Sunday, May 26, 2013

First times!

The other day, while we groaned about an unexpected power cut on a summer evening, my neighbour's toddler came running in to our house to show us the glow in the dark owl on her new t-shirt! She was so excited about the power cut, to her it was a pleasant surprise. This got me thinking about perspectives, and being happy about small things along with first time experiences.

Much as I love my routine, I derive a huge rush from first time experiences. And there is nothing quite like taking a trip to a new exotic land to get myself these in abundance. Work took me to Nagara Brunei Darussalam (yes, my job has wonderful perks) and I then extended this trip to a weekend in Tioman Island , Malaysia. Short as it was, it is one of my favourite trips yet and given below are the many firsts that I experienced on this work trip/vacation

  •  Getting my passport stamped for a country I never imagined I would go to. Nagara Brunei   Darussalam. I love saying it!
  •  Having someone receive me at the airport with my name on a placard. I had this small surge of excitement when I saw the company driver standing at the airport exit. (Yeah, yeah! Small things make me happy)
  • Being in a country where I saw no lack of anything. Everyone seemed to have enough to lead a comfortable life. Was quite a shock from living in India all my life.
  • Being a part of the ex-pat experience in a country with prohibition. Guzzling beer at the yacht club in Bandar Seri Begawan, that we had to bring in our own coolers.
  • Meeting two wonderful feisty Chinese women, who changed my entire perspective of the Chinese. Adventurous, gregarious, fearless and so spunky. Made some good friends for life. 
  • Taking a two hour speed boat  ride alone, into a water village then on to a mangrove. Just the boatman, the boat, the proboscis monkeys and me. I struggled to let go of the fear nagging me at the pit of my stomach, I am sad I couldn't be spotlessly  happy, but I am so glad I didn't let fear stop me from doing it.

  • Eating chicken bottom kebabs. Yes, that's right! Grilled chicken buttocks. Disgusting!

  • White sands and brilliant blue water. Tioman Island, you are a beauty! SO much better than watching Travel and Living. 
  • Scuba diving! It was a huge challenge for me to work against my instincts. Use my mouth to breathe instead of my nose. But once I took that reverse flip into the water, I was one with the ocean. Nothing like I have experienced before!
  • Spotting a shark. I am told, this is not a very frequent sighting, and I was one of the lucky first timers.
  • Having a secret once in a life time experience!

 Brunei wowed me with its man-made grandeur while the pristine natural beauty of Tioman stole my heart. It was a trip that made so many dreams of the child in me come true and it re-emphasised to the grown up me the importance of travel in my life!

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Just another travelogue

Volumes have already been written by more eloquent folks about France and the wonderful experiences it offers to its visitors. I thought long and hard about what I can say that would not sound like I just ‘copy-pasted’ things from other articles I found online. I realised that the special beauty of my experience was that I stayed only with French families, sleeping on their beds (the French are too nice to offer you their couch), having dinner with the families, having them show us around on weekends, it was fantastic! Hopefully at least some of what I am about to blab away about is new and interesting.

Here is my version of the must dos if and when you visit this fascinating country.
Walking down the stairs into the city of Lyon
          Walk!: Trust me when I say that this is THE way to see France. All you need is a map, metro routes and a good pair of walking shoes. Take the Metro to one destination everyday and chalk out a walking route, visiting all the sights in the area. Sometimes you should also wander in the narrow lanes to discover the many hidden treasures. This is especially fun in a big city like Paris. Cosy bars, quaint restaurants, quirky stores, inspiring street art; it’s in the narrow lanes that the heart of the country lies. 
Christmas festivities in the streets of Montpellier




Quirky souvenirs being sold on the banks of the Seine



   Take yourself to a Marche: Marche is French for market and there are many versions of these happening in every city. Local producers of meat, cheese, fruits and vegetables, wine and many other delights gather to sell their produce. There is no better way of experiencing the famous gastronomy of France. Also a good place to find kitschy garments and unique gifts for family and friends. Whether or not you shop, I am sure you will be delighted by the trip. Note however that these are not permanent establishments, more like travelling markets, talk to the locals and find out which ones will be operational when you are around. If you travel around Christmas like I did, there are Christmas Markets (Marche de Noel) everywhere. Make sure you drink some hot wine. Absolutely divine and surprisingly intoxicating.

Local produce from Lyon, displayed in a Sunday Market

·        Gorge on French food: I am amazed at how this travelogue is turning into a food guide! Well, anyway EAT FRENCH FOOD! Forget your biryani and palak paneer and idli when you are here. Give in to the stinky cheese (stinkier the better), the sublime wine and gorgeous fresh bread. It is not true that there is a dearth of vegetarian options. You just need to know how to get the message across. I have spent days eating desserts for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Croissants, crepes, pain au chocolat, tarte aux pommes; the list is endless and these are very pocket friendly and just the thing you need while walking around on the streets. If sitting and dining is more your style, then check out my post Restaurant Hopping in La Belle France for a list of places to eat that I loved.

Fromage everywhere
      Use public transport: I am not giving this as advice to the planet, do this for yourself. It is a nice and easy way to hear French around you, observe the people and their culture. Each city is different, from the students of Montpellier to the hip young crowd in Lyon to the eclectic mix of nationalities in Paris. Take a seat at the back and watch quietly as France reveals itself to you. Special perk for me was dog watching while travelling; you just have to get your pet a ticket and he/she can travel with you on the train or tram or bus.

           Revel in Public spaces: The beautiful ‘squares’ or parks located in all parts of the city. Green, open spaces where people come to chill, to read, to skate board, to picnic, to dance, to sing, to celebrate New year. Little islands of total freedom where you can do your thing, whatever it is. I sat here and took pictures.

Peyrou, a beautiful park in Montpellier

The central square in Lyon, where a Vespa club meeting is in full swing

     Visit a small town:  Find one that fits in your plan but absolutely you must do it. The French countryside with the large stretches of vineyards, clear blue skies, crisp pure air, and perfect fully formed rainbows. This is the stuff that dream vacations are made of. Nothing spells UNWIND like a couple of days doing nothing but eating farm fresh produce and sipping locally made wine.

Quaint houses on the streets of Obernai

Vineyards, blue skies and sunshine
 As I read what I have written, it becomes evident to me that most of this can be done only if you spend a decent amount of time in a country. I spent almost a month in France, starting in the South with Montpellier, moving northwards to Lyon, then Paris, then Strasbourg then on to the border of Germany to Obernai. Take your time, see the sights but also experience things that are not written in guide books or blogs such as these.

Finding neverland and a rainbow!