Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Day 302: Winding up the Celebrations!

It was time to wind it up in Kashmir and head back to Singapore. How blue! I absolutely didn't want to leave this gorgeous place.

But even then it wasn't really a bad day. Some highlights.

a) Waking up to the magnificent views one last time. Today the mist was much thicker and it gave the valley and lake below, a look that bordered on eerie. I loved it!

b) Having another round of elaborate, sumptious breakfast at the Taj Vivanta, our last big family meal together on this trip.

c) Having the little one cheer us up with her super upbeat mood for two whole hours when we got stuck in a terrible traffic jam in Delhi. While the rest of us were sweating and swearing in the heat and pollution, she seemed to have a  ball. Surprising and delightful!

d) Watching pre-Diwali fireworks in Delhi during our transit, and exclaiming that it was yet another celebration of the little one's birthday! (Yes, growing up on a staple of Indian films has indeed made me rather cinematic).

Thus her birthday celebration came to and end. It went off exactly the way I had wanted it to be. Simple yet special with our favourite people in a beautiful location.

Here's wishing her many more beautiful returns of the day!

Now we are off to Singapore!

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Day 301: Shankaracharya Temple, Shalimar Bhagh, Kashmiri Wazwan & Birthday Celebrations!

The little one turns 1 tomorrow, on the 30th. But given that we would all be travelling back to our respective places tomorrow, we had planned to celebrate her birthday today, as a way of ushering it in.

So early in the morning, she got dressed in her traditional silk skirt and blouse from Kerala, complete with bangles, bindi and hairband, all courtesy of my parents. After sufficient fussing over her new makeover and going overboard with the phototaking, we treated ourselves to the lavish breakfast at Taj Vivanta. They had everything from North Indian to South Indian to Continental Cuisine and we stuffed ourselves silly. 

Then we set off to explore Srinagar, our first stop being the Sri Shankaracharya temple situated on top of a hill. The car dropped us at the parking lot at the top but then it required climbing another 275 steps or so to reach the shrine on top. That wasn't easy at all but well worth the trouble! The temple was quaint and peaceful and offered majestic views all around. It was breathtaking and I felt an overhwelming sense of satisfaction being there. I felt like it was the perfect start to my little one's brand new year on planet earth!

After our prayers and the taxing climb back down, we were off to our next stop, the Mughal Gardens or Shalimar Bhagh. Spread across a huge area, the garden was a visual pleasure. I loved looking at all the flowers and trees, of various colours, shapes, sizes, and also the different architectural structures they had along the way. The only downside was that all the fountains were under maintenance and hence not functioning. That was a real pity because I think they would have given the place a whole different charm. 

Soon we found ourselves shopping away in the market right outside the garden. I must add here that our luggage overflowed by the time we were on our way back to Singapore - the shopping was simply irresistible! They had such gorgeous stuff - be it clothes or accessories or handicrafts - and that too at such unbelievably cheap prices that it was hard to control ourselves. 

After the morning's outing, we felt a desire to have typical Kashmiri lunch and we went in search of a restaurant called Mughal Durbar, which was recommended for its authentic Kashmiri cuisine. There all we did was ask to be served "something Kashmiri" and they suggested to try the Wazwan - the Kashmiri version of a "thaali" or a spread of different dishes served with rice. The Wazwan came with a special type of rice and several, and I mean SEVERAL, types of mutton and chicken. And all of them were so awesome! I don't think I have consumed so much meat in one go ever before, it was insane! 

The Wazwan made us all heavy and sleepy, so we decided that we will spend the rest of the day back in the hotel. After all, the hotel itself offered quite a bit to explore and look at. Back in the hotel, I attempted a bit of packing in preparation for tomorrow and then all of us spent the entire evening walking around its grounds, taking pictures and enjoying a cup of masala chai each, as we watched the sun go down beyond the Dal lake and the mountains. 

The lake looked absolutely still with not a ripple disturbing its serenity, the mountains were covered in a veil of mist, and the sun's rays changed the landscape from yellow to deep orange to crimson hues, as it went down the horizon. The beauty was surreal. The peace felt within was unforgettable. I am in love with this place. 

Then the official 1st birthday celebrations began. First we had cocktails in the bar at the hotel. Rather, the rest of them had cocktails in the bar while I watched over the little one who readily fell asleep in the room before we could step out. Once she was up after her nap, we too joined the rest of them at the bar. And by "joining them", I mean that I ran with the little one, all bundled up in layers and layers, through the dark and in the super cold, through the gardens of the hotel, up until the bar. That itself was an amazing experience. She and I both enjoyed it thoroughly! 

Once I had my share of the cocktail party, we proceeded to the Chinese restaurant at the hotel, for the rest of the celebrations. I had ordered a cake for the little one and once that came by, all of us sung her her "Happy Birthday" song, much to her amusement, and then the hubby and I blew the candles on her behalf and let her eat some cake, much to her delight! Then the grandparents gave her cake and my mom-in-law made her wear a tiny little gold ring. Apparently she herself had worn that ring when she was this young... how cute! Then she and my dad-in-law recited a poem each that they wrote for the little one, which she, like a good girl, listened to intently. Overall, it was a small, beautiful ceremony, just the way I had wanted it to be! 

After the lovely celebration and a good Indian Chinese dinner, we got back to our rooms and found a nice surprise awaiting the little one - a room full of balloons, courtesy the Taj Vivanta! It was wonderful! 

Thus my little one turned a little less little, amidst a lot of love from her beautiful family, in one of the most beautiful places on the planet! It was perfect! 

Monday, October 28, 2013

Day 300: Apple Orchards, Taj Vivanta, Dal Lake, Shikara Ride, Floating Market & Houseboat!

This morning we made our way to our last destination on this holiday - Srinagar.

On the way we first stopped at the apple orchards we saw on our way to Pahalgam. We walked through the orchards, bought a lot of apples (needless to say they were really juicy and delicious, right off the trees!), entertained a few local little boys who tried to a sell us a few apples and when we did, they looked absolutely on top of the world!

After that short stop, we drove straight to Srinagar. We had been through the outskirts of Srinagar a few times on the way to Gulmarg and Pahalgam and it was like any other Indian city - crowded, dusty, polluted with the constant honk of cars. However as soon as we approached the famous Dal lake - the 18 sq. km big stunning lake with calm, serene waters - the atmosphere was drastically different. The traffic was much less, and there didn't see to be too many buildings around. All we could see was the vast expanse of the water with the quintessentially Kashmiri shikara boats drifting elegantly on them, the marvellous mountains behind, a few far flung pretty fountains in the water, and beautiful chinar trees lining them at the banks. This was the Kashmir we had always seen in the movies and we felt like we were in one!

Our plan was to first check in to our hotel and soon our car took a diversion and went up a hill that continued to offer beautiful views of the Dal lake. There didn't seem much else on the way up the hill and I could sense the confusion the parents were feeling because they had no idea where exactly we were headed to. At the top, we approached a huge gate with a lot of security guards who asked to search the car. Due to the tension across the border in the state, we had been seeing a lot of army vehicles and men over the last few days but we never had to go through any checking ourselves till now.

"This must be a premium hotel", my mom in law commented, wondering at the formidable gates and the excessive security checks.

Then I thought it was time I broke the well kept secret to them. "We are staying at the Taj!", I exclaimed and added, "SURPRISE!!!"

This was met with wide eyes wonder and joyous exclamations from all the parents, something which I absolutely LOVE to see!

You see, the Taj chain of hotels is probably the most prestigious and luxurious in India and of course, it comes with a rather luxurious bill as well. So it is not the place of stay usually under consideration for my family and myself. But given that we were in Kashmir to celebrate the little one's first birthday, I wanted the so-called finale to be as special as possible. Plus whenever I have the privilege of staying in a 5-star hotel on my business trips, I always think of the parents and how they should also have the same opportunity as me. And this felt like the best time to make that opportunity come by.

So yes, I had booked the place but kept mum about it and revealed it only right there inside the car as it was being screened outside the Taj Vivanta, and was pretty thrilled at the reaction it garnered!

After the check, a very excited bunch of us, were dropped off in front the hotel. We got out of the car and our jaws dropped. The hotel has been constructed on a standalone hill and it offerend magnificent views of the mountains and the valley and the Dal lake all around. It was astounding! I had a general idea from their website that the location was good but nothing prepared me for the beauty that we were facing standing there!

We were warmly welcomed inside and as we waited for the check-in procedures, we were given hot cups of Kashmiri Kehwas. Then we were taken to our rooms - and once again we got astounding views all around! We were also wowed by the facilities in the hotel, especially the infinity pool that seemed to melt into the Dal lake and mountains beyond. Indescribable!

We checked in to our wonderful rooms, each with the same stunning views of the lake and the mountains and also a cute private balcony and garden to walk into. It was so perfect. And the parents' excitement was even more perfect! I felt on top of the world!

After hanging out for a while, we reluctantly left the hotel for the activities of the day. We drove down to the Dal Lake and were met with a representative from my dad's contact's office. He put us in the shikara boats - one couple per shikara - and soon we were being rowed away in the quiet waters of the Dal. It was so peaceful and picture perfect!

As we bobbed along, we were approached by moving shops - i.e. other shikaras selling everything from dry fruit ice cream to expensive wooden handicrafts to well, photography services, but of course.  Soon we were licking away ice cream even in that cold, posing to pictures, buying souveniers, and having a ball. We also caught our first sight of rows and rows of the famous houseboats of Kashmir. Unlike the ones in Kerala, these are stagnant and don't move about in the waters, but they were still lovely to look at!

We were taken to the floating market called Mina Bazaar which are basically shops inside houseboats. As the hubby and I waited out in our shikara with the little one, the parents went into one of those shops to check it out. As we waited, we could see the non-motorable villages behind the houseboats and the lives there. Apparently boats are their only mode of transportation and in winter when the Dal Lake freezes over, they can walk across too. What lives!

After Mina Bazaar, we were dropped at the Dawn houseboat where we planned to have dinner. Our dinner orders were placed in advance, since that's the only way to get food in a houseboat if you are not staying there because they don't function as regular restaurants. We were not staying in one but we definitely wanted to visit one and experience it, so a dinner it had to be.

We got to the houseboat earlier than what had been estimated, so we had some time to explore it as the food got ready. And we made the most of it! We walked around and looked at every detail in the houseboat - the Kashmiri carpets and furnishings, the cozy bedrooms, the spacious washrooms, the small library, the games provided, the unique combination of Kashmiri and western crockery, and even the makeshift garden outside. After sufficiently exploring, we sat on the balcony outside and watched the sun set across the Dal lake, reflecting golden rays off the mountain peaks. It was a wonderful experience!

Dinner was a tasty, homely affair in the beautifully furnished dining room. There were both vegetarian and non vegetarian dishes and we were pretty happy with the quality of food as well as the service by the two boys who manned the houseboat. Post dinner, we got back into our shikaras and made our way back to our vehicle across the Dal lake. Interestingly, the photographer from earlier today rowed besides us and handed us our copies - pretty awesome service, I must say!

The sun had completely set by now and the temperature had dipped several points. So we were now on a shikara ride in the pitch dark in the middle of Dal lake - yet another beautiful experience! I hugged myself and looked up at the skies and thanked God for making it possible for me to be right there, right then.

Back at the hotel, we once again marvelled at its magnificence, this time seen with lights.

When I hit the bed an hour later, I was a very, very happy person! 

Sunday, October 27, 2013

Day 299: Kashmir ki Kalis, Chandanwadi, Betaab Valley & Aaru!

I woke up to the gorgeous views of the mountains beyond our lovely hotel Woodstock in Pahalgam. The first thing I did was to take a whole lot of pictures to capture the sparkling peaks as the first rays of sun hit them. What a sight to wake up to!

After freshening up and breakfast, we walked in the gardens around our hotel, up until the Pahalgam river which was flowing at just a short distance away. As we walked around taking the spectacular views and enjoying the lovely weather, we had a few photographers asking us whether we would like to get our photos taken. We pointed out to them that we had our own cameras and then they pointed out to us that they have the kashmiri traditional costumes for us to try on as they take our pictures.

Both my mom and mom-in-law were immediately sold and after some persuasion so was I. Soon we found ourselves dressing up as Kashmir ki Kalis (literal translation being "blossoms of Kashmir" but is used popularly to describe their women).

It was nice to get dressed in the costumes and well, absolutely hilarious to pose under the direction of the photographers. It was no less than the cheesy photoshoots at Indian weddings where the bride and groom need to look into a distance, at each other with love overflowing in their eyes, pointing at something in the sky and gazing at it, etc. etc.! Fun experience indeed, especially since all three couples were subjected to this!

Post the photoshoot, we took off on our excursions for the day, our first stop being Chandanwadi, the starting point for the Amarnath trek. Amarnath is a rather sacred pilgrimage spot and every year thousands of people make their way there by foot, on ponies or in helicopters. It is about 40+ kilometres from Chandanwadi which is the last motorable stop before the trek begins.

Our drive to Chandanwadi was uphill offering spectacular views of the mountains, the valley and the Pahalgam river and getting all of us to coo "oohs" and "aahs" at every turn!

At Chandawadi, we were approached by a couple of guys offering their services as guide and babysitter. We took on their offer and started to walk along the path towards Amarnath. We were not planning to make it to Amarnath of course, but we were promised a few interesting sights. The babysitter was quite adept at handling the little one who looked most comfortable with him through the trek. Huffing and puffing we walked for a while, occasionally energizing ourselves with a mouthful of the Bhelpuri that we bought from one of the many tiny stalls at Chandanwadi.

One of the fascinating sights on the way was the lone tree standing on top of a really high hill, which is supposed to be the last sign of vegetation before Amarnath. Apparently beyond that tree the terrain takes a dramatically barren look!

We soon reached a spot from where we could see, on the other side of the river, what they claim to be the Pandavas' Hut. Pandavas, the heroes from the epic Mahabharata, apparently had stayed in that hut a few thousand years ago. We had the choice to get to the hut but that involved crossing a raging river on a single tree log put across and climbing up another hilly terrain. We didn't feel like we had the energy to do that so we decided to just stay put on this side of the river. After spending some time on the boulders along the river taking a few pictures and taking in the scenery, we made our way back.

After our short but tiring walk, we refreshed ourselves with a round of Kashmiri Kehwa in one of the small shops at Chandanwadi during which we also got a close look at the Kashmiri Kangri, the coal baskets that the locals carry below their coats for warmth during winters. We got a demonstration of how the Kangris are carried - with both hands if they have nothing else to hold, with one hand if they have something else in the other, between their legs if both hands are occupied! Fascinating!

Our next stop was Betaab Valley which, as the names suggests, is a valley that's been named after a famous film shot there, Betaab. That was a lovely place too. Huge open lands, lines and lines of trees which are now shedding their leaves indicating the onset of winter, the beautiful river flowing through it, the lovely bridges and paths and cafes that make them pretty tourist friendly. We had a nice long walk through the place and then when we were all tired, took refuge in a cafe where we all ordered hot maggi noodles.

After the much enjoyable maggi, we set off on our last excursion of the day, Aaru. Aaru is a village in a very another direction from Pahalgam, and from what I understood, a popular trekking destination. The roads to Aaru were pretty treacherous - narrow, steep, with several hidden turns and with a few heavy vehicles using them which made it all the more nerve wrecking. But what we saw was very well worth it. Stunning landscapes, lovely little villages, valley with the roaring river, forests, peaks, snow, monkeys (huge ones!), etc. etc. etc. It was indescribable beauty and all of us were spell bound, to say the least.

We didn't get off at Aaru because it was beginning to get dark and we had to make our way back to Pahalgam along the same difficult route. However we did take a photostop along the way at the most stunning of all viewpoints.

There were definitely a lot more other spots that deserved more time - indeed, Pahalgam requires more than the couple of days we had given it for a thorough exploration, but we had to be happy with what we had. This alone has given a lifetime of memories!

By the time we got back to the hotel, it was dark. But we immediately set off for another round shopping at the market next door. This time it was not just my dad and I but our entire gang. We pretty much checked out every single shop on both sides of the street and got back to the hotel with several bags of our spoils!

Thus our trip at Pahalgam came to an end. Tomorrow we will be off to our last stop on the trip - Srinagar! 

Saturday, October 26, 2013

Day 298: Saffron Belt, Apple Orchards, Kashmiri Villages & Pahalgam!

This morning after another round of heavy breakfast and bidding an extensive farewell to Gulamrg (in way of more photo taking and saying byes to the good people at Hotel Alpine Ridge), we started on our way to our next stop, Pahalgam.

Pahalgam was a good 130kms away from Gulmarg, which meant that we made multiple stops on our way.

The first one was at a shop where we bought ourselves Kashmiri Phirens - their woollen loose kurtas for women.

Then as we passed by the area called the Saffron Belt of Kashmir - where the most common sight was that of fields and fields of the beautiful little lilac coloured saffron flowers. We made another stop to buy fresh saffron stigmas that's a popular spice in Indian cuisine. And while we were at it, we also bought a lot of dry fruits that the region was famous for.

Then we passed by an area where we saw rows and rows of shops selling... well, cricket bats! That was kinda unexpected but we were told that most cricket bats are made from the Kashmiri wood and they come in all kinda price ranges. But no, we didn't buy any cricket bats.

Then we passed by acres and acres and acres of apple orchards. It was so fascinating to see the abundance of the apple trees bending over with the weight of the huge apples they were carrying. We decided to make a stop there on the way back and for the time being kept on with our drive.

Then we passed through typical Kashmiri villages with small tin roofed duplex houses, wooden shacks, little shops,  narrow paths and huge stocks of wood piled up in every corner, in preparation for the impending harsh winters.

Soon we were driving right beside the Pahalgam river. In spring, the river would be overflowing and apparently a lot of white water rafting is done there, but right now, the water levels are low and we could see a lot more of the rocks and riverbed. Still it was a spectacular sight. The raging river, the quaint houses at its banks, the mountains beyond.

Our hotel Woodstock was right next to the small market in Pahalgam and we checked in to our spacious rooms on the third level that offered amazing views of the mountains. There were no lifts in the hotel but we still chose the top floor rooms just for the view! Luckily for us, the staff were extremely accommodating and they offered to serve all our meals in a function room on the same level than making us climb up and down the stairs to their actual dining room for every meal. How nice is that!

We sat around for a while in our rooms, taking in the gorgeous views, then had a rather late but very-heavy-to-compensate lunch.

The rest of the folks were tired post the long drive in the day, but my dad and I decided that we must step outside and explore the market even though the sun had set and it was rather cold. We wanted to "experience Kashmir in the cold, cold night." So, wrapped in layers and layers, both of us set off for our exploration. We discovered some really cute shops that sold woollens at excitingly low prices and we made the most of it with a lot of shopping! My favourite spoils were the two Kashmiri ponchos that we got for the little one.

Back in the hotel, we displayed our purchases to everyone which got them super excited. All of us promised ourselves to make a thorough exploration of the market tomorrow and then, turned in night for the night.

Another beautiful day in Kashmir comes to an end!

Friday, October 25, 2013

Day 297: Gondola Ride, Trial Ski, Kashmiri Kehwa & Sunshine Peak!

Today we set off to explore Gulmarg. After a short walk through the pine lined paths and along the beautiful meadows of Gulmarg, we reached it's most popular attraction, the Gondola. The Gondola makes two stops - Phase 1 at 7000 feet and Phase 2 at 13000 feet.

There was some confusion regarding the tickets due to the temporary shutdown of Phase 2 for maintenance, and we made most of the waiting time by refreshing ourselves with the heavenly Kashmiri Kehwa - a hot sweetened tea laced with saffron. This easily turned out to be my most favourite beverage on the trip. Just as we were done with the Kehwa, we were informed that the Phase 2 is open after the maintenance and we finally made our way up on the Gondola.

It was a fascinating ride presenting gorgeous views of the valley, the coniferous vegetation as well as unexpected appearance of shepherd's villages of thatched huts. We went straight to Phase 2, as recommended by our guide because the tickets were time bound.

At 13,000 feet, needless to say, the views were spectacular. I don't think my vocabulary is strong enough to give it an apt description, so I won't even make an attempt. Let's just say that I went "WOW" and kept "WOW"ing for the rest of the time we were there. I would have clicked about a 100 pictures just at the top and couldn't get enough of it.

For most part of the year, the whole of Phase 2 is covered with snow. But given that we were there just before winter, we could see no snow as we entered Phase 2, at least not anywhere near the Gondola station. So when the guide asked us whether we would like to walk up to the area covered with snow, we jumped at it. Armed with rented snow boots, we walked after him for about 5 minutes and suddenly found ourselves surrounded by snow covered terrain! It was so thrilling!

There we were told that there is an opportunity to do trial skiing. Basically the snow wasn't deep enough to try out skiing on our own but we could piggy back the professional skiiers and do a "trial ski". We were a bit hesitant at first because the terrain looked pretty steep and there were boulders jutting out here and there. But then we saw an old Indian aunty in sari doing the trial ski and then we had no further excuses to make. The hubby and I signed up for it.

Honestly, the trial ski wasn't as simple as what that Indian aunty made it look like. Firstly it required us to trek down a steep terrain to get to the skiiers. Then each of us had to tag on to a skiier. And by "tag on", I mean balance on his skies with absolutely no buckles or belts or clasps. We were only to loosely hold on to his t-shirt while ensuring that our feet never came off the skis. When he picked up speed, it required all my sense of balance to stay intact. We get to do the ride two times each, where we are taken from one end of the snow covered terrain to the other. The good news is that I managed to go both ways without falling off the ski. I must also add here that the hubby did fall off on both ways, which initially made me feel like a superhero. But then, given that he wasn't doing much skiing anyway, the ski folks helped the hubby take a LOT of pictures in and around the snow area, which then ended up making me feel jealous that he has more gorgeous pictures than I do. Oh well.

Anyway, in a nutshell, the trial ski was an amazing experience. I loved the adrenalin rush, the precarious balancing act, the wind in my hair as we picked up speed, the absolute peace and quiet I experienced when I was dropped off in one corner after the first ride - all by myself with only the stark blue skies above and beautiful valley beneath me, I even loved the breathless climb down and back up from the ski area, getting my legs go deep into fresh snow! One amazing experience, indeed!

In case you are wondering what happened to the little one all this while... well, we first outsourced her babysitting to our good guide and then later she was taken over by the grandparents. By the time we completed our trial ski, she was looking a bit groggy probably from the thin oxygen and low atmospheric pressure at this altitude, so we quickly got back down to base Gulmarg, without stopping at Phase 1.

While the rest of them waited for our taxi, my dad and I walked up to the hotel first to place order for the little one's food. We trudged up the hilly terrain, walking past ponies and shepherds and relived our trekking memories from three years ago!

Back at the hotel, we had a really good lunch after which I insisted that we go and explore this little tea shop I saw on our way to Gulmarg from the airport yesterday. What was special about this tea shop was that it was perched on a cliff overlooking a stunning view of snowcapped mountains, and the spot, as informed by our driver, was called Sunshine Peak. I badly wanted to sit in that tea shop and have a cup of chai.

One not-so-nice thing about Gulmarg is that the pony owners there can be pretty aggressive. I had read about this on various travel websites before the trip and we got a dose of it ourselves. When we tried to take our vehicle out they stopped us and said that we were only allowed to take ponies within Gulmarg. When we tried to explain that we were going outside Gulmarg to Sunshine Peak which was a good 6-8 kilometres away and hence not conducive for a pony ride that late in the evening, they said well, we could do so "at our own risk". Wow. My dad immediately called up his contact, the magistrate of Gulmarg for help and before we knew it, we were driving towards Sunshine Peak complete with police protection! Brilliant!

And at Sunshine Peak, in that lovely little tea shop, I got my much desired cup of chai against some spectacular Himalayan backdrop. It was perfect!

Back in the hotel, we rested for a while, got ourselves warmed up with a hot cup of soup each and then turned in for our final night in Gulmarg.

So far, am loving it here in Kashmir! Tomorrow, we make our way to Pahalgam.

Thursday, October 24, 2013

Day 296: Delhi, Srinagar, Gulmarg!

After a rather eventless redeye flight, we got to Delhi. We were picked up by a cab and dropped off to join my in-laws, who had gotten here the day before and were staying over at a friend's place. They immediately took to pampering the little one and it was lovely to see their excitement!

After freshening up and breakfast, all off us set out again, this time to the Delhi domestic airport. After checking in and a quick coffee at the cafe there, we boarded our flight to Srinagar.

And what a flight it was! Throughout the entire flight we could see spectacular views of the Himalayan range. It was breathtaking to say the least, and was a perfect start to the holiday and a perfect welcome to Kashmir! I was terribly excited throughout and kept ooh-ing and aah-ing.

At Srinagar, we had to wait for a while outside the airport for my parents, who were taking a different flight, to arrive. Once they arrived, there was another round of "meet-the-granddaughter" excitement, after which all of us set off to Gulmarg, our first stop in Kashmir.

Gulmarg is a beautiful little village in the mountains and required a long uphill drive that presented fantastic views of the valley below and snow peaked ranges beyond.

We made a short stop at a restaurant for a late lunch and had our first taste of Kashmiri food - the local rogan josh was mind blowing. We stuffed ourselves with that and several other types of curries and breads and continued our journey to Gulmarg.

We reached Gulmarg at about 5pm and checked into our cute little hotel, Alpine Ridge. The temperature had dipped considerably and we got ourselves layered up in warm woollens. After a round of tea and some unpacking, we decided to call it a day early since all of us very tired after multiple flights and the drive.

I snuggled under the warm blankets, enjoying the absolute stillness and quiet outside and fell fast asleep pretty soon - tired but happy. 

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Day 295: Pre-Holiday Madness!

It was one of the most hectic days ever.

I had to wake up at 5:30am in Beijing, take a cab to the airport and fly to Singapore. The flight was happily an hour or so late. Once I got to Singapore, I rushed home, worked my ass off on a LOT of urgent stuff, did all the last minute packing, got myself and the little one ready, and together with the hubby, rushed to the airport to catch our overnight flight to Delhi to kickstart our holiday in Kashmir, to celebrate the little one's first birthday with her grandparents.

So yes, it was a super hectic day. But a few really good things happened.

Firstly I got to fly business class from Beijing to Singapore, which I haven't done in a while, and that was awesome.

I also got to catch a really good movie "Now you see me". I hadn't even heard of it before and it was really a fantastic surprise of a film!

It was also nice to talk to the in laws and the parents and hear their excitement about trip too. There were all set too and was looking forward to meet their grand daughter and pamper her silly!

Last but not the least, it was indeed a hectic day but I am happy to have completed every single thing on my list of things-to-do-before-holiday and that made me feel like I totally deserve this holiday!

Now it's time for Kashmir! 

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Days 293 - 294: Beijing - Consumers, Weather, Food & Dance!

21 - 22 October, 2013

I was in Beijing for a couple of days on consumer research and I had a super hectic yet super fabulous time! Time for a quick list!

1) Consumers - I love consumer research. It is so fascinating to listen to these people open their minds and thoughts to total strangers. Each time I hear a consumer speak, I could write an entire script on her life! You get to meet so many people with so many different characters and aspirations, it is really exciting! I had three visits to consumers homes each day for the research. That was super tiring but I enjoyed it!

2) Food - every meal saw a super large spread and I was very much overfed for the two days. I had everything from the famous Peking Duck to some very unique dishes like vegetable patties and pineapples in mayonnaise and a particular kind of fish which was dressed up as if it were a coral reef. I can also say that I probably had the most variety of meat within two consecutive days!

3) Weather - The temperature hovered between 12 - 17 degree celsius and it was just perfect!  One night I got the chance to take a long walk to and from dinner in that cold frosty autumn weather, with my palms tucked away into the pockets of my jacket and with the frosty air escaping my mouth as I talked. It was definitely one of the highlights of the trip!

4) Dance - The Chinese people love dancing. In fact, most of our consumers were talking about how their mothers are always out dancing. And I got to see that too. As I walked down to get some Peking duck one night, I saw a lot of people, mainly senior citizens, dancing away in a square. There was one bunch doing line dancing, there was another bunch doing ballroom dancing and there was yet another bunch doing something like a mix of Taichi and dance. To add to the ambiance, there was another group of people, dressed up in a blue uniform and singing away. How wonderful! And the best part? They were still at it even as I was on my way back at 10 pm, dancing away in that cold weather! Awesome!

These are some of the highlights. But really, I enjoyed every bit of this trip. The long rides from one consumer home to the other, the intense discussion on the Chinese culture and psyche, watching one heritage building after the other appearing every now and then, seeing the lit up Tiananmen Square once again after three years, and maybe even the working late into the night (and I mean really LATE) catching up on emails over a hot cup of chocolate.

It was all very good! 

Sunday, October 20, 2013

Day 292: The Little One's Birthday Celebration Begins!

Yup, it is almost a year since the little one popped out of me. Time does pass at breakneck speed. Her actual birthday is on October 30th but there is a custom in Kerala where I come from to celebrate birthdays as per the Indian calendar (lunar calendar as opposed to the Western solar calendar).

And the little's one's birthday as per the Indian calendar was today. And we decided to have a small, Indian celebration.

The little one got dressed in a pretty peach dress which was a gift from our helper and was the first birthday gift for her for the year! The dear helper had managed to get her son, who is back in India, to buy the dress and send it across via a friend! How nice of her!

Then we went to the Toa Payoh temple. In spite of living very close to it, I had been here only once before. That time it was under renovation and was chaotic. But today, I fell in love with it! It was not crowded at all, the ambience was peaceful, and the priests and staff were very nice and courteous. I really enjoyed being there!

We performed a small puja in the little one's name, sat around for a little while to soak in the sanctity and then made our way back home. The little one too seemed to have a great time - her eyes were droopy with extreme sleepiness but she was still alert, thanks to the excitement of the puja, the thavil and naadaswaram music and the wonderful colours of the temple around her!

Back home, our helper made some delicious payasam/kheer (dessert) to make the celebrations grander, which was again very nice of her.

That was pretty much all the celebration. I was initially planning for more but given that I had a flight catch to Beijing on a business trip in the afternoon, we didn't do anything more elaborate.

But it turned out to be perfect celebration. Small yet beautiful!

In the afternoon the hubby and the little one accompanied me to the airport to see me off to Beijing. It was very hard to leave her behind especially on her birthday, but I was thankful for this beautiful child that I can call mine, and everything else in my life right now.

And I took off to Beijing, a very happy mother!  I will be back and the celebrations will continue! 

Friday, October 18, 2013

Day 291: The 2-Month Late Birthday Celebration!

Yes, the hubby and I share our birthday and it was two months ago. But we celebrated it with our gang of friends here in Singapore today.

This is what happened.

Over some random conversation, I asked the gang whatever happened to our birthday gifts this year, because we didn't receive any. So they promptly reminded me that our birthday treat was still due, and no treat means no gifts. OK fair enough. We were in Europe during our birthday and since then there was never a good time when everyone in the gang was present for a treat, so it was indeed due.

Thus, this Friday, we gave our birthday treat to the gang at our new favourite place Pind Balluchi. And it was a real fun celebration because everyone from the gang, kept up with the occassion, and wished us "Happy Birthday! And watching my excitement whenever someone did that, even the waiters at Pind Balluchi wished me when we were leaving. I felt like a school girl, in school on her birthday, wearing non uniform "colour dress" as we used to call it, distributing sweets to fellow classmates. It felt awesome!

Post the dinner and one round of drinks, we made our way out of Pind Balluchi to find another place to hang out for the rest of the evening. Just as we stepped out in search of the next hangout, there was a thundering noise. We realized that it was the rain slapping down hard on the high ceilings that covered the paths within Clarke Quay. There was a sudden gust of wind and it turned pretty chilly. I loved it! It was lovely to walk around listening to percussion above, enjoying the cool weather and the breeze, and occasionally coming in the way of the rain that gets blown into the covered paths. I felt like it was the perfect "birthday" celebration!

After walking around for a while, we found no other place in the whole of Clarke Quay that offered a quiet spot serving drinks, so we went back to Pind Balluchi. Yup! So we were there two times in a single evening and over a bottle of Sula wine, had a nice long conversation, well past midnight! I hardly stay that late out anymore because of the little one. So this was a nice change and the perfect end to a tough week at work.

I hit the bed a very happy person.

Thursday, October 17, 2013

Days 285 - 290: Packing, Durga Puja, Pind Balluchi and Getting Over 14 Hour Work Days!

I realize that I haven't been updating this blog as frequently as I would have liked to. But it's been crazy the last several days. Like C.R.A.Z.Y. Work's been super hectic. I can't keep track of when the day starts and when it ends, and time's passing by before I can even blink.

The good news is that I will soon be on a week's break, to celebrate the little one's birthday (yes, she is turning one already and YES TIME PASSES BY SOOOO FAST!), together with both sets of her grandparents back in India. But before the holiday, it's like I really have to earn it by bending backwards and breaking my back with the workload. But it is OK. As long as there is light at the end of the tunnel. So here's a quick recap.

1) Packing - in anticipation of the workload and business trip that's coming up before my holiday, I started packing well in advance. I am not a fan of the packing process - especially these days when the little one's list of things run for a few pages, but it does give a great deal of satisfaction once it is done. And I did get it done - so yes, am satisfied and am looking forward to the big fat family holiday!

2) Durga Puja - For the past couple of years, I have been a regular at the Singapore Bengali Associations Durga Puja celebrations. I love the huge pandal with the gorgeous idols of Goddess Durga, the festive spirit with the performances and delectable food and the hordes of Bengali women decked up in their typical cotton (and non-cotton) saris and beautiful jewellery. This year too I wanted to take part in the festivities and dropped by their pandal. I have to say this year it was a bit disappointing because there were separate entries for members of the association and the non members, like myself, gathered directly in the part where the idols were placed, thereby making that the most crowded with a lot of commotion and resulting loss of sanctity. Nevertheless, I did enjoy being there and watching the ongoing activities. The idols were still gorgeous, the women were still decked up and the spirit was still festive.

3) Pind Balluchi - after a weekend that somehow turned out to be more hectic than it should have been, we decided to have our routine Sunday date night at somewhere new and different. And by chance we found Pind Balluchi in Clarke Quay. It is apparently a popular high end chain in India, but I wasnt aware of its existence until now. But I absolutely loved the ambience, the food and the fact that they were giving everything away at 20% discount as an opening promotion. It was a good date night indeed.

4) 14 hour work days - Most of the week saw me working for 14 hours at a stretch. And I really mean at a stretch. There was hardly any time to even attend nature's call or have a proper meal. I was rushing from one meeting to another, or working on one document or other, with my head in constant state of high frequency buzzing. At several points in time I felt frustrated, I could feel my temper rise and my mind and body really feeling stressed. In other words, I was in a state I was not proud of and something I wouldn't and shouldn't be writing on this blog about. But I am writing about it because after about 3-4 days of that high intensity marathon, it hit me that I am not really doing the right thing. I very consciously stopped and took a step back. I consciously told myself that all I can do is do my best and then let it be. There was really no point taking things at work so personally and to try and fix everything perfectly. After that conscious talk with myself, thing have been far better. Work days are still 14 hours but at least I don't feel as bogged down by it anymore. Also, to end every hard working day with a little bit of cheer, I got the hubby to come on a few gastronimic-centric date nights during the week. We hit our favourites Ichiban Boshi for Japanese one day and Fifth Season for Indian Chinese another day.

Like someone wise said before, it is really all in the head.

Friday, October 11, 2013

Days 282 - 284: Aravindum Aarumughamum Picks Up Steam!

9 - 11 October, 2013

It is just about a month and half before we will be shooting Aravindum Aarumughamum. Given that there are multiple business and personal trips coming up for my team and myself, we are now trying to make the most of the time we find ourselves all in Singapore. Which basically means that we now rehearse even during weekdays.

Two days this week, we rehearsed well into the night.

I have also started with the mock shoots.

My cinematographer who is in Mumbai (but will be flying down for the shoot) has started to take stills for storyboarding. I spent all of Saturday morning putting those stills together into a moving photoboard.

I completed the pre-production sheet with the schedules, costumes, location and props details.

In other words, so much have happened on the project in the last few days. Together with work, little one and workouts, this has been one hell of a hectic time, but definitely a fun one!

Now am really looking forward to the shoot! 

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Day 281: Distribution Offer!

Today a film distribution company based out of Chennai contacted me to check whether am interested in giving them the rights to distribute my short film "Inganeyum Oru Katha" for the TV channel in Singapore. These guys are the distributors of all Malayalam and many Tamil films for TV channels in Singapore and Malaysia and are pretty genuine people.  They had watched the film online, liked it and wanted to pick it as part of the weekend short film segment they are planning to introduce very soon.

While this was a great offer, I have got to mention that there was no monetary reward offered and it was just "exposure", like what every other independent film maker has to put up with. But given that I had not planned to make any money out of this short film anyway, and that it was simply meant for YouTube, this offer was pretty exciting for me! If nothing else, you get to talk to real distributors which makes you feel like you are a real film maker yourself!

There are still details to be worked out before anything will come out of this, like the format they need it in, the logistics and contracts and such, but for today, am pretty happy that there was an offer for my little film! Who would have thought! 

Monday, October 7, 2013

Day 280: The Morning Sunshine!

I realize that the title sounds like the jingle for some coffee brand. Well, the story am about to tell probably will look like the visuals in a coffee ad as well.

But what the heck. They are happy ads after all!

It all started with the little one deciding to go the extremes of NOT sleeping. After hitting the bed at 11pm yesterday, she woke up first at 1am, and then at 3am. After which, she slept off at 4:30am. Yup, she was up for an entire 1.5 hours, singing and talking to herself, extremely loudly. Then she again woke up at 6am and then finally at 7:30am.

Which basically means that by the time I had to get ready for office, I was an irritable, sleep deprived wreck.

But to office one must go on a Monday morning. So with a lot of determination I set out of my house.

I took my usual bus, sat on my usual seat, and plugged in my headphones to listen to the usual songs. But this time, I wasn't enjoying the ride. All I wanted to do was sleep but the realization that I could not and would not be able to until after at least another 12 hours, made me feel miserable.

I rested my head on the glass window, hoping for some rest at least on the bus, while wallowing in some world class self pity. Once in a while, as the bus took certain turns or as it passed a patch of less vegetated area in a certain direction, a strong, warm, beam of sunlight would strike my face, blinding me momentarily, and really annoying me. Every time it happened I would curse in my head - Why is it so hot? Why is the sun so strong? Why am I not in my bed fast asleep?

That's when I noticed this old Indian man in the seat opposite mine. He was facing in my direction, thanks to the face-to-face seating arrangement these Singaporean buses seem to have resorted to these days.

There he was, gazing out of the window, like everyone else in a "window seat". The bus took another turn and suddenly there was the sun out again, blazing in through the windows. I screwed shut my eyes and turning my face away immediately but I noticed that he was still gazing out of the window, up towards the skies, the sunlight splashing his face and looking absolutely at peace.

Wow. That was a rather small thing, but had a profound effect on me. It took me only a second to realize that much of my misery was inside my head.

The next time the sun made its brilliant morning appearance directly above and fired through the windows, I gently closed my eyes, turned my face up directly towards it and enjoyed a few moments of the warmth that it exuded even through the airconditioned interior of the bus.

Without his knowledge, that old man and I shared a moment of camaraderie.

And suddenly I didn't feel that miserable anymore. I was simply waiting for the next turn of the morning sunshine.

Sunday, October 6, 2013

Day 279: The First Official Review!

Even though I have made a few films now, I have never received an official review on any of it, other than the casual feedback I have received from several people. I must mention that am always thankful to anyone who bothers to give me feedback, but my point is that so far there has been no review featured in the media.

As of today, that's no longer the case!

A couple of days ago, I received a note on Facebook by a RJ in the Malayalam station "Voice of Kerala" in Dubai. He hosts the show called "Reflections" which reviews short films and he wrote to me to let me know that he will be reviewing Inganeyum Oru Katha in the next episode of the show.

And today was the D-Day. When it was just past midnight, I tuned into the station online and streamed it live. I had butterflies in my stomach when it started, wondering what exactly would be the reaction but well, I was left speechless at the end of it. He gave such a thorough analysis of the film, picking on every single point and talking it at length, and that too, in an extremely positive manner! His words were extremely encouraging and I would say that it has inspired me to make even more films.

Yes, I am on cloud nine. My first official review and that too so positive. How much more blessed can one get?! 

Saturday, October 5, 2013

Days 274 - 278: Sitcom Scripting, Google Cheque, Recipe Hunting, Location Hunting & Film Talk!

I am having an absolutely FANTASTIC time!

Like really, really!

OK, a list it is going to be because otherwise I will not be able to stop writing out of sheer excitement.

1) Sitcom Scripting - Yup, I have started to write the script for a Malayalam sitcom and so far I have been able to complete two whole episodes. I have always wanted to work on a sitcom but nothing worked till date. Now I feel like I finally have a premise that has the potential for a reasonably long running sitcom and am super duper excited about the progress so far. It has been difficult trying to find the time for writing with work, workouts and the little one who sleeps only at about 11pm every day, but I am happy that I have managed to get it done anyway. And I am so thrilled that the few people I have shared the script with, has been very supportive of the idea! This is exciting beyond words!

2) Google Cheque - Now that Inganeyum Oru Katha has crossed about 170,000 views on Youtube, Google has kindly sent me a cheque. Well, it was a grand total of a 100 dollars, which in today's world, is not really much, but of course, this isn't about the money. It is about how cool I felt to be earning money from a film I made and put up online!

3) Sitcom & Recipe - Another thing I must add about the sitcom is that it has an element of food and recipes in it. More details on this will follow as we reveal the title of the show and the poster etc. but the interesting thing here was that I made an open request to my friends on Facebook asking for original Kerala recipes with their own twist to it, to be featured in the show. And the responses and conversations that followed were too much fun! Everyone was very enthusiastic and I have a confirmed recipe already for the first episode and also a list of possible one for the futures.

4) Location Hunting - Last but not the least, one of my Aravindum Aarumughamum actors took me on a drive in his car for location hunting for the film. The idea was to find places that could pull off an "Indian" look, which I would have expected to be a rather difficult thing in Singapore. So we explored every end of Singapore and I was amazed by what we saw. We saw open lands that looked exactly like those in India, deserted roads lined with thick jungles on either sides, streams, mud paths and even a bunch of monkeys playing around on the trees. I was always aware that Singapore had a lot of thick vegetation but I have personally not explored them with such keen interest before. And the sights I saw and the spots I discovered were just mindblowing, and needless to say very "Indian". Aravindum Aarumughamum locations are now fixed!

5) Last but not the least, I had the opportunity to meet a fellow Indian film maker about to embark on her first project. It was really fun talking about the whole moviemaking process of us independent film makers and our ideas seem to match a lot with each other. It is always exciting to have these deep discussions with people with similar interests mine and I had a good time meeting her. I wish her all the best!

Like I said, am having an absolutely fantastic time!