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Hampi – magical ruins amongst boulders

Earlier this month I received an unexpected call. WeGoBondwas having a trip to Hampi and they had a vacant spot. Would I be interested to go?

Well having been in Bangalore for almost 11 years, Hampi was on my bucket list. This was a trip I could not refuse. And I am glad I took it.

As usual WeGoBondtakes women who are on their own trip. So we had an amazing and very diverse group of 12 women, from different parts of India of all shapes, sizes and temperaments! And no one I knew.

Hampi – the site of the imperial city of Vijayanagara is located on the Tungabhadra river in central Karnataka. Vijayanagara’s fame derives from its role as capital of South India’s largest, wealthiest and most powerful kingdom The Vijayanagara Empire : hence it’s name ‘City of Victory’.

Hampi’s remarkable landscape surrounded by miles and miles of giant sized boulders, its religious associations and ongoing archaeological investigations make it a destination of international significance.

The city of Vijayanagara lasted only 229 years between 1336 and 1565 yet it has left an indelible mark in its influence, history, architecture and art to make it one of the most remarkable sites in India.

We made our way thru the dry heat to a tiny village of Anegundi where we stayed at a quaint little resort. The next day began our historical journey.

Hampi is divided mainly into 2 parts ie the Sacred Centre and the Royal Enclosure. Today we visited the Sacred Centre. My first view of the huge stone chariot in the Vitthala Temple was truly overwhelming. This temple is supposed to be the first Vitthala temple which was subsequently moved to Punderpur which is an important temple for Maharastrians.

Our next stop was the Virupaksha temple which has a 50 meter high Gopuram Tower, a coronation mandapa of King Krishnadeva Raya and dedicated shrines of Goddesses Pampa Devi ( from where the name Hampi is derived) and Bhuvaneshwari Devi. This is the only active temple in Hampi.

The other sites we visited were the Hemakuta Hill which houses 2 epic and large Ganesha statues. Sadly these bear the scars of the city’s destruction as large chunks were broken off in the invasion with the Moguls. Then there was the Krishna Temple and the Narasimha statue which stands nearly 7 meters high and is one of the most recognizable landmarks of Hampi. We stopped at a beautiful restaurant called the Mango Tree located in the market place for lunch.

The second day was a surprise in itself. It was a reluctant 4.30 am wake up and we walked thru the darkness with mobile lights and couple of torches towards a waiting Coracle. These are large baskets made from bamboo and are used to ferry people across the Tungabhadra river. Darkness surrounded us and the sound of waking birds and gushing water was an amazing day starter. As light fell on the boulders we reached the other side of the river, from where it was a steep uphill climb on the Matanga hill. It is hard to explain what awaited us. This is something that has to be experienced…… explanation cannot do justice to this. It was the most breathtaking view of Hampi. The silence of dawn was broken by chirping of birds and chants from the distant Virupaksha temple as we climbed about 500 steps meandering our way to the top of the hill. The rays of the morning light on the boulders and the serenity of the environment is something I will carry with me for a long time to come.

That afternoon was reserved for the Royal Enclosure visit.

The first stop was the Mahanavami Dibba – a massive pavilion of 40 square meters which was the viewing area on which the royal family and attendants would gather and watch various religious celebrations like Mahanavami (Navratri) which till date remains an important event for Hampi.

Then there was the stepped tank made of green chlorite with a fine geometric symmetry to it. This site was excavated relatively recently in the 1980’s

We visited the Queen’s bath and the Hazara Rama temple which has 1000 sculptures of Lord Rama from where it derives its name. Another amazing site was the Elephant stables which had 11 large domes.

Our guide Vijay Rao was carrying comic books from Amar Chitra Katha and it was a pleasure to go back in time and actually make funny connections to comics I had read many many moons ago. The last evening culminated in a bonfire and a community jamming session by a local group who were a mix of firangs, locals and hippies! The music from the Didgeridoo created magic in the atmosphere. It was a perfect finale to an eventful break.

The trip has been overwhelming and beautiful. The group was small. The memories are big and the experience mind blowing.

A tick mark on my bucket list ….. indeed!

Photographs – Shibani Vig

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I travelled to Andretta over the recent long Easter weekend with WeGoBond. I had heard of Andretta before, seen photos of the mountains and admired their pottery at bazaars in Delhi. I always wanted to visit but had never gotten the opportunity. When I saw the announcement of the trip, I immediately signed up.

We started off from Majnu ka Tila in Delhi by overnight bus and arrived early morning in Kangra and then subsequently to the homestay, The Mirage in Andretta. We arrived at the crack of dawn and it was still dark and light slowly dawned. Walking up the narrow path, we could smell jasmine flowers and hear the call of birds. It was a refreshing change from polluted and noisy Delhi.

The next three days were fabulous, spent in the lap of nature. Amidst lush green trees, chirping birds and a view of snow capped Dhauladhar range of mountains, which felt close enough that we could touch it. My days were spent hiking, relaxing, chatting and making new friends, reading, doing pottery and exploring the small village.

The Mirage is a beautiful homestay with heritage buildings built in old style architecture but with modern facilities. The host Dennis is warm and hospitable sharing stories of his time in the village. The food was freshly cooked, with delicious local produce like peanut butter, marmalade, yoghurt and jam.

I went for two sessions of pottery at Andretta pottery and was trained by the young, talented Shubham Sakhyan. He patiently taught us novices how to work the clay and potter’s wheel. It was fun even though hard to work the manual potter’s wheel. I came away making a small bowl, which felt like a major achievement!

The village has the Shobha Singh gallery, Nora Richards’s house and other charming cottages, fields surrounded by mountains. Our two hour hike one morning with Dennis took us through the forest and up and down a hill, exploring forgotten trails with beautiful morning views of the mountains.

Our last day was spent exploring Kangra fort with an audio tour where Roshan Seth’s voice made the fort and its inhabitants from centuries ago come alive.

I came away from the holiday refreshed, recharged and ready to face the real world again. With hopes of coming back to Himachal Pradesh sometime soon.

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It all started in May last year when Shibani posted a sneak preview of WeGoBond’s inaugural trip to Jordan, online. The trip planned for November 2016 sounded different so we enthusiastically signed up for it. And we weren’t disappointed! Our Jordan holiday turned out to be a memorable Middle Eastern sojourn that packed in everything from city sightseeing to walking in the desert, from climbing steep rock-cut steps to swimming in the sea. As the WeGoBonditinerary claimed, within two hours we were able to travel by road in Jordan from a mountainous region to the expansive desert, and finally to the lowest point on the Earth’s surface—the Dead Sea. The highlight of our Jordan holiday of course, was our visit to the stunning ancient city of Petra, a world heritage site and one of the new Seven Wonders of the World.

We landed at Queen Alia International Airport in Amman on a Saturday afternoon after a 10-hour flight from Delhi, which included a short stopover in Abu Dhabi. Despite our early morning start in Delhi, we were rearing to explore Amman, a relaxed city atop a hill surrounded by the desert and the Jordan valley. In the evening, we embarked on a walk to the souk in the city centre with our 12-member group. That strenuous but enjoyable walk, during which we had to climb hundreds of steep steps cut in the rock face, set the tone for the rest of our holiday. The route we took was a shortcut to the souk and proved to be very challenging indeed. But the sense of achievement and fulfillment we felt at the end of it was worth every bit of extra effort we put in.

Our first taste of local food was the delicious falafel wrap we had from Al Quds, a small stall that apparently has been serving its popular falafel and shawarma wraps since 1966. For dinner that day, we visited one of the many quaint restaurants on Rainbow Street, the charming location of our hotel, and enjoyed shish taouk, mansaf, kunafe, and other local dishes. We washed our food down with Arabic tea which became a must-have during the trip.

Mansaf, known as the national dish of Jordan, is a flavourful concoction of rice, lamb and rehydrated yogurt which has its roots in the culture of the nomadic Bedouin tribe. Cooked with a blend of spices called ‘baharat’, it is eaten at weddings, religious festivals and other special occasions. Kunafe is a popular Jordanian sweet that consists of soft cheese with a crumbly orange semolina crust that is soaked in sugar syrup. Both mansaf and kunafe are definitely worth a taste despite their high fat content!

The next day we visited the Roman city of Jerash and walked through its colonnaded streets and public plazas, imagining what life must have been like for its inhabitants in ancient times. Jerash reminded us of the Colosseum in Rome. Afterwards, we had lunch with a very hospitable Jordanian family, and were served a sumptuous meal that included a local delicacy called ‘magluba’ which we learnt is an upside-down chicken or vegetable pulao!

The following day found us in Madaba, called the ‘City of Mosaics’ for its remarkable Byzantine mosaics well preserved in its numerous churches and museums. The Greek Orthodox Church of St. George in Madaba houses a rare 6th century mosaic map showing Jerusalem and other holy sites.
From Madaba, we drove up winding hill roads to the revered site of Mount Nebo, where Moses is believed to be buried. For this reason the site is of historical importance to Christians. The first church at Mount Nebo was built in the late 4th century to mark the place of Moses’ death. At Mount Nebo, we saw for ourselves the breathtaking view of the Holy Land encompassing the Jordan valley, Dead Sea, Jericho and Jerusalem. Both the strong chilly winds and the magnificent views at Mount Nebo nearly swept us off our feet!

Our next stop was Karak castle, a sprawling stone structure with a dry moat, caves, halls and passageways. We ended the day with an overnight stay at the Feynan Eco Lodge in the Dana Biosphere. At this electricity-free lodge, we ate by candlelight and lay down on mattresses on the terrace to gaze at the stars twinkling magically in the night sky!

And then we spent two memorable days in Petra, a city which was carved into the rock face by the Nabatean civilization about 2,000 years ago, and was an important site on trade routes. With its well-developed water channels and impressive rock carvings, this ‘lost city’ was rediscovered in 1812 by a Swiss traveller. We explored all there was to see in Petra, from the Treasury to the 1st century Monastery. We had to climb 900 steps cut in the rose-coloured rock to reach the Monastery, certainly an experience to remember! We even experienced Petra by night, walking along a path through the Siq that was lit by 1,800 candles. The winding path culminated at the Treasury where we sat down on mats laid out on the ground to listen to Bedouin music. It was a cold and chilly but mystical night for all of us!

In terms of gastronomical delights, we had great fun at Petra Kitchen, where we cooked dinner with the locals and then enjoyed the meal together. It felt like being on the TV show Masterchef! From chopping ingredients to mashing vegetables, we did it all, and we left with a wad of interesting recipes inspiring us to introduce Jordanian cuisine in our homes.

Our holiday ended with a one night stay at the Dead Sea where all of us excitedly posed for photographs, especially the stereotypical one of lying down in the water and reading a book! We also made sure we applied the famous Dead Sea mud on our faces, arms and legs. We really felt refreshed and rejuvenated afterwards!

A special word of commendation for WeGoBond—the hotels were well located, the ubiquitous guides named Mohammed made the sites we visited come alive, the logistics and transport arrangements were smooth and safe; the group was fun. From cave bars to restaurants to hiking, we did it all under the considerate guidance of Shibani and her team!

We really enjoyed this trip with WeGoBond and look forward to travelling with them again and again!

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Dozens of bouquet-wielding families intact with grandparents, kids, uncles, aunts, and cousins line up the narrow exit with warmth and good tidings at the Tehran Imam Khomeini international Airport. Seeing our group leader – a spirited tomboyish sturdy woman – is a welcome relief, given all the caution meted out to us – as a woman’s group travelling in Iran. An hour-long ride in balmy weather takes us into the city which is quiet early in the evening but for wide boulevards, wild roses leaping out from nowhere, and strings of festive flags along flat, yellowish chalk-coloured buildings.

As night falls, the city lights come on cheerfully and young people come out on to the streets to enjoy a meal out or just catch up. It’s a wee bit chilly, and we haven’t realised that at the foot of the Alborz mountains, the city scales up from 3000ft all the way to 8,000 feet…much higher than Mussourie, Shimla, or Nainital, familiar and popular “hill stations” back in India.

The metro station we board from the city centre is a whole different world – ceilings that are miles high, clearly demarcated coloured floor markers to board and alight. The platform is teeming with chattering masses, dutifully making their way to the first two and last two railcars if they are women, else collecting in the middle. Hustled by an endless array of salesmen and women (the lucky blokes travel through the women’s carriages) who stay just long enough to give their spiel for one station and sell everything from hairclips and underwear to tablecloths and kitchenware, it is an amusing sight. At 11,000 rials for a return ride (less than 30 cents or about INR20 – all of which we crack code on, a couple of days into the trip), the metro present across cities was safe, reassuring and very aesthetically designed, and friendlier than my maiden trips in New York or Paris even.

The next 9 days proved to be delightful…Iran is a well-kept secret never to be told or it might lose its charm. A kaleidoscope that teases the senses – of beautiful women, colourful sweet and sour food, gleaming cityscapes and town squares, gardens littered with flowers, imposing yet minutely multicoloured tiled mosques, and rivers and mountains so casually dotting the landscape. In sharp contrast were the staid very flat sand papered looking buildings – government, public and residential, as well as roads lined with boxy cars straight out of the 70s- Peugeots, Nissans and Renaults – all flat, no curves, exaggerated bonnets and trunks.

Words like “cultured” “tehzeeb”” jannat” came to mind ever so often each day as we encountered locals – cabbies, school girls, old ladies, shop keepers – no one crossed us without yelling “Hindoostan???” and when we nodded, they either broke into a jig or Bollywood song, or giggled, or practised their halting English with us, complimented us for being “women on our own trip’’ or called us beautiful, stopping for photographs and asking us to visit their homes for tea. Without doubt, Iranians have got to be the friendliest people in the world.

There was something very warm hospitable and kind in the air it seemed. The very daunting prospect of travelling with 10 unknown ladies over 10 days in completely unfamiliar terrain and what was touted as a conservative restrictive cultural environment, was laughable. And I now happily recommend the same as an experience to cherish. Of course, many factors played out to make it so. Shibani, our group leader’s careful recce of the country’s destinations and hotels and exhaustive list of cafes and travel tips and flexibility with maximising the itinerary for all of us. Mandana Nooran, our delishly beautiful and guide whose animated stories and information nuggets and shopping tips kept us enthralled through long bus rides and on hot afternoons when our legs were giving way. Her impeccable translation of Persian poetry and verse and flawless English descriptions made us all feel at ease in a mostly unfamiliar lingual territory. Ibrahim, our old-soul shy van driver, who chivalrously chaperoned us through day and night drives stopping only to pay tolls or refill our hot water for endless cups of black tea on our drives.

From Tehran to Isfahan and onto Shiraz, and finally Yazd, we covered over a 1000 miles, with pit stops at Kashan and Persepolis. The motley group of 10 professional women each bringing her own fare to the table literally as well, held us all so tightly that despite the flexibility of free evenings in our itinerary, we stuck as a group each night finding gourmet gems across the cities we visited, including a toned down pyjama party with our heads finally uncovered in a hotel room tucking into local Iranian dishes.

Food has got to be one of the highlights of our Iran trip, not so much for versatility across the regions as much as for its soulfulness and the elaborateness of each meal be it at a tiny roadside café or a fancy hotel. And we ladies graced each meal with the zeal of mountaineers and wrestlers, our headscarves providing all the cover we needed to get over any shyness. After 2-3 days of over-ordering to satiate our desire to try every olive marinade and yogurt flavour besides every meat we could discover under the pile of buttered rice, we slipped into such orchestrated communion. The kababs, fish and vegetables cooked in delightful rich spices and fruit pastes resulted in sweet and sour symphonies with occasional chillies to perk up the notes. Plate after plate of fesenjan (pomegranate walnut stew), bademjan ( eggplant and tomato stew), saffron buttered rice ( cooked as chelo or polo- with vegetables) and tahdig which is essentially lip smacking burnt rice, made for healthy wholesome eating on high carpeted platforms where we sat cross legged for many an hour sharing food and banter, resting our tired and happy selves.

The spectacular Khaju bridge notwithstanding, travelling to Iran is like time-travel into “the bridge across forever” to see “naqsh-e-jahan” or half the world. Make your way!

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Mingalaba! Hello and Welcome to Myanmar-Our local guide greeted us when we landed at the airport.at Mandalay on November 24, 2017.  We were a group of 12 women travelling with WeGoBond, led by Shibani Vig, looking forward to a week-long trip to this off beat, not so touristy destination.  As we drove to our hotel, we got a good glimpse into the last capital of Burmese royalty, which is now the second largest city in the country. As if to give us a sneak preview of what the trip had in store for us, we were taken to the top of Mandalay Hill, to the Su Taung Pyi (wish granting) Pagoda for a panoramic view of the city and the Irrawaddy river, against the setting sun.

The next day was a visit to Sagaing, an important centre for Buddhist meditation, known for a number of monasteries.  It was a unique experience at Myat Setkyar monastery, to watch the hundreds of monks in their maroon robes, silently line up as a daily ritual for their last meal of the day at 10:30 am. We imagined how it would be for young boys to learn about ascetic life as novice monks. We got to chat with a monk who had come from Arunachal Pradesh to learn more about Theravada Buddhism. After that it was a visual treat to reach the U Min Thone Sae Pagoda, where we saw 45 Buddha statues through 30 caves (doorways), all carved out of hill rock, a great place to take photographs in the niches! Other important religious places we visited were the Shwenandaw Monastery with intricate wood carving on Teak, the Kuthodaw Pagoda which is like the largest book in the world consisting of 729 shrines with stone tablets engraved with Buddhist scriptures, and the Mahamuni Buddha statue, which according to the legend was made by the Buddha himself when he was alive.  The gilded pagodas were glittering in the sunlight and we really appreciated the word Shwe in Burmese, meaning Gold.  The use of Gold leaf on the Buddha statues in the various Pagodas, and as an offering by devotees seems an important part of the Burmese religious tradition, so our planned visit to the Gold leaf workshop proved to be very useful and informative.

From Mandalay we moved on to Bagan- what a landscape.  We climbed up the narrow winding stairway at the Shwe Gu Dyi temple, built on an elevated brick structure, and we arrived at the terrace to a breath taking view of the Bagan plains- green trees and vegetation interspersed with thousands of brown religious monuments dating back to the 11th-13th century, against a blue sky, made a perfect picture. Old Bagan especially where we were staying, near the Tharabar gate, was the right place to be and just walk around on one’s own discovering old monuments at every corner.  It felt lucky to be bang in the middle of an archaeological site!  Our itinerary also included visits to other temples such as the Ananda Phaya, built with some Indian architectural influence by 8 monks who came from the Nandamula cave in India.  The unique feature of this temple was the huge Buddha statue that appears to be smiling when viewed from a distance, but appears serious up close. That was amazing. Our shopping later at the local market in Bagan was largely to buy the popular lacquerware handicrafts- the selection was very tempting.

Our next stop was at Inle Lake in the Shan state- the mountain region of Myanmar.  As we entered the Inle Lake Biosphere in our canoe styled motor boats, the expanse of the clear blue water, the azure sky, and the green mountains seemed to move along with us. The flock of sea gulls flying low, diving in and out, appeared to be teasing us to play with them- I just didn’t want the ride to end!  It was interesting to see the Intha fishermen and their unique style of paddling with one leg around one oar.  We also got a chance to visit different villages around the lake and see the cottage industries there- from lotus fibre and silk weaving, to a silversmith village and then a cheroot (cigar) making workshop.  We met the Kayan ethnic group (Padaung tribe), where the women wear bronze rings around their necks to make them slender and more beautiful.  The more the rings you wear the more prosperous you are. We also tried to imagine farming for the lake inhabitants- we saw floating farms  that were about 10 metre long and 1 meter wide, anchored by long bamboo sticks, growing cucumbers, tomatoes and green beans- all climbing plants with small roots.  The village Inn Dein was a great experience, walking through the Stupa ruins and passing by a variety of shops/stalls along the way selling souvenirs, handicrafts and art (paintings) straight from the artists!

We experienced Burmese hospitality, and cuisine- sumptuous salads like the Tea Leaf Salad, meat and vegetable dishes beyond the familiar Khao Suey.  Our hotels were extremely well located, so carefully selected. Our guides were helpful and knowledgeable. Our group was fun with an interesting mix of fitness enthusiasts, travel and history buffs, nature lovers and art connoisseurs. There was much chatting, sharing, dancing, laughing, eating and partying!

We got to see nature in its glory- the myriad of colours at sunset from a variety of locations- from the top of Mandalay hill, from the old teak U Bein bridge at Amarapura, and from our hotel at the serene Inle Lake.  And the much talked about sunrise from the elevated Shwe Gu Dyi temple, against the plains of Bagan, watching the hot air balloons as dots disappearing into the sky.

Our trip ended at Yangon- the largest city in Myanmar, but no longer the capital, where we were reminded of Delhi or Mumbai with its British style colonial buildings. We spent a nice evening at the iconic Strand Hotel. Amidst the chanting of monks, we got to see the jewel of Yangon- the Shwedagon Pagoda- considered the most sacred as it has genuine relics of Buddha.  The locals visit the “birthday corners” at the Pagoda for naming their children, based on astrology and the Burmese Zodiac signs. For example, the Tuesday corner is represented by the Lion and is influenced by the planet Mars. The Pagoda also has a Bodhi tree transplanted from India in 1926, so is special for us! A quick visit to the tomb of the Last Mughal- Bahadur Shah Zafar- reminded us of the linkages between the history of India and Burma. As I learnt more about the country opening up over the last 7 years, with over a hundred embassies now in Myanmar, I couldn’t help think that this country is a must visit!

As each of us settles back in our daily routine back home, our thoughts sometimes wander to those trip moments, getting us to scroll through the collection of photographs shared so promptly across our whatsapp group.  And definitely results in a sigh and a smile…memories to be cherished for a long time!

Jayzuba!  Thank you Shibani and WeGoBond, for such a memorable holiday in Myanmar, with such a cohesive fun group, and a well curated itinerary.  Signing off till the next trip!

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Great company, fun adventures….
The Journey

We were nine ladies – cutting across ages, cultures and cities but united in our determination to enjoy our little holiday together. We chose the night train to Khajuraho, Madhya Pradesh for its convenience and by 8:30 we had set off.

Imagine a compartment full of enthusiastic strangers getting to know one another, snacking, assessing their sleeping arrangements and chatting up other travellers (hi Elisabeth and Antara) – all at the same time! I had been a little apprehensive at first about holidaying with strangers (I had never done that before) but was at ease very soon. Everyone was chatty and friendly.

By 9 the next morning we were packed into two Innovas. After some strategic jostling for the ‘best’ seats, we set off from Khajuraho for Panna. The easy camaraderie made way for colourful conversation on rurban India, lush mustard fields, milch cows and the quality of roads. After navigating an impossibly bumpy stretch, we reached our destination two hours after we set off from Khajuraho station.

Panna, Madhya Pradesh

The Ken River Lodge was a beauty. Think of a resort overlooking a river, tucked among a forest, boasting a tree which doubles up as a dining room and lounge bar. It was a stunning first exposure to nature for us city types.

We would go on to stay 2 nights in comfortable and large huts with noisy tin roofs, and pig out on impossibly delicious food – I still dream of the aloo puri breakfast. And I definitely www.viagrasansordonnancefr.com can’t forget my new friends singing and dancing on my birthday. But the show stopper in Panna had to be the tigress and her family the following morning. We watched in quiet wonder as she majestically emerged from the forest, ambled up to the river with her two cubs and then lazed in the sun by the river bank before walking away. Life was wonderful after that – the pre-dawn start was so worth it, the morning cold didn’t matter any more, and the packed sandwiches never tasted better!

Khajuraho,Madhya Pradesh

The Chandela Rajput rulers clearly loved their temples because the dynasty kept contributing to this complex over a period of 250 years between the 10th and 12th centuries. Some 25 of the original 80 survive and they are dedicated to the Shaivite and Vaishnav schools of Hinduism and to Jainism.
The main (western) complex is easily explorable on foot with beautiful landscaped gardens. The temples themselves
are stunning examples of art, architecture, scientific prowess and local culture, depicting life as it was about a thousand years ago : We saw Gods, animals and human forms ; courtship and love making, war, music and dancing, wrestling and hunting.

Our extremely thorough guide informed us that only 10% of the carvings were erotic art. Yet, I was struck by the unabashed celebration of sex and womanhood. The kamasutra poses were prominently displayed at eye level on the main walls of the temples and panel after panel showed gorgeously proportioned female forms putting on makeup, doing their hair, playing games, tying and untying their girdles, playing musical instruments etc. Wish our self-styled guardians of Hindu culture could be equally chilled about the pursuit of pleasure and women’s role in society.

I should say that the temple town seems to relish its tourist appeal – there were plenty of souvenir shops, Internet cafes and restaurants, motels and hotels, guides and touts. The dance festival performances on our day in town were underwhelming as was the food at Raja Cafe. But what it lacked in food, it made up in ambience – we thoroughly enjoyed our evening under a neem tree in the courtyard.

Bandavgarh, Madhya Pradesh

Or Bandargarh as we may as well call it. We took two jungle safaris – in Magdhi and Tala zones – but lucked out both times and that too at a park where, they say, every visitor is guaranteed a sighting! We saw plenty of monkeys, and also deer (cheetal, chinkara and sambar) and birds, nilgai, sloth bear and wild boar. We dutifully followed the alarm calls of deer and monkeys and waited patiently (and silently) for the big cat to show up. We even sent up a few silent prayers but it wasn’t meant to be.

Yet, the safaris weren’t a total waste of time. Tala zone was very striking in its terrain and natural beauty: mostly plateaus and hills and copses of flaming palash trees. We saw the stunning ancient Shesh Shaiya statue of a reclining Vishnu and shivling, and the memorial to Charger – a legendary male tiger who earned his name after he charged at an elephant carrying tourists. He was fearless, apparently commanded the largest territory in the park and was quite the hit with the females. We booked our safaris through King’s Lodge where we stayed and the resort was perfect with luxurious rooms, very friendly staff, and delicious food.

Soon it was time to go home but each one us would have happily stayed on for a bit longer ….. in a WeGoBondof great company and fun adventures.

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I have to confess (sorry Shibani!) I was mildly apprehensive about the Amritsar trip. I have never travelled with a group of strangers before, mentally relegating it to the kind of thing that scarey cat people did, who were nervous about dealing with new things and places, whereas I liked to see myself as an intrepid traveller who ventured forth and did things.

However, I had always wanted to go to Amritsar and see the Waga border. And frolic amidst the mustard fields of the Punjab, which have always seemed a different country, known only through hearty images in films and ads. And the timing was perfect. And maybe I am a bit of a scaredy cat when it comes to travelling with my son, so I signed up.

We all met at the station—four sets of mothers with accompanying children (the fifth set was flying in from Mumbai). And Shibani turned up—bulging minorly in front as she had Krishna, her one-plus son, in a sling and majorly at the back from a gigantic rucksack about four times the size of Krishna. The children, ranging in age from about six to twelve, eyed one another cautiously and decided that they would not be mortal enemies. The mothers sighed and put their feet up as the Shatabdi chugged out of early morning Delhi.

Many pretty mustard fields later, we reached Amritsar (the Shatabdi turns into a bit of a local train beyond Chandigarh) and hauled ourselves into taxis on the road to Punjabiyat, a drive punctuated by a fabulous meal at SK Dhaba. The butter naan had pools of butter; the alooparatha had pools of butter; the chholey had pools of butter—we knew we were in Punjab!

Punjabiyat is five quiet rooms—built as separate buildings—and a couple of common spaces, set amidst the farmland. It was almost eerily quiet for us city types, and almost equally beautiful in limpid green during the day and in the quiet pools of lamplight at night. There was a quick bullock cart ride for the kids after we reached, and a disco tractor to admire. And tea and pakoras. The rooms were gorgeous, with high beds, and the bathrooms were dreamy. The children bonded by the bonfire and in sessions of dark room, and the mothers drank quiet whiskies and wines and ate gargantuan meals. Yes, we were strangers but I guess women who go on holidays with their kids have a certain amount in common—financial independence and a disposition to travel on their own—and we bonded and laughed together after the kids went off to bed.

The following day was a buzz of activity. We went to the Golden Temple, ate at a dhaba and went to the Wagah border for the evening lowering of the flags, a bizarre and slightly disturbing ceremony.

The third day was a delightful slump of inactivity. We sat around, read, chatted. The children flew kites and made cow patties and ran through the fields. Desultory badminton was played. Random art happened. A few naps here and there. We luxuriated in doing nothing in the winter sun—surely, there is no greater pleasure!

And then a massive lunch in the woods later, it was sadly time to go back—on the Shatabdi with a bunch of very aggressive fellow passengers.

The trip was a perfect mix of activity and inactivity. Shibani organized enough stuff to keep us all entertained, but also left lots of time for us to hang around, which is surely the most delightful part of the holiday. The stay and food were gorgeous—and her impeccable handling of the red tape at the Wagah ceremony made our visit very smooth and trouble free. And I loved my fellow travelers—it was a great and entertaining group—and would love to go on holiday with them again!

packing list
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Planning to set out on an adventure and worried that you might leave something behind? Whether you’re a frequent traveler or a first-time adventurer, it’s always good to plan your packing. What is better than having a packing list?

Pack too much and you end up being disorganized. Pack conservatively and there’s a high chance you might leave out something. And then you end up wasting your precious adventure time at a store on your trip! Also, you wouldn’t want to spend your travel allowance buying things that you forgot back home!

So, save yourself from this mess. We have compiled the ultimate packing list that will make it easier for you to take along all that you need. We’ve also sprinkled some packing hacks for long trips. Don’t forget to give them a try!

 

 1. Carry The Right Companion

Your travel companion has to be sturdy and all-purpose. Okay, we’re talking about your travel bag. You need to invest in your companion to avoid any mishaps. And what worse could happen than your belongings scattered all over the place! Plan how much you want to carry along for the trip and then decide the perfect bag for yourself.

Packing list

Source: Planetfem.com

2. Pack According To The Weather

Would it make any sense to pack your summer essentials for a trip to Norway? Of course NOT! You would end up feeling stone cold!

Rule no. 1: Pack according to the weather of your destination.

If you’re going for ‘Chasing the Northern Lights in Iceland’, getting warm clothes along with comfy gloves and boots would be a smart choice. For those packing for a trip to Cambodia, bring along your beachwear!

Here’s a useful space-saving hack for you:  Always carry clothes that can be mixed and matched. Interchangeable clothes are the best hack to empty up some space in your bags.

Another tip to free up some more space in your bags: Roll your clothes, don’t fold them!

If you’re up for a night of camping: Line your bag with a garbage bag to keep your stuff dry and far from getting damaged.

 

Source: USA Today 10 Best

 

3. Something To Munch On!

You’re on a trip and you cannot resist your hunger. Snacks come in handy at such times. Pack some munchies and candies to put off the hunger pangs that you might get when you’re out wandering.

Packing list

Source: Business travel life

 

4. Toiletries

First things first. Get yourself a separate bag to pack your toiletries in. Wondering why? Well, you wouldn’t want all your things to get messed up just because of one leaky shampoo bottle, right? A small bag will help you keep your things organized and it will also be convenient to carry it around.

Carrying around huge bottles of shampoos and lotions can prove troublesome. Get a few mini bottles and pour some shampoo and lotion into them, and carry them hassle-free.

Packing list

Source: Gift Market

5. Minimal Hip-Pack

Do you want to carry that backpack with essential items while you’re out exploring? How about a hands-free travel? Get a hip-pack to carry all your essential items like sunglasses, phone, and handycam.

With it, you’re all set to wander around your favorite travel destination with your hands-free!

Packing list

Source: YouTube

 

6. Travel Essentials/Accessories

Make a list of the essential items you’d need. Keep your travel documents handy yet safely. You’d require them throughout your journey. Keep your cash and credit cards in a hidden compartment in one of your bags.

To make your traveling fun and relaxing, a bag of travel accessories is a must! Stuff your bag with all the accessories you’d need while traveling and make it easily accessible.

An inflatable pillow always comes in handy while traveling. It takes less space and serves its purpose!

Make sure you pack all the gadgets you’d need for the trip. Also, don’t forget to pack the chargers along with a universal adapter! Preferably, make a separate compartment for these gadgets to avoid any spillage over them.

Carry your earplugs to cancel out the unwanted noise of your surroundings while traveling. And a book or a magazine will surely act as your travel companion.

Once you land at your destination, you’d need the maps, the travel guides, and the language guides. Carry them in a handy bag so that you don’t need to search for them later.

Packing list

Source: Pinterest

 

7. Skincare Essentials

Women love to take care of their skin. Also, skincare is the most neglected part while traveling. Keeping this in mind, we have kept skincare essentials on our packing list.

Pack your skincare essentials as per your travel destination. If you’re planning to visit a cold destination, make sure you carry cold creams, moisturizers, and chapsticks.

Wherein traveling to hot destinations, don’t forget to pack the sunscreen lotion and avoid carrying too much makeup products.

Another space-saving hack: Use paper makeup to avoid carrying all your makeup stuff!

Packing list

Source: Dayna Marie

 

8. Medical Kit

The most essential item in your ultimate packing list is the medical kit! You never know when you’d need it. Carry some fever relievers in case you don’t adjust to the weather change.

Carry some bandages and antiseptic cream in your first-aid kit for any accidental cuts. Also, keep your allergy medicines handy (if you have any) so that you have an uninterrupted trip.

Taking care of your health during any trip must be your priority. Few precautions and you’re good to go on your trip!

Packing list

Source: Mercado Libre

There you have it! The ultimate packing list of essential items you need for your trip! We have left no chance for you to forget anything back.

A bonus tip: Don’t forget to leave some significant space in your bags for the shopping that you’ll bring back home!

Also, check out some amazing trips we’ve arranged for the free-spirited women here.

 

Ladies Tours and Travels
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Backpacking to Korea?

Well then, you have gifted yourself a whole new treat!

Calling Korea as the ‘Land of the Morning Calm’ will be unfair as it’s nowhere close to being calm! The dazzling city lights and the serene beaches in Korea will give you an experience of living in a concrete jungle yet close to nature.

We are sure you’ll be wondering next what all things to do and see in Korea, what to skip and most importantly, what are the things to see in Korea?

Keep that question mark at bay. Get a pen and a notepad and scribble down the things to do and see in Korea!

Below is the list of the things to do and see in Korea.

 

1.  Futuristic Seoul

Haven’t you always wished to time travel? Yes, you heard it right!
Time travel is pretty possible when it comes to Korea! The sky touching towers and the twinkling city lights will fill your eyes with awe.  Seoul is a heaven for the tech-savvies and has so much to offer to the world of technology. Find yourself a step ahead in the world at Seoul.

Wander around the streets of Seoul to take in all that the city has to offer you. Seoul offers you one of the most happening night-life in the world! So, make sure you hit the dance floor!

Don’t forget to treat your taste buds. You cannot miss out on the famous Korean cuisine, the Bibimbap that has sauteed roots with marinated beef served with a bowl of rice. So, Seoul ranks first on our list of ‘Things you must do and see in Korea’!

things to do and see in Korea

2.  Mystical Gyeongju

Korea is a home to two widely different eras! The first is the modern era that you will experience in Seoul and the other one is in Gyeongju.

This city is home to many tombs, temples, pagodas and the Buddhist statuary than any other place in Korea.

Gyeongju has a National Museum despite the city being a museum on its own! The beautiful architectural structures and the Buddhist statuaries are the reasons the city looks like a museum.

things to do and see in Korea

3.  A Stop at Busan

Following Seoul, Busan is the second largest city in Korea that has a string of interesting things to offer you. From beautiful towers to finger-licking seafood cuisine, you get all you need at one stop!

Look out for houses built in a staircase-fashion and painted with vibrant colors in the Gamcheon village that also has a rich history.

You will find a cultural mix of modern and traditional structures, making you wonder what era you’re in!

things to do and see in Korea

4.  Volcanic Landscapes

Ever wondered what it might be like to be near a real volcano? No, we’re not saying a live volcano!

But Korea offers you its sweet little volcanic island- The Jeju Island. Set out on a journey to explore this serene island.

Jeju will surely build up your curiosity to wander around the alluring Island. And last but not the least, the island is crowned with a Crater-lake which is a cherry on the cake!

things to do and see in Korea

5.  Walk in the Lava tubes

The lava tubes are as fascinating as the glassy lava! And where once the hot lava flowed now has a temperature ranging from 12 to 15 degree Celsius.

Jeju Island has a lot to offer, so start by taking a walk through the nature-made tube? And the beautiful lava follow-lines and the stalactites won’t fail to amaze you.

Admire the ropy lava floor which was once a real fuming lava! These lava tubes are open for tourists till a distance of one kilometer, making it safe for you to wander.things to do and see in Korea

6.  Witness the Demilitarized Zone between North & South Korea

Pay a visit to the most controversial tourist spot, the Demilitarized Zone of Korea. The Korean War created a division between the south and the north parts of Korea.

This is the closest you can get to North Korea while you’re visiting South Korea! Take all the pictures you can of North Korea while you’re on the bus ride.

This zone is one of the last borders remaining after the Cold war. And the best part is that it is absolutely safe for you to visit!

things to do and see in Korea

7.  A night in a Hanok

A trip to Korea is incomplete without you getting a taste of the ancient Korean tradition. The best way to live the traditional Korean life is to ditch the hotel for a day and live in a Hanok! Koreans have been living in the traditional Hanok for over 100 years.

The Hanoks are as warm as the hearts of the locals. Get yourself closer to Korea!

things to do and see in Korea

Source: Travel Diary

8.  Live the Temple Life

Visiting Korea and not being at the core of Korea would be unfair, no? Buddhism has spread its roots in Korea over a thousand years ago.

And if you’re looking for some peaceful unwinding, Bulguksa temple is your resort! While you’re at the Bulguksa temple, here are some things you must do:

  • Explore every nook and corner of the majestic temple.
  • Maybe a small tea ceremony with the monks?
  • Chant along with the Monks and find your inner peace!
  • And lastly, a meal with the Monks to end the day of your Temple Life.things to do and see in Korea

 

Now you’re all set to embark upon your journey and fill it with adventure. With these few tips, you can now stop worrying about your numbered days in Korea and make the most out of it. Just take the memories and leave your footprints!

 

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Huddled inside a lavvu, a Sami tent, around a blazing pinewood fire, we binged on coffee and “almost homemade cake”—almostbecause Knut, our guide for the night, bought the chocolate cake with coconut and sugar dusted on top from a store and sliced it in the kitchen at his home! We learnt from him about the Sami. Historically known as Laps or Laplanders, they are the natives inhabiting, primarily, the countries of Norway, Sweden, and Finland. They gained recognition as indigenous people in Norway following the Indigenous and Tribal Peoples Convention, 1989 (ILO convention 169), and are thereby entitled special rights and protection. They herd reindeer for a living and are the only people to legally own the animal.

Sharing laughter and stories, and more cake, we awaited the appearance of Aurora on a bitterly cold January night in Kvaløya (commonly, Whale Island), an island some 30 kilometres away from Tromsø. The hands on the clock marched on. Seven to eight, nine, and then ten, still no show except a faint glimmer of hope, like a wispy cloud. Soon clouds started to drift on the vast canvas overhead. The moon peered through the cloud-blanket to greet us, a silent nod, before disappearing. The wind grew stronger, colder. As a legend goes, whistling or singing teases the Lights into appearing. Someone hummed I gotta feeling that tonight’s gonna be a good, good night; the rest of us chimed in. Would the Elusive Aurora pay us a visit tonight?

Aurora, or polar lights, is a natural display of light near the northern and southern magnetic poles, caused when charged particles from the sun come in contact with atoms in the upper reaches of the Earth’s atmosphere. While it is known as Aurora Borealis (Northern Lights) over the Arctic, it is called Aurora Australis (Southern Lights) over the Antarctic. Up until a century ago very little was known about what caused this natural phenomenon. Ancient Chinese legends held the Lights to be a battle between gods and fire-breathing dragons. The Cree of North America considered them to be the spirits of the departed souls trying to communicate with those they left behind. In Greenland they were thought to be the souls of stillborn babies. The French considered them to be bad omen, bringing along plague, war, death, when they saw the sky turning red weeks before the French Revolution. The Estonians believed them to be horse-drawn carriages carrying heavenly guests to a celestial wedding. A myth in Finland notes how an Arctic fire fox ran so swift across the sky that its bushy tail brushed against the mountains and caused sparks that lit up the night sky (the Finnish word for the Northern Lights is revontulet, or fire fox). In Sweden, the Lights were seen as a portent of good news.


Photo courtesy: Knut of Tromsø Friluftsenter

The Sami thought them to be an ill omen and that they will come down and slice your head off, while Norse mythology held that Aurora was the glowing arch which led the fallen warriors to the final resting place in Valhalla. In modern times, author Molly Larkin has remarked: “When I look at the northern lights … I see our ancestors dancing around a sacred fire, lighting the way for us when it’s time for us to cross over from this physical world and join them.”

The Lights are stunningly beautiful but also extremely temperamental. Dependent on clear, dark skies, viewing them also rests on luck. There are various sites and apps that inform you when and where to view the Lights—norway-lights.com being one such source—but never consider them a guarantee. It is after all a natural phenomenon. In north Europe, the Scandinavian countries are the best bet: Reykjavík and Kirkjufell mountain in Iceland; Tromsø, Lofoten Islands, Nordkapp, Kirkenes, and deep in the Norwegian Sea in Norway; Kiruna and Abisko in Sweden; Rovaniemi in Finland; as also north Greenland, Alaska, Canada. People from all over the world flock to these destinations for a glimpse of the magical skies.

A Northern Lights tour is one of the most sought-after trips on bucket lists in recent decades: many travel companies offer group as well as customised tours deep in the European winter; the best time to view the Lights. Toasting marshmallows in the fire, I heard someone recount that while on a mission to buy essentials for this adventure to Norway, a store in Chennai (a city that has never seen snow nor experienced cold nights) ran out of winter wear because a group of ninety-odd people were headed to Iceland!

A little after ten, I dragged myself out to gaze up at the sky only to find myself rushing back to the lavvu to thaw my frozen self. Even when suitably armoured with about five layers of fleece and thermals, the cold found its way in somehow. Minus twenty-seven was no joke! I was in the “middle of snow-where”—away from the city lights and “Chasing the Lights”, as the flyer read. But in reality we chase clear, dark skies—Knut corrected us while passing yet more cake to the bunch. Correct, but “chasing the lights” sounds more dreamy, wouldn’t you agree?

Eleven, the clock announced. The clouds decided to stay. We did too, unlike another group on a similar mission that proceeded towards the Finnish border. Eleven-twenty-five. Did the clouds decide to part? No. The wait seemed never-ending. Once again I found my way back around the fire, disappointed. I prepared myself for a no-show; there were three more nights yet for the chase. Deciding to call it a night, we began to pack up, retract the tripods, and pile on layers to brave the cold till we reached the bus.

Eleven-forty. “One last try,” Knut said. He checked the KP index and silently stepped out. Seconds later he screamed, “Guys, come out and see!”

Photo courtesy: Knut of Tromsø Friluftsenter

What was that?

The moon had bidden farewell and it was dark all around. The stars glimmered in the ink-black sky. Only once before have I seen such a clear, dark sky studded with so many stars—on a camping trip to Mukteshwar, situated high in the Kumaon Hills of north India. The KP index showed a 4. Good enough chance? Suddenly the sky lit up a pale green and we could see each other and around clearly. The Lights! Aurora Borealis! The snow shone, the sky danced. One long streak flashed from right to left. Another intersected it at a forty-degree angle. A sea horse galloped behind us, a reindeer’s head flashed before us, a chariot drove at a distance. Among this, a shooting star shot through a green-and-purple performance.

I squealed, I gasped. I screamed with joy, I exclaimed with awe. The others echoed the same enthusiasm. Knut photographed us, with wonder and excitement in our eyes. Jaymes Young’s song played in my head: I wanna touch the northern lights/ We could leave the world behind. I jumped but fell into the snow. Sometimes faint, sometimes stark, the imaginary formations swirled and shimmied across the sky, a symphony of colours. Then they faded away. But within minutes they picked up because I was still waiting with bated breath. I could not help but smile, brushing aside the tears of joy with the back of my chilled glove. Around twelve-thirty, we began to pack up. The Aurora danced across the sky, with her skirt in shades of green and purple sweeping across the vast expanse. Impossible to capture on film unless you are armed with a manual camera with the correct settings; nevertheless I was here to experience it.

The Lights were there to stay the night. I froze, but did not mind. I danced under the dancing Arctic sky. January 24, 2018. A date well marked in my journal. For, I will remember this as the day when the skies unfolded. As I inched towards fulfilling my long-cherished dream, the sky turned green with envy. I went with my gut and it did turn out to be one of the most memorable travel experiences.

Aurora Borealis. The Northern Lights. # 1 on my bucket list even before I had a bucket list. CHECK