My tryst with a villager family who was once a stranger

Madam, yeh ek choota sa gaon hai, aap yahan adjust nahi ho paaogi.  Aakhir Aap sheher se hain, said a person on the other end of the phone.”(Madam, this is a small village. You won’t be able to adjust here. You are from a city.)

I smiled and said, do not worry, I like to travel to places like these. He seemed astonished. The man on the other end of the phone was a person, I never met.

I got in touch with him over a conversation on a Facebook community back in 2012.  However, he was right. My travel destination was neither a sight for beautiful mountains nor was it a place anywhere near the sea. I was also speaking in broken Marathi, thanks to my schooling in Mumbai. Hence, I definitely did not seem a person from another country who wanted to explore a local place so unheard off.  The guy on the other end connected to a villager who was to host me for the days I wished to be at the village.

My backpack in my room. That is some rustic living.
My backpack in my room. That is some rustic living.

Living with strangers and that too as a girl is something that gave me those rolling eyebrows from people who even knew me. In those, were also my friends, who perhaps, knew me  closely. Back then, it did sound adventurous. However, in hindsight the experiences made me travel more often and trust people in the villages.

Going with my gut, I set off to learn to live with a tribal community in Maharashtra.

My tryst to learn Warli Art

I like the tribal art –Warli done by the adhivasis of the North Sahyadri range in India. The Warli tirbe is found in the belts of Dahanu, Talasari, Jawhar, Palghar, Mokhada, and Vikramgadh of Maharashtra. The art is the part of their everydayness and every house has a traditional warli painting.

The tribal warli art found in the house
The tribal warli art found in the house in Veeti

With the quest to learn the art from the adhivasis themselves, I choose to go to Veti in Dahanu located 130 kms from Mumbai.  After finalising my plan and coaxing my friends to accompany me for a day, they were more than willing to tag along. All though my gut told me I would be safe, I needed the assurance.

Once I reached Veeti, I got to know the meaning of the phase Atithi Devo Bhavo– Guest is God. The entire family was excited to host me and my friends. Sandeep Dada (Dada means  brother in Marathi) climbed a tadi tree, a tree similar to a coconut tree and gave us the fresh fruits. We ate the delicious radishes from the farm.

Then Sandeep Dada, showed us the Warli art that he had hand painted. He was passionate about his art, however, marketing and selling it to cities was always a struggle.

Sandeep Dada, was going to be my teacher for the next four days.

My day with the Sandeep Dada and his family

Every morning would start with getting up and listening to his stories about his life in the village. Then, he would give me something to draw and teach me the art and would always encourage me to draw. I still think, I cannot draw!

My teacher gave me good grades
My teacher gave me good grades

Some days were about learning the art, while other days were about talking to the children or doing nothing at all. Yes, gazing at the night sky and seeing the stars was always on the agenda. I also visited the nearby dam which was a beautiful sight.

The nearby dam

I never realised when I was called tai which meant sister in Marathi. Isn’t it amazing that the people you really do not know, who were once strangers become close to you and you share an emotional bond?

In my four days with the family, I ate fresh food and had a clean air to breathe. It seemed a bit odd that the family would serve me first and then eat. I tried to tell them to eat with me, however, it was their hospitality and the culture and they wanted to serve the guest first.

Sandeeo Dada and his family
Sandeeo Dada and his family

A wedding at the village

Sandeep Dada and his family took me to a traditional tribal wedding. While the men were drinking the local drink – Neera and got high, the women were busy running around with the work. Out of nowhere, the bride’s mother hugged me and gifted me a saree.

The warli art which was also a part of the wedding
The warli art which was also a part of the wedding

There was an old grandfather who was dancing with this stick and was enjoying the wedding.

While I came to learn the warli art, I got much more in return. I was filled with gratitude. It made me think:  Nobody had a reason to be nice. This is the love of the villages, I seek for. This is how my faith in humanity is restored. Hence, I say, “I am a city girl whose heart is in the villages of India.”

As I write this, it makes me feel sad that I am not in touch with Sandeep Dada as I lost my phone and eventually changed my number.

However, I want to go back to the village and trace the family and show him this story that I shared with you, dear fellow traveller.

Meet the girl who sold her house and is exploring her spiritual self in India

As a solo traveller, who sets off with no fixed plan, I am  often asked this question:  How do I manage to travel all by myself and end up having a good time?

You know, when you are travelling alone, you are never really alone. You constantly meet new people and when you are all by yourself,  curiosity leads to talking to people.

I have always met good people on the road and the experiences have made me what I am and hence, I cherish solo travel.

This post is about meeting one such lady, with whom I could connect, have a meaningful conversation and talk about the purpose of life.


I met Hajnalka Zsuzsanna Rácz,  who lived in a  town near Budapest.  I met her while I was volunteering in an ashram in south India.

32-year-old Hajnalka Zsuzsanna Rácz from a town near Budapest

Her story 

32-year-old Hajnalka, worked in a Tele- communication company for eight years. However, she could not see herself selling things for her entire life. She felt the company she was working for cared more about the numbers than the people.

She quit her job, worked in a restaurant for five months so that she could travel for the rest of the seven months.  Hajnalka also sold her house as she did not want to keep paying the EMI and be dependent.

“Things like a house don’t interest me. It is the new experiences in life that I am looking for. In volunteering, I find selfless love. No salary can give me that.”  With the money that she had earned while working in a restaurant, she came to India.

I was intrigued to know why she wanted to travel to India. “India was my calling. I reached the airport and the wind blew at me. The smell of the earth, the wind seemed like it was welcoming me here,” she said.

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Hajnalka, is in India and on her spiritual journey and is living  in a  living in an ashram in south India. She is  volunteering in a canteen where she is sometimes serving people and at times baking cakes amongst other things.

I began talking about life and happiness.   I see a lot of young people unhappy with the jobs.  I always wondered if  money was that important? How is it in your country?

She said, “It is the same in my country too. One is supposed to work, earn, marry and then have babies. Though I love babies. And would like to have Indian babies! However, I see many people are not happy in their lives.  Maybe because they are always looking for materialistic happiness in their life.

We both agreed that materialistic happiness is short-lived and people need to find meaning in their lives. Once that is sorted, perhaps happiness makes the life going.

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The art of draping the saree

Hajnalka can drape a saree better than I can.  In one of the felicitation functions at the ashram, we wanted to wear a saree. However, when I told her I did not know how to drape one, she said “Come to my place. I know it. I can help you with it!

It was funny that as an Indian I did not know the art that well.   I asked her how she learnt to wear the art of draping a saree and she said, “I feel so connected with this country as if I belong here. It was easy for me to pick it up.”


This conversation and meeting Hajnalka remains one of the most insightful time. I interacted with her for a couple of hours, however, I can feel some connection with her.

Sometimes, all you need is a good conversation.

Dear fellow traveller, I would love to hear the stories of people you met on the road.

 

 

 

Do all old school things have to come to an end?

It was 1923. Britannia and Company, one of Mumbai’s old Parsi restaurant was established in the city then called Bombay.

That same year, Boman Kohinoor, the 93-year-old man, who now runs the restaurant was born. An iconic Parsi restaurant in south Mumbai, it is known for its Berry Pullav

The signature dish at Britania and Company
The signature dish at Britannia and Company Berry Pullav

A few days ago, CNN Traveller initiated a campaign  in  which the nonagenarian Boman expressed his desire to meet Prince William and Kate during their visit to India.  On April 11, Boman was able to meet Will and Kate! The entire campaign was too cute,  went viral and made a lot of us go awww. I too went awww.

93-year-old Boman Kohinoor, the owner of Britannia and Company

With this inspiration, I visited Britannia and Company to meet the man and talk about how he felt when his dream came true.

While I reached the 93-year-old  restaurant, a journalist was around asking him questions. I waited at one of the tables with a fresh lime soda.  To beat the Monday blues, a group of office goers had come to the restaurant for lunch. On other tables were laid back foreigners who seemed to enjoy the Parsi and Iranian cuisine.

In the meantime, I got talking to the manager and Boman’s son who was running the show. The  old and iconic places shutting down in Mumbai is not something new to the city.  I asked him, what is your plan? A lot of old places have been shutting down.  To which he added, “This place is also going to shut someday. In July 2017, the lease gets over.”

Ballard estate, the area in south Mumbai where the  restaurant is located is a heritage area. The land belongs to the Bombay Port Trust(BPT) and thus, the lease belongs them. The building is owned by another landlord and as per the Pagdi system, the owners become sub-tenants.

With so many channels involved, running the show may not be the most easiest task.


While I was just about to digest this,  “Britannia Unlce” as he is fondly called  got free.  I asked him what keeps him lively and he said, I learnt fitness lesson from my grandfather. I used to  walk  five miles every day, then he pushed me to jog five miles and then eventually I ran five miles every day”

Adding that, ” Soon, I won a sports competition and my grandfather, who had actually come to India from Persia, was satisfied with me.

“After a few years,  he said you have now come off age. Now, you should stop being a womaniser and settle down. Within six months, I got my girlfriend home and we were married.”

His eyes sparkled when he spoke about his wife. “In 1993 she died. The Berry Pulav was her dish actually. She gave it to me and used to train the cooks.”

In earlier days, the restaurant got the cooks from Goa and then Mangalore. Today, most of the cooks come from Jharkhand.  “The people from Jharkhand are hard-working and they respect the work,” he said.

I asked him what keeps him going and prompt came the reply, “I cannot stay at home for long. Every day I dress up and I am back to work. This place is like my home.” When food is cooked with love and served with love, people will sure come to vist.

At the end, I again asked the question, what is the future of this restaurant?

“Madam, in 1950, I made a note of Parsi restaurants in Mumbai and back then there were around 470 restaurants. Today, there are hardly 40 left. You know why? Children want to become doctors, engineers, lawyers and no one wants to work in a restaurant. He added, “In the British era, we had few  licences and taxes to pay. Today, there is so much more paperwork and so many taxes…”

This made me realise the times that we have been living in. Do all old school things have to come to an end? After a year, will we talk about stories and headlines stating – An end of an era.

It won’t be surprising if that happens.  Do we prefer not going to these places because  people know about them, but do not want to really visit  them?

In the recent times, iconic places in Mumbai that have had headlines An end of an era and have shut down.

  1. Rhythm House
  2. Samovar Cafe
  3. Wayside Inn and the story of table number 4 where Babasaheb Ambedkar sat.

The building where Crystal in Chowpatty is located is going to go in redevelopment soon. There are news reports which state Parsi Dairy farm , Mondegar Cafe may shut down as well.

What have we done to stop this?  Dear world of the internet, maybe the next campaign to go viral should be save the iconic places of Mumbai and support them  to grow.

Let us all go awww on those as well.

Things I did for myself on World Health Day

“Our greatest happiness does not depend on the condition of life in which chance has placed us, but is always the result of a good conscience, good health, occupation, and freedom in all just pursuits.”
-Thomas Jefferson

April 7. It is  World Health Day!  On this day, I pledge to make health my priority.  Not just physical but mental health as well.

These are some steps I took to ensure I kick some ass.

Borrowed a cycle from my neighbour and went for a ride: I was having a chat with a fellow traveller. He mentioned about his idea of going for a 5km ride on World Health Day. It got me itching to ride a cycle myself. Hell, I did not have a cycle. However, even before I could think, said, one could always borrow or rent a cycle. “Jugaad,” the Indian word for the word hack is what we Indian’s are best at.

Hence, I borrowed a cycle from my neighbour. It took me less than five minutes to approach her. Most times, this is the time it takes to make that decision- To do things you always wanted to do. It will happen when you let it happen. Just do.

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Backstory: I fear to ride a bike. As a child and as an adult I have fallen off the bike a few times. This developed a fear and these are my baby steps in overcoming that fear.

Recently, I saw a Ted Talk by Shonda Rhimes My year of saying yes to everything and the journey to find that missing “hum.”  With this, I started my own journey.

Enroled myself in a course to study counselling: I was a part of  an organisation that worked with children in dangerous situations. I love children and the purity of thought they have. However, I was unable to work with them as closely as I wanted to. Partly, because of the educational background I had. While on the onset, this seemed like one of the best reason to enrol in a course.

However, another reason to enrol me in the course was to understand myself better. In India, mental health is not taken as seriously as it should. In order to empower myself, I enroled in a counselling course. April 6, was my first class and I am excited to learn new things!

Enroled myself in a Yoga class: Six months ago, I had fractured my foot. Things did not go as I planned. From quitting a job for a travel fellowship, I was not able to travel. With this, my travel stopped for a while. I decided to take a leap of faith and see how I could sustain myself and travel. The reason why I am mentioning this here is because the accident somehow put a halt to my physical activity.  I travelled on and off, however, none of this was a trek. Now, I think it is the time I start again!

Who knows, within a few months, I will be off to that trek I always wanted to go.  I do wish to embrace myself in the silence of seeing the rising sun from the mountains and listening to the sound of the gushing river.

Like me, dear fellow traveller, what is that one thing that you have always been itching to do?

Pick up that thing.  Listen to your heart. Just listen. Do not shut that voice inside you.

“Do not let anyone stop you from doing the things that you love- not even yourself”- Unknown.

Bursting stereotypes in a city already stereotyped : Varanasi (Part 1)

“In the city of chaos, there are pockets of saneness. They are right in front of you. You must know where to look for it, ” said my walking tour  guide Aayush Rathi , co-founder of Roobaroo walks in Varanasi.

This was my fifth trip to Varanasi and in my head, I laughed at this statement. Here was the loud honking with tuk-tuks and cars moving around  with no lane discipline whatsoever, and the 26-something guy was talking about finding sanity. “Good luck to that, I told myself with a tinge of sarcasm.

Little did I know that not only the three hours would break my stereotypes of the city, my entire trip would turn out about breaking these notions I had formed about the city. Not my fault totally. This is the how the city is portrayed  in the media and the movies glorify it.

We started the walking tour with a 17th-century old church in Varanasi- St Thomas Chruch.  Now, this may not sound odd, but we Indians have always known Varanasi as a center for Hinduism, and starting the tour from a church for the very same reason was my first myth busted about Varanasi.

The group who were along with me in the walking tour of the city

The group who were along with me on the walking tour of the city

Where else would you find a colourful toilet?
Where else would you find a colourful toilet?

I was told Varanasi has about 3000 temples.  I bumped into Tom from  Dublin while I was enjoying lassi in a kulhad. I was surprised to hear him converse in Hindi with the shopkeeper. I think, I was the only one amazed with this. I struck a conversation with him and learnt that he has been travelling to Varanasi for about 5 years. Tom  was working on the cause of human trafficking in the city.  He had enrolled himself for Hindi  tuitions and loved the colours of the city.

He  said, “You see the number of temples here? There are as many pubs in Dublin when compared. I love the insanity of the city. The city has its own rhythm and that is what I like about this place.”

My fascination with the city had just begun where I was still finding meaning in the chaos.  In the same walking tour, when we reached in thatheri gali, I was taken to the house of the revered poet Bhartendu Harishchandra,  the father of modern Hindi literature. The transition from a narrow lane which was dimly light to an ancient house with a pretty looking a courtyard, this juxtaposition was something one should witness when in the city.

Courtyard of Bhartendu Harishchandra

They say, every lane in Varanasi has a story waiting to be heard.  Now I know what it meant. While passing through another lane, we saw a group of old people who had gathered to play chess. Not very far away, I heard the old news being played by All India Radio while  people were busy with their business.  It did seem like I was transported to a different era altogether.  For a city girl like me, these experiences were a rare occurrence.

The men and the barber shop.
The men and the barber shop.
Join them in the game of chess, will you?
Join them in the game of chess, will you?

It is also easy to get lost in the lanes and for someone like me, who does not remember directions this can be one of the biggest challenges.

There is so much to the city and I have not even got talking about the beautiful ghats, the music, art, and food of the city. I need to spend a good one month to just soak and understand the many sides of Varanasi.

A few crazy things to do in Varanasi 

  • Get a haircut from the guy sitting on the street.  (Varanasi is famous for the local barbers on the street)
  • Participate in a local gym called akhada
  • Have bhang, magic cookies and get high as hell
  • Have weed with the babas of Varanasi in one of the ghats.
  • Try playing hide and seek in the lanes of Varanasi Ha-ha.
  • Be-friend a person who has a hand-rowed boat and listen to his perspective of the city.
  • Learn the recipe and make a Banaransi paan at the local paan shops

 

 

 

My fifth visit to Varanasi: On a mission to find meaning to the chaos

Why people prefer travelling to Varanasi

Varanasi, the 3000 -old -city is one of the oldest city in the world. It is known to be the cultural and spiritual  hub of the India with its traditional music, Sanskrit, Ayurveda, Indian astrology, poetry and stories.

The ancient city has the ghats, the river Ganges, the mesmerising sunrise, religion, Hinduism and the Ganga aarti which is artistic and poetic. There is a variety in the cities food,  bhang- the local drink that makes one high as hell, religion, god-fearing people so and so forth. On the surface, this is what someone has an idea when in the city.

Sunrise at Assi ghat, Varanasi

Sunrise

 


On a mission to like the city

I must admit, I never liked the city. When I had a full-time job, I travelled to this city often.I could not understand the chaos and the contrast the city had to offer. I used to always wonder why travellers who were coming to India for the first time had this city a must visit. This time, I wanted to travel for travel’s sake.

My fifth trip to this ancient city had a mission-  to decipher meaning behind the chaos.  A friend once told me -“A lot of how you see a place depends on how you travel to the place. If you travel by air and are picked up by a cab driver, you will experience the different side of the city.  She added, “If you travel by train, you will see the maddening crowd, the peculiar people of the city. You will observe the narrow bylanes, chaos  more closely” This was true for Varanasi as well.  The mood had already set in with my train travel.


My tryst with a 26-hour train journey from Mumbai to Varanasi

While I love Indian trains and have even lived in a train for 15 days, this was my first time alone in a 26- hour long train journey.  My co-passengers were busy discussing politics and the prime minister of the country. There was a woman travelling with her infant and her husband. The couple had occupied much of my seat on the train as well. When I happened to give them the dreadful looks, they would say- But umm.. we are travelling with an infant. I, who was perhaps the only one in a jeans and t-shirt, was being judged. A woman in her late 50s told me, “You are educated but still, why are you quiet? I smiled and got back to reading a book.

While I was done dealing with this, on the other end of the boogie was a man fighting with a fruit vendor.  The man paid for the fruits but wanted the money back as he felt they were not worth the money.  In that argument, the man started threatening the street vendor and started speaking in broken English. It was irritating  but in hindsight if I look at it this was funny. He started speaking about the country and the problems in India.  Thrice, the railways policemen had come to our boogie. I also experienced this being peculiar to the trains heading to Uttar Pradesh and Bihar. Well, I do not want to generalise people from few states, I know I am doing this here.


Moving on to booking my stay

In the middle of all of this, while I  observed people and conversations around me, I realised I had not booked my hotel yet at Varanasi. A friend, who was in touch with me, said she had it all sorted!

She put me in touch with a person who ran a travel company- Serenity routes in Varanasi. Now, I have been  away from tour companies, because I have been an independent traveller that way. However, something about serenity routes told me they were different.

My phone conversation with the founder of Serenity routes went like this. “You know, I have been to Varanasi before. However, I have never really liked the place.”

His reply, “Let me show you the city- as never before. Perhaps then, you can decide for yourself. ”

I could rely on them, I thought. They were not the kind of tour company who were trying to sell off a package to me. A few exchange of WhatsApp texts and a backpackers hostel was booked for me and a bunk was booked for me. It was situated 100 mts away from Assi Ghat, one of the places in Varanasi to just be. It is also away from the otherwise chaotic city.


First impressions of the city

While I got off the-the railway station, I had rickshaw drivers or the tuk-tuk as they are called to take me to the backpackers hostel-blox hostel.

The traffic was not moving. Cycle rickshaws were ringing the bells asking the tuk-tuk wallahs to make way.  It was noisy. I wasn’t able to see a traffic signal anywhere! Ah no, being an Indian does not mean one is  used to these things!

This is perhaps the only city where traffic can be caused even while you are walking. As the lanes are narrow and on one end you have two bikes passing by and at other times, you are obstructed by a bull or a cow!

I was asking myself this question- Did I make the right decision to travel to Varanasi? I mean what more the city had to offer?

I saw a religious rally, which had made the traffic of the city slower and chaotic than usual. At the same time, I saw a funeral procession passing by.

Not a little far away, I saw the Taj Hotel in Varanasi.  I just smiled to myself and the delicious ironies the city had to offer. I told myself- This trip would be an eventful one.

To be continued in the next post.

 

What if the Indian education system appreciated and acknowledged travel

I am a big fan of my country India. As an Indian, I do not know as much about my country as I should.  Not my fault entirely India is vast and diverse.

I am on a mission. To explore every bit about India for a lifetime. However, this makes me ponder on the education I received in school.

Would it have helped if my education system was a bit different? 

When I was in class 4, my first lesson in geography taught me about astronauts, the moon and space. I was  fascinated by it all. I came home and told my mom- Maa- I want to become an astronaut! They are cool people. But then, in my next chapter, I moved to understanding the tidal waves.

After every classroom learning, every chapter had  questions in terms of fill in the blanks, chronological order, brief answers. Those were the easy ones. Some teachers would ask those in the exams. Sometimes, there were some surprise questions that would come from anywhere outside the textbook! Nostalgic about those times. Eh?

The school textbooks of history taught me more about the independence struggle than stories of its people.Patriotism was drilled in me and I loved reading India’s independence struggle. Gandhi and Nehru were my heroes.

How awesome would it been if I understood the meaning of the quote said by Mahatma Gandhi- ‘India lives in her villages while I was still a 10-year-old.

If I were taken to a village would I have understood the issues of the country better than learning from a textbook?

How awesome would it have been if I were taken to the Prince of Whales Museum in Mumbai to understand the Indus Valley Civilisation?

Would it have been nicer if learning happened outside my classroom?

Would it have been better if I travelled to a place, saw the diversity of India while I was still in school?

If this happened in schools in India:-

Perhaps, the myth about India not being safe would have busted.

Perhaps, children would appreciate India more – its culture, art, history and agriculture among other things.

Perhaps, parents would not put their children in coaching classes with the sole mission to enroll them to in an IIT- Indian Institute of Technology to become an engineer.

Perhaps, I would have developed a thought process from an early age and would have seen things from a different perspective.

Perhaps, I would have a better understanding of  the leanings and opportunities in what we called rural India which comprises 60 % of our population.

Perhaps, I would have been better informed and would be able to question the practices in the media.

Learn when you travel through experiential learning. 

Even today, there is limited scope for experiential learning in a classroom environment. How nice would it have been if children were taken to a place where they traveled and learnt through experiential learning.

If there was a School of Travel in our country that would have catered to teaching children while travelling!

Gap Year?

In India, a gap year is  not much appreciated.  A year for travel or to explore yourself? That cost’s so much money! Perhaps, an iPhone would be a better bet. Eh?

We Indian’s do not travel for travel’s sake. Yes, times have been changing.More and more people are taking up travel as a career. Both men and women alike have been travelling. Would have been nicer, if the seeds were sown at an early age.

I only wish I knew about the benefits of travel and experiential learning  when I was a child. the education system will change someday. Maybe, I am an idealist. Maybe, I am an optimist.

However, I will not want my children to fall prey to  the education system and classroom learning which I was a victim of

Who knows, someday I will  have my own travel school.

The world is a classroom.

 

A travel blog by Deepti Khera that talks about the rural, rustic side and (mis) adventures I embark.

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