Category Archives: Travels

Tea With Strangers

6 strangers..one cafe..2 hours..that’s the basic premise of Tea With Strangers. A host announces a time and a venue, 5 other people sign up, meet, and have conversations over a beverage of their choice. I had come across the site a few months ago and was intrigued enough to try out the meetup. And luckily, one was scheduled for the day I had planned my maiden trip to San Francisco. I signed up for the last spot for the meetup, and boy am I glad I did!

I took the Caltrain from Mountain View to San Francisco and Ubered to Another Cafe (that is the actual name of the cafe 🙂 ), where I met the host – a charming, affable Australia-born Indian living in the Bay Area. I also met my fellow attendees – a world traveler, who has traveled to 30 countries and still counting, and also does improv and social dances; a Korean techie; a French entrepreneur who just launched the US version of his startup; and a maths genius who recently moved to SF and is having fun exploring it.

It was an eclectic mix of people who would not have crossed paths in the normal course of life, and definitely would not have had the open, deep conversations that we did. Credit goes to our excellent host, who ensured a comfortable and open space for everyone to voice their views and made sure everyone was included in the conversation. He did not waste time in small talk and asked us to answer a simple question – What are you about? And this deceptively simple question made us self-reflect and find out how we define ourselves, what do we identify with the most? I went through several iterations of the answer in my head – is it my job, my career that defines me? Is it my love for sitcoms? Is it my family and friends? What is it?

Thankfully, my turn came last. By then, I had the privilege to hear the amazingly insightful answers that my tea-mates had given – from experiences to family to doing something good for the world. Their answers led me to mine – being happy. Or rather choosing to be happy everyday. Celebrating and enjoying the smallest of things – like a cup of tea or a good read. This habit that I have consciously developed over the years has now become so ingrained that it is what defines me now. I had never realized that before.

I realized that no matter how diverse our backgrounds are, our aspirations and fears and concerns have a common thread – and so is the need to share them with someone and find answers together. What we offered each other is perspective – a different way of looking at things. In those two hours, we not only got to know each other, but also ourselves. At the end of the two hours, we dispersed and went our own ways, probably never to meet again. But the experience left me feeling satisfied and enriched – two hours well spent indeed. I look forward to the next round of tea with strangers!

 

Advertisements

Let’s hear it for New York!

Finally the day arrived…one month ago, I landed in Missouri, US for my Master’s degree, and now I was traveling to “the greatest city on Earth” – New York…to spend the Labor Day weekend with my friends – Pushkar, Gauri, and Bharat.

I landed at the Laguardia airport and Pushkar came to pick me up. We went to his place, where I met Ananya – his housemate – the sweetest, smartest, most patient person I met in NY..and Rishi and Tanmayee – the most gracious and thoughtful hosts I have ever met. Gauri and Bharat arrived soon after and the four of us were finally together after two whole years.

The next day, we started our sightseeing with a visit to Pushkar’s college. On the way, I was confounded by the awesome skyscrapers, the sprawling streets, and fashionable yet indifferent people, each lost in their own worlds. No wonder the song Empire State of the mind was playing in a constant loop in my head all through the day. We took the ferry to Staten Island – and what a ride that was! We were greeted by a cool breeze, with the Statue of Liberty welcoming us against the spellbinding New York skyline. After the ride, we had a delicious falafel for lunch, and then shopped at a street fair, where we got to experience the superb local artistic talent in NY. We would get glimpses of the talent at the subway station and on the roadsides throughout the trip. After a luxurious dinner at Obao, we left for the main attraction of the day – Time Square. And it lived up to the hype. A sea of people amidst blinding lights and dazzling displays – it was indeed a visual treat. We spent an amazing evening snapping photos and indulging in craziness. We followed it up with sumptuous ice-cream at 10 below – a boutique ice cream parlor, that in my opinion is a must-visit for an out-of-towner. To end the night, we went to the Exchange Point, where we admired the NY skyline at night and just spent some time together.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

The next day, we shopped to our heart’s content at Burlington and Forever 21. This was followed by a visit to the outstanding Grand Central Station. I was completely mesmerized by the grandeur and intricate artwork. We spent some time just letting it all sink in, and of course, a photo-op 🙂

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

The last day of the trip was the pinnacle of awesomeness which started with a tram ride to Roosevelt island. I have no words to describe the experience. I will let the pictures talk for themselves.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

This was followed by a walk through Central Park – where we saw the bridge that is the location of meet-cute scenes in a number of movies, and the beautiful fountain. And then the perfect end to the trip – the visit to WTC. The whole experience was mindblowing. It starts with the elevator ride which takes you to the 100th floor in 47 seconds flat. Then you enter a standing theatre where a screen plays a movie about the evolution of New York – from its past to the present. It captures the people, the places, the essence and spirit of New York, and the last scene is a shot of the current view of NY from the top..and then the screen parts to reveal the actual view of New York from the 100th floor – I literally had goosebumps when I saw the outstanding view. And to top it all, we had reached just in time for the sunset – so we enjoyed the view in daylight, witnessed the glorious sight of the sun bidding adieu to the city that never sleeps, and then were amazed by the brilliant night view. It was the perfect end to the weekend.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

As much as it was beautiful and astounding, this trip was overwhelming as well. The skyscrapers and the sheer number of people were a stark contrast to our charming small town of Rolla with a sparse population. It took me a while to familiarize with the hustle-bustle and slew of activity that characterizes the city. And it was emotionally overpowering too. Since the time I landed in Rolla, things were good – my university, roommates, my house – all is good. I have even made a few friends. But something was amiss. Though I hadn’t realized it before, I was lost and lonely..not homesick, just disoriented. So when I finally saw Pushkar at the airport, I was overwhelmed with relief. Security engulfed me, and I felt at home. Life made sense again. My dearest friend was here – all was finally well with the world. Surprisingly, the feeling has intensified since I came back to Rolla – I had expected to feel better, but somehow this trip made me crave for the love and care I am used to. But knowing that these guys are just a few hours away is extremely comforting.

This trip was also an acknowledgement and celebration of the progress all four of us have made in life. We have made it till here. We have changed, all of us, since we were together the last time. We are no longer the naive undergrads, with trivial problems which seemed like the end-of-the-world at the time. We have evolved, matured, and changed – but changed for good. We have grown, but haven’t grown apart. We still have our own challenges, our own personal Everests. We lead our own separate paths – yet when we finally meet, we can still pick up from where we left off. We can still connect and understand each other. Our friendship has survived and matured over the years. Things have changed, oh yes..but they have never been better 🙂

Indonesia travelog

All Journeys have secret destinations, of which the traveler is unaware

This quote by Martin Buber precisely summarizes my Indonesian vacation. What was supposed to be a lazing-on-the-beach-sipping-coconut-water trip soon turned to be a three-legged  journey of cultural immersion and education.

Jakarta – Modern Indonesia:

We started on 14th August, 2014 from the marvelously renovated Mumbai airport. After 2 flights by Malaysia Airlines, we reached Jakarta safe and sound. Jakarta is the commercial hub of Indonesia, much like Mumbai – the same hustle-bustle, congested traffic, and humid air. After lunch, we visited the UKM Gallery – and thus began my love affair with Indonesian art. It was as if I had entered a completely different world that I didn’t know existed. To paraphrase The Matrix, once you see something, you can’t unsee it. All around were brilliant masterpieces of wood carvings, stone carvings, ceramic art, bamboo artifacts, even recycled paper – every conceivable type of art. Here are a few clicks:

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

I had a brilliant time with the girls at the gallery – just hanging out, learning and appreciating the local arts – in short, an evening well spent 🙂

We also visited Taman Mini – a culture-based recreational area. The park is a synopsis of Indonesian culture, with virtually all aspects of daily life in Indonesia’s 26 provinces encapsulated in separate pavilions with the collections of Indonesian architecture, clothing, dances and traditions are all depicted impeccably. Apart from that, there is a lake with a miniature of the archipelago in the middle of it, complete with cable cars and museums.

Puncak – up in the mountains:

The next day, we left for Puncak. On the way, we visited the beautiful Botanical Garden at Bogor. Then we proceeded to the Puncak Pass Resort –  nestled in the mountains, surrounded by luscious tea plantations, and amazing weather to boot.

In the evening, we set out to roam around in the neighborhood and chanced upon a hiking trail. After an impromptu hike, we were rewarded with the beautiful sights of a cabin nestled in the woods and a gorgeous view. We ended this leg of the trip with a visit to the Flower Garden showcasing the eye-catching color and variety of the plant life from Puncak and beyond.

Bali – Land of Gods

We left for Bali the next day. The flight to Bali was an experience in itself: volcanic mountains jutting out of the clouds, the seas interspersed with tiny, beautiful islands, and the airplane descending amidst the waves lashing the shores.

After a 3 hour flight, we arrived at the Denpasar airport at around 6 in the evening. By then, it was already dark. We flagged down a taxi and started out for Ubud. We passed through Kuta – which seemed like Baga beach in Goa – then the crowds started to disperse and our anxiety started to increase. By the time we reached Ubud, we were sure we had made a mistake by booking a room there – it was in the interiors of Bali and was pretty isolated. The rice plantations seemed eerie and the guest house we had booked looked downright scary. With abated breaths, we opened the door to our room – and our emotions did a 180-degree flip – the room was gorgeous! Right above the bedpost was a big stone carving of Krishna – considering how scared I was, it was natural Krishna would show up as if to say “It’s okay, I am right here” 🙂

We calmed down a bit and decided to sleep. The moment we lied down to sleep, there was a noise – a never-heard-before call of some creature that came directly from our roof. Terrified, we fell in a disturbed slumber and woke up at the crack of dawn, and opened the door to reveal the view outside – and once again, we were completely floored. The view was brilliant – beautiful, green rice terraces with the backdrop of a distant mountain. The guest house itself was authentically Balinese, intricately decorated with wood carvings and stone sculptures that depicted stories from Ramayana and Mahabharata. For breakfast, we were treated with the delicious fruits and green pancakes with banana filling. A peaceful, relaxed setting away from the touristy hustle-bustle.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Totally happy with our choice, we set out to drive through Ubud – the cultural center of Bali with Norman – our driver. We had a tea-tasting session at Balinese House, and visited Sari Amerta Batik collection and saw how handmade Batik garments are made.  Then we visited Yan Yan Silver ornaments factory, where I bought a delicate silver anklet, an art gallery, and Karya Mas wood carving gallery, where we bought a beautiful Buddha statue. It was an excellent learning experience cum shopping trip 😀

We had lunch in the company of Mount Kintamani – an active volcano. And then, my favorite experience of the trip – a visit to the Gunung Kawi temple. In Balinese culture, Acintya is the Supreme God of Balinese Hinduism, equivalent to the concept of Brahman. Acintya is symbolized by an empty throne on top of the highest pillar. The Balinese offer small offering baskets called ‘canang sari ‘ to their Gods three times a day. It is basically a ritual of giving back what has been given to you by the Gods. It is a sharing that is not based upon fear, but on gratitude to the richness of life. Offering appeases the spirits and brings prosperity and good health to the family. It is a duty and an honor at the same time, and in Balinese perspective a very natural and almost logical thing to maintain a good relationship between people and spirits.

Another thing that intrigued me is how Animism is incorporated in Balinese Hinduism. Balinese depiction of Gods, like Ganesha, are quite demonic. The philosophy is that to maintain balance in the world, the godly and demonic energies need to be in harmony. Even in the Barong dance, the story was about the fight between the good and the evil, but in the end, no one wins. As a result, the artifacts that symbolize the animal spirits are not cute or polished as you would find in India, but have a raw and natural feel to them.

The Gunung Kawi temple was a beautiful spiritual experience – the serene settings, the light rain, the peace and quiet and calm just soothed my soul and I had my Eat Pray Love moment 🙂

We spent the following 2 days doing the touristy stuff – saw the Barong dance, spent some time at the Nusa Dua beach, and shopped to our heart’s content at Kuta. We witnessed the brilliant sunset at Uluwatu and ended the day with beautiful music that our hotel owner played on his Gamelan.

The thing that struck me the most about Bali, especially Ubud, is the steep immersion in culture and religion. The Balinese don’t seem to kowtow to tourists. Instead, they mostly just seem to live their lives in the ways of their ancestors, adapting and making money from tourism, but keeping most of their traditions alive.

Another significant thing about Bali is that the Balinese take delighting in the senses to a degree I had never experienced before. Especially in Ubud, the cultural capital in the middle of the country, every meal, restaurant or guest house, no matter how humble, takes pride in its visual appeal. The tropical vegetation of a volcanic island is on display in every street corner and in the way the world famous rice paddies are arranged and cultivated.

And I am officially in love with the people of Indonesia. I have never met such sweet, ever-smiling, ever-helpful people in my life. They don’t understand English, so communication is a problem, but they put in tremendous efforts to understand what you are saying and then go out of their way to help you. I feel enriched just to have known them for whatever short period of time I did. Meet my favorite people in Indonesia:

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Apart from language, food also poses a major problem for us vegetarians. For Indonesians, food = non-vegetarian food. They are simply unaware of the concept of vegetarian food. You have to explicitly specify no meat, no beef, no chicken, no fish before ordering any dish – and then they give you an incredulous expression as if to say ‘really, you are gonna eat ONLY vegetables?’ And then you hope to God they understood what you told them 🙂 We survived on the Khakra packets we had taken with us and the delicious fruits we bought there. I also lost some weight, so that was an added bonus 🙂

Normally at the end of every trip, I feel a sense of completion and have no plans of returning to the same place. This is the first trip that left me craving for more. This was more of a reconnaissance trip, where I identified what I would love to do in Indonesia and now can’t wait to go back and actually do those things. Hope that day comes some time soon 🙂

P.S. –  Some more clicks here

Singapura..O Singapura..

One fine mid-winter morning, an enthusiastic group of 57 people, with ages ranging from 25 (that’s me 🙂 ) to 70,  set out from Pune to travel to Singapore – the melting pot of cultures and ideologies.

After a 5-hour long turbulent flight from Mumbai to Singapore, we started our journey of this futuristic island-state with the City Tour. We saw the majestic Merlion, took a ride in the amazing Singapore Flyer (the tallest Ferris wheel in the world), took in the city landscape, and generally roamed around the city.  My first impression of Singapore is that it is high-tech, disciplined, modern, and extremely safe. The weather is a bit unpredictable – for the time that I was there, it was scorching hot in the morning, followed by heavy rains in the late afternoon.

After lunch, we checked into our hotel. We went for the night safari the same evening, but it was pouring cats and dogs. So the night safari was reduced to a thrilling ride in heavy downpour, through thick rain forests, in pitch black surroundings.

The next day, we went for a cruise, followed by the cable ride to Sentosa Island. At Sentosa, we watched the Dolphin Show, the Underwater aquarium, and then the icing on the cake –  Songs of the Sea program – which was jaw-droppingly brilliant.

The Universal Studios has become my current favorite place on Earth. It is seriously a dreamland, complete with the picturesque castle with a 4-D show, the thrilling rides – the Transformers 3-D ride, Jurassic Park ride, the Ancient Egypt Mummy ride, or the gigantic roller coaster, and amazing performances – Lights Camera Action (hosted by Steven Spielberg – where they demonstrate how a hurricane is shot in a normal room – mind-blowing!), the Monsters Rock show, the street performances. I can go on and on about this place – totally spellbound.

The next day, we visited the Jurong Bird Park and saw the world’s largest artificial waterfall, visited the Gems Garden, and the Chocolate gallery.

The only regret I have is that I got NO time for shopping – zero..zilch..nada. But the experiences were worth the sacrifice 🙂

A shout-out to our tour organizers – Sudhanshu Travels. The entire trip was immaculately organized, with no compromise on comfort and luxury. The tour operators were knowledgeable and approachable. I felt pampered and relaxed throughout the trip. At no point did we face any holdups or glitches. This was affordable luxury travel at its best!

Here’s a Prezi of the highlights of my trip. Just click Start Prezi to view the presentation and use the arrows to move forward. You can view the presentation in full screen mode by clicking the button in the bottom right corner:

Enjoy 😀

Dubai travelogue

Sun…sand…shopping – welcome to the marvel of the modern world – Dubai!

The captain announced our arrival in Dubai and I stared down at the organized array of shimmering lights of this great Emirate. Right at the airport I realized that this is going to be an awesome experience. The floor of the airport is carpeted to give the feel of walking in the desert, and huge artificial palm trees greet you on arrival. All around you are blinding lights and awe-inspiring displays of duty-free goodies. After completing the formalities, we were taken to the Imperial Suites hotel, where we would be staying for the entire duration of our trip. On the way to the hotel, we witnessed the amazing skyline of Dubai. All the hi-rises displayed a multitude of colors and lights. What a way to start the visit!

The next day, we set out for a city tour – starting with Bur Dubai, that is Old Dubai. This area has a distinctive personality with traditional buildings, atmospheric alleyways, and trademark souks (markets). Here, we saw the impressive Jumeirah mosque and the Jumeirah area. The Jumeirah beach with its clear sea and the outstanding Al Burj was definitely the highlight of our city tour. Dubai is a city of skyscrapers, incredible highways, and a-maz-ing cars. Just a drive around the city was a treat in itself.

Following the city tour was the most anticipated event of our trip – visit to Burj Khalifa. The entire experience of the Burj Khalifa visit was awe-inspiring. The entry to the Burj is through the Dubai Mall, the largest mall in the world. The mall itself is very impressive, but more about that later. Once you get inside the lobby that leads you to the elevator to the top of the Burj, you are treated to the impressive history of the Burj’s conception, construction, and vision. The elevator takes you up to the 124th floor in one minute (we checked with a stopwatch :D) And then you are blown away with the jaw-dropping sights of Dubai. Stretches of the desert, ending with the boundless seas, and interspersed with man-made structures of hi-rises and highways, you can only marvel at the God and man-made wonders. No words describe the feeling you get when you are At The Top 🙂 (that’s the name of the observational deck at Floor 124).

After coming back to Earth, we roamed about the gorgeous Dubai Mall. Buying anything was out of question, I would have to spend all my savings to buy anything :P. But window-shopping is always an option – and I did just that. The sheer variety of shops was enough to tire me – designer clothes, bags, shoes, jewelry, chocolates, lamps and lanterns, and so on. I spent a blissful 2 hours just in awe of it all. Now I am not very sure if money can’t buy happiness. If I can buy all those goodies, I will definitely be very very happy 😀

Later, we were treated to the amazing fountain show at the Dubai Mall. And with luck on our side, the fountain danced to the tunes of a Hindi song from Om Shanti Om 🙂

The Dhow Cruise in the evening, with the sumptuous meal, the brilliant city lights, and the cool breeze of the sea, was the perfect end to the magical day. But the best was yet to come.

The next day, in the sweltering afternoon sun, we set out for the Desert Safari. This consists of insanely roaring the land cruiser up sand dunes at top speed and 80 degree angles. Every time we feel we won’t be able to take it anymore, the cruiser bounces and speeds over the dunes for another adrenaline rush. After the insane ride, we reached the Desert camp in the middle of nowhere. Here, the calming desert sunset, the Arabic meal, the belly dance, and the Fire Show made our evening the best evenings in Dubai.

The next day, we went to the inspiring Palm beach and the Atlantis hotel’s aqua park. We spent the day having a blast with wild water rides, picturesque beaches, the Dolphin Bay, and the aquarium. That evening we finally went shopping at Meena Bazaar 🙂

The last day of our visit started with a sand storm – and with it, my hopes of shopping at the local market were doomed. We compensated by taking a metro ride – an awesome experience. On our way to the airport we halted at the Mall of the Emirates. Here, we saw the modern miracle – snow in a desert – Ski Dubai. After spending 2 hours in this magnificent mall, it was time to bid adieu to Dubai and return home. And thus my first-ever foreign trip concluded. It was an experience I will cherish for the rest of my life 🙂