Wednesday, January 28, 2009

My India

For many years I've made important decisions in my life with a single aim in mind - to get out of India. While many have turned their noses up at me, judging me as they support me, others have vociferously stood up for their country. I've faced criticism and am often called a traitor. But when the reason behind my actions are finally questioned, friends and family have invariably taken a step back and agreed with me.

Let me begin by saying that I am, and will always be, an Indian. I am proud to say so and I do my part as a citizen of a country I love. I follow rules, I do not break the law, I exercise my right to vote, I encourage friends abroad to visit and see what the country has to offer. I was born and brought up here and India is ingrained in me. The country is perfect, but the people are not. Civic sense is unknown and if I begin to pick on each and every offence that I see committed in a single day here, I could go on for pages.

Politicians are the self proclaimed moral police in this country. Their vote bank lies in the rural masses. Urban India is a small proportion of their votes and they preach conservativeness. An uproar in the media and in big cities is fleeting. Tomorrow everything is forgotten and the same people who encourage molestation of women are at the seat of power.

How, then, can a woman feel free in this country? Can she walk down a busy street and not have a man sing vulgar songs at her as she passes by? Can she dress as she would feel comfortable? Even a pair of jeans and a sleeveless t-shirt is enough to draw stares. I've been eve teased in a crowded DTC bus in a modest salwar kameez. I'm often told that Delhi is an unsafe city for women and Mumbai is the place to be. I beg to differ. In the 7 months I spent in Mumbai I was harrassed on several occassions - in the Mumbai local train, walking in Churchgate station, sitting in an auto rickshaw in Malad, walking on Marine Drive. My younger sister visited me for 10 days and was a victim too.

Why should I want to live in a country where the people are not proud of who they are? Can you respect a woman as an equal, someone who has the right to do as she pleases? Can you refrain from crossing the yellow line on the road when stuck in heavy traffic? If you break a rule and are caught, do you have the guts to accept your mistake and pay your dues or would you prefer to slink away with a bribe? Give me a reason to live in a country where I fear rape, physical assault and criticism if I choose to walk into a pub in a pair of shorts and order myself a Cosmopolitan?

Monday, August 18, 2008

And If That Wasn't Enough

As if things couldn't get any sleepier, we unanimously decided not to take a snorkeling/diving/island/boat tour then next day. The sea was too choppy for our liking and we didn't want get lost at sea or have our tour called off mid-way. Instead, we set off for Railay beach. What fascinated us about this place was that several travelers had recommended this beach over Ao Nang. Railay is a beach accessible only by long tail boat from certain piers along the Krabi coastline. Motorboats do ply, but it's no fun if you don't do it the proper way - the way the locals do it. Unfortunately, due to the weather and the high tide, boats were not leaving from the 2 piers at Ao Nang beach. SO and I had to catch a Songthaew (a tuk-tuk made by fitting a contraption with seats onto a scooty) to the nearest pier at Ao Nam Mao. We had to wade through knee-deep water to get to the boat, had to somehow manage to jump into the rickety thing and found ourselves a seat. 60 baht for a one-way trip was a little steep for our liking, but we were not about to turn away.

The boat-ride was bumpy, and thankfully neither of us got sea-sick. Half an hour later, we were jumping into knee-deep water again, thanking our stars that we'd had the presence of mind to wear shorts. We were the only tourists on the boat, and by the time we managed to wade to solid ground, there was noone in sight. Was this the Railay everyone had raved about? The clouds decided to give way to the sun and we were burning, literally. I had forgotten to use sunscreen and had forgotten to carry it with me as well. Succumbing to the heat we fell into a shack where we ordered cold coffee. Referring to our Lonely Planet, we got our bearings and found out that we were on the wrong side of the island. A short walk through a couple of resorts and we were at the other side. It boasted of a short expanse of beach sans hawkers, beach chairs, and people. It was unbelievable. We had stumbled upon the perfect uninhabited beach that we imagined shipwrecks to lead you to. But then again, such serenity and isolation is not appeciated for long if you're not carrying food with you. 100 meters from the water was a restaurant that seemed to be the only one around. That was the centre of all action and, as we sat down for a quick bite, we grabbed the last available table. So that's where everyone had been hiding!

After lunch we walked a little further to find a second-hand bookstore and mountaineering guides. Railay is known for its rock formations which are conducive to climbing. Neither SO nor I are of the climbing sort, so we passed on that and took the marginally longer walk back to catch a boat back to Ao Nam Mao. We avoided falling prey to the offers made by the self-proclaimed boat organizers. With no boat in site, they offered to charter one specially for us at an exhorbitant price of 1000 baht. They tried to scare us by saying that that would be the only way off the island for us. We ignored them, and sure enough, half an hour later we were on our way back in a normal boat alongside the locals. The taxi ride back to Ao Nang was done in silence as it sunk in that our Krabi sojourn was almost over. As we walked to one end of Ao Nang beach, I urged SO to explore the extension of the beach that was a part of a resort. Stepping into the area we were pleasantly surprised to find that that too was a part of the public beach. Elderly ladies thronged us with rate cards in their hands for Thai massages. We randomly picked a lady, haggled with her, came to a price acceptable by both parties and followed her as she hurried past the others.

We crossed a boat turned into a bar - The Last Fisherman, both of us making a mental note to catch a drink there later. The massage parlour (!) was an open air contraption with 4 matresses laid out side-by-side. We were greeted with pineapple, part of the staple diet in Thailand and made to wait until a group of 4 Japanese tourists were being massaged. When our turn came, I looked out at the adjoining sea and wondered if there ever was a place as perfect as this. The massage was soothing to my aching limbs from the day before spent climbing Wat Tham Suea, and the sea breeze and gritty sand in my teeth made it all the more authentic thai. In a state of delirium, we made our way to the Last Fisherman. It began to pour when we had hardly downed our first drink. We moved from the beach to the bar, which had been carved out of an actual boat. What started out as a drink each turned into many and we drowned our departure sorrows in the best watering hole we had ever been to. We booked a cab on the way back to the hotel as the bus service started too late for us to be able to catch our morning flight to Bangkok. We packed our bags in silence and SO looked forward to his last breakfast buffet at the Krabi resort.

We rose extra early the next morning because of a combination of my paranoia about missing our flight and SO's excitement over breakfast. We stuffed our faces right at a table a few feet away from the sea and counted down to our flight time.

Long Overdue

Coming back to the Krabi travelogue of sorts, I will now try my best to recount the most memorable parts of the trip.

As already mentioned, we were very worried about the budget that we had set for ourselves. SO's elaborate excel spreads had come in handy while booking hotels and planning hypothetical food expenditure. I had read about a bus service to key locations in Krabi, including Ao Nang beach where we were staying. However, all internet resources that pointed to this had clearly mentioned that this was more of a peak season affair (roundabout October - January). We'd mentally prepared ourselves for a 700 baht taxi ride to our hotel and had pretty much come to terms with it. But a brilliant sight welcomed us as we walked out through customs at Krabi airport. Not only was the airport bus service available, but it would cost us only a fraction of the cab. 150 baht per person, and the bus dropped us right outside our hotel at one end of Ao Nang - Krabi Resort!

Now, at the time of reservation, we weren't sure whether we had booked a sea-view room or not. Internet reservations are always vague and I'm usually happy just to get a confirmed room. We'd booked a Deluxe cottage at Krabi resort, later realizing that there was another lot which were the Deluxe Sea View ones. On check-in, we tried our luck with the seaview request and got a pleasant surprise. Although the rows of seaview cottages were fully booked, they had one suite-like cottage left which had a partial seaview. We grabbed it, at no extra cost! The room was breathtaking, the view even better. With a comfortable living room and a huge bathroom (shower and bath-tub separate), only the view was able to lure us out. 10 meters and we were at the beach. Slippers in our hands, we went for a walk along the water towards main Ao Nang. The walk was shorter than we expected. Having seen the beach area of Pattaya and Patong beach in Phuket, Ao Nang was nowhere close. A handful of shops, restaurants and tour operators were scattered around. I don't recall seeing any people, not even tourists.

After freshening up, we realized that the long plane journey had left us famished. We grabbed a quick bite at Black Canyon Coffee, waited for the sudden downpour to subside and took a stroll. Although it was the middle of the afternoon, there was not a single shop or restaurant that looked open for business. Coming from overcrowded and busy India, Krabi was the sleepy town that was restricted to the books we read. The tranquility was unimaginable. SO and I sat on benches where the waves broke and were so taken in by the view that it was a while before either of us suggested that we explore the area a little more and decide on our POA for the following day. Exhausted from the late night flight and hardly any sleep, we called it a night rather early, just so that we could be fresh for the next day. We were renting a bike!

Well, the bike rental was not a motorcycle, but pretty much a scooty. 250 baht, and it was well worth its while. We managed to convince the tour agent to keep my Indian driving license in place of either of our passports and we were off. We'd read about a temple on a hill about an hour away from Ao Nang, so we set out as explorers. The map we had was a basic tourist one and I tried my best to play navigator while riding pillion. As is normal with coastal weather, we got caught in more than our fair share of sudden rain, but thoroughly enjoyed every second of it. We stopped at an insignificant temple in the middle of nowhere, just because we stumbled upon it. A reclining buddha temple is always welcome in Thailand! It felt like a build up to the actual thing we were in pursuit of. As we approached Krabi town, our halfway mark, hunger pangs got the better of us and we stopped at a roadside shack for lunch. Other than Tom Yum soup, rice and coke, we really have no idea what else we ordered. We pointed at pictures of food in a Menu written in Thai and we were not disappointed.

We set off again, braving the rain to get to Wat Tham Suea. The temple complex was huge. We hung around for a bit, trying to find our way around and were pretty disappointed because we were looking for the 1237 steps to the top of a hill. While the hill was clearly in front of us, the steps could not be found. We finally asked a monk to direct us and he escorted us to the foot of the staircase hidden behind foliage. And so began our arduous climb towards the top. The first 200 steps were fine, the next 200 too. But as we approached 500, we got the feeling that we may have bitten off more than we could chew. A couple of people passed us on their way down, and I could have sworn I saw smirks on their faces. We considered calling it quits, but our egos got the better of us. It began to rain, again! The steps were oddly shaped, sometimes huge and sometimes barely wide enough for us to place our toes. There was moss growing over everything, which meant we had to be extra cautious. While all this was bearable, my worst nightmare was about to come true - an army of monkeys, in all shapes and sizes. I couldn't run. I couldn't shout. I couldn't hold anyone's hand. I held my breath (honestly) as I climbed my way past them. I know for sure that they were laughing at us heaving our way up while they jumped around so effortlessly.

The euphoric feeling of having reached the top is inexplicable. A couple of monks were there to greet us and they offered us water. The view was breathtaking. We could see the entire valley leading up to the sea on one side and a dense forest on the other. And the highlight of it all was the imposing golden statue of Buddha in a meditating position. Once up there, we didn't want to climb back down. Finally, we reluctantly began our descent because we had to get back to the hotel before it got dark and we needed a fresh set of clothes to avoid catching a chill. Of course, the monkeys were there to greet us, but this time I felt no fear. My calves were giving way, but I'd braved the 1237 steps to the top. Of course, I smirked at the couple on their way up!

Thursday, July 10, 2008


Have faces
They choose to hide.
Have memories
That people choose to hide.
The secrets
We hide.

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Paradise on Earth?

(continued from "Holiday! Celebrate!")

Or so it seemed to my SO* and me. But not before an eventful (?) flight. Drumroll please.

My vacation begins as soon as I step out of the airport lounge and into the aircraft. For that very reason, I fought hard and long against SO to convince him to pay a little more in order to fly by Thailand's national airline. I secretly also wanted to collect frequent flyer miles on the Star Alliance network! I looked around the familiar interior of the aircraft and wondered in amazement how much at home I felt even though I absolutely hate flights. As I mentally geared myself for take-off (I hyperventilate until the aircraft reaches its crusing height and the seatbelt sign is switched off) and the plane began to taxi, the GPS map on the cabin TV screen was replaced by a live camera strategically placed on the window of the cockpit. Was this some sort of a practical joke? Why would I want to see what the pilots are seeing as we take off? But it was an option between looking outside the window or at the screen and the view was pretty fascinating. It was a matter of a couple of seconds before I chose to see the runway melt into the nightsky instead of strain my neck to see New Delhi at night (SO was at the window-seat).

Unfortunately, my post-ascent composure was shortlived. Flying over Calcutta has never been pleasant, but what lay ahead this time was the after-effect of Cyclone Nargis. Not much of a story to tell, other than the constant switching on-and-off of the seatbelt sign by the captain and the relentless turbulence that continued until we reached Bangkok. However, for me this was unbearable and I was so terrified that I neither managed to catch some sleep, nor did I watch the in-flight movie. What resulted was grogginess, bleary eyes and a heavy head. I thanked my lucky stars for the good food on the flight. I'm serious. The salad was bearable, but the Masaman Chicken Curry with Rice gave SO a flavour of what lay ahead for the coming week in terms of food. Of course, the real thing was going to knock his socks off!

4 hours later and a very sulky me emerged from the aircraft at Bangkok's Suvarnabhumi airport. SO had slept for most of the flight, waking up in between for a few minutes to hold my hand during turbulence. All sulking was lost at the familiar site of the sprawling airport, its moving walkways and the heavenly duty-free shops. I thanked my stars that we had made the decision of getting a visa from Delhi itself. There was no way of managing visa-on-arrival, immigration, baggage collection (you cannot book baggage through if you don't have a visa on check-in) and check-in for the flight to Krabi in the mere 2 hours between flights. So we strolled around the airport while I mentally ticked off things on my shopping list and urged SO to remember prices for me to compare later.

The flight to Krabi was uneventful and I was thrilled about it, mostly because I could then spend my time fretting about how we were going to get to the hotel from the airport. I was being damn stingy, considering it was the 1st time I was funding my holiday myself. SO, of course, slept. Until we landed at Krabi airport. All exhaustion had disappeared and SO, surprisingly, wasn't sleepy anymore!

*SO = Significant Other