Bangalore: Out of sight, not out of mind

By Nirupama Rajan

Bangaluru Official Logo

It’s been a little over two months since I left Bangalore (Bengaluru, if you really insist). I’m a whole continent away now – certainly too far from a hot plate of bisi bele bhaath for my liking. I’ve said this even when I lived there, but with this distance between me and the city that for the most part made me who I am, it strikes me more so that it is one that I’m incredibly partial to, even if only by force of habit.

Where I live now in Berlin, life isn’t too difficult to get used to, especially if your knowledge of the German language is enough to ensure you don’t go to bed hungry at night. The buses are on time (as are the people), the streets are clean and there are no power cuts- basically, I’m as spoilt as I can be in 2018. The two months that I’ve been here in Germany may seem like little compared to the twenty-two years I’ve spent in India, but I think I can safely say that whatever little “culture shock” I experienced on first arriving here will probably pale in comparison to what I’m going to face when I get back to India and its Indianness a year from now.

This is not going to be one of those things where I conclude by saying that at the end of the day, my heart is still hanging around in the country of my birth. I’m not really one to pine for the little things. I genuinely believe that the only thing I miss about India is how easy it was to go out and get a packet of Maggi for so little money (don’t blame me- I’m a product of my generation). I’m very happy being where I am today and I’m excited about where I might go from here in the future. Be that as it may, twenty-two years is a long time and it feels longer to think that they were all spent not in one place or school, but many – perhaps even more than what would be considered ideal.

By the time I was seventeen, I’d studied in seven schools in seven different places. From a remote convent school nestled in the hills of Ooty to a regular city school in bustling Coimbatore, from an ‘alternative’ KFI school in Pune to what was then probably the only English-medium school in Cuddalore, and from being in a class of nine students in a fancy boarding school in Chikmagalur to one with over a hundred (requiring teachers to use a microphone within the classroom) in a junior college in Bangalore, I’ve experienced schooling – and consequently, life – across a relatively large portion of the economic and educational spectrum.
If I had the discipline and/or the motivation to, I could write several books with five volumes each on the experiences that each of these episodes held for me. But the point I want to make for now is that despite so many schools and towns and homes and just so much furniture – moving isn’t easy if you do it almost every year, believe me – Bangalore and everything about it stands out for me as one of those things that can actually stand out.

It might take a village to raise a child but those children and the people that raised them play a huge role in shaping the very village itself. Now, I’m certainly not blind to the problems that plague the (somehow) still beautiful city of Bangalore. If anything, I was always screaming my lungs off back then about how we were doing everything wrong. Given half a chance, I still would. Burning lakes, steel flyover, Kaveri riots, wait for it… traffic jams (I’m still traumatised from the one time I was at Silk Board during peak hours) – I’m already exhausted and that’s just the memory of them!

In Berlin, you could lock yourself up in your bedroom for a whole day and you’d still somehow meet people from at least five different countries. The more I interact with all these fascinatingly different people and the more I interact with Indians here from all over India, it becomes clearer to me every day that despite all the previously mentioned misgivings, Bangalore is one of those cities that will stick around in your thoughts for a long, long time after you leave.

It’s the little things as much as it is the whole thing. It’s the feeling I would get when I would force myself out of bed on a Sunday morning and head to Cubbon Park only to find that half the city and their dogs were already there, running around come rain or shine, even if they’d spent most of the previous night in one of the bars dotting every street of the city. It’s the amazingly therapeutic quality of the rusty books and musty aisles of Blossom (the old one, especially) that could calm me down no matter what was happening in my life. The conversations with the owner at Pecos on Church Street until it shut down because of way too many power cuts, the way NICE Road felt under the tires of my scooter at 6 am on a weekend morning, the insanely long queues at Thaaza Thindi because that dosa was worth it and you knew it! It’s how you could mention Marathahalli traffic in casual conversation and only a Bangalorean would understand the hilarity of what you were saying. It’s the fact that I can go on romanticizing it all for a while yet and not regret it the slightest bit.

It’s all these things, but it’s also the bigger things – like the people and just how much they tried to care about everything. I’d always wanted to get rid of my Facebook account and I think the only reason it took me so long was how happy it made me to see that there was an active local community for every little thing, with members trying to improve the overall quality of their lives despite their long hours at work and longer hours on the roads. It was how I realised that Bangalore’s environmental and social problems are as prominent as they are simply because enough of its citizens are involved enough to make a hue and cry over everything that happens. It was the fact that I went to Jayamahal at 3 am on Valentine’s Day 2017 to paint white hearts on the trees to protest the Steel Flyover Project, expecting nobody else to show up so early, only to realise that we were already overstaffed. The problems may keep mounting, but the people keep trying to push back. And that effort by itself is an amazing thing.

It’s not easy to describe in words, but there is a certain innovative, creative spirit that thrives in Bangalore like nowhere else. The people are always ready to move forward and embrace the new. And it’s not just the start-ups and the infrastructure that are benefiting from this. It’s definitely no secret that Bangalore is currently one of the most progressive cities in India. You can start a conversation about the subtleties and nuances of feminism, gender and ecology, sexual liberation or human rights and fewer people will blink back in confusion than in most parts of the country. Despite the handfuls of naysayers here and there, Bangalore has for the most part always welcomed every kind of perspective and every school of thought. That is what made it one of the most cosmopolitan cities in India in the past and that is what allows it to be progressive today. No wonder it’s so crowded; people flock to the city for good reason.

At the end of the day, I guess what I’m trying to say is that Bangalore is a city with the potential to change you for the better, if you’re willing to let it. I mentioned this at the very beginning, but the city has played a huge role in making me the person I am today. It gave me the freedom to be exactly what I wanted to be because there would always be someone around who understood or at the very least, accepted it. I remember a friend of mine from Kerala once joked, “you don’t meet Mallus; they happen to you.” I say with a happy heart full of fond memories that the same can be said for Bangaloreans and the city they call home.

The other face of Goa

By Nirupama Rajan

Two years ago, I got together with a few of my friends and we went on that mandatory college trip to Goa. We did all the things that you would expect out of a typical Goa trip. We got an Airbnb house right in the middle of the party zone at Baga, walked along the popular beaches at night, sampled the food at all the famous shacks such as Britto’s and Curlies, checked out the clubs and the parties and drank our fair share of the free-flowing liquor. It was all fun and frolic, and certainly a trip to remember.

But when you take a moment and look out the window of your cab as you make your way from one club to another, it strikes you that Goa is a world of its own, and day-to-day life is as much a part of the tourist culture as it is indifferent to it. Goa is more than its parties. Goa is a rich medley of culture, history and natural heritage, and it was this that I wanted to explore on my second trip there this year. While my second stay was mainly in and around South Goa, there’s certainly a lot more to do than just party even in the north.
Here is a brief account of my favourite things to do in Goa, based on my two visits there.

The other face of Goa

Riding around

This has definitely got to be right at the top. If I could, I would happily spend the rest of my life on a bike just riding around Goa. Visually, it is stunning of course, but there is something in the air here that you can only really feel when you’re on two wheels with the wind in your hair. One moment, you’re riding through what seems to be a dense forest with plants of every shape and size, and then as soon as you turn a corner, there’s suddenly a huge river flowing on both sides of the road. From rice fields to mossy hills, harbours to old abandoned Portuguese buildings, there’s really no expecting what you might stumble upon as you’re riding around here. South Goa, especially, is a treat for the senses. I also like to stop and talk to the locals as and when I can, because there’s a lot that they can tell you. This time, for example, I learnt that all the houses that are brightly painted in yellow or purple are actually Portuguese houses and are repainted for Christmas every year!

Cavelossim Beach

I’m fully aware that that there are hundreds of beaches in Goa, many of which are clean and beautiful. For some reason however, I’m very partial to Cavelossim. The luxurious white sand at Cavelossim is a sharp contrast to the black rocks in the area, making it an absolute visual delight. It is also right by the Sal river and is surrounded by dense vegetation. The drive to Cavelossim is equally beautiful and takes you far away from the crowded roads. Cavelossim is one of the least crowded beaches in Goa, so you can truly let yourself go and revel in the salty sea breeze here. There are also several highly acclaimed (but slightly pricey) hotels and restaurants that you can check out around Cavelossim.

The other face of Goa

Cabo de Rama

The forts in Goa are as renowned as the beaches. While the famous ones like Aguada and Chapora are definitely worth visiting, Cabo de Rama would be my pick of the lot. Located in South Goa, it is actually a pretty small fort compared to the others, and you might even find yourself alone when you visit. What is most interesting about Cabo de Rama is that it was actually built by Hindu rulers before it passed into the hands of the Portuguese and later, the English. Most of the existing structure was put in place by the Portuguese, though. The drive to Cabo de Rama is beautiful like most in Goa and the crowning jewel would probably be the view of the ocean from the top.

Three Kings Chapel

The Three Kings Chapel, located in Cansaulim, is another gem from South Goa. There are many local myths claiming that it is haunted by the spirits of three ancient Portuguese kings who killed each other in that very spot, and if you happen to b there on a cloudy evening in the off season, you would be quite inclined to believe the stories. Haunted or not, there are some stunning views on offer from all sides of the chapel that’s located on a hilltop, and if you choose to hike up the hill to get to the church, that would definitely be worth it.

Basilica of Bom Jesus

This is probably as touristy as it gets, but I don’t think a trip to Goa would be complete without a visit to this ancient, globally-renowned Portuguese church. Whether you are religious or not, standing inside this 400-year-old World Heritage Site with its high ceilings, intricately detailed artwork and layers of history is sure to take your breath away. The church also houses the remains of St. Francis Xavier, and an exhibition dedicated to artefacts from Indian Christian history. For those interested, there is also a light and sound show on similar subjects at regular intervals.

Museums

The museums in Goa are probably as popular as the beaches. The Archaeological Museum of Goa, located right opposite the Basilica of Bom Jesus is a must visit. It contains hundreds of artefacts and relics not just from the Portuguese rule in India, but also from the Hindu history of Goa that predates the Portuguese rule. There is also a section that houses the portraits of several viceroys and governors-general of India. Two other museums that I believe you shouldn’t miss, and which are pretty offbeat as far as museums go, are Bigfoot Goa and Museum of Goa. Bigfoot Goa is an exhibition that is dedicated solely to the evolution of Goan culture. It is interactive, colourful and uses multimedia to give you a real insight into the Goan way of life and how it has evolved. The myth behind the name is also quite fascinating- go there and find out for yourself! You will also find several souvenir shops here. Finally, Museum of Goa is probably my favourite exhibition in Goa. More than a museum, it is a contemporary art gallery created and curated by the artist Subodh Kerkar. It is experimental and transitional in nature and brings Goan history and culture alive using materials found in the area. If you’re lucky, you might run into the artist himself while you’re there!

Are there other things that you found interesting in Goa? Let us know in the comments below!

Travelogue: Highway to Hyderabad

Nirupama Rajan

At around 5:45 am on 26th January, my friend and I set out from Bannerghatta Road with a goal that seemed slightly impossible at the time- to reach Hyderabad by the end of the day on our Honda Activas. In fact, I think secretly, neither of us really expected to get all the way there.

Life at SimplyGuest - Travelogue: Bangalore to Hyderabad

It all started a couple of days before when we realised that all our friends were traveling out of the city for the upcoming weekend. With nothing to do, we thought we’d take our scooters out for an early morning ride on one of the days. Until then, all our long rides had been shorter than a hundred kilometres, simply because we were riding scooters and not motorcycles. So, our plan initially was to just do one more of these – leave early morning, ride for a few hours, explore some town or village on the way and get back to Bangalore latest by lunch.

Our friend overheard us and began telling us stories of how he used to ride his TVS Jupiter to Chennai. The again, he was far more experienced than either of us so we weren’t surprised. We’re not sure how it happened – either we were inspired by his stories, or maybe spontaneity slowly crept into the conversation – but somehow we ended up deciding on an overnight trip. We figured we’d take the Mumbai highway, ride for as long as it was comfortable, halt for the night wherever we were and return the next day. Even then, we definitely weren’t considering anything like 600 kilometres!

That was around when we heard reports of the disturbances happening in North Karnataka over water issues, and we figured the Mumbai highway may not be our safest bet. So we decided to take an equally great road- the one to Hyderabad. We were on the phone that evening figuring out our action plan when I said, “Imagine if we actually made it to Hyderabad.” Both of us laughed it off then, but about five minutes later, we realised that’s exactly what we wanted to do.
We didn’t tell a lot of people about our goal because one, we didn’t know ourselves if it was possible, and two, we knew most people would just laugh at the very idea like we did initially, and we definitely didn’t want anybody dampening our spirits. Nevertheless, amidst nods of encouragement and expressions of concern – from friends who were either very ignorant or very experienced – we set out on our journey.

We had prepped ourselves and our vehicles as much as we could in one day (read my previous post for more information on the subject); I was riding an Activa 125 and my friend was riding an older version of the Activa (109 cc). Our first target was to reach Chikkaballapur, a town on the outskirts just after Devanahalli.

About ten minutes into the ride, we were struck by the realisation that it was much, much colder than we’d anticipated. Still, the very idea that we were able to be out on Bangalore roads at such high speeds thanks to the empty roads made the experience worth it. After picking up a helmet from a friend’s place (yes, that’s how last minute it was), we took a beautiful little inside road from there that would connect us to the Hyderabad highway at Devanahalli. After that, we figured it would just be one straight road to Hyderabad.

We hadn’t been on the highway for more than ten minutes when we took a diversion by mistake and got lost inside Chikballapur. For quite a while, it didn’t even strike us that it was a little strange to have so much local traffic on a highway. (I blame this on the cold-induced numbness of our minds). Anyway, long story short, we somehow mapped our way back to the highway, looked long and hard for a U-turn and were finally back on track.

By the time we finished breakfast at what seemed to be a highly popular joint near Bagepalli, it was around 10 am. We were honestly quite taken aback by how quickly time had flown by and started discussing the idea of stopping our journey at Kurnool by the end of the day – which would have been about 200 kilometres before Hyderabad.

The morning half of the ride was absolutely amazing. As the sun climbed higher into the sky, it grew considerably hot and our layers kept coming off; still, the fact that we were out in the middle of nowhere, with rocky hills surrounding us and an endless road stretching ahead as far as our eyes could see kept us in high spirits throughout. Well that, and all the Gatorade and Snickers we had on us.
By the time we crossed Penukonda and reached Anantapur, it was around lunch time. However, we figured we’d hold off on the longer breaks for when we really needed them and settled for a quick scoop of Belgian chocolate ice cream at a highway Thanco’s instead. Besides, a truck driver also on his way to Hyderabad had duly informed us at our previous rest stop that it would take us at least till 7 pm to get there; even though we had discussed stopping at Kurnool, I guess both of us really wanted to make it all the way to Hyderabad even if it meant riding late. Besides, by then, we’d spoken too much about Hyderabadi Biryani and Khubani ka Meetha to even consider not being able to gorge on these later.

From Anantapur it was on to Gooty and then Kurnool. This stretch was quite taxing because of the afternoon heat coupled with the fact that it was all barren land with not a tree in sight. My eyes were begging for something green and soothing to look at. In fact, even when we stopped to rest, we were both quite silent, preserving our energy for the ride. By the time we got to Kurnool, it was around 4 pm. We went off the highway and into the town because we both wanted a longer break and good lunch.

After scouring the streets for a while, we came across a big hotel with an attached ‘A/C Restaurant’ and figured that would be our best bet. After going to all the trouble of parking inside and everything, we were told that the restaurant had just closed because lunch time was over. Neither of us had the energy or the inclination to go out and look for another restaurant. So, we assumed the best ‘tired and pitiful’ expressions we could, and told the staff all about our “long and exhausting” trip, and how we’d practically eat anything they’d give us. I guess it worked because ten minutes later, we were sitting on couches in an air conditioned room – empty except for us – eating the best curd rice and mango pickle that money could buy. Sure, it was a lot of money, but hey, it was an exceptional circumstance.

The question that was hanging in the air was whether we were going to stop there (I mean, we were literally in a hotel- all we had to do was book a room) or go on to Hyderabad. It was risky, because we had a good 200 kilometres to go and the sun had already begun to set, but perhaps it was the curd rice that put us in such a good mood, or maybe it was the fact that we’d already come such a long distance. Either way, there was really no going back now. And thank god for that decision because right after Kurnool, we crossed the Tungabhadra river into Telangana (we stopped on the bridge for a quick victory picture), and from there on until it finally got dark, it was one of the most beautiful stretches of land that I’ve ever laid eyes on. We rode with the sun setting behind us, casting an orange glow on green hills and luscious paddy fields interspersed with scrub forest every now and then. It was so refreshing, we entirely forgot about our fatigue- it was like the start of a new ride!

Nirupama en route to Hyderabad
Nirupama en route to Hyderabad

However, all things must come to an end and this did too, when the sun finally went down under and nightfall was upon us. It was almost 7 pm by the time it got dark, and we still had 80-90 kilometres left. Having left the last big town behind us, we had no choice but to push forward until we got to our destination. It was scary and exhilarating at the same time – we weren’t able to see the poorly lit trucks in front of us until we were just behind them, and at one point our visors were severely attacked by a horde of insects attracted by our headlights, nearly cutting off our vision entirely. Still, we rode slowly and carefully and the first city lights came into view at around 8:20 pm.

We didn’t really have time to celebrate then, because as jubilant as we were, all we really wanted to do was get to a bed and get some rest. This wasn’t to happen for a couple of hours though, because we were going to stay at a relative’s place that happened to be on the other side of town, and by the time we adjusted to the city traffic, lost our way a few times, and made it there after more than sixteen hours on the road, it was 10:30 pm. Without thinking much about what we’d just accomplished, I cleaned up, ate and went to bed. It was only on the next morning, when I woke up to the light of a different city streaming in through the window, that it really hit me. To be honest, I still don’t have words to describe the feeling.

We made the most of our one day in Hyderabad- which essentially meant that we ate everything we could get our hands on, even though our original plan was to eat light so we could ride back comfortably the next day. But when again were we going to get the chance to stand outside an ‘Irani Café’ and sip hot chai from a saucer while simultaneously wolfing down freshly baked Osmania biscuits? And with similar thoughts in our heads, we ate tawa bondas, Karachi biscuits, biryani (although I was constantly reminded that my veg biryani was not actually biryani) and of course, the Khubani ka Meetha that we rode all the way to Hyderabad for! We finally ended our day with a slow drive by the Hussain Sagar lake and by the time we got home, I was already fast asleep in the car.

The next morning, we were up by 5 am and out on the road by 5:30; we wanted to make it back to Bangalore before it got dark. Once again, fuelled by the cold creeping into our bones, we rode at top speed, stopping at petrol stations to soak in the warmth and shiver a little! The journey back was quite similar in that it was the same mix of barren land and stunning views, sweltering heat and freezing cold, and as always, absolute exhilaration. We also had the best ghee idlis ever in a food plaza somewhere between Hyderabad and Kurnool. We met a large group of motorcyclists on Avengers around afternoon, and were later trailed by two random guys on a bike for a short distance, although we soon left them far behind (this was probably the only slightly scary incident of the whole trip).

Riding back is always easier and that was evident by the fact that we made it to Bangalore city limits in about 12 hours. By 5pm, we were already battling the evening traffic near Devanahalli, which is where my riding partner and I parted ways after spending three of the most exciting days of our lives together. Even as my legs turned to jelly out of sheer exhaustion and I practically hit every bump at top speed because I was still adjusting to the slow city traffic, all I could think about was where my next long ride was going to be to! Admittedly, as much fun as this was, I’m hoping that the next time is going to be on a motorcycle, simply because they’re better suited to long-distance riding. But whatever the case, one thing is for sure- this was only the very first of the many, many long-distance rides that I plan to take through the rest of my life. Once you feel that riding high, you’re going to keep going back to it!

On scooters and long-distance riding

By Nirupama Rajan

On scooters and long-distance riding

The idea of getting out of the city on a weekend for a long ride or drive is a very appealing one for most people. The grey stretches of highway that don’t seem to end even as the sun crawls along from one side of the sky to the other over your head, with only your vehicle for company – that is how I’d like to spend all my holidays. But while cars and motorcycles are usually the favoured modes of transport for such journeys, it’s not too often that you hear of people attempting to do the same thing on scooters.

Last month, my friend and I (both women) took this up as a challenge and attempted to ride the 600 kilometres from Bangalore to Hyderabad in one day on our Honda Activas. Not only were we successful in getting there, we also rode back all the way after a break of just one day in Hyderabad. And yes, our Activas were perfectly fine, and so were we!

I will be writing a follow-up post on the experiences of this particular trip, but before that, here are a few tips and ideas if you want to attempt something similar on your scooter. Keep in mind that these are just based on my experience as an amateur long-distance rider, and you should definitely talk to someone more experienced if that would make you more comfortable before you attempt to take your scooter out on the big roads.

Prepping your vehicle

This one is pretty basic. Make sure your breaks aren’t loose, and that your tyres aren’t balding or anything. If you use regular air in your tyres, get them emptied and filled with nitrogen. Punctures on highways usually are a result of tyre overheating, and nitrogen is a good way to reduce the chances of this happening. Speaking of punctures, while we faced no such issues on our trip, it is always safer to get a basic puncture kit and learn how to use it. If you’re stranded in the middle of nowhere with no spare wheel or mechanics nearby, it will take a while for you to get any help- and you won’t even be able to reach your destination. Ideally get your scooter serviced a few days before the trip. That way, you will be able to figure out any post-service issues well before you get out onto the road. Make sure all your lights are working well, because you might need them to communicate with your riding partner. Buy some reflective tape if you think you might have to cover some distance in the dark. Finally, make sure you’re carrying at least 1 litre of extra petrol on you; there are often long stretches without any fuel stations and you don’t want to run out in these areas.

Prepping yourself

As far as riding apparel is concerned, I’d recommend wearing layers that aren’t too heavy. That way, you can keep warm in the early hours, remove a couple of layers when the day gets warmer, and put them back on in the evening. Make sure you’re wearing full sleeves and full length pants to prevent sunburns (also, do not compromise on the sunscreen). Wearing a neck warmer (I just wrapped a cotton scarf around my neck) definitely makes dealing with the morning cold easier. Comfortable shoes are obviously advisable. Wear a balaclava, bandanna or something similar under your helmet because you’re going to be wearing it all day and your hair will definitely bear the brunt of that otherwise.

If you think your helmet visor isn’t enough, carry a pair of sunglasses to help with the glare from the sun when it’s in front of you. Hand gloves are a must, in my opinion. Get light ones that won’t get uncomfortably warm, but will still keep the skin on your palms and fingers intact.

Also, scooter seats aren’t exactly engineered for long distance riding. To steer clear of seat burns, I simply placed a cotton cloth folded several times over between me and the seat. You could use towels, dupattas or anything like that.

To be able to really enjoy your ride, you need to be comfortable throughout. And for that, it’s important to know yourself and your body. Everybody has different needs and you should be prepared for these. For example, I know I have weak wrists, and coupled with the lack of cruise control on Activas, I could have had a very tough time riding without wrist support. For someone else, it could be weak knees. So assess yourself and cater to your individual needs. Even if you don’t know what you require, you can always explain your condition to the people at a sports store (I favour Decathlon) and they can help you out.

It can get quite difficult to judge speeds accurately on the highway
Photo by Jake Blucker on Unsplash

With regard to food and water, take high-calorie items that don’t occupy too much space and won’t spoil. Energy drinks, nutrition bars, biscuits and chocolate are good options. Chocolate especially- my bars of Snickers kept me going every time I felt even a little tired. Make sure you have at least 2 litres of water with you, and keep refilling these whenever possible. Equip yourself with sanitizer and tissue (wet or dry) as well- you never know when these will be useful when you’re travelling. Most importantly, carry a well-stocked first aid kit as well as your personal medication, if any. However, store all items under the seat, in front, or figure out a way to secure it to the back of your seat- even if a backpack seems light initially, it can strain your shoulders later on.

Other things to keep in mind on the road:

Scooter engines tend to get overheated with continuous use at high speeds; so it’s recommended that you don’t exceed a speed of 65 km/hr., as much as possible, however tempting it might be to break that rule (on the highway, even if you’re speeding, it can feel like you’re crawling at a snail’s pace) More importantly, stop for about 10 minutes after every 80 minutes or so of riding, at least. Try to take these breaks at fuel stations so that your vehicle can recover in the shade and so can you. Rest your eyes well while there.

Apart from almost always having functional washrooms, an added bonus is that you can get a lot of information about the route ahead, the nearest restaurants or towns and such from the employees at the petrol stations.

Even if you don’t want to plan out the nitty-gritties and want to just “go with the flow”, I would still recommend that you note down the names of the major towns en route and their distances, especially if it’s your first time. This can come in handy to figure out your food breaks, as well as to handle unforeseen emergencies.

Be careful when you overtake vehicles or when vehicles are overtaking you. It can get quite difficult to judge speeds accurately on the highway- and this is especially true for cars, but also for speeding trucks. Trucks in particular can be quite troublesome at night because several of them don’t use quality reflective tape and you don’t realise their presence until they’re right in front of you. While on the subject, avoid riding in the dark as much as possible. If there’s no other way, be alert (keep in mind that if you’ve been riding all day, this can be quite a challenge), reduce your speed and ride straight. Align yourself by watching out for the markings on the sides of the road.

Being aware of the sounds and smells coming from your vehicle can help you figure out if something goes wrong. Ride with your visor down as much as possible, and if it gets covered with insects around the late evening, you’ll only make it worse by trying to wipe it with your hands. Stop somewhere, and clean it with tissue and water. Be watchful for people trailing you – unfortunately, this is quite commonplace if you’re a woman rider in India (speaking from my experience as well as others’). There are emergency phone booths at very regular intervals on the highway, and it would also be sensible to make note of the emergency numbers listed on the boards en route. Once you reach your destination, it can be quite difficult to suddenly adjust to the traffic and the lower travel speeds, so be alert and ride with extra care.

If this is your first time, get somebody else to come with you (for safety and for company). Ride on separate vehicles though, preferably. Keep hydrated and calm, and follow lane discipline along with all the other traffic rules out there.

Honestly, motorcycles are definitely more comfortable for such long journeys, but if you can’t get hold of one, having only a scooter shouldn’t stop you – your vehicle is capable of more than you think! At the end of the day, it’s perfectly alright if you don’t make it your destination. Your safety is your highest priority; you can always stop at the nearest town if you’re tired or if it gets too dark, and start your journey again the next day.

Feel free to contact me if you have any questions on this subject; if I can’t answer them, I’ll direct you to someone with more expertise. Be safe, and happy riding!

Of tea, rolling hills and so much more

Rolling hills of Ooty

On hearing the name Ooty, several things are likely to come to your mind- rolling hills, cold weather, hot tea and of course, remnants of a British occupancy. For centuries now, Ooty has been a frequented destination, especially during the summers. Over these years, the town has changed beyond recognition in ways both good and bad. However, it remains a coveted holidaying location for youngsters and families alike. Some of us, though, are lucky enough to call this beautiful place home! So if you are planning to visit this ‘Queen of the Blue Hills’ as it is fondly referred to, here are some of my favorite things to do as a resident, that will hopefully help make your trip a memorable one.

The drive to Ooty from Bangalore itself is a great one. Take the Mysore-Bandipur-Masnagudi route, and you will be blessed with some great views of forests and valleys. You are also very likely to spot several wild animals including deer, wild boar, and elephants as you drive through Bandipur-Masnagudi. As you start nearing Ooty, chances are high you will drive through and over massive clouds, especially if you come in around the evening. Once you are here, you will be tempted to drive or walk around a lot more even if nobody expressly recommends it.

Take the roads on the outskirts- far away from the hue and cry of the town, they also offer stunning views of the surrounding valleys and tea estates. One of my favorite driving routes around the city is the road through Chamaraj Tea Estate. There is also an artistic little tea stall here where you can sample all the tea flavors that Chamaraj produces in its factory a small way down. Beware of the bison population in this area though; they don’t usually do any harm, but be careful nonetheless. Do take a walk to Valley View in Lovedale- you will be able to look into the valley for miles around, and if you’re lucky, you can also catch the famous toy train emerging from an old tunnel.

Speaking of which, if you have a day to spare, take a trip on this train. It goes all the way to Mettupalayam, but you can take it to Coonoor at least if you can’t make it the whole way. The Nilgiri Mountain Railway is renowned all over the south for the route it takes- through forests, plantations, beautiful terrace farms as well as some springs and waterfalls. The going will be slow because the route has a lot of twists and turns, but the views will make it worth your while.
True to its tourist-destination name, Ooty has several attractions on offer for visitors- the Rose Garden, the Ooty Lake, Doddabetta (which is the highest mountain peak in Tamil Nadu), heritage schools and properties among others. Two of my favorite places to visit the town, however, is the Government Botanical Garden and the Ooty Main Market.

The Botanical Garden is one of Ooty’s oldest establishments, and it attracts lakhs of people during its annual flower show every summer. If you are okay with such massive crowds, this is something you shouldn’t miss. If you’d rather avoid that though, I’d suggest visiting just after the flower show. A lot of the more exotic specimens will still be on display, and you can enjoy the place in peace sans crowds. To be honest, visiting the place any time of the year would be worth the effort. It is a massive property with several winding routes lined with trees and flowering plants of every kind imaginable. You can spend hours here just walking up and down these paths. There are also several artistic displays within the park, as well as a museum dedicated to the Todas, the local tribe of Ooty.

The Ooty Market, on the other hand, is a whole different world. Every time I visit, I am overawed by the sheer visual appeal of the place. Ooty and its surrounding areas are blessed with fertile soil and the kind of cold climate that best suits vegetable farming. Ooty is particularly famous for root vegetables like carrots and potatoes. Farmers from all around bring their produce to the market every day and the colors you will see here make this place a photographer’s dream come true. There are whole alleys dedicated to selling just fruit, or only bananas or even just dozens of varieties of garlic. Speak to the shopkeepers as much as you can- they are purebred locals and can tell you so much more about Ooty and how it’s changed over the years. If you like broccoli, stock up on it while you’re here- you’re unlikely to find it being sold so cheap elsewhere in South India!
If you want to venture a little further outside of town, it’s a good idea to drive down to the Avalanche Lake and Wildlife Sanctuary. While it’s unlikely that you will actually spot much wildlife during the daytime, the safari offered by the park officials takes you through some very lush forest areas and you will be able to stop by the crystal clear Avalanche lake as well as see plenty of the shola forests that formed the original landscape of the Nilgiris before the British more or less eradicated them with their tea and eucalyptus plantations. Luckily for us, however, several organizations are now involved in proper reforestation of these areas using indigenous species.

When it comes to food, Ooty has something for everyone. If you’re looking for something old that Ooty is famous for, look no further than Shinkow’s- it is Ooty’s local Chinese establishment that has been operating for several decades and has even been featured in movies like Kapoor and Sons. The Culinarium and the Frugal Gourmet are some of the more high-end options that are recommended by locals. The Culinarium is the place for you if you’re looking to sip on some beer and indulge in some to-die-for desserts (for craft enthusiasts, there is a Pony store attached to the restaurant that will take care of all your needle-and-thread needs). Nahar is another local favorite, whether you’re looking to eat some good old South Indian breakfast or a sumptuous North Indian thali for lunch. You could also check out Pankaj Bhojanalay- though its prices are much higher than what they used to be decades ago, it is still rated one of Ooty’s best restaurants on TripAdvisor and is excellent for its unlimited Jain thalis.

My favorite restaurant in Ooty however, would have to be The Place to Bee. An initiative of the Keystone Foundation in nearby Kotagiri, this place operates along a “slow food” philosophy. As the term suggests, it stands for everything that fast food doesn’t- healthy, clean food that is locally sourced. And the cherry on top is that the taste of the food will blow your mind! They serve mostly Italian cuisine, and you will not go wrong with any of their pizzas or pasta. I also strongly recommend the cheesecake and the pannacotta from their dessert menu that is served with a seasonal sauce (I am quite partial to the mango in summers). The restaurant also has a bee museum of sorts as the foundation is heavily involved in working with native honey-collectors. It will also be worth your while to visit the well-stocked store under the restaurant that offers you several organic, locally sourced food, cosmetic and cloth products.

Even after so many years of continuous tourism, there is a lot more to discover in Ooty. The place is a different shade of beautiful each season, so except during the rains when landslides make it entirely inaccessible, you can actually visit anytime; just make sure you have plenty of warm clothes and sunscreen regardless of the season (it is actually unbelievably easy to get sunburnt during the daytime here, especially in winters).

Ooty, ultimately, is a melting pot of cultures- Tamilians, people from other parts of India who have been settled here for generations and of course, descendants of the native tribes. There is so much more to this place than what it has become famous for. See for yourself, put in that extra effort to peel back the layers and look at what you might find. Interacting with locals will help you here. Above all, be a responsible traveler- do not litter and respect the privacy and culture of the residents.

Do let us know what you like best about Ooty in the comments below!

The Cubbon Park Experience

The famous Cubbon Park is one of the most favoured haunts of several citizens of Bangalore- whether they are humans or dogs. A brisk run or a leisurely walk in the park in the early hours of the morning is bound to leave you feeling refreshed and in high spirits for the rest of the day or maybe even longer; those of you who visit the place often will know exactly what I’m talking about here.

Photo by Duffy Brook on Unsplash

If you’ve been in Bangalore for a while now, I’m quite sure you would have made it to Cubbon at least a few times (I refuse to accept the possibility that you haven’t). If you are new to the city, however, and are wondering where to start exploring, pick a weekend and drop by Cubbon Park in the morning- I guarantee you will instantly fall in love with both the park itself and with Bangalore for being home to such a beautiful space.

So first, a quick lesson on the place and its history. Established as long ago as 1870, the park is located in the central administrative area of the city and has several entrances to it (such as from Kasturba Road, Corporation Circle etc.). It was originally intended to be a 100-acre park in the middle of the city but has expanded to become much bigger over the years- a refreshing piece of information in a city that has become infamous for rapidly losing its green cover. Fun fact- it was originally called Meade’s Park before becoming Cubbon Park, and also officially acquired the name of Sri Chamarajendra Park in 1927 to commemorate the Silver Jubilee of the Wodeyar rule in Mysore.

The park is lush with all kinds of greenery- according to official reports, it houses over 96 plant species. Cubbon Park is also the address of several important governmental and non-governmental offices. Some of these include the High Court, the Museum building, the Central Library and the Press Club. As you walk around the park, you will also stumble upon several statues, some of the colonial ones dating back to the early 20th century.

The park is closed off to vehicles on Sunday mornings so that people can exercise or walk their dogs without the obstacles of traffic and noise- as a runner, this is why I prefer going on Sunday mornings. Moreover, the park is just buzzing with energy on the weekend mornings because of the sheer number of activities happening. Being there to witness it all and to soak in this energy along with the Sunday morning sunlight is a feeling that I’m finding rather difficult to express in words. I would definitely advise you to get out of bed and visit Cubbon on a Sunday morning, especially if it is going to be your first time there.

Cubbon Park
Cubbon Park

Weekends also see the park hosting several events- fitness related and otherwise too. There are at least a few marathons happening at the park every Sunday morning; these could be running, walking or cycling marathons. A quick look around social media is sure to let you in on the upcoming ones. These marathons are often corporate affairs, used as a promotional strategy by businesses, but you also find several activist groups running for social or environmental causes- see if you can find something that you would like to support and join the gang. Other fitness events that I’ve seen happening in the park include zumba, aerobics and so on. More often than not, you can register for these events on the spot as you walk in on them.

Even if you aren’t that much into fitness and exercise, Cubbon Park has several other kinds of activities to offer you; there are often photography walks, portrait painting workshops, city exploration walks as well as classical dance and music performances happening at the park on Sunday mornings- it’s a really good thing the park is big enough to let all these things happen simultaneously without obstructing each other!

Dog Park

At the end of the day however, the one major thing that actually draws me to the place is the dog park. Every Sunday, people from all over the city bring their dogs to Cubbon Park, where they have a designated, closed off space to run free and wild, and play with other dogs and humans. Even if you don’t have a dog, you can still go into this enclosure and play with all the lively, affectionate dogs there. The park is truly a dog lover’s heaven!

Another exciting thing about weekend mornings at Cubbon are all the fresh produce and food. Steamed and grilled corn are favourites among the crowds, as are the fresh mango and grape juice bottles that you will find being sold at several spots inside the park- they’re perfect for after your long and tiring run! There are several stalls including HOPCOMS that sell fresh fruit and vegetable produce and the crowds are usually quite dense around these locations. Several health food companies also set up counters to give you samples of their products—the taste of a ragi (finger millet) malt drink that I had from one of these counters after a run some weeks ago still lingers in the back of my mind! And if you aren’t particularly inclined towards any of these, there are some restaurants near Cubbon Park that are big crowd favourites for South Indian breakfast- my picks are Airlines Hotel and MTR.

People go to Cubbon Park for several reasons, and however different these motives may be, the fact is that there is something for everyone at Cubbon Park. Whether you want in on the energy and vibrancy of the place as you practise for that upcoming marathon, or you want to play with dogs of every size and breed imaginable, or you just want to spend some time alone, walking under trees that are several decades old and breathing the refreshingly clean air, Cubbon Park is sure to fulfil your wishes. Get yourself there and see what you find.

Let us know what you like about Cubbon Park in the comments below.

Meeting a troupe of romantics

Qawwali performance by Ustad Ateeq Hussain Khan Bandanawazi and his troupe, Bandanawazi Qawwal

On the evening of November 17th, stories of Laila-Majnu, and the words of Kabir and Amir Khusrow came out to play at the auditorium in IIMB campus on Bannerghatta Road through a Qawwali performance by Ustad Ateeq Hussain Khan Bandanawazi and his troupe, Bandanawazi Qawwal.

The troupe, having previously performed at events like the Delhi Commonwealth Games and the International Sufi Festival at Turkey, took the audience through a two-hour long carnival of emotions with their music- frivolous one moment, and sombre the next. Of course, while the music may have been enjoyable in its own right, the conversational tones it took on so often, coupled with the wit and humour of their lyrics made one realise just how much beauty words can create if you just string them in the right order- much like pearls fit for a queen.

The couplets – designed to delight – were mainly in Hindi and Urdu, with a little bit of Persian. As each rhyme neared its end, you would wait for the punch line, because you knew that it was coming and that it was going to be good. The singers also doled out bits of information every now and then about Sufi culture in general, enabling one to appreciate the art all the more. Another interesting fact about this troupe was that while Sufism might be Islamic in its origins, they also sang songs of Krishna, lending a rather secular image to the group.

The singer and his troupe of wise romantics, as I like to call them, seemed to have created their own world and were letting us, the audience, into it for one elusive evening. As he sang, he was in turn a devotee, a preacher, a romantic, a wise guy and a broken heart. And while they may have been sitting on the floor, they sang with their whole bodies; if their words were saying something, their hands, tablas and harmoniums were echoing the very same message.

That passion, perhaps, was what was most prominent that evening. Music may be described in several ways- but if I had to pick, instead of referring to intricacy or finesse, I would call the performance one of raw emotion. And as a member of the audience, their energy, their fun and their state of ecstasy was absolutely contagious; even if you were sitting still to begin with, you were inevitably moving to the patterns, rhythms and repetitions by the end. It was as if a game was being played between the singers and their audience, each one passing the baton to the other with their responses. Every time the music was accentuated by a jubilant exclamation or a carefree laugh, the audience rejoiced alongside and every time their voices soared towards the end of a couplet, you felt your spirits soar with them.

The ensemble was rather minimalistic in terms of instruments, with the harmoniums and tablas being their only accompaniments. However, coupled with the consistent clapping by the performers and audience alike, it was the perfect complement to the chorus of voices, while the weight of the performance was borne in essence, by the words and their content.

The tabla had its moment of glory towards the end of the performance when all other voices and instruments went silent to let its commanding beats echo off the walls of the auditorium. The troupe performed several crowd favourites as well, including lines from Chaap Tilak (of Coke Studio fame) and Mast Qalandar. Even Bollywood found a place for itself that evening in the form of an authentic Qawwali rendition of Khwaja Mere Khwaja.

All the revelations about life and love that emerged that evening made the whole affair feel like a light-hearted conversation about weightier issues over a steaming cup of Suleimani chai. And while their words and expressions may have made the troupe seem like observers of and commentators on life, it felt as if ultimately, all they were trying to say was, don’t take life too seriously; make music of it instead.