The Perfect Road Trip

The Perfect Road Trip
Runners Up Award- Ambipur Contest

Sunday, July 20, 2014

A Whiff of Spice

                                                        
Spice Garden
 The overnight rains had added a nip in the air! The small droplets of water on the surrounding trees glistened in the morning sunrays like pearls studded on the twigs and leaves. The red coffee seeds in clusters looked very pretty in the thick bushes. The chirp of birds made the surroundings absolutely heavenly. We headed through the long winding road towards the market.
Banana chips being fried
The aroma of banana chips frying in the huge cauldron was a very tempting sight and was attracting us towards it like opposite pole of a magnet! Soon we were in the midst of the busy market with tourists making a beeline to the adjoining shops.
As you take a walk along the streets of Thekkady, in Kerala, one thing that strikes you first is the lingering aroma in the air. The scent of cloves, nutmeg, pepper, cinnamon or cardamom and sometimes a fragrance that combines the scents of two or more spices. 
Handmade soaps in betel nut leaf wrap
Soon we landed in one of the shops and were amazed to see the number of varieties of handmade soaps with fragrances of jasmine, sandalwood, rose, and every possible exotic flower, neatly wrapped in betel nut leaf. The shopkeeper was very friendly and on our inquiry suggested that he could arrange a visit to one of the Spice Gardens.
An auto rickshaw arrived and we set off for visit to the Spice Garden, a short drive of 4 km from the town. Every other house has a Spice Garden in the backyard where coffee plantations, cardamom, cinnamon, vanilla and many more play hide and seek with visitors. The owner of the place took us on a conducted tour. The air was fresh with the fragrant smell of black pepper, cardamom, cloves, peppercorn, long pepper, nutmeg, star anise, mace, cinnamon, ginger and at least a dozen more plants. There are many factors that make the plantation experience a memorable one. 
Fresh Cardamom
For some, it could be the unassuming beauty of the tiny flowers of the cardamom that grow at the base of the plant; for others, the tantalizing aroma of cinnamon or cloves, and for some others, the cool breeze that lovingly strokes the green plantations and everything in it.  It was the first time in my life that I tasted fresh seeds of green cardamom plucked and ginger pulled out from the soil and washed. I even tasted a Garam masala leaf which had been created by cross pollination of five varieties of spices. The pristine experience tingled the taste buds!
Sunlight creeping through !
The pepper plantations are worth seeing. The sunlight seeping through the shapely leaves of the pepper plants is an alluring sight. The geographical and climatic peculiarities of Kumily and Thekkady region, like the cool climate and its elevation from the sea level make it ideal for spice cultivation. Besides the spices one cannot miss the banana and coconut plantations filling the gaps of land!

It is a great feeling to get up at dawn in the lap of Nature, smelling the fresh, aromatic air - almost like waking up in a green paradise that is far removed from our flawed planet.

Apart from being enjoyable, these plantation tours give tourists an insight into the growing, harvesting and processing of spices. The peeling and drying of cinnamon and the painstaking task of hand-pollination of vanilla can be observed.
Cinnamon bark
Various parts of the plant like the dried seed, the fruit, the root, the bark and the vegetative substance are used in the industries of cosmetics and perfumery. Some spices like turmeric have high medicinal value and also have an important place in Hindu religious rituals. Garlic and ginger are two other spices that have medicinal value. They are also used as preservatives.

Godrej, a leader in the Indian perfumes and sprays could consider using some of the derivatives of these spices to add to their existing range of products and also consider manufacture of ‘Pepper Sprays’ to protect the women folk and prepare them against impending danger from those who have an evil eye!

PS: This is my entry for ‘Inspire a fragrance’ contest sponsored by Godrej and Indiblogger

Wednesday, July 9, 2014

A Tourist Mecca- Oman

The great Indian writer and journalist Khushwant Singh once wrote’ Before dying one must visit Muscat’
How true it is! I got a first taste of the Oman’s hospitality on one of the flights which had a very adorable, lively and perky airhostess, whose name, ‘Zohra Mohammed’ still brings the recollection of her charming face! 
The Air hostess
Having undertaken scores of journeys one rarely remembers the air hostess! A very friendly individual, she made us feel, the economy class passengers, no less than VIPs on board the Oman Air flight! We got to know of her Egyptian background which was in a way responsible for her ‘legendary Queen Nefertiti like features’, and a clear diction reflecting her good education.  This was the first hand introduction to a country and its lovely people!
We had planned our journey to Europe by Oman Air recently, and due to paucity of time had to skip the lovely destination! I regret the decision for not having been to this beautiful country. The immaculate white robed officials were immensely polite in the cool confines of the huge airport despite blazing heat outside. It was one of the rare things to find captions in Hindi and even announcements being made in Hindi, a welcome change on a foreign soil. I could see more foreigners scrambling at Idli.com the lone Indian restaurant, at the sprawling airport for the Indian cuisine! 
The Kabuliwallah
I was truly impressed by the bounties of the desert nation like dry fruits, dates and seeds reminding me of the Kabuliwallh (a character from noble laureate Dr Rabindranath Tagore’s tale by the same name of a dry fruit peddler)
Oman though an Islamic State, has a system of adult franchise to elect the government and also women are now stepping on the center stage to perform bigger roles. Every year 17 Oct is celebrated as Omani Women’s Day and many pro women events are held across the country. Since the year 2008, the women in Oman also have a right to own the land! This is truly incredible!
Omani Kahwa and Dates


Among the foods I adore are the Omani Kahwa, or coffee/tea laced with cardamom powder and Halwa made from butter, wheat and sun seeds and pistachios and dates! Most of the other popular food preparations are meat and fish based which are very popular including the kebabs, shwarmas and biryanis!
 Given an opportunity to see the places in Oman, I would love to visit a traditional souk like Mutrah  Corniche where the items like gold/ silver curved daggers are sold ! It was once said that there used to be so many people in such narrow alleys that one had to light a candle to find the way even during daytime due to darkness, as sunlight could not enter!
The curved dagger
Mutrah Croniche

The first scene of the epic movie, ‘Lawrence of Arabia’ in which a spec in the desert that keeps getting bigger till the hero, Peter O’Toole emerges saddled on a camel back in the vast desert, remains etched in my memory.( Link https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ud1zpHW3ito )
Wahiba Sands

I wish one day, I too can experience the same in the wilderness of sand dunes of Wahiba ! A starlight night with Bedouins in company, with traditional music at a campsite would be a perfect outing in the midst of a desert! It will also give an opportunity to see the ‘Wadis’ in the vicinity.
Falaj

Some other things which would be well worth a pursuit while in Oman is a visit to one of the ‘Falaj’ or the traditional water irrigation system in Oman which is on the World Heritage List, undertake a frankincense trail where the frankincense trees grow, cruise on a dhow in the deep blue lagoons and also witness a  camel race!

The list keeps getting longer but at least these are a few experiences I would love to cherish on Oman holiday! The time to make up for the loss of missing out on the lovely destination and enjoy the warmth of the people is just around the corner.

PS:   1. Names used have been changed to protect the identity of the individuals
       2. Pictures Kind courtesy Google and video link to You Tube
       3. This post is my entry for the blog contest sponsored by Ministry of Tourism, of the Sultanate of  Oman (http://www.omantourism.gov.om) and Indiblogger

Sunday, July 6, 2014

The Food of Gods

A food that sets the taste buds tingling and is good for all occasions. Can you guess what would it be? Ok one more try, in most of the Indian homes this is the first solid food that is fed to the babies? Am sure there would be now no prizes for guessing… It is the ‘Kheer’ or ‘Payasam’ which is consumed in all parts of India. It may have different names but the ingredients are mainly, rice, or broken wheat, vermicili in some cases, milk, sugar or jiggery and dry fruits and raisins!

I still have the vivid memory of preparation of kheer at home was always a special occasion. A huge urn with fresh full cream milk was set on the stove with the best quality pound basmati rice added in small quantity to simmer endlessly on low flame. It would constantly be stirred to ensure that the contents do not stick to the bottom. The aroma would soon engulf the whole house till the contents became more viscous in consistency and the color of milk changed to a light yellow shade. The deposit of a creamy layer of milk called ‘malai’ indicated that the kheer was almost done and it was time to add sugar to taste, saffron, cardamom powder and other nuts and raisins till the sugar slowly dissolved as the mixture was constantly stirred now to ensure that the contents do not get burnt at the bottom of the vessel. Once the process was complete, the urn would be removed from the flame and set aside to cool. One more sprinkling of chopped nuts and cardamom powder on the surface would follow. No matter in which corner of the house one was, it was impossible now , to be not aware of the freshly prepared ‘kheer’! Further wait was impossible till the contents vanished in no time. Sometimes, a part of this lovely preparation was set aside, for storing in refrigerator as the dessert would be equally delicious and tempting when served as a cold dessert!

Now a days it is even easier to prepare the same dish in the shining ‘Borosil’ Cook n Serve container to make it look even more gorgeous and served in small ‘Borosil’ glass dishes. One can even prepare a healthy version of’ kheer ‘ in a jiffy by using the microwave ‘Borosil’ container. It only requires a long grain basmati rice which can be cooked in water in microwave for a few minutes and add condensed milk to it after removal from the microwave oven. Stir the contents and add strands of saffron dissolved in water and cardamom powder with diced cashews, almonds and reset the contents once again for three to four minutes to microwave. It can be served hot and is equally yummy to taste!


No matter where one travels within, India, it is difficult to come across someone who has not tasted this Slurpee, lip smacking dessert.  On most festive occasions and in most of the temples across the country, Kheer is prepared as an offering to propitiate the gods. In Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iran and some other countries it is prepared on occasions like Id ul Fitr and served as Phirni. This variant may also have apricots, mango or even custard apple added to it. So the next time you dream of a dessert remember the ‘food of the gods- kheer’!

PS:This is my entry for  Borosil and Indiblogger ' My Beautiful Food !' contest http://www.myborosil.com/

Sunday, June 29, 2014

A Desert Safari

Eilat- Israel
 Friday and Saturday were the weekly holidays for us! Sounds strange but true, as we were in Tel Aviv undergoing training! The weekly holidays coincided with Sabbath and Sunday was the first day of the week. We had spent more than two weeks and were itching to see more of Israel! I along with the other three Indians, two Israeli and one Italian friend checked out of the hotel . Luigi, the Italian, agreed to drive the car, Isuzu Trooper, hired for the weekend trip to Eilat. The city is at the south most tip of Israel and is around 400km away from Tel Aviv.

The day was breaking when we assembled outside the hotel and waited for Luigi who showed up soon, at the steering of the four wheel drive! Soon, the car hit the main highway as we went past the towering buildings of International Diamond Centre in Ramat Gan! We got on the Aaylon Highway Route 20 where the traffic was gradually building up.  The first halt was at Beersheba about 40 km away for a cup of coffee! Next we drove through the arid Negev desert where one could see the sprawling sand dunes for miles!
Negev Desert

It is a mélange of brown, rocky, dusty mountains interrupted by wadis( dry riverbeds that bloom briefly after rain) and deep craters. We sighted the local tribesman called Bedouin! The sun shone strongly and the weather became hotter as the day progressed.  One gets very thirsty as the dry air hits the face on stepping out from the car. We had a brief stopover at the town of Dimona to stretch our legs before reaching the kibbutz at Lotan. The drive continued till we reached the Timna Park. 
Timna Park near  Eilat

This place is located 30 km short of Eilat. It has some of the most wonderful multihued volcanic rock formations, sandstone columns which are a nature’s creation! They appear vibrant with color as the sun rays dance around to give a feel of descent of a rainbow on the ground. We collected at least a dozen samples of colored sand  in small glass bottles here which have been formed, with the erosion of the volcanic rocks, as a souvenir!

We reached Eilat in around six hours and checked in the hotel to retire for the day. Eilat  is flanked by the port of Aqaba on the Jordanian side and village Taba on Egyptian side. These cities can be viewed from Eilat on a clear day! The city's beaches, nightlife, Marine Park and other attractions including alluring desert landscapes make it a popular destination for domestic and international tourists

Next day after breakfast we reached the Coral World Underwater Observatory, where we saw  the rare marine life like stingray, turtles and sharks from close quarters .
Our next halt was a ride in The Yellow Submarine!
The Yellow Submarine in Eilat
The Yellow Submarine is one of the world's most advanced public submarines.
The safety and comfort is assured using advanced technologies and an experienced crew. The Submarine leaves the Underwater Marine Park, and slowly moves to deeper water, to a depth of 60 meters. The submarine has viewing windows of Perspex which transported us to a whole new world! In this journey one experiences the slow changes in light levels, the color and underwater life at different depths.

We then went to see the Dolphin’s show at the Dolphin Creek where dolphins perform and swim with the tourists. We started our return journey for Tel Aviv, after lunch!

It was an awesome sight to see the golden sun, set beyond the sand dunes and see the sky darken. Finally we reached Tel Aviv at night, as the city sparkled in the twinkling lights, with some of the best memories to treasure.

http://www.carconnect.in is a site which would sent the minds of lovers of car racing. The site is unique for the review of new models and even making comparison of models of different cars.The details of new launches and great travel experiences make an interesting read. The best way to remain connected in the top gear is to get hooked on to the site for many a great rides! 

PS: 1.This is my entry for the contest sponsored by http://www.carconnect.in and Indiblogger
      2. Images kind courtesy Google

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

A Break

Colorful Eurail trains
Travel lust is something which is difficult to explain and those who have been bitten by the bug know that there is no better way to set the mind free and test the limits of the physical endurance and mental resolve, than travel. I have been inspired by the tales of Jules Verne of ‘Around the World in Eighty Days’ fame, and Lewis Carroll who penned ‘Alice in Wonderland’ that  sets the imagination on journeys into the unknown and see the ultimate beauty of the creation of god in the world around us.
 I had just returned from a ten day journey in the interiors of Kerala in Jan 2014 and my mind was already working now on the next project to explore Europe in June! One may wonder why plan so early. I had read in various journals and books that the best time to see Europe is the month of June when the crowds of holidaymakers and school children all over Europe and US have still not invaded the continent in hoards.
Also, while scanning through the various sites on internet for the best and most economical ways to travel, I homed on the two options Eurolines bus that travel crisscross over the European continent another being Eurail. The economics was favoring the Eurolines where I could buy a pass for 15 days and visit any place of my choice on the Schengen list of countries starting in one direction and keep proceeding to the next as long as I did not retrace my route till the final destination.
Berlin TV Tower by night
Eurail was a bit more expensive but a faster way of travel especially on certain routes with an added comfort of stretching legs and getting more room while travel compared to sitting in the close confines of the bus seat which could be painful if one has to travel for longer durations and also on overnight travel.
There are other ways to get around by the cheaper airlines like Ryan Air which offer fares as low as One pound plus taxes if booked well in advance over certain sectors. One can also ‘rent a cab’ but it comes with a rider and of course the stress of driving especially on long routes.
While I was exploring the options I came across an irresistible offer of seeing Europe by Eurail in first class by paying almost a second class fare when booked as a party for example two or more people traveling together or as a family. Not only was the fare attractive it offered three extra days of travel for free on booking a 21 day tour. After evaluating all the options this appeared to be the best one!
Next step was to find a destination from where to commence the journey. I looked at various deals in the airlines and the cheap air tickets. While, hunting I came across a deal from Oman Air to Zurich which would reach from Delhi on the same day with a brief stopover at Muscat. The best part was that the airlines provides excellent service and is not exactly a budget airline compared to certain routes that offer cheap tickets with a long layover or flights operating at very inconvenient time. Nothing could be worse than spending a long night at an airport just to take another flight which is almost eight hours away! Zurich is an ideal place to start the journey as it is well connected with all over Europe and is a charming city. I had fond memories of earlier trips through the city so the decision was easier!
La Boqueria market, at La Ramblas,Barcelona
What followed next was a whirlwind trip across the continent starting with Zurich from 2nd June, exploring the lovely cities of Lyon, Barcelona, Marseilles, Genoa, Padova , Venice, Vienna, Budapest, Prague, and Berlin. For next 20 days we took almost 40 main route trains on SBB( Switzeland), TGV ,Renfe, TrenItalia, OBB, CD, S Bahn to cover the distances with almost 3/5 interchanges on every alternate day and traversing over 5000km.Unparalleled natural beauty of French and Italian Rivera, ever smiling people, impromptu concerts, Flamenco dances, modern ballets, carnivals, awaited us. Unforgettable climb atop Berlin TV Tower, nostalgic touch of the Berlin Wall and Brandenburg Gate, visit to Traboules(secret passages used during French Revolution), in Marseilles, street food at Les Ramblas in Barcelona, stunning views of the city from Notre Dame church in Lyon, Parc Gueil in Barcelona, narrow channels of Venice, old city of Genoa, Marseilles and Prague, amazing churches  in every city with inlay work and frescoes, kept us hooked! 
At the Rialto Bridge- Venice
Loving locals at Carnival in Vienna
The meadows, rivulets and ever changing scenery kept us engrossed on trains, making it difficult to close the eyes!
Banks of River Rhone Lyon

Friendly people came forward to our rescue when we got lost in the maze of railway stations and street crossings, as once we discovered that Google maps was not very accurate when walking to some places and our legs had to undertake much greater stress than anticipated. There were long journeys, endless experiences that could probably be summed in a book, escapades, dropping dead each night, eating exotic foods, brushing shoulders with locals in trams, and buses and even getting hugged by strangers that would go down the memory lane. A glimpse of the grandeur of cities of Cannes, Monte Carlo station that looked more like a discotheque, snow covered peaks in Innsbruck and Salzburg, Sun kissed beaches of Mediterranean in Marseilles and Genoa were a treat! There were hair raising moments too when a policeman accosted me at Keleti station at Budapest, thinking I was a drug peddler! Overall it was an experience, worthy of sleepless nights and straying like vagabonds during the day!













Sunday, June 1, 2014

A Hairy Tale



Tresses curled n sometimes straight,
     Sway gently in elegant sensual gait.
Strong, no split ends, no grease
      They shine all times to please
‘Tresemme’ wonder works all the time
      Keeps hair nurtured in youthful prime
A huge range to choose from
      Climate Control to Hair fall defense
Salon smooth with frizz control
        Smooth n Silky no worries of troll
A sure protector from hairy heartbreaks
           Apply with ease n take a break
Why look elsewhere for hair care?
           When there is ‘Tresemme’ my best mate


PS: 1. Submitted for the contest sponsored by 'Tresemme' and Indiblogger
       2. Image Kind Courtesy Google

Monday, May 26, 2014

The Rip Off



We had reached the Goa International Airport after the flight that landed 20 minutes late from the scheduled time. Hordes of holiday makers that were leaving the sweltering heat of Delhi with children to destinations across the country as schools and colleges had closed a week earlier. Within minutes of landing we were zipped across the salubrious, ever green glades to Candolim in the hotel cab that had come to pick us up! After checking in we relaxed for about an hour and then decided to go out for a short walk as soon the sun would set! We had barely walked a 100m when two young men walked towards us and asked us a few questions in a very friendly and polite manner and enquired if we would like to attend a presentation to mark the anniversary of the hotel they were representing. On showing our disinterest they pulled out a sealed envelope akin to the ones the banks use to send the PIN number of ATM/ Credit cards. The duo assured us that it was a lucky dip with no cost or commitment. Reluctantly, I broke the seal and it turned out to be a 20% discount on any meal in the hotel that was located nearby. Next a similar envelope was handed over to my wife and after some glib talk they made her open the sealed envelope. There was a sudden buzz of excitement as the contents indicated that we have won either a DSLR camera, or an Apple I Phone, or a LED TV or a 7 night 8 day holiday package. All that remained was to scratch a card below but in the presence of the hotel team. The only condition was that we would have to attend a presentation for an hour and had to be less than 60 years old, in possession of identity proof and also carried a credit/ debit card from leading vendors like Mastercard/ Visa. As we had nothing much to do, we agreed and were taken in a waiting taxi to the venue. I was keen to see what happens now, more than in the gifts that were promised and how the events will unfold. Within minutes we had reached the hotel, where we were greeted by smartly attired men and ladies and after some initial verification of antecedents asked to sign a paper saying that we were under no obligation of any cost or commitment. That being done we were ushered in a big hall swarming with people and agents. It resembled like a gambling area where game of poker was in progress. Tea and coffee was ordered and next a young manager of the company came and joined us and asked us a few questions of our background, how, when ,where, we had traveled before and where we planned to go next. He pulled out different brochures and how they had tied up with some global chain of hotels where we could stay for peanuts comparing even with present stay! We could become members for 25 years for unlimited holidays and everything else just short of promise for a moon! Having generated interest, and asking us of our willingness he next called his senior who explained us the dynamics of cost and comparison with rival schemes! The best was yet to come. If we availed the scheme on the same day we would have to shell about Rs 200000 which could be either lump sum or part payments spread over 18 months. I told him that we needed about 5 minutes to make up our mind and asked him a few inconvenient questions for the first time! He then told his representative to show us around the property to impress us what we stood to lose if we did not avail of the offer. On return when he asked us again of our willingness I told him that I needed some time! Next their Managing Director stepped in and tried to better the offer by reducing cost to 75000/- for 5 year trial with all terms remaining same and we could pay in one year time. Only, we needed to sign the agreement the same day or else the scheme would not be available the next day! I told him bluntly, that I did not take financial decisions on the spur of moment even for things that cost Rs 5000/- so expecting something this big was impossible. Now, it was his turn to throw up his hands and tell his team that they were worthless who could not find the right customer. Still, they scratched the coupon to announce that we had won a Seven Night/ Eight Day Offer in their chain of hotels valid for one year! Let’s see what really lies in store as we came across many such touts the next days of our stay at places of interests offering such trips and memberships intimating it was the last day of the offer!

PS- 1. Image Kind courtesy Google
       2. Thanks to Yatra.com and Indiblogger for this holiday and all the lovely readers for their         support