Summer 2015: Tenterfield to Brisbane and a story within

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On my visit last summer to Australia, I was in Tenterfield, New South Wales. My dad was on his nth project and that was where he was located. I was lucky enough to be there as well as on his many other highway project sites over the years. Having caught him at the end of this project, I helped them pack five and a half months of their life there, into the boot of the white Holden Cruze hatchback.

We had cleared up the small kitchen of the 2-bedroom unit at Golfers Inn, which was their home these past months. For the most part the groceries were either going to go with us or were going to end up in the bin. Some we had left in the fridge as we didn’t want to waste them as well. I wisely pointed out to my Mom, “It won’t be us throwing them away.” Somehow that made it okay, at least in my mind.

My dad, doing a last minute check opened the fridge and found a one litre bottle of milk which was two-thirds empty. “Why is this here? Why aren’t we taking it?” Looking at me, he instructed, “Put this in the car.”

“There is no space.” Ma said, “The only way its going with us is if you drink it!”

Dad had an incredulous look on his face as he looked at me again and both of us burst out laughing. “This is indeed a rare occasion. Your Ma does have a sharp wit after all.”

Finally, it was decided that the milk will stay in the fridge as there was no space in the car or the stomach. We checked out of the motel and got into the car, starting our drive back to Brisbane, where my parents’ home was. It was a 300 km drive which would normally take two and a half hours but took us five. Why? Well, we took a break every 50 minutes or so. There were a couple of reasons for that. My Dad needed to have tea and chips, and there was no rush to get back home. After all, he was retired for the moment.

Our first stop was at a Bistro, by the name of Vincenzo, on the New England Highway at Thulimba. It served delicious Italian food and had a fantastic bakery. A Bistro on a highway has its own charm and it was very popular amongst the locals and tourists alike. I felt thrilled as well- a bit of home away from home – seeing as I now lived in Western Europe. As I got out of the car, I saw this blackboard saying “Taste the flavor of Sulawesi Toraja”. The excitement generated by those few words was palpable. After all, we used to live in Ujung Pandang in South Sulawesi, and stop at Toraja, a hill station, on our way to Malili – a little town where my dad was located on his stint in Indonesia back in 1982.

“Wow! Can you imagine? Who would have thought we would come across this in the deep interiors of Australia?” We were curious and excited, memories flooding back in a diluge.

It seemed like it was just yesterday that our family was at Toraja, taking a break overnight. We used to start from Ujung Pandang at 8am and arrive at the hotel there late in the evening. We stayed at these quaint wooden cottages with sweeping views of paddy fields. Our nostrils were tickled by the mélange of fragrances of cocoa and cloves. These were grown on the highlands around.

“Didn’t we have this drink over there – don’t remember its name – made of passionfruit?” I asked my Ma. “No, it wasn’t passionfruit but Manggis, a purple-coloured fruit which looked like a small eggplant.The drink was called Buah Manggis” I recall my dad having the drink with a shot of whiskey. After our dinner, we would go to our rooms. Each room had a bedside table with a Bible on it. I ended up finishing the Bible in the 4 stops that we made there on our way up and down to Malili. I used to fall asleep reading. My two sisters and I would be woken up at 5am so that we could reach by early evening.

As we sat drinking our Sulawesi Toraja coffee in Thulimba, Australia, all the memories came flooding back: the fresh taste of Buah Manggis, the fragrance of the cocoa and cloves, and the eagerness with which I read the Bible tucked in my bed in the middle of the night. I remembered waking up early in the morning reaching out and trying to grab the clouds, disappointed when they would melt in my palm and were not the pretty soft cotton wool I thought they would be. I could see my sisters and I bouncing around at the back of the jeep, singing and chatting away without a care in the world except for having the occasional: “Are we there yet?” – I was that little girl again on yet another road trip with my parents. My sisters were in their own little corners of the world. So,it was just the 3 of us this time – my parents and I and it was precious.

“Time to set off again.” My dad said as I snapped out of my little jog down memory lane. We got into our white Holden and started the next 50-minute drive to Warwick, our second stop for more tea and chips. Some things do change: the urgency of reaching the destination was no longer there.

 

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Indoctrination to Garlic

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I sat on the kitchen floor unpacking the last box of utensils. We had just moved back to Amsterdam, in 2013, after a 6 year work assignment in Dubai. The first thing that came out of the box was this little terracotta roasting dish for garlic. I sat staring at it for a while. It’s amazing how some things have such strong and significant memories attached to them.

It had been a gift at one of our first housewarming parties in Amsterdam in 1999.

“What is this for?” I had asked our guest who gave it to me. She was a stunning Indian lady who, I discovered eventually, shared my passion for food and travel, and was to become one of my closest friends in the Netherlands.

“Well, you roast garlic in it.”

Why would someone want to do that? I thought to myself, mystified. She read my thoughts as if I had spoken out loud – must have been the quizzical expression.

“Garlic has a delightful, creamy and sweet taste after you roast it.”

“Really?” said my doubtful, skeptical self, not too convinced.

My only association with garlic, up to that point, was that of the Indian garlic – small miniscule cloves, quite sharp to the taste. Neither peeling them was appealing nor the taste. Peeling them would leave a nasty pungent smell on my fingers. Many intensely skin eroding vigorous washes later, the smell would continue to tingle my nostrils if I made the mistake of sniffing my fingers. I did not enjoy the lingering taste and the associated garlic breath either. So, yes, it was, definitely, not my favorite seasoning.

I voiced my concerns about my garlic experience thus far to her.

“Try it,” She said with a convincing smile, “you might change your mind.”

I caught my husband’s eye. I could see, he was willing me to say thank you with a firm no nonsense get on with it look.

“Thank you! I will definitely use it.” I said graciously much to my husband’s relief. He told me later, he thought I was going to go on and on about garlic and my obvious dislike. “One is supposed to receive a gift with delight, open it, say thank you, equally delighted, whatever the content – not discuss the whys and wherefores!” he chastised me affectionately. He couldn’t wait to try it and I had visions of garlic cloves in whatever he cooked. You see, he loves garlic, always has and always will. You would see whole garlic cloves floating around in quite a few curries that he made. I would then proceed to diligently pick them out of the curry and he would not be too amused.

Looking at the garlic roaster lying in the palm of my hands now, I remembered, I did roast. I did discover that it was indeed creamy and sweet, especially roasted in its skin. It was the European garlic produced mainly in France and Italy – each clove much larger and less pungent. For me the roasting dish was the turning point in my relationship with garlic – a definite love affair. It slowly but surely crept into my cooking to stay. I use it on a daily basis happily peeling and chopping it or leaving it whole in a number of dishes that I cook. I cannot imagine living without it.

The following is a version of a classic French dish and is filled with garlicky goodness. I must confess that the first time I cooked it, I had been conservative with the number of garlic cloves I used – I had used only 20. Eventually though I did muster the courage to use all 40 and was delighted with the results.

 

Chicken with 40 cloves of garlic

Ingredients

Regular olive oil

Salt and freshly ground Pepper

Juice of 1 lemon

8 chicken thighs (with skin on and bone in)

2 Bay Leaves

8 sprigs fresh thyme

40 cloves garlic (approximately 3 to 4 heads), unpeeled

a glass of dry white wine

 

Preheat the oven to 180C/350F

Rub the chicken with salt, freshly ground pepper and lemon juice.

Heat olive oil in a shallow oven proof pan over the stove. Sear the chicken on both sides.

Remove chicken from the pan onto a bowl along with the juices.

Add a bit of oil to the pan and then add the bay leaves, sprigs of thyme and 20 cloves of garlic and quickly stir fry for a couple of minutes.

Add the chicken back into the pan. Season with more salt and pepper if desired.

Put it in the oven for 30 minutes.

Take the pan out, turn over the chicken pieces, baste with olive oil, add the remaining 20 cloves of garlic and the glass of dry white wine. Cover and cook for about an hour.

Variation: You could add root vegetables to the pan or add just potatoes.

Squish out the roasted garlic from its skin and have it or just eat the garlic clove whole. Spread it over toasted bread. Enjoy!

Hope and Despair

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Stifling her whimper once again

She sat across from him, passive

Eyes blank, emotions dead

Tears welling up

And yet, refusing to show

Would it matter

If it flowed in an uncontrollable torrent

Would it bring back what was lost

Wasn’t it better to mourn the death of what was

Instead of hope of what could be

 

Her expression etched in stone, puzzled him

Not all is lost, he wanted to scream

Yet no voice was heard

It will be allright, he wanted to comfort her

Yet he sat motionless, submissive

Would it matter

If he took her in his arms, held her close

Would it bring back what was lost

Wasn’t it better to accept t’was the beginning of the end

Instead of hope of what could be

 

Both now, sat side by side

Like they had stood side by side

All those years ago

Eyes glazed now

Memories, beautiful memories

That tied them together in a knot

Fragile yet strong

Would it matter

If they picked up the pieces, glued them back

Would it bring back what was lost

Or would the fine cracks show of the once beautiful mirror

A thought passed, “Wasn’t it better to hope of what could be

Than to despair that one never tried…..”

Importance of an Egg

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This was written a few months ago. I think it is a good time to publish it as we embark upon another chapter in our lives. Anahita is going to Grade 9 and Rishaan to Grade 3. Our business is in its third year and shaping up and turning into a promising venture. Last couple of years have been quite a roller coaster ride – one of those triple loop ones, no less. We have enjoyed and survived the ride pretty much like the eggs in this story.

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Never quite realized that eggs meant so much to me till I found my daughter was cycling away with a whole pack for her school project.

“What and why on earth are you taking the whole box?” I screamed after her disappearing back. “You said you only needed 5, not a dozen!”

“Technically, Ma, it’s not a dozen. It’s only 10 eggs.” I heard her shout back. Before I could come up with another word, I saw her, her bike and the eggs that I had just bought yesterday become a distant speck.

To give her some credit, she had mentioned the week before that she required 5 eggs for her school science project. I had asked her if she could take anything else to which she had replied no. Everybody was already getting everything else that was required. They needed a 1.5L plastic bottle, garbage bags, cardboard, rope and eggs. She had volunteered to take eggs. They were supposed to design a rocket that would protect the egg and make sure that it went as high as possible, stayed in the air as long as possible. You had to protect the egg in the rocket and the eggs should not break to make it a successful project.

In principle I did not agree to this project – not that my opinion mattered in the grand scheme of things. Hers mattered- she was 13 after all. The school’s mattered – they knew what they were talking about, right? But mine? Nope. I was just the mom. I had talked myself into saying, “Fine. You can have the 5.” It was just 5. What was all the fuss about?

I had just bought the eggs yesterday, standing literally stressed out at the check out till, wondering whether the cost of the groceries would match the amount of cash in my wallet. We had started our own management consulting business a couple of years back. Till that point money was something we took for granted. As employees, there it would sit pretty in our bank account every month. Not a care in the world. Never would I count eggs or hyperventilate if some broke or were going to be shot up in the air in a model rocket launcher and then be parachuted down for a school project guaranteeing their demise.

Circumstances were different now as we faced some tough times and challenges. Things were starting to look up but it would still take a while. In the meantime, we were still counting pennies, so I could see two days worth of breakfast disappearing.

I couldn’t stop myself from thinking about the virtues of an egg. So nutritious. So versatile. There are so many ways to cook it for breakfast – boil, scramble, a variety of different omelettes, French toast, Sunny side up, fried, poached and the list goes on. It could be used in cakes, pancakes, doughs….yes, so much can be done with eggs. I was starting to get quite emotional about the darn thing – felt an insane attachment to the particular box of 10. I stood there at the door, rooted unable to move, willing something to happen for her to come back and say it was a joke or maybe a postman to come and say we had won the lottery or perhaps someone would tell me that they would go to the grocery store for me.

Realizing that I was going unnecessarily mental, I managed to tear myself away from the door and close it and set about bringing some normalcy to the day.

Eventually sometime late in the afternoon, I heard the key turn in the front door and my daughter walked in calling out, “Ma, you there? “

“ Yes. I am up in the study. How was your experiment?”, I asked, curious, as I slowly made my way down the stairs determined not to fuss anymore.

“Well, it was very good actually. We won!”

“Really? That’s super!” I felt so proud.

I came into the kitchen and saw the carton of eggs lying there innocently on the kitchen counter and her standing next to it.

“ Go on open it ”, she said teasingly.

I did as she bid and saw 7 of the 10 eggs that had left this morning sitting there staring me up in the face, almost mocking me. My lips curved into a smile as I turned around to see my daughter looking at me, “See you didn’t believe, did you, that you will get any back? I had taken an extra set to make sure that I had enough that’s all. We only broke one. One we gave to another group and the last was stuck in the rocket.”

“Well, Congratulations! So now what should we do with the ones that survived.” I said knowing her answer to that question.

“Bake a cake?” she asked hopefully.

“Sure, let’s bake a chocolate cake”, I said and got the most beautiful smile and the most delightful big hug.

Dear Red Muffler – A poem

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Of Dads and daughters

Recently my teen age daughter and her father went to the same supermarket at the same time. She took her bike. He took his car. He couldn’t understand why she couldn’t just go with him. The frustration!

On a recent trip to my parents, seeing a certain item opened a floodgate of actions of a similar nature when I was a teen and the following poem is a reflection of those years – carefree years as I now know them to be.

 

Dear Red Muffler

Worn yet new,

Around my Daddy’s neck

Snug and true,

 

Fond memories of

Yester years,

Of days that

Were filled with fears

 

Walking to the bus stop

Every day with you,

With the muffler

And the monkey cap too,

Asking you to stop

Halfway there,

Didn’t want anyone

To stop and stare

 

What if someone saw you

In that attire?

How could you allow

An event so dire?

Didn’t then want you to walk by my side,

To avoid remarks

That could be snide

 

Years have rolled by now Daddy dear

Am not so shy and have no such fear

I wonder why

And I wonder how

The days gone by

Seem so ridiculous now

 

Would give anything

To be that little girl somehow

To walk by your side

And not stop you, no …

 

Knowing too well

That is not to be

Do let me have the muffler please,

Will keep me warm and make me feel free

To be that little girl once again …..

 

A Road Trip – when the water rushed in

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The thought of Road trips has always brought an adrenalin rush and heart thumping excitement. It is something ingrained in me. I feel like doing one every year. There’s a certain element of adventure in the uncertainty of the journey however planned it might be, especially, in those days.

Growing up in the 70s and 80s, there were no mobiles and internet – your saviors in case of trouble. In our case there was the added factor of no highways. If you came up against these odds it was just you, your fate and your presence of mind. You see, it was my Dad’s highway projects that would be our holiday destination. Not that I am complaining about that. Thanks to his projects, we have been to some fun corners of this delightful planet and been part of some adventures that we wouldn’t have been able to experience otherwise. I would always say it’s like the Star Trek adventures, “…where no man has gone before…”

There is this one particular adventure that sticks to my mind like glue whenever I think of the many that we took to wherever he was located.

We were living in Ujung Pandang, South Sulawesi in Indonesia. My Dad was working on a highway project along the coast in West Sulawesi. The base camp where we were going to was located at the time approximately 600 kms up north from Ujung Pandang – a city closest to his base camp where the family lived for practical reasons like schools and hospitals. He would travel down twice a month except during the holidays. It used to take the better part of a whole day to reach the camp, which was in a village called Tapalang.

We loaded our jeep early that particular morning with the luggage tied up at the top. My sisters A and M, aged 2 and 6 at the time, along with our help, Cece and I would sit at the back with our bags and some snacks to munch along the way. My Mom and Dad would sit in the front with our driver, Bakhtiar. Cece was a petite native woman who spoke no English. Thanks to her we learned to speak Bahasa quickly. Bakhtiar was a smart guy who learned to speak English really quick as my Dad refused to learn the language.

On the way we took two pit stops at these quaint towns, Majene and Pare Pare, located on the coast. I used to look forward to the deep fried Red Snapper and steamed rice, that used to be served only with ketchup or a fiery hot shrimp paste, on this old boat anchored at Pare Pare. I still think it’s the tastiest I have ever had. Could it have been the hunger and the smell of the sea? Whatever it was, it still brings back fond memories.

After our delicious and fulfilling lunch we set off on our way to Tapalang. All going well we would reach at sunset. My mother would always buy chicken, vegetables, and eggs, the tiniest I had ever seen, from this lone vendor on the road as we neared the base camp and that’s what we would normally have for dinner. As it would happen, not on this particular trip.

There was a proper highway only till Pare Pare . After that we would hit dirt road and little streams with no bridges and you could hardly see anyone. On the right there was dense forest and on the left sea following us far into the horizon.

Everything was going well. We were right on time. There was a river we had to cross before the last stretch to Tapalang, the River Malunda. We had to cross it right near the opening to the sea. We had done so before with no incident. It was shallow enough. There was still time before high tide. My Dad had done so a number of times before. The jeep had only gotten stuck once and Bakhtiar had carried him across the river on his shoulders, since someone hadn’t wanted to get his trousers wet.

We drove through the river making our way carefully and slowly across the shallow part. My 2 year old sister squealed with laughter as she bounced from side to side, “So fun!” My Mom looked at my Dad anxiously, “ Really, I wish you would get on and get this bridge done quickly. It makes me nervous every time we have to cross this thing.” My Dad ever so confident replied, “ We do this all the time. It will be fine…” His voice trailed off as we heard a crunch, grind, thump and the jeep tilted sideways on its right. Our heads thudded against the side of the jeep and A and Cece fell on top of M and I. M squealed in excitement, “Are we going to die?” I could feel a little bump rising on the back of my head painfully. My Mom, her slightly raised voice trying to sound soothing, replied, “No one is going to die. We will be fine.”

The rear right tyre was stuck. The more Bakhtiar tried to accelerate the worse it would get digging the jeep deeper. 5 women having panic attacks made matters worse as the 2 men tried to figure it out. We couldn’t open the doors due to the precarious position of the jeep. On the one side, it wouldn’t because of the riverbed and on the other side as it was too heavy and any movement would tilt it further. There was always the odd chance we would drift towards the sea. As the sun set and the minutes ticked away, the sea started looking very dark and intimidating, ready to consume us.

“I am sure one of the construction workers will spot us,” My Dad said trying to reassure us. You could see the construction site with all the building material including the tractors, cranes and bulldozers lined along the river bank.

Water had started filling the jeep now. Making its way slowly up our legs and torso. “Hold your head up as much as possible,” my Mom instructed, her voice giving way to anxiety. At this point we had to really try to keep our weight to the left of the jeep to prevent it from completely toppling over.

We were starting to shiver from the cold, when we heard Bakhtiar scream, “Sir, Sir! I can see someone.” He waved frantically.

Finally we could see one of the tractors move making its way slowly through the river. 2 men climbed out, tied a thick rope to the jeep while a few other men pushed the jeep to make it upright and keep it that way as the tractor tediously pulled us out of the water.

All kinds of thoughts had flashed through my 10 year old head at the time. Drowning was one of them. Wondering why we had to come to such a place for our holidays and not go to Bali was another one

We finally reached the camp in Tapalang. It was pitch dark. They had already lit the lanterns for us as there was no electricity. We lived in a wooden cottage by the sea. That night, as I went to sleep, I kept thinking about my Dad making these journeys all by himself twice a month. That’s when my nightmares started…..

 

 

Destiny

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Destiny

Tears sting

Sliding down her cheeks

An acidic rain

A downpour washing her skin

Peeling each layer

Till her bones lay bear

Gnawed and devoid of emotions

 

Pain

Excruciating.

Relentless torturous pain

Intolerable pain.

Shudders through her body

In an insane, inane, immaculate way

 

She asks Misery

Why?

No answer.

 

Emotions raped and bare

Hope turned to despair

The journey transitions

Painfully uplifting

 

Mind is a pendulum

Not daring to stop

Why? She asks

The place it stops

Might not be the place you want to be

Is the reply

 

Strange is the way, she ponders, pensive

Where I want to go, I can’t

Where I am, I don’t want to be

Where I was, a thing of the past

With the future misting up the eyes

She asks ,”Is my Destiny a Travesty?”

 

No, it isn’t.

A journey it is

No more, no less

You are where you are supposed to be

Acceptance will free your soul

Release the agony, the pain

 

A silent scream

A crescendo starts at her core

Finally finding release,

A muffle turns into a quake

Reverberating through her body

 

Tried hard,

Yes, she has.

Sewing together memories

Of a time gone by

Or was it an Era?

Pictures, letters

Not enough

Can hold what’s inside the mind

 

Silence

Eerie silence…

 

Tears now dry

Skin barren, parched

Cracked

Kohl tracing a line

Marking her face forever

She accepts her destiny.

Culinary Comfort

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I sat completely astounded as I saw my dear friend ask for Soy sauce and proceed to flavor her plate of Biryani with it. My instinct was to stop her and I believe the feeling resonated around the dining table with all our fellow Indians staring at her systematically smother India’s pride and joy with dashes of Soy sauce!!!

“It needs more salt!!” She said defending herself from the stares and glares. My girlfriend Y was Japanese and had been living in the Netherlands for many many many years. She was married to an Indian man and they have a young son Z, who also preferred to top his Biryani with the aforementioned sauce to the sheer amazement of his Dad, who had cooked the Biryani with great love.

“Why can’t you just ask for some salt instead of the Soy!” He asked throwing his hands up in the air in frustration.

“Because I want Soy sauce.” It was as simple as that.

They continue to live together in frustrated harmony.

*******

A few weeks later saw a similar treatment being meted out to a plate of delicious Mexican food cooked by an Indian friend of mine. Her Dutch partner piled up his plate high with enchiladas, rice, beans and then it was topped off with great relish with almost a tub of Calvé mayonnaise. He then dug into his plate in excited anticipation of each glorious mouthful, which he proceeded to consume with pure child like delight.

She looked on, “I wonder why I bother cooking! I should just boil everything and you can put the damn Mayo on it!”

He chomped on.

My thought was ‘this relationship won’t last long’. It had been only a couple of months anyway that they had been dating. If he didn’t start showing respect for her efforts and being heard on top of it, this wasn’t going anywhere.

They have since separated.

*******

I was on both occasions, of course, astounded as well as fascinated. Being a purist when it came to different cuisines, I prefer to maintain its authenticity. Why don’t people just stick to their own cuisine if they want to ultimately strip the plate in front of them of its identity? Is it because they want to try something new and yet remain in their comfort zone?

I have struggled for years at our own home where if I tried anything new, as in different from Indian food, my husband would salt and pepper everything and eat it with pickles and chilies if he found it necessary. Moving to Europe from India meant whatever he ate was bland, not spicy enough. Though I must say, he is happy to try out anything new, never hesitates in that respect but at home it was different. He had all the ingredients at hand to change the flavours and make it his own.

So what is it that makes us do this? Our thirst for new experiences and cultures takes us away from home. We travel to new destinations, trying out everything that is appetizing to the mind, body and soul. After a few days of that we are back home seeking the familiar, the comfort of predictability. In our case looking forward to the Dal and Chawal, translated literally it is lentil soup and steamed rice, the comfort food of Indians. There are as many recipes as there are types of lentils.

As expats living in different countries, we look for grocers and shops where they keep ingredients and produce that we have grown up with. Looking and looking at every nook and corner street, seeking that little feeling of home abroad through familiar food till we succeed and breathe a sigh of relief.

In 1997, when we first moved to Amsterdam there was just the one Indian grocer and Indian spices were not easily found in supermarkets. I feel that due to that we took in and started trying out cooking more and more different European cuisine. We went all out and bought French, Italian, Spanish, British cook books. Every weekend we went shopping, picking out different recipes that we wanted to try out and made an evening out of cooking and dining in anticipation. Of course, once in awhile there would be a twist in the tale and a smattering of some spice that was not really in the recipe.

Nowadays, with at least 5 different stores in our neighbourhood keeping the full range of not only spices, but vegetables and a whole range of ready-to-eat food, and the local supermarkets also catering to the ever expanding Indian population, our choice is endless. The result is that we eat Indian food more often and yet when we cook any other cuisine we stick to the recipe and do not dilute it. Is it because we know that we can have our comfort food when we want to and don’t need to add our own twist to every dish we make? I don’t know. All I know is that we do seek comfort in food.

 

 

An Ode to Existence

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Hues of green

Soothing, pacifying, tranquil, serene

Tantalizing, tingling my soul

Soft and gentle to the core

 

Have walked

Fine warm desert sand

Have been awestruck

And has been grand

 

But with every step

Have longed

Your vibrance

Your soft embrace

The lucidity

The freshness

Your grace

 

Unlike the footsteps

In the desert sand

Where footprints were made

Imprints were seen

And yet a gentle breeze

Blew them away

 

Your kindness, generosity

Cushion my every step

Faltering, stumbling

Yet gaining confidence

Knowing that you spring back

As I do

I believe

 

Determined I walk

Heart heavy, heart calm

Body exhausted, body exuberant

A dream in my soul

You comfort

Never give up

Stimulating, cajoling

Showing me a way

Mind free yet numb,

Hopes it is the way.

 

The Jungle Safar

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The Jeep ride turned into a relentless bump and grind as it hit the riverbed and we were thrown against each other, our elbows jostling, ribs crunching against the side of the vehicle, well rounded cushiony bottoms starting to feel the numbness spread from the constant pounding against the once plush seats that were now worn out and tired. We could feel the metal rods poking and prodding our whole being. We had asked the driver to roll up the canopy since we wanted to breathe in the fresh jungle air. Needless, to say, it had added to our thrill. The warm sun and the chilly breeze played havoc on us. Giggling, laughing like giddy teenagers we surged forward in the jeep in anticipation of our destination, excited, but at the same time apprehensive.

I watched the other 2 jeeps with my kids, few of my friends and luggage disappear further ahead as I asked our driver to stop so that I could take pictures. The jeep came to a jolting halt as the wheels crunched and tilted slightly sideways on the particular stream that we were crossing at that point. There was some nervous laughter as I told my fellow passengers that jeeps have been known to get stuck …” Ha ha, well, it better not.” Said one of my friends.

Our laughter echoed through the rugged terrain of the jungle as we continued, and yes, the wheels did not get stuck to the relief of all. We approached the lodge having driven through the riverbed, which was essentially dry except for a few intrepid streams, which had managed to survive. There were dead trees that I knew would look eerie at nightfall along with bushes and gently rising hills. As I voiced my thoughts, someone piped up that it would be a great place to hold séance later that night. Ah, yes! Why not? Of course, more hysterical, nervous laughter followed. Our driver showed us elephant trails and I am sure, I thought I saw leopard paw prints. Very comforting.

That morning, we had taken the Delhi-Haridwar Shatabdi at 6:45 from New Delhi railway station. After a 4 hour train ride, we had reached Haridwar, where 3 jeeps – a green Maruti Gypsy and 2 white Tata Sumos (India’s national pride and joy) – picked 19 of us and our collection of small to large size luggages. A 45 min bumpy ride in the jeep later, we reached our destination at the foothills of the Shivalik ranges of the Himalayas.

My husband had not been able to accompany us on the trip, so it was my 2 kids and I along with 16 other people, comprising 5 of my high school friends and their families. We were headed to an Eco lodge – an accommodation that was built to cause the least impact on the natural surroundings – called Wild Brook Retreat at the periphery of Rajaji National Park in Uttarakhand, one of the states in the Northern part of India. The park is spread over Dehradun, Haridwar and Pauri Garhwal, 3 of the districts of the state with the River Ganges flowing through the heart of the districts. It is home to elephants, tigers, leopards, Samba deer amongst other animals and about 315 species of birds. We were very eager and looking forward to seeing them all.

It was the first time that I had voluntarily agreed to go to an Eco lodge retreat and that too in India. The drive down the barren, almost dry riverbed reminded me of the other such drives that I had been privy to, through similar surroundings thanks to my Dad, who is a Civil engineer specializing in highways, which meant that we went where no man has gone before, and used to spend holidays at the camp sites of the projects he was working on in different parts of Asia, for example in Bangladesh or Indonesia, but that was a long time ago and life and expectations of kids were different.

The biggest concern had been Wi-fi as we had been packing our bags and discussing our trip to India. For my Dutch born kids trips to India were a novelty and this one was specially exciting as they hadn’t been in 3 years and memories were faint. So when told that they would have no network for 4 days…

“What? 4 days and no Wi-fi? What are we going to do?” My 13 year old What’s app fanatic daughter had gasped.

The 7 year old son echoed right after her. “What? Means no Ipad?”

“Will there be any power points to at least charge my Kindle and Ipod?” was the next level of concern.

“What about my DS?” continued my little tyke.

I looked them straight in the eye and said, “This is exactly why 4 days without any connectivity is good. Explore nature, play with the other kids, read, take photos. There’s lots you can do if you think about it.”

Both had looked at me with the expression that said, “ Mom has finally lost her mind.”

All that had changed since we had boarded the train and they had met the other kids going on the trip with us. My 7 year old had made friends with the kids and was discussing and analyzing Lego Ninjago vs Lego Lord of the Rings, while my teenage daughter quietly observed everyone as she was not only at “that age” but there was no other teen in the group. So, she observed and was making good use of her Kindle with all the new books that her Dad had bought for her just in case she got bored.

As we had chugged along in the train early that cold December morning at 6:45am thoroughly relieved that the train was on time and the infamous Delhi fog hadn’t delayed it, the kids were thrilled to the core when we were served Frosties with warm, bordering on hot milk followed by an omelet. It was familiar to them, they were hungry and ate it all. I chose to take the Indian alternative Kulcha chana ( sour bread with chick pea curry), which I found more desirable. The breakfast accompanied by a flask of tea gave me a warm and positive feel about the entire trip. A good start indeed as I hadn’t travelled by train in India in 10 years and really wanted the kids to have a positive experience and want to come back to explore India.

Well to continue the story, back to the arrival at the retreat, as I got out of my jeep, my kids came running towards me. They had already arrived at the lodge sometime back and were waiting for me impatiently.

“We are at the far end cottage!!”, they screamed.

“That’s fine….,” I said keeping the slight concern out of my voice.

The concern stemmed from the fact that I had heard that this part of the forest had a substantial number of leopards. I must tell you, I am not the bravest soul….I went had a look. It was a quaint little stone cottage with a tinned roof. There were 2 neatly made beds and a little chair and a table. Another bed would be added for us later. There was an attached bathroom. Everything was quaint, neat and clean. Sigris to warm the room and hot water bottles to keep the beds warm would be brought later in the night.

The cottage was at the edge of a little cliff and had a great view of the riverbed. There was a small patio in front. Definitely, a place to sit, enjoy the surroundings, reflect on life and possibly do some writing. It looked picture-perfect and so when asked by my friend, the organiser, if it was ok or would I like to switch to one of the more central cottages, I said,” It is absolutely fine!” with a smile. There were 2 units to each cottage and there were just the 3, set slightly apart from each other. So I thought it would be fine. My kids and I got the luggage in and we unpacked and settled in happily locking the door as we went out. We were told that it was safer that way and I agreed – you never know who or what might walk in! With that comforting thought, we went about exploring our little part of the forest.

The children went off for a walk along the riverbed and played football, while I settled down reminiscing good old school days with my friends on the patio of the cottages, under the comforting warmth of the last rays of the afternoon sun. It was end of December and it can get cold in these parts so we asked the 2 cooks whose services were dedicated to us, to keep a steady flow of chai coming. It was so relaxing, just lounging there, away from the hustle bustle of city life.

Come evening a bonfire was lit and we sat around continuing to exchange stories. Freshly made vegetarian food was served up for dinner. I looked at my kids and saw that they were enjoying the overall experience. Not once had they mentioned Wi-fi and had asked for their Ipads or any other electronic gadgets, instead they sat there chatting and enjoying the company of the other kids, even my daughter had found something in common – pop music.

Later that night, I was a bit apprehensive, though, as we walked to our little cottage in the darkness with a torch in our hands. The trees looked a bit sinister by then – Thank God! there had been no further mention of a séance. I had not seen any form of fencing to protect from the wilderness either. I had to stop my slight onset of panic. I told myself that it’s all good and nothing was going to happen, no animal or a ghost of one was going to attack us. You get the drift of my thoughts. Quickly locking the door behind us, we settled into our beds.

At around 4 or was it 5am, I woke up with a fright. I heard, what felt like an earthquake on my roof and a lot of scurrying and jumping. Flashing the torch on the ceiling I realized that it was a tin roof, and I was very sure there were some sort of large, very large cats jumping on it and was terrified that they would crash through and fall on me! Hoping that they would just go away, I snuggled with my children who slept away peacefully, oblivious to the ruckus. Eventually to my great relief the commotion stopped and I dozed off wondering and hoping they were not leopards or tigers that had come for a visit. As I found out next morning they were Civet cats, harmless apparently…