A for Amazing, A for Andaman!

‘Andamanai paarungal, Azhagu,…’ (Look at Andaman which is beautiful,..) goes a Tamil song from the film Andaman Kaadhali’ (Andaman lover)! The film featuring Shivaji Ganesan and Sujatha was released way back in 1978 and if my memory serves me right, did well at the box office! The song and the film I would reckon, were my first introductions outside of text books to the beautiful group of islands located east of the Indian coast in the Bay of Bengal. It’s a pity that it took 40 years since then to make a visit to Andaman, a few aborted trips for business notwithstanding!

I guess that Andaman hit the Indian tourists’ radar 5/6 years ago when it recovered from the aftermath of the 2004 Tsunami. Though Port Blair itself was not affected so much, parts of the Nicobar Islands, south of Andaman like Car Nicobar,… got battered badly. Today, tourism plays a major role in keeping the wheels of the Union Territory moving. Having spent a week there in the mid of May this year, I was keen to capture and record my impressions through this post.

  • First up, what strikes as a visitor in Port Blair and the many places that are part of the tourism circuit like Havelock, Ross Island,… is the cleanliness. One doesn’t get to see garbage littered around and I presume this was the situation even before Prime Minister Modi’s Swachh Bharat campaign.
  • Having said that, trails of the cleanliness Abhiyan are felt everywhere as you see dust bins branded SBA prominently placed in areas where tourists visit even if they are remote parts of distant islands. This is commendable. Swachh Bharat Abhiyan has hope.

 

 

 

 

 

  • Guides, car drivers and all make it a point to point out that crime rate is almost “0” in Andaman and that the place is completely safe for locals and tourists alike. I must add here that in the whole trip we didn’t spot any beggars or touts who chase tourists as in some of the other parts of the country.
  • Administration of Andaman, being a Union territory comes under the auspices of the Lieutenant Governor. And funds wise, supported by the Union Government. People seem to be happy with this arrangement without being under the mercy of political parties for local administration. However, who’s in the centre and its blessings have a direct impact in terms of funds allocation and development projects. With roughly 300 Cr income and 3000 Cr expenditure per annum, dependence on the Centre is very high for keeping the wheels moving.
  • Andaman provides a lot of connection historically to the Independence movement. Kala Pani or the Cellular Jail is a must visit for tourists today. It stands as a grim reminder of the struggles and pains freedom fighters had to go through under the British. The Light and Sound show at the Jail provides the ghastly details of the inhuman treatment of the prisoners by the British. The voice of the late actor Om Puri as the narrator is moving.  A walk through the corridors of the jail certainly chokes you with emotion. Among the many who bore the brunt of the cruelty, was Veer Savarkar, the controversial freedom fighter from Maharashtra. The NDA Government under Vajpayee did its bit to honour him by naming the Port Blair Airport after Veer Savarkar in 2002.

  • Surprisingly, we hadn’t learnt about Kala Pani or the Cellular Jail in history books while growing up. Not sure if it is a part now! So, my first introduction to Kala Pani was through Priyadarshan’s Malayalam film Kala Pani, way back in 1996. I am convinced that films have done a far better job in teaching history than text books to many of us!
  • While on historical connection, a 10 minute boat ride from Port Blair takes you to a small island called Ross Island. The British occupied and developed it as their base for stay. Ross Island today has been handed over to the Indian Navy which is maintaining the same. The island has remnants of the British rule by way of old but dilapidated structures and gives a peek into the luxurious British lifestyle which they enjoyed while thumbing down the locals. The Light and Sound show at the island incidentally directed by the Southern Actress Revathi and sound designed by Oscar winner Resul Pookutty is impressive and provides the historical context. Ross Island can be developed into a much better place of tourism interest. It looks neglected with hardly any upgradation or investment in the recent years.
  • Prominent in the tourist circuit today in Andaman is an Island called Havelock which you reach through a 2 hour cruise on high sea that operates regularly. They say that Havelock is becoming the Goa of Andaman! The beaches in Havelock like the Radha Nagar beach, Elephant Beach, Kalapathar Beach,… are all pristine with white sand and turquoise blue water. The beaches are neat and clean unlike Goa. People flock Havelock today for ticking one of their Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara bucket list. Meaning for their Scuba diving, Snorkelling, Jet Skiing and other water sports experiences! We too tried our hands or rather fins at Scuba diving and the experience was awesome though there was no Katrina Kaif around to train us! But the whole diving experience was fantastic. The trainers were professional and ensured that we had a memorable experience.
  • Havelock is laid back, has a small town feel with most restaurants resembling beach side shacks. It seems that Havelock used to be very popular among foreigners particularly, Israelis. I am told that with the increase in the arrival of Indian travellers now, the foreign tourists are on the wane. It is not difficult to fathom why.
  • Baratang Island is another tourist attraction in Andaman. The limestone caves supposedly formed over millions of years are visually spectacular. I would say that the saying – “Life isn’t just about the destination but about the journey too” fits this place very well. The travel to Baratang is a full day trip where you first travel 100 kms by road from Port Blair to reach the Middle Strait Boat jetty. And the interesting part is, a good 50 Km drive is through reserved forest area where you are allowed to drive only in security protected convoys which leave in 3 or 4 fixed time slots every day. The Jirkatang check post is where you wait till the convoy is allowed to proceed at the appointed time. The forest area is even today inhabited by aboriginal tribes called the Jarawas. You can spot them on the way at times as we did. Photography or video shooting are strictly prohibited in this area. We were told that the Jarawas changed their approach towards other people around the late 80’s but before that the travel was not so safe. We could see that the administration has been taking a lot of steps to mainstream them over a period of years. We could see schools set up for them and so are clinics. Security guards patrol the area regularly. From the Middle Strait boat jetty you are off- loaded into a huge boat which takes you to Baratang jetty. From Baratang jetty, again you have to get into smaller speed boats in groups of 10 people for a 45 min. ride which is extremely scenic, the last 10 minutes of which is through dense mangroves. From where you alight, you need to walk a good 15 mins walk through scenic green fields to reach the limestone caves. At the end of the day, as you return, you feel very tired as the 100 Kms road from Port Blair to the Jetty is bad and uneven. As a place of reasonable tourist interest, I hope the administration fixes this ASAP.

 

 

 

 

 

 

  • I must add here that the roads within the Port Blair town, Havelock,… are very good and well maintained.
  • Since Port Blair is connected to other islands like Havelock, Ross Island, Neil Island, The Long Island,… mainly through waterways, the boat jetties play a crucial role. Here, I must say that the jetties today are not equipped so well to handle the inflow of traffic. There is chaos and Indians being horrible travellers do their bit only to add to the chaos.
  • The whole of Andaman suffers from poor connectivity. The locals crib that they have still to do with 2G while other parts of India are enjoying 4G. Due to limited bandwidth available data uploads and downloads are possible only with Wi-Fi which is also slow. Work is in progress for underground sea cabling from Chennai to Port Blair which will improve connectivity significantly. This may be 3 / 4 years away from now.
  • Was happy to see the local CBSE school in Port Blair display a signboard of being part of Niti Aayog’s Atal Innovation Mission program and as part of that, it was an “Atal Tinkering Lab”!
  • Big hotel groups are yet to make significant investments in Andaman. Tatas have made the 1st move with a premium Taj Exotica property at the Radha Nagar beach in Havelock which opened very recently. This is under PPP (Public and Private Participation) model which I think is the way to go. One of the constraints for private investments I understand today, are the environmental clearances which I guess is a touchy issue not just in Andaman!
  • Once you arrive in Port Blair and wade through different tourist spots, it is clear that Andaman is now a hot spot for Honeymooners. Young couples lost in their own company, girl’s hands  clad in designer mehendi and weighed down by rows of bangles (chooda) are a common sight and give credence to my premise.
  • It is obviously clear that if the last mile connectivity infrastructure like the Airport, Broadband, highways connecting major towns, infrastructure at Jetties,… are improved, Andaman will lure tourists by the droves. Not that it doesn’t, today. But traffic can multiply and just by tourism alone I think it can stand on its own feet without Centre’s subsidy.
  • The Port Blair airport itself is just a functional one and for a tourist destination needs an upgrade badly.
  • I do get a feeling that, may be the administration or the concerned administrators don’t want to go the whole hog for fear of losing Andaman’s identity and rampant commercialisation. Look at what has happened to the popular hill stations in India which all have got savaged by explosion of tourism!

Overall Andaman is idyllic, beautiful and is a must visit. Incidentally I came to know that the opening shots of the song ‘Andamanai paarungal, Azhagu,… which I have referred to in the beginning of this post was shot at the Megapode Resort in Port Blair where we also stayed!!!

Kumarakom yesterday, Vagamon tomorrow!

If there is one state in India, which has almost got its act together on tapping its tourism potential, it must be Kerala. I say, “almost” and mention Kerala in relation to other states of India. For a relatively small state, Kerala boasts of varied choices for a traveler from beaches to hill stations to back waters to Ayurveda to Culture and more.  In a strange twist of irony, for a state which still has its ideological moorings firmly tilted to the “Left”, it is “smart marketing” that has played a great part in positioning the state as ‘God’s Own Country’ over the years. To its credit, certain gaps notwithstanding, Kerala does live up to this tag line to this day.

I’m certain that there are other states which are bigger in size in India that can provide a better offering than Kerala to tourists. Karnataka, for example. And some of them have now realized the potential, tourism as an industry offers and are boarding the bus, though late.  The tourism circuit of Kerala over the years has evolved from just back waters of Kochi and hills of Thekkady in the 80’s to now Kumarakom, Alleppey, Munnar, and spots in Malabar area like Wynad, Bekal,… Outside of this circuit are a few places that are in the verge of earning their stripes. Of them is Vagamon, a hill station in the Idukki district and closer to Kottayam in terms of access, which I had the opportunity to visit last week.

Being a native of Kottayam, I have had the chance to visit Kottayam many times. It was the default summer vacation option while growing up. And with family roots still entrenched there, social visits have been a regular.  Though Vagamon is just 40 Kms from our place in Kottayam, we never thought of exploring this location in the past. Not just familiarity, but proximity also at times breeds contempt isn’t it?  Having been hearing of this place as an emerging hill station, we decided to visit Vagamon and spend a night there during this trip.

For long, Vagamon was mainly known for its milk – Vagamon milk is popular in the surrounding areas. Like all hill stations of India, though the British were the ones who discovered this place, I understand that it is the Christian missionaries in Kerala who developed Vagamon and among the first to live there. A Dairy farm that still exists was the early business activity to flourish and hence the popularity of Vagamon milk!  So one can say that it is a place where honey and milk literally flows! The road leading to Vagamon from Kottayam is patchy having been battered by the recent heavy rains. For a Mumbaikar used to pot holed roads resembling craters of the moon, they were still bearable, but then Mumbai is no bench mark for a tourist destination! As you near the place, the scenic beauty of the place and the accompanying chill weather just enthrall you.  The views on the way give you an idea of what to expect.

The resort where we stayed (Treebo Adrak Summer Sand Resort) is right at the heart of the town and has fantastic views. Located next to the Pine Valley which is one of the places of tourist interest, is neat, clean and very well maintained. The property is great and picturesque. However, for such a nice property, the staff is inadequately trained and is marred by slow and laidback service. We see this dichotomy in many small towns in India.

All places of visitor’s interest are in a span of 5 Kms which include breathtaking viewpoints, idyllic Tea estates, the Dairy farm, the Pine Valley,… and could be covered within few hours. Being a fledgling tourist destination, the infrastructure is just developing. One of the popular viewpoints has now become a paragliding point where frenzied construction activity is going on. I realized that as of now, Vagamon is more of a one day outing place for those nearby during holidays and long weekends.  The result – all the points of interest were overcrowded and vehicles parked alongside the narrow roads clogging the approach. The Prime Minister’s Swachh Bharat Abhiyan was tottering, with people who bring food along eating alongside roads and littering the place with plates, cups and left over food! This was sad for a state which I always thought was in the forefront of Swachata. Though declared a plastic free zone, plastic could be freely seen strewn in places where people thronged.

The 3.5 hour drive back to the Kochi International Airport, half of which is through hilly terrain is quite scenic. Airtel 4G connection of mine failed the test, as in many places my phone was out of coverage. On the other hand, our cab driver’s JIO connection passed with flying colours when we need to access Google maps. Not to mention of the equally effective cell phone coverage of BSNL in those far off areas! The drive through also gives an insight on why the “Left” is so well entrenched in Kerala.  Red flags flutter in regular frequency in a gap of 10-15 Kms even in those remote areas.  Even in a non-election season like this, there was a nukkad meeting going on being addressed by a spirited leader with at least a 100 keen listeners!  But one cannot dismiss the flowering of the Lotus here and there.  In fact, the day we were leaving Kochi, BJP was kicking off its “Project Kerala” in Kannur with Modi as the main face in posters alongside the Kerala BJP President Kummanam Rajashekaran, who incidentally resembles Modi in some angles. Yet, it will take years of labour to dislodge the Left from probably its last bastion in India!

With Nature in abundance, Vagamon has immense potential to be the next Munnar or Kumarakom of Kerala. Additional place of interest for Westerners is a place called Bharananganam which is on the way from Kottayam to Vagamon. It is the abode of Sister Alphonsa who was the first woman of Indian origin to be canonized as a Saint by the Catholic Church.  But, to get into the God’s Own Country circuit, Vagamon needs to be developed in terms of its infrastructure. Incidentally, the same day I saw a quote of the new Central minister for Tourism Alphons Kannanthanam who hails from Kerala, talking of Vagamon in the same breath as Munnar as an area to focus for tourism development.

The jury is still out as to whether development happens first and then tourism picks up or the other way about. But there is always a tipping point. Like for Kumarakom, when in the last week of December in the Year 2000, the then Prime Minister Vajpayee decided to ring in the New Year at Kumarakom.  The musings of Vajpayee from Kumarakom still reverberate in the air! Similarly, another event that catapulted Kumarakom to its today’s glory was Arundati Roy’s Booker prize winning novel “The God of Small Things”. Set in the village of Aymanam which is at a calling distance from Kumarakom, the novel made many Western tourists include Kumarakom part of their itinerary!

May be Prime Minster Modi, who in his last Mann Ki Baat address called upon people to explore new destinations in India to boost tourism, could emulate Vajpayee and take a break at Vagamon during Diwali! Who knows, in that calm, cool and scenic setting far away from the political nerve centre of Delhi he may discover some new ideas to bring back John Maynard Keynes’ “Animal spirits” of the country!!!

The Noisy Indian Traveller!

In the last few years, Indians have been travelling abroad like never before. On vacations, for jobs, on business trips, on incentive tours, for studies, to meet their kids and the like. So, travelling abroad is no longer a “class divide” in India as it was a couple of decades ago. So far so good. But along with this, it has also brought to the fore another race called the “Noisy Indian traveler” – one who lacks the basic etiquette.

Last night on my return flight from Beijing to Mumbai via Bangkok, all was well in the 1st leg till Bangkok with very few of us Indians in the flight.  But in the 2nd leg, it was a full house from Bangkok to Mumbai with many returning Indians on the plane. Just as we settled down in our seats, ruckus started with 3/4 passengers from Gujarat talking and laughing loudly non-stop. Quite obviously they were under the influence of alcohol and repeating among themselves the same lines one being – Aap, Mein aur Bagpiper!!! They were refusing to take their seats and finally one of the crew members had to politely but firmly request them to settle down so that the flight can take off. The guys settled down after getting commitment on their share of Whisky and Vodka once the flight takes off!!!  While this was going on, the rest of us were squirming in our seats with embarrassment.

Was this an isolated episode? Nope. Few months ago on a Srilankan Airways flight from Colombo to Chennai, the situation was similar. This time with a few raucous folks who are called “Kuruvis” doing the odd courier jobs. For almost 40 minutes after boarding the plane, a group of 20 guys were stuffing and re-stuffing their bags, littering the cabin, arguing with the cabin staff who were asking them to put the baggage in the overhead cabin and carrying out business transactions loudly literally exchanging notes before they were all forced to settle down by a harried crew.  Once the flight took off and the “fasten your seat belts” sign went off, these guys were back on their feet trying to pack/unpack their stuff once again!!! Followed by the usual haggling for hard drinks and more and more peanuts on that very short one hour flight!!!

Not just in the planes. We Indians are noisy and create a furore everywhere we travel. Like I saw once a group of Indian tourists at Sentosa, Singapore waiting for the elevator among many tourists of different nationalities suddenly starting a loud countdown. Much to the chagrin of those waiting there and embarrassment of fellow Indians!

I can go on and on with more such episodes. You get the drift anyway.

I am now told that in places like Singapore, Thailand, … which are increasingly popular with the Noisy Indian traveler – the local tourist agencies are wary and have started to handout a set of Does and Don’ts to Indians which include of course being on time and being less noisy.  And it seems Airlines have separate training modules on how to handle rogue passengers from this part of the world!

Is this lout behavior – a culture thing? Or a “GDP” thing? Or a literate illiterate thing? Or a combination?? I find it difficult to comprehend and conclude either way.

The Chinese I find also are generally noisy people. They talk loudly among themselves. But I don’t see them behaving like we do while travelling.

I am certain that this behavior has nothing to do with the “Education” thing – for many of the fellow travelers I see are certainly not the illiterate variety. These are all educated folks but with no life education!

Has this got to do with the economic growth of a country? In the sense as a country gets better with economic growth, do these kind of behavior come down?  Probably. But, am not sure.

So in India we have a dual problem. One is to get people to behave well “with” tourists in India so they leave with a lasting positive impression about our country. The other is to get people to behave well “as” tourists when they travel!  I think both are important. In the end, “we the people” are the brand ambassadors of the so called Incredible India! As of now, the brand ambassadors are doing a lousy job for sure!

In any case, it is high time etiquette training is brought in as part of our curriculum in schools and we try to mend behavior while young.  At home we as parents must give equal importance to “up bringing” as much as “bringing up” our kids!!  Lest the world will soon label the Noisy Indian traveler as lousy too and slam the doors!

Via Wyanad to Bliss!!!

Being born in Kerala, with roots still entrenched there and having worked briefly there too, one would expect to have had enough of Kerala in terms of holidays and vacations. Not for me. Though having been to many parts of Kerala, quite a few places are waiting to be explored. Vythiri at Wyanad in the north of Kerala was one such place.  So for this Diwali vacation we decided to zoom in on Vythiri, a place holed up deep inside Kerala’s lush rainforests that promised a back-to-nature experience.

When we landed at the Kozhikode airport we were welcomed by moist environs from the previous day’s unseasonal rains. When the driver mentioned that the distance of about 85 kms from the airport to the resort will be covered in about 3 hours, my immediate Mumbaikar instinct prodded me to check the condition of the roads. In Mumbai we are well aware of the potholed conditions of the roads during monsoons year after year. The driver who was nonchalance personified mentioned, “Kozhapamilla, edaikku theera mosavaa” (Its o.k. In between its really bad). 3 hours hence when we reached our destination which was the Vythiri Resort, I realized that our driver friend either wanted to keep our expectations low or is a Gulf return with experience of super quality roads! For, to me the road was fantastic all the way up the hill sections until the resort with just couple of uneven patches in between!!! The drive, when you reach Wyanad district limits is simply awesome with some spectacular views. Along the way, the famous “Airtel Open Network” kept indicating the coverage as moderate or non-existent!

On arrival at the resort, we were promptly briefed by the staff on supposedly the most important requisite i.e.  Wi-Fi. There is no Wi-Fi in the room or anywhere in the resort but for the common “Activity centre”. There is no TV in the room!!! Newspaper is available only at the reception area! In my mind I thought – so you pay for a body detox and you get few days of Digital Detox free!!! Vythiri, a fledgling holiday destination now, has more than 80 resorts all named almost similarly. “Vythiri this” and “Vythiri that”!!! So one has to be careful while booking online without getting mixed up with similar sounding resorts.

Vythiri Resort  is one of the older properties there and among the best few. It is expansive with river streams flowing within its premises and a hanging bridge to get across these streams. The whole resort looks green and romantic with many ideal selfie spots if I may add. The sound of the flowing water in the streams which you can hear 24*7 is therapeutic to the mind. Along with this, the sound of the magical flute (of one my very favourite and most talented but lesser known flutists in the country – Kerala’s very own Kudamaloor Janardhanan) which they play in the resort throughout the day relaxes and calms your nerves. The food was excellent even for vegetarians like us, with the Malabari cuisine which the region is known for taking centre stage.  The resort itself is home to different flora and fauna (the Giant Malabar Squirrel, the Benson’s Yellow snail, monkeys…). Also one has to be wary of the leaches as you walk by which are known to make a cut and suck your blood without you realizing the same. It happened to me as well as I was sauntering around taking pictures at odd places in the resort. Apparently, worldwide leaches are used to suck impure blood from the body. While biting, leaches infuse small amount of Hirudin a serum that thins blood and prevents coagulation. This is a base for all medicines used to cure heart bleeding, varicose veins,… So we were informed at the reception!!!

Overall I can say that the resort has positioned itself as an ideal honeymoon place. Since I don’t want this piece to sound like a plug for Vythiri Resort, let me move on by just saying that the place does enough justice to the impressive website!!!

Coming to the place itself, I realized that Wyanad which was home to many coffee plantations decades ago has now morphed to more of a Tea place and of course spice gardens. Many picturesque tea estates abound as you drive by though they are not very vast as in Munnar or Coonoor.

img_2928

In and around Vythiri, there are few interesting places to visit which will engage you for 1 / 2 days. I don’t have to write so much about tourist attractions of which Google does a better job. However more interesting to share would be the “Writings on the Walls” which one sees that communicate what’s happening behind the mask!

  • We didn’t realise until we reached Wyanad that the days we chose (1st week of Nov) coincided with “Kerala Piravi” or Kerala @ 60! Nov 1st marked 60th Anniversary of Kerala On such an occasion the tendency is to blast full page ads in all newspapers not just in Kerala but all over the country (a la Kejriwal style). But not in God’s Own Country. The celebrations by the LDF led Govt. were muted, restrained and very business-like showing a level of maturity unparalleled in other parts of the country.
  • The Kozhikode airport is barely a functional airport and for a city which ferries natives and tourists by the troves, it deserves a much better airport.
  • For tourists there is this Kerala’s longest Zip line here which takes you across a tea estate. At 250 bucks per person this is must be the cheapest adventure ride in the world! On a weekend, the guy said that he sells 100 tickets!!! Of course I guess this can function only during Non-monsoon seasons.
  • All along the way one could see the transition our country in general and Kerala in particular is going thro. Few years ago by and large the hoardings you will get to see were of Gold and Garment showrooms. But now you get to see sign boards of BSNL data plans, hoardings for International schools and that of Car salons of course with the Alukkas and Alapatt thrown in between. Am I surprised? Not at all. But this transformation is aspirational and is worth a mention.
  • Even in such remote areas one could see offices of “Kudumbashree” – a mission which Kerala launched for empowering women with credit to promote entrepreneurship.

Clean environs, tourist friendly people, pristine Nature does make Kerala a place one doesn’t feel enough of. And if you haven’t before, take the route via Wyanad to bliss next!

Postscript: The evenings at the resort’s activity centre were buzzing with people. And the activity being – Checking mobiles!!! With Wi-Fi just there, folks were feverishly catching up with the myriad forwards in WhatsApp and of course posting their day’s Vythiri pics. Coming to think of it, today the objective is not to go on a holiday, but to tell the world that we went on a holiday isn’t it?? I just did that.😃😃

Post featured in https://10tips.in/ as one of favourite blogs. 

Wah, Taj boliye!!!

When I visited Agra and the Taj Mahal last week, it was exactly after 10 years. That was in the midst of a hot summer in 2006. Much water has flown in the Yamuna since then and 10 years is a good time to see for oneself if the so called winds of change blowing across the hinterlands of India is for real. In these 10 years, the “Elephant” and the “Cycle” have got their opportunities alternatively to ride in Uttar Pradesh with the “Lotus” blooming or rather looming large at the centre!

We left Delhi pretty early (5.30 am to be precise) to beat the morning traffic till Noida. Close to Aerocity the new Airport hub replete with hotels and offices, even in the wee hours the roads were busy. One, with the slew of vehicles ferrying the staff from Call centres and BPOs of Gurugram after the night US shift and two, with the panoply of cars of all hue waiting in the roads for the call from their owners when they land at the airport. Now here’s the dichotomy. Folks who don’t bat their eyelids to write cheques for purchasing cars of the types of Audi, BMW,..  whine to pay the parking fees at the airport! So the drivers just hang around choking the roads leading up to the airports. (This by the way happens in almost all cities in India, I guess). After that initial congestion, the drive through the Lutyens’ Zone was nice. Lutyens’ Zone could be a credible advertisement for Swachh Bharat mission I thought. But then it’s always been that way.

Once we cross Noida, we quickly enter the new Yamuna Expressway which is supposed to make the Agra and the Taj trip more memorable. Earlier also folks from abroad always remembered the Taj Trip very well for the long travel from Delhi to Agra. The Expressway is international class so are the toll fees! But then if we need quality infrastructure and if private guys have to develop the same, you need to pay for it!  Along the Expressway one cannot miss the Buddh International Circuit built for bringing F1 to India. It’s sad that India doesn’t feature on the F1 calendar since 2013! The circuit now is reduced to hosting national races and being a promotional/testing venue for automobile manufacturers.  Blame it on the financial troubles of the promoter Jaypee group or the bureaucratic hurdles around hosting F1. One hopes F1 returns to India soon for the changes in brings in the landscape overall – partly which is even today visible. However just ahead, confirming the winds of change were the surprisingly neat and clean toilets at the 1st break at the food plaza!!!

The Expressway has a speed limit of 100 kmph for cars and 60 kmph for heavy vehicles. The driver of our luxury coach clearly believed that ours was a heavy vehicle and never for once allowed for himself the luxury of accelerating beyond 60 kmph. Never once. Now this discipline of following speed limits on highways must qualify as a big behavioral change!

As the Expressway ended and we entered the city limits of Agra, the dream drive ended. We were back to the early morning hustle bustle of a small town with buffaloes, dogs, hen and monkeys interspersed with a whole lot of people, handcarts, autos, crowded tempos,… on the roads. Busy road side eateries were rustling up morning snacks and the overall “dust bowl look” hardly can pose for Swachh Bharat. The road from where the Expressway ends leading to the Taj is surprisingly still narrow with chaotic traffic. The very impressive guide (impressive with his suave English and worldly knowledge) who joined us at Agra would tell me later that a highway straight from the Expressway to the Taj is ready and would be open to public soon. It was apparently waiting for the UP CM Akhilesh Yadav who has been busy with his parivar war these days!

The guide cautions us of all things prohibited inside the Taj. Well except for cameras, phones and wallets everything else is – looks like.  The 1st sight of the Taj as you enter from the main door is breathtaking and indeed the best sight!

img_2438

The guide no longer tells stories of why Taj was built as he knows very well that the tourists are all Google savvy these days. He focuses more on the intricacies of the construction and why it is a Wonder of the World. Talking of Taj being one of the Wonders of the World, at the Great Wall of China you can see an official certificate declaring it as one of the “New 7 wonders of the world”! Wonder why we can’t have a similar plaque at the Taj???

great-wall

The whiteness of the Taj has been fading thanks to the excess pollution over a period of time. So the authorities have undertaken a massive job of restoring the whiteness of the marble with surface treatment. We were told that they use what is known as Multani Mitti (mud from Multan). This process is underway and one could clearly see the difference in the 3 of the 4 minarets where the treatment is already over. The main dome will be up for treatment soon next year during which time it may be closed and will be a letdown for the tourists! Considering that Multani Mitti is from Pakistan – wondering if MNS will have a problem with that under the present Indo-Pak rough weather!

The Diana Bench which has now become the best photo-op place or rather selfie spot at the Taj– continues to reinforce what marketing and PR can do to a product. A spot where couples celebrate their love with that enduring pic is named after a person for whom love was elusive for most of her curtailed life!

Compared to the last time, the vicinity of the Taj is certainly neater, cleaner and devoid of general litter. Of course don’t expect us Indians to drop all the disposable shoes only in the bins kept for that purpose. Bins are provided and as is our habit we litter the shoes all over the place!

A good over 2 hours spent at the Taj and post lunch we visited the other monument – the Agra Fort. Agra fort is also impressive and brings a lot of high school history lessons back to memory! The emporium which the guide took us for shopping was expensive even for the foreign visitors in our group. But what was striking was the way they explained the process involved in the making of the marble handicrafts in understandable English. And didn’t do the pushing and shoving to buy! Talking of push and shove, the road side vendors hawking different “tourist targeted” stuff were polite and didn’t really hound us – a change from last time.

As we left Agra for Delhi, again a very pleasant but slow drive on the Yamuna Expressway was fantastic. In the backdrop of the setting sun, the smoke from burning of the agricultural fields create a hazy feel and of course add to the pollution of the capital. I read about this practice of burning the rice stubble by farmers once the harvest is over just few weeks ago in a “Swaminomics” column in the Sunday Times of India. Read here. As pointed out in that piece, it’s high time, they find an alternate to this polluting practice lest any “Odd-even” or other kind of idea is not going to help curb pollution levels in Delhi.

Once we crossed Noida, we couldn’t escape the now notorious evening peak traffic of Delhi. From Noida to the hotel took close to 2 hours! In India we now famously suffer from last mile connectivity! In almost everything. For example in roads, the highways like the Mumbai Pune Expressway or the Yamuna Expressway eases the travel between the borders of the respective cities but the journey from the end of the expressway to the heart of the city is still a nightmare wading through narrow roads and ever exploding traffic.

So to conclude, many positive changes are visible. Few legacy issues remain. As in many other areas, “the elephant” is on the move and we are getting there albeit slowly. Though visiting after 10 years, this is my 3rd visit to the Taj and somehow for the 1st time I really felt like “Wah, Taj boliye”!!!

Postscript: One of the enduring lines of the guide while explaining India’s high population – “In India, in the day time we believe in ‘Culture” and in the night – Agriculture😂😂😂

 

“Chinpressions” – Impressions from another of my China visit – Part 3!!!

It was about 3 years ago that I made my 1st visit to ChinaShanghai and wrote the 1st part of Chinpressions. Read here. In between that and my last visit this week, many more visits to China happened. Ergo, 3 years hence what are my impressions?

The visit this week coincided with Narendra Modi’s another foreign tour – this time to China. So obviously India was in the news. As is the wont these days in our PM’s abroad visits, he was in “Rock star” mode in China as well with local Chinese craving and crowding to take selfies with him. It’s obvious that in the last 1 year Modi has single handedly changed the perception of India for the better outside of India.

I had mentioned that in my last post that Shanghai was devoid of emerging market symptoms like touts at the airports,… I realized now that it’s not the case. There were the touts on arrival at the airport chasing you for taxi/hotels,… just that they were of the “suited and booted” types 😜 😜. Similarly I had the impression that Taxis were on meters always. Well, yes most of the times. But not always. This time much to our chagrin, we realized that beyond 10 p.m the cabbies were upto fleece passengers demanding 4 to 6 times the normal fare!!! While on cabbies, I couldn’t understand why the driver was always enclosed in a cubicle of sorts making it difficult to communicate with him/her even in sign language. (Trying to communicate in English is a horror left unsaid 😦 😦 )

For all the heavy duty infrastructure and the investment led growth strategy Chinese government has been adopting all these years with a fair degree of success, it is now clear that the growth is stuttering.  A 7% growth is being touted as the new normal. Print media is agog with articles questioning if the world’s 2nd largest economy is heading towards a protracted period of subdued growth.  China has now become the latest example to explain the Economics theory of the Middle Income Trap”

It’s clear that despite the pretensions of the Government taking China to being in the league of developed nations, it is still haunted by a few trappings of developing/underdeveloped countries. Which the people are yet to shrug off it appears.

  • Like the locals not caring about courtesy to others and smoking to glory in public washrooms.
  • Like the drivers continuing to smoke while driving in cars inspite of requesting them not to. (Blame the language)
  • Like invariably the noisy scenes you get to see in restaurants when Chinese get together to dine and drink. (Something like we Indians I must say).
  • Like the rounds of bargaining one has to do some times starting with 10% of the quoted price to purchase stuff mostly the imitations at the fake markets hawking branded stuff from I phones to watches to bags to clothes to everything. China’s tryst with IP regime may prove to be its Achilles heel sooner or later. Just couple of days ago while in China I read the news that top brands like Gucci were suing Alibaba the E-Com giant for sale of counterfeits through its marketplace.Like getting to see touts trying to sell I Phones at US$100 around to gullible passengers even inside the Shanghai’s Pudong airport terminal!!! I was surprised to see these guys inside the airports after the Check-in Area moving around looking for their customers!!! (This doesn’t happen in India even)
  • Like being amused to see empty chairs placed in sides of the road meant as parking lots. Something like placing the chair to reserve that lot. Reminded me of our Indian habit of placing towels/kerchiefs,.. in buses to block seats 🙂
  • Like for all the fascinating sights at “The Bund” at Shanghai (Clean, colourful, Hawker free,..,…) the urinals are still the old world style not seen even in towns in India these days.
  • Like finding grills in windows in residential apartments a la India type just that they were more uniform and still not spoiling the elevation of the building unlike in India where grills of all types and sizes spoil the frontage of most buildings.

Most of the above fall in line with the definition of “High Context Culture” as defined by Edward T. Hall in his seminal work – Beyond Culture, I feel. So not surprising.

But, these are just symptoms waiting to disappear soon I guess. Despite the current ills like ever rising labour costs, China continues to be the factory of the world. Global companies don’t have an option but to court the Chinese. Like Apple’s Tim Cook was attempting to do when he was in China last week logging on to “Weibo” – the Chinese microblogging site akin to Twitter. (Modi did the same on his run up to his China visit). The ever increasing aspiring class is a segment of the world’s largest population that just cannot be ignored.  But one thing which continues to amaze me in China even after being the world’s largest populous country is – Where are its people?? For example in Shanghai the world’s most populous city – you don’t get see crowds in the roads, in the malls, in super markets, in train stations,.. So where are they???

Let’s see if that mystery unravels in the next visits.

3 years hence, the impressions are still very good but may be the shine has worn a little bit.

 Postscript: Heard that the PM’s baggage on foreign tours will now have a “Selfie stick” 😜 😜

Mysore musings!!!

Mysore is a place I visit at least once a year since the last few years – of course on business. That often means a day trip up and down from Bengaluru. But the few hours I spend are enough to get the feeling of a city which is idyllic with its nice weather and expansive green cover. Coupled with the fact that it has many places of tourist importance made us look at Mysore for a short holiday during this Diwali holidays. The last time I visited Mysore for purely sightseeing was few decades ago when I was under 10.  Yes that was long ago. It was a road trip much before we knew what road trips were in what else an Amby from Trichy to Bangalore for a marriage. Only an Ambassador knows how it used to accommodate routinely 12+ people half of them adults with the accompanying luggage. Strangely, though I don’t have any memory of the wedding proceedings,… my memories of what happened on the sidelines are very vivid. After the marriage, remember going to Mysore for a day in which we covered Chamundi Hills, Srirangapatana, Tippu Sultan palace, St. Philomena’s Church and in the rainy evening a bit of Brindavan Gardens. I don’t recall us visiting the now famous Mysore Zoo or for that matter the Mysore Palace.

With my 7 year daughter in tow, the priorities in this trip were clear. To make this trip as memorable as possible for her as part of her childhood and growing up. So leaving aside the temptations for just chilling out in the resort which had a nice spa and the works, we tried to cover places of interest for her like the Zoo, the grand Mysore Palace,… Extremely conscious of not wanting to turn this post into a travelogue on Mysore for which Google Guru does a better job, I just want to touch upon few interesting things which caught my attention. So here we go:

  • It’s quite well-known that Mysore has probably the best Zoo in India thanks to its pretty collection of species, natural habitat and the fact that most species look healthy for a change!!! But what is surprising is that for a place routinely visited by tourists in the droves, the place is well-kept and can truly be a showcase piece for our PM’s Swachh Bharat Abhiyan.
  • Additionally the Zoo is touted as a “Plastic Free Zone” like many other places in India these days. But unlike other Plastic free zones where plastic becomes freely available, this is indeed plastic free in letter and spirit. And in a unique programme (which I saw only in Mysore in the zoo and other parks) stalls selling water collect back empty plastic bottles and refund some money in a bid to prevent plastic littering.

061

  • As in most of the zoos worldwide these days, in Mysore also most of the animals/birds,.. have been adopted by well intentioned human beings and corporate sponsors. And here, it was interesting to see the “King of the jungle” being adopted by once “King of Leg spin” – Anil Kumble!!!

IMG_0393

  • Want to visit Mysore?? Avoid vacation seasons like Diwali or Dasara holidays. Brindavan Gardens which is popular for its musical fountain show in the evenings was crowded and resembled a Kumbhmela. I can’t fathom if it’s a good idea to allow food hawkers inside the gardens and you can guess the ensuing mess. Brindavan Gardens which was a show piece of Mysore is a pale shadow of its past today and reminds us of the “Aswachh Bharat” we are living.
  • A Sand Museum is an interesting addition these days. One can find an extremely secular collection of sculptures carved out of sand. On enquiry, was impressed to note that these artwork have been the fine handiwork of a young lady by the name of M.N. Gowri, a Fine Arts Graduate. It seems she discontinued Engineering to pursue her passion in Sand Sculpting. A 15-ft high sand statue of a Lord Ganesh welcomes visitors to the museum. Other sculptures include Goddess Chamundeshwari, Laughing Buddha, Dasara procession, a striking work of Gitopadesha with Lord Krishna and Arjuna on a horse-drawn chariot, Disneyland, Islamic culture, a Christmas tree, Santa Claus,… An impressive place this!

 

IMG_0432

 

  • Karanji lake and Karanji Nature Park adjacent to it are increasingly getting popular among tourists I’m told. There is a butterfly park and peacock park there. You could do boat rides in the lake as well. What is alarming is – in spite of well-intentioned and well displayed warning signs of “No boating without life jackets” – hardly could you see anybody in the boats there with life jackets. And this is the kind of apathy over human safety which one finds routinely in tourist destinations in India. A tragedy happens consuming a few hapless lives and these issues get into “The Nation wants to know” routine for few days – only to get back to the routine slackness post that.

IMG_0412

  • The shopping market scene in Mysore reminded me of Trichy. There, in one NSB Road, you could find everything under the sun and moon. Here it was Devraj Urs Road. Along the main road and its alleys, one could see shops of all hues – of branded stuff and others. Disappointing though was to find shops closing as early as 8.30 p.m. here. Worse is, in other areas of the town shops wound up by 7.30 p.m. so much so in a handicrafts emporium where we stepped in by 7.10 p.m. – the display of frown by the staff there over shadowed that of the stuff sold there 😦 😦
  • The Mall of Mysore is a glitzy addition in this town reminding us of the proliferation of the young, aspiring class churning out codes in the Infosys’, Wipros, TCSs,... All these companies have impressive campuses in this city. The mall is still work in progress but has a food court and a multiplex with tickets as expensive as in Mumbai.

For a place with a fantastic, moderate weather almost throughout the year and many interesting tourist attractions in and around the city, my take is that Mysore is poorly handled and marketed. The Mysore airport is under connected even within the country. Which means reaching by road from Bengaluru is the only option. As Swapan Das Gupta says – “The unending journey from the airport to anywhere in Bangalore…” means a good 2 hours to just get out of the city and some 5 hours to cover a distance of 190 odd kms (from Bengaluru airport to Mysore). This is clearly a dampener for Karnataka’s‘One State, Many Worldstourism aspirations.  Dear Sarkar, please get a high-speed Express way fast.  And don’t worry, the IT folks will be ever willing to fork the toll.

Postscript: Just realized while writing this post that one cannot recall another city which has dedicated so much to the society – Mysore Sandal soap, Mysore Rasam, Mysore Bonda, Mysore Masala Dosa, Mysore silk and oh yes how can I forget Mysore Pak!! Appropriately the hotel welcomed us with this 🙂 🙂

Mysore Pak

Mysore Pak

 

Is Kerala “God’s Own Country”???

Thanks to a family wedding in Trivandrum recently, got the opportunity to take a short vacation break at Kerala. Yet again. With both my parents hailing from Kottayam a district in Central Kerala, I have lost the count of times we have holidayed in God’s Own Country. As a child, our annual vacations would begin and end with sojourns to Kottayam. Throw in atleast one annual visit for some family occasion, Annual Sabarimala trip, 2-3 visits a year to Kerala was a given. That was till I got busy chasing entry to a “professional” course. After that the frequency of visits reduced. But the craving to visit hasn’t.

The initial visits to Kerala were long before it became “the Kerala” of today. It was just one’s own country. Beautiful, Green and generally serene.  The swaying coconut palms, photogenic countryside, colourful Kathakali,… were all there but we were never wide-eyed by those that time, as we are today!!! Swimming in the river, visit to coconut groves, sipping of tender coconuts, ride in the country boat, visit to rubber estates, seeing Kathakali performances in the night, feeding elephants in the house, watching highly traditional rituals in the temple,…,.. were all but quite the usual stuff we did year after year during annual vacations.

GOK

Somewhere in the late 90’s and the turn of this century was when the word Kerala started getting a new dimension. Coincidentally that was the time when my visits reduced in frequency. Am not sure which of these made a difference. Was it the superbly executed marketing campaign positioning Kerala as “God’s Own Country? Or was it Arundati Roy’s Booker winner –‘God of small thingsset in a small place called Aymanam in Kottayam that kick started the romanticism with Kerala? Nobody knows or may be God only knows 🙂  The next we hear was that Kerala has been ranked among the top 10 “Paradises on Earth“ by National Geographic Traveller! After this the Gods haven’t stopped smiling on their own country. Tourists by the millions have been ever since checking-in to the state – both Desi and the foreigner types. The small strips of waterways extending from the sea to the land became the “beautiful backwaters of Kerala”, the country boat which was perched from the roof and idling in everyone’s house transformed into a rustic Vallam (boat) and started fetching money in thousands if you are open to parting the same to hotels and travel companies. Spices like pepper, cardamom,..,… which were grown in the backyard became “Exotic products from the Spice village”!!!

Is Kerala really God’s Own Country? This question has been haunting me for quite some time now.  The last few visits to the state have helped in unravelling the answer to the question.

First up, am yet to locate another place with smaller confines like Kerala with sea on one side, hill stations on the other, a vast of green forest cover in between, water ways which are calm and landspaces which are clean. Having said that even in India, it’s not just Kerala which has been blessed with the bounty of Nature. There are quite a few other states as well. For example, Kerala’s immediate neighbour Karnataka immediately springs to my mind. But no other place has been able to leverage what it has, better than Kerala , “Gujarat’s Khushboo” and “Ajab Gajab Madhya Pradesh” notwithstanding!!!  Having visited quite a few other states in India I can vouch that Kerala is the most tourist friendly state in the country.

For a state with low or no manufacturing activity to speak of, the spurt in tourism came as God’s own blessing. May be for that reason, Keralites imbibed tourism as a possible panacea to joblessness in the state with little production activity. Fortunately tourism being a service industry has been spared of the ills of trade unionism atleast as I write this. The near complete literacy and more than that being a highly NRI populated state, the awareness levels on cleanliness and environment are very high. Tourism in Kerala is well-organized and touts few. Unlike the neighboring Tamilnadu where people have abhorred Hindi as a language for long, Kerala never did that. So the locals manage to speak in Hindi with visitors from the North though in highly accented version.  Plastic free zones are indeed free of plastics. Well, almost.

So gradually Kerala has started upselling itself from a plain vanilla tourist destination to panoply of value added offerings. Ecotourism, Ayurveda tourism, Spiritual tourism, Plantation tourism, Elephant tourism, Wellness tourism… ,.. and what have you.  In a product like tourist state most important is the experience of the visitor and the subsequent word of mouth or in today’s lingo viral communication.  Who is the brand ambassador for “Apple’s I phone”?? Is it a Bollywood actor? Cricketer? Nope. It’s you and me. A great experiential product sells by positive word of mouth of its users. So has been Kerala. Check this thumbs up from CNN!!!

So the answer to that question – Is Kerala really God’s Own Country” could very well be a big YES!!! If you have not visited, plan one asap. No, I am not paid for writing this!!!

056

Postscript : The other thing for which Kerala is popular other than tourism are the “Mallu jokes” which is slowly threatening to beat the “Sardar jokes” which have been ruling the party circuit for long. Zimbly because Mallu jokes are vary Zimble, fandastic and vary funny and Goad’s Own Gontry is the best 🙂 🙂 🙂

Also watch – “Water Colour by God” – ad film by ace cinematographer Santosh Sivan

15 years hence in “Google” of the changes in Sabarimala !!!

It is exactly 15 years since I last visited Sabarimala – a temple housed in the hills in the southern state of Kerala which is supposed to beGod’s own country.  Those days, if I had to provide information on this temple, I would have had to spend time and energy to write a few lines coherently and still may end up not providing the full or proper information. But today, times have changed. Without me prompting, one would just “Google” ‘Sabarimala’ and find for oneself all relevant and even irrelevant information he/ she needs. As “Google” celebrates its 15 year anniversary this week, I realized that 15 years is a long enough period to witness paradigm shifts. We have been fortunate to be a part of many disruptive technologies in our lives – “Google” being certainly one for changing our lives for the good.

As I embarked on the Sabarimala trip last week, I was keen to look out for the changes – good and otherwise that would have happened, for myself. For people who have been regulars it might have missed their attention and may not be so exciting but for me it clearly gave a “Before/After” picture which I thought I will share in this post. And my focus of this post is just on those interesting changes which I managed to capture.

The highway leading to Pamba the base camp from where you start trekking up to the temple is part of the Ghat section and is forest area. One could now see the highway “littered” with signs of “No plastic zone” in line with the increasing concerns around protecting the environment these days. But the irony was not lost on us as soon as we reached Pamba and alighted out of the car. It started raining and you guess what – “plastic” sheets were being hawked for 20 bucks as rain covers to protect you from the rain as you climb!!! In the “Plastic free zone” – plastic was freely made available!!!

You could see the effects of the other “disruptive technology” as soon as you land at Pamba now. At Pamba most of the public utility and services buildings like the post office, police station,.. are all now crowned with “Cell phone” towers which means that we cannot give the excuse of “no connectivity” for not attending to our business! Ofcourse if your operator was for example Airtel you can still get away!!! The once busy STD/ISD/PCO booths now witness in envy the mini stampedes in Mobile recharge shops as people scramble to get their SIM cards topped up.

At the Pamba base camp one cannot the miss now the ATMs of various banks solving the liquidity issues of the pilgrims.  And if you want to do last-minute changes in your travel plans or do some booking, Southern Railway has pitched in with a railway reservation counter.

The hilly steep terrain from Pamba to ‘Sannidhanam’ (Sanctum Sanctorum) which used to be just muddy/rocky path interspersed with logs of wood to provide grip has now been concretized. I am not sure if this is good or bad. Ofcourse it provides more grip while climbing up and coming down but during afternoons the concrete path heats up. Also the not so smooth but rough concrete surface provides for a nice acupressure treatment!!! It is now advised to climb with your slippers on.

Now concreted path

Now concreted path

The concrete surface also means – it is now possible for the vehicles to move up and down which was an unseen sight those days but a common sight now. The Mahindra tractor keeps whizzing past you up and down now carrying loads of material required at the top. But they are well advised to “HORN OK PLEASE”  🙂 🙂 Actually herds of donkeys were doing the material carrying routine those days.  You can also now see huge earth moving equipment at work paving the way for new roads, connectivity,..

Mahindra tractors - A Common sight

Mahindra tractors – A Common sight

Earthmovers @ work

Earthmovers @ work

On the way there are sheds which have come up which provide for places to rest and relax a while on the way. Again on the way one could see very novel ‘urinals’ (sorry no picture) which have been put up to channelize the ‘human leaks’. Not sure hygienically if this is a good idea as the stench in the vicinity was unbearable 😦  Those days pilgrims would just disappear in the forest area to relieve themselves and Nature would take care of the rest.

For many people an annual trip to Sabarimala is an opportunity to test their “cardiological well-being”. The steep climb up for a few kilometers does challenge the strongest of hearts. Therefore one is happy to see the mushrooming of health centres now at the base, on the way and at the top. So you now have a buffet to choose from – Ayurvedha hospital, Homeo dispensary, Cardiology centre and General clinic are all there in case of emergency. And as a sign of “globalization” – you can see warning signs on H1 N1 as well.

 OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

At the Sannidhanam on top there are ofcourse many new crowd regulating measures at work but still I’m not sure if these measures really work during the peak season time when millions throng the place. You can only now climb up the “Holy 18 steps” and not allowed to use for climbing down.

The Holy 18 Steps

The Holy 18 Steps

The steps are also gold plated now (so is the temple Vimana – Courtesy one Mallya I’m told 🙂 ) and you are not allowed to break coconuts on the steps now.

With mobile phone connectivity till up the top, don’t be surprised to see mobile/ TAB toting pilgrims “checking in” and “checking out” of “Pamba / Sannidhanam’,… and updating status real-time on FB or tweeting about the weather. Also it has made the whole travel experience more convenient. So on your return with a few calls, you are spared of the trouble and time of locating your vehicle and the driver which used to be a nightmare before.

As they say, “the more things change the more they stay the same”.  Ergo there were so many things which remained same in 15 years – some thankfully so and some not so. The ones which remain the same thankfully for example the thick forest cover, very good roads in such an intimidating terrain,.. need mention. The sight of very poor and diseased people seeking alms along the way up the hills is something which you saw those days and you don’t want to see today.  Obviously inclusive growth has been elusive in our country. 15 years is a long enough period for countries to lift people out of poverty as we saw in the case of China. But for our country, our administrators are still “Googling” for the magic formula and unfortunately we have not found one yet.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

School finishes, “Classes” begin!!!

The usually nondescript commercial complex in my neighbourhood in Mumbai is buzzing with activity this morning.  As I get closer to the same, it appears as if yet another school has opened in that vicinity.  Very young boys and girls with infectious enthusiasm are chattering away as if they are catching up after a long while as they are waiting there.  It is 1st day of their coaching classes during the summer vacation. The schools had closed last week for summer vacation. And the “Classes” have begun.

Closer at home, the situation isn’t very different. The school got over for my daughter who is all of 6. When the school re-opens, she gets into Class 1 and that’s after couple of months from now. Its vacation time now which means well, time for few “Classes”.  In this age of what I call as “Competitive parenting”, there is no dearth for options as far as “Classes” go.  In addition to the usual Drawing class, Activity class, Music class, Dance class, Craft lessons,… you are now presented with some more choice. Maths Classes, Veda classes, Vedic Maths classes, Abacus classes, Phonics classes, Reading skill classes,…,…  I’m yet to see the basic basic foundation course for IIT entrance for 6 year olds as yet.  But ofcourse for most parents attending the orientation session for ‘Abacus’ class, I’m sure the visuals of IIT campuses keep appearing amidst those Abacus frames and beads!  So as the vacation begins, my daughter is busier than ever not to mention of we parents doing the drop and pick up routine.

In our time, the drop and pick up routine of our dad was different.  Almost every year during summer holidays which is a clean break of 2 months from school, our native place beckoned. In those days, Kerala was yet to become God’s own country and our town – Kottayam was known more for rubber.  Today Kerala has become a global product and Kottayam as gateway to Kumarakom its main USP. God of Small things did its job I guess!!!

The countdown to the holidays begins with booking of the train tickets. In the pre-IRCTC days, thanks to the quota system every station had, it was easier booking the tickets if you plan.  On the appointed day, the entire family boarded the Island Express from Trichy to Kottayam to spend another vacation. So dad’s job is to drop us there and get back to work and lead a bachelor life for 2 months.  As the Island Express initially with coal engines and later with diesel engines kept chugging along, remembering and reeling off all the station names along the way was a favourite pastime. And indulging in some of the popular eateries of some of the stations was another. So “Idli/Dosa” at Olavakkode (now Palakkad) junction, “Ethakka Pazham Pori”(Fried Banana Bajji) at Ernakulam junction and “Paruppu Vada”( Dal Vada) at Piravam Road station were never missed.  Though as South Indians we keep eating Idli/Dosa 400 days in a year at home, the excitement we showed in eating that stuff from the VLR (Vegetarian Light Refreshment) stall in the station didn’t amuse our mother at all.  During the hour’s drive from Kottayam station to our place – Kidangoor, the excitement reaches a crescendo as we near the quaint  bridge across river Meenachil, cross the Kidangoor Murugan temple and finally reach our house after a 17 hour journey!! 

In the next few days, the cousins and aunts join while the uncles drop and leave.  For 2 months here on in the lap of nature, we indulged ourselves.  Taking bath in the river every day, those swimming lessons in vain, visit to the temple morning and evening and playing the whole day when not eating, NO TV, no mobile phones and no social media – meant Indulgence was bliss.  Talking of eating – our stomachs must be cursing the holidays. Our vacation time is overtime for those poor organs! Jackfruit, Mangoes, Ethapazham (Banana), Aanikka Vala (sorry, unsure of the English name),… and their by-products all vanish before they are served. The vacation routine always included one trip to the fields by our Grandfather – where we were treated with Tender coconut water. But the ultimate delight was in eating the Tender insides of a tender coconut with Vellam (Gur).  Remember in one of those field trips seeing with awe the making of fresh “Coconut oil” from dried coconut. One of my uncles cultivated sugar cane in his land and we were always eager to visit his field for fresh cane juice. There was one more guy who was extremely delighted to see us during hoildays. The paan shop wala right in front of our house whom we frequented very often.  Even today I don’t think anything can beat his fresh  “Goli Soda” lemon juice for its freshness. 

With no TV and newspaper Ignorance was indeed bliss. Newspaper available was of Malayalam only which I couldn’t anyway comprehend.  I must add here that unlike in other states where the local language newspapers lacked quality, in Kerala the Malayalam newspapers – Malayala Manorama and Mathrubhumi were of high news and literary quality. One of my elder mamas (uncle) made it a point to get The Hindu’ English newspaper even if it was delivered with one day lag and we use to catch up with all the news whenever we go that uncle’s house at Puliyanoor my mom’s place few kilometres from Kidangoor.  On one such catch-up came to know of India’s World cup win in June 1983 by the way!!!.  It was difficult to say if we were indulged more at our Dad’s place or at Mom’s place.

In Kerala, time meanders normally, but as vacation comes to an end one always felt that time flew! As time to pack up comes closer, Dad appears to pick us up again. Grandfather gets busy to pack things up for each of the families.  Individual cartons are filled with fresh homemade Banana Chips, Jack fruit chips, Chakka Varatti (Jack fruit jam), Mango pickles,… Any vacant spaces in those large cartons were finally filled with coconuts!!! Now you know why Dad has to come all the way to pick us up – with all those cartons and luggage pieces to lug, as many extra hands were welcome.  Back to Island Express and back to Trichy – the vacation hangover goes on for a few days till the eateries get over.

I had almost the same vacation routine till my 10th std. when after that the tyranny of “Classes” began. The “Any professional course” obsession consumed my 11th std. vacation and in fact vacations after that. But still the vacation time is etched in my memory as some great time in the growing up years.  A sense of guilt engulfs when you seem to deprive your kid of the same. Don’t know- may be if our daughter were to write a post on her vacations 30 years hence, you never know she may write nostalgically about the Class after Class she attended and enjoyed during her vacation time or so one hopes!!!

vacationclasses-logo