Thursday, March 06, 2008
Tuesday, July 24, 2007
Another example of too much planning doesn't do me any good....have been trying to plan a river rafting trip forever but it never materialized until this last minute impromptu plan :)
And I loved every bit...even the endless car journey, which seemed like it would never come to an end.
Our stopover at the ghats of Haridwar enroute at 4 in the morning for a dip added to the delay. But then we couldn’t miss the chance to rinse away our sins to commit new ones! ;) Holding each others hands to keep any one of us from floating away with the current of the
Breakfast that morning consisted of samosas and kachoris dripping with oil.
Back home I think twice before indulging in the said delicacies even late in the day, leave alone for breakfsat. Nonetheless to say, the meal didn’t add to anybody’s comfort once we reached the round about roads of the hills.
All the queasiness and discomforts were finally worth it once we reached our camp site...it was just like I had imagined it and more.
Our blue tents set up amidst the tall beautiful pine trees facing the river. A bigger tent which served as our dining space and the bathing area further ahead. Waking up in the morning to the smell and sounds the of woods is as good an incentive I need to wake up early! The toilette thereafter is another wonderful experience...brushing your teeth with the sun shining on your face and the river in front for a view with its gurgling sounds giving company to the birds singing! Zipping yourself in the small tent to bath, followed by muffled screams after the chilled water falls on your skin! But then the view of the open sky above eventually soothes your chilled nerves:)
After splashing around in the cold river water....the warmth of the bonfire was just what we needed and that’s what we got! Accompanied by some yummy food prepared by our cook. The night sky simply took my breath away....so many stars, I felt like I could reach out and grab a handful! Laid falt on my back on the sand, staring at the sky for a long time...my bonus was catching 4 shooting stars!:)
After the tiring journey and all the excitement, we retired to our sweet little tents for some peaceful sleep.
Me and my room mate and partner in crime...Shubha were the last ones to wake up! We got a separate escort to take us on our morning trek, but we soon caught up with the other lot. Some of us fitter, some huffing and puffing there way up...but we all finally made it to the top. Victorious…to enjoy the lovely view.
The way down is always so much simpler...uphill is what takes the effort! So we were back down at the camp before we realized, hungry and ready for food. It’s amazing how much I ate up in the hills...blame it on all the fresh air and all the exercise!
The rafting itself was an amazing experience. With these amazing people as our guides…the head, Arjun, who called himself Arjuns…gave this really adorable speech about safety and the rules before we hit the waters! He could give Javed Jaffery a run for his money! Komi, who controlled our raft was the quieter one and far safer too! Raju was the naughtier one, who would venture into the deeper waters more often.
…Riding on rapids...high and low. The cool water splashing all over and around you. And the view of the valley...the mountains, the tall pines and the river we were leaving behind...a sight that has to be experienced!
Though we were a bit disappointed cos the whole thing was a bit too easy….think we were prepared for scarier waters and what we got was a river timid and much too placid.
Getting off the raft and swimming in the river was simply amazing. Ice cold water which numbed my limbs but was totally worth it. After getting off the raft...we obviously still hadn't had enough of the water, cos what followed was a water fight...splashing each others already drenched bodies with still more water! When we were over the water, we shifted to the sand. And poor Subhash, ended up being the guinea pig for fulfilling everybody’s fantasy of creating a mermaid in sand! J
But he was such a great sport and made such a pretty mermaid too!
Instead of putting our dripping bodies in the car to get back to the tent, we decided to go the Indian DTC style way! Hanging out on the doors of the Tavera, with the winds drying our wet clothes and cooling our faces…we reached back to our tents. What a ride! The only downside was our bruised hands from holding the car too tight with the fear of being left behind fallen on the road :P But even that was worth it!
After cleaning ourselves up of all the sand and dirt we had come back loaded from the river, we were ready for some food! How these adventure sports make you hungry J…Post lunch we had another little adventure planned for us….getting an experience of how Spiderman must feel like! :P climbing rocks! Only we had ropes and other equipment to help us and not spider web alone! One by one each of us got our safety gear in place and took the plunge…or uh…the climb! Looked real easy when you watched someone go, I mean just how tough could it be. Man…why won’t he just put his foot there and not there…hold that rock, right there. But then, once you are hanging in there, it isn’t as simple. You are like OMG where do I put my foot next, all my weight is resting on my left toe, placed very gingerly in that tiny cleft in the rock. Help! But then you hang on, look down at all the others for some hope and cheering…you can do it! And then finally you do, do it…reach the top! And it almost feels like you’ve reached
After the little rock climbing adventure, we got back to our camps. And then everybody just scattered around to do their own thing. The enthusiastic bunch headed to the volleyball or the badminton court. Some others just walked down to sit next to the river, lost in thoughts. And then there was the occasional carom board game going on too. I chose to just relax and lie on the hammock, enjoying the smells and the sounds…gazing up at the blue sky framed with the silhouettes of the tall pine trees……hmmmm………..
Once the blackness took over the skies…our bonfire was put into place again. And we took our seats around it….and then the conversations just flowed accompanied by some masala peanuts and aloo pakoras.
Weren’t quite done with the snacks yet…the dinner was announced!
Feel like we were almost forever eating and such amazing food too! From aloo puri and paranthas for breakfast to rajma chawal and even Chinese for lunch and dinner!
After finishing our elaborate dinner in the dining hall tent, each of us headed to our tents. And the sleep just enveloped you the minute your head hit the bed.
Woke up early next morning for our last bit of adventure. We had “Flying Fox” and “
Post the adventure activities, we headed for breakfast and then the second round of rafting. Longer and more difficult this time….and we were prepared! Drove up 4 kms further from the camp to the point where we would start the rafting from. While putting on our gears and preparing to get our rafts in the river, we had bunch of local folk for company. Sitting on the rocks looking at us crazy city folk for some wholesome entertainment. Mothers with their babies, slightly older kids with dripping noses and mischievous grins and the belles with their innocent smiles and untouched beauties. I couldn’t help but run to get my camera from the car to capture some of their smiles…
Was a wonderful ten minutes spent clicking and talking to them…
And then it was time for goodbye and head to raft.
As promised the Course was a much tougher one this time. And so much fun. Stronger rapids, water splashing from all around. Small lengths of placidness and then sudden bursts of water. We were having a blast. The water was far more colder than the previous day as the sun wasn’t shining as much. Consequently the brave hearts who took the plunge in the river were far less….yours truly was among them! And man, was the water cold….numbed you right till the bone but am still glad I took the plunge!
The ride back from to the camp was another adventure!
Our guide Arjun offered to take a few of us back on the truck on which the rafts were loaded! And so we got another course on the raft, only on the road this time.
And Arjun true to his funny bone, would still shout commands of “Get Down”….”All Back”….”Left Front”….
Was really awesome being so high up, sitting perched on the edge of the raft, holding on to the “lifeline”…the wind blowing on my face and catching the lovely views!
After our lunch which felt like the “last supper”…we were ready to head back….
At the lunch table, our tour guide the Colonel introduced us to his German friend, Paul. He’s been coming to the TONS camp for over 7 years now. Comes to TONS and sets up his personal camp a little away from the main campsite. He had done up the place so nicely, it was wonderful…complete with a rice lamp with Buddha’s image on it, his personal bonfire and a hammock for a bed! For the last 12 years he’s been driving around all over
Thursday, April 26, 2007
We are in final preparations for our upcoming expedition to the North Pole. As we speak, over 400 lbs of food and gear are being packed and shipped to Norway. Make sure to check back starting April 15 for the latest on the expedition!
If you've been following the expedition tracker for our other teams, you'll know by now that all teams in the High Arctic are in a holding pattern. We have all safely arrived in Longyearbyen and were due to fly to Barneo on 17 April. However, the runway at Barneo is currently inoperable, having developed some major cracks. This is not an unusual situation- as the runway is built of on a pan of ice, it is susceptible to break up as is the rest of the Arctic Ocean. When they determine the position for Barneo at the beginning of the season, they are always looking for an area with other relatively solid pans of ice in fairly close proximity in case situations like this develop. The issue at this point is that the area around Barneo has been experiencing a major blizzard which has prevented the helicopters from flying to scout out other potential runways. Once they do find a new runway, it will require some maintenance to get it fully up and running. So long story short, we're not sure when we will be leaving Longyearbyen. But we are all are in good spirits and ready to hit the ice whenever we get the go-ahead.
Our dogsled and ski teams combined today for an official training day in Longyearbyen. We set up our tents, reviewed our personal clothing and equipment, fired up our stoves and made sure all is in good working order for our expeditions. We spent the afternoon skiing around the valley in Longyearbyen. We're having our traditional Arctic meal tonight and the group is in high spirits. We eagerly anticipate our departure for Barneo though we're unsure when this will be. We stand ready and waiting for whenever we get the call.
We spent the morning sorting through and repacking our food supplies. We'll definitely not be going hungry! Then this afternoon we headed out for a 6 hour ski to the glacial ice caves about 20 km outside of Longyearbyen. The weather is good here today. However, the forecast is for a low pressure system to develop over Barneo and weather to deteriorate in the next 24-48 hours. They have established a new runway and are doing the maintenance to get it up and running. Now it's just an issue of the runway being finished and the weather cooperating. We're ready when they are.
Our team spent the morning exploring Longyearbyen in various ways. Some went on an active coal mine tour, some rented snow mobiles, others explored the museum. In the afternoon we held a session on packing the sleds. Our expedition equipment is packed and ready to go. We are staying positive with thoughts of a flight out within the next 24-48 hours.We enjoyed a lovely Thai dinner tonight at an off the beaten path spot called Mary Ann's. It is a very eclectic spot with a solarium with heated floors, completely covered in plants. Quite a site in the midst of all the white surroundings! Tomorrow we will get our first update at 8 a.m. and hope to have more news.
Once we got within throwing distance of the North Pole, we left our sleds and started walking around looking for 90 degrees North. After some searching, both of our GPS's flicked exactly 90° N at the same time. We were just feet away from a large open lead and drifting away from the Pole. If we had arrived just a few minutes later, we would not have been able to stand on the Pole, and none of us wanted to swim for it. Later, that same lead kept another ski group searching for a way to the Pole for a few hours longer.
We've been camped out and celebrating our arrival all day, giving ourselves and the dogs some needed rest. After sleeping in until 1:30, we relaxed in our tents, taking breaks to walk around outside, read, and, of course, drink whiskey. Everyone is in good spirits and having a great time. Current position is 89° 57.58' N; 04° 49' W.
No sight of our fellow Polar Explorers' Skiers, but perhaps we'll see them before we fly back to Borneo at 10:30 tomorrow morning.
Tuesday, April 10, 2007
Marrakesh has long been one of North Africa’s hippest destinations, but finding its cool hotels and cosmopolitan restaurants can be daunting for the uninitiated.
The maze of dusty streets hides fantastic riads (traditional courtyard houses – much like the havelis in India), boutiques and atmospheric nooks in which you can simply watch the world go by, but in such a rapidly evolving city, you do need an inside track on the latest places in town. Even regulars find interesting new places to eat, sleep and shop on each trip. From cool new cafes to unusual little shops, Marrakesh is packed with the unexpected and the exotic.
Many visitors never make it beyond the Medina, the walled heart of the city, but the new town of Gueliz just outside Medina shows a very different face of Marrakesh. Farther afield, the Palmeraie, a former wasteland that now houses beautiful private villas and chic boutique hotels is fast becoming the best place in the city to eat.
WHERE TO STAY
Riad Ariha, Derb Ahmed el Borj, Sidi Ben Slimane (+212 24 37 58 50)
Beautifully decorated but budget priced, Riad Ariba has 5 light and airy ensuite rooms, which are minimally furnished in a tasteful style. There is a large roof terrace with a Bedouin tent as well as a private hammam and wireless internet access. Its tucked away in the north of Medina, but once you get your bearings, its only a 10 minute walk to the central square – the Djema el Fina.
A Double bed and breakfast costs approximately US$ 75.
Ryad Dyor, 1 Derbjdida, Sidi Ben Slimane (+212 24 37 59 80)
A stunning, elegant fusion of modern and Moorish style, just around the corner from Riad Ariha. The spacious rooms combine traditional styles – tadelakt (traditional polished plasterwork) bathrooms, latticed windows and beautiful lanterns – with modern fixtures and fittings. One of its peaceful courtyards has a plunge pool, and a large roof terrace has vast sofas for lounging over breakfast or tea.
A Double Bed and Breakfast starts at US$ 150 approximately
Riad Farnatchi, Derb el Farnatchi, Rue Souk el Fassis, Qua’at Ben Ahid (+212 24 38 49 10)
This well established luxury property in one of the oldest parts of Medina, recently added 3 suites – each with open fires, beautiful bathrooms and private roof terraces. Everything is top notch, from the supremely comfortable beds to the elegant interiors. But what sets it apart from other 5 star hotels in the city is the friendly and incredibly efficient service. Nothing is too much trouble, whether you want a balloon trip over the desert or a roof top dinner a deux.
Double B & B starts from US$ 350 approx
WHERE TO EAT
While the Medina is packed with good places to eat, the most vibrant new venues are outside the heart of the city. Here, you’ll find breezy, light-filled cafes perfect for people watching, and stylish restaurants that bring together the best of Moroccan and European cuisine.
Bo & Zin, Douar Lahna, Route de l’Ourika (+212 24 38 80 12)
Bo & Zin, a 15 minute drive outside the Medina, is great when you have got tired of the Tagines and Couscous that dominate many of the city’s restaurants. The menu has an international feel. The uber cool, lantern lit interior is lively enough for big groups, but there are cosy corners for romantic dinners and tables with views over the stunning gardens. A must is the melting chocolate fondant with pistachio icecream. A 2 course dinner for two with wine costs approx US$ 100.
Cafe du Livre, 44 Rue Tarik Ben Ziad (+212 24 43 21 49)
Tucked away on a backstreet of Gueliz, the new town, Cafe du Livre is a bookshop / bar / restaurant and one of the most calming spaces in town. There's really nothing else like this in Marrakesh - a modern but welcoming space where you can have delicious home-made soups or salads at lunch time, or cakes at teatime while browsing through new and second-hand books. Lunch costs approximately US$ 15 per person.
Grand Cafe de la Poste, 127 Avenue Mohammed V (+212 24 43 30 38)
As the name suggests, this is a roomy bistro serving French classics such as Croque-Monsieur, Salade Nicoise and fabulous omelettes. Despite its location on the bustling Ave Mohammed V, its a fashionable place to go to for lunch but has a lot more atmosphere at night when the colonial interiors and the terrac, furnished with cane furniture and huge plants are beautifully lit. Dinner for 2 - two courses with wine - is about US$ 80.
WHERE TO SHOP
L'art du Bain, 13 Souk el Lbadine (+212 68 44 59 42)
If you want something to take home other than the predictable wooden snakes, lanterns,leather slippers, etc., look in this tiny shop tucked away in a courtyard inside the souks. The main focus is on hand made soap, from the traditional Moroccan savon noir, which is used in hammams, to fragrant natural soaps made with rose, orange blossom, sandalwood, amber and musk. They also have terracotta accesories and pretty soap dishes.
Ksar Char Bagh, Palmeraie de Marrakesh (+212 24 32 92 44)
Ksar Char Bagh, a palace outside the Palmeraie, just outside the city, is the most stunning hotel in Marrakesh and its shop is packed with fabulous hand-made furniture, exquisite lamps, toiletries and clothes. Everything here is chosen with impeccable taste - although, of course, it comes at a price!
Alrazal, 55 rue Sourya, Gueliz (+212 24 43 78 84)
The souks are crammed with stalls selling kaftans in all shapes and sizes, but for something more original head to ALrazal.
Friday, April 06, 2007
There is something intensely liberating about being in a place where no one speaks, or even attempts to speak, your language. Which is why a trip to China, which included Beijing, Shanghai and the picturesque Guilin, got the nod from me right away.
My first morning there and I woke up to find out that Beijing had laid out a white carpet welcome. Fresh snow dusted the wide streets, where people in traditional Chinese clothing cycled by solemnly next to the ones in dapper suits zipping past in the latest cars. The still-holding-on-to-its-traditions and at the same time inching towards modernization capital of China drew me to itself instantly.
The Great Wall, the Tiananmen Square and the Forbidden Palace were just some of the attractions that fascinated me in this country of people, who are the only ones, perhaps even more superstitious than us Indians.
The Chinese were fascinated by me even more than I was by their country. It was still early days for tourism when I visited in March ’05, and Indian tourists were a rarity. The women there were enthralled by my bouncy curls and wanted to touch them as they pointed ruefully to their poker straight hair. They wanted to feel my face, my eyes and my lips and I could only stop them when they wanted to feel my eyeballs. My pierced nose intrigued everyone and I was repeatedly requested to pose for pictures with the locals. I was even asked if I was a movie-star back home and, God is my witness, the temptation to concur was immense, but I chose the truth and told them I wasn’t, at which I was promptly advised that I should be! Ah! Beijing was good for my vanity, yes!
Shopping is an internationally indulged in pleasure, but in China it took a new twist. Being wrapped up in 4 layers of clothing, due to the minus degrees, made it a little difficult for the salespeople to see what size I actually was. The Medium that I wear here was the size that a 7 year old child there would wear. After much hand gesturing, peeling off layers of clothing and crowd gathering could a desirable size finally be located and tried on. And this rigmarole was repeated in every place I shopped at.
The Chinese are fascinating people mostly, once they allow you to get to know them. The English language was/is being taught to more than 10 lakh citizens to prepare the country to play host to the 2008 Olympics. And the new found enthusiasm for the Queens language ensured that as fluent speakers, we were treated with awe and often ended up bartering Chinese words in exchange for English ones.
So if you like being in a place that is learning the language you are reading right now, don’t mind what is on your plate or the cage that it came from and where drinking tea is a lengthy ritual and tradition, head to China. You won’t regret it.
Best time to go: April to Nov. Spring starts mid March and in April the cherry blossoms are in full bloom.
Currency: Yuan. 1 Yuan = 5.5 INR. (Mar ’05 rate)
What to wear: Please do check the weather before you leave. In winter you will need your thermals, thick wool socks, gloves and skullcap and a sturdy weatherproof, lined jacket. The weather varies throughout the country. For eg; up north is colder than down south, Beijing is the pretty cold compared to Shanghai, which tends to get humid and has sudden rain showers too.
In summers jeans and t-shirts should do, but carry a light jacket along.
Food: If you are vegetarian or very finicky about the non-vegetarian you eat, it is advisable to carry your own ready-to-eat-supply and snacks. Popular brands of world-renowned fast food chains are readily available as another option. Pork is the main meat.Chinese food is extremely bland and vegetarian here is tofu, water chestnuts, lotus stem and a few other local vegetables.
Do try the steamed buns though.
Fluffy, white buns, soft as a pillow and filled with a savory mixture of minced pork usually. We ordered ours plain and they came to our table still steaming in a bamboo steamer and delicious.
Language: Big problem. They speak no English and Chinese is very difficult to pick up and follow. Even their gestures are complicated! Hiring an interpreter makes it easier to move around.
People: Very, very superstitious. Indifferent and wary of strangers. The people of Shanghai are extremely rude and our interpreter enlightened us that they were proud of it. The shopkeepers are pretty okay though but very persuasive. If you enter a shop/store before 12 am they will not let you go without buying anything. Sort of like the ‘subah ki boni kar do’ thing we have in India.
Shopping: Mind-boggling variety. Bargaining like mad is the only way to get a good deal here. If someone quotes 100, you quote 10. You normally get it for around 20!:) Yes! It’s that crazy!! :) You bargain at the roadside stalls. You bargain in shops. You bargain in boutiques and yes, you bargain in shopping malls! And the crazy part is you get your price!!
What to buy:
Of course Jade!
Jade is known to be the only ‘living stone’ in the world, that is, it changes color to a deeper green as time goes by. Its value goes up 1.5 times the cost each year. The Chinese consider it very lucky and it is worn on the body as a good luck charm and to ward off evil. The women there wear a unique oval shaped jade bangle on their left wrist. The more affluent you are the darker green your bangle is, as the darker the Jade the more expensive it is. It is always advisable to buy Jade from certified government shops. There are plenty of them everywhere. Beijing has the most variety and the best quality of Jade. Figurines are also very popular.
Silk: Chinese silk is exquisite. We visited a silk factory and saw it being woven in front of us. Silk is available in every imaginable form there. Bed sheets, quilts, accessories, and paintings, you name it, they have it. Prices start from 10 Yuan and go up too 10000 + Yuan. A typical Chinese silk shirt with beautiful silk buttons will cost you 180 Yuan up.
Pearls: China produces the largest number of fresh water pearls. Don’t miss a visit to the pearl factory where they show you the oyster, let you open it and give you a real tiny complimentary pearl! The pearls here are available in a wide range of beautiful colors and suit every pocket.
Etc: Silk pouches in every shape and size imaginable. Beautiful. Coin purses, spectacle cases, jewelry boxes, tissue holders and much, much more! All reasonable priced and make great gifts.
Other things to do and see :
Reflexology foot massage:
A heavenly massage, especially after a tiring day.
There are special places for these, so see that you go to the right one. Hotels also have their own masseurs but the reflexology massage is something very different.
Acupressure is used on specific parts of your foot and you feel all your tiredness slipping away. They greet you with a cup of jasmine tea, wash your feet and then soak them in hot water to which some magical powder has been added in front of you. After a good soak the massage starts and goes on for 45 minutes. Then your legs are wrapped in hot towels and when you think it can’t get better than this you are given the most relaxing head, neck, back and shoulder massage you can imagine for the next 15 minutes. The whole thing lasts for an hour and costs between a 100-150 Yuan.
The acrobatics shows are very popular all over China and are worth a watch. The Chinese opera is popular too but since you don’t understand the language you don’t enjoy it much. The Chinese ballet shows were a pleasant surprise. Prices of the tickets vary from city to city and show to show. Tend to be on the steeper side.
Tea is integral to contemporary Chinese society and a mainstay of economic and culturally activity. Experience traditional Chinese teahouse culture when you visit any of the teahouses that China is dotted all over with. You can attend an elaborate tea ceremony where a hostess guides you through its various intricacies. Learn and enjoy everything, from making the tea to learning how to sip it from tiny cups to how to slurp at some of the teas to get a better taste and flavor. You can also buy usual and unusual teas like the very well known jasmine and green tea to the more exotic Litchi with rosebuds, Jasmine dragon pearls, Golden green tea, Oriental beauty oolong, Snow mountain white tea. Besides the tea, you can buy fancy Chinese tea sets, clay pots and various types of mugs too.
Known as the “Venice of Shanghai”, located in a suburb of Shanghai city, Zhujiajiao is an ancient water town well-known throughout the country. For an entrance fee of 50 Yuan per person you can walk into and experience a faux-Venice, foul-smelling canals et all. It is a lovely experience as a boat takes you through the river that winds through unique old bridges across bubbling streams, and you peek into houses where people are going about their everyday chores. I did ask the boatman (gondolier wouldn’t be right because it wasn’t a gondola) if he would sing( lack of good food makes me do pretty strange things) but by the time he could understand what I meant we had reached the end our out 30 minute boat ride and I had missed a couple of sights ;)
The Worlds Fastest Train:
Do not miss riding on Maglev (magnetic levitation), the world's fastest, most futuristic passenger line train. Smiles abound inside the sleek train as, with a breathtaking whoosh, it rockets to 300 kilometers per hour in two minutes flat. Overhead, like a giant scoreboard, an LED blinks out our record-breaking progress till we top 430 kph. You are instructed to sit in the direction facing the destination the train is going towards else there is a chance of you feeling dizzy and nauseous. Though all I felt was sheer excitement looking at the houses, and later fields, zipping past me. The round trip, the train starts from Longyang Rd. Station, speeds up to 430 km/hour and arrives at Pudong Airport, fare costs 150 RMB for normal seats and 300 RMB for VIP seat.
Boat Cruise: Shanghai:
Watch the gorgeously lit-up Shanghai skyline as your, equally gorgeously decorated and lit-up, boat cruises along at a relaxed pace on the Huangpu River. The 2 hour cruise needs prior reservation and a Buffet is included with each ticket - enjoy beer, wine, cocktails, and soft drinks accompanied by live music.
All pics courtesy : Google.
Monday, March 12, 2007
The dress is red, tight and very short. It has a plunging neckline and is held up by a cheap brass chain. It is hideous.
"Take, take," says the costume director, flapping it impatiently. I stare at him. He stares back. It dawns on me that he actually wants me to wear this. I'm about to achieve the ultimate dream of millions of women across Asia and dance in a Bollywood movie. And this man wants me to do it dressed as a prostitute.
We are standing in the dusty car park of a hotel in Bombay. Around us, set assistants rush to fetch and carry water and snacks to the film shoot, which is taking place indoors. I am on day two of a Bollywood-themed tour of Bombay. I had expected to see film sets and extras; I had not expected to be arguing about my own costume.
Bollywood has held me in its henna-painted grip for almost a decade. In the late 1990s I spent nine months backpacking around South Asia. Travelling in India on the cheap brings plenty of opportunities to watch Bollywood films - they are played, day and night (and at full volume) on bus journeys, in budget restaurants and in hotel receptions across the country.
I grew to love the turbulent, dramatic plots and grandiose love scenes; the way an entire cast would launch into a choreographed dance at the most inappropriate moments - in the middle of a battle scene, perhaps, or at a funeral.
The Bollywood I remember is one of demure heroines and rebuffed advances from smouldering suitors. The men were muscle-bound and heroic; the women were beautiful and coy. They would weep poetically on mountain tops. They would not wear red mini dresses held up by chains.
Bollywood, it seems, has changed.
"Bollywood has changed," agrees the director Pavan Kaul when I meet him on day one of my tour. We are on the set of his latest film, Bhram. Pavan is small and stocky, with a close-cropped beard and baseball cap - a compact, Asian version of Steven Spielberg. "The audience is more sophisticated," he tells me between takes.
He has a fierce reputation, but today is softly spoken and jovial. We are sitting in the smoky darkness of a nightclub, watching a dozen beautiful extras dressed in cocktail dresses strut around in front of a bar.
"People want a slice of life," Pavan continues. "They don't just want the 'filmy' stuff." The "filmy stuff" is what Bollywood was built on - flamboyant dance routines and extravagant storylines. And the industry has done very well from it.
Today, Bollywood is the world's most prolific film industry, churning out more than a thousand films a year, watched by an audience of 15 million every day.
Bhram is different. There are no glittering saris on set, no henna-painted hands or demure heroines. Bhram - which means illusion - is a story about a model who has turned to drugs and "bad behaviour" (which may even include pre-marital sex) following the violent death of her sister. She falls in love, changes her ways, but then discovers that her sister's ex-boyfriend - who drove her to her death - is her new love's brother.
"It is a dark story," explains Pavan. "Dramatic, but not too risky." He shouts instructions into a microphone, and then gets up to talk an actress through the take. With him gone, I can look around properly. I have been here just half an hour and am excited. No matter the lack of saris and large-scale dance routines. When I signed up for Western & Oriental's tailor-made tour, I thought I would be shown around some studios and glimpse a few actors if I was lucky. I did not expect to be sitting on a shoot, chatting to the director.
There are more than a hundred people on set. At least half of them stand around doing absolutely nothing. The rest - lighting assistants, sound people, extras, make-up artists - rush around, tripping over wires and shouting. There is a sense of barely contained chaos.
"So, welcome to Bollywood!" Vikrant lowers himself into a chair next to me. Vikrant is a producer and agent, and has been assigned by the travel company to be my guide for the next two days. He has a wide, friendly face and a wavy mass of grey hair. "We live off confusion. We love it!" He looks around. "But there is method in the madness. Now, do you want to do some acting?" Half an hour later, Vikrant has pulled a few strings and I'm standing at the bar with the female lead, the petite and impossibly beautiful Sheetal Menon. We are shooting the nightclub scene where she first meets the hero; I'm her random white friend at the bar, a silent role for which my clothes - jeans and an embroidered top - have been deemed acceptable.
Sheetal is a modern heroine, in tight satin dress and stilettos. I keep touching my hair - next to her, I have discovered a new vanity, and her status as leading lady makes her inevitably intimidating.
I had been warned about Bollywood egos - in India, actors are the ultimate superstars. They are adored and adulated in a way that puts our own celebrity culture to shame. The sway of the Bollywood celebrity is such that audiences have been known to tear the seats out of cinemas and set fire to screens if they think their favourite actor is being mistreated by a plot. When the actor Rajkumar died last year, there were riots on the streets of Bangalore.
Sheetal, however, is disarmingly sweet. She tells me how excited she is to be in Bhram, her first film. She has worked for several years as a model, and lives in the suburbs with her parents. Her stilettos, she confides, are killing her.
One man comes up with a clapper board and another screams for silence. Vikrant has also been pulled into shot - he has been told he has an "interesting look", which pleases him. "Music!" shouts the director, and pounding club music blares from the speakers. "Action!" A camera looms over the bar; we smile and pretend to be deep in conversation. "Cut!" And that's it. Acting, I decide, is easy.
Dino Morea arrives on set. Dino, the male lead, is an established star, although his last few films have flopped. The director calls me over to meet him. Expecting the sort of thunderous ego that usually accompanies his kind of good looks and fame, I'm nervous. He smiles, showing his neat white teeth, and asks how the filming is going. I'm thrilled. Impeccably polite, he offers a chair and we chat about Europe: he is half Italian.
I watch as he acts in take after take. Every entrance is shot from three different angles, but he is fast and doesn't seem to get bored. Between takes, he poses for photos with the extras - they are all fans.
The extras, about 30 of them, are slim and well-groomed, in heavy make-up and tight, sparkly - Western - outfits. During a break, I meet Nina, tiny and athletic, in a gold halterneck mini-dress. Her accent throws me. "I'm from L A," she explains. She was a stunt woman in Hollywood but came to India for a shoot and decided to stay.
"Bollywood is very different - it's less formal, so you can speak to the director if you need to," she tells me. "It's funny, because here they always tell you to 'act up, act up'. In Hollywood it was always 'tone it down, tone it down'. This way is much more fun." Another extra, 23-year-old Shereen, tells me with a flick of her long hair that they are actually called "junior artistes", or juniors. Not extras. She has been in the business for two years and enjoys it, although she says that "they don't treat us so well". The actors ignore the juniors; the choreographers expect long hours and no complaints. There is a union, though, and the pay isn't bad - 1,000 rupees a day. "That's good money in India," Vikrant assures me. It is about £12.
The director invites Vikrant and me to join him for lunch - a feast of curries, which change colour under the flashing red, green and blue disco lights. I ask about the plot, remarking that such a dark storyline doesn't leave much scope for the music and dancing we expect from Bollywood. He looks surprised. "Tomorrow, tomorrow. We shoot the dance scene tomorrow." I'm relieved. Bollywood may be changing, but edgy storylines are no reason to forgo a cheery dance routine.
Like Bollywood, Bombay has changed since I was last here. The chaotic, rundown city I remember is today peppered with wealthy, well-heeled pockets. A campaign known as Vision Mumbai aims to transform Bombay into a "world-class" city by 2013, an ambitious plan, which hopes to attract an investment of US$40 billion, to be channelled into low-income housing, transport, education and infrastructure. Events such as the Kitab literary festival, now in its second year, draw high-profile writers, actors and celebrities from around the world. Less high-brow, but still significant, is the ambassadorial work of Shilpa Shetty, the Big Brother winner - for both Bollywood and Bombay.
Bombay's new confidence - and new money - is at its most obvious in the suburb of Bandra, home to Bollywood's biggest stars, including Amitabh Bachan and Shahrukh Khan. Here, the tree-lined streets are filled with cafés and stylish restaurants where young, fashionable groups chat over Caesar salads. In a country where the average annual income is £260, Bandra's MAC make-up store sells lipsticks to Bombay socialites at £12 a pop.
Next day, en route to the shoot, we pass a reminder of Bombay's other side - a swelling slum under a motorway flyover. The city has seven million slum dwellers, many of whom live without running water or sewage systems. The same city will be home to the new Indian version of Vogue magazine, due to launch later in the year.
We leave behind the decaying cardboard shelters and drive on to leafy Powai, another upmarket suburb. The new location for filming - a large, glitzy nightclub housed in a luxury hotel - is already thronged with extras and crew when we arrive. Pavan, the director, surrounded by even more people than yesterday, breaks free to greet me and lead me over to a circle of chairs filled with absurdly good-looking people. Half-Italian Dino is there, strumming a guitar. Sheetal, in another tight dress and five-inch heels, is chatting to the most beautiful man I have ever seen.
This is Milind Soman - India's first male supermodel and now also an actor - who has the role of the evil brother in Bhram. Here is a man who deserves a proper Bollywood-sized ego, but he grins at me and invites me to sit down. I grin back, idiotically pleased. I've gone native.
Milind has been in the business for seven years and takes his acting, and himself, very seriously. He talks energetically, veering between praising and criticising Bollywood. "A Bollywood film should contain every emotion you can feel - anger, laughter, tears," he says, and then, cryptically, "There are many slices that make up the orange." I giggle, which I realise is unfitting, but then I'm giggling a bit too much anyway. And flicking my hair.
"Francisca!" The director is calling me through his microphone and I trot over obediently. Vikrant whispers that Pavan has taken a shine to me. "You want to dance?" asks Pavan, eyes twinkling. "Then we must get you into a costume." Ultimately, I am spared the red mini-dress thanks to one of the assistant directors, who locates a pretty green silk cocktail number instead. Back on set, I find myself being eyed warily by the "juniors". Wandering around the wings, I nervously watch as they film the first dance scenes. The routines are simple - the actors are meant to be at a party enjoying themselves. Between takes, assistants rush up to the leads with mirrors. Sheetal re-touches her lipgloss; Milind brushes his hair.
After a few hours of pacing around the set, I begin to get bored and forget about being nervous. There is too much time to hang around as the equipment is moved for each take. The actors look bored, too. They splay across the chairs, or fiddle with their mobiles. Does Sheetal have any advice for a first-timer? "Lose all your inhibitions," she says with a yawn.
Late in the afternoon, the choreographer rushes over and shows me my moves - arms out, arms in, over the head and punch the air. Easy. A few run-throughs of the steps and I'm nervous again.
A long wait later, and the beautiful Milind is holding my hand on the edge of the dance floor. He is to be my dance partner, which makes me even more anxious. Around us, couples in shiny suits and sparkling dresses gyrate to pounding Hindi-pop. My hands are clammy. "Don't be nervous," he murmurs, and on cue he pulls me in front of the camera. We launch into the synchronised dance, wiggling our hips and punching the air as the song ends. It is utterly absurd. And utterly exhilarating. Afterwards, we watch the take on the director's monitor. I look ridiculous -awkward and undeserving of my gorgeous partner. The director looks over at me. "You're a natural," he says, and Milind smiles at me. I almost faint with pleasure.
They are humouring me, I'm sure. My scenes may well get cut - but I have still achieved the aim of millions: I have danced in a Bollywood movie. And I didn't even have to dress like a prostitute.
Saturday, March 10, 2007
If the arrival lounge of an airport gives you a microcosmic glimpse into a country, then Sri Lanka’s airport is nice enough to make me want to cry. I know comparisons with my own country are unfair, but seriously, the carpets in the airport corridors at IGI airport look like someone shat on them. In contrast The Badranaike International airport smells good, looks squeaky clean and shiny new and makes you feel Ayubowan!
My traveling companion……….
My husband is the sleeping partner of this trip. No, it’s not a dirty weekend unfortunately, but a business trip for him and holiday for me, where he is absolutely busy with meetings, dinners and even a flying trip to the Maldives. My real traveling companion this trip has been my son, Aryaman who at five and half is like a small sponge soaking up the knowledge of the world. In some ways this trip opened vistas for me that went beyond visiting another country. They showed me how beautiful it is to bond so exclusively with another human being, in the guise of your little boy. We spent every minute of this holiday together, and he bravely accompanied me on snorkeling trips, shopping expeditions, a corporate dinner and even sat on the beach patiently waiting for his mad mother to come back from a dip in the ocean.
In non-chronological order, I need to begin with Hikkaduwa because that place has a piece of my heart. The Coral Garden’s Resort where I stayed on this pristine beach paradise is ostensibly the best hotel here, but please don’t go with visions of a luxurious resort. It’s basic! Front office managers speak barely passable English, and it took me close to an hour and lots of flashing of an Indian passport to check in. The rooms, service and quality of food is also basic, but then so is the price. Thankfully the five star loving husband was away in the Maldives and the pacifist Buddhist staff was spared an Indian volcanic explosion typical Delhi-ite style. It’s for old retired couples, large families, very serious honeymooners, or simply beach lovers like me. But, what they are really selling is that pristine bit of beach which you can see from your room. Sleeping to the pounding of the surf, and waking up to an awesome sunrise on the horizon was worth the lack of basic luxuries for me.
The beach is not just pristine; it is poetic, evocative of verse, clean, and absolutely safe. But, that’s not just what I went for. I went for PADI scuba diving courses and water sports facilities that litter every beach resort in Sri Lanka. This is wind surfing and scuba diving haven, albeit at cheaper rates than Phuket.
But, the diving instructor did not understand my impatience.
“I came from very far, only for this.”, I whine, pointing to the four hour scuba crash course that includes sessions in the swimming pool and two dives in the sea.
He shakes his head. Its not that he doesn’t want to make money, but the sea is too rough and I am a greenhorn at this sport.
As a palliative, he offers me a snorkeling session the next morning, asking me to pray for calmer sea.
“Maybe you won’t see too much…” he warns.
Reckless and impulsive I chance it and we start off the next day at 8: 00 am. My little son trails behind us, with the promise of the ride in a glass bottomed boat. My snorkeling guide (and I am always lucky with them) is a lean, mean product of the beach with sun bleached blonde hair, pure muscle and tattoos.
“Are you Sri Lankan?” I ask curiously.
“Yes, but nobody thinks so,” says the hero smugly.
(Warning to all hapless princesses surfing the high seas……our prince could be too in love with himself to help you when you get stuck on a coral bed or the piranhas come)
Visibility was poor, I scraped my knees on coal, and the damn guide disappeared on me. But the few brief minutes o swimming with school of fish almost tickling my belly, had me entranced in Paradise! Some things have their own rewards.
Luckily alcohol is dirt cheap all over Sri Lanka, and the currency conversion helps so it wasn’t altogether a bad end to a stressful morning. I ended up with an impromptu body surfing lesson from my cute instructor; the son got a great session in the kiddie pool, with some Gaulish children and life after a nice Sri Lankan style punch and devilled crab was decidedly good. The latter was served at a restaurant called ‘The Beach’ which has found itself in every travel guide for its fresh and exquisite seafood.
On the way back the shoreline plays hide and seek with us. Blue Ocean, small bays, atolls, and backwaters are fringed by palm trees. A grim reminder is broken down homes and mass graves are what remain of the Tsunami which gave this island country a taste of the wrath of the ocean.
The Blue Elephant, at the Hilton, Colombo was shut, for security reasons. A brief foray into a casino called Bally’s with entry only for ‘foreigners’ was sweet but dimly lit and full of vague half breeds. A gossipy receptionist at the Hilton assured me that most nightclubs have gun toting young brats swaggering around and messing up the scene. The bars at the Hilton however were peaceful and happy. My husband’s Sri Lankan colleagues were a nice motley mix of men and women, all dusky, and beautiful and with mellifluous voices that make you forget what they say half the time.
Samanthi, my husband’s colleague is responsible for my travel plans and trip. She organizes a lovely dinner for all of us at the Mount Lavinia Hotel, on Mt Lavinia beach, about 30 minutes drive form the city. An old charming dowager of a hotel, the beach restaurant is five star version of a shack and offers grills in the shape of a fish market. Choose your own fish, crab or lobster. After some research Aryaman and I suspect that the crabs scuttling on the beach could possibly be the poor creatures ending up on our dining table.
Sri Lankan women………..and Sri Lankan men!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
To begin with as a race, they are much nicer than Indians. People are educated, polite and smile a lot. They are calm, take things easy like anyone living on an island paradise would, friendly and warm. Colombo reminds me of the Mumbai or Calcutta of the eighties. The staff at the private lounge where we have Breakfast everyday are inordinately curious about everything. Commenting on my sandals, a young woman assure me with stars in her eyes, “Indian is a big country. I believe you can really shop there. One day I will go to India to shop.”
While the women still seem a little held back, it’s the men who have me goggle eyed. Whether it is at the parlour, on the beach, in the shops or in the hotel, they smile at you with dark eyes and long lashes. Dusky and pretty most of them seem polite. A lot of the younger lot have blonde hair and piercings which make them look like funky islanders anywhere in the world. They laugh a lot, chat with you like old buddies and make you feel so chilled, that you forget the North Indian paranoia that is second skin. In terms of feeling safe, secure, alone, and abashedly admired, in the nicest possible way, my vote goes to the Sri Lankan men.
Sight seeing and Shopping:
Any guide book will tell you hat there is loads to see in Sri Lanka and loads to buy. I didn’t go for either. To be honest the thrill to my nomadic bones as the fact that this country has mercantile holidays. I could see the sea wherever I went, and had a great gin at the old romantic Galle Face Hotel. I didn’t see too much, and I didn’t shop at all. My only commercial experience of this kind was at the M. Pierce salon, where I wanted a spray on tattoo and funky hair colour. I walked out half way when cock-eyed Mr. Pierce accosted me with mineral spirit to clean my face. But that is another story………………..