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!

Meet the traveller: Shilo Shiv Suleman

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

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Shilo’s work as an illustrator/artist/designer/storyteller has been a mood-lifter from the moment I stumbled upon her blog six years ago. I’ve had the good fortune of interacting with her since and have discovered that her work and her art is a result of her many journeys. I couldn’t have asked for a more perfect person to start off this series with. Here she is, in conversation with Potli Baba.

Describe yourself in one word. Same as everyone else: LOVE.

Where do you live? In my heart. (And Bangalore)

Where have you travelled to till date? Goa, Hampi, Gokarna, Bengal, Meghalaya, Sikkim, Orissa, Kashmir, Kerala, Tamil Nadu, Kutch, Maharashtra, Malwa (and many many more states/spaces in India), London, Scotland, Bali, Europe and soon, Brazil!

Travel to you is: Extending myself into the universe. Trust. Fearlessness. When I say trust I mean two things: trusting oneself, and trusting that your path is guided and protected. I think, for an Indian woman to travel alone despite all our years of social fear conditioning is an act of surrender, an act of trust. Trusting that nothing will harm you, trusting that you will actualize all that you dream of, trusting that your decisions are the right ones and that every journey is part of a much bigger journey into the self.

Five things your travel bag will always have: Watercolour set, notebook, brushes and pens, incense, jewellery.

Wanderer or tourist? Wanderer all the way! No plans, no directions. Wide-eyed wanderer.

Mountains, beaches, deserts, jungles, nature or adventure sports? Jungles, beaches, RIVERS and anywhere with lots of colour and culture. You’ll always find me in bazaars around the world, looking at vintage old books and teapots in London, amidst piles of colour and fish and fabrics in India, and old lace and perfume in France. I love bazaars.

Plan your own travel or get someone to do it for you? Don’t plan as much as possible! But if I do, It’s always always on my own.

 

Shilo Shiv Suleman’s journal entries, dating back to 2005.

What’s your favourite journey to date? Your travel memory? All trips to Hampi. Riding bikes, wading in the river, moondrunk while stretched out like crocodiles on rocks, being blessed by elephants in temples and more.

My most recent favourite journey was to Pallakad, Kerala, where I was working with shadow puppeteers in a small town there. It was amazing. Taking baths in the small ponds with green sky of leaves. Watching local performances in temples with walls of diyas, the smell of jasmine flowers and coconut oil and so much learning. I hope to be back there soon to learn how to make my own natural paints with roots and minerals and barks from the local temple muralists there.

Also Kutch; I work with the Kabir project and am working on a book about the Sufis of those Salt deserts. It’s turning out to be rather beautiful. We’re working with seven love legends from the region where in each of them, a female protagonist sets off wandering against all odds in search of her beloved (only to find it within herself). Which brings me back to trust and fate and all those other things :)

If you were a city/town/country/place, which would you be and why? Hampi. Free, mystical, flowing rivers, historic, cultural, ancient.

How has travel inspired you? Travel has inspired everything. It has transformed everything. When I travel, I watch. My eyes are open and my heart is open. All the colours and forms I see become part of the pattern that makes my illustration. I listen. I hear stories and myths from around the world and those stories get woven into my own stories, from Sufis in Kutch and Rajasthan to temple performers and artists in Kerala. Meeting these people, understanding the Indian aesthetic and storytelling traditions has given me a sense of ‘Me’, my roots, the traditions I want to draw from and take into the digital universe.

My latest favourite quote is “we are made of stories not atoms”.

Complete this sentence: If the world could fit into your palm, you would… Paint it.

Shilo invited me to her home to see her journals. As i went clickety click with my camera, she patiently filled my little book of questions with drawings. The leather case in the foreground is home to her journals over the years.

You can go see more of Shilo’s work on her blog.

Eleven reasons to fall in love with London.

Taxi cab driving down Green Park. Most cabs advertise mobile operators, movies, monuments and plays. I saw only a few that were a classic Black.

*It was with equal parts anxiety and eager anticipation that I waited for the clock to strike 1 a.m on September 22. I heard the driver scream for the car keys from the ground floor of where I live. Soon, doors were shut and the big red suitcase stowed. I had my passport, visa, copies of all the papers and mixed bag of emotions that I always feel before a trip. I was off to London. My first international trip with two days of work and eight days of much exploration.*

The trademark red telephone booths of London. Some of them have ‘Call-me’ ads pasted all over them. And no, I’m not putting that picture up because this is a PG rated blog.

London made it so easy for me to fall in love with it. I was taken by the city’s charm, its ready acceptance of me without question (except for my little foolishness at the UK Border Immigration when the officer held up his index finger to indicate that he wanted me to place my finger on the scanner, and I thought he was asking me to look at the camera above me. I smiled sweetly for five seconds at the camera above till he asked me what I was doing… and yes, he laughed his gut out), its history and quaintness. But above all, a handful of things won me over completely.

The war veterans of New Zealand visiting the war memorial at Green Park.

Underground, marvellous, marvellous Underground!

Should London be the body, then the underground is its nervous system, connecting every inch to one another. Not only is the tube the easiest, cheapest and fastest way to get around London, it’s also the one place where you’ll see life in all its colours. Young and old, buskers and corporate men/women, heavy metal and operatic – everyone takes the tube to everywhere. 

The Piccadilly Line starts from Heathrow airport and goes into the city. Figuring out how the different lines work hardly takes time. And it’s super convenient!

“Stand to the Right”. People on escalators follow a rule – they always stand to the right to let people in a hurry run up/down on the left side. The walls on either side are also great ways to figure out what you want to do with your free time around the area.

Michael Jackson at Hyde Park Corner.

The weather’s volatile

Pouring like a burst water balloon one minute and sunny the next, London’s weather gives Bangalore’s a run for its money. Most people who visit or live in the city complain about the gloominess of the weather, but I think it goes very well with the…aura of London. But a combination of rain and strong winds? A fascinating experience, to say the least: On our second day of sightseeing, we walked in the rain across Green Park to Buckingham Palace and had to fight against the wind to get half-decent pictures. My umbrella turned into a receptacle for rainwater harvesting every two minutes and we had to walk with our back towards the palace to stop ourselves from almost flying. It was hilarious. No, really. We laughed so hard, the Queen could hear us! (She didn’t come out on to the famous Charles-Diana/Will-Kate balcony to shush us, though, what with her being too regal and well-behaved and all.) 

Buckingham Palace in the rain.

From cloudy…

… to sunny in less than three minutes.

The city is so quiet

There’s a lot of hustle and bustle in London, but people go about their work quietly. And drivers almost never honk. Traffic is so, so, so well-organised that my jaw drops even now, when I think of it. People stick to their lanes, let pedestrians cross, wait for other cars from other directions to cross, don’t jump signals and above all, never honk despite heavy traffic and rush hour. Like my colleague’s cousin told us on our way to the airport: “the accepted level of aggression on the roads is biting one’s nails, that’s it”. That’s why one can hear every drop of rain falling on one’s umbrella, birds chirping, the wind blowing and ambulance sirens screeching. But walk into a pub and it’s a completely different ball game.

Plays in full swing at Piccadilly. 

Old magazine store at Soho, another place that’s full of life. Awesome restaurants, sex shops and strip clubs all lit up on the outside, clothes stores, markets, glassware, shoes – there’s something here for all tastes.

Piccadilly Circus, full of big, beautiful buildings and bustling bodies.

Dead poets excite you

Westminster Abbey. It’s massive, beautiful and peaceful. It’s the place where generations of kings and queens have been coronated, married, baptised and buried. The prayer area is breathtakingly beautiful, with carved wooden pews on either sides of the wall for seating and flags of various knights hanging above. The ceilings are exquisite and the stories they hold, innumerable. There are chapels for noblemen and noblewomen, knights and ministers within the abbey. But what moved me most was the Poet’s Corner. Rudyard Kipling, Robert Browning, Thomas Hardy, Charles Dickens, even Chaucer’s grave. To think that I was standing within arm’s distance of the literary geniuses of centuries past! It was a dream come true. Oh, and there was Isaac Newton as well.

So yes, three words to describe the Westminster Abbey experience: Don’t. Miss. It.

The London Eye: the first sight to greet you as soon as you step out of the Westminster underground station. 

The Big Ben as seen from the park adjacent to Westminster Abbey. You can see a hint of the London Eye on the top left corner of the picture, behind the black building.

Westminster Abbey entrance. As intimidating as it is from the outside, it’s beautiful, peaceful and huge inside. Audio guides give you a tour of the entire abbey. I saw the tombs of King Henry the Third, King Edward the First and Third and Richard the Second, along with Mary, Queen of Scots and Queen Elizabeth.

Poet’s Corner, Westminster Abbey. Chaucer was the first poet to be buried here, sort of starting a tradition that was later followed the burials of literary figures like Charles Dickens and T.S.Eliot.

Every building is full of character

London’s best seen by foot. There are hop-on, hop-off tours that take you around the city in a day, but I would recommend walking. If you make Piccadilly Circus your base camp of sorts, all other landmarks are within 20 minutes walking distance from there. The advantage of this is that you’ll see other buildings that aren’t landmarks, but are just as old and just as beautiful. We walked down Parliament Street and, my goodness, that is one lane that makes you take a second – and a third – look at every structure you pass by!

10 Downing Street. (“Hello Prime Minister, hello! It’s meeee!”)

Trafalgar Square and the National Gallery. Only managed to see them by night, and that too from a distance. Maybe next time.

Catching a drink in a pub at Parliament Street. Walking down this road was an absolute delight because of the beautiful architecture.

One of the many universities of Oxford.

 

Nature has so many colours in her London wardrobe

Despite the cold weather, there are fresh shades of green everywhere, interspersed with bunches of flowering purples, oranges, yellows, reds and whites. We were lucky to see the beginnings of autumn, so trees were turning a deep red, bright yellow or dull brown. It’s a lovely visual treat. 

Trees in shades of yellow lining the roads of Weybridge.

Red creeping up the wall of a tavern in the countryside. Took my breath away.

More colour!

The beginnings of Autumn.

Fish and chips, mate!

‘Nuff said.

Yummy in your tummy. Food’s never pre-seasoned, so you have to add salt to most of it.

 

The English Countryside is delightful

This is where London gets its charm from, I’m telling you. We managed to see some of it on our way to Bath. The countryside is everything you imagine it to be: lush green pastures with plump white, brown and black cows grazing, sheep heavy with wool munching away at the grass against blue skies and an endless vista of planes and mountains, wild berries and Lavender growing on the roadside, quaint little stone huts and bakeries and farms with vines growing all over dotting the landscape… *Sigh*

Hello Cows!

Hello, roles of hay!

Hello Swan!

Bath is beautiful

It’s quiet, colourful and feels like you’ve entered a part of England that belongs in the 16th century. One can spend hours sitting on the benches behind the Bath Abbey eating ice cream and listening to random opera singers perform for gathering crowds in the hope of being spotted by a talent scout, or buying souvenirs, or walking the tiny lanes around the town, or admiring the glassworks that the place is known for.

The Roman Bath, the main attraction of Bath. It was closed when we reached, but i managed to get a sneak peek through the walls.

The evening we were at Bath, an opera singer just walked up, placed her speakers, her music system and her cards around her, and began singing next to the Bath Abbey. The setting sun, nip in the air, swaying flowers, and fabulously constructed town came alive with her haunting voice. I didn’t want to leave.

A hand-blown glass store in Bath.

Bath Abbey against the late evening sky.

London takes good care of its heritage

The respect Londoners have for their heritage and rich history shows clearly in how well they’ve maintained the city. Every bulb that lights up the London Bridge works, every street lamp shines, every road is free of potholes, every bit of the old architecture remains unblemished and every monument is well-preserved. The audio aids they provide visitors to places that need guided tours is amazing. Having never experienced it before, I wondered why we never adopted such a simple yet effective method of telling stories about our monuments. It was only today that I discovered that apparently, some places in India are starting to do that.

River Thames with the London Bridge in the background. We wanted to go on a Thames cruise, but none of them were available, so we had to make do with seeing other people cruising along sipping tea and listening to jazz and seeing all of London’s sights.

The Tower Bridge parting to let a big ship pass by. Watching it go up and then come down to transform into a regular-looking road was one of the most fascinating experiences I’ve had.

The Tower Bridge by night.

Little Venice, the name for the canal full of Gondolas and colourful boats outside Paddington Station.

Windsor has some very pretty sights

Windsor Castle is apparently the weekend getaway for the Queen and pretty as a picture. It overlooks most of London and is full of richly furnished rooms and a whole hall of arms and artillery. St.George’s chapel has marble sculptures that are absolutely exquisite. There’s one in particular that I just cannot get over – a scene showing a dead maiden (a princess or noblewoman, I cannot remember) covered completely by a shroud, except for a part of her hand that peeks out from under, as women covered in shrouds mourn her passing and her soul, flanked by angels on either side, flies to its freedom towards Heaven. The craftsmanship is so delicate and detailed that the marble is sculpted to look like shrouds clinging to the bodies and a white sheer fabric falling along the curves of the free soul. I couldn’t take my eyes off it.

We attended evensong in the prayer room, seated on pews where once England’s clergy and royalty sat, surrounded by shining plaques of several knighthoods and a mesmerizing tapestry of Jesus with his disciples. Add to this the church choir, and the whole experience gave me goose bumps.

Once out, there are lots of quaint little places to eat in, market streets to walk down and a part of the Thames to admire.

Inside the premises of Windsor Castle. I was amazed by the riches on display here. I asked a skirted 50-something lady standing guard in the queen’s drawing room about what it felt like to be surrounded by such beauty and opulence and she told me, “At first, you’re like oh my gosh this is so awesome and i’m so lucky, but then you start getting used to it. And I’ve been here for over 13 years, so…” Wow. I would kill to be surrounded by such stuff. Photography isn’t allowed inside the castle, unfortunately, so i have no visual proof of its beauty.

St.George’s Chapel, Windsor Castle. I loved the interiors more than i loved Westminster Abbey.

The magnificent pipe organs of St.George’s Chapel. Everything in the chapel gets a dusting once a year.

Homes of the knights of the orders, opposite St.George’s Chapel. And no, they don’t walk around in armour and Victorian suits and all. They wear jeans and a t-shirt like normal people.

Life as usual, outside Windsor Castle.

Sunset by the Thames, Windsor.

There’s a little bit of India everywhere

London is full of Indians, so you won’t really feel out of place. East Hampton, the part of London where most Indians reside, is like the map of India scattered over a handful of streets. Sarvana Bhavans, Anand Bhavans, Kerala supermarkets and food joints co-exist with Hyderabadi Biryani and much, much more. And yes, Indian bonding is big. When we went for an Indian breakfast one day, we were warned to not speak English because it’s frowned upon. People prefer speaking in an Indian language (preferably Tamil).

East Hampton or Shivajinagar? Good question. :)

A different window display: Students looking for accommodation outside a store that displays ads and messages for spaces.

So that’s that. London’s a big city, so we didn’t cover a lot of places because we didn’t have enough time. Whatever I did see, I loved. My verdict? You must visit London at least once in your lifetime. And since I’ve done that already, I have all the time in the world to plan another holiday there!

Marching Guard, Windsor Castle.

Getting there: Flight only. Preferably British Airways because it’s damn comfortable.

Go if: You love history, architecture, cultural experiences, photography, food, the countryside and want to experience the lives of people who ruled us once. :)