Sunday, 8 January 2017

My encounter with the King of the Jungle in the wild allures of Gir Forest

The sun hadn’t dawned bright, but it wasn’t dark. Early morning hours, four of us packed in our car set out for the much awaited road trip covering Saurashtra. The entire route had been planned and by the end of it, well orchestrated. Having covered Dwarkadhish, Porbandar, Somnath and Diu, charting a total distance of 760 km already, we were all set to hit Sasan Gir and say hello to our next adventure. 

Sasan Gir spelled excitement. As the destination approached closer, anticipation and hope got the better of me. Although I had heard stories of people getting lucky with the spotting in Gir, I couldn’t help wonder if I’d be among them. Known the world over as the last home of the Asiatic lion, the stakes were high and I could feel the adrenaline rush right from the word go.
We crossed the Sanctuary Reserve area and made our way to the lodge amidst the dense jungles. The resorts were lined, one after the other and as each one passed, we were restless to stop by ours – The Gir Jungle Lodge. After a bottle of cold drink and initial formalities, we were escorted to our rooms. The place gave a touristy feel, lined with tents and standard rooms with open fields on the other side of the accommodation area. We freshened up, and later basked in the sun, seated in the balcony area overlooking the open rice fields. 

Next, we geared up for the drive to the Gir Forest National Park. A couple of minutes’ wait at the counter, and we were set to wade past route no. 3 and into the wild. The safari started with the guide acquainting us with the do’s and dont’s, and re-assuring us of his sincere attempts in trying his best to spot the jackpot – lion in this case. Like he was going to cuff the poor (pun intended) animal by his neck and magically make him appear before us like a wizard. Not particularly interested in stopping by for long hauls, we quickly went past the spotted deers, black buck, sambars, and blue bull. Our eyes were watchful and our ears sensitive to even the slightest movement in the dense jungles of the Gir Reserve. Having already been to Ranthambore and Sariska, it wasn’t our first drive through a wildlife park, yet we were hopeful as one is at the start of every journey, particularly if it involves the chance of a hands-on encounter with the wild beast. 

From one to the next, the guide’s sagas of how lions are always spotted in pairs, to the time when it is most likely to spot one, kept us engaged and riveted. About fifteen minutes had passed by; we saw a pride of spotted deer cut across the trail we were following. A few minutes later, I heard my dad making sounds of hush and shush as the vehicle made its way through the curve bent. A second later and my dad who couldn’t help contain his excitement, started showing a thumbs up. My confusion turned into disbelief as I saw the mighty creature leading the trail on the track ahead of us. It took me some time to come to terms with the fact that there it was, a pride of lions leading the trail – two female lionesses and two male cubs. Silence engulfed us, at that moment even the sound of the camera shutter sounded deafening.

The guard warned us not to make even a sound. The vehicle was trailing behind the mighty beast, like a servant obeyed its master. The forest guards on their motorbike ahead of our jeep, and the magnificent pride ahead of them, it was like a procession led by a ruler. Scared as I was, I couldn’t help admiring the magnificence of the creatures who ruled the jungle. Each time one of the heads turned to look on at the intruders of their space, my heart sank. My only prayer was to come out of this experience – alive!!  

The mother went and sat in the shade of the nearest tree. The driver halted the jeep, and we found our moment to capture the magnificent creature in all its glory. The sojourn continued for about 10 minutes until the forest guards signalled the driver to wade past the pride and make its way into the forest. And so the driver picked up speed and forayed into the trail ahead, almost as if the code of the jungle had been broken. The wilderness screeched disobeyence, and the mother didn’t seem pleased. We caught the last glimpse of the pride making its way into the interiors with our jeep rushing past. Moments later, I found myself engulfed in the ecstasy of what I encountered seconds back. I was a storm of feelings – ecstatic, grateful, relieved, overwhelmed, and above all, feeling lucky! My emotion of feeling blessed and lucky was reaffirmed some time later, when the guard reiterated that rarely does one find the entire pride, that too at such close quarters. They are generally found sleeping or spotted in some interior of the dense reserves, especially during that time of the day.

The guard started with another saga, this time about the probable reason around its appearance out of the blue – search for food and water. Although in my heart I was convinced that nature had played its role in being instrumental to His mighty visit in our presence. It was a part of a larger universal plan. The remaining safari was only a drive through the forests, our major agenda having been achieved, though we enjoyed the sign languages and the murmurs that the drivers of other vehicles shared with ours about the secret whereabouts of the King of the jungle. Each driver stopped and in their local language asked if we had spotted the lion.  Once it has been spotted, no one is allowed to share information regarding its whereabouts.

As the safari drew to a close, those 10 minutes of the 2 hour drive flashed before my eyes, and I could feel the gaze of those eyes piercing through the dense expanses of the jungle. Last couple of snaps with the driver and the guide, and we were officially done with our last leg of the Saurashtra tour. A full circle, the journey had indeed ended but the memories lingered on, this time with a
loud roar!

Friday, 18 November 2016

10 things I learnt on my trip abroad that no book/guide can ever teach

1. That I can survive without a local SIM/data pack and still tour about 7 countries

Yes, this one’s for real in case you thought I was kidding. Might sound stupid, but I DID survive without a data pack and local SIM on my phone. Despite the suggestions, advice and all prior research done on the local SIM cards available, portability etc. I ended up not getting one simply because the hostel and public wifis pretty much sufficed. This allowed me to pre-plan my routes, tourist spots and manage my coordinates beforehand (for open areas that did not have wifi). But it came with it cons too. Not having a connection meant not being able to coordinate with friends always. At other unfortunate times, it also meant getting on the Flixbus to Prague without the third friend on board, and thereby borrowing other passengers’ phone to make calls, and using payphones that didn’t work. Thankfully the friend got on another bus, re-united with us at the halt-over at Dresden and we all made it to Prague, together!!  ‘Back to golden ages’, she rued.
So while I managed without one, for such reasons I wouldn’t entirely recommend it, particularly to someone who is travelling alone. 

2. That the language of camaraderie is understood by all 

My belief in human camaraderie was re-enforced with the umpteen interactions I had with strangers, mostly for helping me out with directions. Whether it was the encounters I had in Berlin with the two ladies who pulled every string, looking at the map in my hand so I could take the right trains (U-Bahns) to reach the concentration camp, or the old man in Paris, who reassured that we were on the right train. Our hosts at the Air Bnb accommodation particularly in Vienna and Venice were exceedingly sweet and chatty. Clearly identifying us as tourists, there were other encounters where the regular customers at the supermarket in Paris probed about our nationality to the local shopkeeper. The guesses were as wild as someone thinking that I was from Armenia (later translated to us). I am highly curious till date about what must have been the prolonged conversation in exotic tongue that ensued between the gentlemen at the supermarket. 

 3. It’s never too late to drop a word of compliment

This one was particularly refreshing, after all, who doesn’t like compliments! So this one incident happened when we were travelling on the U-Bahn in Berlin for one of our shopping errands to Alexander Platz. A young looking guy sitting right opposite to us was keenly observing us talk. At first, it was uncomfortable with someone sitting right across, picking up on what we were talking but later when he probed it all made sense. This guy was from Pakistan and his first question was if we were from India. It was easy for him to guess that we were yapping away in Hindi. The words that followed left us all flabbergasted – more so because none of us was expecting it.  He remarked with a spark in his eyes, that we all looked so beautiful. It wasn’t so much about the compliment but the genuineness and the wide-eyed smile with which he said it. It was so profound that I can never forget his face and the encounter. Takeaway: Be nice and kind, and never forget to flash a smile, sometimes even to a stranger. 
4. That I can lose my way to find one back - all by myself 

Talking about losing ways, there seemed no end to it. But the most horrendous and dreadful incident happened with me at the worst ever places that it could – the Sachsenhausen Concentration Camp, on the outskirts of Berlin.  A secluded place by itself, I ended up being the last one out of the camp. With no buses around and a useless phone (without data) in hand, I asked every soul in the remote land for the way back to the train station. Panicky and frantic I heaved a sigh of relief once I reached the station, a few kilometres away from the camp. The map had become my good ol’ friend by now and there was no looking back. I’m glad I lost my way, at least once, no matter how horrific it was given my state of mind, freshly defined by the gory sights of the concentration camp. It almost felt like I was running away from being trapped there.


 5. Hellos, thankyous and goodbyes never go out of sync/style 

This big lesson came aboard the local train in Paris. Seated next to an old man, I confirmed the next station with him. He was quick to pass off a rather unkind statement – ‘What has the world come to!’ Seconds later I gauged that I forgot my hello, hence the nasty remark. Note to self: Get the hellos right before jumping into a conversation. The best and the worst goodbyes also came along this trip. The last day of summer school was particularly nostalgic – a final goodbye to people and places that had become home so soon.

      6.  That you can shop till you drop but there may never be an end to it

No matter the numerous errands to Primark in Alexander Platz, there was always this one thing you missed to pick up on the previous visit. Mall of Berlin, Postdamer Platz, flea markets, souvenir shops  were all inspected and scrutinized for the best bargains but there always remained something you missed to pick up for someone new on list. Bottom-line: There is no end to shopping, pick what you like at the first instance and move on. You ought not to miss out a rainbow, a seething sunrise, a walk in the park for an extra hour gone mad shopping.

7.  Make hay while the sun shines 

There can never be anything truer than this saying. The friends I made in the summer school, and off it, the happy evenings in the biergartens and parks, the warm and fuzzy hotel stay, interactions with the profs there, living the rich German history, embracing the sights, smells, sounds and tastes through my senses pan countries– everything added up to magical. For that one month, I was like a sponge absorbing everything around me including the sun or the lack thereof in certain countries like Brussels and Amsterdam. But the sun - it always did shine!

8. There’s never really anything to beat a good meal, a fancy bath and a sound sleep

After all the sight-seeing, heavy travelling , sights and smells exploding, it always felt nice to be back home - the youth hostels/air bnbs while travelling / Citadines Apart’ Hotel while at Berlin. The comfy beds, warm-water guzzling baths, and the good food was the least that was needed to cast a smile on my face and fill my heart with content.


     9.  There’s a fine line of difference between Air BnB’s and youth hostels but both have their own charm

Youth hostels and Air Bnbs both have their own charm. Youth hostels allow interaction with fellow hostellers from different countries, some doing unconventional things, others living like a hippie; travelling from their savings. It also gives you a perspective on how people from other countries travel differently. Prague/Paris to me was certainly not the same as it was to my fellow roomies in the youth hostels I stayed in. The air bnb experience largely depends on your Air Bnb host. While our Air bnb hosts in Vienna and Venice were extremely sweet and helpful, our hosts in Rome were a little uptight and kept to themselves. Our host in Venice for instance was a localite and even offered us to take his boat for a ride through the Venetian waters all for 50 euros. We would have jumped at it only if we knew how to ride a boat! He later obliged us though with a glass each of the local spirit ‘aperol’ at a local bar and an unmatched Italian accent. 

10.  Alas, nothing lasts forever!

This is for keeps and I find myself returning to this one everlasting lesson in life. So while you are having the best moments of your life - laugh it off, gulp it down, make your days count ‘cause nothing lasts forever - not even your trip abroad. 


Saturday, 8 October 2016

The Piped Dream: Paris

As I am seated at the Dubai airport, hopelessly waiting for the information desk screens to reflect our boarding gate number, half droopy and half excited, I can’t help but work on my first account of the Europe diaries.


Starting early morning from Pune, we reached Bombay only to be welcomed by the famous (not) Bombay rains. A smooth check-in and immigration was followed by a meal at Burger King to satiate our hungry selves. The excitement reached its crescendo when we lapped ourselves on the airplane, running an hour late, with the choicest menu from Emirates on our platter. The white wine bottle (now carefully preserved) in particular caught my fancy. With my eyes fixated on the movie ‘Martian’ playing on screen, I couldn’t help but draw parallels between the NASA mission to Mars  juxtaposed by the stranded hero 'Mark Watney' and our flight launching into infinity and beyond... Into the land of dreams, lights, and where a million eyes blink at the sight of the majestic Eiffel.
Dubai was a brief halt and officially my third visit although only a touchdown at the airport this time around! Oscillating between brief periods of sleep, inactivity, hunger and endless waiting, we scouted the terminals for freebies at food counters available on the 'Emirates Meal voucher'. Shwarmanji and Costa Coffee were thus selected after much research and many rounds about the food court. As we were transitioned from one terminal to the next, a queue of Airbus 380 lining the airport caught our attention. Minutes later, we boarded onto this giant of a beast, and were only too happy to proclaim it as the best airline experience by far.

Landing at Charles De Gaulles, we quarried our way from the information desks to the train tickets queue ensuring that we were on the right train. The first sight of the city streets embarked a spark upon our tainted, tired faces, as we strolled across Gare Du Nord in the oxygen-rich air.  With ‘Vintage Hostel’ board in sight, we beamed at the thought of a baggage-free self. Since there was time before our room got readied, we went strolling about the nearby streets in the hope to explore a Paris we had never seen. And surprised we were!! 

The first encounter

A walk past the by lanes, we came across a man juggling tumblers and wooing his audience urging them to spot the tumbler under which the ball rests. It was only minutes later that I found my friend falling trap to the gimmicks. With the entire gang involved, extracting more euros out of my friend, and later prodding me to ‘contribute’ when my friend exclaimed that he had exhausted all that he had. It was only seconds later that the entire gang vanished with the money bet on spotting the ball. The girl who was whispering in my friends’ ear a while back was nowhere to be seen. Aghast, my hassled friend followed the gang leader, and argued with him urging him to return his money. What seemed like a settlement of sorts from a distance turned out to be a deal turned raw for the gang lords, while my friend heaved a sigh of relief with his money back in the pockets. Having learnt his lessons the hard way, he vowed to never again bet in his life, not at least in Paris. 

Recovering from the aftermath of the incident, we stumbled upon a swarm of people – tourists and locals alike.  Wandering about we realized later that we were at the footstep of the Sacre Couer Basilica. Randomness had found its target. What seemed like a thousand steps up to the basilica in the scorching heat coupled with the almost jet lagged selves was compounded by the ordeal of another set of men trying to find the ‘right’ targets. With threads in hand and a resolve so adamant wanting to experiment God knows what gimmick in lieu for money they barged in our direction. Their body language seemed to tell that they had indeed found their bait, but needless to say we did not relent, my friend more so this time around. ;)

At the highest step up the basilica, the entire Paris seemed to be on my feet. The top most view of the city was the most gorgeous. With a tiny me perched on the brick wall, I felt like a speck in the Parisian sky that stretched before me.

All things touristy

A change of clothes, and we were ready to take Paris by the storm. Struggling initially with the machine for train tickets taking help from people who could speak ‘English’ (at least a little), we trailed our way to the Concorde - statues, fountains and the first view of the Eiffel across the bridge. Delight discovered a new found embodiment in us.

Walking down Champs Elysees with a row of top-notch brands wading by reiterated the status of the city as the fashion capital of the world. Add to that the prim, petite and dolled up French faces with sharp, crisp features that walked past you. Amidst the fanfare roads went berserk with frenzy as France forayed into the UEFA euro cup quarter finals - quite a sight (imagine bunch of people hooting, scooting by at flash of a speed in their jazzy cars with flags waving and loud music ;P)

End of sight, Arc’ De Triomphe shone bright in the Parisian sun – a hallmark of glory for those who died for France in the French Revolution and the Napoleonic Wars.

Completing an entire circuit and walking down a few kilometres more, we scouted our way to the points nearest to Eiffel. Going beserk with selfie stick clicks, we stopped every 5 minutes, soaking in the view from every angle till we reached right under the embrace of the mighty tower. Digging into the crepes from the close by stall ensured that our taste buds and stomach too got their fill.

Eiffel not only surprised us but also challenged our beliefs with its grandeur and enormity. At that moment, all else stood still and the only thing that stood testimony to that awakening reality was time. Time that spoke of a world, right out of a dream, thats so so beautiful and you a tiny part swarmed in its embrace.

Day 2 brought with it unwarranted surprises, ecstatic moments and unblemished joy all the same. We headed for the Louvre the first thing in the morning, after grabbing a quick bite from one of the cute eateries. Excitement was at its peak - the sagas from Da Vinci, the pyramid, sculptures of Michael Angelo and the Mona Lisa of course- the mystique was for real. Delighted to get a free entry courtesy the ISIC card, we were elated at the near accomplishment. The museum is huge, with separate galleries for paintings, sculptures, drawings and works of art, although the most popular attraction remains the Mona Lisa. Reaching it is almost like walking past a maze from one gallery to another until you spot the find in a treasure trove.  

People pose better
Yes, those are over-enthusiastic strangers posing in the background 

The Mona Lisa in a carefully preserved glass casing stands stormed by visitors in a room separately reserved for this masterpiece. The most acclaimed painting by Leonardo da Vinci - the smile, the eyebrows and the subject herself continue to be a matter of much debate and intrigue worldwide. 

Right outside the Louvre
Walking across the Seine River, trying to find the ‘We love Paris’ blocks of concrete and failing miserably at it, we decided to head for Montparnasse next. Known as the heart of intellectual and artistic life in Paris, Montparnasse is replete with fancy restaurants to quick take-away cafes and the omnipresent supermarkets.  We scrounged the streets in search for pocket-friendly food options, much like the starving artists who ideated and debated, perched themselves on a table all evening only we were there for only a few hours. We stopped by the upmarket Galeries Lafayette but didn’t find much.


Top of Eiffel
That evening we got down at the Bir-Hakeim station, the station that resonated Eiffel for us. Returning back to our favourite spot, this time around we approached the Eiffel from the other side. Immersing ourselves in its grandeur, it was some while before we bought our tickets to the top. We were going to head right at the TOP of the Eiffel.
 This was insane and truly the most exhilarating experience ever. While we stopped at the second floor, going crazy with pictures and panoramic views from every angle, it was only when we reached the top most floor post dusk that the excitement got the better of us. The entire city shone bright under the twinkling stars and teeming lights with Eiffel itself lit up in more than 20,000 light bulbs. Shine like a diamond, we literally did that evening, mesmerized and besotted at the top of the mighty Eiffel. Lovers, friends, families, solo riders – gathered there in numbers, as if it was one big happy family cheering and clicking from different view-points.  

It was only until the last glass lift went down at 11 p.m. that we moved down with it. Stopping by the first floor, with the entire floor made of see-through glass, our intimidated selves experienced the thrill of looking down at the tiny world from 187 foot above ground.

The last day in Paris

Biting off more than we could chew, last day in Paris meant leaving no stone unturned to check the places that were left to be done. Though with Paris, there’s always more to discover all the time! We headed for Notre Dame the first thing. 

The everyday planning

The Vintage Hostel main lobby area

The gothic architecture combined with the colored stained glass panels and the utmost grandeur of the church left me spellbound. Altered and restored several times over the course of 8 centuries, Notre Dame is an architectural wonder in itself. It is marvellous how the sanctity, peace and quiet are maintained in the cathedral despite the burgeoning amount of visitors it attracts in a day.

We strolled past the next door gardens with lovely blooms, where we decided our next stop.


Walking down to the close by Pantheon was a wise decision as we transversed the part of the city on foot. An iconic building in itself, it houses the remains of notable French citizens.  

Pediment of the Pantheon with the caption which translates to "To the great men, the grateful homeland"

The Pantheon represents the nerve of everything that Paris houses - the rich, the elite, the classicist, the freedom fighters, the writers, the thinkers, the revolutionists. It is thereby not a surprise that it is a revered icon of symbolic significance.

Across the same street, we stopped by an ice-cream parlor to indulge in our sweet nothings. We delved into flavors that we wouldn't even get close to back home although Paris being our first city felt like a rich man's indulgence and we too poor to afford something as small as an ice-cream. Hence we shared our sorrows with just a cup. This was to obviously change as we set foot in the next country and got accustomed to living life in euros.

The sights and sounds of Paris are intriguing. It’s almost magical and unreal whether it is the sight of Eiffel from any corner, the architecture, or its people.


The only speck of taint robbing the city of its unreal self would probably be the street-side gimmickry or the roadside gangster who probably stole something and ran for his life. The svelte policeman in their uniform and machismo running behind and catching hold of him the next turn was an eyesore too. The evening saw us avail of our free coupons at a nearby cosy bar pub we made our way to amidst this incident.  
Hale and hearty we sat by the corner of the road the next few hours until we returned with best memories of the 3 days as we warmly tucked in bed under the chasm of a good good night.
Sortie (exit) it was, although a memorable one!
P.S. Stay tuned to the run up to the Euro travel series. Next stop: Brussels.