Sunflowers, strawberries and other reasons to visit Saj on the Mountain

  1. This chance to be a goofball with your parents
    2. This chance to have your strawberries and eat them too.3. This bright yellow which is your mamma’s favorite color 4. These sunflowers you can use as a muse for watercolor afternoons5. This funky pool to splash in the evenings6. This road to your cottage7. This strawberry butter making session 8. This BFF you made over the strawberry butter making session9. This grand finale to your high tea10. This play area you can be a goofball in all over again
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13 reasons we love the J W Marriott in Mussoorie (even though we couldn’t find any walnuts on the walnut grove)

  1. This great way to start your day with a picnic by the stream

2. This view while chomping on your post-breakfast Danish

 

3. This walnut grove to hug

4. This evening of story-telling

4. This tiramisu you never tire of eating

5. This shortcut to lunch

6. This comfort of watching Harry Potter movies

7. This corn-on-a-cob at sundown

8. Or this lolling about on a beanbag

9. This magical glow after sundown

10. This hide and seek we never tire of

11. This quick screen time while mamma is at the spa

12. Or this play with water curtains that tells you she is still watching

13. And this new BFF who totally gets us

Saving a million trees, one smokeless chulha at a time

Last month, listening to Hrishikay on Radio One (the only way I can drive in peak hours), I chanced upon a conversation involving a Himalayan Rocket Stove.  The interviewee was Russell Collins, an Australian whose soul lives in India and this was something he had invented for the Himalayan region as a more environment-friendly way to cook and heat up the house. The stove works on a principle of vortex heating,  which burns even the smoke created by it, rendering it almost 70-80% smokeless, while creating such high temperatures that you can not only cook food on it, but also use to heat up the house in winter.

He had me at one million trees.

He had me at sustainable cooking solutions.

He had me at 40 lakh deaths resulting from indoor pollution.

He also had me at “we need volunteers for workshops”

As an extension of this idea for the rest of India, which doesn’t live in sub-zero temperatures but can still benefit from smokeless cooking – Russell’s company conducts workshops, which they are proud to call the Smokeless Chulha Project. The aim of these workshops is to train as many end users (and trainers) in the making of these chulhas while highlighting the hazardous effects of conventional chulhas, the drain on forest reserves they create and the inordinate amount of time and effort spent on collecting and transporting firewood. Consider this: Every day, women in rural India walk as much as 10-20 km in search of firewood, and usually bring back a few kilos. If they are lucky, it lasts two days. By the time she is 40, a woman would have walked the distance of Kashmir to Kanyakumari and back just in search of firewood.

If you are still wondering what the fuss about smokeless chulhas is all about, allow me some gory detail:

If this is what a conventional chulha can do to a wall, imagine the extent of damage it can do to your lungs and respiratory system. In contrast, the Smokeless Chulha creates 80% less smoke than a conventional stove and also uses 80% lesser wood.

I quickly shot off a message to Hrishi and prompt as ever, he shot me back a number of Nitisha Agrawal who manages the Smokeless Chulha project while Russell is in Australia. She is armed with years of branding and corporate experience, but is thirsty to be an agent for social change. She also rallies around to find people truly passionate about the project to give it further wings. As someone who is constantly reinventing the way I live, I was happy to be a catalyst to what I saw as a less consumptive way of living.

By the end of the week, I had signed up for their forthcoming workshop at Kanha Tiger Reserve, in collaboration with the Forest department of M.P, ably led by Sanjay Shukla and his deputy, Anjana Tirki. For a state that is abundant in its forest reserves, Madhya Pradesh wears them lightly. Watching this dynamic duo and their team at work, I realized that most of real conservation is silent. On one given night, Anjana was at our guest house at 8 pm, trying to get feedback about the workshops, what could be done to ensure that the villagers do indeed make these chulhas and train others to do so. She had to travel back 75 km to her home in Mandla, to a 15 month baby, but she was unperturbed.

Of course forest departments are believers in conservation; it’s in their DNA. But it’s quite another thing to recognize the potential of an initiative from an outsider and let them in and want it to be scaled up to your region and community. That requires vision, that these able leaders at Kanha had. There were two workshops on two different days, and for each workshop, they had lined up at least 30-35 people from different village communities around Kanha. The turnout was far more than that. 150 people from 75 villages turned up over two days to learn about Smokeless Chulha (cookstove).The first workshop was at the Eco Centre of the Khatia range of the Kanha Tiger reserve and the second at Gadi range, around 70 km away.  Although several of them had secured an LPG connection through various schemes, they knew that the chulha is here to stay. It is what is used to heat water, cook rice and of course make rotis (which always tasted better off the chulhas). Plus, everyone wanted their gas cylinder to last.

The constant in all workshops is the chief trainer Tanzin – trekker, naturalist, horse-doctor and farmer with a huge love for the forests and mother earth and who mourns the infestation of plastic and consumerism in our daily life. Tanzin is the official trainer of trainers, local communities and volunteers for all smokeless chulha workshops , but clearly we need more Tanzins. We need to create more of them.

What does it take?

The doughnut mix:  (this forms the basic skeleton of the chulha and you can stack up three to five depending on what height you need for cooking) : clay, sand, puffed rice (murmura) and bhusa (dried hay)

The fuel for the smokeless chulha: Twigs, dry leaves, cowdung cakes, etc. You don’t need large pieces of wood, which means trees need not be felled to cook your meals

What it costs to make: Well, not more than a hundred rupees.

Well here is a video on how to make a smokeless chulha with step by step instructions. The video is in Hindi, but an English version is also available

After two days of observing an eager and enthusiastic audience, asking questions, devising their own chulha hacks and promising to go back home and make a chulha for themselves, it was time to go home. It was a small milestone, these 150 people, but what we left behind was larger dreams, a few leaders and a renewed passion for the environment. Meanwhile, the Kanha team was already talking about the next workshop. More villages. More people. More chulhas. Less smoke.

If you wish to request a workshop in your region, click here

If you wish to volunteer with this project, click here 

To follow their work on facebook, click here

 

Why Sol De Goa is a good place to soul-search

When I said yes to an invitation from Sol De Goa a few months ago, little did I realise that it would open my heart to a very different Goa – where one feels faint need to go even close to a beach (although Candolim beach is just 2 km from this tucked away resort in Nerul, overlooking the Sinquerim river). Strangely, Sol De Goa seems unperturbed by its more opulent neighbour LPK, which going by the signs all along Candolim, seems to be some sort of party capital – a thing I am perhaps too old or too sensible for.

Once a getaway for distinguished Portuguese officials, Sol was redesigned, renamed and restored by its current owner, Suraj Morajkar – one of the few real estate people who genuinely cares about restoration and heritage. Designed by acclaimed designer Tarun Tahiliani with strong Goan influences and a classic Portuguese feel, the property includes 21 rooms: four suites, two deluxe suites and 15 well-appointed rooms. All these are made further charming by the fact that they hug a beautiful central courtyard pool, flanked by some exquisite pottery.

So unwittingly, I found pieces of my soul in different ways at Sol De Goa:

Like when I entered the resort and felt it was someone’s grandparent’s home, with all that old world charm.

img20160902113001Or when the same night, it transformed into this high octane place that never went to sleep. Thursdays is when  Goa’s best come to shake a leg at Sol De Goa:

 

Or when I sat in my balcony the next afternoon and nibbled at my chilli cheese toast, listening to bird song by the Sinquerim river. img20160901171044Or when I partnered with the resident chef, a lovely man named Prashant in creating mangane, a traditional goan kheer of sago, yellow gram, coconut milk and jaggery for Ganesh Chaturthi. And had two full bowls of it.
img20160902080006Or when I stared into space, eating my pancakes with strawberry butter one morning, wondering just how long would the twin towers of Our Lady of Hope church be. img20160901090738Or when I attained zen just by loUnging by the courtyard pool, doing nothing, wondering which one was a more exquisite shade of blue: the pots or the pool.img20160902113025

 

10 reasons to love Novotel Goa resort and spa

So I spent a few days in Candolim during my Goa R&R last month and one of the places that hosted me was the Novotel Goa resort and spa (Pinto Waddo, off Candolim road). Here’s why you should go too:

  1. There as much room to do nothing as there is to pack it all up
  2. img20160905154352There is splashes of color when you need it
    img201609051223323. And then there is tranquility when you need it too. And some wonderful spa treatments at their poolside spa.img201609051523154. And how can I forget the memorable Sunday Brunch at La Briese, their beach-side restaurant, which also features a live band every weekend. And is also a great spot for sunset cocktails. img201609041427195. Just when I was missing the boy, I saw this father-son duo X-box connecting or Nintendoing (to me, it’s all the same) in the lobby. There’s plenty more where that came from. img201609051222076. And certainly it’s not all about the kids. Some things are all yours img201609051524277. And while you sip your poolside cosmopolitan, you can stare at this viewimg201609051526228. Or take a selfie (or if you are lucky, a photo) before you say good bye to it all photo-79. Did I forget to mention there is a special tree sandwich for those you have the eye for it? img2016090413201410. And how can I leave you without a sunset? photo-8

Want to make your children better travelers? Start with yourself

travels in new york

It’s a maxim universally marketed that having children kills the traveller in you. It is something often quoted in the “Why not to have kids” bibles and generally nodded to and sighed upon. ‘Herculean task’, ‘nightmare’, ‘horror story’ are commonly used words by people to describe traveling with kids. And then there are pre-boarding facilities and goody bags from airlines, overload of activity timetables at resorts – all aiming to subtly announce that a holiday with children is going to require supreme engineering.

When I threw open the question of how do we make our children better travelers on my blog’s forum, I received the usual formulaic responses, since no one realized it was a trick question: Plan well, involve the child, tell them about where they are going to travel, show them pictures, videos, show them the place on the map, plan their meals (or pack whatever you can),  get them excited about what they will do on the plane , make a list of activities, take their favorite toys, carry board games, carry their favorite food, favorite puzzle, favorite soft toy,  favorite movie.. and so on.

Why travel at all, I wondered? Why bother if you are going to simulate the same kind of life in a different address? When you do the aforementioned, you are raising the opposite of a real traveler. I do realize that holidays need to be planned (especially when kids start formal schooling as there are at best three windows to choose from). But that should be limited to bookings. In my experience, Air BnBs and homestays work better than hotels and if you choose locations you have friends living in – nothing like it.

In my limited experience of seven years and 13 trips with a child, I have come to realize this: The problem, very often, is not the child. It’s the adults. Because you pass on to your child how you have been programmed to travel and if you are the kind who bursts a capillary because you forgot to pack your iPod speakers, chances are, you are already raising a high maintenance child who may prove the cliché right. But this is not a post that tells you what to pack in their bag or how to pacify an irate kid on a plane. Instead I will tell you this:

Don’t behave like you are moving there. You are just travelling.  Stop being so manicured about your travels. Your child will follow suit. On my first travel date with fellow parents, I noticed that they came armed with a suitcases full of toys, dolls, books and games for a three night stay in Matheran. “Why do you need so much?”, I asked.  “Oh, you never know. It’s better to be prepared,” they said. But isn’t that what travel is about? Not knowing?

Don’t oversell the destination and what you will do there. Don’t sell the journey either. Parents have a tendency to do this. This disallows the child any room to have his own her own experiences, and they are forced to look at the entire trip through a readymade lens, which will never allow the real traveller in them to come out.

Allow the place to happen to your child.  Don’t tell them what to expect. This usually means giving at least four to five days in one location to give enough time to experience it, rather than location hopping. Improvise. If things always went as they were planned, it’s not travel. It’s stasis. I think this works better for adults too.

Travel is not about being constantly entertained and your child needs to know that.  And if you in that trap,  you are teaching them that this is how life is – a series of fun-filled, action packed time capsules on loop, where there is no time for recovery, stillness or nothingness – you are in a dangerous place. It’s a slippery slope from there.

Give gadgets a break. Try clouds instead. Or birdsong. Technology is an easy weapon used by most parents – I see it in airports, holiday destinations – each child with a gadget, adults with theirs, swiping away. It’s time to  talk to each other and not our gadgets.

Children have fewer expectations than you. Don’t build it up. The problem I have with checklist-y travel is that it is often more hectic than real life. This whole ‘things to do’, sights to see, monuments to tick off lists, photoboosk to make back home is quite sapping for adults so I wonder what happens when children are subjected to it.

Food is an integral part of the travel experience. Always make your kids try out the local cuisine. They may not like everything they try, but there might be that one thing that calls out to them. Take chances. The first time we traveled post having a child (my son was five months), I was raw, and still blemished from all the negative press traveling with kids seemed to have garnered. I was armed with a small rice cooker and supplies to cook from at the resort we stayed in. But that was the first and last time I traveled with supplies. I decided that when in Rome, we will do as Rome does. So on the next trip, my son and I went to Thailand and happily tucked into mango and sticky rice and fruit platters with prik-kab-klua, the Thai chilli-salt mix. And by the time my son was two, he was trying out gourmet meals at restaurants at every place we traveled to.

Slow down. Linger. You may never look at that selfie again, but you will always remember how it felt on that mountain, with the wind kissing your hair and your child pretending to take off in flight.

Remember you were a kid once. Go on, make that paper boat. Try and put yourself in your kid’s shoes. Remember what you were like as a child and how you liked to travel and be treated and the things you enjoyed doing.

Travel is not an old timetable in a new bottle.  Encourage your child to have a new routine. Shuffle things around. Let them wear what they want. Let them skip baths. Let them eat breakfast for dinner. What is the worst thing that can happen?

Make it about the journey. Not about the destination. We did our first long train trip when Re was 2.5. It was to a wedding at Chandigarh and the journey was 36 hours. He and I had to share a berth, as the Indian railways doesn’t allot berths to children under 5 years (yes!). In the middle of the night, I almost rolled off, as Re had occupied most of it and I stayed up all night, playing with my phone, as I couldn’t turn on the light to read a book. But it was this trip that Re and I tried pull-ups and swinging off the berth ladders.

Start them young. If you look at traveling with kids as a problem, you will always be finding ways to delay it. Instead if you look at it as an opportunity to see the world with a different lens, you will find ways to make it happen. And it’s never too early to start them. In fact the earlier the better.  

Encourage your child to be a resident, not a tourist, wherever you go. Blend in, be part of a community. Give something back. And that’s how we went gathering achhoos (wild gooseberries) in Himachal with the ladies who worked at the Bhuira Jam factory. Or puppy-sat the neighbours’ pups while they worked in the strawberry fields. Or when Re went about picking garbage in Landour, after having noticed that “humans throw things everywhere else but in dustbins”.

Travel is what you make of it, and if you have an open mind, you never know what will come along. I wouldn’t have chased ducks in the park in Irvine, California. I would have never met a “lady bird’s cousin” if I had been preoccupied with leech-proofing ourselves in our first forest trek in Dandeli when my son was three. Nor would I have enjoyed a ritual dance in the Erawan temple at Bangkok as my son fervently joined his hands in prayer even though I am a non-believer.

Bangkok with kids

Have them know that the world is a safe place. Every place has a story to tell, or it becomes a new story when you are in it. When my child saw images of the Paris bombings and asked me about it, I told him what had happened. He then said “We can still go to Paris no? The bombers must have left by now.” I said yes.

Use public transport: There is so much joy discovering a new world with the locals – these are the people who wear it easily, with whom there can often be meaningful conversations, even if you don’t understand the language.  take trains, buses, tuktuks, skytrains, subways and whatever you can manage.

Encourage them to document it. A travel journal or travel art book for drawing, doodling is far better than a toy or puzzle which has a limited shelf life. It is all we carry on our travels now and is more than enough to keep my son busy. Also there is no such thing as too many crayons.

Always check the weather and pack for it.  When they are dressed right for the weather, children are far happier and make better travelers. (it’s shocking how basic this is and how it is often overlooked)

When you take your child with you, leave your adult self behind. Children teach you the importance of being in the moment when you travel. This is harder to do if you don’t allow yourself to access the child in you

Show them how you can travel without going anywhere.  Sometimes a delayed flight or train may open up another adventure altogether. Like this time Re and his dad were doing hip-hop once in an airport. Or when waiting for a bus at Kasauli led us to an ongoing theatre performance by a group of monkeys.

Travel is about balance, and each trip is about finding something for ‘you’, ‘me’ and ‘us’.  If you look hard enough, you can. Having a kid couldn’t really be the end. In fact it is a whole new beginning. Of looking at the world through a child’s eyes, and that is a brand new, fascinating world with so many more stories to tell. You just have to stop getting in the way.

(A shorter version of this post appeared in Conde Nast Traveller here

parks in california

 

Of kulith soup and kissing the clouds: a weekend at Saj by the lake

Re and I love being on the road and it doesn’t take much to galvanise us to get going. Just the magic words, “Want to go?” are enough to get us packing our bags and walking shoes. If there is rain and waterbodies involved, even better. If there is good food, nothing like it.

So when a few weeks back, we were invited to spend a weekend at the new Saj by the lake, a new boutique resort at Malshej ghat (which, incidentally was a an integral part of my childhood monsoon getaways with Appa, who couldn’t resist soaking under every waterfall enroute, much to our annoyance). Re and I preferred to soak in the gorgeous views along the NH 222 instead, pretending the mountains and the clouds were characters in a sky play.

Anyway, three hours later, we found ourselves here:

Saj by the lake

Saj by the lakeWe were told, wait, there is a whole lake behind, and we couldn’t wait to meet it

The Pimpalgaon Jodha dam created lake on the Pushpavati river

The Pimpalgaon Joga dam created lake on the Pushpavati river

There were many other things that caught our fancy. Like this entrance to our room:

Suite at Saj by the lake

And these lantern clouds at the Maati Bani restaurant, where we ate many soulful meals

Saj by the lake And this brick backdrop which called for a photo

Saj by the lake

And these funky cows

pop artAnd this lovely thencha which was more my thing

And this Kandyavarche Andey (eggs on onions) which we had for breakfast

And lots of other food which we loved so much that I forgot to take pictures of: like nachni and kulith soup, thalipeeth, mushroom masala, dudhi in green gravy, pit cooked biryani, nachni kheer, methi and paneer tikki, a lovely bengali style cold bharta with mashed potatoes .. and all this with rice, jowar and nachni bhakris.

We were told they have camping facilities so we can’t wait to come back to do some star-gazing. That night, of course, the clouds decided to hide all the stars, but we both got some down time, doing our own thing, blending in.

And many together things, long walks and lots of bird watching , cloud watching, waterfall watching and green watching. And plotting to come again, this time to star gaze.