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!

Ramadan Specials: Iftaar in the old city.

Onion samosas sizzling away.

Onion samosas sizzling away.

It’s hard to believe that it’s been a year since I went feasting along Mosque Road during Ramadan (or Ramzan). This year, I decided to go deeper into the city, to an area most frequented by Muslims: Shivajinagar.

TV/DVD, anyone?

TV/DVD, anyone?

If you ever decide to let go of bigger brands and labels and hunt for bargains, then OPH Road and thereabouts is the place to be. Located behind Russell Market, it’s thriving with shops selling affordable brocades, footwear, ready-mades, utensils, and of course, local flavours of food. During the month of Ramzan, the place really comes to life with people putting their best wares on display.

The interiors of Russell Market, all lit up.

The interiors of Russell Market, all lit up.

I went one evening with the intention of opening my fast in Shivajinagar, and the minute I entered the area, I was hit by the sounds of sizzling griddles and honking vehicles superimposed over the continuous buzz of shuffling, conversing people. The energy of the crowds brought a smile that never left my face till I moved out of the area. One can’t help it – the sense of camaraderie despite the swarms of humans is quite infectious. I was struck by the many people out shopping at a time when they usually stay at home and wait for Iftaar time (the time to open fast). But then I realized that the looming Taj Hotel (fondly referred to as Shivajinagar Taj, and not even a distant cousin of the five star chain of hotels) and the many food stalls would take care of their hunger pangs.

Sweets, savouries and thirst-quenchers - this shop had it all.

Sweets, savouries and thirst-quenchers – this shop had it all.

I started with a tour of the area, sounding out stalls with the most potential for varied eats and sweet meats. Fairly sceptical about being told to buzz off none too politely when I got the camera out, I was quite surprised when people were more than welcoming. “Aao aao ma! Eyy, hatt baa! Ino photu lerin! Konsa newspaper medam? Eyy newspaper mein photo aata re!” (“Come, come! Move out of the way, she’s taking photos! Which newspaper madam? Our picture will come in the newspaper!”), followed by instructions on which angles I should explore to get the best shot. Their eagerness touched me; I had to keep telling them that I wasn’t from any newspaper, but was taking pictures for the Internet. Everywhere I turned, there were people beckoning, asking me to take their photographs.

Sevai on sale already, and people were buying by the truckloads. Sevai is what is used to make Sheer Qurma - the trademark sweet of Eid.

Sevai on sale already, and people were buying by the truckloads. Sevai is what is used to make Sheer Qurma – the trademark sweet of Eid.

The sky was pretty cloudy and looked like it was going to rain. It did soon enough, sending shop owners scrambling for tarpaulins and rexines to cover their stores before covering themselves. It took all of a minute for them to figure out shelters. People immediately resumed shopping in the rain, now even more in a hurry because Iftaar was just minutes away.

Shopping after the rain. This how OPH Road looked with dwindling crowds.

Shopping after the rain. This is how OPH Road looked with dwindling crowds.

As if disappointed by how little the drizzle had affected everyone, the sky unleashed a torrent.

People ran for cover. I ran too, shielding my camera as best I could. So many of us were stranded in pockets around OPH Road, wondering what we would do when the siren for Iftaar went off. Almost on cue, the wail of the siren filled every nook and corner of Shivajinagar.  Shoppers, shop owners, beggars, policemen, Muslims, non-Muslims – everyone dug into their purses, plastic bags or carts simultaneously to open fasts with dates, water, or morsels of food.

The generous date seller who saved me from (nearly) starving.

The generous date seller who saved me from (nearly) starving.

I panicked. I wasn’t carrying anything to eat and would be drenched to the bone if I tried to get to one of the stalls. I couldn’t take that chance while carrying my camera. I looked around in desperation, spotted a cart selling dates and quickly asked them for one to open my fast. He was confused at first – nothing about my attire indicated that I was a Muslim, leave alone a Muslim who was fasting. Comprehension dawned soon enough and he reached out his hand, offering a bunch of dates instead of just one, saying, “Ye lo, jaldi jaldi!” (“Here, take this quick!”) Grateful, I said my prayers and bit into a delectably sweet and juicy date.

The scene was surreal. People stuck together in the rain, sharing food, partaking in the ritual of Iftaar as one. Religion wasn’t what was uniting all of us; it was food.

As I looked around at all the people busy eating and sharing whatever they had, I thought to myself, God must be looking down at all of us, smiling and nodding his head thinking, these are the moments I exist for.

The mosque opposite Russell Market which blared its siren when it was time for Iftaar.

The mosque opposite Russell Market which blared its siren when it was time for Iftaar.

Getting there: Don’t make the mistake of taking your own vehicle, unless you’re feeling masochistic. Take an auto and ask him to go to OPH Road. If that doesn’t work, try Russell Market.

Go if: You love local food, are a meat eater, feel like you want to be surrounded by tons of energy coming from tons of people, want to experience Iftaar in the midst of the Muslim community.

Ramadan Specials: Travelling down Mosque Road in search of the perfect 3-course Muslim meal.

Ramadan (or Ramzan as it is more commonly known) is the time most looked forward to by Muslims around the world. It was during this month that the Quran came into being with Prophet Mohammed’s (peace be upon him) revelations. The month is spent observing fasts from the break of dawn to the beginnings of dusk – over 12 hours usually – without ingesting a morsel of food, drinking a drop of water or even swallowing one’s saliva. After 30 days of fasting, the month of Ramadan culminates in Eid – a celebration of the month gone by.

But this is not the only reason that Ramadan is well-known in India. The biggest reason behind a large population looking forward to this time is because of the food. Obviously when people have been fasting for over 12 hours, they will not tolerate average food during the opening of the fast at dusk. So the spread is a choice of delectable meats, rices, savouries, sweets and soups. You’ll see hundreds of shops and eat streets across India catering to this rush of people.

In Bangalore, there are a handful of places that come alive during Ramadan, and Mosque Road is one of them. The mosque takes permission for letting people put up rows and rows of stalls that stretch a kilometre, with mouth-watering foods from various parts of South India. This phenomenon was hidden from me for the better part of this month till I happened to travel past it one evening and watched agape at the culinary orgy being displayed to attract the passing crowds. And I’ve been wanting to capture it ever since.

As I recuperate from Eid excess, I want to leave you with my epicurean adventures on Mosque Road three nights ago.

First, it is important to soak in the atmosphere and become one with the mass of bodies screaming their orders and belting food like a famine’s about to strike the world in a couple of hours.

Crowds circulate among the roadside stalls lining Mosque Road, leaving enough room for a two wheeler to use the road.

Second, take a look around. See which stalls have interesting names and which ones have interesting food.

Inspired cooking, indeed.

Third, start with an appetiser. Kababs are the perfect beginning to a two hour-long meal. Choose from chicken kabab, mutton kabab, veal kabab, shaamis, boti kabab, chicken stick, chicken shaslik, vegetable patty…

What did the chicken sheekh tell the mutton sheekh when they got caught having an affair? “We’re so skewered!”

Fourth, walk around a little more and see what gets your taste buds going for the main course.

To the left: A milk sherbet with fruits and sabz ke seeds (I have no idea what the English name for those is), matka phirni, beef cutlets, strawberry cheesecake.
To the right: Fresh-baked biscuits, little puris with coconut filling, paper napkins, plastic covers and bottled pickles.

This menu’s been beefed up.

Shahi Tukda: Bread fried and cooked in sugar syrup and khova.

Serves 100: Home to over 6 kilos of Biryani, this is the classic utensil used in preparing one of the most popular rice dishes.

“Aaaaachickensamosamuttonsamosaonionsamosaaaaaaaa!”

The Making of a Chicken Roll: juicy, melt-in-your-mouth chicken meets soft, almost translucent Rumali roti in an explosion of flavour.

Peacockery: Show off your wares, and you’re bound to attract more people.

Patthar Gosht: This is one of the fast-disappearing traditional way of cooking meat. Choose a slab of stone, wash it well and set it on a heap of coal. Let it get really, really, really hot. Marinate the meat of your choice, pour some oil over the stone and follow it up with the meat. Stir and turn until cooked. This meat is especially flavourful because not only does it cook in its own juices, but it also takes on a certain earthy taste from the stone. *Yumm*

Kheema Paratha: Available in both chicken and mutton versions, this paratha is stuffed with cooked meat and cooked again. Apparently, they made 1000 parathas a day.

Fifth, when you know you can eat no more, eat a paan.

Magai paan: Bite-size paans stuffed with Gulkhand and garnished with a cherry. Best eaten chilled.

Sixth, because you can be such a glutton and are constantly greedy when it comes to food, grab a kulfi.

Pista Kulfi and Walnut Kulfi at the Bombay Chowpatti Kulfi shop. Absolutely delicious and a must-try.

Waiting to exhale: These chefs work in the kitchens till dusk and then in the stalls from then on. Can’t be easy.

Getting there: Go by auto, especially if you decide to visit during Ramadan next year. Taking a cab or bike is utter chaos. Almost all autos know where Mosque Road is, so just say that.

Go if: You love food, meat, biryani, pulsating crowds because they make you feel alive.

Being a tourist in Delhi, Amritsar and Agra.

Light falling on graves, Fatehpur Sikri.

Three years ago, I decided to venture out of the warmth and comfort of South India and take a chance with a holiday in the North. My week-long holiday across Delhi, Amritsar and Agra in December of 2009 was an icebreaker on many levels (no puns intended). Before the holiday, I didn’t think it was possible to have fun at temperatures as low as one degree or witness millions of years of history crammed into one city.

I also didn’t comprehend the oft-mentioned distinction between ‘South’ Indians and ‘North’ Indians prior to the trip. I now thoroughly understand the divide. No matter how much I loved North India, I hated the people. I’m not too far off the mark when I say that most of them are uncouth, abrasive, uncivil and carry heavy chips on their shoulders about God-only-knows-what. And that’s all I’m going to say about it.

Delhi, Amritsar and Agra have been cooked in a cauldron of roiling empires, cultural trends, political upheavals and British colonialism, as a result of which the cities are steeped in history and good food. If you can ignore the people (a little hard to do, but worth a shot), you’ll enjoy what Delhi has to offer for the traveller. The capital is the cradle of Mughal Empire, food and architecture. Amritsar is a cold (weather-wise) city with laid-back people and lots of yummy Rasta food. And Agra is a regal place that maintains all its elegance despite the hordes of people coming to see the wonders it has to offer. At least here, the people were nice and approachable.

So what do you need to do to transform into a typical tourist in the three cities? Simple: visit these places.

Waiting for the Red Fort to swallow them whole.

Red Fort, Delhi

Massive, red and still partially occupied by the Indian Army. A remarkable structure that puts you in the shoes of Jack looking up at the beanstalk – that’s how one feels when they see it. You have to crane your neck to take the entire architecture in. The fort is partially occupied by the Indian Army, so access is restricted to the Rang Mahal and a few other structures. Still, the place is huge. Walking around the Red Fort takes almost all day, so there are a couple of restaurants inside that serve food and chai paani.

The eternal home for Humayun and his family.

Humayun’s Tomb, Delhi

The architectural ancestor of the Taj Mahal, the mausoleum is massive. The structure’s all red with intricate Mogul motifs running along it in white. We hit the place just as the sun was setting, so there was a certain happy-sad dusk light over it. As the sun vanishes, though, you begin to feel a chill creep down your spine because the place is quiet, isolated and more obviously, home to dead bodies that are hundreds of years old.

Crowding for food at Karim’s.

Karim’s, Delhi

You must have one meal here. At least one. Karim’s is famous for its food and a haven for non-vegetarians. Finger-licking mutton curry, bheja fry and crisp Naans. Be sure to carry a swimsuit, though, because you can dive right into the oil that floats above the curries they serve.

Up, up and away.

Qutb Minar, Delhi

All that noise and popularity that the Qutb Minar has amassed over centuries? I can assure you that it’s absolutely justified. Despite being hit by lightning thrice and suffering damage, it still stands tall as the highest minar, with passages from the Qur’an carved on it. The minar itself is just one aspect of the property, surrounded by palaces, mosques, marketplaces and of course, the Ashoka Pillar.

Two together: the Ashoka Pillar on the premises of Qutb Minar.

It was my favourite among all the ruins. Despite the havoc wreaked by the weather and the emperors who came along every now and then, the place still manages to help the mind’s eye fill in the gaps to remodel a semblance of it in its original form. Also remarkable was the fact that while the Qutb property is essentially Islamic, there are hints of Hindu temple architecture mixed in. We saw pillars that had Ganesha and dancing women – the kind that decorate the walls of Khajuraho – and temple bells carved in stone.

My guess is that the Mughal emperors brought them to their palaces and made them part of the architecture to remind them of their exploits and victories. Other, less cynical people like to believe it was a symbolic gesture towards religious co-existence/harmony. Ah, well.

The surfaces of India Gate hold the names of soldiers who lost their lives in battle during Independence. Makes you not take freedom for granted.

India Gate, Delhi

Commercial, crowded, marginally Indian. The place was full of Chinese tourists taking many, many pictures in front of India Gate. There’s something about the inscription right on top that gives you the heebie-jeebies and roots you to the spot. When your eye finally manages to discover the names of the soldiers who lost their lives inscribed on the facade, you experience the chills all over again.

At the Golden Temple, people go about their work quietly. Some sit by the water, some move toward the langar, and some listen to the Sikh musicians play, lulling one into a sense of peace.

The Golden Temple, Amritsar

Every place of religion has an aura of peace within it, and the Golden Temple’s no different. A flotilla of gold in the middle of a placid lake brimming with gigantic fish, people start lining up for darshan as early as 3 in the morning. Apparently, the Sikhs have to volunteer at the Golden Temple once in their life, so everybody inside the four walls of the place (which stretch for miles together) – from those who serve the langar to the ones who stand guard at the Sikh Museum – are people with alternate jobs fulfilling their religious duties.

I would’ve loved to see the place lit up in the night, but it was freezing at night and I was just not ready to put myself through the torture.

Sunset over Pakistan, as seen from India.

Change of Guards, Wagah Border

While the rest of the two nations are a stage for unbridled hostility, the Wagah Border that divides India and Pakistan is pretty peaceful. But then, us being Indians, we have to milk it for what it’s worth. Hence, a well-dressed man with a mike and a booming voice to inspire the crowds to scream bloodcurdling Vande Maatarams, wave the Indian flag in a frenzy and hurl battle cries across the gates; who then goes on to calmly walk around to pockets of non-committals like us and say, “Don’t you want your money’s worth from this spectacle? Let me hear you scream now and add some masala to the occasion.”

Bah.

My suggestion is to ignore him because the experience of standing at the border is quite emotional by itself. I was close to tears initially, and then when the whole thing went too far, I lost all sense of patriotism – the same soldiers walk up multiple times to the gate, have a face-off with the Pakistani soldiers and come back to loud cheering from the crowd. In all fairness to the Indian masala, the tears returned when the Indian and Pakistani flags crossed over and paused there for a few seconds before completing their journey down the poles and into the storeroom for safekeeping.

The dargah inside Fatehpur Sikri is made out of marble. People tie threads to the windows, so that their mannats come true.

Fatehpur Sikri, Agra

Akbar’s mark on time and by God, what an indelible mark it is.

From the Buland Darwaza, a massive structure of 107-odd feet inlaid with delicate Moghul motifs and now home to tons of honeycombs, to the brick wall behind which Anarkali was buried alive; from the beautiful palaces for Akbar’s three wives – Hindu, Muslim and Christian respectively – to the life-size Pacheesi game on the floor of the palace fort; from the Diwan-e-khaas where Akbar hosted gatherings with his ministers from atop a flat surface of a pillar elaborately carved in Jewish, Moghul and Temple designs, to the carvings of Persian birds and animals – beheaded because Aurangzeb said so; from the first known Meena Bazaar to Akbar’s sleeping chambers with an elevated bed and three separate entrances for three separate wives. There’s so much to see and absorb at Fatehpur Sikri. Turns out that the Diwan-e-khaas was where Akbar founded the Deen-e-Ilahi. Seems to me that he was one of the smarter kings we had – he combined all three religions into one, almost as if he had a sense of the communal turmoil of the future.

A view of the Taj Mahal from the entrance.

The Taj Mahal, Agra

Shah Jahan must have really loved his wife to have built a mausoleum so massive, so magnificent and timeless. Expansive lawns with frothy fountains lead you to the actual structure. The marble’s fast losing its smoothness because of the corrosive substances in the environment, and restorations are happening at a large scale. Flash photography wasn’t allowed inside the mausoleum, but there were people still clicking away.

That’s pretty much what we saw our holiday. In the middle of all this, we managed to experience a bit of night life in Delhi, freeze our tushes off, eat authentic desi food, catch our trains on (or just in) time, shop, meet friends and sleep.

My overall verdict on the holiday? North India is a beautiful place full of secrets. North Indians, not so much.

Adjoining ruins at Humayun’s tomb, where people sometimes go to catch a stunning view.

Getting there: Delhi is well-connected from most places by flights. From there, Agra is a few hours away and Amritsar about six to seven hours. Trains and buses can take you there from Delhi. Make sure you spend at least four days in Delhi, because that’s how much there is to see.

Go if: You love history, shopping, culture and food.

Pictures: All pictures here were shot using my friend’s Canon EOS 400D. This was in the days that i didn’t own a Digi-SLR of my own.