The Odd Charm Of Varanasi

Before I head back to Dharamshala to work with Peepal Farm, I decided to take a small trip to Varanasi (or Benaras, as many may call it). The interest to explore the oldest and holiest city in the world was fueled by an old school acquaintance after we met briefly for a day back in Dharamkot. He had been living in Varanasi for a while and I got super intrigued after hearing all that he had to say.

First thing I noticed right off the bat was how sweet the people were. In a city which looks like chaos and dirt and non-functional traffic lights, you will find that the niceness of people is enough to get you through Kashi. But again, this is completely subjective – I trust everyone and choose to look at their positives as much as I can. It sure does make travelling a whole lot less stressful.

The first evening in Varanasi was spent navigating the little gallis of this town, and then finding a spot (more like being squished in between people) at the Dashashwamegh ghat to see the Ganga arti. Screaming “Har Har Mahadev” was super fun, especially since I think Shiva is one of the coolest gods to ever exist.

This guy was pretty funny

The next day, I went to Assi ghat early in the morning to catch the regular morning rituals by the Ganga. It’s surprising how Benaras can go from chaos to complete calm in just a matter for a few minutes. Beautiful Hindustani classical music, followed by a yoga session, this place sure knows how to keep the community entertained and happy.

Assi Ghat at 6 am

I took a boat ride to see all what the hype about the Ganga was all about. And after that ride, I understood. Sure, the Ganga is polluted as hell and you will see some nasty things being chucked in there (can we stop with that already?), but when you see this tight knit community giving a river this much respect and love, something in your heart changes. We all need something to believe in. For some people, it’s God. For others, it’s true love. For them, it’s Ganga Maa. And I think that’s absolutely beautiful.

During this boat ride, I saw everything from  people bathing to people being cremated. That’s what Varanasi is all about. No fear of death. Embracing death. And that idea resonates with me so much. 

Check out the funky graffiti!

I have never had as much lassi as I had here. My top two picks are the Blue Lassi Shop and Shivprasad Lassi Bhandar.

Pomegranate and coconut lassi at Blue Lassi Shop
My personal cheap and yummy pick. The wall mural is definitely a +2

I also managed to eat some of the best chaat of my life at the Kashi Chaat Bhandar. 

I contacted Roobaroo Walks for a “Pay as you wish” walking tour (this scheme worked perfectly given my broke status). Sudarshan showed me some hidden gems of the city which a traveller would have not been able to discover on their own. Being showed around by a local really does help. He also took me to Manikarnika ghat, one of the two ghats where dead bodies are burnt. I love how open people are about death in Varanasi, I wish we all had the power to accept death like the Benarasis do.

All in all, Varanasi was amazing and I can’t wait to go back again someday and spend some more time getting familiarized with all the gallis and nukkads this culturally rich city has to offer.

The Kulhad Wali Chai will surely call me back again 🙂

Peepal Farm – Heaven on Earth

I remember having breakfast with Giulia in Milky Way Cafe in Dharamkot one sleepy morning, and there, on the wall, seeing a poster of an animal recovery centre. I remember telling Giulia that we must go. She agreed and we went back to our coffees.

A couple of days later, I received a message from Deep, a friend from Bombay. We didn’t text often, but just enough so that we were kind of aware of what the other person was up to. This time, he had messaged me to tell me about Peepal Farm (the same animal recovery centre we read about a few weeks ago at the cafe) and how I JUST HAVE TO GO. (yes, in all caps)

After looking it up, we found that the farm was just 2 km from where we lived, so we decided to go the next day itself.

The next day, we land up at the gate of the farm at 9 am and yanked on the chain which was connected to a bell. A girl opened the gate with a very puzzled look on her face. (After talking for a bit, we realized that visitors are required to call a day prior to their planned visit. So if you’re planning on making a visit, don’t do what we did). After explaining how we hadn’t called or anything, she was kind enough to let us in and asked April, a long-term volunteer to show us around.

The entrance to Peepal Farm
This mural outside the farm really sums up the ideology of the place

The tour started with meeting the tiny puppers Chia and Scarlet (who aren’t so tiny anymore) who were their latest rescues at the time. Then we saw the other grown doggos, a bunch of adorable cows and calves and Pablo the pig who is basically the star of the place.

Started off as a rescue, Pablo now is a permanent member of the Peepal Farm family!

I have always loved animals all my life, and being at such a place made me so happy, I can’t even explain.

First of all, the place is GORGEOUS. Super green with quirky little touches everywhere if you look carefully, it is quite evident that a lot of thought and even more love went into Peepal Farm. Everyone is always busy, but they all have such pleasant and welcoming faces. I get it, it’s hard to be mad when you’re at a place like that.

April told us about the farm, how Robin, Shivani and Jo decided to finally take some actions and get shit done. Peepal Farm is a testament to the fact that there are people who care and who aren’t just all talk.

Okay, brace yourselves, series of adorable pictures coming up in 3…2…

Spotty loves a good afternoon snooze
Chiaaaaa!
Chia and Ghost share a bed
waiting on her forever home
Kuku is a true fashion icon
King is basically a giant puppy

So apart from running an animal recovery centre with all animals getting enough love and medical care, an organic farm where they grow a bunch of veggies and herbs, the Peepal Farm also makes vegan products right on the farm. Vegantella (vegan nutella, duh), peanut butter, kombucha, kefir, tamarindo, and many many more are made right here, on the farm. I would suggest you check out their online shop – click here

After the first visit, Guilia and I couldn’t stop ourselves from going there every morning to help them out in whatever way we could. From poo picking (doggo and cow poo), weeding, bathing the pups, walking the dogs, de-ticking, peeling cacao beans for the Vegantella to helping with bottles for the drinks, and just cuddling puppies, we did it all. And we loved every single minute of it!

 

Do check Peepal Farm, or even better, come visit!

I loved it so much that mid-August onwards, I’m going to become a full time volunteer, and I just can’t wait!

Update – I’m Home For A Month.

I haven’t been home for a while, and I get to spend a month here in Pune before I move back to Himachal. The plan, for now, is to work on Peepal Farm, an animal recovery centre and an organic farm (blog post coming up soon on this wonderful place).

Before I go back, I plan to spend my time here as productively as I can. So far, the agenda has included just getting a lot of cuddles from my dogs and playing cards with mom. I have been writing a lot (for work), and I plan to write a lot more (for pleasure).

Meanwhile, I look forward to having meaningful collaborations with interesting people. My interests include Social Entrepreneurship, Music, Travelling and Writing. Write to me if you feel we can do something awesome together!

 

When In Nepal, DO NOT MISS THESE!!!

To say that the three of us landed in Nepal without a plan would be an understatement. The only plan we had in place was – Do what the locals suggest, and figure the rest as we go.

While we stayed at Rajendra’s BnB (see the previous post for link, if you wanna hit him up and stay at his house when you visit Nepal) in Kathmandu, we spent our time just getting to know the place, the people, and the vibe. What we got out of this was that the people in Nepal are extremely sweet and helpful, and the food is a mix of Tibetan, Indian and Bhutanese. A regular meal in Nepal would be Daal, Rice, and Tarkari (veggies).  We visited a few places in Kathmandu, and it was a blast.

After Kathmandu, our next stop was Pokhara, where we lived right by the lakeside, which was an absolute dream. Giulia and I were dying to go for a swim, and finally, after months, we got the perfect opportunity. We spent 2 days in Pokhara (sigh. so so good) and 2 days in Dhampus (a village up, up and up from Pokhara, known for its great view of the Annapurna).

These three places in Nepal gave me a good enough idea of what must not be missed at all. Let me list them down, and if you have any more pointers to add on, do write to me so that I can keep them in mind for my next visit. (Oh yes, I am definitely going back)

So when you’re in Kathmandu…

Have breakfast at a local Nepali Dhaba

This lovely meal, of different tarkaris and a kind of bread, really set the tone for an amazing day in Kathmandu.

 

Visit the Swayambhu Temple

A beautiful temple, also known as the monkey temple was an absolute treat. Monkeys are very cool, you guys.

Check out the  Boudhnath

The largest stupa in the world, the Boudhnath is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. What surprised me the most was that the place was flooded by pilgrims and tourists, but was still so quiet and peaceful.

Then, this is what we did the next 2 days in Pokhara –

Had a kickass breakfast at Phat Khat

The set breakfast was a great start once again. Nepal and the food there does not disappoint.

Went bar hopping

In Pokhara, every bar has happy hours, which made us very very happy. This also explains why I don’t have a picture.

Shopped till we dropped

Pokhara is filled with little trinkets to buy everywhere. So you know what I mean. Since  I was on a budget, I bought a little anklet (50 NPR) which I am never taking off.

Caught a fabulous performance by Aancod

Taken from Google, with Aancod’s permission. Please don’t sue me.

Aancod (Abe) is a street musician who has been traveling and playing music wherever he can. Now mostly based in Korea, he specializes in looping and making funky versions of well-known songs. He got us dancing like nuts. At some point, we look out on the street and see a fire dancer, almost as if she was dancing along to Aancod’s beats as well!

Swam in the Phewa Lake

The lake was my favourite part. So calm and peaceful. With stone doggo (as seen in the picture), we passed hours and hours here.

After that, you can –

Hike up to Dhampus

A little village up  in the hills, Dhampus is barely inhabited and is extremely beautiful.

Be astounded by the beauty of the Annapurna Range

This was our view when we woke up in Dhampus the next day. The peak you see is the Macchepuchhre mountain of the Annapurna range.

Make some amazing doggo friends

Mufasa followed us for a little hike in the mountain where we found a river to chill by.

Cry at the thought of going back to India

I don’t want to add an ugly picture of myself, but you know what I mean 🙁

 

The best time to go to Nepal is September – October, so I guess I’ll see you guys there!

We Finally Made It To Nepal :)

Once our bags were packed, Giulia and I got onto a bus from McLeodganj to Delhi, which was an overnight journey, which mostly passed in lazy talk and sleep. Once we reached Delhi, we met up with another friend called Ary. We passed the day in Delhi and the scorching heat just eating and finding air conditioning wherever we could. We then had to board a bus from Delhi to Gorakhpur, which was almost 15 hours long. A fairly comfy ride, with Ary showing off his vape and again, a lot of sleeping, we reached Gorakhpur at around 5 am the next day. From there, we had to take another 2-hour long bus which would bring us to the border.

At the Sunauli border, we got our stamps on the passport and entered Nepal.

The Land Of Peace

I kid you not, it really was the land of peace. Somehow, everything seemed a lot calmer. We got on a bus to Kathmandu, another 10-hour long journey. The bus was super cramped and hot (no AC, that’s budget traveling I guess) and mostly filled with old Indian folks from Uttar Pradesh, traveling to Kathmandu just for a day-long visit to the Pashupatinath Temple. The rest of the journey was filled with broken sleep, sweating and strange conversations with old folks about our lives, and how different and same people can be simultaneously.

When we got to Kathmandu finally, we went to our Airbnb. We got extremely lucky with this one because our host was an absolute sweetheart. Rajendra has a beautiful home, where the ground floor is for guests. The room we booked had 2 bedrooms, a fully equipped kitchen, a clean bathroom and a little porch. All this for just 1000NPR (which is equivalent to 700INR). Split that between three people, and you’re already off to a great start.

We spent that night eating Chow Chow instant noodles and drinking Nepali beer. (Nepal Ice, highly recommend).

The plan was to stay in Kathmandu for just one night, but Raj was just so nice to us that we extended our stay by one more day.

 

The next evening, Raj made us some kickass dinner, we bought beer and spent the night talking about anything and everything under the sky.

If you want to stay at Raj’s which I highly recommend, click on the link below to find his homestay, and you’ll thank me.

https://www.airbnb.co.in/rooms/23315957

After a long and exhausting day, spending the evening with Raj and Nepal Ice

Let’s go to Nepal!

Living in Himachal so far has been great, but you have to agree that there are so many places around here which are worth a visit as well. Giulia and I had been wanting to take a break from work and go on a small holiday for a while. We had 2 places on our list – Bhutan, and Nepal.

While Bhutan is extremely beautiful from what I have heard, it isn’t easy for non-Asians to visit. I can see why they’d do this because tourism does tend to fuck up the natural beauty of a destination. The only way for non-Asians to visit Bhutan is by signing up for a proper tour package. Sorry guys, but that’s just how it is. But for Indians, you can just walk through the border and you’re good.

Nepal, on the other hand, is super chill about its border rules. Indians just need to flash their IDs and they’re good. Whereas Giulia, who is Italian, would have to get a visa on arrival. She would have to fill up a form, pay 25 USD for a 2-week visa and boom! All set. So obviously, Nepal it was!

Planning the trip was actually very simple – we just had to book a bus to Delhi, a bus from Delhi to Gorakhpur, and then just go with the flow. There are buses plying all the time from Gorakhpur to Sunauli border, so once you get to Gorakhpur, it’s quite simple to cross the border and get to Lumbini, Nepal.

We went to Mcleodganj one week before we had to leave for Delhi, exchanged 5000 INR for 8000 NPR (yes, that was our budget for one week) and that was that! Obviously, that one week was filled with super intense Google searches, daydreaming about seeing the Everest and just a lot of excitement.

This would be my first time stepping out of India, and I just couldn’t wait!

I was clearly very excited with my Nepali money!

Naddi, My Escape

At an altitude of 2000 metres above sea level and a spectacular view of the Himalayas, Naddi is the place to be if you want to experience the quiet life in Dharamshala, but also want to be around the hustle bustle of the town.

McLeodganj, Dharamkot, and Bhagsu are all walkable from Naddi. The walks are scenic and peaceful and not very difficult at all. Of course, it takes a while to get used to the foresty and rocky paths, but once you do, it’s a cakewalk. I walk all over the town and the forests in my flimsy flip-flops. And apart from a few minor clumsy slips, I’ve survived. And I’m clumsy by nature so you can imagine.

Spot the fluff

My weekends were spent in Naddi because of the ease of traveling and just the pure vibe of the place. You can feel your lungs thanking you for the clean air. It’s a new feeling if you have lived in big cities for all your life. Breakfast at Om’s cafe in Naddi, lunch in United cafe in McLeodganj and winding the day with a few beers and great upbeat live music at Salvation Cafe, Once In Nature or Jungle Calling – this was/is the ideal happy day. And you just can’t ever get bored of it.

Giulia and I at Jungle Calling, just in time for a reggae gig, mon

One thing you must remember about Dharamshala – the best places are the toughest to reach. Salvation Cafe in Upper Dharamkot is a cozy little cafe with the best cookies, but getting there will kill you. But then again, the music and food and people will bring you back to life. Jungle Calling, a new cafe in Bhagsu, again, is a struggle to find and reach, but trust me, it’s worth it.

So many hidden gems all around, and I have only discovered a few. With one more month to go, I hope to unravel most of the treasures this place has to offer.

I love it here.

These are our companions, who always follow us from this point in Naddi (which is a school) to McLeodganj. Maybe they were craving some momos as well!

The Mountains Are Calling!

As difficult as it was to say goodbye to my little family in Gokarna, I was ready for a new adventure.

Last day with Bharata, the youngest of the guys working at Hemashree

Monsoons were right around the corner and the heat was getting unbearable, so I was more than ready to move up north. Next stop: Dharamshala!

A small town in Himachal Pradesh, Dharamshala is a small mountain city with heavy Tibetan influences. It is also known for its chilled out, almost hippie-like lifestyle. I wasn’t complaining.

I met Giulia in Delhi, from where we would take an overnight bus and go to Naddi, a village way up north. We were not ready for what we saw the next morning when we arrived –

Stormy and angry Himalayas

Arriving from the scorching heat of Delhi to this stormy view, it was quite a change, to say the least. The locals told us that this was the first storm in a long time. Was it us? Maybe, who knows.

The weather in Naddi got a lot better. Mornings and evenings were cold, but afternoons were extremely pleasant. The next day after resting up, we went for a hike to Dharamkot to meet our friends from Gokarna, Michel and Peter (remember them?). We were told that there is a trail which takes about 15 minutes to get there from Naddi. As you might have guessed, we got lost multiple times and finally reached in about 2 hours. At least the view was super pretty.

Lost in the forest

We had a massive breakfast in Dharamkot, met with our friends, went to their house in Upper Dharamkot (up, up and up), hung for a while and made our way back home.

Commuting in the mountains is challenging and interesting. It would take us some time to get used to this lifestyle, but soon enough, this would be home for another 3 months 🙂

Traveling from the beach to the mountains, take it from me when I say this – Change is good!

Goodbye, Gokarna :(

As the monsoon season approached (end of April-beginning of May), it was time for me to leave Gokarna for my next destination. Monsoons in Gokarna is not the most suitable time for people to visit/stay. It becomes impossible to move around and the tides get extremely high. Although it is super pretty, you can only take so much of it.

My last few days were spent saying goodbye to all the people I had become so close to. Trips to the market were emotional, visits to the fisherman community were filled with promises to keep in touch and come back soon. And of course, as Indian hospitality thrives endlessly, these goodbyes were filled with snacks and tea.

On my last day in Gokarna, the guys at Hemashree surprised me with an extraordinary meal –

Chicken curry and rice, rotis, calamari fry, salad and some custard to end it all

Saying goodbye to all the kids in the market was very emotional. They wanted to take a million pictures, but all were hazy with a bittersweet emotion

Celebrating Kishore’s birthday was definitely a highlight of my stay here. I bought few pastries and met Roopa at her shop. Kishore and Manoj came with their father about 20 minutes later and we all had cake and had a small celebration right there, in Roopa’s shop. It was very special.

Manoj wants to make some mehendi on my hands

 

Another moment I remember very fondly was when Peter, Michel, Giulia and  I let our creative juices flow after a long and exhausting day, late at night. The four of us were huddled around a table, drawing “creatures of the deep sea” on four different parts of one big paper outside Michel’s room.

4 distinct personalities on one piece of paper

Michel left this sheet outside my room, and now this piece of art is stuck on the wall, along with the countless memories left behind by fellow travelers.

 

Goodbye, Gokarna. You have been so good to me. I hope to see you very very soon.

 

Next stop, Dharamshala!

GOKARNA – What You Shouldn’t Miss!

Living in Gokarna for almost about 3 months left me pretty familiar with the place, to say the least. Sure, it’s basically sand and forests, but there’s so much to discover! I wouldn’t want to give it all away because it might take away from your experience of figuring new things on your own, but here are a few things which you just should not miss!

 

  • Live on the beach.

While there are many hotels and resorts off the beach which seem fancy and comfy, go for the beach, guys! Sure, it’s sandy and hot, but BEACH!

I lived at Hemashree Gardens Resort, on the main Gokarna Beach. The feeling of hearing the waves crashing right before you fall asleep and waking up to the sun shining through the little roof of the cottage was the best feeling ever. Stepping out of the room, you see trees and the ocean. I don’t remember ever waking up so happy.

Kaali loves the beach

 

  • Walk. A lot.

Yes, Gokarna is hot. No, it’s not unbearable. But the heat can demotivate you. All you need to do is remember that the ocean is right outside your door when you want to cool off.

Gokarna has many beaches, the main attractions being the Main beach, Kudle beach, Om beach, Paradise beach and Half Moon beach. All these beaches are little communities in themselves. The market or “town” is where people from all these beaches often cross their paths. Although rickshaws are available, I would suggest that walking is the best way to get around (there are trails to get to all the beaches). Initially, walking on the sand is tiring, but it takes a bit to get used to. The walk from my room to the market would be about 20 minutes long one way, and I had grown to love them over time.

A beautiful path through the forest to the market

 

  • Go to Prema’s

A sweet little joint right at the entrance of the Main beach, Prema has the best dosas and ice creams, especially their Ginger-Mint ice cream, which blew my mind.

Do not miss the chai outside Prema 😉

 

  • Go for a live gig at Chez Christophe

A French cafe 5 minutes from Hemashree, this place has some delicious desserts and great music. Our favourite way to unwind after a long day would be going here for a couple of chilled beers and way too much food.

 

  • Shop!

The market will bring out the shopaholic in you! Funky jewelry, light cotton clothes, organic teas, spices, bongs, even a couple of (sketchy) tattoo studios. The market has it all. If you meet Roopa, one of the shop owners at the entrance of the Main beach, tell her I say hi and I miss her a lot.

I bought this beautiful anklet from a Rajasthani Gypsy woman

 

  • Hike to the beaches

From Main beach to Kudle, the hike is about 25-30 minutes long. From Kudle to Om, about 15 minutes. Paradise and Half Moon are a little further away but take about the same time.

 

  • Visit Vibhooti falls

About 60 km from town, this waterfall is absolutely gorgeous. Not jumping in is just not an option.

 

  • Have Cucumber curd rice at Mahalaxmi

Beat the heat with a refreshing plate of cucumber curd rice. Giulia and I had this for lunch for a week straight! And it’s cheap, just 60 bucks and you get a delicious and healthy meal.

 

  • Get to know the locals!

I was lucky enough to make many close friends during my stay. Some of them still call me just to say hi 🙂

One of the guys who worked at Hemashree took me to his Grandma’s house and we had the best sweet potato chips I have ever had. And guess what? It was free 😀

Kartika’s Grandma is absolutely stunning!

 

  • Keep an eye out for all the cool street art around!

All the walls in Gokarna tell a story. Look out for them, take them in.