Monday, November 25, 2019

Down the Memory Lane- Exploring Kochi

Bolgatty Island
I have never planned a trip at such short notice like this one! The smog in Delhi had forced the closure of schools in the NCR. andy wife and I who are now teachers got an opportunity to pack our bags for the long weekend, It was with a bit of some mental exercise and rummaging through the airlines and travel site that by afternoon we were good to go, The late afternoon flight to Kochi ended the suspense, as we happily boarded the flight leaving behind plumes of smog that had engulfed my once clean Delhi! By evening we were able to breathe the fresh whiff of the sea breeze as the flight descended on the Cochin International Airport. It was heartening to see the place as this is the only airport that is fully powered by solar light to meet it's operational requirements.

The hotel at M G Road was comfortable and by the time we settled, it was night. I was lost in the dreams of the first time as 20 odd years old I had arrived here to begin my professional career at the Naval Academy. As I woke up in the morning, it felt so good to see the ships moored around Thevara bridge from where the train had chugged into the Cochin Harbour Terminus almost 42 years ago when I had first come to the city. It was still fresh in my mind. So many times I had seen the divers from the Diving School assembled on the bridge to dive headlong into the fast-flowing waters. Their instructors awaited on the rubber Gemini boats to haul them out.

We managed to enter the Naval Base from the main gate after producing my Armed Forces Identity Card. Though there were several new constructions, the intrinsic character had not changed much. The beautiful lush green manicured gardens, the dense foliage of the swaying coconut trees provided the relief to the eyes that had been struggling in the fumes of Delhi till the day before. Every morning we used to run around the base during the training time. A nice cup of tea at the canteen had retained the flavour.
Chinese Fishing Nets

Later in the day, we headed to Fort Kochi and started to explore the place. The first halt was at the Chinese Fishing Nets where the traditional nets are used to catch the local fish. It is interesting to see the operation of lowering and after some time hauling the nets with the catch. Egrets and other birds are waiting to make their selection before any humans can lay their hands on. 
Basilica of Santa Cruz
Within short walking distance is the Basilica of Santa Cruz, Maritime Museum and Indo Dutch museum. The church has lovely interiors and was built by Portuguese in 1558. It is one of the eight sacred edifices in Kerala. I had seen some of these places on an earlier visit too.
Naval Academy Sailing Camp Nov 1977
Next day, we took a boat ride to explore the Bolgatty Island. Whilst training at the Naval Academy, we had gone for a 10-day sailing regatta on sailboats around the backwaters. We had stopped over at night at this very island and I almost drowned when I slipped on a rock and crashed into the waters. The memory still sends a chill down my spine.
The Bolgatty Island Resort
On the very spot today there is the Bolgatty Palace Island Resort a sprawling property which has all possible luxuries. I stood transfixed for a while wondering how the winds of change hade transformed the place. We then went to Cherai Beach almost 25km away on Vypen Island. It is perhaps one of the cleanest beaches I have come across recently and is not to be missed.

Our final day was spent in exploring the Mattancherry Island well known for the Dutch Palace and the Jewish Synagogue. The adjacent  Jewish town is a unique settlement of the jews. A huge spice market is also an interesting place well worth a visit. Among the modern places that one must experience in Kochi is a Metro train ride and visit Lulu-one of the largest malls in India.

It was a trip which will go down the memory as one of the best trip planned at super short notice. It gave me an opportunity to revive the old memories of time spent at Kochi.

PS: All pics are mine

Tuesday, November 5, 2019

Incredible Train Journeys- Cinque Terre

Not often, but still some dreams do come true. One such fascinating dream was a journey by train through the Cinque Terre, on the Ligurian coast of Italy. The trip was planned months in advance to explore the most amazing natural beauty of the five fishing villages on the Mediterranean coastline of Italy.  We had planned our itinerary in such a manner that we could stay at a small fishing village called Moneglia which was close to the five villages that we had planned to explore, not too crowded and a beautifully quiet environment. So after having completed our stay at Florence, we boarded a train to Moneglia. It is a distance of about 190 km and takes almost 2 hours and 40 minutes by an express train. The train was quite crowded as the holiday season was about to commence. We kept enjoying the sights once the train left the busy Florence station and en route we saw the granaries of Italy, where the crops of wheat-filled the vast tracts of the land. Also, the industrial might of the country was visible in forms of huge plants of cars and industrial machines as we passed through the cities of Prato, Pistoia, Lucca, Massa and La Spezia.
The pretty Manarola
We often saw some fascinating castles and duomos which were so alluring from distance that we were tempted to deboard and explore. Alas! one can only see finite beauty in a finite time. From La Spezia, the route became very fascinating as we were entering the Cinque Terre region. Every few minutes the train would disappear in a dark tunnel and emerge to show off the sparkling crystal  Mediterranean sea that hugged the rail tracks very close. The undulating hills with groves of tall trees, colourful fishing villages of Riamaggorie were the next halt.
The Colourful Riomaggiore
The conspicuous slant towards the sea from heavens up above with rows of multi-hued houses and tethered tiny boats were sights to die for. The stations suddenly got more crowded as the revellers who normally purchase two or three-day tickets for unlimited travel between Riomaggiore, Manarola, Corniglia, Vernazza and Monterosso( the legendary five villages), keep boarding and alighting the stations as the train slows down for everyone to assimilate the unsurpassed natural beauty.
The pretty rocks and fishing boats
Miles of unspoilt beaches, sailboats, motorboats, swaying palm trees hugging the mountains at the other end kept me hooked for the next 45 minutes till the train reached Levanto. The next station was Moneglia where we were to deboard the train. In less than 15 minutes we arrived at the tiny station of Moneglia. We were the only passengers when the train halted. The clean air filled my lungs and the sight all around gave an impression that we were in heaven. A dwindling road through a grove of lemon trees brought us to the parking area where our charming hostess awaited us in her car to take us to our Airbnb accommodation where we planned to spend the next couple of days.
The sea kissed jagged mountains with winding trails

Next day, we reached Levanto once again, to buy two days of unlimited train passes to see every place between Levanto and La Spezia as many times as we wished. The Cinque Terre Card as it is called comes with a host of other privileges like free shuttle bus rides, wi fi, including a visit to certain national parks for less than 15 Euros.

The delectable desserts
After having acquired this passport to heaven for 2 days, we went ahead by exploring the beauty of these little villages starting from Riomaggiore and going back and forth. A detail of the best destinations and things we explored can be seen in an earlier post(  Best food, bakery stuff like Focaccia, Pizzas, Pastas, Farininatas, Corzetti, Porcini Mushrooms, Gellataria, Pesto sauce( incidentally the birthplace of pesto) will never fail to delight.
A Colour Riot- The Fresh Produce
Long stretches of sand beaches of Monterosso, picturesque villages of Vernazza and Riomaggiore and quietness of Corgnilia, long treks through the orchards of olives, strawberries in Moneglia,  will stay in memories forever. For more adventurous Guvano nude beach and other attractions exist. The fresh produce of the region is breathtaking and the riot of colour is a feat for eyes

I discovered a little haven called Bonassola beach which was the last stop before calling it a day. Ernst Hemingway once described this town as' so sweet, unforgettable, and inexhaustible'. Despite this statement being made several decades ago, still holds true to this day.

PS: All pictures are mine
2. Next week I will take you to a new destination in pursuit of some unforgettable adventurous train journeys. 

Thursday, October 31, 2019

Incredible Train Journeys - A Bonus Black Forest Ride

Utrecht Central
We hurriedly rushed into the Rotterdam Central station after having done a last-minute purchase of the Eurail ticket to commence our journey to Basel. As soon as we stepped on the platform our heart sank to see the train departing. It was not a long wait when another train heading to Utrecht arrived and we merrily boarded the train. At last, the trip to Switzerland started. We knew that en route now we will have to make the course corrections as instead of reaching Basel later in the afternoon we would reach sometime in the evening. After a run through the lush green fields, the train arrived at Utrecht which was buzzing with activity. It is a huge junction from where many trains leave to many destinations within Europe. We got a treat of some fine Dutch chocolates while we waited for the next train. It was not a very long wait as the next train that we were to board for Dusseldorf arrived at the platform. The appearance of the train was different and now we were travelling by DB( Deutsche Bahn) an international train, unlike the regional train by which we had arrived. It was a journey through the cities of Emmerich, Oberhausen, and Duisburg as we admired the beautiful landscape before arriving at Dusseldorf( a distance of around 200km). The next stretch was via the pretty Cologne, Koblenz, Worms and Mannheim.
The Cologne Cathedral
The locks on the bridge across the Rhine on Cologne were a memorable sight and so was the grand, spectacular Cathedral just across the Cologne Central station.

The 65 km stretch from Koblenz to the picturesque small town of Worms was interspersed with medieval castles, lush green valleys and gorges. Worms is one of the oldest cities in Germany and is famous for local  Liebfraumilch wine. The famous vineyards of the Rhineland regions produce one of the best wines. At Mannheim, we once again alighted from the train to take one last train to Basel for a three-hour-long journey. We would have missed most of these spectacular views of these slow trains had we taken the fast train at Rotterdam that we missed earlier in the morning. The last stretch was the most rewarding of all the journeys as one of the most scenic routes of the Black Forest Region of Germany from Karlsruhe, Baden Baden to Freiburg fall on the way. I had in fact planned to take this journey during the course of the vacation but little did I realize that with divine intervention I was about to see most of it. The numerous dark pine trees that grow in the region gives it the name of Black Forest. It is famous for the Cuckoo Clocks, Black Forest Pasteries, Skiing, Watch Making and of course associated with the Fairy Tales of Grimm Brothers.
The Black Forest Region
The detour through the Black Forest was a reward that can never be forgotten to experience the train journey through the wooded region, see the shimmering rivulets sight some rare birds and an occasional deer at distance. There is a wealth of gardens, cascading waterfalls, Spas, Gotic churches, walking paths and photogenic sights that await those wanting to explore.
The craving to explore the beautiful little towns and nature has intensified since this short exposure. Maybe sometime in future, I will get to see more of the place of which I just witnessed a trailer. The journey onwards to Basel was enjoyable equally and though we reached almost 12 hours later around 10 PM there was still daylight for us to get a glimpse of the place.

PS: All pics are mine
2. Next week will take you to another delightful journey to a new destination

Monday, October 14, 2019

Incredible Train Journeys- A Scary Metro Ride in New York Metro

It was a cold January evening as I strolled in the Queens district of New York. It was my first trip abroad and I had spent almost four weeks at Long Island where I was undergoing training.

The crowds were thinning as the night fell. I had packages of items just purchased, tucked under my arms when I stepped out of the store. My shoes slipped in the fresh snow as I made my way towards the Queen's metro station. A recent light shower made walking difficult, due to a load of packages. A cold wind blew and swayed the trees making a rustling noise. I reached the station and purchased the ticket to the Grand  Penn station. I was to spend the evening at a friend's place in New York City.

The train arrived and I boarded it quickly. There were just two or three passengers in the compartment. At the next station, Hollis, two of them got down and two tall dark men entered the coach. They were drunk, and I could make out that these guys were not good! They looked like muggers about whom I had heard. They both wore overcoats which one of them unbuttoned. They were probably armed and one stupid move from my end could spell disaster! One of them who had curly hair and big white teeth looked at me and asked... 'where are you from? ' as they both occupied the seats facing mine. I  pretended, that I did not understand what they said. I could feel my hair raise as he spoke in the cold tone which was intimidating. He got a little impatient while his colleague hurled a few waves of abuse. My throat went dry, as I tried to speak. I made sign gestures by waving my hand and nodding my head that I did not understand them. A shroud of darkness and a few distant twinkling lights, which I could see, from the window, were not very comforting. I wished that the train had more crowd as a Mumbai local! I  prayed silently for the ordeal to end, as the train entered Jamaica station and to my good luck, a few more passengers got into the compartment. It was such a relief to find a company!

The two men realized the futility of talking further and I lowered my eyes to avoid eye contact with them. Every passing moment was like ages. In ten more minutes, the train entered the Grand Central( Penn) station. I quickly disembarked and got lost in the crowd. I had never felt more insecure during my visit and thanked God that I came out unharmed.

PS: 1. There were several times I travelled on the New York metro whilst my stay at Long Island and have some lovely memories of the hospitability of the MTA, Metro service in New York City. This includes one when the metro ferried us on a bus to the next station due to a train disruption due to a minor accident on the track one day
2. Will continue with the series of train journeys that are memorable
3. Pictures Kind courtesy Google

Monday, October 7, 2019

Incredible Train Journeys- Best Unplanned trip

‘What, you want to proceed on leave’? The boss asked, looking at me as if I had asked for a share in his treasure.

‘Yes sir, need a break’ I tried to woo him.

‘But where will you go? Do you think you will get any reservation around this time? He continued, sardonically

‘I will try’, I said in desperation

‘Fine, you may go, if you can manage one’ he remarked in his great act of benevolence

It had been an arduous two weeks. The hectic sailing routine and the constant pressure of handling operational issues had my nerves wracking. I desperately needed a break from this routine!

Later in the day the ship INS Vikrant where I was serving, came alongside berthed on Ballard Pier in Mumbai. I quickly changed my attire and rushed to the Mumbai VT (now CST terminal) for the railway reservation. Internet booking was not available in those days and after standing in a queue, for half an hour, my turn came.

‘Where’? The clerk asked without raising his head.

‘Two tickets to Bangalore on 22 Oct by Udyan Express, I replied’

‘Not available, he replied nonchalantly after referring to a voluminous record.

‘Ok, do you have for Madras (Chennai), for the same date, by the Dadar Madras Express ‘I enquired?

He looked at me a little nonplussed, ‘Are you sure’ he remarked, as he did not come across people to enquire for a ticket for another destination at the spur of the moment.

Having booked onward journey, I had to try my luck with the return ticket.

This time I could get only return ticket from Bangalore and not Chennai. So I had the onward tickets to Madras and return tickets from Bangalore. I felt thrilled at this accomplishment at such a short notice

I returned back to the ship to find my boss still around. I told him about the rail reservation and he granted me leave.

I reached home in the evening to break the news to my wife. She was taken aback but was happy.

Next day we boarded the train from Dadar to Chennai, without a specific itinerary. We flipped through the Railway Timetable, purchased just prior to boarding. After two hours of gleaning a whirlwind tour to Chennai, Madurai, Kodaikanal, Rameshwaram, Coimbatore, Ooty, Bangalore and return, was finalized. I had no bookings in any hotel or guest house for any destination. I managed to get the bookings as I kept landing at a new place. I could get some best places to stay just by flashing my Identity Card, especially at places like Mysore in the PWD Guest House and YWCA at Ooty! It turned out to be one of the best two weeks with no prearranged hotel bookings or onward reservations. It also was one of the craziest trips that I undertook, as far as my memory goes

PS: Images Kind Courtesy Google
2. Will continue with the stories of the incredible train journeys and head for a new destination, next week.

Monday, September 30, 2019

Incredible Train Journeys- Falling in Love with South

The war with Pakistan had just ended and there was an all-around euphoria for having won the war with the surrender of Pakistan in East Pakistan and creation of Bangladesh. The fervour and nationalistic spirit were at its peak. One of the best solo trips came my way when I was still at school! I had qualified the written examination for the National Defence Academy and was required to appear at the Services Selection Board at Bangalore(now Bengaluru) in the month of December. I had never travelled that far alone and the journey involved two nights of travel. There was no direct train from Delhi those days, so I had to change at Madras Central ( Chennai now) and take an overnight train to Bangalore Central. The thought of undertaking a long journey was exciting beyond words. The onward reservation was done and on the day of departure, my parents and brothers came to see me off at the New Delhi station from where I boarded the Dakshin Express.

After bidding adieu, I settled down on my 3 tier seat with many passengers hailing from South India region. It was the first exposition to a different culture, though while at school my best friend was a Tamilian. It was an era of diesel engines and the train rumbled along with the familiar sights till we crossed Agra. The terrain was unfamiliar from here onwards so I kept looking out most of the time appreciating the geographical beauty of our country. When the train entered the ravines of Chambal including Bhind, Morena and Gwalior, I could almost feel that any moments the dacoits mounted on their horses would begin a chase of the train as the areas were still infested with dacoits. The train passed along peacefully till my thoughts were interrupted by clanking of steel utensils and the aroma of idlis and curd rice filled the air. The family seated next to me opened their lunch boxes and generously offered me some. It was delicious! We struck a small conversation and I learnt that they were travelling till Vijaywada. By late evening, the train stopped at Bhopal junction which was very vibrant, compared to the smaller stations we had passed by. Once the train left Bhopal, I climbed atop on my berth to settle down for the night. The sleep was elusive as the constant rocking motion made it difficult to get a sound sleep beside the frequent stops like Hoshangabad, Itarsi,  Nagpur and Wardha, with a constant cacophony from the platforms.

When I woke up, the train had reached the Kazipet junction. I climbed down from my berth and found that the other passengers were already awake. The sound of vendors shouting, "Kapi Kapi" ( Coffee, Coffee, was music to ears). I bought a cup of filter coffee which was very refreshing. The aroma of the chana dal vadas prepared in hot frying oil was a temptation difficult to resist. It was a long halt where some bogies were being detached so I leisurely, indulged in these heavenly pleasures with dollops of fresh coconut chutney. After, a while I lost track of how many vadas I had polished off. The train blew the horn and I quickly scampered back into the compartment with a copy of the morning newspaper. It was disappointing to see that most of the news in the local newspaper was the same that I had already read in Delhi!

The contours of the landscape changed dramatically and so did the weather. My woollens had been packed on the previous evening itself and I was sweating in the heat. First-Hand Experience of the vagaries of weather in our huge country where it was bitter cold in Delhi! Almost all people had a shorter build and a chocolate complexion and spoke in an unfamiliar language. After some time I was jolted out of my siesta as there was a huge rattling noise. I looked out of the window and realized that the train was crossing the huge metallic bridge over the River Krishna and entering the Vijaywada station. The gleaming river with ebbing water had a gigantic span and looked overwhelming. My fellow passengers were ready to disembark leaving the cabin a little lonely as the train halted. It was a bustling station and by now the familiar sight of steaming idlis, upma and other southern snacks had a magnetic attraction. These were becoming my favourite. The huge canteen of the station was very enticing, but as the occupants of my cabin had left, so I had to make do with passing vendors. Just before the train was to depart, a newly married couple, entered my cabin. The lady was draped in a golden-red saree and had a huge bunch of jasmine flowers tucked on her braid of hair. Her husband wore a spotless white kurta and a dhoti with a vermilion mark on the forehead. They kept conversing in Tamil all along and I was a mute spectator. In a few hours, the train passed by small towns of Ongole, Nellore and Gudur before reaching the outskirts of Madras. The sight of small twinkle of a never-ending streak of lights from the shanties looked pretty. It was late in the evening when the train arrived at Madras Central,  that was buzzing with activity. It was still more than 3 hours when my next train was to depart. It was dinner time and I spotted a dosa vendor, preparing crisp dosas. On enquiry, he told me that three dosas will cost me 60 p. I thought I heard him wrong! It was one of the best plain dosa with pure coconut chutney, that left me asking for more. I took two more and rounded off the payment of One Rupee! It will make most of the readers appear that I belong to the Victorian era whereas this happened about five decades ago!

After a hearty fill, I waited for the Bangalore Mail patiently at the platform as I slowly assimilated a different culture. As the train came on the platform I managed to scramble in one compartment and hopped on the top berth, as I did not have a reservation. I never got off as there was no place to move in the crowded compartment/. I managed to catch some sleep en route and by the time I woke up the train had reached the Bangalore Cantonment station. Another 20 minutes of run brought me to my destination, Bangalore Central.

I still relish the memories of this train journey that helped me immensely in the following years in boosting my confidence and ability to rough out.  It was also the beginning of a  long love affair with the South which endures to this day!

PS 1.Images kind courtesy Google
2. Stay tuned for another memorable adventure on the train next week

Monday, September 23, 2019

Incredible Train Journeys-A Ride to Lord Krishna's Abode

The Charming train of yesteryears
The train journeys have a charm like none other. No matter how much you travel the hunger for seeing something new and experience the world as a passenger in the trains is insatiable. Every journey by the train is unique. In my forty-odd years of career, the travel in connection with work and my lust for travel took me on some incredible train journeys which are etched in my mind. When  I gleam through the sheaves of pages in my memory, the nostalgia takes better of me. I will now be penning some of these memories in a series of blogs in the coming weeks.
A scene at the  railway station before globalization
The earliest memories go back to my early school days when I along with my younger siblings undertook the train journey from Delhi to Mathura( The birthplace of Lord Krishna). It was our ancestral home, a distance of barely 150 km but looked like a long journey. The train station was bustling with crowds and appeared chaotic. The vendors were busy selling tea, pakoras and pooris. They were surrounded by a small mob of people jostling with each other to seek the attention of the hawker. The din of the announcements blaring, the children crying, and people scampering to board or disembark are still fresh in my mind. The train rolled into the station with a thundering noise and the steam engine belching out smoke like a tireless power plant at work. The sight of the huge furnace aglow with embers of coal appeared like a demon in the fairy tale as it went past before the train came to halt with a screeching sound of the brakes. A scramble followed as people tried to make way into the compartments, as some more enterprising tried to make way through the windows as the IIIrd class compartments did not have any grill in those days.  After a few minutes, the passengers managed to squeeze into the wooden benches devoid of the luxury of cushions. No one really bothered, as finding a place to sit was more important. A beeline of hawkers would soon appear selling a myriad of things ranging from chana masala, fruits, bangles and trinkets, magazines and newspapers, singers, even beggars and ear-cleaners as the train whistled and moved out of the platform, as the guard waved the green flag on the platform.

 As the train moved towards Faridabad, the sight of a few factories changed the landscape. The train stopped at almost every station as people ferried in and out of the bogie. My mom unwrapped the parcel of pooris and aloo and handed out making a small roll of the contents. A bite into the soft pooris and aloo bhaji with a dash of mango pickle seemed heavenly, as I looked out of the window and stared into the miles of green fields with the golden yellow Sarson(mustard) flowers at distance. The reverie was rudely interrupted by amber fly ash from the engine in the eye making me almost scream in pain. With a dab of water in cupped hands and spray on eyes things got better but not before a small blood clot on the white of the eye. It dampened the spirit only for a few minutes till the train reached Kosi Kalan, almost midway to Mathura. The samosa vendor was selling hot samosas along with spicy mint chutney and shouting at the top of his voice to draw attention. I looked at my mother and cajoled her to buy some. I handed out a One rupee note and promptly the hawker wrapped a few samosas in a packet and poured the mint chutney on a cup made of leaves(dona). One bite of samosa and next moment I was speechless as the steaming spicy potato stuck over the wall of my tongue, till a stream of tears came out. The agony was worth every bit except that for the next two days I was unable to swallow anything hot or cold due to a blister in the mouth.

Next, we indulged in the game of cards with a lot of argument and cheating that could possibly be done. A little girl who was sitting next to us kept reading aloud the cards held by my brother who was annoyed to no end. It was innocence at its best till the train reached Mathura in the next one hour. It was time to disembark and help in carrying our luggage to the rickshaw stand to hire a rickshaw. The rickety rickshaw took us home through a series of dangerous maneuvres in the congested lanes.

It was one of the many such journeys I undertook in the subsequent years on this route and treasure the memories of this journey to this date.

PS: 1. Images Kind courtesy Google
2. Next week I will take you on yet another interesting train ride.