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Tuesday, December 24, 2013

5 Places you should definitely not go on Christmas dressed up as Santa Claus

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 All in fun, folks, so just enjoy the stereotypes.

1) Punjab – So, you are sitting in Punjab and decided that Christmas is THE festival you love, even more than the dirty, wet Holi and that noisy Diwali. And to express your opinion, you decide to dress up as Santa. You imagine yourself wearing that red suit, fake white beard, carrying a sack on your back, yelling “ho ho” to all and sundry.

Do not commit the folly of introducing yourself as Santa. Chances are that they will mistake you for the man of 'Santa Banta' fame and beat the holiest of holy crap out of you for being the man who invited so many jokes on the community.

2) Kerala – There you were sitting on a houseboat in the placid backwaters of Alleppey, sipping on coconut juice. A kingfisher swoops down gracefully into the water.  Within seconds he comes out flabbergasted and disheveled, because what he thought was a cute, benign little fish, turned out to be highly drunk on toddy and had made up its mind to do an Arnold Schwazanegger on the next Predator touching its fin. Next, you shift your gaze to the coconut trees on the bank yonder, but something is missing. A Christmas tree, perhaps? Oh how the kids would like to see Santa Claus with a bag full of toys. 

Excited, you go to a costumes shop and ask for a Santa suit. Of course they give you one. Just that its bottom ends above your knees, like a kilt, a dhoti, or as the locals say ‘mund’. No, don't be a Kerala Santa okay? It would be quite disconcerting to see you on a sled, skidding along with your reindeer, and everything that was essential to your reproductive capabilities, lying right out there for everyone to see. Front view. Ayyappa! 

3) Gujarat – The philanthropic person that you are, you decide that it wasn’t just your kids that you want to treat as Santa. You want to extend your generosity to your Gujju neighbours too. And you hand out a nicely wrapped gift to the man in the adjacent house. Contrary to your expectation, he lets out a bloodcurdling cry, a “tamari ma ki”, jumps eighteen feet high in the air and smacks you on your head. Cookies can go to hell, he wants a dandiya for a gift. "Maaro daandiya kidharchu," he screams. He already has 18 pairs lined up in his cupboard, but, please, a Gujju with 19 dandiyas is cooler than one with 18. “Samajh padtee?”

4) Delhi – Sitting on your sled in Delhi road traffic? Chances are you’ll pick up a fight before you reach the first red light, be appraised of how many politicians your opponent knows
and had dinner with the previous night ("Saale Santa, tu jaanta nahi mai kaun hu!!!!"), and then get shot. And your reindeer, well, will get molested.

5) Goa – Goa is safe, Goa is fun and Goa has super Christmas spirit. But Goa is Goa. Where we sit on a beach, or a club in Baga, or lie stoned on the road claiming that we are Mahendra Singh Dhoni. You can parade around as Santa, as Paris Hilton or as Manmohan Singh. We just won’t care, bro! We are Sushegaad!

Merry Christmas, sweetness(es)!

Sunday, December 15, 2013

The Elephants at Pinnewala: Man versus Wild

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 You can judge the heart of a man, by his treatment of animals.’

A roar emanates from the crowd as the first of the lot comes from around the bend. Heads turn excitedly and expensive cameras start clicking everywhere. The vibrations in the earth make our hearts race.

The land looks like this. There is a river, the banks of which are sloping. There is no mud near the banks, it is all rocks. High up on the rocks, there is a narrow lane, on both sides of which are shops. From my position down below, I can only see the Café perched at the very edge of the rocks. It’s balcony commands the best view of the river.

It is from this lane that they are now coming. A few men are running in our direction, screaming at anyone who is daft enough to stand in the way. Their green shirts reveal that they are in uniform. A few of them have sticks in their hands.

We have all been standing here for the past half an hour. The ones who came first took their positions near the river.  Others stand on the rocks. I turn my gaze away from the path, to the people in the café. Standing in the balcony with their mocktails in their hands, they seem like a privileged class watching the proceedings from the galleries. A few feet ahead of me, a stone’s displaced, maybe by a restless foot, and hurtles down fifteen feet into the river.

Look mommy, elephant!” a young boy screams.

Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to the Pinnewala Elephant Orphanage in Sri Lanka.

And we have been standing at the riverside, waiting for the elephants to come have their daily 11 am bath. Scarcely has the boy exclaimed, and they come into full view. There are eight or ten or them, no, that looks like twenty, my mind tells me, racing to count the heads.

To be honest, I am not overwhelmed, let alone being scared. I am from India. Back in my state in Kerala, there are plenty of elephants and I have always adored the specie, these lovely gentle giants. Of course, I have never witnessed the animal’s legendary rage or the havoc it can wreak when perturbed.

The Pinnewala Elephant Orphanage is one of the most visited tourist spots in Sri Lanks. It was established in 1975 to provide sanctuary to baby elephants orphaned in the wild. With 88 pachyderms in 2011, it is now the largest elephant captive breeding ground in the world. Like many others, we have driven down from Colombo to Pinnewala, and after spending a couple of hours here we shall set forth for Kandy – Sri Lanka’s cultural capital.

The facilities at the main ticketing reception impressed me. The notice boards are helpful, the floor spotless.

They elephants complete the fifty odd metres of the lane and are now on the rocks. With each step they take, the din in the crowd becomes louder. Many here have never seen an elephant before. An atmosphere is being built, second by second and it is all happening subconsciously, through the murmurs, the buzz and the craning of necks. Short men and women stand on their tiptoes to look above the heads. Kids are being lifted on shoulders. The mahouts are not smiling or lapping up the attention though. For them, this is daily routine. Work.

As the first of the herd walks down the rocks, I am surprised to see the animals’ nimbleness. They walk easily on these uneven boulders. All around me, a thousand cameras start clicking all at once.

In a matter of minutes, the herd has assembled near the river.  All the mahouts are yelling commands. There are huge fat iron chains on the animals’ legs. I am disappointed but I suppose it is necessary. A few questions on freedom flit around my mind. The chains are needed so that the animal does not run away. But, so what if it runs away? Why should it be captive at all once its health is recovered? Are they looked after when they are young only so they become a tourist spectacle at a later stage. Are the authorities doing anything to rehabilitate them back into the wild? It reminds me of Thailand’s famous tiger temple. Magnificent tigers, drugged, walking around like docile kittens, on leashes, people and friends posing with them.

A whoop of joy from the crowd breaks my reverie. A naughty elephant has filled his trunk with water and sprayed it all over himself and his mahout.

Some seven eight elephants are being bathed at the same time. The rest of the herd is tethered at the banks, awaiting their turn. I can only concentrate on their chains.

Soon enough I realize that tourism’s darker face has cast its shadow over this little village too. In most parts of the world, manual labour has never found financial appreciation, and Pinnewala is no different. The mahouts are desperate to earn some quick money. So, they are going up to tourists and telling them that they will let them pose next to the elephants and take pictures, for a small fee. Want to feed the elephant a banana? Pay an extra 100 LKR. Want to touch the giant? 100 LKR again. Those who just come and stand without paying are rudely spoken to.

It seems that the mahouts can profile the visitors too. They know it is the white man, who will pay them for these little treats –  to personally touch or feed the elephant. So they keep hounding this breed of tourists. A young American couple splash some water on an elephant and the mahout immediately asks for money. The two walk away, disgusted.

Near me, an elephant looks uncomfortable. It doesn’t take an Einstein to figure that it is standing half on rock, half on water. It wants to adopt one surface, and tries to move but so strongly is it tethered that it is unable to move at all, or help itself. It keeps raising one leg in the air, but loses balance as it tries to move forward. It should fall, but so strongly is it chained that it can’t. I look around for a free mahout. They don’t understand my language. I point at the elephant but they are not interested. They know that I am here only for today so maybe I care, but they have been here, every day for years. They can’t be bothered by an elephant that is in momentary discomfort. It is not a moment though. The elephant stays in that one spot for twenty minutes, groaning and snorting.

An Irish woman is as furious as me. Irritated, we walk over to the post where it is chained and try to loosen the bonds only enough for it to move a few feet. It’s a bad idea. Immediately half a dozen mahouts are upon us shouting and yelling. We try to tell them that we aren’t trying to play hero here, but they aren’t listening. Can’t blame them, if the elephant hurts us, it will be they who lose their jobs.

I have had enough, and like Pontius Pilate, I choose to wash my hands off this affair and leave. I walk back over the rocks, and saunter past the shops on the roadside. They are all selling elephant merchandise – tees, hats, bandanas, figurines. Like everywhere else in Sri Lanka, here too people greet you with a smile.

An old man who has been eyeing me for some time beckons me. He takes me into the largest shop on the road. “Not a shop, sir, it’s a factory. Let me show you how we recycle elephant dung and use it to make things.”

I walk inside, into the rooms and see  the processes  - dung procurement,  collection, processing, drying, cooling and its conversion to paper. In a little room at the end, they are selling a number of recycled products – ashtrays in the shape of an elephant’s leg, pen stands, colour pencils, diaries, paper – everything made from natural dung. It’s beautiful.

Twenty  minutes later, when I come out, the elephants are being walked back from the river to their stables. The shopkeepers come outside, and everyone is smiling. I walk to my cab and we are on our way to Kandy. I can’t stop wondering if tourism, again, corrupted what was once a good initiative. A few questions of freedom flit around my mind.

                                                     ---  The End ---

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Tuesday, December 10, 2013

How (and why) To Go To Antarctica!

Top post on, the community of Indian Bloggers
Why should we go to Antarctica?

Click on a travel website, and they shall tell you ‘for the Emperor Penguins, for the icy glaciers, for the stark and pristine landscape, and for its virgin nature.’ But could that be the only reason why we want to visit a land, where the weather can change in a matter of seconds, where visibility can reduce so drastically that you might not see your hand ahead of you, where the snow can bite through every layer of cloth and cut into your skin as would a knife.

In 1773, Captain James Cook and his brave crew became the first men to cross the Antarctic Circle. In 1820, a sailor claimed to have “seen Antarctica” from his ship afar, and 20 years later, Frenchman Jules-Sébastien-César Dumont d’Urville became the first person to set foot on Antarctica.

So wrote Ernest Shackleton in a newspaper ad, as he prepared for a journey to Antartica in 1907, “Men wanted for hazardous journey. Low wages, bitter cold, long hours of complete darkness. Safe return doubtful. Honour and recognition in event of success.”

In his quest to reach the South Pole, Shackleton used ponies instead of traditional dogs. He pioneered a new route along Great Beardmore Glacier and crossed previously unexplored latitudes. However, the journey was full of suffering and as one pony fell after another, the expedition threatened to be a death march. With just 97 miles left to the South Pole, for the safety of his men,Shackleton had to take the extremely difficult decision to turn back. When his wife asked him, later, why he returned when he was so close to the Pole, he replied,

My dear, I thought you’d rather have a live donkey than a dead lion

One of the greatest of human expeditions then happened in 1911 when Robert Scott and Amundsen set out on a race to see who could reach the South Pole first. In this case, the word ‘race’ must be looked at very differently though.

They tramped and they trudged through blizzards, through deteriorating health, through snowstorms, and through hell. As they lumbered and fevered, some gave up and returned, while some died. When Scott finally reached the pole, Amundsen’s Norwegian flag had already been fluttering there for five weeks. While returning, Scott and all his four companions died of the bitter cold, frostbites, snow blindness and an unimaginable physically painful exhaustion.

Scott’s last diary entry puts the journey in perspective – “Had we lived, I should have had a tale to tell of the hardihood, endurance, and courage of my companions which would have stirred the heart of every Englishman. These rough notes and our dead bodies must tell the tale.”

Exactly a 100 years later, in 2011, there were 26,509 visitors to Antarctica.

Pic Credits: Bryn Jones
No longer does the world have to set sail for this continent from England or Norway, as once upon a time did those brave men called Scott and Amundsen. Today, it is not rocket science to figure out what is the best way to go to Antarctica. The world has been charted out. Open a map, and the countries that lie closest to it are Argentina and Chile (in South America), South Africa, and the Oceanic nations of Australia and New Zealand.

The most popular (also least expensive) route to reach Antarctica is to take a cruise from Ushuaia, a small city on the southern tip of Argentina. Travelling from New Zealand is more expensive, whereas the number of cruises from Cape Town (South Africa) are still very few.

The regular price for a 11 day cruise ship tour of Antarctica can vary from USD 3000 to 4000 (INR 1.7 – 2.2 Lakhs) during the off season, to USD 5000 during peak season. There are longer 3 week itinerary tours available too

But do note that itineraries can change even in the middle of a trip, depending upon the weather. In the world’s last discovered continent, it takes merely moments for a calm breeze to change into a blizzard. If one is terribly unlucky, you will not be able to make a landing even once during the trip (There is no ‘good season’ to travel to Antarctica but February – March and November – December are the favoured months)

In Antarctica what apears to be heaven one day could be hell the next. The landscape is overwhelmingly beautiful. Chillingly terrifying too.

 For you can be covered in layers and layers , but you shall still never be warm . For it might be the best place in the world to take photographs, but in the blistering cold you shall refuse to touch that camera. Every gust of wind that hit your cheeks might feel like a hundred needles. Every step you take on land, you shall be aware of your foot, your pounding heartbeat and your heaving breath. How much closer can one get to absolutely living in the moment?

Apsley Cherry-Gerrard, the assistant zoologist, in Scott's ill fated expedition to the Pole, wrote a book soon after the survivors returned to their country. As he writes of minus 70 degree temperatures, howling winds, deep crevasses, endless darkness and hopelessness, one can only imagine the incredible suffering these men went through. As wrote a modern reader in his Goodreads review, 'The sufferings heaped on the members of Scott’s second polar expedition make the ordinary misfortunes of modern life –- the fender-benders, hangovers and breakups –- seem like pleasant diversions. There are passages in this amazing memoir where the reader, appalled, begins to suspect that these men were collaborating on a metaphysically refined form of self-destruction'

In 2001, National Geographic published a list of the 'The 100 Best Adventure Books of All Time'. Cherry-Gerrard's book was ranked one. It's name?

'The Worst Journey in the World'

Which brings me back to my question. Why would we visit Antarctica?

The answer lies in our souls. For the human race shall always pursue, and bless it for that, the  unfamiliar, the unexplored, the unknown and the inaccessible. When Scott, Shackleton, Amundsen, Hillary, Cook, Colombus walked into the unknown, they knew they were putting their lives at stake, , that they may not return, yet the unquenching thirst for knowledge, the spirit to conquer the unknown, the thrill to discover drove them. And it is because of these burning, unshakable elements in the human spirit that they created history, and made it easier for others who followed, eventually opening the gates of tourism to all that had once seemed unreachable.

Today, we, the tourists, the travellers might not be able to match Scott and his likes in their bravery, but we must recognize their sacrifices. It might be much easier for us to walk on the trails that they so wearily chalked out, but some of those elements that resided in Scott's heart stay in us too – we are as fascinated by what is foreboding just as Scott was, we want to see a penguin in the wild too, we want to be the first among all our friends to see the southernmost country in the world. We are no different from Eve – we want to eat the apple too. We are, but human.

Pic Credits: Bryn Jones

From 1953 to 2000, in forty seven years, less than 700 people had climbed Everest, and in the ten years after that, over 2500 people (most of them with the dozens of guided tour operator groups that now operate in the mountains of Nepal) reached the top. Seems like a horde, doesn’t it? Seems wrong, doesn't it? Are we sullying, defiling lands that were meant to stay in a particular manner? Today Ladakh, Greenland, Antarctica all seem to be pristine and pure. They might not be so in twenty years from now. So, should we go there?

In the words of Jean-Baptiste Charcot,

Why then do we feel this strange attraction for these polar regions, a feeling so powerful and lasting, that when we return home we forget the mental and physical hardships, and want nothing more than to return to them? Why are we so susceptible to the charm of these landscapes when they are so empty and terrifying?”

Pic Credits: Bryn Jones

                                                         ------ The End -----

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Sunday, December 8, 2013

Couchsurfing in Goa : The House near Toff Toff's

Top post on, the community of Indian Bloggers

Disclaimer: This story is being written for two reasons. One, to get more people to know about Couchsurfing in India and hopefully use it for the objectives it stands for, and secondly, to counter an article that has recently created some sort of furore by insisting that Couchsurfing is basically one of the best ways for men to get laid with ‘exotic women’

September ’12: It had been almost a year since I was reading about ‘solo travel’. Being an extrovert I really could not fathom why I would ever enjoy travelling alone. But here I was reading blog after blog where people who had travelled solo had raved about it, spoke of discovering themselves and insisted that the experience changed them. The whole thing fascinated me.

Then, I was introduced to the Couchsurfing website, a forum for travellers, where when you travel to another city you can ask the website members of that city if you can stay with them. It is a fun way to know a new person, see a city through their eyes and know their culture. It gives a slightly less touristy dimension to travelling.

Must try it when I go to Europe, I decided. But what if I don’t enjoy solo travelling or couchsurfing. A month in Europe is certainly not going to be an inexpensive trip.

Goa? You are going to Goa ,alone, for four days? my friend asked me incredulously. And I gave him a wise nod, or maybe a solemn one. Neither worked, he thought I was daft.

I looked up the website for couchsurfers in Goa. And I have no idea why I chose to pause at Karen’s profile. If statistics be brought into play, she had already finished college before I was born. As I scrolled past a few pretty profiles, and came to her pic, she lay neck deep in a marsh, with only her face sticking out from the mud and an impish grin writ large on her face. She had to be fun. I clicked on her page, and the testimonials tumbled one after the other.

I contemplated over the mail I should send. Would I be too bold if I were to suggest that I would want to stay over at her place? According to Couchsurfing etiquette, not at all, but then it was my first time on the forum. Also, I am not used to sending mails to women lying in marshes.
It was a dark, stormy night. Stormy because I hadn’t had any dinner and my stomach was letting out small roars, like a lion cub does, to convey its feelings on the matter. And dark, for my bedroom light had just gone off, and I quote ‘thwack’.

I told her that I would be in Goa for four dates and if she would like it, we could meet up. And having done that, I gulped down the remaining dregs sitting of my tea. It felt like the right gesture at the moment, gulping the dregs. One must always be manly at difficult times like these. Julius Caeser must have done the same when he stood at the river Rubicon and screamed ‘Alea jacta est’!

Come over to my house, and stay here. No problem at all. But I am very busy this week. So don’t mail me, just send an sms the day you leave for Goa” came the reply.


Ten days later, I was standing at Delhi airport and messaging her that my flight would reach Goa only at 10 pm, that I would not want to inconvenience her in the night, would stay at a hotel and then come over in the morning.

Don’t bother. Just come. I might be out for dinner with a few friends, so I’ll leave the key under the door. You can either relax at the house, or join me and my friends after leaving your bags.”

Was she for real? She was leaving her house keys at the mercy of a rank stranger? What did she know about me except for the stuff she read on my profile? There are people in India who leave their houses to strangers even when they aren’t there themselves? I know I have dimples but still.

Thanks Karen. I think I’ll just stay at your place. That way I can steal your things and leave before you get back

Hahahaha! I’ll be too drunk to notice any disappearance anyway. Alright, see you later tonight!”

All through my time at the airport, and in the flight, I was convinced that there was no Karen whatsoever. That the moment I’d enter the house, four men would jump me, pin me to the ground, tie my beautiful biceps up, and send a crisp ransom note to my family in Kerala. The worrying part was not that. I am not sure if my father would pay to have me back. A friend sent a nice two minute video of Dil Chahta Hai, where a pretty girl called Christine robs Saif Ali Khan off everything, leaving him only in his boxers.

And as I expected, I never saw Karen that night.

Three hours later, when I landed in Goa, an sms flashed in my inbox.

Going off to sleep Delhi boy. You can call up Oksana, my Russian couchsurfer. She will open the door for you.”

The male in me whooped that now there was an Oksana in the picture. Let’s see, would mum be okay about a Russian bride?

An hour later when I reached Baga and messaged Oksana, she said she was with a friend at a bar and I could join them there. So I trooped on, bags in tow, to Baga Beach and sure enough met up with the light eyed Oksana, Kroot – a pretty Estonian, and Atul – a half German half Haryanvi.

I love, that in that small table, in that small beach bar, we were a small United Nations group ourselves. At 330 am, we decided to call it a night and Oksana and I walked back to our house. Just outside the lane, stood a small pub called "Toff Toff's Pub". I liked the name.

Karen was fast asleep when we walked into her house. Her house was lovely though, plastered orange and yellow all over, cushions galore, and lots of pictures. I stopped to stare at a black and white picture taken years back. As a twenty year old, she had been awfully pretty. I was instead greeted by another girl, a lovely black dog that galloped right into my stomach and without as much as a formal introduction, and demanded I tickle her ears. I figured she must be as friendly as Karen, though in all fairness Karen never demanded I tickle her ears.

 Oksana showed me my bed, a comfy mattress with a bright bed sheet and a hundred cushions. As we said goodnight and I lay to sleep, Shinzy (and henceforth we are going to call the doggy by her name) kept her paw on my stomach and looked inquiringly. “My lucky day girl, we seem to have hit it so well that we are even going to sleep together on our first date,” I told her. She lay there besides me for a couple of hours, smelling distinctly doggy-like. Thank heavens for blocked noses.

The next morning I saw Karen. Her entry wasn’t exactly likes the ones we see in the movies, no breeze or flying hair, no lilting music. She came out of her room, bustling with enthusiasm, full of beans ready to take on the world and a new day. When she saw me, she smiled broadly and we hugged, lightly. Within moments she was telling me all, about the website and her experiences with hosting other travellers, about her work with the gully kids, about the cancer that she had had and conquered. A few kids soon came running into the house, and she scolded them just like school teachers always do.

She told me that she was taking out sixty five street kids to a beach where they would learn recycling, and that I could either join them or chill at home. And if I chose the latter, I’d have to let the dog and cat out once every four hours. I replied declaring that she now had sixty six kids who would love to learn how to recycle.

I couldn’t stop smiling . Her level of trust in a rank stranger astounded me. As a country, is India that secure? It also made me wonder if so many of us had actually become cynics. The simplicity of it all made it all complex in my head.

Her bathroom was the loveliest I have ever seen in my life. There were a bunch of sketch pens lying on the sill above the wash basin, and on all the walls, people who had stayed over at Karen’s house had scribbled the most wonderful wishes for her. Full length mirrors on all sides in the bathing area just added to the vibe, not to mention that they made me jump in consternation at the sight of myself when I turned on the shower.

I asked her later how many people she had hosted on Couchsurfing.

200 in seven years.”

Right. “And how many times were you robbed, or had an unpleasant experience?”

Once. A guy stole my laptop. But you know Neeraj, its okay. If in 7 years, I met over a hundred good people and was robbed only once, I think I am going the right way.” I really do not know anyone who can disagree.

Soon we were all carrying large boxes to the bus that would take us all to Benaulim beach, and even while we walked she kept talking. When we were back in the evening, the door was open and there was a new person cooking inside. When I looked puzzled, she laughed and told me that there were over fifteen people in Goa who had a key to her. Later I got to know that her maid would not charge her money, nor would the cook. How could anyone, when she educated their children for free, played with them all day, got them books and toys, and let them run free in her house.

It was staying with Karen, couchsurfing with her, meeting her friends and other couchsurfers, that later pushed me to do the same in Europe. For over a month, I couchsurfed in towns all over Spain, Italy and Croatia and made some fantastic friends. Of course, a number of people meet up, get attracted and might end up as friends, lovers, or more. But that can happen from Facebook, Twitter, school or college too. To call Couchsurfing a a sex or hookup app is probably a very short sighted way of seeing things. It is in my belief a very good way of seeing the world.

 Over the four days that I lived in Goa, I have very fond memories. I remember it for the conversations with Atul, two men sitting on the beach and talking about life as they always had. I remember it for Kroot – the twenty one year old girl who had been travelling solo for over a year and was now urging me to take the plunge and I remember it for Oksana – the crazy photographs we took. I remember it for the kids who drove me mad running to me and showing me all the recycled hats they had made on the beach.

But it is the ease with which Karen let me and a hundred other people enter her house and world is the pleasant puzzle, I am yet to figure out.