Tuesday, November 15, 2016

Goa: Seven Secret Sacred Spots!

        This blog post is dedicated to my friend Chandrakant Shinde (Chandu). Chandu, you are the one who inspired me, not once, but twice, to take the off-beat path when it comes to the beautiful state of Goa!

       Being a resident of Goa, Chandu would often say during our University days, "Whenever people think of Goa, all they can imagine is beaches, babes, and booze. But my Goa is much more than that! We are blessed with nature's bounty! We have dense forests hosting a huge biodiversity, serene villages, a rich history, temples, churches, winding roads leading to nowhere...come explore that once and you will never feel like going to the rowdier parts of Goa."

       And explore, we did! I'm sure the list below is going to be on the top of your bucketlist for your next Goa trip!

       So here we go!

1. Nature's Nest, Tambdi Surla

A cabin in the woods! That's the exact feel you get when you enter this place. Deep inside the jungles of Bhagwan Mahaveer Wildlife Sanctuary, this eco-friendly resort is a dream come true! Amazing food, big cottages built with eco-friendly material and the feel of being inside a forest and away from all human civilization!
They organise birding tours, waterfall trails, trekking, cycle tours and a lot more.
Be ready to welcome some wild guests while at this hotel! ;-)

This is a natural spring located inside the resort. Here you can simply immerse your feet into the magical waters and let the fish treat you to a tingling pedicure and foot spa! 

2. Mahadev Temple, Tambdi Surla

Located inside the Bhagwan Mahaveer Sanctuary, this 13th C temple was built by the Kadamba dynasty who ruled over Goa then. It is just 11 km away from Nature's Nest Resort. A stream runs by the temple, making it an ideal place for relaxing and enjoying some fresh air!
The Archeological Survey of India as done some brilliant work here in restoring the stone structure.

3. The Bondla Zoo, Ponda

Let me make one thing clear, I'm not a big fan of zoos. They are nothing but slow torture for animals. I would rather see these beautiful animals in their natural habitat.
Yet, Bondla zoo is an example of how a zoo should be  conceptualized and maintained if animals have to be kept in captivity.
Huge area for the big animals, limited timings for visitors and animals on display and a semblance of their  natural habitat!
The only disappointment was the jungle cat that was kept inside a tiny cage...what would the poor animal do in such a small space for his entire lifetime??

Don't forget to watch the tall trees while walking through the  zoo. You might catch a  glimpse of the Indian Giant Squirrel!

4. Tropical Spice Plantation, Ponda

Another gem for us city-dwellers is this beautiful spice plantation. After crossing an eco-friendly bridge over a quiet lake, you will enter the world of spices!

Coffee pods

Peri Peri Chilli

Look at these traditional serving pots. Aren't they beautiful?  Here you can enjoy a delicious veg and non-veg meal served in bamboo plates. 

5. Fernandes Heritage Home, Chandor

Ok, this 450-year-old Portuguese villa can surely give you the creeps. 
The huge, heavy entrance door closes on you as you enter the ancient villa, giving you a feeling of being trapped in another century.  Old artefacts, relics, paintings of the Fernandes family members starting at you with a piercing look, all of this can be pretty overwhelming.

Yet, you realise, that this is a piece of history that has been so well preserved.

Victorian love chair sofas, four-poster beds, old Chinese and Egyptian artefacts are just a delight to see.

The best part of the house, however, is the secret passage that will take you down to the basement! A steep stairway, and winding narrow passages later, you will reach a secret hideaway of the Fernandes family. This was used by them during battles and skirmishes as an escape route to the nearby river. Today it is a home to bats, measuring chains and a few other old equipments.

6. Big Foot Museum, Loutolim

Welcome to Old Goa! Take a voice guided tour of this village and you will get to learn a lot about the old and new ways of life of Goa. The statues and displays look very lively. This is one experience that will leave you feeling proud of this small state of India.

7. Chorla Ghat

If you are on a road trip to Goa, do take this route at least once! Dense, probably evergreen forest, might give you a chance of spotting a wild animal or two. The road is just perfect, less used and hence sparsely populated by vehicles. Be careful while driving through this patch, though. Let the perfect setting for driving not give you a false sense of  security.  We came across a terrible and fatal bike accident in the same patch.
Enjoy the beauty of this route only during daylight. It will take you to Belgavi (Belgaum) from where you can take the superfast highway to Kolhapur and ahead to Pune.

       So there it is, add these places to you bucketlist asap! I hope you enjoyed reading this blog as much as I enjoyed writing it. 

Keep travelling!
And keep your Geography ka Chashma on!


Monday, October 3, 2016

Dubai ka Dil Dekho! (Part 2)

Day 2 - 
      Good morning Dubai! Today, we have a very heavy breakfast (as you generally do when on a foreign trip). You see, most packages include only breakfast. Spending separately on lunch every day can be a bit costly. So what to do? Carry theplas and khakras (Go Gujju!!). 

      Park Regis (our hotel) serves some amazing variety of breakfast. You have Indian and Continental, veg and non-veg, high-calorie and low-calorie! We got to taste and an amazing variety of cheese from all around the world (my increased flab didn't say a big thank you later on, though!).

     Anyway, this morning, we would be picked up by our car (SIC basis) to be driven all around Dubai on a city tour. These pick-ups are all on time. You need a local number to coordinate with the travel agent.

Travel Tip No 1: Buy a local SIM card, either DU or Etisalat. You can fill it with the minimum amount of talk time just for the sake of contacting your tour operator. Data connection is not really needed as most hotels and tourist attractions in Dubai have FREE WIFI!  

Dubai City Tour
       The city tour takes you around old and new Dubai. Observe the lane discipline. Most guides are local Arabs speaking fluently in Hindi. (I heavily suspected our guide to be a Pakistani dressed as an Arab!) 

       Dubai started developing rapidly in the 1990s after the end of the Gulf war. Till then, it was nothing but a trading port. Being a desert, it was under-developed. The locals built mud houses with flat roofs and a box-like structure on the top to let warm air escape. The old houses have been preserved in this new Dubai. Heritage village, they call it. 

      Oil had been discovered in 1966, but Dubai had only 2% of the total reserves in UAE, almost 90% being in Abu Dhabi. The formation of UAE, itself, was quite a story to start with. The then King of Abu Dhabi, in 1971, proposed that all these seven cities or Emirates - Abu Dhabi, Dubai, Sharjah, Ajman, Fujairah, Ras al-Khaimah and Umm al-Quwain -  come together to form a federation. It was the king of Dubai who first accepted the offer. Thus, it was the king of Abu Dhabi who became the President, while that of Dubai, became the Vice-President of the United Arab Emirates. 

Interesting Fact 1: UAE and India, had two things in common - both were colonised by the British (UAE till 1971) and both had the same currency (Rupee). Infact, from 1959 to 1966, the Reserve Bank of India, issued a separate 'Gulf Rupee'! Currency only changed when the Indian Rupee got devalued in 1966!

      Anyways, so after the formation of the UAE, there was no looking back. The oil brought in a majority of the revenue. It also got in a lot of migrants - from South Asia, Europe, Africa, East Asia and so on. The migrants formed their own ghettos, so you have a mostly European, posh colony in Jumeirah (probably one of the only public places in Dubai where you will see bikini-clad women), Al-Karama and Bur Dubai (Indian, Pakistani and Bangladeshi residential area), 5th December road and the Palm islands (Arab area).

A typical bungalow, given to a local Arab after marriage.

       So if you are an Arab living in the UAE, you are definitely a Shiekh! The life of this 'son-of-the-soil' is a cakewalk. Why would it not be when all he has to do is to get married! And voila! He gets his own free house in the most luxurious area of Dubai + 25000 Dirhams has a marriage gift from the government + 10000 Dirhams each on the birth of his first 2 kids + 5000 Dirhams on the birth of the 3rd one! (Shiv Sena, are you listening????) 
      So basically the localite has to do nothing for his entire life. He just needs to own a business, in which he acts as a 50% partner. The business is run by a migrant while 50% profit is shared with the Arab. So no hard work and all the money in the world...the Arabs surely know how to take care of their own kind! 

Interesting fact 2: No one, but an Arab can own property in UAE (except for very very few areas). Houses and shops are leased out on a 99 years term after which they go back to the owner. Rentals are high. You can only start a business in UAE if you have an Arab partner. The partner shares both your loss and profit. Cool, huh?

The Burj  Khalifa (Burju - as my husband lovingly named it) is a constant companion.
Oriental World Museum was our first stop on the city tour. Photography is not allowed inside. It houses local artefacts for sale. You can buy (or rather window-shop) gold embroidered rugs and pillow covers, gold souvenirs, pricey perfumes and shawls and all other items beyond the budget of a normal traveller.

The crystal-clear waters of Jumeirah beach.

7-star hotels dot the sea-shore, each with their private beaches. Luxury at it's best! The Burj al Arab (on the left) was once the tallest free-standing hotel in the world before the Burj Khalifa was constructed. 

The twin towers of Dubai, mirroring the once at Malaysia and the fallen once of USA.
18 carat Gold - plated horses at Al Qasr 7* hotel, Madinat Juneirah - A part of the movie 'Welcome' was shot here.
Another 7* hotel of Dubai - Atlantis the Palm. There are only two such hotels in the world. It's identical twin is found in the Bahamas.  The hotel also houses the famous underwater restaurant Ossiano. All a regular traveller can afford at this hotel is the amazing aquarium - The Lost Chambers Aquarium (Ticket price per person - 125 Dirham).  



Totally worth the Dirhams, this aquarium is a must visit! The display is huge, the theme being the mythical lost city of Atlantis. This was my second visit to the aquarium and yet, I found myself to be as amazed as I was the first time!

      This particular place is located on an island, at the end of the Palm Islands, off the last of it's so called branches. To reach here, you pass an underwater tunnel if coming by road. The Palm islands also have a dedicated Monorail. We had left our City tour bus at this stop as the Lost Chambers was not included in our trip. So while going back, we had to take a taxi to the nearest Metro station 'Internet city'. 

One thing that you will observe and experience in Dubai is that you will have to walk a lot The above photo is of a footover bridge above the highway to reach the 'Internet city' metro station. 

Travel Trip No. 2: Forget the fashion, carry your walking shoes to Dubai. I did a grave mistake of wearing my heels on this particular day without realising that we would need to walk so much. Trust me, you don't want to make the same mistake! :D

Highways are not meant for pedestrians. Road travel here is super-duper fast. No human or animal can possibly land up on the highway as there are footover bridges everywhere. Nice way to burn those calories!

Travel Tip No. 3: Dubai has an amazing metro network covering almost all of the city and it's suburbs. It is pretty cheap too. There are two lines - red and green, overlapping each other at some point and covering two different areas. You can easily understand this network while travelling. Do not drink, eat or smoke while in the metro, the fine for the same is 200 Dirham. 

Ahh well, that's all for right now. This one is going to be pretty long...Dubai is a case study in Human geography indeed! The entire development process is worth understanding and exploring. Do leave your comments/ questions/ suggestions in the below section.

Next time - You'll find out more about Sand bashing in Dubai desert, Burj Khalifa and Dubai mall....

Al Abwab Toghlaq....Doors closing! :)

Monday, September 19, 2016

Dubai ka Dil Dekho! (Part 1)

         The moment you land in Dubai, you are thrilled. The superfast metro that takes you out of the arrival hall to the baggage counters is your first adventure ride! For a first-timer to Dubai, a 'metro-ride' while still being at the airport gives a feeling of finally landing in a 'super-rich country'!

         It was pre-dawn. We had taken a late night flight from Mumbai (SpiceJet - mainly as it was one of the cheaper options and secondly we did not want to miss even a single day in Dubai!). After being whisked by our driver speaking fluent Hindi (again, for a first-timer, Hello?? Have I actually landed in another country or no?? Why is my driver speaking Hindi??) or actually a mix of Hindi and Urdu, (most drivers in Dubai are either from Pakistan or Bangladesh), we were dropped at our posh 5* hotel in Al Karama - 
Image result for park regis kris kin hotel dubai
Hotel Park Regis Kris Kin, Dubai
            Excitement overload! But, we were sleepy and dead tired! Alas, we did not have a room! I'll explain! It was 10th September, 4 a.m UAE time. Our check-in date & time was 10th September, 2 p.m! Ho gaya na problem?
        So the sweet receptionist at the counter tells us that we will have to pay the room charges for the night (or whatever was remaining of it!) What option did we have? Bye, bye half of the Dirhams that we were carrying! Who knew staying at a 5* star hotel cost so much?? 

Travel Tip No. 1 - If you have taken a late night flight from India, it is advisable to book your hotel room starting from the same night. (Even though you will be using it for only a few hours!) A better option will be to book at a low-cost hotel to save the dirhams!

          Day 1 - 

          Good morning, Dubai! A look outside the window told us that the hotel was located in a mainly residential area with a huge Indian population.

          We decided to take a walk in the nearby area. What we saw amazed us! Huge footpaths (bigger than the narrow gallies of Mumbai!) made walking a breeze. The temperature was around 34-35 degrees Celcius. Yet, being a desert, Dubai is dry despite being close to the sea. So no sweat! Thank God!

Travel Tip No. 2 - You will find a lot of eating options in Dubai, both vegetarian and non-vegetarian. You can find South Indian, North Indian, Gujarati Thalis, Vada Pav (Yes!), Misal, Mediterranean, Italian, Mexican and all varieties. The price range depends on the kind of outlet (AC/ Non - AC) and the location. If you are not a very fussy eater and on a low-budget trip, try out the local shawarmas (they have vegetarian varieties with falafel). There are plenty of small eateries with good food. Avoid non-veg food in these small eateries. It is absolutely bland.

          Our walk in the afternoon sun took us to some local supermarkets like LuLu's Supermarket (a big hit with the local Indian population for the variety of Indian stuff that they keep), Day to Day supermarket (very cheap if you want to buy gift items) and TESCO supermarket.

                                                                              The biggest vegetables I've ever seen!

          The best part of the walk was the VVIP treatment you get as a pedestrian! Whenever you stop to cross the road, may it be a big one or small, the cars will stop to let you cross first! Every time they did this, we were amazed! It was unbelievable! After being treated as vermin in India, where every car driver thinks of himself as the king of the road and treats the pedestrian as an obstacle in his path (and vice-versa), this was too much to bear with! We started smiling and mouthing a 'thank you' to every driver who gave us a way. 
A push button to change the signal in case of emergency or any urgency to cross the road. Even found in many European countries, though hardly used by the locals.

Travel Tip No 3 - When in Dubai, cross the road only at the zebra-crossing. There are heavy fines (200 Dirhams) for crossing from anywhere else. Mind you there are CCTV cameras everywhere, plus their secret police roams in plain clothes and might catch you unawares. 

          The walk lasted for about three hours. We explored all the nearby shops. We checked out the prices of gift items, groceries, sports goods, but did not buy anything. It is advisable to keep the shopping for the last day as by that time you are well versed with the prices everywhere and more importantly you know how much forex remains with you.

Day 1 (Evening) - 

           Off to the first sight-seeing tour. Dhow cruise! A supposedly romantic cruise in the Dubai creek, overlooking the old and new Dubai. 
Old Dubai - Heritage village
The glitzy 'Dhows' - the word 'Dhow' was used for ships with one or two masts, mainly in the Arabian region.
         The cruise generally begins at 8.30 p.m and ends at around 10.30 p.m. Mostly managed by local Pakistanis, the cruise includes a belly dance show, magic show, and Tanoura dance show. Unfortunately for us, all this entertainment was missing as it was the eve of Eid and being a holy festival, it was a dry day in Dubai. A dry day in Dubai, it seems, is not just restricted to non-availability of alcohol but also of any kind of entertainment. 

        Dinner (included in the cruise bookings) is similar every time.
Starters - Mixed bhajji and dry Manchurian.
Main course - Salads, pasta/noodles, rice, dal, a veg gravy, bread/naan, a chicken dish 
Desserts - Bread pudding and mini cakes
Food is, as always, bland considering the different nationalities who are going to taste it for maybe the first time.

Travel Tip No 4 - UAE has only 3 main long holidays i.e. the 3 main Eids. Our holiday coincided with one of those - Bakri Eid. Hence, most of the attractions are either too crowded or closed. Make sure you plan accordingly. Thankfully for us, we did not miss anything as such except for the entertainment on Dhow cruise.

More of Dubai to come in the next blog in the series...
Till then, do leave your comments, questions and suggestions below!