Monday, 11 June 2018

Music City

Nashville did not feature in my itinerary until my collegemate canceled her trip to Charlotte due to an unannounced viral infection. It had been years since we saw each other and both of us were looking forward to the meet. Hence, I decided to fly to her city and pay a visit instead. That’s what brought me to Nashville – the hottest housing market in the United States and one of the fastest growing economies in the country with an amusing list of sobriquets like the Music City, Athens of the South, Nash-Vegas, Little Kurdistan, Cashville and the It City. I spent three full days in Nashville, arriving on an unusually cold Saturday night and leaving on a vanilla Wednesday morning. I couldn’t cover it all but I had a ball of a time grooving to the country music in the honky-tonks and sauntering rather aimlessly to the beat of my own drum. Besides, filling in the details missed out in the last eight years of distance in a rare friendship was time-consuming. Love and laughter, music and drinks, fun and food – everything was on point that the three days whizzed away right before our eyes.

My guided tour commenced on Sunday with a visit to the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum that has a plethora of exhibits tracing the evolution of country music and the contributions of pathbreaking artists who carved a niche for themselves. From Loretta Lynn to Shania Twain, Don Mclean to Tim McGraw, the museum has many inspirational stories arising from its walls. I have always been drawn to the light-hearted and gleeful storytelling in country songs. Though I didn’t grow up listening to this genre, I have been an ardent fan from the time I got my first taste of it. The connect was almost instantaneous, the songs almost always hitting a chord with my perky, frivolous self. I was more than thrilled to be where I was, absorbing all that I possibly could in a short span of time. We even sat in on one of the live performances at Ford Theatre, the in-house auditorium at the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum.

Just a block away from the museum, on Lower Broadway, we found all those iconic bars swelling with live music, elated spirits and jolly folks who simply wanted to have a good time. That’s where the party begins and ends, all day, every day and we would join in too. But first, pizza – both of us agreed on that one. Luigi’s City Pizza, just off Broadway, served us some amazing chicken wings and the much-loved Nashville hot chicken pizza generously topped with the house specialty hot sauce, ranch dressing, mozzarella, bleu cheese, pickles and of course, the hot chicken. The portions were huge as usual and the homeless guy around the corner of the street got lucky. I loved the look of genuine happiness on his face when my friend handed over the box of pizza. The sheer number of people left to the streets made it evident that Nashville battles with the 'homelessness crisis'. From a plain “Need money to go home” to “Begging is better than stealing”, their placards got increasingly creative in its messaging. We spent the afternoon walking in and out of souvenir shops and cowboy boot barns, waving at revelers on pedal taverns, grabbing a cuppa coffee at the Johnny Cash Museum store and posing for an Instagram-worthy pic with Goo Goo Clusters, the renowned Southern confectionary. Now, you can’t get off Broadway without plunging headlong into its musical reverie. Tequila Cowboy and HonkyTonk Central were our picks for the day. We grabbed a bottle of beer and found a place close to the stage set aflame by jaunty musicians and their shiny paraphernalia. The crazy neon lights and riveting backdrops were accentuated by the clinking of glasses and dragging of chairs. We hailed an Uber back home around dinner time, jabbering along the way and late into the night.

I took it easy the following day, watching movies and soaking in the rustic vibes of the townhouse while my friend got on with her telecommuting. In the evening, we went around The Gulch - Nashville’s hip and happening neighborhood replete with boutique restaurants, fashion retailers, and chic office spaces. I knew I had fallen prey to the infectious American spirit when I bit into Burger 96, the highest rated burger at the World Food Championship crafted with pride by the crowd favorite Burger Republic. The meaty notes were balanced with the fluffiest strawberry and white chocolate milkshake swirled to perfection with chocolate crumbs and strawberry sauce. 

On the third day, I went back to Broadway for a bit of a solo adventure, exploring relics of ancient Rome and picking up gifts from the store at the Frist Art Museum, discovering graffiti hidden in the side-lanes, shopping for authentic Jack Daniel’s goodies, taking the pedestrian bridge across the Cumberland River, appreciating Nashville’s heritage architecture and bar-hopping to escape the afternoon sun. My friend and husband picked me up after work and showed me around Centennial Park which has a true replica of the Athenian Parthenon. Nashville is dubbed the Athens of the South due to the presence of prominent educational institutions and their strong emphasis on quality learning. We drove around the Vanderbilt University campus before hitting Pinewood Social, a classy restobar that attracts the trendiest people in town. I tried something new that evening – bucatini amatriciana – a traditional Italian pasta tossed in amatriciana sauce made from cured pork cheek called guanciale, pecorino cheese from Amatrice, fresh ripe tomatoes, and onion. Though I finished the entire bowl, it left me with a strong aftertaste that wasn’t too pleasant.

I flew back early the following morning with a new-found love for the Music City and a renewed connection with a long-time friend. No matter what life throws at you, some things don't change and some people stay on and trips like these serve as a reminder of such beautiful equations. What if I didn't have a bachelorette party before my D Day, I had double the fun in Nash-Vegas three years into my marriage!

Tuesday, 29 May 2018

The Sunshine State

My trip to Bradenton, Florida was planned and booked even before I stepped on American soil. My bestie from childhood had invited me over to spend a few days at her Florida home. I flew into Tampa International Airport on a drizzly Saturday evening and then drove south to Bradenton with my friend and her husband. They are as enthusiastic as I am about travel, food and life in general, so I knew I was in good hands. Enroute, we crossed the picturesque Sunshine Skyway- the ‘flag bridge’ of Florida featured in several movies and commercials over the years. Cutting through the emerald green waters of Tampa Bay, it gave the illusory experience of driving on water. Bradenton itself is strewn with freshwater and saltwater lakes, that you tend to see water just about everywhere.

We chose to stay in that night, warming up to the Florida weather and drinking to the beat of the rain within the comfort of her spacious home. Sunday was action packed – a bright and early start to a longish drive was fuelled by an elaborate American breakfast with freshly squeezed Florida orange juice at the old country-style restaurant chain called Cracker Barrel. We drove past Orlando and Daytona Beach, arriving by noon in Saint Augustine – the oldest continuously occupied European settlement in the United States. Established in 1565 as a Spanish colony, the city still retains the European charm through its pastel-shaded alleyways, grainy woodwork, tapas bars buzzing with live music, and hand painted vintage signboards hanging outside souvenir shops, candy stores and popsicle bars. It is touristy no doubt, but not in an annoying or intrusive way.  

For lunch, we opted for Taberna Del Caballo, a Spanish-American tavern known particularly for their signature cocktails and sangria. While my friends stuck to the St. Augustine mule, I ordered one of their handcrafted drinks going by the name of Sir Francis Drake, the English sailor credited with the serendipitous invention of the world’s first cocktail. It was a delightfully smooth and predictably sweet concoction of New Amsterdam vodka, peach schnapps, pineapple juice and raspberries. Our lunch spread consisting of garlic chicken wings, Cuban sandwich and shrimp chorizo flatbread, was delectable to say the least. The man on the guitar, the yellow flowers on the wooden tables and the happy people cheering to the music perfected the holiday mood for us. 

Ambling along the pretty streets, we spotted Spanish bakeries and quaint little stores selling seashells and colonial goods.  The Cathedral Basilica of Saint Augustine, designated as a national historical landmark, stood at the intersection of the narrow pedestrian streets. Crossing over to the promenade overlooking the Bridge of Lions, we walked up to the Castillo de San Marcos, the oldest masonry fort in the United States that allowed Spain to defend against the English attacks and maintain its stronghold over Florida for many, many years. The star fort is constructed from coquina stone, a type of sedimentary rock formed by the decomposition of seashells. On a side note, we had dinner at an award-winning Vietnamese restaurant called Pho 88 in Orlando. The portions were so huge that some of the pho, banh mi (sandwich) and the vermicelli noodles had to be boxed. 

Another work week had begun. During the day, my friend who is a happy homemaker kept me company while her husband went to work. It is said that when old friends meet, they start exactly where it was left off. There was no dearth of topics to discuss - everything from music and movies to life choices and religious philosophies found their way into our unending conversations. We would chat and cook and Netflix our way into the evenings when the three of us would step out to explore the lesser-known gems of South Florida. Over the course of the week, we visited Sarasota Bayfront, Venice and Siesta Key – each one distinctly embodying the untainted allure of the sunshine state.

Sarasota Bay is a lagoon off the coast of south and central west Florida with inlets from the Gulf of Mexico. The bayfront park is a great recreational spot with art installations, swings and paved walkways looking out to the fleet of yachts tied up to the dock. Near the entrance, stands a giant sculpture of a US Navy sailor sealed in a lip-lock with a young nurse. Titled ‘Unconditional Surrender’, it is part of a sculpture series by Seward Johnson based on a famous photograph taken on Victory over Japan Day in Times Square.

When I visited Venice, it became clear to me why Florida is called Heaven’s Waiting Room. A retirement mecca filled with gated communities providing luxury amenities, Venice is one of those classic locations where you will see happy old grannies and grandpas relishing the last drops of life’s nectar to the hilt. The fishing pier in Venice is popular among anglers and can get crowded in the evenings. What truly blew my mind was the spectacular sunset views from the rocky walkways jutting into the water. The breezy spring of dolphins, the swift swoop of seagulls, the ripples permeating in the water, the ephemeral hues of twilight and the silhouette of the boats in sail – everything came together to create one of the most surreal experiences of nature.

Florida is home to some of the best beaches in the world and undoubtedly, Siesta is one among them. Siesta Key is a barrier island off the coast of Florida and Siesta beach is the jewel in its crown. With 99% pure quartz, the sand is silvery white and cold to the touch while the crystal-clear water sports varying shades of emerald green and aquamarine. Being the beach bum that I am, it was hard not to fall head over heels with something that is touted as the best beach in America (Dr. Beach, 2011, 2017, The Travel Channel, 2004) with the whitest and finest sand in the world (The Great International Beach Challenge, 1987).

Food is the elixir of life and neither of us contested that proposition. During my week-long adventure, we found ourselves savouring some of the cleverest gastronomical inventions ever made, ranging from oriental hibachi at DaRuMa Japanese steakhouse and gourmet burgers at Gecko’s Grill and Pub to Malabar biriyani and Country style chicken fried to perfection in our own kitchen. 

My return was booked on an evening flight the following Saturday. We started early from home and took a brief halt at Saint Petersburg or St. Pete, as the locals would call it. The city’s downtown is youthful and artsy with beautiful walking trails, museums, art galleries, waterfront parks, boutique restaurants and skyscrapers adorning the cityscape. Hard-pressed for time, we settled for a happy Thai lunch and rushed to the airport before the gates closed. Goodbyes are sad but with friends who have become family, you know the distance is only short-lived. 

So that’s my Florida story – no Miami, no Orlando but priceless, nevertheless. I guess my trip was more about being in good company and discovering places recommended by trusted locals rather than mimicking the tried and tested tourist trail. 

Thursday, 17 May 2018

I [heart] NYC

Disclaimer: I am in absolutely no mood to write. I never really am unless I start writing. There's one part of me so content in my experiences that the thought of blogging feels taxing and annoying at once. At the same time, there's another part of me wistfully holding on to moments soon going to fade from memory. Nevertheless, I love going back to my stories and reliving them. I am perhaps my greatest inspiration because, in the end, I write for me.

I travelled to the United States of America for the first time on March 1st, 2018. My sister lives in Charlotte, North Carolina, by virtue of which I was granted a 10-year multiple entry visit visa without so much of an interrogation. I was excited no doubt, but I was also daunted by the immigration formalities upon arrival and the long flight from India. To my good fortune, things worked favourably and I got to Charlotte in good shape although my checked-in bag arrived only a day later. My family heartily welcomed me into this green and laidback city nestled in the embrace of the Blue Ridge Mountains. Vacationers flock to this part of the country during the months of October and November to witness the enchanting palette of fall colours. I spent the first month in Charlotte, taking in the chills of waning wintry days, exploring the city's Uptown district, appreciating all kinds of art at the Mint Museum on Wednesday evenings (when they allow free entry), cooking Indian food in an American kitchen, catching up on lost family time and blowing kisses to my lovely little niece.

“There’s something about arriving in new cities, wandering empty streets with no destination. I will never lose the love for the arriving, but I'm born to leave.”

This quote by Charlotte Eriksson (yeah, what a coincidence!) rings so true for me. Wanderlust struck before I knew it with the realization that I had to make the most of my time in the country. My first trip from Charlotte was to New York City - the big apple that draws tourists and travellers alike from all parts of the globe to live the confluence of art, fashion, music, languages, cultures, lifestyles, radicalism, liberalism and everything else you associate with one of the most expensive and perpetually stimulating cosmopolitan cities in the world. A Couchsurfing friend I happened to host at my Kerala home last year, was more than happy to welcome me into her haven in NYC and play tour guide on her off days. I flew into La Guardia airport on the 1st of April. As per my host's instructions, I took the M60 bus to Astoria, Queens and got off at the designated bus stop where she greeted me with all the warmth I could ever need in that intriguing city. My first 'Aha!' moment in NYC was when I was trying to buy my ticket out of the vending machine which would only accept cards. Noticing my struggle, a middle-aged man with a freckled cleft lip, untrimmed beard and the airs of a vagabond, offered to buy me a ticket. I was simply glad he asked and handed over a handful of coins which he cheerfully accepted at my insistence. The young girl who stood beside me was sceptical, muttering that she just hoped I wasn't getting duped. I didn't get duped. He was genuine, after all.

My host Lily and I walked back to her apartment to drop off my bags before setting out on our day's adventure. She works at an urban farm, the first of its kind in NYC that connects a network of rooftop gardens and backyard farms. I liked the boho-artsy look of the home with its attic beds, wooden panels, brick-exposed walls, old number plates, world maps, quaint paintings and metal signages. We took off in no time, and a bus and metro ride later, found ourselves bang in the middle of Manhattan - the face of New York. From the tree-lined pathways of Central Park to the skyscrapers on Fifth Avenue, street music performances at subway stations to juicy gyros at the original Halal Guys, high-street fashion oeuvres to Gothic architecture - I got my first taste of NYC and I was already in love. We explored Chinatown, Little Italy and Brazil street - little pockets of cultural indulgence striving to preserve their uniqueness as much as they blend in with the cosmopolitan persona of New York. The graffiti lurking around every corner of the city saved our spirits from getting drowned in the predictably tuned march of the city crowd. After a brief stop at Economy Candy, an adorable mom and pop candy store in downtown Manhattan, we took the last ferry to Staten Island to get a panoramic view of the cityscape bejewelled by the universal emblem of freedom and democracy - the Statue of Liberty. Seagulls traced the path of the ferry, their pale underbellies juxtaposed against the infinite blue of the sky. Gusts of wind rocked our bodies as the water squiggled and foamed under the boat. At sundown, the city burst into colours with a sea of humans washing ashore Times Square to catch a fleeting glimpse of Broadway performances, high street fashion extravaganzas and life-size billboards spewing multimedia advertising on end. We called it a day in style with Lily's signature dish - shakshuka and rice served over unfeigned conversations and real travel stories.

On my second day in NYC, I woke up to 6 inches of snow just outside my window. When I crawled down my bunker bed laced with the softest white bedding, it was still snowing heavily. I fixed an omelette with the organic eggs from the farm and gulped it down with some seeded multi-grain bread and herbal tea. Time to get the winter-wear out, I thought. Lily had to work during the day, so I made my way into the city all by myself, taking full advantage of the week-long subway pass. It took me a while to get the hang of the subway system, especially with the overlap of stations on different lines. My first stop was the main branch of the New York Public Library, an imposing monument in Beaux Arts design showcasing thousands of literary masterpieces and unparalleled artistic excellence. From the majestic lions guarding the pillars of the library gilded in gold, I walked up to the Grand Central Terminal, another historic structure adored by tourists for its ornamental design and exquisite interiors. I spent the afternoon exploring the Rockefeller Center, the MoMa and the MET - all of which have become synonymous with the artistic liberty that characterises New York. Later in the evening, Lily met me in downtown Manhattan and we grabbed a slice each from Rosario's Pizza before catching a stand-up comedy at Arlene's Grocery, one of those cosy little bars that infuse NYC with all its pizzazz. By the end of the day, the big toe on my right foot was swollen thanks to Lily's heavy duty boots I tried to fit my feet into in a desperate attempt to avoid getting them all clammy in the snow. My discoloured toenail still stands in memory of that eventful day.

Lily was free to take me around the next day. Our first stop was the culinary melting pot named Jackson Heights, where we sampled a heavenly raspberry cheesecake at an unassuming joint known as Lety Bakery and Cafe. From there, we headed to Brooklyn Heights and ambled along the waterfront in the tarrying drizzle. The mist shrouding the bridges, Brooklyn and Manhattan, lent a soulful character to Brooklyn which was in stark contrast to the uber-cool vibe of Manhattan. Rummaging through the exhibits at the Brooklyn Historical Society in Dumbo, I unravelled a mystifying image of Brooklyn, one that was tinted with the blood and sweat of labourers and slaves, tough women who broke all gender stereotypes by toiling hard alongside their male counterparts, oyster shells and industrial tools that paved the way for artistic renaissance and gentrification. We trod on the Brooklyn bridge resplendent in raindrops and leftover snow and crossed over to the urban facade of Manhattan. The wired beauty was a vision in itself, but the showers and the humbling views on either side made it even more overwhelming.

Lily had arranged for me to meet with her sister at her office in One World Trade Center so that I could get a sneak peek into life on the other side of the infinite divide of capitalism. The 9/11 memorial and museum complex was packed by the time we reached there. Oculus, the billion dollar train station recently opened to the public, looked pristine in its winged dove getup. Lily's sister, a fashion editor with Condenast, had a plush little cabin to herself in the tallest building in NYC. We grabbed a juicy burger from Shakeshack before entering her office replete with fashion imagery. What with the bird's eye view from the tall glass panes, the creative mood-boards on display and the array of signature fashion labels made it seem contemptuously poised above the humans and vehicles streaming through the lifelines of NYC below. From there, we headed to SoHo in Lower Manhattan, another historic neighbourhood housing the largest collection of cast iron architecture in the world. SoHo has taken on many an avatar over time - from being a centre of commerce and entertainment, an industrial wasteland and an artists' haven to becoming an upscale fashion hub with carefully preserved heritage lanes. Back in the apartment, we had a quiet but scrumptious home-cooked dinner consisting of parmesan chicken, penne arrabbiata and an assortment of greens before venturing out to catch the late night jazz scene at a vintage-style haunt called The LetLove Inn.

Lily was back to work the next day and I was left to fend for myself. It goes without saying that by then, I was ridiculously charmed by the ways of NYC and its many different faces. The city is quick to accept, embrace and assimilate anyone into its fold, even if you are just a passerby. It has become a magnet of sorts for those looking to realize the American dream. The energy is contagious, the mood is liberal and people are forever on the move. I still remember the old man who showed up on the subway with a carton of cookies and chocolates and delivered a lengthy monologue, the gist of which was something like this: "You don't have to be ashamed if you are hungry or homeless. Feel free to grab one or make a donation if you wish to." Even if I choose to be cynical and believe the piece to be a marketing pitch, I can't help but be amused by the fact that someone could do something so outrageous and thoughtful in a place like this. The level of freedom NYC offers in terms of movement, thought and speech is simply incredible and that was exactly what I was seeking. I spent the morning navigating the lanes and bylanes of Astoria, its Greek-style homes and shopping avenues like Steinway Street and Broadway. In a few hours, I found myself back in Manhattan beaming at the spring colours on display at the flower show in Macy's Herald Square, gaping at Norman Norrell's design ensemble at the Fashion Institute of Technology and gasping at the architectural brilliance of the ancient churches strewn across Manhattan. From the hard-to-miss St. Patrick's Cathedral and the French High Gothic St. Thomas Church to the elusively charming Little Church Around the Corner, each one had a story to tell. Lily was home by the time I got back. She was tired after a long day of back-breaking work, so we zeroed in on burgers from the local favourite Petey's to ease into the night. She had to go back to work early the next day; we said our goodbyes before hitting the sack, hoping to meet again somewhere, someday.

I packed my bags with all the souvenirs, gifts and candies while my heart bubbled inside of me. It is funny when you get a strange sense of belonging where you are least likely to get it. But the heart knows what it knows. Being a traveller is altogether different from learning the rules of survival in a city like New York, I reminded myself. I took a long and hard look at the brick walls of the apartment and its tattered world map before making my way out the door with the GPS directions to reach the airport. I caught my flight back to Charlotte from La Guardia airport that afternoon, with an unspoken promise to return for more.

Wednesday, 21 February 2018

The Unexplored Himachal - Jibhi, Tirthan and Kasol

A post that's late. Again.

This is about a trip that happened last October, during the Diwali holidays to be precise. We were dilly-dallying around Dalhousie-Khajjar but owing to the lack of impressive pet-friendly stay options, we decided to go off-beat - traverse the less explored valleys of Himachal, pitch a tent on the banks of the gurgling river and go trout-fishing in the Himalayan waters. Our plan looked like this:

Day 1: Start early from Noida and arrive in Mandi before sundown. It was Azal's birthday the next day and we wanted to have our little party in the night. 
Day 2: Mandi to Jibhi. Drive to Jalori Pass. Hike to Serolsar lake. Spend the night in a wooden cottage in the rustic village
Day 3: Jibhi to Tirthan Valley: Camp by the river and go fishing
Day 4: Tirthan Valley to Kasol: Explore the hippie town and visit the hot springs in Manikaran. Stay by the banks of the Parvati river in a quaint little cottage with a private sit-out
Day 5: Drive back from Kasol to Noida

So, as per the plan, we arrived in Mandi by 3 pm when the Diwali festivities were in full spring. Our stay was booked at the Royal Palace Hotel tucked away in a secluded corner of the buzzing town. The beautiful garden restaurant and the chic ambience of the hotel came as a surprise. Right outside the gates of the palace was the most sought-after sweets shop in Mandi - I couldn't stop myself from getting a box of gulab jamuns packed for my midnight feast. We bought some beer and vodka for the birthday eve celebration and headed back to the hotel for a lavish dinner in the garden lit up with dewy yellow lights. I must say, that the restaurant served one of the best kebab platters I've had till date. 

The distance from Mandi to Jibhi is not much but the road gets narrower and winding as it nears Jibhi, with the scenery getting a facelift every few kilometers. Green Alpine Resort, one of the newer homestays in the area, has beautiful rooms finished entirely in wood and even an endearingly quirky treehouse with the giant growth jutting right through its center. After checking in, we drove to Jalori pass - the mountain pass closest to Delhi and the first pass to open up after getting snow-clogged every winter. The abundance of deodars and rhododendrons rocketing into the clear blue sky painted a fairy-tale-ish picture for our tired eyes to feast on. The route is so incredibly scenic that you get drawn into a world where nothing but beauty exists. Even the ruggedness of the tattered path cannot get to you when you are encompassed by such rich imagery. 

We parked the jeep at the top, hogged on some masala omelet from the roadside shacks and set out on our first long hike with Sammy (our pug). Even though we have traveled all around India with her, this was the first time we felt confident that she could handle a 10 kilometer trek through the forest. The weather was favorable and Sammy was at her fittest. So why not? We carried water and biscuits and took frequent rest stops to make sure she was fine. And she fared excellently well. I wouldn't be wrong if I said she enjoyed the trail more than us though it wasn't easy on her. We had her back and she knew it - whether it was guarding against bulls or getting across steep rocks or giving her a lift when she simply needed a piggyback. Two hours into the hike, we got to a fenced-in lake at the foot of a temple. The hills behind offered panoramic views of snow-clad mountains. Talking about chance encounters along the way - an old lady taught us how to share the narrow trail with a herd of bulls without intimidating them, a boisterous group of Malayali boys showed us that you ain't far from home wherever you go, and the uber-cool college kids rolling a joint in the middle of nowhere reminded us that the quest for meaning never ends. 

Back in the room, Sammy munched on pedigree kibbles after a gap of almost one year and suffered a severe bout of diarrhoea. We realized early on during the trip that she should stay away from packaged dog food and go natural like us. So we fed her a bowl of wholesome homemade yoghurt and she went to sleep in peace. Less than a kilometre from our cottage, there was a secret waterfall - so called because it is hidden from sight by a tantalizing approach road laden with tiny bridges and dense vegetation. We managed to get a quick glimpse of that surreal surprise of nature before the night fell and darkness swept over. Green Alpine served us some amazing dinner, hot and fresh from the kitchen before we called it a day. The next morning, we drove to Cheni Kothi or Cheni Fort - antiquated twin towers made of stone and wood, looming over an other-worldly village filled with apple orchards and walnut trees somewhere up in the hills. We parked near the Sringa Rishi Temple and climbed up. Though we lost our way a few times, we made it to the top in an hour's time. Clicking away with not much of an interference from the handful inhabitants of the village, we could not help but notice their aloofness and cold demeanour. Just then, a shabbily dressed old woman who looked like the poorest soul in the village, beamed at us through her wrinkles. "Would you like some apples?", she asked in Hindi and we nodded a yes. She disappeared into the house behind us which was still under construction and came out with a bunch of apples in her saree fold. She told us her story. Someone burnt their house down, she and her daughter were building a new one all on their own. Azal being Azal, asked her how much he had to pay for the apples. She smiled and refused, "No, I don't want money for the apples. This season was good, we got plenty of apples. Who knows if it would be the same next year!". She asked us to wait and went out of sight again. I looked around and found her in the lower chamber of a run-down house, digging out from her stash of walnuts and persimmons. She was embarrassed because I glanced at the insides of the dingy chamber which was occupied by buffaloes on one side. She signalled that I should stay outside. A few minutes later, she handed those walnuts and persimmons to us, saying those were gifted by her family. We had to give her something and all we had was money. We forced her to take it saying it was 'Shagun ka Paisa' (good luck charm).

We drove back to Green Alpine just in time for some freshly prepared Aloo-Parathas. I loved their food so much that I went into the kitchen and commended the cook. We checked out and headed towards Tirthan Valley, 45 km away from Jibhi. In spite of getting stuck in the election rally en-route, we managed to get to our campsite by noon. Our luxury tent pitched in the shade of a flourishing persimmon tree overlooking the Himalayan waters, was arranged by a homestay in the region. We had to cross the river in a dangling carriage to reach the tent. The rest of the day was spent in leisure, fishing and eating and drinking. Angling in the Tirthan river was an interesting experience indeed - call it beginner's luck, Azal managed to catch one Himalayan trout right at the start of the guided session but nothing after that. Sammy, on the other hand, had turned into a total maverick, going away on her own little expeditions and refusing to come to us when called. We moved to Kasol the morning after and checked into Parvati Kuteer, a delightfully pleasant string of cottages situated by the banks of the Parvati river. 

Kasol was unlike anything I had expected it to be. For long, Kasol has been iconized as the epitome of the hippie culture feeding on the lull of the crystalline Himalayan waters and the headiness of the most potent marijuana grown in its untainted valleys. When we arrived there, I realized that Kasol in itself was nothing mindblowing. Don't get me wrong, the town was lively with cosy little cafes, shopping alleys and breathtaking views far beyond - but we had been feeding on the charm of Himachal for four days and Kasol didn't strike me as extraordinary. There are picturesque places like Kheer Ganga beyond Kasol which are accessible only by foot. We did not have enough time to accommodate a two-day trek into out itinerary; so we decided to just hang around Kasol. Before checking in, we had some sandwiches and waffles at Moondance Cafe - the eat-out best known for its crunchy waffle corner. Later in the day, we drove to Manikaran about 5 km away to visit the hot springs watering the religiosity of the Gurudwara and the Shiv temple in its vicinity. We walked around, bought walnuts and raisins for half the price we pay otherwise and savoured hot pakoda and chai at a Punjabi shack. On the way back we stopped at the flea market in Kasol to buy warm clothes for the coming season. While relishing almond cookies and yak cheese at the German bakery, we got acquainted with a German lady who remarked that the bakery was more American than German in its offerings. We left her to enjoy an early dinner at Evergreen Cafe, one of the best restaurants in Kasol with ample space, both indoor and outdoor. It was a pleasure to be back in our wooden cottage at Parvati Kuteer for the night. They lit up a bonfire in our private courtyard where we drank to the joys of love and life. After an early morning hike to the river gushing below, we bid goodbye to our little haven, biting wistfully into the apple crumble and cinnamon cookies packed from the German bakery in the heart of Kasol. 

This one - this offbeat Himachal trip that almost caught us unawares - was definitely one of our best outings of 2017.