Holiday Dangers

The news that a Zimbabwean tourist taking an outdoor shower in a wildlife camp got killed by pride of lions once again reminds us that vacation trips can have dangers. Remember the 2009 boat tragedy on the Periyar river in Kerala that killed 40 people? Or the large number of tourists that go to our beaches and rivers and get washed away.

Nature is an unforgiving place and those of us who venture out from the confines of our cities should understand this. Many of us don’t and that adds a layer of significant risk to our vacations which often goes unrecognised. The fact that we mostly emerge unscathed from our trips does not mean that we have not, knowingly or unknowingly, taken big risks; it just means we have been lucky.

What is equally disturbing is that safety is an aspect that neither the tourism industry nor the government is paying any attention to in India. It is time that we changed this inattention.

Bad airport models 101 : Kochi airport

Anyone who has used Indian airports know that most of them are truly terrible. And if you have ever read the various international surveys of airports across the world, you will know that India’s airports always make up the tail end of these lists. Quite clearly, the Indian airport scene is bad.

The new Kochi airport was heralded as the beginning of the brave new world. Unfortuantely, Kochi airport to my mind is the absolute worst structure of airport management that has been devised yet. Let me tell you why.

There are 2 ways of running an airport. The first is the traditional way where the government runs it and where everyone using it is miserable. The second is where the government finds out that it knows very little of running modern airports and gets a specialist, private sector operator to run it on a day-to-day basis.

Kochi airport unfortunately has got the wrong end of the stick. In a peculiar parody, the money for the new Kochi airport has been put up by private sector investors and its operational management is in the hands of government bureaucrats and the public sector. In fact, most of the operations at the airport is managed by Air India, one of the world’s worst airlines (ranked in the bottom ten by Zagat). Pretty crazy, huh?

I was reminded of all this when I read a HolidayIQ review by a frustrated user of the airport. Here is a link to that review.

The National Trust of India?

Kochi, Kerala

Hill Palace Museum : Kochi, Kerala

While in Kerala over the last few days of 2008, I happened to visit a couple of colonial heritage buildings. One was the Kanakakunnu palace in Trivandrum (easily one of the prettier buildings I have ever laid my eyes on – and, rumour has it, where my parents threw their post-marriage do) and the Hill Palace musuem in Kochi, both ancillary residences of the local royalty.

Unfortunately, in the tender, loving care of the Kerala government they look ravaged and completely uncared for. It is when one sees this sort of neglect that one realises how impotent our State is and equally, how impotent we are in not being able to get the State to do anything better. This is pretty much the same story of most of our architectural heritage across India, whether it is maintained by State governments or by the Archeological Survey of India.

Contrast this to the state of affairs in the UK. They have something called the National Trust which is a registered charity that takes care of both the Natural as well as Built-up heritage of that nation.

The first thing that strikes one about the National Trust is its motto – For ever, For everyone. It isnt a government bueraurcracy dedicated to ‘protection’ (have you noticed how all government departments and organisations always ‘protect’ something – which means you and I can get pretty nothing of any value from it. The idea seems to be to protect it from the citizens) . The National Trust is a charity with 3.5 million ordinary British Citizens as its members and over 50,000 volunteers. It seems to have grasped the simple principle that National Heritage belongs to all citizens and a well managed method of involving people in conservation through an enjoyable process of education & particpation is the best way to ‘protect’ heritage.

It is certain that our ASI and our bureaucrats in local governments will never be able to grasp such heretical nonsense. So, isnt it time for all of us to work towards our own National Trust – free from any politican or bureaucrat? Previous generations that occupied our land over the last 5500 years have contributed much to humanity. Allowing the remains of their contribution to be in a state of gradual decay is deeply irresponsible of us.

India’s biggest tourism promotion website

Have been wondering which website is doing most for marketing Indian tourism. So, I did a quick check of recent Alexa numbers (see chart above) for Incredible India (the official promotion website of India’s tourism ministry) and the sites of two of India’s premier tourism states, kerala Tourism and Rajasthan Tourism.

Surprisingly, the Kerala Tourism site gets more traffic than the Incredible India site, which is a bit for a shame for the Incredible India guys. Incredible India however did get a huge spike in traffic (a few months before the beginning of period I have taken this chart for) when had a massive ad campaign underway – obviously, they were not able to hold on to the audiences after the campaign got over, which seems a real pity.

And since I couldn’t resist it, I also compared these 3 sites wth HolidayIQ which at the moment also exclusively contains tourism information on India. HolidayIQ beat all these sites by a huge distance. Of course, this is a slightly unfair comparison, since HolidayIQ is not a tourism promotion site but a site for India’s domestic holiday-goers to plan vacations. Which, come of to think of it, is probably not very different from what these sites ought to be doing.

Weekend getaways from Mumbai, Bangalore, Delhi, Chennai, Pune, Hyderabad, Kolkata and 10 other Indian cities

HolidayIQ has just revamped its weekend getaway section. Now one can find weekend getaway destinations as well as weekend getaway resorts/hotels by distance from each of the top 17 Indian cities.

Click here to see the new pages:

Weekend getaways from Mumbai, Bangalore, Delhi, Chennai, Pune, Hyderabad, Kolkata

Weekend getaways from all 17 cities

Kerala Fish Curry and India’s Demographic Dividend

(How to make Kerala fish curry – in a nice mallu accent)

Last week I walked into the smallest restaurant in Trivandrum and asked for a ‘parcel’ of fish curry. The man at the counter turned and asked a small boy hanging around – “arre chhotu, dekh ke aa, fish item hai” and I did a triple flip : backwards. In all the certainties of my mind (and there were at least 3 of them at last count), the fact that Kerala was the one place in India that did not have Hindi speaking ‘chhotus’ was up on top. So what was happening here?

The short answer – India’s Demographic Dividend.

As we have been told ad nauseum, India has a young population relative to the rest of the world. What we have not been told that often, but is patently true, is that this young population is concentrated in a few states in the Hindi heartland, primarily Uttar Pradesh and Bihar. And Kerala unfortunately has got its Malthusian economics pat and so has a declining population – which gobbledygook actually means Kerala has very few young people. And, with the local economy booming, this means labour is moving in droves from the North of India to Kerala (shades of the migration that is happening from the interiors to the coastal towns of China).

Each subsequent visit to Kerala reinforces this reality of India’s internal migration. So, while famous economists debate whether India’s demographic dividend exists (unlike you & me, they don’t actually open their eyes and look for such answers; they prefer to read long tables filled with numbers : click here at your peril, to know why one says it exists, and another says no) anecdotal evidence is clear. With each passing visit, I find small local restaurants in kerala increasingly invaded by Oriya cooks and Bihari chhotus. Clearly, there are more young people looking for work in Bihar than in Kerala.

As I found while on a six-month stint auditing the dodgy accounts of a cement company in the backwoods of Orissa many years ago, the Oriya people are a delightful group (I actually think Oriya women are the best-looking examples of Indian womanhood – never fails to produce a bored ahem from the missus). But, cooking an authentic Mallu fish curry, I would not count among their accomplishments. And so I reach the inevitable conclusion. India’s demographic dividend has a direct impact on me. With all Mallu cooks gone (mostly evolved out of cookdom; a few stragglers left for the Gulf), my favourite fish curry, heavily laced by a concoction of coconut milk and coconut oil is under threat. And I better tank up before it is fully gone.

Click here for all my posts on Kerala>>

Movies over the weekend

Balan, the barber in the one-horse village of Melekavu is the protagonist of the Malayalam movie (Kathaparayumbol – ‘when the story is said…’) that I saw over the weekend. Loved it. The story of a little man who wants to lead a simple & happy life circumscribed by the lines of common decency and humility. And how, a modern world, strident in its search for instant fame & fortune hassles the poor guy. Scripted with wonderful comic timing and performed with real prowess – both by Sreenivasan. Like all great comedies, it is the thread of pathos just beneath the surface that really elevates it. If you get to see it, go for it. If you cannot understand Malayalam, take a mallu along for translation. Or try for a sub-titled version. Either way, I guarantee you, you will enjoy it. Or you could wait for its hindi version, although going by past track-record, I would not recommend it. Titled “Billoo Barber”, the Hindi version has Amisha Patel (for God’s sake!) playing the barbers wife.

UTV’s new channel, World Movies is another source for good films. Over the last week, i watched a Japanese movie, Hana & Alice, in bits & pieces and never got around to watching it through. An interesting movie set in urban japan, it is a simple story of two school-girls, childhood friends and how one of them falls in love. Nothing dramatic, but fun. And for someone who has never been to japan, but is kind of obsessed with it, this was riveting stuff.

Movies are an interesting window to the world.

Mallu food at Claypot in Thippassandra in Bangalore

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(A surreal snap of a mallu ‘sadya’, I found on Flickr – click here for the original)

So you are looking for authentic kerala food in Bangalore. And you want a clean, not fancy place that serves you great food and no attitude. Check out Claypot, the tiny little mallu joint on Rama Temple Road in the midst of the crowded Thippassandra locality just off Indira Nagar in the eastern part of the city. Once there, ask for Benny and say I sent you. Should get you a warm smile. Keeping the determinedly socialist approach of the Mallu, knowing a big kahuna will not change anything else at the place for you – the food will remain the same as for everyone else. Which is good, because the food everyone gets is great.

My personal recommendation is to land up for lunch and to get yourself a mallu ‘meals’ (it is always said in the plural – anyone asking for a mallu ‘meal’ is either a serial-killer or a capitalist or both). Ask for a crab masala or prawn ‘thoran’ – if you can handle tons of lovely grated coconut – and mackerel fry. Say thanks to your God and tuck in.

Can the Calicut Heritage Forum preserve the best of Malabar food?

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(Photo of Malabar Prawn Biryani, from Eastern Spices)

Ever since Sunita’s family introduced me to the absolutely crazy food in Calicut (Kozhikode), I consider myself a staunch honorary citizen. If luscious food weren’t enough, Calicut is also one of India’s ancient cities; the centre of the old world’s spice trade, particularly Pepper trade. So, it has Food & History going for it, which is two strong strikes for that city.

So, when I heard that the good citizens of the city have set up a Calicut Heritage Forum, I was very pleased. Continue reading

Wayanad in North Kerala

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(District map of kerala)

Wayanad is just getting noticed as a major Indian tourism destination. So here is some quick scoop on it.

Wayanad is one of the northern districts of kerala, on its border with Karnataka. It is hilly country with a huge swathe of plantations & estates (particularly coffee estates). The British were the first to really open up this land, laying a strong road network across the ‘high ranges’. The idea was purely economic – the British understood the need to have the roads to bring plantation produce down to the plains of Kerala from where a good railway system (again conceived and built by the British) would transport it in bulk to the nearest deep-water port in Cochin, another John Company creation, from whence it went to England and other parts of Europe. Continue reading

‘Meme’orabilia

Madhuri taggged me with a meme. Since I had no clue what a meme was, I Googled it up and found as follows on wikipedia:

Internet meme – Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

The Hampster Dance [sic] is one of the first widely distributed Internet memes and illustrates the characteristic silliness of much of the genre. …”

Sounded very promising (I kinda like things that are characteristically silly) and so I gave up my objections to displaying my travel photos – in general it is a physical impossibility since I rarely take any – to show you two that got took.

The meme is to display a particularly favourite photo and write something about it. Here are 2.

The first picture is of my elder son intently taking archery lessons from a tribal man deep in the plantation hinterland of Wayanad in northern Kerala.

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The second photo below is of my younger ‘un floating away among the coral reefs in the lagoon in Agatti Island, Lakshadweep. Easily the most magical place I have been to so far.

lakshadweep_small.jpg

Travelling is undoubtedly the best education you can get. And the cool part is you can start very early and need never stop.

While I am generally loath to send chain stuff to others, here is an exception. The meme says I should send it to 5 people which is waaay beyond me. So I am sending it on to Shantanu.

Shantanu, the meme says:

All you have to do is select and upload one photo that you have clicked this year that is special to you. Could be anything…aesthetic, technical or personal. Also, put in a short note why it is special.

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.

11 disrupting web 2.0 companies that will Change India

I was doing one of my usual google searches for HolidayIQ and stumbled upon something that is very gratifying. The sentence was – “One of the best travel sites we’ve seen anywhere on the web”. Apparently, IndiaStreet, the online magazine for new projects & investments in India, did a detailed exercise to identify what they called “11 disrupting web 2.0 companies that will Change India” and lo & behold, HolidayIQ is one of them. When one is immersed in work and in creating something new, there is very little time to look up and see how far one has reached. This, for me, is a sure marker of our progress. Obviously, happy about it.

Here is the link>>

Kanji to Congee

One of the enduring memories of my childhood is of having to slurp down thin rice gruel whenever I fell ill. Kanji, as rice gruel is called in Malayalam was pretty much the staple food of Kerala for a very long time. But, by the late sixties & early seventies, it had reduced to being the staple food of the less-well-off or the food one had while ill. Of course, it has now been fully supplanted in Kerala by Porotta & Chilly Beef but that is another story.

Cut to another time & another land – seated at the breakfast table. A chinese waiter points to a menu & asks whether I would like to have Congee for breakfast. I decide to try it. Turns out to be the same rice gruel, except it has bits of various meats floating around.

It became clear that the Kanji of my childhood and the Congee of my travels were basically the same thing. So I decided to do some historical research to figure out where it all started. The question was : did Kanji start in kerala and move to china or vice-versa?

The answer turned out to be a surprising one – neither. It seems, Kanji was an ancient dish of the Tamil people. During the colonial conquests of the Tamils, Kanji was shipped out to South East Asia. It struck firm roots in the Malay lands, where it was picked up by Chinese settlers. It is these Malay chinese who took the Tamil kanji to their homeland and made it Congee.

Tamil culture is one of the most ancient in the world. With their strong history of colonising adventures across Asia, the Tamils have spread Indian cultural idioms across the East Asian region. Kanji is just one of those. So, if you have’nt had Kanji yet, do try it. It is vintage India.

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..

6500 Indian resorts, hotels, home-stays & guesthouses

HolidayIQ has now listed 6500 resorts, hotels, home-stays & guest-houses across India. About 40% of these properties have got reviews from actual guests who stayed there, which is amazing for our country. This is simply because of the consistent hard work so many travel-crazy folk have lovingly put into this over the last 3 years. I still remember early 2004, when this project started as India Resorts Survey – a travel-lovers initiative set up by a small group of holiday junkies. It has really grown up now and it cannot be easily replicated.

The count of accommodation options at the major tourism states are: Goa Hotels – 384, Kerala Hotels – 642, Rajasthan Hotels – 561, Himachal Hotels - 381

For the bigger cities, the count is : Delhi – 198, Mumbai – 176, Bangalore – 171

Out of this list, 1157 India hotels are in a mountain or a hill setting, 554 are Beach hotels in India, 161 are wildlife hotels and 92 give the traveller an inland waterfront experience.

Railway Protection

It was a summer in the mid-eighties. A 17 year old climbed into a train to undertake one of the longer rail journeys of the world – the 2 nights & 2.5 days needed to get from Thiruvanthapuram Central station to the New Delhi station. Sitting in the 2nd class, sleeper compartment was the usual motley crew of Indian travellers. But before the long journey was over, the 17 year old could see many of them as distinct human beings, who in one amazing moment, came together to save his life. It was a crazy journey on the 2625 UP, and the 17 year old was me. (sorry for the drama, but this is the 60th year of our independence and all that. Also, it is almost true.) Continue reading

The north kerala sikhs

My colleague Prashant claims this is a true story..

Ramanashree Hotel in Bangalore has a Punjabi restaurant, one of the highlights of which is that every evening there are a bunch of prancing sardars doing an authentic Bhangra.

So, Prashant decides to take his punjabi friend who is on a long business trip to Bangalore, to take in the Bhangra and drive away his homesick blues. So off they go to Ramanashree and right on cue the prancing Sardars happen. Amidst his relief at finding compatriots in far away south India, the Punjabi friend then engages one of them, resplendent in his psychedelic turban and luxuriantly waxed beard, in a little bit of Punjabi banter (if you have lived in Delhi for even a short while, you know what that means).

Huh? says the Sardar. The Punjabi friend tries again. heh, heh laughs the sardar apologetically under his breath. Sorry Saar, I do not understand Punjabi. And as the Punjabi friend falls off his chair, the sardar delivers his coup – You see saar, I am from Wayanad.

We all know that whichever end of the earth we go to, there will be the one-metre chai guy from kerala and the friendly butter-chicken dhaba man from Ludhiana. But, evolution being an inexorable force, watch out for new composites.

Here is a video of a Bhangra in M.I.T. (amazing, isnt it, the kind of stuff you find these days on Youtube!). Presumably being done by nerds, it is unlikely to have the earthiness of the real thing.

Weekend breaks

As the monsoon sets in and summer holidays become a memory, urban India goes into the short-break mode. Soon HolidayIQ will be flooded with users trying to find weekend getaways from various cities. When we put togethe the Weekend Getaway option on HolidayIQ, we did not anticipate the huge following this feature would get.

The Weekend Getaway feature on HolidayIQ lets users find holiday options around 18 cities of India. The best part is these can be searched by distance from the city, upto a distance of 350 kilometres. I have great fun playing with this feature even when I am not planning a holiday. Dreaming.

Here is the list of 18 Indian cities from which weekend breaks can be found on HolidayIQ:

Ahmedabad, Bangalore, Chandigarh, Chennai, Cochin, Coimbatore, Delhi, Hyderabad, Jaipur, Kolkata, Lucknow, Mangalore, Mumbai, Mysore, Nagpur, Pune, Thiruvananthapuram, Vizag