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. 

Sunday, 14 January 2018

Nepal - Snow Above, Dust Below

Nepal always sounded exotic to me because my impressions about the country were shaped by the Bollywood classic Hare Rama Hare Krishna, textbook images of Mount Everest and the thrilling narratives of trekking enthusiasts. But I was in for a shock when I finally landed in Kathmandu. Despite the snow-laced mountains towering above the pandemonium of traffic, dust and chaos had driven me insane by the time I arrived at my hotel situated in the heart of Thamel, the immensely popular tourist market in Kathmandu valley. When I entered Thamel, there was a distinct change of scene from what looked like a tier-three Indian city to a hip and happy backpackers' quarter adorned with prayer flags and gleefully lost travelers. Packed with live music bars, watering holes and quaint cafes, Thamel personifies the hippie haven Nepal has always been. The walking streets defined by colorful stalls displaying Tibetan merchandise, Khukhuri knives, Yak wool shawls, thangka paintings, Buddha heads and singing bowls gave a euphoric lift from the starkly contrasting and awfully grubby lanes leading to it. 

The three durbar squares situated a few miles apart from each other, are marked by riveting architectural masterpieces that transport unwary tourists like me to a time and place disconnected from all things familiar. Within minutes you start identifying with that world steeped in antiquity and royal hegemony, even as it seems paradoxical in this day and age. Pashupatinath, the widely revered Hindu temple and the seat of the national deity Shiva, sits quietly on the banks of the Bagmati river as fervent devotees go about performing rites of passage for the deceased. Once you get to Boudhanath Stupa and the guide delivers an enlightening speech on the philosophical premise of Buddhism, you remember that Hinduism and Buddhism have coexisted in the valley for centuries.

An excruciating bus drive away from Kathmandu lies Pokhara - the archetypal party place, the city of lakes and the tourist capital of the nation that serves as a base for trekkers taking the Annapurna circuit. Standing atop Sarangkot hill in Pokhara and watching the first rays of the sun cast a fiery glow to the rugged and snowy sierra, you realize what it is that draws many an adventurous soul to this mystic land. To appreciate the true essence of Nepal, one should set out on one of those grueling yet extremely rewarding treks people rave about - there's no other way to experience the stupefying terrain and the nuanced ethnic diversity. And of course, you have the whole gamut of adventure sports from bungee jumping to paragliding that can stir awake every sleeping cell in the body. The highlight of my trip has to be that moment when I was sinking into my high chair floating above Phewa Lake, teased by the wind for the frivolous lives we lead as humans, as the veteran hands of my trainer tugged at the strings of our glider. 

I have often heard that westerners love India because of its ability to simultaneously excite all bodily senses by its exuberant bursts of color, energy and spontaneity. Even though I felt a lot of spillover effect in this neighbor country, especially in the cultural and culinary aspects, there was something about it that went beyond the sentient factor. The country is still recovering from the catastrophic earthquake of 2015 and its extended period of political instability. It was a mixed bag of surprises for me and I must admit that this trip managed to evoke one of those inexplicable feels of travel. 

Thursday, 11 January 2018

Shimla - Tidbits for First-timers

Last Christmas, we went on a short trip to Shimla - the summer capital of British India still flaunting its past glory through its characteristic colonial architecture and European vibes; where heritage buildings and age-old business establishments are stacked together like cardboard boxes on the hills. This post is not about those though. Our trip was quite relaxed and unlike other times, all we wanted to do was laze around in the chill of winter and soak in the vibes of a happy place. So I'm going to pen down some useful information for first-timers - quick tips and recommendations on where to stay and what to eat. As is famously known, Shimla is a madhouse of traffic during peak season. Since we zeroed in on Shimla for our Christmas break knowing all too well that we'd be crawling in a sea of people and vehicles, we came prepared for it. Unfortunately, it hadn't snowed yet when we arrived. So we chose to skip Kufri and Narkanda, opting instead to spend the wintry nights in the quiet and forested hills of Mashobra, and the festive daylight hours in the zippy streets of Shimla. 

First off, if you are not staying on Mall road, you need to get moving in the morning to skip the traffic n find a safe parking spot. We parked our jeep at the parking lot bang opposite the entrance to the lifts leading up to Mall road. They charge a flat rate of Rs. 100 for the first 0-8 hours. If you plan to stay at one of the hotels on Mall road, then you needn't worry too much about parking - just walk out from the top floor and you are there. We couldn't do that because we were traveling with our pet and also, we preferred the calm of Mashobra to the chaos of Shimla to ease into the evenings.

There are quite a few interesting places to eat - from purely local eat-outs to plush, modern cafes. Himachali Rasoi, a little wooden hole in one of the by-lanes serves truly authentic cuisine from Himachal Pradesh. The festive thali meal is called 'Dham' and it comes with an assortment of curries - all made using familiar ingredients but tasting delightfully different from what we are used to in the other parts of the country. There is Embassy bakery, one of the oldest and prettiest bakeries in the city, popular for their apple almond cakes, lamb chops and ice creams. Though overpriced and unconventional in their service, we loved the old man at the counter and his freshly baked cakes. If you fancy a hot plate of gulab jamuns to sweeten your day, head to Baljee's and if you crave for some idli-dosa-vada comfort to beat the cold, try the Indian Coffee House or Nalini. Sher-e-Punjab dishes out scrumptious non-veg delicacies, Dim Sum serves exquisite Chinese and the string of bakeries like Krishna and Trishul have an array of cheap eats for a quick bite. On the other hand, if you want to relish some great continental/Italian food in a chic and classy set-up overlooking the hills, you must visit Cafe Shimla Times, Cafe Sol (Hotel Combermere) or Eighteen71. And while at it, do not forget to grab some local kiwi and strawberries abundantly displayed by the roadside. 

Lastly, on your way back, stop at one of the HPMC stalls and stock up on your hand-crafted fruit preserves, wines, juices and pickles. We got apple juice, peach and strawberry preserves and wild pomegranate mint chutney - all locally produced and just as delicious as their foreign counterparts. And if you still haven't finished shopping for winter wear, try the Monte Carlo factory outlet next to the HPMC booth. Guess what, we totally cashed in on the Buy One Get One offer!

Sunday, 31 December 2017

When in Vijayawada

What hit me upfront when I drove into Vijayawada was its complex network of lanes and by-lanes with its walls hand-painted in rich floral motifs and the generous tarred roads completely taken over by hordes of men and vehicles. It was late afternoon when I checked into Hotel Fortune Murali Park on MG Road. By the oh-so-familiar moniker of the street, I knew that I was in the quintessential centre of commerce and city living. Being a foodie with a thing or two for the tantalizing aroma of spices, I was looking forward to the gastronomic delights that awaited me in the second biggest city of Andhra Pradesh. Sweet Magic, a popular chain of restaurants with a fourteen-year legacy, has an outlet bang in the middle of MG Road. I walked across the street to sample the Ulavacharu Dosa, a local specialty made from horsegram lentils, and Ghee Pongal, the South’s answer to a soul-warming plate of khichdi. Both were served with an assortment of chutneys, sambar and beetroot rasam. With a grateful tummy, I rambled in tandem with the weekend reverie, occasionally stopping to take a good look at the saree heavens looming over me. 

I started my tour of Vijayawada the next morning with a visit to Bhavani island, an islet formed by river Krishna, on the banks of which the city stands. The expanse assumed silvery tones of morning glory as it pushed the steamers towards the shore. Multiple flags of APTDC perched on the metal fencing proclaimed the ethereal beauty of the state as a mixed group of tourists and daily commuters occupied their seats on the boat. Life went on as usual for those getting their daily chores of washing and bathing done by the riverside. A reposeful calm filled my senses as they feasted on the slow breeze stroking the waters. 

From island to forest, I pressed on in search of the lesser known jewels of a land that boasts of the historic Hazratbal mosque, Victoria Museum and the archaic caves of Undavalli. The quest led me on to Bommala Colony or Toys Colony, an unassuming village on the outskirts of the Kondapalli reserve forest that has an abundance of softwood trees known as Tella Poniki. The sight that hailed me in was that of artisans deeply engrossed in their craft of carving miniature representations of familiar local scenes, keeping a 400-year old tradition alive. Kondapalli toys have obtained geographical indication status from the government as a recognition and certification of its cultural roots. I bought some souvenirs from the craftsmen before proceeding to the fort lying on a forested hill to the west of the village. Constructed by the Musunuri Nayaks - warrior kings from the 14th century, Kondapalli fort passed hands before coming under the custody of the British East India Company who used it as a military training base. Mostly in ruins today, the site is reminiscent of the many battles it survived throughout the ages. I entered through the Dargah Darwaza and clicked away as young couples shared sweet nothings between the rickety stone pillars. 

For my lunch-time indulgence, I chose the crowd favourite RR Durbar because it would have been a shame to leave the city without getting my hands on their dum biriyani. I spent the evening watching the sun disappearing in the mighty embrace of the Krishna as the majestic Prakasam Barrage stood sentry to the cacophony of traffic on one side and the tranquillity of the river on the other. Meanwhile, devotees thronged to the Kanaka Durga Temple situated atop the hills of Indrakeeladri beside the Krishna. 

I ended the day with an overdose of Chilli Prawns and Natukodi Chicken (country chicken) from a popular haunt known as Rasoie. My taste-buds were deliriously overjoyed by the homey concoction of masala and herbs that everything until then was rendered ablur. If you were to ask what I love about Vijayawada, I’d simply say ‘Natukodi’ all the way!