Sunday, 19 October 2014

Home Stays – Why Travellers Love Them

A bit of ‘homeyness’ isn’t a bad idea when you are away from home, isn’t it? Home stays give you that exclusive quality of travel – the personal touch, the warmth and the real experiences. After staying at quite a few of them, I don’t even want to imagine staying in a characterless hotel room with an indifferent staff.


One of the home stays that I discovered in Sikkim was Daragaon Village Retreat (Darap Village), which is run by a Gurung family. They are simple and sweet people, who ensure that each guest is treated nicely and given the best possible Sikkimese experiences.



The Gurungs were hesitant to host me. 
         
Initially, the hosts at Daragaon Village Retreat thought that their basic, rural and non-luxurious home stay would not please a traveller like me. I told them that my only concern was hygiene and nothing else mattered to me. Even while escorting me to my room, the girl at the retreat said, “It’s not that great.” On the contrary, I was quite happy with my room and the amenities provided. I got just what I needed – nice and clean bed, spacious room, and not to forget a well-equipped bathroom, which was not just clean but had toilet paper as well. I couldn’t believe that a modest village home stay could be so perfect.

Later, when I told Mr Shiva Gurung about how much I liked his home stay, he was deeply pleased. And, he further told me that they trained each and every family member on the etiquettes and the hygiene needed for guests.


So, why should you choose HOME STAYS over other accommodation options -

Home-cooked local food is served.

At home stays, food is usually included in your stay, so you don’t have to worry about paying for your meals separately. The best part is that they serve you their own local cuisine, which is home-cooked and organically produced. At Daragaon, I relished the delicious hand-made pasta made with the local wheat.   


Warm hospitality is the very essence of a home stay.

Who doesn’t like to be treated warmly? Home stays pour out an extra dose of hospitality upon their guests. However, they don’t get over-friendly with any guest. They maintain the necessary distance. No guest’s privacy is disturbed in any manner. You are free to do anything and relax at your own pace. There is genial friendliness, respect and care that you can expect from your home-stay hosts.


There is scope for insightful conversations.

A travel experience becomes richer with conversations. That’s exactly what you get at home stays. Since your hosts are the locals of that place, they tend to share a lot of interesting stuff about their culture and the general way of life.


Better cleanliness is maintained.

As I mentioned earlier, my room and the bathroom were so well arranged at Daragaon that I couldn’t have asked for more. Home stays maintain a high level of cleanliness, and if in case there is something that you need according to your own preference, they are always ready to do the needful.


Home stays help you connect with the place deeply.

Staying at a home stay gives a feeling of being hosted by a local, which instantly connects you with the place. Even if you just relax or take a stroll in the lawn, you get to absorb so much.   


You can have authentic experiences.

It’s my favourite part. At Daragaon, they arrange bonfires and other rural activities for guests, such as fishing, milking the cows, etc. I enjoyed their local beverage Tongba, which is made from fermented millets. It is a protein-rich drink and can hit you if had too much!



Home stays are safe.

Lastly, you can be rest assured that you are staying with a family. You can interact with the lady of the house, see how she cooks, eat with the family and sleep in peace knowing that your safety is also your hosts’ concern.

Would you prefer home stays over hotels? Is Daragaon Village Retreat your kind of a place to stay?
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Thursday, 16 October 2014

Darap Village – A Sneak Peek Into A Fantasy World

Going offbeat in Sikkim

“Our happiest moments as tourists always seem to come when we stumble upon one thing while in pursuit of something else.” — Lawrence Block

I found this quote to be bang on for my story about Darap Village. I landed up in Darap Village, while I wanted to go to Pelling. I was oblivious of the fact that I had booked my accommodation in a home stay, which was in Darap Village, and it was a little away from Pelling. So yes, I passed through Pelling, but my actual sojourn turned out to be in Darap Village.

Roses are a common sight in Sikkim.

As soon as I reached my home stay, I realised I had something better in store! I was thrilled to bits to discover that I was in the midst of plenteous natural beauty. All I could see around was lushness and hear a reverberating sound of water running by somewhere. It was all so refreshing and pure. 
 
An abode of nature.
On a clear day, you can see Kanchenjunga mountains from Darap village.
Every nook and corner is beautified with flowers.
Abundance of love.

The Village hike

The following day, I was all set to go on a village hike with a young local guide, who was also a student. He proved to me a great help, as I had planned a serious photography day. Since it was raining on and off, it would not have been possible without his support. He held my umbrella for me while I took my own sweet time in framing and focussing.

My guide and assistant on that epic day.

As we continued to hike, my guide educated me on many little things about the village, like its inhabitants were a mix of Limboo, Lepcha and Gurang community. The first and foremost thing that I noticed on my own was the blossoming Cardamom plantations. Then I was told by my guide that it was their main source of income.

Cardamom plantation 

Ancient mud houses

My first halt was at a house, which was supposedly 100 years old. Yes, it was that ancient. There was just one old man inside the house, who was sitting near the stove. His kitten kept loitering around him. After a brief chat with the old man, we moved ahead to meet other villagers.

A kitten for company
An ancient house - 100 years old as told by my guide.

Tribal folks

The tribal folks in Darap Village looked so fascinating. They dress a certain way, they wear quite a lot of ornaments and they have an uncanny layer of contentment on their faces. I hope you didn’t miss the photo essay on the faces of Eastern Himalayas.

This lady appeared out of nowhere, but she looked picture-perfect.
This is the preparation of a Sikkimese local beer - Tongba

I discovered many quirky things about the village life in Sikkim (I don’t know if that’s the lifestyle in villages everywhere else, too) – as I mentioned earlier, there is a kitten around the stove, perhaps because she wants to stay warm. When I asked my guide about it, he told me they kept a kitten in every house to keep mice at bay.

So story-bookish... isn't it?

Hospitality of the old-fashioned hearth

I was offered tea or water at almost every house that I visited. All of it seemed to me a storybook kind of a fantasy – cute little huts, old-fashioned hearth and the queerly dressed tribal people.

She's heating the vessel to prepare tea for me.
...And here's my tea! (Notice the mug! It's so pretty!)

Straight out of a story book

The classic old woman, who gave me my best photographs ever.

My absolute favourite was an old woman, who stood outside her hut as we approached. It was all misty and surreal around her hut. She had expressions of an English royal lady and even her attire was so old-worldly and charming. Her smile had a certain conceitedness that she wasn’t aware of. It seemed as if she had got bored of her palace and moved to a hut. My camera was dying to capture her wrinkles. While I was on top of the world to have photographed her, she kept saying “I am old, I am old”.

Well, I was certainly on a high while trailing through Darap Village - meeting villagers, exchanging smiles and pleasantries, sipping their smoky water, and lapping up their simplicity.

Have you experienced a ‘fantasy world’ like this? Is Darap Village your kind of an offbeat escape?
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Monday, 13 October 2014

The Faces Of Eastern Himalayas (Sikkim and Darjeeling) – A Photo Essay

Faces devoid of pretences

I simply love meeting people from different regions and communities. Since India is such a vast land, there is enough opportunity to discover new people in almost every part of the country. On my sojourn in Sikkim and Darjeeling, I met many lovely people. These people are innocent, hard-working and they seem to be quite content with life.

The most interesting part about coming across these folks is that they look quite different from the rest of India. So, it’s almost like exploring a foreign community within my own country!

Here's unveiling the Eastern Himalayan faces captured through my lens –

She's an oldie from Darap Village in West Sikkim. It was a fairy-tale scene -an old granny stood outside her hut and later invited me in for a cup of tea. She wondered why I wanted to take her picture, because she wasn't aware that my camera was eager to capture her royal and elegant looks.
He's a Nepalese man from Dilaram village in Darjeeling. He had lost his wife 11 months back and now he spent most of his time around his beloved's Stupa (grave). 
These are simple tea-pluckers from Darjeeling. Although they are underpaid and live difficult lives, they never forget to smile and extend love.
Darap village, West Sikkim - They are people of Limboo community, who are settled there for ages.
Mother-daughter duo - Baby is called 'Nani' in Nepali 
Gangtok, MG Marg - A Sikkimese lady in a typical Sikkimese attire. 
Darap Village, West Sikkim - A rural man engaged in his daily chore. Most of them work in the fields.
Ranka monastery, Gangtok - The younger lamas (monks) pose for me.
Darap Village, West Sikkim - A lady from Limboo or Lepcha tribal community. She was reluctant to show her tobacco teeth, but she grinned for my camera.
Darap Village, West Sikkim - These Limboo tribal people like to wear beautiful ornaments. It's part of their everyday life.

Do you like meeting people from different regions? Which photograph did you like the most?
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Friday, 10 October 2014

10 Quirky Things About Lucknow

Quirky Indian Cities’ series –

Chhota Imambara

Lucknow is a little queer city. It has got a lot of character and charm to it, but it’s also sordid in some ways. Although it is presumed to be a Nawabi (royal) city with ‘politeness’ embedded in its texture, the real face of Lucknow is far from its preconceived image.

Just like Delhi, I have lived in Lucknow for a decade. Therefore, I know the city quite closely and I can talk about its many quirks, belittled gems and also a few gray shades.

Before I begin, I’d like to share that Lucknow has seen a substantial growth in terms of infrastructural developments in the past years, which has changed its face to a great extent. It is a much better city today in the wake of good roads, multiplexes, shopping malls, eating joints and discotheques. But, I’m going to share with you the Lucknow that I knew, which is timeless -   

1.The royal bygone era still begs for your attention.

If you think Lucknow is a kind of city, where you will find people exchanging royal greetings, you are absolutely mistaken. The city is very much like any other Indian city. There are no old-fashioned mannerisms in people. Everything is very ordinary in their everyday lives. But, the era of Nawabs still lives somewhere in the Mughal palaces and their illustrious history.  
      
The old-era still reflects...

2.Eve-teasing can be a nuisance in Lucknow.

I don’t intend to misrepresent Lucknow, but I have experienced very annoying eve-teasing there. I don't know if that has changed now. 
    
3.Food is a serious business.

Lucknow relishes great Mughlai cuisine. From Biryani, Korma, Chicken curry to the much-loved Tunde Kababs, the richness in food needs to be seen to be believed.

Image source: Google

4.People have a certain amusing way of talking.

It’s quite easy to pick a Lucknowi style of talking, which has a very desi (rustic) appeal to it. A typical inhabitant of Lucknow uses hum (we) quite often. 
      
5.Lucknow has an awe-inspiring architectural beauty.

As I mentioned earlier, the old-era still peeps from somewhere and it’s evident in the architectural treasures of the city. Besides the mysterious Bara Imambara and the glorious Chhota Imambara, there are some ruined buildings as well, such as The British Residency and Dilkusha Koth, which have an intriguing history to tell.
   
Architectural gems: Bada Imambara and Bhul Bhulaya 

6.The legendary markets never lose their sheen.

The two most popular markets in Lucknow are Hazratganj and Aminabad. They are not just great shopping hubs, but they are also charming places for snacking on some traditional savoury stuff like Chaat, Kulfi and Malai Makkhan. Besides, the atmosphere of the two places is undyingly charismatic. Aminabad is more conservative, while Hazratganj is more towards the modish side.
   
Image source: Google

7.Lucknow has high standards when it comes to shopping.

Well, it may not be a metropolitan, but shopping is nothing less than bliss for women. If you have good taste in clothes, the variety is immense. Although the Chikan embroidery is easily the highlight of Lucknow, other stuff like shoes, bags, accessories and western wear are also worth going for.    
 
Image source: Google
 
8.The Taj of Lucknow looks ethereal.

Vivanta by Taj in Lucknow is a sheer delight. It is one of the most beautiful Taj hotels in India. It would be absolutely apt to say that it lives up to Lucknow’s majestic past. Also, it’s a good way to experience Lucknow’s Nawabi culture. 

The Taj of Lucknow: Backyard view

9.Lucknow isn’t really a ‘safe’ city.

It is an easy-going and modest city, but the crime rate cannot be overlooked. There is a huge mix of people in Lucknow, which makes certain smaller neighbourhoods in the city a bit unsafe.

Lucknow is waiting to be explored.

10.Lucknow isn’t aware of its tourism potential.

This is perhaps the funniest thing about Lucknow that it has got a tremendous calibre of drawing travellers, yet it seems to be nonchalant about it. Lucknow’s food, shopping and architecture are superlative. If only they adopt the enthusiasm for hospitality and the locals create a tourist-friendly atmosphere, things can drastically change.

What do you say? Is Lucknow your kind of a city?


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Tuesday, 7 October 2014

10 Quirky Things About Mumbai

‘Quirky Indian Cities’ special series –

Marine Drive 

Mumbai is magic. If I talk about its quirky side, I think I would say that every bit of it is quirky! If you have lived in Mumbai or spent even a few days there, you should be nodding in agreement. It is a mad city. It is in no way a sane city! Do I like it? No.

I LOVE it.

Although I always loved Mumbai (totally besotted by it), I got to experience it deeply only when I got a chance to live there for four months. I graduated from being infuriated to being in love with it forever.

So, here comes the QUIRKINESS of Mumbai -  

1.The super maddening Mumbai local trains can really make your heart race faster.

When I made my debut as a traveller on a Mumbai local (Andheri East station), I was terrified. It was during the peak monsoons, which made the experience even more intense. I hadn’t even anticipated the feeling of travelling on a local; I was already horrified by the chaos and drama at the station. The train station was in an even messier state due to the rains. Everybody seemed to be running (for no reason), and in the midst of all the action, I saw a man sleeping near the ticket counter. He was covered head to toe with a white bed-sheet. And, finally when I hopped onto a train, I sat on the edge of a seat (smelled a mix of odours) and just waited for my station to arrive.

Mumbai CST station

2.Nobody goes to bed before 1 o’clock in the night.

Staying up late in Mumbai is a norm. The hustle and bustle of the day continues till late into the night. People go out for movies, pubs, seaside outing and midnight buffets. Also, vendors, newspaper men and other such people keep ringing the doorbell till 9 pm. Perhaps Mumbai is quiet for only a brief period of time, which is around daybreak. 

The night is as lively as the day in Mumbai.

3.Night-outs and drinking don’t raise eyebrows.

Pubbing and partying are a culture for the locals. Unlike other cities in India, drinking isn’t a hush-hush affair. Well, I am not saying that other metropolitans are conservative about alcohol; Mumbai folks are definitely more liberal about it.     

4.People have good traffic sense despite the narrow roads.

Mumbai traffic can be really wearisome. The roads are not too broad, while the vehicles are limitless. People get stuck in traffic jams for hours. Despite all the difficulties, people maintain traffic decorum. Nobody tries to overtake another vehicle mindlessly. Each vehicle keeps distance of at least two feet from the other one, which is not practiced in other cities in India.
 
No vehicle runs a race.

5.Mumbai is a beautiful, yet a dirty city.

Without an iota of doubt, Mumbai is a beautiful harbour city. It has got lovely beaches, lakes, mountain views and scintillating skyscrapers, but on the other hand, there is a lot of garbage in the city. No wonder the city evokes mixed emotions in people. Some people are exasperated by its dirtiness, while some chuckle through its charm.
     
Powai Lake

6.Lovers like to get tanned.

Mumbai is a city of love-birds. You will find couples everywhere you go – Marine Drive promenade, Juhu Beach, Powai Lake and the most infamous one is Bandra Bandstand. The funniest part is that these couples romance in the blazing sun, while the rest of the world is busy at work.

Gateway Of India

7.Mumbai has only a few sophisticated neighbourhoods.

Ironically, Mumbai isn’t really a chic city. Even the crème de la crème neighbourhoods in the city, such as Colaba, Juhu and Bandra, are quite modest. You will find old and dilapidated buildings, ordinary streets and pavements. But, there is an undefined charm to these places (maybe because they are connected to Hindi films).

Hiranandani is one of the few good-looking neighbourhoods of Mumbai.

8.Mumbai locals are chilled out about their lives.

They enjoy life with the balmy sea breezes, swaying palm trees and the waning sun. It seems they discover something new about their city every day. An average inhabitant in Mumbai, on a daily basis, has to travel long distances for work. But they seem to embrace life the way it comes to them. For instance, you will see women cutting vegetables on local trains to save time.  

Chilled-out locals

9.Mumbai rains are magical but crazy.

The three-four months when it rains in Mumbai, everybody soaks into its romance thoroughly. It’s a wonderful time for long drives, lots of coffee and short getaways around the city. But, it is devastating too! There are pools of water everywhere on the streets and you have to walk with your legs dipped deep into the muddy water.

10.The meter system in the taxis and autos is scary.

I found this a bit strange. The meter system in Mumbai works differently. Although it’s commendable that the auto-drivers and cabbies strictly go by the meter, it is quite heart-pinching when the meter keeps pulsing even while the auto is stuck in a long traffic jam. So, if you travel long distance in Mumbai and also get stuck, get ready to pay a whopping amount at the end of the trip. That’s not the case in Delhi – if your auto-driver agrees to go by the meter, you pay only for the kilometres and not for the time.

Have you been to Mumbai? What do you think of it?


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