From the Journals: A Stranger to Travel.

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On the Hanuman Temple Hill, Hosur.

Many, many feet above sea level, the wind whipped my hair. Was it angry that I was cloistered in a closed space all this while, shutting out the world, face buried in a laptop? Or was it just a friendly whack to the back of my head that said it was glad I was finally out in the open? Questions, always so many questions. This need to find an answer to everything – to know for sure – when did it start taking over?

I shook my head and focused on the moment, the here and now. Massive rocks overlooking a sparsely populated landscape hundreds of feet below with patches of glittering green and brown fields… and I was standing on top of the highest one. I was high metaphorically as well – I had just climbed a mountain stacked with sharp, gigantic boulders just to prove to myself that I could. I breathed heavily, but it was a welcome sensation as the invisible chains around my soul came off. Travelling anchors me, but these days, I don’t travel as much. And I feel uncertain, unanchored. A piece of driftwood in a world that constantly pushes one to prove one’s abilities and work more, play more, live more. Live? Really?

The wind whirled around me again. While my cousins were busy taking selfies and swinging from trees, I took a moment to gather my senses. To see if I could reach out and find myself. “Get away from the edge! Don’t be a fool, sit back a little!”, my aunt said, looking at me. “I won’t fall”, I assured her, the wind still whipping my hair. I won’t fall. Into this rigmarole. This pattern of waking up, working, coming home, passing out, managing family expectations, social expectations, not finding time to reorient myself. Not finding the time to travel. To be me. About time I broke this pattern. I need to. I cannot live without hitting the road, driving past paddy fields and waterfalls and fishing boats and islands and processions and waving to strangers on the road guilelessly. I cannot live without driving through lonely forest roads in dark nights on the way to Goa or wondering how I’m going to trek to a monastery two mountains away from the starting point. Without feeling the sand tickle my toes and the water terrifying me. I cannot not travel.

So, I made up my mind and shut out my everyday existence. Took two days off – days that seemed like a lifetime – and went away with the family. I walked, ran, slipped and slid, climbed rocks, sang, bathed in moonlight, got kissed by the sun, lived in the fear of a close encounter with some wild animal, slept like a log, laughed hard, talked, sang, danced… I lived.

And in that moment, as I stood there on that magnificent rock, revelling in the pleasure of feeling anchored again, the wind changed course and made its way through my hair and into the curves of my ear. “Welcome back, stranger”, it whooshed.

I smiled in reply.

Food adventures: The Avarekai Mela

Plates waiting to be filled.
Plates waiting to be filled.

I recently heard about food festivals in Bangalore that are centred around specific ingredients, and rather than being hosted in some expensive hotel for a couple of days, these festivals are held on the streets of Bangalore for at least a week. Nearly half a year ago, when the Kadalekai (Kannada for Peanut) Mela (Festival) was held, I heard about it only after it happened. In late December, when I heard that the Avarekai Mela was happening, I jumped at the opportunity to experience it.

Vendors selling the Lablab bean by kilos.
Vendors selling the Lablab bean by kilos.

Avarekai – Kannada for the Lablab bean (or the Indian bean, Egyptian bean, Hyacinth bean or Australian pea) – is popular with locals when in season: you’ll see its skin strewn in front of homes across Bangalore. Legend goes that if the skins are stepped on or trampled over on the roads, the food cooked using the bean gets more flavourful. (I don’t know about that part, but I do know that by the end of the season, I’m pretty sick of my mom using it in everything she makes.)

Everyone of these cooks was creating something different with the Avarekai. And this is just half of them.
Everyone of these cooks was creating something different with the Avarekai. And this is just half of them.

That the Lablab bean is an amazingly versatile ingredient is something I discovered after I went for the Avarekai Mela. Held on the street adjacent to Sajjan Rao Circle, by a very enterprising woman who runs a sweets and savouries store on the same road, the Avarekai Mela showcased the many ways in which the little green bean can be used – from Ragi Dosa to Kod Vadai to Payasam. Thousands of people walked up and down the street, trying out the many delicacies on display, getting straight off girdles and frying pans to environment-friendly disposable plates; buying coupons for the food took an awfully long time because the queue was insanely long.

I sampled everything, of course, and didn’t need to eat for the rest of the day. My four most favourite dishes were:

The Nippattu – a sort of fried flat bread-ish snack made with green gram flour, spices, peanuts and in this case, Avarekai. It was crispy through and through, with the Avarekai adding delicious crunch to the mix.

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Deep-fried goodness.

Avarekai Payasam – made with milk, jaggery, fresh ground coconut, cardamoms and Avarekai. It was the first time I tasted the Lablab in a sweet dish and, my goodness, I was amazed. The distinct flavour of cardamom with the slightly nutty Avarekai and earthy tones of the jaggery made for a new, novel, and very memorable taste.

The Avarekai Payasam. Tasted way better than it looked.
The Avarekai Payasam. Tasted way better than it looked.

Avarekai Masala Vada – Crunchy on the outside and soft on the inside, another classic dish at the mela.

Kod Vadai – Did you know that Lablab can be ground to a paste and mixed with curd and spices and then rolled into circles and deep fried? Well, now you do. If I ever meet the person who invented it, I will fall at their feet and hail them as the next best thing after the printing press.

Kod Vadai being fried as the lady in the background rolls the dough and shapes it into circles.
Kod Vadai being fried as the lady in the background rolls the dough and shapes it into circles.

Want to get a taste of similar melas yourself? Here’s how:

– Look out for listings/mentions in the local newspapers. Unfortunately, they’re not a big enough event to have a dedicated Facebook page, nor are they as fancy. So newspapers are the only way to know about them.

– When in doubt, Google.

Avarekai Dosa. One of this is lunch enough.
Avarekai Dosa. One of this is lunch enough.

Getting there: Grab an auto/taxi to Sajjan Rao Circle. I wouldn’t recommend driving there – parking is excruciatingly hard to find.

Go if: You like experimenting with food, love food, and are happiest trying out new flavours.

Five secrets to having a great big-family holiday.

Outside Bangalore at 7:30 a.m - a lovely day for a drive into the hills.
Outside Bangalore at 7:30 a.m – a lovely day for a drive into the hills.

Over the third weekend of October in the heart of Bengal, people gathered by the dozen to worship Durga, go pendal-hopping and indulge in a lavish spread of Bengali fare.

Approximately 1,800 kilometers away, I was busy with my own celebrations: a weekend away from the city with family.

It wasn’t just the parents and I – it was the three of us plus six cousins – all younger – and two aunts. That’s one big family do, and after over a decade. Even then, the headcount wasn’t complete, with three uncles, another aunt and two more cousins – younger again –missing. And that’s just on my mother’s side.

Anyhoo, now that I’ve made you unnecessarily privy to my family tree, let me tell you more about the holiday itself.

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“What’s in there?”, he said, and promptly proceeded to peep in.

Unlike all the other times when you holiday to untangle yourself from the world and everyone you know in it, a family holiday sort of strengthens the strings that tie family to one another. The time you have can go either way – morose and unhappy and full of family politics and cribs and complaints, or totally chilled out and mindlessly fun and full of camaraderie. Fortunately, I belong to a family that falls in the latter category, minus the occasional outburst of preferences and cribs, which is only natural. Oh, and the best part? By the end of it, we had our hair intact, vital organs in the right places and no blood on knives. And here are five things we did right, that helped us have a relaxed couple of days.

#1 Allot a SPOC (Single Point of Complaints)

Food not good? Travel arrangements not up to the mark? Beds too comfortable? Find the family a neck to put on the line. It works to your advantage to outsource the arrangements – that way, everyone can have a good time pointing fingers, without having to worry about hurting sentiments. Be warned, though – sometimes, one single person will have taken the initiative to choose the planner and that person may risk having been bitched about anyway. Don’t worry, just join the others and point away as well!

By default, the responsibility of arranging things fell on my shoulders because I’m the only one in the family with strolley wheels for feet. And because I’ve done it so many times, the whole thing was a cakewalk – except for the part where we decided on the travel dates 24 hours before travelling, on a long weekend when every resort I called was booked out or didn’t have accommodation available for 11 people.

Discovery Village, where we went for out short family holiday.
Discovery Village, where we went for our short family holiday.

#2 Choose a location/resort with provisions for group activities

You probably haven’t spent more than seven hours (including loo breaks and meal times) with your family since you were a toddler (read too little to comprehend family dynamics). So, living together for the next couple of days is fertile breeding ground for discord. By going to a place that has lots to see/do, you automatically give everyone something better than each other to be involved in – flowers to pluck, monkeys to chase or skimpily-clad women on the beaches to ‘observe’.

Discovery Village was our chosen destination. The place is not too far from the city, yet feels like it because it’s surrounded by mountains. Their usual guests are corporates who want to hold team outings or families that visit for a day-trip. We stayed overnight, and had much fun trying our hands at pottery, archery and target shooting. They even have a high-ropes course, but that needed to be booked in advance and we hadn’t.

The youngest in the family gives pottery a shot.
The youngest in the family gives pottery a shot.

#3 Stay away from controversial topics (including “When are you getting married?”, “Why do you spend so much money?” or even “What do you think of our Prime Ministerial candidates?”)

I’ve seen talks on Big Boss eliminations end in fist fights, so trust me when I say that I know what I’m talking about. Controversial topics may give people something to occupy themselves with, but they also usually divide people into three groups – those arguing, those supporting arguments and waiting for an opportunity to take a personal dig, and those who stand far away and enjoy the drama vicariously. Isn’t it better to spend time doing other, more interesting things (refer to #2) instead of debating if Salman’s new movie name was a gimmick to get more TRPs for the show?

Here’s what happened to me: Our holiday had precisely three minutes of focus on when I was going to get married. I deflected the question by drawing attention to my cousins and their problems –is so-and-so’s teacher discriminating based on religion? or Ohmigod you’re wearing that to go exploring? When both failed, I resorted to randomly jiggling to beats from “Lungi dance”. It worked beautifully.

Another effective way of distracting people - shoot tons of weird photos. In this picture, a cousin and I were fooling with the classic theme of love as shown in 80s cinema. We found this leaf from the Fig tree big enough to cover both our faces!
Another effective way of distracting people – shoot tons of weird photos. In this picture, a cousin and I were fooling with the classic theme of love as shown in 80’s cinema while another cousin clicked away. We found this leaf from the Fig tree big enough to cover both our faces!

#4 Don’t let how old you are affect how much fun you have

Being in a similar age group can give you lots of dots to connect, but when the years range from 10 to 75, you have to keep age aside and get together to have fun. Since the older generations have problems with the younger ones growing up (metaphorically and briefly) to their age, they just have to get down to the level of the youngsters. Which means, keep throwing in phrases like ‘Cool!’ and ‘Whatever’, get on Instagram, use the resort space to advantage to come up with age-neutral games, or just have a bonfire and play Antakshari.

We just came up with an impromptu game around pillars outside the rooms at Discovery Village. It was great fun, with all of us conspiring to get my mother out while she cheated her way through every round.

The aunts doing an impromptu climb up a mountain on the way to the resort. The cousins were already on top and hollering for them to move faster. Kids, I tell you.
The aunts doing an impromptu climb up a rocky hill on the way to the resort. The cousins were already on top and hollering for them to move faster. Kids, I tell you.

#5 Go with the flow

There’s nothing much to explain about this, is there? Go crazy, have fun, keep an open mind and try out new things.

The youngsters pitched a tent on the patch of grass outside our rooms and went a-playing Dumb Charades. They got chased out by lots of little creeepy crawlies, but that's a story for another time.
The youngsters pitched a tent on the patch of grass outside our rooms and went a-playing Dumb Charades. They got chased out by lots of little creepy crawlies, but that’s a story for another time.

So there you have it, my little secrets that will make a big difference in having a fabulous time with family. Use them, share them, turn them around and by all means, adapt and modify them as per your convenience. And if none of them work, get my number on speed dial and I’ll give you fantastic cheats to get out of sticky situations.

Getting to Discovery Village: Driving down is the best way. It’s about 60 kilometres from Bangalore and if you follow the directions to the T, then easy to find too.

Go if: You’re planning a family holiday or team outing, want to treat the kids to a day out, like being among mountains or want to stay within easy access to the city.

No-brainer destinations: Lepakshi

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The courtyard surrounding the Virabhadraswamy Temple.

Sunday dawned bright and sky-blue, and decided that she wanted to whisk me away into the pages of history. There are untold cultural riches, she whispered, stories in stone that you’ve never seen before, and a way of life that’s long forgotten.

And so I found myself on the way to Lepakshi – a small temple town on the border of Andhra Pradesh. Craggy mountains abound on the way, and a massive arched entrance welcomes people to the place that’s home to a gorgeous, albeit fast-crumbling, 15th century Virabhadraswamy temple.

View through the doorway.
View through the doorway.

Stepping through the looming doorway, I was instantly enveloped by the ghosts of a historic period that must have been aesthetically rich – typical carvings of lions, horses, and apsaras are given more depth and character through the masonry that created them. The temple stands proud at the center of the stone-walled compound, with a row of Hampi gold-market-like structures running along it. I decided to explore the outside area before venturing in, and found myself fascinated by the uniqueness of the carvings. They’re nothing like the stone carvings I have seen in temples and caves across any of the other historic sites I have visited.

A section of the kalyana mantapa behind the temple.
A section of the kalyana mantapa behind the temple.

Walking around the back of the temple, I came upon a kalyana mantapa – a space allotted for marriage ceremonies. Despite its dilapidated state, the mantapa is the most impressive part of the temple; stone pillars ornately carved with gods and goddesses surround the central area of the mantapa, simulating the feeling of a marriage ‘blessed by the gods themselves’. A little distance away, a gigantic carving of serpent heads awaits the descent of Lord Vishnu. The contrast of the aged stones against a clear-blue sky dotted with cotton-candy clouds was visually unparalleled.

Murals on the ceiling of the temple's inner sanctum.
Murals on the ceiling of the temple’s inner sanctum.

Inside the temple itself, the visual display is quite the opposite – the ceilings are full of fairly well-preserved murals depicting scenes of hunting, weddings, and visits to the king. Again, the style here was vastly different from any mural paintings I have ever seen. The hall before the deity of the temple is the natya mandira – the space for performance arts. The pillars in the space display careful craftsmanship in the forms of dancers and musicians.

I'm not sure what to make of this lady's pose, but it feels like an 'Oops' moment to me.
I’m not sure what to make of this lady’s pose, but it feels like an ‘Oops’ moment to me, like she’s just lost her balance and is about to fall. Incidentally, this is the first carving I have seen with what resembles slippers on the carving’s feet.

The temple itself is a sanctuary from the outside world, breathing in the surrounding noise and breathing out a comfortable silence. The cool stone slabs offer the perfect reprieve from a burning afternoon sun.

The Nandi in Lepakshi, a little distance away from the temple, faces the temple's entrance and is the only other tourist attraction in the area.
The Nandi in Lepakshi, a little distance away from the temple, faces the temple’s entrance and is the only other tourist attraction in the area.

As I sat in the temple and looked around, Sunday evening glided up to me, whispering that it was time to get back to reality. Reluctantly, I big goodbye to the temple priest whom I was just beginning to be friends with and walked away, mentally bookmarking this particular page so I could get back to it whenever I wanted to.

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The Frangipani that got away from the tree for some quiet time.

Getting there: Lepakshi is 125 kilometres from Bangalore and easily accessible by road. We went on bikes, but it’s a smooth drive by car as well. The roads are wide and the route, picturesque.

Go if: You don’t have enough time for a weekend getaway, want to explore places around Bangalore, like historic places, temples and stories.

Meet the traveller: Gaurav Vaz

*Meet the Traveller is a series on Potli Baba, of conversations with people who have been inspired by travel.*

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If any of you have heard The Raghu Dixit Project play, you’ll pick up the unmistakable rhythm of the bass guitar guiding the song along. A curly-haired, smiling man and his beloved stringed instrument are at the other end of these notes. That’s Gaurav Vaz for you, swinging along to the music, always smiling.

My longest interaction with him was in my teenage years at a social gathering. My second longest was when I met him at a quaint little patisserie to talk about the things he and Potli Baba had in common: a love for travel. (Case in point – he’s on his third passport booklet!)

He may look laid-back and easy-going, but Gaurav is a fount of energy – he plays with the band, consults for a record label and puts his core skills as a computer software engineer to use as a Web developer, among a million other things. He’s also a walking, talking repository of stories – all accumulated on his many travels, and bound to make you smile, even laugh. If you ever get a chance to meet him backstage, strike up a conversation. Oh, and don’t forget to ask him what he thinks of America’s highways.

G.Vaz

Describe yourself in one word. Curious!

Where do you live? In Bangalore, India.

Where have you travelled to till date? A lot of places, especially with my band, The Raghu Dixit Project.

Travel to you is: Fun and something everyone should do often!

Five things your travel bag will always have: Laptop/iPad and all related gadgets, multiple chargers for all these gadgets, my phone, which has replaced all cameras and video equipment I used to previously carry.

Everything else I can manage to find wherever I go. Also, my passport is always on me!

Wanderer or tourist? I’d prefer to say Wanderer, but in quite a few places, I am happy being a tourist :)

Mountains, beaches, deserts, jungles, nature or adventure sports? Nature, mountains / beaches, jungles, deserts and then adventure sports – in that order :P

Plan your own travel or get someone to do it for you? Plan my own travel always and with the band, also plan other people’s travel ;)

What’s your favourite journey to date? Your travel memory? 

I think Norway is the most beautiful place I have yet seen and some of my fondest travel memories are of boating through the fjords in Norway to have lunch on the mountain side where they cooked a leg of lamb in the earth for six hours!

If you were a city/town/country/place, which would you be and why? London! My favourite city outside Bangalore. I think it has the perfect mix of the old and contemporary, it is modern and timeless at the same time. I love that there is so much to do and see and you can walk everywhere!

How has travel inspired you? More than just travel, it is the interesting people I’ve met and become friends with from around the world. That inspires me to continue traveling. I think we grow up very closeted in India and don’t really know much of the world that exists, and when you travel and meet people and see places that are so vastly different from your own, it opens your mind to new cultures, new possibilities and new ideas!

It makes you appreciate this earth a lot more and be a better person!

Complete this sentence: If the world could fit into your palm, you would… never need another visa!