13-Feb-2012

Birthday goosebumps

On Friday evening, I could barely keep my excitement down. I had been informed by D earlier in the week that we were travelling in the weekend to celebrate my birthday on Sunday. I would know the destination on Friday evening on the way to the airport and all I had to do was pack a suitcase.

Anyone who has known me for a while now knows that I really love celebrating my birthday. While most people have the standard birthday parties in childhood, with cakes, chips, gifts and friends, advancing age scoffs upon full-scale birthday celebrations.

Not me.

Somehow the charm of having one special day when everyone remembers you and is super-nice to you has never worn off. (And before you roll off your chair laughing, please remember that there were greater freaks than me. Like King Akbar who had the whole kingdom celebrate his birthday)

I was secretly hoping that nothing hectic was involved and we would just chill out. As it turned out, that is what D seemed to have planned. On the way to the airport, he said we were going home to Chennai. I was thrilled and promptly asked what further plans were. D looked uncomfortable and said that he assumed I would be just happy going home. Er...I was hoping to chill out but not so much.

I immediately called up various friends to make plans to meet on Saturday night. Most of them seemed to be busy with something or the other. I rounded up exactly one person and even she was free only for an after-dinner drink.

Never mind. I was going home and I was happy with that. D told me that my sister knew (the master actor had been cribbing all along about a busy weekend with work commitments) but not my parents. It would be a surprise for them as well.

So we landed in Chennai and reached home at 11 p.m. and rang the bell, waiting to surprise the folks. Instead when the door opened, I was the one surprised to see mom, dad, sis and bro-in-law all smiling and standing in a room decorated to the hilt. My birthday was turning into a whole weekend of being treated special.

Saturday was pleasantly spent in the Sis’s house, eating and playing cards. On the side, I tried to persuade a couple of more friends to meet me but no luck. Besides, we were scheduled to go for a family dinner and I was not sure how enthusiastic I would be afterwards.

Come evening, my normally ‘we shall get ready atleast an hour before we are to go to any place’ family seemed to be lazing around. My dad was strutting around looking quite pained with an important courier guy who was scheduled to come and was holding up our plans. Sis and bro-in-law had landed up with a mysterious packet that definitely contained a cake box. Aha, I had caught them smuggling the cake into the house for my birthday the next day.

Around 7.30 the bell rang. I appeared at the door and lo behold. Standing there, smiling was a whole bunch of my Chennai friends.

I gasped in surprise, barely registering the happenings. Everyone gave me a hug and then busily proceeded to chatter and laugh while I sat quite stunned.

I had been cribbing for a few weeks now about missing Chennai and not meeting my friends and not spending any time with the Sis (Atleast the parents had visited me quite recently). And D had come up with the wonderful idea of whisking me off home for a cosy, little celebration.

The evening wore on with everyone chatting and catching up. I felt like a little kid all over again, sitting in her parent’s home among streamers and cakes and chips (albeit with wine instead of mango juice). I excitedly opened up the cute gifts everyone had given. Electricity played spoilsport. Yet, our talking continued unabated in candle light. Dinner was served in candle light as well, providing an unexpectedly charming atmosphere.

When I hit the bed that night, I slept with a grin on my lips. And when I woke up the day of my birthday, I was still grinning. Who couldn’t after such a lovely surprise party? I could not have asked for a better birthday gift. Especially after having spent the last few months annoyed by minor health irritants and unable to just enjoy the moment.

Perspective dawned huge and wide – when you have such a thoughtful spouse, a wonderful family and great friends, nothing else really matters.

The rest of the day went into chatting with family, catching up with friends who called and generally eating more than one should.

So a memorable birthday it was. One that will linger on in my mind and put a grin on my face long past the celebration.

08-Feb-2012

Modhera and Patan

These two places have been on my list for a while as well but I had heard mixed reviews. Firstly because the places are not as well publicized as, say a Hampi, I was not sure if the architecture was worth checking out. Secondly, various reports said that the maintenance was poor.

As it turned out both these misgivings proved unfounded.

From the Little Rann of Kutch, we landed up in Patan in less than two hours. On entering Patan, we began to make our way to a Gujarati Jain traveller’s guesthouse that a friend had booked us into. Said friend is originally from Patan and when googling did not throw up any well-reviewed hotels, I had turned to him for help. Little did we know that we would stand out as non-Gujju, non-Jain, city slickers.

This being a community guesthouse, there was no obvious reception area. An efficient lady managed operations from a small office filled with kakras and bill registers. In the ground floor was a massive hall with various ladies, loudly gossiping while rolling out kakras for commercial sale. People drifted in and out, past us, looking very busy till a loud aunty kindly and excitedly showed us to a room upstairs. Later I realized she was just another guest but had decided we would be best out of the way and settled into a room.

D and I settled in and after taking deep breaths, plunged into the world of loud and alien chatter to figure out where lunch was served. It was a street away and we joined a family (including the kind aunty) already munching their theplas away. The traditional grub was great. However, every time one of the kindly servers spoke to us in Gujarati, we looked so utterly flabbergasted that everyone was too worried to tell us anything. Which is perhaps why at the end of a highly subsidized meal, we were not asked to pay the bill. This actually unsettled us a bit. It seemed rude imposing ourselves through our stay.

Post lunch, we set out to explore the neighbourhood. The side streets were tiny. Cycles and three wheelers squeezed passed each other with barely a hair’s breadth of gap. To add to the melee were cows. They walked around as freely as people, lazily chewed garbage and were occasionally slapped on the rump by a disgruntled passerby. I must have plastered myself to the walls atleast thrice to avoid them despite their docility.

The main street was a lot broader, with more people and more cows and a lot more noise. After jumping out of the way several more times, we ended our stroll and made a futile effort to take an afternoon nap through the sound from the kakra factory below.

By 4, we were out again in an autorickshaw, on our way to Rani Ni Vav. This is a step well built sometime in 1020 A.D. by Queen Udaymati in memory of her late husband Bhimdev.

Water was a scarce commodity in those parts and a step well was a massive (and I suspect popular) public project undertaken by many rulers in Rajasthan and Gujarat. The step-wells got fancier and fancier till they reached the epic proportions of Rani Ni Vav where the well was 7 storeys deep, with each layer filled with elaborate carvings depicting scenes from the Ramayana and Mahabharata, and a large approach area that was also massively over-carved. Whether they made good wells or not, atleast the structure made for some enjoyable gazing.

The site itself is located in a lush green park that one finds in all UNESCO World Heritage sites (Rani Ni Vav has applied for the status) and beautifully maintained. D and I shamelessly tagged along the only guide in the vicinity, who had already been engaged by an important looking couple. We spotted the ten avatars of Vishnu, saw carvings of court ladies getting dolled up and admired various other statues.

After seeing the step-well from various angles, we sat down in the park and relaxed to the noise of birds singing. After the hustle and bustle of our temporary residence, this seemed peaceful, almost meditatively so.

The meditative break ended when we got back to town and decided to live it up by going to Patan’s most famous restaurant – Hotel Alpha. A hot Gujarati meal was available and it whetted my appetite considerably, till I spotted a huge rat jumping at one end of the room.

The next morning, we were up early for a car pickup at the crack of dawn. We had been told about a beautiful spot where peacocks, monkeys and various birds congregated. Despite the January chill, we enthusiastically followed our guide, Manish Bhai (Everyone is something-bhai or something-behen in Gujarat).

The place was another ancient tank called Sahastraling and was a two minute walk away from Rani Ni Vav. Morning walkers were beginning to pour in and we watched as some of them fed the monkey biscuits. Unlike the aggressive monkeys I have seen in the past, these politely took the biscuits offered. The sight was amazing.

As we walked around the tank, we realized that loads and loads of peacocks were also busy eating food thrown by walkers. I have never seen such a congregation of peacocks and it was mesmerizing to see them pecking away, taking off, hopping about and be their natural selves.

Everywhere we went, we could see the sight of people peacefully feeding the birds and the monkeys and dogs. Apparently the same show is repeated in the evenings around sunset.

Much refreshed by this unexpected show of harmony, D and I made our way back to the guesthouse and got ready for the next stop – Modhera.

Modhera is a temple dedicated to the sun god and built by King Bhimdev. The architecture is beautiful and the sandstone carvings can keep you occupied for a long time, provided you have the patience to figure out what a scene depicts. Our Hindi speaking guide did the spotting and explanations for us. Unfortunately with no English speaking guides, we could see the handful of foreigners who had turned up just gaze with no context.

The Modhera temple also has a wonderful tank with 108 small shrines on the steps leading to the water. The garbage which is rumoured to float around in the tank had been cleared up on account of a visit by Amitabh Bachhan the previous day for a tourism promo shoot. Lucky us to have come right after his visit. Not only was the vicinity spotless, we had also missed being barred from entering since the govt authorities had taken it in their heads to allow only foreigners during Big B’s visit.

After an hour of admiring the work, we set off to Ahmedabad, with a quick stop at Mehsana for lunch.

For those who do have a Gujarati Jain friend to help out with accommodation in Patan, the option is to stay in Mehsana, which is 25kms away from Modhera. Or if one does not mind a little more travel, then Ahmedabad is 100 kms away. The usual itinerary is to visit the Modhera Sun Temple in the morning, have lunch and then visit Rani Ni Vav. I would add a visit to the Sahasraling Tank at sunset.

04-Feb-2012

Litte Rann of Kutch

Visiting the Kutch area had been in our agenda for a while. So when January, the best season to get there rolled along, we decided to make the most of it. Thus began the research.

Kutch is a large area and the first choice is between visiting the Great Rann of Kutch (of the white soil fame you see in the Amitabh Bachhan promos airing on TV) and the Little Rann of Kutch. We decided to go to the later since bird watching is supposed to be great in Jan and also because we had no specific preferences.

There were four resorts which seemed popular –

Royal Safari Camp in Bajana

Rann Riders in Dasada

Camp Zainabad run by the Desert Coursers

And the offbeat Devibhai Dhamecha’s Eco tour camp in Dhrangadhara

It was equally painful eliciting an immediate email response from all four. In the end, based on availability we chose Royal Safari Camp. Set in a plain, arid land with a horizon that stretches uninterrupted for miles around, it was not a bad choice. Our only company was a railway line and a highway through which goods vehicles passed through various times of the day. The nearest rail station for the first three camps is Viramgam, though with Ahmedabad being a two hour drive away, most people just come in a car.

Infact, all these camps tend to be favourite hotspots for the Ahmedabad crowd. We shared the camp with a group of people on a company offsite (and hence prone to organising games late into the night).

The place was decent enough. The only quibble was that food was served really later than we would have liked but that was probably driven by the schedule kept by the Ahmedabadi crowd.

The main attraction was a safari to the Wild Ass Sanctuary. There are 4000 specimens still roaming around and unlike your regular donkeys, they look beautiful with white coats and brown spots. They ran away shyly everytime we tried to get even slightly closer to take a snap. It did not help that a boorish tourist crowd nearby kept making these funny noises asking where the wild animals were and one of them volunteered to mime a tiger so others could laugh and get snaps (Did they really come all this way without knowing what to expect..?

The sanctuary also had its fair share of birds, with flamingos standing out in the crowd. A pink line stretched from one end of a lake to the other. We cursed ourselves for not having gotten a pair of binoculars or the good camera instead of the point and click one. Atleast we had got our bird book along and got excited when the jeep driver pointed out Shirkes, pelicans, barbetts and so on.

The safari also took us to salt pans where a family lived in isolation watching the salt evaporate. Through summer, they would live like this till the salt is all packed off. Before the rains turn the place into a marsh, they pack up and leave. Salt pans and a small hut next to each one, dotted the landscape. As we drove back, the sun began to set and we could watch it go all the way down the empty horizon.

After a one night stay, we were ready to move on to our next destination. It would have been good to have stayed one more night to visit the nearby Nal Sarovar bird sanctuary but otherwise there was not anything else to do. Besides I had foolishly carried along only one book and finished it, hence general lolling around was out. Still it was a cheerful little stop.