Off the grid in Gopnath

I’m cross-posting my recent blog entry in Journey to Gujarat here on Parallel Universe. Please sign up for updates to my travels there as soon as they are posted!

Our itinerary read “Gopnath Beach,” a place not found in my guidebook or on any map I had. “Gopnath beach is known for its scenic beauty, limestone cliffs, natural surroundings and fascinating flora and fauna.”Image

We drove up to windswept cliff over the Gulf of Khambat and the driver stopped in front of a faded Dreamsicle-colored one-story building. No one came out to greet us. There was no sign, no lobby of any sort, nothing to suggest that this is rest-stop for travelers and, yet, the driver said this is “Gopnath Bungalows,” where we were to stay. I wondered if we were being dropped off at someone’s house, a friend of the travel agent who wanted to make some money off of  gullible clients.

Dad and I exchanged “where are we?” looks and after, a few minutes, a man came out to the car. He looked sleepy, like we had woken him from an afternoon nap. He and the driver exchanged greetings and they both began to unpack our belongings from the car. Ramesh, that was the sleepy man’s name, we found out, sat on a plastic chair behind a desk on the sun-filled porch. He opened a cracked “guest register” – the spine had been taped over to keep the book together – and he wrote down “Kiran Shah.”

For more about our stay in Gopnath, please click here.

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Ferris wheel mania

How did the Ferris wheel become the must-have municipal toy? I was amused to read in the Times of India over the weekend that apparently Ahmedabad is the latest city to be infected with this mania: “It was during one of the Vibrant Gujarat summits that the company Saloria Chartered Architects of London, one of the top 100 architect firms of UK and right holders of equipment technology, had proposed a viewing wheel and recreation zone modeled on London Eye, or Millennium Wheel. The finer details of the agreement between the construction company and Ahmedabad Municipal Corporation (AMC) are taking shape with talks on revenue model, space sharing and ticketing. The site for the project will be the Sabarmati riverfront, claimed a senior AMC official.”

To be sure, converting talk out of Vibrant Gujarat into action has been somewhat shy of 100 percent. So perhaps birds-eye views of Ahmedabad from the banks of the Sabramati are not imminent.

The timing is interesting as Dubai also unveiled plans last week to build the Dubai Eye. Unlike Ahmedabad’s still-unnamed ride which would just be a replica of the 135-meter London Eye, Dubai developers plan to construct the world’s largest ferris wheel at 210 meters. Natch.

The proposal as unveiled is to build – you guessed it – a luxury mixed-use shopping/entertainment/hotel complex on what was the only open beachfront in New Dubai. (Because, really, there’s no need for a public park in Dubai. We must remedy the dearth Dior and Jimmy Choo boutiques. More sheisha cafes and Cinnabon outlets for everyone!)

We all know how I feel about Dubai’s addiction to the shiny-object economic development model, so I leave the last word on this to Alexander McNabb over at Fake Plastic Souks, who has already written a great post of Dubai’s Ferris-wheel courtship.

Gujarat’s princely states

I’m cross-posting my recent blog entry in Journey to Gujarat here on Parallel Universe. Please sign up for updates to my travels there as soon as they are posted!

Raja of old

Raja of old

British rule over Gujarat was not whole. They only controlled about a fifth of the state, largely confined to the larger metropolitan areas such as Ahmedabad and Surat. The remainder of Gujarat was Saurashtra, and its “100 kingdoms” – it was actually about 200 – was ruled by individual royal families, albeit in cooperation with their Raj neighbors. In fact, these kingdoms were generally supportive of the British; they had signed pacts of cooperation with the British East India Co. in the early 1800s. Indian independence leaders’ activities excluded Saurashtra and the Congress party did not decide to formally include the region in its struggle until 1938, just nine years before the British quit.

Click here for photos and more about our visit to Bhavnagar, Palitana and Jamnagar. 

Saurashtra road trip

I’m cross-posting my recent blog entry in Journey to Gujarat here on Parallel Universe. Please sign up for updates to my travels there as soon as they are posted!

Two days after Dad landed here, we set off on a road trip. Our plan was to explore Saurashtra, or 1,000 kingdoms, which before Indian independence was a region made up of many princely states. From Ahmedabad, we headed south and hugged the Gujarat coastline – except for an excursion inland to Junagadh – all the way to Dwarka, the state’s most western point.

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The tour company I hired had put together an itinerary for us for nine days of travel (see map above) but it was the sight-seeing in between was no less note-worthy. Along this route there were none of the New India’s multi-lane, modern toll roads. We traversed the state largely along state highways, the surfaces of which varied from fairly decent asphalt to jaw-jarring gravel.

Along the way, we encountered humans using every kind of transport method available: walking,  bullock and camel cart, bicycle, scooter,chhakada, trucks, in addition to passenger vehicles like our own. This being India, the rules of the road are flexible. You overtake from which ever position is the safest and if you need to, driving in the opposite lane is acceptable as long as you are beeping your horn as warning to oncoming traffic.

Click here for more about our road trip and pictures of the people and sites along the way.

 

A divine walk with Dad

I’m cross-posting my recent blog entry in Journey to Gujarat here on Parallel Universe. Please sign up for updates to my travels there as soon as they are posted!

DSC_9334The muted buzz gives way to the intense, insistent punctuation of words spoken in rapid-fire Hindi as soon as the SUV doors open.

Sahab, dholi chaiyye? Bhen, dholi lijiye, nah?

1,100 rupees. 900 rupees. There are four-person dholis and those carried only by two. You can take turns sitting, they tell my father and me.

We are surrounded by dholi-wallahs. Dad and I grab hands so we won’t get separated as we push our way forward. There’s no way to get through the group clustered around us, so close to see the red smears of chewed paan in their teeth. No amount of Nai chaiyye – or I don’t want – spoken at first dismissively, yet politely, and then rudely, as rude as you can be, dissuades them. The dholi-wallahs close in tighter, accompanying us as we try to move toward the gate that marks the entrance.

It is a jarring introduction to Palitana, the most sacred of all Jain pilgrimage sites and a must-do for the faithful. The climb is more than 3,600 steps to reach mountain-top cluster of 3,000 marble temples carved out of marble over a period of 900 years, starting in the 11th century. From the ground, the temples look like the miniatures you see for sale at handicrafts stores all over India.

Click here for pictures and more about my visit to Palitana. At a place for Jain pilgrims, Dad and I have a chance to connect.

‘The Walk Home’

A travel story about my trip to Tanzania last October was published in Gulf Business in December. For more pictures and a video of the wildebeest migration, click here.  

Maria the lionness takes down a wildebeest

Maria, the lionness, takes down a wildebeest

The annual migration from Tanzania’s Serengeti National Park to Kenya’s Masai Mara National Reserve is one of the world’s most wondrous spectacles.

By ANGELA SHAH

Leonard Kivuyo’s smile is enigmatic. “There is definitely, maybe, possibly a chance to see a lion,” he says.

We look at each other quizzically, wondering about the maybe-yes, maybe-no response of our Tanzanian tour guide. Kivuyo has just picked us up at a gravelly airstrip, a scar in the serengeti landscape at Kogatende. He wants to know what animals we want to see.

We respond with an all-star list of the Serengeti: black rhino, lion, elephant. And, of course, we want to witness the main attraction of a northern safari this time of year, a wildebeest crossing of the Mara River. He nods in agreement at our wildlife wish list. There have been regular crossings, just one this morning, Kivuyo tells us. But whether one would happen today, he can’t say. As he unlatches the roof of our jeep so that we have nearly unobstructed views of the grasslands around us, my friend Angel and I exchange bemused looks at our guide’s Yoda-like responses.

Shortly into our journey along a dirt track, we come across a pair of giraffes. About 20 feet high, the male nuzzles the female’s neck as it creeps closer to her. Realising we have stumbled upon the pair mid-romance, we giggle like school children. A few more nuzzles later and the male giraffe has accomplished his mission, walking off towards a tree for a snack.

“Part of the circle of life,” Kivuyo deadpans and we laugh heartily. We continue our drive and Kivuyo keeps an eye out on the horizon. The hum from the jeep’s walkie-talkie is on low; the guides at the various camps chatter amongst themselves, exchanging information on locations of nocturnal cats, rare rhinos or the anticipatory swarm of wildebeest gathered on the banks of the mara.

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A lion’s life: lazing in the sun

Within an hour, the serengeti’s abundance of wildlife emerge. We spot impalas and elephants silently grazing, and hippos submerged to their ears in the river to ward off the late afternoon heat. Skittish zebras dart in and out of clusters of their fellow prey animals.

By evening, however, a crossing hasn’t formed and we have to reach camp before sundown. From July to October, about two million animals follow the rains, migrating from Tanzania’s Serengeti National Park to the Maasai Mara National Reserve in neighbouring Kenya. One of the highlights of the annual migration is the crossing of the Mara River, where crocodiles lurk underwater and lionesses prowl on the banks alongside.

At dinner that evening, our fellow campers rave about the raw power they witnessed as thousands of wildebeest stampeded through the Mara River. A baby zebra walked into the open yaw of a hippo, which then crunched down on it! We watched a wildebeest taken down, mid-river, by a crocodile!

We have no such stories to contribute to the fireside gathering. I am not worried; we still have a few days left for our safari.

The next day, the walkie-talkies are ablaze with chatter of migration-style critical masses forming along the Mara at several crossing points. We travel from site to site, eventually staking out the one nearest to our camp. The hours tick by but by late afternoon, the first of the wildebeests slide down the steep bank and into the river. And just like that, the migration begins. The zebras’ shrieking bark seems to offer directional guidance to the wildebeest, who in two and then three single-file lines half-swim, half-gallop through the water to the greener pastures on the other side. Zebras, we discover, are the bouncers of the wildlife world.

After that first crossing, we begin stumbling on crossings on a regular basis. The next morning we watch a particularly large group of wildebeest for 20 minutes when suddenly a lioness bounds in from the left. We watch, dumbfounded, as she charges the unlucky wildebeest directly in her path. As she wrestles her prey to the ground, the zebras’ shriek grow even more shrill and the tide of wildebeests reverses course.

ESSENTIALS

Olakira Camp

DSCN0978This luxury tented mobile camp sits just off the banks of the Mara River during the migration season in the summer and fall. Olakira has only eight tents and guests enjoy meals in the common dining/living tents. Dinner is preceded by drinks and snacks around a campfire. http://www.asiliaafrica.com/olakira

Zanzibar

The island, known as Unguja in Swahili to Zanzibarians in order to distinguish itself from Zanzibar city, is dotted with beach resorts. We stayed at Shooting Star Lodge, located on the northwest part of the island. The inn, which features cozy villas on a perch above the beach, was the perfect setting to unwind after our day-long drives in the dusty Serengeti. http://www.shootingstarlodge.com

Stone Town

DSCN1370The House of Wonders and the Palace museums’ exhibitions are few but give visitors a sense of the island’s place along trading routes between India, the Gulf and Africa. The palace museum served as the official residence of the Sultan of Zanzibar until he was overthrown in 1964 and it includes pictures and history of Princess Salme, the Tanzanian royal whose affair with a non-Muslim German businessman caused her to flee to Europe, where she lived until she died at age 80 in 1924.

Looking toward the skies

I’m cross-posting my recent blog entry in Journey to Gujarat here on Parallel Universe. Please sign up for updates to my travels there as soon as they are posted!

 

I was 10 years old, on a family trip to India, when I first learned about Kite Day. Imagine, a holiday just for flying kites. Everyone was out on their rooftops flinging thinner-than-paper-thin kites into the air. The sky was littered with pastel diamonds, bobbing in the breeze. It was a day of simple joy, enjoying the mild Indian winter, out in the sunshine with family and friends, flying – and cutting – kites.

The festivities relate to Makara Sankaranti, or the transition of the Sun from Dhanu rashi (Sagittarius) to Makara rashi (Capricorn) and takes place around 21 days after the tropical winter solstice … Read more and view a slideshow here.

‘Journey to Gujarat:’ Gujarat 101

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I’m cross-posting my recent blog entry in Journey to Gujarat here on Parallel Universe. Please sign up for updates to my travels there as soon as they are posted!

As part of my preparation for my travels in Gujarat, I decided to treat it like I would a reporting assignment, researching as much as I could about the state’s history, politics, economics and sociology. I bought five books, including one novel, written by economists, academics and social workers in order to get a deeper understanding of Gujarat.

photo-12 The first I read is a travel guide, modeled on the Lonely Planet series, edited by Anjali Desai, who it turns out went to UT with my Dubai friend, V.P., and is also from Houston. (How’s that for a coincidence?!) Anjali went back to Ahmedabad after graduating from UT, and has been involved in a number of voluntary organizations there, including Indicorps, an India-wide Peace Corps-type organization that is based in Ahmedabad, Gujarat’s largest city.

Gujarat is located on the northwest of India; it’s not one of the places that most non-Indians know about. It’s an amazingly diverse place, both industrial – once known as the “Birmingham of the East” – and agricultural, the home of both Mohandas Gandhi and Mohammed Jinnah (the father of Pakistan,)  and has India’s longest coastline – 1,600 kilometers (994 miles.)

Its communities range from tribal groups who live in Kutchh’s salt flats, to Catholic communities tied back to Portuguese missionaries from the 17th century, to descendants of royal families whose patronage is related to the Muslim khans who ruled India for centuries. It is also the home of some of the worst Hindu-Muslim communal violence to ever strike India. With the controversial Narendra Modi – who some believe was responsible, at least passively, for the deaths following the devastating riots in 2002 – as chief minister, Gujarat has aggressively developed an industrial and technology-driven economy. Yet agriculture remains a powerful driver, just as it did in the 1960s when India’s green revolution brought millions of Indians out of a starvation existence, a model for many developing countries still.

I fly out to Ahmedabad tomorrow night. My three, obscenely overweight suitcases are packed. My father’s cousin’s sons are meeting me at the airport at 3 a.m. Sunday. The journey is about to start …

Gingerbread Alsace

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The Alsace region on the French-German border is full of tiny villages founded in the 15th and 16th centuries with the charming gingerbread-style buildings we Americans usually only see in fairy tales. It’s especially charming during Christmas when the businesses are all decked out.