Friday, November 29, 2013

4 Years, 4 Thank You’s, 4th Blogging Anniversary!

Recently I got a mail asking me what keeps me inspired to keep blogging. It’s not the first time I have received such a mail. Generally I blurt out things like I love travelling and I love sharing, helping people plan their trips better, something similar to what I have written in my ‘About Me’ section and get away with my answers. I don’t know why but this time the same question took me deeper. Perhaps, it was the effect of the 4 year mark that I was going to hit in a couple of days. Or may be perhaps, it was my own curiosity regarding the entire thing.

For the record, I never answered that e-mail. The question stuck in my mind though for many days to come until this week, of thanksgiving as well as my blog anniversary, when I thought it was high time I expressed my gratitude to all those things that keep me inspired to keep blogging. Next thing I knew, I had pulled out my diary and started scribbling some notes. My thank you notes. Here they go, my humble gratitude to all those awesome people who make My Yatra Diary... tick and tick... and tick with every passing year:

1. Thank you, Mummy, Papa and Bhaiyya:

As a little girl, I always travelled with my parents and enjoyed my journeys with them. They have been ardent travelers all their life with a wide range of cities and states dusted under their shoes: Gangasagar, Vaishno Devi, Kanyakumari, Rameshwaram, Dwarka, Ashtavinayak, Somnath, Uttarakhand, and so many more. However, most of these happened at a time when I was still very young to understand the finer nuances of a yatra. A real one. Or perhaps I was just too busy. Running the rat race of life. Yet as any traditional Indian family set up, I was with them, following them, tagging along wherever they went. Little did I know then that this would be the same thing that would give me, my life a whole new direction some day...

My strength

Having stepped out fresh from my graduation with flying colors, like any other young girl, I found a whole range of options waiting for me: further studies, MBA, job, what next? Everyone my age seemed to be doing those very things, and I tried treading on the same path yet I felt empty, I felt incomplete, I missed that exciting pull. My journeys continued, meanwhile and one fine day, while having a hard time searching for a good hotel on the internet as part of our travel planning, this idea of blog germinated. Soon enough, I started blogging, documenting my personal experiences, where to stay, what to eat, etc. with an intention to help people with whatever I knew. And look, where it's taken me since then.

I still remember how excited I was when I had called my dad to read the first article, proofread that is before I published it, with me and my brother standing by his side. And guess what? He read and he liked it. An immediate boost to my confidence. 4 years later, he continues to read my blog and my brother still stands by me. My mom prefers to work from behind the scene though, you can think of her as my marketing manager, she is the one who really gets the word out there as far as her voice can reach.

2. Thank You, IndiBlogger:

IndiBlogger - an Indian Bloggers community was the next to come into the picture. It was the place where I was to find the most valuable things of my blogging life: friends, smiles, joys and above all, an identity. Having been a reserved personality of sorts, it was the platform of IndiBlogger where I initially found my voice – An unwavering belief in my communication. An eclectic mix of seniors and juniors, I learnt the most important lessons while interacting with all the wonderful people there: the value of truthfulness and credibility for a blogger over money, respecting one and all for what they do, being passionate about what you do, for taking pride in what you are. I absolutely enjoyed my interactions over there (and I still do) and learnt a lot many things; I received a lot of love and appreciation for my work from various people from different walks of life, was blessed with a lot of exciting opportunities; every single step I took there bolstered my confidence and boosted my morale several many notches further.

My Badge of honor and pride

That’s the place I have grown up in, so much as a blogger, also as a person that it has today become my second family, a place I feel I belong, a place I love, a place that is binding with so many bloggers under a single roof, and yet it is different... it gives me freedom, freedom to be me. And that is what I will always love about this community. That is what I will always be thankful for.

3. Thank You, My Yatra Diary…

One, two, three... four. FOUR years! How time has flown and how it’s taken me along! So much as it might be hard to believe but it’s true. I stand at this point, here today, still typing, still searching for the right words (yeah, some things never change), still looking forward to travel, share, learn, grow... And, what an incredible journey it has been. I have enjoyed every bit of my sharing, every bit of my writing, every bit of my travelling. Varanasi, Allahabad, Mathura, Japan, Melbourne, Rajasthan, Shirdi, Mumbai Ganpati pandal hopping ...

My humble journey

I am deeply grateful to you, my diary for coming into my life. I love you, I will continue to write to you as and when I travel. I hope my shares will always help people who are coming to you or will give others a nice arm chair travel. All this through your eyes. And mine. I look forward to an exciting journey with you, today, tomorrow and always. Thank you so much for coming into my life.

4. Thank you, My Ultimate Gift

As I am looking back at the pages of My Yatra Diary..., I feel a sense of pride and worth at the progress this little travel scrapbook of mine has made, I feel amazed at the number of pages that have been written.

Is this me who has filled all these pages?
Is it me who has been writing here continuously for the last 4 years?

Yes, it’s me but I am quick to realize that the real inspiration for all this comes from elsewhere, a much more powerful source which has guided, inspired and supported me all along. My very own ultimate gift.

And, THAT is YOU.

My ultimate gift

Without your love, this wouldn’t have been possible. I wouldn’t have been here, I wouldn’t have lasted this long perhaps; and there would have been no celebrations. Thank you for encouraging me throughout this journey, thank you for waiting for me at all those times when I was out for a break, thank you for gracing my little corner with the dust of your footprints... Thank you for making me fall in love with my blog. As every corner of my heart fills with gratitude and thankfulness today, I really don’t know what to say, so I guess, I will cut all the frills and simply say a simple ‘Thank You’.

How lucky I am to have something that makes saying goodbye so hard.

~ A.A. Milne, Winnie-the-Pooh

Though we have never met yet to be blessed with this precious bond of ours really means a lot to me. I wish and pray this friendship of ours keeps growing and getting stronger and stronger with each passing day, every passing birthday.

So here's something for you! YOU, for EACH AND EVERYONE reading this right now, for my dear friend Mohini (who has also given me this beautiful birthday gift), for my mom... all feathers, all credits, achievements, My little Yatra Diary... dedicates them all to you. You are it's inspiration, it's motivation, it's joy in this journey of ours... you will always be.

I can no other answer make, but, thanks, thanks and ever thanks.

~ William Shakespeare

This world will always be a beautiful place for me because of people like you, Thank you!

Monday, November 25, 2013

10 Insanely Tasty Vegetarian Foods From North India

The only thought that comes screaming into my mind as I sit down to write the introduction of our highly honored guest blogger for today is -- FOOD. Why? Because, Mark Wiens and Food are synonymous; for me, for so many others like me, for all those actually, who love making food an essential part of their travel and living. Mark is one of those genuine bloggers out there who need no introduction but are some serious force to be reckoned with for all that they do. Mark loves to travel and He loves to eat: Combine the two flavors (in proportions only known to him), and there you have it – His immensely appetizing blog called Migrationology!

You have to hop on there to know what a zealous food connoisseur he really is: From India to Nepal to Tanzania to Bangkok to Phillipines, Dubai and so many more: He takes pride in an impressive list of countries covered under his belt, he has 'eaten' them all! Yes, quite literally! Street food, restaurant food, junk food, staple food: You name it and in all probability, he will have it served on his blog. Browse through all of these and tell me if the sights there don’t leave your taste buds tickling and craving for more! What’s more striking for me though is that through this passion of his, he is taking his culinary adventures to a whole new level of learning and nourishment: by breaking the existing cultural barriers and enriching the world with invaluable lessons for life.

In this very special and a kind guest appearance for 'My Yatra Diary...', Mark is ready to take us all through an array of 10 of his favorite vegetarian dishes from North India: Are you ready to drool?

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As a food obsessed traveler, wandering in India was like being in an amusement park of deliciousness.

Even though I’m not normally vegetarian, India has such extraordinarily tasty vegetarian food, that when I was eating veg, I didn’t miss meat at all.

It could take more than a lifetime to sample the vast array of vegetarian dishes in India, but here are 10 of the tastiest vegetarian dishes and snacks that I ate when I was traveling through North India.

1. Dahi bhalla - Before traveling through India, I normally thought of yogurt as a sweet treat that went well with fruit or breakfast cereal. Wow did my perception change when I had my first bite of dahi bhalla, a savory chaat (snack) where yogurt is is not only salty, but sour and spicy too.

Dahi Bhalla

A bhalla (vada) is a  deep fried non-sweet donut made from dal flour and spices. After being deep fried, it’s soaked to become saturated like a sponge full of spiced liquid, and then topped with thick curd, chaat masala, coriander, tamarind chutney, and chili powder. The result is a sweet and salty, sour and spicy, thick and creamy, snack you’ll never forget.

2. Chole bhature - When I was hungry and needed a hearty snack or light meal, nothing satisfied like a round or two of chole bhature.

North Indian Speacilty - Chole Bhature

This outstanding North Indian speciality consists of two parts: chole, a spicy chickpea curry, and bhature, a puffy deep fried bread. Often served from golden pots tipped on the side, chole is spooned into a bowl, garnished with pickled onions and chillies, and scooped up with bits of the bhature.

3. Parantha - One of Delhi’s most famous streets foods is a paratha from the Paranthe Wali Gali (lane of deep fried bread).

Parantha from the paranthe wali galli, Delhi

These discs of dough are filled with a variety of ingredients, deep fried, and served with a few dipping chutneys and curries. The parathas were good, but I especially loved the side dipping sauces like the pumpkin curry.

4. Palak paneer - Paneer, a thick cheese, is a staple and delicious form of protein for vegetarian food in India.

Palak Paneer

Paneer is prepared in a variety of different methods, but stewed into a thick spinach purée known as palak paneer is one of my favorites. With rice or any form of Indian bread, palak paneer hits the spot.

5. Dal makhani - There are numerous variations of dal available in India, but one of my favorites is dal makhani.

Dal Makhani

Mostly made from black lentils with some red kidney beans mixed in, the bean stew is flavored with spices and butter to create a rich and creamy vegetarian dish that’s packed with protein.

6. Kulle chaat - There are few things I eat where I have absolutely no idea what to expect when I take my first bite, but kulle chaat was one of them.

Kulle Chaat or fruit chaat

Kulle chaat, also known as fruit chaat, is where a few different fruits are hollowed out and filled with a combination of chickpeas, lemon juice, sulfur salt, masala chaat, and topped with pomegranate seeds. The explosion of flavors packed into each bite will make you leap with tasteful joy.

7. Baati chokha - While Indian food is often complex and packed with all sorts of ingredients, some dishes, like baati chokha, are just simple and comforting.

Baati Chokha

Baati, also known as a round roti, is a ball of dough that’s grilled over charcoal, and served with chokha, a mashed potato and eggplant curry sauce.

8. Gol gappa (pani puri) -

Gol Gappa - Street snack in India

Gol gappa is one of the most beloved street foods in all of India, and it’s not only extremely tasty, but it’s fun to eat. Sphere shaped hollow crisps are filled with spicy potatoes and drowned in water that’s flavored with tamarind and coriander. One gol gappa is popped in the mouth for a one of a kind snack sensation.

9. Onions pakoras - I don’t get the craving often, but when salty junk food sounds good, onion pakoras are just about superior to any other crunchy salty snack.

Onion Pakoras

Batter wrapped onions are deep fried to a golden brown and dusted with salt (probably MSG too) and pepper. They are so salty you’ll be chugging water afterwards… but so worth it.

10. Mango kulfi - Similar to ice cream, kulfi is a frozen treat that’s made with thick cream and sugar, sometimes flavored with fruit or nuts, and usually seasoned with cardamom.

Mango Kulfi, Delhi

One version of mango kulfi I enjoyed in Delhi began with a fresh mango. The seed was removed from the top, and the liquid kulfi mixture was filled into the empty space. After being sealed, it was frozen solid, and after ordering it was sliced into pieces, mango on the outside and creamy kulfi on the inside.

This is just a small sampling of the abundance
of vegetarian dishes and snacks available in India.
What is your favorite Indian vegetarian food?

Thursday, November 21, 2013

The Trek to Triund: Serendipity on the Snow Line

Our guest blogger today is someone who has huge credits of honor to boast of in the travel blogging community. One look at her ‘About Me’ section and you’ll know why this introduction is the longest that I have written so far (and I could still add so much more!).

What once began as a chance trip with friends to London in 2008 sometime during her graduation went on to snowball into something more meaningful, something that turned her life to a new direction. A Master’s degree in travel writing later, she found her passionate trysts with adventure and writing creating magic, igniting a spark which has today radiated into a beautiful world known as “The Great Affair”: Her travel blog inspiring one and all to fall in love with the world. She is one of those travel bloggers who believes in digging deeper in her travels, and consequently into her own self, a fact which is very well reflected in her blog where she shares pieces coming out directly from her heart. She has a long list of feathers to display on her blog including an array of freelancing projects and an esteemed feature in The “New York Times” among many others. Recently, she topped all this up by bringing out her memoir titled “The Only Courage”, a gripping read of her life as an adventure and a renewed sense of understanding of falling in love with the world.

Interestingly enough, all through my interactions with her across Twitter and blogs, I have been in complete awe of her writings. But what really got me attracted was her amazingly rooted and down to earth personna, an absolute delight to talk with – to converse, to discover and to learn. Besides being a writer par excellence, a traveler for the soul and a wonderful being at the core, she is an awesome sketch artist as well - painting and sketching on the move. Now, isn’t that a truly wonderful talent to have?

It’s an absolute honor as I present before you our very special guest for the evening: Candace. Candace Rose Rardon from The Great Affair!

Here, she takes us along on another one of her chance trips, this time a trek to Triund in an upper suburb of Dharamsala. Read on.

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I had just one regret as I prepared to leave India earlier this year.

Although I’d gotten as far east as Shillong, as far west as Jaisalmer, and I’d stood on the southernmost shores of Cape Comorin, I regretted never going north of Delhi.

But then a serendipitous invitation from my friends Kim and Wendy: They were heading to Dharamsala, an old hill station in the Kangra Valley of Himachal Pradesh, and invited me to join them. The trip made little sense logistically – I was living in Goa at the time, and would be flying out of India from Chennai, but a final jaunt north to the Himalayan foothills was too tempting for this traveller to resist.

Dharamsala sketch by Candace Rose Rardon
Dharamsala sketch - By Candace Rose Rardon

Our weekend in Dharamsala was as serendipitous as our decision to visit. We had unknowingly arrived in time for Tibetan Uprising Day, which commemorates the 1959 revolt in Lhasa against the Chinese, and were able to attend a ceremony at the Dalai Lama’s temple complex and later join a march of protest. Both were a sea of red, blue and yellow Tibetan flags, fluttering in fierce spring winds.

The next day, after the chants and cheers of the protest had died down, we decided to spend our last full day in Dharamsala hiking to Triund. The hike is a popular one among visitors, as it can be done in a day, and as the path led us higher into the hills and even across the snow line, I was grateful to serendipity for letting me experience this corner of India before leaving.

The trail itself is around nine kilometers (six miles) long, and begins right in McLeod Ganj – an upper suburb of Dharamsala where most visitors choose to base themselves. Strings of prayer flags along either side of the path are a welcome presence – not only for the color they bring to the scene, but for the reminder of what the entire Tibetan community in Dharamsala is still waiting and hoping to achieve.

Trek to Triund, Dharamsala
McLeod Ganj, Base point for Hiking trek to Triund, Dharamsala
Strings of prayer flags, McLeod Ganj in Dharamsala

Triund is located at 2,842 meters above sea level (or about 9,325 feet), meaning that those climbing from McLeod Ganj will gain about 800 meters during the hike. Each new bend in the trail brought another stunning vista of the valleys and terraced fields below, but what I grew to look for the most were the rhododendron trees, their vibrant red blossoms impossible to miss.

Stunning valley vistas, trek to Triund - Dharamsala
The trek to Triund, Dharamsala
Vibrant blossoms along the trek to Triund, Dharamsala

One of the things I love most about India is that a cup of chai is never too far away. Among the handful of tea shops located along the trail to Triund, we chose to stop at a little place called Magic View. After a few cups of steaming tea and a chance to rest our feet, we continued our journey and soon crossed the snow line. Morning sunlight reflecting off the silvery slopes was a beautiful sight.

Chai shop along the trail to Triund, Dharamsala
A cup of chai along the hike trek to Triund, Dharamsala
Hiking trail to Triund, Dharamsala
Morning sunlight reflection - Triund Trek

Finally reaching Triund, we marveled at being surrounded by the snow-capped Dhauladhar range, and were glad the clouds had parted just enough to give us a glimpse of Mount Dhauladhar, located at 4,800 meters above sea level. After a quick lunch, we started the trek back down to Dharamsala, but what I found myself wondering about was what if we had kept going – even farther into the hills.

The snow-capped Dhauladhar range, Trek to Triund in Dharamsala
Triund elevation board, Dharamsala
Stunning view from Triund, Dharamsala

Getting there:

Dharamsala is about 480 kilometers north of Delhi, and 200 kms northeast of Amritsar. It’s a 1.5-hour flight from Delhi, or you can take a 9.5-hour train (such as the Jammu Mail) from Delhi to Chakki Bank, where you can either hire a taxi or catch a bus for the remainder of the journey (both options should take around 3 hours).