Around the world in 20 days

Why does that remind of the lost Raj Kapoor song “Around the world in 8 dollars”? It all started with my young boy persuading to take a vacation during Diwali. “See, Karnataka day and Diwali, so I get 10 days off if I take 5 days leave”, Not sure of the math, but his persuasion skills worked. We debated from South Korea (who in their right mind takes a vacation in Korea), Japan (hmmm, maybe another time), Australia (spending Diwali in Summer, no) and New Zealand. New Zealand won (not the world cup). A month of planning and discussions and bookings. You guys should drive in NZ, traffic is non-existent and gives you flexibility. Again, the persuasion skill worked and we (I mean I) decided to drive through the country.

Since we are a family spread across the West, East and Southern regions, decided to meet at the capital to embark on the actual journey. Our first stop was the windy city, Auckland. November is supposed to be technically summer in the southern hemisphere but looks like nobody informed Auckland. A blast of cold air greeted us as we landed. Watering eyes, jackets and hoodies in place, we found an Indian Uber driver to drive us to our apartment. After a sumptuous lunch of puri and sabji (vegetarian Indians never travel without their puris and theplas?), wandered to the harbor side to take some pics. All well, except that the hair was in a constant mess, and standing to pose for photos was tough as the wind seemed determined to blow us off (I am thinking Marilyn Monroe for no apparent reason). Auckland proved a very lively city with a young vibrant crowd, beautiful parks and harbors and a nightlife lasting till wee hours.

The famous Auckland Harbor

Couple of days later, we had to pick up our car. Now, I was a trifle apprehensive, not having driven in another country for long many years. Here we are. Ok, now how does it start, where do I insert the key? Not finding a keyhole after a thorough search, realization dawned, it is a button start. Now that engine is purring, why isn’t it moving? You need to release the brake, you silly cow! A few minutes later, Oh hell, slow down, this aint your country, dear. Where the hell is the clutch? It is called automatic gears, idiot. My legs were already stressed out. Fit the GPS, how the hell do you look at the GPS, rear view mirror, and windshield, I can’t rotate my head so many degrees. Where is the nasty fellow who persuaded me? I panic when I encounter drivers following rules and not honking, you can’t believe how stressful peaceful driving can be!

The gaseous volcanic region

 

Following traffic rules was not a big deal, I am one of the few morons who does that in India as well. Except that I was thoroughly confused at the roundabout.  Who has the right of way? (what is right of way, by the way, and by which way?) By Indian standards, there was plenty of room and I entered the roundabout, cutting off an angry lady, who decided to teach me a lesson. She stopped and gave me a stern lecture on “how-to drive in NZ” “do you even know the rules”. Sorry sorry ma’m. Ears burning, I decided to let everyone else in the country takes precedence and was subject to quite a few honks when I went full-stop at every roundabout from irate people behind me.

The gloomy deserted beaches

Drove through live volcanic regions and waterfalls, empty windy beaches and desert, curvy and straight roads, the length of north island all the way down to Wellington. The beauty of the country can’t be described in words or captured in photos. You have to see with your own eyes. The cleanest country I have ever seen, (so clean, dustbins are rare too) sparsely populated and ever-changing landscape. Felt like Britain of the South, strong European influence, with Westminster and Windsor, even a Stonehenge.

Mapping the location

Enjoyed staying on the beachfront at Wellington. Most people seemed very health conscious running the length of harbor in the middle of the day. Typical Airbnb apartments in the country are tiny, one bedroom and living area converted to three- four people living space and quite expensive in city centers. Some of them so crowded, you could hardly move without falling on the beanbags which seems to be a trend. Apartments, hotels, cafes, airports, you can find beanbags thrown around everywhere.

A view to kill

Flew to the heart of South Island- Queenstown. It was literally touch and go. The plane touched (almost) the runway thrice and went back twice. Landed in the third attempt. The gale was too strong and the runway too small. But man, what a view. Drastic change from North island, flying through southern Alps with snow peaked tops and glaciers was breathtaking. Queenstown is a tiny tourist town filled only with pubs and adventure sports.  With a breathless husband struggling to trot uphill and rains all the time (and snowing a few kilometers away), we ziplined with soaking shoes through the massive trees and waited for the weather to clear to fly to Milford Sound. A cool cruise through the fjord surrounded by snow-capped mountains and waterfalls, watching dolphins and seals, (and listening to gujus chirping on the deck); flying to the location in our very own private plane was the highlight of the whole tour, with a pilot who looked every inch the twin of Owen Wilson.

The Eighth Wonder

 

Vacations don’t last forever. A day in Christchurch and its parks and it was time to fly back. Hold on. The story isn’t done yet.

I had to travel to San Diego in the US of A. Off-line to Off-site. Crossing the Pacific, and the date line. I was massively thrilled with the idea of living two complete Sundays, one while flying, and another in US, because I was going to land before I flew off. Crazy, isn’t it? I kept waiting for the time machine whrrr sound and the bump and motion that would indicate I had gone back in time. What I still have not figured out is whether getting two back to back Sundays made me a day older or stopped my ageing for a day.

The falls in the Fiord

Walking is the best way to absorb new places and take in its culture. Every day we walked almost 10-12 kilometers easily. But the airports felt I did not get enough exercise and made me run. Flight delays, fear of missing an international connection, run run, huffing and puffing, luggage and all. Happened towards US and from US. Lesson learnt, 2 hours transit time is never enough, not when I am on the flight.

San Diego, Del Coronado hotel, one of the oldest in the city, home to many celebrities across decades, supposedly haunted, with miles of beach and enough of Sun to recover from the cold damp weather of previous week. A week of Sun and beach (a little work) and visits to downtown was a perfect finale to the journey. Some minor hiccups when one night my air conditioning gave way (the nights were still cold) and I needed to wear my jacket and socks to sleep, and another day a belt mysteriously appeared in my room (maybe it was the ghost’s gift, or the housekeeping’s tryst).

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The Del Coronado beach

Finally flew back to India, amidst flight delays and traffic jams to land back at home 20 days hence. Since I got two Sundays, should that be 21 days? With tired knees, swollen shins, confused stomach, gigabytes of media and unforgettable memories.

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Ossum Assam

Yes, as on this Independence Day, I have to go back home, back to routine and to my work, which eagerly awaits me, and since the lounge was closed at Guwahati airport (the folks took freedom from work I guess), I picked up a coffee and sat down to pour my wrath on paper once again.

Let me start backwards this time. The lows followed by the highs. Maybe the irritation of seeing people misuse freedom still persists. Came to Assam for a flying visit.

Yesterday I was in the mood for some fine wine and dine. But since the other half was a little under the weather, we thought maybe we could just get something delivered. Between us, finding a choice that we both enjoy equally is anyway tough. After some discussion,  (read fight) we zeroed on pizza, that he relishes, and I find blemishes in. Over the course of the next hour, I figured why Guwahati is not Pune. Because things we consider normal just don’t work here. Full of matriotism (why does it have to be patriarchal), also having told the cook also to take a break, 8.00 pm when the hunger pangs started, we thought let us order (Domino’s, half hour, you see where this is going). For some reason could not find the 1800 number for Domino’s, that is fine, let me order online. Went to their site and was trying to specify the location, and then the system went crazy, it refused to recognise my location, whatever way we tried, it refused to deliver at our location. Disappointed, forget dominos’, we will try pizza hut. Fifteen minutes later, we are looking at each other. Pizza hut does not deliver at our location as well. Is there a conspiracy? True nationalism surfaced, I will try KFC. Luck had a day off too, they did not deliver either. How can that be, how is it possible that all these food joints had a special aversion against my location, would deliver 1 km away, but not where I was, in the heart of the city. By this time, I was ready to climb the wall. And I was hungry.

With the hubby’s pressure already high, I took few deep breaths to control mine. Let us order some local stuff from some local shop and drown the sorrow with the Glen. Looked at Zomato, Swiggy , ubereats and the likes of it for food delivery options. After eliminating the clowns mentioned above, very few choices remained, mostly places that looked quite dubious. Ok, let me order some Chinese north eastern variety, being the unpatriotic I was. I chose the first restaurant on the list (was too tired to really care), now where is the order button and the selection button for items, after a microscopic search, could not find anything using which I could order online. Sigh, so decided to fall back to the prehistoric method of calling the restaurant. First number, nobody picked up the phone. Second number, the line was down. All our options gone, I declared tearfully that I did not want dinner any more. (My language being a trifle more powerful like- I won’t die if I don’t eat today)

Thankfully I was convinced otherwise, and we walked to the nearest restaurant and got home something to eat, drowned it in with the aforementioned glen. Solace is, we did not go hungry.

Just two days earlier we went to a very interesting place in the heart of the tea estates- a place called Wild Mahseer. A pre-independence tea estate established in 1875, today converted to a luxurious boutique hotel. A few kilometers off Tezpur, the city with very colourful houses, and too much construction. As a side note, Assam houses are a variety of colour, you can find pinks and blues and purples and greens and various shades of yellow and brown, pretty interesting to see.  Driving through the city, which looked completely under construction with bamboo stuck all around, we reached just around lunchtime.

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our home

Our room was massive with a huge bed, that could tolerate 4 people easily and colonial furniture thrown all around. With a quaint washroom which was large enough to serve as a small bedroom. Feeling quite upbeat, we went down the narrow lane shrouded with greenery to the glasshouse where piping hot lunch was served. The spice just about right, food was not typical oily “hotely” stuff, more like home cooked but with the nice aromas and a solid variety.

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The glasshouse and lunch area

After a nap, the estate manager took us for a tour and showed us the place where “Aamir Khan” had spent a week, we Indians are star struck, we had to go sit where Amir did, take the selfie with the bungalow just to show off. But the place was big and beautiful and spotless clean, with a small golf course outside. it was like we were in a large country manor, somewhere in the highlands. Picturesque!

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The Amir bungalow, literally

Took a walk amidst the sprawling hectares of tea bagaans behind the estate, learnt all the art of how tea is made from the over-zealous manager, who was giving us a crash course in “Tea estate primer for dummies”. After a couple of hours of this, all I needed was a finished product, a cup of hot tea, which was served (yes, believe me) complete with a vintage tea cozy.

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The sprawling tea gardens

Couple of days of being spoilt rotten with the good food and drinks, long walks, with extra doses of sight-seeing, no TV and a backdrop of cheerful green, whichever direction you turn. The weather was far from perfect, humid and sultry. It was not a “doing” holiday, where we had to be constantly on the move, just a “chill” time.

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miles to go

But good times have to come to an end and we had to come back and face the pizza crisis in the noisy city of Guwahati. As luck would have it, the weather was hot and we could not spend too much time in the exploring the history of Tezpur, the bloodied city with its own story of war of Gods and a beautiful princess at the centre of it all.

Since the story is being completed a few days later, all is well that ended well, and I did get a something that looked like a pizza on the flight back.

In the Ghats for a day

When you live in Pune and it rains and you want to get away, there is a beautiful getaway called Lonavala that beckons you. Problem is, it beckons majority of the population around. Net result is chaos.

Last week I got an invite to spend the weekend in a resort at the very top, somewhere in that city and I jumped at the offer. Already dreaming about the rain and clouds and waterfalls and cool breeze, I wondered how to go, since taking the car was not an option. Well, driving on winding broken single lane mountain roads is not something I do very often, but the excuse I have is better- my car was being used by family so…So. I decided to take a train. Not having ridden in a train for quite a few years now, my first thought was, how difficult can it be, it is just about an hour and a few minutes away, with trains almost every hour, all I need to do is reach the station and board the next one.

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A view from the train

But then wiser and saner thoughts prevailed, maybe I should get a reservation. A dialogue with the hubby resolved the situation and he booked a ticket for me. So far so good. Reached the station almost 45 minutes in advance, years of non-practice does that to you. Waited with stamping legs and straining ears at the entrance for about half hour till the platform was announced. Managed to board without any incidents, just observing that the platform was decidedly cleaner than what I was used to in the yesteryears. Provided you don’t look out when the platform ends.

The train was cleaned twice in that small journey- nice. It was decidedly hard to resist the constant chant of “sabudana vada, veg cutlet, sandwich”, but the most interesting was “water pani” which I realised meant plain water and not “chilled pani”. Now, not having travelled this route before, I wondered how I would know my station was arriving and how long would it stop for and will there be enough time to get down. Yeah, I know, I am a totally inexperienced traveler. But outwardly, I was cool, even though I was doing the math in the mind, so many minutes from Pune, shall I ask Siri, what was the last station that went by and so on.., I did manage to get down at the right station quite safely. It is a different matter that after that, I had to climb up and down the bridge multiple times to find the driver. I mean how was I supposed to know “towards the city” didn’t imply towards the platform no 1.

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It is gonna pour

Sitting in the cab, with cool breeze blowing my hair, and rain drops down my cheeks, well, I was smiling away, I had arrived, and the rest was going to be a cool breeze (literally). Till I found traffic jam and jam and crowd and hawkers and no one following traffic rules. Well, this feels just like Pune, I thought with a grimace. Small congested roads, directionless people and honking all around. A little more than an hour, a packet of chips and several bumps and potholes later, I reached the resort.

It was as beautiful and serene as expected. Ah the beauty of a hill top resort when it is raining is beyond compare. Gorging on good food, good company, love and laughter. Even in 45 acres of property, we could find hordes of people coming from the dry state and debating whether to be upgraded to purple from white and other such nonsense. No, this is not a gyan session on Club Mahindra.

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6 am from the balcony
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Ah the colours

A day of relaxation, chai in the balcony, long morning walk, lot of selfies and a huge breakfast spread. We hogged so much, needed to lie down awhile. But then finally it was time to leave. The lime water in the tummy kept bubbling up and down as we encountered the familiar potholes again, somehow kept it from overflowing.

We stopped at the tiger’s point, or was it lion, or jackal, not sure. Some animal, definitely. Any self-respecting hill station in India has to have a Lion or Tiger’s point, and a sunset and sunrise point. Amidst a mass of humanity and cars and a breathtaking view, we too decided to do what the tourists do, walk, eat and click pictures. All around us were couple with the girlfriend perched on the boyfriend’s back, posing away, and few I-am-a-cool-dude guys posing on the cliff edges. Thankfully nobody fell off during our watch. After about an hour of touristy thingy, we followed the bro, the leader, who kept going in weird directions till we realised he was looking for relief and so we hastily retreated and went back to the car, relieved.

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At the animal point

Next stop was Bhushi ghat. Now that is a place, I would absolutely not recommend unless you are drunk and rowdy and enjoy sitting in dirty slimy water and throwing it around on yourself and others. The walk is long and bad, uneven stones does wonders for your back, the place has some broken steps with no railing and a sure chance of falling on the rocks, stairs that lead nowhere and a lot of smelly people sitting in smellier water, on the steps and throwing it around. Just not worth the time. The river on the other side that overflows at times. Not for me.

Came back to downtown, tired and happy and in dire need of ginger chai. Unfortunately, my train mode of transport did not work this time, simply because I did not get a reservation. Too many people, too little time. How will you go back, maybe come to Mumbai with us and then go back Monday. No way, I want to be back tonight. So, a cab, me and a 60 km drive back to home. With memories. And an agreement to go back again, with kids.

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The memory