The Kerala recipe for instant love!

What happens when 30 travel bloggers from across the globe sign up for one crazy road-trip in Kerala? It’s what you call the “Trip of a Lifetime”!

 

30 travel bloggers, 25 countries, 1 amazing adventure! Picture Credits – Jinson Abraham Kerala Tourism

And when, as the only Indian blogger in the bunch, you get a chance to see your own country through the eyes of 29 foreigners, you return home feeling nothing but immense gratitude and pride! India is such an enchanting amalgamation of culture and chaos, it’s hard to not fall in love with this place even as a foreigner (more so as a foreigner!) What with our “little spicy” food and deceiving head-nods – being a part of Kerala Blog Express with all these amazing travel bloggers made me see India for what it really is – a melting pot of beautiful traditions – a country that can mesmerize you as much as it can drive you towards the edge of insanity – the perfect recipe for instant love 🙂

Most of what I point out below might sound very redundant or cliche to my Indian readers, but I will do so anyway because I think we need a constant reminder of how beautiful such “cliches” are and why we should be grateful for our lovely country! On the last few days of our trip, I went around with my camera, asking each blogger three things that they will remember India for, and the answers were quite unanimous.

On going through those videos again, I noticed these are the 5 things that made all the heads turn, cameras click and pens scribble during the Kerala Blog Express 2016!

  1. Colors

    Kayaking at Kumarakom backwaters with bloggers Janet Newenham from Ireland, Céline Simon from France, Els Mahieu from Belgium, Tsvetelina Tsankova from Bulgaria! Picture credits – Jinson Abraham and Kerala Tourism

Even before I stepped foot on the coast, a birds-eye view of Trivandrum, looking absolutely glorious and unabashedly GREEN no matter where your eyes turn, made my heart leap with joy!

Kerala is so photogenic and colorful, and I’m not speaking only of the hill-stations like Munnar that are filled with tea plantations – even commercial cities like Cochin had much to offer. My fondest memory of Kerala will be of the Kumarakom backwaters, where we went kayaking, and even the water was lush green covered in water plants! Colors follow you everywhere you go – whether it is the breathtaking sunsets of Alleppey, endless lines of palm trees at Kumarakom, scenic tea plantations along winding road of Munnar, the stunning wall murals on the Cochin streets, or the traditional outfits of dancers at the Kerala Kalamandalam – that’s a blessing only a few places in India can boast about!

  1. FOOD!
Blogger Janet Newenham from Ireland enjoying a “sadya” meal at Wayanad, Kerala. Picture credits – Jinson Abraham and Kerala Tourism

“Is this spicy?”

“Little spicy”

(After one bite) “OMG this is too spicy!!!”

EVERY-SINGLE-TIME!

No, that wasn’t me! But that was every other blogger on this trip, and it was so amusing to watch these reactions! A quick visit to the spice plantations of Kerala gave us all a fleeting taste of how many spices actually go into a simple Indian curry, and most of the westerners had never heard of them before! While the 29 bloggers had a love-hate relationship with Kerala’s spicy food, the best part was seeing them asking for more by the end of the trip. Even more amusing was seeing pictures of biryani’s and curries being shared after they returned to their own country, and went scouting for authentic Indian restaurants!

  1. Animals
Blogger Patricia Schussel Gomes from Brazil admiring the mighty wonder in God’s own country. Picture credits – Jinson Abraham & Kerala Tourism

Cattle in the middle of the street, elephants leading religious processions, monkeys scaring the living hell out of you by popping up from nowhere – it’s amazing how animals are just about EVERYWHERE! As much as I dislike the domestication of elephants, I can’t deny being awestruck every time I saw one – whether it was in the wild at Periyar Wildlife Sanctuary, or on the streets during religious processions! Watching an elephant in the wild is one experience every single person in the world should add to their bucket-list; the sheer magnanimity and glory of the sight cannot be explained in words!

  1. Culture
Blogger Raul Armando V. Cruz from Mexico getting a taste of the rural culture. Picture Credits – Jinson Abraham & Kerala Tourism

Ladies dressed in colorful sarees, men walking on the streets in lungis, young girls in bindis, people eating “sadya” with their hands – a reflection of how the locals take pride in their traditions! The streets of India are always bright with colors and celebrations! In our short 2 weeks, we witnessed multiple religious processions, carnivals, traditional dances, and musical performances! People at these functions will invite you to be a part of the festivities, join in the dance or take over the drums. Call me sentimental – but when I saw fellow bloggers give up the comfort of our air-conditioned bus and luxury suites, to stay back in Kochi on an excruciatingly hot afternoon just to get their hands painted with henna – I realized how we as Indians take our own culture so much for granted!

  1. Smiles
Blogger Carla Boechet from Brazil all smiles at a religious gathering! Picture Credits – Jinson Abraham & Kerala Tourism

Easily the one thing almost every blogger definitely took back with them! It could be because we stood out naturally being a huge bunch of 30, but it’s fantastic how we were greeted with smiling faces no matter where we went! It was nice to see how curious people were, to know where we’re coming from, what we’re up to! It was also funny to see how locals would be so excited about taking selfies with the bloggers, not knowing that the bloggers were actually more delighted about doing the same! People in Kerala know how to treat their guests – and this is one thing each and every blogger cherished the most during their stay here! “Atithi Devo Bhavah”, or the age-old Indian tradition of treating your guests as equal to your Gods, is a practice we should all be very proud of!

 

Vote for Kerala Blog Express 4:

You still have 2 more days to vote for contestants competing for this years’ KBE! Visit their website and make your vote count 😉

 

PS: Thank you Jinson Abraham for letting me use these amazing pictures for the article!

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Dhaam, Baaja, Baraat (and LOTS of crying) – Inside a traditional Gaddi wedding!

Growing up in India, one does know that we love our overly-extravagant weddings. For those who don’t, here’s a small insight: the wedding industry in India is over Rs 100,000 crore and a regular person spends one fifth of the wealth accumulated in a lifetime on his/her wedding ceremony. Decorators, caterers, make-up artists, costume designers, choreographers, henna artists, hair stylists, it’s all so crazy! I saw my older sister organizing her wedding a year ago, and just the craziness of it all made me make a not-at-all-grand-wedding pact (I’d much rather splurge on traveling!)

And then I attended a traditional Gaddi-style wedding in Himachal earlier this year, which easily was the most beautiful, life-altering experience for me! The sheer simplicity and amount of love I observed at this one wedding, made me see more clearly how fickle and pretentious everything at our regular wedding functions back home is.

Minni Di, as she is known to everyone in the tiny hamlet named Khirku, is one of the most beautiful Himachali women I’ve met. She’s an independent young woman, working odd jobs to look after herself and her brother, while also saving for her own marriage. The first thing I noticed about her was her relentless love for animals, ALL kinds for animals! She can just naturally sense their fears and needs, like a psychologist of sorts for animals, and this positive vibe always attracted them towards her.

Minni Di - The bride-to-be! Ooo rhymes :D
Minni Di – The bride-to-be! Ooo rhymes 😀

Gaddi’s are a tribe in Himachal, essentially the shepherd tribe, people who move from one settlement to another with their families and flock of sheep. Things have changed for them over the years, and so you shouldn’t be surprised that most Gaddi men are not wandering shepherds anymore, but have settled in villages like Khirku to bring a little stability to their lives. Minni Di belongs to one such Gaddi family.

My connection to Khirku - friends beautiful little haven up in the mountains!
My connection to Khirku – friends beautiful little haven up in the mountains!

 

Minni Di ki “Chhayi”…

The excitement of attending her wedding began in April, when I was living in Khirku for a good fortnight, which was also when her first wedding function took place and got me hooked to the beauty of it all.

It was Minni Di ki "chhayi", a simple function that marks the beginning of wedding preparations, wherein all the men (and boys) of the village go into the forest to collect wood for the wedding cooking and ceremonies (hawan). 
It was Minni Di ki “chhayi”, a simple function that marks the beginning of wedding preparations, wherein all the men (and boys) of the village go into the forest to collect wood for the wedding cooking and ceremonies (hawan).

 

Chai and food being prepared over gossip!
Chhayi ki chai pe charcha!

 

Watching all neighbors come together, taking an off from their work, to manually cut and collect huge wooden logs from the mountains, made me realize how beautiful the sentiment of a community belonging is. A wedding for them wasn't just about dressing up and showing up for 2 days, but they were all a part of it in spirit and soul, and isn't that a memory you would cherish all your life?
Watching all neighbors come together, taking an off from their work, to manually cut and collect huge wooden logs from the mountains, made me realize how beautiful the sentiment of a community belonging is. A wedding for them wasn’t just about dressing up and showing up for 2 days, but they were all a part of it in spirit and soul, and isn’t that a memory you would cherish all your life?

 

This was going to be a wedding where neighbors were family, men of the house were decorators, chefs and servers, women were makeup, hair and henna artists, and almost every person at the wedding was sans-makeup & jewelry – the true and purest emotions of a union came to the fore! And I wasn’t going to miss it for my life…

 

(A month later) First ceremonial shower!

Day 1: Food being prepared for the bride. So the wedding functions begin 2 days before the actual ceremony, by giving the bride a ceremonial shower. Here, the bride is made to stand between a circle of women in the kitchen / verandah, and everyone puts water over her head to help her "cleanse". This marks the beginning of festivities, and the bride must not step out of the house after this first shower!
So the wedding functions begin a month after the chhayi. 2 days before the actual wedding, the bride is given a ceremonial shower. Here, the bride is made to stand between a circle of women in the kitchen / verandah, and everyone puts water over her head to help her “cleanse”. This marks the beginning of festivities, and the bride must not step out of the house after this first shower!

 

After the shower, the bride is made to eat her food, because she won't be able to for the rest of the night (Mehendi ceremony begins right after!) Here, it was interesting to see little kids come to the bride and ask her to offer them food (like asking for prasad at a temple).

After the shower, the bride is made to eat her food, because she won’t be able to for the rest of the night (Mehendi ceremony begins right after!) Here, it was interesting to see little kids come to the bride and ask her to offer them food (like asking for prasad at a temple).

 

So, about the crying!

Now one thing I have to mention here, while the bride is being “made to shower” by the women, the brides only task is to cry! YES, to CRY HER EYES OUT! It is considered as some kind of a ritual almost, wherein the bride is intimated 2 mins before any ceremony begins, so that she can get into the mood and begin to bawl. I will be honest, the first time I actually saw this I was so taken aback (which explains why I have no pics of the showering ceremony). Ladies around me didn’t find this odd at all and no one tried stopping the poor bawling bride. In fact, I could overhear stories of women boasting about how they cried louder, or “almost fainted”, when it was their turn! And mind you, this continued before EVERY SINGLE FUNCTION until the wedding, and then there was the bidaai which was even more disturbing to watch.

So I tried asking everyone why is crying so important for the bride. No one could answer reasonably. And I was convinced that just like any regular Indian tradition, the original reason for the tradition has been twisted manifold over the years, and no one now knows what the actual reason is anymore! But one of the more sensible friend of mine offered the argument that maybe (and I kinda like the sound of it) the crying tradition began as a means of catharsis to allow the bride to enter her new life with a clean slate. What d’you think?

Ok, now back to the wedding…

 

Mehendi ceremony:

Cousin sisters and neighbors of the bride moonlighting as mehendi artistes, and doing a very good job at it! Also note here, the bride didn't wear a single new piece of clothing until the main wedding function (which is also a part of the many Gaddi beliefs)
Cousin sisters and neighbors of the bride moonlighting as mehendi artistes, and doing a very good job at it! Also note here, the bride didn’t wear a single new piece of clothing until the main wedding function (which is also a part of the many Gaddi beliefs)

 

Happy kids with happy painted hands!
Happy kids with happy hands!

 

Dulhan ki Sakhiyaan
Dulhan ki Sakhiyaan

 

Day 1: Mehendi - Done and done!
Day 1: Mehendi – Done and done!

 

Haldi…

Day 2: Haldi ceremony during the day. While the tiny house was choker-blocked with more guests than it could practically accommodate, panditji came in the initiate the haldi preparations. He collected all the havan samagri, hand-decorated the place with powdered inscriptions, and ordered for the bride to be brought down for the ceremony.
Day 2: Haldi ceremony during the day.
While the tiny house was choker-blocked with more guests than it could practically accommodate, panditji came in the initiate the haldi preparations. He collected all the havan samagri, hand-decorated the place with powdered inscriptions, and ordered for the bride to be brought down for the ceremony.

 

When I went to pass the message to the bride, she was happily chatting with her cousins, but like I knew would happen - the moment she heard that she has been called - she started crying again. Her friend helped her put on the traditional luan-chhari (which was passed down from the brides grandmother), and we took the crying, bawling bride to the puja.
When I went to pass the message to the bride, she was happily chatting with her cousins, but like I knew would happen – the moment she heard that she has been called – she started crying again. Her friend helped her put on the traditional luan-chhari (the gown) – which was passed down from the brides grandmother – and we took the crying, bawling bride to the puja.

 

The puja to initiate the haldi ceremony
The puja to initiate the haldi ceremony

 

Haldi is an important ceremony in our tradition, wherein the bride (and the groom over at his place) are caked with turmeric paste on their bodies. This helps add a tinge of pre-wedding glow to the stars in focus!
Haldi is an important ceremony in our tradition, wherein the bride (and the groom over at his place) are caked with turmeric paste on their bodies. This helps add a tinge of pre-wedding glow to the stars of the moment!

 

The haldi ceremony was about an hour long, and my heart went out to the bride who kept crying throughout! At one point, a lady actually came next to her and asked her to stop by saying "Itna kaafi hai" (This much is enough) I was like WHAAAA?
The haldi ceremony was about an hour long, and my heart went out to the bride who kept crying throughout! At one point, a lady actually came next to her and asked her to stop by saying “Itna kaafi hai” (This much is enough) I was like WHAAAA?

 

Preparing for the feast!

While the haldi ceremony was happening inside, the men of the household were busy in the verandah, chopping and cooking for the big evening feast! I found this so fascinating, as all the women at this moment were, well, you'll see in the next picture.
While the haldi ceremony was happening inside, the men of the household were busy in the verandah, chopping and cooking for the big evening feast! I found this so fascinating, as all the women at this moment were, well, you’ll know soon.

 

Work work work work work...
Work work work work work…

 

Some women helped!
Some women helped!

 

This sight made me so happy...but not as happy as the next...
This sight made me so happy…but not as happy as the next…

 

Ladies party!

So, as I was saying, while the men worked and chopped and stirred the kadhais for the evening feast - the women sat in the balcony upstairs, drinking whiskey with chhole! Oh yeah!
So, as I was saying, while the men worked and chopped and stirred the kadhais for the evening feast – the women sat in the balcony upstairs, drinking whiskey with chhole! Oh yeah!

 

You go, girls (Um, ladies)!

 

The super pyaari (and only person who was supposed to be dressed up) maami-ji!
The super pyaari (and only person who was supposed to be dressed up) maami-ji!

 

Day 2: Ladies party

 

I told you there was no space!

 

Dhaam, Baaja, Baraat!

Day 2: Dhaam, Baaja, Baraat! The mandap is up, the food is ready, the baraat is enroute, and we're all set for the wedding to commence!
Day 2: Dhaam, Baaja, Baraat!
The mandap is up, the food is ready, the baraat is enroute, and we’re all set for the wedding to commence!

 

Preparing welcome snacks for the baraatis!
This is exactly 5 minutes before the wedding started. Everyone is busy making welcome snacks for the baraatis who will be tired after dancing their way up the mountain!

 

Swagat nahi karenge humara?

Oh, I had to look twice to make sure I was right. Yes, the groom is dressed with lightning from head to toe. Quite a sight, I must say! The stupid halogen light killed my thunder and I just couldn't get a shot of the heavily lighted attire!
The groom arrives! Oh, I had to look twice to make sure I was right. Yes, the groom is literally covered with trippy lights from head to toe. Quite a sight, I must say! The stupid halogen light killed my thunder and I just couldn’t get a shot of the heavily lighted attire! PS: He also had nail-polish on his feet and mehendi on his palms!

 

Would you look at that gorgeous, gorgeous outfit? Yes, it's a kurta with an embroidered ghaghra / skirt, and a beautiful sehra / headdress!

Would you look at that gorgeous, gorgeous outfit? Yes, it’s a shirt with an embroidered ghaghra / skirt, and a beautiful sehra / headdress!

 

Sister of the bride performing the rituals with the groom. The bride is sitting with her friends in a different room at this time.
Sister of the bride performing the rituals with the groom. The bride is sitting with her friends in a different room at this time.

 

So at this time, while the ceremony was taking place downstairs, I went to check how the bride is doing. And my first reaction was, why is she not dressing up!!! At any other Indian wedding (atleast the ones in our cities), the bride starts dressing hours in advance, and by this time is already too tired of the makeup and jewelry. Well, not in this one. This is exactly how the bride walked to her wedding. Isn't that amazing!
So at this time, while the ceremony was taking place downstairs, I went to check how the bride is doing. And my first reaction was, why is she not dressing up!!! At any other Indian wedding (atleast the ones in our cities), the bride starts dressing hours in advance, and by this time is already too tired of the makeup and jewelry. Well, not in this one. This is exactly how the bride walked to her wedding. Isn’t that amazing!

 

And well, while the groom is in the mandap, and the bride is busy waiting for her turn to be called in, of course everyone else was busy hogging on the delicious homecooked dhaam / feast!
And well, while the groom is in the mandap, and the bride is busy waiting for her turn to be called in, of course everyone else was busy hogging on the delicious home-cooked dhaam / feast!

 

The bride was finally called to join the party, and it was a good thing her face was covered, because, guess what, she was crying all through the ceremony! The panditji actually had to keep up to be louder than her.
The bride was finally called to join the party, and it was a good thing her face was covered, because, guess what, she was crying all through the ceremony! The panditji actually had to keep up to be louder than her.

 

Bidaai…

Goodbye's are always the hardest, and this was no different! It was nice to see the entire village come together to say goodbye to Minni Di, but it was equally heartbreaking to know that she won't be around the next time I'm visiting.
Goodbye’s are always the hardest, and this was no different! It was nice to see the entire village come together to say goodbye to Minni Di, but it was equally heartbreaking to know that she won’t be around the next time I’m visiting.

 

This picture speaks for itself.
This picture speaks for itself.

 

By this time I was hoping this should be the last time I see this woman cry!
By this time I was hoping this should be the last time I see this woman cry!

 

And it actually came true! Minni Di's doli left the village 15 minutes before we did, and by the time we reached the caravan, she was surrounded by all her friends, smiling and looking so happy, for the first time in the last 3 days!!!!
And it actually came true! Minni Di’s doli left the village 15 minutes before we did, and by the time we reached the caravan, she was surrounded by all her friends, smiling and looking so happy, for the first time in the last 3 days!!!!

 

And so was everyone else!
And so was everyone else!

 

Over at the grooms’…

As is tradition, some members of the brides family accompany the procession back to the grooms and join the festivities there!
As is tradition, some members of the brides family accompany the procession back to the grooms and join the festivities there!

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Back at the grooms house, Minni Di was welcomed with another ceremony, another feast, lots and lots of dancing, and no more crying!
Back at the grooms house, Minni Di was welcomed with another ceremony, another feast, lots and lots of dancing, and no more crying!

 

 

Laada-Laadi! <3

Laada Laadi (Husband-Wife) - Never crying again! :)
To the happy couple, for a happily ever after 🙂

 

PS: I thought I should add that this is a love-marriage. So please don’t think that she’s crying because she was forced to marry someone she didn’t approve of!

Also, this post is nothing but my observation of a Gaddi wedding, as a total outsider, and someone who was witnessing the culture for the first time. So if I have made some errors, feel free to write to me and I’ll be happy to edit (and learn!)

 

Shubho Mahalaya ~ Spirit of Durga Pujo!

Shubho Mahalaya! Picture taken at Komurtulli - the place where all the Pujo magic is created!
Shubho Mahalaya! Picture taken at Komurtulli – the place where all the Pujo magic is created!

I love grand festivals, and I cannot lie!

It’s true! As much as I once complained about water balloons and air pollution and goat sacrifice, I have now realized how festivals, when celebrated in the right spirit, are just another reason to have fun! Laugh a little, know your neighbors, forget about your work stress, dance with strangers on the street! And you know what’s more important about festivals? How they can become the reason someone falls in love with a city!

Hate the traffic all you want, but you can’t deny how joyous Mumbai is around Ganesh Chaturthi or Navratri. I visited Vrindavan during Holi this year, and even while I continue to hate being colored by known AND unknown people alike, I will count it as one of my top travel experiences. And you know another such great city-festival match made in heaven? Durga Pujo in Kolkata!

Now, I have visited Kolkata several times over the last few years, and not once did I enjoy it as much as I did over the 4 days of Pujo 2015! The city is alive, every face is lit up with a smile, every stranger has a greeting and every step has a bounce. Pandals go all out, not just with decorations and festivities, but also educational and environmentally friendly themes. In fact, ironic as it is, even while a vague attempt is visible at maintaining the religious motive of the festival, worship is the last thing on anyone’s mind. People are out there with their families, dressed up to the T, enjoying the lavish feast laid out at every pandal, dancing to the music, feasting their eyes to how colorful and vibrant the city is. Pujo in Kolkata is more a community gathering than a religious celebration.

And above all, what I loved about Pujo in Kolkata, the symbolism attributed to every idol of the imitable Goddess. 4 days of celebrating Durga as a mother of Saraswati (nowhere else do you see this), Durga as a warrior defeating the demon Mahishasura (Thus earning the title of Mahishasura Mardini), Durga as a daughter returning to her homeland for the autumn break, and Durga as our dearest motherland, basking in the glorious cries of Bandemataram (Hail Mother)!

I saved these pictures for all of last year, waiting to feel a little nostalgic while browsing through them, waiting for the start of Pujo 2016, waiting for Kolkata, and the rest of India, to welcome Mahisasuramardini once again! And today it is, Shubho Mahalaya everyone! 😀

 

Just chilling!
Just chilling!

 

A potters workshop in Komurtuli!
A potters workshop in Komurtulli!

 

A potters workshop in Komurtuli!

 

A potters workshop in Komurtulli!

 

In the making!
In the making!

 

A potter at work in his workshop at Komurtulli!
A potter at work in his workshop at Komurtulli!

 

A lady sitting on the street, making idols for Pujo!A lady sitting on the street, making idols for Pujo!

 

Adorning the palms of the Goddess with some traditional kumkum.
Adorning the palms of the Goddess with some traditional kumkum.

 

Painting the idol, one step at a time!
Painting the idol, one step at a time!

 

Multi-tasking is definitely one of the many powers!
Multi-tasking is definitely one of the many powers!

 

Finishing touches to the idol!
Finishing touches to the idol!

 

WIP at a potters workshop in Komurtulli!
WIP at a potters workshop in Komurtulli!

 

Artists taking a power-nap after a tough day at work!
Artists taking a power-nap after a tough day at work!

 

Customers taking their idols back home from the workshops!
Customers taking their idols back home from the workshops!

 

A pandit performing the traditional inititation puja on the first day after istallation of the idol at the temple!
A pandit performing the traditional initiation puja on the first day after installation of the idol at the temple!

 

You've gotta love the sarees, and you've gotta love 'em all!
You’ve gotta love the sarees, and you’ve gotta love ’em all!

 

The festival when everything is up and alive in Kolkata!
The festival when everything is up and alive in Kolkata!

 

A glorious idols of Durga at one of the pandals in Kolkata!
A glorious idols of Durga at one of the pandals in Kolkata!

 

A glorious idol of Goddess Durga at one of the pandals in Kolkata!
A glorious idol of Goddess Durga at one of the pandals in Kolkata!

 

Bright, colorful and full of life - one of my favorite idols from Durga Pujo 2015!
Bright, colorful and full of life – one of my favorite idols from Durga Pujo 2015!

 

The eyes that do all the magic! Shubho Mahalaya, yougaiz!
The eyes that work all the magic! Shubho Mahalaya, yougaiz!

 

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Unforgettable memories from magical Kerala!

From peaceful getaways to adventurous haunts - Kerala has something for every kind of traveler! PC: Patricia Schussel Gomes
From peaceful getaways to adventurous haunts – Kerala has something for every kind of traveler! PC: Patricia Schussel Gomes

I am writing this article while combating severe flashback scenarios taking me back to my two weeks in Kerala, back in February 2016 – which were nothing short of a fairytale! When I signed up to participate in Kerala Blog Express 3, I only expected an all-sponsored trip to the state that I had seen only through Mani Ratnam’s eyes, but what I received in Kerala was so much more! I was the only Indian on the trip, and traveling in your own country with 29 international bloggers hailing from 24 nationalities, each curious and some absolutely clueless about your culture – is an experience words cannot describe!

So, flashback to 15th February 2016 – when 30 strangers from 25 countries set upon one epic road-trip, to a strange land in a strange continent, to the world’s biggest democracy, with nothing in common but an intense craving for adventure – and the rest, as they say, is history! Here are my top 10 unforgettable memories from this amazing adventure:

  • The traditional welcome we received at every resort
Dancing to the beats of the Theyyam artist welcoming us at Vythiri resort, alongside Betty and Patricia! PC: Jinson Abraham
Dancing to the beats of the Theyyam artist welcoming us at Vythiri resort, alongside Betty and Patricia! PC: Jinson Abraham

It all began at the official press-conference where we were swarmed by the paparazzi – it was a teaser of the two weeks to come. And sure enough, the Kerala Blog Express made each and every one of us feel so special at every step of the journey. Every resort we stepped into, would have a red carpet laid out just for us, with traditional aarti, live drums, traditional dance and welcome drinks (coconut water, obviously)! By the end of the trip we were so used to this royal treatment that when I returned to Mumbai, I was a tad disappointed at the sheer lack of recognition from the airport authorities! Let me show them my Instagram…

  • Our very own luxury floating house
Cruising over the famous Alleppey backwaters in Kerala. PC - Jinson Abraham
Cruising over the famous Alleppey backwaters in Kerala. PC – Jinson Abraham

I don’t know who (and why!) named those gorgeous waterbodies “backwaters” (it just sounds so wrong!) But I’ll stick to the common term. The famous Kerala backwaters – easily the crown jewel of the state! The one experience I was most curious AND skeptical about – because once any place is too famous, it usually ends up as a disappointment as it never matches up to the high expectations. But not true in this case. We stayed on a luxury houseboat owned by Spice Routes at the Alleppey Backwaters, and that one evening was easily the most peaceful sleep I had throughout the trip!

  • Village experience in Kumarakom
Learning traditional mat making as part of the Village Experience at Kumarakom, Kerala. PC: Jinson Abraham
Learning traditional mat making as part of the Village Experience at Kumarakom, Kerala. PC: Jinson Abraham

My blog, Untravel, is all about off-beat travel and learning a little from every place I visit. And so, our little village life experience in Kumarakom had me jumping around with joy like a little kid at the candy store! I volunteered to do every activity, including climbing a palm tree, and while I failed miserably at choir making (thrice!), I’m proud that Amma passed me in my mat-making tutorial! She didn’t speak much hindi, but she told the organizers in Malayalam – “She’s good. Let her stay here with me!” Mission accomplished, I’d say!

  • Kayaking on the Kumarakom backwaters
Kayaking over the gorgeous Kerala backwaters in Kumarakom. PC: Jinson Abraham
Kayaking over the gorgeous Kerala backwaters in Kumarakom. PC: Jinson Abraham

While kayaking can be fun no matter where you choose to do it, I would highly recommend doing it at Kumarakom backwaters! Kerala is so breathtakingly beautiful in so many ways, kayaking in Kumarakom was another gentle reminder of the same. As we made our way through the picturesque water alleys, we were greeted by locals residing by the banks of these canals, just as the sun blazed an amazing red getting ready for sundown! The canals was choker-blocked with waterplants for most parts, and while that does make kayaking here a little difficult as you have to really use all your strength to wade through the heavy roots, it also makes it all the more memorable!

  • Planting a tree in Thekkady
My mitti tree being planted at Greenwoods Resort! PC: Betty TravelsMy mitti tree being planted at Greenwoods Resort! PC: Betty Travels
My mitti tree being planted at Greenwoods Resort! PC: Betty TravelsMy mitti tree being planted at Greenwoods Resort! PC: Betty Travels

How many places can claim of keeping a part of you even after you’ve said your goodbyes? Thekkady does now, because the lovely folks at Greenwoods Resort got us to plant a sapling, which they will name after us. This way, any time I return to Thekkady, I can go check how my lovely “mitti” tree is doing!

  • Seeing elephants in the wild!
No caption needed! PC: Jinson Abraham
No caption needed! PC: Jinson Abraham

Strangely, the day I entered into an argument with the organizers about using an elephant to welcome us at a resort, also turned out to be the day when I saw one happy family of elephants in the wild! OH YEAH! BEST THING EVER! I also saw a wild boar, deer, several exotic birds and a bison! All while we cruised in our boat over the manmade lake in Periyar Wildlife Sanctuary!

  • Meditation and camping amidst the tea-gardens of Munnar
Our beautiful campsite in Munnar! PC: Jinson Abraham
Our beautiful campsite in Munnar! PC: Jinson Abraham

Being a mountain child at heart, I was delighted to be back in familiar territory when we reached our campsite in Munnar. Cozily tucked amidst lush green tea-gardens with a mesmerizing view of the western ghats, our campsite was a scene right out of a dream. I thoroughly enjoyed catching the sunset away from the crowd with two fellow-bloggers. It was so serene and calm, we just sat there admiring the beautiful landscape, opening our hearts to different sounds of nature.

  • Winning the lucky draw to Pranavam Homestay
All heart at Pranavam homestay! PC: Betty Travels
All heart at Pranavam homestay! PC: Betty Travels

Ah, yes, that had to happen! Anyone who has read my blog will know how I prefer homestays over any other accommodations, and as much as I was enjoying the unfathomable luxury of the many resorts we were staying at during this trip, I was way out of my comfort zone! And luckily for me, I won the lucky draw (yes, we picked chits) to win a stay at the only homestay that was a part of our itinerary – Pranavam Homestay in Pozhuthana, Wayanad! I had the greatest time in the company of our affable hosts – Mr. Ravichandran, Rema Amma and Anwer – as we discussed politics, our families, local stories, their royal connections, India’s partition and Ravi-ettan’s Gandhian principles! Homestays are meant to offer a home away from home, and that’s exactly what Pranavam will do for you!

  • Appreciation of traditional arts at Kerala Kalamandalam
Lost in the beauty of traditional South Indian dance forms! PC: Jinson Abraham
Lost in the beauty of traditional South Indian dance forms! PC: Jinson Abraham

You think of South India, you think of classical dance! And so, when we visited the Kerala Kalamandalam in Kochi, the only government authorized arts preservation/promotion university in the state, I was excited like a little kid in a candy store! I remember how famished I was because we had not had lunch, there was no water or fan / AC, but that didn’t stop me from running around with my camera! We saw demonstrations of some of the best Indian classical dance acts like the best of South Indian dance forms like Kathakali, Mohiniyattom, Kudiyattom, Kuchipudi, Shiva Vandana, Bharat Natyam, among others!

  • The paparazzi and the celebrities
Don't we look like a gang? ;) We sure were difficult to avoid! PC: Jinson Abraham
Don’t we look like a gang? 😉 We sure were difficult to avoid! PC: Jinson Abraham

Last but not the least, in fact the most important of them all – THE EXPRESS! Like I said before, and I can’t emphasize enough, the experience of traveling with bloggers from across the globe is what truly made this trip one to be remembered for a lifetime! It’s amusing how we were the paparazzi as well as the celebrities on this trip. While we were the most excited about capturing every moment with our cameras; everyone else – from locals on the street to hotel staff to the media itself – seemed equally excited about getting us on camera! I’ll give all credit for this attention to our super-attractive bus that got all heads turning no matter where we went. We started this trip as 30 strangers and left as 30 friends. Rest assured, our love for travel will ensure we do cross paths very soon…after all, this world is a little too small for people with restless feet!

 

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The simpler life – What living in the mountains teaches you!

A year of living in Himachal = hell lot of time for self-reflection and introspection! PC: Fatima Sana Shaikh
A year of living in Himachal = hell lot of time for self-reflection and introspection!
PC: Fatima Sana Shaikh

Most of you are probably tired of hearing about how I quit my job to move to the mountains. I’m not going to bore you with the same old talk again! The inspiration behind this post today, as Facebook memories has gently alerted me: I complete 1 year of living in Dharamsala, and 2 yrs since the day I first came here as a tourist. DOUBLE YAY!

I often receive emails and messages from curious readers, listing a hundred how’s and why’s about my new-found lifestyle. (I have answered the “how” in this post last year: How traveling made me an entrepreneur!)

Now about the why… I usually just avoid most of such messages, not because I don’t want to answer them, but because living in the mountains is more than anything I could explain with a 160 character limit. And like everything else in this world that’s worth its while, this lifestyle that looks all rosy and happy on the exterior, doesn’t come without its own set of challenges. However, today being the anniversary to my renewed happy state of being, I thought I should try and share why (for me) living in the mountains is no longer a matter of choice! At the risk of sounding pompous, I do hope this inspires at least someone to quit the rat race of the urban space for the allure of a simpler life!

 

What I’ve learned from my short blessed time in Dharamsala!

  1. Your work is not your life!
Stop running. Stop thinking so much. Just stop. Make time for things that matter!
Stop running. Stop thinking so much. Just stop. Make time for things that matter! PC: Fatima Sana Shaikh

I can’t emphasize this enough! When you’re raised in a metropolitan like Mumbai, every decision of your life, whether intentional or not, is about that perfect career! And in order to achieve that, you’re always on the run – a race, where you always want to win! So brainwashed are we by this glorified everyday grind, we seldom realize how far behind we lost our peace of mind. In fact, even the slavery becomes a competition – who stayed back in office after working hours, what a hardworking person!

Living in the mountains away from the infrastructural luxuries of the city made me take that blind-fold off! Your work is just a part of your life, it doesn’t define you, IT ISN’T YOUR LIFE! Sure, you have a job, who doesn’t? But that’s not why, or what, you are about! The freedom we boast of in our city lives is the most superficial invention of mankind. We take pride in being free, while in reality – we are tied down at every step of the way to the very lifestyle we believe is a mark of our freedom. Next time you’re introducing yourself to a stranger, try not including your resume in it, and notice how that makes you feel about yourself 🙂

 

  1. Value conversations
There's always time for a chai-time chat!
There’s always time for a chai-time chat! PC: Fatima Sana Shaikh

My friends here are my mirror to reality, to life beyond the superficial. They don’t care about which client has signed my agency, or what I’m blogging about. How many followers I have on twitter, or how many likes do my posts get on instagram. Trust me, a few of them don’t even know what twitter/Instagram/facebook is, and I had to convince some to join Whatsapp.

It’s amazing to be around people who hang out with you for you. Conversations form the base of every relation here. People invite you over for chai, not because you’re someone special, but just because it’s a cold evening and aunty feels like talking. They’re as curious and fascinated about you as you are about them. Whether it’s strangers on the bus, or acquaintances at a café – people always have time to talk, and that’s a beautiful quality which is slowly dying in the cities!

 

  1. Silence is beautiful
Silence speaks louder than words, it's true!
Silence speaks louder than words, it’s true! PC: Kieran Woodford

If first impressions really were last, I don’t think I could have survived life here! Noisy streets, traffic torture, loud music – you can’t take these away from any city. From there to complete, absolute, impenetrable silence of my humble abode tucked away in the middle of wilderness – that’s a transformation one can never prepare for. In my initial few weeks, I found the silence so jarring, I would play music on my phone, all day long, even while I was sleeping, just to have something going on. 4 months later, I left a perfectly comfortable house, village actually, and shifted to a place far away even from tiniest influence of tourists – just because there was construction nearby and I couldn’t tolerate the noise of stones being hammered. That’s how addictive the company of silence can be, and once you’re smitten, there’s no turning back!

 

  1. Nature is an addictive companion
Home - Himnoor - my little piece of heaven!
Home – Himnoor – my little piece of heaven! PC: Abhinav Chandel

I live in a mudhouse that has no brick or metal in its foundation (except in the washroom). A house that I have to mop with cowdung every fortnight to save it from falling apart! Our garbage is divided into wet and dry waste, the former is used as compost, latter is buried or burned (no other option). The water I drink comes from a mountain stream nearby. The milk comes from my neighbors cow. My meals almost always have home-grown veggies. The most regular visitors in my house are exotic moths, lizards, scorpions, rats – which also attract our neighbors cat – trust me, it’s a mad house! Getting my hands dirty in the farm is far more satisfying than any promotion / appreciation I have received in the past! My room is surrounded by so much greenery, someone smoking a cigarette would feel like air pollution.  When my aunt from Bombay came to visit me last month, her first reaction was “why the hell are you living in this jungle?” I took that as a compliment and smiled the biggest smile! Living in such close proximity to different elements of nature is addictive, a habit that teaches you how much we complicate our lives in the city, a healthier, happier addiction!

 

  1. Inspiration beats competition!
Volunteering with the lovely folks at Waste Warriors. The NGO takes volunteers for weekly clean-up treks to the most popular (and hence contaminated) places in Dharamsala.
Volunteering with the lovely folks at Waste Warriors. The NGO takes volunteers for weekly clean-up treks to the most popular (and hence contaminated) places in Dharamsala.

I always looked up to starlets and celebrities, my bosses and managers, my friends who were doing remarkably in their line of work. It was only when I moved here that I realized how shallow I was. I was taking inspiration from people I’d like to be one day, people I’d like to compete with – be that successful, that rich, that famous. When I moved here, I felt very proud of myself, I was breaking barriers, doing something no one in my circle had. And here, I saw reverse migration is huge and it’s incredible! They might not be huge in numbers, but the ideas these city runaways are trying to sow, will truly be a path-breaking one day! There are local women who were earlier victims of domestic violence and are now winning national awards for slapping patriarchy in the face, techies setting up camps here to make local lives easier with renewable power and recycled materials, westerners starting day schools and mesh for kids of construction workers, youngsters setting up libraries in the remotest villages of Leh-Ladakh, one school at a time! I’ve had the honor of meeting such incredibly inspiring souls, devoted with all their heart to making a difference, bringing a change – not because they’re getting paid to do it!

 

 

Challenges

  1. Pav bhaji and Kheema pav – Dharamsala has no pav and even after 2 years, that’s one thing I can’t forgive or forget!
  2. High-speed internet – Can’t do with, can’t do without. Fortunately or unfortunately, my work depends on the mercy of the internet Gods, and Devbhumi is quite weak in granted those signals!
  3. Auto rickshaws – When you have to pay 150 bucks for a mere 2km distance, you know you miss your Bombay rickshaw walas!
  4. Movies – Throw a girl from the Bollywood city, into a place that has no movie theatre. Not a single one! You have no idea how much that hurts.
  5. Family & friends – All the challenges mentioned above might be super materialistic, but that’s because life in Mumbai feels just that now! Perhaps the only true connection I feel to the city now is my family & friends!

 

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Photographing nostalgia – The bylanes of Agra that were my childhood!

Ghar, galiyaan aur yaadein! (Behind the camera: Manan Kashyap)

I look on. Beyond the twisted lanes, cluttered brick houses and blocked pipelines. I look on to tales of my childhood that bloomed in this very place…Agra! An identity I always tried running away from, not realizing how much a part of me it is. As I look around today, it all looks so new, and yet, exactly the same! How can that be?

Is it possible that the universal reality of time is somehow not applicable to this part of the world, of my world? How can it be that nothing here has changed, as if I were playing in these lanes just yesterday, but no, it sure has been 15 odd years. Really, has it? HOW!

Some faces I can’t recognize, but they know me. They say I have played in their home as a kid, did I? Where is your home, can I go with you? I remember this room where I now sit scribbling my random musings, it belonged to my grandfather. I stopped visiting Agra after he left us, but seeing his room today makes him feel alive, like he’s still here. Funny how that works, I don’t remember the last time I remembered him so clearly!

Tring Tring! I’ve heard that sound before. OH WAIT! I run to the gate, Divya realizes it too. She runs after me. Is it what we think it is? We want candy!

Which reminds me, this is where I fell from a cycle once. It was Shaina’s older brother’s big cycle, I had a little crush on him even as a kid. A part of me used the cycling lessons as a reason to stick around, strange how I can’t even remember his face anymore. Shaina. She used to be my closest bestest friend, and I just never tried staying in touch. How silly is that? Why do we take our childhood friendships so lightly?

My grandmother is so excited, she stands by the gate, telling everyone who will listen “Yeh Renu ki chhoti beti aayi hai. Haan, badi ho gayi. Yeh events mein kaam karti hai” I don’t really work in events, but it doesn’t matter what I do. I smile, say a salaam, and let them tell me tales of my childhood.

This was my first trip to Agra as a traveler. This was also the first time I fell in love with Agra for everything it is and is not! Traveling has changed me at so many levels – the places, the people, the locations I always dismissed and disregarded – today I can’t be more grateful for their presence in my life, even while I have been absent in theirs. These are the people who loved me when I was no one, these are the people who will love me when I will be no one, and this is the first time I am learning to appreciate the value of people in my life – both family and extended. I am being invited to chai and dinners. Let’s go visit Khushbu’s house? Why don’t you wait for Aarif bhai. Nazmeen baaji will be happy to see you, why don’t you wait?! Shaina-Sheeba are at home, why don’t you go meet them? Until today, I didn’t even remember any of these folks, and look at them now, trying to make me happy. And what for? What do they get out of it?

That’s the point, not everything should be done with a selfish motive – and this is one lesson I will take back with me from here!

Come, take a walk, quite literally down the memory lane, where my childhood blossomed, and is somewhere still alive! A lot might have changed as the photos are captured now, but the stories  and memories they inspire and rekindle, shall, inshallah, remain!

Nanaji ka kamra! My happy place, from where I remember seeing the world before me!
Nanaji ka kamra! My happy place, from where I remember seeing the world before me! (Behind the camera – Devanjali Sarkar)

 

If you haven't tried the sugar candy in North India, you haven't done it all! I remember getting all kinds of fancy designs made for myself as a kid, sometimes roaming around with 4-5 sugar candies made on my arms and wrists.
If you haven’t tried the sugar candy in North India, you haven’t done it all! I remember getting all kinds of fancy designs made for myself as a kid, sometimes roaming around with 4-5 sugar candies made on my arms and wrists.

 

Bachpan! What a beatiful time :)
Bachpan! What a beatiful time 🙂

 

Growing up, I would always be annoyed with my mother's habit of NEVER shutting the door. This time in Agra, I understood why. People here never close their doors. Chaukhat talks are a thing, and to be honest, they are beautiful! The way my naani speaks to every passer-by just from the door, I never realized how much my Mom should miss that - noone has time for chaukhat talks in Mumbai.
Growing up, I would always be annoyed with my mother’s habit of NEVER shutting the door. This time in Agra, I understood why. People here never close their doors. Chaukhat talks are a thing, and to be honest, they are beautiful! The way my naani speaks to every passer-by just from the door, I never realized how much my Mom should miss that – noone has time for chaukhat talks in Mumbai.

 

This was my second home. I would spend hours here with Khimiya naani, helping her make papadom's, which she would later sell in the market. Khimiya naani is no more, and so is her house.
This was my second home. I would spend hours here with Khimiya naani, helping her make papadom’s, which she would later sell in the market. Khimiya naani is no more, and so is her house.

 

My childhood bestie, now married with 2 kids. How far we both have come, become!
My childhood bestie, now married with 2 kids. How far we both have come, become!

 

Little joys of living in small towns - when all things you love reach you at your doorstep! So fascinated was I by this profession, I remember once spending all my saved money on buying chips, and setting shop outside my naana's room. Boy, was I yelled at later for doing that!
Little joys of living in small towns – when all things you love reach you at your doorstep! So fascinated was I by this profession, I remember once spending all my saved money on buying chips, and setting shop outside my naana’s room. Boy, was I yelled at later for doing that!

 

Shumaila ka ghar! Though she was only a tenant, if there is a face from my childhood I very very clearly remember, it will be hers. She doesn't live here anymore, and naani didn't know her whereabouts, but I'm sure she's well wherever she is! :)
Shumaila ka ghar! Though she was only a tenant, if there is a face from my childhood I very very clearly remember, it will be hers. She doesn’t live here anymore, and naani didn’t know her whereabouts, but I’m sure she’s well wherever she is! 🙂

 

And I finally put an end to my endless love-hate rant about the TAJ! When you ave to visit the same monument, twice every year, it no longer is a world heritage for you. I have grown up telling people who overrated the Taj Mahal is, but a part of me always wanted to return, and that's another bucketlist check!
And I finally put an end to my endless love-hate rant about the TAJ! When you ave to visit the same monument, twice every year, it no longer is a world heritage for you. I have grown up telling people who overrated the Taj Mahal is, but a part of me always wanted to return, and that’s another bucketlist check!

 

Happiness is going through your childhood moments with good friends by your side! In this picture, Manan and Divya remind me of Saifeena from Kurbaan! :)
Happiness is going through your childhood moments with good friends by your side! In this picture, Manan and Divya remind me of Saifeena from Kurbaan! 🙂

Holi – much more than gulaal for these Vrindavan widows!

Colors, flowers and SMILES! - What my Holi was like!
Colors, flowers and SMILES! – What my Holi was like!

HOLIDAY!!!!, is what Holi meant to me for all these past years. For others, it meant colors, pichkaari, water balloons, pool party, lots of dance (and bhaang)! But one Holi spent in Vrindavan, has changed my perception about the “festival of colors” altogether!

What is a festival of colors in other parts of India, is a festival of love in Mathura-Vrindavan! Here, the festival is celebrated for more than two weeks, in the memory of the eternal love of Radha-Krishna! This is evident in the way the locals celebrate the festival with so much love and adoration for the divine couple. Radhe-Radhe greetings greet you everywhere you go, sweet bhajans rise from every temple that reach your ears like a beautiful medley, people hugging each other, even strangers, and applying gulaal (without being creepy / lecherous), flocks of devotees walking from temple to temple with nothing but Krishan bhakti on their mind, the water of Yamuna and the winds of the land of Radha-Krishna dance along, as if watching and admiring this festive gathering!

This year, I broke the tradition of hiding in my house on Holi, with more than 1000 Vrindavan widows, who were themselves breaking every myth and tradition imposed upon them by the society! In a spectacular gesture by the NGO Sulabh International, this was the first time these widows celebrated Holi with colors and flowers, within the premises of a temple – and what a celebration it was! Watching these women smile, many of whom were disowned by their own families after the death of their husband…watching them dance, play, enjoy, be FREE…I can’t find the right words to explain that feeling! Many of these widows have spent all their life here, away from their family, only living one day at a time, the life they have now devoted to Lord Krishna – and today, it’s Holi, the celebration of Radha’s love for Krishna ji, and you see a Radha in each of them, all Radha’s dancing to the tunes of the flute of Krishna, like in a trance! I will stop trying to describe something that just can’t be, and leave you with a few pics that try to reflect what the festival of love in Vrindavan is all about!

Flower and Gulaal Holi for Vrindavan widows at Shri Radha Gopinath Temple, Vrindavan!

 

Vrindavan widows celebrating Holi at Shri Radha Gopinath Temple, Vrindavan!

Vrindavan widows celebrating Holi at Shri Radha Gopinath Temple, Vrindavan!

 

Vrindavan widows celebrating Holi at Shri Radha Gopinath Temple, Vrindavan!

 

Vrindavan widows celebrating Holi at Shri Radha Gopinath Temple, Vrindavan!

 

Vrindavan widows celebrating Holi at Shri Radha Gopinath Temple, Vrindavan!

 

Vrindavan widows celebrating Holi at Shri Radha Gopinath Temple, Vrindavan!

 

Vrindavan widows celebrating Holi at Shri Radha Gopinath Temple, Vrindavan!

 

Vrindavan widows celebrating Holi at Shri Radha Gopinath Temple, Vrindavan!

 

Vrindavan widows celebrating Holi at Shri Radha Gopinath Temple, Vrindavan!

 

Vrindavan widows celebrating Holi at Shri Radha Gopinath Temple, Vrindavan!

 

Vrindavan Holi at Shri Radha Gopinath Temple, Vrindavan

 

Vrindavan widows celebrating Holi at Shri Radha Gopinath Temple, Vrindavan!

 

Vrindavan widows celebrating Holi at Shri Radha Gopinath Temple, Vrindavan!

 

Vrindavan widows celebrating Holi at Shri Radha Gopinath Temple, Vrindavan!

 

Vrindavan widows celebrating Holi at Shri Radha Gopinath Temple, Vrindavan!

 

Vrindavan widows celebrating Holi at Shri Radha Gopinath Temple, Vrindavan!

The best part about the day was how the entire village joined in the celebrations, from kids to families, they were all there, taking blessings from all the women!
The best part about the day was how the entire village joined in the celebrations, from kids to families, they were all there, taking blessings from all the women!

 

There's a Radha in all of us, and everyone is Krishna! :)
There’s a Radha in all of us, and everyone is Krishna! 🙂

 

This is my favorite memory from the day. When I took this picture, the kids hugged the women and they said “yeh mera pota hai (this is my Grand-Son”. After I walked away, I asked the kids if she was their Grand-Mom and they said no, but they let her say this because it makes her happy. While this would make some people sad, it made me happy, because even while their own family has disowned these widows, there are some people who are trying to bring a smile back in their lives!

 

PS: Keep our travel trail clean. Don’t litter, motivate your friends to do the same!

The best Luxury Resorts in Kerala for the perfect honeymoon!

I’m back to Dharamsala after a roller-coaster ride that was the Kerala Blog Express 2016 – an all-sponsored trip across God’s Own Country – promoted and organized by Kerala Tourism for selected travel writers! I have so many stories to share, but I’d like to begin by this recommendation, which was the sole thought that kept raging in my head throughout – I wish this was a couples’ retreat.

Kerala is just so breathtakingly stunning, dreamy and romantic!!! If you’re getting married this year (or not!) and are tired of the same old honeymoon spots every second couple in India is nowadays vacationing at, take my word and opt for Kerala! You remember all those gorgeous landscapes from Mani Ratnam movies? They’re not just good camera work, they’re really REAL!! And you have to go see it yourself. What with its clean beaches that look like little corners of heaven, the surreal canals (“backwaters”) weaving through tiny civilizations, colorful towns and hillstations covered in tea plantations – Kerala has enough ammunition to deport you to your childhood fairytale fantasies! The best part of it all is how you can find peace in the most crowded places, thanks to the many gorgeous resorts across the state, some of which I am reviewing below to help you plan your trip! From lake-side rooms, to rooms with a pool floor, and if that doesn’t do it for you – there’s the floating houseboat for complete privacy! Here are my top picks from the best luxury resorts Kerala has to offer, perfect for a romantic getaway from your busy city life:

 

Vivanta by Taj, Kovalam

The private lake of Vivanta by TAJ, Trivandrum, Kerala
The private lake of Vivanta by TAJ, Trivandrum, Kerala

Vivanta by TAJ, Trivandrum was my pre-arrival accommodation, and I was like WHAA? If this is pre-arrival, what will happen once the trip really begins? I was welcomed with a traditional aarti, shell necklace, coconut water, and a smiling staff! It was almost time for the sunset, so the staff quickly arranged for my luggage to be sent to the room, and arranged to send Raul and me to their “private beach” (WHAT!?) And sure enough, the hotel has its own small little piece of heaven, even after 15 days from that evening, I very clearly remember how happily I sat by, with no sound but that of the waves hitting the rocks on the shore. Being a mountain girl at heart, it was the closest I have ever felt to loving the ocean! They also have a pretty infinity pool, two restaurants,  a spa that offers complimentary morning yoga sessions, and a perfect little coffee shop.

It was the perfect seed to what was going to be my blooming love-affair with Kerala!

Price Range: Rs. 18,000 to Rs. 20,000

 

Spice Routes Houseboats, Alleppey Backwaters

Sunsets from Spice Routes Houseboat on Alleppey Backwaters, Kerala
Sunsets from Spice Routes Houseboat on Alleppey Backwaters, Kerala

FLOATING HOUSE! I don’t think I need to sell the concept any further. Short video from our houseboat to show you what to expect!

PS: You will be amazed by the hospitality on-board! The video is from the houseboat “CLOVE”, I’ve heard “Cinnamon” is even better 🙂

Price Range: Rs 18,000 (1 bedroom) to Rs. 28,000 (4 bedroom)

 

Kumarakom Lake Resort, Kumarakom, Kottayam, Kerala 

The infinity pool at Kumarakom Lake Resort
The infinity pool at Kumarakom Lake Resort

Hands down the one place that will stay in my memory for a very long time! Why? How can you ever forget the first time you stayed at a cottage with an open shower and your own private pool and Jacuzzi? YES! Kumarakom Lake Resort oozes luxury in every aspect – be it the opulent cottages with a vintage yet modern feel, an infinity pool which is the perfect sunrise spot, early morning relaxing yoga session by the lake or a world-class property so huge, you need a car to take you around! If there’s only one luxury resort you want to save up for, let it be this!

Price Range: Rs. 13,000 (Luxury Pavilion Room) – Rs. 48,000 (Presidential Suite with Private Pool)

Honeymoon package (3N/2D): Rs. 63,000 (Luxury Pavilion Room) – Rs. 1,55,000 (Presidential Suite with Private Pool)

 

The Zuri Kumarakom, Kerala Resort and Spa – Kumarakom, Kottayam, Kerala

The private lake of Zuri Kumarakom Resort, KeralaThe private lake of Zuri Kumarakom Resort, Kerala
The private lake of Zuri Kumarakom Resort, KeralaThe private lake of Zuri Kumarakom Resort, Kerala

Just when I thought no amount of luxury can beat my stay at Kumarakom Lake Resort – Enter The ZURI Kumarakom, Kerala Resort and Spa, with a super tempting “Maya Spa” – one of the largest in South India and offering Ayurveda, Western and Oriental therapies, on the platter! This also turned out to be the first afternoon I had free in all the days on the trip, so I jumped at the prospect. I won’t go into unnecessary details about my massage (I think it deserves a blogpost!), but I will say that it was pretty darn perfect!

PS: Luxury cottages here have a private pool AND a private lake!

Price Range: Rs. 8,750 (Zuri Room) to Rs. 23,300 (Presidential Pool Villa)

Honeymoon Package (2N/3D): Rs. 34,000 (Zuri Lagoon View Room) to Rs. 60,000 (Presidential Pool Villa)

 

Greenwoods Resort, Thekkady 

Coffee at a tree house – check! #keralablogexpress #TripOfALifetime

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By this time in the trip, I had seen rooms with a private pool, Jacuzzi, lake, and a luxury cruise – you can understand how high our expectations were by now. But what Greenwoods lacked in appearance, they more than made up with hospitality! My my, if I had to choose one hotel that could teach all the others a lesson or two about what “serving” your customers really is, it would be Greenwoods! The staff was so sweet, accommodating and curious about our everyday experiences, they instantly won the hearts of every blogger (EVEN the ones who weren’t staying at other resorts) The property was quite pretty, with a lot of greens, a gorgeous treehouse coffee shop, and a swimming pool. They organized special activities for their guests like saree draping, traditional dance, and the best of it all – sapling plantation! YES, we all got a chance to plant a sapling in the resort, which will be named after us, so that there is a little something of us that stays at the resort even when we don’t! Now what better way to begin your married life than with such a heartwarming memory?

Price range:  Rs. 7000 (Standard Room) to Rs. 35,000 (Presidential Pool Suite with Warm Pool)

Honeymoon Villa with Pluge Pool: Rs. 15,000

 

Vythiri Resort, Wayanad

The Vythiri Resort in Wayanad knows exactly what everyone wants to hear! A perfect eco-friendly, jungle hideout, the choice of rooms ranges from treehouses to rooms with a private jacuzzi!  Just watch the video, I need not say more!

Price Range: Rs. 15,000 (Vythiri Haven) to Rs. 30,000 (Honeymoon Pool Villa) &

Luxury Tree-House Accommodation: Rs. 20,000 

Vythiri Exclusive Honeymoon Package (2N/3D): Rs. 38,000 to Rs. 53,000

 

Kunnathur Mana – Ayurveda Heritage  Spa Resorts

The traditional pool (hamaam) at Kunnathur Mana Ayurvda Heritage, Kerala (Picture Credits: Hotel Management)
The traditional pool (hamaam) at Kunnathur Mana Ayurvda Heritage, Kerala (Picture Credits: Hotel Management)

They had me at “Ayurveda Heritage”! Kunnathur Mana Ayurveda Heritage Resort is a Government approved Ayurveda hospital in Kerala with GREEN LEAF Certification. One thing I most vividly remember about Kunnathur Mana is feeling relaxed even while I was so tired and sick – the place is full of positive energy! The 130 year old heritage of this ancestral property can still be seen in the way the property has been maintained. And GUESS WHAT? Remember all those Mughal “hamam” baths we have only seen or heard about? This place has one and they actually let you swim in it (under the supervision of a life guard of course as it is 25 feet deep!) This makes it the only heritage place all over India that offers this experience!!! The biggest plus of this place though is, regular tourists will never choose to stay here!

Price Range: Rs. 10,000 (Aniyara) to Rs. 15,000 (Pool view Palliyara)

Inclusive of Ayurvedic Doctor Consultation, one suggestive therapy / massage, one day medicines (if required), Ayurvedic meals (if advised) and one-hour Yoga / Meditation.

 

Xandari Harbour, Kochi

Now, we visited this property only for our farewell dinner, but I have confirmation about their hospitality from other bloggers who chose to stay back a few extra days in this property. Xandari Harbour in Kochi was the most chic and classy hotel we saw during our trip!

 

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My Kerala bucketlist, via Bollywood!

"Bannke titli dil uda" - State of mind right now!
“Bannke titli dil uda” – State of mind right now!

 

It’s almost here. Just a week to go. Well yeah, for Valentine’s Day too, but more importantly – MY FIRST TRIP TO KERALA BECAUSE I WON THE KERALA BLOG EXPRESS 2016!!!

Q. What’s better than winning a 2 week, all-sponsored trip, to a state you’ve always admired, by the State Tourism Board?

A. Being the only blogger from India, among 27 travel bloggers from across the globe! Isn’t that super exciting?

So, being the only Indian on this trip, I felt it is my moral duty to give my fellow-participants a small sneak-peak of Kerala (Hey NaMo, see I’m trying!), by showing them a glimpse of Kerala from our movies!

You’re probably wondering what level of crazy does one have to be to build a travel bucketlist from Bollywood references. Well, you’re talking to a girl who left Mumbai to live in the mountains after watching Highway! So yeah, call me crazy, but trust me I’ve done worse.

So here it is, my Kerala wishlist / bucketlist, as compiled through any / every Bollywood movie I have ever seen with the tiniest Kerala connection!

PS: I’m sorry I included GUPT, Karma will come get me one day! On the bright side, I didn’t include Nishabd.

PPS: Crazy “north-Indian girl sees South India” stereo-types coming your way. Filter kaapi, anna. Pardon me, Kerala’ites.

 

Location: Alleppey Backwaters
Movie: Dil Se

EVERYONE has to agree – Preity Zinta dancing on that Alleppey houseboat raised the bar of hotness in Bollywood, matched only by Malaika Arora Khan dancing on the train, in the same movie! This is also my first memory of Kerala on celluloid (Even though Bombay released before Dil Se, I watched this first!)

 

Location: Athirapally Falls, Thrissur
Movie: Guru

All my personal hatred towards Aishwarya Rai aside, this is possibly the most beautiful picturisation of Athirapally waterfalls, which also turns out to be the most common / famous shoot site in Kerala. (The village scenes are not from Kerala)

 

Location: Malayatoor Reserve Forest, Idukki
Movie: Raavan

Guess I should just rename the article to “My Kerala bucketlist via Mani Ratnam“. Here’s another masterpiece!

Remember Abhishek Bachchan’s secret hideout in the middle of a forest, a river passing by, with that huge Vishnu (or was it Buddha?) idol in the middle? I would kill to camp there for a night, or ten. Shot in the Silent Valley Forest Reserve in Kerala, that one place gave me Kerala wanderlust goals for life. I doubt we will be allowed to visit though (It’s supposed to be a restricted forest zone).

PS: I couldn’t find a video of the said hideout, but here’s a song from the movie shot at the Athirapally Waterfalls. How gorgeous is this place 😀

 

Location: Munnar Tea Plantations, Munnar
Movie: Chennai Express

Dream Sequence: THAT drive along the winding road, surrounded by the beautiful Munnar Tea Estate on one side and spectacular backdrop of the Western ghats on the other! Now Darjeeling sure is my second favorite place in India, so hey Munnar, you really have big shoes to fill!

 

Location: Periyar National Park, Kumily
Movie: Gupt

Warning: The dance in the below mentioned video is performed by thorough unprofessionals. Please DO NOT judge us Indians by the dance moves in the video below. But do judge us from the beauty of that national park. It’s something about those tree stumps in the middle of the lake, and the simple boat floating over the quiet waters, that got my attention!

 

Location: Bekal Fort, Kasargod
Movie: Bombay

Hands down THE BEST song of the century! This song has been my favorite since childhood, even before I had watched, or heard, about the movie. And guess what? It’s shot at the largest fort in Kerala – Bekal Fort in Kasargod. C-a-n-n-o-t-W-a-i-t!

 

Location: Meesapulimala, Idukki
Movie: Chennai Express

Forgive me Lord, for I have sinned. I have recommended two Rohit Shetty songs in one article.

But I couldn’t stop myself. This song might have very few shots from Kerala, but you see, it has colors, culture, sarees, filter coffee (I did warn about the stereo-typing), traditional dance, a glimpse of South India’s spectacular temples, in short – it’s everything I’m looking forward to on this trip!

 

This could be the first (and possibly the last) time I’m saying this: I can’t wait for Valentine’s Day! 😀

 

 

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Recollections 2015 – Travel Photo Essay

It all began with a dream to touch the skies, to live closer to nature, to be a mountain child. It all began in 2014, but 2015 is where it came true. 2015's biggest gift to me was shifting to Dharamsala, and for that, I will be forever grateful!
It all began with a dream to touch the skies, to live closer to nature, to be a mountain child. It all began in 2014, but 2015 is where it came true. 2015’s biggest gift to me was shifting to Dharamsala, and I’m grateful to the universe for making that happen!

New Years Eve! That time of the year when we’re all getting ready (some reluctantly) to turn over a new leaf, start a new chapter, initiate a new cycle. Of the much-awaited countdown, the name-sake resolutions, the promises and the hopes, and the most-elusive midnight kiss. But amidst all this excitement, a word of caution – the past is not something to be left behind like a forgotten friend; stepping into anything new without accumulating all our experiences and learnings from the past just doesn’t feel right. So here I am, looking back at the year that was, how it changed my life, and how I can look forward to a brighter 2016 filled with many more adventures!

PS: I haven’t edited the pics below because I want to remember them without any filter (#TooMuchEmo)! But I do hope y’all like it that way too 🙂

The year began with an impromptu trip to Jaipur, primarily for the (over-hyped) Jaipur Lit Fest - something I've been trying to attend since 4 years. With the fest being a total bummer, encountering a rather disturbing eve-teasing incident, and gate-crashing a lavish Indian wedding - Jaipur was a sweet and sour experience, marking the perfect path for the year to come.
The year began with an impromptu trip to Jaipur, primarily for the (over-hyped) Jaipur Lit Fest – something I’ve been trying to attend since 4 years. With the fest being a total bummer, encountering a rather disturbing eve-teasing incident, and gate-crashing a lavish Indian wedding – Jaipur was a sweet and sour experience, marking the perfect path for the year to come.

 

Being someone who feels uncomfortable in a room filled with more than 5 unknown people, attending the Hampi Rath Yatra was a learning experience for me. I had to push myself to not run away from the crowd, to enjoy the furor, be a part of it even. Traveling alone does make you push your personal boundaries, this was one of those for me.
Being someone who feels uncomfortable in a room filled with more than 5 unknown people, attending the Hampi Rath Yatra was a learning experience for me. I had to push myself to not run away from the crowd, to enjoy the furor, be a part of it even. Traveling alone does make you push your personal boundaries, this was one of those for me.

 

Men perform a ceremonial dance at a local temple in Hampi. I was shy at first, being the only non-local around, a girl at that, dressed in weird hippie clothes, but then the pujari of the temple walked up to me, put tikka on my forehead, and invited me in for the ceremony.
Men performing a ceremonial dance at a local temple in Hampi. I was shy at first, being the only non-local around, a girl at that, dressed in weird hippie clothes, but then the pujari of the temple walked up to me, put tikka on my forehead, and invited me in for the ceremony. Mischief managed!

 

Spiti Valley - Check!
Travel to Spiti Valley – CHECK!

 

Spiti topped my travel bucket-list since 2014, and 2015 finally made the dream come true. As mesmerized as I was with the gorgeous landscape, the one memory of Spiti I hold close to my heart is is the warmth, compassion and love I received from the Spitians. I met some truly beautiful souls here, who make Spiti stay on top of my bucket-list, still :)
Spiti topped my travel bucket-list since 2014, and 2015 finally made the dream come true. As mesmerized as I was with the gorgeous landscape, the one memory of Spiti I hold close to my heart is the warmth, compassion and love I received from the Spitians. I met some truly beautiful souls here, who make Spiti stay on top of my bucket-list, still 🙂

 

We've grown up listening to tales of the grandeur of Ganesh Chaturthi in Mumbai and Durga Puja in Kolkata. Having seen the former every year since childhood, checking off Durga Puja in Kolkata from my bucketlist sure was a plus! I loved how vibrant, festive and embracing the city was, didn't feel like a tourist for a bit.
We grow up listening to tales of the grandeur of Ganesh Chaturthi in Mumbai and Durga Puja in Kolkata. Having seen the former every year since childhood, checking off Durga Puja in Kolkata from my bucketlist sure was a plus! I loved how vibrant, festive and embracing the city was, didn’t feel like a tourist for a bit.

 

Visiting the ancient pottery town of Kolkata - Komurtulli, has hands down been the most picturesque experience for me. Even the glorious valley of Spiti did not excite me as much as this little village did. Every nook and corner of Komurtulli is a photographers delight, and if you care to sit with the potters and hear their stories - that'll be the icing on the cake!
Visiting the ancient pottery town of Kolkata – Komurtulli, has hands down been the most picturesque experience for me. Even the glorious valley of Spiti did not excite me as much as this little village did. Every nook and corner of Komurtulli is a photographers delight. The place also inspired me to fulfill my age-old dream of being a journalist, as I traveled across the city to find a particular potter and interviewed him for my blog (which I still have to transcribe – good thing I never became a journalist!)

 

The best part about India is that everyone is always ready for a photograph. Just a smile and a please (for the tough ones!) does the trick.
The best part about India is that everyone is always ready for a photograph. Just a smile and a please (for the tough ones!) does the trick.

 

Many call Kolkata as a city with a soul - I think it's because of how intimately attached the city is to its culture. Exploring Kolkata with Kathleen was a blessing!
Many call Kolkata a city with a soul – I think it’s because of how intimately attached the city is to its culture. Exploring Kolkata with Kathleen was a blessing!

 

Be grateful, always. Choose happiness, always! A slum kid playing football barefoot on the street, using slippers to mark the goal-post.
Be grateful, always. Choose happiness, always! A slum kid playing football barefeet on the street, using slippers to mark the goal-post.

 

Sunderbans Chalo - check! A fisherman wades through the low tide at moon-rise with his fishing net
Sunderbans Chalo – check! A fisherman wades through the low tide at moon-rise with his fishing net

 

Watching a special folk dance performance at our humble Sunderban homestay
Watching a special folk dance performance at our humble Sunderban homestay

 

Wish you all a very happy and dazzling 2016 filled with lots of travel and adventures!
Wish you all a very happy and dazzling 2016 filled with lots of travel and adventures!

 

 

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