Thursday 28 June 2012

A bit of Kipling country

A second trip to the mountains followed quickly on the heels of the first one. This year has been pretty good to us on the travel front, rivalling 2007, our best travel year, when we managed 7 holidays in 6 months! I think we went a little crazy that year, though :)
Anyhow, I digress. Ignorant me had always assumed that Kumaon and Garhwal were one and the same place. No reason why I should have assumed this, I never bothered to find out and I just did. Kumaon (or Kumaon mandal - it's an administrative division), occupies roughly the eastern half of Uttarakhand and comprises six of the thirteen districts in the state. The other seven are part of the Garhwal mandal. We went to the Nainital district of Kumaon, very accessible both by road and train from New Delhi. Apparently the temperature was a salubrious (relatively speaking, since Gurgaon is staying put at 43 degrees!) and sunny 33 degrees or so just the day before we landed. We were lucky to get a couple of cloudy days and some intermittent rain which led to some gorgeous weather. I cannot explain the joy of the cool breeze caressing one's face when all one has been used to for a few months is the hot loo!!
We stayed in Bhimtal, where our hotel was, in complete opposition to its website and tripadvisor reviews - quite a sad piece of work. My research skills has not been up to the mark this time and I was a little down and out about it  :) The only redeeming feature of the so-called resort was the terrific views it commanded of the lake, especially from our room. Bhimtal is supposed to be a place where Bhima visited and stayed during the period of the Pandavas 13-year exile. It's a quiet peaceful little town with a lovely lake at it's center.

All we did on the day we landed was saunter down to the lake (a  good 2 km walk), go on a boat-ride and horse ride, have some hot yummy simple grub and return to our hotel. The next day, we headed to Mukteshwar, which at around 7000 ft has one of the highest elevations in the region. On the way, we passed through lush tea estates, delectable fruit orchards (apricots, plums, peaches, apples, jamuns) and mountainsides laden with oak, pine and cedar. It was an amazing sight for our jaded city eyes to see trees bending over with the weight of fresh fruit and ripe fruits fallen to the ground, to be had for the asking. At Mukesthwar, the views of the Himalayas were impressive and apparently one could view the Nanda Devi from there on a clear day.
We visited a really interesting temple enroute to Mukteshwar, called the Golu Devta temple, at GhoraKal. Golu Devta is a local god, an incarnation of Shiva. The temple is very small, clean and distinguished by the thousands of bells strung everywhere. Bells tied by devotees, attached to little chits of papers with supplications and prayers scribbled all over them, little bells, large bells, humoungous was incredibly pretty!

Our enthusiasm for the day's travels was tempered by a bad bout of road-sickness which affected both the kids. They have been on so many road trips, several of them on winding mountain roads and never seemed to be bothered by road sickness. I'd relaxed into the comfort of thinking they had not picked up this particular gene from me. Alas, it seems I celebrated too soon!
Our last day brought us the best views and the Oooh! Wow! moments - Sattal and Naukuchiatal are two other freshwater lakes in the region which are really really pretty. Sattal is the lowest-lying of the lakes (it's actually 7 lakes, hence the name) and this is our first view of it as we were scooting downhill. Divine, isn't it? :)

Lunch was had on the banks serene banks of Naukuchiatal. Some pre-lunch pebble-throwing and tree-climbing activities were of course a mandatory part of the excursion, for the kids and dad!

The verdict? The part of Uttarakhand we saw was very very pretty. The Himalayas, even the lower ranges, are nothing if not arrestingly picturesque. Emerald calm waters and a soothing breeze blowing off the lakes cooled us down on an otherwise sultry day. I suppose the weather gods were upping the mercury a bit to remind us of what lay waiting for us back home :) A short but relaxing holiday in a scenic setting - that was our Kumaon rhapsody.

Sunday 17 June 2012

Old Delhi again and the Jama Masjid

Exploring one's city as a tourist is always exciting and one of the important places that we had not yet visited in our Delhi explorations has been the Jama Masjid. Anything in Old Delhi is bound to be a challenge because Ads hates it and cannot understand why we would bother travelling on the Metro for an hour and back to traipse around in the crowds and filth. I agree - why do we???
However, the fascination that the history and architecture of the old city hold for us is not something they can be hoped to understand. So, now that the children are away, we thought we would do them a favour by visiting Jama Masjid in their absence!
With great enthusiasm, we were up at 5.30 am, on the train at 6.15 am and at our destination Metro station by 7.15. Those who have done it will agree that walking the streets of Old Delhi is quite an unforgettable experience. Narrow streets, telephone and electricity wires sagging carelessly and dangerously, houses with mysterious dark doorways and staircases, dingy hotels and lodges, dogs and pigeons, food hawkers, men selling "cool refrigerated water", and people people people everywhere. We saw two separate guys with SLRs placing their subjects in designated positions and composing their shots. One was photographing a pair of street sweepers (the human kind, not the mechanical kind) and the other one was trying to click candid shots of a street hawker.

And the, quite suddenly, we caught our first glimpse of the dome of the Jama Masjid. Built by Shahjahan between 1650 and 1656, it was yet another crowning architectural achievement for the emperor who also built the Taj Mahal, Red Fort, Agra's Moti Masjid and many other lesser known monuments.

The main facade.

The central courtyard holds upto 25000 people for prayers and one can imagine it doing so since it is simply massive!

The Red Fort as seen from Jama Masjid.

Pigeons everywhere, having a blast with the feed which is scattered all over the courtyard.

The mosque also has some relics of the Prophet Muhammad which we were unable to look at because we went too early and most of the staff hadn't yet arrived. One can go walk up the tower to the minaret and apparently the views of Delhi from there are simply fantastic. But since S could not climb those many stairs and they don't allow women to go up there alone, we could not do it. Yup -- that's the rule :( I doubt we could have been able to see much even if we had trudged up. At 8 am, the morning sun was intense and blinding!
We were back home by 9.30 am after the mandatory fried parathas and rabri ki lassi at Paranthewali Gali. So that's another one ticked off the Delhi to-do list - happy!

Saturday 16 June 2012

So how did it all go?

Our experiment this summer - having the kids spend part of their summer vacation at Chennai and be looked after by both sets of grandparents for about 2 weeks - was unquestionably a win-win situation for all. Husband and wife got some much-needed couple time and were able to have a lovely holiday to celebrate their wedding anniversary. The children and grandparents bonded far more than they usually do (there's no mom and dad hovering around, after all). While there was definitely an increased workload on all four seniors, the mitigating factor was that all of them are pretty sprightly people with active lifestyles. They seem to have handled the challenge of parenting two small children with aplomb. 
In addition, I can see that the two siblings have become closer than ever before. Thrown together, with no friends to distract them, shuttling between two homes in Chennai, they have adapted beautifully and each has become the other's support system. I would never have expected Y to get through the holiday without her Anna lovingly leading her by the hand every step of the way.
So, yes, I'm really happy we took the plunge this year. It made a huge difference for S and me. It opened up these simply vast pockets of time when we simply did not know what to do. Freed from feeding, bathing, potty-cleaning, book-reading, playing, cleaning-up, homework and assorted other duties that go with the parental territory, we were initially a little foxed by how to spend all the free time. In that, atleast in Gurgaon and within our set of friends, we are a little unusual because we have no full-time help. Other couples with kids can and do step out for dinners and movies and such ever so often, in the late evenings or after the kids are in bed. They can attend pub lunches and bond over bowling sessions with friends. S and I have sometimes been left out when only one of us can attend batch-mate socials or a gathering over drinks at someone's house (no kids, please).
Yesterday, we walked over to Haldiram's for a quick dinner and we saw a PVR multiplex there. We are hearing good things about Ferrari ki Sawaari so we discussed whether we should catch the film after dinner. Suddenly S smiled and said "So, you mean, we can REALLY do that? Watch a film, just like that?" I know it may sound silly to some, but it was a source of wonder to us that we could actually, without any planning whatsoever, just walk in and see a movie, or do something else we liked. The nicest part of the last fortnight has been in reliving our carefree pre-kid, no-responsibility years, being able to talk and talk (and not run out of conversation!), read as much as we liked, not have to worry whether lunch and dinner and snacks will be on the table on time, and....oh well, you get the picture.
The hardest part? The hardest part has been missing the kids, especially for the last week. It was a good thing that I have been up against some project deadlines that had me wedded to the laptop for the last few days, otherwise I would have felt really depressed. I didn't like talking to them on skype because I felt that they would miss me more when they saw and heard me (I was right). When I saw Ads bravely wiping away some stray tears, or when Y said "Amma, I miss you", I felt as though my heart would break. While on the whole I am assured by my parents and parents-in-law that they were perfectly happy and content, I think that probably, just for the first year, we should have stopped with a week and not stretched it to two.
It's such a cliche that distance makes the heart grow fonder. Like most cliches, it is also very true and I cannot wait to have the little monsters back in my arms very very soon. I'm glad that all of us had a good summer (although school re-opens only after another fortnight). It's high time our family got back together again.

Wednesday 13 June 2012

Big cats and more big cats

I wrote about Ads' obsession with the big cats a few months ago. Since then, the interest has been very much alive and intensifying almost by the day. He now wants to legally change his name to Tiger. A couple of months ago, I woke up in the middle of the night to find him missing from the bed. I ran to the 'toy room' to find him moving around on all floors in the darkness. I thought he must have been sleepwalking (or sleep-crawling) but he was wide awake. He said "Amma, I am a tiger. Tigers hunt at night sometimes."
Leopards, lions, panthers, pumas, jaguars, caracals, mountain lions, cougars, lynxes, cheetahs, smilodons and many more obscure varieties of the big cat - S and I have learnt about these a lot more than we wanted to! I didn't realize how much I had absorbed until Ads was quizzing me one day, at a friend's place in Chennai.
Q: Name one member of the cat family which doesn't look like a cat.
A: Hyenas. Most people think they are cousins of dogs, but they actually belong to the cat family.
Q: Which is more powerful - the lion or the tiger?
A: Lions are faster and longer, but tigers are heavier, more muscular and used to solitary living and hunting. In a fight between lion and tiger, the tiger is more likely to win. In any case, Siberian tigers are the largest variety of tigers and can easily fell a fully-grown lion.
(This is actually a trick question since lions and tigers live in totally different habitats and are unlikely to be involved in a face-off. So the question is hypothetical and can be argued both ways)
Q: How long are the lion's claws?
A: Asiatic lion has 3" claws. Some African lions have claws that are upto 4" long. Bengal tigers have 4" retractable claws.
And so on and so forth.
My friend was do you know all this stuff?
Sigh. If she had to read about tigers morning, noon and night, from 10 different books, watched every show possible on NatGeo Wild and Animal Planet not to mention Animal Faceoff on Youtube, she would know all this stuff by heart too! 
It's not just Ads. I've met a couple of kids (both boys) who are experts on dinosaurs and polar bears. It does seem to be a boy thing to get obsessive and nerdy about some subjects, from a very early age - Be it cars or trucks, aeroplanes, spacecraft, tools or wild animals. Ads went through the truck and tools phase around the time he was 3 and 4 years old and now big cats.
This is the fact-sheet he has created on tigers. He's made one for the other big cats as well - lions, leopards, cheetahs and so on - but they are all in Chennai and I only have a photo of this one.

Not to be outdone, we had visited someone's place the other day in Chennai and the aunty there asked Y what her name was. Pat came the answer "Tigress!".

Sunday 10 June 2012

Back from the mountains

I'm back! In Gurgaon and 45 degree blistering sun, after almost 3 weeks away - first in Chennai and then out in the Himalayas for our very first couples vacation in almost 7 years.
This particular getaway was very hastily planned by our standards. Consider this. By May I have my vacations and long weekenders planned all the way until November - my hotel bookings are done, itineraries are planned and alas, Indian railways only allows train tickets to be booked 120 days in advance :) For an organized freak like me, leaving town on holiday at the spur of the moment is almost never done. In fact, it has never been done! So when the possibility of a work trip to Jammu came up and the husband casually suggested that he take a few days off and we go to Srinagar to celebrate our 12th wedding anniversary, I said - Are you crazy? How am I supposed to plan for a a month in advance??? :)
As it turned out, I learnt after making a few calls that Kashmir was out of the question since hotel rooms were not to be had for love or money, not to mention that airfares even from Delhi were prohibitive. My work trip also fell through, so I dumped the whole project back on S (Grrrr....if you had given me even an inkling that you were willing to take a holiday in June, we could have planned this so much better!). 
Help came in the form of our travel advisor, who suggested a retreat near Shimla. At first, I resisted. I have a horror of our popular Indian hill-stations - Ooty, Kodai, Yercaud, Mussoorie, Darjeeling, and yes, Shimla - without exception they are all dirty, polluted, smoggy and hopelessly crowded. However, some googling assured me that although we would be staying 10 km out of Shimla, there would be no reason for us to go anywhere near the city. There seemed to be enough for us to do both inside and outside the hotel (which is a swank Oberoi property located in a tiny hamlet called Charabra in Himachal). So we took the plunge, booked our Shatabdi tickets to Chandigarh and left for HP just a day after I landed back in Gurgaon.
First things first. I'm sorry (and a little ashamed) to admit that I had no, absolutely NO, idea that Himachal was so stunningly beautiful. Shimla as expected was horrible (we had to pass through it a couple of times and got caught in traffic jams!) but that aside, the eastern bit of the state (which is all we could cover) is just mind-bogglingly pretty. I remarked to S that if the touristy bit is so lovely, how much better would the less-frequented parts be?
We travelled to Kufri, Fagu and Chail. The Maharaja of Patiala's Palace at Chail (now a heritage hotel owned and operated by HP Tourism) has the most beautiful lawns I have ever seen, surrounded by hundreds of trees - deodar, fir, pine, oak and maple. We went to Chaba for our first time white-water rafting on the Sutlej (which flows down straight from the Mansarovar lake and is freaking cold!). I realized that our guide was making me paddle furiously when we hit even a slightly choppy patch - a fairly effective distraction strategy. Maybe my constant mutters of Oh Damn Oh Damn Oh Damn were making him nervous! I was very edgy - the raft looked pretty unstable and the water was not just cold, it was menacingly frisky!
We were caught in a freak hailstorm one afternoon which was pretty exciting :) We also managed to pack in a 7-km hike which was charmingly called the "Oaks and Orchards Trail". We went deep into the forest using a map provided to us, caught some great views of the valley below, managed to get covered extensively by spider webs, and saw the President of India's summer haven (a colonial bungalow aptly called "The Retreat"). 
For the most part though, we enjoyed each other's company. We realized that we could indeed talk for hours and not just about the kids. We enjoyed uninterruped meals and conversations, long walks, birdsong and silence. It was bliss. I missed the kids, but I did not feel guilty. They were well-cared for and happy with their grandparents and S and I really needed this time together to bond, free from caretaking duties. I don't suppose we could have given each other a better anniversary present.
So, it's back to regular programming from now on :) I can't wait to go back to Himachal again and explore more of that lovely lovely state. Leaving you with a few photographs - enjoy!
Our hotel...

The view from our room.

The driveway upto the hotel, fringed by deodars.

View from the outdoor dining area..

And that's me plugging away at breakfast...

The river Sutlej in the background, and our "picnic" lunch all laid out...if only all picnics were like this :)

Friday 1 June 2012

The summer so far...

The kids couldn't wait for the summer holidays to begin so that they could proceed to their favourite city - Chennai. We landed here a couple of weeks ago and of course it was insanely hot (not that we were in a position to complain since what we had left behind was no better!) A few days later, I travelled to Bangalore - a 3 day work trip which I combined with a weekend so that I got a full 5 days of freedom from child-rearing duties.
Apparently, Bangalore has had a very warm summer this year. Obviously, I did not find it in my heart to express any sympathy from friends who complained about the Bangalore heat - my standard response was that they were spoilt silly! Having said that, it was unseasonably warm when I compared it to the weather when I lived there, as recently as 5 years ago. I stayed with some dear friends, shopped at the Kala Maadhyam mela, visited relatives, 'guilt-shopped' for my two monsters (!) and caught up with two fellow bloggers for the very first time, in person. The latter was particularly gratifying. Knowing someone in the virtual world and thereafter meeting them physically can be two entirely different things. As it happened, the three of us had lots to talk about and the two hours that we had planned for lunch seemed to elapse with extreme rapidity, leaving us with some great memories and hopes of meeting again soon.
Unfortunately, I was unable to manage a pit-stop at my favourite Bangalore haunt, Corner House, owing to a bad stomach bug which I managed to catch on one of my work days. A suspect vada-pav seems to have caused the bacterial infection and I had a fairly hard time the next day as I was travelling to some villages near Kolar.
I've often observed to S how he gets a rousing reception when he returns from a work trip or even every evening when he returns home from the office. I'm home when the kids return from school and since I never travel anywhere without them, I've never been fortunate enough to be accorded such a warm welcome. My wish was granted when I returned from Chennai; the kids fell upon me and for a few minutes they could not get enough of hugging and kissing mommy! Y kept devouring me with her huge eyes and as I saw the wealth of love behind her gaze, I felt both humbled and grateful. 
As I complained about the humidity in Chennai to the other half, he retorted that he was walking around our Gurgaon flat, sprinkling water in all the rooms to increase the humidity levels!
Such is our summer. Waiting to escape to cool Himalayas next week!