2016 – A thing to remember 


First times are always remembered. Good or bad, the first kiss. First dip in water. First time you scored an A (or a F :P). It is hard to forget those experiences. The older we get, the harder it becomes to experience firsts. 2016 was a year when I was blessed enough to experience a new first. 

It was related to a meditation technique (vipassana) I practice in daily life. To strengthen this technique you are required to go into 11 day camps where 10 days of silence and strict meditation routine is followed. In January, I sat in a course and in September, on my birthday, I went as a server. The camps are only occupied by servers and students. Students are meditators who come to learn and practice. Servers are old students who come to serve, i.e. provide students with the necessary environment and all facilities required for them to do well in the course.

As a student you are not allowed to communicate with anyone other than your teacher, mostly initiated by her. Your last meal is at 11 am in the morning. If you have established well in the practice, after 5-6 days, you don’t sleep normally. Either you sleep very deeply for a couple of hours or you are in a continuous meditative state of mind. Whatever you might be doing – eating, bathing, walking, watching, sleeping, you are in the same state of mind as you are with your legs folded, sitting still and meditating. Time passes extremely slowly. You can observe threads of thoughts coming in your mind and disappearing, very similar to observing vapours getting dissolved in air over a hot cup of tea in the morning cold. It is beautiful. It is very obvious, at that time, how insane our minds are.

Talking about vipassana is very similar to describing your first sexual experience. You know those who have done it would be able to understand you immediately, without you having to explain much. And those who haven’t done it, won’t be able to understand you properly no matter how much you explain. And yet there are poets all over the world attempting to describe their passion and love and share that experience with one and all, because that’s what we humans do. We communicate.

After those 10 days of intense experiences, on the 10th or 11th day, when you open your mouth to speak and communicate with servers and students, it seems quite unnatural. However, on these days, your body and mind remove it focus from itself and start observing and paying attention to the outside world. All the sensory organs can start working full swing now. It is then you realize your part in the world. The highly crucial role you play in the world.

I was a third born. Honestly, an accidental child. Hence for me the question, why am I here on the face of this planet, was a very obvious one. The more I read, the more I found out that no one knows an answer to this one. Everyone is here pretty much like me. Accidently. Well, that didn’t help much. If we all are here accidently, might as well stop being here, stop all the killing, stress, hate or even love, which is mostly longing and desiring. Why run all through the life to die. The only theory which made a little bit of sense was to have fun, do whatever makes you happy. You will anyway die sooner than later! Hedonism seemed better than most of the other farce of theories.

I challenge all those who practice hedonism properly, with all their heart, to come out and say, it gives them the highest form of happiness. I can very much say, been there and done that. It can give you a lot of satisfaction and a purpose to life, however, there is much more to life than that, I believe now. This realization happened in the year 2016.

When you serve for others, it is not much different from working. You have your role and responsibilities defined and you just need to act on it. The key differentiating factor is “if at any time you are not at peace with yourself, if you are agitated or disturbed, you are required to stop the service at that very moment and find your peace within before continuing”. Now this small piece of difference is a huge one.

Imagine you didn’t do a very important task which was assigned to you. And your boss finds out. You make excuses. Boss gets angry and blows you off. He had every ‘right’ to be angry with you! Now in his state of anger, he attends a meeting where he rejects a proposal of a new project which isn’t very crucial to the company. The enthusiastic employee who worked for a week on this project gets pissed off. He might end up leaving the company, a huge loss to the team. All because you didn’t do the job and the boss got angry. You would obviously say it’s coz the boss is incompetent and gets angry. The boss will say it’s coz of lazy people like you that company culture gets rotten. The fact is Anger is very expensive. There is never a negative emotion which can be justified, no matter whatever a reason, a so called cause. 

The practice of being able to observe your emotional state and act accordingly is what you learn as a server. You also learn that if you don’t let your emotional state affect your actions, you can actually bring peace, productivity and sense of fulfilment to the world. If you can be peaceful and avoid all negativity, at least a very small world around you will follow the path. What that means is, every individual is immensely powerful. We have the power to bring or to take away not just the happiness of ourselves but also of other human beings.

Happy people spread happiness. Unhappy people spread unhappiness. Angry people spread anger, sorrow and disappointment. This becomes very obvious after vipassana. And so does your role in the world.

Like the title mentioned, this is the first time in life when I found the meaning of life to be so simple. There is a lot more to be seen, to be understood. Many more years to live. Amen.

Mumbai monsoons milestones

Being in Mumbai again and experiencing the monsoons once again, I remember and reminiscence about how life and I have been changing around yearly monsoons. It is as if every passing year and arrival of new season marks a change, turns a milestone.

  • July 2005 – The first lesson in survival.

My first experience of Mumbai monsoons. Oh the magic. The romance of walking on tiled Mumbai streets in light drizzle, late at night. A city turning into a hill station. The freedom. The huge waves which left you drenched on Marine Drive. The clean air and no hurry to reach anywhere. And finally, getting caught in the crazy floods, walking in 1 meter high water level, and experiencing what survival meant for the first time. How it builds relationships. Character testing. That remarkable night spent in a broken bus near Santa Cruz with 60 odd strangers.

kemcomrbmr_1906_9

  • June 2009 – “Singing in the Rain” stage. Literally. 

Living with the love of my life, enjoying life and rains after the unbearable heat of Mumbai-May. Monsoons had become a synonym for hiking at that time. The hills are alive with the sound of rainfall. Treks and hikes and trips and plenty of getting wet. Ah, the freedom of roaming around in green ghats. Pure joy!

hike

  • June 2010 – I was a Mumbaikar now, turning my heart over

Another flood scenario, a short and sweet Mumbai monsoon encounter with a stranger. A lift with a stranger. A final incident which tipped me over. Now officially, I was a Mumbai girl. The Mumbaikar in me had arrived.

  • July 2012 – Risks and returns 

Another life changing event within an year of marriage. Husband broke his neck on a hiking trip when we lost our way and had to take a bad and risky detour on our way down. Of course in retrospect it turned out to a blessing in disguise. But more about that sometime else.

  • June 2016 – Staying in? Getting old? Hope not…

It has been more than a decade now, since I first started my journey of changes with Mumbai and monsoons. Now I find myself happier to stay in the house and not go out in search of adventures, creating stories. Found myself ordering indoor games from Amazon! When a friend asked if I didn’t like getting wet in rains anymore and I answered in affirmative, I realized, another milestone has been reached.

game

Mumbai monsoons have something about them. They always take you to a newer level, you didn’t know was capable of existing earlier.

The boy who got me back to Bangalore- Part 2

You can read the first part of the story here.

To recap, I reached Kalpetta, the biggest town in Wayanad district in Kerala in the dead of the night without any adventure or mischief. Next day in the morning, I found that this town hardly got any tourists. There was a small tourism booth next to the Inter-State bus stop that provided the brochure of tourist attractions in Wayanad. As Hero had predicted there were no tickets available towards Bangalore on Sunday. However, I was told that there are plenty of alternatives available. I could go to the next nearby town Sulthan Bathery; chances of getting a seat from there are very high. Or I could wait for some private buses from the evening and board one of the many buses that run to Karnataka. All of them go via Bangalore.

Now when you are on an “adventurous” solo trip, you don’t really want to plan ahead and prepare too much. You know, it kills the entire concept of “adventure”, “living in the moment”, etc. If the man at the tourism booth says, it is easily possible to get back to Bangalore without reservation, it would be so. Since I am here only for two days, I can’t afford to waste time on going around, getting a reservation. Worst case scenario, I would return on Monday. It was possible in those days to fall ‘sick’ and not show up for work. So I didn’t care much about Hero’s words. He was probably trying to act too smart.

I decided to get started with my trip at the earliest, which basically meant visiting touristy locations around Kalpetta. I decided to take a local bus to go to Edakkal Caves. Bless 100% literacy rate and Christian missionaries in Kerala, language was not a big problem. The bus was rickety and broken just like it is in the northern states; the difference was that here I clearly stood apart in the crowd. There were fisherwomen with daily harvest, men working on tea estates and I, a light skinned, girl from a big town. I finally understood how Shah Rukh must have felt in Swades during local commute to remote areas.

1438087558_swades

To be less dramatic, it wasn’t a big deal at all. I got a place to stand and swing as the bus went around the hilly curves on the route to the caves which were on a hill top.

The caves were a big disappointment. They were hardly comparable to Elephanta Caves near Mumbai which I had visited already. Plus, I am not a fan of caves anyways. They stink, they are dark, dirty, and you can’t do much there. So I was standing there looking at all the families who were out there on picnics, making happy noises and cheer. It felt kind of stupid for me to be standing alone in a place which was certainly not recommended for solo travellers.

So I decided to move on. I wanted to go to a place of natural beauty where I can sit and meditate as I have seen seasoned solo women travellers do in travel pictures such as the one below.

Traveling-Solo-Women

If I want to make that picture, the timing was going to be right as the sun was rapidly moving towards the West. All I needed was a water body. I asked a nice man at a food stall about a dam nearby, Karapuzha Dam, another tourist destination. It turned out this man owned a van and was traveling in that direction. He offered me a ride.

Now, let’s review the facts. First of all, I had never hitchhiked in life previously. Also, I had always wanted to hitchhike badly. It was a dream. Standing alone on a highway, with my backpack on my muscular shoulders, looking like this. Ummm…

pretty-young-woman-tourist-hitchhiking-along-a-road

As I was drifting in my dream world of being that super confident cool hippie girl, this man in front of me was waiting for my reply.

Anu: No no no, I won’t bother you. I will go on my own. Can you guide me how to reach there?

Man: blah blah blah…. (Gist of what he said was that there is no easy way to reach via public transport.)

Now, I was kind of stuck. One option was to take the bus back to Kalpetta and figure a way to the next destination. Another option was to take this ride to the dam. The image of dusty noisy road and forlorn hotel (which by no standard was 2 stars, forget 4!) in Kalpetta made me incline towards this ride with stranger.

So how does one decide whether or not to take a ride with a strange man?

Appearances do matter.” [Quote: Me.] Though I usually don’t give a damn about my own appearance but that never stopped me from judging others by their appearances. I don’t care for brands or fashion, often that goes pretty low in my hierarchy of “trustworthiness”. Questions that I try to answer while looking at a stranger’s appearance are “Is he married?”, “Does he have kids?”, “What job would he have?”. I try to put a “no-nonsense” label: low, medium, high.

93% of communication is non-verbal.” [Quote: Management School Prof who taught my husband.]

Based on the above two signals, I took the call and became this girl. (While editing this pic, I realized I am blessed for not being a blonde.)

anu hitchhiking

It was one heck of a ride. Bumpy and Rough. Literally. There was no road. And I was in a strange man’s vehicle. All reasons to be supremely nervous and doubtful of the destination. However, this man was one gem of a person. Seriously, it is funny (& erroneous) how quickly we make impressions of a place based on small/tiny experiences/datasets. However, that is exactly what I did. Based on that one car ride, South India (especially Kerala) for me became the most reliable place in the country. If you know me, you must have heard me comparing the two parts of the country and vehemently stating how safer southern states were. This was an impressionable moment.

hitchhiking-free-travel-good-people

I will skip through some of the other details of my trip which included a visit to beautiful and enchanting Kuruva Islands, where you can walk the across river Kabini to reach islands in the middle of the river. However, let’s come back to the main story and fast forward to Sunday evening.

Now after two days of solo travel, I had quite enough of the adventure. Many a times, I ended up feeling quite lonely. A few times I remembered my office gang from Bangalore and wondered why I didn’t invite them along. By Sunday evening, I was quite packed and ready to get back to my friends and home. The only problem was that I had no reservation. I had exchanged a few smses with Hero in the meantime which more or less meant that there were no seats available.

There wasn’t enough time to go to Sultan Bathery, so I stationed myself at the bus stop on Kalpetta main road and would check with each and every bus, if they would go to Bangalore and if they would have a vacant seat. Starting at around 6 P.M., I did this till 10 P.M. By this time, everyone at the bus stop knew me. As it grew darker and late in to the night, number of people on the stop gradually decreased. Only others like me without reservation remained. None of them were girls.

Four hours is a long time to spend on a bus stop hoping to get a bus back to your home. It is a reasonable amount of time to retrospect and curse yourself. It is enough time to think about different possibilities that might occur. I might not get the bus after all. For how long would be I standing here out on the road? Yes, Kerala is safe, but until what time should I start searching for alternate stay arrangements? How will I go back tomorrow?

A little after 10, a private bus for Bangalore moved in. We, without reservation riders, all crowded in close to the bus door to plead the conductor to take us in. Just then, someone tapped me on my sounders. I turned around to see Hero standing there.

Hero: Are you still without a reservation?

Anu: Yes

Hero: You can come with me. I had reserved two seats in this bus. We can pay inside the bus after we get the seats.

Anu: thank you thank you

At the time, my status msg at FB would have been something like this: — feeling shocked relieved happy thankful grateful.

We got the two seats. I thanked him again and slept off.

It was 530 in the morning when our bus was gliding towards its platform on Majestic. I was still amazed how I reached back home safely, without any misadventures. All thanks to this guy. We, with all other passengers got down. I was wondering what to say to him. How should I express my gratitude? Should I ask him to meet me later in the week sometime.

We were standing near an auto, ready to go separate ways. I didn’t have the nerve to ask him out for lunch or coffee to show my thanks. We said byes and rode off. Until a few days later, I kept thinking about the whole thing. I was expecting a call from him. Usually guys do that. Especially if they know they have a favour on the girl. But he never called. And it was too late by then for me to call. Or so I thought.

I never really got to thank him properly at that time. However, after a decade, I understand that travel is all about meeting different people and helping them. We help strangers and friends, without expecting anything in return. It happens naturally. That is why travel is one of the most compassionate and patient teachers in life.

The boy who got me back to Bangalore – Part 1

This story is about a case of male chivalry and getting your ass saved by a stranger.  

At the age of 23, when you land up in an extremely high paying job, live in one the most beautiful cities of the country, don’t have any responsibilities to take care of, it is very easy to get dissatisfied. Yes, dissatisfied. You know, if at 23 your colleagues/friends start buying houses, cars, looking for brides/grooms, it is as if you can see your entire life planned and organized in a google calendar. Monday to Friday, work. Wednesday, lady’s night out. Friday night, party. Saturday night, party. Sunday, chill at home. Get married, have a kid. Go to kid’s parties. Buy another home after 10 years. Buy another car. Vacations abroad. Have another kid. And goto repeat.

Even now, after almost a decade, this line of thought creeps bejesus out of me. At 23, it would make me go berserk. I would do crazy things. Go on solo trips. Join and work in NGOs. Give up all the money and comfort of corporate job! This story is of one such trip.

It was a Thursday. Remember this old cartoon? This is how a typical Thursday is for most of the corporate sector.

typical work week

In my case, the state of Wednesday usually continued on Thursday, Friday, Saturday, and actually all other days of the week. So my cartoon worked like this:

sunday-to-saturday

 

And that’s what I did. I booked tickets for Wayanad. A beautiful forested district in Kerala. I had always wanted to go there to stay in the tree huts of Vythiri resort. But I couldn’t go to the resort, since it was somewhere in the middle of the woods and I was on a solo trip with no personal vehicle and no co-passengers. The next best choice was to go to the nearest biggest town and figure out the rest of the travel from there. So I booked a KSRTC ticket online (in the time of no redbus, there were government booking sites!) from Bangalore to Kalpetta in an A/C Volvo. I used TripAdvisor, a very new website, to book a room in Kalpetta in a 4-star hotel, close to the bus stop and still not the main road to avoid traffic noise. This was the first time I had used TripAdvisor to book a hotel reservation. I never confirmed the booking directly with the hotel. In fact, it never occurred to me that I might not even have a booking! In my defence, I get this insane trust/faith that everything will be okay from my mom. #23-years-old #risks #stupidity #innocence #genetics #recklessness #easy-to-trust

On Friday night, I reached Majestic, the inter-state bus terminal in Bangalore. For me, it was the pride of India. Amazing infrastructure, ease for passengers, safety, cleanliness. And when compared to Delhi’s ISBT Kashmiri Gate, it was a world apart! Bus terminals are a place of extreme excitement, just like airports. Even though you are still in town, you feel your trip has already started! I got into the luxurious bus, settled down, waited for my co-traveller in the 2-seat coach.

The co-passenger turned out to be a young boy, almost same age as mine. We introduced, exchanged pleasantries. As always, he was surprised to find a solo travelled. But the more I spoke about myself, he understood that this is one cuckoo case. I remember seeing some sort of sympathy for me in his eyes.

It was 4 A.M. in the morning, when he suddenly woke me up. We had arrived!

WHATTTTTT?!! It is still dark out there!

I found myself standing on a deserted road below a single street light at the bus stop of what looked like a very small town. There were a couple of people sleeping outside the deserted shops, dogs were barking and a few other passengers had quickly disappeared into cars or whatever conveyance was waiting for them. While my panic nerves were firing up, I asked my co-passenger how to find the hotel. He explained the way. It was about 300 mtrs away and I could see the road leading up to it. For the sake of brevity, and also because he really was, for the rest of the story, we will call this guy ‘Hero’.

Within next 2 minutes, I was really scared as I could suddenly realize all that can go wrong going further. A little too late, but yes, now I was thinking about it. What if the hotel doesn’t have a night desk? What if I do not have a reservation? What if the hotel is not safe? What if someone jumps on me in the dark before I reach the hotel? What if… While I was numb, thinking of all that could possibly go wrong, I heard Hero’s voice.

Hero: When are you going back to Bangalore?

Anu: Ummm.. Sunday night.

Hero: Oh cool, me too. Which bus?

Anu: Actually I do not have a reservation yet. I will find out tomorrow.

Hero: Oh, you know, it is really difficult to find the reservation this last minute.

Anu: Umm…  (Right now I can’t be bothered about Sunday!)

Hero: Would you like me to help you get a reservation? I would also be looking for one. I can look for both of us.

Anu: Hmm.. okay..

Hero: Give me your number so that I can confirm you about the ticket.

WHAT?!!! As always. Ladki dekhi nahi uska phone number pehle chahiye. Seriously, why the hell do I get caught up in such situations.

Anu: Why don’t you give me your number? If I do not get ticket tomorrow I will give you a call.

Wow! If I was a guy and offered help to someone who would not trust me with her number but was willing to call me back for help, I would be seriously offended. But, at 23, brought up in a gender unequal society, as a girl, being helped was my ‘birth right’. If I am in trouble, ‘good’ men were supposed to protect me, help me, guide me. Be chivalrous. Weird thing is, they usually were!

Hero: Okay cool. Here it is.

Anu: Ok thanks! How will I reach the hotel? (Current situation grabbing my nerves again)

Hero: Just walk down the road. It is so close. You will be fine.

 

He said bye and left. I walked on. He was right, it was quite alright. I reached the hotel quickly. Woke up someone to open the front gate. Woke up another person to check me in and give me my room keys. No one looked at me with leering eyes and threatening looks. They were all too sleepy to care. I slept off too.

Next day I realized Kalpetta was not a tourist place. It was more of a trading station for merchants and businesses. And yes, Hero was correct. There was no seat on the government operated bus back to Bangalore on Sunday. But I was too adventurous to care about it.

To be continued

The Casanova professor and his lovely wife

This post is a part of series “Dialogues with Strangers” capturing some of the most impressionable ever-lasting conversations I have had with strangers.

Murren is one of the most beautiful alpine villages in the world. It is the last connection by rail in the Jungfrau region near the mountain Eiger. It is also a car free village; means there is no road connecting to Murren. There are plenty of cycling and walking routes around Murren.

IMG_1469

 

In 2013, we were in Murren for a few days, exploring the hiking routes across the meadows and beyond. Our balcony overlooked the peak, Eiger. Murren reminds you of Heidi and re-installs your faith in the miraculous healing power of the mountain air.

alps murren

One evening, after a long day of hike, followed by a dip in the heated indoor pool, as we were sitting in the balcony sipping tea and beer, we met our next door neighbours. I had previously seen the man in the pool and thought he must have been some corporate hotshot. He looked like someone in a powerful job. The woman he was with, looked quite young to be his wife. We exchanged pleasantries.

How was your day? The man asked.

Pretty good! We were hiking all day long! How was your day?

Very good! We were out too. Is this your first time in Switzerland?

No, we have been here before, but we didn’t stay in Murren earlier.

This is our first time in Switzerland. We usually go to Austria in summers. From the last 6-7 years we have been going to Tyrol region in Austria, for 2-3 weeks each time. Over the years, summer lodges and hotels have shrunk there. Most of them now only operate in winters for skiing. So we planned to come here. It is pretty beautiful here as well.

Yeah, we love Switzerland. It is quite convenient and supremely beautiful.

So where did you guys go today?

Oh we were somewhere around Birg and Schilthorn and later we walked around Schiltalp.

We were at Birg too. Actually we had a bit of an adventure. The path from Birg to Murren was getting cleared of snow today. The men with clearing tools were just ahead of us and we were following them down. At a point, one of the three men fell down as there was a big gap in the earth and he broke his leg. Luckily, nothing happened to us. We were careful to take the same steps which the men ahead of us took.

Wow! This was the same route which Nitesh and I had discussed in the morning. He wanted to take it, but I was against it. I thought it was not safe to venture on this path as it came in “difficult” category and we didn’t have hiking boots. There was no one to be seen on that route either. And these guys, people who look considerably older than us, not just took that path, but also finished it – safe and sound! They don’t even look tired!

We asked them further about the Tyrol region. In the last 6 years, they have spent all their annual leaves and savings in walking across the Austrian Alps in Tyrol region. Every year they go to a new or same valley within that region and walk for 10-20 kms on a daily basis exploring a new route. Over these 6 years, they would have covered about 1200-1500 kms on foot, in the Alps. Whoa!!!

Who are these people?! What do they do for a living?

We both are professors at University of Oxxxd, UK in the department of engineering.

Whaaaaaaaaaaat?!!!!

Suddenly I had a flash back. Imagining my fat bellied, languid college professors, I couldn’t believe this man in front of me could be in academics and research. Didn’t research mean you have no other pleasure or interest in life expect for your research topic?! Aren’t they supposed to be eccentric, weird and poor? Of course I know this was just a prejudice I had, but apart from a few outliers (like that amazing History Professor from JNU) I have never seen academicians who look like this guy, like a Casanova. Or who would spend so much time, energy and money in pursuit of other interests! Much like common, greedy mortals!  What about their age; how old are these good looking adventurous cool college professors?! We were soon going to find out.

How long are you here and where are you going next? The prof asked.

We are here till Thursday; then we go to Zermatt. I was hesitant to add that we will further hike there. Our hiking and their hiking seemed way apart!

Oh cool! We are going there too! We are not staying in Zermatt. It is actually a funny story. Our son and his girlfriend were in Zermatt last year, when they came across this very small hotel between Furi and Schwarzsee which has a perfect location. Zermatt is in the valley and Schwarzsee is quite high towards Matterhorn so the views are fantastic from up there! Though we would have to climb for 20-30 minutes to reach there but it is worth it.

Man, these guys were killing me. How old is your son? I had to ask now!

He is 30, blah blah blah….

I stopped listening to him. My head was spinning. If their son is 30 years old and these guys are researchers; means they couldn’t have had kids in early 20ies; they must be older than 55. So this man and woman looking young and fit, above 55 years in age, climbing much more than us, are going to remote exotic stay locations on foot while carrying their entire luggage on their own!

In India, so many of us do not even carry our luggage across platforms, up the stairs on a railway station! Does being in late 50ies or early 60ies mean nothing to them, who are living life as if they are in early 30ies! As of what I have seen, in late 50ies, people start getting joint pain, arthritis, back problems etc etc. They do not go wandering in mountains for fun!

Yes, this was probably one of the most impactful conversations I have had in life until then. Within the next 3 months after the trip, I ran my first 5K. A girl who hated treadmill and couldn’t survive 10 minutes on it, I ran for 40 mins in less than a month of practice. A lot of my prejudices were shattered in that trip. I had learnt an important lesson. What I do today will directly impact my life 20-30 years down the line. When I am 50, I can either climb mountains up and down in fresh clean air like those profs or I can climb up and down the escalators in different hospitals to see various docs and specialists like so many of elder people I know. The choice is mine. And it depends entirely on how I choose to spend my today.

Proteins for active vegetarians – 3

In my quest to find proteins rich diet for vegetarians with quick and easy recipes, I tried a few age old classic recipes. All these dishes take about 5-10 minutes of cooking time and 5-15 minutes of preparation, which is why these are my favorite dishes for the season!

Quinoa Lentils Porridge

I like Quinoa in all forms: salad, soup, rice, patties and now porridge. Though high in calories, it is also quite rich in proteins and easy to make. My mom adds lentils (moong daal chilka) to traditional porridge which enhances the chewiness and improves the protein percentage in the dish. I did the same, only replaced broken wheat (daliya) with quinoa.

Half a cup of raw quinoa and half a cup of raw daal is enough for two people’s breakfast. First I soak both separately for 20-30 minutes. Then I rinse them thoroughly. Simply put them together in a pressure cooker with 2 cups of water add turmeric powder (haldi) and salt to taste. After one whistle can let it cook at slow flame for few more minutes. Like my mom, I garnish the dish with finely chopped green chillies and ginger which makes the porridge quite spicy.

porridge

 

Caprese salad with egg and spinach

The one thing I used to miss in Singapore is paneer (cottage cheese). In India, every week we used to make paneer and cream cheese from left over fresh milk. Here, we never boil milk and there is almost never a case of left over milk. In fact, when I tried making paneer from the bottled milk, it came out quite funny, with a sink full of utensils to wash afterwards!

Without paneer, a major source of protein for vegetarians is lost. That is when I discovered “cheese”. Mozzarella slices, string cheese, feta, ricotta, there are plenty of options.

galbani-mozzarella-ball-125g

My favourite is buffalo mozzarella and its combination with boiled egg whites and spinach. Just chop and add olive oil, salt and pepper. Actually so much can be done with this cheese, with so little effort that I do not miss paneer anymore! It makes a perfect snack for Sunday movie session!

caprese

Methi dana (Fenugreek seeds) masala

I had no idea how super nutritious methi dana is. If it is discovered by the developed nations, it would be termed as “super” food. In addition to controlling sugar levels, cholesterol and maintaining heart health, being rich in fibre, methi dana is also quite high in proteins (25%), iron. So it is kind of perfect food for women, especially those who want to lose weight!

fenugreek-the-natural-herbal-cure-for-diabetes-and-15-other-health-benefits1

Yet, methi dana is not widely eaten as a food in itself. It is mostly used as a spice in Indian recipes. The reason is that methi has a bitter taste. This recipe reduces the natural bitterness of methi dana and the outcome is a very delicious dish. It is my mother-in-law’s recipe.

Preparation:

Soak 2 tablespoon of methi dana overnight. Drink the water in morning. Replace with fresh water. I store this in fridge. Drink the water again next morning. Replace it and store again in fridge. This water is supposed to be super nutritious.

Cooking:

Boil the 2-days soaked methi dana for 10-15 minutes on medium flame. Strain the water and rub salt thoroughly on the boiled methi. Then wash off the salt in flowing water. Now methi is ready for tadka, which is simply a combination of cumin seeds and asafoetida in hot oil with Indian masala (turmeric, coriander and chilli). Add methi to this. Cook for a few minutes before adding 2 table spoons besan (gram powder). Cook for a few more minutes and add amchoor (dried mango powder). That’s it. Total time required for tadka is less than 10 minutes. The taste is super awesome! It can be eaten with chapattis or even stand alone.

methi dana

A friend tried this recipe in Maharashtrian style, using kokum juice, shredded coconut and rice powder instead of gram powder, and it turned out even better!

methi dana 2

That is what I love about cooking, every time you discover a new taste, a new flavor, a new texture by adding different and new ingredients! It is the most rewarding experiment which also fills your hunger, literally!

Hope you enjoy these recipes! Please share some of your own protein rich, delicious and easy to make recipes!

The journalist and the contractor

When you are 32, looking back at your 21 year old version, what is the one thing you remember about yourself? Stupidity? Laziness? Being thinner? Well for me, the one trait that stands out most is Innocence. I quite remember how in the last decade innocence slowly escaped me (or is still escaping!). This story is about a time when I was quite innocent, some might say foolish.

This trip was a proper “rebel” act. It was summers of 4th year in college, most of the batch mates were graduating. Even after 4 yrs of college and trying different things like internship in Quality department of Hero Honda, trying my hands on Robotics, different courses in Psychology, reading activism Sociology by Ivan Illich, I was still lost in life. I had no idea what or why I was on Earth, let alone IIT. With nothing much to lose, I would engage myself in all kinds of random rebellious acts. One of these acts, was this trip to nowhere with nothing.

It was 2005, I was to go to a place called Mundoli, somewhere in Garhwal district, base camp for Roopkund trek. All I knew from a senior was that I should pass by these stations to reach Mundoli: Haldwani, Almora, Dewas. I was also told there would be plenty of public transport options available once I reach Haldwani or Kathgodam which is at the foothills of the Himalayas in Uttrakhand. I had no mobile, no camera, no reservations in any train/bus; just a piece of paper with names of towns written on it, 1700 bucks and IIT student card.

It is not possible to write about the entire journey here; it has been documented in a journal filling about 40 pages detailing each and every aspect of my trip. This post is about dialogues with a man I met on my way: The journalist in Gwaldam Guest House.

The journalist in Gwaldam Guest House

It was late afternoon; I was in a Sumo van, which carrier 8-10 passengers across towns. After 36 hours of journey from Kanpur to Lucknow to Haldwani to Almora, I was on my way to Dewas. Half awake, half sleepy, a young girl travelling alone, I guess I must have aroused some curiosity in the van. An elderly passenger asked me where I was going.

Dewas.

Koi rehta hai wahan? Kisse milne jaa rahi ho? (Whom are you going to meet there?)

Nahi, main wahan Garhwal Guest house mein rukungi.  (No, I am going to stay in the government guest house there.)

Surprise. Akele? (Alone?)

Haan, mujhe Mundoli tak jana hai. (Yes, I have to travel till Mundoli.)

Dewas kaise jaogi? (How will you reach Dewas?)

Pata nahi. (Not sure.)

Abhi to sham hone wali hai. Dewas mein guest house nadi paar hai. Pahunchte hue andhera ho jayega. (It is going to be dark soon and the guest house in Dewas is far away, not on the main road. It is will be quite late by the time you reach there.)

Hmmm. What’s the big deal?

A stop came, some passengers stepped out. I saw outside, it would be sunset soon. After some time he spoke again.

Meri maano to abhi dewas jaana theek nahi hoga. Yeh sumo Gwaldam tak jaa rahi hai, aaj wahin ruk jao. Kal subah nikalna Dewas ke liye. (If I can suggest you, it is not a great idea to go to Dewas so late in the evening. Stay in Gwaldam today and continue your journey in the morning.)

We reached Gwaldam, all the passengers were getting down. The elderly man again said that I should not continue any further today. It is not safe to travel in dark. He also introduced himself. He owned a chemist shop in the main bazaar, gave me his shop’s name and asked me to contact him in case of any kind of problem.  I was quite touched with his sound advice and offer to help. I decided to stay in Gwaldam.

The GMVN guest house was right on the main road. I got a room on the second floor. This was the most expensive expenditure in the journey so far, 200 bucks worth. The guest house seemed deserted. After freshening up, I went out to witness one of the most beautiful sunsets. I wish I had a camera. Gwaldam was an army base, sleepy and pretty town with almost no tourists. As the sky got darker, I went in to the dining hall. The hall was dimly lit but I could make out the benches and tables. There was a guy sitting on side of the table, I took the opposite side. The kitchen boy served us local food in thalis.  Ah! The taste of freshly cooked hot food at the end of a long journey!

The man and I, we started talking. At that time in life, prisoner in a campus of engineers and scientists, I was hungry to know more about the rest of the world, to meet people of different occupations. This guy turned out to be a journalist for Amar Ujala, a popular local daily. He was responsible for covering news in the entire region of around 100-150 kms.  I was quite excited to know about his work, how he found news, how he wrote articles, his team mates, etc. He wasn’t very open to disclose all this information, but still friendly to talk to. We finished dinner so he suggested:

Abhi itni jaldi to soyenge nahi, baatein karte hein.  (We won’t sleep so early in the night, let us talk more.)

Haan, theek hai. (Sure! Why not?)

Aapka room kaunsa hai? (What is your room number?)

I gave him my room number.

Mera room number x1 hai. Aap chalo mere room mein, wahin baith ker baatein bhi ker lenge aur TV bhi dekh lenge. (Mera room number x1 hai. Come to my room, we can talk and watch TV together.)

Okay, main aati hun thodi der mein. (Sure, I will come in a while.)

I thought about his proposal and felt that there was no reason for me to be suspicious. After all, he just wanted to talk. I would learn a thing or two about journalism. So I went in.

As I stepped in, he asked me close the door to not let mosquitoes in. I did that, without putting the latch on. He was half sitting, half lying on his bed, watching TV and drinking. I took the chair against the wall, few steps away from the bed. We started talking again. He didn’t offer me a drink.

He asked me a lot of questions about myself. Told me some of the news he cover such as deaths, robbery incidents. He had his connections in all the main towns of the area. If something happens, they inform him, give him the information on the commission. It sounded quite dull and boring. The topics ranged from personal stuff, like family, friends to work, studies. By now, the sleeplessness of last 36 hours was catching up with me. I might have looked tired to which he suggested, “You seem quite tired, why not rest on the bed.

This suggestion sounded dangerous to me. Even in campus, we make it a point to avoid sitting on boys’ beds in hostels. I sternly declined this offer, suggesting I will move to my room soon.

However, the conversation which followed next wasn’t something that I expected.

He told me how lonely his work gets, how sometimes he meets friends in guest houses and find ways to get over his loneliness.

I was listening uncomfortably, not knowing how to respond.

Then, he suggested that I can stay over in his room for the night.

Next moment, I stood up; quickly bidding him good night I stepped out of his room, came back to my room and secured it in.

I was quite scared at that point. I couldn’t believe what I had heard. Then it occurred to me, how naive I had been. Marching into his room at night, to “talk”! Giving him my room number. What if he comes to my room in the dead of the night? I would obviously not open the door. But there were hardly any people here to call for help. What if he forces himself in? How will I save myself? Though scared, I was too tired to stay awake.

Next morning I was up early, got early and took the first bus out of the town. I left before the journalist could catch me.

Many years later, now when I think about that night, I see quite an innocent, you might say stupid, girl in me. Going on a journey like that alone, getting friendly with a stranger, excited to know about different occupations, not suspecting anything while going into a strange man’s room, frank and open in my answers, unable to foresee where the conversation was going.

During that trip, I had another long conversation with a contractor who was in construction business. It was during the return journey from Mundoli to Kathogodam. By that time, I had spoken to a lot of new people: a farmer, a dhaba owner, the dormitory keeper, a college student from Delhi. I was better prepared now. The conversation with the contractor was a different experience than the one with the journalist. I weighed my answers well, withheld private intimate information, was neither entirely true nor false in my replies, only discussed neutral non-personal topics, held my ground and didn’t let the other person cross the line. I realized it depends on me how much liberty the other person can take with me.

During that ‘rebellious’ trip some of the innocence left making way for much required maturity.

Coffee Date with Rickshaw wala

Image credit: Mumbainet.com

It must have been one of those rarest occasions when Mumbai was drenched in pouring rains in the mid of December! This was my very first trip to the Bollywood-dream city. We grew up watching movies that had shots of Churchgate, Marine Drive, Juhu.  There were built up desires of spending time at Essel World and Water Kingdom from childhood. It wasn’t until now that I could manage a trip to Mumbai and every bone in my body was super excited. I was visiting a friend-cum-cousin who was studying in the prestigious IIT Powai. It was going to be the best trip of my life! I would do everything, visit Mumbai, meet cute boys of IITB, eat vada-pav!!

My train from Kanpur to Mumbai stopped at Andheri which was the nearest station to Powai. When I got down, the first thing I did was to search for a PCO. It was the year 2002, when we were deprived of any personal communication devices. There were no google maps, actually even Google was pretty much non-existent at that time. So after two-three attempts when I could finally connect with my cousin and when he gave me long and confusing instructions on how to reach his hostel room, while he would sit cosy watching s**t on his PC, I knew it was time to strip off some of the expectations from the trip.

Nonetheless, getting an auto outside the station was super easy and the driver knew very well where the campus was. I told him to take the route through Jogeshwari as suggested by my cousin (R). The auto guy seemed to think it wasn’t a great idea but nevertheless obliged me.

It had started to rain hard now. I had the blinds of the auto pulled down to save my luggage and myself from getting wet. There was not much I could see outside. The guy reiterated that going by Jogeshwari wasn’t a good decision. But I was firm and clear to follow the instructions given to me. No we must take that route only. He complied. Suddenly, it occurred to me, what if he doesn’t take me through that route. Or what if he doesn’t take me to Powai at all? What if he takes me to some random place outside the city, kidnaps me and then asks for a ransom. What are the chances that it would not happen? How do I validate that this wasn’t happening right now?! Doesn’t this happen all the time to young women as shown in TV serials and movies?

Suddenly, panic struck me. I asked him, bhaiya hum kahan hein? (Where are we?) He said some place’s name. But then how do I know he is not lying?! I asked him again, bhaiya hum Jogeshwari se hi jaa rahe hein na? (We are on the right route?) He said yes and then explained the route to me. This scared me further. In Delhi/Kanpur, if you cross-question the auto guy and if he is honest, he will get irritated by your questions. He will either ignore your question or give a curt reply. This guy here was so happily explaining me the entire route. What the heck! Something was bound to be wrong.

While contemplating the worse situation, like how I would jump out of the auto if required to, what all stuff in my luggage is precious to me and so on, I heard his voice again. He seemed to be asking me something.

Aap kahan se ho? (Where are you from?)

Kanpur se.

Oh hum bhi UP ke hein. (I am from the same province.)

Damn. While growing up in kidnapping and theft infected locality of Lucknow, the capital of UP, and while studying in molestation-capital of the country, Kanpur, another city in UP, I had sworn never ever to trust UP guys. Rains, luggage, random city and UP driver in private vehicle; this is the worst nightmare ever.

He seemed to be speaking again.

Hum yahan pe 4 saal se hein. Ghar gaon mein hai. [with some village name] Achcha nahi lagta yahan lekin kaam hai, paise chahiye. (I came here 4 years ago. My family is in the village. I don’t like it here, but work is here.)

Oh. This sounded genuine. Aapke ghar mein kaun kaun hai? (Who all are there in your family?)

Biwi, bachhe, maa baap, bhai. Bhai ko yahan bula rahe hein. (wife, kids, parents, brother. Brother will also come here)

Aap apne biwi bachhon ko kyun nahi bula lete? (Why don’t you call your wife and kids here?)

Kyunki yahan ghar nahi hai. Ek kamre mein rehte hein kai log. (I don’t have a home here. I live in a shared rented place.)

Aap chawl mein rehte hein? (Do you live in chawls?)

Nahi, jhopad patti [slums] mein aur gaon walon ke saath. (NO, I live in slums with other village men.)

Oh.

After this conversation, I was calmed down. This guy is a family person. He spoke again:

Itni baarish mein auto chalana risky hai. Shayad beech mein auto bhi ruk jaye. Kahin per thodi der ke liye ruk jaate hein, baarish kam hone tak. (It is risky to drive in such heavy rains. We should stop for a while and wait for it to get better. There is a chance that engines might fail us in the middle of the road.)

Whaaaaaaaaaat?! No way man! We were at, what is now the Jogeshwari Vikhroli link road, and in 2002 that area was completely barren. There was nothing on either sides of the road. Road was a sequence of potholes connected by gravel. In retrospect, I guess the guy was correct. We should have stopped. But to a 19 yr old, inexperienced, immature, non-travelled, over-imaginative girl that was a terrifying suggestion.

Nahi bhaiya, aap mat ruko. Mera bhai wait ker raha hai. Agar main nahi pahunchi to woh pareshaan ho jayega. (No please do not stop. My brother is waiting for me. He will be worried if I don’t reach on time.)

Yes, this was the right thing to say. This way the man would know that someone is tracking me and that he can’t cheat or harm me!

Theek hai, dekhte hein. (Okay, let us continue.)

Phew.

After a few silent moments, he started again.

Aapka bhai IIT mein hai? Padhta hai? (Your brother is studying in IIT?)

Haan. Main bhi IIT mein hun. Kanpur mein padhti hun. (Yes, he is. I am studying in IIT Kanpur.)

I could never let R take the credit of cracking IIT alone! I have to have some of it for me too!

Arre wah! Aap to bahut mehnti aur tej hogi? (Very nice! You must be smart and hard working!)

All smiles. Nahi nahi bhaiya esa kuch nahi. (No, it’s not like that).

IIT se bahut achchi naukri lag jaati hai. Videsh bhi chale jaate hein. (IITians get very good jobs and salary. They go abroad as well.)

Haan yeh baat to hai. (Yes, that is true.)

He seemed to have developed some respect for me as soon as I mentioned that I am from IIT. I was also surprised to know that he was familiar with IIT! And so, we both had found a mutually interesting topic. He would praise me and IIT and academics and people who study and importance of school work and everything related to studies. And I would blissfully shine in the glamour of being “studious”. Obviously, only I knew how much I was screwing up my studies in IIT at that time, but it didn’t matter then. At that moment, I was one of the few, maybe .0001% of all the students in the country and would gladly share my wisdom with the auto wala!

It turned out that guy was pretty sharp. He asked me about engineering, the different departments, what we study, what kind of jobs we do after the program, and so on. For a few of the questions, even I didn’t know the answer. He kept asking me questions and I was liberally answering. We moved on to exchange details about our families, friends, plans etc. By this time, all the suspicion was gone.

As we kept talking, the guy told me about how he didn’t work hard in school and how hard life has been for him. I tried to boost his morale by saying that he was doing a good job and there was lot more that he could still do! Then suddenly, he asked me if I considered him a friend. I was little taken aback from this sudden change in thoughts. I said, ‘sure yeah’, I mean what else could have I said. He offered, ‘If you want to go around Bombay let me know, I will be around Powai area.’ I said ‘sure’, though obviously we both knew that chances of that happening were pretty low.

I was wondering how much far we still had to go, when he asked me if I can have a cup of coffee with him. I was like whoa! I was both scared and flattered. My fear of him was completely gone now, it wasn’t raining anymore, plus we were in a crowded area again. But this twist in the tale was confusing. I said, ‘no my brother is waiting, he would be concerned.’ So he said, ‘don’t worry you can call him.’ I was still quite hesitant at which he got really defensive, attacking me ‘would you consider it improper to have coffee with a person like me, an auto driver?’ I strongly objected him saying he had been so nice to me, like an elder brother. But I insisted: ‘I still can’t have coffee with you this time. I am very tired from a long journey, my brother is waiting’ But he didn’t listen to me.

He was already driving towards L&T, and stopped at one of road side tea shops. I was pleasantly surprised to see his choice of place to have coffee. He told me to stay seated inside the rickshaw and he will grab us both coffee. So I took the opportunity to call and inform R. R was shocked to hear that I had stopped to have coffee with an auto walah!!! Was it a joke or for real?

The coffee came in tiny plastic cups, barely 3 gulps of it. When he handed me the cup, I felt grateful. Until now I was resisting this whole thing, feeling very awkward about having coffee with a man I met barely 30 mins back, but then when we both actually started drinking quietly, both occupied with their thoughts, it felt like a regular thing to do. It wasn’t weird anymore.

I guess in those few minutes of our journey together there was an exchange of something more than just words. I don’t know what was going on in his mind, but for me it was a completely mind blowing experience. From scare of being kidnapped, I went on to have coffee with this guy! How paranoid I was I to think of kidnapping?! Why was I so suspicious of everything he said or did? And now, the very same person is treating me to coffee and it doesn’t feel weird anymore! How come?! It was as if with every sip a fear was getting dissolved. A deep rooted fear of strangers, fear of people was melting away. My mind was storing this memory which would become a guiding light for all the future travels.

Dialogue with Strangers [Series Post]

Over the next few weeks, I will post dialogues I have had with strangers (turned friends) during the trips I have had in the last 10 years.

Travel means quite a few things to me: getting lost in nature, seeing a bit of a new culture, eating new stuff (while yearning for home food :P), personal development, meeting new people. Most of the stuff I do on a holiday is forgotten a few months of coming back; it is the people and my encounters with them which lingers on in my mind. I would like to share those experiences here for future fun reads.

In this post, I will start by making a list of all such conversations. Going further, I will post about one conversation every week.

2002, from Dadar station to IIT hostel: Coffee date with the rickshaw wala

2005, Solo trip to Mundoli: The contractor & the journalist

2007, Solo trip to Wayand: The boy who got me back to Bangalore

2007, Solo trip to Naggar: Manju, the girl with dreams

2008, Solo trip to Baran: The woman on a mission

2013, Murren: The Casanova professor and his lovely wife

2014, Solo trip to Kinnaur: The trend-setter, icon of running

2014, Sichuan Valley: A Chinese teenager who inspired an Indian adult

2015, the island of Boracay: An Austrian couple who want to own a resort island

2015, a mountain village in Vent: A German couple inspiring in their struggles

Hope while writing these stories I would be able to do justice to the beautiful conversations I have had with these amazing, inspiring and sometimes weird people.