Monday, April 20, 2015

Introducing "Wander Tales" Comics - In Collaboration with Ramya Sriram of "The Tap"!

We all love comics now, don't we? The kinds that can cleverly condense our long-drawn-out thoughts into insightful little drawings. So when Ramya approached me with the idea of working on a travel comic, I was more than excited to see how it shapes up.

Ramya, is a talented illustrator who has donned several hats in the past as book editor, copywriter but storytelling is what she enjoys most. Check out awesome work at www.thetap.in, I personally love her fun and nostalgia-inducing "Amma Says" series where she talks about moms and all the things they say.

And me, well you know me. I am the wandering soul. 
(If not, read more about me here.)

I will tell the stories.
Ramya will draw the comics.

And together we present, Wander Tales!

Here's the first one. We hope to make this a bi-monthly series.

Wander Tales #1



Do watch this space and don't forget to tell us how you liked the idea and the first comic. :)

Thursday, April 16, 2015

In Pictures: A Slice of Heaven in Untrodden Corners of Almora, Uttarakhand

On a cold chilly morning, my frozen hands and toes feeling uncomfortably numb, surrounded by nothing but the solemn silence of the resolute mountains, watching the lofty Himalayan peaks slowly turn pink at sunrise, I made a promise to myself that I will come back to these mountains as many times as I can. Because there's no good reason in this world that justifies staying away from the joy of getting lost in the infinite beauty of the Himalayas!

In a forgotten valley between the famous hill stations of Almora and Kausani that have captured our imagination for long, I spent a week at Kosi Valley Retreat in the obscure yet picturesque Someshwar Valley where the River Kosi meandered quietly endowing the valley with all its might, impervious to all the attention the hills around were getting. The lower slopes of the mountains and the fertile plains between them were packed green with verdant terraced fields, amidst them children frolicked and women in colorful dresses worked. Hidden beyond the small mountains were the giants, Trishul, Nanda Devi, Nanda Ghunti, Chaukhamba and their ilk. Sparrows, magpies, bulbuls and many other birds flitted around in the branches of the pine trees but the river quietly flowed in between.

In this valley that is something like heaven, I spent my time day-dreaming under pine trees, cycling along winding roads, hiking in the hills, running after birds and talking to Himalayas. If there's something like homecoming, this was it. 

Almora, Uttarakhand
Having seen a lot of Himalayas before, I'm not one to be easily appeased by a quick peek of a peak above the ridges. I have hiked for days in its impenetrable valleys, crossed over several passes, camped in flower filled grasslands and have seen sun cast its first light on the big mountains from right under their noses. But here - in Almora - I am certain that I have never been this spell bound before. When I saw the mighty Himalayas tower over the valleys and sneak up on the several layers of little pine ridges, when I could see the mountain rise from plains of the earth to reach for the sky and everything that's in between, I knew was becoming privy to a beautiful secret!   

Almora, Uttarakhand
While I have been longing for mountains all along, there's a certain charm to the mountain-surrounded valleys that you cannot deny. Wandering in the verdant Someshwar valley, on foot or on cycle, I often wondered how did I miss this little detail - that valleys is where life is. This is where smiles flourish, laughter resounds, people live and birds chirp. 

Almora, Uttarakhand
The thing with the hills is unless you are on top, your view is obstructed. The thing with the valleys is that the gorgeous views are unobstructed, despite being at the bottom! This is the typical landscape in the Someshwar Valley.


ALT
ALT
My tryst with hiking in the Himalayas had unexpectedly started in Gharwal, marvelling at the very same Trishul that was standing in front of me here in Kumaon. That was 6 years ago, yet looking at the crest of the mountain peaking above the Someshwar Valley, it felt like meeting a long lost friend when I hiked up the small hill in front of the retreat one evening.

Almora, Uttarakhand
The inimitable romance of walking in pristine pine forest listening to the sound of rustling pine leaves that feels like swelling waves of an ocean and basking in the sunlight streaming through the punctured canopy is exactly the kind stuff that dreams are made of. For two days, hiking in the hills overlooking Someshwar Valley, I let myself fully immerse in the little joys of being in the outdoors. There were bigger rewards as well, but life is made up of many of such small moments too.

Almora, Uttarakhand
That night after a tiring climb through pine valleys and ridges, rhododendron filled pathways and countless Himalayan views, we came to a holy temple atop a hill. We spent the night at a forest resthouse. For the record, I was in a cottage. In reality, I was sleeping under the stars!

Almora, Uttarakhand
It was breathtaking alright but it was more heartwarming to see the mountains here without the deep gashes and ghastly bruises inflicted by humanity in the name of development. There is no greater joy than seeing undisturbed forests, even more so in a country like India where we are encroaching into every inch of wild spaces left!


Cycling to Kausani
Views of green terraced fields and pretty box houses
Some of you who were followers of this blog for few years now might remember that there was a time when I was crazy about cycling! I climbed 36 hair pins bends over mad gradients, rode 140kms in a single day, soaked myself silly cycling in the rains and even attempted to ride in the Himalayas. All that was behind me though, it's been ages since I cycled and last year I even sold my trusted bike! But here in Someshwar Valley, couldn't resist the temptation looking at the lovely roads of Almora and the mountain bikes at the place where I was staying. 

Almora, Uttarakhand
On the first evening, I took the bike out for a short spin - an easy 10km ride in the valley along side the fields. The itch had come back, few days later, we cycled all the way upto to Kausani, 20kms from the valley. The weather was delightfully overcast with cool winds to keep me company, the climb to Kausani was gradual and gently making the ride very pleasant. The cherry on top, however, were the breathtaking views of green valleys and pine mountains. 

Almora, Uttarakhand
On the last day, before leaving the valley that gave me so many fond memories, thought it only made sense to hike up the hills one last time to bid goodbye. It rained that morning, heavily. As I made my way up the village into the pine forest over the ridge, this unbelievable sweeping view of the valley welcomed me. As the rain reduced to a drizzle, I stood over a slippery rock wondering if this was Kumaon's way of saying farewell to me, by delighting me one last time. I walked further ahead on the trail lost in the view when two wild boars grunted and lunged into the forest startled by my presence, reminding me that the forests here as wild as they are beautiful. I scurried back in fear, to the retreat where I was staying. A smile stayed plastered on my face though, how wonderful was it to encounter life in the forests, abode of the wild, the beautiful, and the reckless!

Almora, Uttarakhand

Sometimes, our greatest gifts come in strange packages. Who would've thought staying in valley will get me closer to the mountains? Who would've thought ignoring the hill station viewpoints will take me to secret hideouts only the locals know about? They say Uttarakhand is known as Devbhoomi, meaning a place where gods live, because of the numerous temples that dot the state. But looking at these mountains and valleys, I have no doubt that in that claim because who else can create a place so exquisite?


Practical Information:

Someshwar Valley is situated between the popular hill stations Almora and Kausani in the state of Uttarakhand, India. The weather is pleasant during the summers and can get quite chilly during the monsoons and winters.

How to reach:
Kathgodam is the nearest railway station and Haldwani is the closest bus stop. From here, you can get shared or full taxis to take you to Almora, it takes about 4-5 hours to reach. The valley is at a distance of 20kms from Almora.

Where to stay:
Kosi Valley Retreat is a beautiful 4-bedroom stone building set in a quiet and serene Someshwar valley right on the banks of Kosi river, far far away from the crowd and tourists. The cozy retreat is managed by the sweetest team of locals from surrounding villages who will take care of you like family including stuffing you with lip-smacking homemade and organic food.

I travelled solo and never felt unsafe. Whenever I went hiking or cycling or walking, I was always accompanied by local guides from the retreat who took good care of me.

What to do:
Situated in a pristine corner of Uttarakhand, there are plenty of hiking and biking trails around the property. I went on 2 rides and 3 hikes during my week long stay there. Talk to the team at Walk to Himalayas who can suggest a good itinerary for you. If you love outdoors you are in for an absolute treat as the retreat is stocked with outdoor gear like rock climbing equipment, mountain bikes, camping gear and all that jazz. 

Note: My stay and activities at Kosi Valley Retreat were sponsored by Walk to Himalayas. Opinions, as always, are honest and mine. 

Sunday, March 15, 2015

When Strange Places Feel Like Home

Two months ago, I had this momentous epiphany that I should be giving up the apartment, my belongings, a stable base and live out of a backpack. I gave my two months notice to the house owner, packed up my stuff and made plans to call the road home. And the first place I wanted to go back to, as a nomad, was a strange place that was never comfortable, always had great adventures in store for me and felt like another planet to someone who comes from the land of bright tropical sunshine - Ladakh!

Leh Palace in Winter
Leh Palace, glowing on a winter morning
I always thought, as a wandering soul at heart, I would never want to call one place home. But here in Ladakh, every single time I arrive, I feel at home. Including last month’s journey, I’ve been here five times already - thrice in summers and twice in winters! I returned this time thinking I’ll be back again coming summer. I often wonder, how is it that a place can call out to me again and again, and again?

But what makes a place feel like home? 
Familiarity? Probably. 
Novelty? Certainly not!

The first time I arrived in Ladakh, it was like novelty hit me in the gut and assaulted my senses ceaselessly. I never knew Himalayas were so dry, muddy and so majestic. The oxygen deprivation was a completely new sensation altogether and the proximity to sky-high mountains was inexplicably nostalgic - having grown up in plains, those were memories probably from my past life.

It was here in these mountains that I first experienced freedom in its purest form. Sitting on the banks of a solitary Pangong, then untainted by the consumerist hogwash, I felt like I arrived at the end of the world. Except for a handful of vehicles, the disastrous human touch was delightfully absent and the untarnished natural beauty of the blue lake was mine and only mine to savour. It’s been 7 years since I first set foot in this enchanted land, I’ve seen the place change over the years - from blissful desolateness to pitiful commercialization. I’ve seen the place grow, I’ve explored it’s nooks and corners - I’ve gone from the marshlands of Chushul to the tribes of Dah Hanu, reached scintillating heights of Stok Kangri to freezing depths of Chadar. I’ve followed the trail of a Snow Leopard and watched dozens of Kiangs(Wild Asses) run amok across the cold desert. Every time I’m here, a sense of belonging and a rush of familiarity washes me over. 

Flowers around Hemis Monastery
Flowers on the way to Hemis Monastery
I do not live here, but I see a friendly face on every corner. I did not grow up here, but there’s always someone who recognizes me here. I do not belong here, but my body adjusts perfectly fine to the high altitudes & freezing temperatures here. My mind - it takes flight here! There is something in these hills that reminds me of a place called home, that was never mine to begin with. 

Last January, when I was worried sick about walking on Chadar(it’s a frozen river for god’s sake, which can break anytime!), I completed the trek without any incident. Our guide said, this was a rare occurance that we finished the trek without any weather related trouble or the need to wade barefoot through freezing waters. This year, when I went back, Ladakh welcomed me with a warm heart in the dead of winter by showing me its colorful festival welcoming summers! Feels like Ladakh takes care of me, always. 

Dosmoche Festival
Dosmoche Festival, marking the beginning of summer
How many times have we made silent promises that we’ll be back somewhere and how many times have we actually gone back? With Ladakh, I go back every single time I make that promise. I’ve been to thousand other places since my journey started at Ladakh and till today Ladakh is one of the very few places that truly feels like home - oxygen deprivation, lack of greenery and freezing temperatures notwithstanding! Sometimes the strangest of places feel like home and perhaps the magic lies exactly in not knowing why. 

Ladakh is my strange beloved place I can call home, what’s yours?

Tuesday, February 3, 2015

You don't have to Quit your Job to Travel! Here's why.

With all the “How I quit my job to Travel” stories (mine included) floating around in the web world, it might be easy to think that quitting job is the only possible way to travel. But that’s a far cry from reality and definitely not a pre-requisite to travel the world!

Camping in the Steppes of Mongolia
I haven't been everywhere, but it's on my list! - Susan Sontag 

Quitting your full time job sounds like a fancy proposition but the hard truth is it is not as glamorous as it sounds. There’s the possibility of a lot of travel but there’s a lot of work involved as well. You have the freedom but you don’t have the luxury of a big chunk of disposable income anymore. In the end, it’s all about making a choice.

Both the situations have their pros and cons. I have travelled a lot over the past few years – with a job in hand and without one over the past few months. I have experienced both sides of the coin and certainly have missed few things from my cubicle days. The thing is, when most of us quit our jobs to travel, we find another work. Travel is not an escape from work and it isn’t supposed to be.

So, unless you have found another way to make money and pay your bills, traveling with a job in hand can actually be quite amazing. With some good planning, you can travel a lot! I once met a German guy who worked as a teacher, a profession that gave him enough long vacations (summer, winter, Christmas etc) during which he used to travel to many countries every single year. And every few years, he used to find work in a different country allowing him to explore that part of the world while he was posted there. Sounds like a pretty good deal to me.

Here’s the story of another friend who goes on crazy adventures across the world and he does it all with the help of his corporate job and some kickass planning. As we speak, he’s already making plans to overland across Central Asia and visit one of the least visited places, Socotra Island this year. In the last 2 years, he’s been on the Trans-Siberian journey, wreck-dived in Bali, ice-dived in Russia, went on the highest and longest train journey in the world from China to Tibet and visited about 20 odd countries.

Hear it straight from the horse’s mouth!
Anshul Chaurasia tells you why having a job to travel the world is just as awesome.

Being in a full time job and managing travel is very much possible. The easier way to understand is to take this up job as the source of funds and travel as the main passion. Secondly one needs to be very proactive in planning. Just like managers plan projects months in advance and have a pipeline, one can plan their travel well in advance. I have nothing against impromptu vacations, but things like international travel, cheap airfare deals, and visa issues are handled well if you have proper timeline. Think, three-four week long holidays abroad/in India as big projects that need planning and small weekend holidays as ad-hoc deliverables that need shorter planning. Also saving up money becomes easier when you have a timeline - book tickets in first month, hotels next month, visas as early as the specific consulate allows, and the Forex in the month you would be travelling. Also informing at one's employer 3-4 months before the travel helps since managers can manage dependencies easily then. This becomes a major hurdle for last minute holidays.

For example I planned a trip to Bali more than a year in advance as I got Bangalore - Bali return fares for as low as 8000 INR in an AirAsia sale. Also be a big hound for cheap airfares deals, once that is done rest of the things can be taken care of easily.

It would be wrong if I don't accept that the thought to quit my current job and do something more conducive to travel industry - like a writer, scuba trainer etc has not come in my mind. But then a stable well paying job gives one the luxury to plan costly destinations, borrow money from people since you can return them next month, use credit cards without much thought, and above all a stable revenue stream is hard to give up.

I did try a short 2.5 months trip this year, which spanned 26,000 Kms of overland travel across Russia, Mongolia, China, Tibet and Nepal and was able to get Leave of Absence from office (unpaid, naturally). But the peace of mind one gets because there is a job waiting back cannot be compared to if I had to quit and search another job after coming back. Best part is that I told them the real reason and after much convincing they were in support of it.

I think this if fine as travel does a lot of broadening of one's perspectives and if their parents can fund their travel I would say they should definitely try it for few months at least. In west, many people do it taking student loans after college end. But then getting a job makes one value every single rupee earned and then one becomes a conscious traveler as they are spending their own hard-earned money.

The mantra is don’t think your job will be the driving force in your life, you would have to find that force yourself. If travel is that force, then use whatever fuel you can get to keep it running.

So, there it is! Don’t think quitting your job is the only way to travel. Despite the fact that I love the freedom of not having a desk job, I won’t be able to take any big adventures at this moment. I will not sugarcoat it. I do not make that kind of money anymore. And I do not regret it either. I made that choice because along with travel, I also wanted to change my career. However, if you love your job or have other commitments or have money and time at your current job, there's no need to quit to travel! Keep the money and travel well. In the end it’s all about using the resources available to you in the best possible way to travel.

Have you thought of quitting your job to travel?

Saturday, January 3, 2015

The Inside Scoop on How Awesome my Life has been since I Quit my Job (& exciting news)


Quite frankly, much of it sucked!
(Well not entirely, but you'll know what I mean after you've read this post. 
Somewhere in the Steppes of Mongolia
With great power comes great responsibility and that's what has happened to me. I finally earned my freedom last year but as always with many good things, it was easier to achieve freedom than holding on to it! During the last few months I learned it requires a lot of self discipline to make freelancing work for you. And as it turns out, the queen of procrastination(me) wasn't ready to change her languorous ways despite the lure of an adventurous future. I won't elaborate on the practicalities of freelance life here, that's for another day but safe to say, it's twice as tough and half as glamorous.

When I was working in a full time corporate job, I used to wake up at 5 in the morning and file stories or pitch ideas before heading to work. I used to hole myself up in my home office over weekends working over ideas, stories and images. I thought if I could do so well with a full time job at hand, I imagined the moment I quit I would pick up new publications to write for and type thousands of words and process Gigabytes of images.

In reality, all I did was watch many of the epic TV series I missed out over the past years where I traveled or slogged to get my foot into travel writing industry. I had resisted the temptation for so long, to watch Game of Thrones or Sherlock even as my Facebook and Twitter feeds were filled with spoilers and praises day after day. But in the first few days after I quit where I found myself waking up to days with so set agenda and full of "free" time, all my resolution shattered into pieces. I missed out on pop culture for way too long that I binge-watched series to my heart's content. I watched Game of Thrones, Sherlock, Homeland, House of Cards, Castle and several hundred reruns of F.R.I.E.N.D.S in the last 6 months. I took delightful afternoon naps on cold winter days of Bangalore. I woke up in no hurry, enjoyed several cups of instant coffee(I make horrible coffee btw) and thanked my stars a million times that I have escaped the wretched Bangalore Traffic!

While I don't entirely regret lazing around(after 7 years of corporate life, I think I deserve 6 months of doing nothing), it hurts that I wasn't at least half as productive as I wanted to be. Work and travel wise, it was good. I traveled a lot in the 6 months since I quit (Bhutan, Mongolia, Macao, Arunachal Pradesh, Goa, Uttarakhand, Sahyadris, Punjab, Western Ghats). I broke into dream publications and have been writing feature stories for leading magazines but I know I haven't even scratched the surface - of neither my ability nor the stories locked up in my mind. I haven't even started working on Mongolia stories yet or pictures and it's been 4 months since I got back!

I got so comfortable returning to my home in Bangalore that I passed up on many opportunities. Renting a place even after I quit didn't make sense considering I wanted to be a nomad in first place, but this was a new low. I preferred to stay here instead of chasing new adventures. That was the trigger that jolted me out of my slothful stupor, something was definitely going wrong. I found myself waiting for opportunities rather than creating them. And that's when I decided enough is enough. I now need to shake things up a bit and get out of this comfortable shell I've created for myself in Bangalore. I needed to move away from the distractions of lightning quick & unlimited internet. When the internet is so limited in hinterlands where I plan to be, I'm sure I'll be focussed on finishing the work at hand and shutting down the laptop because *slow internet*.  It's time to move far out of my comfort zone because we all know where magic happens!

To that end, I am finally moving out of Bangalore - a backpack, a laptop and my camera in tow, I will now be calling the road home! Come February, I will be embarking on this new adventure and I don't know where I'm heading yet. I know this will make me very very uncomfortable but I've collected/sold most stories from the trips that scared the shit out of me. If this decision is making me nervous, it's a good thing. The fear and uncertainty will keep me on my toes and push me to do much more than I am currently doing. And worst case scenario, if I continue to be just as lazy, I might as well be lazy in a place with a view! ;)
My New Year resolution is to be more adventurous, climb more mountains, spend more time outdoors and return to the kind of crazy trips that drew you all to my blog to begin with. 2015 will be year where I'll happily embrace discomfort in return for an epic story. 
What's your resolution for 2015?

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