Tuesday, August 28, 2012

How do you travel so much?

This post has been toying in my head for a while, so I decided to put pen on paper. One of the most common questions that people ask me is "Vamsee, how do you travel so much?". Depending on who asks me this question, I am always trying to give excuses - "I have lots of vacation time", "It was a work trip, but I went a day ahead", "A friend was going, so I tagged along" and my favourite "We have a lot of frequent flyer miles, so we got free tickets" (basically translates to "don't think I am travelling because I am rich, I am just smart about spending)

All those are still valid excuses but the real reason why I travel is very simple. I love travelling. I love exploring new places, I love meeting new people, I love eating good food, I love seeing natural and manmade miracles and most of all I just love that I am doing exactly what I want to do. Travel is what I do when I want to celebrate success and travel is what I do when I want to get over depressing times. Travel is what we gift ourselves for birthdays and travel is what we do on anniversaries. I love every aspect of travelling from planning to being there to coming back and blogging about it.  There is nothing more exciting than planning a trip. You open a map and the entire world , opens up to you. Where do I go - the colourful cobble stone streets of Europe, the high mountains of Himalayas, the Fjords and glaciers of Norway or the underwater world in Lakshadweep.... There are days when I can't sleep because I am too excited about picking a destination for our next trip. I have even deluded myself in believing that flying time is quality time with myself. It doesn't matter that I read cheesy novels, watch horrible movies, drink cheap wine and cannot sleep. It still is "MY" time and I do all those things without any guilt. I even love my business trips. For somebody who works from home, I love to meet my clients and interact with them. Days are full of meetings, but evenings are for fine dining. We pick restaurants with great care and have long lavish meals.

Tigers of Pench National Park, Jan 2012
Sanchi Stupa, Bhopal Feb 2012

Gwalior Fort at night, March 2012
I used to be a very normal person who wanted a great career and good income. I worked towards it very meticulously for over a decade and noticed that the joy from pay hikes and bonuses and promotions lasted just a few days. Don't get me wrong, I still want a great career and a good income, but somewhere along the line I realized that I wanted to be happy more than anything else. And happiness comes when you do something you love and enjoy. In India, I have come across so many people who have quit their plush jobs and started travel related businesses. I have no such ambitions. In fact, I love my work and I love the balance I have between my work and my hobbies. "How do you have so much time to travel and bake and maintain a full time job" is a question that I get a lot. My answer is very simple - When you love something you will make time for it.  

There is nothing more fulfilling than following your passions. If you look around, the happiest people are the ones that take the time to do what they love. I agree that we are all busy, we have jobs to do, money to make, family to take care of, chores to run and of course facebook walls to update. What I have observed is that people who are passionate about something will do it in spite of all the above. These are people that have exciting lives and are fun to talk to and in general are always in a  happy and positive frame of mind.

Leopard at Kabini, May 2012

My best friend dreams of publishing a novel. He has two kids and a job in a start up company which means 12 hour work days. In spite of that, he takes an hour every other day, sits in a coffee shop and writes. He also manages to run a few miles in the middle of his long work day. My other best friend, an amazing mother of 2 kids, an avid reader, she loves to travel and wanted to go to Israel, a very uncommon destination. Earlier this year, she found another friend who was interested, flew half way across the world and spent a week exploring Tel Aviv and Jerusalem and other places in Israel!
There was this old couple that used to come on birding trips with Nature India. Among other things, uncle had rheumatoid arthritis which is a painful condition. You would think he is better off staying at home, watching TV, but no. They went on every possible birding/nature trip. They used to be the first to line up in front of a spotting scope and I even remember uncle trekking down to a waterfall without complaining.
My friend D loves to dance. With 3 kids and a job, she not only manages to perform at every occasion, she also finds the time to teach kids in her neighbourhood. Then there are friends (and the husband) who absolutely love their work. It is not as glamorous as travel or music or dance, but they are very passionate about their research and making a difference in their community.

My point here is that -If you really love something, you will find a way to do it in spite of family responsibilities, demanding jobs, finances and even health.

Sojnefjord, Norway July 2012
The most common excuses that people give for not doing something:

Time: These days it has become a fashion statement to boast about how busy we are and how we don't have time for anything. Yes, were in that age group where we are in the peak of our career and are handling very impressive responsibilities. If you are juggling so many projects and clients, how hard is it to juggle family and hobbies? One of my friends is the CEO of a publicly traded company. She runs her company, is a loving mother and wife, socializes with friends, travels around the world and is  very active in charity organizations.  If SHE has time, trust me, you have time too. A common thing that I hear in India is "I am too busy to take vacation and the days just expire' and I am shocked. Vacation time is a benefit just like your salary. Do you tell your boss to take back the pay hike or bonus they give you? Then why the hell do you let your vacation days lapse? Even if you are not interested in travelling, why are you not taking the days off to relax and spend time with your family?

Money: I wish I can tell you that travel is cheap. It is not and costs are going up as we speak. But travel is something that can be done with all types of budget. I remember driving through the night in Canada when I was a grad student to save money on hotels. On our first trip to Hawaii, we took a hotel with a kitchen to cook and save money on food. Now that I have been earning non-stop for 15 years, I have become what Saru calls a pseudo-snob (Apparently I think I am posh, but am really not). I enjoy good things in life and am willing to spend money for it. Again, it all boils down to my theory that people will spend on what they are passionate about. I have a friend that loves decorating her home and she does not bat an eyelid spending vast amounts of money on it. Then there are people who  spend tons of money on clothes and jewellery. Saru is a careful spender, but he has no issues spending big amounts for his camera and lenses. I don't care for expensive cars or jewellery or electronic gizmos. What I care for is good food and travel and I spend my money guilt free on those.

Children: A friend of mine says 'It is all in your attitude" when it comes to travelling with kids. Another friend says "It depends on how easy your kid is". I think both of them are true to an extent. But going back to my theory, people who are really interested in travelling have done so with or without kids. A fellow blogger, M and her husband love to hike in the Himalayas. Now that they have a child, they take turns and go on separate hikes. They also take plenty of family vacations with all three of them. My friend J, who is an inspiration is the mother of an amazing teenager. She takes her daughter on most of her trips. The young girl has more stamps on her passport that I do. I recently met an amazing fellow travel blogger writes about their trips with their special needs child. Not travelling with Varsha was never an option for us. Saru and I made a pact that we will never become those parents who give up all their interests for their child, so we have been fiercely trying to maintain the same life that we had before. Yes, it is easier to stay at home and do nothing, but that is not what we want. And luckily for us, Varsha has turned out to be a wonderful traveller.

Balestrand, Norway, July 2012

Company: If your spouse is busy and/or not interested, travel with a friend. In today's age of social networking it is not hard to find people with similar interests. Saru has no interest in heritage sites. Instead of bugging him to go, I found friends and went to Khajurajo, Orccha, Mandu and even Italy 2 years back. It is win-win. I go wherever I want and he can work to his heart's content. If not, you can go the way of my cousin S who took 10 weeks off from work and went solo backpacking in Turkey, Greece, Italy and Spain.
Jahaz Mahal, Mandu, August 2012

So, there you go - I travel not because I have time or money or company. I travel because I want to.

P.S Pictures are from the last 6 trips we took this year.

Saturday, March 31, 2012

Venice - Is it worth the hype. Part 1

I asked myself this question many times before we finally visited in 2010. Venice is one of those universally loved places. The minute you say the name, people start gushing about how romantic it is and how it is the most beautiful city they have ever seen. They go on and on about the canals, the narrow alleys, car-free streets, gondolas and elegantly decaying buildings. So why did I worry if I would really like it. No, I am not conceited enough to think that I am unique and won't like what millions of tourists love. In fact, I am as generic as they make them. I love creaky old structures, cobble stone streets, quaint stores and historic places.

My biggest problem with Venice is its overexposure. If I were to compare it with a bollywood actor, it would be like SRK. He is EVERYWHERE! In movies, on tv he is advertising for everything from pepsi to pepsodent, hosting every award show (next time please do something other than making every foreigner say " Main ulloo ka Patta hoon".) and at cricket matches saying "Korbo, Lorbo, Jeetbo' at every chance he gets. Somebody kill me before he bends backwards, pushes his chest forward and opens his arms (DDLJ style).
My point here is that we all have seen Venice - in postcards, in movies, in magazines, and in half of your friend's photo albums. The last few movies Casino Royale, Italian Job and the tourist were extensively pictured in Venice. It is like reading the book before seeing the movie and one is sure to disappoint you.

A fellow traveller once told me - "When you get off the Santa Lucia train station and walk out, you get your first view of the Grand Canal and it is the most beautiful thing you have ever seen". Here is the thing - I have seen this view in so many movies that I was afraid reality would be disappointing. Plus, in the last few years I heard more complaints than compliments. " It is too hot and humid". " the water from the canals stink", "There are more people than pigeons on St. mark's square", "Everything is super expensive" and the clincher - "food is not great". How can I go to a place in Italy where the food is not good?
Anyway, we decided to go to Venice because it was convenient. I was with friends touring Sicily for a week before Saru joined me in Venice. I wanted to drive through the Austrian Alps and Venice was a perfect starting point with a good international airport. I landed in Venice early in the morning around 7 am after spending a sleepless night almost freezing to death at the Rome airport (don't ask). I got out, bought myself a water taxi pass and took one to St. Mark's square. It was a beautiful morning with a nice cool breeze. Venice was just opening up for business and it was beautiful.

I love staying at different types of accommodations. Over the last decade, we have stayed at campsites, cabins, hostels, hotels, B&B's, farm houses, haunted houses (remind me to tell you the story of this creepy home in Hawaii where mangoes would fall on the asbestos roof and scare the crap out of us in the night, or the spooky home in Shasta where they had crosses and pictures of angels at every corner ), and this one time at an Alpaca and Llama farm in Canada. This time, I came across a website where you can book rooms in a monastery!! For 100E (trust me, that is cheap for Venice), we stayed in a 14th century monastery that was a stone's throw from St. Mark's square and Rialto bridge. The room was clean and large by Italian standards and more importantly, it had modern plumbing. Quaint and charming is good, but a girl needs a shower with good water pressure. The lovely nuns at the monastery sent me a hand drawn map showing the directions from the Vaporetto station to their place. Let me tell you one thing. When you have a place like Venice with narrow alleys and bridges every few meters, following a hand drawn map counting the number of lines and matching them with streets is impossible. I was hopelessly lost. Luckily for me, gondoliers stake out at every bridge hoping to lure hapless tourists into the trap they call gondola ride. 80E for a 20 minute ride in the back canals where you get to see peeling plaster of dilapidated buildings and panties hanging from clothes lines. No-Thank-You! And what is with the hideous looking striped shirts and red scarves!! Anyway, these guys know Venice in and out and were able to point me in the direction of "Instituto San Giuseppe", the monastery of St. Joseph where we were staying.

Saru was landing that afternoon, so I rested for a couple of hours and went to the airport to receive him. I had not seen him for 10 days, so I was really looking forward to meeting him. Like the seasoned traveller that I am, I guided him from the airport to the ferry terminal and soon we were on a boat towards the hotel. We were oblivious to the sights of Venice as I talked non-stop telling him all about my trip to Sicily. He was only too happy to get back his FM Radio service (that is what he calls me because of my ability to talk on demand. He claims he married me just for that). For the first evening, we decided to do nothing, but walk the streets of Venice. After all, the biggest attraction in Venice is Venice itself. The place was packed with tourists. One could not walk a few steps without dashing into somebody. See....that is why I don't find Venice very romantic. Yes, we were holding hands, but that was more out of fear of losing each other than love. Yes, we were checking each other out every few minutes, but that was because we were worried about pickpockets. Romantic for me is a peaceful place in the mountains or by the sea with few people. I mean, how is one supposed to make out if you have hundreds of people around you. I thought Amsterdam in spring was far more romantic than Venice. Hawaii is incredibly romantic with its deep blue ocean and all that hula dancing.

As we were walking, we saw a giant cruise ship leave the town, taking with it, thousands of annoying tourists. The day-trippers left, the sun was beginning to set, sky was turning a deep blue and that is when the magic of Venice began. Dimly lit streets lead to beautiful piazzas surrounded by illuminated monuments. Darkness of the night covers up centuries of decay while the flood lights accentuate the beauty of the buildings. A strange sort of calm descends on the town and you can hear the soft crash of the waves on the wooden piles. Lanterns are lit along the canals, restaurants are filled with customers and the gondolas glide by at a slow pace. We walked aimlessly for a long time before settling down at a canal side restaurant for a long dinner and retired back to our monastery before the 11:00 PM deadline (Oh yes, the nuns don't want you partying till 2:00 AM).

It was a pleasant night, not too warm. As is the case with most hotels in old towns in Europe, there was no fan or air conditioning. The husband, who is crazy-addicted to a fan, cannot sleep without a hurricane over our heads. We opened the giant French windows to let the air in forgetting the fact that Venice is full of canals and a perfect breeding ground for mosquitoes. Soon....they were buzzing in our ears. We open the windows, those little monsters come in. We close the windows, there is no air for the suffocating husband. Catch 22 indeed. So- here we were, meeting after 10 days, on what was supposed to be a romantic night together....squatting mosquitoes. Both of us, with magazines in our hands were walking around the room, jumping on the bed and killing mosquitoes. The folks in the next room must have wondered about all the jumping and the inappropriate noises coming from our room. If only they knew.....
Next morning, using a lot of sign language we asked Mother Superior (oh yes...it was a functional monastery) for a fan. She kept saying " Ventilator? Ventilator?". I assured her that the ventilation in the room was fine, but needed a fan. She did not get a word of what I was saying. Finally, Saru took a piece of paper and drew a fan and she smiled "Ventilator" (translated to fan in Italian). She also gave us a mosquito repellent - bless her soul!.
Next morning we set off to see the sights in Venice - The St. Marks Church, the Doge's Palace and many others.

Venice - Is it worth it? The answer in Part II

Monday, February 6, 2012

Tigers of Pench National Park

A trip to Pench National Park was not in the plan. The plan was to not take any trips for a couple of months and I almost stuck to my resolution. For a month now, Saru has been mumbling that it has been a while since we went to a National Park. We talked about going to Corbett, but Saru did not have a week to take off before April when it gets too hot for birding, so we ditched the plans. "Why not Pench for a short trip?" he said. "I can only do next weekend, after that I am really busy till the Holi week" I said, fully expecting him to drop the plan. Saru thought for a minute and said "Why not?". Tickets were bought, hotel was booked and just like that we found ourselves on the way to Pench National Park. The park is about 3 hours from Nagpur at the southern border of Madhya Pradesh. We stayed at Tiger n Woods, a place where we stayed on our first trip to Pench 2 years back.

The next morning we were up, bright and early at 5:00 AM. It was still dark and the sky was full of stars when we left for the gate. It was freezing cold and the multiple layers we wore did not help. This was our 2nd national park visit with Varsha and I have to say that these are the easiest trips to take with children. We are in a safari jeep all morning and evening and nap all afternoon. She can't do much mischief when she is locked in a baby carrier except for kicking you in the groin once in a while, but that is something Saru needs to worry about. Also, the movement of the jeep lulls her to sleep, so she is sleeping half of the time which leaves us to enjoy quality time together. When awake, she would enjoy the sights of the forest and animals. Only embarrassing fact was that she insisted on calling the spotted deer as Koala bears and no amount of cajoling changed her mind.

It was a weekday and there were hardly 20 jeeps entering the forest which was nice. A crested serpent eagle was the first big bird we sighted. Racket tailed drongos were everywhere mimicking other birds. Parakeets were screeching and flying all over the place and jungle babblers were creating a ruckus. Other than that, we did not see many species of birds. We drove on, keeping our ears open for calls and soon enough we heard an alarm call of a spotted deer. The driver shut the engine off to figure out where the call was coming from and then drove us in that direction. On the way we met a couple of other jeeps who heard that call too. We stopped at a location and looked hard into the jungle. Crows were circling in the air at one point which meant that the tiger had made a kill. We looked hard, but could not spot the tiger. Just then, a jeep came by with a teacher and her students. In a very excited tone she screamed " You know what, an hour back we saw a tiger kill a baby deer right in front of our eyes. We were driving when a tiger darted across the road, pounced on the fawn and in one swift move, killed it and dragged it inside the forest". This confirmed our suspicions about the kill which meant that the tiger was inside there. We decided to drive up the road for a better vantage point. At that location, we started hearing alarm calls of a langur. With our binoculars we could spot the frightened monkey sitting high up on a tree. It was looking in one direction and giving the alarm call. The jungle was too dense for us to see where the monkey was seeing. We waited there for a little bit and nothing happened. So, we drove back to the earlier location and saw a couple of jeeps pointing to one direction. They had spotted the tiger!! We were super excited. With hearts racing, we started scanning all over the place and soon enough we saw the face of the tiger hidden in the bushes on a hill. I have seen a few tigers till now, but I have to say that this was the cleanest and the most beautiful of all. Most tigers have a rusty/reddish/brownish coat, but this one has a lot of white on its face and neck which made it look stunning. We watched it to our heart's content for at least 10 minutes. It looked like the tiger ate its fill and was lying down and taking rest, but it was still very alert. Some of the people in the jeeps were talking very loudly - no amount of education can teach common sense. The tiger got up and peered through the bushes. She stood for a while and then went back to her earlier position. We were all focussed on one side of the forest and failed to notice a pack of wild dogs on the other side. They had sensed that there was a kill on the other side. The dholes moved restlessly from one side of the road to the other and after a while, disappeared into the forest. "The tiger is going to get up if the dholes disturb it" said our guide. Soon enough, the tiger got up and started to come down the hill. Saru was ready with the camera, but there were a lot of bushes in the way, so there were very few clear shots. The tiger came all the way down to cross the road, but was irritated with the jeeps, so it changed its mind and went back inside. I was trying to take a video of the tiger, but Varsha started pulling my earrings, so it got all shaky.

A tiger sighting in our very first safari - this was a great start to the trip. We came back and narrated the story to other guests and the hotel staff. We went to the afternoon safari a little late, at 3:30pm. It was a little warm, so there was practically no bird or animal activity for 2 hours. We saw a couple of owls - a jungle owlet which is the cutest owl ever and a collared scops owl which has a very weird face. It was 10 minutes to 6:00 PM and we needed to head out . We were crossing a fire line when the driver, Om Prakash screamed "Tiger". The guide and I looked in that direction and said "No, they are spotted deer" He insisted it was a tiger, so we looked through our binoculars and were shocked. They were indeed tigers and I counted 3. The guide told us that this was a tigress called collar-wali and her FIVE fully grown 16 month old cubs. It was not enough that we saw a beautiful tigress in the morning, we were going to see 6 more!! Imagine how excited we were. The tigers were at a distance and saw our jeep and went back into the forest. " They are going to come out and cross the road, please sit very quietly" said the guide. We sat still for a few minutes, but Varsha had enough of the quiet and started squirming in the baby carrier and making noises. The guide looked at us and said " We have to be absolutely quiet". I looked around to see what I could do to entertain her. I had just fed her a granola bar ( Oh yes...I am that kind of mother that feeds her daughter granola bars and fruits for snack), so feeding her was out of the question. Silly Saru threw away the colorful wrapper of the bar which usually keeps her occupied for a few minutes. I looked around and all I saw was a pack of Kleenex tissue. I quickly removed a tissue, gave it to Varsha and said " Here play with this" The girl tore it into pieces, ate some of it and was ready for another. She eats a piece of the newspaper every day when I am not looking, so this is OK, I reasoned to myself and gave her another. Some day Varsha is going to grow up, read this blog and find out that I intentionally fed her paper to increase our chances of a tiger sighting. sigh! Those of you who know my mother, PLEASE do not tell her I did this or she will disown me.

Another jeep passed us and he was reluctant to tell them in the worry that they might cause more disturbance, but gave in and told them in the end. Then they came up with a winning strategy. Their jeep waited at one end of the road and we were in the middle. Each would signal if they saw the tigers coming out. It was a few minutes and we started hearing alarm calls of spotted deer. Looking through the binoculars, I could see them running away in one direction. A peacock flew up a tree in a hurry and started giving alarm calls. Langurs were calling as well. As terrified as these animals are to see a tiger, imagine how much worse it would be for them to see an entire pack of tigers!!
We then heard a big roar! There was silence for a few minutes. The deer stopped running and were looking back. The peacock and langurs were still agitated. "It must have killed an animal. Now it won't come out" said the guide dashing our hopes. It was already dark and we needed to head back. The driver and the guide get fined if the vehicle reaches the gate after 6:30 and we had about 5-6 km to drive. Still hopeful, we decided to wait for 10 more minutes. Nothing was happening and we were losing hope with every passing minute. Another jeep came by and took up position ahead of us by the fire line. A few minutes later, they signalled us to hurry and come. I had the big lens and the binoculars hanging from my neck. I started searching but saw nothing. I started whispering "I don't see anything". Saru was like " They are right here...remove the binoculars and look with your eyes". Sure enough they were right in front of us. Saru was so mesmerized by the sight that he forgot to take the video until I reminded him. I started clicking pictures, but the light was low, so it was hard to get sharp images. First the mother of the pack crossed the road. This amazing tigress is called collar-wali because of the GPS equipped collar that the forest department put on it to study its movements. A few years back, she had 4 cubs and brought all of them safely to adulthood. Now, her 5 cubs are 16 months old. To protect and feed 5 cubs every day is an amazing feat. The guide was telling us that she has to make a kill everyday to feed her cubs. She is always on the move in search of food, providing really thrilling sightings to tourists like us.

Closely following her were 2 female cubs. I got my first ever picture of 2 tigers in one frame. These were followed by the male tiger who was acting a little aloof. We were told that he started hunting and was expected to leave the pack soon. Most mothers train their cubs for about 2 years before they get good at hunting and leave the pack. All five cubs were supposedly getting good at hunting. The guide told us that in one day they killed 12 spotted deer just for sport! They killed them and left without eating! What arrorance!!

The tigers crossed the road one by one and disappeared into the jungle leaving us in awe of the sight. It took a few minutes to register what we saw. One needs to be incredibly lucky to see one tiger and we saw 7 in one day!! Four jeeps witnessed this scene and there was not one person who didn't wear a wide grin the rest of the day. The next evening, we were sitting around the campfire with a large family that just checked it. The guy was telling his family " Apparently, two lucky guests saw 6 tigers all at once" I raised my hand and waved until I caught his attention and said " WE are the 2 guests" and went on to narrate the story to a group of awed people.

The next day, as we were driving along the road, the guide had us stop near a big tree. He pointed to a dark coloured part of the tree's bark and went on to tell us " This is where a tiger marked his territory with his urine. Fresh tiger's urine is very powerful and the smell stays for many weeks. Other animals can smell it and stay away from its territory. If you smell fresh tiger urine, you will feel suffocated by it, but after a few weeks, its power wears off and it smells like the steam from freshly cooked Basmati rice". He rubbed his hand against the bark and smelled it and asked me to do the same. Basmati rice or not, I am NOT smelling tiger pee.

Here are some other blog entries of previous tiger sightings: