Posted in Ajanta Ellora, Aurangabad, Backpacking, Diversity, Inclusive, Places, Solo Travel, Travel Stories

My Tryst with Ni Hao – Unexpected Trust

When I started my journey, one of my biggest challenges was to overcome my difficulty trusting strangers. “Don’t talk to strangers” has its own local and regional flavours in our families, and like most of us, I have grown accustomed to it. In new places, I have been warned of people who will put me in harm’s way and therefore to not drink water or eat anything a stranger would offer. The warnings are endless, and the outcome is a castle of fear, which you spend more time trying to climb over.

The first destination on my solo trip was Aurangabad. As I climbed into the train and found my seat, I made acquaintance with a young researcher, who has a Master’s in law and is currently working for the Justice Department. He was on an assignment to collect data on check bounce cases across India. We connected, talked, and discussed quite a bit. Eventually, they decide to accompany each other and explore Ajanta Caves together.

We took a Shivshakti bus (government bus service) to Aurangabad. The ongoing infrastructure construction made the journey very difficult, both as an experience and for the time taken to reach the destination. As we set out to explore the caves, we noticed that the bus staff was trying to communicate with an elderly East Asian man about the time of our return. Both of them were trying their best to communicate and comprehend, but the attempts were futile. Obviously, I volunteered to help.

Magic of Ni Hao

Having visited China for work many years ago, I had picked up a few words and greetings. “Ni Hao” is the Chinese greeting for “hello”. I had taken a note of his passport before greeting him. “NiHao!” I said. Surprised, he looked at me. His face lit up like a neon bulb. Very greedily, he tried responding to me, and obviously, I had to disappoint him. All my knowledge of the Chinese language ended at “Ni Hao.” I could not converse with him beyond the greeting.

Thanks to my amazing dumb charades skills, with a careful choice of animated actions, I was able to get the message across to him. He knew not a word of English, and we didn’t know any Chinese. Even then, he decided to tag along with Hussain and me for the rest of the journey.

If you visualised the conversation between me and this man, all via actions, it would surely be a cartoon movie.

After a lot of effort, we managed to exchange our basic vitals of name and age. He went by the name of Cheng and was 55. To my surprise, when he shared his travel dates using his phone calendar, I realised he had been in India for a month already.

From that point on, we spent a lot of time in each other’s company, which was an experiment in itself. We explored Ajanta Caves, had dinner together, and also shared all the expenses. On learning the cost of my stay, he very emphatically responded that he was coming with me.

Unexpected Trust

We stayed the night at my hostel and continued to explore Ellora and Daulatabad Fort the following day. He was set to leave for Bombay (Mumbai) that night, and his wallet was empty. He had exhausted all his Indian currency and handed me a hundred dollar bill to exchange. His faith in me, a complete stranger, was an honour in itself. I will cherish that feeling all my life. I negotiated a good deal for him. He left for Bombay after saying a warm goodbye to us.

The learnings learnt from the traveler’s university course on “Transforming from Tourist to Traveler” were immensely helpful.

Here is this alien man who knew no word of English, travelling in India with just a translator app, trying everything non-native to him and placing trust in someone non-native. This was my moment of understanding that the Universe takes care of everyone and everything in it. We just have to trust the Universe and have faith that it is all going to be okay. The roads might not be as smooth as we want, but eventually each curve, each stone, each ditch, and each high will be an experience adding to this journey.

Summary

I had many takeaways from the interactions and experiences with Cheng and Hussain. Here is the summary of my learning for anyone who intends to start travelling solo.

  1. Start with the belief that you can survive.
  2. Acknowledge other travelers; they are in the same boat as you are, with the same anxieties and excitement.
  3. Learn the art of small talk with any stranger: Name-Place-Eat-Weather-Clothing-Music-Age. Use your identity card and Google translator wherever necessary.
  4. Learn the greetings of the land. Google helps here too.
  5. Smile more often.
  6. Share and give more to your fellow travelers.
  7. Be in the interest of others.

Go Solo!

Posted in Backpacking, Diversity, Inclusive, Narmada, Solo Travel, The Walk

A Walk that Inspired Me – Narmade Har

I have been travelling for the last 6 months, experiencing the north and west of India (so far). To be honest, my first 100 days of travel were impulsive. There was a greed to move quickly and cover the places I had never been to. 

I began my second round of travel with a leadership intervention called “The Passage of the Being Leader”. It was an eight day walk over 120 kms on the Uttaravahini stretch where the River Narmada flows north to south. Twelve men were selected through a careful screening process and were invited to the walk.

Begining of The Walk

All the men reached Baroda in anticipation of what was in store. We acquainted ourselves and began the process of building a strong relationship. Without delving into details, I will try to share with you a synopsis covering the essence of “the walk,” which every man should do at least once.

We submitted all our electronic devices, including mobile phones and wallets. We also had to leave behind anything that seemed heavy. These items were in safe storage until our return. After that, the group of 13 men huddled for a quick grace and set out on ‘the walk’ with one of us assigned to lead the walk on the banks of the Narmada river.

Our Schedule

Each day, we had targeted destinations to reach by night. Our nights were usually spent in dharam shalas, or the homes of generous village people who were kind enough to host us, provide us with dinner, a place to sleep, and freshen up until we set out the following morning. Our daily schedule included several exercises, councils, rituals, and gratitude circles. Our diet was vegetarian food twice a day. 

“The walk” was grueling. We pushed our limits, walking through very tough terrain, fasting on food, walking without footwear, and walking in noble silence. Our discussions in the circles were profound and thought-provoking. Our undivided commitment to “leave no man behind” kept the brotherhood in empathy for any challenges we faced. We stayed on course to ensure every man on the walk reached the destination.

Some of the themes on the days we walked were “letting go,” “allowing to accept,” and “being uninhibited”. Our activities and discussions were centred around these themes, which guided our direction towards the welcoming consciousness and competences of a leader.

The Experience

The experiences on this walk are unparalleled to any other. One of the best things that happened was the realisation that there exists a world within the world in which we live where humanity thrives on trust, compassion, and generosity. To children, to old men, and to women on the routes we walked, we were aliens. We lead very different lives from theirs. There was just one “key” that helped the people from two different worlds connect. And that key was “Narmade Har!”, the powerful greeting of this trail.

As we touched eight destination villages and several others, Narmade Har! was used generously as a greeting to everyone who passed us. When they saw us huffing, panting, and exhausted, they would offer us tea, lemon, a resting place, and anything else we needed to continue our walk.

My Learnings

As for me, and from the perspective of my travels, something significant happened. I learnt to slow down significantly. I learnt how to become more aware of my surroundings. I am now able to enjoy and see everything more. I can now truly embrace the spirit of travel. I learnt that the journey is more important than the destination. My senses are active and tuned in. Dopamine and serotonin levels are definitely higher. I am grateful for everything that has happened and is set to happen in the future. My journey just got better than before, manifold.

This journey has even changed the way I look, which I am sure is for the better and definitely not for the worse. I love that I experience an inner state of “being inspired”, that I live in an abundance-less world, that I am in service of others and significantly aware of myself and the elements around me.

I owe it all to “The walk, The river, People of Narmada, My band of brothers and My teacher.”

Narmade Har!

Posted in Backpacking, North India, Places, Rajasthan, Solo Travel, Travel Stories

Nav Chokia-The best kept Secret of Jodhpur

After my hunt for the blue in the Blue City and spotting the blue in the city, Now it was time to pursue and capture the Blue.

As usual, I set out on foot towards the Ghantaghar to have some tea at my now frequented tea joints. I got some directions from the kind people of the city and set out.

It was a 2.5-kilometer walk, and it took me about 30 minutes to reach the junction. The streets were not very wide. The average view of the busy street with people opening their stores, frying jalebis and samosas, and boiling milk sets the tone of the buzz in the city. The people were hospitable and greeted us with a “hello” and helped with the directions as well.

As I reached what is called Nav Chokia, the first sight was of a temple, outside of which “God of Sex” was written on a small pillar. What I thought might be taboo in the conservative old city of Rajasthan was normal and acceptable to have a platform to pray for the divine pleasure that nature has gifted to the “human being”. It surely wasn’t a taboo in this little village.

Un-taboo the Divine Pleasure-Temple of the God of Sex.

The two old water bodies are well maintained in the depths of the Blue City. I walked through the streets of Nav Chokia, ignoring the two random bulls on the road, some garbage, and people stepping out for morning rituals. Apparently, the Swach Bharat campaign hasn’t yet taken effect here, despite the efforts of the local authorities.

As I reached the end of the street to a large banyan tree, I saw a body of water under the majestic shadows of the Mehrangarh Fort. Quiet has found its comfort there, with no other human being in sight. The space was exclusive to me. I sat by the lake and soaked in its beauty. The place seemed like a hangout for local men, as beer bottles and leftovers from the previous night’s out could be spotted there.

As I stepped out, I saw a frail looking old man, resting on the platform under the tree. I asked him in the Hindi I could manage, “Sahib, yahaan aur koi talaab hai kya?” He pointed to a little entrance at a large fort gate. There were hardly 4 others who were interested in the place. Here are some videos and clicks of this really beautiful water body and stepwell near the back gate of the Mehrangarh Fort.

As I stepped out, I saw a frail-looking old man resting on the platform under the tree. I asked him in the Hindi I could manage, “Sahib, yahaan aur koi talaab hai kya?” He pointed to a little entrance at a large fort gate. There were hardly any others who were interested in the place. 

This body of water seems like the main source of water for the Mehrangarh Fort, and therefore was protected. The body was well populated with fish, and people are not allowed to go down the steps towards the water.

The space at the back of the Mehrangarh Fort seemed a lot less crowded, and this intrigued me to check if one could access the fort from an entrance from the Nav Chokia side. And there was indeed an opening.

With just a few architecture students present making sketches at the entrance, this seemed like the perfect way to explore the Mehrangarh Fort, away from the crowd. The guard at the entrance was a kind man. We struck up a brief conversation, exchanged greetings, and I began the climb.

After soaking in the beauty of the gigantic structure, I stepped out to explore Jaswant Thada.

As I started, curious villagers of Nav Chokia, who had been observing me, engaged with me to find out my story. I mentioned my intent to reach Jaswant Thada, and they were quick to suggest a road less travelled from beside the water body. They said “road kaccha hai, lekin agar app yeh nahi kiye to app kuch kiye nahi” (roads aren’t great, but if you haven’t done this by walk, you haven’t covered anything). True to what they said, this was a beautiful wild route, giving some new perspectives on the water body. After a good 45–60 minute walk, I reached the main road, from where Jaswant Thada was just 300 metres away.

The Jaswant Thada 

It is another spectacular structure made of marble, which houses tributes to all the Marwar rulers. The garden outside is beautiful. It would be an ornithologist’s paradise if one was interested in sighting and observing birds. As I sat outside the marble structure, the cleaning lady of the space decided to join me for a brief chit chat. Just as we clicked into a pleasant moment, nature gifted us with some spectacular clouds. Some of my best clicks happened at this moment.

After the magical moments over Jaswant Thada, time inched towards my train timing. There are times when you want to cover just another place so that the journey feels completed. Mandor Fort was that place for me in the Blue City. It is a place of significance, so it is worth making it a part of the travel destination. Mandor was the first capital of the Marwar region. I am told that the place gets its name from Ravana’s wife, Mandodiri.

Since time was a bit crunched, I took an auto from Jaswant Thada to travel a distance of 10 km and be dropped back at the clock tower. I paid Rs. 400 for the same. All the money I may have spent in all of 2 days was spent on the 20 km trip to Mandor Fort.

At the fort, there is a park and a museum, apart from the ruin of the old fort. At this point, it may be worthwhile to understand the difference between what gets called Qila/Quila (pronounced as Khila) and Garh/Gadh (pronounced as Gad). A quila is a structure on the ground. And the Gadh is built on a high mountain with a vantage point over the destination.

I walked through the garden for about 1.5 km to reach the fort. I gave the museum a pass as I didn’t have time. People climb to the top to get a view of the “Mandor Garden.” The garden also had a few structures that were probably meant to be temples, but were left unfinished. They look like the kinds of temple structures you find in Khajuraho. I don’t have too much information to share about the various elements inside the Mandor Garden. Hence my advice: if you were to cover this place, do it slowly.

I sat in the setting sun for a bit and started back. I would like to share an observation in this space. On the weekend, several people gather in the garden to play cards, mostly older men. I noticed many small groups. There were also communities where joint families or family friends would come together and have some fun playing something like a tambola. These are distant memories from my past. Seemingly, human connections are more alive in rural India than on our urban side.

I headed to take one last look at the fort in the setting sun. This should be a destination to cover on every traveller’s list. Two days is a justified time in Jodhpur.

To know all about Jodhpur, read my post here

Posted in Backpacking, Jodhpur, North India, Places, Rajasthan, Solo Travel, Travel Stories

Hunt for the Blue in Sun City

As I set foot out of the Jodhpur railway station on January 2nd, 2020, all I wanted to find was the much hyped “blue” in the Marwar region of Rajasthan, Jodhpur, also known as the Sun City of India.

Somehow, Umed Bhavan didn’t capture my interest. Instead, I decided to focus on the grand Mehrangadh Fort. After reaching the palace, and the usual drill of security check, long line for tickets, and audio guide, I joined the long line of tourists to see one of the 33 spots of historical importance at the fort. 

The grandeur of structure on a sandstone mountain loomed over me like a beautiful Giant. I got me wondering what it would been like to travel back in time, when the Raus of Marawar ruled Jodhpur. What would it have been every time the kind marched on his horse or the elephant after triumphantly winning a battle? what would it have been like for Rapunzel to be an Indian Character trapped in of those high towers? The fort is an aesthetic marvel and gifted creation from the past.

Marwar’s Majesty-Mehrangarh Fort

My next stop was the the Canon Point, in the fort, gives you a good view of Jodhpur city as well.On my way there, I struck up a conversation with a young man, who, to my surprise, was a graduate in history and was working on documentation of the history and its evidence at Jodhpur. I also met a local musician, Nainuram, and got to know his life and music. 

I was still mystified about the missing blue in the blue city.There has been so much branding about Jodhpur as the Blue City, that it was a disappointment to not see the town painted blue. It appeared the Sun City had bowled over the blue of the Blue City.

My curiosity got me talking to a local about it. He said, “If you want to see what is blue about Blue City, then walk to the farthest point of the fort ahead of the canon point.” You will reach a temple. Go behind the temple and there are some vantage points that will let you have a view of the Blue City. “

He also suggested that I immerse myself in the Blue City by walking through it and accessing the 2 water bodies at the back entrance of the fort from “Nav Chokia”. 

It got me motivated to explore further. I reached the temple. The backside of the temple had a little window to peep through.

Finally there it was – The Blue City

The sun had set, and it was time for me to find my way back into the city.

Another pleasant surprise was my walk to the Clock Tower, or Ghantaghar, the market square in Jodhpur via the winding stone-paved path just beside the fort’s entrance. I caught the night-lit views of the fort and enough visuals of the local settings in the old part of Jodhpur City.

To know all about Jodhpur, read my post here

Posted in Backpacking, Jodhpur, North India, Places, QuillSe, Rajasthan, Solo Travel, Travel Stories

Exploring Jodhpur

Where to Stay

Stay and accommodation in Rajasthan is generally on the higher side, especially in season. The season in Rajasthan is from October to February. There are several hostels in Jodhpur, most of which are located close to the Ghantaghar (Clock Tower) Area. These are all the good names, like Zostel, Hostelavie, etc. Some very up-market hotel names like 360° Panorma at Pal Haveli are also there. Upmarket hotel accommodation is available inside the Mehrangarh Fort.

I stayed at a budget hotel very close to the Jodhpur railway station called Hotel Shiva. There were families as well as groups staying in the hotel. Room charges were Rs. 800 per night. No hot water was available, and the quality of the beds and facilities was just about average. We would have paid the same amount had we stayed at the hostel. I strongly recommend staying at a hostel. They are close to the tourist places and most of them offer a great view as well.

What to See

The top most touristy places to see are Umed Bhavan, Mehrangarh Fort, Jaswant Thada, Mandor Fort, Ghantaghar, and Osiyan Temple (about 60 km away from Jodhpur).

For Slow and Budget Travellers

My focus was primarily on the areas around Mehrangarh Fort. It took me a good 4 hours to explore this fort and its nooks and corners. The fort houses a museum of exhibits from the historical era as well. I walked down from the Mehrangarh fort to the Ghantaghar area. This walking trail is one of the best kept secrets in Jodhpur.

The next day, I walked from Ghantaghar to Nav Chokia. The way leads to the back entrance of the fort, which houses two beautiful and not-to-be-missed water bodies. Nav Chokia is the place to be if you want to experience the Blue Cityfor what it is. It is ancient. Some of the structures are a few hundred years old and seem to have stood the test of time. It is a must-do if you are a traveller by foot, bike, or any other budget format.

Local villagers recommended that I take the walking path to visit Jaswant Thada. This was another worthwhile trail. Jaswant Thada is a nice marble structure near a water body. From this place, you can get a mesmerising view of Jodhpur City and also of the fort.

The entrance fee at the fort was about Rs. 300 (entry and audio guide).

The entrance fee at Jaswant Thada was Rs. 30.

Since I didn’t visit the Umed Palace, I don’t know the entry fee, but I managed to see photographs of the clock collections and the car collections at the palace. As I understand it, the royal family stays at the palace, so a very small part of it was converted into a museum of sorts.

Mandor Fort is about 9 kms from the city. This can be accessed by train and then an autorikshaw or by taking a rickshaw.

Transport

I took the train to Jodhpur from Jaisalmer. The sleeper class ticket fare was about Rs.575. On a budget trip and in the right weather, the AC train can be totally given a miss. People on the train were kind and accommodating. There were no incidents of thieving either.

Taxis, auto-rickshaws, and other local transport are easily available.

I moved around using the hitch hike, shared auto model, and foot.A lot of this can be covered on foot. You don’t have to pay more than Rs. 10 or Rs. 20 when you use a shared auto.

The Uber service is poor. Taking a regular autorickshaw or TukTuk would be better. Negotiate shamelessly. No one feels bad.

A Special Musical Performance 

After enjoying Mehrangarh fort on foot for over 4 hours, the mood of the day was to devour some laal mans and garlic naan. The winding stone-paved road and my search for Rajasthan’s more revered dish led me to a corner building which hoarded a sign saying “Live Classical Music Performance.” There were some foreigners trying to make their way into the building.

I paused my search for laal mas and stepped into this little performance space. The tourists were beginning to lose patience waiting for the performers, and they were as brattish as 5-year-olds, trying their hand at the tabla, and, of course, endless side-eyed selfies with a pout. After a brief wait, two young men stepped in with instruments. They laid out the Santoor and the Saarangi. The men explained the instruments.

The Santoor is an instrument with 100 strings and lets out sounds that are meditative, pleasant, and set the mood of happiness for the listeners. With Arbaaz on the santoor, he managed to take us through an elating and enthralling experience. Soon, his multi-talented brother, who accompanied Arbaaz on the Tabla, unpacked a vintage Saarangi. The sarangi is a desert violin, which has 36 strings and is connected to four main strings bunched with horse hair. It lets out music, which is very much akin to intense vocal expressions.

I asked if he could play something in Raag Yaman (Kalyani in Classical), and he generously played an outstanding composition to mark the end of the evening. I set out to find my gastronomic muse, the legendary Laal Mans of Rajasthani Cuisine, after making my Rs. 300 contribution and thanking them.

Eats in the Blue City

For breakfast, we ate a place called Janata, which is brand with over 400 shops. Kachori chaat was very nice. Price Rs.35

On the road towards Ghantaghar (Clock Tower) There is a Shahi Kachori, a corner shop just before the clock tower. Price is Rs.20 from what I remember for both Pyaz (Onion) Kachori and Samosa. While the place is usually over crowded, I felt the items were salty. The stock is always fresh though.

Bombay Tea shop on the same road has some amazing bun maska. Price Rs.15. They serve chai, but I didn’t enjoy what they served. Price of Chai is 10 for what they call as single chai and it is quite a size.

Past the Clock tower, as you enter the road towards Pal Haveli, there are crowded tea shops who serve Kulad Chai at Rs.30. I found the coffee to be better Justified. Price Rs.15

Just opposite to these tea shops there is a much talked about Omelette shop. You wont miss it. They open after 11.00 am and stay open until night. They have an excellent menu of omlettes. I tried the “Cheese Masala Omlette”. very good and filling indeed. It cost me Rs.60. It is well reviewed in tripadvisor and tripto, but it also seemed like a local favourite. It is usually crowded, you are unlikely to miss it.

Managed to find a place called “Curry’s”. This is the roof top cafe above Zostel, Jodhpur. The order was served without much too much wait. I judge the dish 2.5 on 5.0. It missed the dominance of garlic, which needed to cut through the red chilly powder and the fat in the dish. Nevertheless, the succulence of the meat (chevon) and their Rajasthani hospitality was worthy of mention. The bill was about Rs.400. With slight disappointment I set out to explore some dessert. Mishrilal’s Doodh Bhandar is a vintage milk and sweet shop near the Clock Tower and is known for a few dishes. The Makahni Lassi and Doodh Jilebi. I pursued the Makhani Lassi which is glass of sweet yogurt with a dollop of home made white butter in it. While I couldn’t finish it, I must mention is a wonderful treat that you shouldn’t miss. Price is Rs.40.

Ended both days in gratitude to the numerous people who made my exploration of Mehrangarh Fort, Rajathani music, It’s food and finally in being able to scout and spot the “Blue in the Blue City” and further “Immersing in the Blue” a very memorable travel.

If there are any other questions, feel free to ask them in the comments section. I will happy to answer and connect with you.

Posted in Backpacking, QuillSe, Solo Travel, Travel Stories

Unleashing Columbus In Me

If travel was free, you will never see me again

-Anonymous

This quote has always inspired me in ways unexplained.

One of my greatest fantasies has been travelling the world. Countries close by, countries far away, big regions and small, nooks and corners of the world hold treasures of stories and knowledge.

My Appa used to say, one of the things I was never scared about as a child was sleeping in the open at night. Such was my comfort with “Darkness”. It helped me discover that I had no concept of the “unknown”.

I had to fight a hard fight inside and outside my head before I could decide to push the reset button at 40.

Allowing myself to let go and accept whatever comes my way has been the key to disconnecting my life from the noises of entanglement.

After a series of unfortunate personal events, I decided to quit my job, to walk out of my business, to give up my dog to a friend, to let go of my possessions, and to set out on a journey to discover myself, whatever that means!

“Late Bloomer,” someone said in awe. So be it.

My journey till now has been to wade through my challenges, sometimes breaking down incessantly with pain and picking myself up with difficulty breathing, looking in the mirror hoping to heal my broken heart, pushing my limits in each and every way possible.

The ability to be awestruck and amused by my surroundings, to be uninhibited, vulnerable, to explore, experience, fail, and bounce back, to discover new possibilities, to have unfiltered fun, to be in goodness, kindness, and a constant state of gratitude, has shaped who I am today.

Today, I am available for anything, anyone, anytime, anywhere, as long as there is acceptance for who I am, the way I am… as perfect as imperfect can be.

For the last six months, I have set sail on a solo trip.

Here and now, I will start to share my stories, hopefully to inspire you to explore life as a package.

Here’s to Unleashing ‘Columbus In Me’

Columbus In Me