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!

Friday, 29 December 2017

Rajahmundry - Beyond the City Streets

If you want to discover the true essence of a city, you need to look beyond its urban fa├žade of premium brands and elite coffee shops. I wanted to dive right into the cultural oasis which fuels the identity of Rajahmundry, painting its face in a motley of shades. So, I made the conscious choice of approaching the city from its outer fringes, unraveling little nuggets of history and tradition as I arrived at its center.

My first stop was Dindi, located 80 km away from Rajahmundry. A picturesque hamlet snuggling in the lap of the Godavari backwaters and abundantly bestowed with streams and canals rimmed by coconut palms, Dindi is a popular riverside holiday destination sans the cosmetic frills. Sterling Dindi, the resort I stayed at, looked almost mystical with water lilies and palm trees gelling together to create a transcendental aura. I was so famished when I got to this arcane land away from the fallacies of city dwelling that all I needed was a hearty lunch to whisk away my travel woes.  The chef delighted me with two different versions of locally sourced curried fish, namely Chepala Iguru and Chepala Pulusu. Smug and satiated by the exotic flavours of Andhra cuisine, I began my afternoon tour of the region. 


At a distance of 20 km from Dindi, in the sacred precincts of Antarvedi, I witnessed the poetic confluence of Vashishta Godavari and the Bay of Bengal. As romantic as the Elvis Presley track, the merging of the river with the sea indeed seemed like the esoteric handiwork of cosmic powers. Antarvedi, home to the highly regarded Lord Sri Lakshminarasimha Swamy temple, is considered as ‘the second Varanasi by the grace of God’. What enticed me more though, was the narrow lane leading to Antarvedi with little fish farms separated by bunds on either side. Antarvedi also has a lighthouse and a vast stretch of pristine beach perfect for a private getaway.  

The general manager at Sterling encouraged me to visit Bandarulanka, a village near Dindi where the locals are involved in the trade of saree weaving. I was amused to find a whole community religiously at work on the loom in their front porches, producing yards of silk and cotton by adept finger movements. A magnanimous resident of the area guided me through the entire process of saree manufacturing, right from weaving and dyeing to pressing and folding. Handloom sector is only second to agriculture in terms of its contribution to the economy. I walked out of Bandarulanka with a handful of exclusive handloom sarees, each narrating a story of unmatched craftsmanship.

From Bandarulanka, I made my way past rice fields and coconut groves to the bewitching jungles of Maredumilli, 80 odd kilometres from Rajahmundry. An eco-tourism destination set against the backdrop of the Eastern Ghats with placid water bodies, bamboo forests and cryptic falls, Maredumilli is for those looking for an untainted nature escapade. For dinner, I tried the famous bamboo chicken prepared the tribal way by stuffing bamboo shoots with oil-less marinated chicken and shoving them into charcoal flames. The smoky flavour was as rustic as the place itself, blending in well with the chilly air and the whispering woods. I spent the night at Vanavihari community resort and headed straight to Rajahmundry at daybreak. As I sped past huge tracts of paddy fields flushed alive in the afterglow of the rising sun, I tried to imagine what Rajahmundry looked like.

Rajahmundry - The Tale of a River

The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes, but in having new eyes.” ~ Marcel Proust

Little did I know of the treasure trove that lies at the heart of Rajahmahendravaram aka Rajamundry until Indigo Airlines decided to send me there on my first 6E Explorer trip. Though I wasn’t particularly excited about the prospect of delving deeper into the cultural fabric of Andhra Pradesh, a feeble inner voice wheedled me into it and I’m only glad I listened! 

Labelled as the Cultural Capital of Andhra Pradesh, Rajahmundry resonates the true identity of the state on many different levels – history, arts, tradition, religion and economy. Named after the erstwhile king Raja Raja Narendra and home to the first Telugu poet Nannayya, Rajamahendravaram is considered to be the birthplace of the Telugu language. Cradling in the arms of the Godavari, the city is characterized by intricately carved and brightly painted temples spiralling to the merciful skies. With the aftertaste of the mini tiffin and filter coffee from Udupi Akshaya still lingering on my taste-buds, I walked down to Pushkar Ghat to find devotees ardently washing away their sins in the holy waters of the river and temple priests orchestrating various rituals alongside. I was told that in every twelve years, the city hosts Pushkaram when millions of devotees come there to partake in the celebrations. 

My attention was diverted to the bridges stretching into the infinite reaches of the horizon. Easily one of the most sublime feats of human intelligence, the Godavari Barrage is the third longest rail-cum-road bridge in Asia. The city is forever indebted to Sir Arthur Cotton, the British General credited with revolutionizing the irrigation channels across the country, for harnessing the powers of Godavari. Adjacent to the barrage in Dowleswaram, lies a museum dedicated to Cotton with more than a hundred exhibits narrating the inspirational story of his life. 

A few blocks down the street embellished with colourful artwork, stands the Rallabandi Subbarao Government Museum housing archaeological gems ranging from terracotta figurines and stone sculptures revealing the influence of Jainism to palm-leaf manuscripts, ancient coins and pottery. From there, I headed to Damerla Rama Rao Art Gallery which displays some of the original masterpieces produced by the artist in his pitiably short life span of 28 years. One of the most renowned and revolutionary artists of his time, D. Rama Rao’s century-old works depict nudes and grandiose scenes from mythology. 

By the end of the day, I was just beginning to fathom the depth and intensity of Rajahmundry’s cultural heritage. I was starting to see the city in a new light. As I stared longer at the changing hues of sundown mirroring in the tranquil waters under the Godavari barrage, I knew why fate had brought me here.

Saturday, 18 November 2017

Rwanda: A Story of Resurrection

This year I got an incredible opportunity to visit one of the most fascinating countries in the world. I call this tiny, land-locked nation fascinating not because of its unparalleled beauty, zesty culture or exotic wildlife. But solely for its sheer grit and determination to fight back to life and prove the world wrong - for its unshakable faith in itself and the power of humanity. In the last two decades, the people of this nation have been able to achieve what many others can only dream of. Today, its famously litter-free capital city is the face of multi-faceted development despite being reduced to a rubble of corpses just twenty years ago. It is the safest country for women in Africa with women outnumbering men in the Parliament. Believe it or not, corruption is rare in this spectacularly clean land of a thousand hills that has banned plastic bags altogether. I am deeply grateful for having been able to personally decode the "Remarkable" in Remarkable Rwanda!

On the eve of the 13th Kwita Izina (Gorilla Naming Ceremony), Rwanda Development Board in collaboration with the Rwanda Tourism Chamber, organized a ten day familiarization tour of the country for select travel operators from across the globe. I had the privilege of participating in this tour as a representative of The Kiwi Vacations, a burgeoning Package Holidays portal with sales offices in Kuwait, India and the USA. 

Arriving in Kigali

I flew from Mumbai to Kigali by the Rwandan national airline Rwandair on the 23rd of August 2017. My e-visa was stamped at the immigration desk upon payment of a nominal fee of 30 dollars and I stepped out of the airport before daylight crept in. Catherine, the General Manager of Jambo Tours, our associate in Rwanda, was already there with her handyman Karim, beaming from ear to ear as she extended the warmest welcome. I had arrived a day early to allow some time to prepare myself for the ten day adventure that lay ahead. I checked into Kigali Serena, the oldest five star hotel in the nation offering award winning service and featuring one of the best restaurants in the city. Sampling some of the traditional cuisine from the well-stocked buffet meals and shopping for traditional Rwandan artifacts from the local market, my first day in Kigali was well-spent. The others in our group arrived the next day and I moved to The Marriott, just a few blocks away from Serena. Marriott is one of the newer entrants capitalizing on the enormous development and tourism potential in the country.

Akagera National Park

The tour commenced on 25th morning under the able leadership of RDB executives Peter and Annie, with a road-trip through the scenic villages of Rwanda - from Kigali to Akagera National Park along the Tanzanian border in the East. We were a big team of about 25 tour operators from around the world split into groups and accommodated in a fleet of safari vehicles. Needless to say, the organizers took great care to ensure everything went according to plan. Akagera is the largest protected wetland in Central Africa and the only Big 5 Park in Rwanda with exceptional biodiversity ranging from highlands and swamps to savannah grasslands and forest-fringed lakes. Home to more than 12,000 mammals and 482 bird species, it is an important source of tourism revenue and a means of livelihood for neighboring communities. Adversely hit by the genocide of 1994, the management of the park was handed over to African Parks, a not-for-profit organization that works with governments in the areas of conservation, tourism development, community engagement and infrastructure creation. Once a wildlife haven, the park suffered irrecoverable losses during the genocide and is currently being restored to its past glory through the concentrated efforts of African Parks and Rwanda Development Board. With the introduction of South African lions in 2015 and the Eastern black rhinos in 2017, Akagera reclaimed its status of being one of the Big 5 parks in Africa. We got a night's rest at Akagera Game Lodge before embarking on the big game drive through the park. Starting out on a low note, the drive soon turned into a spine-tingling adventure when the notorious elephant who had kicked a safari vehicle into the unfathomable depths of Lake Ihema just two days prior to our arrival, forced us to retreat into the bushes to let him pass. We spotted a lion and his lioness, a honeymooning couple, peacefully soak in the shade of a lone tree in a sparse land. Zebras, giraffes, topi deer, cape buffaloes, water-bucks, baboons, impalas and warthogs provided the extra kick making it a helluva wild safari, making it truly unforgettable. 

Kwita Izina Gala Dinner 

By dusk, we were back in Kigali for the Kwita Izina Gala Dinner at Kigali Convention Center adjacent to the Radisson Blu Hotel. The evening was fun and relaxed with live music, charity auctions, food and drinks. A city tour was organized the next day with a visit to the Genocide Memorial painting a graphical narrative of the dark past of Rwanda. It was followed by a sumptuous lunch sporting an Indian menu at Ubumwe Grand Hotel, another noted luxury property offering panoramic views of Mount Kigali and the cityscape. Dinner was hosted by a hugely popular boutique restaurant called Heaven, which has a whole book dedicated to itself. A Thousand Hills to Heaven is an enrapturing read about the genesis of this restaurant and the story of its founders Josh Ruxin and Alissa, an enterprising couple and public health stalwarts from New York who came to Rwanda in search of meaning and adventure right after they tied the knot. Every detail about this country is riveting and awe-inspiring in its own right, with a mysterious anecdote, a heart-wrenching tale or the outlandish streak so characteristic of Africa, deeply entrenched into its many folds. 

Kwita Izina Conference

The Kwita Izina Conversation on Conservation at the Kigali Conference and Exhibition Village was the highlight of the fourth day, raising some pertinent questions on wildlife conservation in Africa and providing a top notch forum to discuss the best practices in the field. The B2B meetings culminated in a networking cocktail at The Marriot. 

We were soon back on the road, this time headed for the Nyungwe National Park in the South-West of Rwanda, bordering Burundi and the Democratic Republic of Congo. En route we stopped at the Royal Palace Museum where the heritage homes of royalty are preserved until today as a tribute to the rich legacy and cultural abundance of a land lost in the pain of bloodshed. The long-horned cows called the Inyambo raised in the palace grounds have a prominent position in the traditional Rwandese society as a symbol of power, wealth and friendship. The national dance called Intore has some interesting moves inspired by the curvaceous horns of the Inyambo. 

Nyungwe National Park and Canopy Walk

Nyungwe National Park established in 2004 is one of the best preserved montane rain-forests in Africa with a dense canopy and a wide diversity of animal and plant species including chimpanzees and golden monkeys. On arrival, we were briefed about the park and guided on a hiking trail to the Canopy Walkway spanning 90 metres in length and 50 metres in height. That moment when you are precariously balanced on a hanging bridge, engulfed by the cryptic whispers of the jungle and invigorated by sweet mountain air - that moment when twirling orchids and flitting butterflies overpower your senses - that moment when you are in the center of a parallel universe with towering ebonies and giant ferns encompassing your being from high above and deep below - , well, that moment is what travel is all about and you have to be there to experience it. Words fall short as time freezes and that instant stays alive in the recesses of your heart for many, many years to come. 

Boat Cruise on Lake Kivu

That night, an exclusive dinner was arranged for us at Emeraude Kivu Resort with the accompaniment of live tribal music and dance performances. Local women exhibited their hand-woven creations - Rwandan peace baskets in variegated hues and designs. We halted for the night at Peace Guest House overlooking the mesmerizing waters of Lake Kivu. Sipping on exquisitely flavored Rwandan coffee in the lawns perched above the hills bordering Lake Kivu was the perfect way to start a beautiful day of cruising. We drove past undulating tea plantations glistening in the morning sun to the northern most point of the lake in Rubavu. Post lunch, we set out on a long and unhurried boat cruise, chilling on the open deck with bottles of beer, reminiscing about the best moments of the trip and sending positive vibes into the universe. Steve Venton, Director of Kingfisher Kayaking Journeys briefed us about his niche venture for the thrill-seekers who might be interested in kayaking and canoeing on the waters of the Kivu, exploring lakeside flora and fauna or/and camping in the villages adjoining the lake. We got to the shore at Gisenyi after sundown and checked into Kivu Serena, a plush resort offering poolside dining and folk art performances.
Gorilla Trekking

The big day had finally arrived. The capstone of any Rwandan adventure - Gorilla Trekking on the slopes of the Virunga Volcanoes, was awaiting us. Priced at $1500, it is indeed an expensive activity and not everyone can afford it. But the good news is that all of this money is put to great use, with the funds fueling conservation efforts and the welfare of the local communities. We set out at half past five in the morning with packed breakfast and arrived at Volcanoes National Park at about seven. Home to five of the eight volcanoes of Virunga Mountains, the Park is inhabited by the rare and critically endangered mountain gorillas that caught the fancy of the legendary researcher, Dian Fossey. Split into teams of eight, we were allotted a gorilla family each and a trained guide to help us track them. My team tracked the Susa family which included one of the babies that was going to be named at the Kwita Izina finale the following morning. We were accompanied by porters who offered to carry our belongings while we trekked. They were ex-poachers being encouraged to earn a respectable living by feeding on the tourism potential in the region. Hiking through dense bamboo forests in the greater heights of the volcanic mountains, we eventually got to the location where the Susa family ranged during the time. The next one hour was pure exhilaration - getting to observe one of the most amazing creatures on the planet at such close quarters was overwhelming. Gorillas share 98% of our DNA and if you watch them closely you will know why. We were in a fix, unable to decide whether to simply keep watching their amusing antics or capture every detail on the cameras that hung around our necks. At the end of the trek, each of us was awarded a certificate recognizing our participation in the gorilla trekking activity. We had one of the best lunches that afternoon at Five Volcanoes Boutique Hotel before reclining to our respective lodges. A farewell bush dinner was organized at Mountain Gorilla View Lodge with bonfire, dancing and drinking. The trip was coming to a close and I felt a surge of emotions bubbling inside of me as I retreated to my luxurious bed at the rustic Da Vinci Gorilla Lodge that night. Kwita Izina 2017 - the much anticipated finale of the tour was just a few hours away. It was going to be a long and busy day at the end of which I'd be on a plane back to my homeland. 

Kwita Izina 2017

At the headquarters of the Volcanoes National Park in Kinigi, a whole district had gathered to honor the gorilla conservation efforts and the local communities thriving on them. The 13th staging of Kwita Izina saw the presence of international celebrities, conservationists and other eminent personalities from diverse sectors apart from media representatives and tour operators like us. Conceived on the lines of the Rwandan tradition of naming babies, Kwita Izina brought together thousands of Rwandans and friends of Rwanda to join in the celebration of the birth of baby gorillas, simultaneously raising awareness about this critical issue on an international platform. Naming a gorilla baby is considered a distinguished privilege and honor. The namers, chosen based on their contribution to the conservation efforts, were introduced one by one before they revealed the names of the gorilla babies. Every name carried deep and significant messages to the conservation circles around the globe. Paul Kagame, the President of Rwanda and the revolutionary military commander of the Rwandan Patriotic Front - the rebel force that ended the 1994 Genocide, graced the occasion with his presence. The rhapsodic crowd grooved to the rhythmic beats of Rwandan music, enthusiastically waving paper flags high up in the air. The ceremony which ended with a rendition of the Rwandan national anthem, was followed by a celebratory feast attended by all the dignitaries. 

Soon after, I drove back to Kigali to get to the airport in time for my midnight flight. I caught up with Catherine for a final dinner at a boutique restaurant known as The Hut before boarding my plane to Mumbai. As the saying goes, people don't take trips, trips take people and that's exactly what transpired in my case. Never in my wildest dreams had I imagined visiting Rwanda, yet it happened to me in the most unexpected of ways, changing me in a myriad ways and opening my eyes to a world I never knew existed.