Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Malory Towers

No magic, no sorting hats, no nearly headless ghosts, no invisible cloaks, and certainly no one who must not be named. Only good ole' sensible English girls (well, mostly). Who are a tad more interesting than a certain young wizard with a scar. No, you say? Well, go on then to nine and three quarters which in reality is between the 8th and the 9th platforms, and take your picture with that cart against the wall. Me, I am going to a real English school. You want to come too? Come along to Paddington and we shall catch the 4.50 to Cornwall, and spend the night at town by the Cornish coast where there are cinemas and the circus (and loads of shops selling tuck boxes which you absolutely have to buy if you are going to make the midnight feast on Saturday night) if you are so inclined.

Saturday 9 AM

There is a particular corner on our way up from town when suddenly Malory Towers comes into view - a big, square-looking greystone standing on top of a cliff surrounded by four rounded towers. North, South, East and West. The sea is behind, far down the cliff and there is a natural swimming pool down there but more about that later. First, we need to hurry or we will miss breakfast. Past the huge gate which looks like a castle entrance and through the Court which is surrounded by the school buildings, and no, no time to chat with the smart girls in their brown and orange uniforms, we will have time for that later, Ms Grayling likes people to be punctual. Gray-hair, blue eyes, firm mouth, calm face, low-voice, well, what did you expect anyway? If you are the honest, sensible, and responsible type, you will get along with her even if you have a really bad temper. Else, especially if you have an artistic temparement like the French, it is better to miss breakfast altogether.

Saturday 11 AM

We get to meet the girls. Ofcourse we won't remember them all but a few we won't be able to forget - Darrell and Sally, Alicia and Irene, Mary-Lou and Gwen. Darrell is nice and sensible and responsible and level-headed and all, but if you want to have fun, tag along with Alicia. Watch her play one of her brothers' tricks on Mam'zelle (no, not the tall, thin one. The fat, jolly one. Thats the one to play tricks on). Spiders, Invisible chalk, stuff that pop out of the fire, all sorts of things. I mean, one wonders why there is any need for magic.

Saturday 3 PM
First, we get to watch a real lacrosse match. Malory Towers vs Barchester. Woe on you if you decide to cheer the wrong team. Ofcourse, we will win. The school heroine will hit the winning goal. After which we get to have a really big tea. Yes, with scones!
And then, time to do some activity ourselves. Follow Wilhelmina (just call her Bill) and she will take you riding along the coast road. Yes, but who cares if its against the rules? This is a school, remember?

Saturday 7 PM

By the time young women get to the fifth form, they have learnt to do their schoolwork well. This is the time to learn the more important things in life like how to plan things on their own and carry them out, and how to work together properly to get things done. These are the things young women need to learn if they want to become sound women that the world could lean on. So what better way to learn these things (and also provide you and me with some wholesome entertainment in the process) than by letting them do their own pantomime? So here it is - written, directed and produced entirely by the girls of the fifth, this is another Cinderalla story. With servants, and ugly sisters and demon-king and jugglers and obviously, the Prince. Best seating is the North side gallery, on the topmost stone steps. Enjoy.

Saturday 12 midnight
Dinner? Oh, you don't want to come to the midnight feast then? You do? Then make sure you do not eat at dinner and save all the food. Then go to the dorm and pretend to be asleep. Actually no. Technically, bedtime is only for the girls but we aren't supposed to stay inside the dorms in the first place. Now that we have sneaked in here, hide when the mistress comes in to check whether everyone's asleep. Yes, it is time. Get up and smell the food. Sandwiches, tongue and boiled eggs, pork pies and ginger ale, lemonade stolen from the pantry and a huge chocolate mousse cake. Food always tastes better at midnight, ne c'est pas?

Sunday 10 AM
Yes, the San. Serves you right for eating too much last night. There is really no way around it - We have to go the Matron and get some really horrid medicine now. Thats the only way we are going to get our stomachs back. No, she won't be happy but I have a feeling she will understand.

Sunday 12 noon
Feeling better? I told you the medicine always works. The more horrid it tastes, the faster it works. Now lets head down to the swimming pool by the sea. The pool's hollowed out of a stretch of rocks and so it has a rocky, uneven bottom. You can laze around but around here if you do too much of that, you are guaranteed to be pushed in. So you decide.

Sunday 3 PM

Time to take leave of the girls and Malory Towers and head back to London. Take back some sense but leave the British superiority behind. A little out of time, that is. The world has become quite wunnerful in recent years, and the Empire nowadays is just the 51st state. Or a glorified missile base. Just ask Messrs. Jay and Lynn. Talking of which.

PS: Yes, I know. There is only way to see Malory Towers - as a student. But if you are reading this, then chances are high that you will have to wait till your next birth to go back to school again, so this is the next best thing. Okay?

Thursday, December 28, 2006


Bill tells us how to spend a weekend in JRR Tolkien's Shire.

For the world weary traveller, what better place to unwind than in Middle Earth, that charming creation of one JRR Tolkien? Throw away your blackberries and laptops and come down to the Shire for the weekend.

Friday 6PM
Best not come in too late, or you might find everything closing down. Unless you fly in by Gwaihir Air, or are comfortable with riding bareback on a horse of Rohan, the best way to come might be by cart. For a true experience, walk down from the nearest town on theold highway. On the way, you might consider singing:

The Road goes ever on and on
Down from the door where it began.
Now far ahead the Road has gone,
And I must follow, if I can,
Pursuing it with eager feet,
Until it joins some larger way
Where many paths and errands meet.
And whither then? I cannot say.

There's taverns on the way to point you in the right direction. Be prepared with interesting stories of where you are coming from, since tavern owners and their guests like nothing better than gossip of the outside world. Best not speak of necromancers though. Oh, and expect to be disbelieved if you speak of elephants and tigers.

Saturday 8AM
A good breakfast is necessary to start off. Go to Hobbiton and fill up on homely fare, with fresh fruits and vegetables from Bagshot Row if you can. Rosie's butters and jams are particularly well spoken off.

Saturday 10AM
We will do some adventure tourism today. Catch some of the local kids to guide you. We will go steal some mushrooms. Involves tree climbing, swift running, and fence jumping. Be careful of the dogs, and be wary of going into paths that are dead-ends. This is why the kids are helpful to have around. The Took kids are especially good at

Saturday 11AM
Phew, tiring work, running all that distance? Just about time to have a second breakfast, or elevenses. Don't say no to the tea, its reputed to be quite good.

Saturday 1PM
Now that we got done with that, its time for something completely different! Like lunch, for instance. The rabbit pie with taters, er, potatoes, is highly recommended. The bread is pretty good too, though the elvish waybread is not readily obtained. Don't pass up the opportunity to get some if it is offered.

Saturday 3PM
Let's go to the woods to meet Mr Bombadil. His songs alone are worth the trip. Add to that the charms of Goldberry, and what other reason do you need? Be careful of the road, and do not go into barrows. When in doubt, call out for Tom, and if you are lucky he will come find you. Reach there in time for tea, and you will get great cakes too. Take those outdoors, and get old Bombadil to sing. Or ask him if he knows if any wood elves are passing by. Don't miss the opportunity of asking some of those elves about the High Havens, and Lothlorien.

Start back to reach back in time to get to Bywater. Walking in the dark can seem scary, so keep your spirits up by singing songs Bombadil has taught you. Keep your eyes out for any Entwives you can see. (No, we don't know how they look like either).

Saturday 8PM
Okay, time to take in the night life. Make the trip down to the Prancing Pony, a fine inn with great ales. Its going to be crowded, so be patient. Their cider and ale is rather good, and you get to meet a wide cross-section of people. Some raucous singing might ensue. Climb on a table, dance, and chug down your beer, and everyone will be your friend. Singing long silly songs is also encouraged. Do not disappear, whatever you do, or you will be the topic of discussion for years!

Saturday 10PM
You should be feeling pretty full after that dinner, right? So why not put your feet up and try some pipeweed? You are not a smoker? Tch, tch, the Southfarthing's longbottom leaf is the finest, bar none. Kings and rangers, wizards and elves and dwarves, all get their supplies from here. A Havana cigar is not just for smokers, eh? Put that in your pipe and smoke it! On the other hand, if you are a smoker, everybody appreciates skill in blowing smoke rings. The more the merrier.

Sunday 9AM
Yes, you guessed right, food! A good Sunday breakfast spread is as good a way of starting the day as any. Finish up by taking up your pipe (you fell in love with it, didn't you?) and engaging in desultory conversation. You will not be left alone anyway until you hear the family history going on to third cousins on every side, and how the aunt of the neighbor is sure to accidentally take away spoons and forks from the dinner table.

Sunday 11AM
Well, now that you have finished breakfast (you did remember to linger over it, didn't you?), we can go exploring some of the traditional houses. Good examples of burrowing architecture can be found in the local towns. Mind the ceiling if you are on the tall side. Go explore tunnels and burrows, pausing to check out the fine fireplaces in the older homes.

Sunday 3PM
After a leisurely lunch, if you are up to it, you can go take in the water mill. They are pretty proud of it around here. If you have any fireworks on you, you can make friends with all the children (most adults too) pretty fast.

Sunday 6PM
Finish off the trip with attending a square dance. Most everyone is forgiving of bad dance moves, but its rather easy to learn anyway. If dancing is not your thing, or even if it is, stop by to refresh yourself at the tables. But not like we need to tell you this by this time.

Things to get back
Get some of that pipe weed, your friends will thank you for getting it. Produce, and apples and berries, are also good to get. On no account should you pick up any rings or such, much trouble can occur later.

Thursday, December 21, 2006


How to spend your 48 hours in OV Vijayan's Khasak

The best way to get to Khasak is to take a bus from Palghat town to Koomankavu, and then walk through the Ghats for a good six miles. Not to be attempted after dusk especially those of you who, like me, have an unnatural fear of teething blue-black snakes and their infant fangs and so, in this itinerary we will start from Palghat early Saturday morning. Just get to Palghat on Friday and retire early as we have to start early the next day.

Saturday 6AM
You can drive but then you miss out the KSRTC bus experience, so I suggest you take the first bus to Koomankavu from Palghat bus stand. Rickety old bus will take you past the fertile paddy fields and into the mountains for a couple of hours before finally halting at Koomankavu. Don't panic if everyone else gets off in earlier stops; Koomankavu is used to lone visitors.

Saturday 9AM
A forlorn post next to the mountain pass, Koomankavu consists of about "a dozen shops and shacks under an immense canopy of trees". Three days a week, all six members of the Koomankavu Beedi Workers Union will be on strike. You can see them with their red flags marching up and down Koomankavu shouting Inquilab - Zindabad, Anglo-American exploitaton - Murdabad. Walk over to the sherbet vendor's shop for breakfast. Appams with egg or beef curry readily available. Do not forget to get a bottle of sherbet for the road.

Saturday 10AM
Long walk to Khasak. Out of Koomankavu into a tulsi-scented valley for sometime before climbing up again for a mile or so. The path slopes down after that and Koomankavu is lost to view. If its nearing the monsoon season, listen for the call of the Maniyan - if he is around, the rains cannot be far behind. Soon, signs of human habitation will crop up - bulls and buffaloes by the brook, crows and pigeons, and then the red roof tiles through the greenery. Behind Khasak stands the mountain Chetali, its crown of rock jutting out shading the paddies below. No, not rock, those huge formations that you see underneath the rock are wild beehives, waxed to one another.

Saturday 12noon
Lunch at Aliyar's teashop. There is space inside for only four people but there are benches outside where you can sit for however long you want. The village gossip perched on the loadrest also happens to be the resident toddy-tapper, so in addition to feeding you all the local news, he can be conned to get you some fresh toddy.

Saturday 2PM
The District Board's school which used to be a shed where seeds were once stored - it consists of a long corridor, two modest rooms one of which serves as a dwelling place for the teacher and the other the classroom, and a large yard shaded by tamarind trees. The school will be closed but you might find the teacher, an existentialist fugitive in his sarai who will be more than happy to exachange biographies with you. But more likely, you will find just Khasak's parrot-man (who is Hindu on certain days of the week and Muslim on the rest) and his dragonfly waiting to see if the Maash has returned.

Saturday 3PM
Around the village of Khasak lie twelve ruined mosques; they have always been there as far as anyone could remember. Long ago, pagan deities and mortal humans tried to rebuild these mosques quite a few times but demon spirits thrawted the reconstruction and so no one tries to build them anymore. The most recent of the ruins is the Mosque of the King inside which you will see the Khazi, a djinn, the spirit of Sayed Mian Sheikh preparing for evening prayers. Say hello. The mosque overlooks the Araby tank, a pond of clear water where you can take a dip until the cry of the muezzin sounds from inside the Mosque. Just be a little careful though - the Araby tank is supposedly where beings dismembered in past wars come to bathe their unwashed wounds, so you might catch an infection.

Saturday 6PM
Time to go see Kuttadan, the Oracle of the Goddess Nallamma (Goddess of Smallpox in case you were wondering) and his shrine. The goddess speaks through the oracle a couple of days a week, and people came from far to hear her speak. If you are lucky, the she might speak today or there might even be an exorcism with swords and anklets and the rest. Either way, there will be enough of toddy and illicit arrack going around for everybody, so this cannot be missed.

Sunday 9AM
Chetali. Quick breakfast at Aliyar's teashop. Pack a picnic lunch - pathiris and meat curry that any Muslim household in the village will happily provide. Then climb up the Chetali. On the way, you will see butterflies, dragonflies, and red spiders with silken coats and probably some hooded reptiles. At the top, there is a rocky pool where a water demon resides. Jump in and say hi. Enjoy your lunch. No, do not attempt to go find the beehives from here, you will only succeed in killing yourself.

Sunday 1PM
Back in the village, its time to shop for souvenirs at Mainmoona's store. Ofcourse its an excuse to see the houri of Khasak face to face. After which you need to rush to Koomankavu to catch the last bus to Palghat. If you delay, you might be waiting for the bus forever.

Getting to Palghat
The nearest airport is Coimbatore; quite a few domestic airlines fly here. From Coimbatore its about an hour by bus to Palghat. Alternatively, you can also take one of the many trains from Chennai or Banglore heading towards Kerala and get off at Palghat Junction.

Two choices - either make friends with the Khazi who will gladly let you stay in the Mosque of the King or you can always stay at the school which was once a seedling house.

Friday, November 17, 2006

Death Valley

No, none of the 49ers died here. They were just lost in the valley while trying to find a shortcut into California and they thought for a time that they would die. They found a way out finally and as they walked through the pass, some old man is supposed to have said "Goodbye Death Valley" and the name apparently stuck. But this doesn't mean you can't die in Death Valley - all you have to do really is to attempt the Badwater ultramarathon next July. Just 135 miles in 100 degree heat and we will see if you survive. You aren't that insane? Good, then drive into Death Valley National Park in late fall and find out for yourself how spectacular bare rock and fine sand can be.

Quick facts: Death Valley National Park runs north-south between the Amaragosa Range to the east and Panamint Range to the west, and is the largest national park in contiguous United States. At 282ft below sea level, Badwater, located inside the park is the lowest point in North America. Land of extremes, described mostly in superlatives - hottest, driest, lowest.

Friday 5PM
The best time to drive into the park is from the east at dusk as long as someone else is doing the driving. If you flew into Vegas to get here, you will take the very deserted US95 up, past the aliens on Area 51 to the town of Beatty, NV. In Beatty you stock up on essentials and turn west, go past a couple of ghost towns that though supposedly authentic will have you searching for old Clint and then go through Daylight Pass and Hell's Gate into the park. If you miss the sunset, don't worry, this one is just the bonus, we will see the real thing tomorrow.

Friday 8PM

Dinner at the Forty Niner Cafe at Furnace Creek Ranch. Basic but serves good dinner and brunch and its not like you have too many choices anyway. You can ofcourse go across to the Furnace Creek Inn instead which is an expensive resort in the middle of an oasis with swimming pools, golf course and a few restaurants among other resorty things. The resort looks so incongruous that you immediately want to place a call to your friendly neighborhood aspiring terrorist.

Saturday 8AM

Breakfast at the Forty Niner Cafe. If you happen to stay at Stovepipe Wells, try the restaurant there as they serve similar stuff. Make sure you eat enough as we will have a really late lunch. Or if you have to have lunch on time, get sandwiches packed.

Saturday 10AM
Badwater & Devil's Golf Course. Driving to Badwater from Furnace Creek in daylight, Death Valley starts to make sense - Amaragosa on your left, miles and miles of flat saltland on your right ending at the foothills of the Panamint, snow capped Telescope Peak towering over everything else and we still haven't seen any sign of vegetation anywhere. Its all multicolored rock, salt and up ahead, there's snow. Badwater Basin really has bad water if you were wondering, the site has a walkway leading to spring-fed pool but the salts around make it undrinkable. The pool is not the lowest point in N America, this is actually a few miles west but walking through the salt flats is dangerous and so its not allowed. Next we drive to the bizzare Devil's Golf Course where two feet rock salt formations stretch for miles and miles. The salt fields are unlike anything I have seen before and they are an absolute must-see. Be careful while you walk through the fields though - the rock salt edges are razor sharp and if you fall down, severe cuts are guaranteed.

Saturday 1PM

Golden Canyon. Heading back, stop at Golden Canyon and take the popular Canyon trail. Its a not-so-narrow gorge that cuts through orange and gold colored sandstone rocks for about a mile, and then abruptly ends at the base of deep red sandstone cliffs forming an amphitheater called the Red Cathedral. Climb up one of the many ledges of the Cathedral, turn around and take your time. Red, Gold, and Orange sandstone hills glowing in the sun, the sky a clear blue, then miles of desert land followed by giant black mountains with snow-capped peaks - those of you from the green parts of the world will finally realize that that particular color is overvalued. Now that you are done reflecting, if you think you need more activity, there is a longer 4 mile trail that starts a few hundred metres south of the Cathedral that will take through the badlands beneath Zabriskie Point. Else head back for lunch.

Saturday 4PM
Lunch at where else? One of the two restaurants. I suggest Stovepipe Wells as its closer to the dunes where we are going next.

Saturday 5.30PM
Sunset at the sand dunes. Number Two on my top ten sunsets ever. Give yourself a good hour to work your way to the tallest dune for the sunset. Yes, they keep changing shape but the taller ones are always set away from the road and you have to climb up and down atleast two dozen dunes before getting to them. Take off your shoes if the sand inside starts bothering you, its better to walk barefoot as long as the sand isn't hot. The sun will go down the Panamint range but most of the action will be on the Amaragosa as it changes color every other minute until the sun completely disappears leaving you in utter darkness stranded in the middle of the desert. If you are lucky there won't be a moon, because if there's a moon, then the people from the resort will be here soon for their romantic moonlight horse/buggy rides on the dunes and you want to get out before they arrive. If you are really lucky though, then there will be a sandstorm - you would have seen it coming from the North if only you weren't so busy photographing the sunset. The next two hours you will spend going round in circles, totally blinded as there's so much sand in your eyes and anyway even if there isn't there you cannot see more than two feet ahead; you will hear choppers above and attempt to wave until some Park Ranger finally finds you and brings you back to safety. Or if you aren't a helpless sort of person, you just get a friend along who has a sense for storms and directions and can get you out straight to your car in less than half an hour while everyone else is waiting to be rescued.

Saturday 9PM
Hour long shower followed by a well deserved dinner at Forty Niner Cafe. They do have some decent wines, so this might be a good time to celebrate your rescue.

Sunday 8 AM
Breakfast. If you are in the mood for a long, strenuous hike, ignore all of today's itinerary - get up early and do Telescope Peak(14 miles) instead.

Sunday 9AM
Mosaic Canyon. The popular lower trail of the Mosaic Canyon takes you through a mile of twisted narrow passageways with beautiful, multicolored rocks on either side. The colors are different from the ones we saw in Golden Canyon, these are mostly marble and marble-like rocks, smoothed by water, mixed with other fragments to form colorful mosaic patches. The marble will look pretty enticing and if you have a sudden urge to take some of this marble and use it for re-flooring your Jubilee Hills home back in Hyderabad, please remind yourself that you could be looking at a couple of years in a federal prison.

Sunday 11AM
Titus Canyon. Two options: if you have a 4WD, drive out of the park(east entrance) and a couple of miles after the exit there will be marked gravel road from where its a 26-mile one-way to the foothills of the Grapevine Mountains and then into the recesses of the Canyon and out west well inside the park. Pack lunch and check at the Ranger station at Furnace Creek to make sure the road is open as flash floods often happen here. If you don't want to drive through the canyon, just park at the west entrance of the canyon inside the park, and take a walk inside. This is pure Lord of the Rings territory and you will feel like you are walking with Aragorn to meet the mountain folk.

Sunday 2PM
Ubehebe Crater. At the north end of Death Valley, the Ubehebe crater system contains several craters and ash hills resulting from an eruption thousands of years ago. Ubehebe is the largest and the youngest of the craters in the area and it over 700 ft deep and half a mile wide. You can climb down the crater but the best view is from the rim, so you decide.

Getting There

Most of Death Valley National Park is in Southwestern California though some parts of the park is in Nevada. The nearest airport is Las Vegas which is about 120 miles from the park. From Vegas, take US95 North to Beatty, NV and then go west on Hwy 374 and into the park through the east entrance. If you are driving in from the west[1], from Bakersfield, take Hwys 178 and 395 which will get you to Route 190 leading you into the park. Four wheel drive recommended though not really necessary for our itinerary. Please remember to carry lots and lots of water. The park entrance fee is around $20 but if you plan to visit more than two parks in a year, you might want to invest in the $50 National Park pass.


Doesn't matter where you stay as long as its inside Death Valley. You don't want to waste time driving in and out of the park, so stay at either Furnace Creek Inn/Ranch or the much cheaper Stovepipe Wells Village. Both managed by Xanterra Parks and Resorts.

[1] Quite a few people combine Death Valley with Las Vegas, I would suggest you not do that. Yes, even if you are a Vegas person (though I am not sure what you are doing here then). Visiting Vegas and Death Valley NP together is like eating instant pasta with homemade curd, so you decide whether you want to do that.

Tuesday, November 07, 2006

The Waste Land

Falstaff tells us how to spend our 48 hours in TS Eliot's The Waste Land. The first of our Invisible Cities.

April is the worst month to travel to the Waste Land. Summer can be pretty slow too, unless your cousin is an arch-duke, but April is just deathly boring. The routes are dull with spring rain, and there’s really nothing to do but sit around watching your shadow in the morning and your shadow in the evening – which really isn’t any fun at all. If you are planning to visit, Winter is definitely the time to go.

Friday 6 pm
The best way to get to the Waste Land is by ship from Ireland, though if you’re the kind of person who fears death by water you may want to catch a flight instead. The boat ride is fun, though. Regular ferry services are available from Stetson Travels. It’s about a two and a half hour trip, so you can lie back and listen to Wagner on the PA system, drink Belladonna on the rocks at the ship bar or play Hangman with your co-passengers in the Phoenician lounge. Beware of card games, however – gamblers in the Waste Land are known to carry a wicked pack of cards.

Friday 8:30 pm
You’ve arrived! Be prepared for a gala welcome. Tourists are regularly greeted by young girls carrying hyacinths (they call them the hyacinth girls), and don’t be afraid if someone offers you a handful of dust. You don’t want to spend much time loitering about near the harbour though, instead you want to go up the hill and down King William Street, to where Saint Mary Woolnoth keeps the hours. Getting there before the dead sound of the final stroke of nine is actually pretty important, because the crowd on the bridge is just crazy afterwards. You wouldn’t think there would be so many, but there are.

Friday 9:30 pm
For your first evening in the Waste Land, you don’t want to try anything too hectic. Instead, take a walk by the colonnade and into the Hofgarten, grabbing a cup of coffee at one of the local cafes or just sitting around talking for an hour. Alternatively, you could just wander around the streets taking in the sights. You won’t be disappointed. Believe me, this city is Unreal!

Saturday 10 am
Saturday morning in the Waste Land. The perfect time to unwind and rest those aching bones. After a lazy breakfast at the Cannon Street Hotel, head over to the Phlebas spa, where you can forget all about profit and loss with a relaxing dip in the Jacuzzi. First timers may be a little embarrassed to be wandering about among strangers with very little on, but don’t worry – people from all stages of age and youth, Gentile or Jew, come here, and chances are, most of them are even less tall and handsome than you.

Saturday 2 pm
After a long am of soaking in the minerals, you’re now ready for a late lunch at Cleopatra’s Barge. Be prepared to be amazed by the opulent d├ęcor of this finest of the Waste Land’s restaurants, complete with chairs like burnished thrones, glistening candelabras, satin cases, vials of ivory and coloured glass, strange synthetic perfumes and Golden cupidons. But don’t let the gawdy ambience put you off – behind that super-shiny exterior is a menu that holds up the highest standards of fruit and wine. Be sure to book your table well in advance though – the place gets crowded really fast (in case you have trouble getting a reservation, just ask for Albert) and do keep in mind that they tend to close fairly early, so you don’t want to get there too late and have to hurry through your meal because it’s time.

Saturday 4 pm
What to do now? You can start by rushing out on the street with your hair down, or, if it’s raining, catch a closed car. A game of chess is often a good idea, or, if you’re more the outdoor-sy kind, you could go down to the local cemetery, check out the King’s brother’s grave, and the King’s father’s grave before that. Beware of the dogs in the graveyard though, they’re really friendly, but you never know where they’ve been digging.

Saturday 6 pm
The violet hour. The meal ended, the time is now propitious to get a little action. It’s time to sample the exciting night life of the Waste Land. So wash your feet in soda water, get on your dancing shoes and leave your inhibitions behind. As everyone knows, the Waste Land is a great place to hook up on Saturday night. If you’re so inclined, the place to start is along the Strand and up Queen Victoria Street, possibly stopping in a public bar on lower Thames street, or, if you really want to push your look, going all the way down to the Magnus Martyr. Sooner or later you’re bound to run into a group of incredibly hot women putting on a revue. And you know what they say about lovely women stooping to Follies. The fact is there are some really lonely women in the Waste Land. You can see them through the windows, pacing about their rooms alone, smoothing their hair with an automatic hand, putting records on the gramophone. The men, by contrast, aren’t much to write home about, they’re mostly small house agent’s clerks and have a depressing tendency to wear silk hats. All the more reason to experiment with your sexuality if you’re a woman. And don’t be embarrassed – believe me, this city has seen it all before.

If you’re already in a relationship, or aren’t looking for that kind of thing, you could always check out the Fishmen Lounge, the most happening nightclub in downtown Waste Land. Groove to the sounds of the Isles of Dogs singing their hit number ‘Weialala leia’, or just blend in with the clatter and chatter from within. Watch out for their cocktails, though. They’re potent stuff. Mixing Memory and Desire is always a bad idea, and a couple of Highburys and you’re liable to end up supine on the floor with your knees raised in the air.

Saturday 10 pm
Finally, don’t forget to catch the late, late show at the Tiresias, the movie hall on Elizabeth and Leicester. Tiresias is one of the oldest movie halls in the world, and specializes in screening movies where you’ve seen it all before (the current feature, for instance, is that little known four hour Kurosawa masterpiece Hieronymo’s Mad Againe). It’s an experience not to be missed, though you’re likely to hear, from time to time, Sweeney and Mrs. Porter, making it on the springs at the back. Also, be careful going down the unlit stairs afterward, especially if you’ve had a lot to drink.

Sunday 9 am
After that decadent Saturday evening, all that shouting and crying, all that torchlight red on sweaty faces, it’s time to get a little sun and fresh air. Your best bet this morning is to take the Le Prince d’Aquitane tour which takes you up to the glorious Thunder Park. (more adventurous visitors can make a slight detour to the nearby Valley of Dying Stars, a hollow valley, broken jaw of their lost kingdoms). Thunder Park is a marvelous place (though be sure to carry your own water). The road winding above among mountains, mudcracked houses everywhere and the sound of the hermit-thrush singing through the pines. If they’re two of you, it’s probably worth while hiring one of the park guides to walk beside you, though the place can be fun even if you’re by yourself. Plus, if you’re interested, you could always get in a spot of fishing.

Sunday 12 noon
It’s getting close to time to leave now, but what better way to end your trip to the Waste Land than with a boating trip down Greenwich Reach? Catch one of the red sailed barges from Margate Sands and drift along the strand with the turning tide, watching the brisk swell ripple with the southwest wind. If you’re lucky, and the sea is calm, your boatman will let you steer the boat for a while, and you can feel how gaily the boat responds to you, your hand suddenly expert with sail and oar. Follow that up with lunch at the Metropole, and you’ll be ready to bid adieu to the perfect weekend vacation.

Friday, November 03, 2006

Schaumburg, IL

Or how to spend the perfect Amercian weekend.

Welcome to the mother of suburbia, to the strip mall capital of the world. Here we shop till we are hungry, and then and we eat. Oh, come off it. We know you love to look down upon us, you townies, and that you love to come down here and look at us like animals in zoo but you need us more than we need you. You know this is where you come to shop on sale days, and to buy your hybrid. You can make fun of our elephant sized townhomes, but you need our basements to store your furniture. And who are we kidding? You all move here anyway once you get married and have a kid; you will also worry about school districts and home prices, shop at the mall every weekend and celebrate birthdays at Maggiano's. So get off that high horse, and come see how we live. It is, after all, your future.

Friday 6PM
Traffic on I-90. You didn't really think you were going to cruise into Schaumburg just like that, did you? That too during peak hour on Fridays when everyone's heading back home after a hard day's work in the evil city? Anyway, there's no better way to get inducted into American suburbia than spending a good couple of hours inside your SUV cursing at the toll booth attendant, the I-pass lanes and everyone else who happens to share the road with you.

Friday 8PM
Dinner at Cheesecake Factory at Woodfield Mall. This happens to be every suburbanite's dream restaurant. Everything is oversized from the menus to the funky Egyptian symbols. Portion sizes guaranteed to give you heart attacks. The decor is like, well, WTF. Avocado Egg Rolls and the Chicken Marsala are favorites here. Not to mention hundreds of cheesecakes that will add up to hundreds of thousands of calories. Do make sure you have a reservation, otherwise you will spend a good hour waiting for a table. Though sometimes, waiting itself can be fun, especially for a city snob. Great entertainment to watch these suburban people going crazy with their fourteen shopping bags and four kids.

Saturday 10AM
Breakfast at Ikea. The Swedish furniture store? Breakfast? No, I kid you not. Didn't you know they have "value for money" Swedish food in their restaurant on the third floor? The full, hot Swedish breakfast is only $.99. The queues here are as long as the ones on the checkout line. Trust me, this is the local hangout - they all get their breakfast here and then start the shopping day. A must-eat place.

Saturday 12noon
Gurnee Mills. We leave Schaumburg. Don't worry, we will come back and shop here but first we have to go to the outlet mall and shop there. Drive 40 miles North to get to Gurnee Mills, right before the exit you will see Six Flags. This is where people drop their four kids off before heading to the mall so that they can shop in peace.

An alternative to Gurnee Hills is the Premium Outlet Mall southwest of Schaumburg. This one has fewer shops and it a little more organized. Also has the added advantage of being a couple of exits away from the Aurora temple from where you can grab a quick lunch. Though, you know, if you want the authentic experience, try one of the Chinese places in the food court!

Saturday 8PM
Dinner at PF Chang's. Waits maybe even longer than Cheesecake Factory but the menus are slightly smaller. Other than that, same as Cheesecake Factory, just happens to have a different name. What are you complaining about? Hello, this is suburbia. They are all the same, get it? Thats the whole damn point. Enjoy!

Saturday 10PM
Movie at Streets of Woodfield. No, you absolutely cannot walk to Streets of Woodfield from PF Chang's. You might get run over. So drive across the street to the Loews at Streets of Woodfield and watch a movie. No, it doesn't really matter what movie as none of your snobbish, foreign-language, indie movie are screened here anyway. Not to worry. After the movie, drive to the Starbucks a hundred yards away and get some coffee. Look around at the wannabe townies. Funny, aren't they?

Sunday 10AM
Brunch at the Curragh. Irish pub/restaurant at the Mall (where else?) which serves decent brunch and usually has a halfway decent Irish band playing. Its either this or the Old Country Buffet for brunch, so you decide!

Sunday 12noon
Woodfield Mall. A whirlwind shopping tour at the Woodfield Mall. At some point in the not so distant past, this used to be the largest mall in the States, so spend your three hours wisely. Look for the stores you did not find in the outlet mall the day before. Make sure you have someone around to carry your shopping bags.

Sunday 3PM
Homes of Schaumburg. No visit to Schaumburg is complete without a driving tour (what did you expect? A walking tour?) through communities of cookie cutter homes with their basketball hoops and beautifully manicured lawns. Three car garages and swimming pools. An odd kid on his bike, a misfit; the others and the Dads are inside busy with their Playstations while the Moms and sisters are at the mall. Living the American Dream.

Getting There
The easiest way to get here is to fly into Chicago's O'Hare International Airport, rent the biggest SUV you can get, and drive 20 minutes Northwest to Schaumburg. The key being it doesn't really matter whether you fly or take the train or bus to get to Chicago, you just have to make sure that you have a minivan/SUV to get to Schaumburg. You can probably get to the Village of Schaumburg on a smaller car but be warned that you will sorely stand out. Imagine your poor Toyota Prius lost among thousands of Town & Countrys and Hummers over at the JC Penney parking lot at Woodfield Mall. It isn't a pretty sight, I tell you.

One of the standard, economy chains is your best bet. But if you insist, your stay can be arranged at one of the humongous homes around Schaumburg. Yes, with trampoline and pool and two and half kids. Email for details.

Thursday, October 26, 2006


Its green. Its exotic. Its God's own country[1]. Its the land of the kettuvalam and Mohiniyattam. Of Kathakali and Kalaripayattu. Of two monsoons as if one wasn't enough. Its where you go for the backwaters and the houseboats. Its all color. Its like someone has set the color contrast bar on the television to the last bar. It also happens to be home. Thiruvananthapuram is the southernmost district of Kerala; a couple of hours South and you will be at the tip of the peninsula. Its the most polluted and the least pretty of all places in Kerala but that doesn't mean anything to a non-Keralite. There's enough here to keep you occupied for 48 hours, hell, there was enough to keep me occupied for 18 years but let's not go into that now.

Friday 5PM
Padmanabhaswamy Temple. The city gets its name from this temple - the city of Ananthan. The city where the 18-foot Vishnu reclines on Ananthan, the snake. This temple has a seven-tier Gopuram which one can climb up during daytime. The temple's corridor has more than 300 beautifully carved stone pillars, and going around the corridor a couple of times is enough exercise for the day. This temple, in my opinion, is also the cleanest temple I have ever seen in the country and for that reason alone, it is worth visiting.

Note: Non-Hindus are not permitted to enter the temple which is a pity. However, certain resourceful people have gotten in claiming to be members of some Hindu cult or the other. Just name a Swamiji and chant a mantra, and you should be okay. The other thing about this temple is that no trousers are allowed inside, but you can rent dhoti/mundu right outside.

Friday 8PM
If your stomach can take street/local food, stop by Paradise at Manacaud Jn and pick up a couple of "parottas" and mutton gravy. Awesome stuff. If you can't take it and you are in the mood to spend some money, take an auto to Muthoot Palace by the state secretariat.

Saturday 8AM
We are leaving town. A bit of a drive South on NH47 and a little way across the state border to the Padmanabhapuram palace. The seat of the princely state of Travancore during the 16th and 17th centuries, this palace is probably the best example of the Kerala style of architecture - teak, rosewood, granite and stone used lavishly to build the 127 room palace. Nalukettus and concert halls, dancing and dining halls, galleries which still house the original watercolors, and trapdoors that lead to escape tunnels. Simple, elegant, understated, a must-see. You will be transported to the age of Maharaja Marthanda Varma and his general Anathapadmanabhan. Guaranteed.

Saturday 12 noon
Couple of choices now - we can keep heading South to Kanyakumari, visiting some forts on the way and get to Vivenkananda Rock by sunset. Nice but hyped, a little overrated. And anyway, we are doing Thiruvananthapuram now. So I suggest driving back to the city to hit the beaches. Food, you ask? Some roadside cafe should work. Or if you can wait for a couple of hours, we can get food at Kovalam beach.

Saturday 3PM
Kovalam beach. Most resorts in Kovalam have their private beaches and the public ones are pretty crowded. But even with the crowds and the commercialisation, Kovalam still retains much of its charm - rocks, coconut trees and sand slopes which can get pretty steep once you get in the water. There are three beaches and the southernmost one is probably your best bet. Spend some time here at Kovalam and then we will head North through the bypass road to visit some local beaches and coastal neighborhoods. Right after the airport, you will start to see the shoreline; keep going North. The next few miles you will see numerous churches by the sea and communities around them - men playing cards under the fishing are a common sight. Stop wherever you think the beaches look inviting and take your time. If you are lucky, you will encounter men climbing down coconut trees dragging down fresh toddy which they will happily share with you if you just ask them nicely. Drive upto the Veli kaayal where you will see the backwaters separated from the sea by a small stretch of land, and then turn back.

Saturday 8PM
Dinner at Ariya Nivaas. It is arguably the best vegetarian restaurant in the city and you absolutely have to try one of their special dosais - Malli dosai, Kallu uthappam or tomato onion uthappam. They usually have atleast four different types of chutneys, all of which taste heavenly. Vegetable kebabs are quite decent and worth a try. Disclaimer: I know the people who own this place but then in this city, I know someone in every establishment, so that doesn't really count.

Sunday 9AM
The Napier Museum is one of the oldest museums in the county, and has an eclectic collection of wood and ivory carvings and rare coins from the Chera, Chola and Pandya dynasties. The most interesting exhibit though is the building itself - built in 1880, with a gothic style roof and minarets it is very much an architectural landmark here in Thiruvananthapuram. Right next door is the Sree Chitra Art Gallery which houses the famous oil paintings of Raja Ravi Varma. There are also paintings from other famous painters across the country especially some from the Bengal and Tanjore schools which are worth seeing.

Sunday 12noon
Lunch at Highland. You didn't really think we were going to leave the city without having fish, did you? Highland's Kerala meals along with umpteen varieties of fish curry(prawns, searfish and kingfish are common) is a local favorite and should absolutely be tried. If you don't feel like rice, try kappa(tapioca) and karimeen(pearl spot), which along with Kallu(toddy) is the state's staple 3K diet.

Sunday 2PM
Check out the state run SMSM Institute for souvenirs and Kerala handicrafts. Excellent quality and is usually much cheaper than the fancy, private stores. Wooden elephants, boats and Kathakali faces are the most common trinkets, and serious shoppers go for the sandalwood figurines and lifesize watercolors. Spend the rest of your afternoon strolling around the area - from Statue to Palayam you will see some marvellous colonial buildings like the Secretariat, VJT Hall, Public Library and some colleges of Kerala University.

Getting There
Indian, Air Deccan and Jet Airways have flights in from Mumbai, Bangalore and Chennai. You can also fly into Kochi and drive down here. It takes about 5 hours and is a beautiful drive.
If you are flying in from the Middle East, you will have no issues getting here.

Quite a few decent, economy choices inside the city. If you have some money to spend though, there are beach resorts are all over the coast. For the backpackers, a very decent Youth Hostel in Veli, right next to the Veli backwaters and the Arabian Sea is worth it. If you have to stay somewhere local and "authentic", that can be arranged. For the right price, a nice couple with a spacious home in the heart of the city can be conned to spare you their daughter's vacant room. Please to email me for details.

[1]Everywhere else belongs to the in-laws.

PS: No, sorry, no resorts and ayurveda spas in this itinerary. This is strictly an in and around the city thing. When someone pays me to go visit all these resorts around I promise to do a post on them.