17 December 2015

What (not) to pack for India

I started writing a post on 'how to pack for India', but it very quickly became a post on what NOT to pack, so here you go... my recommendations on what (not) to pack for India...

15 November 2015

A coffee tour of South India

Don't ever make the mistake of ordering a chai in South India... for South India is the land of coffee. This is the drink of choice, a daily ritual for many, and South Indians can't live without it. If you've never had a cup of South Indian coffee, you're in for a surprise... there are many things that make it unique. 

In an article I wrote for the in-flight magazine of Silk Air, I explored the history of coffee-growing in the region and evolving trends in South India's coffee culture. You can read it here.

You can read some of my other published articles on India here.

21 October 2015

Kalamkari: Fabric of the Earth

I have always loved the Indian textile art of Kalamkari, and a trip to the village of its origin, Sri Kalahasti in Andhra Pradesh, was on my list of places to explore for a long time. I finally had the chance when I was researching an article on Kalamkari for the in-flight magazine of Silk Air.

I spent a day at the workshop of one of India's best-known Kalamkari artists, Jonnalagadda Niranjan, where I saw artists busy at work and witnessed part of the lengthy traditional process used to create the fabric designs.

You can read the article here, and see a few of my photos below...

You can read some of my other published articles on India here.

30 September 2015

Jane's chocolate factory

Auroville, the international township near Pondicherry, is a special place for many reasons. One of the fascinating things about it is the many creative, ecological, and entrepreneurial projects that its residents bring into being. Here, you meet many people who have left their conventional lives and careers far behind, and have created a completely different life for themselves by contributing their skills, creativity and talents in new ways.

Auroville has a growing food scene based on authentic, artisanal products. The story of Jane's chocolate factory is not unusual for Auroville. This is the story of Jane, a lawyer from Australia who started an artisanal chocolate business in South India. I tell her story and explain her bean-to-bar chocolate-making process in an article I wrote for Chickpea, my favourite vegan magazine. You can read it here.

You can read some of my other published articles on India here.

13 July 2015

10 good reasons to travel to India during the monsoon

If you check any guidebook for the best time to come to India, the period between June and September is usually not recommended. This is monsoon season in most parts of the country and travellers are inevitably put off travelling during this time because they imagine torrential rains, floods, and transportation chaos...

22 June 2015

Tips for women travelling alone in India

People often ask me if it's safe for a woman to travel alone in India, and I don't hesitate to say that there's no reason why a woman shouldn't. During my travels in India, I have travelled mostly alone. Yes, I have been groped, flashed, and harassed, but this has happened to me (and many other women across the world) not only in India... unfortunately these are hassles women face everywhere. You can stay safe by taking a few precautions, using common sense, and trusting your instincts, just like you would anywhere else.

Here are my 10 tips on how to stay safe:

1. Take your cues from Indian women by observing them. You’ll notice that Indian women do not smile at men they don’t know and keep any necessary verbal contact to a minimum. Though people in India do easily strike up casual conversations in public, this is less common between men and women. Don’t go out of your way to be friendly to a man you don’t know or smile at him because this can be misinterpreted. In some cultures being friendly is being polite, but in India public interactions are a lot more formal. Don’t worry about appearing rude but rather aim to act with respect instead of trying to be friendly.

2. Try wearing Indian clothes. As a foreign woman, you will stand out and attract curiosity. A good way to try to blend in and not attract more attention to yourself is by wearing Indian clothes. This doesn’t mean you have to wear a nine-yard sari… Again, observe how young Indian women dress. A kurta (tunic) worn over jeans, for example, is a popular look and one many foreigners are comfortable wearing.

3. Don't use headphones while walking. While walking on the street (especially at night), avoid using headphones or your phone which can distract you from your surroundings and what’s going on around you. If you need to make a call or send a text message, stop in a well-lit public place.

4. Save these numbers. Save the numbers for the police (100) and 24-hour Women’s Helpline (181) in your phone in case you need assistance.

5. Make sure your door has a good look. Sliding locks and ideal because they can’t be opened from the outside. Before responding to a knock and opening the door, ask who’s there. Once I was woken up in the middle of the night in a hotel in Bhubaneswar by someone rattling the door, trying to open it. Luckily he gave up and left, but I didn't sleep the rest of the night!

6. Don’t get into a taxi if the driver is accompanied by another man. If you have a weird feeling about a taxi driver, just take another cab. When traveling at night, it’s better to use a call taxi or app-based service since your name, phone number, and pick-up and drop-off locations are tracked.

7. Wear a wedding ring or another sign of marriage. Some women travellers pretend they’re married, even if they’re not. You can wear a fake wedding ring or even toe rings (a Hindu sign of marriage – second toe of each foot!) or something that looks like a mangalasutra, the Hindu wedding necklace. This is an old trick to ward off unwanted attention but I'm not sure if it works!

8. Consider the train for overnight trips. For overnight trips, consider taking the train instead of the bus. Buses often arrive at odd hours. Train stations are usually always busy and safer places to wait for daybreak than bus stations.

9. Ask to change seats. If you happen to find yourself in a train compartment of men (it's happened to me) and you don't feel comfortable, ask the conductor to move you to one where there are other women or families. He'll find some man travelling alone somewhere, and tell him to switch seats with you. On sleepers, you’ll be out of sight in the upper berth and can even cover yourself with a sheet to make yourself less noticeable.

10. Use the ladies’ seats on buses. If a man happens to be sitting in a ladies seat, don’t hesitate to ask him to give it up. Some trains have ladies-only train compartments and waiting rooms, and there are often women-only queues at train stations. During one of my first trips to India, I used to disregard ladies' seats on buses because it seemed silly... until I had a man next to me “falling asleep” on my shoulder. I had to keep “waking him up” by jabbing my elbow into his ribs! I now always squeeze in with the ladies!

12 May 2015

A place I love: Elsewhere in Goa

Finding the perfect beach hideaway in Goa is a challenge... But Elsewhere is like nowhere else. This beachside hideaway is made up of four old beach houses surrounded by untamed nature with a private beach. My description of it below is an excerpt from an article I had written on luxury travel to Goa for a magazine distributed on private jets.

Goa's peak season for beach lovers is November to March when days are sunny and dry. With many beaches becoming increasingly congested, Elsewhere is the perfect hideaway for those looking for some peace and privacy. Located on a spit of private beachfront naturally isolated between the ocean and a salt-water creek, this is one of the most unique and exclusive places to stay in Goa.

Privacy is perhaps the ultimate luxury. Here it is of utmost importance, as many of Elsewhere’s high profile guests include famous authors, royal families and Bollywood and Hollywood stars – this is where Brad Pit and Angelina Jolie holidayed with their kids. Elsewhere’s exact location is kept secret, revealed only at the time of booking.

A bamboo footbridge leads across the creek and into what seems like another time and place. This slice of paradise belongs to Denzil Sequiera, a photographer who inherited it from his uncle. He could have easily cashed in on the tourism boom and sold out to developers. Instead he decided to preserve this small piece of ‘real’ Goa before it disappears completely. He has saved not only the old colonial-style houses, and pristine undeveloped beachfront but also the natural habitat of the local wildlife.

The ambience here is one of rustic charm and untamed nature. The four old beach houses have been lovingly and tastefully restored offering all necessary comforts with no added frills, because they are not needed. There is no room service, but each house has a refrigerator full of drinks and delicious home-cooked meals are served in the delightful open-air dining area. At Elsewhere you feel like a privileged guest at a friend's summer hideaway.

The private beach is almost empty, indeed a luxury in Goa. Staff can arrange a morning trip to see dolphins on The Solita, a luxury yacht, or a romantic dinner cruise at sunset. The yacht can also be chartered on a daily basis for longer trips to see the 18th century Tiracol Fort, the magnificent cathedrals and churches of Old Goa, a UNESCO World Heritage site, and the charming capital of Goa, Panjim.

You can read some of my other published articles on India here.

25 April 2015

My article on Pondicherry in Bold Magazine

Pondicherry is one of my favourite destinations in India, one I keep coming back to. I love its seaside location, the fact that it's a city that can be easily explored on a bicycle, and the old world charm of its many heritage buildings that local organizations have put a lot of effort into preserving and restoring. In this article I wrote for Bold Magazine, I explore some of the unique heritage properties which have been restored and converted into hotels, restaurants, and boutiques. You can read it here.

You can read some of my other published articles on India here.

17 March 2015

Life in a slum in India

While I was in Mumbai in January, I took part in a walking tour of one of its biggest slums. I remember reading about these tours of Dharavi, one of Mumbai’s most population-dense neighbourhoods, when they started a few years ago and spawned a debate on ‘slum tourism’. “It’s voyeuristic to peek into poor peoples’ lives,” slammed some. “This is a reality of Indian cities, and how 55% of the population of Mumbai lives,” pointed out others. My take is that slums are certainly a facet of every Indian city and ignoring them won’t make them go away.  But I don’t know if I would have chosen to go one of these tours if I wasn’t researching a travel article on ‘off-beat’ walking tours in Mumbai...

05 March 2015

India travel tip: How to deal with staring in India

When my sister-in-law and her young daughter came to visit us while we were living in Bangalore, I took the little girl for a walk around the neighbourhood. Two minutes into our walk, she asked me: “Why is everyone staring at me?” I told her that people are not used to seeing a little white girl and that they were curious and intrigued but that they didn’t mean any harm. She wanted to go back inside!

One thing first time visitors to India can find very difficult to get used to is the almost constant staring they’re subject to. In Anglo-Saxon societies especially, staring is considered rude and can be interpreted as aggressive behaviour. For this reason, many foreigners are not used to being stared at, so this is a new experience which can make them feel very self-conscious and uncomfortable...

26 February 2015

Cricket fever

It’s hard not to notice that the Cricket World Cup is on. When the cricket is on, everything revolves around it. Then when India plays Pakistan, the world stops for a few hours. That’s what it was like on February 15th...

21 February 2015

A place I love: Vegan Bites in Mumbai

Photo courtesy of Vegan Bites
While I was in Mumbai I had the chance to spend time with my friends Samir and Hemali and have some amazingly good food. They run their own business called Vegan Bites, a catering service that prepares healthy, 100% vegan meals which are delivered to Mumbai’s busy office workers six days a week...

16 February 2015

On the bus in Bangalore

On the 201R going from Indiranagar to Jayanagar... Just after Ejipura signal, an auto-rickshaw driver knocks on the bus door and starts yelling at the driver. Apparently the bus had scratched his auto-rickshaw. A shouting match follows. The door closes and we continue on our way. The bus stops a little further away and the auto-driver is there again. More animated shouting. Door closes, we move on, stop again (heavy traffic). This time a different auto-driver is at the door shouting at the bus driver… looks like the first auto-driver has already mobilized his auto-driving buddies. Auto-driver #1 then shows up and now there are three people in the shouting match, with the bus conductor also joining in to make four. Another auto-rickshaw shows up and blocks the bus so we can’t move forward. The auto-drivers want the bus driver to get off the bus and come look at the damage on the auto-rickshaw. The commotion is now blocking traffic at Sony World signal so we move on.

The bus stops after the signal (traffic light for non-Indians) and a whole bunch of auto-rickshaws pull up too. The bus driver and conductor get off the bus to examine the auto-rickshaw. More shouting, more people. The auto-drivers’ beige uniforms now outnumber the bus driver and the conductor. Passers-by stop to see what all the shouting is about and a small crowd has formed. The back-and-forth shouting goes on for 10 minutes. The bus driver starts walking back to the bus at one point and things seem to suddenly heat up, with the shouting getting louder and body language becoming more aggressive, but he goes back to the auto-rickshaw. Meanwhile people on the bus are making impatient noises and some have got off to take another.

The small crowd then moves towards the rear of the bus to examine the body for evidence of the collision. More animated discussion. Finally the driver hands over a wad of cash to the auto-driver. He takes it, counts it, puts it in his pocket and all the angry faces suddenly dissolve. No more shouting. Everyone walks back very casually to their respective vehicles and we’re on our way again.

11 February 2015

Inside a heritage home in Basavanagudi

Recently I had the chance to step back into another time when I took part in a heritage walk exploring the old homes of Basavanagudi a neighbourhood in south Bangalore. We were a small group made up of long-time Bangaloreans and other more recent residents (and me, a former resident!), who were all eager to learn more about the cultural heritage of this neighbourhood and explore its wide tree-lined avenues, and especially its heritage homes.

Our guide for the tour was Mansoor Ali, an architect who grew up in the neighbourhood and who leads this walk for Unhurried, which organises several themed walking tours across the city. He told me that they usually visit about six homes on this walk, but despite his efforts we only had the chance to see a few because many of the homeowners were out.

The highlight of the walk was a 107-year-old house which had belonged to Nanjundiah Krishna Rau, a former Diwan (prime minister) of the Mysore Kingdom. 

Today his great grandson, Mr M. R. Narendra, an author, lives on the ground floor of the house, while the upper floor is the home of Mr Narendra’s nephew.

We admired the pillared porch which was where ‘informal guests’ used to be received, explained Mansoor, and the large garden and its many trees, including one which was surrounded by a porched enclosure. 

Stepping through Mr M. R. Narendra’s doorway was like taking a step back into another time.  He welcomed us warmly into his home and showed us around. Inside we saw many period features like a Madras terrace ceiling, a red oxide floor, colonial-style furniture, and a traditional swing. We even got a peek of a 1935 Standard automobile in the garage (sorry no photo!).

In my previous post, I wrote about Bangalore’s disappearing heritage homes. This trend to demolish old houses and replace them with apartment buildings has not spared any of the city’s neighbourhoods, including Basavanagudi.

Old and new in Basavanagudi

Gardens make way for parking lots 
A large garden is becoming a rarity in Bangalore, where people prefer to have as large a living space as possible, building huge buildings which leave little space between properties. “At 25,000 Rupees a square foot, gardens are considered a waste of space,” explained Mansoor.

I'm glad that Mr Narendra has preserved his old house and not fallen prey to the developers who are changing the face of the city. There are still a few glimpses of the old Bangalore and thanks to this unique walking tour, I had the chance to experience a little bit of it.  

04 February 2015

Bangalore’s disappearing heritage homes

I’m back in Bangalore after being away for a year and a half. I’m staying in the same neighbourhood and in the same house, but not in the first floor apartment where we used to live, but downstairs with my former landlords who very kindly and warmly invited me to stay with them.

I’ve only been away for 17 months but I’m amazed at all the new constructions in the neighbourhood. Once empty plots are now occupied by four-storey apartment blocks. Houses have been torn down and replaced by more apartment blocks. A whole row of three- and four-storey buildings now stand where there used to be a row of small shops on a corner of Thippasandra Main Road, a bustling bazaar-like commercial street. Over on the other side of 80 Feet Road in Defence Colony, more bungalows have disappeared and have been substituted with, yes, even more apartment blocks.

I mourn these lost treasures: not only the charming houses of another era but also the city’s beautiful majestic trees as they’re chopped down or their branches hacked off to make way for apartments which cover as much space as possible, leaving only a few centimetres between neighbouring houses and no garden space at all.

I understand the commercial logic of this trend: with the boom in property prices, every square foot is a valuable commodity. Why have a bungalow with a large garden when you can have a multi-storey apartment which multiplies living space with each floor built? Multiply the number of apartments with an average rent and you’ll hear the sound of money being minted. Few can resist cashing in.

But what about the city’s cultural heritage? Is that not valued? Unfortunately there are no heritage laws in Bangalore protecting its old, historical buildings. People see an old house as a burden which is difficult and expensive to maintain, and even a waste of valuable real estate space. Houses seem disposable: use for a while and then demolish. Build a new one. Repeat. “My house is very, very old… 25 years!” my landlady likes to tell me... If this house is 25 years old, then it’s the youngest house I’ve ever lived in.

Locals don’t understand why I’m upset when yet another house bites the dust. My first world mind must be clouded by my romanticism. Who am I to lament the loss of a few houses in a city which is not my own? After all, I’ve encountered the same attitude in my new home, a tiny village where old houses are not valued by many locals either. They’re not torn down (heritage laws forbid it) but they’re left to decay instead.

Recently I happened to stumble on these delightful old houses in Park Road, a residential street just steps away from Indian Express Circle, a busy traffic junction.  When I come across these beautiful old homes with wide verandas, typical Bangalore-style ‘monkey tops’, ornate wrought iron gates and big gardens full of trees, I can imagine what this city used to be like – the city everyone reminisces about and sorely misses but few try to preserve. I wonder for how much longer they’ll be around.

This past weekend I had the chance to explore an old heritage home in the neighbourhood of Basavanagudi… I’ll take you there in my next post!

29 January 2015

India travel tip: How to stay healthy in India

Many of the questions I get about travelling to India are about health issues. Should I only drink bottled water? Should I take anti-malarials? What if I get sick?

While travelling in India, you’ll need to take a few more health precautions that you would at home, but there’s no need to be paranoid. Do expect to get a stomach upset at least once and consider yourself lucky if you don’t!

You can stay healthy by following these tips:

Get your shots: Before leaving for India, make sure you're up to date with your vaccinations for diphtheria and tetanus (recommended every 10 years for adults). Shots for hepatitis A, hepatitis B and typhoid are also advisable. Some vaccines take time to ‘kick in’ so make sure you plan ahead before your trip.

Drink only bottled or filtered water: Tap water is not safe to drink in India so make sure you drink only bottled or filtered water. Most households in India (as well as hotels and restaurants) have a water filter system installed in the kitchen which purifies tap water. This is perfectly safe to drink, as long as the filter system is maintained properly. In a hot climate like India’s, you’ll have to drink a lot more water than you’re used to, to avoid dehydration. Aim for at least 2 litres a day. You’ll notice tender coconuts for sale on almost every street corner, especially in South India. Coconut water is an ideal drink to keep hydrated: it contains sugars, fibre and protein and provides vitamins, antioxidants and minerals.

Use mosquito repellent: Illnesses like malaria, dengue fever and chikungunya are prevalent in India, especially during the monsoon season (June to September in most parts of India). There are no vaccines for these illnesses which are all transmitted by mosquitoes. Anti-malarial drugs can be taken as a precaution against malaria, but long-term use of these drugs is not recommended. The best approach is to try to prevent mosquito bites as much as possible. While sleeping, use a mosquito net or a plug-in anti-mosquito device. Mosquitoes are also around during the day, so use a lotion repellent.  Local brands of repellents like Odomos are readily available, very cheap and often smell better than foreign brands. Mosquito nets and repellent devices are also easy to find locally. I would recommend buying all of these products in India instead of bringing them with you from home. If you develop a sudden high fever, seek medical attention immediately.

How to recover from Delhi Belly: Stomach upsets accompanied by diarrhea (or ‘loose motions’ in local parlance) and/or vomiting are very common among travellers to India and you’re bound to be hit by this sooner or later! It’s vitally important to replace any lost fluids by drinking a lot of liquids to avoid dehydration. Oral rehydration salts (Electral) are available in any pharmacy and when mixed with water, help the body rehydrate and recover quickly. (Coconut water is good too – see above.) Symptoms usually subside after 2 or 3 days – if this takes longer, seek medical help.

Watch what you eat: To avoid stomach bugs, you need to be careful about what and where you eat. Only eat in popular restaurants with a high turnover where you can be sure the food is made fresh. Avoid roadside stalls or food that has been sitting out for a long time. The other usual advice is to avoid ice, peel fruit and pass up salads. However, don’t stop eating fresh fruit and vegetables altogether, or you’ll be missing out on vitamins and anti-oxidants which strengthen your immune system.

Wash your hands: Good hygiene is also key to not getting sick. Though ‘hand wash’ sinks are found in every restaurant and eatery, soap is not always available. Carry your own, or a small bottle of hand sanitizer.

Get insured. Some long-term travellers do not take out expensive travel insurance for a trip to India because the cost of healthcare here is cheap and the care given in private hospitals and clinics is of a high quality. But I have heard of heart-breaking cases of accidents (an Australian on a motorcycle had a night time collision with a cow and suffered serious head injuries; an American trekking in Ladakh fell down a cliff and needed facial reconstruction surgery) which involved long-term care and rehabilitation. You never know what can go wrong and for that reason, it’s best to get a good quality health and travel insurance which includes medical evacuation.

Do you have other tips? Do share them!

Safe travels!

26 January 2015

No more trains to Hillgrove station

I was sad to read that trains running on the Nilgiri Mountain Railway will no longer stop at Hillgrove station. I had written about my trip on this historic railway running through the Nilgiri Mountains two years ago and described the stop we made at this charming station where time seemed to stand still. The newspaper article announced that from January 5th, trains will no longer stop at Hillgrove station because of ‘operational reasons and poor patronage’.

This makes me sad because this picturesque station in the middle of the Nilgiris is especially scenic and unique. I enjoyed the short time we spent here while the steam locomotive was being refilled with water and the train’s wheels oiled. In the meantime, passengers stepped off the train to buy tea and snacks, feed the monkeys, and take a few pictures of this lovely little railway station.

I even met Mr Maraiyan, the stationmaster, who told me that he didn’t stay in the station’s sleeping quarters because of the wild elephants who make nocturnal visits. He showed me where they smashed up the windows and door of the station. I guess he’s now been posted to another station.

I did a bit of research and read that an NGO called Heritage Steam Chariot Trust which works to preserve the Nilgiri Mountain Railway has protested the closure of Hillgrove station, pointing out that it is the only station on the line where the railway’s unique rack and pinion system (where the train’s cog wheels interconnect with the rack rail of the track) can be seen up close.

A stop at Hillgrove station was definitely a highlight of my journey on the Nilgiri Mountain Railway. Even though tickets to this small hill station are no longer sold, I hope the railway authorities would consider having the train stop here for a service break so that while the locomotive is refilled with water and the wheels oiled, passengers can admire this rustic little railway station in the middle of the Nilgiris.

19 January 2015

Winter in India

A foggy morning outside my window in Delhi

On my last day in Chennai I read about the ‘nippy weather’ the city was experiencing in the newspaper.  It reported that minimum nighttime temperatures had dipped to 18.3 degrees Celsius, the second lowest temperature recorded so far in January. It described commuters on suburban trains switching off ceiling fans and pulling down windows to try to escape the ‘cold breeze’, bus drivers wrapped in woollen shawls and thick cotton towels, and morning walkers delaying their walks because even by 7:30 it was still ‘chilly’. The article then outlined a list of ‘do’s and don’ts’ to deal with the cold and avoid getting sick. Advice included washing hands regularly, avoiding ‘crowded, dusty areas’, the flu vaccine for senior citizens, and eating onions, beetroot, fresh greens, pomegranates and guavas.

I always find it interesting and amusing to hear about the ‘winter’ in South India. Though it does get a bit cool at night in December and January and you may need to put on a light sweater, daytime temperatures in Chennai easily climb to the high 20s, hot enough to suntan.

On the morning I was travelling to Delhi the city was covered with thick fog, especially at the airport. Several flights were delayed as a result, including mine, also due to the fog in Delhi which is common at this time of year. When we finally descended towards the capital, nothing was visible at all because of the thick blanket of fog. It was only when we were a few metres away from touching down that I could finally make out a few buildings on the ground. The pilot announced that the temperature that afternoon was 13 degrees. 

This is my first experience of ‘real’ winter in India. Though the current temperatures are certainly bearable, Delhi can get ‘bitterly cold’ (as all my South India friends warned me), and temperatures can fall to 0 degrees. What I find difficult is not the outside temperature, but feeling the cold indoors. Central heating is not common, and electrical or gas space heaters are used instead.

It’s interesting to see how Indians dress for the cold, mostly bundled up in woollen shawls or sweaters. I’m surprised more people are not wearing jackets and coats. Women wear long-sleeved sari blouses with the pallu of their saris neatly peeking out behind them under thick cardigan sweaters. It seems very important to cover the head to keep warm, especially the ears! When we stepped off the plane in Delhi I watched everyone wind woollen scarves around their heads. Some pulled out their earmuffs. I’m surprised I don’t see more earmuffs here – they don’t seem as popular as in South India! Also, many people still wear sandals, worn with those flesh-coloured socks with articulated big toes. I bought a pair today and the package says ‘thumb socks’.

I was also touched to see that many Delhi street dogs wear winter coats! Someone is taking good care of them.

What I find odd is that though it’s winter, all the trees still have their leaves, so the city is still very green even though days can be grey and bleak.

Needless to say, I’m glad I’m heading back to warmer climes again very soon!

13 January 2015

A place I love: Amethyst in Chennai

Chennai is a busy, bustling, noisy city. In the middle of all the hustle and bustle is a calm and green oasis called Amethyst.

Amethyst used to be housed in a beautiful century-old colonial mansion. There was a charming café on its veranda which wrapped around three sides of the house, and you could also sit in the elegant black-and-white-tiled drawing room decorated with old furniture. On the ground floor there was also a small bookshop, another selling designer clothes, and a flower shop. Upstairs there was space for exhibitions and cultural events.

This was a favourite haunt for me when visiting Chennai because the atmosphere was truly unique. I had written about it on this blog back in 2007 and posted some photographs of what it was like then.

Then at the end of 2010, I heard the news that it was closing down. Shock. Horror. How could that be possible? But a new Amethyst soon opened not too far away from the old Amethyst, but it just wasn’t the same is what I had written back then. The new Amethyst was not a charming old mansion but a new construction. The colonial-style furniture and even the floor tiles were transplanted to the new building, an attempt at retaining a few remnants of the old Amethyst. The new building also had a wrap-around veranda and an even bigger garden. This is the most amazing part of the new Amethyst: its beautiful lush garden which was newly planted and lovingly tended and now years later has been transformed into a tropical paradise.

So Amethyst’s lovely Wild Garden Café  has once again become a favourite haunt. However, the service and food have not improved much since it got a new avatar. It’s still a challenge to get the waiters’ attention, and though the menu has been spiffed up a bit, the food is really hit and miss. Oh, and pricey.

“So why do we keep coming here?” my friends and I ask each time.

“Because there is no other place like this in Chennai,” is the simple answer.

A place where you can escape from the hustle and bustle. A place where you can sit under the plants and trees and breathe. A calm and green oasis.

Address: Amethyst, next to Corporation Bank, Whites Road, Royapettah, Chennai 600 014. Website: http://www.amethystchennai.com/

11 January 2015

December in Chennai

I arrived in Chennai during a cold spell. When we landed at 3am, the pilot announced it was ‘a very warm 25 degrees’ but this was contradicted a short while later by the taxi driver who complained to me that it was ‘very, very cold!’ Though my idea of ‘cold’ falls much further down the thermometer, Chennai was indeed almost ‘coolish’ and definitely not ‘hot’ during the last weeks of December when the skies were generally overcast and a few days of rain brought temperatures down further by a few degrees.

December is a special time in Chennai, not only because of the cooler weather but also because this is when the city’s festival of classical music and dance begins. I’ve been attending this festival almost annually since 2002, and I’m only one of many ‘Season’ regulars who come every year. I’m always happy to meet the dear friends I have made over the years… some live here full-time and others come every year to get their dance and music ‘fix’. Some are long-time students of dance or music, or simply passionate aficionados. My friend A drives up from Pondicherry while S travels all the way from Sydney, Australia. C comes every year from France to continue her study and documentation of kolams, while V and S, also from France, work on a documentary film on a different topic each year. And I always run into F who I know from yoga class in Brussels and is a great lover of Indian music. These last heady weeks of December are full of concerts, dance performances, and long discussions over tiffin and filter coffee.

This December 26th marked the 10th anniversary of the tsunami, a natural disaster which is etched in everyone’s memory.  On that morning, I walked to Marina Beach to commemorate this in a quiet and personal way. From Mylapore, it was a short walk to the sea. My walk along the beach started just behind Santhome Cathedral. It was around 7:30am, almost exactly the time the tsunami had struck this beach and where 131 persons perished (a total of 18,000 had lost their lives in coastal India). The scenes of everyday life I was seeing were probably the same 10 years ago. As I headed north, I saw a group of fishermen untangling their nets, while women sold fish from makeshift stalls, their heads covered to protect from the ‘cold’. There were rows of concrete structures in a bad state. Where they destroyed during the tsunami? I saw that people were still living in them. A little further away were newer buildings which may have been built to re-house those who had lost their homes in the waves. Further ahead, near the Gandhi statue, the beach was busy with morning walkers and joggers and people meditating or just enjoying the first hours of this December morning. It was a grey, overcast day. I didn’t see any type of commemoration happening but later I read in the paper that this was planned for later in the day.

December has now come and gone, and it is now a new month, and a New Year. The rains have stopped, temperatures have climbed back up to the 30s, and the music and dance season has come to an end.

A very Happy New Year to you, dear readers!