Tuesday, July 14, 2015

Monsoon Reverie in Goan Hinterlands - Rafting, Rains and Lush Greenery

Soaking wet in pouring rain, I stood on the banks of a wild Mhadei River trying to soothe my frayed nerves. But, with every word John uttered, my knees shook more violently than before. John was giving instructions on what to do should we fall into the water or get swept away by the strong currents. Looking at the raging brown waters of the river though, I felt falling into the water is not going to end well no matter how “well-instructed” we were. John was our instructor and we were about to go rafting on a swollen muddy river surrounded by the mist-covered peaks of Western Ghats.

Monsoon Rafting in Goa, on Mhadei River
Monsoon Exclusive - Rafting on a swollen Mhadei River
Here’s the kicker, I’ve never rafted before!

I’ve spent weeks around beaches, lakes, rivers and waterfalls but have rarely gotten into water. I’m a mountain person and I tend to get extremely nervous around water. Yet, the lure of an exclusive monsoon rafting adventure in my favorite Western Ghats wasn’t beyond me. With my knees shaking still and heart in my mouth, I sat on the edge of the raft and off we went into the brown waters.

When we hit the first of rapids, I braced myself for a violent jerk. Surprisingly and thankfully, it didn’t feel as rough as it looked. But my feet were still very firmly stuck under the straps inside the raft, so much that the rough edges were piercing into my skin. But I couldn’t care less as I was trying very hard not to fall into the water. After getting over the initial fear and anxiety, I began to relax and enjoy the pristine surroundings of Chorla Ghats. It helped that our guide was John Pollard, the person who pioneered the first commercial rafting operations in south India, by charting routes down the Kali, Kundalika and three other rivers down south.

Having trekked, camped, cycled and road tripped my way through the Ghats before, rafting through the heart of the forest brought forth a brand new perspective. Hiding behind a veil of mist, the lush forests of Mhadei National Park surrounded us in every direction, drenched in the spell of a monsoon-induced greenery. Where the river widened, it calmed down and so did I. Gentle drizzle and a warm breeze kept us company as we floated over the muddy Mhadei River, the milder waves lapping gently against the raft. Despite the sights that enthralled me, I would be lying if I said the fear of falling into the water disappeared entirely from my consciousness. It’s hard to let go of our fears, no matter how irrational they might be. But the thrill of overcoming such irrational fear is no less fun either. I waited with bated breath to celebrate my first rafting session until I reached the shore almost 90 minutes later. There’s nothing more awkward than celebrating victory before winning, now is it?

Driving back to Miramar from Valpoi where we had met John earlier that afternoon, I realized it was not the thrill of rafting that stayed with me but rather it was the uniqueness of the circumstances that entranced me more. The visible currents, the insanely fast flowing river, the muddy water and the lovely Ghats on a rainy day in a place as stereotyped as Goa, made my first rafting experience an unforgettable adventure. After all, we only came across three class 3 rapids, which is pretty mild come to think of it. However, to put this uniqueness into better perspective, do a quick Google search on rafting and tell me if you’ve seen any picture where the scenery is like this. Monsoon rafting on flooded rivers doesn’t sound very inviting to begin with but it’s half as scary and twice as exciting! I, for one, couldn’t have asked for a better way to start with rafting than with Goa Tourism on the flooded Mhadei river; it included three of my favorite things - Monsoons, Western Ghats and exquisite Outdoors!

Make it happen!
Monsoon rafting over Mhadei River is a monsoon exclusive and the rafting sessions operate only during a short window of 10-12 weeks between June to September depending on the flow of water. It costs Rs.1800 per person and takes about 3 and 1/2 hours starting from Valpoi in north Goa. Call up ahead and confirm if the rafting is in session for the day. For bookings, visit www.goarafting.com or email at info@goarafting.com or you can call at +91 7387238866 or +91 8805727230. More information here.
(And for more monsoon ideas, follow Goa Tourism's facebook page.)

Other essential “Monsoon in Goa” reading

And if rafting doesn’t lure you to experience Goa in Monsoons, perhaps these pictures might?
A quaint Church in the hinterlands of Goa

“ALT”
ALT
Lush greenery brought forth by the monsoon season lasting between June to September

On the banks of Mondovi, a flooded river and a forest draped in a carpet of greenery

The stunning countryside of Goa during monsoons
Have you ever been to Goa during the so called "off-season", the monsoons?

P.S – This trip was sponsored by Goa Tourism Department.

Sunday, July 5, 2015

Wander Tales #3 - The Anatomy of an Adventure

About Wander Tales
In this initiative, Ramya and I, bring to you little visual stories about travel experiences, insights, incidents and learnings. Check out the first comic in the link below and let me know your thoughts about the travel comic strip in the comments section! :)

(Read Introducing "Wander Tales" Comics)

Sunday, June 21, 2015

20 Images from all my Travels this Year - From Ladakh to Nepal & Kumaon to Arunachal!

It's been almost half a year already since I have packed my bags and left Bangalore for good to travel indefinitely. Since then I've been to fortunate enough to have seen some pretty amazing things and have experienced some unique cultures. I was planning to work on the go but with so many interesting things happening around me, it was really difficult to focus and write down stories as I had intended to. So I took a month's break at home after Nepal and finished up a lot of work that should allow me to travel for the next few months again.

Although, just before leaving home, Microsoft sent me a Lumia 830 to capture my travels and knowing how good the Lumia Cameras are, I jumped at the opportunity. I have only used a Samsung Galaxy mobile camera before and at best, it was just adequate. All these images are shot on Lumia and I'm in love with the 10MP camera. 

I will be hitting the road next week and will keep wandering for the next few months. There are some interesting things in store and I will announce as the plans gets confirmed. It's only fitting that before I begin traveling again, I look back on where I've been so far. Here are few glimpses of the amazing journey so far - from Ladakh to Kumaon and Arunachal to Nepal.

(All images shot on Lumia 830)

One Winter in Ladakh, tracking Snow Leopards and witnessing exotic festivals
After the previous year's winter adventure of walking over frozen Zanskar, I never really thought I'd go back to that freezing land again. But an opportunity to track the ghost of the mountains was just too good pass upon. So, one freezing February morning I landed back in Leh. As it happens, Ladakh was the first place I went to after embracing a nomadic life. Ladakh is the only place I've come closest to calling home, I've been there 5 times already and without a doubt I'll be returning again. That's my happy place, apparently. 

I spent almost 2 weeks taking shelter under the roof of the world, witnessed my first ever proper snowfall which turned Leh into a magical dreamland in white overnight. I saw a glimpse of the ghost and ran into the amazing Dosmoche festival, a festival that marks the end of winter and welcomes spring. Ladakh, as it turns out, was the perfect way to begin a new chapter in my life as a nomad. 

Dosmoche Festival, Ladakh
Dosmoche Festival at Likir Monastery

Dosmoche Festival, Ladakh
The surreal dance of the monks in the vast open spaces of Ladakh

Ladakh in winter
The barren landscape covered in snow

Ladakh
Ice Hockey is a popular sport in Ladakh where all the ponds and lakes freeze in winters

Read:


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The awe-inspiring beauty of Nepal
Having trekked a lot in the Indian Himalayas, I thought I had seen the best of it and that no other place could be as amazing as this. But I couldn't have been more wrong. Nepal blew my mind and I didn't even trek! I should've expected nothing less from a country that has a lion's share of all the biggest mountains in the world. And the diversity was no less either. From the jungles of Chitwan to the higher reaches of Himalayas, one could easily spend years lost in the country. This time, I could only spend few weeks in Chitwan and around Pokhara but I am surely going to return to Nepal, to spend a lot more time and to trek a lot despite the high costs(which are totally justified btw). 

Sun peeking out of the clouds after a storm that had just passed at Sarangkot in Nepal

The lush beauty of Chitwan National Park in Nepal

Dramatic stormy skies that brought a flurry of hailstorms, then a rainbow and magical light. Sarangkot, Nepal

The ease of access to Himalayan views is the biggest draw of Nepal. Sunrise at Sarangkot. 

Read:


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In the surprising marshlands of Assam
Assam always held a special fascination for me, but that was mostly because of the monster river Brahmaputra that ram amok in the monsoons yet inspired awe among others. But I had little idea on how rich the state was, biodiversity wise. I saw marshlands full of birds, forests full of amazing wildlife, tea gardens full of fireflies and on the whole, left the place more amazed that I thought possible. And yes, it was a whirlwind trip so I will be returning here as well. ;)

The marshlands next to Branhmaputra where I saw tens of Lesser Adjutant Storks

A brilliant find, Maguri Beel close to Dibru Saikhowa National Park where hundreds of birds can be seen, migratory and residential

A pleasant morning along the tea gardens in Hoolock Gibbon Sanctuary

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An unexpected escape to Bhatkal
This was my first assignment as a photographer, I travelled along with a writer for one of India's leading travel magazines to cover Bhatkal as a destination. I was more excited about going on assignment as a photographer than the place, because this being in Karnataka, I thought I wouldn't really be surprised much. But what a surprise this place turned out to be, we hiked to a giant waterfall, explored some ancient yet little known ruins, got drenched in heavy downpour and had a great time in general. With travel, there's really no knowing what awaits you!

A small fishing village on the banks of Sharavathi River, Karnataka

Islands of mangroves in Sharavathi River, Karnataka.

Crossing over a rickety bridge over Sharavathi River.

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In the foothill of Himalayas, Kumaon, Uttarakhand
I am not much into property reviews as a blogger, but when Kosi Valley Retreat invited me, couldn't really pass on the opportunity because of they said the property is situated in an obscure valley with amazing views, hikes and rides around. That one week happened to be one of my best times in foothills of Himalayas. I never really thought much of the valleys hidden below the mighty snow capped peaks but this trip taught me a good lesson that the valleys are just as fascinating as the mountains.

Stunning views of the Kumaon Himalayan range and the valleys below from an old temple

First glimpse of Almora on a pleasant winter morning

The lovely terraced fields that dot the landscape in the valleys of Almora, Uttarakhand.

Read:

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A week with the fascinating Apatani Tribes in Ziro Valley, Arunachal Pradesh
This week in remote Arunachal was one of the challenges I was so glad to have taken. Spending a week with the Apatanis photographing their unique Myoko festival pushed me a lot out of my comfort zone and I think I might have a good body of work finally. Like I've said many times before, this is the exactly the kind of work I want to be doing much more in the coming months and this happened to be a very good step in the right direction.

A rainy day morning in the splendid Ziro Valley, Arunachal

Local cuisine, including some ferns and preserved pork.

The tin roofed houses of Ziro Valley surrounded by the lush forest covered mountains

So that was my very satisfying first half of the year in travels. 

How has your year been so far? Where all did you travel? Let me know in the comments.

Sunday, June 7, 2015

State of Things: A Year since I Quit my Job and Quarter since I became a Nomad

Last year this week, I had just quit my job of 7 years and was out gallivanting in the happy Himalayan Kingdom of Bhutan. I had a vague plan on what to do and didn’t have a lot in my savings account. All I had was a strange defiance of the life that was laid out for me - a life bound within the confines of familiarity and ennui. I took the decision to quit as soon as I learnt how to make money in other ways.



The plan
The only plan I had before quitting was that I should work diligently, 4-5 hours at desk every day. Frankly, that’s all it takes at this point for me to earn a decent living. Now when I’m traveling, taking notes and photographing, that’s work too but it being something I enjoy immensely, doesn’t really count as work. When I quit, I didn’t exit the structured corporate life with a hefty bank balance. I had already spent all my money on travels. What I did accumulate was plenty of words and images from my travels. I invested in my travels and stories were the product that I intended to sell. I didn’t have a financial plan. I planned to sell stories.

The Direction
One thing that I was looking for in the months after I quit was a clear direction. On some level I already knew the kind of work I’d like to do, telling deep stories from remote cultures and landscapes. But what I didn’t know was if I had it in me to take it up professionally. In the last few months, I found that direction. Earlier this year, I spent a week in Ziro, Arunachal Pradesh to document the fabulously interesting Myoko Festival. I attended all their rituals, learnt the local names by heart. Shot many many portraits, which is one thing I’m terrified of and ate plenty of weird food. That one week pushed me so much out of my comfort zone that I’d like to think I have inched towards becoming a better professional. In future, this is the kind of work I want to do - document faraway, bizarre cultures and landscapes. This, I believe, was a step in the right direction.

The Highs
The biggest high has been the opportunity to try something new. Earlier this year, I sold calendars which few of you bought (Thank you!). I priced them quite high at 950 and 1250 as the production cost itself was very high for small orders. I had outsourced the entire job of printing, assembling and delivery to another agency, all I did was choose the images and select a design. When the orders started pouring in, I began to wonder if it was going to be that easy to make money - sell an idea, delegate and earn profits!

But then came all the complications of managing the production logistics and delivering on time. That one week was one of the most harrowing times with insane sleepless nights and persistent headache. In the end, of course, I loved the fact that I sold a product, people actually bought it and I made some money out of it. I will be selling calendars and other products later this year again, armed with the learning from past mistakes and it’s going to be epic!

But there have been no lows. Nah, I’m kidding! No I am not.
You’d think I’m vain but let me go ahead and say it - there haven’t been any major lows in this journey. Sure, they were challenges, quite a lot of them. But that’s what they were, every potential low was a problem to be solved, a challenge to be tackled. Coming from where I did, anything felt better that doing the meaningless and miserable soul-crushing work I did earlier. When things went downhill, I was quick in counting my blessings. On some days, I just couldn’t believe this is my life - wandering about, taking pictures and writing stories.

I was full of bitterness in my earlier job - I remembered the bad days, the shitty meetings and the indignation. Surprisingly, now when I look back, I only remember the highs. That’s not to say there were no bad days, there were plenty. But it’s funny how genuine contentment can spill over into all parts of your life neutralizing whatever resentment you held.

Travel Writing, Money and the works
It’s been a bit challenging because I just wouldn’t get off my ass and pitch ideas. But on those rare days that I do manage to send my ideas out, I get good amount of work. I have written dozens of articles in the past one year and I’m secretly very proud that none of them were lists! (Okay, I’m lying. There was one.) When I thought of travel writing, this is what I had in mind. I am not going to tell where to go or how to do it. I am just going to talk about the reasons that compel us to travel.

So far, the only income I’ve earned is through travel writing & photography. There have been quite a few scary and penniless weeks, wondering how in the hell will I be paying those credit card bills because the cheques won’t ever arrive on time. But, I had decided a while ago that I’m not going to dilute my focus by dipping my feet into any other opportunities. I stuck to this decision and I couldn’t have been happier.

However, a lot of the stories I’m working on are from my previous travels. It essentially means I’m piggybacking on all the trips I paid for with my corporate salary. In about a year or more, I will run out of stories from my previous trips and the money I earn through writing will have to be put back into traveling again. I don’t know if I’ll be able to sustain myself for long depending only on income from travel writing but that’s something I’m not going to worry about right now. By that time in future, I should’ve also figured out how to get commissioned stories where all expenses are paid. At the moment, I travel on my own and then sell the stories. I do take assistance from tourism boards, hotel chains, travel companies and such but there’s a certain amount of money that goes from my pocket too.

There are some things I missed
Not having a steady base has been largely a liberating experience. On few days, I miss having a place to slow down and get work done but the fault largely lies with me in not being able to find a good guesthouse for long term stay. All world’s home now. Other than that, I really do not miss having a place that I call home.

What I do miss is writing good stories on my blog now. I am holding off the best stuff to write for other publications and I’m writing so much already elsewhere that it’s becoming increasingly difficult for me to write for the blog as well. Which is a pity because I love writing for you and reaching a direct audience. I do hope to post more anecdotes and unedited versions of published stories here soon. Meanwhile you can read my published stories here - www.neelima.contently.com.

***

It’s really crazy that I lasted a whole year. At some point, I imagined I’d panic, break down and go crawling back to a regular soul-crushing job. Strangely, a year after I quit, I don’t see myself heading towards a regular job anytime soon. I love the fact that I can experiment, think out of the box and keep myself open for opportunities. More importantly, all of this feels quite normal!

Related Reading:

Friday, May 22, 2015

Wander Tales #2 - Chai

Wander Tales Comic - Chai

In this initiative, Ramya and I, bring to you little visual stories about travel experiences, insights, incidents and learnings. Check out the first comic in the link below and let me know your thoughts about the travel comic strip in the comments section! :)

(Read Introducing "Wander Tales" Comics)

Monday, May 18, 2015

In the Foothills of Himalayas, Let Kosi Valley Charm You

Mt Trishul as seen from Kumaon Himalayas
A Gorgeous sunset over the Mountains

Through the glass windows, I was looking at the night lift its cloak of darkness as a blue dawn fought its way through. The sun crept up the mountains that surrounded me as the first rays slowly flooded the room, the chirping of birds grew louder and I could hear the faint gurgle of the river below. I was still in bed as the orange light blinded me; I adjusted my position to keep the rays away from my face. While I have always loved the idea of waking up to first light gently falling on my face, it is not something that I got to experience a lot. But here at Kosi Valley Retreat, I went to bed every night anticipating waking up to bright sunshine.

I’m not a morning person on most days, but whenever I’m in the hills, I become one. It is impossible not to, when your cue to wake up is not the mechanized sound of an alarm ringing but the delightful cacophony of numerous birds singing. Plus, it helps to be well rested, in the lap of nature where your internal body clock resets itself (BBC: Can a week under canvas reset our body clocks?). Here in this valley, outdoor enthusiasts who prefer a nature fix along with creature comforts can have it all.

Sunshine Flooding the Room
View from the bed, minutes before sunshine comes flooding the room

My days largely comprised of hanging out with wild nature; Pine trees, Kosi River, Himalayas and its foothills, star-studded night skies, Red-Billed Blue Magpies, verdant green terraced fields and such were my constant companions. I spent a week here without encountering another tourist, which seemed to be a rather rare blessing these days.

On clear nights, sitting around a warm bonfire and listening to the screeching of thousand insects, I looked up into the heavens tracing the paths of numerous shooting stars. However, lazy mornings were spent in the balcony with a warm cup of tea in hand, watching the daring pigeons and hill mynas flutter close to the roof while the little birdies flew in frenzy in the farther trees. Afternoons and evenings were spent hiking in the pristine forest that surrounded the property and cycling in the pretty countryside of Someshwar Valley. But on some days when the serenity of the nature called to do “nothing”, I lazed under a pine tree watching the sunshine escape through its sparse canopy. In the age of sightseeing, it seems we forgot how lovely it is to sit under a tree.

But that doesn’t mean I spent my week in Kosi Valley largely doing nothing. My plan was to actually do nothing, and in fact the place is perfect to just laze around with a book or saunter aimlessly given the serene surroundings of hills, streams and forests. But both Kosi Valley and the team really caught me off-guard there, I had quite an active stay with long hikes and cycle rides on few days. However, the thing that I enjoyed most during my stay was the complete lack of a planned itinerary and how the valley let me in on its secrets, slowly, at its own pace, one day at a time.

Every morning, Shivraj(the manager) and I used to discuss what to do and made plans on the fly depending on my mood. Surprisingly, I found something to do every single day. One day, we made a date with the snowcapped peaks of the Kumaon Range. The next, we cruised along the gently winding roads on Mountain Bikes. On another, we just went hiking in the rain. There was no sightseeing, there was just experiencing the beauty of the valley, often ignored and overshadowed by the mountains that rise up from their sides. Fortunately, Kosi Valley Retreat offers you a rare chance to experience serenity in a valley that is off the beaten track.

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My time in Kosi Valley, In Pictures (13!)A Slice of Heaven in Untrodden Corners of Almora

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Make it Happen

Accommodation:
Kosi Valley Retreat
I stayed in the room on top left, comes highly recommended.
Kosi Valley Retreat is a stone bungalow set right by the Kosi River side in a valley between Almora and Kausani, offering 4 rooms on the top floor, with a dedicated balcony for each room which allows you a close look at the very active birdlife in the surrounding pine forest. The building constructed with stone and pebbles in typical mountain style is atmospheric, and the large glass windows and doors are a delightful touch because you can see the mountains and forest right from your bed.

If you’re into outdoor adventures, talk to the team beforehand and ask for a detailed list of things to do around before zeroing in on the number of days you will stay here. There are enough activities to keep you occupied for an entire week and more, so plan your days well in advance so you are not disappointed that you have to leave out certain treks or cycle rides due to lack of time. 

A small team of friendly staff from nearby villages manages the retreat and they take care of you quite well. And, like me, if you hate the oily atrocity that is thrust upon us in the name of Indian food in most touristy places, you will love the simple and delicious Kumaoni food served here. The produce used for cooking is mostly organic, coming from the kitchen garden within the premises. 

Getting there:
Kosi Valley Retreat is situated in a village called Simkholi, 30kms from Almora and 18kms from Kausani in the splendid Almora district of Uttarakhand, far away from the crowd and close to nature.

Kathgodam is the nearest railway station and Haldwani is the closest bus stop. You can get shared or full taxis to take you to Almora from Kathgodam, it takes about 4-5 hours to reach.

Note: My stay and activities at Kosi Valley were sponsored by Kosi Valley Retreat.

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