Category Archives: Travel

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Losing a passport and why travel insurance proved useless

This post is all about “what happens when you lose a passport” and my personal experience with ICICI Lombard Travel Insurance.

Yes. I did the “no 1” thing feared by most travellers. It features probably on the top of things NOT to do when on the road.

Lose a passport; your most precious travel document.

So how I lost it is not a very glamourous story. It has no masala or intrigue at all. I won’t get into the details. For the record, somewhere on the streets of Malaga (Spain), while on a sightseeing trip (on a cycle), I am quite sure the passport got lost (case of the open bag, carelessness of not closing it properly).

But more importantly, what happens when you do happen to lose a passport? While it’s not something you hope will ever happen to you, there’s always a possibility. Having gone through this experience, here’s what I did and I hope will help anyone who lands up in this quandary.

My second part details with travel insurance. In my case, I had signed up with ICICI Lombard Travel Insurance and I only read a line which said “upto USD 300” cover in case of passport loss, but as it turns out, there’s a lot that they don’t tell you and (as I realised in hindsight) is “between the lines”. The bottom line is that insurance is virtually useless and I’ll also write about that experience in the 2nd part of this post.

Coming to, the things you need to do when you lose your passport…

1) Keep calm (and drink wine, if you’re in Spain). But if you’re not, just keep calm.

Remember, it’s not worth losing your mind. Everything is replaceable. But one golden rule before you embark on any trip is “photocopy”!
– Passport
– Visa (also make sure all your other visas, which are documentation of your travels are also copied)
– Itinerary, local contacts, invite letter, addresses, phone number, hotel booking. Preferably 2 sets.
– Insurance (though it’s useless for passport loss as I’ll demonstrate)
– A few extra passport photos – this is important. I spent a few hours roaming around the streets of Madrid looking for someone who will print in the required “Indian” passport size.

And mail these documents to yourself. And then assess your situation. Calmly.

2) Find the address of your nearest Indian consulate

A web search revealed that I would need to get to Madrid, which was the closest to where I was located. Remember, that you need to go to a consulate which deals with passport loss so make sure you explain your problem clearly. I booked myself on a bus the same night and left from Malaga to Madrid.

3) Find the address of the nearest consulate of the country which issued your visa

In all probability you might be in the same country. In which case it’s slightly simpler. In my case, it was a bit complicated as my visa was issued out of Switzerland and I had travelled to Spain where I lost my passport. So I couldn’t fly or enter Switzerland either without a visa. I immediately emailed the Swiss embassy in Madrid and was assured that if I could get a “valid travel document” I should then present myself there at the earliest.

However, I had no idea how much time all this would take. Keeping in mind all of this, I had to forgo my flight from Malaga to Zurich, losing nearly € 150 in the process. I decided not to book a fresh ticket till I got my passport and visa in my hand.

4) Make sure you have all your documents, photographs and photocopies before you head to the Indian consulate

This will ensure your paperwork goes through smoothly and you don’t have to run out again for some mundane task like photocopy a document. I had to go to the Madrid consulate in an area called Avenida de Pío XII. I called them and found out the train stop nearest to them. And then I made sure that I had done all the rest of the work beforehand. I went to Principe de Vergara (which I found recommended for passport photos in an online search), and then went hunting for a photo shop. They only open after 10 am. Also, remember that “passport” photos there will not necessarily be the Indian “passport” size photos required so keep the size noted down. Thankfully, I was able to finally locate a place after around 30 minutes of roaming around. From there, I took a metro and then went to the consulate with all the documents. I was required to fill up the passport form with all the details (this is where the photocopies will help). And then by around noon, I was ready to submit everything. The passport fees was € 113.

I was told I could collect it the same day by evening. That was great news since I hadn’t even dreamed that I would get a duplicate passport in a day!

However, I did ask them as to how to go about the visa issue, and what happens if I have problems with it. Unfortunately, not much advise or help was forthcoming on the steps I could take. Also, remember that it also depends on how friendly the relations are between India and the country you’re visiting. I read online about someone having the same issue in France and the embassy playing a more helpful role in even advising the person about the visa. So, I think it all depends where you are.

Well, at least I had a passport.

5) With your fresh passport (and photocopy of it also!) and the rest of your documents, head to the concerned foreign embassy

In my case it was the Swiss embassy. Since I’d already emailed and explained my problem they were very helpful. On day 2, I made my trip to Calle de Núñez de Balboa, the location I found online. Again, it was close to a metro stop. I was asked to fill up a form, submit my documents (fresh passport), invite letter from my Swiss friend (which I’d used to get the Schengen), contact numbers in Switzerland and my return ticket (also from Geneva). I had to deposit € 60 and I was asked to come back by 3 pm the same day to collect the passport with the fresh visa stamped.

All this took me 2 days to complete.

On the 3rd day, I had both a fresh passport and the visa and then booked my return flight out of Spain into Switzerland.

In the meanwhile, I had also spent on accommodation in Madrid, and of course all the miscellaneous costs, including travelling to and fro etc.

I had already spent more than € 300 in total. Not counting my missed flight and my fresh booking. At this stage, I had still some faith in the insurance, thinking it would at least cover some part of my expenses.

Part 2: Why travel insurance proved useless for passport loss; my experience with ICICI Lombard Travel Insurance

Before leaving, I had opted for ICICI Lombard. They were quick, sent me a 4 page policy, which I went through. It had a section on passport loss (which I remembered). I had already emailed them ahead from Europe explaining my situation so I knew what to do on arrival. After I came back, I got in touch with them and this is what happened.

– I emailed around 3-4 times. I got responses by a different person every time. Which meant I had to actually explain and ask everything afresh. Couldn’t I have just been given one person to handle the case? Obviously, this is not how it works.

– I asked if someone could give me a call as I had clarifications. No one bothered. Each response sounded like whoever was responding wasn’t actually “reading” my mail.

– I sent a tweet, they said they would call back. Still no response.

– I then sent another email, asking for someone to call me. Please.

– Around 21 days after my request, I got a call from them. I asked them to escalate as I wasn’t getting anywhere. The emails also kept asking me to send the details within a “deadline”. But they had no deadline on their responses.

– Finally, got an email from customer service (service quality team) asking for scanned documents of everything related to my passport renewal saga (which I presumed included bus tickets, accommodation etc.). I also had to include boarding passes, tickets leaving Switzerland. They also asked for my exit stamp. Which was strange considering that it was obviously on the passport I’d lost! I documented all these expenses that I had made on account of the fresh passport application thinking that at least some of them would be covered.

– I was then asked to courier everything. The scans obviously were not enough.

After all this was done, while I was away travelling, my hubby called with the “good” news. The insurance company had sent me a cheque for a princely sum of Rs 8818.

It didn’t even cover my passport renewal fee, forget any other expenses.

All I got was a cryptic message saying that I had exceeded my limit towards incidentals by 147 USD. And of course, there is absolutely no explanation about what it means in simple English. All I know is that though I spent more than € 300 in the whole process, all that they are covering me for is Rs 8818.

Now, I’m wondering what I should do with the cheque. An idea is to frame it and put it up as a reminder to never lose my passport again. Because whether you have insurance or not, it’s pretty useless as I learnt the hard way.

I am of course going to read the fine print from now on and look at my insurance choice a bit more wisely. One) It made no sense. As a consumer, if I am eligible to a paltry 8k for something that set me back by so much more, I see no sense in it. Or I need to choose better. And two) the dismal customer service. I spent a lot of time and energy going back and forth – something I want to avoid if I ever get insurance again. Though, I have a sinking feeling that all insurance companies will probably have the same policies.

The moral of the story: Don’t lose your passport. Ever!

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Ancient connections to come alive through “Ghadai”, an initiative by the Kumbhars (potters) of Kutch

The arts and crafts from the Kutch region are well known today. There is a lot of interest in the fabrics, the weaves, the prints, silver jewellery, copper artifacts and these products are in demand not only in India, but all over the world. Yet, one craft which is not getting the focus and appreciation it deserves is pottery.

Reviving the ancient art of Kutch pottery

The history of pottery in the Kutch region dates back 5000 years at least. Pottery products have been excavated from the archaelogical site of Dholavira, an ancient city belonging to the Indus Valley civilisation.

Talking to Meera Goradia, the director of the Kutch-based NGO KHAMIR, I get to know a little more about the efforts being taken to bring alive the tradition of potters in the region. There are many who have stopped their craft, mainly due to a loss in livelihood. In some villages, the potter’s wheel now lies unturned. Yet in others, there is renewed interest as the craft has also started integrating aspects of newer and more contemporary designs that might appeal to a modern consumer. It is a tough challenge, no doubt, but a step in the right direction is an exhibition being planned to be held from January to March of next year.

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Pottery is as an art form that dates back to many centuries in the Kutch region

I spent a few days with KHAMIR and had some wonderful interactions with the team which is coordinating the efforts there, including project coordinator Niraj Dave, Shrishti Verma (who is meticulously documenting everything), Gayatri Kodikal (filming/photography), Mumbai based ceramic artist Rekha Goyal (curator for the project), local Bhuj potter Ramzubhai and Ganibhai and American India Foundation fellow Gini Morgan. Meera keeps an eye on the overall direction and progress.

Involving traditional potters from seven clusters

The aim is to get local potters involved in the exhibition, and give them a platform to showcase products for a craft that needs a fillip and encouragement. Secondly, involve different sections of society and gather enough interest in the project and expose it to a wide audience. Named after the age-old technique called “Ghadai” used by traditional potters of Kutch to create large objects, the exhibition has been conceptualised to showcase the handicrafts of the kumbhars.

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One of the potters shaping objects using the ghadai technique

In this technique, a basic form is first thrown on the wheel. After that, using different sized round stones and a “paddle”, a desired shape and size is beaten out of it. While it looks deceptively simple, it requires a lot of skill and hard work.

According to KHAMIR, “Ghadai will evoke the ancient connections of the human spirit and clay through archaeology, mythology, and traditions; explore the process of pottery from mud to final product; highlight the significance of the craft through traditional and modern uses; and provoke questions about the future of the craft, the artisans, and the societies we build.”

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Traditionally, men work on the wheel but women often do the hard work like wedging, kneading clay and the painting work

The NGO is working with seven traditional pottery clusters of the desert region and also attempting to trace the history of pottery in this area. Currently, the team is travelling through different villages, talking, interacting and filming the artisans in order to compile a comprehensive history of the craft. I accompanied the team on an excursion (more of which will come in a later post) and it was interesting to see potters talk about their challenges and witness their dedication to keep their craft alive.

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The team walking around Gundayali village on a visit

In the village of Gundayali (close to Mandvi town) Yusufbhai talks about how in every village, the most important member would traditionally be the potter; he was bestowed with the name prajapati, lord of the people. Sadly, with the products losing relevance, many of them replaced by metal, plastic and other artificial material, the “need” for such products has gone down drastically.

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Yusufbhai, who is one of the potters of Gundayali village talking about some of the issues they face today

Though Yusufbhai continues to create terracotta objects, he is aware that many are giving up this profession. His son, for many years lived in Mumbai, working in the retail industry and came back home a few years ago. Though he doesn’t work with clay, he has realised the potential and helps his father sell his wares. “I go off with a truckload of products and visit all the interior villages in this region for many months at a time, selling products,” says the son.

While potters are finding it difficult to sell their wares, there is also an issue of underpricing. The little diyas for example, are being bargained for Rs 2-3, which is a miserable amount if you look at the fact that the effort of the potter – finding and sourcing the clay, kneading/wedging, making, firing, painting – is hardly covered. The size of the object might be small, but no one want to give him what’s due for his effort. For a potter, at these prices, his business is not sustainable.

This is perhaps where NGOs like KHAMIR are playing a part in terms of defining better market rates for the potter, ensuring he gets his due and of course, even suggesting more contemporary designs that might appeal to a consumer. KHAMIR is already doing this and their store contains quite a few pottery products, much of it produced in their in-house studio.

Re-creating pottery objects lost to time

Ghadai will showcase pieces that are re-creations of traditional pottery objects that were used in the region but have been lost to time. As a result of a largely oral tradition of continuing know-how, and the lack of formalized curation and documentation of traditional crafts, some of these pieces are not even found in museums. It was through dedicated efforts of the team that potters were identified who were familiar with the techniques of making these forms. Some of them know the object, and the techniques involved, but have probably not made that particular object for many years.

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Husainbhai working on one of the pieces for the exhibition at the Khamir in-house studio

This is a big challenge. Niraj, who is one of the leads in the project says that working with potters has been a interesting experience despite all these roadblocks. He enjoys the interactions with the artisans and going out to different villages to identify the right people, talk to them and try to get them excited about the larger picture. Undoubtedly not an easy task. Many of them are not convinced much will come out of a “concept”. Others like Ramzubhai are getting actively involved, travelling with the team to help them facilitate the process.

DSC_0062Bhuj based traditional potter Ganibhai has been working very closely with the team

For Rekha too, who is based in Mumbai and makes a trip every month, it has been an enriching experience so far. She says, “There are layers of craft, culture, tradition, modernity, history and society that constantly push and tug at each other. Understanding the craft and the craftsmen in a local context and making it relevant to modern changes without losing sight of the integrity of the craft and its people has been a challenge and a learning. But the richness and serenity of pottery, the region, its culture and people drives me to keep pushing the boundaries in an effort to help get the art form of the region to its rightful place.”

It all culminates in an exhibition and an auction

The Ghadai show opens at the KHAMIR campus in Bhuj, Kutch on January 17, 2015 and will be on till the March 31, 2015. During this time it will also travel to Mumbai for a special display at Hermès, 15 A Horniman Circle, Mumbai from February 12 to March 1, 2015.

IMG_0893The beautiful KHAMIR campus will play host to the exhibition: Mark your calendars if you plan to visit Kutch and Gujarat during this time

The pieces will be auctioned online on the KHAMIR website from February 12, 2015 to March 1, 2015. Proceeds of the auction will go towards continuing the work of KHAMIR within the handicraft space.

About KHAMIR
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It was set-up in the aftermath of the 2001 earthquake in Bhuj with the primary focus of reviving the livelihood of the craft artisans, especially those that were completely destroyed in the earthquake. KHAMIR is committed to the preservation of the crafts, culture and cultural ecosystems of the craft communities of the region. KHAMIR does this by providing these communities of craftsmen with a framework within which they can refine and develop their craft. There are dedicated studios and teams focused on R&D which strengthen local value chains, design & product development and providing market access.

Watch the video: Ghadai by the Kumbh Kumbhars

Follow KHAMIR and the project on Facebook

For any enquries, reach out to:
Meera Goradia, Director KHAMIR, khamir.craft@gmail.com, +91 9825321082
Rekha Goyal, Curator, contact@rekhagoyal.com, +91 9833058151
This project was selected for support by the Fondation d’entreprise Hermès as part of the H3 programme: Head – Heart – Hand.

Scent of cardamom and taste of fresh honey: A visit to the Kalarickal Heritage Bungalow

There’s something about a bungalow that was constructed in the 1800s. It feels like stepping back in time. The way the doors close. The old style latches and windows. The feel of the cool red floor under your bare feet. But the TV and the WiFi suddenly brings you back to present tense also giving you a sense of modern comforts!

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A part of the bungalow which has been renovated for guests. Photo courtesy: KH Plantation

A bit of history – “the current owner’s grandfather, K K Kurian Kalarickal, settled in this area (Idukki district) in the early 1900s when the hills were still thick with forests and wildlife. He was among a few pioneers to make his way into the mountains and begin cultivating them.”

Luckily, this area is untouched and still verdant and retains much of it’s charm. K K Kurian built this original bungalow in 1918 and for many years it was a landmark in Idukki. It doubled up as a village office for planters and visitors who came for advise. The bungalow was built using clay instead of cement.

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A glimpse of the old heritage building

I was lucky that Sam Mathew, the grandson of Mr Kurian Kalarickal had come down personally from Mumbai during my quick trip to the bungalow. Merin, his wife had extended a gracious invite to come and stay at the property.

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The plantation spans many acres and the best way to get around is the all terrain vehicle. Photo courtesy: KH Plantation

Sam gives me an insight of plantation life. The area is huge and I get to ride on an ATV which is a handy vehicle to cover the hilly terrain around the plantation and property. I accompany him as he shows me the different areas. We go up a green woody trail to the highest point in the property. We’re surrounded by dense trees on all sides. It’s beautiful and serene and Sam reveals that he might just construct something here for those wanting to get away from the hustle and bustle.

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The life and times of cardamom!

The highpoint of my visit to Kalarickal however is a different experience; a visit to an auction. The product being traded? Cardamom! I never knew there could be so much commotion over this small innocuous looking spice. Apparently, the life of a cardamom pod is filled with much excitement. From the time it’s grown, harvested, dried and then put into gunny bags and then at the auction house, when it’s tossed around from one buyer to another in the hope that it commands a good price in the market. I think it wouldn’t hurt much to be born a cardamom sometime.

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Cardamon is a spice that is used in many different dishes. It is used extensively in the preparation of Indian sweets, something Sam reveals (and I didn’t know!). I learn something everyday. Many large companies buy it in bulk to add to their sweets. And a lot of the cardamon also gets exported to cater to the huge demand overseas.

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On the auction ground, men (no women here) are hunched over computer screens, sniffing at cardamom packets, eyeing them suspiciously, tossing them aside or eyeing them with great interest. All for a good cause. And then a large screen on the top shows how much the buyer is willing to pay for it. And then the next batch goes around.

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People also watch from the sidelines. Many of them are sellers, informs Sam. These folks often come up to buyers to try and egg them to purchase their lots or least inform them it’s up next. And then on one side there’s a flurry of activity; sorting, weighing and packaging. Making me wonder if some stuff doesn’t get mixed up. And what happens to all the cardamom tossed aside!

With thoughts like these playing in my head, we get back to the bungalow and the smell of delicious food wafting in the air. Let me warn you folks that it’s not a good idea to visit Kerala on a diet. I have tried to keep away from all these delicious treats and failed miserably. Every time I go with steely resolve. And return defeated. And several pounds heavier. Let me get back to the food. There was a dry chicken fry preparation, a yummy avial laced with coconut, and piping hot appams with egg stew. I threw caution to the winds and expanding waistline and started to dig in.

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Soft and delicious Kerala appams with stew – one signature dish you can’t miss if you’re in Kerala

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The dining area for meals. Photo Courtesy: KH Plantation

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I also get a taste of fresh honey made from hives on the property. And a quick lesson about these hardworking insects and the art of creating honey. They create honey, covering them in hexagonal structures inside the hive, using the support of the small wooden frames placed inside. We take out a slab and remove a slice of the “white” piece. And out oozes the nectar. I’ve never had such fresh honey before!

The main bungalow is designed to fit in large families and the rooms are interconnected. It’s suitable for for families who want to keep an eye out on their errant kids.

Besides the main building, there are also a few more rooms in another long building (which was earlier a shed) but now has been converted into comfortable stand-alone rooms. These are also an option if you are travelling as a couple in a smaller group.

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A shed, now converted into comfortable rooms. Photo courtesy: KH Plantation

The property also has an ample playground outside with swings, see-saws and whatever young children need these days. I suspect an iPad, but well, one mustn’t give up hope completely.

There are some sights around which you might also want to explore, especially if you have a few days in hand. You will be close to sights such as the Periyar Wildlife sanctuary, Munnar, Idukki dam and the Managala Devi temple. There are other activities like plantation walks and hikes that can be organised. Or I recommend what I prefer – a full day of lounging chair, eating good food and doing nothing. Maybe just read a book, sleep and laze.

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Relax and breathe in the fresh air scented with cardamom!

If you’re looking at options in the Idukki district which are homely, comfortable and take you away from the hustle and bustle; the Kalarikal Heritage Bungalow makes for a good choice.

The website: Kalarickal Heritage Bungalow
Tariff: Starts from Rs 3250 and also includes breakfast. Other meals are additional.
Rooms: 3 premium and 2 classic.
Facebook: Kalarickal Heritage Bungalow
My Flickr Album (some of the pics are courtesy KH Plantation)

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Where cranes sing and flamingos dance: Into the Banni Grasslands Reserve

Thousands of birds call the Banni Grasslands Reserve in Kutch, Gujarat their home. An excursion into this dry but rich ecosystem, has delightful surprises unfold, as you turn every corner.

“Leave nothing but footprints; and plant trees. Lots of trees.”

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Flamingos against a beautiful sunrise over the Banni Grasslands. Photo credit: Jugal Tiwari

Only someone wise and passionate can utter these words. And they come from none other than Jugal Tiwari of the Center for Desert and Ocean (CEDO). Established in 2005, the organisation has been tireless working on ecology and conservation issues for the last 9 years. Tiwari, who is originally from Rajasthan, on a visit to Kutch, fell in love with this area.

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It’s not hard to imagine why. What appears at first sight to be dry scrub desert, has more surprises, twists and turns than a detective novel and you look forward with anticipation to the next sight!
We enter the reserve in the early morning hours. The cranes are already up, and fly across the morning sky, just beginning to glow with the first rays of the sun. In the horizon, another flock is taking off. And then yet another. Flying in their trademark V formations or sometimes in a line, behind each other.

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The common crane is resident of the reserve from September to April.

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Says Tiwari, “when they leave, it’s like your mobile has gone into silent mode”. Their song is replaced by silence. And then again in September (between 17-19) when they arrive, the skies are taken over by their happy song, heard even from a distance. This is what has kept Tiwari going, every year for the last nine years. He knows each and every specimen in this area, their behaviour, their whereabouts (most of the time!).

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As the early morning light casts a magical glow on the surroundings, I ask him why it’s called a grassland. This is something even Tiwari is not sure of. There are wetlands, dry scrub, bush, Prosopis juliflora (invasive non-native species) and weeds (as in the picture). But there is no grass anywhere. And yet this area is called a “grassland”. Perhaps, the guy who named it was sitting at a desk somewhere and somehow forgot to actually visit the region!

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The lesser flamingo takes flight. Photo credit: Jugal Tiwari

For miles on end, all around you, there are cranes everywhere. On the ground, and up in the air. Of course, you can’t really get close to them. The minute they see you approach, they take flight, gliding gracefully across the skies. In the opposite direction.

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We park in an open area where for miles we see weeds and Tiwari points out the Chari Dhandh – the main water body where the flamingos arrive in droves. The pink flamingo is resident in the park during this time. They are usually in the water, feasting on small water insects. From the distance, I can easily count hundreds. This time, the rains haven’t been good enough, says Tiwari. As a result, the water will dry up soon.

In another corner of the lake, are a flock of pelicans. These large birds float on the water and move together, as if in slow motion. It’s like watching a ballet performance. With birds. Another corner, Tiwari points out spoonbills – I drink in every sight hungrily – through the binoculars. As a city resident, the only thing we usually see around for miles are roof tops and ugly concrete structures. This is paradise; a sight to be remembered.

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Up in the air, there is more drama. A marsh harrier is being chased by a couple of smaller birds, trying to scare him off. And then a whole drove of rosy starlings sweeps across my field of view.

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After watching the watery ballet and on air drama, we move towards the dry scrub area. The birds are up early morning and they’re dancing from one shrub to another. We’re lucky to see a jackal strike a pose and look towards something.

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A little further down, a Steppe eagle is surveying his prey. It strikes a majestic pose; and when in flight it has an impressive wing span of around 6 feet. On a tree top is another bird of prey – the long-legged buzzard. They’re all looking for breakfast.

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From the shrub, we move on to an even drier area. Just small clumps and scorched earth. Even here, there are birds, small mammals and insects. You just need a keen eye. Our driver, well acquainted with the environment by now, spots a sleeping fox. She is curled up beside a shrub and let us gaze at her for a few minutes. Our few minutes of paparazzi like behaviour is more than she can take. After giving us a glance, she slinks off into the distance.

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The Indian Eagle Owl in all it’s glory. Photo credit: Jugal Tiwari

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The painted sandgrouse. Photo credit: Jugal Tiwari

There are many birds – including bulbuls, the desert warblers, drongos, larks, babblers, bee eaters – this is truly birder’s paradise. I have limited knowledge of birds, but am always fascinated by these tiny creatures, with their rich plumage and beautiful and distinctive markings. It’s not difficult to imagine how bird watching can become an all consuming and addictive hobby.

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As we wander around, suddenly we notice a huge herd of cows walk purposefully towards the Chari Dandh. They have been grazing all night and are now all thirsty. All of them rush towards the water.

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Having had their fill, they move away, and we’re treated to yet another beautiful sight – hundreds of camels moving towards their water. It’s time for the cows to go home and give way to the camels.

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They enter the water one after another and one of the herders also goes in with them. I read somewhere that a 600 kg camel can drink 300 litres of water in 3 minutes. How’s that for a guzzler?

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Tiwari tells me a little more about the extensive research he has conducted in this area. He is hopeful about putting it all together in a book – he has pictures of even the rarer creatures like the striped hyena, the nightjar and the owl. All he needs is a bit of help on the writing front. If he can get some funding, Tiwari is confident about publishing a book on this region – an area that needs more awareness. After all, this rich bio diversity and wildlife should be acknowledged and recognized.

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I have no doubts that there’s enough in this dry desert landscape to fill a book. Tiwari has accompanied many photographers into the field on different assignments, helped channels such as Discovery (one of these programs is being currently aired) and National Geographic to portray and take back data, photos and documentation from this region.

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What upsets him however is the lack of etiquette of people. Whether it is the way plastic is being used and consumed to the irresponsible behaviour towards our natural environment – Tiwari expresses his disappointment. And rightly so. Even I was alarmed. The day before, when walking on a dry river bed near CEDO, he points out rocks that age to the Jurassic era.

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This is very close to the town and yet hardly anyone knows about it. Which is probably a good thing. Except that some irresponsible campers found their way here. Using some of these pre-historic stones as props for making a fire, they’ve left behind remnants of their celebrations – banana skin, tissue paper, charcoal and firewood. What a shame. There are some things Indians shouldn’t do. Camping for one. They have no idea about etiquette. They’re so used to littering everywhere, that their natural instinct is to leave behind all the rubbish. Even if it’s a beautiful viewpoint or a place of historical importance. As a collective people, we don’t have enough sense or responsibility about the impact of the damage we’re doing. There is absolutely no respect for nature. Look at all the plastic people throw around carelessly. No one cares. This beautiful area should be safeguarded and treated as a “historical” site, and yet, people do the only thing they know – trash it.

This is where Tiwari utters his words about “leaving nothing but footprints”.

Why do we go to national heritage monuments, and beautiful view points and leave behind all our rubbish? Something that confounds me greatly. Much as I’m proud of this beautiful and diverse country, I am ashamed at the way we treat our national and natural treasures.

Tiwari’s foundation today is doing some great work in both conservation and helping villages by bringing them the power of solar energy. All this, he does apart from his work and his homestay, which brings him some income. All the rest of his initiatives like workshops, awareness sessions, and planting trees – especially for schools are all free.

His message resounds in my mind long after I’ve left. Plant more trees – everyone in their lifetime should plan at least a few 100 trees. Don’t leave planet earth without planting a few trees. Actually, at least a hundred. It’s the very least one can do to preserve our beautiful and diverse planet.

(Note: With many thanks to Jugal Tiwari for being a wonderful guide to the Banni. And also for the usage of some of his beautiful pictures, as I wasn’t equipped for bird photography!).

Flickr Album: Into the Banni Grasslands

Update: Discovery is currently showing this show: Revealed: The Rann of Kutch. Two more days to catch it!
12/12/2014 02:00 PM
14/12/2014 01:00 PM

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Wanderings in Bhuj: a photo journey

Like any other small but burgeoning town in this country, Bhuj exhibits all the usual signs. Development on one side – good wide main roads, vehicles, ATMs, and everyone flashing smart phones. But on the other hand, the litter and garbage everywhere is an indication that no lessons in waste management have been implemented. Sadly, it’s just everywhere, including the water body in the middle of the city – the Hamirsar lake.

Steeped in history, and scarred by a devastating earthquake in 2001, some parts of the old fort are still standing and visible as you move through the town. There are monuments that are crumbling, derelict, which give you a glimpse of those glory years. The small gallis through the town hold a quaint charm, albeit a little diminished by large amounts of garbage lying everywhere.

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Like any small but growing town, Bhuj has fallen prey to all the usual problems

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The narrow lanes are abuzz with activity

As I touched down in the small Bhuj airport and made my way down the main road, I am excited about my first trip to Gujarat. I decided to bypass Ahmedabad and Baroda, the larger towns, and head straight to Bhuj. My primary reason being that my hosts, Katie and Jehan Bhujwala have graciously offered to put me up at their ancestral home in the town and also help me out with my itinerary.

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Situated in the camp area, the view from the home of my hosts Katie and Jehan

Wanderings in Bhuj
The house is lovely and is currently being renovated. It will soon be possible to stay there as Katie and Jehan will open it out as a home stay, hopefully from January 2015 onwards

The house is in the camp area and is constructed in the old style, with tall ceilings, filled with charming antique furniture around a large centre courtyard. The old world ambience still lingers on when you enter.

Once I’ve gotten my bearings, along with my hosts, I set off on a small “discover Bhuj” tour. The town still has the remnants of the old fort, and in places it’s quite intact. We pass by a beautiful gate with some detailed carvings.

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Parts of the old fort, still stand tall

The narrow gallis take us to an old building from the British Raj – an orange coloured structure that was the district collector’s office. In the afternoon sun, it reflects the light and still looks regal and stands out amidst the new concrete structures. Today, it faces a grim fate though. Like many of our beautiful old buildings; it will likely be ruined totally or razed to the ground.

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A building that is now abandoned; testament to the glory days of the past

A short ride away, is the Prag Mahal palace. The old jharokhas and balconies are still intricate and stand out on the palace wall. To the opposite side, is the new version of the palace. The earthquake of 2001 affected quite a lot of the palace walls and structure.

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The old palace walls, though affected by the earthquake still sport intricately carved jharokhas

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The new Prag Mahal palace, opposite the older one

The new building has an imposing clock tower and with its red brick walls, it projects a feeling of warmth in the fading light.
We wander over to the Bhuj market. Like any Indian bazaar, it’s busy, crowded and filled with people, cows and assorted creatures. Two wheelers and rickshaws honk, trying to assert their right of way. Mostly to be ignored. The honking gets more insistent. Women are about doing their clothes shopping, buying vegetables, silver jewellery, “farsan” – you name it, and it’s available in the market. Including music systems in case you’re missing one at home.

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For any kind of shopping, head to the Bhuj market

We wander around the streets for a while peeking into the different shops. A farsan shop walla generously allows us to taste a bit of his freshly fried goodies.

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Women flocking in front of an obviously popular shop
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A shopkeeper gets creative with his doors!
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Beautiful antique silver jewellery for sale
Wanderings in Bhuj
No trip to Kutch without stocking up on their intricate embroidery work

A great place for juice is Bhudia’s which is another ride away from the market in an area near the Hamisar lake. The juice is fresh and we choose a delicious mix – guava and pomegranate – much recommended. They also have an organic farm a little outside of Bhuj where you can get a taste of the local thali, if you want to make the journey.

I’m happy with my first taste and sights of Gujarat. I even have fish fry for dinner, (after a visit to the local fish market) which I was a bit surprised about. I had planned to go vegetarian for this trip!

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The local fish market in Bhuj is an assault on the senses. But we did get some fresh fish

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A fish monger at work

I settle into my large room, adjoining a busy road listening to the hustle and bustle of traffic. My initiation into Gujarat has been hectic, noisy, smelly and colourful. But then I wouldn’t have it any other way!

Also check out the Bhuj Diaries album on Flickr

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A Malaga moment

When I look back at my Europe trip, I have so many moments and sights that stand out. So many things to write about – just looking back is a bit daunting. But I’m trying to organise everything and share useful information in nuggets, along with tips and travel information. Hopefully, over the next few months I’ll get to share some of it.

In the meanwhile, enjoy this lovely view of Malaga with me. It was a cloudy day to start with. My host was quite disappointed by the weather I was getting to witness (it’s never like this, she kept telling me). But I set off anyway on a bit of sightseeing. I borrowed her son’s cycle and decided to explore the city on two wheels. At the end of my gallivanting, the skies cleared quite a bit and I decided to climb to the Castle of Gibralfaro. Even though I wasn’t optimistic about the views that day, I started off. It was a good decision. As the evening set in, suddenly I got a display of some brilliant colours – orange, purple, yellow – the sky was on fire!

The sea-side city of Malaga awash with brilliant colours as the sun sets

The sea-side city of Malaga awash with brilliant colours as the sun sets

Malaga is on the southern tip of Spain, and apparently one of the oldest cities in the world. It also has some of the warmest summers in Europe. I spent quite a few happy days there and can recommend a visit to Malaga to anyone who is heading to that part of the world. It is also the place where I lost my passport, but I’ll reserve that story for another day.

In the meanwhile, enjoy the view!