E For Explore

Vietnam is probably on every travel-addict’s Dream Destination wish list, and I’m no exception. Well, you could replace Vietnam with almost any place in the world, and the statement would still hold true for me, but I was in Vietnam this month, and so Vietnam it is!

It was that kind of a trip where the destination doesn’t matter, because of the people you travel with! Well, actually it does. It needs to be inexpensive, because even after four years of practicing architecture, we are all still broke. And Vietnam was a wonderful place, “international” enough and did not burn a hole in our pocket! (Umm?)

So, after immense planning, adjusting, discussing, pushing, scheduling and re-scheduling, we finally landed in Ho Chi Mihn City to realize that we could have very well gone to Pune. Oh my! The number of bikes this city has is obnoxious, even by Indian standards!

If you know even a little about the Vietnam War history, I recommend you take a tour of the Củ Chi tunnels on the outskirts of Ho Chi Minh City and experience the underground guerrilla network for yourself. Crawling through the hot and narrow tunnels will give you a momentary sense of what conditions must have been like during conflict. What an experience!

We left the city setting to explore central Vietnam. From beaches, to lakes and rivers, from the very romantic Hoi An to the Imperial City of Hue, from a day full of water-sports at Nha Trang to a quick excursion through Hindu temples at Myson, the Vietnam vibe is contagious, and everywhere you look, it feels festive, almost like a celebration is on its way. What’s not to love?

Generally, when people travel to a place with an unknown language, they tend to learn how to say “Thank You” (at least) locally. But when you are a vegetarian travelling anywhere outside India, you learn to say ‘No meat, No egg, No fish’ as well. In a country famous for its street food, local beer, coffee and “Pho”, Vietnam did not disappoint us vegetarians also. Though their local delicacy – Hot Pot – pretty much gave us an idea as to why Vietnamese people are so tiny!  It was even more evident when we went to their well-stocked night market, just to realize their largest size will fit only an Indian ant.

At first, when you enter this country, it pretty much feels like India. But only when you live and experience the place, you realize it is rather more developed, much more cleanly and with a better general civic sense. Post war, actual economic liberalization in Vietnam came in the mid-1990s and really got moving in the early 2000s. And India with its almost 70 years of independence still has a long way to go. I understand it is reasonably unfair to compare India to Vietnam- given the size, population and scale of everything, but we definitely have a benchmark to accomplish even before we look at the developed nations!

Well, when you are on a vacation with long-time friends, few of whom are planning to get married in the coming “wedding season”, there is a lot that happens, which cannot, should not and would not be told, and definitely not announced in the newspaper! Until next time Vietnam, cảm ơn!

The Curious Case Of Bhutan

People who know me well know that I do not like to travel a lot. I am not the kind of person who would go on 4-monthly vacations, sprinkled with a few weekenders in between, of which most I call – Oh that was a hectic wedding getaway! No, that’s not me. But then last week I did find myself in a paradise – Bhutan!

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Oh boy! If there is any country on this planet with every inch of it being really gawk-worthy, it has to be Bhutan! Wherever you look, whatever you see is beautiful – untouched.

Can you imagine a world without any traffic lights? Can you imagine a world without any McDonalds? Can you imagine a world without honking on street – Oh may be you could, if you are either born in the west, or an engineer from India. But, Bhutan definitely has been successful in maintaining its culture and has kept its traditions and heritage intact, with minimum or no influence from the west.

Having said that I believe that it is a perfect amalgamation of the west and the east! No, seriously! They have put together chilly from the east, and cheese from the west and made it into their delicacy! Ema Datshi (literally Chilly Cheese) is basically chilly (yes, the green, hot, raw chilies) in cheese curry, and is had with rice! However absurd it sounds, it probably is one of the most interesting local cuisines I have had, after Apli Misal of course.

This country not only has a high Gross National Happiness index, but also has a high number of pigs that are high. That’s right! Though it’s illegal, they grow a lot of marijuana there. And from what I hear, they let the pigs have a lot of it. This comes from their belief – Happy Pigs Mean Happy Pork. Woah, which is taking you-are-what-you-eat a little too far. Though I am sure a few people are now thinking that they would rather be pigs in Bhutan, than in a corporate office.

I wouldn’t say that one of the reasons of me wanting to visit Bhutan was visa on arrival, while the rest of the world pays about 200-250 dollars per day to be there! No, I am not such a sadist. But the wiser thing to do is to visit it before they give us similar treatment, because as an Indian – and a chindi Indian at that – I wouldn’t be able to afford it then! (I sense my dad raising an eyebrow at “I” and “afford” in the same sentence. I love you no but.)

Well, you must visit this country, the population of which is less than that of one Hiranandani Tower, if you are in love with nature at its purest. If you are a trekker, meditator, an explorer, a photographer, a reader, a thinker or basically anything- this country is an absolute must-do for you. If you are an introvert, this is a perfect getaway with not many disturbing creatures who don’t understand “your kind” around you. If you are lazy like me, it’s a stone’s throw away from India – provided hulk is throwing a comet in that direction. If you are none of the above, and stuck through this blog, book your tickets now!

PS- Bhutan ain’t paying me anything. This is heartfelt.

Karmic Cleansing Retreat

So, Nashik is all geared up for probably its biggest event – the one where you would wash off all your sins in the most unhygienic way possible! So much for cleansing your mind, only for being able to do exactly what you have been doing all your life, with revived gusto and a clean slate!

Nashik has gotten its 12-yearly makeover done, which probably – according to me – is the only good thing of this fanfare. With roads widened, temporary structures in place, portable loos adorning the city, river cleaned (erm?), ghat extended, we are all-set for this mega event – by booking ourselves on vacation and vacating the town for people with purpose. Just the kind of thing to do on an extended weekend, right?

Now that the dates are so close, people have started pouring in in the city – by which I mean all the photographers are already here to get a “feel” of the place. They are just trying to capture one image, without a person with DSLR in it. This Kumbh Mela will be witness to the first time ever air traffic issues during the “snan” – with all drones bumping into each other. It’s going to be a new learning experience for the officials, and next time they will have a special team and an ATC set-up right next to the ghat. After all, documentation of people taking selfies as a proof of their purity cannot be missed, you know!

Besides, this time it is going to mark a great example of technology-meets-devotion. Around 700 CCTV cameras will keep vigil to ensure better security. LED screen have been installed to keep giving live updates to people. Community radios have been set up in buses to disseminate information to pilgrims and travelers. Of course, not mentioning the coming of age Sadhus, who have renounced even their clothes, but an iPhone! iPhone 6 to be precise.

One of the exciting things in the last few weeks was to visit Sadhugram and see the structures come up. One drive through these temporary colonies is enough to know the stature of these godmen – from corrugated sheets to air-conditioned tensile structures, everything speaks of their respective grandeur. They have now started to be occupied with various people coming in from all over the country. Numerous events and sabhas have been organized, where people lose themselves in this high intoxicating energy. It is of course devotion at work. We all know that.

Another interesting thing will be to see a lot of tourists – oops, “travelers” – coming to Nashik, and combining their holy dip with a trip to the vineyards! And why not? What is important is to attain Nirvana, one way or the other!

Amidst all the religious pomp, people like me are content having a shower of Godavari in our humble abode. At least our body is washed, if not our sins. Perks of staying in Nashik, I say!

PS – Have fun in Goa, by the way!

(This is my column in Deshdoot Times, Nashik – 22 Aug, 2015)