Monday, January 21, 2013

Holidaying on the Wild Side

A few months ago, we found a long weekend looming large with no travel plans or plans of any other kind. Given that it was just around the corner, we were are at a loss to come up with something interesting that did not require advance planning or flight and hotel reservations. This had been the case for most of the long weekends that had flown by in the last few years and we decided that it was time we got more proactive about planning our mini-breaks. We opened the kids school almanacs and pinpointed the ideal dates, chose travel destinations, made all the necessary bookings and felt mighty pleased with ourselves.

The other factor we wanted to keep in mind was the nature of these holidays. Most of the holidays we have taken in the recent past have either been abroad or cookie-cutter trips like to a beach resort in Goa. We wanted to do something a little different, something that allowed us to give the children new experiences and given that we were looking at breaks of 3-5 days each, they had to be in India.

The Pongal weekend saw us embarking on the first of these planned trips of ours. The destination of choice was Wildnernest, an eco-tourism destination. Reaching their was less than fun - it was a long, winding two-hour drive from the Goa airport, followed by a bone-rattling 10-minute jeep drive off the highway and into the residential part of the property.

It was evening when we got there and we were first taken to our cottage. It was lovely. The cottages are spread out across the property so it almost feels like you are in the woods by yourself. The rooms (we took a 2-room cottage) have large glass windows and when you keep the blinds up, you just have a suffusion of light and greenery. Though fairly rustic and spartan, the rooms were well-appointed, clean and functional - most importantly, a clean toilet with running hot water. This was the view from our deck, just as the sun had set.

After settling in to our digs, we were taken for a brief tour of the property and then we headed to the restaurant where they were airing a wildlife film about the tigers of Bandhavgarh, which Ayaan was entranced by. Dinner followed soon after and it was fantastic. It was a simple buffet comprised of fresh, local ingredients cooked home style but it was some of the best food I have eaten in a while.

The next day, we were went on a boat cruise with these guys in the Goan backwaters. The crew was reasonably knowledgable about the avian life in the area and we managed to see quite a few birds with our binoculars.

The boat ride was quite a novel experience for Tarana who wanted to know why there was soap coming out of the boat (thus revealing herself to be a full-on city kid). She was also  especially taken with the binoculars and spent much of the boat ride in this position:

We also got to see two ends of the technology spectrum in riverine commerce. At one end, we saw these huge coal barges being unloaded with a mechanised life. Just a few metres away, we sailed past teams of boats hard at work at the incredibly labour intensive business of dredging mud from the bottom of the river. Ayaan was equally fascinated by both.

We docked and were driven to the spice plantation in a pick-up. This was one of my cribs with the cruise. There was a typically Indian approach to travel safety - there were no life jackets on the boat and the road travel was all in jeeps and pick-ups. The kids thought it was all wildly adventurous though and expecting western standards of safety precautions would just limit us in our exploration of our own country. So, we followed the age-old advice, kept calm and carried on.

The spice plantation was fun. We went for a guided stroll around the verdant woods and were introduced to a variety of spices in their natural form including cinnamon, vanilla, cardamom, allspice, ginger, and a whole host of other stuff. Ayaan was quite engaged but Tarana wasn't too interested in a botany lesson and generally spent her time trampling around, splashing in puddles and trying her luck at convincing us to carry her.

The guided tour was followed by lunch which was a huge spread of delicacies from the Saraswat cuisine. Organic ingredients, fresh seafood and faultless preparation - it all added up to a fantastic meal and despite my resolution to eat light (given the impending return by boat), I stuffed myself to the gills.

The heavy lunch, combined with the harsh afternoon sun, made return journey far less fun. And we were all feeling something like this halfway through:

The clever crew, probably having dealt with this in the past, had kept the best for the last though - the crocodile sightings! Energy levels immediately spiked when the first croc was spotted. It was amazing that the crew was able to see them at all, given how they seemed to blend into the twigs and rocks in their surroundings but I guess these guys have years of experience. Even after they pointed out the crocodile to us, it took us a few minutes to spot it.

Once we got back, the kids were keen to explore the swimming pool. The water was freezing cold though so they spent most of their time dipping their toes in and generally fooling around at the pool side. It was a great place to unwind after a long, tiring day and the pool itself was a gorgeous infinity pool, with a small waterfall at one end and surrounded by trees and greenery on all sides.

The next day, we signed up for the waterfall trek. This was somewhat brave of us since we had been told that it was a 45-minute trek either way over hilly, rocky terrain. I was worried that both the children would have trouble going the distance. As it turned out, I needn't have worried about Ayaan, who turned out to be quite the champion trekker and managed to keep pace with the leader throughout the trek, while we lagged behind the group with Tarana. It was expectedly a bit too much for Tarana and she spent at least half the trek in my arms or on Jai's shoulders.

The waterfall itself was more of a trickle but it was novelty enough for my city-bred kids who were thrilled to bits. There was also a coracle at the bank and we all took turns boating to the waterfall and back. The kids 'helped'.

Not ones to let one trek with a reluctant toddler in tow discourage us, we signed up for another, albeit easier, trek in the evening. After an afternoon nap (Jai and Tarana) and some more poolside chilling (Ayaan and myself), we set out for a short trek up a hill to watch the sunset. Tarana was on Jai's shoulders most of the way, but Ayaan did the brief hike effortlessly. The spot they had picked was lovely and allowed us a bird's eye view of the property, one of its unique features being that it spans three states - Goa, Karnataka and Maharashtra.

As we spent our last evening there, my body reminded me just how unfit I am. I might have lost all the pregnancy weight thanks to the extended maid-less stint I suffered, but my stamina and fitness levels are pretty much at rock bottom. Tarana was carried most of the way so she was unaffected and Jai has been gymming regularly. But even on Ayaan, the only notable effect was a longer and deeper sleep that night. I, on the other hand, had achy thighs for days after. It really brought home to me the need for me to sign up for an organised fitness regimen of some sort.

The next day, it was time to bid goodbye to Wildernest. We said goodbye to the folks we had befriended there. It's amazing how much more you end up interacting with fellow travelers when you don't have television or internet connectivity. Of course, there were some ugly Indian types who blasted their stereo at the poolside and threw one of my kids' toys over the edge of the pool (and did not even bother to apologise - and these were adults). But by and large, our fellow guests were an interesting lot. We even ran into and send some fun hours with the homeopathy doctor we had consulted with back in Mumbai!

Overall, it was a fantastic break and I hope to do this sort of thing much more often. Some time away from this over-connected, over-stimulating city life of ours is just what the doctor ordered.  

Wednesday, January 09, 2013

In Memoriam: Buddy

Yesterday was not a good day. We got news that Buddy passed away. He had been successfully recovering from a virulent urinary tract infection that had plagued him for the last month or so, but yesterday, his heart suddenly gave way and he collapsed. (For those of you who haven't been reading this blog for a long time, Buddy and Beanz were two miniature dachshunds who came to us a couple of years before Ayaan was born. They later went to live with my mother.)

My first memory of Buddy is from when I went to pick him up from the breeder's place in Ajmer. I was just sitting down when a red-haired bundle of energy came charging into the room, bounded up to me and put his front paws up on my thigh. He tried to clamber on but his diminutive stature failed him and he was soon stranded mid-air - his front paws still on my leg, his back paws hanging. That was Buddy in a nutshell. If there was food or affection to be had, he'd rush in regardless of whether his innate abilities would support him in the situation.

He was a beautiful dog. He had a gorgeous reddish-brown coat that looked especially stunning when he was soaking up the sun, which happened to be one of his favourite pastimes. Even my vet in Mumbai never failed to mention his lovely colour. As he grew older, his appetite, combined with his ability to stare down the most hardened soul into feeding him some scraps, ensured that he lost the lean look he has in this early picture but his roly-poly avatar only served to make him more adorable than before.

Both he and Beanz were quick to settle down in my mother's house in Jaipur but Buddy is the one who really came into his element. Living up to his name, he charmed and befriended everyone who came his way - the maids, the gardener, the driver - they all fell prey to his charm and put aside at least some time to give him the loving pats he craved. My mother tells me the current gardener would first spend some quality time petting him every morning before he got on with his duties for the day.

He was a beggar by heart. It was unthinkable that any human being in the house should get to eat anything without sharing at least part of the bounty with him. He would stare, whine and even bark to get their attention. His favourite human foods were makhana and papad, though he was game for pretty much anything that came out of a human's plate - his own food, not so much. Here's a really old picture of Buddy and Beanz begging for food.

But for all his eagerness for food and love, he was an old lazy bones at heart. As I look through all the pictures I have of him, he is lying flat on a bed, sofa or mat in a majority of them. This one is pretty typical, not to mention cute.

Much before we got Angel, my kids got to practice on Buddy. Beanz is not the most child-friendly dog and he would snap at them if they got too near. But Buddy meekly tolerated their attentions, often with a pained expression on his face. We often joked that he bore a faintly traumatised look by the end of our visit. If you think I might be exaggerating, here's a picture of a long-suffering Buddy decked up by Ayaan using Tarana's bonnet and a few well-placed rose petals. 

He didn't have much of a thing for chew toys but he had this well-worn, much-loved sheet that he liked to play with. Every night, he would clamber on to the bed with it and expect a rambunctious game of tug of war. Ayaan was more than happy to oblige.

One of my big regrets is that I don't have many photographs of Tarana with Buddy. I did have a few pictures from my last couple of visits to Jaipur, along with an adorable video of the two of them playing, but I lost them all when I dropped my iPhone recently. All I can find is this disappointing picture from two years ago.

Buddy lived with us for just two short years and spend eight years, the vast majority of his life, with my mother. So obviously, she is far more upset that I am but I have walked around with a weight on my heart since I heard the news yesterday. My mother was in Hyderabad when it happened and she left last night to go back to Jaipur to complete his last rites, so I feel doubly bereft. Mostly, I dread the thought of going to Jaipur and walking into a Buddy-less house.

Goodbye, Buddy. You have, and will always have, a special place in my heart. You will be missed.

Friday, January 04, 2013

Tarana's Birthday Party

In the spirit of fairness and sibling equality, I am doing a catch-up post on Tarana's birthday party in 2012. (I wrote about Ayaan's birthday party here).

Tarana turned three in October and I was in two minds about having a birthday party, thinking she wasn't old enough to really want or enjoy one. But Ayaan had other ideas and he really wanted to celebrate it, so I agreed.

I am not a big fan of big birthday parties. I am also not a big fan of outsourced birthday parties. Hence, it was a no-brainer that we settled for a small gathering of kids and their parents at home.

The invitee list was short and sweet. Four kids and as many adults. It wasn't planned as such but it ended up being a DIY party of sorts. Ayaan said he wanted to make the birthday banner himself, so that is just what he did. I got the box of streamers out just as the other kids arrived and then let them have a field day with the streamers. The effect was totally haphazard and random but I wasn't hoping to win any prizes for decor and it kept six kids very busy for the best part of an hour, so I am not complaining.

Once they were done with the streamers, we moved on to the food which again required the kids to be involved. The main course was pizza. We had arranged the various toppings on the table and each kid got to assemble his or her own pizza. Here's one waiting for its turn in the oven:

No birthday party is complete without a cake and Ayaan insisted we do this at home as well. So I baked some chocolate cake and iced it and Ayaan decorated it.

It wasn't the best cake I have baked since I left it in the oven for a little longer than I should have. Also, I didn't particularly care for the cream cheese frosting I iced it with. But the kids seems to like it and that is what counts. (Yes, that is an atta thaali underneath it. I don't have a cake stand and I needed to improvise.)

Other than the streamer sticking and the pizza making, the kids pretty much entertained themselves, allowing the adults to chat up a storm. Overall, fun was had by all especially the birthday girl who ran riot with her friend from her nursery class.

Wednesday, January 02, 2013

A New Year Conversation with Ayaan

One of the things I missed out on in the Marathon Blogger challenge was last Saturday's theme post, which was supposed to capture the best and worst of 2012. I decided to let Ayaan do the hard work for me on this one:

Me: Ayaan, what were the best things that happened in 2012?

Ayaan: When we got Angel, my birthday party in London and opening gifts at Christmas.

Me: Ok, what about the things in 2012 that you didn't like?

Ayaan: I didn't get enough books for Christmas. (He got FIVE!)

Me: How do you plan to be a better boy in 2013?

Ayaan: Watch less TV, and read more books.

Is it just me, or is my work here done? :-p