The Canyons of Oman

Our quest for undiscovered destinations, took us to the canyons of Oman and the luxurious Alila hotel in Jabal Akhdar, so truly this wasn’t an undiscovered destination, but a hidden gem so close to home.

We were excited by the numerous trails in and around the area, options to hike and also the via ferrata in the Grand Canyon of Arabia.

Excited, it didn’t take much to book a two night escape to this beautiful place with its  luxury and activities that required pure mental grit.

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The drive was an easy 6+ hour drive through flat landscapes for the best part and then the last leg of the journey a climb to 2000+ mts. From Dubai to the border and once we cleared it, I was happy to take the wheel and race along the flat land with not much distraction on the road for miles. The road glistened with the occasional mirage even as the first ray of the winter morning sun peeked through the clouds. If not for company and the beautiful beats of music from Raj’s playlist, I would have wondered what I was doing on this drive.

Somewhere along, the dramatic landscape of the mighty Hajjar mountains appeared ahead of us, we were nearing the town of Birkat Al Mouz from Nizwa. Soon we would start the ascend up the mountains and this was where Raj had to take over…I wasn’t prepared for this drive.

The first oasis you get to has a laid back feel like a movie setting from an old Arabic film, the mosque and under the shade of an old ghaf tree sit a dozen Omani men sipping warm red tea. A friendly wave and we are off to climb the Saiq Plateau in the “green mountains”.

At the police checkpoint, they make sure you have a 4×4 to traverse the steep climb and some of the sharp turns ahead of a long weekend in Jabal Akhdar.

We had a few stops to admire the most beautiful views of the canyons and the mountains shrouded in mist. It was February and even at midday, we layered due to altitude. Some of the terraces we saw on the way were not as lush green as we expected and a local mentioned that there was no cultivation in winter.

The Alila was so well camouflaged in the rock face of the canyons and we would have overshot the long driveway if we had not been looking.  Once inside the hotel was a luxurious haven with half and full board options, the decor signifying local Omani traditions inspired by ancient forts yet contemporary at the same time. The infinity pool perched at 2000 meters above sea level was the highlight for a sunset or sunrise.

 

Checkin was a smooth process and within a few minutes, we were in our suite with a balcony over the canyon. The jaw dropping views over the gorge, the explicit detail of the room and the local bedouin setting added a charm. The balcony was my favourite and not to miss the bath overlooking the large windows into the canyon – a mesmerising experience i was to discover more.

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We soon set out on our first trail walk for the day, which was over Wadi Sarab – a long rambling hike where the trail heads are marked with the Omani flag. This walk takes you over  some of the most interesting terrain with some water pools, a dam and through the dry bed of the Wadi. High up on the slopes you catch glimpses of the abandoned village and just a few mountains goats scampering by.

This is one day that will be etched in my mind as the daylight hours are short in February and the slightest streak of adventure if mistimed can be scary. Raj and I got carried away by the terrain and kept going for what seemed like ages, until we were so high up the limestone mountains and the abandoned village was on our wrong side. The shrinking shadows confirmed that nightfall was just a few minutes away and the thought of spending a night in the wilderness was not at all enticing.

We had to scramble down as fast as we could and at times I was bum sliding down the side of a village, an eerie feeling kept me company while Raj was leading the way using the sporadic street lights as his guide and the main road his only destination.

I can’t remember how many miles we walked….but i was sure we had company, a silent follower and hopefully a kindly spirit that would guide us.

Once on the main road, Raj let out a huge sigh of relief as now it was only a matter of time to get to Alila. Exhausted, we got to our car, which was parked at a distance from the hotel and once in, it took us a few moments to breathe easy. It was already 8 pm and we had missed our dinner seating for 7:30pm. A quick word with concierge and we had our dinner timing changed.

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The turndown service had taken place and the room smelled heavenly, the bath was filled, damask rose petals floating, a soak was the luxury for that moment.

 

Dinner was a gourmet affair with the exquisite combination of the local produce in a cuisine that left a lingering taste… pomegranates and rose were generously used.  The sharing platters and the recommendations from the menu by the experienced team was a dream. The three course meal had us forget our ordeal a few hours ago and we even sat down by the pool in the pitch dark to soak in the million sparkles of the night sky.

As the sun rose the next day, the gorge was bathed in a diffused yellow and we were out to capture this picture perfect setting. Breakfast was outdoors and in the early hours the heaters were on to keep us from chattering.

We had a long day ahead  on the most adventurous Via ferrata to the caves.. right from the hotel door step. A whole day slipped by so fast and before we knew it, we had been guided by Omar, the most friendly local boy through a maze of caves, steep inclined rock faces and to the largest water pool. Through this adventure, we passed by the local villages, where rose water is extracted and through the pomegranate and apricot orchards.

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It was at dinner that night it dawned on us that our short break was over, the exhilaration of the adrenalin pumping via ferrata, getting lost in the wadi and ofourse the extraordinary service and hospitality of team Alila was coming to an end…the next sunrise would see us take a trip around the Al Ayn terraces, the views over more canyons and the local markets, before our descent to the plains and our long drive back to Dubai – the dream Alila and Jabal Akhdar was ticked off my bucket list!

 

 

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Fort Myers – Florida

How does one travel on a holiday, prepared for a particular weather and then have to endure a complete variation….has this got you thinking?

Let me take you on our journey… it was our yearly winter break of a few days to rest and rejuvenate before the exodus of the team at work for Christmas and New Year. School holidays, festive season call it what you want, but this time of the year is the long week end that I look forward to.

Chicago, seems like a yearly pilgrimage for some shopping and stopping by at school mate’s. I tend to get spoilt and this trip was no exception. So Chicago in December is already in (minus celsius) and the cold blast is a welcome change to the heat wave that had just started ebbing back home.

I generally welcome the cold snap and love the festive feel during this time. Christmas is a few weeks away yet the the twinkle n sparkle of the lights, the aroma of baking, orange and cinnamon scents fill the air. Bake shop aisles are filled with mouthwatering goodies and delicious cakes and pies, it’s the season to pile on those extra pounds.

The Christmas trees were up and the little villages were out to beat each other with their decorations and lights…the “magnificent mile” was all dressed up in downtown Chicago and the Millenium park had a mini ice rink. The weekend crowd of revelers move from the Christkindlmarket to watch Lincoln park zoo get into the holiday spirits, babies in strollers kept warm under blankets, while young adults snuggle against each other….even Union Station was all dressed up.

In all this, although spirits were high, the signs of a knackered body were starting to show, a sniffle at times, a head cold at others and we were to be snow-birds for a change.

The allure of sunny locales of Florida was hard to resist. Overnight decisions were made and we had tickets on Spirit Airlines to Fort Myers, the white sand beaches, the deep sea fishing and the golf course with the balmy temperature was the respite from the windy city. This little side trip was not planned..our woollies didn’t need to come with us and less layers than before. Spirit Airlines means travel with a backpack and that’s literally what we did.

Arriving into Fort Myers, the airport had such a beautiful laid back feel to it, no one was rushing between terminals or running against the crowds to make it to a gate on time…there was only a sprinkling of youngsters, although I must say all folks around were young at heart in search of some sunshine.

Our car for the next three days was booked and we waited for the shuttle to pick us up to the rental kiosks a few miles outside of the airport. A lovely grey black Mustang coupe waited for us…formalities completed we were zipping through Fort Myers in no time.  We drove past the waterfront, up towards Sanibel Islands and all the way down to Bonita beach..

It was at check-in that Raj started feeling unwell and yet after popping pills he was ready to drive and watch the sunset. The slight breeze on the beach gave him the shivers but at the same time he was enjoying exchanging notes on the car with a few who stopped to chat. The orange golden glow of the sun, disappearing in seconds was a memory that was etched forever, we marvelled at how nature has plans that don’t change.

It was a surprise not to hear Raj stir in bed at the crack of dawn, only to realise he was hot and flushed with a temperature. My first drive of the powerful Mustang was without Raj at my side, I had to get to the pharmacy as soon as they opened. A quick discussion of symptoms with the pharmacist, picked up the recommended medication and back I was to get him some breakfast.

A few hours later we were ready to venture out again and this time towards the Everglades national park, a wetland Biosphere reserve, stopping on our way at the Big Cypress National Park. Detours outside of the normal route are second nature for us and the least explored path always opens up ….some of the winged beauties that modelled for the camera on a side trek.

We were in Chokoloskee and the famed “havana cafe” was a few miles down – a pit stop for lunch had us both nodding our heads. The beautiful place and not to forget the lip-

smacking Cuban influence in the food…a lunch that was topped with medicines for Raj, yet a lovely experience. The hosts were so gracious and also made sure that we had enough medicines with us and took extra care whipping up dishes that were not on the menu.

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As we stepped out to continue our drive into the Everglades, the Harleys pulled up at the cafe and as the roar of the mean machine died down, Raj said he would be back in Florida for a riding holiday – yay! All that I wanted at that time was for Raj to be back on his feet and enjoy this part of the holiday, before we returned to the cold & windy city and to be on our return flight.

We were soon driving out with marshy land on both sides of the road and I was keeping my eyes open for the airboats, a trip we had planned into the marshes to see the reptiles and the various amphibian, bird and insect wildlife. The airboat ride was not recommended due to the fever and the length of time in to the marshes, so on we sauntered to sight a few inhabitants of the wilderness.

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Our drive took us past the world’s smallest operational post office in the US and this is a  quaint little post office located in Ochopee! Buying souvenir stamps, and being served by a lady was the highlight of this little post office.

 

The last of the three days was soon upon us, we had the best part of the day to spin around some parts of Fort Myers before we dropped the car off and got our return shuttle for a late afternoon flight back to Chicago.

I wasn’t surprised when the navigator showed the road towards Six Bends  – the Harley Davidson showroom nearby. It’s a ritual that we have built over the years – we visit at least one of the HD showrooms in the city we are in.

The last sunny day in florida also meant that there were more pictures of the mean machine and some that had Raj drooling over…! Goodbye Fort Myers….until next time Florida – the Sunshine state!

 

The Fall colours

From the glitz and the glamour of the city I live in, the tall skyscrapers, the constant buzz of being in the news for man-made wonders, the only nature surrounding us is the dry terrain of the rugged Hajjar mountains, a few 100 kilometers away and the rippled sand dunes that glimmer in the light of the setting sun…

I’m in awe of the humongous shopping malls, the beautiful architecture and ofcourse the creations on reclaimed land, the wonders of the Palm, the way the open beach has been converted to “La Mer”, “JBR” or “Creek Harbour” in this oasis, but nothing beats the wooded mountains, the canopy of trees, the splash of colours and the eco-systems that work silently behind the scenes.

Things are changing, fall seems like a thing of the past (with climate change), but memories of the best fall trips are still vivid. Holidays are a time to rejuvenate and what better way than with colours bringing back a dash of vibrancy into life, the energy just seems to wash away all the mid year blues.

From Dubai ( my home you may have guessed) a 12 hour flight takes me to Toronto, the city of many an immigrant’s dreams.

No automatic alt text available.Landing, the first views as you catch you breath and the cold air stings your lungs, is the beautiful colours all around you…the trees are bathed in myriad hues of pink, yellow, orange, red and brown…the sugar maples and the red oak, the spruce and pines, the eastern redbuds…oh the list goes on!

Driving home and taking a walk in the neighbourhood, ideas flood, why not take a driving trip through Ottawa to Mount Tremblant and onwards to Montreal before heading back home?  The colours of the great lakes and the upper St Lawrence corridor are much talked about and the timings seemed just right.

A few minutes on booking.com for the perfect cottages to stay and a trip to the gas station to make sure the car was ready for the next 1500 kilometers of adventure…we were ready for next morning.

Leaving Markham, the Lexus 4 wheel drive boot packed to hilt, we were on our way…getting out of city limits, soon, cruising along the 401…discussions rife whether to take the more picturesque route passing through the small towns of Peterborough and Perth or straight through to Ottawa. The popular Tim Horton coffee shops beckoned and we were hungry for their muffins and coffee.

We couldn’t wait to get to Mount Tremblant, which was our first stop, so the 401 it was, passing through Kingston and promising to stop on our way back.  From Ottawa ( another promise for a day’s stop on our return) it was the Quebec Autoroute 50 and then on to route 323.

No automatic alt text available.The fall colours on either side of the road had us lost in thought and the click of the camera and the odd gasp at the jaw dropping vistas was the only sound in the car.

Every other second we wanted to pull up to enjoy this expanse of colour, but the cottage and wanting to get there before sunset, kept us going.

The mountains, the lakes and the sights around, kept us enthralled until we pulled up at Lake Tremblant.  We had been in the car for a few hours and apart from a photo stop here and there and the quick stretch breaks, we had not really had a nice long walk in the lap of nature, so Lake Tremblant was not for later, but for now.

The air was so pure that we savored every breath as pure oxygen traversed our blood stream. The cold air still stung, but the brain signalled a satiation like nothing at home!

The days were shorter and before we knew it, long shadows accompanied us, signally sunset. We had to get to our cottage, set up and then head out to the village for a hearty dinner, it was time to say goodbye to the lake. Could I zip-off the scooter was my parting thought as we turned around and walked towards the car….

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As nightfall set in the scene changed from the lovely bright colours in the sun to the fairy lights and deep dark shadows…the warmth of the crackling log fires, the clink of wine glasses and the laughter from homes and restaurants was a different experience. It was autumn! We ran from the car to the door of an Italian bistro, pulling our woollens closer as the wind rattled our bones…it wasnt winter as yet but just a gentle reminder of what was round the corner!

It was warm woodfired pizza and a cheesy ravioli for dinner and before we nodded off, glimpses of the day passed by in recollecting the route, the pictures we had captured. The excitement of the day was enough to rock us to sleep and no wine could have done this as quickly.

At day break, a walk to shake off  jet lag and who do we encounter right next to us, deer on their early morning graze.  They seemed so unperturbed by our presence and ready to pose for pictures, but at a distance.

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Awed by everything around us and also marvelling at the beauty of the mist lifting, we decide to retrace our steps back to the cottage, we had a long day ahead…in the village of Mt Tremblant.

The luge, the walks, the hikes along the river, the zipline and some of the mountain trail….sounds like a lot to do, all in a day! A hearty breakfast an hour later and we were at the river, our first stop.  The beauty of the water gushing against the colourful facade of the trees, the sweet smell of pine, chipmunks running around hoarding acorns for the winter and basking in the sun when we got a few rays…what an experience.

It was soon noon and time to hit the Village, we had our zipline tickets and the exhilaration of flying over the canopy of trees far beneath us outdid the exhaustion of climbing the wooden stairs to get to the start of the flight!

Aching legs signalled that we had done enough for the day but we also wondered if we should join in an impromptu zumba class in the village pavilion? A quick bite, ice-creams and more before we decide on a leisurely walk through the village, a bustling resort between spring and autumn and skier’s paradise in winter.

 

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Day 3 saw us get back on the road to Ottawa – the capital city with its grand Victorian architecture, the parliament hill and the Rideau canal on the southern side of Ontario.

The city boasts of so many things to do and places to see and we wanted to make the best use of time. The Parliament hill was firmly on our minds and Rideau canal. I have always marvelled at pictures that show the frozen Rideau canal and skaters, so wouldn’t miss this. Byward market, I have to say my most memorable experiences in most countries I have travelled too have been in their markets…away from the brands and the malls! If you want to see the real country, go to one of its markets… a secret Asia has capitalised on!

Walking around the parliament hill gardens, there were so many lessons in history, the statues of Lester B Pearson, Queen Elizabeth, the prime ministers and politicians of the past, the “Women are Persons” monument and so many more.

The rideau canal, UNESCO site and the largest naturally frozen skating rink (7.8km) between January & March each year, was a sight to behold, but was I disappointed to see no boats on it… was too early to fulfil my fantasy of the skaters on the canal…this is on my list for some day.

Next stop byward market as the tourist crowds start thinning and the regular folks stop by on their way home from work with a list of essentials…i could browse around for ages in such places, just letting the vibes, sights and sounds transport me to a magical kingdom of organic vegetables grown in backyards, craft and wares that have taken months of labour, artistic display of talents and not to miss the lip smacking local delicacies before they become a franchise…the best of the season it is.

Driving the next day to Montreal took a beating as we hadn’t planned for road closures due to the Montreal Marathon. At every turn we were diverted and sent further out of the city, so a mental note to visit Montreal (not realising that by the time I have written this, we had taken a cruise of New England when we spent a beautiful day in Montreal) and we were soon on our way back on the highway racing against time, time we lost in the maze of Montreal. We headed to Kingston, the limestone city and the 1000 islands. A ferry trip to experience the beauty, romance and grandeur, the only silver lining.

Saying goodbye to Toronto and driving onward to Chicago was an extension to this same fall trip and saw us falling deeply in love with the rolling hills of the Vermillion county, Cook county and the regions around Wisconsin, where the plain flatland farms and meadows all neatly mowed before the winter and the numerous hay stacks that dotted this route was amazing for us, city birds.

Fall in this part of the world is to be experienced at least once as no words can do justice to the sprinkling of hues and since I believe pictures speak louder than words…here are few more pictures from the US, to transport you into this wonderland of colours – autumn.

 

Cinque Terre – 4 days on the rugged coast of the Italian Riviera

“Let us find some beautiful place to get lost”….These words resonate with the wanderlust, as jobs fill our pockets while adventures fill our souls and we collect moments that take our breath away.

A boys only bike trip was on the cards a few weeks away….traversing Croatia, Montenegro and Serbia, so “he-man” decided to take me on a whirl wind long weekend before he left for the 2 week trip. Now the multi million dollar question was where? Which part of the globe did we want to revel in?

Europe/Asia/Africa all within a 5-7 hour flight from home were the options and we had long since crossed off the major cities. It was end April, we also wanted some cool weather before the blazing summer of 40+ Celsius.

The passports were stamped with a Schengen visa, so that narrowed down our choice and “the Boot” was an unanimous conclusion, although Rome/Venice/Florence/Pisa were all memories we had.

The warm sushine,  the beautiful winding roads through Tuscan villages in vine clad hills and Chianti olive groves still beckoned us, but a 4 day break would do no justice to this region. Amalfi Coast, Portofino and so many other destinations were thrown in and the hat seemed to brimming with ideas.

UNESCO sites are another interest to us, so I happened to stumble upon Cinque Terre which was described so eloquently as 5 fishing villages set amidst the most dramatic coastal scenery. Was this enough to arouse our interests and chart our travel plans, i should admit images say a thousand words and ….the choices were made.

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Milan Malpensa was the first stop and for a change I was not interested in high street  or luxury and catwalk fashion shopping as I wanted to behold the beauty of the villages in day light, at sunset, dusk and with the bright lights that act as beacons far away at sea.

We were on a train passing through Genoa and chugging along to Levanto on the Intercity to then change onto Regional train to reach Riomaggiore.  The little well kept secret of Italy is no longer a secret, the crowds descend on this rugged coast of Liguria,  every town teeming with tourists, every restaurant full and all the bars jammed, making it a tourist nightmare….shoulder season like we traveled seems to be the secret to surviving the cruise ship tourists that throng the these quaint villages that still try and maintain their remote authenticity.

Riomaggiore is the easternmost village and that was our den for the next 4 days. I didnt have much luck as once again I booked my night-stop on the train from Milano Centrale to Levanto with Booking.com coming to my rescue. I must say little did I know that most houses were on the cliff side and rooms came with a price, the climb up a few flights of stairs.  Luckily the place I narrowed down on wasn’t too high up and was above a restaurant and bar so was bustling until the wee hours.

Announcement on the train broke my stupor and I was ready to jump of as the train slowly pulled into Riomaggiore.  I had crossed 4 other towns and couldn’t recall a glimpse of the villages.  Bags deposited, room checked out and we were ready to traverse the less trodden paths.  The cobble stone pathways and the towering church steeples, the cliffs looking over the sea and the beautiful greenery surrounding us could easily lift spirits.

Fishing villages meant great seafood, colorful boats in the habour, fishing nets and of course the sea lapping at the steep terraces. The vine yards and the the trattorias that turn out mouth watering delicacies with the regions’s famous sauce; every meal bursting with the flavours of fresh basil pesto.

The villages of Roimaggiore,Manarola, Corniglia, Vernanza and Monterossa make the 5 unique little stops that lets you discover new trappings in its alleys.

Riomaggiore is the eastern most village and the largest. It has the easiest walks and neat restaurants tucked away on its slope. A glass of wine in hand, the gentle rhythms of this village will set you on a magical journey of romance. This village also seems to be the most photographed from the sea.

Manarola, the special  Cinque Terre wine Sciacchetrà is produced from the vineyards that hug this little village. The waterfront promenade and the boat jetty are bustling with activity any time of the day. The sunset over the ocean from Punta Bonfiglio is spectacular.

Coniglia – the only village that doesn’t have direct access to the sea, this little gem sits 100m above sea level and 300 steep steps along the rocky cove connects the train station to the tranquil cobbled streets and tangled alleys above.

Vernazza – the habour seems to reach all the way to the front of the houses in this village and the maze of terraces guarantee a sea view at every twist and turn. The clock tower tells the time for those in a hurry or stop to have a bite at the busy waterfront piazza.

Monterossa – the stories are around the beach here and although a pebbly beach its ideal for all those looking for that tan. Just a few minutes of walking brings you to the most jaw dropping sights of a fortress against the crystal clear blue waters of the ocean.

The hike up the The coast line also means there are boats plying between village or local boats  for hire where the villagers are happy to oblige drop off at the neighbouring village for a fare. Miles and miles of steep stairs, walking on cliffs with the waves lashing  the rocks below, colourful houses that dot the coast line, the best sunset i have seen…and the list is endless.

The trains with the crowds come and go, but the most interesting hikes of the country side takes you from village to village.  We covered a village a day so that we could spend time not just on the hikes surrounded by vineyards and exhilarating birds eye views of the ocean, but also experience the villages, its sights and sounds, not to forget the heady aromas of the pizzas and pastas.

Every nook and corner was a sight to behold, if villages and their life interests you. There’s no carbon emission,  no engines left idling, no cars on the streets in 4 of the 5 villages. A whiff of diesel you get when the boats pull up to drop the wayfarers to their next destination, an odd backpacker or an odd family visiting nearby.

Living in the villages meant at the crack of dawn (it was 5 Celsius when we were there), you could step out to roam the isolated streets before the tourists came. In layers of snug clothes the beaches were our paradise and the little organic markets, the freshly made pasta and the packaged varieties found their way into many a tourist’s bag. Limoncello and  pesto sauce were sure shot winners and not to forget the liqueur infused chocolates.

You must be wondering why I hadnt as yet talked about the Italian Gelato, do i need to? Dream of a flaovur and i bet you would find it the gelataria, from mint to the fresh fruit sorbets, to the creamy milk and nut based delights…all topped with a waffle pizzella.

4 days isn’t a long time, but every stolen moment on a holidays lasts forever in memories…and that’s exactly what we came back with. It was time to take that long train trip back to Milan to catch our flight and as I waited at the station, I wished holidays were longer when in romantic little villages on an Italian coast.

If travel is your thing and although the sights and sounds leave you speechless only to become a storyteller when you get home, then don’t call it a dream, call it a plan!

 

Road trip in the land of the long white cloud

Not very often is a ticket booked on a 17 hours non stop flight, when that happens, it’s all excitement ahead.

Through hours of pouring over self-drive vacation packages to scouring the net for options, the date just seemed to leap at us from out of the blue. It seemed like a month to the trip when we got our visas processed and before we knew it, we were checking in at Dubai airport, hoping the we could get business class seats.

All that we were equipped with was a connecting ticket from Auckland to Christchurch and back and our first night accommodation near the Christchurch airport.

The next few days were to be planned and bookings made a day ahead to give us the flexibility we needed. We were on a road trip with no map or no plan….

The 17 hour journey went like a breeze, pampered in the priority cabin and although a day magically disappeared from my calendar, the flat bed to sleep it through made me a rip wan winkle of sorts.

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Kia Ora…Touch down in Auckland and clearance was so smooth, soon I found myself in the domestic terminal haggling over checked baggage rates….and buying this for my return journey in 10 days to avoid the prices I had just paid outbound. With half a flight load, the agent had a lot of time to chat and she completely understood our frustrations and giving us tips for the South Island, having learnt of our nomadic ways….must see, must do and must eat were ticked off and we were soon south bound…metaphorical as we were already at the southernmost tip of the globe.

The hour and half flight was over in a blink and soon we were being met at arrival baggage carousel by our hosts for the evening. A quick chat, making sure we had all our bags, we were on our way, our holiday had begun. The day was still bright, there was a slight nip in the air (early spring in Sept) and we were soon out to explore the city of Christchurch.

The devastating effects of the 2010 and 2011 earth quakes were still evident, churches and buildings still had scaffolding to hold them up and in some places collapsed ruins were as is….our thoughts went out to these people and those who lost their lives….the beautiful Christchurch cathedral was fenced away and one had to see this beauty in ruins…a reminder of the disaster that struck. The nearby Neil Dawson’s Chalise sculpture marks the millennium and the 150th anniversary of Christchurch. It was time to move out of this melancholic mood and what could better brighten our day but the gardens and punting down river Avon.

It was slowly getting dark and the sky was turning a crimson orange…my stomach was growling and I was ready for a hot meal to warm me up. We decide to walk across the botanic gardens to get to the CBD and this was not a straight walk….so many flowers beckoned and a picture here and a picture there..the camera was clicking away merrily.

I lost count of time and my hunger pangs vanished as nature and the man made arrangements amazed us. We slowly got to the last gate of the gardens as the streetlights turned on and now it was the search for food.

We saw what looked like a street market with vendors and food trucks and since my legs were wary, all that I wanted was a bite. We decided to sample a Greek souvlaki with chicken for the meat eater and falafel (chick peas patties) for me….was I hungry or was this the best street food I had ever had, I don’t know but all I must say that taste lingers on a year later. The bus ride back to the house was a good 30 mins so we decided to call it a day and headed back home, keeping our eyes open for the meadow we had to cross.

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I barely remember stumbling on to bed and I was dreaming of the days ahead of me.

We were up with larks as it seemed a shame to waste anytime indoors, we had a quick breakfast of cereal, bread and fruits and the most delicious butter before heading out again. More sights of Christchurch ticked off our list, including the gondola and river Avon. The afternoon was set aside to pick up our rental car and head to Akaroa, a small French village set amongst hills in the background and a harbour.

Where did the day disappear, nightfall signaled the return journey and the next destination. Trip plans were formalized and next stop was Dunedin.

At day-break all the checks were completed, oil, fuel, food for the road, pit stops and of course the hotel for the night. We had an interesting route plan, not the straight short quick route, but the winding route through central Otago. We were enroute Ashburton and then to cut inland through Geraldine towards Lake Tekapo/Twizel to reach Omarama, heading back onto the coastal road. The beautiful buildings in the town of Omaru and the penguin families coming home, is a sight not to be missed. The Moeraiki boulders is another wonder of nature and we had pictures galore walking miles through the black sediment on the beach. We had spent a day with so many photo-stops that a 6 hour trip was a long 10 hours, but neither of us were complaining. My only regret was not spending enough time in quaint little Dunedin.

The sparkling lights of the town of Dunedin welcomed us and  a slight drizzle followed, adding charm to the town. Our room had a view of the harbor and if not for the cold wind, I would have nodded off to sleep watching the twinkling lights from afar.

The next morning was a quick drive through Dunedin, marveling structures in town… the cathedral, standing tall amidst the barren trees. The town was just waking up on this cold spring morning, the coffee shop and bakery was a hive of activity with the supply truck offloading the goodies, and the fresh smell of baking wafting through. They did offer us a warm croissant but since it wasn’t actually open for business we decided to hit the road and be on our way.

 

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The road out of town towards our next stop was decided, cutting through the middle of South Island – Balclutha to Gore and then onwards to Te Anua our stop for the next two days. Enjoying the morning crisp air, the drive was quite quick and in less than 90 mins were in the town of Balclutha and decided to stop at the visitor information center.

I had a route plan all chartered out to connect Gore and then to TeAnua in 4 hours max including a lunch break. While I sat in the car and finished a last minute work requirement, the man at the wheels was inside the Visitor Centre, striking up a conversation with the friendly lady at the counter. Before I knew it, there was a change in route plans….he had decided that we would take the Southern Scenic Route through the Catlins to Invercagill and then onwards. I was quite against this as some fine print on the car rental document mentioned staying away from the Catlins, but minds were made up, so reluctantly I went along, although completely stressed about this change. A thousand “what if” scenarios played through my head and I guess the daredevil me had mellowed and I’m happy following the rules.

In less than 10 mins of setting off on the new road, I was sure that this was the best decision he had made on this trip. The vistas guaranteed a photo-stop every few meters, be it the rolling meadows and the sheep and little lambs frisking around (lambing season runs mainly between early to late August) or the beautiful coastline with the waves hitting the jagged rocks….each wave that played catch me if you can….the views were so beautiful that after a few stops we had to make up our mind about the must see places, so that we could keep time….seemed like I could spend a few days on this route, coming from the concrete jungle I live in. Kaka point, the light house at Nugget point, which was a small stretch of gravel unsealed road and a small but easy walk up to the lighthouse to enjoy views of the coast for as far as the eyes could see.

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Amazing views continued and we decided the next stop would be Purakaunui falls, off the highway. We parked and set out on an easy walk amongst the dark rainforests, the air was awash with the smell of wood and thick undergrowth, and before we knew it, we could hear the sound of the waterfalls, the most photographed 20m high waterfall in the Catlins. The next hour was spent enjoying waterfalls galore, the Mattai falls, the McLean falls and the Horse Shoe falls.

Papatowai beach and the Florence hill look out was next on the pit stop list before we drove through Waikawa to Curio Bay. I don’t know which view enthralled us but I can say that we just didn’t get enough of any of these places. At Curio Bay we were at the tip of the South Island and could almost see Stewart Island. The mid afternoon sun was blazing down, yet it was cold enough for light jackets while the wind played havoc with my hair…..a tan seemed to be setting in and I could see signs of it where my shades were worn, but isn’t that a sign of an extremely good holiday?

I have to say that the dairy farms in New Zealand are the best as everyone knows, but the amount of creamy delicious frozen desserts I had on this trip is more than all the ice creams I have had in all my life. The mouthwatering flavors to start with and through the course of this trip making a tough decision on the favorites….oh how delicious. The “he man” who generally complains of lactose intolerance at home, actually had a lot of ice creams, so wonder if the intolerance lies in how the milk is processed back home!

The road to Bluff was inviting, but with the needles on the clock face running at break neck speed and thinking of the rest of the journey ahead of us to be completed before nightfall, we decide to carry on straight to Invercargill and onward.

Riverton

The town of Invercargill was a brief stop for more ice cream and then we drove onwards on Route 99 to Riverton from where the road now started through the mountains to Tuatapere and Manapouri before reaching our destination Te Anua (the fjord land parks). TeAnua is a set amidst the fjords of the south west coast of South Island. The lakes and the mountains surrounding this area had a different charm to it. The winds were stronger and even the brave ensured they had wrapped up against nature. This is one town that fell asleep so quickly, with all the tramping that is done……lovely hikes around the fjords.

The Milford and Doubtful Sound are two must do fjords, and for the photography enthusiasts, this is heaven on earth! We decided to drive to the sounds through the beautiful landscapes rather than take the tourist buses. We had hired snow chains while renting the car, and had a pass across the mountains where snow chains were required. The two of us are used to driving in terrains that’s so different to this and we were ready to ask for help with snow chains as I had read that placing them incorrectly could damage the tires. As luck would have it were were quickly reassured by the staff at the tunnel that we didn’t need snow chains at this point. The drive was an experience since we could also most see the deep dive into the ravines, at the slightest carelessness. A couple of stops enroute – mirror lakes and a few waterfalls also gave us a glimpse of the winged beauty but destructive Keas (rather fearless birds with a hook like beak) that even chomped through hard rubber on the cars.

The ultimate experience for us in TeAnua was the dolphins that followed our boat in Milford sound and put up a show for us jumping and diving into the wake that our boat left. These beautiful mammals with the glossy coat were the most endearing and we were sad to say goodbye after an hour of watching them frolicking around, as we pulled into more shallow waters.

TeAnua adventures were done and soon it was time to get back on the road to the most talked about adventure capital of the Southern Hemisphere- Queenstown. The two hour drive was again so beautiful that by now we had come to expect nothing but the best vistas from this tiny country. Driving the hills and seeing the road snake ahead of us with the odd vehicle in the opposite direction, we were taken back by tail lights ahead indicating a pile up, lo behold what a sight of a house being transported. For us where brick and mortar make the only homes we know, this was an exciting thought.

 

The images of lake Wakatipu as we approached it from Kingston was nothing short of breathtaking. We had already ticked skydives and paragliding off our bucket list and ski season was in the shoulder period with some scattered snow high up in the southern alps, around MtCook and Aoraki. This meant we were only going to enjoy some of the less adrenaline pumping pursuits. An item that popped up on my to do list was “Fergburger” as I heard raving reviews of this eatery from a work colleague, and “Fergburger” didn’t disappoint even if it meant waiting in the cold for what seemed like ages…..the meat eater was satiated with a lamb burger while I had the mushroom & tofu burger and gobbled the last crumbs even though I swore that I couldn’t eat any more.

Another place to bring out the kid was the Cookie monster store, where their shakes were lip-smacking good. Arepas from the South America at the cantina were so delicious, i could have them any day.

 

 

A Bungy jump can never be on my bucket list thanks to a soccer accident many moons ago, but the man decided it wasn’t the height that mattered but the first commercial bungy jump off Kawarau bridge had to be experienced. The clear sky and mild sun was apt for any outdoor activities.

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The town was bustling with the locals and the tourists and this was an ideal place to unwind or to get an adrenaline rush. For the diehard Lord of the Rings fans, a day trip to Glenorchy was a must and we made sure we had this covered. The picturesque landscape transported us to our own film sets with the umpteen pictures we clicked away.

 

It was time to leave Queenstown and head towards the west coast of South Island New Zealand across the Haast past on the Alps to the Glacier land of Fox glacier and Franz Joseph glaciers. Did I say the day before that we had no adrenaline rush, well I had spoken too early. On our way out of Queenstown, the adventurer behind the wheel decided to taken the Crown Range Summit road to Wanaka. This road is listed as one of the most dangerous roads in the world and reaches an elevation of 3677 ft above sea level. The switchbacks we drove through gave me a number of heart in my mouth moments as we turned and twisted through through landscapes that turned magical ochre and the budding colours of the lupine – spring was on. When I occasionally glanced at the GPS, the winding road looked spectacular.

Pit stop Wanaka for some refuelling and we were on our way to Haast pass with the dramatic turns that would bring us to the west coast from the alps. Passing through the towns and some of the last fuel stops ( gas prices were outrageous, but understandable) the towns felt like sets out of a Wild West movie.

The coastline of the Tasman sea was different to the south coast and yet another interesting landscape, the old trees had been windswept and were arching in the direction of the wind…a sight to behold of how pliable nature is.

As we drove along we could see Fox Glacier and the ancient moraine from the earlier advances and retreats of the glacier. The icy blue glacier played hide and seek with us through the thick foliage around the area and soon we were able to walk towards the glacier…the rocks on the way were sediment rich and glistened in the sunshine, waterfalls and moss laden slippery paths we trod for the perfect pictures.

Fox and Franz Joseph, two of the glaciers that that exist but are leaving a mark as they recede…global warming? I promised not to talk about this as we were in pristine locations, but its hard to miss. The towns had the most interesting food options – choices varied but the crowd puller seemed to the various Salmon dishes on the menu of any restaurant. Ordering a vegetarian burger seemed to be bring the chef out of his kitchen to make sure the order was right.

Heli-hiking is not for the fainthearted and even after walking on Mendenhall glacier in Juneau Alaska, we were still game for this. The icy cold of the crystal blue glaciers was fun and 45 mins flew by before the call to return.

All of sudden it hit me that our South Island trip was almost coming to an end. In two days time, we would be on a flight out of Christchurch back to Auckland, where we had landed days ago. Leaving this pretty island was difficult but we were looking forward to another adventure on North Island before we head back home.

As the route plan was being finalised for the penultimate day of our South Island trip, we had one more pass – Arthur’s Pass. A long drive of 5 hours was ahead, but as the he man said make that atleast 8 with all the pictures you would want – approx 400 kilometers of pure eye candy.

We passed little towns that I’m sure had their stories to tell in the hey days, mining was a booming business back then. Hokitika was a stop I have to talk about atleast for the fabulous glass blowing factory I visited. The shop registers rang a few times as I picked up precious pieces for souvenirs. Penguins in colored glass adorn my cabinet and these little birds found their way into homes of friends. Jewelry shops displayed the green gem stone (Jade also called Pounamu and sacred to the Maori’s).

Arthur’s pass was soon up, 900 metres above sea level, and the flat lands turned into steep ascents and descents while the landscape turned to deep shades of purple and dark green. An engineering marvel, this road cut trough the southern alps as the Tranz Alpine route and the more popular option for tourists is the railway by the same name. The road runs parallel for much of this journey and what seemed like numerous stops to savor the last few ice-creams on our South Island trip, we were in Christchurch. The stop we cant do without, anywhere we go, is at Harley Davidson show room (yes we have biker here), so that was all settled. Hours later shopping in hand, we made our way back to car rentals, to return the car, heave our luggage and head to checkin. As i settled in my seat on board the aircraft, I looked out of the window misty eyed to say “kite ano koe” (See you again in Maori).

 

The Indian wedding

As much as this is a time for such pomp and glory, the typical Indian wedding is not bereft of its own problems.
A glimpse of many years ago and the experience, which even today is so vivid in Maya’s mind can become some of the realities of an Indian wedding.
Sunil’s family (Maya’s future husband) were his parents ( a retired father and a housewife mother) and three children of which the oldest was the guy, Maya met and consented to marry when the question was popped.
Maya had a past that Sunil was aware of and constantly reminded her that it didn’t bother him and was of no relevance to his family as he was the one marrying her and not them. Little did Maya know that this statement was far from the truth, a reality that hit her quite quickly afterwards.
Maya had met the family and was assured that the family were happy to accept her as the new member. She was asked an opinion and since her future husband (with the few flaws that she saw) was someone she could talk to, could laugh with and someone who she connected with, consent was a quick nod of her head.
The badgering started soon after. There was no time when Maya wasn’t asked if a date had been fixed, why would she delay the wedding, we want this finalised etc. No phone call if any went without this question, to the point that a month was thrown at them to detract them. No sooner than they were 6 months away from that month, the questions started again. The constant irritant in Maya’s life which she couldn’t get away from.
The mother wears the pants in this house and she is the one who is control – in control of the lives of all. The Father carries on and throws his tantrums ever so often, in an attempt to establish his presence. Sarcasm is second skin and can be quite scathing in his remarks.
The insight into Maya’s in laws is to give you a glimpse of the demands that were made for a wedding date. So much that Sunil succumbed to the pressure and agreed to their requirements forgetting the legal side and the complications of the Hindu Marriage Act.
Common sense is not so common they say and it escaped Maya’s dictionary in a moment of weakness when she said December 2007.
From July, she was constantly asked if the date was fixed and if her family would arrange for the wedding. As you may guessed for reasons that are best known to Maya and Sunil, they were not ready for a Dec 2007 wedding, but there was no backing out. Maya was completely trapped, long chats yielded no results and finally quite ashamed of herself, she went with the plan.
Living away from her family, Maya had created a make believe world of work/ friends and colleagues who were the most integral part of the life she led. She was not encumbered by the rituals and customs of a typical Indian girl, she lived life on her own terms. The only solace in all this was her life would continue in this way once she puts the wedding behind her and she returns to her world.
Maya visited her parents, took their blessings without informing them and then packed her bags with expensive sarees and jewellery for a wedding sans her creators.
Through the short flight from home to the city where the wedding was planned, she was battling demons. Am I doing the right thing. Is the pressure warranted? Will this be back to bite ? If they don’t support me, will they understand at all? Was it too late? While these questions tossed around her mind, tears welling in her eyes, she heard the landing announcement and the touchdown was the fastest ever experienced. 5 mins later Maya was walking out of the airport and he heart skipped a beat….there in front of her stood Sunil. She had tears in her eyes as he hugged her and deep in her heart she knew that she wanted to be with him but at what cost? Life was a tangled mess of emotions, relations and everything other than Maya and Sunil.
The ride to his brother’s apartment was a good 1hour away. The conversation was limited yet, only they knew the emotional roller coaster they were on. Drama was high, expectations and needs were the order of the day. Sunil wanted the best for Maya, his life, he knew he needed to give her time, but….things had gone beyond his control . He wanted Maya to remember this day, a new beginning for her and cherish the moments, but this was not to be.
Some of the requirements were justified, understand that a wedding is the time for pomp and show of a family…..the list was endless. Sarees and gifts for all the aunties (this could mean relatives, friends and even ladies that they had never heard off), the elaborate decorations and arrangements that the family wanted, even if this was meant to be a simple no frills affair….the extravagant lunch and dinner menus for a few thousand invitees (the joke was not to have a wedding on a Sunday) and before you realise it, the savings of the past few years has evaporated, not while building your future, but while pleasing the family so that they can revel in pride of a wedding that is talked about, until the next one!
The honk of the taxi as they reached their destination, brought Maya back to reality, she was getting married the next day. The bags were deposited in foyer of the house, there seemed to be a million faces in there and the frenzy of activities bowled her over. The sudden cries of “the bride is here ” reverberated around the house and everyone stopped to look. Maya blushed, and demurely folded her hands in the typical Indian style of reverence – the namaste!
She was soon whisked away by the numerous cousins and friends to partake in the activities around the house. Always smiling, always full of life, she easily drifted in, while her eyes kept darting around to catch a glimpse of Sunil. Her heart longing for a few moments alone with him, the last few stolen moments with him before the mele.

Soon wedding dresses were on display, the numerous outfits that had to be changed and the young fashion conscious girls were matching the jewellery that Maya had gathered over these years in anticipation of this day. Gold and diamonds glittered and the the women folk were dazzled by the ornate pieces of jewellery. The grannies wanted all the jewellery to be worn in a display of wealth, while the younger gen had other plans for Maya di.The henna design was the only agreement as tradition overpowered even the most modern…!
As the evening set in, the doors of the house were left open for the constant stream of visitors…there didn’t seem to be a single room where there were no strangers! Along with cool December breeze wafted in, the aroma, a heady mix of the scent of flowers, the incense sticks and the scent of cooking – cardamom and the other spices!
Maya had her hands covered in henna designs, the soft breeze was fluttering wisps of her hair on her face. The colour of the henna was staining her palms to a bright red. The glow from the oil lamps that bedecked the corridors and the rooms, flickered and cast their dancing forms in shadows.
The heavy silk brocade sarees that the older women wore; the rustle of the silk and georgette ghaghras that the young girls floated in; the sparkle of gold; the string of jasmine that adorned the hair. The atmosphere was festive and people rushed about with their last minute chores. – be it shouting orders to the caterers,more errands to run and making arrangements for the rituals in the morning.
The constant flow of guests arriving at the airport, the train station and even in their own cars didn’t seem to stop. Hotels/ friend’s place and even with other relatives seemed to be options for the night before, stay.
Maya was being ushered into a room to catch up some sleep so that she could look her best on the big day. The hustle and bustle didn’t seem to ebb. The food, drinks, laughter and music continued into the wee hours. An Indian wedding could span into 3 or 5 day ceremonies depending upon the family. Maya and Sunil wanted a low key wedding but were roped into an ostentatious 2 day affair. The Sangeet and the henna ceremony had been rolled into one on their insistence.
The mandap for the traditional Hindu rituals had been set up and was decked in auspicious marigold and sweet smelling jasmine, in the middle of the garden. The golden gauze curtains fluttered in the pleasant morning breeze as the silver and bronze lamps and vessels glinted in the morning sun.The layout was stunning and the atmosphere created by the chants of the pundits was divine. There was peace and calm amongst the chaos of the wedding and the mandap felt like the sanctum sanctoram of a temple.
Elsewhere, there were frenzied activities as the Hindu weddings are performed at auspicious time determined by the stars and the astrological predictions – time was of essence.
Maya was draped in her heavy brocade sari and the jewellery laid out would require another hour to dorn. She had no make up on with the exception of of black kohl that brought a glint to her large brown eyes and a hint of colour on her lips. The sari complimented her skin tone and made Maya look ravishing. Her hair was braided and tied up and Maya looked very much the demure Indian bride.
She had a smile on her lips and tears in her eyes as she went about the morning in a trance. Deep down, her heart was heavy, her soul was not with her and the only person who understood this was Sunil. All the messages since the night before professed his love for her and how they would overcome all the challenges ahead. Sunil promised Maya everything that life could ever give. They had sat in different corners of the house texting each other with an outpouring of emotions.
The chants continued and the air was filled with the aroma of camphor, burning ghee and incenses. The rituals were in full swing and Maya was soon called to take her place on the mandap. Sunil would be there first, seated and participating in the prayers.
All eyes were on Maya as she gracefully walked up to the mandap flanked by the young girls of the family. Sunil’s best mate and his wife gave away the girl in a ceremony called the kanyadhan, at the start of the wedding rituals.
The next twenty minutes passed in the blink of an eyelid as Maya went through the instructions given. She was praying for longevity in marriage at times, she was circling the fire to seek blessings and at other times she was following Sunil through the various steps of marriage…a union that was being solemnised in the presence of fire, signalling a new chapter in her life. The drum beats and the pipes signalled the union when the mangalsutra was tied and as Sunil applied the red vermillion on the parting of Maya’s hair, a tradition in an Indian Wedding. The shower of flowers, and blessed grains of rice, the wishes from all around and now it was time to seek the blessings of the elders.
Maya kept the smile on her lips as she sought blessings, touching the feet and many times it was a tight hug and whispered wishes. He was the only one she felt connected to in this crowd. A stream of people walked up to congratulate them, and the next two hours passed in a blur. Uncles and aunties took this time to narrate stories from Sunil’s childhood, while some others were passing invitations for a meal to the newly weds.
The video cameras whirred and moments were being captured on celluloid, while flash bulbs continued to blind Sunil and Maya. Friends, family and well wishers gathered for the pictures while the lunch buffet was opened up.
All the stress of the past two days had killed their appetite, however Maya and Sunil were being offered plates by all. Politely declining the offers, Maya and Sunil instead walked around the guest who were enjoying their lunch.
As in every Indian wedding, food was a plenty and the live stations included chat corners and South Indian snacks. One couldn’t miss the non veg section with its aromatic biryanis, chicken and meat delicacies, while the vegetarian section saw a medley of rich cream laden curries and breads. The desert corner was another dreamland – every Indian desert one could think off was spread out for those with a sweet tooth, kulfi, rasmalai, jalebi, gulab jamuns and the list was endless.
By mid afternoon, as guests started leaving, some were off to find a corner in the house where they could catch a few winks, while the caterers slowed down the refills. It was back to family time again and all that Maya wanted was to get out of the wedding finery and slip into her comfortable clothes, unbraid her hair and let it fall loose.
This is moment that will remain etched in Maya’s memory for ages. The whole family was around relaxed as the house seemed to return to normal, when out of the blue her father in law made a comment that landed like a ton of bricks. With no warning, with no premonition, he simply stated that he would insist that his second son gets married with a dowry – an Indian practice where the brides family has to meet demands from the groom and his family for cash, gifts and even houses.
Maya was not just shocked, she was taken aback with this statement as she knows the lengths that she has gone to for this wedding. Between her and Sunil, there were many a heart to heart discussion on the economic differences in the two families and all that Maya wanted was to share her life and every moment with Sunil. These materialistic conversations were not important to her, but now she knew the impact. She had looked towards Sunil helplessly, but Sunil chose to ignore….and his only comment was that this was a joke! An expensive joke for Maya as her world came crashing down hours after the fan fare that she had planned to keep her in laws happy. She hoped that the life she had chosen would not be a joke on her in the years ahead!

Emptiness

Growing up as an innocent young girl, cradled in all the luxuries one could expect in late the Eighties, never was I told not to look at life through rose tinted glasses. The toughest lessons of life then, were ensuring that exams were not a hurdle too high, small disappointments like an argument with a bestie was a speck in what was to lie ahead, but who knew that back then?

The growing up years flew by and before you know it, the flings in college were a thing of the past…no longer did breakfast, lunch and dinner mean the college canteen and slowly but steadily, the memorable youth festival days and the competitive intercollegiate fests were a distant memory.

Life takes another twist with responsibility, work and juggling a house, until the romantic side of me surfaced again…this time for my beloved. It was back in a college setting that I found my soul mate..! Competitive spirits always high also meant that I participated in the lectures, debated concepts, shared real life work experiences and topped the class in the MBA project and viva. In the same class was a quiet but rather endearing person, who had the attention of all when he spoke, was the professor’s favourite student and a walking talking encyclopedia. In the 2.5 years of studies, somewhere along, I gave him my heart, my soul and myself.

As always the friendship blossomed into romance and after a few hurdles that are at best forgotten, we embarked upon another journey called married life.
Life was never meant to be easy, small little issues meant trust was the hardest part of the adjustment….but like every other couple after a few fights, lots of tears and wondering if we’re better off without one another, we discovered our rhythm and settled into life cocooned in bliss and happiness.

Never was it guaranteed to be a bed of roses, never was I promised the heaven and earth. Even with out kids in the foray after 7 years of marriage, the talk amongst our closest was that we were honeymooning. Life was indeed good and contentment was everywhere.. It was just the perfect life of DINKS for any one to see – holidays galore, hobbies and of course our life was brimming with love and admiration for each other.

Either the effect of evil eyes like they say, or was this to be short lived happiness, I can’t say…but there was enough hurt for me to feel hollow and empty. A bit of self pity set in, the evergreen question “why me” crossed my lips a hundred thousand times and the enthusiasm with which I greeted each day seemed to vanish out of the blue. The colours of the rainbow turned dark and all that I could see was threatening storm clouds….my life jacket was snatched away from me and I was being tossed around in the choppy seas. The vibrant colors I noticed hours ago changed and the soft wisps of clouds that always floated in my life disappeared, while the emptiness within me became overwhelming.

His one wrong step into the world of deception, crushed me. I had lived for him, fulfilling every wish of his, supporting him in a multitude of roles. I switched from mother to nurse to sister to wife and dosed the 7 years of our life with an ample sprinkling of being the girlfriend, the make believe mistress and many more avatars!

After all of this, one wrong move, chats with a (friend) on social media turned my world upside down as I hadn’t seen this coming – an affair in the offing? Wanting a mobile number so that he could speak to her sometime and then stating that he needed to meet her, complete with expectations and seeking confirmation that she wanted the same.

Was I cocooned in my own world, was I so content in my relationship or was it the plain fact that men will be men? Whatever the case may be, as usual he swore that he loved me and that he had just strayed without the intention. To believe or not to believe, the precious glass heart this romantic girl carried had fallen and shattered before her eyes. Will he be able to fix it for the little girl? Will he keep his promise he made during the wedding wows he took with this girl who hung to him for support and security, with only admiration in her eyes for him. Did he deserve the pedestal she had placed him on for all these years? He sure does know what this means when he is surrounded by his loved ones and she embarks a journey for him, with him and by him? Will he slowly but steadily rebuild and fix the broken bits?

Where ever this leads us, together or on our own separate journeys, I feel hollow in me. The very essence of my womanhood seems to have been rudely plucked away by the one I trusted my life with, my happiness with and the one I chose to give my heart to. Is this love, is this commitment and is this until death do us apart, I ask as emptiness engulfs me.

High octane weekend – an experience of a friend

Life has a way of throwing little episodes that could seem straight out of an action movie or a horror story at times, but such is our resilience we continue onwards and upwards!

As many of us experiencing expat life in the Middle East will know, along with the NRI tag, which assures you of a life in comfort, where luxuries become basic necessities, there are many a things that the Indian diaspora long for that reminds them of home.

After a lovely week of holidays in the new home in India, it was time to return to the hearth, and what better way than with mom and dad accompanying her and son?

When the work pressure mounts, when the daily routine seems to suffocate, when she runs out of ideas for the lunch box, mom and dad’s presence is such a welcome respite.

When she leaves early each morning to work, mom and dad see her off, wishing her well in the day ahead, while the grandson is bid goodbye as he alights the school bus soon after. Grandma then scurries around to ensure the favourite lunch is on the table when the family returns, while guitar classes, basket ball practise and all the rest of the evening chores are granddad’s that he goes about with pride.

Thus happy days rolled into weeks and it wasn’t long before she noticed mom’s pace had reduced. There were longer naps in the mornings unlike the usual and although mom reassured that she was fine, the darling daughter knew better. A few probes, a few questions and some heart to heart conversations later, she realised that mom had not brought her daily dosage of medications.

As the years tell on you, as one becomes dependent on the miracles called pills, this is when you miss the comfort of the family doctor, the neighbourhood chemist who remembers your prescription and will even call to check if you have a stock of the medicines required.

Panic struck and she knows what the medication means to mom. Frantic calls to the family doctor and the news is not so great. Mom is on a double daily dosage , so the earlier she gets the pills the better. Mom and dad continued to chide themselves on how they could forget to pack the medicines, while son decided that there would be no teenage tantrums, he would be mommy’s best boy.

As if work was any easier that day, deadlines loomed and were like a noose around her neck, she could only think medicines. She was on roller skates through the motions of work, meetings and all the while her mind million light years ahead.

A quick check on anyone travelling from Bombay, phone calls to a zillion couriers (darn their protocols) and all the while wondering how she could arrange the medications. Her mind was racing and by mid afternoon, when there seemed no light at the end of tunnel, when all hopes were being dashed, she decided to send dad home to India to pick up the medicines.
I have always envied the airline boys and girls who traverse the world at the drop of hat, but today, I’m so happy she was able to find dad a seat on the flight.

She was in a stupor through the rest of the day. All she could think was the chores that awaited her after work. The to do list at work suddenly seemed like an encyclopaedia of what’s what, but that was for another day, she had enough at home this evening to think through the day at work.

While she whizzed through her list, mom and dad watched sheepishly. Each thinking their daughter didn’t need this now. Son took on the mantle of man in charge in his own way, every one rallied around to ease the atmosphere at home. This was one trip that didn’t need much of packing. All that dad was carrying was an overnight case with a few basics.

Before long, it was time to head to the airport which was 15 mins away (this can only happen in Dubai), however today was a weekend and it could turn out any other way. The week end brings the town alive and quite often, you could spend the evening in the car, her only prayer was that this is not her destiny today.

As she drove, there was unusually light traffic and she thanked her lucky stars. Rubbernecking she caught a glimpse oh the other side. The traffic was standstill on the opposite side, the red tail lights snaking for as far as she could see. At the ease with which she got to the airport, the first smile of the day creased her lips.

With a skip in her steps they proceeded to what is long trek across the terminal towards the checkin desks, dodging oversized bags , passengers who were late and running like they were out to catch a moving bus.
As she approached the self checkin kiosks, “dad, can I have your passport please”, she said. A moment of silence ensued. Each one looking at the other, I thought it was with you, said dad. The whole airport whirred around her as she tried to catch her breath, her world was in slow motion, while everyone else seemed oblivious to her predicament. She took a deep long breath, it felt like a bad dream that she had to wake up from. Pinch me/ slap me and tell me I’m dreaming her brain screamed. Her face was devoid of any expression, she hadn’t grasped the gravity of this.

Snap out of this she did, and glanced at her watch. She had an hour to checkin closing. She could do this but her heart skipped a beat when she thought of the traffic to get home. Barking orders she headed to the car. Mom and dad had no idea why this day was such, what had come of their little universe? In the meanwhile she was driving like a woman possessed, the car seemed to grow wings as she stepped on the gas pedal at every opportunity. Her only aim that night was to make it back to the airport on time.

I doubt if her car came to full stop when she got to the parking lot, she had jumped out and in all these years of living here, never once had she attempted what she did today. Not waiting for the lifts, two steps at time, she was raising up the stairs to her floor. The key turned in the lock and she barely flicked on the light switches, her eyes scanning the dining table. There sat the passport in its holder, like nothing ever happened. If she let herself, she would have collapsed in a heap, but she couldn’t , next was the race to head back. Stairs again as they seems to raise up to her whilst in descent.
She has no idea how she did it, she seemed to fly past signals and before she knew it she was at the airport. While she ran waving the passport madly, she found three glum faces staring at her. Mom was close to tears, dad was stoic, while son was simply staring past her. She was a few minutes late. The gates were closed and as it was a full flight, there was no point in cajoling the checkin agent for any favours.

Disappointed alright, but if this was gods will, so be it was her approach. She ensured that the tickets were reconfirmed for the flight next morning- 0430 am on Friday. The drive back home was silent. One cant describe each of their thoughts. She wondered why she hadn’t made sure before she left home. Dad and mom were in their own world bleeding in their hearts to see their beloved daughter stressed.

It was just past 11pm Thursday night and they knew they had to rise early. The alarms were set and as she said her prayers, she hoped for the best the next day. Exhausted as she was, she fell asleep immediately. It has been no less a roller coasters for the others at home, and soon, all were in deep slumber.

It felt like a few seconds into her sleep, she was woken up to a commotion. Loud voices, banging on the door and it felt like an army had invaded her peace. She rubbed her eyes and looked again. She couldn’t believer what she saw, this just seemed so unreal. It couldn’t be happening, but she knew it was. The alarm had been set, but the clock face showed the hands at 0330 am. There was no need to rush knowing fully well, that dad couldn’t have made it on time to the airport for the 0430 flight.

She opened the door of her room, leaned against the door frame, teary eyed but a smile on her lips, while her waist length hair fell in curls around her pretty face. Dad, mom and son were shocked to see the cool calm and composed persona. What else’s can we do she asked, as she put the kettle on to get the coffee going. It was too early for breakfast, but never too early to ask what each wanted!

A few discreet phone calls, the matter was settled, dad would take the 1130 flight that morning. The delay only meant that mom would now get her pills much later. A few mental calculations, the expected time of arrival, the distance to home giving dad very little time in Bombay. This was a blessing in disguise as this meant dad didn’t have to bother much about the house.
She could clearly see that the events of the past 36 hours were definitively taking a toll on dad. Mom looked more frail and fragile this morning than last night, she must get her pills and quickly.

As she went back into her room and sank into her comforting bed, she longed for a strong pair of hands to hug her tight and assure her everything would be ok. In a moment of weakness, she yearned for a companion who would be there to face these hurdles that life threw on her path.
She was strong, brave and the rock of Gibraltar for dad, mom and son, but she could do with one too. As hope glistened through her tears, the sun shone brightly, and she lazed to catch a few more winks of sleep.

Soon after , all the breakfast dishes were done and it was time to head to the airport. This time around, dad, mom and son asked her where the passport was! If only this had been the case last evening she thought as she drove leisurely to the airport, with the tumultuous events of the past replaying in her subconscious mind.

She let out a sigh of relief when she got the call from Dad, that he was onboard the aircraft and Bombay bound. A few last minute phone calls to family and friends in Bombay who had kindly arranged to buy the medication and have it ready for collection. Details of the arrival in Bombay had her fretting about the office hour rush traffic in Bombay (Dubai could be dwarfed in comparison).

Constant phone calls and updates were the order of the day in Dubai. All those who mattered had come to know of the episodes of the past two days. Meanwhile in Bombay, the medicine rally had been very effective and dad had picked up the medicines for his beloved. With no time to spare, no shopping for grandson, with a heavy heart he was homeward bound!

The hustle and bustle of Bombay, a city that ever sleeps, did very little to soothe his frayed nerves. There was a wee bit more drama that dad had to endure. The flights out of Bombay, are always a touch n go situation. He was prepared for the worst, but hoped for the best.

As the minutes ticked on, the restlessness at the checkin counter was obvious. Soon, dad was told to checkin his luggage and collect his boarding pass. This was a moment that will forever be etched in her memory after the octane high velocity over the week end.

Dad settled into his business class seat, and as the aircraft taxied out onto the runway, dad closed his eyes and said a silent prayer to thank The Lord for all the blessings he has had in his life – his lady love, the years of marriage made stronger by the trials and tribulations not only in their life, but in the lives of their progeny, the grandchildren they are now proud off and the many small things that make life worthwhile.

Camping

It’s another week end and of late these seem to be slipping away at break neck speed….it’s just a week to Valentines (the much hyped commercial dramas remind you of the same), whereas I still remember the first week end of 2014, but come to think of it, it’s already the second weekend of the second month. Am I attempting to grasp on to every single minute that seems to be flitting away?
With tour Dubai in full swing, roads closed, the plans for an early morning ride on the bike was shelved.
Camping plans were made instead, the supermarket trolley was full of goodies for the evening. Fresh cuts of meat, cheese, bread, crackers and anything that can keep a bunch of hungry people happy. A batch of baking, a few experiments for quick food and before I knew it, it was time to hit the road.
With a 30 min delay and Raj hurrying me, we finally were ready to go! Car was loaded, tents-check, sleeping bags-check, food-check, entertainment check and finally, we hit the road!
Navigation is not the easiest and we learn this the hard way! With the 30 minutes delay, we were already lagging behind when we are informed that the meet up venue had changed. This inadvertently means, change in direction and in turn, a further delay….all this while, Raj was on auto pilot as he drove along. I suddenly realised that we were on the road that takes us to work every day…..A quick stock take and this now means an additional 15 mins on the road, a detour of approx 30 odd kilometres.
The stalwarts of dune bashing, unlike us newbies into this thrilling sport, are still way behind and with a few calls to one another for direction, fueling pit stops and many many other things, finally we reach the meeting point.
Those waiting for us had already started gobbling chapati sandwiches while sipping steaming hot cups of tea. A stretch break while we waited for all 7 cars to form the convoy into the dessert.
Tyre pressure, fluids, mechanical details (all check boxes ticked by men), we were soon ready to make our way into the red sand dunes, for an evening of pure adrenalin rush. The heart in mouth situations were many, I could hear my camping gear rattling around at the back of the vehicle and my thoughts were around the icing on the cake I had baked and the fruit trifle sitting in the freezer box.
The adage time flies when you are doing something that interests you is so true….as not long into the dune bashing the sky turned a myriad of colours – the red orange glow of the setting sun was upon us. Signals from the troops and we had to quickly start the descent from the dunes to hunt for the camping site for tonight. None of us were keen to set tents up in the dark….the thought of the underworld creatures beneath the soft smooth sand that slips past our toes whilst barefoot was bliss, but no thanks to company whilst in la la land.
While the men debated the best spot to set up camp, wind directions and how to position the cars, the rest of us were enjoying the nip that was setting in. The air was crisp and clear, with a rare exception of some dust when the wind caught up momentum. The guys brought out the remote operated dune buggies and some of us bum slid down the dune and then huffed and puffed on our way up.
This called for the thirst quenchers, the nibbles and soon there was so much food that we wondered if we would have space for all the meat/vegetables and of course the deserts.
As we collapsed in exhaustion, we were still giggling about our antics and for a change no one bothered about sand in our clothes, in our hair and even on our eye lashes.
We didn’t have the luxury of time, the crackling as the wood caught fire had us hurrying to our next set of chores. Before darkness set in, the chairs had been placed around the camp fire, in the barbeque pits the coal was catching fire and the skewers of meat and vegetables were ready…out came the cheese, the breads, and all the food that could feed an army.
While the aroma of the barbeque filled the air, the hungry started gathering closer together, waiting for the plate of food to be offered around. A few vegetarians like me were longing for the baked potatoes and grilled zucchini. Soon plates of pork chops, grilled tandoori chicken, toasted pita bread, cheese, hummus, and vegetables were being passed around. Believe me when I say the plates returned empty quite quickly. All of us were wolfing down the food – was it hunger, was it the outdoors that increased appetites, or was it just pure good food? No one bothered to answer me!
Soon the hunger pangs died, the embers in the barbeque turned ash and the unanimous decision was to save the deserts for a little later. With the chill setting in, the pitch black darkness of the dessert against the flames of the bonfire, it was time for the guitar and the songs. The cacophony of off key singing had many of us in splits, while there was still a few rock stars amongst us, who carried on. The kids had settled into a huddle in a tent playing with their tablets. They didn’t have the patience to see the adults turn into kids themselves.
With the energy ebbing and while some prefer a quite evening in solitude, we moved into the most spooky part of the evening. As the glow of the flames died, a calmness descended on the crowd with stories of the supernatural. As if on que, someone decided to get more wood into the bonfire, so that the fire burned brighter and the flames licked the wood chunks, the stories continued and then no one was willing to even move a few yards to get the deserts.
A few moments of silence, each to his own thought, before the kids clamoured for attention. The mention of iced chocolate cake had them running for the container. There was spring in their steps and no fear of the unnatural in their minds, so we gathered courage from them. The desert disappeared in minutes, with the last morsel of the trifle polished and the icing of the chocolate cake licked clean.
Soon some of us wandered into the night, getting ready to wind down, while others sat next to bonfire or what used to be. A few snores, some suppressed chuckles, while others called it a night. The kettle was still happily whistling away, the only noise for miles to be.
With most of campers in their tents, I sat staring into the embers of the bonfire. Raj was making sure that our tent was warm enough with bedding on the floor and the sleeping bags soft and inviting.
When I heard a shuffle of feet, an eerie feeling gripped me, I froze, I could see the light bobbing up an down a few feet away in our tent, in the otherwise dark stillness of the night , but I could not scream…I was hoping Raj would be by my side. The shuffling feet called out to me, that’s when I realised it was one of us looking for a late night drink. A sense of relief washed over me and I could feel the colour rush back to my face! A feeble smile crossed my lips, while I threw my head back and decided to marvel at nature.
The black expanse of the sky, with a million stars sparkling like diamonds, it seemed to transport me to a fantasy world where the darkness was not menacing. The stars seemed to have a story to tell, they seemed to wink at me and assure me they were my angels guarding over me tonight. The various constellations seemed to send me optimistic messages, whilst I yearn to know more. Are you the angels my mom mentioned in her bed time stories to me, are you the little sparkles that build the fantasies of many a travellers of yore? Are you, are you, are you…….?
A soft caress of lips and warm breath on my forehead, woke me out of my stupor. Raj was leaning over me, wondering if I had fallen asleep. I cajoled him to sit by my side for a few minutes. As I snuggled next to him, his arms around me, I knew I was the luckiest woman in this world. He held me tight as I smiled and looked up at him. There was love and pride in his eyes as he stroked my hair – a silent moment that expressed a multitude of feelings, sending vibes that we both recognized – love, respect, a friend and confidante.
As the dew fell and a slight dampness engulfed us, Raj hurried me into the tent, while the camp slept peacefully, with a promise to wake up early and witness the sun rise from the dunes above.

The land beyond

Our week end routine is to often go riding on Raj’s cruiser bike – his prized possession – a 2010, Harley Davidson Softail Heritage…..I could write pages and pages as to how this mean machine takes a place of pride in Raj’s life, the hours spent shining the chrome and ensuring the leather is still soft and supple and the list goes on…

The rides on Fridays could be as part of the HOG Dubai chapter, sometimes just a few bikes (friends and colleagues) and at other times, just the two of us – Raj riding and me as his pillion..

Its during one of these solo rides recently, that a thought crossed my mind….dawn was just breaking out and Raj and I had covered half the intended distance of the day’s ride. The mist was just clearing and the open roads were long and winding in front of us. The sun rays seemed to shine from far beyond and they sparkled brightly on the lonely stretch.

In the dawn colours, the purple hajjar mountains (Oman on the other side) looked sinister and almost like forbidden territory. The rugged mountains didn’t look like a terrain I would want to be in, however the majestic mountains seemed to say that they were my protector, standing tall against the wind, against unknown that lay on the other side. The barren mountains looked treacherous with no vegetation, no sight of water and yet forbidding.

On this ride, while Raj concentrated on the road ahead and the destination, as pillion, enjoying the ride and the rush of the wind on my face, my thoughts wandered to the very many I have heard of who had dared to seek the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow (across these mountain ranges)!

As the sun came out stronger and the dial on my wrist showed a decent hour of the morning, I happened to take a closer look at the mountain ranges ahead….the purple seemed to turn yellow and barren brown as we approached, the rock face seemed to be just stones and loose rocks and the very thought of losing a foothold on this steep slope sent shivers down my spine.

My thoughts drifted towards the Pathans, who attempt the crossing only with dreams to provide for their near and dear ones. These desperate souls, who then aspire to earn living, herding livestock or in the farmhouses of the rich and famous or as helps to make a few bucks that they can then build the dreams of their loved ones.

The dangers of the crossing are well known, the illegal status is a risk they take, only to live in anticipation of a life beyond…

The flowing clothes of the Pathan, light coloured to help with the heat and yet dirty enough to camouflage in the mountains, fluttering in the breeze, the turban on his head, the only protection against the harsh scorching sun that beats down on him, a pair of slippers that has seen many a better days, worn down to the last stitch holding it together…dodging any suspicious activity, lying low waiting for the right time to make the move…The day was for resting in the crevices of the mountains, against the heat and sometimes taking that last morsel of food, in the hope that there will be a hot meal waiting for him on the other side. All this while, any movement within ear shot sends the heart racing, is it a wild fox or is it the gallop of the horses bearing the border guards – which could mean a fateful end to their quest for a life beyond…

They move in packs at times and other times, on their own to make that last ditch effort to cross borders – no passports, no identity papers, no visas and border control, its pure necessity and need that drives these few to take the risks they do. Risks at the cost of deportation or just languishing behind bars for the the rest of their lives in a far off country….none of these thoughts plague the ones attempting this journey…..in the middle of the scorching day, a few drops of water from a mountain spring to quench thirst and then a little slumber, while waiting for the dark, the only friend in this long and arduous path to financial freedom…

I’m home, I n the comfort of my surrounding and as dusk sets in, my thoughts wander back to the lonely Pathan, his eyes bright and his weary legs wobbly as he waits for the stars and the moon to shine bright. In darkness of the night, with the stars his GPS and the moonlight his guide through the tough terrain, he begins is voyage, clambering over the rocks as surefooted as a mountain goat, holding on to dear life and sometimes traversing a path no man has been on, all this, not knowing if it’s another night of walking or if there are many more, but in the hope that when he nears a settlement, a little town, a mate from some far flung village back home, will help him blend in and provide him the much needed shelter and work to get him back on his feet again…