Sunday, 10 May 2015

Two things that helped me be on the road !

So many times people ask me HOW I have been able to travel so much - for almost two years without a job in hand, do I not feel scared traveling alone, where did I get the money for it and so on and so forth. Initially I felt there was no particular answer to it. 'I just did  it' used to be my answer. When I consistently got this question from friends and strangers, I gave it a serious thought. I traced the travel back to the people I met, the ones who influenced me and the circumstances that made me quit my job, pick my bags and just leave. There were many such awesome people and horrible situations that came my way. However two reasons stood out from all this noise. Two main reasons why and how I could finance my trip for so long and how I was able to do it with no fear ( well almost ).

The reasons are real simple. Firstly I had the savings to do it. Secondly I had the courage to do it. And the source of both these is my Mother.

Since an early age she encouraged me to save money. Since my very first job she ensured that a part of my earning was invested. Not only did I have enough savings to travel and live without a job for two years but I also got money pouring in my account while I was traveling from the old investments she had encouraged me to make those past years. So this is the first reason.

Second and the prime reason - the courage. One might have all the money but how do you buy courage? The answer lies in the martial arts training I got for almost four years back in the day and who else but my mother encouraged me for it. When all my friends in school were busy painting beautiful flowers and scoring for the next exam I was out in the Taekwando field kicking some ass ( and getting mine kicked ). That training gave me all the courage I needed to pick my bag and go alone because I knew I could take care of my self ( almost in all situations ). That training has given me all the courage I need for most tough situations in life.

I have never really told my mother about this. I am taking this perfect day, Mother's Day, 11th May 2015, to let my most loved mother know that all the good things I have in life I owe it to her ( along with the bad habits too .. giggle ).

Happy Mother's Day mummy. 

Tuesday, 5 May 2015

Elephant ride in Chitwan National Park in Nepal! March 2015.

I write this piece on Nepal when the country is suffering from a recent earth quake. It was heart wrenching to see Nepal crumble and fall. After my little trip around the country and the really royal welcome the locals gave me, I feel really attached to it. Just a month back I was there and and it was standing high in all its glory and to see it go down is difficult.

The earthquake hit parts of Chitwan as well, sadly. I had spent about half a day there, purely to get onto an elephant and ride it through the preserved jungles of the Chitwan Park. As much as I wished to stay longer, my tight schedule allowed me no more.

After a 5-6 hour bus journey I had arrived in Chitwan in the middle of the day and the scene at the bus station was hilarious. I still remember it fondly. A number of hotel agents standing across the road from the bus, screaming their respective hotel / resort offerings. For some reason none of them crossed an invisible line. When I signaled to one of them asking for more, all of them moved in one go, surrounded me and again enthusiastically started sharing various details of Chitwan and their hotels. One of the hotel owners answered one of my questions straight to the point and I agreed to go with him. Without wasting a single moment he grabbed my bag,  threw it into the back of his truck and climbed in himself - all done in split second and with a very grim expression. With this all the other guys reluctantly, quietly moved back - looking for another tourist. It all happened in less than a minute. Usually such incidents can tick me off. But just something about the way they all approached - enthusiastic yet not crossing their line, left me impressed and amused.

A short drive later I reached his resort. I told them I was there just for a few hours and not really looking at an overnight stay. They remained as hospitable, served me yummy Indian lunch and shared all the details of the elephant ride I was there for.

Packed in a jeep with Chinese tourists I was off to the Chitwan Park for the elephant ride. I got busy just clicking snaps of the lovely animals and was the last one to board, thus not having the best seat. ( TIP - try and get a front seat on the elephant and preferably  not the last elephant in the line - for best views ).

It was a long, scary, fun ride. At moments when the elephant had to walk up a little uphill part with me hanging and facing the ground, I could not help imagining 'what if the harness gave way and I fell on the ground.' The elephant ride was fun however I knew I would not do it again, simply cause to me the elephants did not seem to enjoy it and looked so bored.

Our super enthusiastic rider made sure we all got a good view of the rhino he spotted. The rider was definitely a character. At one point he stood on the edge of the elephant neck, his hands in the air, clicking our snaps.

That very night I left for Bhutan. I was told I ought to stay in Chitwan for atleast two nights to really enjoy it and I could not agree more. I am glad I could visit even if it was for half a day.

My prayers all with everyone in Nepal. I hope the beautiful country and its people can go back to normal life soon. God bless! 

Saturday, 11 April 2015

Pokhara - Ten things to to!

While Pokhara is majorly frequented by trekkers and used as the starting point for Himalayan trekkers, the lakeside city has enough to do and explore for non-trekkers, like me, too.

Things to do in Pokahara for non-trekkers:

1) Boat-ride in the Fewa Lake:
One ought to take a boat-ride when in Pohkara simply cause there is no reason not to ( unless you have aquaphobia ). I took a three hour boat-ride which included one hour to-and-fro ride and two hours of exploring the island temple and the stupa on the other end of the lake. The boat ride was a little scary and I kept feeling it will topple. I literally hung onto it for my life. A little tip, start early morning at about 6ish for this ride and you will be rewarded with stunning sun-rise views and no crowds of screaming tourists.

2) Barahi temple prayer:
An island temple, about fifteen minutes boat ride, has been very smartly built to attract tourists and give the boat rides additional meaning. There is not to see on it however deserves a fifteen-twenty minutes stop while on the boat ride.

3) Trek upto the Shanti Stupa, Pokhara:
The peace pagoda, or the shanti stupa is located at the other end of the shore, about twenty minute ride from the Few a lake shore. Perched on top of a hill it stands at 1000 mts. A 45 minute trek up with one halt and I was at this Buddhist style stupa with stunning views of the valley and the Pokhara city overall. With this walk up my quota of Nepal trek was definitely done with!

4) Scooty around
If I can get a scooty or a two wheeler ride I never miss it. Scootying around in Pokahar was super fun and highly recommended as it is easy to visit neighbouring towns with your own ride. Every pretty view and my scooty was parked and camera pulled out. Charms of your own ride!

5) Get your Fat-me click at the Devils Fall:
I was a little surprised to see the much hyped devil's fall as it was just one little fenced-waterfall and not much to see around. However on my way out I saw these fixed human structures in Nepali dresses with missing heads. This snap alone made the visit worthwhile for me.

6) Sarangkot stunning views:
My guesthouse owner told me about this adjoining town Sarangkot and mentioned it has awesome views. A fourty minutes ride and I was at Sarangkot and was glad I didn't miss the wonderful sights. It is really beautiful and I highly recommend a visit to this place during first half of the day if in Pokhara.

7) Eating Nepali cuisine:
I felt the Nepali cuisine would not be too different. But it was different enough and I think the spices used were different than I am used to. I have to admit I didn't like it too much for some reason. However trying local cuisine at least once is a must ;)

8) Chill in the cafés
There are so many cafes on the commercialised Lakeside street that choosing one is quite a task. If you are finally able to select one ( I took almost an hour ) out of the many options then chill out at these lakeside cafés. It was funny to be served a Turkish dish and be told by the waiter it is Mexican! 

9) Travel gear shopped:
As Pokhara serves as the starting point for trekker's the market place has tons of travel gear shopping options. It is a very competitive market thus a plus for shopper's. Remember to wear your haggling hat on and have fun negotiating on the street shops of Nepal. Most of the stuff is cheap and pretty good quality. I bought a much needed 40 litres backpack for barely $20. Simply loved it! Happy shopping while at Pokhara.

10) Para-gliding:
As it wasn't the best weather during my visit I missed doing this. Thus if you get a chance to go to Pokhara, do some paragliding and send me the pictures ;)

Pokhara in Nepal is  sweet place to rest and relax. Have fun when you there and drink a Gorkha for me ;)

Friday, 3 April 2015

Nepal and Bhutan in 10 days!

So, I am back from my Nepal-Bhutan trip and still reeling from the excitement of the trip. I can not believe how much I did and the places I traveled in just a span of 10 days. Since it was my first ever visit to these countries I visited the most toured places.

I had only 10 days at hand to squeeze as much as possible of Nepal and Bhutan in it. Without any prior bookings the below is an account of my tour of Nepal and Bhutan in 10 days. I was not even sure I would be able to stick t it when I chalked it out and started on it. Having done it I know it is totally possible. ( Pls note: I could afford no prior bookings and reservations especially into Bhutan as I have an Indian passport. For all other Nationalities prior bookings are mandatory for entry into Bhutan ).

Day 1: Kathmandu, Nepal
I took a 2 hour flight from Delhi to Kathmandu and landed in the capital city of Nepal, over a majestic mountain range landscape, around noon. Immigration clearing was the easiest it has ever been, thanks to the Indian passport I had. It was almost like a domestic flight exit from the airport.
I spent the rest of the day walking around the busy streets of Thamel. The first and last night in Kathmandu was spent drinking Gorkha beer with 5 travelers from different countries and some crazy events.
I found Kathmandu different from Delhi in just one aspect - polite people. Rest all the pollution level, busy streets, crazy traffic, shopping streets was a lot like Delhi. So I escaped from Kathmandu the very next day early morning.

Day 2 & 3: Pokhara, Nepal
After an almost 8 hour bus drive ( which was supposed to be 4 hours ) I landed in Pokhara in the afternoon. First sight I loved it. I hitch hiked to my hotel after fighting my way through the taxi drivers who desperately wanted to sell me their hotels. I had been told not to miss going to Pokhara and it was good advice. Set on the shore of Lake Phewa this laid back, beautiful city is a far cry from the madness of Katmandu's busy streets. I did as much as a traveler and non-trekker me could do in the day and a half in Pokhara - walking around the lakeside Pokhara, riding a scooty to distant view points and surrounding town area, boat-ride in Lake Phewa, walk-trek up to the Shanti Stupa, travel gear shopping, chomping Nepali food and yapping with locals.

Day 4: Chitwan National Park, Nepal
As much as I wanted to spend more time in Pokhara I was on a tight schedule and if I had to cover
both Bhutan and Nepal in 10 days I had to move fast. So the next morning I packed my bags and was off to Chitwan National Park. 6 hours later I reached Sauraha, a small town located just outside Chitwan National park. The chaotic sight at the Sauraha bus station was hilarious. Almost seemed a do-or-die situation for the workers seeking tourists for their bread and butter.
The afternoon was spent on an elephant back in an elephant safari in the National park. I was really looking forward to it however by the end of it, i knew never to repeat it ever, as it was a very uncomfortable ride for me and I believe for the poor overloaded elephant as well.
With that I completed my checklist of Nepal and having covered what I had set out to, I could not wait to get to Bhutan.

Day 5: Nepal to Bhutan
I took an overnight bus from Chitwan Park and by changing about 5 transportation and almost 24 hours later I reached late evening to my much awaited destination Thimpu in Bhutan. There is so much ambiguity linked to Bhutan that I was not sure if I will ever make it there. Hence I had not booked an accommodation prior to my arrival. Thus the first few hours were spent in hotel hunting. I was lucky to find one in a prime location within my budget. I was extremely tired hence all I did was have dinner and collapse into deep slumber.

Day 6: Thimpu, Bhutan
First sight it had seemed very flat and boring to me to be honest. But that changed the next day. Infact I realized it is anything but flat. Even a walk in the city is like a trek as there is so much uphill walk.
I hired a local cab and did my own tour and sight-seeing of the city covering all major sights and various temples. By the end of the day I was totally in love in Bhutan and keen to explore more the next day.

Day 7-10: Paro, Bhutan
At the tail end of my trip and eager to explore more I gave a few more hours to Thimpu and was off to Paro.
A short, picturesque one hour drive and I was in Paro - the place I did not want to move from for the next 3 nights. This is the place I felt I had been seeking and traveling to reach for the past one week. It is extremely laid back with people so happy they will induce you with a sense of satisfaction in you with their simple words. The many dzongs, monasteries, stupas and temples make it a fun place with enough to explore. I loved the vibe of the town and will go back to it any day.

Day 11: Bhutan to India
With a promise to return, next time with Gabi, I set out early morning from Paro on my journey back home. Since the trip was completely unplanned with no prior bookings of any sort, I was a day late in reaching Delhi and had to spend the night in Baghdodra in Bengal. I took the next day noon flight to Delhi and after 11 days was happy to be back home with my family. :)

Monday, 9 March 2015

Hindi is super cool too!

It took me months to get a decent job in Netherlands, despite my qualifications and work experience. Reason being, language barrier as it is commonly referred to. Meaning I was needed to know the local language, Dutch well. Almost 85% of the jobs need Dutch professional fluency. And the availability of 15% English speaking jobs in Netherlands, is considered high when compared to countries like Germany and France.

I didn't expect this at all before I found my countless job applications rejected in the very first round and the reason cited was 'a low Dutch knowledge'.

Whatever said and done I have grown to respect this way of the Dutch maintaining and preserving their language and culture. The power and respect they give to their own local language is commendable.

In the months I have spent learning Dutch, which at times seems absolutely illogical with a little too many exceptions for rules, I have grown to love Hindi language more than I did. It is so pure with set rules, mantras (symbols) and akshar ( alphabet ) for every sound. Many a times when I fell short of corresponding English alphabet, I used Hindi akshars to convert and remember the Dutch alphabets or words. I realised how simple yet clean Hindi language actually is.

However it is disheartening to see the importance of Hindi go down in a professional scenario in India. Imagine trying to bag a high flying job in an MNC or even an Indian organisation, without English fluency. Whether you know Hindi or not is immaterial. English is considered cool while using Hindi, our own mother tongue is given barely any importance. Though I have always liked Hindi I have to confess I used to think like this too. I feel compelled to change it.

Recent correction: Hindi is super cool too!

I would want my kids to speak fluent Hindi apart from Dutch, English and maybe couple of more while they are at it ! ;)

Each culture and country has some beautiful offerings and it is worthwhile to adopt a few from each don't you think!

Tuesday, 3 March 2015

I lost my passport and got a job!

I have many a times heard 'whatever happens in for good' and somewhere I am a strong believer of it ( not every single day of my life but definitely on most days). Recently I had an experience which strengthens my faith in the saying.

About 3  months back, sometime in December 2014, I lost my passport. Everything including my passport was robbed from the car parked in a parking ( not in Netherlands but some other country. Lets skip the name! ). I had a flight booked for Portugal in mid January 2015 but I could not take it anymore. You can imagine my disappointment and anger as I was being kept away from the thing I love and enjoy the most - traveling. But somewhere I just had one thought 'whatever happens is for the good.' Maybe some good was meant in this too I consoled myself. I told my father about it and expressed my disappointment and he repeated the famous words of Amitabh Bacchan ' man ka ho toh acha, na ho toh zyada accha.' ( meaning if what we wish for happens is good and if it does not then it is even better.' I felt glad he said it.

So I could do nothing but apply for a new passport, miss my flight for Portugal, carry on with usual life and most importantly try and take all this in with a positive attitude. 

Just recently ( about a month and a half later) I have got a new passport. Now when I look back at the series of events that have happened since then make me happy and thankful that I actually lost it back then.
  • I applied for jobs during the dates I was to be in Portugal ( Just like I had been for the last 4 months. Getting a job in Netherlands is far more difficult than I imagined). The interviews were spread across three weeks and guess what I got the job. I cant help but think if I had been Portugal I would have missed applying for this particular one which I was meant to get. 
  • My A2 level of Dutch classes got pre-poned from February and for the dates I would have otherwise been in Portugal. 
  • At the passport office I met two girls ( Indian and Indonesian). We got friendly and they have assisted me in my application. The process gained me two new acquaintances and I can comfortably say future friends. I would not have had a chance to meet these lovely two girls otherwise.
  • I traveled to nearby places over weekends and met some great people which I would have not met otherwise. Thus not missing out on traveling either. 
Did I mention here, the day I got the passport the next day I got the job and the day after that I booked my trip to Portugal once again. I went with a free mind and no tension of job applications which I might have had back in January.

My conclusion, accept the not-so-good-things that happen with an open mind and appreciate the good they too bring with them. My faith in 'whatever happens is for good' is made stronger. Not that I will not be disappointed at all when misfortune strikes again but yes this faith will just make it a little less painful and a little more acceptable. 

Friday, 20 February 2015

Luxembourg - My favourite city center

When I hear the word city-center the impression I have is shopping arcades, buzzing streets, food vendors, cafes, restaurants and lots of tourists if it is a touristy place. Somehow I never imagined a city center with beautiful hills, valleys, gorges and a river flowing through it. Luxembourg city center has this and more to offer.

After a perfect day with a our couch-surfing family in Fischbach, Luxembourg
( )
we drove off to Luxembourg city. A twenty minute drive from Fischbach and we found ourselves in amazing Luxembourg city. First look at the place and I was totally amazed! 

Beautiful hills, gorges, old fort ruins and river all blending into one and serving as a recreational park right in the center of the city makes it my favorite so far.

Luxembourg city is really small and super easy to explore on foot. The best sites are very close to each other and can be easily done in one day's easy walk. Generally visitors find it difficult to chose a starting point of this grand 2-3 hours walk. Gladly we parked the car right next to the bock and began our walk from the Bock itself with Casemates du Bock on one end and Adolphe bridge on the other.

The view from the top is stunning. I just stood there for long just soaking it all in.

The walk down to the Grund is really sweet. What amazed me was the silence. No loud noises. Only flowing river, chirping birds and fresh clean air. We had a lunch break at the Grund and even the noise of munching chips seemed too loud.

We walked up and down in and around this place so many times without once repeating a chosen path. It could very well be a maze. The views are really out of the world and I could not stop clicking.

We rested at this one sunny spot in the Grund where I could see the river flowing down below and the rising cliff walls all around me. Just the two of us there with no one else to intrude made it even more special. It was amazingly quiet and peaceful there. I think it is my new favorite spot in Europe so far. I felt I was one with the place and not just a visitor viewing it. A glimpse of the place is in the picture below. It captures just a fraction of how amazing it really was.

We walked by the river Petrusse for almost a stretch of a kilometer and back from the Grund to the old town side. Many joggers ran past us and I could see how they were really enjoying their regular jog. I wouldn't mind jogging around such a beautiful scenic view by a river either.

A casual lazy walk around town-wide and we came across the Luxembourg Palace. It is undoubtedly grand however when I hear Palace I expect a little more than what I saw. The shopping center was just a 2 minute walk.

The town-hall, Place Guillaume II, is an excellent example of classic European square with a historical statue. Luxembourg is the world's only remaining grand duchy and I highly recommend a visit to this rich but small country.

Monday, 16 February 2015

Valentine's in Fischbach, Luxembourg.

Generally people flock to Paris for Valentines and rightly so since it is considered to be the most romantic city. I too dabbled with the thought of spending Valentine's in Paris however for some reason I couldn't get Luxembourg out of my head. So we decided to ditch the routine roses or popular Paris and visit Luxembourg instead and do something different.

Instead of choosing to stay in some swanky hotel and spending time alone, we chose to go couch-surfing and stay with locals. Couch-surfing mostly has singles registered on it, few couples and travel enthusiasts. Rarely have I seen families on the site. I was pleasantly surprised to see a family of three  ( Luxembourg gentleman, Japanese lady with their girl ) not only on the site but with a huge number of references. Somehow I was really drawn to it and wanted to spend time with this adventurous family and gladly Gabi was open to the thought as well.

Our couch-surfing family was based out of Fischbach, a small village about 20 minutes from Luxembourg city. The drive up to the house through meadows, green landscape and low hills was absolutely stunning. The landscape and houses reminded me of Switzerland.

We reached our destination by mid-day and were welcomed into a beautiful country-side house in lush green surroundings by our CS family.

Michel invited us to join him on his daily walk in the forest. Even though it was drizzling and cold, a walk in the forest sounded fabulous and too good to refuse.

Walking hand-in-hand with Gabi, enjoying the views, chirping of the birds, clean fresh air, alternating sun-n-drizzle and Fischbach stories from our CS host Michel, was how we spent our afternoon, our Valentine afternoon. It was simple and perfect.

Our walk back was awarded by yet another picturesque view and a rainbow

We enjoyed dinner together sharing stories of our respective countries, cultures and of-course food. Dum-aloo ( which I had carried for our dinner together with me ), egg-plant with Japanese rice from our host.

A Spanish dessert prepared by our host Yoko

The house was better than any five star hotel! Truly! Each and every corner was perfect and so clean. Later Michel told us that their house had won awards for the energy preservation techniques used. The house was naturally warm and used no artificial heating. The toilets functioned using the natural rain water. Michel himself was an engineer and energy conservation was both his profession and passion. Turns out he was almost a celebrity in this field and a published writer.

The surprises did not end there. Later at night after dinner we all went down to their basement living room where they had a piano. Michel's wife, Yoko played beautifully. We stayed there for sometime and then excused ourselves to our room on the top floor. As I prepared to sleep I could hear the family laugh and enjoy themselves together. It was all so beautiful and honest. As I drifted off to sleep to the piano music I whispered a small 'thankyou' to this universe, for the beautiful experience on the day of love. It could not have been spent better.

A big Thank You to Michel and Yoko for having us over. It was a pleasure to have them as company and experience staying in their beautiful eco-friendly house!

Thursday, 5 February 2015

Giethoorn - Venice of the Netherlands

Giethoorn, is a small enchanting village in the Netherlands about 1.5 hours from Amsterdam.  It is a car-free village and for the longest there were absolutely no roads in the village and the only means of transport was by water over the many canals. Now there is a narrow bike-path made to explore the village on bike or on foot.  Even to this day cars have to be left outside the village - how cool is that.
I had never heard about Giethoorn up until recently and I am glad I could visit this mesmerizing place.

It is popularly known as the Venice of the Netherlands however it is much smaller than Venice. Venice was somehow oozing romance while Giethoorn to me seemed straight out of a fair-tale. Both have their own charms nonetheless. Walking around the Giethoorn was a bewitching experience and I could not help feel part of a magical fairy-tale. If there is a fairy-land it must be a lot like Giethoorn!

The village has about 1800 small bridges which connect the village and the small island-houses. Almost each and every house is amazingly captivating. With only 3000 people living in the village I believe it must be one of those places where everyone knows everyone.

Some houses were up for sale. I wondered how it would be to live there - a mixed bag I think - with a beautiful enchanting surrounding but with curious intruding tourists peeping into the houses and the house being almost on a display forever. The place was amazingly quiet however we were told that it can be very busy in the peak season.

Biking, walking around and sailing in one of the famous 'whispering boats'  are some of the activities to engage in while at Giethoorn. We did a whispering boat tour for about two hours ( at about 13 euro / person ) - sailing in and around the picturesque canals. The whispering boat tour gave a much closer look however I personally enjoyed exploring the village on foot more.

The the size of the village the number of restaurants were definitely sufficient for locals and travelers alike. We enjoyed yummy Italian meals in the heart of the village. Some unique souvenir shops just added to the experience and of-course I had to collect my most favorite one - a fridge magnet!

There are many good b&b in the village itself and the people there are known for their hospitality. Most of them also provide bike-on-rent and whispering boat tours.

Giethoorn became locally famous when Dutch movie Fanfare was shot there. Once back from my trip I saw the movie as well and it was interesting to link it back to my trip.

I would definitely love to go to Giethoorn in Spring again and maybe this time I can stay with the locals than in a hotel. It can also be an easy day trip from Amsterdam ( 1.5 hours one way) and I highly recommend it.