What separates this desert country from its flashier nouveau riche cousins in the Middle East is the laidback poise that sucks you into its rich culture without fanfare, but on its own terms. Very much clued into millennial aspirations, here is a country on the move. This can largely be attributed to Sultan Qaboos, who has, since 1970, stamped his authority by relentlessly modernising the country, without feeling obliged to jettison its past. The Sultan himself is widely educated— from pune, where he received his primary education, to Sandhurst where he received military training—and he brings this inclusivity to his vision of his country’s future.
Rampur is a common name, shared by dozens of villages and towns across India, but when I was growing up, there was always only one Rampur for me. It was the place where the Kashi Vishwanath Express train from Delhi halted briefly in the late afternoon. Where long, lazy summers were spent eating tub-loads of mangoes from my grandmother’s orchard. Where kites were chased, and cousins slept in an inner courtyard cooled by water from the tube well.
A couple of years ago I made my first trip into the North East. I visit Manipur, Nagaland and Meghalaya. I thought Arunachal Pradesh deserved special visit. Arunachal is the only Indian state that still boasts of over 80 percent forest cover. Has some of the most spectacular bird species (150 of them) and rare mammals including the red panda and the snow leopard.
So in 2011 after wrapping up a shoot in Guwahati, I hired a taxi for a 5 day excursion into Arunachal. I had limited time and I had to pick a destination in the state. I chose Tawang. A video of a road journey into a paradise of far, far away.
The wealth of information you can get from your cabbie can beat any fancy guide book hands down. No matter where I travel, I always needle my taxi-driver for info and am rewarded with a lowdown on local gossip, survival tips, inside knowledge on tourist scams and much more.
The `Official Santa’ is very much the Santa of my imagination. Long white undulating beard. Rose tinted rotund cheeks. And the all too familiar corpulent frame. He greets us a predictable Namastay when we tell him we are from India. He takes turns greeting us all and asks the girls in our group if they have been good-girls in a manner and tone he would ask any naughty children visiting him. The girls play along with one of them insisting on getting a photograph shot sitting on his lap.
Many years ago when I visited Nainital for the first time , it was a relief to see the lake so polluted . If you belong to a hill station like me, you tend to look at another hill-station with a sense of competition. My hometown, Shimla, I happily concluded, is after all the best hill-station in India.
But on a recent visit to Nainital, I was astonished to see the Naini Lake far from the dump it was many years ago. It was all spruced up and crystal clean. There was no longer any debris floating on its surface and the horrid smell had gone. I had to reluctantly admit that Nanital is possibly India’s most beautiful hill station.
Whenever I get an invitation to visit a cold place I am generally not too excited. I was born in the foothills of the Himalayas (Himachal Pradesh) therefore snow, mountains, and high altitudes generate feelings of home not wanderlust. But an invitation to visit the Arctic was different. I had never crossed the 66 degree latitude for one and the opportunity to relive your childhood storybook fantasies of reindeers-rides and huskies sledges is too hard to resist.
But all this seems distant on the short drive along double-barrelled Basai Road, which makes its way through the villages of Dhankot and Chandu and past Sultanpur Bird Sanctuary, undulating through multi-coloured fields of mustard, wheat and marigolds. The drive is a pleasure; the road is in good condition and lined with fruit sellers peddling seasonal wares right from the orchards. Farmland lines the road, retreating into gentle hillocks that mark the beginning of the Aravalli Hills. Farrukhnagar appears in a traffic jam of lorries, buses and cycles resembling most small Indian towns until one reaches the old quarter with its distinctive Mughal architecture.
Most of us have a filmy notion of street-muggings. Its more Hollywood than Bollywood. You are walking down a dark-alley when hooded hoodlums waylay you. They brandish a knife or a gun and say stuff like ‘’Your money or your life’’.
But when I was mugged in Tanzania , two years ago, it took me a while to get my bearings to realize I had been mugged. It happened so fast.
But it is not just my resort. Joining the chorus are many others. I can hear the distant boom of the music (Sheela Ki Jawani) across the forest valley well after light out. Tourists drink and dance till wee hours of the night. And in the morning they don’t care too much if they miss the safari.
I am neither a honeymooner nor here for the snow. I am one of the other sort of tourist in Manali that maybe my taxi driver has not yet taken stock of. The snow game aficionados. And we are all here for the winter adventures offered at the Solang Valley. Winter games is a regular feature at this beautiful valley some 13 kms from Manali town but it has never been so big an affair to keep the tourists industry in Manali happy. But from this year onwards it promises to only grown bigger with a plethora of snow adventures happening all at one place.
Most African Safari junkies round off their African bush adventures by dipping their feet in the waters of one of the white-sand beaches of the Zanzibar Archipelago. But I headed straight for Zanzibar even before I saw my first thomson’s gazelle. I had just completed an exhausting shoot in Tanzania and there is nothing like the Islands of the Zanzibar Archipelago to rest your body and soul. It was meant to be a quite holiday but I just could not resist picking up my camera again to photograph the quaint islands, the placid beaches, and its warm people.
If you are photographing in Assam for the first time like I was, you would do well not to carry a heavy long-angled zoom. Everything is so vast here that it wont fit your frame unless you carry a wide-angled lens in your camera bag. In Kaziranga National Park the rhinos often breach that invisible man- animal line and come close enough to ram your gypsy turtle. For this reason they send an armed guard with every three gypsies to scare the rhinos with blank shots.
As a travel photographer I had become accustomed to being the first one to arrive at any landmark at any place I visited. I would have taken the best shots with the early morning sun much before the first tourists began to troop in. But when I stepped out of my hotel in Kanyakumari at six in the morning, I was shocked to find a sea of humanity already there at the beach. Groggy-eyed I tried to look for a vantage position to photograph the rising sun. But every nook and cranny was taken and every tourist was smugly poised with his camera.
If you visit Wadi Rum in Jordan, a night’s halt is a must . Not just for the stars that shine so lustrously in the desert sky but for the exotic and authentic Arabian experience it accords. Thankfully there are no hotels in this desert so the only way you can have a lay over here is in bedouin-like camps. From the food to the interiors, the camps compete with each other in giving the best bedouin experience.
Known as `Valley of the Moon’ Wadi Rum in Jordan is not just a nature lover’s moonscape. Its also a great place for sport aficionadas. The sheer cliffs and escarpments of Wadi Rum desert offer enough challenge to the hardiest of climbers. No wonder serious mountaineering and trekkers flock to these huge sandstone mountains all the year around.
If you fly into Zanzibar you will be rewarded with fantastic aerial views of turquoise and blue waters and views of the emerald eden-like islands of the Zanzibar archipelago. Zanzibar is indeed quite an African oasis. Who would imagine white sand beaches on the African continent? But every year this beautiful island attracts thousands of tourists from around the world- chiefly from the Middle-East , Europe and Asia. Most tourists visiting the mainland for its wildlife round off their trip by cooling their heels in the cool , calm waters of Zanzibar.
Like all summits in the hills, Hatu Peak is also a religious place with its temple and designated deity. Once a year (June 20) people from all the apple growing villages lying below Hatu gather here for a traditional festival that has been celebrated for generations. In the past the villagers would walk up to Hatu. But today a motorable road cuts up through the dense forest and meanders to the top. The economy of the apple growers has thrived over the years and now they drive up to Hatu in their new four-wheel drives.
If Petra is Jordan’s historical heritage, Wadi Rum is its Arabian Nights. Its in Wadi Rum where folklore meets imagination. No matter which part this small peaceful Middle-Eastern country you travel in, all reference points are invariably of the desert. Its just as well. Over thousands of centuries, the life of the Jordanians have been shaped by the deserts. Almost seventy five percent of Jordan is desert-like, much of it uninhibited. The civilization is squeezed to a narrow strip around river Jordan and the Dead Sea.
Hornbill festival like most cultural festivals is essentially manufactured exotica. It is a big draw for exotica seeking tourists and for lazy journalists like myself who get to see the shoot Naga tribes in their tribal finery all under one roof without getting into the trouble of going into the hinterland where the real tribes actually live. That of course takes a lot of perseverance, time , sweat and given the condition in Nagaland some degree of personal risk. Unfortunately I had stomach for none
Why would Prince William and Kate Middleton want to spend their honeymoon in Jordan of all the places in the world? Like everyone else I had wondered about it when I read the news. But on a recent trip to this middle-east country I realised why. Jordan is an oasis of peace in an area where suicide-bombings, repressions, reprisal shellings and political uprisings are a daily norm.
Having chased tigers unsuccessfully in tiger reserves across India , Sunderbans is the last place where I expect to see the elusive cat. Tiger sightings are the rarest in Sunderbans. Even the guides mark it as a special event on their calendar if they happen to site a tiger. Its easy to see why.
It can be pretty cheesy doing the usual exotic activities a country is famous for. Riding a reindeer sledge in the Arctic a la Santa is certainly one such. Its almost like jumping onto a bullock cart or a rickshaw ride in India. But Reindeer Sledging is something much more. No matter how old you are you cannot help but think of partaking in a Christmas legend you grew up reading through school.