10 years of blogging

I just realised that this little space on the internet, that I call my blog, is more than 10 years old! I wrote my first ever blog post when I was 18, way back in 2006. I had to take a second to let that sink in. Not the fact that the blog has been in existence for a decade, I mean that blows my mind too, but where the heck did time go. Wasn’t it just yesterday that I was giving my engineering entrance exams?

A little bit of background is necessary here. This blog was born in IIIT, Hyderabad – a place that holds a special place in my heart. A lot of the early posts on this blog are hence about college life and things that come along with being 19, 20, 21. There was a nice blogging community in college which motivated me to write more often. That should explain the sudden drop in frequency of posts after I graduated. However, I hope that I keep writing here, no matter how occasionally, for another decade or more.

All this reflection led to an unavoidable trip down memory lane. As I look back at my posts through the years, there are some obvious takeaways. The language, tone and themes have obviously changed. More understandably the naivety, myopic world view and stubbornness of youth has now given way to nuanced thinking, a broader mindset and being less impulsive with judgement . Maybe I am giving myself too much credit but I genuinely think I have become a better person and it wouldn’t have been possible had I not gone through all the good and bad experiences. So this blog is also a nice reminder of how far along I have come as a person.

So, after 133 posts, I thought I should write a post about my blog itself. If you are not too familiar with my blog or lost touch at some point (hello again), you might find this post interesting but even if you are someone who was part of my journey from way back when I was an oily faced, insecurity ridden teenager, you might get a few laughs as I go about embarrassing myself.

Disclaimer:Some of these posts are so badly written that it took every ounce of strength in me to not delete them. But feel free to judge away. I know I would have 😉

1. The one where it all started: Girls Day Out!!!

2. A nice little tradition that has spawned 7 articles: Year End Posts

3. I was discovering my political and social preferences when I wrote this post, but I am adding it here because the comments section was quite interesting with lots of viewpoints and arguments: Are we a culturally proud generation

4. The part of my life that took me to Mumbai:

5. One of my lame attempts at being funny/sarcastic: ‘THE’ women

6. If you thought my love for Roger Federer or tennis in general is a recent affair then you should read this. I think I wrote this right after the 2009 Australian Open match but the one memory I have is that of Sushma, my college friend coming to my room to find me sobbing uncontrollably, expecting the worst, only to realize the tears were for Federer. She still reminds me about this incident and we have a good laugh about it! : Australian Open ’09 – another classic

7. I had all but forgotten about that time when I got admission into a journalism college and almost changed career paths. Life would have been very different had that happened: Interview Experience – ACJ

8. The one where I talk fondly about train travel – The great Indian train

9. I took a break for 6 months when making the switch to an MBA and wrote about how it felt to be ‘jobless’ – The perks of being jobless

10. This blog and the encouragement I received over the years for my fairly average writing spawned my travel blog. While I find it hard to maintain a writing discipline, it feels good to have another space where I capture memories that capture a different facet of my life.

I can’t help but feel nostalgic and a little bit proud that this blog has survived for over a decade. I am surprised I kept up with it through two college degrees, three jobs, marriage, cross-country moves and just life in general.

I will drink to that!

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The year end post – 2016

It has been a year since I last published on my blog so it is only fitting that my first and last post of 2016 be the year end post. There was a lot to talk and write about this year – from good to bad to worst, mostly the latter. However, it’s better to sum up the last twelve months now with the benefit of hindsight. If you were to read things (and by things I mean mostly tweets and memes) it would seem as if people cannot wait for 2016 to be over. I feel like one of the most enduringly optimistic qualities we as humans possess is the belief that as clock strikes 12 on Dec 31st, somehow things will change and get better. A new dawn, a new day sort of thing. I think at 29 (I have no clue how I got to this age this fast), I am past this but it is still nonetheless a nice way of reflecting back on things, events and people that left an impression on you. So without further adieu here’s my 2016 year end post broken down by priorities categories

TV shows

There was a fair bit of Netflix and chill 😉 in our household this year. Both Sid and I are homebodies so we go through tv series quite quickly. However, our tastes tend to vary. I love me some trash reality television from time to time whereas he will watch anything with superheroes or sci-fi themes in it. I know it’s a cliche but it’s true! So, shows get vetoed off within the first ten minutes sometimes and there is a collective hurrah if we find a show we both want to watch. The list below comprises of things we have seen together and enjoyed watching. Because god forbid if I get Sid to watch an episode of Project Runway with me (now, that will truly be a new dawn!)

  1. Stranger Things – Probably my most favorite show of the year, Stranger Things was great because it was simple. Simple fun. What it had going for it was memorable characters and wonderful child actors who infused these characters with immense like ability and charm. I can’t wait for season 2.
    stranger-things
  2. The Night Of – This show had a strong start, a somewhat slow and stagnant middle and an end that was arguably dissatisfying. However, it was terrifically acted and some parts of it were gut wrenchingly emotional thus leaving a huge impression on us. It was hard not to care for Nasir Khan played exceptionally by Riz Ahmed so much so that after a point the show became more about the people rather than the facts about the case.
  3. The Night Manager – A beautifully shot and well acted show but in hindsight the story was a bit underwhelming. Had it not been for Tom Hiddleston and Hugh Laurie, this show would have been mediocre.
  4. Black Mirror – thanks to Twitter recommendations we discovered this show and finished the first season in one sitting (it was just 3 episodes before you think of us as people with no life 😛 ). The show makes you uncomfortable but also makes you question things. I wouldn’t recommend this show if you want to lift your spirits. The morbidness of it all can be a bit depressing. Having said that, we went back and saw Season 2 and 3  and every episode has something unique to say and the show is so relevant for the times we live in. Insightful, compelling and so much more than just a television show. Special mention to the episodes ‘Nosedive’ and ‘San Junipero’ from this season.
  5. The Americans – why doesn’t this show get more attention and love is beyond me. Season after season they knock it out of the park.
  6. Silicon Valley – Sometimes I feel the characters and situations come off as too far fetched (and I hope they are) but it is still a consistently engaging show. Also, Gilfoyle and Jared Dunn are fantastic to watch.
    silicon-valley
  7. Catastrophe – I saw the first season of this show on a flight, loved it and couldn’t wait to see the second season. Brilliantly written and acted, I just wish there were more episodes. It’s so good.
  8. Survivor – always interesting to watch and one of those rare reality shows that offers great insight into people. Sid and I have seen all the 33 seasons and the show’s catchphrases have found their way into our vernacular.
  9. Modern Family – a perennial favorite. I feel like I miss out on some jokes in the first viewing and inevitably have to watch it the second time. The writing is that good. Also, Phil Dunphy should be president of the world.
    phil-dunphy
  10. Descendants of the Sun – On a scale of 1 to 10, with 1 being The OC and 10 being Breaking Bad, DOTS would probably be a 2 or 3. It lies in the seemingly frivolous and superficial rom-com space but when shows in this space are done right they are very entertaining. It was a colleague who pointed me to this show and after resisting the urge to watch a K-drama I finally gave in. If you were in Singapore it would have been hard to miss how popular this show was. The humor, acting, music, locations were all top notch.

A quick shout out to TVF Tripling and telugu web series Mudapappu Avakaya for being a breath of fresh air when it comes to Indian shows. I had my parents staying with us for a month during which time we saw endured hindi serials with them. They sure don’t lack in drama. Or should I call it sci-fi given the number of reincarnations, the super-advanced aging process, plastic surgeries and extra terrestrial species (I refuse to consider some of the people on these shows normal humans) that exist on these programs.

Movies

  1. Zootopia – I was genuinely surprised by how good this movie was. All the subliminal and obvious messages in this movie are great not only for kids but also for adults. Plus brownie points for the “Godfather” references
  2. Deadpool – It’s very rare to see movies where the lead character and the actor that plays that role are so in sync that it becomes hard to imagine anybody else in that position. Ryan Reynolds IS Deadpool. I liked that they did not dilute the edginess of the movie to appeal to a broader audience. The shock factor was strong with this one.
  3. 10 Cloverfield Lane – An interesting psychological thriller that had me engaged throughout its duration. There aren’t enough good thriller movies out there so this one makes the list.
  4. La La Land – All the critical acclaim notwithstanding, I thought Whiplash was a better movie. Now that that’s out of the way we can focus on La La Land. When I walked out of the theatre I didn’t really feel much – perhaps I was expecting too much considering both Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling are my absolute favorites. Au contraire, Sid, the president of the ‘I hate musicals’ association, thought the movie was quite good. The performances and the musical numbers were great but somehow it did not have that much of an emotional impact on me in totality, despite the beautiful ending. It was only the next day that the movie or rather specific scenes and moments from the movie hit me. I think I would re-watch this movie just for those few scenes.
  5. Finding Dory – Yes, it got ridiculous towards the end but I loved the characters so much that I am willing to give that a pass. Baby Dory has to be one of the cutest things I have ever seen.
  6. The Lobster – Probably one of the most innovative movies I have seen in a while. Sid and I saw this movie together on a flight and were thoroughly amused by it. Buoyed by fantastic performances from its leads, this movie should definitely be on your radar. It’s weird but good weird.
  7. Nocturnal Animals – Beautifully shot – can’t expect less from Tom Ford, Nocturnal Animals drew me in right from the get go because the of the atmosphere it created and Jake Gyllenhall (gosh he is handsome). And that ending was haunting. Sid hated the movie – he slept through the middle portion of it and could not wait for the movie to end.

*Haven’t seen Arrival, Manchester By The Sea, Moonlight, Jackie yet

  1. Kapoor and Sons – Loved everything about the movie. A movie that has terrific repeat value which is very rare these days.
  2. Dangal – I loved the first half of the movie – it seemed authentic and the child actors were brilliant. The second half, while good, was overlong and melodramatic. The struggle of an athlete would have been compelling in itself without the need for a caricature of a coach. But these are minor gripes in an otherwise great movie. Aamir was brilliant in the movie and it was nice to see one of our usually ‘ageless’ superstars act in a vanity free role.
  3. Pink – Another fantastic movie from start to finish. While the courtroom drama was compelling, it was the journey of the women – strong, independent yet vulnerable – that was interesting to watch.
  4. Udta Punjab – What an actress Alia Bhatt is turning out to be. Her scenes in the movie were gut wrenchingly brutal and emotional. Whilst everyone else performed exceptionally well, for me this movie was all about Alia Bhatt.
  5. Neerja – It got too dramatic towards the end but for the most part Neerja was a well acted movie that did justice to its namesake. I tear up very easily anyways so Neerja was tough on me, especially the scenes with Shabana Azmi. Again, not a movie you might like if you appreciate subtlety.
  6. Kahaani 2 – I admire Vidya Balan’s commitment to her character – she is an actress in a league of her own. However, comparisons to the first movie are inevitable. This one obviously doesn’t soar as high as its predecessor but Kahaani 2 was less a thriller and more the story of a child abuse survivor and it’s admirable that these stories are being made and accepted.
  7. Fan – If you look at Fan just at the surface level, it is rather mediocre. But, it’s the non obvious nods to stardom, success and ego that elevate this movie. Especially considering it is Shah Rukh Khan who plays the role. I found the character of the movie star more fascinating than the fan. The makers could probably have done without the over-the-top action sequences in the latter half but even with all its imperfections, Fan is a movie that I thoroughly enjoyed.

*Haven’t seen Parched, Phobia, Raman Raghav 2.0, Aligarh. Plus, I may be in the minority but I found Airlift to be very cringeworthy. Dear Zindagi was frustrating to watch and I couldn’t wait for ADHM to finish despite the performances. I liked parts of Sultan and MS Dhoni.

Some food for thought

  1. Although I wasn’t in India, thanks to news and my family (or rather their Whatsapp joke forwards), I got a sense of what the demonetization saga meant. I think the idea to reduce corruption, increase transparency are great at the intent level but in a country as huge and diverse as India, the devil is in the details. Hopefully all this works out for the good. Even if it doesn’t, at least we got some more Rahul Gandhi jokes!
    You know what would be good though – depopulation. Someone please talk about this because the root cause for most of our country’s problems is that there are just too many of us.
  2. Every time there is a global sporting event it serves as a reminder that we as a country are underperforming. This year’s Rio Olympics was no different. It was heartwarming to see fantastic performances from some of the athletes, especially Dipa Karmakar, PV Sindhu and Sakshi Malik. However, if we want things to change maybe we should channelize our collective frustration more often rather than every four years. Also, maybe focus more on building facilities and infrastructure rather than falling over one another to gift flats and BMWs to athletes.
  3. This was also the year of Brexit, US presidential elections and anti-immigrant rhetoric all across the world. On one side we seem to be moving to a more global, connected world and yet some minds are getting narrower. It’s also funny how everyone wants to close the door behind them. These are complex issues with no easy solutions which makes it that much more important for us to rely on basic human decency in times of doubt.

Some holiday cheer

  1. Learning how to swim
    At the beginning of this year I decided I wanted to learn how to swim; partly because I wanted to get over my fear of water and partly because it is one of those skills that everybody should learn even if they don’t use it regularly. It took me 2 weeks to just learn how to float in shallow water but once I got over that initial hurdle it got easier. I wish I had learnt how to swim when I was younger because one has lesser fears then but nevertheless I am very happy to say I can swim now! I am still awkward to watch in water and to a bystander might even look as if I am sinking rather than swimming but technically I can swim.On a side note, a behind the scenes documentary of how Sid taught me to swim would be a fantastic comedy+drama.
  2. Traveling and road trips
    2016 was the year of road trips. We drove all around New Zealand’s South Island which was by far our most favorite trip ever! We also did the famed Pacific Coast Highway drive in USA which was stunning. We love listening to music or podcasts and just talking about life as we drive around so here’s hoping 2017 brings many more road trip opportunities. Plus, I have become an expert in gps navigation, music management and snacks handling since Sid is the one who does the driving. I am happy that we invest our time and resources into travel because we like to experience different cultures, people and places. I also know we are fortunate to be able to do this. Travel because you want to. Not because you have to.
    [You can read more about our travels here and here]
  3. Reading more books
    2016 was a good year for my reading. I finished a book a month on average which is a huge improvement from previous years. The running theme seemed to be edgy thrillers (one of my favorite genres) because I find myself more engaged  with these but I am hoping to read more diverse books next year. I really want to read books around India’s culture and history that aren’t too highbrow. Any recommendations?

Favorite quote/life mantra of the year

quote

What are your new year plans? We will actually be in a new country this new year. It’s a big (apple) move and any anticipation has been walloped by the amount of packing I have done in the last few weeks. My dreams these days comprise of bubble wrap, tape and cardboard boxes. But, I am low key excited and hoping for more interesting adventures. Having said that, it is bittersweet to say goodbye to a place that has given us such fond memories. Singapore will always have a special place in our heart.

So as another year comes to a close, here’s wishing we are all happier,healthier and wiser in the next one. Have loads of fun and Happy new year everyone!!

new-year

PS: I am a south Indian who has never seen a ‘real’ winter. So send in your best wishes as I move from the tropical sunshine of Singapore to freezing temperatures. I reckon I will bundled up in fourteen layers with a red nose. It’s going to be a pretty sight!

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Road Trip from Singapore to Malacca

We love a good road trip. Listening to music, snacking on junk food, arguing over directions -despite a GPS and scouting for clean public restrooms. What’s not to love! Since we don’t get to drive around in Singapore, we decided to rent a car and drive to Malacca, Malaysia for a quick weekend getaway instead. It was a plan we made on a whim just a few days prior and that’s about as spontaneous as we tend to get with our travels. We’d already seen Kuala Lumpur and Genting, so Malacca was a good option. This was our first time travelling from Singapore to Johor Bahru (JB) or driving in Malaysia in general, so it was an interesting experience to say the least. Read on to find out more

Travelling from Singapore to Johor Bahru (JB)

 

There are multiple options to reach JB from Singapore. You can drive in a car directly from Singapore to JB or take a bus or train. Find more details at the below mentioned links:

We would have preferred going by train but since our plan was quite last minute we ended up taking a bus from Queen’s Street (headed for Larkin bus terminal) to the Immigration checkpoint near Woodlands. The immigration process was quite straightforward but after this is where it gets a bit interesting.

After the Singapore side immigration, you need to board the same bus that you traveled into the immigration center in to reach the Malaysian immigration center. The bus boarding area can get quite chaotic and if you are new to the whole process it might be a bit confusing so make sure to check the bus numbers.

After the immigration process at JB, you are free to proceed with your journey.

 

Renting a car and driving to Malacca

 

We had pre-booked a car from Europcar in JB based on recommendations from friends. Their office is a short walk from the JB immigration point via the JB Square mall. However, there was so much construction going on in that area and not to forget crazy traffic, that we got into a taxi just to avoid walking on the road. The entire process of getting the car was quite smooth though and once we completed the formalities we hopped into our car to start the journey.

Roads in Malaysia are quite well maintained and for the most part we were driving on the highways and 4-lane roads so it was an enjoyable 3 hours. While you won’t see a whole lot of variation in flora and fauna or the landscape, you will find tons of farms and palm trees lining the road that make for a pretty picture.

We reached Malacca just about around our hotel’s check-in time and freshened up a bit before heading out to see the sights.

 

Things to See and Do in Malacca

 

Malacca is an important cultural and historical city in the region and that reflects in its UNESCO World Heritage site status. While it has all the trappings of a modern city – hotel chains, malls, fast food joints etc. , the moment you step into the heritage area, you feel like you have taken a step back in time.

Our first stop was St. Paul’s hill. A short steep hike up a flight of steps leads you to St.Paul’s church – the oldest church in South East Asia. Built originally by the Portuguese and later taken over by the Dutch, the building fell into bad state after the British occupation of the region, but seems to have been restored partially since then. You can explore the interior of the church that has exposed brick walls and interesting artifacts. From outside the church, you can catch a glimpse of the Malacca strait and the growing city.

 

 

A short walk from St.Paul’s will take you to Malacca’s most iconic attraction – the Dutch Square, also knows as the Red Square because of the colour of the buildings in the area. Flanked by the Christ Church on the left and the Stadthuys on the right, there is always lot of activity and hordes of tourists in this area. The Stadthuys is a huge complex that now hosts a museum and is worth a visit if you are interested in Ethnography or want a quick respite from the heat. The clock tower and Queen Victoria’s fountain in the center of the square are beautiful and a great backdrop for some photos.

Christ Church, Melaka

Christ Church, Melaka

After spending some time in the Dutch Square, as the sun was about to set, we crossed a bridge to enter Jonker street – also known as the place where all of Malacca seems to be (just kidding!). While first impressions of the street would lead one to consider this area to be a shopping hotspot, there is so much more to Jonker. It hosts some of the most iconic houses of Malacca offering glimpses into Peranarkan history and culture, but more about that later. As we navigated our way through the narrow and crowded lanes, we saw shops selling food items from all over the region – squid on a stick, rice balls, pancakes, noodles, sweets, crackers and chandol ! Being vegetarians, we had to give most things a miss but the energy and vibe of the place was amazing. If you are crowd-averse, Jonker Street is not for you. It gets very very busy towards the evenings so plan your visit accordingly.  If you have the patience you can scout for some interesting handicrafts from one of the bigger shops. Electronics, clothes, footwear, games at throwaway prices are also in abundance, but we didn’t find much of it to be that unique. Also,try exploring the by lanes and side roads branching off the main street since these are less crowded but have the same kinds of shops.

Jonker Street offers a lot but is not for people uncomfortable with crowds!

Since we didn’t have a GPS, we just went into random streets and took a turn somewhere that led us to the beautiful Cheng Hoong Teng Temple. Unfortunately, it was closed by late evening but we did manage to catch a glimpse of its beautiful exteriors.

We were quite exhausted after the drive and sight-seeing so we grabbed something to eat and went back to our hotel room to call it a night. The next day we decided to visit the Baba and Nyonya Heritage Museum which is located a short walk off the main Jonker street. This museum is unlike any I have visited in that it is actually a house, parts of which have been converted to a museum. Baba-Nyonya is a term used to refer to Chinese-Malays or Peranakan Chinese who have lived in these parts for a while now. The architecture of the house is well preserved and offers glimpses into the life of the Chan family that lived here for more than 4 generations starting in the 1860s. The elaborate woodwork and porcelain collection is definitely a highlight but my favorite room was the Thia Besar or Reception Hall that has some beautiful silk embroidery hanging from the walls. All in all, it was an interesting place to visit and the clearly labelled items and descriptions were helpful.

We wanted to leave for JB in the afternoon to avoid the evening rush but not before tasting some delightful local vegetarian cuisine at Veggie Planet. Co-incidentally we ate at their sister establishment the previous day thinking that was the actual Veggie Planet (don’t ask – we were way too hungry to care and didn’t realize there would be that many 100% vegetarian restaurants in Malacca to be honest). The place is a bit away from the center of the city but is well worth the walk or drive if you want to eat good authentic vegetarian Chinese/Peranarkan influenced cuisine.

 

 

Delicious Veggie Assam Pedas

Delicious Veggie Assam Pedas

After a sumptuous lunch we set off on our return journey back to JB. We got stuck in a traffic jam on entering JB given it was evening time and most people were probably returning back to Singapore. We lost a good one hour just sitting in the car waiting for the cars to clear out. The immigration process on the way back was again quite straightforward but there was just too much crowd for the buses and we felt it was not worth going through all this hassle. We will most likely check out the train route if we go back to JB again. But minus this one dampener, the rest of our trip was really good. Malacca was a pleasant surprise and definitely exceeded our expectations in terms of the places it had to offer to a visitor. Now only if I could eat that Chendol again !

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Budapest – A picture essay

Ever seen television shows or movies set in Medieval Europe and wish you could be transported to that era? The castles and palaces and the amazing architecture are too beautiful to resist, aren’t they? Well, we don’t have time machines yet but visiting Budapest is definitely an opportunity to experience a little bit of that magic. We hear so much about other European cities that Budapest sometimes doesn’t get that much love but it is one of the most beautiful cities that I have ever visited. Situated on the banks of The Danube and brimming with history and stories, Budapest is a traveller’s delight and so much more.

We spent three days in Budapest during the summer of 2015, well actually a whole month before Summer is supposed to actually kick-in in Europe, expecting pleasant weather. After our last trip to Europe in 2014 (the one where we came very close to melting in Rome), we thought we should avoid the peak summer season. But, as luck would have it we got caught up in another heatwave – Europe’s worst in recent history to boot. Given our track record we should have probably planned for a December visit to be safe but we made it back to the other side alive! Severely tanned, but alive. And with tons of memories and photos.

This post is going to be a little different in that I am going to write less and instead let the pictures do all the talking. We are not great photographers by any standard (our phones are full of pictures with missing limbs and unintentional photobombs) but when the subject is as beautiful as Budapest, you can’t really mess up that much. Hope you guys enjoy the post.

 

Hungarian State Opera House - a stunning piece of architecture. Buy a ticket for one of the performances instead of the guided tour to explore the very well preserved interiors and of course, the Opera!

Hungarian State Opera House – a stunning piece of architecture. Buy a ticket for one of the performances instead of the guided tour to experience the very well preserved interiors and of course, the Opera!

Heroes' Square - famous for the iconic statues that adorn this major intersection in Budapest. The walk along Andrassy Boulevard to reach the square is beautiful.

Heroes’ Square – famous for the iconic statues that adorn this major intersection in Budapest. The walk along Andrassy Boulevard to reach the square is beautiful.

 

A crown jewel amidst several other stunning pieces of architecture on Castle Hill - Fisherman's Bastion is straight out of a fairytale.

A crown jewel amidst several other stunning pieces of architecture on Castle Hill – Fisherman’s Bastion is straight out of a fairytale.

Buda Castle

Buda Castle

And to end on a high note - a plate of delicious vegetarian Hungarian food.

And to end on a high note – a plate of delicious vegetarian Hungarian food.

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Magical Istanbul – Three day itinerary

“If one had but a single glance to give the world, one should gaze on Istanbul.”
-Alphonse de Lamartine

Istanbul is magical. There are no two ways about it. From the mesmerizing blue waters of The Bosphorous to the stunning architecture that captures your gaze from every corner, Istanbul is a feast for the senses. As a child, my interest in Turkey was first piqued in geography class when we learnt about the significance of the Silk Route and its impact on trade and culture in the region. In my naivety, I had also always thought that Istanbul would have distinctly European and Asian sections being a city that straddles the Eurasian border. The city certainly has a distinct flavour to it but it is a flavour that takes from both sides of the world – a blend of numerous cultures and styles which in turn is a reflection of Turkey’s history that included Persian, Byzantine and Ottoman influences among others. Modern day Istanbul is like any other growing metropolis – full of people,change and energy but the well preserved pieces from its chequered history give it a timeless quality.

We landed in Istanbul on a beautiful July morning and straight off the gate felt the hustle and bustle in the airport. Hordes of tourists, guides and locals swarmed the frankly, overwhelmed Istanbul Ataturk Airport but we were happily taking it all in. Our hotel had sent a driver to pick us up who seemed quite friendly and interested in guess what, Bollywood! A pleasant drive that steered us through the narrow by-lanes of the city led us to our hotel – Basileus. The place was highly recommended on TripAdvisor and I would say it deserves most of the praise that comes its way. Basileus is a family run establishment and you will be greeted warmly by the hotel staff who are very helpful with their recommendations of places to see and things to do. The location is great too , it is a short hike away from Sultanahmet Square and the metro line making it perfect for tourists. Personally, the best part for me was the breakfast. Prepared in a home style kitchen, the lavish spread of cheese, local delicacies and fresh fruit every morning was a refreshing change from the typical breakfast buffets in big chain hotels. But, if you are looking for a modern hotel, then you might want to look elsewhere. Wi-Fi was a bit flaky and since the hotel is located right on the road, noise can be bothersome sometimes, so the trade-off is quite obvious :).

We made sure we left around 8.30-9 everyday to avoid mid-day crowds and returned back to the hotel after lunch to escape from the sun. We would then set-off again in the evening to enjoy Istanbul under the night sky! Here are some of our recommendations on how to make the best of 3 days in Istanbul

Take a boat ride along the Bosphorous Strait

There is perhaps no better way to get acquainted with Istanbul than to take a boat ride along the waters of the Bosphorous. The easiest way to reach the ferry terminals is to go to Eminolu metro station. Spare a moment there to catch the stunning views of Istanbul as you walk along crowded footpaths filled with tour operators. We wanted a no-frills boat ride where we could just sit back and admire the views and would highly recommend Şehir Hatlari which is a city run ferry service. The tickets are around 10 Lira per person with the option of renting audio guides. Snacks and beverages are also available on the boat for reasonable prices. There are tons of other cruise options, some with entertainment and more elaborate dining options on board but we weren’t too keen on that since more often than not these experiences tend to be inauthentic thanks to the commercialization of tourism. But, if you are keen on a more fancy cruise experience, consult your hotel concierge or staff who could offer you better deals and advice.

Istanbul - as viewed from the blue waters of The Bosphorous

Istanbul – as viewed from the blue waters of The Bosphorous

Visit the Spice Market

After the pleasant boat ride, we walked across the street to Istanbul’s famed Spice Bazaar. Being an Indian, I could appreciate the multitude varieties of cinnamon, cardamom and ‘masalas’ but my guess is this market would be more fascinating for people who do not frequently use spices in their food. While traditionally a trading spot for spices in Istanbul, the Spice Bazaar now hosts other shops as well that sell souvenirs, dry fruits, sweets and of course, Turkish Delight. For some weird reason, we ended up eating ice-cream here which was delicious. We would highly recommend spending some time here just walking by the shops and taking the aromas in. It is rare to find places like this any more what with people ordering even toothbrush on-line!

Glimpse of Spice Market

Glimpse of Spice Market

Marvel at the Sophia Hagia
Sophia Hagia is one the most iconic structures in the world. A perfect example of Byzantine architecture, this beautiful dome shaped building was a church for a long time but was converted into a mosque under Ottoman rule. It was eventually turned into a museum in 1935 and continues to remain one to date. Sophia Hagia has served as an inspiration for several similar constructions, most notably the Blue mosque which is situated right next to it. Once inside, you will see several instances where Christian and Islamic motifs co-exist on walls and ceilings. As stunning as the Sophia Hague is from the outside, it’s journey across time as captured inside is even more so.

Hagia Sophia

Hagia Sophia

Admire the beauty of Sultan Ahmed Mosque aka Blue Mosque
Adorned with stunning glass lights and colourful tiles, the Blue Mosque was one of my favourite places in Istanbul. The fact that this mosque is still popularly used as a place of worship makes it even more special. Strict dress code is followed for entry into the mosque and cover-ups are offered at the entrance, just in case. While the interiors of the Blue Mosque are spectacular, it’s courtyard and towering minarets are also stunning examples of architecture. We spent more than 3 hours just walking, taking pictures and absorbing the beauty of this place and had it not been for our tight schedule, we would have happily spent more time.

Blue Mosque

Blue Mosque

Visit the Basilica Cistern
If you have read Dan Brown’s book Inferno (like my husband Sid), this place should feature highly on your list. Even for someone like me who did not have prior information about this place, the Basilica Cistern was an unusual yet thrilling experience. Located just a few mins away from the Hagia Sophia, this place is a hidden gem literally. One of the oldest and largest underground water storage structures in Istanbul, the cistern supplied water to Istanbul for several centuries. It is quite dark inside and the feeling of being underground can feel spooky but I didn’t get time to dwell on this fact thanks to Sid who narrated the entire story of Inferno to me whilst touring the cisterns. Of special mention are the two Medusa column bases which are interesting to look at and have variation of stories attached to them.

Pillars that stood the test of time - inside Basilica Cistern

Pillars that stood the test of time – inside Basilica Cistern

Shop (or not) at the Grand Bazaar

The Grand Bazaar is one of the most famous shopping streets in Istanbul, if not the most. Think of Chandni Chowk or Sarojini Nagar, only more chaotic and thronging with tourists. In fact, Grand Bazaar was the world’s most visited tourist attraction with a staggering 91+million visitors in 2013. We visited the place twice in three days because there is so much to see and do in and around this area that one visit won’t suffice. The most charming thing about this place though is the ambience and atmosphere inside the covered market. The market is more than 5 centuries old and it feels like the walls have stories to tell! Inside you will find shops that sell everything from jewellery, handbags, footwear to home decorations. Bargaining is common and stuff does tend to get repetitive after a point but Grand Bazaar is not just a place to shop. It is an experience in and of itself.

Travel tip: Grand Bazaar houses several money exchange centres and offers the best rates in Istanbul.

Topkapi Palace
The Topkapi Palace is a majestic Ottoman style palace that houses numerous attractions and offers some of the most breathtaking views of the city of Istanbul. In its heyday, it is believed to have housed thousands of people and was a mini city in itself. Apart from the stunning architecture, some of the other things to marvel at inside Topkapi Palace include the beautiful gardens, the kitchens, the room holding a stunning watch collection and the Harem. My favourite part though were the courtyards. We did not know they would provide beautiful glimpses of Istanbul and were pleasantly surprised to have discovered them amidst all the other rooms.

The Gate of Salutation

The Gate of Salutation

Imperial Hall

Imperial Hall

Views from Topkapi Palace courtyard

Views from Topkapi Palace courtyard

Dolmabahce Palace
Slightly off the beaten path but ever so stunning, Dolmabahce Palace was easily my favourite tourist find in Istanbul. The grandeur of the palace is second to none and its location – sitting prettily on the coast of the Bosphorous river just adds to its beauty. When we visited the palace, we spent a good hour just touring the gardens and marvelling at how the blue water caressed the walls of the palace. The highlight is of course the Chandeliers that adorn several rooms of the palace, most notably the Ceremonial Hall and the Blue Hall. There are free guided tours of the palace in English so do check out the website to time your visit.

Entrance to the Dolmabahce Palace

Entrance to the Dolmabahce Palace

Vegetarian eating options
The truth is if you are a vegetarian, you will find Istanbul frustrating. Turkish cuisine revels in kebabs and koftes and is hence heavily meat centric. You will however find mezze platters and eggplant based dishes frequently in restaurants but more often than not, these are sub standard and frankly, boring. We long made peace with the fact that travelling the world as vegetarians would not be easy as I documented in detail here, which is why we research extensively on veggie joints before going to any place. Here are some of our recommendations for fellow herbivores

Have a heavy breakfast. Turkish breakfast if full of fresh cheese, breads and dry fruits. Most hotels also serve the usual continental breakfast options so leave for the day with a full tummy just in case you do not find a good vegetarian option whilst sight seeing.

We take our food seriously - exhibit A of the research we do when it comes to veggie friendly restaurants

We take our food seriously – exhibit A of the research we do when it comes to veggie friendly restaurants

We personally enjoyed the food at Parsifal and Falafel House – the food was delicious and value for money.

A delicious plate of food from Falafel House

A delicious plate of food from Falafel House

Avoid eating near tourist attractions such as the Sultanahmet Square or Grand Bazaar because the food is overpriced here for the quality served. Instead, walk a bit further away from the hustle and bustle to find a quieter place. Lot of restaurants serve breads with their dips and hummus. A word of advice though – these breads are huge. So order keeping that in mind.

If you have a sweet tooth – indulge in baklavas and Turkish delights which are easily available at most street corners. We were fortunate to find an outlet of Karakoy Gulluoglu near our hotel and we ate their delicious baklavas every single day. They are utterly delicious.

I think it is wise to end this post on the sugar high that is the photo above! But, I will say that Istanbul was all that I expected it to be and so much more. I still remember the sight of the blue Bosphorous taking my breath away like it was yesterday. Aren’t memories like this why we all love travelling?

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My favourite movies and songs of 2015 – Year end post Part 2

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To read the first part of my year end post series, go here.

Favourite Movies

English

Inside Out – There was so much intelligence in the story and so much heart in the execution that it would be an understatement to say I loved this movie. The best animated English movie of the year for me. Also, who else was obsessed with the “Lava” short that aired before the movie? The Lava song has been playing in our house for a while now and occasionally I catch Sid humming along – that is always a good sign!

Ex-Machina –  I was very sceptical before we saw the movie primarily because the whole “robots + AI = End of Humans” plot has been rehashed so many times that finding novelty in these movies is not easy. However, not only did Ex-Machina break new ground, it also featured possibly my most favourite dance of the year (Ok, tied jointly with Drake’s Hotline Bling). Alicia Vikander was brilliant in her portrayal and the movie left me feeling slightly scary about the amount of technology we have surrounded ourselves with.

Jurassic World – An actress who could rival Bolt whilst running in heels , dinosaurs you can root for and Chris Pratt. Enough said!

Spy – I just realized that there are very few good comedies I have seen over the past few years. And I can watch anything from Woody Allen to Kevin Hart. So, imagine my joy when I saw Spy. I laughed so hard during some scenes that Sid had to literally hold me from falling off the seat. Melissa McCarthy’s Susan Cooper was funny yet endearing and her chemistry, especially with Rose Byrne produced some of the most laugh out loud moments of the movie.

Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation – I have developed a bit of a soft spot for Tom Cruise movies recently. Partly, thanks to my action movie loving husband and partly because his movies are actually quite good even if you discount the daredevilry and stunts.

(Movies that I also liked but not as much as some others did)

Bridge of Spies – Now, I need to throw it out there that I love Tom Hanks as much as everybody else – he is niceness personified, but excuse me for leaving the theatre a bit disappointed after watching the Cold War drama Bridge of Spies. This was a Spielberg movie and had potential to be so much more. Yet, it became a really good (but not great) spy drama. I wanted a bit more depth and a little less simplification.

The Martian – All the reviews I had read were praising this movie to the nines and it deserves most of that praise. However, I love science and a bit more of that would have elevated the movie for me. I understand that Interstellar suffered some backlash for having “too much physics” but this one had too little for me. I later read online that the movie stayed quite true to the book and hence some of the audience reactions were unfair, so I take some of my criticism back. Matt Damon was awesome though!

Black Mass – The best Johnny Depp movie I have seen in a very very very long time. Engaging and very Scorcese-like in some parts, I found myself invested in all the characters and thoroughly enjoyed the movie.

Avengers: Age of Ultron – I really like all the actors in the cast – especially Mark Ruffalo and RDJ. The movie was a bit meh but the acting, as always, elevated the movie.

Telugu

Baahubali  – I have long maintained that S.S. Rajamouli is too talented for his movies to not have a wider audience. So I was very excited, yet nervous when Baahubali became this beast of a movie with nationwide release. I am glad that it was received so well because we need more movies with historical context that delve into our culture’s rich legacy. I am also glad I saw the movie in Telugu because it felt more authentic. I later saw the movie in Hindi when it was aired on TV and it did not feel the same. The dialogues were too contrived for my liking, so if you have the patience I would recommend watching it in Telugu (with subtitles).

Hindi

Talvar – My favourite Hindi movie of the year. A tough story to tell, considering how recent it is in everyone’s memory. Props to the director for being unapologetic in taking the parents’ side because otherwise the movie would have no moral ground to centre itself on and would have played out more like a fact narrating session. Bollywood, please give Irrfan Khan more opportunities – he can single-handedly make a scene hundred times better.

Piku – When I first saw the movie, I loved it. Except for Amitabh Bachchan’s portrayal of a hypochondriac Bengali father. His accent felt off to me and his acting a bit forced at times. But, that was a minor gripe. On re watching the movie a couple of more times his performance did not grate on me so much. Deepika was the star of the movie with a brilliant performance to add to her already overflowing kitty of achievements. Her chemistry with Irrfan was another pleasant surprise.

Bajrangi Bhaijaan – I have a tough time with Salman Khan – both the actor and the person. For the most part, I do not enjoy his movies or acting but Bajrangi Bhaijaan was an exception. I liked the movie more for the novelty of its story, the wonderful child-actor Harshali and its broader message of niceness and kindness. I cringed at the climax but given the overall enjoyability of the film, I am going to let that pass. On a side note, why is Kareena not doing more films with better parts? She is way too talented to relegate herself to parts that do not do justice to her acting prowess.

Dum Laga Ke Haisha – While I could dwell on how refreshing it was to see a movie that celebrated its female protagonist’s weight in a realistic way, that would be diminishing the other important themes running parallel in this gem of a movie. From depicting a son’s struggle to stand up to his overbearing father to sportingly mocking the entire arranged marriage process, Dum Laga Ke Haisha stayed true to its roots – even when it broke into song by channelling the 90’s.

Tanu Weds Manu Returns – Imperfect yet entertaining, the second instalment of  TMR introduced us to one of the most charming and lovable female characters in a while – Datto. I don’t think the movie would have been as good without her. Be prepared to be frustrated with unanswered questions as to the character’s actions and choices throughout the movie, but it is a good sign because it shows you are invested in the characters. Kangana Ranaut is unbelievably good.

Note: Lots of highly buzzed about movies such as  Joy, Concussion, Room, Spotlight, The Danish Girl release in January in Singapore so this list is due for some editing in the near future. I have also not seen Court which is India’s official entry to the Oscars and Masaan. 

Favourite Songs

This is going to be a very long list. Pardon me for not being decisive enough to narrow this down but I listen to music quite a bit – usually the more popular and mainstream music anyway, so I needed to give myself a free reign. The list is in no particular order.

  • Hotline Bling – Drake

  • Adele (no explanation needed)
  • Let It Go and Hold Back The River – James Bay ( We i.e. Sid and I accidentally stumbled upon this artist and he quickly became a favourite)

  • Want To Want Me  – Jason Derulo
  • Can’t Feel My Face – The Weeknd
  • Sugar – Maroon 5 (My love for Adam Levine just grows)
  • Stitches – Shawn Mendes
  • Shut Up And Dance – Walk The Moon (I can’t help but dance while listening to this song)

  • Like I’m Gonna Lose You – Meghan Trainor ft. John Legend
  • Runnin’ – Naughty Boy ft. Beyonce (I am surprised this song and video did not become more popular)

  • Worth It – Fifth Harmony ft. Kid Ink
  • Biscuits and Dime Store Cowgirl- Kacey Musgraves (I had written in my Year End Post -2013, how much I liked Kacey Musgraves’ music.)
  • Soundtrack of Piku
  • Soundtrack of Tamasha (I especially loved the song Wat Wat Wat. The movie was a royal mess though)
  • Chains and Jealous- Nick Jonas
  • Photograph – Ed Sheeran
  • On My Mind and Love Me Like You Do – Ellie Goulding
  • Style and Wildest Dreams – Taylor Swift
  • Lean On – Major Lazer and DJ Snake

In summation, I thought 2015 was a meh year for movies while the music was more entertaining. Let me know if there are any good movies or songs I missed out on watching.

Hope you are all getting on with your year end party planning and secret santa gift exchanges. I am off now to start writing about what made the headlines in 2015 and my three cents on it. Should be interesting.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Posted in Films, Life, Year End Posts | 3 Comments

Things I loved in 2015 – Year end post Part 1

Is it too early for this kind of a post? 2015 has been such an interesting year that the moment December started, my blogging itch was in full force. I usually do one year end post but I wanted to break it down in parts this time around to cover more ground. So, this post is going to be a list of random things I loved (love is a strong word, but I am going to use it liberally in this post) in 2015.

Youtube

I can’t remember the last time I flipped through my TV to watch a show. If I am bored or am in the mood to watch something, I just go on Youtube. From music videos to chat show interviews to make-up tutorials to funny gags – the quality of content can be consistently better depending on what you choose to see. Plus, it is entertainment on demand – you can watch it anywhere, any time as long as you have Wi-Fi.  Here are some of my favourite YouTube channels

  • Yoga with Adrienne – for single handedly getting me to use that yoga mat which was lying in the store room. I started off with her 30 days of yoga challenge and really enjoyed it.
  • || Superwoman || – Seriously, who doesn’t love Lilly? She is all kinds of cool and awesome.
  • Last Week Tonight with John Oliver – For some straight up, ballsy humour that tackles issues I am ashamed to admit I sometimes know very little of.
  • The Ellen Show – I have laughed and cried hysterically watching Ellen’s show. It is tough to find genuine kindness in today’s day and age so a little bit of Ellen goes a long way. Plus, those adorable kids who come on her show are goals!
  • Kaushal Beauty – I often stumble around youtube trying to find Indian beauty gurus so imagine my delight when I found this channel. Although Kaushal is a British-Indian, she does plenty of Indian wedding, festival make up tutorials to have me hooked.

  • Zoella – Great beauty, lifestyle channel all around. And Zoella is the cutest!
  • KathleenLights – Insightful and sometimes hilarious – Kathleen is one of my favorite youtube stars. Check our her channel for drugstore makeup options.

 

Blogs/Websites

I can read blogs all day long if I had to. Is there a job somewhere that would pay me to just read and comment on blogs? Trust me, I would be great at it. This year I ventured out of my comfort zone of reading travel or personal blogs to more community-oriented websites. Here are some of my favorite finds

  • xoVain and xoJane – These sister-sites are bloody brilliant. xoVain is centred more around beauty and makeup whereas xoJane covers a wide spectrum of issues. I have found so many interesting articles and viewpoints on these sites that I am worried I might run out of reading all their stuff quicker than they can post new ones.
  • ViviannaDoesMakeup – While Vivianna also has a fairly popular YouTube channel, I find myself reaching out for her blog more. She writes effortlessly and beautifully about everything , even candles and perfumes which are hard to put across in words.
  • Caroline Hirons – I have spoken extensively about how this blog changed my skincare game in an earlier post but I can’t stress enough how much I owe my vastly improved skin to simply following Ms. Hirons’ rules. Every girl/woman should bookmark this site.
  • The Blogess – Straight up, one of the funniest writing on the internet.
  • Crusoe – The Celebrity Dachsund – Travel and dogs, two of my favourite things in one place.

 

Podcasts

So, I am quite late to the podcast party (In my defence, I wasn’t really invited), but thanks to a post from Pioneer Woman, I decided to take the plunge with ‘Serial’. Little did I realize that it would consume an entire weekend and force me to make a pitch to my husband to listen to it too. In fact, I re-listened to some episodes with him just to see how he would react to some of the things.

Serial got me researching on what else existed in the podcast universe and after a bit of trial and error I found some really good ones

  • Serial – (mentioning again for the record) Do go and give it a listen. It is sad and disheartening at times, but like everyone else the facts of the case kept me thinking for a long time. I can’t wait for Season 2.
  • Call your Girlfriend – Two long-distance besties talking about everything under the sun is the perfect idea for a podcast. It reminds me so much of the conversations I have with my sister (who is also my best friend and my unofficial first-born – she will always be a kid to me) that starts on one topic and before we know it we have covered everything from tennis to fashion to Bollywood gossip. Thank you Whatsapp voice call 🙂
  • This American Life – I have a lot of catching up to do because this show has so many episodes but I started off with this list and thoroughly enjoyed learning about everyday American things.
  • The Mystery Show – Slightly offbeat mysteries are uncovered in each episode. It isn’t a standard ‘here’s a crime, here are the facts, let’s investigate’ sort of a show but more about getting to understand the story behind why some things mystify us and capture our imagination unlike other things.
  • Criminal – I recently started listening to it and so far I am liking it. It doesn’t have the depth of Serial but if you are into this genre, this is worth giving a listen.

I would love to get some more suggestions – I commute for an hour every day and I am tired of listening to my playlist, so hit me up with recommendations in the comments below.

 

Cooking/Baking

I am an above-average cook, I have always been. But, over the past one year cooking has become therapeutic to me. I feel stress-free when I get into my cooking, especially after ‘one of those’ days at work. The one site that has changed my life is Veg Recipes of India. It is the next best thing to calling your mum for quick recipe breakdown! I have also been loving the BBC Good Food website for non-Indian food inspiration – their baking section in particular is amazing.

A new addition to our kitchen has been the Nutribullet. I had read so much about it that when we visited the electronic store, I bought it on a whim. This bad boy has literally changed our life. We eat so many more fruits and vegetables thanks to the blending magic of Nutribullet. It preserves nutrition and fibre from your fruits/veggies much much better than a mixer grinder or regular blender. My mother loved it so much when she visited us for a week, that she bought one herself too.

I am thinking of doing a post exclusively around my adventures in the kitchen but am resisting it since I seem to be veering into some serious domestic life territory here, but I just might!

Hikes and walks

It is easy to quickly run out of ‘traditional’ things to do in Singapore given the size of the place but it is equally amazing to find new things to do in the Lion City as long as you keep an open mind and/or  Google a hundred variations of ‘cool stuff to do in Singapore’. One of the best parts about living in Singapore is that if you like the outdoors you will never get bored because there are beautiful parks near every neighbourhood. They are full of greenery and water bodies and well-marked walking trails. Whenever we feel like we are being too lazy, we just explore a new walking trail or hike and it instantly lifts up our mood. We do it at our own pace and ensure our mobile phones are tucked away so that we I am not instagramming  the hell out of every flower. (on a side note, how is instagramming not a word yet? )

Writing

It might not seem like I have been writing a lot given the status of my published posts but I have an overflowing drafts folder that I need to clean up. Between working, laziness, distractions, reality television etc.,  I have not finished a lot of pieces. Some of them might not even be relevant any more but I need to attend to it. On the bright side though, I have written more consistently on my travel blog – The Round Trip Ticket, which you should check out, if you haven’t. If you prefer pictures to text, then you can follow our travel adventures on Instagram – https://www.instagram.com/theroundtripticket/

I have also written a lot of mails this year. A lot! That counts too, you know.

So here are some of the new things I (re)discovered and enjoyed in 2015. Would love to hear what you were enjoying this year in the comments below. Happy December!

PS: I have started a draft of my favourite movies/tv shows/music of 2015 and am realizing there weren’t a lot of good movies this year. Am I missing something?

PPS: It is super hot in Singapore. In December. This should not surprise me but with Christmas trees and lights and snowflakes – yes snowflakes, being put up everywhere, the irony is not lost on me.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Posted in Life, Year End Posts | 1 Comment

Day Trip to Wachau Valley | Wine Tasting in Austrian Countryside

Vienna. Summer. Bliss.

Only this time around Europe witnessed one of its worst ever heat waves and the two luckiest folks in town aka Sid and I happened to be bang in the middle of it. So, when our friend suggested a day trip to Wachau Valley filled with wine tasting and scenic views of the Austrian countryside we jumped faster than the rate at which our sunblock tube was being emptied. We booked a guided cycling tour through Vienna Explorer and on a warm sunny July morning set off for Wachau Valley.

 

The tour involves travelling by train to the city of Krems, from where the entire tour group picked up bikes. Now, I am always first to admit that I am not the most athletic person in any sample size but the idea of cycling brought a smile to my face. I last rode a bicycle almost 8 years ago so nostalgia engulfed me when I picked a bike, put on the helmet and took position. It is another thing that this nostalgia was of no use when I struggled to bike up an incline and was at a loss for breath even as people twice my age swiftly bypassed me! But, in the morning, all fresh and fed as I stood outside the bike parking garage, I felt like I could cycle like Lance Armstrong (is there a better role model I could insert here?) Once everyone was ready, we were ably led by our tour leader onto the streets of the small town and our journey to the beautiful vineyards of Wachau started.

Picture Perfect - views like this greeted us at regular intervals in Wachau

Picture Perfect – views like this greeted us at regular intervals in Wachau

As we slowly made our way out of Krems and into the countryside, fresh crisp air greeted us. We were flanked by beautiful terraced fields on one side and the Danube on the other. We stopped at our first wine tasting after about 30 mins of cycling. We got to taste quite a few varieties of wine although such a thing is lost on me. I can’t figure out how people shake the wine, talk about clarity, taste and texture. The fact that I managed to finish my wine glass was an accomplishment in itself.  Plus, given my threshold for holding alcohol, I don’t think the group would have appreciated a drunk woman on a cycle humming Bollywood songs (alcohol makes me desi like nothing else can). Sid and our friends definitely had a better appreciation for the wine and the unique classification system that wine in Wachau region follows.

Terraced gardens en route Wachau

Terraced gardens en route Wachau

We set off on our bikes for the next leg of our journey which took us to the beautiful medieval town of Durnstein. I fell in love with the cobbled streets, quaint coffee houses and cafes and the lovely houses that dotted the roads. A part of our group decided to hike up to the Durnstein Castle which overlooks the town and offers magnificent views but Sid and I chose to stay back and explore the town. There are lots of souvenir shops that sell key-chains, postcards and other such knick knacks. But, we ended up picking a bottle of apricot jam! Now, apricots are very famous in this part of Austria and you will find them in everything from chocolates to Brandy but I can vouch for the jam we bought – it was delicious. After leisurely strolling through the town, the group got together to have lunch in one of the restaurants. Even restaurants in Durnstein feel like they have been designed by an art director. Set in a garden amidst beautiful plants with wooden tables and chairs, a meal in this setting was thoroughly enjoyable. Being vegetarian, we had one option on the menu so good thing we packed some stuff earlier in the day but if you eat meat then dig in into the Schnitzels!

Durnstein - a beautiful medieval town in Wachau valley

Durnstein – a beautiful medieval town in Wachau valley

With our tummies full, we picked up our bikes to go to our second wine tasting. I don’t know if it was the lunch break or my lack of fitness, I struggled to bike during this part of the journey but thanks to the constant heckling encouragement from my friends I managed to make it to the Mang Family Weingut winery. The place has a large garden with lovely outdoor seating – perfect to soak in the sun with some wine. When you have friends and great wine for company, you don’t need much else but a place like this doesn’t hurt!

The outdoor seating at The Weingut winery in Wachau [Image courtesy of Mang Hermenegild]

The outdoor seating at The Weingut winery in Wachau
[Image courtesy of Mang Hermenegild]

It was time now for us to make our way back to Krems. But, the trip wasn’t over yet. We cycled along the Danube and then took a detour to a nice little beach where the group was invited to take a dip. We obliged happily and dipped our feet in the cool pleasant water after what had been a tiring but exhilarating day.

If you happen to be in Vienna for more than 3 days, I would highly recommend taking a day out to visit Wachau valley. It offers a glimpse into what life in the countryside looks like. We don’t get to cycle that often so that was an adventure we enjoyed thoroughly as well. The views are beautiful, the wine is delicious and the cycling is fun. A perfect outing if you ask me!

Nothing like a glass of fine wine from Wachau's famed vineyards.

Nothing like a glass of fine wine from Wachau’s famed vineyards. Can you spot me?

 

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What I’d tell my younger college going self

This post is going to be a bit random. One of those kind that I used to write a lot back in college. Come to think of it, the inspiration for this piece comes from my younger college self who wrote about everything from relationships to animals to doing something for the society at large. As I browse through my blog I realize how much I have changed as a person. Am I more mature and well-aware and knowledgeable and patient – a resounding yes! But I am also not as forthcoming, open and intuitive in my writing. My earlier posts were not great pieces by any standard. But, even today when I read them I can’t help but smile. There was an innocence and openness about those posts that I seem to have lost touch with. My words are more measured now and a lot more thought goes into what I say and how I say it. I guess this is what growing up means. But, this trip down memory lane was fun in a strange way. It brought back memories, albeit faded ones, about how I looked at things, people and issues 8-9-10 years ago. I am not one for regrets, but I am also not one who would not want to change some things if given an opportunity. So now that I have set the context, here are some things I wish I could tell the younger, more naive Namrata:

1. Do not be ashamed or embarrassed to be yourself: When I first joined college, I was not quite sure of how to be. Reserved or boisterous, dress up or dress down, talk to people freely or take my time. No matter what option I chose, I was never certain. I guess this is a typical 17 year old problem but I wish someone had told me to not worry so much about how I came across. After all, everyone else around you is of the same age and going through the same things.

Channel your inner Zooey Deschanel - if that's who you are.

Channel your inner Zooey Deschanel – if that’s who you are.

2. There is huge world outside of college, don’t forget that: It is very easy to get caught up in college life. Apart from academics, you have college activities, hostel life, new friendships, boys to crush on etc. Living in a college is like living in a bubble. What people say within campus starts becoming more important than it should be and one starts to second judge one’s own instincts. It is thus essential to step out once in a while. Talking to parents or school friends can be a great way to disconnect from college life. Joining a class outside campus or volunteering somewhere can help you make friends who do not go to the same college and are hence insulated from judging you based on any gossip or rumour. Expand your circle and network and I don’t mean on Facebook!

3. Don’t be afraid to make mistakes; don’t be afraid to apologize: In college, you say tons of stuff – sometimes under peer pressure, sometimes to hide your own insecurities, sometimes for fun – but if it comes to your attention that you hurt someone, say sorry. Making mistakes is part of being human and there is no shame in it. If you feel in your gut that what you did or said was wrong, apologize. Meet the person whom you might have intentionally or otherwise hurt and say sorry. Or, drop an e-mail or text. But do mend fences and say your peace. How the other person chooses to respond is beyond your control but doing the right thing can never be wrong. I distinctly remember doing this in my final year of college and feeling good about it. I wish I had done it sooner though.

Take a note from Ms. Tina Fey's book

Take a note from Ms. Tina Fey’s book

4. Don’t be too judgemental College is for many people their first foray into the real world outside the sheltered confines of their home. You will meet people from different backgrounds and cultures. This is the best part about college. So, try to get out of your comfort zone and talk to everyone. If you like someone, become friends irrespective of what anybody else thinks. Try to give time to people before forming an opinion about them. Remember how you would feel if someone were to judge you based on a sporadic event. Also, let go of your biases. Especially those that are insensitive.

Don't be ignorant or judgemental.

Don’t be ignorant or judgemental.

5. Make the best of every situation: Despite your best efforts, there will be hiccups in your college journey. You might not do well in a test or get into a fight or fall prey to some nasty rumour. While these incidents will effect you and cause you to drown your sorrows by watching more tv shows than you usually would, learn to look at them a bit more positively. People tend to have short memories so face every challenge head on and don’t bother too much about what others say or think. Your true friends will stick by you no matter what. And if they don’t, you can always burn them with your awesomeness!

There's nothing that some good ol' positive attitude can't solve

There’s nothing that some good ol’ positive attitude can’t solve

6. Don’t take matters of the heart to your heart, so much so that they fill you with negativity. College is very rarely the right place or time to take decisions about love, life and marriage. Sure, there will be exceptions but not every friendship is meant to turn into something more. So, don’t get heartbroken if a relation doesn’t work out or lose sleep if you reject someone’s feelings. Be considerate and honest about other’s feelings but not at the expense of your own.

Don't be a child!

Don’t be a child!

7. Have more fun: Man, I wish I had had more fun in college. I wish I had let loose and not be reserved. I am not saying being reserved by nature is a bad thing, some people do tend to take more time to come out of their shell. But don’t let that become a recurring excuse. In my case I sometimes held back deliberately, so looking back now I feel an extra dose of recklessness on my college resume wouldn’t have been such a bad thing.

Shake it off - shake it off

Have tons of fun and definitely wear sunglasses when dancing in the rain

But more than any of the above mentioned points, the one thing I would love to drill into the mind of my younger self would be to cherish every memory. College is a unique experience – unique for everyone who joins with you and grows with you. Take in all those moments – good, bad, sometimes ugly, sometimes exhilarating and bundle them all into a small space in your brain and heart. You might not always need them but knowing that they exist is always a comforting thought. And fodder for posts on your blog!

*All gifs used in this post are courtesy of Giphy.

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A guide to Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam

“This feels just like India”, were the first words to come out of my mouth as we made our way out of the bustling Ta Son Nhat international airport in Ho Chi Minh city. The mad rush of traffic, lights, sounds everything reminded me of India. So, it is no surprise that I felt right at home! It was a bit different for my husband though who has lived out of India for a long time now and prefers order to chaos. But, there is a strange beauty and energy to this chaos as well – and that is something that only people who have lived or are living in cities in developing countries will appreciate. It is an acquired taste, if you will. Our friendly cab driver gave us a crash course in the current happenings in HCM and seemed very fascinated by Bollywood and the Indian education system. Talk about covering both ends of the spectrum! In all my travels so far, Bollywood has sort of been the conversation starter on many occasions. I think I will start using that as a standard response to questions posed in unfamiliar languages on my travels henceforth.

We stayed at Nikko Saigon which is a great hotel if you want to avoid the city centre. Taxis are available right at the hotel so travelling within the city was never an issue for us. There is also a mall attached to the hotel which makes it easier to give directions to cab drivers. Plus, it is a Japanese establishment so we said hello to our dearly missed and oft remembered Toto. We had no complaints from the hotel and would highly recommend it. There are lots of hotel options closer to the city centre but it is also a lot more crowded and noisier there, so, it boils down to individual preference.

We usually plan our travels extensively – from things to see and do to where and what should we eat, but this time around we decided to just wing it! Equipped with a city map and loads of sunscreen we started our day with a French breakfast in a cafe near our hotel. French occupied several parts of this area till early 1950s so there are lots of quaint and cosy cafes in the city that serve great croissants, sandwiches and baked goods along with fresh coffee. Avoid going to Starbucks and instead go to one of these unique joints.

Read on for our Guide to Ho Chi Minh City

Day 1

1. Visit the War Remnants Museum

Few things can be more sombering than visiting a museum dedicated to war. The War Remnants Museum in HCM contains exhibits covering the Vietnam War as well as the period preceding it which involved French Colonialists. The pictures in the aftermath of Agent Orange and other chemical attacks are quite disturbing and while room after room is filled with images and records from the war, many people feel that it tells just one side of the story. Regardless of that, this museum should be on your must visit list to get a sense of the history of Vietnam and if nothing, reinforce your faith in the fact that wars are futile.

Glimpse of an exhibit at the museum

Glimpse of an exhibit at the museum

If  you are a machine lover, the display at the entrance to the museum will interest you. We were strolling around the tanks and aircraft when unexpectedly, a local tv crew asked us to join the shoot. We just had to nod a lot and listen intently to the guy giving an explanation of these collections. I thrived in this situation (channelling my nerdy school days persona) but it was hilarious to see Sid trying hard to look serious.

2. Lunch at Hum – vegetarian Vietnamese fine dining at its best

Just a short walk away from the museum is Hum – a beautiful vegetarian restaurant that serves Vietnamese inspired food among other cuisines. The décor is stunning and the service good. We went around noon and had to sit outdoor because the place was booked. So, word of advice – make a reservation in advance just in case. We enjoyed the food thoroughly and had we stayed longer, would have made a few more trips to Hum.

Delicious curry

Delicious curry

 

Vietnamese spring rolls

Vietnamese spring rolls

3. Reunification Palace

After a filling lunch, we set on foot to our next destination – the Reunification palace. What should have been a 15-20 min walk turned out to be longer because we made frequent stops to drink fresh coconut water and make conversation with the coconut vendors who were always ready for a photo op! The palace is right on the road and hard to miss given the huge grounds it is situated on. I didn’t particularly find the palace interesting – there are well preserved meeting rooms and information boards that narrate stories of who met in these rooms and under what circumstances but after a point it got repetitive for me. Worth a visit if you have keen interest in Vietnam’s history.

4. Notre Dame Cathedral and Central Post Office

Just across the road from the palace is the beautiful Notre Dame Cathedral. More than a century old but well preserved, the architecture is stunning to look at from the small garden across the church.

Notre Dame Cathedral

Notre Dame Cathedral

Located just beside the cathedral is the Post Office. At first, we weren’t sure why the place was so crowded but on entering the building we felt like we were transported to some bygone era. A time when people carefully picked up postcards and wrote on them before posting them to loved ones. The building itself is quite pretty from the inside and there are small stalls selling wares but we spent some time just observing the workings of a post office and reminiscing our childhood days.

5. Backpacker’s Street

After a day filled with sightseeing, we decided to head to HCM’s popular Backpacker’s Street. Filled with backpackers obviously, this part of the city is also home to numerous eating joints, and shops selling souvenirs, paintings and other knick-knacks. We spent some time just exploring the place before grabbing some dinner. We called it a night quite early given we had an early start to the day and were tired from all the walking, but if you are in the mood head out for a fancy dinner or enjoy the city’s night life.


Day 2

1. Saigon Square: Located a short walk away from the more famous Ben Thanh market, Saigon Square is an air conditioned street market which sells clothes, shoes, accessories and souvenirs among other things. It is less crowded and touristy compared to Ben Thanh which means you can browse around more comfortably and discover things to buy at your own pace. The clothes here in particular are of higher quality than the other street market stalls we visited. For a better understanding of where to shop in HCM, take a look at the link below

https://xotours.vn/blog/2013/02/22/shopping-in-ho-chi-minh-city-what-to-buy-and-where-to-buy-it/

2. Ben Thanh Market

Chaotic in more ways than one, Ben Thanh Market is the mother of street markets in HCM. Popular among tourists for the wide variety of clothes, accessories, paintings, food etc. available for bargain here, Ben Thanh is not for the faint-hearted or for those who can’t handle crowds. But, if you let go of those inhibitions, it is quite a fun place to explore. The prices are naturally a bit jacked up, so be prepared to bargain hard. If you like something and are unable to close the deal, don’t worry. Most of the stuff sold can be found in other shops in the market, so get a feel for the prices before you decide to make the purchase.

3. Lunch

We are not very spontaneous when it comes to eating during our travels because we are vegetarian. More often than not we leave our hotel room equipped with a map with all veg friendly eateries marked on it. Surprisingly, we decided to wing it on our second day in HCM. Luckily for us we stumbled upon a vegetarian Vietnamese restaurant just next to the Ben Thanh Market. Phuong Mai Vegetarian restaurant is a small establishment on a street across the road from the market. We had amazing veggie pho here and also gulped down some fresh coconut water and fruit juices – all of which were reasonably priced. Highly recommend this place.

IMG_0125

Heavenly pho!

 

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The menu at Phuong Mai – vegetarians’ delight.

4. Dong Khoi

An upmarket shopping street lined with malls and high-end luxury brands, Dong Khoi is every window shopper’s paradise! Jokes aside, do check out some of the malls for cosmetics which I found to be a tad bit cheaper than in Singapore.

5. Saigon Opera House: 

This was a happy discovery for us when walking along Dong Khoi street. A large ornate building that is hard to miss – the Opera House is a beautiful building that regularly hosts theatre performances. We did not get a chance to watch a show but if you have the time, this could make for a perfect evening outing.

Saigon Opera House

Saigon Opera House

6. Indulge in some spa therapy

While not as popular and conveniently found as in other south east Asian tourist hot-spots, spas in HCM are still cheaper when compared to Singapore. Plus, we are always looking for excuses to get our spa on whenever we are on holiday so after a bit of research we decided to go to Indochine Spa which is located a short walk away from Ben Thanh. We were impressed with the service and hospitality of the staff there and the massage was quite good. After all the walking in the hot sun, the spa was the best way to get all the tiredness out of our bones and we were so relaxed that we slept like babies that night.

Our short getaway to Vietnam was more enjoyable than I expected. It was hot and tiring but the friendly people, the lovely vegetarian food, the shopping and more importantly seeing a vibrant young city in its glory more than made up for it. While we just went for a two day holiday, there is so much to see and do in Vietnam beside Ho Chi Minh City that I can’t wait to start planning a second visit to the country. The picturesque Ha Long Bay beckons!

Travel tip: Getting a visa to Vietnam isn’t as straightforward as some other countries in this region. There are lot of third party websites that will help you procure a visa on arrival letter but none of these are officially authorized by the Vietnam embassy. Being the rule following people that we are, we went personally to the Vietnamese embassy in Singapore and dropped off our passports for the visa. Our approach also cost us a bit more but that’s just the way we roll! Do your due diligence or talk to people who might have used some of these online services to make a well informed choice. Happy travelling!

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