Top 5 holidays for winter 2007

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(Hogmanay in Edinburgh – photo from stuckonscotland)

So you have done well this year. The bonus has been good, your spouse is making good money & the stocks you invested in have zoomed up with the index. It is time to reward yourselves. How about a Mont Blanc Pen? Or maybe a set of fancy wheels? Or maybe a ballooning trip over the African veldt? or book yourself for one of the first sub-orbital flights with Virgin Galactic?

In my regular conversations with users & members of HolidayIQ, many of whom have the classic ‘successful’ profile I outlined in the first para, I now find that unique experiences are taking over from fancy products as the real self-indulgences. And it is clear that in the early 21st century India, unique travel has become THE way of self expression of the successful. Move aside, Mont Blanc & Maserati. Welcome to Masai Mara & the Moon (soon, hopefully).

Over the last few years, I have given up on business travel and got into some serious holidaying. So I get asked this question quite a lot – what are your suggestions for a holiday this season? So, in answer to the key existential angst of our time, here is my personal list of 5 great travel escapes for Winter 2007.

  • Watch the whales migrate at Byron Bay, Australia. One of the world’s most scenic spots, home to a great ‘littoral rainforest’ is also the setting for one of nature’s amazing events.
  • Soak in the atmosphere of true ‘ancient India’ on the banks of the Betwa and Maheshwar, ancient rivers of Madhya Pradesh. Stay in classily refurbished palaces & forts right on the waters edge.
  • Bring in the New Year at one of the classiest cities on earth. Be a part of Edinburgh’s Hogamanay, from 29th Dec 2007 to 1st jan 2008
  • Do a ‘Cantonese crawl’ – explore haute chinese cuisine starting in Hong Kong, Shenzen & Guangzhou and taking in various parts of the chinese coast around the south china sea
  • Scuba dive in the pristine coral island of Agatti, Lakshadweep. Discover the million shades that lie between Blue & Green.

Haggis

Take 1 sheep’s lung, 1 sheep’s heart, 1 sheep’s liver & 1 sheep’s stomach. Add oatmeal, onions, cayenne pepper, nutmeg, salt & pepper. After much gruesome pummelling of all of this, voila, you get Haggis. Haggis is the national dish of Scotland, a dish that I had a few times during my sojourn there.

Serving Haggis is pure theatre. A kilt-clad scotsman walks in, bearing a platter on which sits an innocuous , steaming lump. He sets it down and begins a loud recitation (‘An ode to a haggis‘, by Robert Burns) all the while strutting around the platter. As soon as the poem gets over, a long sword is produced and with much ceremony, the haggis is cut.

It must have been the extreme cold in Scotland; but, I didn’t find Haggis unpleasant at all. Interestingly, while all this was going on, my thoughts turned to my homeland. In times long gone by, the colder regions of the world had to necessarily eat ‘aromatic’ concoctions of meat to stay alive. It was the desire to improve palatability of this stuff that lead westerners half-way across the world in search of spices, notably black pepper. In that quest lay the first seeds of globalisation and the eventual rise of a little sliver of land in the southern coast of India to medieval-world eminence : Malabar (Kerala).

I dug into another helping.

Neighbourhoods

As I move around in the world, I am struck anew by the variety of neighbourhoods I have lived in. Human scale being what it is, it is the little neighbourhoods that you live in or work in that matters – irrespective of whether you live in one of the most populated cities of the world or in one of the more remote little towns. The other interesting thing I notice is that my recollection of a place is forever tinged by my emotional state at that time.

Take Connaught Place in New Delhi for instance. I was young, single, thought I was in love, had a job that gave me a relatively relaxed time & a few Rupees in my pocket. To me, Connaught Place & its environs is still about lazy afternoons, pottering down Janpath, eating cutlets at Bankura next to the Cottage Industries Emporium, occasionally living dangerously with a cold coffee at D’Pauls and regularly catching plays at the NSD or Shriram centre. Continues to be my idea of bliss.

Or take downtown Jeddah in Saudi Arabia where I worked for 6 months about 15 years ago. My recollections of this place are of the extremely hot sun, the regular calls of the muzzein, the steel & chrome facades of the office blocks and of a huge mall filled with shops, eateries and vast echoing hallways without people. Surreal.

Or Prabhadevi in Mumbai where my young family spent a couple of years. Facing the sea on a llth floor flat with lots of space, conventional wisdom suggested I had pretty much reached home-nirvana in Mumbai. But, I never got to like it. The awful dirt at the beach was a huge put-off. So was the idea that my little kids had to stand in a queue at Shivaji Park to get on to a swing (a queue for kids to get on a swing!). So, inspite of the world’s best seafood & very nice people, Mumbai could not hold me for long.

Other interesting neighbourhoods I lived or worked in include Chanakyapuri, Vasant Kunj & Greater Kailash in New Delhi, Perth Road in Dundee, Scotland, Lavelle Road in Bangalore, Jawahar Nagar in Trivandrum, Valmiki Nagar facing the raw power of the waves off the Bay of Bengal in Chennai & many more..

Squiggles on the first page

About twenty five years ago, I saw an old book on a shelf. On the first page of the book was a signature in a neat hand and under it the words, “St Catherine’s, Oxford, 1932″. In that little inscription was buried the first half of the story of a man whose tumultous journey of life took him from being the veritable baby-with-a-golden-spoon, to an orphan with no support, then to a bright young boy who walked over 5 miles and swam across a river everyday to tenaciously pursue the need to study, and onwards to a young man propelled by circumstances to reach what was then the world’s greatest centre of learning. It is the story of a person I loved very much.

Add up all those inscriptions made across the thousands of books that inhabited his library and overlay it with a bit of imagination – and you get one of the most interesting travelogues you can ever lay your hands on.

Over the last decade or so, I have done the same squiggles on every book I bought. There is the P G Wodehouse I bought from the airport on my way to see my first-born. Or the Peter Mayle that I got from the little village of Arbroath, while walking across Scotland. Who knows, maybe a few years later, there might be even be a few people who will find the cumulative story told by my squiggles to be interesting.

Aitken, Dalrymple..what is with these Scots and India?

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Just finished re-reading Bill Aitken’s account of his motorbike journeys across the Decccan plateau in central India. While I was keeping the book back on my shelf, I saw the other scotsman’s book on India – The City of Djinns by William Dalrymple.

Both Dalrymple and Aitken have the knack of looking at India from an open, honest and ultimately empathetic perspective. Among the multitude of tomes written on India by foreigners, their writings stand out. Is it a coincidence that both of them are Scots or is there more to it? Continue reading

Poor Dundee

(Here is a video that trumpets Dundee’s new positioning)

Poor Dundee. This grey city is an unfortunate example of the worst of the 1960s..” starts the introduction by Lonely Planet to the Scottish city of Dundee. I lived in Dundee for about 3 months in the year 2000, while on a sabbatical from work. I can tell you this – Lonely Planet is wrong about Dundee. Continue reading