Monday Memories 5 – A Walk Through Enchanting Beauty And Silence


I had just turned fourteen when dad took me to YHAI office in Chanakyapuri, Delhi. Each year YHAI holds National Himalayan Trekking Program and I was about to enroll for the ’82 batch for a trek to Khauli Pass(12,800 feet/3750 mts,) situated in the Dhauladhar range (the white range or the silver range) of Himalayas. This small pass situated in Kanwar wild life sanctuary is snow bound for almost seven months in an year. This particular trek was later discontinued due to massive landslides.

Some feeling are so overwhelming that they can not be described. It was my first trek and first journey alone. Dad always wanted me to be fiercely independent and despite of protests from mom, he stood firm on his decision to let me explore the world on my own. A lot of preparation went through in preparing for the trek and one thing that such programs teaches you is, discipline and planning.

I was part of the Mumbai group and one beautiful summer night in May I boarded the bus with my haversack to Manali. After a night long journey I got down at Bhuntar, delirious with joy and nervous too. I was fit, strong and rearing to go. Buntar is a base camp for registration and initial training. I had  the advantage of being youngest in my group and the team leaders and instructors made sure I was not uncomfortable. They took extra care to get me adapted to long treks and camp life.

The precipitous valley road from Bhuntar to Kasol was under repair. It is one of the most thrilling road trip with all its blind turns and narrow stretches. One could see the lush Pin Parvati valley and the  thundering Parvati river meandering like a thread deep in the gorge.

I have very fond memories of our base camp in Kasol (1640m). Nestled in the midst of conifer woods at the banks of Parvati river this beautiful mystical place is a heaven on earth. It is also known as Little Israel of India and one can spot  large number of Israeli tourists among others but our camp was situated a little away from the main Kasol village.   Kasol and the neighboring villages of Tosh(3000 m), Malana and Jari are the home to supposedly the best Hashish in the world –“The Malana Cream” and some of these gorgeous villages are tucked away so deep in the mountains that they didn’t really figure on tourist map for long. They were frequented mainly by travelers looking for serenity and calm and of course the Malana cream. I have already written about the gorgeous beauty of Malana , the solitary village in Malana Nala to the side of Parvati Valley.  It is the lat of the hippy settlement in that region.

Awestruck by the verdant valleys and the crystal clear water of Parvati river I walked around the woods and village, crossed the gushing mountain streams and even paid a visit to nearby pilgrim town of Manikaran famous for its hot water springs.

Even after so many years the memory of that first night in the base camp is so fresh that I can ear the sound of wooden flute echo in the silent mountains. The time stood still as under a star-studded sky one of the trekkers from another group played the flute. Kasol was a training camp so usually there were four to five groups based there, either returning or going to higher camps. It was an adventure and I was already feeling like Alice in wonderland. I had never seen such pristine beauty of the Himalayas from so close and it sure was breathtaking.  We did some nature trails during our stay.

The sweet smell of pine forest, apple orchards,  wild horses and herds of sheep and mountain goats, the gargling white waters of the river, the treacherous mountain nallahs which eventually merge into the river, the swaying wooden and natural rock  bridges, the tranquility and the silence is enough to enchant any traveler. As I write this I am actually transported back to this gorgeous place.

This is where I learned rock climbing, rappelling, river crossing on a rope and other skills essential for a trekker. The entire route of the trek was dotted with places which could cast a spell on anyone by their virgin beauty. It is hard to explain it in so few words the feeling of walking in such enchanting beauty and silence (This was the name of the trek report I wrote after completion).

I vaguely remember some of the names of the camps like Grahan (7700ft), Padri (9300ft) and many more. Each camp welcomed us with fresh food cooked on wood fire by the locals. Each camp night was made memorable by the bonds we created over songs and adventure stories, laughter and night walks around the camp.

We went through blooming meadows, forests, along the river banks, up the jungle trails, crossed the snow-covered landscape, walked through the glacier and the most amazing part of the trek was that we did this all at our own pace.The area is covered with thick canopies of deodar and fir trees that prevent views of the sky.This is what makes the trek in this area enjoyable and challenging.

Although I carried my haversack and sleeping bag on my back most of the time there was no sign of tiredness. There were times when a fellow trekker would carry my pack during steep climbs. It was all about brotherhood. The friends I made are somewhere out there and if any of them reads this I want to send my love to them. Prashant, Haresh, Johnny, Kalpana and many more who were always there in times of difficulty. I guess my training as a basketball player and athlete paid off during those strenuous long stretches.

The instructors and team leaders of the group and in the camps were extremely helpful and I remember at one camp they even sent a search party to look for me and Prashant as we had decided to rest along a river bank surrounded by wild flowers and pine trees. The search team met us half way to the camp and I dreaded that I would be told to return to base camp for breaking the rules but I guess the wild excitement in which I narrated the scenic beauty and my adventure melted the camp leader’s heart and I was left with a warning never to venture on such escapades alone. Prashant was a seasoned trekker and that helped too. Later, when he and some other friends came to drop me home I found he was my second cousin from mom’s side. :D. No wonder we clicked despite age difference. (He must have been in his thirties).

In those ten days of walking through the splendorous Himalayas I learned to appreciate  silence of the woods and streams. I learned to recognize the sounds of the forest and the saw some of the most amazing birds, flora and fauna. I did not carry a camera but the images are still fresh in my mind. For the first time I saw the bear in its wild habitation. ( Two bears came in the middle of the night at the last camp before we hit the glacier. They explored the camp site as we watched their silhouettes from inside our tents.)

I had my first experience of crossing a glacier holding on to a rope  tied to pegs pushed through the snow.  The adrenalin rush, the beating of heart, the careful maneuvering of each foot step and the final ascend to a spot which left me spellbound. You have to go there to see what nature can offer when left in its virgin state.

Most of my collection of things which included a big frozen black beetle, almost entire discarded skin of a python, bark of the bhoj patra  tree, pressed flowers,copies of  photographs clicked by my friends, an autograph booklet with some memorable messages got lost after my marriage. I am still searching for the identity card and my article which was submitted to YHAI office after returning.   The only thing which I still have apart from the lovely memories is this certificate which was issued to us.

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We could not reach Khauli Pass as the weather drastically changed and we had to return to the camp. Within minutes clouds can turn a shiny sunny day into a deathly dark nightmare. With great difficulty we fought through bitter cold and rain and managed to return.

Most of the group went back to Bhuntar base camp but our little gang of friends went on a little adventure to Mandi and from there back to Delhi. I would love to connect with anyone who was there during this trek. Feel free to leave a comment and connect.

I could do this post in many parts and still feel inadequate in describing the inner serenity and calm this experience brought in my life. I am thankful to my father who never discriminated between his son and daughter and in fact let me explore the various facets of my life and go for my dreams.

I did the Chandrakhani pass, Pindari glacier and the Triund trek after this one and then stopped. Its been almost two decades since I have done any serious trekking though I took many trips to the mountains in past years.

I wish to start again and fulfill my long lost desire of exploring the much desired places in the mighty Himalayas.  So, here’s to adventures and star lit nights.

Beat The Heat With Falsa (Phalsa) Sharbat


Summer is back with all its vengeance and again it is time to indulge in refreshing, cooling drinks made from seasonal fresh fruits. There is nothing like traditional indigenous coolants like Aam Panna (Raw Mango Drink), Sharbats made from Phalsa, Neebu (Lemon), Bel (wood apple), khus, rose  sherbat, sattu drink, Thandai,  fruit punches / juices  and many others which are either yogurt based or milk based keep the body temperature down and provide the essential nutrients too.

Phalsa (Grewia asiatica) is one of the most popular summer fruits, at least it used to be when I was a girl). These days one doesn’t get it too easily as the berry is easily perishable. I remember the hot summer days when a vendor will pass through the lanes singing a song “kale kale phalse, taravat wale phasle” and we would rush to buy those tangy sweet berries sprinkled with pink salt. Either the berries would be given in conical-shaped leave held together by a toothpick or in a small paper bag. stained by the purple, mauve color of the phalsa.

Grewia asiatica or phalsa is a tropical berry native of  India and South Asia. Mainly grown for the fruit the other parts of the shrub like ,bark and leaves, roots too have  medicinal benefits. The fruit is full of iron, vitamin A, C, B1,2,3, calcium and dietary fiber.  The fruit has loads of health benefits and is as cooling properties that help keep body temperature down.  It helps prevent heat strokes. It offers radiation protection and the seeds contain palmitic, stearic, oleic and linoleic acids. Chewing the seed along with the flesh helps in air growth too.  The peel of the berry has antioxidant properties.

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After a week long search for good phalsa I finally managed to buy it at a local fruit cart. The berries were fresh and perfect for a summer salad. I used half of it for the salad and rest to make the gorgeous sharbat which has a tangy sweet flavor and my favorite.

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Ingredients:

Phalsa Berries (ripe) – 1/2 kg

Sugar – 150 gms (I use boora cheeni) (Quantity of Sugar depends on the sweetness of pulp exact)

Pink Salt (Kaala Namak) – to taste 

Water –

Method : 

Wash the ripe berries sprinkle a little table salt and leave them for half an hour,

Take just enough water to cover the berries and soak them overnight. (4-5 hours is also enough).  

(I keep it in the refrigerator)

Once soaked mash the berries with finger will the stones are separated.

Remove the stones and give it one stir in the mixer to make the pulp smooth. (The peel of Phalsa has antioxidant properties so I prefer to use it. )

In 3 Cups of water dissolve the sugar.

Add Pink salt to the pulp and mix

Add the pulp to the sugar solution and stir till it blends properly. 

( You can add beetroot slices or kokam syrup instead of sugar to make it sugar free yet sweet and tangy) 

Add crushed ice or ice cubes and a few tender leaves of mint and serve chilled. 

Let me know if you follow my recipe and prepare this healthy thirst quencher. 

Keep cool and stay healthy . 

Related post :

Traditional Indigenous Indian coolants 

Monday Memories 4 – The Wild Encounter


The summer holidays had begun and I was eagerly waiting to get enrolled in the Summer Program conducted for teenagers by National Museum of Natural History in Delhi. The program consisted of museum studies, discussion sessions, outdoor nature explorations, individual project assignments and exposure to the ecosystem in a National Park or Wildlife Sanctuary in India.

On one fine summer morning twenty of us got into a deluxe bus with four staff members and attendants and took off to Corbett National Park. I was fourteen year old and looking forward to my first ever visit to any wild life sanctuary. I remembered how each time time read one of Jim Corbett’s books I would long to visit the reserve which was named after him after his death.

It was late afternoon when we reached the National Park. For most of us this was a first visit to the reserve and the excitement was clearly visible.  After the usual formalities the bus entered the park and soon we were on our way to Dhikala where the campsite was set up. We still had an hour’s drive to reach our destination. The dense Sal forest greeted us on both sides and soon we spotted herds of spotted deer and monkeys.  It was hot and the forest was seeped in a strange silence but inside the bus we were all chatting away happily.

Dhikala chaur is the largest grassland in Uttarakhand.  Dhikhla is the core area of the reserve and located right in the center so we were hoping for a tiger sighting. The bus had approached a precarious section and was slowly moving on a narrow path. We were told to remain quietly seated. On one side one could spot the serpentine Ramganga river  deep down in the valley and on the other side lay the picturesque and mysterious grassland, home to various species of birds and animals including the Royal Bengal Tiger.

All of us were glued to the windows taking in the breathtaking beauty of the place when suddenly the expert from the museum told us to remain absolutely still and quiet. The bus had stopped in the middle of nowhere. At first we could not understand what had happened but slowly as we watched the huge male elephants sauntering towards us from the front a chill went up our spines. There were five or six of them. Large amount of Musht flowed down their temples as they menacingly approached us. The driver had stopped the engine and was muttering some mantras under his breath. I was sitting on the front seat and had a full few of those majestic animals with huge tusks, their trunks swaying rhythmically from one side to another. I had never seen an elephant in wild  and the sight took my breath away.

The girl next to me sobbed uncontrollably and held tightly to my hand. Mesmerized, I just stared at those magnificent creatures who were just a foot away from the bus and had almost surrounded it.

Everything had become still. Not even a blade of grass moved. Male adults are usually solitary beings especially when undergoing a phenomenon called ‘Musth’ so it was surprising to find a herd even though it consisted of only five or six of them. Their sheer daunting size was extremely overpowering and though I had seen elephants in the zoos and cities,  this was nothing like those experiences.

Bull elephants are highly dangerous  and violent at the time of “Musth’ and can cause great harm. I could see the smelling fluid, rich of testosterone, running down on their cheeks as they gazed at us. We held our breaths and avoided eye contact. I bet everyone was sending prayers up there to the 300,000 Gods  for the ordeal to end and for the gift of life.

Those ten minutes that the bulls inspected our brightly painted bus with us rooted to our seats frozen in fear we realized how close we were to death. They could overturn the bus in an instant and send it hurling down the valley. Every time they flapped their huge ears our hearts skipped a beat.

Somehow they took pity on us and giving a last look turned and walked away into the forest.

For those few moments when they moved we thought it was all over.  It was a strange moment in time where the thin line that separated life from death seemed to have dissolved.

Many of the kids were crying and laughing at the same time unable to come to terms with what had taken place on their first adventurous trip to a National Park.

I can remember my heart beating very fast but somehow I hadn’t felt the kind of fear that had possessed others. I continued to look the direction in which those mighty animals had gone and disappeared in thick foliage of the forest and wondered what must have made them almost charge at us and then change their minds.

The incident is still fresh in my mind and every moment I thank the universe for small mercies. This was the third time death had come t close for comfort and left.

The incident has not changed my attitude towards either the elephants or any other animal.  Humans have encroached their land and destroyed their natural habitats and they sure have a right to cut us down to size at least once in a life time.

Monday Memories 3 – Memories From A Distant Meal Or One Moment In Time (Part 2)


I promised to bring some sizzle with this post but you know I am a wimp when it comes to divulging such details.  Though I can assure you some nice leisurely Monday reading  that will make you nostalgic about those good old times when life cruised along at snail’s pace and we had time to smell the flowers and watch the sunsets and of course savor good food morsel by morsel.

Indian highways are dotted with Dhabas and theka’s (liquor stores) that sell “child(chilled) beer” . When you are on National Highway and you  know your dhabas  then only you can call yourself a true blue traveler. They can be one of those famous ones like Puran Singh Da Dhaba at Ambala, Sukhdev Da Dhaba near Karnal, Chaupal near Ambala, Pahalwan Dhaba at Murthal (vegetarian)  and if you are traveling in the blistering summer heat then 1-2 kms after Modinagar to Meerut, is Jain Shikanji  where you get amazing lip smacking shikanji (lemonade) and to-die-for paneer pakodas with tangy chutney. Anyone who has driven on NH-58 will tell you about this awesome joint.

Be it NH-58 or NH-1 we discovered some lesser known dhabas which serve food that makes you yearn for them. They may not feature in Travel blogs, Food shows or magazines but still they are on the list of all those zipping past on these highways.

We took NH-24 very often for our trips to Uttarakhand and every time visited some new dhabha  to satisfy our hunger for fresh , wholesome meal but the Amritsariya Dhaba just ahead of Rudrapur became our favorite stop. The place is owned by an old sardarji who became an integral part of all our journeys. It wasn’t just the delicious food that he served or the charm of the rustic ambiance the place offered but the unconditional love with which he always welcomed us. Sometimes all it takes it a nurturing, caring attitude to end all your troubles, all your stress and tiredness. There was a special magic in his thin wrinkled fingers, in his trembling voice, in those  delicate lines on the face and in the eyes that lit up when he saw our car approach to a halt.  Each visit gave us a sense of homecoming. As he artistically spun the dough for those soft, aromatic tandoori rotis he would as us about our journey, Adi’s hostel stay and the remarkable thing was that he never forgot anything we had earlier mentioned to him. There was a joy in the simple things he did.

The aroma of the Dal Tadka and the chicken gravy that he made with a secret spice mix still lingers in my mind. He never allowed his staff to prepare Rotis or Parathas for us. He would roll up his sleeves and do the honors himself. If you have ever eaten food in Dhaba set in the midst of fields of rice with the fresh water hand-pump gushing out clean chilled water then you will know what I am talking about. Most of the time the tea would be complimentary and so would be the packed food. He always packed us some food on our trips to Adi’s hostel in Ranikhet. A gesture that warmed our hearts. He even gave me a packet of freshly made “secret” masala for his chicken gravy and always called me “Puttar ji” (a loving word for daughter).

I know this is a food post but food is made special by those who cook it with love and passion. We recommended the place to many and everyone came with similar tales of love and caring. They all told us how much the old man missed us. A bond made over authentic rural food, sweet sugary milky tea and big glasses of sweet or salted lassi / shikanji  in summer. A bond that warms our hearts across miles that stretch between us.

The other story comes from ancient picturesque town of  Bhagsunag in Dharamshala, Himachal Pradesh. It is place I have visited many times and each visit became memorable for more than one reasons but one thing that remained forever etched in memory is the variety of delicious food from Tibetan to Israeli to Mexican and the list goes on.

It was a beautiful summer night when we decided to dine at the German Bakery. I have eaten in may German Bakeries all over Himachal Pradesh and never tasted such good food anywhere. It was managed by two young men from Goa and between them they churned out the some of my favorite dishes. Be it lamb steak or baked beans on toast,variety of grilled and plain sandwiches, freshly made burgers, pastas, pizzas that left you longing for more, authentic Israeli dishes like shwarmas, falafel, crepes,sabih etc with accompaniments , two types of English breakfast,  mouth-watering apple crumble and apple and walnut pies to name a few things.

That one last night was made special by the crescent moon that lazily trailed holding a hem of cottony clouds.  It was a rather nippy night warmed by dark rum that we had carried with us. A chess board spread across the table, notes from guitar and hushed laughter filling the night, an orgasmic blend of aroma rising from the joints the hippies were smoking in the corner table, low lights just enough to spot what one was eating.. it was heaven on earth.

The boys had to go to bed and were whisked away by their dad to the hotel but I decided to stay back with a friend who has accompanied us.  Some times are made memorable just by sheer magic of the place and words often fall short when one tried to capture those feelings much later in life. We played a few games that stretched for hours but neither of us had our heart in the game of chess. After finishing our food we just sat there gazing at the beautiful night and entranced by what surrounded us.

The owner, a friendly chap,  brought us some more snacks, this time on the house. We thanked him and settled down for a midnight feast of delicate flavors and tender bites over coffee shots and dark rum. It was amazing to find traditional pies done to perfection. Each bite was  full of crispy pie and hot apple chunks flavored by spices. Unforgettable to say the least.

Around 2 o’clock in the night we took leave from the friends who had made our stay in Bhangsu so special and headed for the hotel. Fingers linked together we maneuvered the narrow winding lane and walked on the moonlit path leading to the hotel. The rest of the gang was snoring to glory and we, still intoxicated by the sumptuous food and drinks, sat on the terrace till the clouds took over the little town and it began to drizzle.  Among all my travel food memories I cherish this one a lot. I somehow never managed to go back and now as I write this my heart is yearning to escape to those lovely hills. My room seems full of those aromas from the kitchen of that fantabuous German Bakery. Maybe it is time to pay a visit.

I will come back next Monday with some other recollections from the past , till then bon appetit.

 

Monday Memories 2 – Memories From A Distant Meal Or One Moment In Time (Part 1)


I missed writing my Monday post. Too much to do and too little time. I desperately need a break to someplace quiet but that is not always possible so the next best thing I do is sit back and think of all the happy moments from the past.

Do moments from the past taste the same? Yes, sometimes they do. Moments which were like Pinot Noir grapes  turn into mature, vintage wine with time.

Yesterday I was thinking how certain aromas, textures, mouth feels, tastes, flavors bring back memories of people, places, distant meals and the sense of exhilaration associated with them.  It could be your everyday meal, a childhood special treat, a stopover quick brunch on way to some place, a relaxed evening snack during a laid back holiday or a little surprise created specially for you. There is nothing like quietly slipping out of bed at night and secretly eating your favorite food, often with bare hands.No spoons, no knifes. Eating with fingers has a spiritual , therapeutic benefit to which we can talk about some other time. It is also extremely sensuous at times. :p

I believe that like music food too is highly trasnportive. We are suckers for emotions and amazingly sensitive and even a thought of a kala khatta transports me to an evening at the beach in Mumbai or a tender stuffed steak and Merlot can make me year for that particular night in the hills. Nostalgia is defined by Merriam-Webster as “a wistful or excessively sentimental yearning for return to or return of some real or romanticized period or irrecoverable condition or setting in the past” and the best part about it is that it doesn’t discriminate against those dollops of butters, the fiery spices, the oil dripping roadside snacks, the tongue coloring lick lollies and the rest of those magically joyful delights.  Sometimes it is not just about food but it is also about the person or the place and the warmth it that fill you with.

The fondest memory is of my maternal grandmother’s home in Pune. I visited her during summer vacations and the sights and sounds, the aromas and tastes still make me hungry. I can visualize her sitting on a low stool churning white butter with almost devotion as if it was some spiritual ritual. I would linger around in the shadows waiting for the cue and land on her lap before she would call my name. I can still taste the softness fresh dollop of plum size butter dripping through her soft plump wrinkled fingers. A love that spread from her face to mine. There was a kind of an energy that passed between us at that moment. Something that even now makes me find strength in weaker moments. The best part was that none of my cousins were ever part of this luxury of love. It made me feel very special.

Travel can be very nostalgic esp if you are travelling by train or by road. As a kid the train travel revolved around incredible food smells and lip smacking tastes. The milky, sugary chai garam  in  mitti ka kullhar ( terracotta cup) n foggy winter days, the garam bajia wrapped in a piece of local newspaper, the unmistakable mouth watering station ki allu – poori ( boiled potato veggie with deep fried Indian bread) , the chana chor garam, the local ice cream which usually you won’t find anywhere else except on stations, local sweets and snacks, the list is as long as the journeys taken. Distinct  flavors  that change at every 50 Kms, region to region, district to district. You can never forget how wonderful the Agra ka petha or the Shrikhand of Gwaliar tasted on those rail journeys. It is an entire world of  authentic cuisine  waiting to be discovered. Many times I try to bring out the same flavor or texture id a particular dish I ate at some quint station but it just doesn’t happen. I guess it is a lot to do with that moment in time .

Have you ever tasted the udderly delicious colostrum milk preparation called Kharvas. I had it for the firs time as  a small girl and can never forget the taste of it. I was woken up early at dawn and rushed to witness the most amazing experience of my lifetime. My cousin showed me the little calf just three days old sitting near its proud jersey mother and other doting females. It was the first time I had fresh milk warm and rich straight from the udders .. it was an unforgettable experience and though I am not a big fan of Milk I thoroughly enjoyed it. My aunt prepared Kharvas that day and I can tell you there is nothing in the whole world that tastes that yummy. Google it 😀

There is a special kind of magic in certain kitchens Some hands dish out the most simple yet unforgettable dishes. Many of them leave you  longing for them even after s many years. Some places have specialties that haunt you to come back  like the neera centers in Lonavala and Pune, the chaat at UPSC in Delhi, the parathas at Murthal and Moolchand flyover (heard the place has shut down), the  idli sambhar of college canteen split 1/2 with bestie, the ripe jackfruit and tangy raw tamarind on a push cart in an old local Pune market, the bun omelette and tea at a roadside stall after a night out, the pot meals cooked with children and their cooking disaster/achievements which were thoroughly enjoyed, mom’s varan bhaaat etc etc..

I knew once I get on to nostalgia food train it will go on forever so the post is in two parts. I still won’t be able to cover all of it I know but will try to share as much as I can.

Though all my travels and time spent in various cities has very fond food memories some of them are special.

Special because of the people who are part of them, special because that time spent together, the fun, laughter and chilled out feeling will never return.

I will take you through that in the next post.

Meanwhile let me tell you there is no such joy as slowly licking chilled a bowlful of smooth delectable saffron freckled shrikhand with your fingers or digging into red juicy watermelons and ripe mangoes , their juices dripping down the corners of your mouth or the insides of your arms. 😀

Some fruits need to be eaten with the passion they require. Of course now in a “civilized ” society one needs to learn the “table manners” but What the Heck… sometimes we can give in to the joys of eating .. can’t we?

Watch out for Part 2 with some sizzle stories next Monday. I will go get my bar of dark chocolate.