In my solo travels around India, I have experienced many strange reactions. But this one beats them all hands down.
In my solo travels around India, I have experienced many strange reactions. But this one beats them all hands down.
Of late black bucks, Bishnois and certain Bollywood stars have been synonymous. It seems that one can get away with shooting animals almost everywhere, but not in Bishnoi land.
Bishnois are a religious group living in the Thar desert that follow the teachings of Guru Jambheshwar. In his 29 (20 – Bish and 9 – Noi) tenets, he prescribed an eco friendly way of co existing with nature eg: not killing animals or felling green trees and removing insects from firewood before using them etc. It’s because of their heroic efforts of hugging trees to prevent their felling, that green spaces thrive where animals can graze, in an otherwise punishingly arid land.
If you are in the blue city of Jodhpur (Rajasthan), don’t miss a chance to visit the Bishnoi villages that lie on its fringes, approximately 26 kms away.
My Bishnoi guide picked me up from my heritage hotel in Jodhpur early one morning. As we left behind Jodhpur’s narrow alleys bustling with early morning activity, I dozed off to the comforting rhythm of the jeep. When I woke up, I found myself surrounded by beautiful wilderness as far as my sleepy eyes could see.
As I continued on the black buck spotting Safari, I saw picturesque grazing grounds tucked away in the vast wilderness of the Thar. Handsome black bucks grazed contentedly by the banks of the Guda Bishnoi lake, with an occasional Neel gai (blue bull) for company, while migratory birds flocked around. The sheer tranquility of the setting made me feel as though I was in primitive India, when life was simple and man and animals co existed in a divine balance.
Moving on from nature to culture, I learnt how historically Bishnois have offered opium to Lord Shiva. A unique contraption is used to make a small portion of liquid like paste from powdered opium that is then offered to the deity. What is considered today as drugs by so called modern societies and is frequently abused, is actually an intrinsic part of the religious and cultural life of many tribal societies including the Bishnois and self regulation is usually observed.
My guide took me home to introduce me to his family. They warmly welcomed me in their traditional hut and served me a delicious home cooked meal with dollops of desi ghee (clarified butter). The entire family fussed over me, ensuring I was well stocked up. I reclined on a charpoy ( a traditional cot) after ages, chatting with the villagers and soaking in the laid back rural vibe.
Later, I walked around the village, watching potters create beautiful pottery with clay.
I also saw artisans block printing and weaving intricately designed, colourful durries (rugs). These are sourced by top designers globally and sold at high prices to the elite.
As I drove around the Bishnoi villages, I encountered deer and monkeys frolicking along the road. It’s only after a good amount of honking that they would lazily budge to let us pass, without any fear of being attacked. I also noticed tribal women in colourful clothes sitting outside their homes, petting animals fondly. Bishnoi women are known to even breast feed baby deer!
I had never before seen such an amazing bond between man and nature. I was used to seeing wild animals either in captivity or being hounded in sanctuaries by fancy camera toting, unruly crowds from cities.
In the utopian world of the Bishnois, my soul was touched in ways I had never imagined when I had booked what I thought would be just another wild life Safari in just another wildlife hub of India.
In the dog eats dog world that we live in, once the last missile has been fired and the last tree has been felled, it is to isolated, intelligent and self sustaining tribal communities like the Bishnoi that we will have to turn for true wisdom and inspiration.
This blog has been published by ‘We Are The City’ at this link.
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.
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.
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’.
This is my 20th blog post, so I decided to write about something very special and close to my heart.
One of my greatest fears is what will happen to a travel addict like me if one fine day I wake up and find that I am unable to move? What if I am suddenly confronted with a physical disability that forces me to stay within the confines of my home? What if the sense of liberation I derive by walking through a crowded bazaar or just taking a local bus to a new town in a new country becomes the biggest nightmare for me? I can already feel the claustrophobia setting in and a sense of panic and helplessness creeping in at the very thought of it.
Perhaps it was destiny or the insecurity in me seeking consolation, but I was indeed lucky to cross paths with some fabulous travel enthusiasts who are bound to…. or wait a second, liberated by wheelchairs. Since 2008 I have taken women travelling all over the world from the highest motorable roads of the world in Ladakh to the ruins of Angkor Wat in Cambodia and walking under water in Bali. But it has always troubled me that I have not been able to help a single person with restricted mobility explore the beautiful world around them. Inaccessibility of roads and hotels and also the apprehension of taking up the responsibility of people who are not footloose in the traditional sense of the term were obvious deterrents.
But my new found friends have shown me that being challenged is all in the mind. Neenu Kewlani, Sunita Sancheti, Arvind Prabhoo and Nishant Khade set new benchmarks in the world of travel by travelling the length and breadth of the country in less than 3 months, seated on wheelchairs and driving in wheelchair accessible vehicles (Check http://www.access4all.co.in/ ).Their mission was to spread the word of accessibile tourism around the country. From the remote reaches of the North East, to the stunning Pangong Lake and down south to Kerala, there was no part of the country they left untouched. Check out details of their fascinating trip ‘Beyond Barriers – The Incredible India Tour’ at : http://www.bbiit.com/index.html
Along with these travel enthusiasts I recently conducted a fun event in Mumbai on Sep 23, 2013 called ‘Ramp Walk in Mumbai’ as part of the International Social Media Week http://socialmediaweek.org/ that debuted in Mumbai for the first time http://socialmediaweek.org/mumbai/. Cooler than the Ramp Walk that showcases the latest in fashion, this walk was to highlight the importance of Ramps to make monuments and buildings accessible for everyone. I have always been fascinated by how my friends who were on wheelchairs would always refer to their movement from one place to another as ‘Walking’ and not ‘driving’ or ‘steering’ etc. Hence, I decided to name the event, ‘Ramp Walk in Mumbai’.
In a city as that is always too busy tracking the fall of the Rupee to the Dollar or rushing from local train stations to office cubicles, people have very little time to appreciate finer nuances of the city or just slow down and watch the world go by. The idea was to get people to experience the city in ‘Dimension x’ … a very different dimension from the one the one they were used to living in…. a different world in the same city where everything moves slowly but definitely more meaningfully and intensely. There is a deeper and a different Mumbai waiting to be explored for those who are willing to experiment a little.
We were delighted to be joined by the fantastic and spirited Malini Chib, author of ‘One Little Finger’ where she talks about her struggles and how she overcomes them despite having Cerebral palsy and being on a wheelchair throughout her life. Malini is also spearheading the Spastic Society and the ADAPT rights group that works to make the world a more accessible place.
So, we started off at the Jehangir Art Gallery in Mumbai’s art district, Kalaghoda one rainy afternoon. There is a wheelchair accessible ramp there, so steering the wheelchairs up was not a problem. This is a photo of some of the participants at the start of the event.
Participants were split up in groups of two. Each person was to take turns at getting blindfolded, while the other person who could see described the displayed paintings to the one who was blindfolded. Once participants took off their blindfolds they could re visit the same paintings and compare what they actually saw with what they imagined.
This is a photo of Pankaja, a tour guide of Mumbai describing the paintings to blindfolded Anahita, a journalist.
Sunita doubles up as Neelu’s guide in this unique art appreciation technique.
It was a spectacular experience and some participants actually said that once they opened their blindfolds and saw the same paintings, they felt their imagination of the paintings was more beautiful than the actual painting. In fact one of the painters was himself in the gallery and also took part in the event. He was blindfolded and one of the participants described to him his own paintings. He was overwhelmed by the experience and said that the participant had seen depths and details in his own painting that he had completely missed noticing himself.
While the gallery itself was fairly accessible, the colourful and arty Cafe Samovar which is one of my favourite haunts remained totally inaccessible due its narrow passage and uneven floor levels causing Malini’s wheelchair to almost trip. Fortunately, no injuries happened and the waiters were helpful enough to get us chai in the lobby area.
The next stop was at the Chatrapati Shivaji museum next doors. On the way Malini decided to stop by for a quick horoscope break at a Palmist who had set up shop under a tree….
while a curious street artist looked on …
Once we reached the museum, we were pleased to note that there was a well marked placard at the entrance that stated the presence of facilities for wheelchair users.
It is noteworthy that the museum has installed a wheelchair lift that can lift people on wheelchairs from ground level up to the raised surface of the floor after which it is fairly easy to get around the galleries on the ground floor as well as on the higher floors using the regular lifts that are large enough for wheelchairs. Having a little gate that the wheelchair user can close like a regular lift was a suggestion that came through, to prevent the wheelchair from slipping off the surface accidentally. Hope all heritage monuments as well as malls, restaurants make similar arrangements very soon.
This is a photo of Neelu using the wheelchair lift.
Our next stop was the David Sassoon library just across the road. We were wondering how do we cross the road as the traffic was very busy in the area and the traffic lights would not provide ample time for the wheelchairs to be steered across. But Malini simplified our problem, by stating point blank ‘Just stop the traffic’. It was priceless to see Mumbai stop in its tracks even if for just a brief moment as we glided across smoothly, much like Moses crossed the Red Sea. As soon as we crossed, the sea of traffic restarted again.
Unfortunately, despite our devil may care attitude we were unable to enter the library as there was no accessible ramp leading up to the otherwise beautiful heritage monument. In fact the head librarian met us and told us that it was the first time someone on a wheelchair had even requested for an entry. She assured us that she would take up the issue of accessibility of the library, after we told her we will come by again in a few months.
Right next doors was the Westside Mall, which had the same problem of inaccessibility. The only way they could get people on wheelchairs in is by physically lifting them, which no one was comfortable with. It was interesting to notice the reaction of the public. Commoners off the road demanded that the management come out and give answers to us, without us even asking the public for help or involvement. Again another round of assurances were given to us that provisions for wheelchair users will be given soon.
In this photo taken just outside Westside, sitting left to right are Arvind, Sunita, Neelu and Nilesh – The Fab Four… while pedestrians look on curiously.
Some of us who were not on wheelchairs tried walking down the pavement wearing a blind fold and found it a rather enlightening experience, where we had to rely on our sense of hearing and also our sixth sense to get by without hiccups. Arvind suggested that next time we should stuff our ears with cotton as well as wear a blindfold and then walk down the roads to experience what the city feels like when two of your five senses are missing.
We crossed the road back again and went to ‘Bombay Blues’, a chirpy, lively and fairly accessible restaurant (minus the toilets) where we ended the day munching on Nachos and sandwiches after having cheerfully overcome many of the blues that Bombay had presented to us that day.
This event was of course a very small step I took towards spreading the message of accessibility, but an extremely overwhelming one for me personally. It was me facing my greatest fears for the first time ever. The lesson I learn was that despite physical challenges there is no road that cannot be explored and no dream that cannot be turned to reality, if you have determination peppered of course with a generous dose of adventure and wanderlust.
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.
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.
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!
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’.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.