Lavasa – A Lyrical Journey in the Rains

I can open your eyes

Take you wonder by wonder

Over, sideways and under

On a magic carpet ride 

The carpet of smooth road welcomes us to Lavasa

The carpet of smooth road welcomes us to Lavasa

These lines from my favourite song in the Aladdin movie rang in my ears as we zipped through the mountain trail on our first monsoon roadtrip for the year. The road almost sang for me as it curved and split and sloped with alarming swiftness beneath us, almost taking us on a magic carpet ride over the Western Ghats!  I slid the car window down to feel the winds getting stronger as we gained altitude on the road to Lavasa. And after about five hours of playing hide and seek with the rains all along the path, we reached our destination. Hidden somewhere between the hills of the mighty Sahyadri range, a charming little city gleamed in the afternoon sun. I could not believe I was still in Maharashtra!

Just before the thunder split the sky

Just before the thunder split the sky

As the car eased into the driveway of our hotel – Mercure Lavasa, I made a mental note to find out why this city looked so Mediterranean. Weary as I was from the long drive, I almost flopped on my bouncy bed, but I realized I hadn’t had lunch. So, off we scurried to Mercure’s Celebration restaurant, and got hold of a table by one of the French windows. A view like that could only be enjoyed with Italian mains! After the appetizing meal of spaghetti and mushroom, we gathered our camera lenses and tightened our shoelaces – it was time for action!

Spaghetti with olives and grilled bread

Spaghetti with olives and grilled bread

As we walked through Lavasa, I learned that this planned hill station is modeled on the Italian fishing village of Portofino. Orange, yellow and brick red coloured buildings dazzled from afar. This was the Waterfront Shaw which framed the shimmering blue waters of the Wasargaon Lake. These waters are boundless in the scenes they reflect, yet restrained by the Wasargaon Dam. The mountains that guard Lavasa have an appeal of their own – they are gentle in their incline but strong when it comes to carrying entire villages on their backs.

The waterfront at Lavasa

The waterfront at Lavasa

My train of thoughts was broken by a little kid calling out to her father. She insisted on getting on the trackless toy train that chugged along Portofino Street. It was only then that I took my eyes off the mountains and looked around me. The lakefront promenade was lined with a host of counters that let one try everything – from miniature golf to adventure sports. Instantaneously, I broke into a smile as I knew just how I would spend the rest of my evening!

The toy train is coming!

The toy train is coming!

“Burma bridge crossing” was first on my list. This adventure sport can actually mislead people into thinking all bridges in Burma are made of ropes and only luck can help you go across. The operator from XThrill Adventure Sports warned me cheekily not to ask for help if I got stuck on the bridge. He hurriedly plonked a yellow helmet on my ashen face, straightened the harness around my waist and told me he’d see me on the other side. I held on to the rope railings for dear life as I wobbled across the rope bridge, stepping on one knot at a time. Zip lining, the next thing on my list, was a breeze after the Burma bridge ordeal. Zip line is also called Flying Fox, though you don’t quite feel foxy as you fly from one point to another, suspended only by two ropes. We tried our hand at archery and shooting before heading back to our hotel.

I tight-rope-walked across the Burma bridge

I tight-rope-walked across the Burma bridge

This hill city has a handful of business hotels and resorts, but not much for the budget traveler. In Lavasa, be prepared to loosen your purse strings! There are some cafes that dot the waterfront. If you love people-watching, you can sit and sip a different coffee under a different awning every time you pass a café by. For visitors who like to “feel” a place as opposed to tick things off a checklist, I recommend alfresco dining. No music is more melodious than the whistle of the wind, and no décor as enchanting as the mood of the sky.

The soothing sounds of water against rocks

The soothing sounds of water against rocks

Back at Mercure, we realized we still had some light before dusk would swallow the place. So, we decided to walk on the other part of Lavasa. Right outside our hotel, we heard a stream gurgling loudly with no other sound adulterating it. We walked past rows of single storey and double story houses which had no occupants but a guard to keep an eye on them. I guessed that many real estate investors have second homes here, but choose to stay in bigger cities. I cannot fathom why one would prefer noisier cities to the tranquil tunes of nature. In some time, the sky darkened with clouds and we strolled back to our hotel. I was a little upset that water-sports was closed in the rains. I just could not get the image of that expanse of hypnotizing blue out of my head.

The sky darkens

The sky darkens

To get my spirits up, we ordered Italian again. We had ravioli with some wine for dinner and then went out one more time to look at the diamonds that had scattered all over the night sky. The best thing about a weekend getaway to the hills is the crisp air and the clear skies. Stargazing is a luxury one cannot afford in big cities where light pollution is rampant. Over a bottle of Bordeaux and under a sheet of stars, we exchanged stories of our past and toasted to a brighter tomorrow.

Washed by the rains, the city gleams again

Washed by the rains, the town gleams again

We were greeted next morning by an intermittent drizzle that kept most of the tourists indoors and left all of Lavasa to us. With no group to trek with, we explored the place further on our own and spotted many a rare blossom and insects crawl out in the rain. Monsoon, I have observed, is more beautiful when you get out there and explore. A warm mug of coffee can only soothe your throat, not your soul. Rains are not for us to sit and watch from the confines of our glass walled homes. Rains are the Earth’s way to communicate with us. And we must reciprocate – by walking, running, driving and dancing in the downpour.

The hill station from the top

The hill station from the top

From where I stood, I saw at a distance, all the touristy cottages perched precariously on the hills. I knew then that I had escaped the tourist trap and wandered where only travellers could! I could then hear the true song of Lavasa.

Blessed by the heavens, Lavasa is crowned by a tiara of hills

Blessed by the heavens, Lavasa is crowned by a tiara of hills

Useful Information:-

  • Arrange your hotel bookings in advance, especially if you plan to visit over a weekend. Tourists start trickling in mostly in the monsoon.
  • Lavasa does not have an airport. The closest international airports are in Pune and Mumbai. There are also no trains or buses that connect Pune / Mumbai to Lavasa. Travelling by car is recommended. Besides, the enthralling views along the route are best enjoyed on a long drive!
  • If you are travelling in a bigger group, do not miss the morning tour conducted by Nature Trails.
  • For running enthusiasts, the Lavasa Hill Run is the cherry on the pie! Even if you are training for another marathon (see Running in Lithuania – My First Half Marathon Abroad), the hills of Lavasa could be your practice pit!
  • If you have more time on your hands, squeeze in a visit to Bamboosa – the bamboo factory. You can also request for a tour of the entire area, interact with the workers and see how a bamboo product is made – start to finish.
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How Daman Delighted Me

This is the winning entry for the Prismma Holiday 2015 contest

(January 2015)

With spring’s stolen colour

The water shows me sky.

Gujarat’s younger neighbour,

Daman, is anything but “dry”!

 

Backwaters of Daman

Backwaters of Daman

These words succinctly express what I felt after my three-day trip to Daman last year. Daman arguably has a reputation of being a liquor-haven for people craving for booze in the adjacent dry-state of Gujarat. But there is more to this union territory than cheap alcohol. I could find that out because I wasn’t looking to get “high”. I was on a mission to unearth the natural secrets of Daman!

Greens extending till the horizon

Greens extending till the horizon

It was fairly easy for me to plan the weekend getaway as there are conveniently timed and frequent trains that run between Mumbai and Vapi. Vapi is the closest railway station to Daman. Once you alight at Vapi, you can either take the stairs that lead to Daman, or go the other way and reach Silvassa. After a three hour train ride, I caught an auto-rickshaw to my hotel in Nani Daman. It barely took me twenty minutes to get from one city to another! That is unimaginable in big, crowded cities.

Friendly camels at Jampore Beach

Friendly camels at Jampore Beach

I stayed at Hotel Blue Lagoon which is a centrally located business hotel and has good rooms at affordable rates. After a filling meal of assorted stuffed rotis and curry, I set off to explore the city on foot. Daman does not have any indigenous cuisine to call its own. However, seafood and regular Punjabi and South Indian dishes are widely available at most restaurants. I walked for about forty minutes through almost empty streets and pathways lined by palm trees, before I saw the blazing sun on the horizon. I knew I had reached the pristine Devka Beach.

The dark sand at Devka Beach

The dark sand at Devka Beach

Devka is free of tourists, and an ideal place for some soul searching and quiet self reflection. I sat on the black sand and listened to the soft waves as they kissed my toes and “sizzled” back to the depths of the Arabian Sea. I say “sizzled” because the waters leave a bubbling froth when they retreat. This is because the earth here is slightly acidic. That is also the reason why swimming or taking a dip in the sea is not advisable in Daman. The water can be harsh for the skin.

Soaring like a seagull

Soaring like a seagull

On my way back to my hotel, I bought some vodka and breezer to acknowledge Daman’s significance in a liquor-free state. Over a couple of drinks, I mused how peaceful this city actually is. Devoid of any nightlife, the residents of this place presumably sleep well. Despite being labelled the “Goa of Gujarat”, Daman has neither the crowds, nor the frolicsome atmosphere. The locals prefer to dress modestly even when they are lazing by the beach.

Palm trees line a secluded road in this little union territory

Palm trees line a secluded road in this little union territory

The next morning, I started for St. Jerome’s Fort which is also known as the Fort of Nani Daman. Daman comprises two areas – Moti (Big) Daman and Nani (Little) Daman, separated by the Daman Ganga River. The monikers are misnomers though! Nani Daman is actually the larger of the two! The fort is an old stone-built complex which houses a church. The upper decks of the fort afford copious views of the lovely Daman port that has many boats moored, perhaps belonging to the fishermen. Those boats, unfortunately, do not ply across the backwater to Moti Daman. There are two bridges that connect the two lands though, and only one of those is motorable.

Ruins of the old fort

Ruins of the old fort

Moti Daman has its own share of surprises. It houses the administrative district of this union territory and is much neater and better organized than Nani Daman. The Fort of Moti Daman and  the Lighthouse take up almost two hours to explore. This area also has canons from the yesteryears. Even though Daman was under the Portuguese rule for several years, the Portuguese influence is limited to the architecture of the forts and churches. The Indian people have not thought it important to preserve their food, dressing or language after independence.

The churches here are high-ceilinged and ornate

The churches here are high-ceilinged and ornate

I spent my remaining time in the city visiting various ornate churches – Our Lady of Rosary Church and The Lady of Remedious Church, to name a few. The churches are small but beautifully adorned in golden-bordered statues and murals. I saw also the ruins of the Dominican Monastery, but there’s hardly any building left of it to appreciate. I couldn’t help but notice a lot of lavishly erected bungalows by the sea. These houses, I was told, belong to wealthy Gujarati businessmen who earn in Gujarat and celebrate in Daman. The lax liquor-laws and empty beaches make Daman an ideal party-place and cheap location for holiday homes.

The simple exterior of this church keeps its inner grandeur a secret

The simple exterior of this church keeps its inner grandeur a secret

My final stop was Jampore Beach. Now, this was one crowded and slightly dirty beach with several makeshift shacks that lined the entire stretch and did brisk business selling beer and pakodas. One can try paragliding or camel or horse riding on this beach. As the day wore on, I sat once again, this time on a lounger, to watch the golden sun dissolve into the black waters.

A plant conservation park in Moti Daman

A plant conservation park in Moti Daman

In hindsight, I was glad to have made the trip. It was easy to plan and quite light on the pocket. I beat the tourist rush by visiting in the off-season. Daman fortunately enjoys a pleasant subtropical climate with temperatures always hovering between 20 and 30 degrees Celsius. You only need to pack a pair of flip-flops and shorts for your Daman-weekend. And don’t forget to carry along walking shoes if you love to explore places on foot!

The port of Daman awaits you

The port of Daman awaits you

So, when are you planning to visit this tiny union territory? Have you been to a similar place before? Tell me your stories in the comments below!

Oindrila on the Road

9 Oct, 2:30 PM

 

I locked my office computer, grabbed my backpack and oversized handbag, and rushed out of office. The boring life of an IT professional in a posh Mumbai suburb was not for me. I undid my corporate bun and let my hair down at the Bandra Terminus railway station. Things would change now… at least for the extended weekend.

 

9 Oct, 8:30 PM

 

I enjoyed breathtaking panoramic views of the Western Ghats all evening while the coffee on my side table grew cold. The drab cream colored walls of my workplace had made me forget how green the meadows could be. The carpeted floors kept from me the wonders of the humongous mountains. The cityscape I stared at from the French windows was nothing like the vast fields of paddy that lay beyond the rail tracks. ‘Why have I been wasting my life in a 9-to-5’, I asked myself. The taste of the deep fried samosas were still fresh in my mouth when the train steward offered me dinner.

 

I couldn’t remember the last time I had relished wheat-puris (fluffy Indian bread) and aloo bhaji (spicy potato dish) with the sun setting at my window. While I was daydreaming of the new land I would reach next morning, sleep spread its arms wide open and engulfed me for the rest of the night.

 

10 Oct, 10 AM

 

I was wide awake at the cold Nizamuddin railway station in Delhi, planning my next stop. I was chilled to the bone and they told me winter had only just begun. Minutes later, I stopped by at a café and said hi to another backpacker like me. Delhi is friendly. Not the monster of a place the newspapers tell me it is. I washed down the waffles with a mug of mochaccino and set off for Lodhi Gardens.

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I noticed as I walked along the way… Delhi is so different from Mumbai. Two cities, both cosmopolitan and capitals in their own rights, yet poles apart in their culture and organization. Delhi isn’t chaotic. Empty, wide roads replace the crowded by lanes of Tinseltown. I had many more places to see in the capital city of India, but my heart knew I enjoyed the roads more than the tourist spots.

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The roads, for me, are the best place to be. They hold the promise of a destination, the suspense of a thriller. They give me a reason to wake up and go on… not in search of a new place, but on a quest to rediscover myself… every single day.

Daman – Developing through Tourism

With spring’s stolen colour

The water shows me sky.

Gujarat’s younger neighbour,

Daman, is anything but “dry”!

Clear skies in Daman

Clear skies in Daman

52 years after its independence from Portugal, Daman nurtures new lives in this small union territory in India. With the intention of relaxing in its beaches, I marched along this little city in the month of March this year. But little did I know that a glimpse into Daman’s past would make me cognizant of  the effects tourism has had on this coastal wonder.

This report on the 20-year plan that the government announced in 2002, highlights how effectively tourism will harness Daman’s unique offerings and make it a win-win-win situation for the economy, the locals and the environment!

  • The now deserted forts of Moti-Daman (Big Daman) & Nani-Daman (Little Daman) were once guarded by the Portuguese. However, with the intervention of the Tourism Department, these forts will soon have more visitors. Travel-packages that include heritage-walks, local cuisine and cultural shows will bring equal joy to tourists and the locals as they find more employment-avenues.

 

  • Positioning Daman as a pocket-friendly vacation-spot, the administrator is boosting its infrastructure. The construction of several bridges and a coastal highway are already under way. The most useful bridge, according to me, is the one that connects Moti Daman to Nani Daman. The other route will set you back by several hundred Rupees. I always wondered why the backwaters couldn’t be navigated via boats (which the fishermen use on a regular basis), and was ready to shell out more just to bob up and down the water. My prayers will soon be answered.

 

  • The Waterfront Development Plan aims to maintain & develop the Devka & Jampore beaches, along with the Daman Ganga river and the place where it meets the Arabian sea. The waterway between Moti and Nani Daman is set to be opened to tourists! 🙂 The entire beach-line will get a retaining-wall to reign in beach-erosion. The sand on these beaches may be dark, but their future is certainly bright!

 

  • The focus of this mega-plan is on the conservation of nature. Special care is being taken to avoid adverse impacts to the environment, with the alternate recourse being mitigation & compensation. The international cycle-track (under construction) is the hottest attraction in this soon-to-be eco-tourism hub!

 

  • The inhabitants will now have a special part to play in the bigger scheme of things. Heritage walks and interaction with locals will now take tourists to Portuguese-style settlements too! Locally handcrafted bamboo and leather products are as much in demand as alcohol and fish. This spells a huge boon for the aboriginals.

 

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Daman was once regarded as the most poluted of all beaches due to industrial wastes leaking into its waters. But all that is now set to change for the better! Cleaner beaches, water-sports, boat-rides, walking tours, village-interactions… Do you need any more reasons to pack your bags and head to Daman?

Ville Blanche – Pondicherry’s French Kiss to India

I had been day-dreaming about the quaint little streets of Pondicherry for almost a year before I finally booked my tickets and decided to realise my fantasies.

Earth meets heaven

Where Earth meets Heaven

Puducherry is not just a union territory in India, it is a world of its own. The Franco-rule that lasted here for almost 300 years, has soaked this place in its colours and flavours. To savour the ultimate French experience of La Côte d’Azur de l’Est, I decided to stay at Le Dupleix.

The colonial interiors of the luxury boutique hotel (Le Dupleix)

The colonial interiors of the luxury boutique hotel (Le Dupleix)

I started my Pondy-trip with a hearty meal of milk and cornflakes, fruits, flax seeds and orange-juice. Then gorged on some dosa-chutney and sambar while I waited for my green tea to arrive. (My appetite doubles when I am on a trip!)

The Tamil-English breakfast

The Tamil-English breakfast

With my stomach full, I started walking through the grid-like rues (roads) that lead me to this mustard building…

The French Embassy

The French Consulate

And then, there was another. This one in memory of the French soldiers.

Foyer du Soldat

Foyer du Soldat

I entered the Pondicherry Museum, which housed everything – from stone-sculptures dating back to the 1st century AD to ancient carriages that lived to see me visit!

Vintage carriages

Vintage carriages

To pay some heed to my roused hunger, I halted in front of Le Vietnam, where I had my lunch of bún chả with a pair of chopsticks while I stared wide-eyed at an interesting looking nón lá (Vietnamese conical leaf hat).

Post lunch, I rushed to the nearest church, just in time to hear the mass in Tamil!

Our Lady of the Immaculate Conception cathedral

Our Lady of the Immaculate Conception cathedral

I reached the Promenade beach before sunset and walked the entire stretch. The locals told me I should stop to look at the Gandhi statue and the French war memorial, which I dutifully did.

When the sun dissolved into the waters of the Bay of Bengal, the street suddenly came alive! One could watch the Pondy-Police-Force play the trumpet, activists staging street plays, live music and dancing all along the way. The once empty road was now thronged by a sizable crowd, and the mood was that of a carnival. It was, in fact, a carnival as today was St. Bastille’s Day! I was just lucky to be at the right place at the right time.

Bastille Day festivities

Bastille Day festivities

After the noise-overdose, I had a quiet dinner at my hotel. I ordered Italian – the cuisine that makes me think of nothing else but what’s on my plate. I then proceeded to catch some sleep for my trip to Auroville the next day!

Ravioli con funghi (Ravioli with mushroom)

Ravioli con funghi (Ravioli with mushroom)