The Smell of Travel

The Steel City Express from Jamshedpur to Kolkata finally arrived at Howrah station. Alighting at the platform, I lugged my bags to the car and headed out for a visit to the Victoria Memorial and a chicken steak at my favourite restaurant Moulin Rouge in iconic Park Street.

When I finally reached my friend’s house, tired and ready to crash after battling a sea of human, animal and auto mobile traffic, she greeted me saying…. ‘Wow,you smell of travel’. Now that was a new one and immediately arrested my imagination. My olfactory nerves have since then been on an over drive like never before. The aroma of cakes being baked, the smell of spices in the bazaars I walked through, the musty old photo albums I flipped through … all have been constantly reminding me of scenes from my past travels that have suddenly jumped out of their distant confines. Little windows have opened to much larger realisations.

 

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Sometimes my thoughts transport me to my childhood days when I would travel with my mother to Kolkata to meet my grandparents. The highlight of my annual visit was always the customary lunch at my dida’s (grandmother’s) place that consisted of a traditional Bengali favourite mix of steaming, hot rice mashed up with boiled potatoes and eggs and a generous sprinkling of ghee and salt. There was something powerfully soothing and comforting about that smell and even now, on days when I crave for comfort food, I toss up this delightful concoction of yummy carbohydrates and nostalgia. 

Another time I was reminded of the US embassy in Kolkata where I had to appear for my visa interview. As a 16 year old, standing in a serpentine queue, I observed nervous grown ups loaded with documents breaking out into a sweat. An elderly gentleman fainted because he could not handle the fear of being refused a visa. The air was thick with the smell of anticipation and desperation. Finally entering the heavily guarded embassy with its polished floors, stern staff with not a hair out of place sitting behind tiny glass windows,for the first time I took in the disinfected and almost clinical smell of the ‘First World’.  

A few days later I waved out to my parents anxiously one last time before the doors of the international airport in Kolkata closed behind me. Over the next few weeks as I travelled through the lanes of London, USA and South America, I had to cross over from all the smells that represented comfort and familiarity and open myself up to brand new sensations. The bold perfume worn on the daring red dress by my host Brazilian mother was a sharp contrast to the smell of incense and ‘Rin’ soap from my own mother’s cotton sari. The aroma of sizzling pork and beef being grilled on a barbecue at an outdoor picnic in Cascavel ran riot with my overwhelming memories of fish cooked in a mustard gravy back home.Through the haze of smoke, trance music, young adults snaked up against each other with beer bottles in hand, for the first time standing with local friends at a night club in Iguacu, I smelt both overpowering freedom and a very adult fear of having to make a choice.

A few years later when I felt lost and lonely during my stint as an intern in a firm in Kuala Lumpur, I was really glad when Christine, a lovely Chinese lady from my office took me under her wing. Christine smelt of friendship and hot chocolate. Picking me up for office everyday, introducing me to KL’s bustling China town, street food scene, taking me out with her family and buffering me from a lot of problems that I may have had to face as a young foreigner, her simple gestures helped me realise that even in a foreign land it is possible to sniff out a comfort zone that is closest to home.

Standing in the immigration line at the border of Nepal and Tibet, the air was heavy with fear and anticipation as Chinese soldiers marched up and down with guns, shouting angry slogans. Every act and movement was heavily regimented.I was used to living in an independent country and for the first time I was in a country which was not. The landscape was breathtaking and the Everest peak was a sight to behold, but the suffocation by the Chinese authorities was invisible yet very immense. There are those moments when you smell nothing, because you just cannot breathe and almost choke.

 

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Browsing through Istanbul’s busy down town Taksim, I saw a poor street vendor selling water chestnuts late on a cold, windy night. On the streets of Ibiza, I was shocked to see young women wearing just make up and lingerie,adorning the entrance to night clubs while middle aged men ogled at them. I was even more horrified to see under age children in Cambodia selling their bodies for money. At Barcelona’s La Ramblas I passed by people sitting statuesque in mid air for hours,pretending to be mannequins as fascinated pedestrians dropped coins in their bowl. At Udaipur, Rajasthan, I watched helplessly as a little boy fell off a tightrope while putting up a show for tourists. All through this, I smelt the unapologetically powerful smell of human survival…. no judgments made and no reasons given. 

Sitting at a sermon in an old Konkani church in Goa, mesmerised as Dalai Lama smiled at me for a fraction of a minute in Dharamshala, watching people pray at the ‘Wailing Wall’ in Jerusalem and sitting by the ghats of Varanasi at sunset, I breathe in the delightful fragrance of peace, totality and the bliss of finally arriving. All that remains are fond memories of ‘the smell of travel’. 

 

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Flight of fantasy with the ‘Lord of the Ring’

Ever since I started a travel club for women, ‘Girls On The Go’ in 2008, I have been travelling mostly with girl gangs or solo. So, the few trips that hubby and I did together from travelling with an army convoy in North East to crossing overland from Egypt to Israel or driving through the ravines of Chambal at night while our driver told us tales of notorious dacoits, became all the more special.

Aadil and I met on a travellers forum. For a lawyer turned founder of a women’s travel club and an air craft service engineer from Air India, we had little in common except for our common passion for travel and exploring off beat paths. This inspired the free spirited bohemians in both of us to finally say ‘I do’ and embark on what was to be the most adventurous journey of both our lives.

For an erstwhile firm non believer in the concept of marriage, it was anything but an easy decision. I had to argue and reason out with my alter ego which was on high alert mode ever since I took this impulsive decision, on the pros that marriage would perhaps present. Of course all my rebuttals listed below, were based on how marriage was not very different from travelling, so there was no need to be so paranoid about it :-

  • Marriage, just like travel poses x number of risks. While going on that idyllic cruise around the islands of Greece, the ship may be rocked about in a storm, while in marriage I may have a rocky time dealing with bad mood swings and any number of incompatibilities.
  • Marriage is like an attractively priced trip that has the  non refundable clause to it. You either make the most of it or forfeit it all in case you cant go on the trip finally and hope that maybe later a more attractive deal may just come your way.
  • Before we visit a place, we check out reviews online and read up every guide book in the world. But, nothing ever prepares us for the real deal. Similarly, irrespective of how many years you have dated your lover or in the case of an arranged marriage how many references you may have received from friends and relatives, till the time the dotted line is signed and the vows taken, there is absolutely no way of knowing what the journey together as man and wife has in store for you. A lousy boy friend who could never turn up for the dinner date in time could turn out to be a surprise package as a husband, whereas your romantic boy friend showering you with teddy bears and red roses could turn out to be a notorious husband.
  • Travel can imprison you to the confines of an air conditioned coach or liberate you to take a sip from a gurgling stream or walk through a meadow full of colourful flowers. It is really up to you whether you want to experience a destination through the windows of your coach or rough it out a bit, ditch the 5 star for a home stay with locals and experience the real deal. Marriage too, in one breath can be the most confining and the most liberating experience depending on whether you want to just watch your marriage pass by listlessly or whether you want to explore deeper layers of your marriage till you discover the real deal.

So while for me initially marriage may just have been a case of two travel addicts uniting in holy, though hurried matrimony, but it took a very unexpected incident on a flight from Shanghai to Mumbai, for me to finally find that elusive sublime connect with the man who was hitherto more my room mate and travel partner.

Aadil and I were just returning after a very satisfying eclipse chasing trip to China. Before I came into his life, his status as a bachelor and an amateur astronomer was ‘Astronomy is my wife’. All his other heavenly bodies had to of course take a back seat the day I sauntered into his life, though I did join him on various fascinating astronomy trips around the world.

This is a photo of us in China, ecstatic just after seeing and photographing the perfect diamond ring of the total solar eclipse.

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I was fiddling with my wedding ring on my finger, as the flight took off from Pudong airport, Shanghai. There was a moment of unstability during take off and due to a sudden jerk of the aircraft, my ring flew straight off from my finger and disappeared somewhere on the floor ahead. My heart skipped several beats! I was aghast!

Till that instance, I had perceived the ring as just a mere ornament. For the first time, I realised how emotionally attached I was to that little piece of metal. I felt someone had just chopped off a part of my body.

In a trembling voice, I told Aadil what had happened, expecting him to get as upset as I was. To my complete surprise, his first reaction was of calming me down and telling me that it was fine and that he would get me a new ring if we were unable to find this one. He was more concerned about me being upset than about me having been careless with the ring he had gifted me with so much love. Though I had just lost the symbol of his love , but the deep and special connect I discovered in the process was absolutely priceless.

I suddenly felt that this was by far the most intense moment of our relationship and we had just touched a deeper chord in our marriage. Our gold rings may have sealed our marriage, but only Platinum could have sealed a ‘Day of Love’ that was as special and rare as this.

Once the seat belt signs were switched off, we asked the people sitting in the rows ahead of us to check if the ring had by chance rolled under their seat, but there was no sign of it. Even as I called the airhostess and asked her for assistance, I knew the chances of finding a tiny little ring in the huge aircraft was like searching for a needle in a hay stack. The air hostess requested me to wait till the flight landed in Mumbai so that I could continue my search.

It was undoubtedly the most unsettling flight of my life as I was confronted with a mix of emotions ranging from guilt at being careless, to nervousness about whether we would find the ring to a sense of inexplicable joy at connecting with my husband at a very different level for the first time ever.

Once all the passengers had filed out of the aircraft, our frantic search for the elusive ring started. The staff on board also started searching every nook and cranny when they heard it was my wedding ring.  After over half an hour of combing through the aircraft, Aadil’s sharp eyes  finally spotted the ring embedded in a tiny space between the leg of a seat and the carpet that was fixed to the floor. The space was so narrow that it was impossible to put a finger inside to pull it out.

Aadil probably had never imagined in his life that his profession as an aircraft service engineer, would ever come to such unique use. He took out his wallet where he always carries some small work related instruments. Thankfully since it was an Air India flight and he was a licensed engineer, so the staff did not stop him as he started ripping apart the carpet as they knew he would fix it back as well. Finally, after a long excavation, he was able to fish out the ring on the tip of his needle like instrument and I heaved a giant sigh of relief.

As he put the ring back on my finger to the impromptu clapping and cheering of the entire crew on board, I knew it right then that this was definitely our ‘Platinum Day of Love’.

http://www.preciousplatinum.in/en/about-platinum/platinum-day-of-love

 

The Big Bong Battle

 
During my travels, I come across several quirky traditions practised by different communities. Thought of starting off with one that that I have noticed in my very own Bengali community.
 
Bengali women have always been known for their fiery quality…. think Ma Durga, her highness Mamta Banerjee, fair and lovely Kajol, queen of seduction Bipasha Basu or controversy’s child Arundhati Roy. They are the only known competition to the prime time rants of Arnab Goswami, the political and social mockery co sponsored by Pranab Mukherje and his extremely well behaved son and the ‘heavy metal’ look of Bappi Lahiri.
 
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Kalighat Painting, Calcutta, India. 1875
 
So, little wonder then that at the time of two Bengalis tying the knot, it is very important to ascertain who is going to wear the pants (or the ‘pajamas’ in this case) in the relationship. So, once the bride is done with the customary procedure of appearing to be shy by peering at her husband from behind ‘paan’ leaves as four men carry her around on a stool, the real power game starts.
 
Once the guests have chewed off the last fish head and licked off the last drop of ‘payesh’ from their ‘kola pata’ (banana leaf), both bride and groom are asked to drop their rings in a pot of water. Once the rings are submerged completely, they are asked to churn up the water vigorously. It then remains to be seen which ring follows the other. If the groom’s ring follows that of the bride, it means that the wife will dominate the marriage. If the bride’s ring follows the groom’s ring that means the bride will be subservient and obedient (which is a myth in any case in most Bengali marriages).
 
Another way this power game is played is that the rings are dropped in a bowl of milk and the couple has to search for their respective rings. Whoever finds their ring first wins the game and gets the upper hand in the marriage too. 
 
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Maybe this is the only little window the poor Bengali groom is given at any chance of superiority in a relationship with the spirited Bengali woman, because he knows it well as does his dominating mother, that only the bravest (and poetic) of them all can conquer the heart of the raging Royal Bengal Tigress.

Let no oil f(oil) your travel dreams

Back in September of 2009, the owner of a restaurant called ‘Black and White’, at the seaside resort town of Kusadasi, Turkey sat me down for an hour and told me how he wanted to export Turkish grown Olive oil to India. According to him, it was more superior in quality than the Italian and Greek Olive oil and also cheaper and tried very hard to get me into the business of importing Olive oil into India.

I thought it made great business sense to import a cost effective and superior quality cooking oil into a country that was struggling to shrug off years of pakoras, puris and gulab jamuns from the wobbly tummy and the bulging bottom. However, though I personally felt that the Mediterranean diet is perhaps the healthiest I have come across during my travels, it is absolutely ridiculous to expect that just to knock off a few kilos Indians will switch to salads and grilled fish and give up on parathas and Mughlai chicken. Unfortunately despite all the health benefits of Olive Oil, I cannot imagine frying a samosa or tossing up a fish curry in it, due to its distinct taste and odour that somehow does not marry too well with Indian food.

I was stuck all these years, with either cooking the ocasional pasta or hummus in Olive oil, or use one of the ‘high on saturated fats’ refined vegetable oils that were available in the neighbourhood grocery. This was simply because I thought there were no healthy cooking oils that could be adapted to Indian cooking.

Then, one fine day a few days back at a bloggers meet, I was introduced to Canola Oil and a whole new world of healthy cooking opened up (yes, including deep frying that medu wada) that hitherto was just fiction to me. Canola or Canadian Oil comes from the seeds of the Canola Plant that is grown primarily in the prairie region of western Canada.. In an era where the word GMO or genetically modified plants sends shivers down the spine, the Canola experiment of genetically modifying the rape seed plant to make it fit for extracting a perfectly safe and healthy oil is a remarkable feat in modern science. You can read more about the origin of Canola Oil here : http://www.canolainfo.org/canola/index.php.

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Although they look similar, canola and rapeseed plants are very different. Scientists used traditional plant breeding to eliminate the undesirable components of rapeseed, namely erucic acid and glucosinolates. Before canola oil received “generally recognized as safe” (GRAS) status from the FDA and favorable recognition as a vegetable oil by Health Canada, it had to go through rigorous testing to ensure it was safe for human consumption.

Its good to be skeptical and ask the correct questions before trying out a new product, so that you are really convinced about the benefits of the product. So, read up some more here : http://www.canolainfo.org/news/latest_news.php?detail=27

I was surprised to know that Canola oil has the least saturated fat of any common cooking oil and less than half the saturated fat of Olive Oil and Soya bean oil! Dr.Ashish Contractor, Head of Preventive Cardiology, Asian Heart Institute, Mumbai who was present at the meet further added that while in 1950s the largest cause of death was infectious diseases, today 1/3rd of Indians die of heart diseases, caused largely due to diabetes, cholestrol and obesity.

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Naini Stalvad, a noted dietician brought to light some very disturbing facts. 84 schools were recently surveyed in USA. The study showed that with a change of fat content, there was an increase in percentage of juvenile delinquency!

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Coming back to the fun side of it all, Chef Ajay Chopra of Masterchef India fame tossed up some delicious, easy to cook recipes like the Maharashtrian snack ‘Kothimbir Wadi’ and ‘Chocolate Samosa’ (with dark chocolate) using Canola oil. He mentioned that he has recently shifted to Canola oil himself and along with a combination of excercise has shed 4kgs in 2 weeks. He also pointed out that the absorption of Canola oil is better and has a higher ‘smoking point’ than other oils. This means that you require less oil for cooking and the same oil can be reused more number of times than the average oil. He advised that oil should not be re used after it has hit the ‘smoking point’.

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What I liked best are the three different oil bases he prepared by heating up the oil (not to smoking point) and then pouring it out in three separate bowls adding basil, rosemary and dried red chillies and letting them settle for some time to absorb the flavours. The oil can then be stored for weeks and used for a variety of cooking or like I did……..just dip some bread in the delicious oil mix just the way Greeks and Turks do with olive oil and have it as a starter.

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Due to its high resistance to heat, Canola can be used for grilling, baking, frying etc.

Binging guilt free on yummy treats cooked in Canola oil later in the evening was definitely the highlight for me.

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Well, personally for me I have already shifted to Canola, because frankly the very least I owe to myself is gifting my body the benefit of a healthier cooking medium. Although it is a little more expensive than the regular refined oil that you may be used to, I feel it is still worth spending the little extra to avoid footing up a large medical bill later due to health issues.

I live to travel and anything I can do to ensure that my health does not play spolisport in the years to come, so that I can explore more cultures and meet new people from different countries, I definitely will.

Not just another Sunday in the city.

For the likes of me who spend more than half their lives travelling on the road, it is rare that we actually make time out specifically to pamper ourselves in our own city. You can catch me trying out a Cambodian Khmer massage, or getting an exotic spa in Bali or letting fish nibble at my feet in a fish farm in Sri Lanka or trying out a hot stone bath in Bhutan… because they represent adventure and the thrill of trying out something exotic to me. But unlike many of my friends who can spend days indulging themselves at a Spa in the city, I am the types to give it a miss completely, primarily out of fear of boredom and lack of adventure quotient.

But when I got an invite for a  ‘Sparty’ , hosted by the chic Parisian parlour, Jean Claude Biguine, for women bloggers in Mumbai, I made up  my mind to becoming an explorer in my own city and check out the local fashion scene finally.

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Photo courtesey: Vinita Bahl

My first connection with JCB  happened as soon as I entered the building. Lovely old photos of ‘Bombay’ graced the walls of the cute little stairway that wound itself up leisurely to the first floor where the salon was located. Well, they definitely knew how to work their way from the boulevards of Paris to the heart of a Mumbaikar right from the moment you set foot inside. Plus, Lonely Planet look alikes like these (of course keeping the fashionista in mind) had the explorer in me quite curious frankly.

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Photo courtesy: Vinita Bahl

Once upstairs, I was pleasantly surprised by the modern, yet minimalistic design. Had it not been for the glossy nail polish bottles lying around and the sound of a blow dryer humming away, I would have almost felt like I was in a cafe. Do not expect to see the typical high backed salon type chairs here. Instead expect very comfortable lounge chairs and casual contemporary furniture and a large, clear glass facade overlooking the city……. creating a very social and interactive vibe. It was the perfect setting for me to get to know a vibrant, fun and diverse group of bloggers from around the city who blogged on everything from fashion, to parenting to football.

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Photo courtesy: Vinita Bahl

I was given an option to experience a manicure, pedicure or a head and back massage with a blow dry. I thought of surrendering myself to a much needed head massage and I am so glad I did. My therapist whisked me off to a soothing room with dim lighting and aroma oils (yes, the massage rooms are separate) that put me into a trance immediately. For the next half an hour, she worked fabulously on muscles I did not even know existed and pressure points that needed some serious ‘un – knotting’. The head massage she gave me sent me to Seventh heaven and the gentle shampoo that followed next ensured I stayed on Cloud Nine for several days to come. Finally, came the blow dry and fellow bloggers crowding up excitedly taking photos of me in my new avatar and making me feel like a seasoned style diva.

I looked around and everyone was sprouting a new look, with dead cells scrubbed away and nails shining glamorously. Wine and conversations flowed courtesy JCB, as did the snacks and savouries livening up what could have been just another Sunday afternoon in the city.

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Photo courtesy: Vinita Bahl

Thanks to the amazing discounts and deals they have for newcomers to their salon, I made a second trip to JCB just a week later for a haircut. The stylist suggested that I experiment with my look a bit and the narcissist in me uploaded the results of her experiment on Facebook. Well, 75+ likes (in 48 hours) and several flattering compliments later, I may just be on the road to becoming the next loyal customer of JCB.

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Goddesses of the New Age

The primary concern for women while travelling is safety…. and safety not from terrorist attacks or wild beasts… but from those men who like wolves in sheep’s clothing lie in wait to  take advantage of what in their opinion is the ‘weaker sex’.  Several women have called me up in the last few months asking if it is safe for them to travel in light of the brutal gang rapes that have been hitting front lines every second day. Unfortunately the only answer I can give them is that there is an equally alarming increase in cases of physical and sexual abuse within the home and family itself, so how is staying at home any safer than going out to explore the world?

A few months back, a young girl who was brutally gang raped in Delhi sparked off an international debate on women’s safety. She was named ‘Nirbhaya’ and then ‘Damini’ in recognition of her brave fight to her painful finish. United States conferred on her the ‘Brave Woman’ award. But the fact remains that she was just another ordinary girl, who was only using her ‘survival instinct’ to fight her own battle in the face of incompetent police surveillance and impotent political vigil. She must have been scared, nervous and extremely miserable as she experienced her body being consumed by the beasts that dwelled within four ordinary men from ordinary families. But, as she lay in hospital  breathing her last, society and the media made a Goddess out of her and her sufferings.

Today the ‘Nirbhaya’ judgment has come through and the four accused of rape have been sentenced to death. I can hear the society breathing a sigh of relief that ‘justice’ has been finally granted. But, my mind refuses to rest at this.

You can kill the ‘rapists’, but how do you kill the ‘rape’? What is rape after all? Is it just the legal definition that is thrust on us by Indian Penal Code? Rape is not just of the body, but of the mind and of the spirit.

The cancer of rape attacks a society that has lost its psychological immunity and moral self defense. It spares no one…. it physically attacks the victim, mentally attacks the society and morally attacks the rapists.  It is a vicious cycle  that will keep repeating itself not as an aberration or a ‘rarest of the rare’ cases but as a rule, till the time humanity accepts defeat or… till the time the root cause of the problem is found out and extracted completely.

Let us as a society start by accepting that each one of us is responsible somewhere for the rapes that are happening and not just put the blame on the police, and government. Let us ask ourselves the most uncomfortable questions and take a long, hard look at the mirror. Men, how many times have you leered at a woman and made her feel uncomfortable…. how many times have you forced your wife and girl friend into submission just because you are physically stronger? Mothers, how many times have you taught your sons that sex is the ultimate act of two lovers coming together and not a animal act of forced consumation ? Wives, how many more affairs will you allow your husbands to have and continue to paint him as the face of the most perfect husband? Media houses, how much more will your channel earn by allowing advertisements that force a woman to disrespect her own body because she is not fair and lovely or slim and sexy.  Doctors, how many more female foetuses will you kill before your hands grow tired? Movie directors, when will you stop projecting women as an object of sex and assault as soon as she dons the mini skirt or a low cut blouse?

Cancer starts by attacking one part of the body, but if not contained immediately, it starts spreading to other parts. Then there is only one option left. The entire body has to join forces, suffer the extremities of chemotherapy and give the cancer a tough fight right to the finish. There is no promise of victory, but there is definitely a guarantee of feeling a strength of spirit more powerful than what you have ever felt before irrespective of whether you live or let go.

 

 

 

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