Local Food Outlets in India

As part of our Must Do in India post, we mentioned “fresh food” under “must experience”. So we thought we should expand on that a little. Having traveled quite a bit in India, we picked up a pattern for food. Somehow cheaper food at local outlets tastes better than most mid-high end restaurants.

Ideal Indian Food

Shruti and I have been eating North Indian home food since we were able to eat solid food. While we can’t claim to be experts, we know when we get a good Indian meal. After all our ‘most’ favourite dish is a North Indian dish, dal chawal being Shruti’s fav while paratha & rajma is mine. We can eat that day in day out.

Ideally, food should be light, hot (in temperature not spice), flavourful, cooked fresh (not reheated) and not too oily. While each dish may vary in taste, these are the must characteristics for all Indian food.

Parathe wali gali, Delhi

Problem with Restaurants

The oil

Firstly, restaurant food is rarely light. Even the humble daal is full of oil or butter amongst other spices. This of course also means that the food is incredibly oily as well. This makes you bloated when you finish your meal. Add in a desert and its calories central!

Expensive

The restaurant food is quite expensive comparatively. An average vegetarian curry is around Rs 250-300. If you add in the service charge, a meal for 2 people will easily go over Rs 1000. While this may not be an issue for many middle class Indians, it certainly was a problem for us as backpackers. We can’t afford that food economically everyday.

Oh My Paneer

Many parts of India have a large number of vegetarians. Understandably, restaurants cater to their audiences but for some odd reason there is an oversupply of paneer (cottage cheese) dishes. Shruti and I aren’t particularly fond of paneer which means we had to look for non-paneer dishes which would almost certainly be too oily. Bummer!

Same ol’ Food

There is a peculiar problem with Indian restaurants almost everywhere in North India as well as other big cities. Due to overwhelming number of North Indian tourists, the menu in most restaurants is quite similar. The general menu of every Indian restaurant is: 4 daal dishes, 10 paneer dishes, 1 eggplant dish, 1 okra dish, Indian Chinese food, idli and dosa to represent the South Indian cuisine.

Other than this, we found that now mock Italian had started to enter the menu as well. Unfortunately, by catering to all audiences, they don’t get any of those right.

What are Local Outlets?

Basically where the locals eat on regular basis. It can be the dhabas in North India, small home food joints or ‘fast food’ outlets.

Dhabas started as truck stops on the highways around India. The number of Dhabas are higher in Haryana and Punjab due to GT Road being one of the oldest highways in India. Dhabas cater to truck drivers and families traveling in buses and cars.

Home food joints are usually found in South India and North East India. They are small outlets run by a family. The board outside will say “home food” or something similar. Usually they are only open for lunch but if you are lucky, you could find some open for dinner too. The food cooked by the family is as they would eat at home.

‘Fast food’ outlets are usually found in bigger cities. They focus on time efficiency – quick seating, quick order, quick service  and quick payment. They are very popular during lunch hours, especially around office areas. Generally speaking, a person maybe seated in the outlet for 25 mins top.

Thukpa in Sikkim

Why Local Outlets?

The food at local outlets is cheap, simple and earthy. Generally the amount of food cooked is based on the traffic of people visiting and so it tends to be fresh and flavoursome.

The curries at local outlets on average cost between Rs 100-150. Thali, a combination of various curries, served with rice and bread is pretty common as well. Usually, a good thali could range between Rs 100-150 too. Very economical.

Oh wait, there is still the best part – local outlets generally serve local area cuisine. That means, you are eating like a local. Dishes like sarson ka saag and makki ki roti in Punjab, rotla with jaggery in Gujarat, meal on banana leaf in Kerala or thukpa in Sikkim.

Meal on Banana Leaf in Kerala

Which Local Outlet?

If you go looking for them, there are plenty of local outlets around. While most of them maintain a certain level of hygiene, it doesn’t mean there aren’t any not-so-clean ones. We recommend asking a local, they will have the best answer to it.

So next time do check out local food outlets in India.

Rotlo in Gujarat

Must Do In India

As mentioned in our previous post, India gave us a terrific experience. Although we were born here, we learnt and saw so much. It was sometimes too much to take in all.

So here we have compiled a list of must do in India.

Must See

Monuments

Taj Mahal is a must visit.  Pictures can never do justice. Once we walked through the main gate, we were mesmerised from the first glance.

Taj Mahal, Agra, India

Qutb Minar is Shruti’s favourite monument after Taj Mahal. The pillar was erected in 12th century and is really very tall. One can only imagine how was it constructed back then.

Qutb Minar, Delhi, India

Buildings

Hawa Mahal in Jaipur is truly a fine building that represents Rajasthani architecture. We stood in any corner of the building and felt the cool breeze. Also, the building’s view from across the road is marvelous. I wish we had spent some more time just gazing at it.

Hawa Mahal, Rajasthan, India

Amer Fort, again in Jaipur, was one of our favourite forts in India. The pond at the entry, climb up to the palace, the open area over looking the Aravali Hills and the architecture of the doors, windows and building was just beautiful. I would love to come back here with a book and picnic basket to take in everything at the fort.

Amer fort, Rajasthan, Insia

Spiritual & Religious

Varanasi is one the most important religious town in India. We had assumed it to be similar to Haridwar but this city was different. There were over 80 ghats and each of them have their own story. People of all age groups, religion and background (read white travelers) were seen on the ghats. While some enjoyed the cool breeze of Ganga, others were busy chatting up with friends. This place had something to offer to everyone.

Varanasi, Bihar, India

Bodhgaya is the place where Budha gained enlightenment. Upon reaching the temple, we felt the calmness and peace within ourselves. It was almost like time stood stagnant and we could concentrate on our breath.

Bodhgaya, Bihar, india

Golden Temple is the most important religious temple for Sikhs. When we got there, the sun was high, there was cool breeze and lots of people queuing up to enter the main temple. But for some reason, the environment was very calm. Although we were in the middle of hundreds of people, there was no usual pushing, pulling or talking. It was like everyone there just wanted 30 mins of silence!

Golden Temple, Amritsar, India

Natural Beauty

Kerala, ‘God’s own country’ has a beauty like no other place in the world. Coconut trees, backwaters, blue sky and greenery everywhere makes Kerala picture perfect. Unlike everywhere else we visited, Kerala looks dazzling in all climates.

Munnar, Kerala

Gangtok, Sikkim, and the surrounding areas’ natural beauty was made better by the colours and culture of Buddhism. The prayer flags hung from flag poles or trees against the green foothills made the beauty unique.

Tsomgo Lake, Sikkim

Cherrapunjee, Meghalaya, is a hilly rainforest with a reputation of highest rainfall in India. The waterfalls and the rivers flowing down from Meghalaya hills to Bangladesh made us realise just how much water passes through this land. Moreover, the tribesmen have learnt to live with the land and invented root bridges to cross waterfalls.

Root Bridge, Meghalaya, India

Rann of Kutch, Gujarat, was once the mouth of river Indus in Gujarat. An earthquake in 1819 changed this land greatly. We saw the salt pans, parched land and migratory flamigoes in a space of 50 kilometres. At night, we saw a clear sky full of stars and star constellations without any other light in the sky. There were no clouds in the sky and we could see the milky way. Sublime!

Salt pan, Rann of Kutch, Gujarat

Culture

Hyderabad in one word: courteous. Hyderabadis were well-mannered from our experience. The dialect, the manners and respect of women was universal in Hyderabad.

Rajasthan should be a synonym for colour. Despite being dry and colourless in large parts of Rajasthan, the colours are simply stunning. The ladies wear colourful blouse, skirts and shoes, the men wear colourful turbans and camels are dressed up colourfully as well.

Rajasthan Coloures

Must Experience

Aarti in Varanasi

No where in the world (as far as I know) people gather around a water body in hundreds and thousands, twice a day, for prayers. I would recommend witnessing the Ganga Aarti from a boat.

Aarti in Varanasi, India

Durga Pooja in Kolkata

Durga Pooja was an absolute shocker. We had expected lots of pandals and lights but didn’t expect to see the whole city on ecstasy. It was mental, we had never seen anything like it before.

Durga Pooja in Kolkata

Punjabi Wedding in Punjab

When we were returning from Amrit’s wedding, Shruti said, everyone should have at least one Punjabi friend so they can witness the craziness at a wedding. I can’t describe it, you have to attend one for yourself.

Punjabi Wedding

Relaxing houseboat in Kerala

Various bollywood songs were shot in houseboat which made Shruti really excited. When we got on ours, we experienced a different kind of relaxation. Cool breeze, right speed of the boat, green everywhere, water below us and sky above. It was just perfect.

Kerala Backwaters

Desert Stay in Osian, Rajasthan

We spent a day with Gemar Singh in Osian village, close to Jodhpur. We rode camels, watched sunset from dand dunes, watched wildlife and spent a starry night in a hut without electricity or running water. It was an amazing surprise. We enjoyed every second of it, especially when we were woken up by the call of peacocks in the morning.

Fresh Food

There are plenty of options for food in India, but the best are small, local outlets that cut, cook and sell daily and quickly. We don’t recommend restaurant visits in India, instead eat from where the locals eat. Some of our best meals were:

  1. Eating a meal from banana leaf in Kerala
  2. Hot thukpa noodles at Tsomgo Lake Sikkim
  3. Rotlo (breads) in Gujarat
  4. Sandesh and Rasgulla (sweets) in Kolkata

Unexpected hits

Hampi in Karnataka

It took our breath away. Apart from the kingdom ruins, the natural backdrop is just unique. Plenty of massive boulders and trees and farmland to add green to the brown. Although it was monsoon when we visited, I felt it was the perfect time to be there. Very dramatic scenic as the sky grew darker and we experienced downpour on top of a hill.

Sikkim

Secondly, Sikkim was another place which hit us hard. It is a mountainous kingdom with natural beauty all around. The prayer flags flying in the air, Shruti’s favourite, alongside the mountains and pin turns created a very peaceful environment.

Gujarat

Finally, Gujarat incredibly surprised me. While people claim Modi as a development man, none of this is evident until one visits Gujarat. The industries have taken over ensuring jobs, water and electricity for locals. The people continue to follow their culture and traditions while the nature and wildlife is well preserved in this land.

Special Mentions

If there was one place I would go back and live in, it would be Gangtok. The beauty and civility of the people was just amazing.

Having said that, Varanasi was special too. I could imagine going back on regular basis to unwind and connect with reality.

We Will Be Back

Although we visited a lot of places, there are plenty that we had to skip. Shruti and I have promised each other to be back to travel more. Because, India can never be enough. It engulfed us and we enjoyed the ride.

Like ‘they’ say, you either love India or you hate it. There are no questions which side we stand.

Feedback?

Hope you enjoyed the post. Do let us know what you thought. Did we miss anything? Or is there something you need to know?

How India Treated Us

In one word – Brilliantly. India gave us a great experience.

Before getting into all the details, let’s have a quick look at our travel in Asia, time lapse mode.

So back to India.

Why India?

We are Indians by birth, but left India at early age – read about us here. We hadn’t seen much around in India and Shruti hadn’t even seen the Taj Mahal (till September this year).

It is well known that India is diverse and we had to experience it. So when we decided to quit our jobs and travel, we knew we had to spend quality time in India.

The next task of planning our itinerary in India was a big task. There is so much to do here – history, culture, food, nature and spirituality. Where do we go and what to we skip. After many discussions, we had a plan and booked our transport and hotels well in advance.

Recap

We started our trip in Delhi visiting my family and Haridwar, Rishikesh and Agra to escape the heat. We also managed to apply for USA visa in Delhi.

Once we started backpacking, we first covered the south and west region, i.e., Hyderabad, Hampi, Goa and Kerala. We then spent some quality and spiritual time in Varanasi and Bodhgaya before visiting family in Kanpur and Mumbai.

Goa

While in Mumbai, we tried to renew Shruti’s passport but it was unsuccessful. We then went on a 15 day trip of North East and Kolkata. We continued our travels in Rajasthan for 11 days before returning to Mumbai and getting Shruti’s passport.

We briefly went to Gandhidham, Gujarat where Shruti’s parents now live to celebrate Diwali and my birthday. We then flew to Delhi for Peru visa and attended my friend Amrit’s wedding. After a small tour of Amritsar, it was time to meet and say goodbye to family in Delhi before returning to Gujarat to visit Saurashtra and Kutch region.

Family, India

Family aside, we were able to see a variety of places in India while keeping some obvious places for next time. It has been a great journey across this great land.

Mistakes

  1. Biggest mistake – booking EVERYTHING in advance!
    We had to book transport, otherwise traveling in train would have become impossible. India has a huge population (well known fact) and covers huge area. This makes train the most convenient way for transport. Train tickets go on sale 3 months in advance and usually get sold out early. We had no choice but to book in advance.
    The hotel bookings though could have been avoided.
  2. Taking flights – expensive mistake
    As we were visiting India during the monsoons, we had to pick our destinations carefully and check the weather well in advance. This led to quite a few flying trips within India. We ended up spending almost Rs. 80,000 (USD 1200) on flights within India.
  3. Booking tour packages – we realised we could have done it cheaper
    We chose tours for Kerala and North East as the logistics was getting difficult. We  could have managed it on our own, but decided to take a convenient option.
  4. Doing things too fast – The trip was a mad rush at times
    We had plenty of time in Hyderabad, Jodhpur and Shillong. It allowed us time to stop and think about things around us. Although we couldn’t spend a week  or more in Rishikesh like many white backpackers do but we should have avoided the rush in places like Agra, Hampi, Gangtok and Udaipur.
  5. Cultural shyness – We rarely scratched beneath the surface
    Now, being from India, there are a few cultural norms and cultural issues we have grown up with. This means it was always tough for us to photograph a Hindu Sadhu (holy man) because after that he may get offended or ask for money. We didn’t ask people in Varanasi how drugs are affecting kids because being from India, we knew the set boundaries when speaking to strangers and elders.

What we gained from India

Where do we start? While we made some mistakes (see list above), we gained a lot of experiences in India which are invaluable. We ticked off quite a few places off our bucket list namely, Brahmaputra river and root bridges of Meghalaya in the east to Mehrangarh fort and Mewar kingdom (Udaipur) in the west and Kerala backwaters in the south to Varanasi in the north. While the distance between them is huge and it cost us a bit, I have to say, money can’t buy the vast experience.

Secondly, I feel Australia has a habit of depressing us. There are issues with liberals and labor, property prices, traffic and alcohol-fueled violence. However, not until you see a country with a huge difference between rich and poor, sectarian violence and hatred and dishonesty in people that you realise how grateful you are. It is not until you hear our experience of getting a passport and then hear of an Indian gangster in Australia having an Indian passport that you realise the law is not the same for all. The term ‘first world problems’ makes you realise how tiny our problems are until you have lived in a country like India.

Finally, we have learnt that it is very important to be accommodating. In India, the word used is ‘adjust’. Here there are plenty of cultures, religions, languages and every person has their own set of problems, but for some reason the country is moving forward in a very disorganised form, the actual term is ‘organised chaos’ is apt. As we will be traveling to South America, we are ready to be culturally shocked and embrace it with open arms.

Look out for complication of must do in India.

Camels on Beach, India

Gujarat – Land of Lions

Background

Shruti’s dad has had several postings around Western India due to his job in the Department of Shipping. The in-laws were posted near Kandla, Gujarat this year and we were keen to see this area while they are here.

We got the opportunity later in our travels in India. However, one could say that in some ways we left the best to last!

Land of textiles

Gandhidham where Shruti’s parents currently are is in the Kutch area of Gujarat. It has its own language, culture and unique geography. On our trip to Bhuj, the city that was devastated in 2001 due to the massive earthquake, we noticed the colors of the clothing of women in the area. They ranged from bright green to red and even darker colors like brown and black. Interestingly, the colors they wore depended on the caste, age and marital status of the women.

Bhujodi village, Kutch, GujaratShruti’s mum and Shruti got down to buying some local clothes. We also visited Bhujodi village, which is basically a craftmen’s village where the traditional people of the region created cloth, paintings and accessories. It was a great effort by the local govt to keep traditions alive!

We saw more of the textiles and culture in the Bhuj museum. For a town that was nearly flattened 14 years ago, Bhuj has transformed itself into a textile centre and a gateway to Rann of Kutch. It was only the beginning of getting to know about it.

Road trip

Other than Kutch, Gujarat is famous for its temples. Our driver, Jaisukhbhai (in Gujarat, all males are addressed as bhai, which means brother, and all women add ben, means sister, after their first name) drove all of us from Gandhidham to Jamnagar and then to Dwarka, 150km away.

Dwarka area was the Hindu God Krishna’s capital which apparently now lies under the sea due to the sea levels rising and earthquakes in the region (nature doesn’t even spare the Gods!).

Bet Dwarka, GujaratBet Dwarka, Gujarat

We visited Bet Dwarka or Dwarka Island which houses an ancient temple. It is a beautiful boat ride away from the mainland and the island has the population of Hindus and Muslims. Somehow they all live in peace and the sea is amazingly clean which is strange for an Indian port.

 

Bet Dwarka, Gujarat

Our next stop was Nageshwar Temple which is one of the 12 Jyotirling, power centers of Shaivite Hinduism. The temple itself was quiet and peaceful, though the highlight was a huge Shiva statue with live peacocks sitting on top. Nag in Sanskrit means Cobra and on a certain festival, a male and a female cobras are brought to the temple. Sad that we couldn’t see a Cobra party!

Nageshwar Temple, Gujarat

Finally, we reached the main Dwarkadhish (Lord of Dwarka) temple, which is built next to the sea. The building itself was carved in sandstone and built in 16th century. However, the original temple at this spot is dated around 2000 years old. The carvings on the temple are beautiful but nature spares no one and the salty breeze is slowly damaging the temple. There was a huge crowd near the idol which unlike other Krishna idols, is adorned with jewellery. A king needs his bling after all!

Dwarkadhish Temple, Gujarat

The next day we drove for a long distance and reached the Somnath Temple. This temple is one of the biggest jyotirling temples in India. Moreover, no other temple has felt the wrath of Islamic invasions like this one. Somnath was looted and destroyed many times over the years by Afghan invaders. It was rebuilt by the efforts of Sardar Patel after Indian independence. It is an amazing view from the coast seeing this beautiful temple. However, this temple is also high on the hit list of terrorists for historic reasons and the security is very tight. It was so tight that males are not allowed to wear belts even if the belts are not made of leather (cows are sacred and belts may have bovine leather).

Somnath Temple, Gujarat

While on the way home from Gir Forest, we had a chance to visit Jaisukhbhai’s maternal village. We met his aunt, cousin and cousin’s wife who all talked to us in Gujarati and we could only do the universal nod as we didn’t understand a thing they spoke! However, their house was the old style village house with an open area, a storage room, huge kitchen and shaded areas to escape from the sun. I was served water in a steel pot, instead of a glass, and I had to drink water from it and pass it on. It was a different experience.

Drinking water from potStacked kitchen, Gujarat

Jaisukhbhai picked fresh lemons from the backyard, showed us the kitchen with neatly stacked steel plates and a storage room full of virgin cotton. We had never seen so much cotton from a farm. Jaisukhbhai explained that in older times the storage room used to be full of mangoes from the family farm. Oh how we wish we had come back then!

 

Cotton store room

Driving through the village, we realised how clean and developed the villages in Gujarat are. The entire village had concreted roads and rubbish bins something that is unheard of in India. Finally, we reached the family farm which was once an orchard. The buffaloes, cows, mango, chikoo & guava trees and a well. It was a highlight of the trip when we jumped on a mango tree and took photos.

Gujarat Farm, Gujarat

Beautiful Coast

The terrorist attack in Mumbai in 2008 was initiated by terrorists who entered the city by boat. This prompted the Indian Government to make the coast secure. We visited the radar systems on a family visit to see how the government keeps a track of the ships that come in.

Gujarat coast

Other than this, we were also able to visit a ship with chemicals as cargo. The size of the ship was magnificent. The deck of the ship and the engine room certainly had me impressed as it was the first time I had been inside a ship. It was an engineering marvel though I am no engineering fan.

Finally, our tryst with the coast had its pinnacle when we lived next to a light house for a night near Dwarka. It was no moon night and with our not-so-good-camera, we tried to capture the stars (those white tiny dots).

Dwarka LighthouseFamily at Lighthouse

The coast of Saurashtra has several lighthouses and we were lucky enough to get a view from the top. While we were on a holiday, we saw how tough life can be even in the most beautiful places. Women from the cattle herding caste were pulling out seaweed from the water to dry and feed their cattle.

 

Dwarka Lighthouse, Gujarat

We also stopped at a stretch of road which had a beautiful beach adjacent to it. The beach was clean, the water was cool and the sand was fine. I never thought I’ll be seeing a beach in Gujarat, let alone a pretty one. Having said that, people were not recommended to swim in it due to very strong currents.

Beach in Gujarat

Industrial visit

There’s not a lot for unemployed travelers to do in Gandhidham. That can only be a good thing as the city is full of industry especially transportation, shipping, cement and salt. Having said that, it left us bored and looking for things to do.

Seeing our boredom, my father-in-law sent us on a industrial visit. Initially, I wasn’t too keen on it as I couldn’t see a point of seeing machines and that we were swapping one boredom for another. How wrong I was!
We were met by the Head of Security of the fertilizer factory plant at the gate. We put on our construction place hats, face masks and boarded the jeep. On our way, we saw large mounds of ammonia which is one of the base products. Once inside, we saw the huge machines and the computer systems controlling the machines and their output.

Later on, we moved onto the ammonia storage tanks. The temperature is kept at minus 30 and the ammonia is received directly from the ships that dock at port. This combined with the chemical ship completed our tour of two industries of Kandla/Gandhidham. It may not have been the factory or the ship so much but we were awed by the industrial scale in Gujarat.

Invisible lions

Gujarat is the last home of Asiatic Lions in the world. We had an opportunity to visit the Gir forest which is spread across four districts of Saurashtra. Our safari was at 9am and we were excited to see a Lion roar.

Tip: Don’t forget to book your permit online here. There are limited number of safaris everyday and the officials are very strict about the number of people visiting the forest.

Gir Forest Safari

The driver and guide however were not so optimistic. Lions are extremely lazy and they rest for up to 20 hours a day. Their most active times are dawn and dusk. Unfortunately, having no prior experience we had picked the 9am – 12pm slot.

As soon as we got into the jeep, we had picked out directions to spot the lions. The guide was sometimes out of the jeep to view the tracks left by the lion. The forest itself was amazing. Lions live in dry forests or savannah. The dry forest provides the lion with enough cover and open areas to hunt.

Gir Forest, Gujarat

We tried several routes, saw deer and blue bulls but no lion. Unfortunately, the jeep can only go on marked tracks and the lions only come out there in the mornings and evenings. During our time, they were somewhere deep in the forest. The guide made us feel better by telling us stories of Amitabh Bachchan and Shankarsinh Vaghela, former Chief Minister, who had to try for several days before seeing a lion.

Gir Forest

Personally, it was not such a disappointment though. We learnt a good lesson this time in terms of wildlife. India has several national parks with big cats, rhinos, elephants and other exotic animals. Due to the strong Indian sun, most of them come out only at dawn, dusk and night. We will take better care next time!

But for now, see this picture:

Monkey, Gir Forest

Dholavira

Indus Valley Civilization is the ancient civilization of India. It existed from 3000 B.C. and helped created the modern Indian civilization as well as had a significant effect on Pakistan. Most excavated sites of this civilization were found between Indus river and the Thar desert, most of which now lies in Pakistan.
Gujarat has several sites relating to this civilization. For us, the closest was Dholavira situated on an island in the Great Rann of Kutch. The drive took around 3-3.5 hours, half an hour too long because I was learning the manual transmission driving.

Driving manual car

Once we reached there, the ruins were on one side and the museum on the other. As we walked up to the museum, the guard asked us to see the ruins first and if we wanted a guide. We declined and were left alone. The ruins were huge with the royal area, middle area, lower area, 2 stadiums and 2 rock cut reservoirs.

Dholavira, Gujarat

The build of the walls was so strong that they survived thousands of years before being excavated. Nothing is known about the language of the harrapan civilization and why it dissapeared. However, it was a civilization on par with the greatest civilization in the world for its time.

Dholavira, Gujarat

Great Rann of Kutch

Dholavira is situated on an island which is in the middle of a huge salty lake which fills up during the monsoon and then starts drying up leaving a layer of salt layer which is only found in a few places in the world.
Great Rann of Kutch, GujaratWe were able to see the Great Rann of Kutch lake which resembled an inland sea complete with several islands and sea birds in it. The lake had a temple and a BSF check post near it. It was really close to Pakistan, basically on the other side of the lake. A perfect location for a photo shoot. As it happened some Hindu religious guru turned up there with his entourage just as we were leaving. Strange place for a prayer though!

Great Rann of Kutch, Gujarat

We couldn’t leave without trying a few perspective shots in the salt pan. We stopped the car on the causeway and decided to walk down. We found that the salt was on the surface but underneath it was still muddy but strong enough to support our weight. We should have left it there.

Great Rann of Kutch, GujaratGreat Rann of Kutch, Gujarat

However, if we did that we would normal in the head. Therefore, I went to the other side of the causeway to try my luck. At first it appeared to be working but one step forward and both my shoes were in mud. I pulled out as quickly as possible while Shruti and the driver stood on the causeway laughing. I walked back like a batsman who got out on a duck, folded up my pants, put the shoes in a bag and told the driver to drive home with an angry face.

Great Rann of Kutch, Gujarat

Little Rann of Kutch

When we were looking at the map of Gujarat, we saw a green area at the edge of Kutch named the ‘Wild Ass Sanctuary’. The name itself made us want to explore it. Shruti and her dad were in conversations with a few tour guides for it.
In the end, we selected eco camp at Jogad with two safaris. Once we arrived at the camp, we realized it was right in front of a huge field where some animals were walking. As we looked closer, we realized that it was the beginning of the Little Rann of Kutch and those animals were wild asses :)

Wild Ass, Little Rann of Kutch
The camp was an amazing spot in open. Traditional mud huts with paintings and basic needs. We loved it!

Eco Tour Camp, Little Rann of Kutch

After we checked in, we grabbed quick lunch and napped for 30 mins below heading out in the safari jeep. The field was actually part of the rann where the water in the monsoon moved through. There were grasslands, small trees and lots of animals. Donkeys, blue bulls, black bucks and foxes are quite common in the area. In addition, we saw a few migratory birds and eagles scanning the grasslands for their next prey.

Wild Ass Sanctuary

Next, we moved to a unique landscape. Further in the rann, the water fills up during the monsoon from the great rann of kutch and then slowly dries up. However, despite this, the land is parched and cracked due to the brackish water. The land is a desert with no trees, no birds once it dries, no grass, no people and no sound as far as anyone can see.

Little Rann of Kutch
In addition, we then saw the salt making areas within this desert. Pools of water were stored next to each other. However, our guide, Mr. Devjibhai, explained that the pools were connected and the heavy (salt heavy) water moves to the end and crystalizes. It was beautiful to be there at sunset.

Little Runn of Kutch

Finally, we were able to see what we had wanted all along. We saw the white desert in the Little Rann of Kutch and walked on it! Our guide drove us to it after driving through dusty mud flat desert and we couldn’t believe that we were walking on a salt pan. In fact, it was the surprise which made it so much better. We had given up on walking on salt pans in India as they were not dry enough (read my accident above).

Little Rann of KutchLittle Rann of Kutch

Initially, the in laws were a bit concerned about walking on the salt pan as it was still muddy in places. However, seeing our enthusiasm, they also got into the photos and enjoying the rann. Somehow late but it was one of the best experiences that we had in India.

Little Rann of Kutch
Though we were tired, we spent half an hour star gazing and the sky at this place was amazing. We walked a little away from the camp and gosh the stars were everywhere. Our guide told us that they do star gazing expeditions for western tourists which generally involves giving the tourists a bed, some warm clothes and leaving then out there for the night. Scary and beautiful at the same time!
The next morning, we had another safari to see flamingos. We all got up very early and got in the jeep. However, none of us had imagined how cold it would be and to be honest, I was shivering because I thought one sweater works be enough. In addition, we had to drive 50 kms through villages and farms which left us coughing due to the dust.

Early morning

The end result however was magical. Once we arrived at the wetlands of the little rann of kutch, we could not believe our eyes. There were hundreds of flamingoes flying around and thousands sitting in the lake. The blue lake, blue sky and the pink flamingos made the sight picture perfect.

Here is a short video (sorry about my thumb) –

We walked closer to the lake carefully and observed the birds closely with a binocular. Our guide told us that all the birds were migratory and after monsoons hundreds of thousands come for nesting. We even saw some pelicans and seagulls. It was almost unbelievable that this is a yearly event.

Flemingo, Little Rann of Kutch

Staying with parents

It was kind of unrelated to our travel but Shruti wanted to spend some time with her parents. However, the fact that we were able to combine our time with the parents with a little travel around Gujarat made it perfect.
In addition, not only did we recharge our batteries but even I got to spend time with the in laws. It was a great time listening to the shipping stories of father-in-law while enjoying mother-in-law’s cooking and views on everything from the present generation, financial investments and mostly Indian politics.

Finally, it was good to see our relationship change from a formal one to one like parents and kids.

P.S. – Shruti’s mum was bang on about Gandhidham’s food being terrible.

Summary

Final thoughts

What to say about Gujarat? Firstly, Gujarat was never one area. Saurashtra, Junagadh and Kutch were always different to Ahmedabad and surrounding areas. This difference was obvious in our road trip. Kutch is mostly dry and industrial while Saurashtra was fertile and traditional. From our small time in Ahmedabad, it resembled Delhi. The buildings, roads, bridges and the riverfront made it look like a well developed city.
Whatever be the history, today Gujarat has developed tremendously while still keeping its culture and traditions alive. Providing good highways, Gujarat has made its religious and natural sites into a tourist hub.

While it may have had instances of sectarian violence in the past, everything now seems peaceful mainly due to having jobs and industry. It’s pretty hard for working people to be rioting with each other and its also economically bad for all communities.
While people may claim that Gujarati food is sweet and inedible, we found this statement to be false. All through our road trip, we found gujarati food to be spicy and different especially the breads of millet and sorghum.

Gujarati Food

In all, we were glad we spent time in Gujarat. Amitabh Bachchan is right in both his sayings “kuch din to guzairye Gujarat mein”(Try and spend some time in Gujarat) and “Kutch nahi dekha to kuch nahi dekha”(If you didn’t see Kutch, you didn’t see anything). While these lines may have been created to rhyme in Hindi, they are essentially right. Even we recommend staying in Gujarat and seeing the place while you should not miss out on Kutch. Many places in the world gave mountains and deserts but the salt pans and animal safaris together in one area are rare in the world. Do check it out!

Gujarat

The only negatives to the entire trip are that there is no alcohol in Gujarat officially and that the accommodation at tourist spots is not cheap. Firstly, I say officially because there is plenty of alcohol and deaths from alcohol but the government banned it due to Mahatama Gandhi’s beliefs. It didn’t work and there is plenty of corruption over it. Secondly, this may only apply to natural sights as they are either far from cities or are extremely popular. You get what you pay for!

Accommodation

We stayed mostly at home but when on the road we stayed in hotels and government guest houses.

Transport

We used mostly Shruti’s dad’s car.

Gujarat Gallery

« 1 of 6 »

Power Day at Indian Parliament

Background Story

Though we live in Australia, I have always kept a close watch on Indian politics. One of the main reasons for my interest is that the democracy in India is huge and can be very interesting during election period in various states, especially those which are more populous than most countries in the world.

Shruti’s brother-in-law happens to be a journalist for a TV channel within the Indian Parliament. He invited us to visit the Parliament and watch sessions of Parliament in both houses, Rajya Sabha (upper house) and Lok Sabha (lower house). Though we were tight on time, we couldn’t say no!

Tight Security

Indian Parliament was attacked in December 2001 by terrorists belonging to Jihadi elements based in Pakistan. Since then, the security is very tight. In all, I was frisked at least 5 times, sometimes twice at a time. Everything we had on us was either put in the car or given to our bro-in-law. Well, maybe my bearded look factored in severe security check too, though I can’t be sure about it.

We waited in the reception office of the Parliament which is the first stop for those visiting the building. The room was circular with varnished wood furnishings. There was a sales counter for the publications provided by both houses of the Parliament. Though I have not been to too many government buildings, one could feel this place was different.

I have to mention, there was a drinks counter sponsored by Himachal Pradesh, serving apple, lychee and orange juices. They were YUM!

Tour of Parliament

As it happens, holding a foreign passport in India causes issues at government buildings. This was no different in the Parliament, the power house of the country. Our bro-in-law had to run around to get MP’s signatures and then push for my foreign resident clearance so we could enter.

Luckily, the tour of the Parliament was allowed for most people, foreign or otherwise. The feeling we had as we walked closer to the Parliament was equivalent to walking on to the stage of a Bollywood movie set or a LA movie studio. Generations of India’s rulers such as the Gandhis and legendary politicians such as Jawaharlal Nehru, A. B. Vajpayee, Lal Bahadur Shastri, L. K. Advani, Chadhary Charan Singh and many more had walked through this building. Perhaps our connection with India gave us a feeling of nervousness and excitement.

Indian Parliament

Additionally, my interest in politics showcased when politicians walked in and out of the building and I could name most of them. Shruti did make a couple of faces as she hardly knew any of them.

Indian ParliamentWe walked next to the famous beams and rooms which are visible from the outside. Majority of the Parliament is constructed from the red and white sandstone making it similar to Red Fort with a different architectural style. The rooms on the outside circle of the Parliament have name plates of current ministers, this made us exited each time we recognized a name.

We saw the entry to Lok Sabha, Rajya Sabha and the Central Hall used for joint sittings. Perhaps, we were able to see a little more of the Parliament than most people and we are grateful for it. To cap off the tour, we had a thali at the canteen inside.

Subsidised Food

Both the reception office and the part of the Parliament we accessed had a canteen. It is possible that there are a few more canteens in the premises. What is common to these canteens is that the food is extremely cheap. A vegetarian thali was 25-30 rupees while kheer (rice pudding) was 5 rupees. The non-vegetarian food was around 40 rupees making it heavily subsidised. An average thali outside in public would cost at least 100 rupees.

Rajya Sabha

We finally got the pass to enter Rajya Sabha at 3 pm. We were ushered to our seats by parliamentary employees. The Rajya Sabha is the upper house of Parliament where the MPs have been elected by members of state assemblies. However, 14 members of Rajya Sabha have been nominated the President after recommendations by the Central government. They are usually well informed on a subject and the country expects them to use this knowledge when passing bills.

The room is semi circular with red/maroon carpet. The ceiling has an eye like structure which is possibly to let the MPs know that the nation is watching. During our time in the RS, the debate was over the constitution and what it has achieved. The tone of debate was friendly and intelligent.

The only let down were the security officials who had a certain idea about how the visitors should behave. One could not lean forward, talk, stand up or even sit with one leg over the other. While some of these rules made sense, others were not needed.

Lok Sabha

Lok Sabha is the lower house of the Parliament. There are 543 MPs in this house who have been elected from all parts of the country. The carpet of the house is green and the house is much larger than the Rajya Sabha. On the ceiling, there is a semi circular Dharma Chakra, Buddhist Wheel of Dharma, which exists on the Flag of the Nation as well.

While at the LS, we found out that the PM would be giving a speech at 5pm. Our initial time was 4-5pm and we would miss the speech if we went by that. Our host somehow had the time extended and we got to see the full speech of the Prime Minister of 1.3 billion people.

The power of the people could be felt in the room. To be fair, LS is a bit like India itself. It is incredibly varied with all racial, linguistic and religious identities represented. The level of debate is lower than that of the RS and very much like India outside, chaos could take place at any time.

MPs hold their breath as each MP speaks like a lioness in the savannah ready to chase its prey at any moment. A slight mistake in language or accusation towards the main parties or a senior leader can lead to huge argument which may force the speaker of the house to adjourn the session.

Our host explained to us that as journalists they watch before and after the sessions more than the sessions themselves to see which MPs are close to each other and who are against each other. We left at 6pm from LS having spent the entire day in the Parliament. Overall, it was a power day at Indian Parliament.

Indian Parliament

Speeches

As stated, we had the opportunity to hear speeches in both the houses. The speeches in Rajya Sabha had a professional outlook to them. The MPs spoke with a calm tone with an insight into the subject of the constitution. More importantly, the MPs of other parties listened without causing any interruption though many MPs were wandering around passing messages to each other. However, it doesn’t mean there wasn’t any shadow boxing between the parties with the TMC candidate refusing to let the leader of their rival CPI-M speak first.

Sharad Yadav of the JDU from Bihar had a long speech in the Rajya Sabha which combined ranting with some cruel facts. The crux of his speech as I understood was that even after 6 decades of the adoption of the constitution, there were only a handful of senior level bureaucrats from the lowest or formerly untouchable castes. This was retorted by the Mukhtar Abbas Naqvi of the BJP who put the figure at 4 currently. Moreover, he claimed that the sanitation workers in the parliament itself were underpaid despite Dr Ambedkar wanting to uplift the lowest Indians. It may be some indication of the current media culture that despite raising some serious concerns, the highlighted part in the media was he called the country ‘Pakhandi’ or ‘Hypocrite’.

Lok Sabha on the other hand was more rough. MPs were heckled and yelled at when they raised a controversial point or applauded when it suited the agenda of the opposition. It was evident that the major parties used strong arming tactics in the parliament.  Independent MPs and MPs of smaller parties received minimal amount of time to voice their opinion while the major parties received the lion’s share. The PM Modi’s speech centred around Dr Ambedkar and the constitution of India.

In it, he highlighted that the constitution was the ultimate document for the path for India. Ambedkar used his compassion in his work despite being abused all his life, he made a fair constitution which has lasted so long. In a gesture of compromise with the opposition, he used soft language towards the leaders of the Congress and used language which would unite the two parties. For the most part, the opposition also showed respect as needed to a PM.

In conclusion, the speeches though centering on a mutually agreed topic, showed the tactics and skills used in the parliament. It all seemed like a sport where the stronger opponent would catch the weaker opponent napping. Somewhat similar to ‘House of cards’, the houses had friends, enemies and work colleagues just like any other workplace though this place was deciding the future of India.

Summary

Final Thoughts

It was a little last minute but we loved every minute of it. To my surprise, Shruti found it quite exciting almost like visiting the Emmy’s and spotting celebs.

Both at lunch time and after the sessions finished, we got to watch the ‘house of cards’ style media game taking place outside the Parliament. Journalists and politicians are strange bedfellows who both need each other but also need to be separate for the benefit of the country.

Apart from adding to our list of experiences during the travel, this day would have long term impacts for us. We will look at Indian news channels slightly differently fully aware that there are political games at play beneath the surface. Thoroughly recommended!

Transport

There are a few Delhi Metro stations near the Parliament like Rajiv Chowk and Central Secretariat.

Indian Parliament