The truth about mommy

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While in Thekkady, we had a bit of an ant situation in the bathroom. Not surprising, considering we were practically at the edge of the Periyar wildlife reserve. I was forced to flush them away – for reasons of self preservation, but I was sitting and obsessing constantly when I noticed my niece listening and grinning.

‘What?’ I asked.
‘You are so nice!’ she giggled. ‘My mom crushes ants for fun!’
‘I do not!’ – she, indignantly.

I don’t know if this exchange had anything to do with it but she wrote this decidedly un-filial poem about her mother and singsonged it to the family soon after. Enjoy!


She says she is veg
And she only eats egg
But I have a suspicion
That she eats people too!

Today at noon
I went in her room
And found the remains of
I don’t know whom!

She was riding a broom,
Inside of her room
I think she’s a witch
But I don’t want to be a snitch!


PS. I messed up the drawing by going over it with a thick, black marker because I couldn’t find a regular pen but I really wanted to draw this one. Anyway!

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Sun and Sand at Kovalam

The last time I visited Kovalam was about seventeen years ago. I had just moved to Bangalore and started work. My friends and I were discovering financial independence and learning to enjoy it. We traveled by train (second class) to Trivandrum and then took a seedy taxi to Kovalam. We stayed in a small hotel near the beach, ate banana pancakes and fruit salad on the beach, drank tall glasses of fruit cocktails, wore sarongs, took a catamaran ride and enjoyed an Archies comics style beach for the first time ever. Speaking for myself, the only beach I had seen before this had been the Marina at Madras with manga badrai and kadalai. A world apart. Anyway, Kovalam had been cool.

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Now we are much older, hopefully somewhat wiser and definitely much more jaded. And Kovalam would surely have changed too. I had no idea what to expect. As things turned out, we didn’t really visit Kovalam at all.

We were staying at the Niraamaya Resorts, Surya Samudra which is a relais and chateaux property. From their website:

Established in 1954, Relais & Châteaux is an association of more than 550 landmark hotels and restaurants operated by independent innkeepers, chefs, and owners who share a passion for their businesses and a desire for authenticity in their relationships with their clientele.
Relais & Châteaux is established around the globe, from the Napa Valley vineyards and French Provence to the beaches of the Indian Ocean. It offers an introduction to a lifestyle inspired by local culture and a unique dip into human history.
Relais & Châteaux members have a driving desire to protect and promote the richness and diversity of the world’s cuisine and traditions of hospitality. They are committed to preserving local heritage and the environment, as encompassed in the Charter presented to UNESCO in November 2014.

It sounded wonderful and it was in fact beautiful. They have built cottages in the style of traditional Kerala bungalows. They have lovely nature bathrooms with trees (and lizards of course) and have reused coconut shells to make everything from dessert cups to bunds for raised beds to water pails. I have spoken before of how I love old restored old furniture and artifacts. Surya Samudra has salvaged sculptures and structures from a demolished temple and used them to decorate their property.

Not that it needs that much decoration because the location is simply beautiful. The terrain is not really suited to small children since it is on a hill and there’s a lot of up and down. My boys were not able to play much cricket which was a great disappointment to them.

The sea in these parts is fierce and our beach facing room got the whole sound effects. All night long the waves would roar and crash. It was frightening but also soothing in a fatalistic sort of way. It hardly seemed believable that the same sea turned so magically serene in the afternoons. I would watch the eagles soaring and dipping and drifting at lunch every day. I suppose they were hunting crabs all the while but the lunchtime music and gentle all day breeze put a totally different spin on it.

The rooms themselves are well appointed and beautiful. The beach cottages are all traditional Kerala architecture and simply lovely. The rock garden rooms on the other hand are large and modern and more suitable to families with children needing extra beds.

As you might have guessed from all the hotel-centric descriptions, we did not get out much. The very day after we arrived, news of the Nipah virus outbreak reached us. Even though the district in Kerala at the center of the outbreak was at least as far from Kovalam as from Bangalore, we were traveling with children and with a 90% mortality rate could afford to take no chances. Except for one day outing to Poovar Island, we stayed put at the resort and spent our time playing dumb charades, card games, cricket (losing the ball every now and then and having to clamber up and down) and lots of chatting. I was meeting my baby nephew for the first time. Our days were gently occupied.

The food was nice but what we got at the Niraamaya in Thekkady tasted better. Sacrilege to say this about such a property but true all the same. The staff however were super friendly and their hospitality made up for everything else.

I cannot say much about Kovalam based on this trip but the Surya Samudra is a lovely resort, picturesque with one of the most photogenic yoga pavillions I have ever seen!

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A translation

शहर बसाकर, अब सुकून के लिए गाँव ढूँढते हैं,
बड़े अजीब हैं लोग हाथ मे कुल्हाड़ी लिए, छाँव ढूँढते हैं..

To find peace of mind, we fled the cities that we made*
Armed with our sharpest axe, in search of the nearest shade


*A translation. Not my own. Just an appeal for responsible travel

“And nobody shall pour dung, straw, stone into the Bäch…”

Freiburg

Continuing with my tardy Europe recollections, after our cuckoo clock adventures we had planned to take the children to Europa Park. But things panned out differently. We were down to our last set of clothes and Kirchzarten possessed no laundries. We had no choice but to skip the park and spend the day in Freiburg instead. So with a rucksack full of dirty clothes and two sulky children, we took the train down.

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Freiburg is the nearest city to Kirchzarten and is a university town. I had read on the net that it was a city rich in culture and heritage, besides being notably environment friendly. None of this background had prepared me for anything nearly as beautiful.


The dirty laundromat

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The walk down from the station to our chosen laundromat passed through tree lined streets and storm water drains. Wash and Art was an interesting place. We didn’t realize how much at first in all the sorting and getting change. The kids didn’t either – having discovered free wifi, but the ‘Art’ in Wash and Art refers to the artistic but risque photography that adorns its walls. As soon as we were done admiring the fresh smelling east german laundry detergent, we became aware of our surroundings and briskly shepherded our offspring out. There was a homeless man just outside and my husband was a little worried about the clothes but really he was too tall to fit into any of our stuff.

Why are there so many homeless people in Europe? Especially young, able bodied white men. This man looked like a junkie although one shouldn’t judge, but apart from that what is the reason? It seems like such a prosperous place!


The lady in the park

We took our boys to a nearby park to while away our time. Europa Park it was not, but we enjoyed the peace and quiet very much. Freiburg seemed like a safe enough place that we didn’t need to watch the kids all the time. They had fun running and climbing while we were content to sit back, look around and chat. There were a few other families who’d brought their kids in on cycles with child carriers attached. My husband was interested in the design of the cycle carriers and impressed by the abundance of cyclists and the absence of cars.

As for me, my attention had been caught by a woman sitting on a park bench, eating a lonely lunch. This was the second instance in a short span of time of someone looking miserable in such a beautiful place. Was she a teacher in the university or a shopkeeper? Maybe someone who sold books to the students there? A librarian? She had a canvas backpack of the sort you lug around college but she looked out of place in this young town.

Now you can be just as lonely in a crowd as all by yourself and the two have no correlation at all. But right then, I was thankful for our crowded, intrusive, inquisitive, annoying and omnipresent Indian families.


The woman from Bengal

There was a marketplace in the city center and a few of our friends who don’t have children had elected to spend the day there. We met up with them for lunch and my adventurous younger one (who had asked to eat wild boar like Obelix in Prague) ordered schnitzel. I have only ever heard of schnitzel in ‘My Favourite Things’ and it looked nothing like how I’d pictured it.

Our friends regaled us with stories about the fruits,  flowers, vegetables and souvenirs at the farmers market that was winding up before our eyes. They told us about a souvenir stall they had shopped at. Among the other things they’d bought was a wooden chopping board which they had had engraved with their names. Wooden curios seem to be ubiquitous in this part of Germany but the seller of the curios was a rarer sort by half. She had come to cold Black Forest from the balmy plains of Bengal as a child. She had been away such a long time but meeting Indians, and those who could speak her language had seemed to fill her with joy. It was such a small encounter. A chance encounter. But the few words spoken in a shared tongue had brightened up the day for all of them.

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Roaming the market place after lunch, we discovered the Bächle. Small canals with clean water flowing through them. From Wikipedia –

These Bächle, once used to provide water to fight fires and feed livestock, are constantly flowing with water diverted from the Dreisam. They were never intended to be used for sewage, and even in the Middle Ages such use could lead to harsh penalties. During the summer, the running water provides natural cooling of the air, and offers a pleasant gurgling sound. It is said that if one accidentally falls or steps into a Bächle, they will marry a Freiburger, or ‘Bobbele’.

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On a more practical note, I found these cosmetics in a store that were ridiculously cheap and the brand is unheard of in India. So if you have a large family back home you need to bring things back for, this is just what the doctor ordered. Although the brown eyeliner didn’t show up much on my brown skin.

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The boy who spoke so sweetly

Once the remainder of our friends returned from Europa Park, we spent the rest of our day just wandering through the town. The kids were cleverly maneuvering us in the direction of the park and hearing them chatter away in Hindi about parks, a young man detached himself from a group of students and asked us in extremely politely worded Hindustani if we were looking for a children’s park and offered to direct us to one. My husband thanked him and after telling him we knew the way, (also) politely inquired if he too was an Indian. He blushingly demurred and returned to his group. I could have told my husband had he waited to ask me first. Of course the boy was not Indian. He was Pakistani! The polite Hindustani was too close to well bred Urdu. Only the Pakistanis speak so beautifully I murmured. ‘All they do nicely is speak’ returned my BJP voting friend. Ah well!

Almost entirely about cuckoo clocks

It was two months back that we went on this trip and it was about the same time that the WannaCry ransomware attack hit. In fact, on the same day we took our train to Germany. Having heard so much about German Engineering, I am pleased to report that it’s all true! Every time our train ran late, the delay was fine tuned to be the exact time taken by us to get off the train and run to the next platform in time to see our connection puffing away. Nah, I’m kidding. It was just the ransomware. Makes you wonder though!

We got to our hotel at Kirchzarten very late in the evening. And  also, got a shock. Now we had packed our clothes based on Accuweather and were expecting the Schwarzwald area to be very cold. Not only was Kirchzarten not cold, it was hot – like 30 degrees celsius which is a million degrees fahrenheit. And without the protective layer of pollution that we in India are used to, the rays of the sun hit us hot and direct. On our ten minute walk to the hotel (the delightful Restaurant Sonne, super old and beautifully restored) all I could spot in the stores was sunscreen! How were we so duped? I’d thought we were visiting Switzerland, but we seemed to have ended up in Phuket!

But Kirchzarten is a small place, and we needed to hurry to get dinner before thinking about anything else. We were lucky enough to find Fiesta. The food was good. The beer was better. The play area for the kids – the best! The staff were friendly and all young and enthusiastic, very keen to help. What a change from Prague!

But the next day, we had to man up and face facts. Which of our two sets of clothes (we recycled our clothes while traveling and saved a day, if you’re counting) would we be less likely to melt in? Fortunately, we were saved from making this decision for the kids at least as we found a max fashion style store down the road called NKD. 4 euro for a kiddie tee? China, I love you!

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I have a four Euro weather fix – I’m the King of the World!
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Medieval Church, ancient friendship – that’s my college roommate and I

Our plan for the day was to get to Triberg, see the falls, buy cuckoo clocks for my parents, my in laws, my friends who had neglected to buy a clock in Switzerland last year, their parents, their in laws and two big cuckoo clocks for some friends who’d recently moved house. Our return trip looked like this!

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By the way, this image is not my own – naturally! I borrowed it from critical cactus which must be the most inappropriate place to borrow it from. And so, I will take a minute to say this. Critical Cactus speaks about minimalism and not being consumerist which are good goals that I identify with. This one-time fall from grace was a group effort – not mine alone – and it soothes my conscience a bit to note that I bought nothing for myself!

But if you are visiting Black Forest and must take back gifts, really what else could you get? Switzerland is known as the home of the cuckoo clock but that is not what I saw. This is where the clocks are actually made. The clocks on sale in Switzerland were mostly China made knock offs. This was the real deal! All the clocks are mechanical which means you need to wind them up. Which might get to be a bit of a bore once the novelty has worn off! A quick recommendation for Oli’s cuckoo clock shop. Not that one is needed. This was easily one of the more popular stores and we got everything we needed!

Triberg is not as dense green to black as I expected the Black Forest to be – there was too much visible deforestation which was sad. Maybe this contributed to the sultry weather?

But it was great fun reading about the history of the forest.

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So in short, we stopped at this medieval village with the most gigantic and delicious tomatoes (I bought seeds!), walked all the way up to the falls, shopped(I fessed up already!) and then after some train related confusion (can we make the laundry today? time table? yes? no? return! return! return! missed train – noooo!! ok, caught up!) had a quick stop at Gengenbach and then got back.

 

We also saw many traditional black forest style houses with the wooden beams. I have not been able to figure out any reason for the design though. Do you know?

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PS. Do you know that the black forest cake – which originated in these parts is supposed to be inspired by the traditional dress from hereabouts? Also, the real black forest cake is so soaked in alcohol, it is strictly not for kids! I didn’t know this and will never look at the Just Bake version the same way again.

The hills are alive

A full two months after my European vacation, I sit at my laptop writing this. I’m saved from worrying too much though by the simple fact that there is no one waiting for this post. Quite unlike how people waited for their Christie at Christmas back then or the latest Imtiaz Ali movie these days. Although I bet some of those folks feel pretty silly right about now!


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I don’t like burgers. It is not something you would ever suspect anyone of, but it’s true. I just don’t. On the train to Salzburg there was not much of a vegetarian selection and I had to make do. Surprise surprise! This burger was unlike any I have ever eaten. I don’t think there was even a patty. It was more like a veggie sandwich from Subway but with flavour. The feta cheese was very salty but in a good way. Words cannot describe the yumminess so I will just say – if you are on a train to Salzburg and someone offers you that veggie burger, take it!

I am totally mixed up in my head as far as train stations go but I think Salzburg was the underground one with lifts that brings you to ground level where the taxi drivers you have advance booked wait for you (muttering under their breath in Hindustani all the while). I say Hindustani, not Hindi, because the majority of the people we met speaking Hindi in Europe were in fact Pakistanis and really the language we all speak is a mix of Hindi and Urdu and should I believe be called Hindustani.

Anyhow, they took us to our hotel which was really a service apartment called Apt Stone Lodge. And it turned out to actually be a stone lodge! It is built right into a rock face. State this here and now – of all places I stayed at on this trip, this was my favourite. And we stayed at some pretty nice places! This one was super cosy, nicely located, completely homey(not too fancy) and it had a piano. Since it was Mother’s Day while we were there, the kids put up a performance (they had started prepping in Prague) for us and the piano came in very handy. What is it with Salzburg and singing children?

 

My kids are learning to play the piano and know their Mozart from Beethoven so I did not want to miss the chance of taking them to a concert while we were here. The one I wanted to go to was at Mirabell Palace but they were not playing the days that we were here so our next choice was the Salzburg Fort. Now I like music, but I am not at all highbrow so I checked out TripAdvisor reviews from other Indian visitors to figure out if we would like it. The reviews were mostly positive and spoke about the atmosphere and the fort and the moonlight so we went for it.

The fort is a short walk away from Apt Stone Lodge and we all walked down. It is a lovely fort with a fabulous view from the top.

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There is also a museum. I liked this marionette exhibit representing the Von Trapp family.

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Our pre-concert meal was a little underwhelming and the music put the younger one to sleep almost at once, but I enjoyed myself. The only other Indian family present took to their heels at intermission but we stuck it out till the end. It was a little scary walking back. That part of Salzburg sleeps early. It could not have been later than eleven but there was not a soul on the streets and I wished for a cab but there was none.

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We took the Hop-on-Hop-off lakes and mountains tour the next day. Starting at the Mirabell gardens and taking lots of Sound of Music style pictures, we went on the most scenic drive. The audio commentary was informative in a distant way and we enjoyed ourselves overall.

Our first stop was at Sankt Gilgen – also called Mozart village although Mozart never visited this place. The lake it is built around is called Wolfgangsee and it is a charming place. There was a cable car ride to the top of a nearby hill and some of us took it while the rest of us were content to walk by the lake and eat at the cafe. Also run by someone speaking Hindustani! Our kids ran wild in a nearby park and invented some fun pirate games. We ended up missing our hop-on because of a mix-up regarding timings. The driver told us to expect a bus in 45 minutes but he meant 45 minutes from the scheduled, not the actual time of arrival. Put it simply, even if your bus was late – expect the next one to be right on time! There were also some local buses that we missed but Sankt Gilgen deserved the extra time.

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Our next stop was at Mondsee which smelled strongly of cow (which is a smell I like) but was pretty-pretty with tiny bylanes selling, oddly enough, fashionable boots. We had no time to stop however and made a quick trip to the church which is famous for being where Maria married Captain Von Trapp in The Sound of Music. Even minus that bit of trivia, I would have loved the place. It made me feel like I did about the Naina Devi temple – it was a real place of worship, not a tourist spot.

We ran all the way back so as to not miss the bus again but the very few other stops left were largely skippable. We got off with the feeling that we should have stayed longer at Mondsee. We could not take another green line at Mirabelle for time reasons but we took a white line to the old town. This was exactly like other European old towns. My friends bought paintings and I took pictures and plagiarised one on my own. This was done with no malice at all, I only wanted to draw again – I haven’t since I was in middle school – and I did not feel ready to start with something original. The outcome is exactly like something a middle schooler would make but I had so much fun!

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We were running out of clean clothes by this time and I had read on the net about the Green and Clean laundry and as part of my green manifesto wanted to spread the word about their good work after some first hand experience but it was not to be. They were closed for repairs and with the grim knowledge that we had only two good sets of clothes each left before we found a laundromat in the Black Forest, we returned home.

Our children were waiting anxiously for us so they could begin their performance. We thoroughly enjoyed the songs and skits about strict moms and kids who love them anyway. We hushed them a bit so as to not disturb the early-sleeping Salzburg neighbourhood but nothing could dampen their spirits or our pride and joy.

I loved Salzburg most of all the places I saw these two weeks in Europe. Perhaps things look rosier through happy tears?

Day Trip to Phi Phi Islands

2nd April

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We had booked ourselves on a day trip to the Phi Phi islands. Our day started with a ride to the rather posh marina (what kind of people live here? Do they all own boats?) in our air conditioned van. I mention the a/c because we noticed the cool-cooler-coolest style setting which took us back to the early non fiat/ambassador cars in India.

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Our trip went something like this. We took a speedboat first to Monkey Beach. There are monkeys in Bangalore – relics of greener times – so there wasn’t any novelty there. We stayed in our boat and took pictures and left the monkeys alone. I truly believe it was the right thing to do.

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Then they told us all about birds nests which are some of the most expensive cooking ingredients ever. These nests are used to make soups and jams and what not. Not available at 7 eleven, naturally!
People pay to lease out space on the islands where the nests are found and then they can take home all they want. Kinda like leasing a gold mine!

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After that, we had to pick between scuba diving and snorkelling. My six year old really enjoyed the snorkelling. The beach was a bit polluted with very many tourist boats and I don’t know what fish and coral the scuba diving people got to see.  Coral reefs are endangered the world over and are fiercely protected here. They told us that being found with coral in any amount in our luggage would get us in very serious trouble with customs!

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Then we went for lunch at a coral island resort. The cool thing here was that the restaurant was on the sea. Not on the beach, but on the SEA! We waded out of the boat to the steps that took us up to the restaurant. A first for us for sure.

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The view from our table was something like this

Then to Maya Bay where we swam a bit. This place is famous for being where The Beach was shot. It is a beautiful, isolated lagoon. This place was devastated by the 2004 Tsunami but they seem to be better prepared now. There are marked Tsunami escape paths and several new trees have been planted.

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Finally, a quick stop at a private (khai) island for no apparent reason but helping them earn commission. Then back to the marina to change and return to the hotel for dinner.

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On thinking it over

This was a special day for us but for our guide, this is his job. Like how I go to work and back. I couldn’t help but wonder if he found it boring too. Surely his glib pleasantries must be rehearsed and automatic by now. There was a moment when he was telling someone not to stand and disbalance the boat when his gritted teeth showed through his smile. I wondered what the boat  trip would be like if he were to talk about what he was really thinking. A journey full of very existential discussions perhaps.


And also, what is with the genetics of these people? The women have not one ounce of superfluous flesh anywhere. And in those tiny bikinis they wore, we would know!


Being on an office  trip, I had not packed any swimwear at all and was forced to stand by as my family frolicked in the water. It took a Pakistani lady (from a group that came a few minutes after us) wading into the waters in her burqa to shake me out of my self importance. Who cared what people thought of me swimming in my clothes anyway? When we finally came out and I was drying myself off in the sun, I told my husband about my newfound epiphany. Then he explained to me that the children attached to the Pakistani contingent had been naughty and entered the water on their own. Their irked father had ordered his wife to bring their offspring back and the poor woman had had no choice but to wade in in all her clothes. I was very sorry for her but also deeply grateful. But for her, I would not have got into the wonderful warm, shallow waters on the best day for swimming ever!