Friday, December 24, 2010

5 steps to be a better traveler....

Going to a far-flung destinations and lounging at fancy resorts is surely a fun experience. But it's also the effortless part of the travel game. I crave for travel experiences that are up, close & personal. I worship all forms of travel - mountains, islands, jungles, villages or cities. But travel is more than just being somewhere - it's about getting under the skin of the place. It's about creating experiences that amaze and delight. It could be the best local hangouts, cultural experiences or adrenalin adventures. And after a wee bit of globetrotting, I've realised I lack amateur level travel skills ! If I could cultivate these skills, I could really stimulate my travel experiences. Here's a short list....
  1. Ride a motorbike  - Believe it or not, I cant maneuver a geared motor bike. It's right on top of the things to learn list. Since I can ride an automatic scooter, it should be easy. The sole purpose of learning a mobike is to zip across stunning landscapes and rarely visited corners of the Indian Himalayas. Maybe the classic journey from Manali to Leh.
  2. Eat vegetarian street food in Asia Pacific - Sounds like an oxymoron ? Asia is the land of spices. There's hardly any street across Asia where you don't see a vendor selling aromatic food. I've never had the courage eat at food stalls in Bangkok, Hongkong or Guangzhou. After all what could a vegetarian eat in countries where people consume birds, dogs and worms ?  Now there's a conflict of interest here. The traveler within me is intrigued by the street food & wants experience the local cuisine. The vegetarian within me confines me to touristy restaurants with clearly demarcated food. It's a real adventure to enjoy street food, while still being vegetarian. And I'm finally ready to ride the roller coaster.
  3. Scuba dive or surf  - I learned basic diving skills in Thailand, but my attempt to become a certified diver ended up in vain. However, I'm ready to give it second shot.  And if I'm not allured by diving, maybe I'll try surfing. The problem is that beaches aren't an important part of Indian culture, so it's not easy to get training and practise locally.
  4. Photography - I've never been beguiled by photography. It's really absurd since travel, blogging and photography are supplementary. Maybe I was too immersed in the "experience" rather than capturing pictures. I went to Brazil without a camera. I've been on African safaris without a camera. I don't even have a picture of me when I was on top of Kilimanjaro ! But I'm finally inspired to buy a camera and learn some photography.
  5. Speak an foreign language - English is enough if you are happy with spending all your time in star hotels & eating pizza. But lets face it, the areas that are solely catering to tourists are the same the world over. It's surely cumbersome to learn a new language. It's even more cumbersome to decide on which one to learn. If I decide to learn Spanish, I would still be helpless in France or Japan or China. But you need to learn a language if you want to go somewhere and really explore beyond the tourist facade. The local people probably speak little English.

 “One’s destination is never a place, but a new way of seeing things.” – Henry Miller

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

What $1 buys around the world

Lonely Planet’s Facebook fans  were asked, what they could get for $1 while travelling. They got amusing comments and I thought of sharing them on my blog.

Chester, England: US$1 (63 pence) gets me half a loaf of bread. As for Philippines, one of the best things you can get with $1 is a big bag of sweets to keep in your backpack, to hand out to kids. – James

Vienna: a dollar would buy you a freshly baked Kornspitz (a kind of bread roll), but wouldn’t be enough for a salty pickle from a street market or a short-distance public transport ticket. However, with the change from that Kornspitz, you can visit the museum of applied art (MAK) on a Saturday since it’s free of charge. – Dilyan

Tenerife, Canary Islands: it will get you a good cup of coffee in the capital, Santa Cruz, but in the tourist areas of the South you will be lucky if it gets you half a cup. – Linda

South India: it will give a unlimited servings of rice with rasam, sambhar, curd, papad, 1 piece sweet on a banana leaf. – Tarun

Cebu, Philippines: $1 can get 30-45 minutes of a glorious foot massage – Dexter

Nepal: you can get momo (ten units of dumpling) and a 250ml of coke. – Niraj

Croatia: a big scoop of ice-cream. – Morana

The UK: 60 pence buys you about 3/4 litre of milk, half a litre of petrol/diesel for your car, 2 cigarettes (that’s two single ones, not a packet), 3 apples, 2 days supply of the Sun tabloid newspaper, a small portion of fries from Maccy D’s or a can of coke from my office vending machine. – Alex

Denmark: you can get a litre of milk, a ciabatta bun in the Godthaabsvej Bakery, a stamp for a postcard/letter with receiver in Denmark, a cucumber or maybe a chocolate bar. 1 dollar = 5,5 danish kroner – Sandra

Budapest: 1 scoop of ice cream/4 small apples/1 plain hamburger at McDonald’s/1 postcard/1 daily newspaper/30 minutes parking in the downtown area – Csaba

Canada: Nothing! Haha. Blame it on Canadian taxes – Ashley

Faroe Islands: A pack of chewing gum, 2 apples at the supermarket, some candy probably, hardly anything – Bjarki

Vietnam: you can buy either 1 hat, 1 or 2 magazine(s), 1 DVD, 3 pairs of flip sandals, 5 instant noodle packages or snacks, 1 meal in some cheap food courts. ALOT, rite? – Lynn

In middle Italy: a litre of cheap wine or 1kg Spaghetti or 6 bottles of mineral water and just about one tablet of Ibruprofen which you might need if you drank the cheap vino!!! – Robert

Chiang Mai: The question is, what can’t you get in Chiang Mai for US$1? Street food doesn’t usually cost more than that. I even get a cooked to order vegetarian lunch delivered to my office everyday for that price. – Sheila

Bogotá, Colombia: A cup of coffee and 2 fresh baked cookies. Or an arepa with some spicy home made aji salsa! – Andrew

Seoul: one subway or bus ticket and a mask pack for your skin. – Yun

Egypt: you could buy a koshary plate which is an Egyptian dish which basically includes spaghetti, rice, lentil and fried onions on the top. Another choice would be about ten Fool (beans) sandwiches maybe even some falafel or in other parts of Cairo just a donut. – Aly

India: ‎1USD = around 50 Indian Rupees which can get you a hearty meal of boiled rice, dal, vegetables, pickles, chutney and papads in a Kolkata ‘basa’ …and it’s usually eat as much as you want! – Priyanka

Costa Rica: you can buy one papaya, one watermelon, one pineapple… and perhaps a cup of coffee of decent quality. – Luis

Los Angeles: one hour of street parking – Christina

Paris: about 40% of an espresso at Starbucks. – Michael

Dubai: a dollar will get you a ‘Jabal Al Noor’ shawarma. – Ineke

Portugal: 1 espresso coffee. Except if you are in the airport – Nuno

Australia: a scratchy (lottery ticket) with the chance of getting enough cash together for your next trip – Kin

So if you’re looking to make one dollar go further, ‘Indonesia, Thailand, and India are the winners’!

The content of this article is from Lonely Planet ( ).

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Kilimanjaro continued....

Read the first excerpt of Kilimanjaro here


It feels terrible to be back in Mumbai. Kili was ruthlessly cold with fierce winds, sleepless nights, no beds or showers  - but I still miss it :).  I'm going to write a a brief synopsis of my experience.....

The porters collected our backpacks every morning & transferred it to the next campsite. They also setup and dismantled our tents. The campsites are always near a water source. We carried our own daypacks which were loaded with water, snacks, packed lunches, warm clothing, toiletries and other essentials. Everyone dined together in the cozy mess tent & it was fun to mingle with new friends.

We had full service candlelit dinners with meals served in chinaware ! Although there were no showers, the support crew gave us small containers of hot water every morning to freshen up. We had portable toilets for the group. It's amazing how much they spoil you on the mountain ! Without a doubt, its mission impossible without the porters, guides & the support crew at the campsite.

Eat well, sleep well & drink plenty of water was the success mantra to make it to the top. It sounds simple - but hard to obey. Guides advise you to eat carbohydrates, sugar rich foods like chocolates & drink 4-5 litres of water everyday. The water we drink is collected from the stream and boiled every morning on request. After drinking excess water, my bladder really annoyed me every night. Towards the end of the trek, I despised water and chocolates.

I'm a fragile sleeper and didn't get any sleep the first night. After sleeping in temperature controlled rooms & thick mattresses it's initially hard to sleep in a compact tent and rocky surfaces ! My last experience camping was probably in school. But subsequently, the body got really exhausted climbing & it was easier to sleep. You're always snoozing on the mountain, rather than being in a state of slumber.

I was the sole lacto vegetarian (a diet which includes dairy products, but excludes eggs) in the group. I kept my hands away from omelette's and scrambled eggs for breakfast. My only option was to gulp down the utterly unpalatable porridge seven mornings in a row. The food was disappointing initially, but after everyone grumbled  it was a tad better. They served us hot soup every night before dinner - a real bliss in freezing temperatures. As my sole aim was survival, I ingested whatever was offered. I had begun to appreciate the little things in life :).
 I was well prepared for altitude sickness - but it never showed up ! We all used a drug called diamox to fight altitude sickness. There are contradictory opinions on taking diamox. My dosage was 1/2 tablet for breakfast and another 1/2 for dinner. Everyone in the group was absorbing diamox & it seemed to work well for all of us.  Once, in the middle of the night I had a stomach disorder & I was unable to find my headlamp in the tent. It was pitch dark & impossible to walk without any illumination. It took about 15 minutes to find my headlamp & rush to the toilet. That was harsh !

 The summit day is brutal and the ascent begins at midnight. Luckily, the weather was only about  -7 C that night (can get as bad as -25 C). It's pitch dark and & you cant see any further than your next step  with your headlamp.  My pace was awfully slow that night and eventually I lost my colleagues. I was left all alone along with Lucas.  Lucas was a backup guide in case someone splits from the group.  I don't know how I crawled my way to the top. Each step took more effort than the previous one; I must have paused about 80 times in those 8 hours. Eventually the sun came up we could see the surreal landscape - the glaciers, the several hundred foot drop into the crater, the mind-blowing expanse of the debris field stretching down to the tiny dots of base camp below.

Finally on Saturday 21st August, around 8 A.M, I concluded my ascent at Gilmans point (5695 metres) . Gilman's point is on the rim of Kilimanjaro. However, Uhuru peak (5895 metres)  is the highest point on Kilimanjaro about 200 metres higher up & 2 hours further away. The park authorities give you a successful completion certificate if you reach Gilmans or Uhuru. When I reached Gilman's I was all alone - without a camera & a frozen water bottle. Some colleagues had descended back to the the base camp & others had departed for Uhuru peak.

Except for the extreme exhaustion, I was feeling comfortable. I didn't suffer from any sickness, headaches, vomiting etc, unlike some fellow climbers. I had the stamina to go all the way to Uhuru, but Lucas advised me to retreat in order to make it on time to the base camp. It was still 4 hours to the base camp & another 4 hours to a lower camp where we would be spending our final night. Most big mountains are summited at night to avoid hazards like ice falls.  Another  reason to climb Kili at night is to avoid the shock of seeing what you have to climb because its dark.


My candid thoughts on Kilimanjaro...

Kili was undoubtedly a dream come true. I certify its not technical climb & can be attempted by anyone who is reasonably fit. Although the trail is not vivacious like the Himalayas, its fun. The path except for the summit day inclines very gently making it a comfortable trek. We walked about 6 hours each day except for the summit day which was 16 delirious hours. The summit day is demanding, but not impossible. About four climbers in my group were in their sixties & they all made it. Their courage & determination was really commendable. I now believe that "age" only exists in the psyche & reminiscences of their conquest will be an immortal source of inspiration.

The porters are the real hero's of Kilimanjaro. An average trekker like me spends his time at the camp moaning about the hardships he is suffering – white eating popcorn & sipping a steaming hot cup of tea. The porters are the hardy individuals - putting up the tents, helping with the preparation of the food, refilling water bottles and generally making sure every trekker’s desire is catered for. The average wage for a porter is $5 per day (excluding tips) & the weight they can carry is capped to 15 kilos. Every time I saw a porter on the mountain, it felt terrible that someone has to carry all the weight to make my journey more pleasurable. But as an afterthought, the process generates employment for porters in a country where poverty and unemployment is high. Unfortunately this is the fate of the world.

The trek made me poorer by around $3000 & I wouldn't exchange it for an overwater villa in the Maldives! It's unbelievable the amount of satisfaction the ego derives by climbing great heights. Why else do climbers from across the world commit to their own misery ? Now this was my closest encounter of "mountaineering", but definitely not the final one. When I signed up for Kili, it was merely another adventure. The journey's initial motive was to get to the top & prove my physical capabilities. But when I concluded by climb, my belief had changed. It turned out to be a spiritual journey. It helped me stretch my limits, inspired me, expanded my consciousness & made me aware of the little joys in life, which are often ignored at home. Adventure was a measly part of the package.

As Dr. Joseph Dispenza says:

 Travel is intrinsically associated with expanding consciousness. Travel is an inner experience as much as an outer experience. Travel is the great metaphor for embarking on a journey of emotional, psychological, and spiritual growth. Being essentially materially minded, we undertake physical journeys so that we can better understand the inner process that is at work when we go out. We will eventually discover something about ourselves that we had not known. We travel to complete ourselves. We need these journeys to understand how all the pieces of our lives fit together. Every time we go out we are going in and seen in that way, all travel is a spiritual experience.”

(P.S. - All images by Jayant Sasikumar & Sanjeev Ganju)

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Asante Sana Kilimanjaro !

On my return flight Jo'burg last year, I read an article on climbing Mt. Kilimanjaro in the flight magazine. I was allured by the majestic beauty of Africa's peak & the world's highest free standing mountain. My travel bug was aroused after seeing the snapshots & I added yet another destination to my immortal wish list.

My African trip to Malawi didn't materialize in July and I'm still remorseful about it. Instead of swimming in the serene waters of Lake Malawi, I made it to Ibiza in July - a perfect antithesis ! The travel God's have been very kind this year - Kilimanjaro came about a lot sooner than expected. I didn't really plan on going this year, but Insha'allah it just happened. I'm back to the grind after spending three weeks in Tanzania & a successful expedition to Kili in August :-).

Here's my anecdote...

I had a 100 reasons to set foot on Kili.  It's Africa's highest peak - the continent I adore, worship & can live all my life in. Africa is a perfect "Another time-Another world" setting with its timeless beauty, ancient landscapes & teeming wildlife which have been unchanged for thousands of years. The perfect way of expressing my fondness towards Africa would be to climb it's biggest mountain !

Most of my previous travels have been hedonistic in nature & this time I wanted to step beyond my comfort zone. I wanted to test my mental, physical & emotional barriers. I also desired to be in a state of solitude and disconnect myself completely for one week. Aquaterra Adventures were leading a maiden expedition to Kili in August'10 - I thought it was now or never ! My cousin Ruchit agreed to join me without any hesitation.

Kili is the poor man’s Everest. You can climb almost 20,000 feet in seven days & that makes it the "McDonald's" of  seven great summits in the world. Mt. Everest @ 29000 feet will make most people poorer by 2 months of time, 1 year of training, dozens of permits and cost $60,000.

 I was apprehensive as I lacked any previous mountaineering experience & had never been to high altitudes. I did a village trek in the Himalayas in 2009 - but there were no steep inclines &  it was almost like a scenic walk in the countryside.  My physical endeavours in Mumbai were limited to gym workouts & battling the half marathon once a year.

Kilimanjaro is a gentle climb as it inclines very gradually. But high altitudes, freezing temperatures & ferocious winds make it a difficult. Acclimatization is essential, and almost everyone suffers from some degree of altitude sickness. The primary reason why climbers fail isn't physical fitness - it's altitude sickness. If it strikes, climbers suffer discomfort like shortage of breath, nausea, hypothermia and headaches. Read more on altitude sickness here.

The weather conditions are extreme & gear required is extensive. The gear is expensive & not easily sourceable in Mumbai. I ordered most of my stuff online from in the U.S. It's a great store for outdoor enthusiasts & next time I won't bother to look any further. I got acquainted with two girls who were ardent trekkers & a journalist from Mumbai who had signed up for the same expedition. They had previously done the Everest Base Camp. We all ended up meeting and spent a couple of Sundays doing warm up treks in the Sahyadari Hills near Mumbai.

The moment of truth had arrived and I was excited, nervous, hopeful & scared as bid farewell to my family. I was flying to Nairobi followed by a connecting flight to Kilimanjaro. While we were flying, I got a my first birds eye view of Kili from the plane window. The skies was very clear so the view was spectacular. The mountain was perched adjacent to me & I couldn't believe that I was going up there. After landing in Kilimanjaro, we drove for an hour to a village called Moshi & arrived at our hotel. We had our first meeting that night for the climb briefing & introductions. Our expedition had 20 climbers, 2 head guides, 5 assistant guides & 60 porters. The group was very diverse with people from several nationalities, varied professions & the age group ranged from 25 to 65.

We met our head guides Chombo from Tanzania & Avilash from India. Chombo had lead several expeditions to Kilimanjaro & by now the climb was a leisurely stroll for him in the neighbourhood park. Avilash had summited peaks higher than Kili. He spends more time in the Himalayas than at home! The guides advised that the success mantra was simple – “Eat well, Sleep well & drink 4-5 liters of water”. On the mountain we were advised be on a diet constituting complex carbohydrates & snacks like chocolates, nuts & nutrition bars.  The other key was to climb "Pole Pole" as they say in Swahili. The translation is “slowly slowly.” Climbing "Pole Pole" was key to acclimatizing as we rapidly gained altitude.

The next morning we loaded our convoy post breakfast. There are several routes that go to the mountain and we were taking Rongai route. It was a three hour drive to the park gate - almost near the Tanzania-Kenya border.We passed  through a lot of villages, towns, and farms, past forests, coffee and banana plantations. We reached the park gate post lunch & began our registration process. Once you are inside the gate - there are no roads, electricity, shops or air rescue. I called home for the last time as the network coverage on the mountain is unreliable. As I entered the gate, I simpered at the "points to remember" sign at the park gate and initiated the journey.

The next seven days were a life changing experience - everything from the friendships built, my personal struggles overcome, learning to value the little things in life &  the brutal summit night !

Watch out for Part II of my story...Coming Soon !!!

(P.S. - All images by Jayant Sasikumar & Sanjeev Ganju)

Thursday, July 29, 2010

Una comida Perfecta !

Food is an integral part of travel! When we travel, we're eating out all the time. However, most of food we eat is mundane and easily forgotten. But once in a while, we experience a meal which is remembered, treasured and cherished for many years. I call it "the perfect meal". A perfect meal is not necessarily a gastronomic delight at a fancy restaurant. I have dined at a few award winning restaurants, but frankly none of them would make it to my list of a perfect meal. Of course the food has to be delicious and the ambiance appealing...but there's more to it.....

A good meal is more than just food. It's about love. It's about the company and sharing the food with the loved. It's about the vibe of the location and the culture that reflects in the food. It's also about the authenticity of the food and the passion of the chef. It must be accompanied with moments of joy and paired with the right booze.

I had a rendezvous with a perfect meal exactly a month ago - it was my second day in Spain. The company couldn't be better than of close friends  & the location better than Spain. I love the tapas tradition in Spain of going to a restaurant and sharing small snacks & sangria with a group of friends. Our meal was a tapas lunch at a traditional Catalan (region in Spain) countryside restaurant, on the outskirts of Barcelona.  During the forty five minute drive, we passed by quaint villages and charming casitas. The restaurant was perched on a mountain top, and as we neared the summit it almost turned into a dirt road. We were all starving, but our hearts assured us that the wait would be worthwhile !

As we entered the restaurant - we didn't notice a single tourist. It seemed like a family owned restaurant filled with Spaniard's enjoying their siesta time. I loved the aura of being in the hills, after aimlessly wandering around the crowded streets of Las Ramblas in Barcelona on the previous day. The restaurant wasn't very fancy but filled with character, rustic and full of old world charm. They had a working farm and a kitchen garden in the backyard and all the ingredients were locally sourced.

The lunch wouldn't be possible without Vishal - my friends cousin living in Barcelona who is very passionate about his food . Before meeting him, we thought "vegetarian tapas" was only an oxymoron ! But he guided us to this place and many other authentic eateries in Barcelona. After meeting him, we were dining like locals !

We ordered and re-ordered a lot of food and everything was crafted to perfection. A lot of it was a twisted version of Indian or Italian food but still very satisfying.  I've actually tried to pen down what we ate & this should be a good guide for adventurous vegetarians. After we learnt the lingo, we tried tapas at many other places in Spain, but none of them met the benchmark.

Gazpacho: Gazpacho is a chilled tomato soup. You then mix cut cucumbers, onions, peppers, vinegar and herbs in the soup.  It was healthy, refreshing and light !

Pan Con Tomate:  Spanish version of the bruschetta.  You basically rub a clove of garlic and a squeeze a ripe tomato smoothly but with energy over the house bread. Then you add some salt and olive oil. I enjoyed the do-it yourself part.

Patatas Bravas: The Spanish classic - fried potatoes in a spicy tomato sauce. I'm actually not a big fan of potatoes.

Champiñones al ajillo: Mushrooms lightly sauteed with garlic, olive oil & sea salt. They actually infused the olive oil on top of the mushroom. Another version is "setas al ajillo" which are wild mushrooms lightly sautéed in garlic and olive oil.

Esparragos Verdes a la Plancha: Grilled fresh asparagus with extra virgin olive oil and sea salt. This was my favourite tapas.

Pimientos Padron: Small green peppers from Padron (region in Spain) fried with extra virgin olive oil & sea salt. Gave me reminiscences of "vagharela marcha" in traditional Kathiawadi food.

Paella de verduras: A rice prepared with seasonal vegetables and white wine. It's almost a fusion between Indian biryani and Italian risotto. It was served on a huge platter - big enough for four people. We had put in the request for a vegetarian paella one day in advance. This was really the highlight of the meal, but we couldn't eat too much a lot since we were overstuffed with the tapas.

Sangria di Cava : Sparkling sangria, prepared with cava, fresh fruit and our special spirit mix.A perfect accompaniment.

"The time to enjoy a European trip is about three weeks after unpacking." ~ George Ade, Forty Modern Fable

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Up, Close & Personal

I never imagined safaris were addictive – until my trip to Kruger Park, South Africa. No sooner than I got back, the desire to go again was irresistible. So I visited Pench national park in India and was rewarded with my first wild tiger sighting. And now I can’t resist going back to other parks Africa again & get up, close & personal with the wildlife !

The ultimate safari experience is to stay in traditional tented camps. The camps don’t have any fences and are within amazing proximity to nature and wildlife. You sleep in a tent, under the trees with only the canvas between you and the bush. Hearing the hippos, lions and hyenas at the back as you go to bed is an unforgettable experience. During the migration season, millions of zebra and wildebeest arrive to share the fertile land with the permanent inhabitants.

While these camps never let you forget that you are in the wild, there is a wave of chic and contemporary glamping grounds in Africa. They offer a very bespoke experience as they are very boutique – usually only 10 tents.Each camp has a central mess (meeting) tent & its beautifully furnished with grand sofas, lamps, book and corner cabinets in old wood, chests and rugs. Meals are served alfresco or inside the mess and all guests are invited to sit together with the naturalist at dinner time.

It’s a unforgettable experience to wake up in your tent, being spoiled by your private butler and sipping early morning tea while being surrounded by the great migration !
Showcasing two of the finest tented camps in the Serengeti National Park, Tanzania - Lemala Camps & Asila Africa Camps. Both of them operate several campsites, so you can stay with the same operator as you move around the park. Remember that the Serengeti National park alone is 15000 square kilometers !

Lemala Camps

Lemala is a collection of seasonal luxury camps set in stunning wilderness areas. The owner of Lemala camps is a friend of mine, so I'm sure the camps will be friendly and hospitable like him :) . But without any bias, Lemala camps are situated in the most exclusive game viewing locations - probably better than any other camp or lodge in Tanzania. This is because Lemala camps are “mobile” so the camp actually moves each season depending on the wildlife in the area.

(All Images via )

 Asilia Africa

Asilia Africa also operates several luxury camps in Tanzania. Although their camps don't seem mobile like Lemala, they are in good game viewing locations & far away from the main tourist trails. Each camp has a different name but all are very intimate & personal. I especially liked the “Sayari” camp.



P.S. - Oberoi Vanyavilas  in Ranthambhore National Park has been rated as the No. 1 hotel in the world for 2010 by Travel and Leisure magazine - I couldn't disagree more. The Vanyavilas is an excellent property - but India should be renowned for its palace hotels and not safari camps ! In any case I would vote for the Taj Banjaar Tola in Kanha Park as the best safari lodge in India.

Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things that you didn’t do than by the ones you did do. So throw off the bowlines. Sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover”
– Mark Twain