Category Archives: Family Travel

Talpona Beach, Goa: Summer Road Trip With The Dogs

The view at Talpona Beach

I love peace and quiet, so that’s exactly what I choose when I go on vacation. This time I wanted to take my dogs with me too, instead of leaving them in a pet hostel in Pune.

The last time I went on a road trip with my dogs was to Murud beach in Dapoli. That was a trial to see how well they took the road journey, which was a long 7 to 8 hours. Since they seemed to enjoy it, I decided that our next road trip would be to Goa, around 12 hours away.

Vacationing with pets is like going on vacation with little kids. There’s extra stuff to carry, things to worry about – such as will there be aggressive strays on the beach? Will they puke all over the car? And so on and so forth and what have you. (Any fans of The Middle out there?)

To complicate matters, a few weeks before our trip, my 8-year old lab, Tiara, was diagnosed with urinary bladder stones and had to undergo surgery to remove them. Luckily, she recovered from her surgery faster than I did.

Tiara looking sad as usual

To plan the perfect summer beach vacation with our dogs, I turned to my favourite hotel search engine, Booking.com, because they allow you to filter your choices so you can see only the pet-friendly stays.

I first booked a place at Agonda, one of my favourite beaches in Goa. Then, I realised we’d be travelling with my brother, and the driver too. So, beach resorts wouldn’t work for us. Hmm, cancel the booking.

I looked again for family rooms or cottages on beaches nearby and found a cottage intriguingly called Talpona Paradise Beach House, at Talpona Beach in Canacona. So I made the booking and contacted the owner. After some back and forth, he offered me the cottage with air-conditioning for the same price.

  • Pet-friendly? Check.
  • Family-friendly? Check.
  • Free Wifi? Check.
  • Air-conditioning? Check.
  • Available for a week? Check.

Having booked our cottage months in advance, we set out at around 7 am on the 19th of May, 2018. We had packed everything we could think of – dog food, bowls, drinking water, a whole bag of food and snacks for us (because we had no idea what to expect).

Chewie enjoying the drive and the view

We picked up my brother and I opened up Google Maps. It showed us a route that completely bypassed Mapusa and Panjim, going instead via Belgaum and Molem sanctuary. The route was also much shorter (9 hours) than I expected (12 hours).

The route from Pune to Talpona Paradise Beach House

The dogs and we settled in for our long road journey. The road to Belgaum (or Belgavi, as it is now known, thanks to our frustrating tendency to never be happy with the way things are) was pretty straightforward. A highway with two one-way lanes.

Once we crossed Belgaum, things got interesting. The long and winding road now led through lush, green forests and wildlife sanctuaries, such as Bhimgad Wildlife Sanctuary, Kali Tiger Reserve, Castlerock Wildlife Range, and Mollem Wildlife Sanctuary.

From Belgaum to Talpona, the road passes through a number of wildlife sanctuaries

The drive through these woods was quite a treat, with green, verdant foliage all around us. When we were on the ghats (hills) the road weaved and turned in hairpin bends until our stomachs lurched and the dogs woke up from their deep slumber.

I was thrilled with Google Maps for leading us through a route that was so scenic, beautiful, and most of all, almost free of traffic. We made good time, despite two pit-stops, and reached the beach house by 5.30 in the evening, around 10.5 hours after we left Pune.

The house itself was very comfortable. I wanted peace and quiet, and I got it in spades. Talpona is a small village that has little but a small grocery store and a couple of restaurants that serve (the almost non-existent) tourists. To actually buy anything you need, you have to drive to Canacona market, about 15 minutes away.

Talpona Paradise Beach House

The air-conditioner was in the living room, but it cooled the entire house. The owner gave us the number of the caretaker, a sweet girl called Prasanna, who greeted us when we arrived. He also gave us the number of Deepak, who ran a restaurant nearby.

Deepak’s wife makes a mean crab curry, with the result that I pigged out on the stuff till I had crab coming out of my ears. The rest of the seafood was delicious too.

Deepak’s restaurant just down the road

The Wifi started out excellent, then failed a couple of days before we left. Deepak’s 15-year old son, Shantanu, installed a Jio router for us, but it was extremely slow. Other than those few hiccups, the place was perfect.

There was a pack or two of stray dogs, but we managed to intimidate them into staying away while we took our dogs swimming every day. Being Labs, both our dogs love water and enjoyed their swims thoroughly.

The dogs enjoy a swim with our driver, Ashok

The sand and the waters were clean and free of garbage, thanks to the conscientious villagers. However there’s a strong undercurrent that can pull you into the water if you’re not careful, and there are rocks under the waves in some parts, so swimming is not as safe here as it would be at, say, Baga beach.

A view of the cottage from the beach

Spending a whole week here was heavenly. A lot of the time I would just sit and look at the waves or watch lizards sun themselves lazily, heads bobbing on the porous laterite walls.

Eagles circled the cliffs nearby, while a murder of crows cawed and teased my dogs, and mynah birds cooed in the trees. Butterflies floated past in a daze. Blades of grass eagerly pushed out of a bed of dry needles from the two casuarinas in the small garden.

The steps and bamboo gate leading to the sea

A row of steps led to the sea, while a flimsy gate of thin bamboo sticks strung together kept out cows and people. We ate our meals looking out at the waves, sitting in cane chairs with blue cushions around a grey plastic table, in what passed for a balcony.

Relaxing at Talpona Paradise Beach House
Chewie finds a coconut to play with

A large white bougainvillaea growing in the garden reminded me of the Singing Bush from The Three Amigos.

The bougainvillaea that reminded me of the Singing Bush

I noticed that the sun would set not in the middle of the horizon like it did at Agonda, but in the north-west. I guess we were much further south than I thought.

Sunset at Talpona beach happens in the north-west

The route to the beach house is just as scenic. A river meanders down through patches of mangroves, while pillars of a half-finished bridge stand in the river just ahead of a mangrove forest, like lovelorn lovers waiting to be united.

Bridge being built across the Talpon river

Thick mangroves line the river all the way to the sea. In a little bay at the mouth of the river, behind a spit of sand, sits the Rio de Talpona Guest House with an enviable view of the river and ocean.

The view from Rio de Talpona Guest House

Small houses built with locally-sourced laterite stone line the roads, sometimes painted in garish colours.

Most houses in Goa are built out of locally sourced laterite stone

My child and I also went on an excursion to the nearby Galgibag beach, a nesting point for turtles. I woke up a man called Samir, one of the guards who was supposed to be keeping an eye on the new nesting site cordoned off with nets (to prevent stray dogs from digging up and eating the turtle eggs).

Turtle nesting site at Galgibag beach

He told me the forest officer sits at Cotigao Wildlife Sanctuary while forest guards watch the nesting sites in shifts. However, turtles have been decreasing at Galgibag, while more come in at the Agonda nesting site.

Two days before we left, to our delight, my aunt and cousins from Panjim dropped in and spent the day with us.

When my cousins came to visit

They loved the house and the beach and decide they would come again sometime for a picnic. All of them being ardent dog-lovers, my dogs were thrilled with all the extra attention they were getting.

https://youtu.be/f0_0e483z5k

On the last day of our vacation, we experienced the highest tide, probably because of the onset of the monsoons. The seas may have been choppy, but the sunset was sublime. Even Chewie agreed.

High tide at Talpona Beach
Chewie enjoying the sunset

As we were leaving, I gave Prasanna, the caretaker, a generous tip, and told her we’d be coming back every year with our dogs. I really meant it.

As we passed through all the wildlife sanctuaries on the way back, I stayed alert and even managed to spot a peacock running into the forest. Thank you, Google, for taking us through such a lovely route. However, I do have a wishlist for you.

It would be nice if Google Maps gave us advance notifications of fun things to see and do along our route, and also if we were offered a choice of the faster or the more scenic route. Imagine how much more fun our road trips would be!


Verinag Springs, Kashmir: Origin Of The Jhelum

The kids squealed. As they threw dough balls into the spring waters, the carp sprang up to snap it up. The spring waters were a Maldivian turquoise and clear as crystal.

Carp in the spring waters

Our visit to Verinag Springs in Kashmir in November 2011 was quite a thrill. It was a great place for the kids to witness how a river originates.

The origin of the Jhelum river, these ever-flowing springs were built by the Mughal emperor Jahangir in 1620 A.D. The Mughal Arcade and gardens around the spring were built later by his son, Shah Jahan.

Clear blue-green waters of Verinag Springs

Today the springs and the Mughal Arcade around it are recognized as a Monument of National Importance. The name of the springs, Verinag, arose because the nearby town was known as Vér. Nag is the local name for a spring.

Verinag springs in autumn

Before Emperor Jahangir decided to build a spring here, it was just a pond of water that formed a marsh. Always eager to improve on the beauty of Nature, the Emperor built the octagonal tank of sculpted stones using carvers from Iran, and – because that’s what Mughal emperors do – created a garden around it.

Mughal garden around Verinag Spring

The Mughal gardens were built as an adaptation of the traditional Persian Charbagh (four gardens), which takes its inspiration from the Quranic description of heaven as having four rivers, of wine, honey, milk, and water.

Entrance to Verinag Springs

From the entrances, a walkway takes the visitor towards the octagonal pool, which is approached through a colonnade.

Arch around the colonnade

This colonnade, composed of 24 arches, surrounds the pool, whose water comes from the spring deep below. The water exits from the pool into the 300-yard main axial water canal, which then flows down to the Bihat river.

The springs lead into a water canal
Water canal through Verinag Garden

Vernag is located on a steep hillside, with its water source at the top. The traditional Charbagh design had to be altered to fit the site’s topography, as the source of water shifted from the traditional centre of the square garden to the highest point of the garden.

Verinag Mughal Garden Plan by Akshey25, CC BY-SA 3.0

His son Shah Jahan, constructed the cascades and aqueducts laid in straight lines through the garden. Little trace remains of the hot and cold baths he built to the east of the garden, or of the pavilions that once decorated the area.

Could this be one of the hot or cold baths?

On the stone slabs built into the walls surrounding the spring are carvings in Persian that describe how the source of the underwater spring is contained without revealing its architecture. The construction date is also inscribed on a stone slab built into the southern wall of the spring.

Inscriptions in Persian in the stone slabs around the spring

The structure is also a sacred place for Hindus as there is a shivling, built in honour of Lord Shiva, in one of the arches.

Shivling in an arch around Verinag spring

How to get to Verinag Springs:

There are two ways to get to the springs:

  1. You can take a bus from Srinagar to Anantnag and then by taxi to Verinag.
  2. You can come the way we came, by car from Srinagar to Verinag via Kokernag, Achhabal Mughal garden and the Martand Sun Temple.

If you’re not pressed for time, the second route is preferable as it has much more to see along the way. Check out the video of our visit to Verinag springs below.

Also read:

All images are © Priya Florence Shah unless otherwise mentioned.

A Road Trip With Dogs To Murud Beach, Dapoli

Swimming with our dogs at Murud beach, Dapoli

I love taking road trips with my dogs. When I was a proud dog parent to my mutt, Simba, my (late) husband and I would look everywhere for dog-friendly accommodations so we could take him along.

At that time, India did not have many pet-friendly resorts being advertised like they are today. So it wasn’t easy to find even a restaurant where we could take him.

Despite the inconvenience, we took him on many road trips to Goa in our beat-up old Maruti 800, choosing to stay at my parent’s flat in Monte de Guirim instead of some fancy beach resort. I remember many good times, and at least one mortifying time on the beach with Simba.

As I don’t take too many road trips nowadays, I usually look for a reputed and loving dog boarding to keep my dogs when I travel. However, I miss taking them on a road trip, as we did with the older one, Tiara when we went to Kashid Beach near Alibaug many years ago.

And so I decided it was time to take Chewie, the younger one, on her first road trip. I chose Dapoli in Maharashtra, India, for the pet-friendly accommodation at the Beach Resort Igloo House at Murud Beach (This property is no longer listed on Booking.com, where I did my booking).

Igloo-shaped rooms on the beach

According to Google Maps, the property is a good 5.5 hours from Pune. But if I’ve learned anything about Google Maps, it’s that the distance and time estimate is a “best case scenario” barring traffic and pit stops on the way.

We booked a Pet taxi with Petxi in Pune and our driver, Ashok, picked us up early in the morning. He was very good with the dogs and helped us take them for short walks when we stopped to stretch our legs en route.

Chewie (left) and Tiara (right) reluctant to leave their air-conditioned comfort

Given that it was during the monsoons and the roads were not in the best condition, it took us 7 to 8 hours to reach there. Along the way, we enjoyed some beautiful views of Mulshi, the lakes and streams and the hills lush with monsoon vegetation.

Monsoon vegetation and mist in the hills

By the time we reached Dapoli, it was late afternoon and we were all exhausted from the journey. Unfortunately, the road to the resort was hard to find and we learned that there was no direct road there. We had to park the car outside the resort and walk there via the beach, fending off a few vicious strays who made their base near the food stalls.

I had carried a packet of dry food for the dogs but asked the resort to make them some kichdi (a mixture of rice and dal) minus salt and spices, with which to fortify their meals. The food served in their tiny beach shack was good, except for the fried fish, which had the taste and texture of leather.

The resort was bang on the beach, but we had to walk down a few broken steps to get to the waves. Our room was cosy and comfortable and did actually resemble an igloo with its circular construction and high ceiling.

The dogs settle into the resort

Three adults, or two adults and two kids (two in the master bed and two kids in the bunk near the ceiling) could easily make themselves at home in it. It had a small balcony that looked out on to the ocean.

The only unpleasant sight was a largish channel dug in the sand near the rooms. I couldn’t fathom the purpose of this channel at that point.

The channel dug near our room

Sometime at night, a large bulldozer came in and started working the sand in the channel right outside our room. The sound was deafening and I was forced to complain about it to the most readily available person lurking about, asking how long it would continue.

He told me it would continue all night and I was aghast. I protested vigorously and the bulldozer vanished after a while. Apparently, the channel was being dug to create a parking lot on the property.

Never mind that it was a weekday, I was just shocked that they would start construction right outside a guest’s room at night with no regard for their peace of mind. That’s one reason I wouldn’t recommend you stay at this place if you’re going to Dapoli.

Instead, here are a few decent, pet-friendly resorts by the beach in Dapoli, Maharashtra.

Other than that incident with the bulldozer, we had a pretty good time over the next couple of days. Our dogs had fun swimming in the ocean, while one of us kept watching for the strays. For me, this was a test trip, to see how well they would endure a long car journey.

Enjoying the waves with our dogs at Murud beach, Dapoli

I was happy to find that they enjoyed it very much and – thanks to the powerful air conditioning in the car – were reluctant to get out whenever we made a pit stop. Our next long road trip with the dogs will be to Goa, where the beaches are much better and the food is, too.

Chewie bringing sand on our bed

 

Tips For Road Trips With Your Dogs
  1. Tiara after her swim

    Make sure your car air-conditioning is working well. Either that or keep the windows open and let the breeze in. There’s nothing worse for dogs than a hot car.

  2. Drive slowly and at a steady pace. Long drives can be stressful and bumps can cause your dog’s heart rate to skyrocket.
  3. Keep your dog’s water bowls handy and give them lots of water to drink on the way. Don’t let them get dehydrated.
  4. Carry a mattress for your dog’s comfort. I forgot to carry one on this trip and wished I had.
  5. If you’re going with a driver, as many Indian families do, make sure he’s very comfortable with dogs.

Can you think of any more tips for long road trips with dogs? Post them in the comments below.

Also read: Belligerent Canine Meets Bare-Chested Woman On Beach In Goa

Tiara finds a way to get comfortable on the drive back

8 Scenic Getaways Within 2 Hours Drive From Mumbai And Pune

Need to get away from the madness of Mumbai or Pune? Here are 8 scenic spots to drive to from Pune or Mumbai for excursions and activities either solo or with family.

There are plenty of reasons why one would want to get away from life in cities like Mumbai and Pune. The tedium of traffic, the spectre of pollution and the drudgery of routine can easily lead to frustration and burnout.

Thankfully, there are several scenic destinations conveniently located within the two-hour driving limit of both these cities. Whether you prefer exploring historic ruins or trekking and adventures, there’s something for everyone here.

Here are 8 scenic spots to drive to from Pune or Mumbai. You can enjoy these excursions and activities either solo or with family.

1. Lavasa

Just 58 kilometres from Pune, Lavasa will certainly be a change from your normal routine. Spread across 100 square kilometres, it was privately built by the Lavasa Corporation in a manner resembling the Italian town of Portofino and is still under development.

View of the waterfalls behind Mercure Lavasa hotel. Image © Priya Florence Shah

Lavasa holds the title of being the first hill station developed in India post-independence with the aim of creating a model city. However political controversy has led to developmental delays, with unfinished construction marring the natural beauty of the area somewhat.

One of the first things that strike you when you visit is how clean it is here. The streets are immaculate, thanks to the diligent maintenance crew hired by the Lavasa Corporation.

For luxury tourists, Lavasa is an outstanding weekend destination. Besides the 500 rupee fee to enter the city, you’ll find a number of upscale hotels and restaurants scattered around the promenade.

It’s also popular with picnickers and bikers who choose to spend the day before driving back to Pune. You’ll find ample opportunity to enjoy the water sports, gaming, luxury dining and entertainment. You can even catch a movie in the theatre on the campus.

What to do in Lavasa:

  • Photograph some breathtaking views of the lake from your luxury hotel.
  • Enjoy water sports on the lake.
  • Experience fine dining at the restaurants along the promenade.
  • Take long walks along the promenade.
  • Participate in cultural events and conferences hosted around the year.

2. Pawna Lake

Pawna Lake is one of the few relatively unexplored destinations around Pune. Popular among trekkers and hardcore nature lovers and wildlife photographers, the lake is in the foothills of the Sahyadri mountain range on the outskirts of Lonavala and is a 94 km drive from Pune.

Boating on Pawna Lake. Image © Priya Florence Shah

Though it is an artificial water body, Pawna Lake makes for a very Instagrammable natural landscape. Apart from wandering about in the gardens, where there are peacock and geese to photograph, you can go row boating, and explore the banks of the lake for some rare bird and animal species.

Boating at Pawna Lake. Image © Priya Florence Shah

What to do at Pawna Lake:

  • Explore the lake and take photographs from vantage points.
  • Do some bird watching.
  • Enjoy row boating and motor boating.
  • Camp at the lakeside with your family and friends for some amazing BBQ and stargazing.
  • Go horse riding along the lakeside.
Peacock in Pawna Lake gardens. Image © Priya Florence Shah

3. Mulshi Lake

Surrounded by the Sahyadri hills, Mulshi Lake is just 35 km away from Pune. This area really comes alive in the monsoon, when the lake fills up and migratory species visit.

A little cove in Mulshi Lake. Image source: Wikipedia

The destination is more popular as a picnic spot, but you can do small treks around the hills to explore the rich flora and fauna. Several old forts hidden in the greenery are worth a visit.

What to do at Mulshi Lake:

  • Trek to the Koraigadh and Dhangad Forts.
  • Enjoy some bird watching (prepare for some exciting lifers).
  • Camp overnight for a unique experience of the Sahyadri.
  • Stay overnight at one of the many resorts along the lake.

4. Bhimsagar

Although more popular as a religious destination, Bhimsagar is also frequented by weekend travellers. It has amazingly scenic routes which look lush and green during the monsoons. The Bhimashankar Shiva Mandir is about 110 km from Pune in the Sahayadri Ghats region (hill range).

Bhimashankar Shiva Mandir. Image source: http://pedia.desibantu.com/bhimashankar-jyotirling/

Bhimsagar is 127 km from Pune and should take a couple of hours of good driving to reach. From Mumbai however, it takes longer and isn’t quite a one day trip.

What to do at Bhimsagar:

  • Visit the Bhimashankar Temple and the 12 Jyotirlinga of Lord Shiva.
  • Visit the Bhimsagar Wildlife Sanctuary to see animal species like Giant Indian Squirrels.
  • Enjoy spectacular waterfalls and gurgling streams along the way.
  • Trek between Shidi Ghat and Ganesh Ghat, especially during the monsoons.

5. Karnala

If you’re seeking solitude and calm, Karnala is the place to be. Just 124 km from Pune and 87 km from Mumbai, it is easily accessible and shouldn’t take more than a couple of hours from either.

Pinnacle at Karnala. Image source: Ravi Vaidyanathan

Even being alone will not bore you here. Apart from several unique species of flora and fauna in the Karnala Bird Sanctuary, it is one of the places where you can lay down your mat, close your eyes and enjoy the chirping of birds in the belly of Nature.

What to do in Karnala:

  • Check out the ruins of the Karnala Fort
  • Trek to the pinnacle of Karnala Mountain to spot endangered vultures, eagles and other birds.
  • Get a bird’s eye view of Mumbai’s coastline along the dense Sahyadri.
  • Do more bird watching.
  • Take a nap under the trees.

6. Kamshet

Kamshet is a serene lake surrounded by small hills on all sides. This location is very picturesque and presents a very different experience from city life.

Paragliding at Kamshet. Image source: http://www.chalopicnic.com

An hour’s drive from Pune, it is an enjoyable place to be with your family or friends. Over the past few years, Kamshet has become a popular picnic destination. You could even opt to go paragliding here.

What to do in Kamshet:

  • Explore the caves of Bhairi, Bhedsa and Karla
  • Try ridge dancing on the Pawna Dam
  • Take a trek to Tungi, Tikona and Lohgad Forts.
  • Paraglide at Shinde Wadi Hills

7. Sinhagad

Just 37 km from Pune, Sinhagad is the fastest gateway from the city. Composed mainly of the ruins of the Sinhagad Fort, nature has reclaimed the area somewhat, converting it into a destination worth exploring.

Kalyan Darawaja at Sinhgad Fort. Image source: Wikipedia

Very popular with hikers and trekkers, this is a good place to go to with a group of adventure seekers. A perfect day trip with your friends, the trip to Sinhagad proffers great roads, stunning views and exotic flora.

If you’re driving via Mumbai however, it would be a 180 km ride through traffic and probably not worth the long journey.

Things to do at Sinhagad:

  • Hike to the top of the fort for the stunning vistas.
  • Trek to Panshet Lake to spend the evening.

8. Lonavala – Khandala

Very few people who live in Mumbai and Pune don’t already know about Lonavala and Khandala. Within one and half hour’s drive from both Pune and Mumbai, the twin hill-stations of Lonavala and Khandala are popular throughout the year.

They are even more breathtaking during the monsoon when the mist rolls over the hills and the waterfalls come alive and gush down the mountainside.

The rolling hills at Lonavala. Image source: Wikipedia

Lonavala and Khandala are nestled among the Sahyadri Mountain Range and offer views that are phenomenal in their beauty. For someone who hasn’t been to this place, it should be the first item on your weekend checklist.

Apart from the lush greenery, you get to see sparkling lakes, waterfalls and mountain streams. If you’re lucky, you can also see some wildlife and some old forts and caves. Avoid the more crowded areas in the main city and head out into the hills to enjoy the best this destination has to offer.

What to do in Lonavala-Khandala:

  • Take a dip at the numerous mountain streams along the Bushy Dam.
  • Walk to the Duke’s Nose for a breathtaking view of Khandala.
  • Go to Sausage Hills for some rare bird watching.
  • Visit the Pawna lake for a lovely sunset.
  • Trek to the Tikona and Tung Forts.
  • Stay at Treasure Island Resort or the Machan, Lonavala.

While all these destinations are within a couple of hours away from either the city of Pune or Mumbai, driving a bit further will open up more options for the more adventurous traveller.

Destinations like Malshej Ghat, Thosegar Falls (Satara), Tapola, Kolad and many others become accessible with a slightly longer drive. You’ll never know what lies around Mumbai and Pune until you actually go and explore it.

Kokernag Botanical Gardens, Kashmir: Straight Out Of A Monet Painting

I remember walking into the gate of the Kokernag Botanical Garden in Kashmir and being astounded at the beauty that lay before me.

Entering the ‘Pleasure Garden’

It was autumn, and the leaves were a multi-hued bouquet of red, gold and green. Wooded glens, lawns and streams created a tranquil and dream-like mood.

Wooded glens and streams create a dream-like mood

A gurgling spring ran over the pebbles beside a paved promenade. Ornamental lamps stood guard providing the perfect foil to a green Japanese bridge that spanned the stream a few meters ahead. It was a scene that wouldn’t look out of place in a Monet painting.

Looks just like a painting

The kids splashed about in the stream and played on the swings and slides in a tiny playground at the centre of the park while I took in the view and took some snapshots. The sweet fragrance of pine filled my nostrils as I collected pine cones fallen beneath the huge conifers.

The kids splash about in the stream

The gardens were almost empty. Either there were very few people interested in visiting, or it was not on the usual tourist itinerary. I found the lack of crowds a blessing because we could sit around on the lawns undisturbed and take in the sun.

Sunning ourselves on the lawns

Kokernag is a sub-district town in Breng Valley (The Golden Crown of Kashmir), a distance of about 22 km from Anantnag. A picnicker’s paradise, the botanical garden was developed in the shadow of a thickly wooded hill, at the base of which springs gush out.

Channels that resemble the claw-foot of a hen

The spring divides into channels that resemble the claw-foot of a hen, giving rise to the theory that Koker comes from a Kashmiri word for chicken and nag from the Sanskrit word for springs or serpent.

Magical springs in a picture-perfect garden

The garden is developed entirely around these springs, which are thought to have magical, healing powers. Ain-e-Akbari, the detailed gazetteer of Akbar’s empire, also recorded the curative and digestive properties of Kokernag spring water.

Gorgeous roses in bloom

Unlike the Mughal gardens built by the kings of old, the Kokernag Botanical Gardens were developed by the Jammu and Kashmir Tourism department and are home to over one lakh (100,000) species of flora including trees, roses, shrubs and bushes.

To have created a garden that rivals the beauty of even the Mughal gardens is no mean feat and J&K Tourism must be commended for that.

The Kokernag garden rivals the beauty of even the Mughal gardens

Although the best time to visit the Botanical Garden is from March to October, we went in early November and were treated to a glorious display of colour, with the Chinar trees a bright shade of red.

We spent a blissful few hours at ‘The Pleasure Garden’ (I could see why it was called that), and I remember wishing I had known that we could’ve booked a stay at the little cottages in the heart of the garden, right under the shade of Chinar trees. Unfortunately, we hadn’t planned for that.

You can stay in these little cottages

We also missed out on a visit to the trout farm at the end of the garden, but you don’t have to. The Kokernag Botanical Gardens left me stunned with their beauty. Be sure to put this little piece of Paradise on your itinerary if you visit Kashmir.

If you’ve visited Kokernag Botanical Gardens, do let me know how you liked it in the comments below.

Also, read:

Walking With Elephants: A Visit To Wildlife SOS In Mathura

I could smell the musty scent of the red earth. There was no breeze and it was a few hours before sunset. With every step that Maya and Phoolkali took, small fragments of earth flew up leaving a cloud of dust in their wake.

The dust settled on my clothes, my skin, my hair. I walked beside Maya, patting her trunk with the palm of my hand as gently as I could.

She was tall and statuesque, one of the most friendly and photogenic elephants at the Wildlife SOS’ Elephant Conservation and Care Center (ECCC) in Mathura.

My child, Elijah, flanked her other side, feeding her bananas every few steps or so. At one point, Maya stepped off the path as if intending to go a different way. Elijah gently guided her back, tempting her with her favourite treats.

“A mahout-in-training,” proclaimed the mahout who accompanied and filmed us while walking backwards, which was quite a feat.

Phoolkali, the other elephant, was a few steps behind us. We walked for almost an hour. The ellies needed their evening exercise. It was tiring, yet exhilarating.

It was nothing less than a privilege and humbling, to have walked beside these majestic beings and connected with them in a way that not many humans get to experience.

A connection that was natural, not forced. Born of mutual respect, not pain or fear. In an environment where they were loved and cherished, by people who had rescued them from horrific circumstances and given them the care they deserved.

No more would they have to take humans on rides, suffer undignified performances in a circus, be prodded with bullhooks, imprisoned in chains, or forced to stand in solitary confinement, deprived of the company of other friendly elephants, living their lives in pain and neglect.

At the ECCC, their physical and emotional scars can heal at last. They are lovingly bathed, fed their favourite treats, smell the sweet scent of freedom, and enjoy the company of a herd of friendly elephants in huge pens (to keep them from wandering off to the human settlements nearby).

https://youtu.be/4F2-FlWs5UE

They can sleep on the soft earth, play in a pool built just for them and live a life of comfort and dignity.

Why I Wanted To Visit Wildlife SOS

I first heard about the organisation when I watched its co-founder, Kartick Satyanaran’s TED Talk on how Wildlife SOS launched and successfully implemented a campaign to rescue every “dancing” bear in India.

 

I grew up in India at a time when we would, quite often, see dancing bears on the roads and never think twice about how much torture and suffering they must have endured becoming a source of entertainment for us ignorant humans.

So, I was touched by the efforts that Wildlife SOS had made to put an end to this cruel, centuries-old practice. Even better, they achieved this without punishing the practitioners – the Kalandar community – and instead, helped them find alternative sources of livelihood via the Kalandar Rehabilitation Program.

I started donating a small amount to Wildlife SOS every month – my way of assuaging the guilt I felt about the cruelty with which my species had treated these blameless creatures for centuries.

I remember visiting circuses that exhibited wild animals as a child and felt ashamed of it, even though I was a child and knew no better at the time.

According to The Dodo, there are some 3,500 captive elephants in India and the majority of them are used for elephant rides by Western tourists.

They are kept in deplorable conditions: Walking on hot, tar roads. Trained with spiked chains and “ankush” (bullhooks). No veterinary care. Dehydration, cracked feet and abscesses. Being shackled for long periods in the heat.

But, when you know better, you do better. In the internet era, there’s no excuse for ignorance. Animal cruelty is a complete no-no today.

We’re part of a more aware and enlightened society than that of our grandparents, and it’s up to us to undo some of the damage and the cruel practices that continue till today in some parts of the world. If you love elephants, refuse to ride them or watch them perform.

Getting To The ECCC

It was in November 2016 that we visited the ECCC at Mathura, about 57 kilometres from Agra. As a visitor, Wildlife SOS can help arrange transport to and from Agra, as long as you let them know in advance.

Reaching the ECCC in Mathura

Of course, you must pay for it. As a charitable organisation, they cannot offer freebies. They also provide accommodation in Agra, but I learned that only after I’d booked my trip.

At the ECCC, visitors get to meet the elephants, learn their stories and the circumstances they were rescued from, help with bathing them and, like we did, accompany them on their evening walk.

When I followed Wildlife SOS on Facebook, I read about their efforts to rescue every circus elephant in India, and to create a “Field Of Dreams.”

This large swathe of land nearby has a wide river flowing through it and is surrounded by thickets and trees where every elephant can roam freely and live in as natural an environment as possible. But the funding to purchase the land is lacking.

Meeting The Elephants

As we entered and signed in, we could see the elephants in their enclosures. I had known the names they were given – Suzy, Sita, Rhea, Peanut, Coconut, Lakhi, Asha, Raju – from the posts on the Wildlife SOS Facebook page. They already felt like familiar friends, but I was going to get to know them better.

From the left – Suzy, Peanut, Lakhi, Asha, sleeping Coconut

We met Chanchal, who was rescued in June 2012, after she got into a terrible road accident in Noida.  She was severely injured with bruises on her body and a cut on her right knee.  She was unable to bend one knee possibly due to a ligament tear.

Initially, she would keep to herself and wouldn’t even interact with the other elephants. It took her approximately a year to get over her traumatic experience as a begging elephant and get comfortable with her new found freedom.

Chanchal getting a bath

Chanchal means “mischievous” and she certainly lives up to her name with her daily antics, winning hearts every day.  Around 21 years old, she loves playing in the water and spends a lot of time throwing mud on herself.

Over the years, she has formed a close bond with another Ellie called Bijli and together they enjoy munching on fruits and treats and going on long walks around the centre. While we were watching the mahouts lovingly bathe and scrub down Chanchal, Maya came up to inspect me with her trunk.

Maya was rescued in November 2010, from a circus where she was forced to work for entertainment and then chained at the end of the day. When she first arrived at ECCC, Maya was really underfed and withdrawn. Possibly the most heart-warming part of Maya’s recovery was her socialization with Phoolkali.

Today, 42-year old Maya is a happy and healthy elephant, enjoying her new life of freedom. She has a peaceful demeanour that can put anyone near her at ease and is best friends with the equally regal Phoolkali.

Maya is a tall, friendly and beautiful elephant.

We also met Sita, who was rescued in November 2015 after nearly five decades in captivity. She was riddled with severe and chronic ailments, such as painfully damaged footpads and cuticles with severe abscesses, and to make it worse, had severe psychological trauma.

Sita was nearly 60 years old and her pitiable condition was a testament to her years of mishandling and improper care.

Sita suffered a fracture during her time in captivity

Her preliminary veterinary assessment on arrival at ECCC showed that she was suffering from a condition known as ankylosis in the joints of both her forelimbs, one of which had incurred a fracture during her time in captivity, and that had never been allowed to heal.

Because of these problems, she was not able to lie down and rest properly in more than a year. At the ECCC, Sita had a chance to ease the stress on her legs by lounging in the pool and getting regular pedicures and foot care. When we met her, she was enjoying a foot bath with epsom salts and intensive treatment for her feet.

In April 2017, Sita passed away. I was glad to have met her and known that she received the love and care she so deserved in her senior years.

Most of the elephants we saw, in fact, had severe injuries when they came to the ECCC, and were still being treated for all sorts of problems, the most common being abscesses in their feet after being forced to stand on hard ground without any rest for long periods, or from walking on hot, tar roads.

We also met Rhea, a former circus elephant who was trapped along with Sita and another elephant called Mia, under miserable conditions – a sisterhood strengthened only further by their shared experiences of pain. They were reunited at the ECCC in April 2016, and Rhea began her journey to recovery.

54-year old Rhea was riddled with ailments. Her feet were in atrocious conditions, with deep painful cracks running through her swollen soles. Her nails were cracked and her cuticles overgrown, evidence of the neglect she had been subjected to all those years.

Rhea was reunited with Sita and Mia at the ECCC

In the days since her rescue, Rhea’s spirit won the hearts of everyone at ECCC, and she slowly began making friends with her keepers and the other elephants. She is especially fond of her neighbours, Maya and Phoolkali, and often stands squeaking at them while eating her meal of green fodder.

But the ellies that stole my heart were Peanut and Coconut, the babies of the “nut herd”, who we caught munching on their sugarcane.

The babies of the herd – Peanut (Left) and Coconut (Right)

In April 2015, Wildlife SOS rescued four elephants from a circus in Maharashtra. Called Macadamia, Walnut, Coconut and Peanut, the “nut herd” had suffered for years as performing elephants.

When they were not being exploited for the amusement of the circus audience, they were made to spend long hours standing in filth and restrained painfully by tight ropes around their legs.

Today, 8-year old Peanut and 14-year old Coconut have made remarkable progress. Both of them are absolute delights to watch as they follow the other big elephants around the facility, occasionally poking at them playfully with their trunks.

https://youtu.be/XUbKKpDyd7w

They are part of Asha’s adoptive herd and, being the youngest, received immense love and care from the older elephants. Peanut loves keeping everyone on their toes with her energy and excitement. She runs around, tosses about her tyre and spends hours playing in the pool.

Coconut spends her time gorging on delicious fruit treats, playing with hanging enrichments feeders, going on long walks and lounging in her pool with Peanut.

The Agra Bear Rescue Facility

After a rewarding afternoon watching the mahouts bathe and feed the elephants, we visited Wildlife SOS’s  Agra Bear Rescue Facility, the largest Sloth Bear Rescue Facility in the world.

Sloth Bear sleeping peacefully in the shade

Established in 1999, it currently houses around 200 sloth bears, and other species of wildlife, in large forested enclosures with ponds and shady trees. You can contact Wildlife SOS for a personal guided experience at the Agra Bear Rescue Facility.

Right now Wildlife SOS has over 20 elephants, 300 bears, and 30 leopards that depend on them every day. Having donors gives them the confidence to know that they can feed them and meet their medical needs well into the future. You can donate to Wildlife SOS and support their work.

Volunteering With Wildlife SOS

If you volunteer with Wildlife SOS, you’ll have the unique opportunity to work alongside these incredible animals and the people who care for them.

You’ll get to spend a few days enjoying the opportunity to put up hammocks and enrichments for the bears, visit with the elephants, and help with their feeding or with giving them a bath.

In addition, you’ll get to stay in a beautiful area of the sanctuary and the fees you pay for your stay and accommodation go directly to the Centre, providing a critical source of funding for future work.

Imagine the satisfaction of knowing that you’re helping to make a positive impact on their lives. What more could a responsible tourist ask for?

Find out who else offers ethical elephant experiences in Asia.

 

How Going To Comic-Con Mumbai Changed My Life

The costumed figure shook my hand. For the life of me, I could not figure out who he was. He was dressed like Spiderman but without the webbing. I asked him who he was cosplaying.

“Deadpool”, he yelled over the din.

“Dreadful,” I heard.

“Dedhfool?” I asked him.

My child, the resident expert on anime, manga and weird-ass superheroes, was thoroughly embarrassed to have a noob mom who didn’t even know who Deadpool was.

Deadpool really did want to shoot me

That was me at one of my first Comic-Con events in Mumbai – thrown into the deep end with hundreds of fans of fantasy, comic books, gaming, anime, superheroes and genres I had never even heard of.

Darth Vader or Dark Helmet?

It was an assault on the senses. The colourful, over-the-top cosplayers parading around in costumes that they had slaved over for months in their mother’s halls or dining rooms (in India, homes seldom have basements).

The highlight of the day – the cosplayer contest

Some of them could only make it through the door in pieces, to be assembled minutes before the main event – the cosplay contest.

Baymax takes a break from roboting

Rows of stalls overflowed with tee-shirts, merchandise and keepsakes that only super-geeks would want to buy. Eager fans and shoppers milled around, checking out the merchandise.

Crowds of fans and super geeks at Comic-Con Mumbai
Cool merchandise designed by talented artist, Ashwin Shakti

Cosplayers paraded up and down the hall, taking selfies and posing for pictures with fans who recognized the characters they were playing. It was colourful, noisy and badass all at once.

Cosplaying characters from the web comic, Homestuck

As a fan of Star Wars, Breaking Bad, Game of Thrones, LOTR (Lord of the Rings), and all the Marvel movies, I was hooked. But I still didn’t know who Deadpool was. The next year, the movie came out and I fell in love with the Merc with a mouth.

Oh no, it’s those Jedi mind tricks again

Since then, we’ve attended every Comic-Con in Mumbai and Pune, planning months in advance for the next one. My child has endless discussions with friends on what to wear, who to cosplay and whether they should plan a group cosplay. An introvert obsessed with anime, manga and Photoshop, he found his tribe, and I could not be happier.

Find your tribe at Comic-Con Mumbai

I got into the cosplay game too, dressing up as my favourite characters from shows that I loved. One year, I cosplayed Captain America’s sweetheart, Agent Peggy Carter, and had a blast doing it.

Cosplaying Agent Peggy Carter from the Marvel Universe

The next year, I dressed up as the fanatical, scowling Septa Unella from Game Of Thrones, notorious for her torment of Cersei Lannister and her role in the Walk of Shame.

Cosplaying Septa Unella from Game of Thrones

I even got featured on the Comic-Con Twitter page. That’s me standing next to George R.R. Martin, who went around signing death certificates for all the characters from Game Of Thrones 🙂

Septa Unella on stage with George R R Martin

Along the way, I met some exceptional people, made new friends and became friends with all of my child’s friends too. Now we’re super-fans at Comic-Con Mumbai, which is usually held on a weekend, in November or December, at the Goregaon Exhibition Center.

Comic-Con Pune, usually held in February at Deccan College Grounds, was cancelled in 2018. But a bunch of enterprising cosplayers are organising alternative cosplay events for disappointed Comic-Con fans in Pune.

If you or your child are artists, writers, comic-book lovers or just misfits who never really managed to find people you could connect with, you just might find your tribe at Comic-Con.

The Game of Thrones cosplayer group at Mumbai Comic Con 2017

We love cosplaying, buying tees and merchandise, and meeting new people who love the same geeky things we do. And every time a new Marvel or DC movie is released, we scan it closely for potential costumes we can create.

My friend Shayaan, cosplaying Borat

That said, many Indian men don’t understand that “Cosplay is not consent,” and numerous incidents of sexual harassment have been reported at Comic-Con events in India. As a woman, you have every right to keep your distance with men and refuse photos with creeps who get handsy.

Its fun as long as you know how to behave at a cosplay convention

As for me, Comic Con India changed my life in many ways, all for the better, so I’ll keep this post updated with new cosplays and new friends I meet. And I hope to see you there too.

Until the next Comic-Con, here are some Facebook pages for cosplayers in India to stay abreast of events and keep in touch with your fellow geeks.

Snorkelling And Line Fishing Excursions In The Maldives

Included in our all-inclusive stay at the Medhufushi Island Resort in the Maldives were free snorkelling and line-fishing excursions. Since the house reef was bleached in the El Nino event in 1998, it wasn’t exactly teeming with sea life.

Also read: Medhufushi Island Resort – Doing Maldives The RCI Way

Instead, the resort offered free snorkelling trips to a thriving and colourful coral reef a short boat ride away. Not being a very strong swimmer, I was nervous. It was the first time in my life going snorkelling. I hoped I wouldn’t panic, as I tend to when I’m underwater or short of breath.

I was pleasantly surprised to find the experience quite enjoyable, once I relaxed and let myself float on the surface. I did hang on to the rope anchoring the boat as long as I could until I felt brave enough to slip away into the water without anything to hold on to.

Of course, we wore life jackets, so there was no chance of sinking. I explored the coral reef, keeping one eye on my child who was swimming a few feet away.

The corals were drenched in colour and swarming with little fish darting in and out of the crevices while shimmering blue tang fish (Paracanthurus hepatus) swam among the branches leisurely. Blue tangs became famous thanks to the Pixar movie, Finding Dory.

By DerHans04 – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0

The experience left me feeling mildly exhilarated and slightly giddy. I was sad when it came time to leave.

I wasn’t very excited about the line-fishing excursion since I wasn’t planning to catch any fish myself. Even though I eat fish, the sight of a dying fish, leaping and flopping about in its death throes, does not induce hunger pangs in me. On the contrary, it makes me lose my appetite altogether.

En route to the fishing grounds
Island in the Sun

If you’re vegan, you would commiserate and wonder why I’m not vegan too. That’s because I went cold-turkey and failed miserably. So I decided to take baby steps on my journey to veganism, cutting down on dairy and poultry while increasing my intake of veggies.

Preparing for line-fishing

I went along with the general sentiment on our line-fishing excursion, even getting caught up in the excitement when my child snagged a couple of fish – a red snapper and a grouper.

Pulling in the line
Catching a red snapper

We watched the sun sink into the ocean while the boat rocked gently on the waves, lines in the water. The last orange rays vanished over the horizon and a curtain of darkness descended over the sea. Distant lights from the villages and resorts shone like little diamonds in the endless, velvety blackness.

Sunset over the sea

One of our group hauled in a monster specimen of a fish, whose size caused a great deal of excitement. As the boat made its way back from the fishing grounds, I saw a flash of light leap above the water and then vanish beneath the waves. For a moment, I thought I was imagining it. But there it was again… and again.

I realised we were watching glowing, flying fish darting above the waves like little sprites. I ran my fingers in the waters below the boat and saw glittering spots of bioluminescence where the tips of my fingers agitated the waters (just like in the video below).

It reminded me of this scene from Life of Pi.

Unfortunately, we never did go snorkelling again, and I deeply regretted not being able to take underwater photos or decent low-light images on my Maldives vacation.

Once I got back, I bought myself a NETGEN Sports Action Camera (no longer available on Amazon), the poor cousin of the GoPro Hero5. The next time I need to take underwater or action photos, at least I’ll be prepared.

How My Kashmir Trip Went from Disastrous to Delightful

Freezing it up in Gulmarg

My trip to Kashmir in October 2011 was poorly planned and began rather disastrously until a stranger’s kindness took it from disastrous to delightful.

It feels strange to write about a place I visited almost 7 years ago – especially because, a while after my visit, there were devastating floods and an upsurge in terrorism in the Kashmir valley.

But it was one of the most memorable trips I’ve undertaken, in more ways than one, probably because it was so badly planned and began rather disastrously.

It was some time before October 2011 that I happened to spot a ‘great package’ to Kashmir on one of those deal websites that are now defunct. I booked the package and tickets for my child and me, and we set out on our 10-day trip to Kashmir.

A hasty decision, no chance of repenting at leisure

As a single mother with a young child, I usually err on the side of caution when it comes to making travel plans or booking a hotel. But this time I let good sense slide and ended up in Srinagar with literally no place to stay.

Here’s why that turned out to be a good thing. The hotel we had booked was a dump! Yes, that deals website turned out to be a scam outfit that didn’t pay its vendors. No wonder they went kaput.

The hotel manager refused to honour our booking and I was in a panic. After all, I was a single mom with a young child in a destination that wasn’t exactly known for its safety.

A stranger’s unexpected kindness

Our saviour was the taxi driver, Parvaiz, who drove us from the airport to the hotel. He gave me a sceptical look the moment we stopped in front of the hotel and didn’t seem at all surprised when we emerged looking downcast.

Like a lifeboat rescuing a passenger fallen overboard, he swooped in and saved us from what could have turned into a very sticky situation. He took us to a hotel owned by a friend, a short drive down the road, and booked us in immediately.

Parvaiz bhai takes us through the Mughal gardens in Srinagar

I was so grateful I could have hugged him, though I suspect that wouldn’t have gone down well. My child and I settled into the hotel, which was basic but comfortable. We rested while I contemplated our lucky escape, thanks to our quick-thinking and compassionate driver.

From then on, I was happy to put our fate in Parvaiz bhai’s hands, letting him decide our itinerary since he was a local and I knew less than nothing about Kashmir.

Bonus – Kashmir with a local flavour

For the next 10 days, he ferried us all over, from the snows of Gulmarg to a houseboat on the Dal Lake, to the picturesque Lidder river in Pahalgam. He even took us to some charming places that were not on the usual tourist itinerary.

A silent shikara sails by on the Dal Lake

I was touched when he invited us to his home for an authentic Kashmiri wazwan (feast) and we got to meet his wife and kids. It turned out his youngest daughter, Maleha, was the same age as my daughter. I asked him if she could accompany us on our journey so that my child had someone her own age to bond with.

Snowball fight in Gulmarg

I sat in the front with Parvaiz bhai while he drove us everywhere. Thanks to the kindness he showed us, he was no longer just a tour operator to me. He became my friend, and we talked a lot along the way, or at least as much as my broken Hindi allowed.

The picturesque botanical gardens of Kokernag

Also read: Kokernag Botanical Gardens, Kashmir: Straight Out Of A Monet Painting

In fact, he even called us from Kashmir months after we returned home and promised to invite us to his brother’s wedding. He never did, perhaps because of the floods that devastated Srinagar the following monsoon or the increase in violence in the valley.

Playing in an empty amusement park in Pahalgam

But I appreciated his kindness and think of him and his family with gratitude, especially when I browse through photos of his daughter and mine, walking hand in hand or playing together in an empty amusement park along the banks of the Lidder river.

The kids exploring the banks of the Lidder River in Pahalgam

It brings home to me the fact that the world can be a friendly place, even for a single mom, if you place your trust in people and go with the flow. I may never go back to Kashmir, but I’ll always remember how a stranger’s kindness took my trip from disastrous to delightful.

All images are © Priya Florence Shah

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