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While I made my way to Little Rann of Kutch to see the seasonal salt marsh formations, beautiful migrating birds and the esteemed Wild Ass Sanctuary, I unsurprisingly found myself staying at yet another beautiful accommodation which felt more like a community - rich in history, a clear commitment to core eco-values and filled with solid characters like Stella and Alan Sekers.
It was 5:30am in Ahmedabad, Gujrat when I hopped off the rickety sleeper bus from Jaisalmer, Rajasthan, my head still spinning from the epic month and a half I spent in the desert city of mystique and charm. Finally back in travel mode, I donned my backpack and walked to the Central Bus Station, fending off countless rickshaw and chai wallahs. Though tired as can be, I was excited to land my window seat on the local bus where five other people joined me on a bench designed for three.
My bus dropped me at the little intersection of Dasada, where I relished in the opportunity to wait for my pick-up surrounded by goats, cows, jharu-sweepers and locals who stared at me in wonder. When the desert safari jeep appeared, I cringed at the sight of such a “tourist” vehicle.
A short drive later however, I was dropped at Desert Coursers, and was immediately impressed by the sustainably designed round huts and beautiful lounge area made of cow dung, all adorned with colorful textiles and beautiful local flair. I happily filled my water bottle, excited to see the filtered water dispenser I dream of seeing at accommodations around the country (but rarely ever do!)
One of my travel highlights has always been meeting an incredible array of people from around the globe – particularly those who are passionate, concerned, engaged and active. A full dose of chai gave me enough of a wake-up to be enthralled by great breakfast conversation with Stella and Alan Seker (and their friends Steve and Pete,) all proudly hailing from England and contagious with love for Zainabad, a pretty small dot on the map (keep zooming in on the gps and you’ll find it!)
Here at Desert Coursers for the 6th time, Stella and Alan are spending much of their India visit at the Smt. Zubedabegam High School secondary school, one of the many schools built by Kuvar Shri Dhanraj Malik (of Desert Coursers) after the destructive earthquake of 2001. They are facilitating the second “This Is My Zainabad” book, a stunning catalog of photographs taken by local fourteen-year-old children using cameras for the first time in their lives, capturing Zainabad as they know it.
Recognizing that old ways of village life are quickly disappearing, Stella and Alan hatched the idea for this photo and mapping project as a way for the students to create a visual record for their future children and grandchildren, showing how families have lived and worked in Zainabad for generations. With seven villages spanning approximately 80 square kilometers in the Kathiawar peninsula, farming and salt manufacturing are the primary sources of income (mining 100kg of salt will earn a family approximately 21 whopping rupees.)
And wow, these young documentarians have run with it! When I saw the 2015 photo book, I was blown away - both by the quality of the photographs and the students’ impressive eye for the beauty of their daily lives.
The boys and girls who volunteer for the project are given a simple lesson by Stella and Alan on how to use a basic digital camera. They then pick a particular aspect of Zainabad life to map and record.
With passion, love and talent, Stella and Alan compile the colorful photos and maps created by the students into a beautifully bound book. The 2015 edition was divided into chapters for home, crops, food, carrying, professions, decoration and design, family, salt, and one capturing the photographers themselves.
You won’t find this book on your local bookstore’s shelves (yes, many still exist!) nor will you easily find Stella or Alan’s names in any of the credits. A copy is provided to each child’s family and that is its primary purpose.
What a joy to sit around the beautiful cow dung outdoor lounge area at Desert Coursers, sharing photos of blue bulls, flamingos and the once nearly extinct Wild Ass, hearing Stella’s and Alan’s stories of working with the students, flipping the pages of the gorgeous book and feeling their passion for sticking around in one place and getting to truly know the circumstances and issues of local life. Stella, Alan, Pete (funded the book) and Steve (their original connection to Desert Coursers) have a beautiful relationship with Dhanraj’s family and I’m grateful to them for giving me the opportunity to get to know three generations of this clan, so committed to the environment and to the education and well being of the local community.
From gear talk (they travel with their own compact Japanese made titanium French-press and cups) to a steady flow of book and film suggestions, travel stories and overall positive energy, my time at Desert Coursers was truly enriched by the beautiful community vibe cultivated by Stella, Alan and the whole gang.
Founded by Shri Mohammed Shabbir Malik in 1984, Desert Coursers is one of the first “eco-travel” accommodations I’ve seen in India that has truly lived up to that title.
The prime season for touring the area is January/February but I think anytime is ideal for getting to know a small community like Zainabad. Check out my other posts featuring the "salt people" and the community celebration we participated in.
You may find yourself sitting in a cushy birdcage in the cleverly designed, ambient oasis of the Tamarind Hotel, but I hope you’re ready to eat way more than your average bird. Named for the beautiful passerine bird species found in Central and South America, the innovative eatery and entertainment spot Cotinga is the perfect accompaniment to Tamarind’s comfy rooms and luscious pool – yet, its worthy of its own visit (or many,) just for the delicious grub and inventive décor. I sadly missed it but apparently there’s a pretty stellar line-up of musical entertainment too!
While Tamarind’s hotel staff was down-to-earth and highly attentive, one of my highlights was getting to meet Mom and learn about the whole family operation - how each name, design, entertainer and vibe for both the restaurant and hotel was curated by someone else in the family. From the comfortable couches to the soothing blue/green bird décor and shelves of books and games, I felt cozy and at home while at Cotinga, and that was before I saw the delectable drinks and meals being served.
Ideal for family gatherings, large groups or dates, Cotinga offers a fun array of seating and a loungy billiards room as well. And if you feel overdressed, you can even check out the snazzy Hollywood –style shop in the corner, featuring cutting edge fashion straight out of Delhi, designed by the talented daughter of this family production.
While Cotinga is an ideal spot for enjoying delicious shakes and drinks, reading the food menu itself could be a satisfying experience for a foodie - so come hungry! With as many locally grown ingredients as possible, the chef puts together beautiful platters of simple, mouthwatering meals, each potato seasoned to perfection and each slaw dripping with flavor. And why shouldn’t your food be pretty too? This fresh seafood special was practically smiling for the camera, its juices, flavors and tenderness almost as fun to look at as to eat. But don’t fill up…..desert is a must! Even for gluten-free folks. Not easy to find, especially while traveling around the world, the gluten free deserts on display were as tantalizing as the rest. I was lucky to try the chocolate cake and had a hard time believing there was something missing. The cheesecake sure wasn’t bad either!
Bunking down at the Tamarind Hotel and splashing in the inviting blue pool puts you a quick bikeride away from the beach. With a super-cushy bed, great sheets and comfy pillows, my room was small and cozy, yet it felt incredibly light, open and airy thanks to the clever design of mirrors and lights playing in harmony. Tamarind also scored points for offering bathroom products a step above the chemical-full shampoos and conditioners of most hotels. Natural! Another clear sign of the personal family touches that have gone into all aspects of the hotel and restaurant’s design.
My only regret at Tamarind and Cotinga was flying away too soon. Now to figure out a way back for nestling into the birdcage, lounging by the pool and nibbling my way through the menu.
So let me be the little birdie who told you…..Cotinga and Tamarind are two solid not-to-miss gems in Anjuna, Goa.
There I sat, outside my lavish tent at the Harsil camp, fallen red apples at my feet, the brilliant blue sky peeking through the branches of the fairytale-like fruit trees, the picturesque Himalayan mountains in the distance, with their snow capped tops and enchanting pines, the rushing sound of the beautiful blue/green Ganges filling my ears and glistening from the shining sun, the aromas of our home cooked meal made from local ingredients filling the air. It was magical.
Uttarakhand was hosting it’s first ever travel writers’ tour and I count myself among the luckiest writers of the world to have been included. I got to taste the beautiful fruit of this blessed state, both the abundant delicious apples themselves and an enticing sampling of the pervasive holiness, not only at the many sacred pilgrimage sites but on the serpentine mountain roads we traveled for hours on end, destinations in their own right. I was totally wooed. Our nature-rich introduction to holy Uttarakhand had me hooked. I am already plotting a return visit, and definitely for a longer stretch of time!
Our group traveled the Garhwal region, beginning with a pampered stay at the Aloha on the Ganges in Rishikesh where my glorious dip in the infinity pool’s blue waters made me feel like I was swimming in the powerful Ganges.
Our next few nights were spent camping (or shall we say glamping) at Chardham Camps in Harsil and Barkot. All three sites are premier properties of the Leisure Hotels chain, set in the most splendid of settings and offering highly luxurious yet extremely tasteful accommodations. Rich in Uttarakhand pride, each setting offered delectable home-cooked meals, one more mouthwatering than the next, all prepared with local ingredients. I particularly loved the bindi, daal makhani, freshly made papad and local tasty desserts.
While the chill of the Himalayan hills had us donning our most colorful layers of clothing, what a delight it was to experience incredible Uttarakhand warmth. From hand-delivered hot water bottles for keeping us toasty in our camping beds to the unending warmth and kindness offered by just about every individual we encountered, Uttarakhand welcomes visitors with a full dose of heart and soul.
DEV BHOOMI - LAND OF THE GODS
It comes as no surprise that Uttarakhand is referred to as Dev Bhoomi, Land of the Gods. There are rivers, lakes, mountains and temples deemed among the most sacred by Hindu followers, millions who make yatra (pilgrimages) to these holy sites each year. While Uttarakhand is the ultimate outdoor adventure playground for some, it is also the quintessential classroom for learning Hindu culture and religion, many of its most epic stories set in the mystical rivers, hills and valleys. This omnipresent sense of holiness is felt deeply not only at Uttarakhand’s vibrant religious sites but also while simply driving through the sacred terrain where breathtaking nature and awe-inspiring characters abound.
HOLINESS OF TOWNS AND VILLAGES
Walking from our camp at Harsil, we passed wondrous apple orchards and fields robust with holy tulsi and cannabis, the brilliant blue/green flowing Ganges always in our sight, working in concert with the fluffy clouds, cool breeze, shining sun and snow capped mountains to envelop us in an inexplicable blanket of natural marvel. What could feel holier!
We were on our way to the temple in Mukhba, the winter home of the goddess Ganga. As we approached the village from a distance, I was already in awe of the village scene, the beautiful mountainside dotted with traditional wooden homes, wandering cows, beautiful women hunched over carrying rope-tied bundles of wood on their backs, others forming a stunning parade while merely walking in their colorful daily clothes, rainbows of laundry hung to dry, children of all ages roaming the narrow paths, hammocks dangling from houses.
As we entered the village, trigger-happy with our cameras, we politely asked the women and men we encountered if they minded if we took photos. In sharp contrast to village experiences I’ve had in other parts of India, their warm engaging smiles coupled by their Indian head nod (which I’m slowly getting better at interpreting,) conveyed a beautiful warm welcome to us. We were soon asked if we were hungry and when we finally pulled ourselves away from the village, we were tossed a delicious assortment of homegrown apples for our journey.
The detailed woodcarvings on the homes were exquisite, enhanced charmingly by the beauty of the people inside and their natural, sustainable way of living in concert with the land, in faith and as a community. We of course visited the temple and received bountiful blessings. For me, the sense of holiness permeated well beyond the temple walls, it could be felt in the air and throughout the whole village.
As special and unforgettable as our time in Mukhba was, it was incredible to encounter the same warm reception in all of the towns and villages we stopped.
Heavenly. That is the first word that came to mind each time we hit the roads. It couldn’t have felt more like a dream, driving through majestic mountains, many of them snow-capped, gazing down at the winding menthol-blue river down below, the Yamunotri, Ganges, or Bhaghirathi depending on location. Each day we drove we saw gorgeous rock formations, streaming waterfalls (some as tall as the mountains), countless varieties of pines, trees whose colored leaves waved an autumn greeting and beautiful homes and villages scattered in the valleys and steep mountainsides, many surrounded by stunning layers of terraced farmland. So much green growth and vitality, the array almost baffling, from fruit trees to towering pines to succulent cacti and all the grains growing on those terraced mountains.
I was in awe, in bliss, in heaven – totally overwhelmed by the magnificence. Even driving in a tourist van, I could feel I was in a holy place. I dreamed of returning with botanists, geologists and holistic medicine practitioners. Not only is Uttarakhand a giant classroom for learning about Hindu culture and religion, it is most certainly one of the most fun and beautiful places to study our natural environemnt as well.
Glorious as the views might be, these rollercoaster roads offer the ride of a lifetime, thrilling and terrifying at the same time. A caveat to those who are prone to motion sickness (thankfully I was fine,) the constant twists, turns and giant bumps will have you thanking Ganga you remembered to take those meds. Nothing like a speeding bus, truck or motorbike coming down the single lane in the opposite direction as you wind around serious curves on the shoulderless road, sheer drops leading deep into the valley. But l must say, I was utterly impressed at how efficiently the roads flowed; the prowess of drivers was impressive beyond belief.
Despite the crazy bumps and endless curves, Uttarakhand seems to be doing a great job keeping the roads safe. I loved seeing the yellow, red and white striped traffic barriers dotting the sides of the roads, and the landslide traffic we were stuck in was resolved quite quickly, though it looked like it would take hours. Granted, we experienced another landslide in the same exact spot a few days later when driving in the opposite direction. Perhaps Mother Nature is sending us a message as we tread heavily upon her pathways. What a beautiful sense of community that developed as people exited their cars to spectate the cleanup and connect with fellow travelers of the roads.
Another highlight of the drives for me was passing through dozens of small little towns, each with the same typical shops selling biscuits and vertical strips of bags of chips, colorful kultas, an array of produce, bangles and jahrus (grass brooms). Of course little towns abound in this huge country, but something felt special about the ones in the Uttarhakand mountains. Each was bustling with women, men and children of all ages, all exchanging smiles upon eye contact. I loved the colorful recycled plastic bags dangling in the stores’ entryways, strong sheets of unused plastic labels designed into a heavy-duty tote and delivering an equally strong message about putting waste to good use. In almost every town there was an assortment of hand-knitted sweaters for sale and a handful of women sitting together knitting. During one quick stop, 100 rupees bought me two balls of yarn, a set of needles and an awesome way to connect with local women. Each time we drove slowly past my fellow knitters, I held my new project up and we would share a fun chuckle of international knitting camaraderie.
DEV BHOOMI - LAND OF GODS, LAND OF BLESSINGS!
Never before has my forehead been so consistently red and yellow, the sign of blessing after blessing. Home to some of Hindu’s most holy sites, particularly the Chardham Yatra comprised of Gangotri, Yamunotri, Kedarnath and Badrinath, Uttarakhand is a major pilgrim destination, consistently welcoming a steady flow of Indian tourists, full of positive, spirited energy. Fortunately, October is the off-season but quite honestly, I can’t imagine there ever being a more beautiful time for visiting one story-rich temple after the next, each in magnificent settings.
I loved standing on the Lakshman Jhula bridge in Rishikesh, staring out to the river, mountains and countless temples, knowing thousands of meditation and yoga students were busy stretching their bodies and minds in this city’s multitude of ashrams.
We of course visited the renowned but now-defunct “Beatles’ Ashram,” where the band came to study Transcendental Meditation with Maharishi Mahesh Yogi and ending up writing 48 awesome songs. We had fun doing photo shoots in the newly (2012) graffiti’d meditation hall. Word has it the deserted ashram, covered in stellar spider webs, will soon be renovated by the government in a bid to promote ecotourism and will likely put yet another pilgrimage site on Uttarakhand’s tourist map.
The evening aarti (prayer service) on the Rishikesh riverbank was enchanting, unmistakable devotion emanating from the young boys’ closed eyes as they chanted. Though also full of tourists, in contrast to the magnificent nightly production of an aarti in Varanasi, this one felt down to earth and participatory. It was also nice to see some nearby walls devoted to publicizing Ganga clean-up efforts, highlighting global interfaith collaborations for this immense task.
Visiting Gangotri, one of the four sacred sites of the Chardam Yatra and launch point for the frequented 18km trek to Gomuk, the legendary glacier and source for the mighty Ganges, was a significant highlight for me. We had the opportunity to meet with the highest priests and to learn about the rich history of Gangotri as a pilgrimage site but most importantly we participated in an unforgettable puja (prayer ceremony) at the waters’ edge, immersing ourselves in and tasting the holy blue waters of the sacred Ganges. The sun’s warmth, the sound of the rushing waters, the scent of incense in the mountain air, the holy hum of chanted mantras and the countless rituals of sprinkling waters and little spoonfuls of other holy elements on our heads and in our palms was a dreamlike multi-sensory experience unlike any other, tears filling the eyes of nearly everyone in our group. Fascinated by the rituals and traditions, I am thoroughly intrigued to learn more about these beautiful symbolisms. Ganges water dropped in our hands, we were to slurp four times and toss the fifth behind us. Sometimes we were to put it on our head. So much to learn and understand, but even without that knowledge, the feeling of being at one of the holiest of holy places was astounding, dozens of visitors sanctifying simultaneously in such a picturesque setting.
GANGNANI HOT SPRING
As a hot spring enthusiast, you can imagine my excitement to experience Gangnani, soaking in the fresh hot waters while staring out at the brilliant blue sky and majestic mountains. Surreal. Though it might not have the religious significance of other Uttarakhand sites, for this tourist, these geothermal healing natural wonders feel plenty holy. The only one in our group to soak, I made my way to the Parashar temple just above, the only visitor at the time to the small cave like shrine where I received my beautiful blessings. I’ve since learned that there are many more hot springs in the vast nature playground of Uttarakhand and am already plotting my next trip to soak in them.
We visited several other holy sites, including Kashi Vishwaneth where women were celebrating Karva Chauth, a daylong festival where women fast and pray for the safety and long life of their husbands. They toted baskets covered with beautiful hand-crocheted covers and smiled radiantly as they saw us observing their practices. At Shiv Gufa, also referred to as Lord Shiva’s Cave, we once again marveled at the coupling of nature and religion as we climbed a thousand stone steps and shimmied our way through the stalagmites to see the natural rock formations shaped as Ganesh, Shiva and others, of course receiving yet another priestly blessing. Raditop, Kapnol Village, Lakamandal…the list could go on of the important and beautiful sites we visited. The list is even longer for the ones I hope to visit on my next dream trip through Uttarakhand.
FUTURE OF UTTARAKHAND TOURISM
Uttarhakand undoubtedly has what it takes to put itself on a tourist’s map. Home to some of the world’s holiest sites, the most exquisite mountain landscapes, immense nature playgrounds and warm, charismatic people, I am surprised (and somewhat relieved) that it isn’t yet teeming with more non-pilgrim tourists, beyond the typical yoga hotspots like Rishikesh.
I was quite thrilled to find Uttarakhand to be much cleaner than many other areas I’ve traveled in magnificent India, it’s villages and people unspoiled by imposing partying travelers and the reverence for its holy sites palpable. I personally consider Uttarakhand to be among the most magnificent places in the world and am ready to scream this from the hilltops, though only to the most spiritual, curious, respectful, nature loving, adventurous, eco-conscious, low-impact travelers.
A huge part of what makes Uttarakhand such a remarkable destination is how pure it feels, a distinctive sensation of holiness radiating through the striking valleys and at each official holy site, augmented further by the captivating smiles and kindness of its people.
How wonderful if the tourism industry could indeed flourish, enabling more of the world to be nourished by this tremendous goodness while also providing sources of income for local individuals and communities. How important however, for it to be done in a sustainable way, to preserve those amazing qualities and the pristine nature so worthy of showcasing.
Until my next visit, Namaste Uttarakhand.
A social worker…..working socially, around the globe.