 Now is when you wish you knew how to wipe like most people on the planet. More:

And now for the monsoons

Gautam Pemmaraju at 3quarksdaily:

Pied Cuckoo

The migratory Pied-Crested Cuckoo is believed by some to ride the seasonal winds of the South West Monsoon to arrive in the sub-continent in late May to early June. It makes the journey from sub-Saharan Africa, traversing the Arabian Peninsula, across the ocean, visiting the Seychelles and Lakshadweep, only to arrive in Kerala at first, as the overheated land solicitously lures the ardent monsoon winds in. They breed during the rainy season, and leave the subcontinent in September. Clamator Jacobinus, the Rain Bird, or the chatak of Indian antiquity, is believed to be the ‘harbinger of monsoons’, proclaiming, as ornithologist Hugh Whistler has said, the imminent rains “with its unmistakably loud metallic calls”. There are several who keep a keen eye out for its mantic presence, but its parasitic proclivities cause much distress to the resident avian populace. I am yet to read of any sightings, far less encounter one, and its typical song is not one of the several songbird tunes that I hear everyday. However, it is raining as I write. Although a steady drizzle now, it was far more animated early this Sunday morning. Lest I am fooled into thinking that the monsoon has arrived, the first “impressions of a chaotic sky”, the teasing, ‘towering cumulus clouds’, are merely bold heralders of the much anticipated annual visitation, at once cooling down the region and giving the city a thorough wash.

As Alexander Frater writes in Chasing The Monsoon, he too gets caught up in the collective febrile anxiety leading up to the first rain, and then:

At 1 p.m. the serious cloud build-up started … At 4.50, announced by deafening ground-level thunderclaps, the monsoon finally rode into Cochin. The cloud-base blew through the trees like smoke; rain foamed on the hotel’s harbourside lawn and produced a bank of hanging mist opaque as hill fog… At Fort Cochin they were ringing the bells in St Francis Church. In the dark harbour small boats ran for home. Waves bursting over the scalloped sea were suffused, curiously, with pink light. The jetty, set under a small wooden gazebo, vanished beneath heavy surf.

The monsoons, “a creature of grandeur and complexity that defies comparison with anything”, in the words of MS Rajagopalan of the Trivandrum Meteorological Department who Frater meets early on, are meant to officially arrive in Bombay on the 10th of June. More

Jaipur via The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel

At The Smithsonian:

Did anybody else see The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel over the Memorial Day weekend? Somebody must have because the film, which opened on May 4, continues to do well at the box office, and that’s compared with a slew of big-budget blockbusters—Men in Black 3, Battleship, The Avengers—that have come along since then. Marigold’s popularity has been credited to John Madden, who also directed Shakespeare in Love, and to its 24-karat gold cast, including Judi Dench, Maggie Smith, Tom Wilkinson and Bill Nighy, all of them over 60. (The film is based on These Foolish Things, a novel by Deborah Moggach about a group of English oldsters who move to a retirement hotel in India.) But the movie’s reception is also seen as proof that there’s a market for movies about people who aren’t young and beautiful, just interesting—as are the characters in Marigold, coping with end-of-life transitions in a drastically foreign place.

And let’s not forget another major factor in Marigold’s success: India, specifically the western state of Rajasthan, long a favorite with travelers for its mighty hill forts, bedizened palaces, teeming markets and lost desert villages. The hotel in the book—Moggach called it the Dunroamin—is located in the dreamy lake city of Udaipur, though the movie was filmed in Jaipur to the north. I recognized the setting immediately because I began a tour of Rajasthan there ten years ago. More:

Going on faith

Abraham Verghese writes for T Magazine of The New York Times on a recent visit back to Kerala, a visit that is blessed in more ways than one.

The morning I arrived in Trivandrum, the capital of the south Indian state of Kerala, I met my friend Vinita, a Hindu, who promised to accompany me on a visit to the Sri Padmanabhaswamy temple, a place that is generally off limits to nonbelievers. Though my family is from Kerala, we are Christians, a community dating back to A.D. 52 with the arrival of St. Thomas on these shores. “Doubting” Thomas converted Brahmins to the faith, who are now the so-called Syrian or St. Thomas Christians. And that morning, one of their fold was proposing to enter a Hindu temple.

I had always wanted to see this legendary Lord Vishnu temple, and not just because it had been very much in the news. One of the six vaults under the temple, dedicated in 1750 by the Maharaja of Travancore, was opened recently by court order and found to contain gold and jewelry worth a staggering $22 billion. more

Goan life and culture in Karachi

Goan Association Hall, Karachi. Image: The Karachi Walla

Naresh Fernandes in Mint-Lounge:

I always knew that when I made my long-planned trip to Pakistan, one man would be able to fill in the details. Father Anthony Cordeiro, my grandmother’s cousin, was the keeper of family lore. His head held the names of hundreds of Karachi Goans spread across as many continents. For just over 60 years, ever since the family had moved to Mumbai, he’d conducted our baptisms, weddings and funerals. Anthony was still a child in Karachi when his attractive cousins were being courted by men from across the subcontinent. Decades after they’d married the objects of their affections, Father Anthony could be counted on to enliven family gatherings with his stories about the torments the suitors were put through. Then, as the laughter died down, everyone would huddle around the piano to sing the melodies they’d loved from the Karachi days. An essential part of the ritual involved Father Anthony singing his favourite tune, the Neapolitan standard, Santa Lucia.

Shortly before my visa for Pakistan came through, Father Anthony had to be admitted to hospital. It wasn’t clear what exactly was wrong with him, but over the course of just a week, a large portion of his memory seemed to seep away. The doctors explained it as a function of depleted sodium levels. He was moved to a home for retired Catholic priests. Days before my departure for the city of his youth, Father Anthony celebrated his 91st birthday. Relatives travelled from across Mumbai to be with him but Father Anthony didn’t have the energy to respond to their greetings. His voice was just a whisper. After an hour or so of strained jollity, his guests started to bid their farewells. Amid the bustle, Father Anthony abruptly raised his hand to indicate that he wanted our attention. His lips began to move but we could barely hear what he was saying. As we inched closer, it became apparent. He was singing Santa Lucia. More:

Jim Corbett Park: Crouching tourist, hidden tiger

Will Davis in WSJ:

“Did you see a tiger?”


“Oh dear.”

“Yeah, we saw plenty of deer.”

“No, I meant…”

Conversations such as this, with or without the naff joke, must be commonplace over breakfast in the many hotels and guesthouses that ring the eastern edge of Jim Corbett National Park in Uttarakhand state.

Jim Corbett, India’s oldest national park, is known as one of the world’s top destinations for spotting tigers in the wild. Yet only the most fortunate visitors end their trips with a sighting, and the rare souvenir of a tiger’s image frozen in time on their camera.

This is hardly surprising. Jim Corbett is a huge park covering more than a thousand square kilometers, much of which is thick deciduous forest. It’s so large that its landscapes and characteristics vary from one side to another, from sandy river beds, to grasslands and marshes, to hillsides covered in lush foliage. The tiger, a master of stealth, wouldn’t be too hard pushed to hide away from the prying eyes of humans.

On a recent trip there with my family, I was hopeful of a sighting. Like a lottery card buyer unrealistically confident that his numbers would come up, I was convincing myself that not only would we see a tiger, we’d witness a mother and her cubs loping across a road, perhaps even stopping to wave and sign autographs. More:

India in one, two or three weeks

From NYT:

First-timers to India tend to be guided unvaryingly (and sensibly) around the so-called Golden Triangle (Delhi/Agra/Jaipur). This route, straightforward enough on paper, requires some discernment to get right. A policy of less is more is always sensible in India, in order to limit the shock the place inevitably delivers to an average Westerner’s system.

A question often posed is whether a week is enough time to cover the birthplace of three great faiths — Hinduism, Buddhism and Jainism. The answer, reasonably, is no. But travelers are not reasonable people, and it is distinctly possible to absorb the essence of India in CliffsNotes form.

The One-Week Trip

It is useful to start in the capital. A city created, like great geological formations, of time-sculptured and overlapping strata, Delhi is seven cities at least and almost as many civilizations collapsed, accreted and jumbled into one.

Despite its shambolic beginnings and ambient tumult, Delhi is a pleasing city to visit, in part because it retains swaths of forest greenbelt — its broad avenues, its traffic roundabouts and other useful systems bequeathed by the imperial nannies of the British Raj. Compared with the horn-honking frenzy of industrial tech centers elsewhere in the country, Delhi remains notably civilized. It is, as is often noted, Washington, D.C., to Mumbai’s New York. More:

On the tiger trail

The point about being in a forest is the forest. The tiger is just a bonus. In MintLounge Namita Bhandare on why she felt cheated after her tiger sighting at the Kanha National Park.

We are zipping ahead in an open jeep in the middle of the forest on a bumpy track to see that elusive beast, the tiger. Seeing a tiger in the wild has been No. 1 on my bucket list for some time now. I’ve seen many creatures in the wild—from deer to dogs—but the tigers I have seen are all in zoos. Some of these zoos have been pretty good ones. I think it’s cute that the tiger enclosure in the Singapore Zoo is sponsored by Tiger Balm. But although they do a reasonable job of creating a jungle look, you can’t really escape the fact that those striped animals are caged.

It’s freezing cold on an early winter morning. Earmuffs, cap, muffler and gloves are lifesavers but my nose is uncomfortably numb. There’s no slowing down, however. We have a serious mission ahead of us: Find tiger. Our guide perfunctorily points out large herds of spotted deer, but we don’t stop to take a photograph. Chital are simply too common; we see them at dusk at our resort. We do slow down for the chausingha, the four-horned antelope, found only in this forest. And when we end up behind a jungle cat that strays on to our path and jogs along for a bit before it darts off into the undergrowth on the side of our tracks, we laugh, charmed by its tiny panic.

But where is the tiger? more


Delhi’s Hauz Khas Village: A guide

From WSJ / India Realtime:

The Living Room, Hauz Khas Village, new delhi

A major component of the transformation is Hauz Khas Village, a neighborhood in the southern part of the city that is flanked by pockets of forests and caters to a bohemian crowd. After dusk, it transitions from a quaint antique and Bollywood-poster district to Delhi’s island of cool. Hardly a week goes by without the opening of a new bar or restaurant in the area.

If you get there before dark, meander through Hauz Khas Village’s narrow lanes and head to La Bohème. You’ll have to climb five flight of stairs before you get to it — and you will wonder whether you’re heading for someone’s flat — but the rooftop bar is worth it. A small thatched hut with white-washed walls, it opens on to a sprawling terrace that overlooks a lake (a deckchair wouldn’t feel out of place). There is no better place to enjoy a cold beer as the sun sinks behind the surrounding parkland.

The Rose is a new boutique guesthouse in Hauz Khas Village.

A few meters down the road from La Bohème is the Grey Garden, a one-room restaurant and wine bar that feels like cabinet of curiosities (think stop watches and seashells encased in its tables).

Then head to the Living Room. What started off as the owner’s “personal living room” is now one of the area’s most popular bar-slash-restaurants. “A bit more underground, a bit more hidden, a bit more secretive — that was the direction of the place initially,” says Gautam Aurora, who opened the Living Room a little over three years ago when he moved to Delhi from London. The cocktail menu ranges from Mojitos to its signature Bloody Indian, a variation on a Bloody Mary that uses local favorite Old Monk Rum instead of vodka. If you are craving a burger, the Living Room’s lamb-based “Big’Un” comes close to the real thing. More:

Definitive guide to New Delhi’s Hauz Khas Village

Are we wrong about Pakistan?

Peter Oborne in The Telegraph, London:

It was my first evening in Pakistan. My hosts, a Lahore banker and his charming wife, wanted to show me the sights, so they took me to a restaurant on the roof of a town house in the Old City.

My food was delicious, the conversation sparky – and from our vantage point we enjoyed a perfect view of the Badshahi Mosque, which was commissioned by the emperor Aurangzeb in 1671.

It was my first inkling of a problem. I had been dispatched to write a report reflecting the common perception that Pakistan is one of the most backward and savage countries in the world. This attitude has been hard-wired into Western reporting for years and is best summed up by the writing of the iconic journalist Christopher Hitchens. Shortly before he died last December, Hitchens wrote a piece in Vanity Fair that bordered on racism.

Pakistan, he said, was “humourless, paranoid, insecure, eager to take offence and suffering from self-righteousness, self-pity and self-hatred”. In summary, asserted Hitchens, Pakistan was one of the “vilest and most dangerous regions on Earth”.

Since my first night in that Lahore restaurant I have travelled through most of Pakistan, got to know its cities, its remote rural regions and even parts of the lawless north. Of course there is some truth in Hitchens’s brash assertions. Since 2006 alone, more than 14,000 Pakistani civilians have been killed in terrorist attacks. The Pakistan political elite is corrupt, self-serving, hypocritical and cowardly – as Pakistanis themselves are well aware. And a cruel intolerance is entering public discourse, as the appalling murder last year of minorities minister Shahbaz Bhatti after he spoke out for Christians so graphically proves. Parts of the country have become impassable except at risk of kidnap or attack. More:

India on $1,000 a day

Bespoke luxury holidays that include private jets, tete a tetes with maharajas and by appointment viewings in artist ateliers. All this and more in a destination where over 25 per cent citizens live on less than $1.25 a day. In NYT’s blog India Ink, Shivani Vora has the story.

City hopping by private jet, mingling with maharajas in their palaces, hanging out with world famous artists in their ateliers or being serenaded by a group of classical musicians in the middle of the desert – for a tiny, elite group, travel in India is far removed from the backpacker trail.

Inexpensive food and lodging are still readily available in India, and the country still draws a patchouli-scented crowd. But a subset of globetrotters are booking lavish holidays that stretch into six figures, taking advantage of India’s fast-growing “luxury infrastructure” – goods and services popular with India’s own expanding pool of deep-pocketed businessmen and travel connoisseurs. more

An agnostic in Kailash

Dilip Simeon in Himal Southasian:

In 2009, I undertook what was to be the most memorable journey of my life. I have made other momentous journeys, but none of them stand out so unmistakably as this trip to western Tibet by air, road and foot. It is undertaken mainly by pilgrims, to a place considered sacred by hundreds of millions of Buddhists, Hindus and Bon-pos (followers of the pre-Buddhist Tibetan shamanistic faith). When it ended, I understood why so many sought to come to this place.

The trip was motivated solely by the fascination for Manasarovar and Kailash – the sacred lake and peak at the culmination of the journey – on the part of our team leader, my dear friend Madhu Sarin, for whom this was the fifth pilgrimage to the area in nine years. Her intense descriptions and photographs had kindled my interest, and although I knew I would accompany her someday, the declining health of my parents had previously made it impossible to fix a date. As their only child, I had responsibilities that made it unthinkable for me to undertake a dangerous journey to places out of reach by telephone, from which it was impossible to return at short notice. And after my mother passed away in 2004, I was preoccupied with looking after my father, who died in 2007. It was all very painful, but with both of them gone the pilgrimage became possible. As it turned out, it also acquired a transcendent meaning for me, because I took along some relics of my parents.

At 15,000 feet, Manasarovar is one of the highest freshwater lakes in the world. It has a circumference of nearly 90 km, while the circumambulation of Mount Kailash, which lies to the north of Manasarovar, traverses about 52 km of mountain trails. It is located in a remote part of Tibet beneath the trans-Himalaya, a range much older than the Himalaya. Many Indian pilgrims take the Indian government’s sponsored tours, which began during the late 1970s after Beijing began to permit them. However ours was a privately organised one – this meant both that it was more expensive and that we could proceed at our own pace. More:

By steam!

Mark Tully in Himal Southasian. Himal‘s cover theme is travel, and as always it’s a great read.

Starting a journey without knowing where it will end has its problems. When I set out with Nick Lera, a remarkable cameraman-director and an authority on railways, to make a film called Steam’s Indian Summer, we could not be sure where steam engines still ran.

The last known steam-hauled express had run from the railway junction of Jalandhar, in Punjab. The only steam we found there was a wonderful Heath-Robinson contraption, a coal crane with no coal to lift any longer, operated for us by a railway worker who explained, ‘I am the superintendent of steam locos without a loco.’ Standing on a rusty turntable on which the majestic steam locomotives that hauled historic trains such as the Frontier Mail and the Punjab Mail had changed direction, a former steam driver talked scornfully of diesel and electric locomotives. ‘Anyone can drive one of those,’ he said. ‘To drive a steam engine you need four eyes, two in the back of your head as well as the two in the front, there’s so much going on all the time.’

When we reached Delhi we visited the Railway Museum. I was filmed standing beside one of the sturdy little engines that are still pulling trains up the mountainside to Darjeeling, my favourite Indian hill-station. It is my favourite partly because I used to travel on the narrow-gauge railway to school, partly because my father was a director of that railway, and partly because of the magnificent view of the Himalaya seen from the town. On top of all that, of course, there are the picturesque Darjeeling tea gardens that produce the champagne of teas. More:

Also in Himal travel issue:

Pallava pilgrimages by William Dalrymple:

They were a family of Brahmins from Hyderabad – or Cyberabad, as they liked to call it – and they were all computer programmers. They talked proudly of the booming high-tech industry that had sprung up in their city: of the outsourcing deals they were negotiating with US companies, of the programming contracts they had just closed with a group in Houston, and of the ‘health-care software solutions’ they were finalising with the National Health Service in the UK. None of this, however, had in the least bit altered their desire to do darshan – to glimpse the gods – in all the most ancient Shiva temples of Tamil Nadu.

The Venkatramans were two weeks into their tour when I met them – heads bowed, palms raised just outside the main image-chamber in the Ekambareswarar temple in the great South Indian temple city of Kanchipuram. All around stood some of the finest medieval sculptures in India. The shrine at the heart of the temple was built by the great Pallava kings who ruled over much of South India during the seventh century AD, and around us superb mithuna couples – beautiful divine lovers – were entangled amorously around the jambs of the doorway. This did not, however, seem to be of much interest to the Venkatramans, who were all too busy with the temple’s evening aarti (fire) ceremony. More:

Land of shadows

As it emerges from isolation, the nation of Myanmar is caught between repression and reform, dark and light, writes Brook Larmer in National Geographic

It’s the magic hour in Yangon, when the last rays of sunlight, softer, cooler now, bathe the crumbling downtown in a golden glow, beckoning residents out into the streets. Giggling children race to buy fresh sugarcane juice. Women with cheeks daubed with a paste made of bark—the alluring Burmese sunblock—haggle with a fishmonger. In the street, bare-chested teenage boys in a circle play a rowdy game of chinlon, a sort of acrobatic Hacky Sack, while potbellied men in T-shirts and longyi, the traditional Burmese sarong, sit on the sidewalk chewing red wads of betel nut.

The carnival-like atmosphere doesn’t last. Night falls fast in the tropics, and the power shortages that plague Myanmar give the sudden transition a spooky edge. A decaying colonial-era government building goes black. The alleyway next door emits the bluish glow of television sets powered by portable generators. Under the trees the vendors are invisible, but candles illuminate their wares: circles of silvery fish, clusters of purple banana flowers, stacks of betel leaves. And lined up in a blue wooden case, pirated DVDs of American movies and music.

“Welcome to the Hotel California,” calls out a voice from the shadows in perfect English. Three young men sit on plastic stools in the street, laughing at the greeting. The DVD vendor, a skinny 29-year-old with wire-rimmed glasses and a pink button-down shirt, leaps up with a smile. Though his schooling ended in fourth grade, he speaks English in an eruption of phrases gleaned from Hollywood movies and 1950s grammar books. Meeting an American, he says, makes him feel “over the moon, on cloud nine, pleased as punch.” more

The line of reckoning

The line acts like a fulcrum, relations between India and Pakistan seesawing upon it, writes Sonia Jabbar who reports from the line of control at Gurez Valley. An excerpt from her forthcoming book, Heartland, Journeys into Kashmir and Beyond, in Open Magazine

GUREZ VALLEY, LOC ~ It is pitch dark. The Observation Post (OP) is perched like an eyrie high above the Gurez Valley. Pakistan is a mere stone’s throw and we are watching it hawk-eyed. The wind howls about my ears. I pull up the collar of my parka and jam my pakol, an Afghan Muj cap I bought in Pakistan, further down my ears. There is a place where the woollen cap and the jacket cannot overlap, and the wind slips an icy finger through the gap. It is not a pleas­ant sensation. The cold runs down my spine and lodges painfully in my ribs. I ought to be in a state of high excite­ment, but that’s wearing thin and I’m already dreaming of my relatively cosy bed a few miles away at the Brigade Head Quarters at Davar.

‘Want a look?’ the Captain hands me the binocs.

I take my ungloved hands out of my pockets reluctant­ly. I’m not sure what I’m expected to see in the darkness, but I position myself near the two men against the sand­bags.

‘Remember, keep your head down,’ he cautions. more

The best places to see birds in India

Bugun Liocichla by Sachin Rai / Kolkatabirds

Bikram Grewal in Kolkatabirds:

Conventional wisdom dictates that in the age of twitter, facebook, buzz, google and heaven knows what else, one should, quite easily, be able to come up with a consensus on India’s top-ten birding hotspots. But this turned out to be fallacious, when Sumit, Ramki and I, along with a few birding friends failed to arrive at a conclusion. Our distinguished Webmaster, then astutely decided to conduct a limited poll. Seventy-one birders from India and abroad were invited to select what they considered the top-ten best birding places in India. I put in my two-pennies worth, which turned out be at great variance with the final opinions! But being a self-proclaimed democrat, and in any case with little choice in the matter I, with meager grace, accepted the popular verdict.

Now having added the caveat that the top-spots polled do not entirely match mine, I will soon find that some of you too will face the same dilemma. My (unsolicited?) advice is for you to come up with your own inventory and let us know what they are. A lively debate can then ensue! And, indeed it must, for India with its wide variety of habitats and forest types and the resultant birds, must surely boast a few hundred top-spots. The selection process itself begs for a few questions. On what premise or principle do we qualify a particular locale to join this august company? Would it be the variety in terms of numbers (Bharatpur for example) or would it be the quantum of rarities found there? (Dibru-Saikowa?) or indeed the accessibility (Corbett?). Or would it be Eaglenest for hosting the very local and recent entrant to our checklist – the Bugun Liocichla? In the final analysis I presume it would be a combination of some or all of the above, but you should decide your own criteria and set your own yardsticks. More:

To select the 10 most popular birding destinations in India, Kolkatabirds took responses from 71 international and Indian birders. Here’s the link to their verdict.

  1. Kutch and Great Rann of Kutch, Gujarat
  2. Thattekad Bird Sanctuary, Kerala
  3. Bharatpur, Keoladeo Ghana National Park
  4. Lava and Neora Valley, West Bengal
  5. Eaglenest Sanctuary, Arunachal Pradesh
  6. Corbett National Park, Uttarakhand
  7. Pangot and Sattal, Uttarakhand
  8. Goa, Goa
  9. Little Rann of Kutch, Gujarat
  10. Kaziranga National Park, Assam

A valley of contrasts

Shailaja Bajpai travels to Kashmir for the first time and realises that the Valley isn’t always what it’s made out to be. In Indian Express

First impressions or preconceptions? That Kashmir is a far-off land of incredible natural beauty and intractable human conflict; a place where once upon a time they used to shoot Bollywood films and now shoot only people in fake encounters or militant attacks.

Well, it is still very much nature’s basket, sylvan and lush, with sermons in streams, and poetry in pashmina. The day we arrive in Srinagar, protests are held after Friday prayers: an alleged rape of a Kashmiri woman by security personnel and the arrest of Ghulam Nabi Fai in the US turn them violent. The next day sees a bandh in the Valley. So far, preconceptions prevail. more

What Mumbaikars owe to the American Civil War: ‘pav bhaji’

Aakar Patel in Mint Lounge:

Snack food in India is the product of its urban centres. The first community to settle in Bombay’s Fort area, in the 1660s, was the traders of Surat. Now Gujarat has been an urban state for centuries. While Bombay, Delhi, Calcutta and Madras were settled by the British, Ahmedabad and Surat existed as urban centres before the British arrived in 1608, their ship docking on the Tapi’s right bank near my house. When the Tapi silted over later in the 1600s, Surti traders were cajoled to move to Bombay. They brought with them their afternoon food—khandvi, dhokla, patra—and their breakfast snacks, fafda, thepla and khamni.

This, of course, isn’t street food. That would have to wait for a couple of centuries. Street food is very recent in Indian cities and its origins can be dated to around 1840. This is when a group of Gujaratis began trading in the area now known as Dalal Street, starting Asia’s first stock exchange a few years later. They traded mainly in cotton, and many made fortunes in the period 1861-65 when global supply of the stuff was affected by the American Civil War. Abraham Lincoln’s navy blockaded New Orleans and the Mississippi and Manchester’s looms came to a halt, sending cotton prices shooting. The Gujarati merchant is one of the world’s finest managers of uncertainty and he made a lot of money. These early globalizers worked, as today’s call centre workers, late into the night when rates were wired in and orders wired out at American and European times. By then everyone would be quite famished and the wives would be asleep at home.

This demand for regular food at an unusual time created a unique supply. The traders were served by street stalls that invented a late-night special: pav bhaji. This is mashed vegetables (all the leftovers) cooked in a tomato gravy and served with buttered loaves. The loaf came from the Portuguese Jesuits, who settled in Bandra around the mid-1500s. It has been neatly absorbed into Indian fast food, soaking up the oil and gravies that Indians love. More:

The mountain cleaners

A group of volunteers has its hands full, cleaning up the garbage left behind on India’s most popular pilgrimage trails. Anuradha Parekh reports in The Better India.

How many times have we complained about the garbage on our roads and all around us? The ones among us who have had the opportunity to go to popular hill stations, tourist destinations and pilgrimage spots will bear testimony to the absolute recklessness with which garbage is strewn all around these areas, making them breeding grounds for disease-spreading germs and insects. But how many of us have actually done something about it? How many of us have picked up the trash and put it where it belongs? Meet one lady who has.

UK-born Jodie Underhill, along with her group of volunteers, has been cleaning up some of the most visited pilgrimage trails of India in the Himalayan belt. Not only do they hike up the pilgrims’ trail picking up trash along the way, they also segregate, recycle and manage the waste responsibly. In addition to this, they conduct programs to educate people (especially children) about the environment, try to find solutions for waste-related problems like access to clean water, health and sanitation problems and the way careless waste disposal affects animal and wildlife. more