Neha Dara, December 2016
On a recent whirlwind trip through the jungles of Madhya Pradesh, one of the highlights of our forest safaris was the different breakfast spots we’d stop at mid-morning after a gratifying exploration of the jungle. We ate under a sprawling mahua tree at the edge of an elephant camp, and next to a forest department watch hut overlooking a watering hole. But the most spectacular setting of all was this rocky outcrop beside a reservoir at Satpura National Park. A swarm of wandering glider dragonflies swirled in the air, as our naturalist told us tales of a recent tiger spotting in the area. Tree branches shook as langurs frolicked among them, sending the birds that were sunning themselves on treetops, flapping into the sky. No cup of coffee or brownie has ever tasted better.
Fabiola Monteiro, November 2016
In September, I visited the Barossa Valley in South Australia, best known for its sprawling vineyards.
One of my favourite experiences was at the Penfolds winery, where I got to make my own blend of wine. Donning a white coat in a science laboratory, I felt like I was back in school.
One of Penfolds’ premium wines is their Grenache-Shiraz-Mataro blend, with one vintage released each year. My agenda was to craft a blend of Grenache, Shiraz, and Mataro wines in proportions that I’d prefer.
First, my guide encouraged me to identify the various flavours in each wine. I could easily taste a hint of cocoa in the Shiraz, dryness in the Mataro, and the sweet, fruity, and full-bodied texture in the Grenache, my favourite of the three. I got three tries to decide how much of each I wanted in my own blend. My final concoction ended up with 50 per cent Grenache, 40 per cent Shiraz, and 10 per cent Mataro.
While the wine is all over now, the bottle it came in is still perched on a shelf in my kitchen, a constant reminder of my time as a winemaker in Barossa.
Kamakshi Ayyar, September 2016
One afternoon, my editor texted me asking, “Do you like dogs?”
“Yes, are you giving away puppies?” I asked.
She wasn’t. Instead, she gave me what turned out to be one of my favourite assignments ever. All I had to do initially was head to Mumbai’s T2 airport and hang out with a pair of dogs. This new de-stressing service for travellers allows them to interact with two canines trained to calm frazzled nerves. Since September 2015, therapy dogs coached by the NGO Animal Angels Foundation have been cheering up passengers at the airport’s shopping area, just after the security checkpoint, every Friday, Saturday, and Sunday (domestic terminal 5.30-8.30 p.m.; international terminal 9-11.30 p.m.)
On the appointed day, once I got there, I spotted two golden furballs sitting calmly in T2’s domestic area. I rubbed retriever Pepe’s belly and scratched Labrador Myshka behind the ear. Their handlers—Aakash, Gayatri and Harshada—told me how these dogs were specially trained to help harrowed flyers and put them at ease. Over the next hour, I saw kids and grandparents, pilots and airport staff come to say hello to the pooches, or give them a hug. One traveller was having a particularly rough day, made worse by the fact that her flight was delayed. A couple of minutes with Pepe and Myshka served to relax her. “I’ve had a rotten day, but this is the nicest flight delay I’ve ever had,” she said
Niloufer Venkatraman, August 2016
I’d arrived at my hotel in Luxor after dinner and while I knew my room at the Steigenberger Nile Palace faced the Nile, I couldn’t see very much under darkness. My bed faced the large windows and a balcony, so I slept with the curtains thrown open. When I awoke, I could see an orange glow in the distance. Curious, I hurried out to my balcony and there it was: The River Nile shimmering in the morning sun and beyond it, on the west bank, the rocky Theban Hills and the Valley of the Kings. The top of the hills was encased in a red glow and some of that reflected in the water. Suddenly, I noticed a speck in the sky, and then another—hot air balloons! It was a fabulous sight to wake up to—the legendary River Nile and the Valley of Kings lit in an otherworldly glow. In that moment I felt cynicism and the dark side of the world didn’t exist, and only the beauty before me mattered. And the next day, which also happened to be my birthday, I went up in one of those balloons for the first time in my life, soaring over this wondrous landscape
Diya Kohli, May 2016
I might be grinning in the picture, but when I initially scrambled on to a Segway during my recent trip to Tel Aviv, Israel, I was a bundle of nerves. Once I was on it, I realized that if I could control my own body, I would be able to determine the motion of the Segway. Reassured, I started enjoying myself as I made my way down the sunny promenade curving along the Mediterranean Sea. A languorous beach life unfolded as I zipped past glistening sunbathers, kids building sandcastles, and families enjoying tall, chilled drinks. For the first time in my life, I was comfortable controlling something with wheels. I also got to experience the seaside in a whole new way.
Rumela Basu, April 2016
At the fairgrounds of the Khajuraho Dance Festival in Madhya Pradesh this year, I saw an artisan weaving a Chanderi saree on a pit loom, one with a base fixed in a pit in the ground. The weaver asked made the process seem effortless, so I agreed when he asked me if I’d like a shot at it. A few minutes later, I realised just how much arm strength and expertise operating a pit loom requires. I did a dismal job of it, but gained deep respect for the art, and purchased a beautiful sari as a souvenir.
Fabiola Monteiro, March 2016
Earlier this year, I was in the town of Seppa in western Arunachal Pradesh for the Kameng River Festival. It is a calm river that originates in the Himalayas and weaves its way through the state before joining the mighty Brahmaputra. At the festival, the Kameng was bustling with various types of fishing activity. Here, a local called Mara Kocho (pictured), shows me the innovative fishing traps used by the Nyishis, a community in the East Kameng District. The elaborate, bridge-like bamboo trap creates a makeshift dam; the water filters through the gaps, but the fish are caught. Locals from communities on both sides of the river unite to set up the traps, taking turns each night to watch it, and in the end, divvy up the catch.
Diya Kohli, February 2016
It was my first day in Switzerland, but a pre-planned itinerary had led me to spend the first few hours at the Swiss Museum of Transport in Lucerne. Knowing it was going to be a magnificent sunset, I ran out to the park across the museum. It was a watercolourist’s dream palette. The sun had swooped towards the horizon leaving behind a trail of orange. Pilatus loomed large over the city, its distinct contours identifiable over the Old Town’s clock towers and spires. This picture was taken by my colleague Chirodeep Chaudhuri, who manages to make photographs speak. Read more about Diya’s Swiss adventures here.
Kamakshi Ayyar, January 2016
In the Philippines, I went helmet diving for the first time, an activity that involves wearing a giant, Jules Vernesque helmet and scrambling 10 feet down a ladder to the ocean floor. In the water, you channel your inner astronaut and bob around the seabed, navigating around clumps of coral. The helmet, which weighs 50 kilos on ground, but doesn’t feel like it underwater, is connected to an oxygen tank in the boat. At first I felt like an intruder in that space, but soon enough my apprehension was replaced by curiosity and I was happily trying to follow peacock-hued parrotfish as they went about their way, past us pesky humans living out 15 minutes of our Little Mermaid fantasies.
Saumya Ancheri, April 2015
I fell in love with a bird, an animal, and a grandmother in Jodhpur. A peacock held my gaze as I entered Umaid Bhawan Palace, its friendliness brushing off the slight unease I feel around opulence. A nilgai sauntered over to our parked jeep in the scrublands of the Bishnoi villages, testament to the way the wildlife here trusts humans. I’d heard stories of how the Bishnoi survived droughts for 530 years with conservation practices, and about how they sacrificed their lives to protect their habitat. The Bishnoi grandmother I’m standing with requested to take this picture with me, although there’s little chance of my forgetting her. She was amused by my curly hair, by this city girl on a solo trip, but treated me with the same generosity and affection that the community is famous for bestowing on nature. Read more about Saumya’s day with the Bishnois here.
Kareena Gianani, October 2015
On a recent trip to Toronto, Canada, I signed up for an adventure that pushed me way out of my comfort zone: the EdgeWalk atop the CN Tower, where participants walk on a narrow platform, 1,168 feet above the ground. It sounded exciting, until I learnt that the ledge has no handrails and is open to air. Harnessed to a single safety line, teetering on that ledge, was exhilarating—a weird and wonderful way to conquer my fear 116 storeys above the ground. Read more about Kareena’s Canada adventures here.
Neha Sumitran, November 2015
In November 2015, Shillong hosted the Terra Madre Slow Food festival dedicated to Indigenous People around the world. The five-day enclave was attended by members from tribes from as far away as Scandinavia and Botswana, and as near home as Nagaland and Karnataka. This is Janaki akka, from the Nilgiri hills of Tamil Nadu. She is part of the Keystone Foundation, a rural enterprise that helps millet farmers and honey gatherers package and market their produce. I met her on a daytrip to Nongtraw village near Cherrapunji. It was a lovely day when we hiked down, but we were all a little anxious because we had to climb 2,500 steps down to get there (and back up again). Will you be okay, I asked silver-haired Janaki as we got off bus. She was old enough to be my grandmother. She gave me the sweetest, shyest smile and replied, “I’m from the Nilgiris, ma. Will you be okay?”
Neha Sumitran, September 2015
Among the things I love about homestays, is the access it grants me to the host’s kitchen. I’m a curious cook—and a hoarder of ingredients—and there’s nothing I love more than scoring local spices and recipes. One of the most memorable kitchen experiences I had was when I stayed with Yonden Dolma in Komic, the highest habited village in Asia, in Himachal Pradesh’s Spiti Valley. Sitting next to my host in her humble kitchen, with her rosy-cheeked children and toothless mother, I had my first momo-making lesson. For dinner, we had potato dumplings flavoured with onion blooms I’d picked earlier that day and a broth of peas and spinach harvested from Dolma’s garden. It’s been over a year since my visit, but I still feel a swell of gratitude every time I use my stash of dried onion blooms—even though I still can’t make the perfect momo. Read more about Neha’s adventures in Spiti here.
Diya Kohli, August 2015
This is a typical cheese “cave” in the village of Le Brassus in Vallee de Joux, Switzerland. The room is meant for aging cheese and is lined with shelves carrying giant roundels of Gruyère. Sounds rather lovely but it’s an assault on the olfactory senses. It smells like a combination of raw meat, old socks, sweat, and curdled milk. I imagine this is what the inside of an animal’s stomach smells like. And yet, the cheese that finally emerges is considered the finest in the country. At a cosy, all-wood chalet outside the cave, I try delicious varietals that are thankfully, not a bit malodorous.
Neha Dara, July 2015
During a recent trip to Uttarakhand’s Kumaon district, I stumbled upon the beautiful Jilling Estate, just beyond Bhimtal. Visitors have to walk two kilometres uphill to reach the property, which is set amongst 45 acres of oak, deodar, and rhododendron forest. That evening, I hiked up to a ridge soaking in the magical light of the setting sun casting a golden glow on the leaf-covered paths and the gnarly old oaks. At the top, I found a perfectly flat rock. I returned here at 6 a.m. the next morning for my daily pranayam routine, which was especially invigorating in the crisp air.
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