Cities of two tales

Watching locals on the streets of Macau and Hong Kong, I get an insight into extent of ascendancy of the selfie stick in this part of the world. On the streets, inside shopping malls, at restaurants, in front of tourist attractions, and everywhere else, I see amateur photographers armed with only their phones.

Once I spot a mother and daughter pose for a co-selfie in front of the ruins of St Paul’s in Macau. Only, they are standing on the steps in front of it, facing this beautiful Macau landmark, dating back to the 16th century.

StPauls

Speaking of ruins, I am rather taken aback by the sense of history and timeless charm around this area. Where are the glitzy casinos and the grandiose hotels that Macau is known for?

In their place, I find myself at Senado square, a short walk from the church ruins through a bustling market. I feel like I have wandered into a small town in the heart of Mediterranean Europe. Senado square, once the hub of the Senate, is dotted with candy pink and clotted cream yellow buildings, with sudden spurts of pistachio green peeking out near the fountain at one end. I spend a happy hour walking aimlessly through the narrow shopping lanes branching off on all sides, suddenly finding myself hugged by a group of shy college kids out to spread peace and joy thusly.

This, the “historic centre of Macau,” features on the UNESCO world heritage list. It is a cheerful mishmash of Chinese temples, Portuguese churches and monuments sporting varied architectural styles.

Macau

Actually, being in Macau gives me the feeling of having been transported to Portugal: street names on little blue and white tiles (Rua this and Rua that), restaurants serving the cuisine of that country, and Portuguese itself one of the official languages of the land. This once sleepy town was a Portuguese settlement since the 16th century, until it was handed over to China in 1999. And Macau holds on to its Portuguese legacy with a fondness that is visible.

But if Macau’s soul is Portuguese, then its trappings are irrefutably Chinese. On the streets, I have to step carefully around the remains of the burnt faux money and the food offerings left to mark the Hungry Ghost Festival, linked to the Chinese practice of ancestor worship.

Macau is full of other small delightful discoveries for me. My favourite is the time I wander around in the Coloane area, where I go to sample the famous egg tart at Stow’s Bakery. That is when I come upon St Francis Xavier Church. At first glance, the cream and white façade is like any church I might expect to see in this little piece of Portugal. And inside, in a corner room is a painting of a Chinese goddess (some say Kum Lam, the goddess of mercy) with a baby in hand; unsurprisingly, this has come to be called the painting of the Chinese Virgin Mary.

Mary

However, for most visitors, this interesting juxtaposition of cultures is not of interest; the clarion call of casinos across town in the Cotai strip is too strong. Today, these 30 odd casinos define Macau. And that includes the ultra opulent, bordering on the surreal Venetian, with its indoor blue skies and floating gondolas, serenading Italian gondoliers included. Its casino industry is larger than Las Vegas, only minus the fake Elvises and wedding chapels. This is thanks to the thousands, perhaps millions of Chinese punters who stake their all in games of chance every day.

The selfie stick follows me as I cross over to Hong Kong on the ferry; I find a place almost devoted entirely to it. The 3D Trick Eye museum is filled with illusions created by clever paintings that seem three-dimensional. I go there fully expecting to not like it (what kind of museum calls itself a trick?) but it turns out to be great fun. And here, I confess, I give in to the lure of my phone camera, as I pose and pout in front of some bizarre creations.

Museum

Like Macau, Hong Kong was handed back to China, this one by the British in 1997, to become a Special Administrative Region. That means that some of the rules that govern China do not apply here, while some others are already in Hong Kong’s genes; everywhere there are signboards warning citizens about what they cannot do. Despite that, everyone has a great time here, with mine beginning at Kowloon island.

Walking on the Avenue of Stars, the waterside promenade at Victoria Harbour, modelled on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, I manage to identify only a few familiar names (Bruce Lee, anyone?) But it is a great place for an evening stroll and people watching, as the elegant red junks glide silently along the harbour.

Boats

I manage to see the many sides of Hong Kong in a few days (of course, missing as many). One morning, it is on the “ding ding tram” that locals use, followed by the peak train that climbs up at an astonishing angle to Victoria Peak. Another time, it is from the Hong Kong Observation Wheel – the homegrown version of the London Eye – which provides a bird’s eye view of the water and the land on either side of it.

And if people from Mainland China go to Macau to gamble, they come here to shop. My companions follow their lead, shopping themselves to near bankruptcy; from the lavish Harbour City mall to the night Ladies’ Market, there seems to be something for everyone.

Travel writer Jan Morris, described Hong Kong as “(once) a fantastical mix of colonial style and rampant materialism.” Ten years after she wrote it, the description holds true. Relics of the British rule are seen primarily in the names of streets, landmarks and natural features, the colonial era buildings and the lingering sense of nostalgia among some of the older citizens. But it is indisputably Chinese in its core.

After a traditional dimsum breakfast at Ming Garden one day, I stroll down the mall in search of coffee – green tea just does not cut it in the morning – and find a Starbucks two floors down. They co-exist peacefully, often attracting the same customers. I think of this as an example of what Hong Kong is really, two cultures that have managed to mingle and thrive quietly and with great dignity.

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This story was published in The New Indian Express on October 11, 2015

Gokarna: Sun, sand and spirituality

Gokarna has not woken up completely when we drive into the town early on a Sunday morning. We are on the single main road, a narrow stretch known as ‘Car Street’ after the temple juggernaut, which sits heavy and drowsy as the rest of the village. Its huge wooden wheels are stuck in the mud, waiting for the annual festival when they roll slowly around the town, carrying the image of the deity.

Most shops are shut, a few sluggishly coming to life as the owners raise the creaky metal shutters to another day. A few women are up and about, sweeping the street in front of their home, before drawing intricate rangoli patterns. A young priest sits on an abandoned platform in one corner, absorbed in his newspaper, unmindful of the dust his clean yellow robes are picking up.

reading2

reading1

And the cows, plenty of cows, flipping their long tails as if to keep people from coming too close to them. In a way, the cows belong right there, given that the name of the town stems from a legend that lord Shiva, known in the local temple as Mahabaleshwara, emerged from a cow’s ears (go-karna).

In one of the narrow lanes spreading out from the main temple road, we come across Karl painting a picture of Radha and Krishna on a swing. His canvas is the outer wall of the Radhakrishna bookstore, owned by his friends. Karl, from Germany, has been backpacking through India and has already been in Gokarna for several weeks now. “It’s a very special place,” he says solemnly, “I don’t have the heart to move on from here.”

painting

Welcome to Gokarna, the new Rishikesh.

Like Rishikesh, and perhaps Puri, Gokarna has something of a split personality. On the one hand, it is a temple town attracting the devout and the faithful. They are here seeking spiritual salvation in this “Kashi of south India.” For them, the sea just serves to take quick cleansing dips prior to prayers at the Shiva temple.

And on the other, it is also a typical seaside town where beach bums throng, lured by the song of the waves. They too are here on a pilgrimage of sorts, in search of nirvana amidst the sun and the sand, and the hipster beach shacks with names like Namaste and Yoga.

The twain rarely meets but when it does, it is a happy and smooth mingling.

Kudle
(Kudle beach: image courtesy wikimedia commons)

Although the temples themselves are out of bounds for foreigners, take a look at the surrounding streets. At breakfast at one of the local eateries with rickety metal tables and chairs, we find ourselves next to a young couple from Israel and their two small children. They, kids included, are tucking into idli and upma in a manner that suggests familiarity as much as fondness. Another of those fallen for Gokarna’s languid charm.

By the time we finish breakfast, there is a buzz around the area. Dozens of pilgrims walk purposefully towards the temple, some still wet from their tryst with the sea. More cows appear on the scene, as if summoned by the clanging bells. The shops are all open now, the ones selling shiny idols and laminated images of deities the most crowded.

Heading on from town, even that early in the morning, Kudle beach is a beehive of activity. The shore resonates with the happy shrieks of the young frolicking in the water. The patron saint of reckless kids clearly keeps a benevolent eye on them. There is a raucous volleyball game in progress, the two sides too busy laughing to have a serious match. An army of crabs scurries across the soft sand, leaving interesting patterns on the sand. They are the only ones who seem to be in a hurry to get somewhere.

Further away, young couples and singles sit at the beach shacks, waiting for their coffee and toast. From my bench in the shack, I can see a sprinkling of Om tattoos strategically placed on bare shoulders and waists. Someone talks of going for a swim, someone else speculates if it is time for sunbathing.

In all this, there is no sight of a local anywhere; this part of Gokarna seems strictly for the “others.”

Driving up to the next hillock (known, I am told, as Yoga Hill), we stop for stunning views of Om beach, also popular among tourists. The name seems to be the product of an imaginative mind; the rocky beach curves at two points on the shore, creating a Sanskrit ‘Om’. The beach is pristine, the waters glinting a muted silver under the morning sun.

Om

Further ahead lie the promisingly named Half Moon beach and Paradise beach, both reached only by a hike or through a short boat ride. Friends who have been there say that both are lovelier and quieter versions of the beaches we have left behind.

Looking out on the beaches, I wonder for a minute if this is Gokarna or Goa. But later on that evening, inside the town, with the temple bells pealing in the distance and in the company of cows once again, I know.

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Published in The New Indian Express on 22/03/2015 as Where Rishikesh Meets Goa

The hidden heart of Hyderabad

Novelist Doris Lessing felt pearls mean tears. In Hyderabad, it meant the laughter and glory of the Nizams. From the time they welcomed pearl merchants from the Arabian markets, Hyderabad has been the Pearl City. However, more interesting and lesser known is the story of the diamonds that light up the city’s history.

Take the Koh-i-noor, one of the world’s largest diamonds. It was once stored at Golkonda, just a hop, skip and jump (or a bumpy auto-rickshaw ride) away from the Nizam’s capital. Golkonda, then a mini town, was also the administrative seat of various dynasties, since the mid 10th century. It was only in the late 16th century that Muhammad Quli Qutub Shah moved a few miles and established the city of Hyderabad, building the Charminar at its core.

Charminar

But this morning, I am not in the heart of Hyderabad to discuss diamonds with historians or purchase pearls from jewellers. I make my way towards Charminar, its four minarets casting a watchful eye over the neighbourhood. Walking through the narrow shopping lanes branching out from this tower is a sensory overload, pleasurable in a way that is purely Indian.

I have ambled through these lanes several times before, ignoring the cacophony of traffic and spindrift of people brushing past me. I have enjoyed the burst of bling from the bangles at Laad Bazaar, their glass, metal and lac twinkling in the sunlight. I have laughed at the way canny shopkeepers call out to “just come in, madam, dekhne ka paisa nahi lagta,” knowing fully well that to see is to succumb.

Laad Bazaar

Bangles

I have no favourites here, though. Nor have I known if any one of the shops is better than the others. I suspect this is how it is with most outside visitors to this area.

This time, it is different. At the Taj Krishna, where I am staying, they have put together a little exploration of the old city’s inscrutable streets. So I am on a “Deccan Odyssey” with Raize, Hyderabad’s first female tourist guide.

On our way to the Charminar, I quiz Raize, a Hyderabadi recently married to a Lucknowi, about the difference between the two styles of biryani. Raize’s loyalty clearly lies with her maika, as she declares that the Hyderabadi biryani—cooked for hours, with heaps of patience and generous sprinklings of secret ingredients—is the real McCoy.

Strolling around Charminar in the company of a local is a novel experience for me. Our first stop is at Nimrah café and bakery, an Iranian chai point, right next to Mecca Masjid. It is that no-man’s time between breakfast and lunch, but Nimrah is a veritable beehive. Men of all ages stand outside gossiping, as they sip on chai poured on to saucers. Inside, tray after tray of piping hot biscuits, cookies and dilpasand are brought out from the desi oven, to be displayed on the counters.

Nimrah

OsmaniaI get to sample a bit of this and a bit of that, all of it still warm and fragrant. The specialty here is the melt-in-the-mouth Osmania biscuits, the favourite of Hyderabad’s last and risibly eccentric Nizam.

In my many visits to this area, I have never noticed Nimrah. And I know that on my own, I would never have stepped inside. I leave clutching a box of Osmania, a gift from the gracious owner Abood Bin Aslam, “Hyderabad ki taraf se.”

Then we head into the throbbing mass of humanity that is Laad bazaar, where Raize imparts interesting trivia about how it got its name. Popular belief is that it is derived from lacquer (laad) which is used in the bangles this market is renowned for.

However, I prefer Raize’s theory that the bazaar was set up as a shopping destination by our old friend Muhammad Quli Qutb Shah for his daughter Laad’s wedding to Aurangazeb’s son. Even today, Laad Bazaar serves as the hub for trousseau shopping for many Hyderabadi brides.

We shop at Nayeem Bangles; an incredible collection, from the very subtle and classy to the cheerfully glittering and sparkly crammed into a small shop. Here, there is no oversell as they let the trinkets speak for themselves.

Nayeems

Choice

KharchobJust down the road is Afzal Miyan Karchobwale’s Lace Centre, here since 1951. Now run by the grandson of the original entrepreneur, this shop is legendary for its karchob (hand embroidery) work, not just among ordinary wedding shoppers but also among the rich and famous.

I hear whispers that Afzal Miyan’s craft—exquisite zardosi and delicate lace embroidery has patrons ranging from Princess Esra to Sabyasachi Mukherjee. I also learn that in this tiny space, some of the fabric that glitters is actually gold; from borders on saris to bridal khada dupattas.

Afzal Mian

Since we begin the tour with food, we also end it with a pit-stop at Navrang for a sachet of their biryani masala. For a shop that stocks condiments, nuts and spices, it is quirkily named Navrang Colour Merchant. The owner has never revealed the secret of his “Special Hyderabad Old City Biryani Masala” made of 15 spices, which guarantees a sublime biryani.

I catch a whiff of it and I can tell you this. The battle of the biryanis may never get resolved, but don’t leave Hyderabad without a stash of this masala.

Biryani masala

Lonely Planet, in choosing Hyderabad as one of the top 10 destinations for 2013, had said, “Elegant and blossoming, but also weathered and undiscovered, Hyderabad’s Old City is ripe for exploration.” Truly, Hyderabad reveals its charms slowly and bashfully to the visitor. Beyond the teeming masses and eager vendors, the old city has a warm heart.

For details on the Deccan Odyssey, email krishna.hyderabad@tajhotels.com

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Published in The New Sunday Express Magazine on November 16, 2014 as Time’s Own Trinket

Losing the fear of flying

I had never thought I would find myself 65 metres above the ground, hanging on for dear life. And doing this of my own volition. I am not the particularly adventurous type, preferring to get all cultured out through museums and concerts while on holiday.

Well, it is a bit of an overstatement to say that I was hanging on for dear life. After all, I was tethered in three places as I zipped across the steel cables in the heart of the dense Blue Grotto forest.

Hanging on

Here, in the midlands of South Africa, they call it the ‘Canopy Tour,’ a nod to the lush canopy formed by the venerable trees of this forest located in the uKhahlamba-Drakensberg Park. This UNESCO World Heritage site encompasses the Drakensberg mountain range – roughly translated as Dragon’s Back from Afrikaans – which stretches on for 200 kilometres.

Lake at Drakensberg

The canopy tour site was a short walk away from the Drakensberg Sun Valley resort, where I was staying. At the site, we went through a detailed safety briefing, after which we were kitted out and harnessed. My guide’s name was Promise; in my super nervous state, I took it as a divine signal. Promise was a local who had been doing this for five years, a woman with a gentle smile and (as I discovered later) endless reserves of patience.

The canopy tour

South African midlands

And then there was a bumpy jeep ride into the forest, followed by a long walk to the starting point. Sharp sunlight was soon lost to us, as we found ourselves surrounded by ancient yellowwoods, cape chestnut trees, red pear trees and pine trees. The two accompanying guides kept up a constant comforting chatter but I was preoccupied with morbid thoughts of the adventure ahead. Let’s get this over with already.

Into the forest

The first slide – aptly called the Rabbit Hole – was very short and easy, meant to lure me into a sense of false security. At the next stop, reached through a walk over a wobbly hanging bridge, I found that I could barely see the other end of the zipline on the other hill. There was no turning back. This was just the beginning. And there were twelve such platforms perched on treetops and cliff faces to cross before we reached the end.

Canopy

Sure, we had been told all this before, but seeing it on a map and doing it were two different things.

My guide Elijah went first, performing all kinds of tricks to reassure us of how utterly effortless and safe the whole thing was. “Easy for him,” I muttered under my breath as he waved both his hands while mid-air and turned somersaults in harness. He whistled and sang, even as I found it difficult to take normal breaths.

On the platform

Upside down

When my turn came, I got harnessed again and brought long-forgotten prayers to my mind. I found that the toughest thing here (as in life, chimed my inner philosopher) was to let go. I had to assume a sitting position, stretch my legs forward and just launch myself into thin air.

Trouble struck at the end of the third slide. That was when I braked too early by pressing on the cable – I misread my guide’s signal – and went sliding back on the line.

We had been given clear instructions on what to do in such situations. We were to turn back and crawl our short way to the platform, monkey style. But panic took over and I just hung on screaming for help till my guide came and towed me to safety. I admit that this is not a moment I am particularly proud of, but what can I say, I am not a monkey.

My adventureAfter a few initial hiccups – embarrassingly captured on video for posterity – I actually began to enjoy myself. The Drakensberg mountains, and particularly the Blue Grotto Forest, offer several popular hiking trails for all levels of walkers. However, the canopy tour offered something no hike could: a bird’s eye view of the spectacular mountains. A vista of lofty trees above, below and all around. An occasional glint off the thin ribbon of river way below. The novel sensation of flying straight on to a waterfall. And of course, the company of birds at eye level; there are over 150 avian species in this forest alone, including the Greater Double Collared Sunbird and the much rarer Bush Blackcap.

Each of the platforms has been built to harmonise with the existing natural feature: cliff face, waterfall, tree trunk. So, there were times when I went zipping through a large tree on one side and a rock jutting out on the other. But by then, I was in Tarzan (or Jane, if you will) mode, happy to fly from these ancient treetops.

Harmony in the forest

I lingered at the end of the last slide, on the circular platform built on a 300-year-old Outeniqua Yellowwood and affectionately nicknamed Madiba by the crew. It was at that moment that, on a lingering adrenalin rush, I wondered why I had fussed so much. Bring it on once more!

The Canopy Tour

The entire activity takes approximately three hours and costs R495 per person, including all equipment, guides, transport to the starting point and refreshments afterwards. Visit Drakensberg Canopy Tour for more information.

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Published in the Sunday magazine of The New Indian Express as Losing the fear of flying

 

Tso far tso good

Tso Moriri

When we reach Tso Moriri, it feels eerily quiet and desolate. No tourists, no locals. And then we hear a feeble sound from the distance. A group of children are playing cricket on the banks of the lake (‘tso’ in the local language). And we start walking towards them. There they are, engrossed in their game, each wearing only a thin sweater on top of cotton shirts and drainpipe pants. Me, I want to weep for the cold.

It is still early in the season and it appears that the camp has not yet been set up at Tso Moriri. We have driven for seven long hours from Leh through dry brown roads. True, the Indus had given us company for most of way, snaking along the road like a shiny green ribbon. But I cannot bear the thought of driving back to Leh now, a journey of 250 kilometres. That apart, this place deserves more than a fleeting visit.

Tso Moriri, at an altitude of over 15000 feet, is just stunning. Surrounded by snow-capped mountains, the lake stretches on for over 28 kilometres and at its broadest, spans eight kilometres. I stand on the shore and watch the water change colour with the sun every minute; now a pale grey, suddenly a deep cobalt blue and then aquamarine. Shades I had only heard of are now playing themselves out in front of my eyes and I am greedy for more.

Tso Moriri1

Suddenly, there is some bustle behind us, as a couple of trucks pull up with tents and supplies. It turns out that the camp – the only one allowed here – is to open in a couple of days. I send our driver, Murub, to negotiate and soon we have a deal. They pitch one tent for us and get the kitchen going. Which is a good thing, since breakfast is long forgotten and it is way past lunchtime.

We go for a stroll while lunch gets ready. The husband is keen to join in a game of cricket but the high altitude makes it tough to even breath deep or walk steady. Some portions of the lake are still frozen, although the native Brahmni ducks make their way placidly through the water.

By early evening, it gets so cold that I begin to question the wisdom of our decision to stay on. But at dusk, the snow peaks gleam golden, catching the last rays of the sun. The lake is perfectly still, reflecting the thick white clouds like so many fluffy pillows. The silence is absolute. And as I sip on hot chai, I think I could get used to this after all.

Another day, another lake.

Unlike Tso Moriri, Pangong Tso is abuzz with noise and activity. And why not? It has recently shot to fame as the location of the blockbuster movie 3 Idiots. Murub says, with part amusement and part dismay, that this has now become almost a pilgrimage spot for large groups of tourists.

Pangong has always been the more popular lake in Ladakh, the item to be checked off every visitor’s list. For one, it is much closer to Leh than Tso Moriri. And the drive is through the spectacular Chang La pass, which at almost 18000 feet, is one of the highest motorable roads in the world.

Chang La

Chang La1

With plans to spend the night at Pangong, we start from Leh late in the morning, unlike peppy day-trippers who leave at 4 am. The mountains are covered with fresh snow, and we drive through a narrow road that is part earth, part slush. At Chang La, breathless and disoriented, we pose for the mandatory photographs with stilted smiles on our faces. The discomfort lingers long after we descend, but is forgotten at the first glimpse of Pangong, a sapphire band shimmering afar.

Pangong

At Pangong, there are several camps already in business and some local homes have opened their doors to curious visitors. By the side of the lake, a child plays with flat stones, in his own version of the Buddhist meditative practice of stacking stones. A group of young men dares each other to wade into the freezing water, till one of them finally does it. Predictably, he does not last very long and I notice that his lips look almost as blue as the water by the time he steps out.

 

Pangong2

As at Tso Moriri, I could spend all evening here just seeing the varied blues of the lake. Pangong is much much longer, at over 134 kilometres, of which only one third is in India and the rest in Tibet. Apart from the brown-headed gulls that clamour for pieces of bread or biscuit that tourists throw their way, large herds of Kiangs (Tibetan wild asses) are usually found grazing on its banks.

Ladakh has a way of holding on to you and never letting go. Long after I am back in my urban jungle, I keep playing it all back in my mind. I remember the time I spent in meditation at Thiksey monastery, as the monks went about their morning prayers. And the long walks and lively chats with the vendors at the street market in Leh. Above all, I think of that evening at Tso Moriri. Who knew solitude could be so soothing?

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Published in New Indian Express on May 25, 2014 as The waters of life