Sunday, September 28, 2008

Kashmir Travelogue

Before the trip: The minute I checked out pictures of Kashmir on flickr and other places, I fell in love with it. Is it possible to feel nostalgia for a place you have never been to? I kept checking the news and I hear that Kashmir is cut off from the rest of the world due to a heavy snowstorm that closed off all the routes.

Day 0 (Friday): News reports that the storm is done and Srinagar/Gulmarg are both under a fresh layer of snow. This got me very excited. I thought I would leave sometime the following week, but then a thought came into my head - why not tomorrow?. I decide to act on this instinct and booked my tickets for the next day.

Day 1 (Saturday) - Srinagar: I take a Hyderabad-Delhi flight at 6AM and it is on time. Good start. It was a cool 4C when I landed in Delhi. My connecting flight to Srinagar was scheduled for 10AM. About mid-way through the flight, I get my first glance of the mighty Himalayas. It was a spectacular sight. Soon the flight touches down in Srinagar. There is snow all around me and I was ecstatic. I avoided the taxi wallahs and took the local bus to the tourist office - Rs.20. I had not made any arrangements for the accommodation which gave me a lot of flexibility. I went to the Dal gate and rented a houseboat for Rs.800 per day. After a quick shower and lunch, I took a beautiful shikara ride on Dal. Not only was the view spectacular, the sound that the oar makes on contact with the water still rings in my ear to this day. At this point, I was extremely happy that I decided to act on my instinct. Post Shikara ride, I got an auto and went around town. Shalimar was completely covered in snow which was beautiful in its own way. Hazratbal, the holy mosque made of marble on the banks of Dal was a sight to behold. I had never been inside a mosque before, but that did not stop me from entering Hazratbal. I found a guard who helped me conform with the rules of the mosque. Once inside, I sat down in the main chamber and was blown away by the experience.

Nishant Garden

Shikara on Dal

After Hazratbal, I went to Jama Masjid - a huge mosque in the old city built in the year 1400AD. One cannot help but admire the architecture and design of this great place of worship. By this time, it was dark and time to go back to the houseboat. I grabbed a quick bite to eat and by 8PM, the temperature was sub-zero. I made it to the houseboat and sat down for a chat with the owner. He showed me the "kangri", a small earthen port filled with hot coals, which he was using to keep himself warm. He filled me in on the evolution of Kashmir in the last few decades. He also briefed me on the security situation which was termed "peaceful" at the time. I guess "peaceful" just means absence of violence but not its eradication. After a tiring day, I had no problem sleeping by 10PM.

Day 2 (Sunday) - Gulmarg: I woke up at 6AM to check out Srinagar at dawn. I realized 6AM was a little too late to do that :D. As soon as I stepped out of the houseboat, I could see the thin layer of ice that formed over the lake overnight. I packed my things quickly and made my way to Batmalu, a place where you can catch shared taxis to Pahalgam. I got a taxi by 8AM and I reached Pahalgam by 9:30AM for a price of Rs.40. From Pahalgam, I took a crowded bus to reach Gulmarg (Rs.20). I was proud to have saved a lot of $$ by not opting for an exclusive taxi from Srinagar. Also, this gave me a chance to travel like the locals do. It was fantastic. The first sight of Gulmarg stunned me. I had never seen that much snow in my life. The ground was under 15 feet of snow!!! [shock] I realized I had to find a good hotel with heating. I opted for Heevan resort near the Gulmarg Gondola (Rs.2000 per night). I had to tug my suitcase for about a mile on the frozen path to make it to Heevan. I was excited to find skiers on the beginner slopes and Mt. Aphrawat lay in front of me, with the peak above the clouds. I made a resolution to ski down the mountain regardless of the risk ;), it was that beautiful. After lunch, I went to the J&K tourism office to rent skis and other stuff. After an hour, I was on the beginner slopes practicing the lessons that I learnt while sking a year ago. By dusk, I made it back to the hotel and got a quick nap. By the time I woke up, I had a fever :mad: and I immediately took indication hoping that it would not alter my plans. I wrapped myself in blankets and sat out on the balcony watching the snow fall. I went to bed soon after.

First Glimpse of Gulmarg

Day 3 (Monday) - Gulmarg: Woke up early and I was damn excited to see all the snow from my balcony [happy]. I headed for the beginner slopes immediately, eager to get in a groove before attempting the mountain. I found my groove by lunch and mustered enough confidence to go up the gondola. I got the day pass for the Gondola (Rs.200 for level 1) and the ride up the mountain was memorable. I started sking down the mountain and I could not help but marvel at the panorama that surrounded me. It is said about Kashmir, "If there is heaven on earth, it is this, it is this, it is this!". At this point, I was in complete agreement. I stopped every few meters to take a photo. I had the occasional tumble down the ski path, but it was not painful enough to make me stop. I swear, I could have broken my feet and I would have still continued sking - I was that smitten by the place. The gondola closed down by 4:30 due to mechanical glitches but by that time I made 3 runs down the mountain. I went back to the hotel and chilled out with a group from Dubai. After dinner and chatting for a few hours, I went to sleep, feeling great after the wonderful day.

Gulmarg and Mt. Aphrawat

Day 4 (Tuesday) - Gulmarg: As soon as I woke up, I wanted to jump off my balcony onto the slopes and go sking. But, I had to wait till the gondola got going. The mechanical glitches that seemed to be bothering it the last few days got resolved by 10AM. I got on one of the first few cars going up and this gave me virgin slopes to ski down. I was feeling a bit adventurous and I decided to deviate from the designated ski path (dont try this if u r a beginner). I started coming down steep slopes laden with snow. There were places where I was waist deep in snow. It was fantastic. I tried to turn a steep corner and lost my balance, almost breaking my wrist. Luckily for me, I ended up just spraining it. After abt 5 runs down the mountain along various paths, it was time to head back to Srinagar. I took the shared taxi way back to Batmalu and I was in Srinagar my mid-afternoon. I checked into Hotel Welcome on the boulevard for Rs.1000 per night. In the evening, I went to a local restaurant for dinner and ended up spending a couple of hours talking to the owner. It is always great listening to retired people talk about the changes brought on in their life over the years.

View from Mt. Aphrawat

Sking Down
Day 5 (Wednesday) - Srinagar and back: I went shopping in the morning for some kashmiri artifacts for people back home. I found a good store in the lal chowk area that had a good variety of shawls, sarees and wooden works. I spent about Rs.5000 there and got good value in return. There are a lot of such shops in the Lal Chowk area. One thing to note is that these shops open late in the morning (10AM+) and close pretty early (before 7). So if you plan to get any shopping done, do it during the day. There are many shops on Dal lake but I found them to be priced higher than the ones in other areas of Srinagar. My flight took off from Srinagar at 1PM and I was back in Hyderabad by 6PM.

Conclusion: All in all, it was a fantastic trip that has left me with a lot of memories. It has infused a lot of confidence in me to travel in India. I rode this wave of confidence to make further trips into Sikkim and Nepal a few months later (Travelogues coming up). Also, this was the first time that I traveled alone. I was apprehensive in the beginning, but I highly recommend it to anyone now. When you travel alone, you end up making connections with so many of the local people that you would otherwise miss. If you cant find perfect company for a trip, dont settle for anything less. Travel alone!

Pursue your interests

It is amazing how many avenues technology has added for us to expand our horizons and pursue our interests. One way to constantly improve yourself is to pursue all your interests - however minor - to the maximum extent possible. The internet has made this pursuit not only possible, but very feasible. This same task would  have been next to impossible just 20 years ago. For example, I found myself intrigued by the following topics yesterday - Travel to Ladakh in Kashmir, Motorcycle maintenance tips, urdu poetry, current financial crisis and hinduism. With the help of google, I have furthered my knowledge in each of those areas in a span of few hours. If this were 1980s, I would have to go to a library and refer to multiple books (if I am lucky enough to find them) - an activity that would take days. 

Let us put what is available to us to the greatest use.

Saturday, September 27, 2008

Quotes on Silence

While putting together this compilation of quotes on silence, it was tough to ignore the variations in the opinion people hold about "silence". In a few of the quotes below, silence is presented as a great virtue and in others, it is the greatest vice. The truth is, Silence is both. As with most things, timing is everything. There are times when silence is truly golden, but there are times when it can shatter hearts.

He who does not understand your silence will probably not understand your words.- Elbert Hubbard

Choose silence of all virtues, for by it you hear other men's imperfections, and conceal your own. -  George Bernard Shaw

Silences make the real conversations between friends. Not the saying but the never needing to say is what counts. - Margaret Lee Runbeck

In human intercourse the tragedy begins, not when there is misunderstanding about words, but when silence is not understood. - Henry David Thoreau

In the End, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends. - Martin Luther King Jr

Saying nothing ... sometimes says the most. - Emily Dickinson

Speaking comes by nature, silence by understanding. - German Proverb

Silence is also speech.

Do not speak unless you can improve the silence.

I have often regretted my speech, but never my silence. - Publilius Syrus

Silence will save me from being wrong, but it will also deprive me of the possibility of being right. - Igor Stravinsky

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Women working in Bars

From the news today: Karnataka lifts ban on women serving in bars

I was surprised that such a ban existed in the first place. Where is equal opportunity? What surprised me even more is the reaction of common people to this verdict. One guy who was interviewed on the street condemned the verdict stating that the same women would come back in a few months and complain that they are being put in harm's way and offered no protection. Another lady disagreed with the decision stating that it is not something she would do. Such ignorance pisses me off. We are our own worst enemies.

I welcome the decision by the court and I believe everyone should do so. As for the guy I mentioned in the earlier paragraph, I hope he realizes the solution to his conundrum is not preventing women from being put in dangerous situations, but to take adequate measures and offer protection that would eliminate the danger in these situations. If our solution to problematic situations is to avoid them, god help us. To the lady, I would ask her to stop making the matter about her preference. The question at hand is whether or not women should have the freedom to choose if they want to work in a bar or not. No one is being forced. The lady in question would probably choose not to if given the choice, but she is absolutely wrong in saying that the choice itself should be eliminated.

The court in its decision states that meeting international standards is one of the reasons behind the verdict. I hope they add additional rules that would safeguard women in bars. Part of being "international standards" is making bars hire their own security in case problems arise. There should also be rules that would address the safety of these women who will often be commuting back home quite late at night. The bar should be held responsible for making safe transportation arrangements. Defining and enforcing proper accountability is key to the success of this decision.

Going by the viewer's reaction to this news, we, the people of India have to evaluate our stance on rights and freedom. We have a long way to go before we can claim to be a truly progressive society. This is one small step towards that.

To Love or be loved

Common Question: Do you prefer to love or be loved?

Although it would feel great to know that you are loved, I think loving someone is better. Looking back in my life, I have worked harder and improved more when I was in love. Love makes you want to be a better person. I like the challenge. Thats the way I feel ....

My aim in life

An article I had read recently got me thinking about my goals in life. I spent some time thinking and I came up with a bunch - categorized them as being about career, love, travel, sports etc. I printed them out and posted them up at my work station to constantly remind me of the bigger picture. I realized, they all boil down to one primary goal: Constant Improvement.
Improvement is what I am seeking. I want to improve myself in a meaningful way every single day. It is my purpose in life. The way I see it, I have a pretty good starting point and if I make myself better every day, I will continue to be proud of myself for as long as I live. 

This is quite a break through for me. It is not to say I havent improved myself in some way or another every day all this time. The difference is that from now on, it will be planned, tracked and evaluated. I am thoroughly committed to this goal and I hope this governs me for the rest of my life. The best part is that there will always be scope for improvement. 

To a better me and a brighter future ....