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Sunday, October 15, 2017

Gadayi Kallu + KadamGundi Waterfalls + Ermai Falls



I get an itch from time to time - itch to go to the mountains, see the nature, away from people, away from city life, at a place where there is just the raw earth that was created centuries ago and I am exploring the place as is.  I had witnessed such moments on my India Hikes treks, during my solo travels in US national parks. But i had been away from these for a long time.  My itch was growing and I had to do something.

It is with this, I signed up for a trek to Gadayi Kallu with Summiters. Group travel is not my strong suite but I had no energy to plan a solo sojourn. I convinced Kanishka and Aarti to come along and the Gandhi Jayanti long weekend plan was set.

Summiters was chosen precisely because they do not go with bigger groups and they are picking up trails which are not very popular. A different trek was chosen earlier which was even less explored but rains had made that trek impossible. This was the 2nd option and I took it.

Day 0 -
We met at the KFC at Koramangala Sony Signal, on to a tempo traveller and drove though the night to reach our homestay next day morning.

Day 1 -
Our first experience for the tour starts with drinking Kashaya. Kashaya is a local herbal drink made of Jaggery and black pepper in hot water. Various other ingredients can be added to make it more flavorful but ours was the basic one. It is part medicinal and part coffee alternative. I drank it half heartedly knowing my lack of immunity.  The breakfast was served on banana leafs and the Katori Idlis were back.



Gadayi Kallu is a big hill that sits out of nowhere. It was also used as a fort (known as Jamalabad fort) as it offered natural advantages from a strategic defense point of view. The way to top has about 1876 stairs. The climb would have been decent but it had been raining through the week. Stairs were slippery with moss on them making it a moderately difficult climb. The views while the climb were beautiful




The top was green and we did not relax much as there was a threat of rain. The way down was even more treacherous. We practically climbed down by sitting on stairs one at a time. There was nothing to hold grip on.


We were back at homestay before 2:30 or 3 pm. We had a hearty lunch and then spent time idling around. In the evening, we went for a stroll to a nearby stream and then had boiled eggs on the way back to the homestay. Dinner was again rice and rasam/sambhar. It was getting little monotonous by now.   We slept in sleeping bags. Sleep came quickly to tired bodies. But before that, there was a game of poker with like minded folks.

Day 2
We shifted our homestay to a different one the next day. This other homestay had a 1KM walk on the road which also included crossing a shaky bamboo bridge over a stream.

Day 2 trek was to Kadamgundi waterfalls. It was an easier trek but along the way there are 8 streams to cross some of which had water till my knee height. Shoes were abandoned to make way for slippers.  These stream crossing add more thrill to this trail. The waterfall is gem of a discovery.  The trail was completely clean. Waterfall is surrounded by big rocks from three sides. Where the fall hits the floor, there is a nice bed of sand making it a delightful to stand soak in the water. There is also a rock to sit on and meditate here. We spent close to two hrs just enjoying the fall.








Day 3

The morning started with a visit to the local waterfall -Ermai falls. Ermai main falls was little deep so we did not venture down there. But closer to it, one of its tributaries was falling on a sequence of rocks. It was a little difficult climb but once under the fall it was pure bliss. Standing under the fall we were getting a good water massage



After the bath, we went to the first homestay to have a delicious breakfast of avlakki bath and then drove back home.


Good things about this trip was that most things happened on time. People were ready when asked to and with a smaller group it was a pretty manageable. We stopped near Hassan for lunch and had a fulfilling meal.  By the time we reached home it was dark and raining. This trip will be remembered for amazing waterfalls, bathing under them and decent short treks.





Sunday, September 10, 2017

Life in June 26 - Sept 10


2017 continues to be a year of short travel trips.  I do not think that there has been ever a year with this many short trips. And the year is not yet over. Between travel and people visiting, I have forgotten the concept of weekends for all practical matters.

Travel - 

- Trip to Chikamagalur with Office
It was a office party long awaited. After the Jan trip to Yercaud (if you do a short trip on the first week of the new year, it should be known that the year is going to be full of short trips). Entire bus ride both onward and backward was spent by playing Mafia. Our homestay - The hidden valley (the same one which I had recommended to everyone else except that I had never been there) was a good one. Quiet and serene with lots of greenery. Night was spent with barbeque and bonfire, with spirits and 'jahan chaar yaar' songs. Poor colleagues were sad to see my this side and I do not know if they have still come to terms with it yet.  Trip was good fun.


- Delhi and Varanasi trip
While Delhi was a trip that was required, I decided to club with the long pending Varanasi trip. While Delhi was part work, part other work and remaining family visits, it is fondly remembered as I got to meet Deepti didi and her family after a long time.
Varanasi was a town exactly I had imagined it to be. Like any temple town in India, it has more people (locals + tourists) that it can accommodate,  smaller  streets with numerous vehicles and a city that is looking for deep cleaning. Meeting Kanishka's parents and her home was definitely the best part along with the Ganga Aarti that we explored via a  kashti. Ganga Aarti is a an experience that is unique to Kashi only. The chaats were definitely delicious. The trip to Sarnath next day was ok. It was hot, humid and I was little tired.



- Independence Day Long weekend trip - Complete trip has been documented here - http://arvindbatra.blogspot.in/2017/09/independence-day-weekend-travel-2017.html



Movies - 

Arrival
I saw Arrival once again at home with Aarti. I think definitely, it is the best movie since Mad Max that I have seen. The second viewing was as much rewarding as the first one minus the IMAX experience. Definitely a 5/5

Hell or High water
3.5/5 - The opening scene builds the tension aptly and gives an idea on how rest of the movie is going to be . It is a good watch especially on a Sunday precariously saved to relax.

Freaky Ali
2.5/5 - A total masala movie to be watched with family. This is this era's David Dhawan film


Dunkirk
4/5 - Loved it. Loved the storytelling, score, screenplay and everything

Raag desh -
2/5 - Good idea, badly executed. Had good hopes from Thigmanshu Dhulia, did not at all rise up to the expectations.


Wonder woman -
4/5 - Neat action movie with Gal Gadot as the lead. Good addition to the super hero genre.



Books - 

Started David Foster Wallace's Infinite Jest and it will be some time before it finishes :)


Events - 

Attended couple of comedy shows by Bangalore comedy club. A bunch of startup comedians try out their jokes. Decent evening well spent with spirits and high spirits.

Halli Mane - A rainy breakfast trip to Halli Mane in Malleshwaram. A very good Kannadiga breakfast place. Sambhar is way better than Adigas, Idli not so much.

Family visits -

- Nani, Mama, Mani and Divya visited for a week.  Made the ISCKON style Dal Torkari at home.

- Cheshta, Arun bhaiya and babhi visited.



Independence day weekend travel - 2017


When Nitin and Parul ask you to join them for a trip, even if you have lots of work, you have to make time.  I learnt this the hard way after missing one last year. This time, I was not going to make it happen.

Nitin and Parul did the hard work of finding the accommodation. The route was set to be
Bangalore - Jog Falls - Murudeshwar (night stay) - Udupi - Kundapur (night stay) - Agumbe - Bangalore

Items to be carried were decided a week in advance. Planning was spotless.We were to leave on Sunday (13) early morning and  be back on Tuesday night (15th). It was a long weekend, so we wanted to beat the rush. And we wanted to have a long Sunday, so it was decided to leave Bangalore at 4 am. The initial plan was at 5 am but I along with Nitin were able to convince everybody to leave at 4.

Before I describe the trip in detail (it was again a case of near perfect itinerary), a note on traveling with friends.  When it comes to traveling with friends,  my views are in agreement with this article by Sidin Vadukut  - http://www.natgeotraveller.in/advice-on-travelling-with-friends-avoid-completely/
which basically says that avoid it. I have also been victim to such group travels in past and have arrived at a similar conclusion myself.  I think outside of family or office travel, a friends-only trip has happened after a long gap.  The biggest problem with friends travel is the time part. A day before everyone will agree that we should start the day early and I will be ready much before that time only to find people sleeping / with hangover / deciding to have a lazy morning as they are on travel. THe day goes downhill from there on when during lunch time, one person will insist to have Punjabi food as lunch  and we will ditch all the interesting local cuisines and find the only North Indian place in town. I have had numerous such incidents to have given up on this.

But with Parul and Nitin, who are probably more avid travelers than Kanishka and myself, it was not the case at all. 4 am meant 4 am. Our days started on a pre-arranged time and it was a trip where ROI of time spent was one of the highest.

Day 1 - 
We left Bangalore at 4 am and were already on the highway before sunrise.  Parul had carried her laptop with her amazing music collection. Along with her bluetooth speakers, the whole trip can also be called a musical journey as we were hardly without it.  Kanishka had prepared Paneer sandwich and cucumber-tomato sandwich - the kind which fills your heart and stomach at the same time. Nitin had already mapped out the route and the surprising bit was that he did not need Gmaps to navigate.

We took a breakfast break at Shivamogga at a small place which served good idli sambhar. From there on, we drove to Jog Falls.


The best part of of Jog falls was the climb down & up. You can reach the base of the waterfall by climbing down 1240 stairs. While the climd down itself makes your legs shake, the upward climb is something that stays with you. Kanishka & Parul decided to stay at about 400 stairs. Nitin and I went all the way down.
On the way up




The lunch post the climb was done at the local canteen at Jog Falls. We ate 'paad ke' after having earned the meal. It was a busy place but we managed to find a place and after a tad bit of wait, food arrived and it was gone in no time.

From Jog falls, we drove to Murudeshwar. The road was little curvy but quite green and well maintained. It was a good drive. Our stay at Murudeshwar was at RNS residency which is surrounded by sea on three sides. So, practically all rooms are sea facing :) . It seems that the entire town is owned by RNS along with a giant Shiv-statue temple.  Rooms were ok at RNS. The seaside salty breeze along with improper maintenance have taken a toll at the hotel.
Bunch of foreigners traveling from Mumbai to Chennai on Autos


Night view of the Shiv statue


We decided to head out for dinner to an open bar, owned by the owner's son. Half of the items on menu were not available as it was an off season per them. Beer was good along with the classic Dal Fry. We soon retired after the early dinner.


Day 2 

Day 2 morning started with visiting the temple next door. Temple was ok, not so clean when compared to other South Indian temples. Inside each temple, along side God's statue, there was a framed photo of the owner - he is practically the God of that town. After the mandir darshan, on Kanishka's insistence, we decided to check out the beach. The left beach had too many people (even at 6 am in the morning), so we decided to go to the right side where fisherman were preparing their boats to start they work-day.


After crossing over few crabs and fish-stench, we were on a cleaner beach. This beach by-far has been my best beach so far on this side of India. The waves very so soft, we could walk 100 steps and yet water was only till knees.  In no time I decided to take full dips here and at this time, there was heardly any humidity and water was at a perfect temperature. This was awesome.



Post breakfast at the hotel, we were ready and all packed to drive down to Udupi with a stop over at Marvanthe . The plan was to stop at Marvanthe and spend the day next to the ocean just lazying around which is what we did. We stopped at Justa resort (Again Nitin had prior knowledge of it) which had all facilities including changing rooms, and beach accessories. We played ball next to the ocean.

The ocean here was rough with beach covered by small stones. It did hurt a little bit but the ocean-calling was stronger. Kanishka as usual was at the forefront on being inside the ocean. She had to maximize her ocean-time here. 




Post this, we had a heftly lunch with beer and drove down to Udupi. It was the day before the Krishna Janmashtmi and Udupi is famous for its Krishna temple. While walking the streets to Udupi, we serendipitously went to the Coin museum despite its closing time. The museum and its caretaker is wonderful and a must-do activity there. We were given a short tour but we longed for more

At Udupi, we first went to a wrong temple thinking it to be the Krishna temple. Kanishka corrected us and then at the actual Krishna temple, the queue was quite longer, so we decided to skip it. Parul and Nitin were able to get a back door entry and I was completely ok resting outside and enjoying the laddoos which frankly were not as good as the ISKCON ones. We also went to a Gaushala there and fed the cows.





The main attraction was to have the Anna Prasadam (langar like dinner) . For some reason, I had high expectation and expected a full course meal along with sweets. But it was a normal food and the expectation mismatch led to a little disappointment, given that Udupi had some amazing eateries to try. However, as an experience, it was pretty good. The fact that 600 people are fed every 20-25 mins mins is something that needs to be learnt to see how things work at scale.




From Udupi, we drove up to Kundapur to Meredian Resorts. The resort is little interior but it is truly a 5-star property. The property is huge with swimming pool, amphitheatre, tennis courts, golf-kart rides. Rooms were very fancy and lavish.  It was pure luxury, we were getting pampered and the best part was that we got this rooms at INR 1400 per room per night. We were glad that we came later here, because had we come earlier, we would not have left it. There was a temptation to stay a day more here but I had to get back. So, I was the spoilsport.


Day 3
We left at around 7:30ish without breakfast. It was independence day, so we took a quick stop and hoisted a flag on our car. Patriotic people we are.




Our breakfast stop was at this little place before Agumbe called Sri Satyanarayan (Thanks to this blog - https://ajayananth.wordpress.com/tag/agumbe-ghat/ ) Run by a family, the breakfast was fresh, hot and delicious. Mangalore buns were the best. An amazing discovery and undoubtedly the best meal of the trip.




Our stay at Agumbe was short as we did not have much time for trekking. We took a pit stop a view point and then explored the  place where Malgudi days was shot. We were done pretty quickly from both the places.




On the way back to Bangalore, we stopped at Sringeri and visited the Shankaracharya temple there. We sat for the 3D-video show which is not that well made but the images of Shankaracharya and his life are pretty well done. Temple architecture is very good.  We had a big difficulty in finding a good lunch place as practically all of them were serving only Rice-Sambhar-Rasam, a combination that we had last night only. We finally stopped at a cafe which only had omlette left.


After a late lunch, we just drove back to Bangalore. It rained intensely on the drive back yet it was fun. Overall, a very packed and enjoyable trip. It had everything - short trek at Jog falls, ocean dipping with beach games, temple visits, lavish resorts and some awesome food stops.

Sunday, June 25, 2017

Life in 2017 - Jan 1 - June 25 2017


Rebooting this long lost thread. Documenting interesting and memorable experiences that happened so far in 2017.

Travel -

- Travel to Pollachi, Kerala. Weekend of April 28-29
Kanishka and me on  small two day trip to attend Sam's younger brother's marriage. Very hot weather. But trip highlight was the Prime in Ola cab. Watched Vicky Donor in an AC car while driving on a decent road. Stopped at a temple near coimbatore and had delicious bhajjis. Wedding was good with lots of food as usual :)
Pics coming soon

- Cochin trip, May 13-14 weekend
Nani's 80th birthday celebration attended by all cousins, kids, grandkids and you name it. A grand celebration full of awesome family social celebrations. Seeing all cousins together after a long time had a lot of nostalgic quotient.  Fun time too in the pool. Kerala food is always yum. Lots of pics.


- Ooty trip, 26-28 May.
All 5 of us head to Ooty to run the Great Heritage Run at Ooty. I did 15K, Kanishka And Aarti did 10k. The trail is very very good. It is practically a trek for the first 5 kms, going through the forest downhill and then coming back up. The remaining 10K is along the slopes of hills, always uphill or downhill but scenic nonetheless. I must have ran for the first 10K and walked back the remaining. But a fantastic running route and definitely an excellent trail to run (actually walk). The trail requires its own race report :)
Outside of this, we did the tea tasting by the awesome Sandeep from tranquilitea, lots of pics at his tea estate.  We also went for boating at  Pykara lake and a short hike to needlepoint view point. Both are pretty good.

- Goa, 22-16 Jan, 2017
Anniversary trip with Kanishka. This also deserves its own blog post as we practically had a near idal itinerary for a 3 day trip. We went to Agonda beach, a spice farm and a casino stay. We won close to 24K profit at the Deltin casino. The spice farm was a great experience. Agonda beach is very clean and a relaxing place.
Gia Pics here


- Yercaud - Jan 3-4, 2017
With the Events High team. We had a terrific NYE season of 2016-2017 season. Wanted to celebrate with the team. Went to this little rascal homestay which was quirky in its own way. Board games, barbeque, games dominated the trip
All EH pics here


Mangalore - 18-19 March weekend
With the Gang of 5. Overnight train on Friday nights lands you in the morning at Mangalore. We stayed at summer sands a beach resort. Practically, the entire weekend was spent in either at the beach side or in the decently maintained swimming pool.  Met Chinky as well. Couple of board games. A very relaxing weekend.
Mangalore pics here 
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Interesting Activities -

- Joined Nisha Millets swimming academy for 2 consecutive batches. Attended one batch properly with being able to swim from one end to another in one go. Second batch was a waste as i was down with neck pain.

- Had a sprain in my left hand for couple of weeks. Had to wear a cover to prevent improper movement.

- Joined Cult for a 3 month period but that was largely a waste of time as  attended very few classes.

- Joined Healthify me and that has been good. Lot 6 kgs in last 3 months.

- Went to Escape Room with Events High. Attempted to solve a puzzle but over engineered it. A good experience nonetheless.


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Books -

- Neuromancer by William Gibson
The book that talks about Matrix, Artificial intelligence and many other constructs all too in 1980s. A very difficult read. Took me 3 months to finish it. Had to re-read several paras to understand what is being told. But turns out, I was not the only one; internet had similar opinion.  A fascinating read and a truly Been there done that.


- The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman
A very light read; good fiction. Definitely had lot of interesting things going on with full of imagination. A beach read kind of a book.


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Movies -
Have watched quite a few. Sharing the interesting ones here -

Manchester by the Sea - 4.5/5
A very very good drama film with very nuanced screenplay and a perfectly unsentimental sentimental performance. Must watch.

Moonlight - 3.5/5
Interesting film which explores idea around things that we typically do not witness.

Silence - 3/5
Very grand in vision, lots of small things covered. But performance if okay-ish. Full marks on attempt but not a movie to be re-watched.

La La Land - 3.5/5
Hollywood has to try hard to impression Indians with musicals. Interesting take with lots of innovations and a good rom-com in the end :)

Arrival - 5/5
In awe of the film. Really well done in terms of concept, cinematography and how the movie plays out. Loved it end to end.

Jackie -
Not a good idea to go for such a heavy movie for a 10pm show. Slept through it mid-way.

Guardians of the galaxy, vol-2 - 4/5
Loved it. My kind of awesome masala. Awesome music, great jokes, lovable characters . Little bit of too much CGI in the end but otherwise a great film.


Fault in our starts - 3/5
A rom-com from start to finish. Well acted but very cliched. Liked the mushy mushy feeling that is is able to provoke so easily.


Bahuballi - 1.5/5
Over the top effects, laughable many a times. Decent cinematic action at times. Lots of hype around it.

Chasing Ice - 4.5/5
A documentary on capturing the effects of Global warming. Loved it. Such a brilliant idea and executed very well. Must watch for environmental reasons.

The Salesman - 4/5
Again, an awesome drama film from the director of A Separation. Plays out brilliantly. Highly recommended.

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Other interesting -

House of Cards - Season 1-3, 3/5
Brilliant in parts, drag in other times. Acting is brilliant but there is only so much that you can root for the bad guy. Ultimately, the good guy has to win sometimes.


Sakharam's Binder  by Theatre on your own.  - 5/5
I have loved all of TOYO's performances. They bring out the subject matter in the front with minimalistic props and great performances. Highly highly recommended.


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Sunday, September 18, 2016

2016 movies so far

Apart from cooking and running, one of my favorite destresser is watching movies. A good movie just makes you forget everything. It has been little difficult to make time out for movies but in between, I did manage to catch a few and some of them have simply been amazing.


Spotlight -
Aah spotlight!  Tom McCarthy's Spotlight is one of the best movies of this year. A behind the scenes take on Boston Globe's expose of how priests where sexually abusing young children, Spotlight makes one feel back in love with the process of journalism.

There is a scene in Spotlight which just moved me. As the journalists are unraveling this mystery, they are all shocked to hear that even their local churches are involved in this. Since the complete depth is not clear, they can not confide with any of their friends outside work. And when 9/11 happens, they have to further wait before they publish. In one such waiting moments, Mark Ruffalo reveals heart broken he is. He had a religious upbringing but with youth he became agnostic. He had stopped going to church. But even with his skepticism, he believed that there could be a day when he may start believing again, he had hoped that church may offer him some solace. But this story has killed the dream and he can no longer respect that institution after what the team has uncovered.

Spotlight is very beautifully written, acted and directed. It has got to be the best movie for me this year.


Sully -
Sully, directed by Clint Eastwood, is a dramatic retelling of the real life incident in which a Capt Sullenberger successfully managed to land an airplane on Hudson river with no casualties. It was called "miracle on the Hudson". I was there in US when it happened. I remember hearing about the story but did not view it to be a miracle. I was too busy to worry about miracles then :)
The movie follows up here and explores the aftermath of this, in particular, an investigation by the NTSP, on whether the plane could have gone to land at a nearby airport. In a typical Clint style, the movie has an easy pace, great acting and lot of patriotic fervor to it. It is a human emotional drama told in a style that is getting old, yet it is a delight to watch.
The only problem with Sully - the film comes after the movie when upon research it is learnt that the investigation as told in the film never happened. It is a let-down. It is ok to take artistic liberties but to falsification at this level takes some glean out of it.


Pink
Pink is the movie of our times. There are very few movies that depict the society we live in, very few that can capture the imagination of a country, especially its urban middle class. Queen, Jhankar Beats, Khosla Ka Ghosla, A Wednesday has done so in past.  Movies like Dil Chahta Hai or even Rang De Basanti do not fall in this genre, because even they do try to attempt our society, the Bollywoodization is too much for us to relate to them. On top of it, Pink is a legal drama, a genre for which I have a weak spot.
Pink is a movie about three girls who are molested at a Surajkund resort. They escape after one of them breaks a whiskey bottle on one of the perpetrators. The perpetrators intimidate these girls, the girls file a molestation complaint and in retaliation the perpetrators file an attempt to murder case. What follows is a legal drama.  But the underlying context is how our society views women, how we judge them and finally what is the meaning of consent.
The first half of the movie is very taut, like a noir with an edge-of-a-seat thrill.  Without revealing the original incident, it is beautifully left to our imagination and the intimidation, even though is quite simple, manages to touch a raw chord.  Till the first half, it could have easily been an Anurag Kashyap movie. With the difference that in a Kashyap cinema, things go further downhill, but in this one, we get the regular cliches to make it an happy ending cinema. Despite this, the social commentary and the hard straight dialogues makes it a movie that we have been waiting from Bollywood.  The industry has to grow and this movie is showing a way.


Udta Punjab
I loved it! Yes, the ending is far too much contrived for the first 75% of the movie but the first three quarters is so good that I don't care. Basing on the drug menace in Punjab,  Udta Punjab got into spotlight because of censor board recommending many cuts. The courts provided some sanity and the movie was released with just one cut.
Udta Punjab has many many flaws, the whole Kareena Kapoor arc is far fetched but it is still a special film. I have wondered why? I was instantly happy and ready to overlook so many things. Why this movie works while others don't?  The answer lies in the tone of this film. Boosted by its soundtrack, the background score, and the genuine human absurdity replete in this case, it just keeps you engaged. Subconsciously, one is aware that the underlying drug problem is very real and the movie's second sequence establishes it very convincingly. The four fictional story lines are a refreshing change and avoid the common tropes. The music has definitely grown on after the film.  This is good cinema, dark and serious but much needed.



Masaan
It takes heart to watch Masaan. I waited for a year to finally put the dvd in my DVD player. I was not ready for the film. I knew that watching the film is going to be a stressful experience. So, one Sunday, after a good sleep, healthy breakfast and sleep, we put it on. It is exactly how I anticipated but loved it.
Masaan is a story of 4-5 different people living in Varanasi. It is as much their story as it is the story of Varanasi. The characters in film personify the city - a crumbling, sadistic, cynical city. The best sequence of Masaan is the falling in love sequence. How does one fall in love with small towns where main line of work is to burn bodies after death? How friends influence and how a  mela is the place to be. Plus the amazing lyrics and sound track of this film makes it a delight to watch. Richa Chaddha gives a tour-de-force. Her performance really fills the screen. Pankaj Tripathy fights for his screen presence and is able to pull it off in a manner that only he can do so.  Sanjay Mishra is at home here and newcomers pull it off very well. Overall, Masaan is not an easy film to watch. But once it gets going, it is not that difficult either. A million other things could have gone wrong but they don't.  It is definitely part of the new-age Art cinema of India.



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Mr. Smith Goes to Washington
Now, that is what I call a perfect family entertainer. We watched if when my dad was ill and we were looking for a light hearted movie that all of us can enjoy. A black & white movie, that too on politics but MSGW is an endearing effort, not enough for a one time watch.
Based on a fillibuster, MSGW is a lovely film. Played with heart by James Stewart, MSGW is a story how a rookie Mr. Smith gets nominated to the house of Congress. Naive and completely unfamiliar with the inner workings of Congress, he decides to pass a law to build camp for scouts only to realize that the space is earmarked by a corrupt businessman for his personal gains. It is a classic good vs evil movie, pure heart vs greed and MSGW is an out and out feel goodness that one seeks from cinema.



Shop Around the Corner
James Stewart again. Who knew that the cute and lovely You've got Mail is actually a remake of an equally lovely and affable film - Shop Around the Corner. Given that SAC came before You've got Mail, it is a truly remarkable script.



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Other decent ones to watch - Nil Battey Sannata. Jungle Book. BFG
Did not like/Hated it - Dhanak, Captain America - Civil War.




Monday, August 15, 2016

Kanishka & Arvind's Vietnam Visit - Feb 2016


I will begin with an admission - There is a certain charm in blogging about a trip 6 months after it has happened. You get to revisit it once again - through pics, emails and locked memories. Presently, I am sitting at Cafe Mondo, taking a break on our Independence day and documenting our trip to Vietnam.


Why Vietnam? 
It is an intriguing question. Most of my trips typically have no rationale other than the one reason - it will be nice to explore this place. In Vietnam too, that was the majoritarian reason. But subconsciously, I wanted to explore another developing country in Asia.  Vietnam has a very interesting history due to the US invasion in 1970s and i wanted to see how a country copes out of such an experience. Also, in my mind, I had always visualized that Vietnam will be better than Thailand or Malaysia, as in less touristy and more virgin.
There is another backstory to this one. Actually, we had wanted to go to Vietnam as part of our honeymoon but it had to be cancelled because my passport was close to expiry. Hence, it was on the bucket list.


Trip preparation
TripAdvisor is my go-to guide for trip planning. My logic is very simple -  Find a good hotel, find a good tour operator and book travel tickets. Beyond this i never plan. It did not took us long to zero down on Zoom Zoom Vietnam travel - http://zoomzoomtravelvn.com . Her website images had raised our hopes considerably and we quickly got on a Skype call with her. Choosing which itinerary out of the many options listed on her wesbite was a little challenge but we quickly zeroed on to Sapa and these images of Tam Coc made us difficult to look elsewhere.
As luck would have it, I had also read that world's longest cable car system is coming at Sapa and it is going to be operational by the time we reach there. So, that was also added to the bucket list. Online money transfer from India to Vietnam became a challenge. Vietnam is not a popular tourist destinaion from India and after couple of visits to Western Union, we finally requested Zoom to trust us and we will pay her when we land there. She agreed.
We booked Hanoi Guest House Royal hotel, it looked decent and it had great ratings on TA. It was also next to the  main market which anyways we wanted to visit. I had looked at homestays/airbnb but it was difficult to figure out which one to book.


Day 1
The flight was ok. There was a stop-over at Kuala Lumpur. I did not find anything fascinating about the airport. There was Starbucks there which became the defacto place to pass the time.

The first thing that hit us when we landed in Vietnam was that it is basically India but with a language barrier (for us). We were foreigners in this country and just like how we treat foreigners in our country, we started getting the same treatment. To begin with, they wanted to extract more money from us at every possibility. You have to haggle and question everything which is kind of problematic when there is a language barrier. Our taxi driver was charging extra and was feigning complete ignorance of English. I had to speak with his owner who convinced me of this extra charge which we were eventually able to save thanks to the good concierge of our hotel who quickly said no the driver in local language. (Choosing a good hotel makes takes care of half of your travel worries). But this was a good wake up call and lesson was learnt.

The second thing about Vietnam is the currency conversion. Vietnam's currency has completely melted so everything is in thousands there. The way math works is that 3000 Vietnam dong is 1 USD which is 70 Rupees. Anyways, we had converted INR-USD from India, and at Ha Noi airport we did USD to VND (Vietnamese Dong), so we had anyways paid the conversion price twice.  And now, we had to apply this tricky multiplication in our head every time to understand how much an item will cost in INR. That was fun and challenging.  In terms of standard of living, when compared to India, food et al is definitely more expensive while other items such as clothing is cheaper.

The hotel welcomed us with a nice glass of fresh juice and rice crispies which tasted heavenly. We got 3 packs of that same brand rice crispies back to India, this is after spending 2 hrs hunting the store that will sell the exact same brand. We had tried other variations but they were not that good :)  Hotel was placed at a very strategic location. It had good access and a common landmark point.


Our Day 1 was hectic. We were starving, so the first thing we did was to get some food. Just one block away, there was a great restaurant which served a tofu sandwich was the best meal for me in this trip.  We had already booked a local food tour followed by a puppet show and then we also had to meet Zoom to pay her advance for our travel planning.  Our next day was visit to Tam coc




The local city food tour was not the best. We had two tour guides, one was learning from the other. It seems food tours are good for folks who are non-vegetarians. Our bellies were already full because of late lunch. Plus, the concept of typical Vietnamese food is little strange for us, which i will get to later. Walking the local market was fun. There are hundreds of small road-side cafes where people sit on small sized stools and have alcohol or coffee. In evening, it seems the entire young generation of town is there and sometimes, it is even difficult to step foot in the market.

We met Zoom and she was a great person who had studied in Alaska and she had a great passion for country side. It was infectious. We knew we were in good hands. The food tour was actually a tragic waste, it was very expensive and we felt that the tour guides were very lazy in showing us around.  There is also something called Egg yolk coffee which is a local delicacy which part of the tour but we ditched it. The puppet show was decent but not extraordinary. It is one-time watch but there will not be any regret if it is missed.

We walked back from the puppet show. Our mobiles phones were dead out of battery, so we navigated using a physical map which was fun. Now, coming back to Ha noi.  With so many people. the market is just like an old Indian market like Chandni chowk. Old buildings in crumbling condition are there everywhere, almost everything is available to buy, lot of fake items with original branding,  small shops, small alleys. But with some key differences such as even with this big population, the streets were still decently clean and there was a much better sense of lane discipline.  It also felt safer to walk, shops were open till late at night, people hung out at cafes, music going on.


Day 2
Day 2's  plan was to visit Tam Coc with Zoom. The moment you get out of the city, Ha noi's countryside is just like ours - fields and fields of rice. Theirs is also a heavy agrarian economy. The national highways was also similar to ours, little better planned as they had notion of exits, likely inspired by US system.  First thing that we did was a boat ride that went through three caves. We were quite early so there was nobody else there. Our boat was rowed by a lady and she did so using her legs.






After the boat ride we had a giant lunch followed by a walk where in we went into the paddy fields.  It was interesting. Post that, we climbed the Ngu Han Songh mountain. Tam Coc is known to be an inland Halong Bay but this was not the best time to visit. We had anticipated







But what we got was

The yellow color comes when the rice is flowering. When we had gone, rice was being sown hence, it was all brown. Zoom had mentioned this to us when we were planning the trip with her but we were not able to understand her argument. Anyways, the trek to top was good. We were happy. It was a good start of the trip. Vast open country side without much population was a very welcome change and we enjoyed every bit of nature.




Zoom took us to a pure-vegetarian restaurant for dinner.  It is at this dinner that I understood the real meaning of Vietnamese food. Vietnamese food is basically food meant for survival. A good diet should have carbs, fat, fibre, minerals and proteins. That is how Vietnamese have food. There is no notion of pulses or spices. For carbs, there is rice. For protein, there is either egg or Tofu, for vitamins and minerals, there is boiled green leaves. If you want some flavor, there is soya sauce. At this meal, we finished our side dishes before rice came and then finally had rice with soya sauce. 
Their Pho which is Noodle soup also represents the same combination. Noodles are made of rice which is the carb, veggies, green leaves provide the fibre/vitamins and they add some protein to it. Mixed with water to gulp it down. 


Our Day 2 ended with a train to Lao Cai (next to Sapa) It was an overnight train. Train travel is one of my favorite memories for this trip. It is at train travel, train stations, train compartments where this small developing country has totally leapt miles compared to us. To start with, their platforms are incredibly clean. They have no vendors except one or two which i believe are licensed by government. People without tickets are not allowed to enter platforms.  Their trains have toilets which are bio degradable and their compartment is brilliant. Ours was an AC compartment where in they provided clean comforters (not blankets) , pillows and clean sheets with a dustbin and flowers. I was totally blown by this. 




Day 3
Day 3 started very early as our train reached Lao Cai at 5 am. From Lao Cai to Sapa, we took a shared tempo which was ok. It was cold and chilly but enjoyable weather. Sapa is a hill station in true sense. When we reached Sapa, it was raining mildly and everything was covered in mist. Our guide Sanj was there to pick up where he took us to a fancy buffet breakfast place which had a fireplace with burning wood. We just went and took the nearest table and had our breakfast. Food was ok.  Kanishka bought a thicker jacket and gloves to take care of cold weather. And post that, we were all set for our trek. Our destination was a village homestay after 15 kms of trek, the idea was to experience how a Vietnamese village looks like and how people live here.  

Sapa trek is filled of terrace farming views. In the right season, all slopes are yellow and beautiful but it was brown when we went. To top it, it was raining and mist had covered most of our views. It was Go-chala all over again for me. The trail was little uphill but simple. Our lunch was bad as the dhaba (it was not a restaurant) ran out of veg food because of too many tourists. Unfortunately for us, tt was the only dhaba in the entire trail. 



Even though the weather was a little downer, there is still a lot of charm in walking through mistly trails. It is very mystic and a calming experience, full of introspection. Along the way, we even stopped for shopping and bought some amazing table cloths and stoles. We had a 4 kg extra stuff to carry now. For the last hr or so, something snapped in my legs and my knees were paining. The pain went from bearable to horrible after 90 mins of walking. Reaching the home stay was definitely a relief.
I was not prepared for the rustic aspect of this homestay. My biggest surprise was that the walls had giant holes. It was a wooden homestay which the owners had built it themselves. They were a well to do group in this area, they had a stove to cook food . They had their own farm and were in the process of building a good fence around it. 

We were tired of walking the whole day and that too with no bath since morning. We were cold. We were also hungry after that bad lunch. Upon reaching there, we asked for a bath and they said that it will be provided after some time. With language as a barrier, my attempts to understand after how much time, were futile. We went along. After some time, they served us Garlic fries which was finger licking delicious and I write this not because we were hungry. It was one of the best garlic fries that I have had in my life. We were joined by a traveller from Australia, a retired man, who had decided to trek alone while his family and friends were in city. He had been to Vietnam many times and had good stories to tell. Good company and garlic fries suddenly made the evening better. But the best was yet to come. 

After some time, they told that they had arranged for a herbal bath. I had a puzzled look on what is an herbal bath exactly. A Sapa herbal bath is hot water mixed with some minerals in a big wooden can. Like the wooden cans you see in Western Hollywood movies. At first, i was intrigued on how I would squeeze into this wooden can. Our homestay owner lady has mixed it well and told that it was ready. I jumped in. I can't explain exactly how it worked but it was heavenly. I stayed there till water became lukewarm and in those 15-20 mins all exhaustion from the body seemed to go away. We were new souls in new bodies. There are some experiences in travel which takes the wind out of you, in a good way, and this was one of them. It was too good. I still remember that feeling. When we came out, it was pitch dark. We trekked our back to the homestay. We were nimble, energetic. 


What followed was even better. It was a sumptuous meal which we had with the entire host family and the Australian tourist. The lady owner was an excellent cook. Even though it was still the same carbs, proteins, vitamins, it tasted better. Or maybe it was herbal bath that made us like it. 

Day 4
We had rice pancakes for breakfast with coffee and left early. All exhaustion was gone. The nagging pain in my right knee continued but i had to carry on. It had rained during the night and hence the entire trail was sludgy. We walked for about 6 hrs and after that we were picked up by a cab. Day 2  was even more misty and devoid of any views. It was getting comical when our guide would stop at certain points and say - If there was no mist, this would be a lovely view point. 

Fansipan is the tallest peak of Sapa, it is a strenuous trek to go up there and people who have trekked up had great memories about it. Trekkers suffer the pain of climbing up but the views from top is what remains when they come back. It is an experience to trek up there, something of an accomplishment. All that was made easy for lazy bums like us by a newly opened cable car system that happened to be the world's longest cable car system. I had read about it and had decided to put it in our itinerary. That is why we had an early breakfast and left early.  We were a little worried as it was all misty but the operators said that it is all clear at the top. The tickets were quite expensive, 40$ per person. But given that we were there, it had to be done. 



We could see the altitude, how much hard work it would be for trekkers. But we were shameless. We enjoyed every bit of the peak. After Fansipan, we had a great lunch in which we tried a sizzler like dish which was prepared on our table. This was an experience on its own. Post that, we did local shopping and took the tempo back to Lao Cai. Local shopping was an interesting experience. We went to a market where some 50 old ladies stitch traditional clothes. And they had an eye for a customer, all of them pounced on us as we approached them.  From Lao Cai we boarded an overnight train to Ha Noi.  The train experience again was awesome!




Day 5
We checked into the same Hanoi Guest House Royal Hotel upon reaching Ha Noi. To avoid any haggle issues, we even booked a pick up from them. This was 5 am. Even though our check in time was 11 am, they were gracious enough to give us a room in morning. We took some rest. Today's plan was to visit Halong Bay. Our bus + cruise was already booked, again via Zoom :)


Ha Long bay, as I learned upon reaching there, is a UNESCO heritage site and one of the new seven wonders of the world. It is unique as you can see big giant mountains rising on top of sea.  The cruise had people from Phillipines, Australia and Malaysia.  For the developed country foreigners, the bus ride was scariest as they were not used to lane-less driving style. It was an adventure ride for them. We were totally comfortable with it. While Ha Long bay is definitely beautiful, the cruz definitely looked very touristy to us. This is after we had trekked for 3 days and lived in a wooden home stay whose walls had holes :)



But the surprising feature of Ha Long bay is not these mountains but giant caves. The caves are indeed jaw dropping. You feel nature as you enter them, feel those lines as passage of time. You feel their solitude, hear the sound of waves crashing against them.  The caves made up for everything in the cruise trip. 

There are even bigger caves if you go further down and the best way to experience Halong bay is to take an atleast 3 day cruise. We did not had that much time but were satisfied with what we saw. Day 5 evening's plan was set on day 1 when we had stumbled upon an old temple and there was a poster there which said that there would be a concert of some rare and ancient Vietnamese music on Day 5. Upon coming back, we quickly rushed to this concert. Day 5 was Friday and the entire market was in a festive mood.  The ancient music concert was little too heavy for us (not to mention expensive - who says it does not cost money to support art).  Or it may be that after a train ride, a bus ride, a cruise, my capacity to understand anything was gone. 

After the concert, we went and explored the weekly night market that goes up to 1 am. It had all kinds of chinese items being sold there along with few Vietnamese local ones. We walked and came to our hotel, dead exhausted but after a good day of travel.  

Day 6
The plan of day 6 was to do local Ha Noi sightseeing. We started by going to Vietnamese museum of Ethnology. Museums is another class where Vietnam totally outshines us. This museum was brilliant both in its content and maintenance. They had documented history of some 53 odd local tribes of Vietnam along with their customs. This is a must visit. We spent 3 hrs in this museum and we felt it was  a rushed visit. 


After a high of first museum, we went to temple of literature. This was basically an ancient university which was taught in a gurukul like manner. Since this was a weekend, it was also quite busy and was overall decent.  After this, we went for a lunch at Cafe Koto. Cafe KOTO is an interesting experiment as it is actually an NGO. Not only they serve excellent food, but all servers come from a backward background and KOTO helps them. KOTO accepts donations and is fully packed which is to say something as it has four floors of seating. 


After lunch, we went to see the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum. At this point, I would like to reflect on the political side of Vietnam. Vietnam was a communist country and it still is one, even though most of the countries have adopted capitalism. It meant Vietnam has to answer interesting political questions when it participates in global trade and how they survive the ills of communism. In certain cases, they have been able to get around it using something called Ho Chi Minh doctrine which is similar to the spirit of Ho Chi Minh laws instead of their literal meaning. At the same time, corruption is quite rampant and favors those who are in power.  I didn't go much in detail but it will be a fascinating non-fiction read.





After visiting Ho Chi Minh mausoleum, we decided to call it a day and returned back to our hotel. While we had meant to enjoy a walk in the bazaar, it was crowded beyond measure. All cafes were full with people even sitting on the street. It was quite difficult to walk. We had to buy a new airbag to fit our extra shopping. Vietnamese clothes are quite good in quality and very cheap. OAur shop next to our hotel had a few shirts that i had once bought in US and had liked them. So in between, we had gone there and shopped a lot. We also went for a hunt our favorite brand of rice crispies in the night!

Day 7
The last day. We had 2 hrs of time before heading to airport. We could have gone to an ancient temple or a women's museum or other historical places. But instead we decided to visit Cafe Always which is a cafe based on Harry Potter theme :)


We ordered something at the cafe that was quite bad but it was nice to see this craze of Harry Potter at Ha noi. They had wands and brooms and other accessories. On the way back, we roamed more into Kuala Lumpur and tried samosas there. They were ok.


Lastly, Ha Noi is northern part of Vietnam. In the 70s, when there was war, It was essentially a north vs south war where northerners were victorious. As we know history is always written from the perspective of victors. You could see a sense of pride, a sense of superiority amongst the northeners. Southern climate also tends to be litter warmer, hence they all say that prefer the northern side. 

It is a fair question to ask on whether it makes sense to travel countryside of another developing nation when you have not given due justice to visiting your own country's countryside.   Many people have asked me whether I would recommend Vietnam? What is so special about this?

To all these questions, I think my answer is both yes & no. To many of my friends, I would not recommend Vietnam, to few I would. We had a great time.  We had a very memorable experience. But it is very important to understand reasons behind why you travel. If you travel just to enjoy nature or just to get away from city life or to see new things, such as what you get in developed nations or if you want great beaches, lavish lifestyles, relaxed vacation, then Vietnam is not an ideal trip for you. But if you want a little bit of everything, a different perspective of how other developing nations have evolved, get some context on how two countries with similar background have shaped up differently, enjoy nature, different cultures, then this is a great experience.  Vietnam's economy has also grown at the same pace as us and many feel that with a growing economy, it is brining corruption, killing the countryside and making people more money minded. It is a story very similar to ours.  It is interesting to observe how human beings think similarly even though our backgrounds are completely different. 

Our itinerary was also an highly unusual one as well. We mixed touristy places along with treks to countryside, museums and market walks, it had lot of variations and it was all planned like that. We got a lot of different flavors to this country.  Even in US, you never get a feeling of a foreigner because language is not the barrier. But here, you feel it and you get it in a royal way.  While many a times the food sucked, when it was good, it was extremely good. Also, there are many reasons to crib about this country, but still people identify with this place, there is a sense of nation-hood which is slowly evaporating from our culture. 

Overall, i feel that it is an effort to like Vietnam, it does not come naturally. But as I look back, especially after 6 months, I feel that this kind of experience is better than a trip to another US national park or Europe. While those will make me feel better, I know that this one will stay with me longer.