When Strangers are Friends That Haven’t Met Yet

Have you ever planned a travel with people you haven’t met and hardly know? Well, I just did.

While this wasn’t the first time I traveled with strangers, this was definitely the first time I planned one. The others have been treks, planned and organized by trekking organizations.

In recent times, I have become extremely choosy about the people I travel with and sometimes I wonder if it’s reaching a point of being qualified as an Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD). Friends and relatives have suddenly started showing a keen interest of traveling with me. Some are all set to join me in my next trip, wherever it is and at whatever time it is. So much so that I am becoming tight lipped about my upcoming travel plans. While they are my near and dear ones and I love them immensely, I am wary to go on a travel with most of them. Perhaps I am being judgmental or it’s my conscious/unconscious bias that’s leading me to make assumptions that aren’t true. I don’t know. Or, I am just being selfish and want to fiercely safeguard my travel experiences.

Ironically, I don’t feel the slightest hesitation when planning travel with people I don’t know that well, and even better if I have a faint idea about their travel history. Perhaps it’s the sense of adventure that comes along with the unknown, explains it all. Or, maybe the fact that genuine and authentic connections energize me to the extent that I am willing to take the risk. Travel in any form is an adventure and the people you travel with always add to that adventure, which could go either way – positive or negative.

So, it wasn’t surprising when I found myself bundling into a car on a Friday night along with four others – one of them was a fellow blogger, who I had met in person a few days ago, the rest were strangers. We were all set to travel to Kozhikode for the weekend.

[Note: Kozhikode is correctly spelt as Kōḻikōḍ and pronounced as ‘Ko-yi-kode’.]

Debdutta Paul, the fellow blogger, one of the few people I have been privileged to connect with through WordPress, was coming to Bangalore on work. He was planning a travel with his friend and invited me to join in. After some initial skepticism of whether it would be a good idea to tag along with a bunch of youngsters, I agreed to join in.

As we started planning together on where we wanted to go, not for a moment it felt like I was planning with strangers. It started off with some compromises to suit each other’s availability and choice of the place of travel. The fact that everyone was willing to bend a little to accommodate the other was reason enough for me believe that this was going to be a great travel group. It was decided that we would be going to Agumbe rain forest and then to Udipi over a weekend. Soon two more people (Debdutta’s friends) joined the group. The place of stay and all other details were worked out and we were all set.

Just a few days before the trip, we got to know Agumbe was not happening. Monkey Fever came on our way and Forest Department was not allowing entry to visitors. We were set on going somewhere and canceling the travel was out of question. That’s how Kozhikode was decided after ample amount of brainstorming based on various factors.

Kozhikode, as a place, doesn’t have much to offer other than the food, specifically their biryani. However, the great company made the travel totally worth every moment. The journey is always more important than the destination and the people you travel with can make or mar that journey. And, this journey has been one of a kind, all for the wonderful people I traveled with – something that I shall cherish forever.

What we did at Kozhikode? I’ll write about that soon…

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Who Knows What Lies Round the Corner…

The last few days have been quite incredible for me in ways more than one.

One of those arrived in the form of an email. One evening I opened my mailbox to find an email congratulating me for being nominated in the Best Travel Blog category of the Annual Bloggers Bash Awards. I had never received such kind of an email in my 1.5 years of joining the blogging fraternity. The awards that came by from fellow bloggers were through their own blog posts, and as protocol they would intimate me through a comment in any of my posts.

Needless to say that I was totally surprised as I had no idea about the Annual Bloggers Bash Awards. I was thrilled and skeptical at the same time. While it was amazing to think that someone thought my posts were worthy enough for a nomination, I wondered if this was some kind of a Phishing email and whether I should even click the associated link. Impulsively, I reached out to a fellow travel blogger with whom I now share a personal connection to enquire if he had received one too and if he knew anything about it.

Annual Bloggers Bash Awards Nominee Best Travel Blog (edited-Pixlr)

Subsequently, I came to know of many others who have been nominated for various categories and it does feel good to be part of the gang.

At the same time, I feel humbled and would like to express my sincere gratitude to whoever nominated me. I don’t know if my blog is worthy of this recognition at all but I am as delighted as can be!

I remember my younger days when writing an essay for English class in school would freak me out. As I grew up the essays got left behind as I went to college and university and studied Biology. The only writing I did was in the form of long and detailed emails that I would write to my friends, who had moved to other cities for further studies. Sometimes, I would write farewell notes, birthday notes, etc. to near and dear ones, which according to my family were too ‘flowery’ and they would compare me with Archies Greetings Card – quite tauntingly at that. I obviously didn’t mind and would take that as a compliment.

I started writing only recently and that too at the behest of a friend with the sole intention of documenting my travel experiences, only for myself. Not only did I discover my love for writing, it became one of few things that makes me energetic and gives me so much joy. Most importantly, I have connected with so many wonderful, genuine, and authentic people from the blogging world who have given me so much, from whom I have learned and still learning so much!

We never really know what lies around the corner. Life is a mystery indeed, a journey of self-discovery – sometimes nice and sometimes not.

An Ordinary Day, An Ordinary Place, An Extraordinary Woman

I’m at the bus stand at Brigade Road. I sit on the low wall by the pavement as I wait for the bus. Ola/Uber have become too expensive and it really pinches me to throw away money like that. Hence, I have started using city buses to commute wherever possible. Public commute isn’t great in Bangalore and city buses can be quite a pain but I am willing to take the pain instead of throwing money on Ola/Uber. I do not own a vehicle.

Back to the bus stand. I notice a pleasant looking lady sitting beside me. The salt-pepper curly haired bespectacled lady smiles at me warmly and I smile back. She asks which bus I was waiting for and we realise that we were waiting for the same bus. She goes on to say that she’s been waiting for a while and that particular bus should have been here by now. We went on talking about city buses, their regularity, etc. for a few minutes. I usually enjoy chatting up with random strangers and this lady seemed nice.

After a while the bus arrives, she boards first and I follow. The bus is near empty and I would have normally taken a window seat. Instead, I go sit right next to her. I don’t know why I do that, she looks surprised as well.  Now, we chit chat some more and learn about things like where we were headed, what we were doing at Brigade Road, if we are originally from Bangalore, etc. We also formally introduce ourselves. When the question of what we do comes up, I get to know that she used to work for a renowned MNC but left her job 6-years back – “I realized I could not do this anymore, I wanted to do better.”

She then takes me through her journey of learning sign language and now being associated with a non-profit that works for underprivileged deaf and dumb children. She tells me stories about how she goes for home visits, builds trust with the parents and family members and how she convinces the importance of education to them. In that section of society, deaf and dumb is still taboo and parents do not want to disclose the condition of their wards. She tells me things that I had never thought about, like how expressive these children are and because they get no audience, they can go on and on for hours when they find someone to converse with.

An ordinary day and I meet an extraordinary woman. A random and unexpected rendezvous with a stranger who turns out to be so inspirational. I am overwhelmed and listen in rapt attention literally gaping, trying to gauge her in light of this new-found information. Her humility stands tall throughout the conversation.

Somewhere enroute two young girls get onto the bus with an elderly woman. They were barefoot, wore veils, and seemed to be from a disadvantaged section of society. The elderly woman takes a seat somewhere. The two girls, 11-12 year olds I guess, stand right next to our seat. We could only see their eyes. My lady tells me she thinks they are hearing and speech impaired. As I am about to ask how does she know, she has already started conversing with the two girls in sign language. The girls are delighted. They remove the veil on their face and talk away with her. I am astonished – how did she know!

In between, she tells me that they are sharing some stories of their life with her. My stop arrives and I alight. Totally flabbergasted!

God is present on earth in the form of these extraordinary human beings. There are many of them out there, we just don’t know them – the unsung heroes.

Reminiscing 2018

The month of December had arrived quite a while back and taken a quiet seat in the humdrum of daily activities. Before I realized, we are already near the end of the month and in just another blink we will get done with the year 2018.

As I write this post sitting in a hotel room at Diu overlooking the Arabian Sea, I recall last December when I had written a similar post soaking in the winter sun trickling onto the varendah of my parent’s home at my hometown, Shillong. I clearly remember waiting for a cousin who was delayed in picking me up for a family lunch get-together. I had made good use of the waiting time reminiscing the year 2017 and writing a post about it. It feels like that was just yesterday. Where the hell does all the time go?

The years seem to be wheezing by for a while now and at the end of each year I have the same question – Where did all the 365 days go? Sometimes I really wonder if the earth has started spinning faster or if its axes has undergone any alteration. With all the technological advancements and automation shouldn’t we be having more time for ourselves? Instead, we are always pressed for time.  Well, that’s another discussion altogether.

As the curtains are about to be pulled on 2018, my mind does a quick flashback on the year that was. A lot has happened and it was a mix of good and bad. However, when we reflect on the past we become consciously selective and want to remember only the good. Guess it’s a choice we make quite consciously and it also aligns to my motto of practicing positivity and gratitude.

So, here’s a quick flashback of the top 10 cherished moments of 2018:

  1. First of all, I trekked to the Himalayas twice this year – Rupin Pass and Kashmir Great Lakes. Both these belong to the category of moderate to difficult and to think that there was a time when I used to think such treks are beyond my league.
  2. I started running and now a 3 – 5 Km run is part of my regular workout. All thanks to the preparation for the two Himalayan treks. Again, there was a time when I used to think I can never run. I still struggle and don’t think I can ever run a marathon but I am happy to have had a good start.
  3. This year, as always, I took off on my birthday and spent the day at Bekal Fort including two days in the beaches of Kasargod and Mangalore
  4. A major upheaval happened at work I managed to maintain calm in the face of storm and today things are not perfect but so much better.
  5. This year I delved a lot deeper into spirituality and discovered a couple of books that have had a significant impact on me. I feel I am a better person today or at least I am sincerely trying to be one.
  6. An entire month of this year I spent travelling – something I had never done before.
  7. All through the year, I had someone or the other visiting me and staying at my home. Friends, some of them long lost, surprised me and added so much colour to the otherwise monotonous everyday life.
  8. Life threw up a tough situation at me, something that I never thought would happen to me. I have managed to pass that test successfully. And, I did that by actually putting into action certain theoretical knowledge that I had gathered while designing certain leadership training at work dealing with mindfulness and positivity and the neuroscience behind all these.
  9. WordPress gave me a couple of meaningful connections, people I can call friends, people with whom I have connected beyond the blogging world and shared a piece of my life. I never thought something like this was possible.
  10. Last but not in any way the least, right now I am on a trip with my parents across some places of Gujarat. What better way to end the year than doing what I love doing – traveling.

Of Orange Peels and Spider Webs

Remember Charlotte and how she had spun webs to save Wilbur, the pig?

I came to know of the existence of Charlotte just a few years back when I watched the movie ‘Charlotte’s Web’. This movie is based on the children’s novel of the same name. The graceful and intelligent spider had made me fall in love with spiders. The story revolves around Charlotte’s friendship with Wilbur in a farmstead. The farmer decides to slaughter Wilbur and Charlotte writes messages by spinning webs in praise of Wilbur to persuade the farmer to let Wilber live.

Back in the real world, I was quick to separate my love for Charlotte from the everyday creepy spiders that drive me crazy. I despise them even more when they attack my potted plants spinning webs and making their homes all around the leaves, leading the plants towards a slow death. As if it isn’t enough to occupy all the nooks and corners of my home.

Surely, nobody wants spiders hanging around unless one is an entomologist studying spiders or if Spiderman was for real, at least making our commute easier.

This post is however not about my disgust for spiders but something closely related.

Winter is here and that means it’s time for oranges. Oranges and winter always make me nostalgic as they obviously remind me of my home, Shillong. The lazy and warm feeling of soaking in the winter sun while peeling and eating oranges is something only a fellow Shillongite can relate.

A favourite pastime of the kids back then was to create spider webs using orange peels. We would take great delight in creating the intricate patterns, comparing the webs with each other, and competing with each other in spider web craftsmanship. Oranges are plenty in Shillong, all we needed were plastic rulers. Almost everyone in school would have one end of their rulers sticky and coated with a thick layer of dried stain. The stain wouldn’t go away and who cared that it interfered with the regular usage of the ruler.

I have no idea if kids today indulge in similar activities. I won’t be surprised if they don’t, though that would be quite a pity. Like many other childhood games we played, possibly this one might have fallen prey to smart toys and virtual games.

I am not sure if such spider webs with orange peels is something specific to our childhood in Shillong or people elsewhere did/do this too. I had totally forgotten about this activity. It resurfaced this weekend over some childhood discussion with my sister.

With oranges readily available now, we just had to relive our joy of creating spider webs. Here’s a sneak peek:

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Ever Heard of Tree Tomatoes!

Tree tomatoes or Tamarillos made an appearance in my Bangalore home last week. This juicy, sweet, and citric fruit had managed to escape my memory altogether. No clue how that happened, given that Tamarillos belong to those exotic category of things that I intrinsically associate with my hometown, Shillong.

Naturally, I was delighted to spot them spread out on the floor along with several other vegetables including Chayote and neatly pieced Pumpkin.

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Pic 1: The reddish orange Tamarillos peeping through Chayote and Pumpkin

All of these had travelled a distance of about 3000 Km. all the way from the hills of North East India to the Deccan Plateau in South India. Strange, you may think, but such a thing is common when my parents come visiting me.

My disapproval in the past regarding the uselessness of carrying additional baggage has had no effect on them especially my father, who takes great pride in displaying the produce of his kitchen garden. I have since made peace and if this gives them pleasure so be it.

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Pic 2: The egg-shaped ripe Tamarillo

This time my parents were surprised with my enthusiasm over their extra baggage, which was only because of those reddish-orange oval fruits. [I have no clue whether to classify it as a vegetable or a fruit. I believe technically it’s a fruit but known as a vegetable.]

Back home, we also refer to tree tomatoes as Anda-Begun, which literally translates as ‘egg-eggplant’. Not surprising, afterall it’s a close relative of tomato, eggplant, and capsicum.

I am not sure many people in India are aware of this unique fruit and hence this post.

Ripe tree tomatoes have a smooth and shiny skin. The colour varies from red to yellow to deep mauve. Some even adorn dark longitudinal stripes.

Tom open
Pic 3: Aren’t they gorgeous!

The flesh is juicy and filled with many small flat, circular edible seeds. The taste is flavorful, sweet yet tangy, and the texture is somewhat similar to the usual tomatoes but pulpier. Tamarillo has a high content of Vitamin A and C.

Google says Tamarillos or Cyphomandra betacea are a subtropical fruit, thought to have originated in the high altitude Andes forests of Brazil and Peru. Surprisingly, Tamarillos have disappeared from their native habitat and happen to be listed among the lost foods of the Incas, known as the ‘tomate de arbol’. It was in 1967 that tree tomato got the commercial name of Tamarillo, which was to avoid confusion with the common garden tomato.

In India, tree tomatoes grow between elevations of 1,000 and 7,500 ft. Hence, their occurrence in places like Assam, Meghalaya, Uttaranchal, Nagaland, and Himachal Pradesh is understandable. They are also found in certain hilly pockets of West Bengal, Maharashtra, and in the Nilgiri hills of the South India. The latter did make me wonder as to why I never saw the fruit in Bangalore.

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Pic 4: The mouthwatering Tamarillo Chutney

At home, we usually prepare Tamarillos as a chutney and serve with rice or roti as a side dish. The chutney can be refrigerated and consumed between 10 – 12 days. We have also used Tamarillos in preparing fish, which surely must be attributed to my Bengali lineage!

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Pic 5: Here’s the recipe for you

Lighting Up the Mind at Diwali

A couple of years ago I received the famous spiritual book “Autobiography of a Yogi” as a gift from a friend. I wasn’t delighted and my immediate response – why have you given me this; what am I supposed to do with this; I am not interested; maybe when I am in my 60s – was well camouflaged behind a polite smile and a thank you.

However, things changed much sooner than I had expected as I discovered not just this book but also many others. Each book that I read influenced me deeply and left me yearning for more. Thankfully, I did not have to wait until in my 60s.

This weekend I attended a Satsang (a spiritual discourse or gathering), which was conducted by the author of one of the books I had read. I had never attended a Satsang before, at least not one that I remember. I might have casually been to one two but I really do not recall attending any deliberately. It was a wonderfully spent three hours spread across three day leaving behind a sense of peace and clam.

Diwal11

The place of these sessions was substantially far from my house and I surprised myself with the enthusiastic anticipation I had each day. The ill-famous Bangalore traffic, which is always a big put-off, also did not seem to bother me. Stuck at a traffic signal, I wondered if someone would have asked me to do something like this even two years back I would have snapped back giving them a piece of my mind thinking that they are out of their minds.

It’s amazing how times change faster than we think while often times we continue living in the illusion of permanence.

Concentration and focus are not easy to find today with all the distractions at our fingertips. However, I found myself mindfully present, consciously aware, and very carefully imbibing every little message that came along with the stories and anecdotes. Ever since I have been feeling very positive and happy.

The Satsang also reminded me of a time in office when I was part of a team that was designing leadership trainings and one of those was about mindfulness and the neuroscience behind it – how our brain responds to positivity and mindfulness. The nuggets of knowledge that I had gained during that time stayed with me and I have practiced many of those effectively in my daily life. It is the connection of science and spirituality in a well-meaning way and the very little exposure I have had makes me feel immensely grateful.

With Diwali celebrations underway there are lights everywhere, I thought how wonderful it would be if we could ‘lighten’ our minds as well! With this thought in mind, I am jotting down five key takeaways from the Satsang that I hope I can implement in my everyday life:

  1. Differentiate between good and pleasant. Always choose good over pleasant. While some good things will be pleasant as well but not all pleasant things are necessarily good.
  2. Lead a life of awareness and strive to remove the ‘I’. Be aware of yourself – aware of everything you say, do, or think.
  3. Practice mindfulness and do everything you do with complete focus and concentration.
  4. Set aside 10 min each day to sit quietly and do nothing. Reflect and practice thoughtlessness during that time.
  5. Live a life of moderation and aim to touch the divine essence in you, that which is limitless, that which is real, and that which lies within you.