Lucknow Travelogue

Lucknow part 6 – Akshardham

Inside Akshardham, I was struck by the vast area and designs on the walls. We went through the visitors area where Sankar picked a couple of small booklets. There were a few exhibition halls, some events like a boat ride and water show and the main mandir (temple). Sankar was visibly excited – he wanted to visit everything but time was a constraint and we had to buy tickets if we wanted to go to the exhibition halls; in the end he decided, “Let’s watch the water show.”
I knew it had good reviews and readily agreed.
Our leader wasn’t too keen; this wasn’t his type of place and boat rides and water shows were definitely not his thing. But having come here and the time being past 6pm we decided that we’d stay here for the water show.
Sankar didn’t even wait for the group’s consensus; since he didn’t see any voice of dissent, he rushed off to get into the queue for buying tickets; he was eager like a little kid bubbling with excitement to get an ice cream. While we waited for him, our leader sat on one of the parapets and covered himself as much as he could with his arms – he was finally showing signs of feeling the chill as the temperature dipped in the evening.

The main part in Akshardham is the mandir and that was quite a sight from the outside; the mandir will appear as if it is being supported by many elephants and other animals – that’s the first layer of carvings. Above this layer were pillars and walls which had more carvings like those of goddesses.

And inside the mandir it was even more grand – the marble flooring, the statues, carvings on pillars, intricate designs on the ceilings, the unusual lighting setup with light focussed upwards to illuminate the place. At the centre is a large golden figure of Swaminarayanan seated making the abhayamudra (gesture of fearlessness); Akshardham is a tribute to him. The large figure does have a calming effect on the mind. There walls in the temple had illustrations about his life.
This is one of those man made places that you could just look at in awe and forget the passage of time. But we were crunch on time and we had just enough time to see everything inside before moving on to the area for the water show.

Augmented reality

There was one food cart in the arena that sold coffee, soup and some snacks. Our gang tried every item available but didn’t really like anything. To add to the misery our leader was made to wait for ages as the guy at the counter didn’t give preference to the people standing in queue. At the centre of the open air arena was a large pool which had a lotus styled layout in the middle; around this pool were large steps where people could sit to watch the show; and bordering this were lengthy and tall compound walls – everything was constructed with the same material, reddish coloured bricks, and so even the compound walls blended with the arena. This place is called the Yagnapurush Kund – Kund is a reservoir of water; yagna means a ritual or offering.

We sat in 3 groups in different spots around the pool.
“I think we’ll get wet,” our Delhiite said since we were in the second row from the pool. Despite that thought we still sat in the same place; I guess we were just lazy to get up and find a new spot.
Suddenly we heard the Aarti song playing; there was nothing happening on the water pool but after a minute I noticed that there were a couple of people performing aarti in front of the large building that was facing one end of the pool; the other 3 sides were covered by the compound walls. At the end of the song the water came alive; a few kids appeared and danced around the edge of the pool as the water fountains came into play. Water splayed in different directions and colorful lights added to the visual effect. It was pretty good and reminded me of the musical water show in Dubai mall which was quite a spectacle. But the best here was yet to come. There was a narrator (audio recording being played) telling a story and we had visuals appear on the face of the large building. The images which were projected on the building blended uniformly with the building such that the background looked realistic and not like a projection. Characters appeared on the screen but what i found most impressive was when they depicted the forces of nature descend down from the building into the pool – it felt as if there was a really furious waterfall pouring down the building; the edges of the building added to the illusion. This was augmented reality!

The story involving the kids had an opening segment, a few segments with the gods appearing on the building and then the finale. The middle part felt repetitive after the 3rd time; each time a different god would appear and the plot was the same – but the visuals were different; for the fire god it was fire from the building, for the water god it was water gushing down and so on. Also the water fountains reacted differently to the different forces of nature. Just when you think the plot is dragging, the story moves to the final segment.
The real actor kids in the performance would sing a song in each of the middle segments (it gets repeated often with a slight change in few words).
Nahi jala… nahi jala
hamara phool nahi jala

By the end the song and tune will get etched in your head! Narration is in Hindi; but even for those who don’t understand the language while witnessing the middle segment they’d probably grasp the story. Kids of course would love the visuals.

A short clip of the performance is available online:

You can also view snaps of the place in the above link

The story I later found is adapted from the Kena Upanisad (part of ancient Vedic text); there are a lot of symbolic meanings in the story – one of which is the question “Who am I”.
During the remainder of the trip Arpit and our Delhiite would often start singing “Nahi jala, nahi jala” making the rest of us plead with them to stop!

The mandir looked even more brilliant at night with the lighting outside. As soon as we reached the luggage room, our leader rummaged through his bag to pull out his jacket! Quite daring that he was able to manage in a thin single layer so far.

Once outside the complex, after taking a snap as proof that we visited Akshardham, we returned to the metro where we ate a few delicious cream rolls. I consciously gulped half a litre of water; we barely sweat during the day and with the temperature dropping you didn’t really feel thirsty.

Lucknow Travelogue

Lucknow Part 5 – Bullseye on the street

Next we had to find our way out of the lanes to the main road; and our Delhiite led us confidently with the help of Google. Strangely, even though he was a Delhiite he was the one carrying the most luggage – a small suitcase in addition to the backpack. Dragging his trolley suitcase he religiously listened to Google which brought us to a dead end after 10 minutes of weaving through lanes!
“There should be a way here,” he said while double checking the map.
With so many people and shops around we could easily have asked someone for directions! And that’s what we eventually did.

After a couple of lanes we could see the Red Fort, our next destination, at a distance. To get there we had to cross the construction area; we walked in a single line so that there was space for people to walk in the opposite direction. I noticed a man chewing something opening and closing his mouth and walking towards me; when he was an arms length away from he, he made a funny noise and fired a blob of colored spit that went splat on the construction board to my left; the projectile missed me by a few inches. This is the habit of chewing paan (the betel nut – this is different from the betel leaf); this nut has a place in traditional medicine but anything consumed in excess is harmful for the body. The habit of chewing paan is more often seen in North India; people typically chew it for a long while and then spit it out; this creates red stains on pavements, roads and walls. I stood frozen for a moment – it was disgusting the way he spit in public without any second thoughts and didn’t bother that there were people around him; was it practice or just coincidence that it missed me?

Crowd outside Red Fort

The pedestrian signal to get to the Red Fort was stuck on red for a while; it was an irony to see a few foreigners wade through the traffic by raising their hands to cross the road while we were initially hesitant to do so! The Red Fort had hoards of people standing inside the complex and outside. We didn’t know if it was open and the Fort itself was deep inside the complex; going inside would have wiped out our entire evening.
“Let’s take a photo for proof.”
We took a group snap as proof that we had visited the Red Fort and then debated on our next destination. Plan was to get to Rashtrapathi Bhavan (area where the president resides) by night and so we did have at least an hour to squeeze in another place. Sankar and I had a place in mind that we definitely wanted to cover but didn’t include in our final list – we weren’t sure if others would enjoy the place and didn’t push for its inclusion. But now with an hour to spare and no one having any other suggestions, we pushed our agenda!

Red Fort

Beware autos

“Let’s take an auto we can reach quicker.” Our leader stopped a couple of autos to enquire the rate for Akshardham. It was about 8kms away and they quoted a ridiculous amount; seeing our shocked faces, a couple of the auto drivers said they can drop us at the Chandni Chowk metro for us to take a train – that was the station from where we had walked through all the lanes to get here. Some of the autos could accommodate 4 people at the back and a couple of people sitting with the driver while others were a little more spacious and could easily accommodate 6 people at the back without disturbing the driver. We needed 2 autos and we were used to the rate of Rs.10 per head but these drivers demanded Rs.20 per head. Autos are convenient for short rides and you find plenty of them in Delhi. While negotiating the rate, someone in the group shouted, “Hey, there’s a metro station here.”
Turning around we could see the symbol for the metro station on a small board. We abandoned the auto plan and walked to the metro – it was the Lal Quila metro station – we had forgotten to check what was the closest metro and the auto drivers were ready to take us to another metro station even though there was one just a few feet away! Definitely check your destinations before getting into autos.

Footsteps to follow in the metro!

Delhi is pretty well connected by metro – at least all the tourist attractions are; so you might be able to avoid doing any autos if you are ok to walk a little to get to the stations. We got on the violet line and then switched to the blue line. Swami got stuck again because the turnstiles didn’t like his card; and again he had to be helped by the metro staff – no pretty lady for assistance this time though! The Akshardham metro station had bicycles for rent but since it was getting dark and the place was just a kilometer away we didn’t take them. There were a good number of sign boards showing directions to the Akshardham.

Uncomfortable screening

The complex was huge; we could see large parking lots and there was a fair bit to walk to get to the main entrance itself. A few metres past the entrance there was an open cabin staffed by a lady; while she was checking the bags of visitors, a bunch of boys went ahead of us skipping her. She called out, “Heeeyyyy” and the boys returned with a sheepish grin to have their bags checked. Though the place was obviously designed to handle 1000s of visitors, the baggage checking counter was definitely short staffed; it was easy for people to walk past the lady.

Since we were 12 we were considered a group and groups had separate areas for depositing bags – helped us avoid a queue! While counting the mobile phones we discovered that Aaron and Aprit were missing; they were busy taking photos and we asked them to hurry along. Even though we were still not inside the main area of Akshardham one thing that struck us was the cleanliness.
It was nearly 5:30pm and the last entry to the Mandir was 6:30pm. No photography in the Mandir.
“Only two people inside,” the baggage staff shouted.
Two of us took turns to stack our bags in a shelf. Our Delhiite bought a couple of juices from the snack counter near the luggage room; Sankar and I hurried the folks to finish it soon since we wanted to maximize the time spent inside rather than outside. We rushed to the security queue.

In the queue for gents, the frisking done here was more thorough than what was done in the airport – this one is bound to make people uncomfortable! Even if you had a coin in your pocket these guys would feel it. Entry was free and we had 50 minutes to cover this place.

Akshardham from far outside near the main entrance

Lucknow Travelogue

Lucknow Part 4 – Parathas galore

We were soon navigating through the gullies of Chandni Chowk being led by our Delhiite; Chandni Chowk is very similar to the gullies in Sowcarpet (Chennai). The gullies were packed with small shops and most over here targeted women – clothes, cosmetics etc. There were also many small eateries along the way. Arpit and I were tempted by a Dahi Bhalla (curd vada) shop – they had a large plate where the vadas were soaked in curd. We stopped and looked at each other for a few seconds wondering whether to indulge or not – in the end it was too tempting to resist; add to it the fact that we were hungry – we shared a plate. And since the rest of the gang was well ahead of us we didn’t call them either.

The lane from the dahi bhalla shop led us to an open area with a lot of ruble and barricades due to construction activity; it seemed like at some point of time this might have been a main road. Because of our unannounced pit stop we didn’t know where our gang was. After a couple of minutes we found them on the other side of the rubble; they were wondering why we both were so slow! Past the rubble we ventured deeper into the maze; the gullies became narrower and dirtier; one of them had stagnant water that was probably from yesterday’s rain – to get across the puddle there were two bricks positioned such that you had to hop from one to the other to escape the puddle. Some waited for their turn while some were happy to step into the puddle and wet their feet to get across quickly instead of waiting in queue. Since i was in shoes I tried tip-toeing across quickly and hoped that the adjacent gully would be dry; but that was even worse since there was running water on both sides of the lane! I noticed a guy crouched on the left side, below an eatery washing vessels; was he washing it off the water from the street or was there another stream of water coming from one of the pipes out of the eatery? I didn’t want to take a second look and just raced ahead. I couldn’t believe people were eating in this street. By now our group had split and three of us were the ones in front.

When we found a place to stand, the Delhiite announced, “That was the parathe wali galli”. Literal translation means the street with parathas (Wiki says paratha is a type of flatbread). Our host, the bridegroom, had given us a food itinerary of places to eat at and this was one of the places on the list!
“No way in that street.”
“We won’t eat there,” the three of us agreed.
We finally got to a dry lane and waited for the others to catch up.
While we waited with people and vehicles bustling past us, we spotted a couple of roadside chaat shops where we satisfied our hunger a little. The kulchas with butter were amazing.
When after finishing 2 dishes we still didn’t see any signs of our gang, we gave them a call.
“They want to eat there?”
“In the galli?”
“Yes. They’re calling.”
This didn’t sound like a good idea but with the majority of the group over there we didn’t have a choice. We stood at the end of the street to confirm that our gang was really there – they were and they were vigorously signaling to us to join them. We stepped into a small restaurant opposite the one where I saw the guy washing vessels.

We occupied 3 out of the 5 tables in the shop; fortunately the place was a couple of steps higher than the street and so there was no water flowing into the restaurant.
The place was meant for parathas and the menu was plastered on the walls – very convenient compared to passing around menus! We ordered as much of the variety available as we could – the sides were a potato and peas kurma and sweet chutney (the one used in chaats). There were so many parathas – any veg item you could think of, you’d find that paratha here – from peas to radish to bitter gourd to almonds and cashews and bananas and what not. But the one we loved the most was the khoa paratha (sweet khoa stuffing).
We dug into the food conveniently ignoring the fact that just a few minutes earlier we were worried about hygienic cooking conditions!
“They could have had a place upstairs with few beds. What more does one need – good food and good sleep.”
We ended the roughly Rs.200 per head lunch with a sweet lassi; a sumptuous meal for the price. It was nearly 4pm when we left; people were still entering the shop – parathas are available throughout the day!

Side dish for parathas
Lucknow Travelogue

Lucknow Part 3 – Qutub Minar

After our leader arrived in the next train, we stepped outside the station and were mobbed by auto drivers. The Qutub Minar was a 15 minute walk from the station but since we were short of time we decided to take a share auto.
“Go to market first and then Qutub Minar,” the first driver said.
“No market. Only Qutub Minar,” we insisted.
“Market Rs. 10 else Rs. 20”
After all of us insisting that we didn’t want to go to the market the guy conceded. We fit ourselves into 3 autos – 3 people sitting in the back and 1 sitting along with the driver.
The drivers mentioning ‘market’ reminded me of our trip to Thailand where drivers would want to take us to the market – the shopkeepers paid the drivers to bring customers and I guess it was a similar setup here as well.

All of us had experienced rash auto driving but this was at a different level; the auto just got off the starting block and hadn’t picked up speed – there was barely any space on the right side of the auto in front but the driver made a sharp right, managed to get it somehow at a tilted angle so that he could go beside the other auto and then cut back wildly to the left to complete the overtaking maneuver; and all that effort to get ahead even when he knew that after overtaking he would come to a standstill due to the traffic on the main road! We witnessed a few occasions where you thought there would definitely be some impact – but they never even scraped another vehicle; was it skill or was it just pure luck multiple times?

The queues at the Qutub Minar for getting the entry ticket moved really slow; the card machines didn’t work; people were trying multiple cards and finally had to pay in cash. And the staff at the counter went through this process with every person even though the card machine didn’t work for anyone!
“That’s cashless India!”
After ages we got the ticket and dropped our bags in the luggage room.
I usually like audio tours and at the entrance there was a board saying a mobile app audio tour was available for free; we downloaded it on Rohan’s mobile but he was put off when the app asked for access to contacts, videos and files.
“Why does it want all that? I’m uninstalling it.”
In the end we just went around the place unassisted.

Greenery around the ruins
The Qutub complex

The minar (tower) was quite a sight but the entire complex that comprised of ruins was also a sight to behold; the complex we later found is classified as a World Heritage site. We stood for a few minutes in awe near the tower as we strained our necks to see its top – from a distance you don’t appreciate the magnitude of the effort that must have gone into building this tower in the 12th century. There have been a few tragedies in the tower (the last incident being a stampede that claimed lives) and that’s led to closure of the pathway leading to the top. But viewing it from below is still quite a sight.

There are plenty of photography spots within the Qutub complex and Aaron (our photographer) was making the best use of his newly bought smartphone; aiding him was Arpit who recommended angles and positions – they both would have spent the whole day in this place while our leader, Rijesh, and a couple of others were ready to leave after 10 minutes in the complex. The rest of us spent a little while longer walking around the ruins before joining our leader. Sometimes you can apply pressure on people without saying a word!

We had to do some bargaining to get our return ride on the share autos; once again they wanted to take us to the market! Perhaps if we had the luxury of time we might have checked out the market. It was 1:45pm and we were quite hungry; but we wanted to do lunch in Chandni Chowk and so we took the long metro ride to the heart of the city. Swami’s metro card didn’t work in the Qutub minar metro station – he tried it on multiple turnstiles but they wouldn’t budge. To his rescue came the same metro lady who had fined a person earlier. She was also puzzled, tried a couple of times, looked up the system and then escorted him past the turnstile. It was enough material for us to keeping puling his leg through the entire return journey!

The Qutub Minar
Others Travelogue

A trip to Yogaville (USA)

Change the clock and sleep longer!

Google said the place opened at 8:30am. But the Sunday that we planned to head there also happened to be the day that the Daylight savings time ends in the US.
My sister said, “The time changes at 2am but i’ve already changed our clocks”.
Suddenly you have an extra hour – getting up at 6am in the new timing is effectively 5am in the earlier timing! My sister narrated incidents of people turning up late for events on the day of the change. Whatever, it was nice to have the extra hour to sleep.

We planned to start early so that we could be back early. This wasn’t a typical tourist attraction. My friend had said that it’s worth the visit and the place would be scenic – so the worst case scenario was that we’d just drive around the place and return; perhaps an hour or so was our guesstimate.

Morning plans are usually hard to stick to; by the time we had our breakfast of eggs it was 8:30am (as per the new time). From the window I could see that it was bright and sunny. Looked like a perfectly warm day. But I was hit by reality when I opened the door – what you see is not how it feels; even with all that sun shining upon us, the temperature was only in the single digit and I had to put on my sweater and a jacket before stepping out!

Long drives in the US can be boring because there’s nothing unexpected that would happen on the road – I was happy not to be driving because it’s just the type of driving that puts me to sleep.
The drive got better as we neared Yogaville; the roads went up and down as if we were going on large waves – not abrupt climbs and drops but gentle ones; when you reached one peak you could see the upcoming trough and the following peak.

We reached our destination at 11:20am. We parked near what seemed to be an information center. The place was quiet, lot of greenery and a few buildings on the other side of the information center that seemed like hostel. An African American lady greeted us at the reception desk; to her left and behind were large bookshelves.
“Is this your first time?”
We nodded and she excitedly pulled out a map of the place. With a pen she walked us through the places to visit.
“This is Sivananda hall. Where we are now.”
Sivananda – hmm… not easy to pronounce but she got it right. But when she pronounced ‘Chidambaram’ I was impressed – she said it like a Tamilian.
“Ananda Kutir has a meditation session at 12. It opens only once every week. You should be there by 11:45”.

And off we went. A board at the fence said mobiles and photos not allowed. Outside Ananda Kutir which resembled a nice little home, another American lady greeted us. This place reminded me of the classic isolated home you see in horror movies which are surrounded by plenty of trees. No man-made sounds to be heard – just birds chirping and the breeze blowing. I was glad that we were here in broad daylight.

How do you meditate?

We were the first to the place; she guided us to the entrance which was on the right side of the home – and as we walked, way below we could see a lake and the Lotus Temple in the center.
“No photography,” she reminded us.
The home was warm and comfortable; she gave a white robe for me to wrap around my jeans since jeans were not considered respectful. We hung our coats in the hanger and stepped into an inner room where there were a couple of sofas, chairs, many cushions scattered on the floor and on one side was the photo of a Swami who I guessed was Satchidananda. She softly said she’d ring a bell when the session ended. It was the first time that I was going to meditate for 30 minutes. The lady didn’t give us any specific instructions for the session; we were on our own. There are different schools of meditation that you come across – some will say focus on any one thing intensely and cut off every other thought; some will say chant a syllable or sloka or play some specific music so that it helps you cut out all other thoughts; some say that don’t force your mind to focus on something – just let thoughts pass but don’t concentrate on any one thought – just observe as they keep flying by.

I sat in a cross-legged pose and the lady passed me a cushion to use for support; sitting cross legged on a cushion would relieve the strain on our ankles. I had never used a cushion in this posture before but then i had never sat in this posture for 30 minutes either! So I used the cushion but within a minute I felt pain in my lower back and abandoned the cushion.

One of the challenges with meditation is sitting still – physically and mentally! You think it’s easy to sit idle without doing anything but it turns out to be the hardest thing to do – no talking, no fidgeting, no moving. I had to shift position after a few minutes since my ankle started to hurt; then a while later I felt that something was walking on my arm but when I opened my eyes there was nothing; a little later I heard a small sound and opened my eyes to see what it was – a couple of folks who walked in were placing flowers next to the photo of the Swami and then got into their meditative pose; only 12 minutes had passed so far. I could have even kept my eyes open but if you keep it open you will create more thoughts because of the visual stimuli! Even with eyes closed it is hard to control thoughts – if a thought pops up and you want to avoid it then you end up thinking about that thought to eliminate it from your head; the net result is that you focus on the very thought that you wanted to avoid! So I let them float around.

We always feel that time flies but sitting still is one state in which time seems to slow down. Initially you open your eyes often to check the time since you think you’ve been meditating for long but the clock would say that it’s only been a few minutes. It took me a while to tell myself not to bother about the time since the lady would anyway ring the bell.

And the bell did ring; I opened my eyes – it was quite an achievement having sit for 30 minutes without sleeping. The lady who welcomed us was now standing at the door with a small bowl in her hand containing Vibhuti; ash that we typically put on our forehead; was surprising to see Westerners apply it.

Different paths to the same destination

We returned to Sivananda hall for lunch; footwear had to be left outside the dining hall. It cost ten dollars per person for guests; the chefs and the staff working there as well as many of the people who had come to lunch began reciting a prayer (the words were there on a wall) and considering that most of the people were aware of this practice I assumed that they were guests staying in this place for a while. They read the Sanskrit version and the English version.

Lunch was a buffet – on one side was a salad bar and on the other was what you expect to find as part of an Indian lunch – rice, dal and curry. Everything was vegetarian and even though the dal and curry didn’t have strong spices they still tasted good. There were two dining table options – the regular one with chairs or the low height ones where you had to sit on the floor. During the lunch, there was an old American lady reading from a book about some of Swami’s teachings; she had a sweet voice, perfect pronunciation and paused at the right moments. Her age certainly didn’t show in her voice.

Our next stop was the Lotus Temple; it was within walking distance but we took the car to save time. The last stretch of the road to the temple was literally a single lane road running through the woods; it weaved through the forest and there were speed limit signboards that read 5 mph! The single lane finally leads you to a large parking lot.
There were walking trails around the temple but we headed straight to the temple. This wasn’t your typical Indian temple. The main hall in the ground floor of the temple was a circular room. Bordering the wall were many large showcases; each one was devoted to a particular faith and contained artifacts and symbols related to that faith – Hinduism, Islam, Christianity, Buddhism, Shinto, Jainism, Zoroastrianism, Taoism and many more. Didn’t seem like this place was about following a specific faith; they were open to all and that was one of the Swami’s beliefs – interfaith; all faiths lead you to the same destination.

Considering the carpeted flooring, this hall also seemed like a place where one could meditate; the hall had a back door that opened to a balcony overlooking a serene blue lake surrounded by umpteen trees in various shades of green and orange foliage. I was reminded of the 1000+ piece jigsaw puzzles which typically had scenery like this. The scene under the clear blue skies was perfect as if an artist had painted it. You could simply stand there for a few minutes just absorbing the view.

We headed back the way we came; while stepping out the main door we noticed a couple of small doorways on the opposite side. Curious to see if there was something upstairs, I went up the winding staircase. It led to another door which I assumed might be locked. I pushed it open. The place was very dimly lit and I realized that this was really the meditation hall. From the center of the room there was a streak of light going vertically upwards to the ceiling; on the walls of this hall there were white arches and under each of them there was a large wooden box. There was light running from the top of the arches to the center of the ceiling as well. Think of a lotus facing downwards – that’s how the lights made it feel. Above each wooden box was a quote from one of the religious books – each of these belonged to a different faith; and all the quotes were about light and truth. We spent a few minutes reading each of the quotes and then sat for a couple of minutes before leaving.

Nature at its best

Next stop was on the opposite side of the Lotus Temple – Chidambaram’s shrine; there were about 100 steps to climb to get to the shrine which was like a small cabin resting on the side of a mountain. This is where the Swami’s body is said to have been buried. The staircase had railings and the steps weren’t steep. The shrine was a small hall where there sat a lifelike figure of the Swami on a pedestal – it was very realistic like what you’d see in wax museums.

From this shrine you could take a few more steps (another 300 odd steps or so and we had to catch our breath a couple of times!) to get to the top where there was a Nataraja shrine; there were a few sculptures with the main one being Nataraja in his cosmic dance posture. After seeing artifacts from different faiths, it was odd to see only Hindu idols over here. The view from top was again scenic – you could see the Lotus Temple below in the center surrounded by grass, and the grass was surrounded by the blue waters, and the waters were surrounded by the trees and they by the sky!

Our last stop was the Lotus conference center – we drove the car following the signboards and were led to an area where there were a row of cabins and on the far left a wooden house. The door of the conference center was open and we could see a few Westerners seated inside in a meditative state. We didn’t want to disturb them and thought of turning around but the sight of a river caught our eye. Yogaville was at an elevation and so the river was far below; near the house there was a small outdoor seating area (like a balcony) with a few empty chairs overlooking the river. I had already had my fill of scenic views today but here was another one. On the far left you could see the lake (that we had seen behind the temple), then lots of trees, then the James river and then trees again. Since the leaves in some of the trees were in different shades of orange and green the scene looked even more spectacular. Another view that you could just gaze at without doing anything and still not getting bored. I could certainly meditate here with eyes open! And I’ve noticed that in these sort of moments of admiring nature you may not have any thoughts whizzing in your head.

It was past 3:30pm when we left Yogaville; we had spent about 4 hours in this place!

People might have their own opinions regarding Swamis; for those in India we’ve seen so many cases and complaints crop up against many of the Swamis. Some still hold Swamis in high regard while others may not be so respectful; some may believe in the purpose of life being to seek enlightenment while some may believe, like a friend used to say, that life is just about killing time. And for those that believe in enlightenment, some believe that a guru is needed to help find it while others believe that everything is within and we don’t need external help.

Irrespective of what you believe in, Yogaville is still a place you can visit if you happen to have time while in Virginia. They don’t try to impose any preaching during your visit and so you needn’t fear having to attend classes or lectures. It’s not a place that small kids may like – it’s all silence here. It’s a place to enjoy nature, a place to unwind and a place for reflection.

Lucknow Travelogue

Lucknow Part 2 – Delhi

There was a specific reason for our choice of flights – our host, the bridegroom, had told us to pick flights that arrive in the T3 terminal which he said is really awesome, huge and like a shopping mall. The airport was definitely huge – plenty of gates one after the other, long moving walkways between gates and a clean environment. We’ve heard a lot about air pollution in Delhi and I was expecting to see black clouds; but i couldn’t spot anything through the windows. Maybe I’d see it in the city.

We went past numerous gates in T3 (no shops or anything around these) and reached the baggage collection area – there was a Hamleys toy shop but beyond this was the path to the exit! Just before the exit there was a perpendicular corridor with a few shops and a couple of eateries (one was a Subway).
“This has become an anti-climax”
We thought we will spend a couple of hours in this “mall”!
“Why don’t they have anything here?”
We reasoned, “This is the arrivals section of the airport. People who arrive will want to get to their home or hotel or the city; who will want to spend time in the airport shopping?”
Good point that we had not thought about earlier.

It didn’t feel all that chill outside; one of our gang members was in shorts and another, Rijesh, was in a thin t-shirt. I on the other hand was in 5 layers including the sports rain jacket since i wanted to reduce the weight of my backpack!
“Shall we go to the city and eat or have something here?”
Outside the airport there was a small building that had a food court with 5 restaurants.
“Let’s have it here while the others arrive.”
The poori and curry tasted pretty good though it was expensive – everything always is in airports. But Krispy Kreme donuts in Delhi airport were priced lower than Chennai airport.

Where are the black clouds?

One person in the gang flew in from Bangalore while 10 came from Chennai. We headed to the metro station connected to T3; there were a couple of queues occupying the 2 counters. The ticket options weren’t listed on the boards; since we were a large group we had a lot of opinions – we had a mini-discussion on what ticket to buy – a day pass or a single trip token or a card.
2 people from our group stood in the queue.
“Why are you also waiting?”
“In case there is a limit on number of tickets one person is allowed to buy.”
The rest of us were chatting on the side while our guy reached the counter.
“Ask him if we can get a pass.”
Our guy spoke in Hindi to the staff and relayed the response to us, “This pass cannot be used in the city. We can only get tokens for the trip here.”
New Delhi station was our stop. The metro line can be confusing because the airport line (orange line) is separate from the other metro lines in the city; so things like 1-day passes cannot be used across the two.
“How many tokens?”
“How many?”
“12,” someone shouted out and he made the payment for 12.
We started counting heads and found there were only 11; the 12th person is the Delhiite who hadn’t yet joined us! Being in a group this big you definitely have lots of such moments and our trip had just started!

The station was clean and so was the train. Once the train started we realized why; there was a lady who sweeping the floor across compartments. Food and drink were prohibited within the train. When the train first went above ground, i was searching for the pollution that Delhi was infamous for – but not a sign of black smoke as we neared the heart of the city.
We got down at the last stop and enquired with a staff on how to switch to the yellow line.
“Follow the yellow steps.”
The way the lady dismissively replied made us reluctant to ask her what she was talking about? Did she says steps? Whose steps?
We looked around and thought of asking someone else when we noticed cartoony yellow footstep stickers on the floor. We followed it but it suddenly disappeared when we reached a staircase that was descending.

Lo behold – it was like a fish market below; a cacophony of noises and people packed in clusters around various counters. Each counter had something different written on top of it in Hindi; seemed like tickets for different prices; there was a central counter as well around which there were stickers about a tourist card and a travel card. A couple of folks went to the counters, a couple went looking at the map to see how much the ticket to Qutub Minar station cost and a couple of us hoped to get assistance from some staff – we found a guy in a black suit but he acted as if we didn’t even exist! We had a mini-debate regarding whether to buy the 1-day tourist pass (unlimited rides) or buy the travel pass and top up based on how many trips we would take. The person from our gang waiting in the queue had reached the counter but we were still debating which one to take by calculating the amount of top up we would need with the travel card and whether that would be more than the tourist pass. There was a huge queue and the guy at the counter was also impatient; at crunch times it is the leader who takes over and our leader, Rijesh, said, “Tourist pass” and 11 tourist passes it was!

People didn’t wait for passengers to step out when the doors opened; everyone rushed in while some people were trying to get out – we managed to get in and we could see Krishna and our leader run in opposite directions to get into the neighbouring compartments. Krishna was lucky to avoid being caught between the closing doors as he jumped into the train; the doors did catch his shirt but he pulled through. We gathered together inside the train and only after a couple of minutes did we discover that our leader was missing! “He is having some other plans.”
“A secret meeting with someone.”
“Sent us off first and then makes it seem as if he missed the train.”
“A good leader ensures the safety of his team and puts his team first!”
We were having fun at the expense of our leader. This was a really long ride.

When we got off the train, a smartly dressed young lady in a blazer accompanied by a couple of men in suits came hurrying towards us. We joked, “They’re going to miss the train like our leader”.
The trio went past us towards the next compartment. But instead of stepping in, they stopped a passenger who had just stepped out. What ensued seemed like an argument.
“Oh. That guy was sitting on the floor in the train.”
And there was a sign in the train that said no sitting on the floor. It was not a sign that you usually see elsewhere and I wondered if everyone would understand what it meant; in a country where public transportation runs packed to the brim and people tend to sit wherever they could find space.
“They must have been monitoring the train. They knew exactly which compartment he is coming out from.”

Lucknow Travelogue

Lucknow Part 1 – The flight

While packing at 10pm on Thursday, there were a flurry of messages on the Whatsapp group created for our trip. We were just hours away from our Friday morning flights on a trip for which we had barely planned anything beyond the dates we’d be in each of the 3 cities. The week in office was hectic for most of us and Vijay, one of our gang members, was still in office at this hour of the night.

Should we carry a check-in bag or just a backpack? If it’s only a backpack how will we roam around Delhi with so much weight? If we take a check-in bag, where will we leave it in Delhi? Can we take a hotel? Can we leave it at the railway station?
Hotel meant extra cost and we’d not even get to be in the hotel for long. Everyone had opinions but before we arrived at any conclusion, the next question diverted us to a different discussion!

“Is our flight starting from Chennai International Terminal” since that’s what it said on the Vistara flight tickets. Even my Jet Airways ticket mentioned the same; surely it wasn’t going to be departing from the international terminal? Our host (who was the bridegroom in Lucknow and the reason for this trip) joined the conversation, “Check with the airlines.”
The seasoned domestic flyer in our group replied that flights to Kerala would sometimes take off from the international terminal. After some googling we found that it was the domestic terminal; just that the naming convention of the terminals in Chennai are confusing.

The questions didn’t stop. “Will our flights get cancelled?”, someone asked saying flights were cancelled on Thursday due to the weather. Another person said it was raining hailstones in Delhi. Google said light showers expected over the next couple of days. Our friend in Delhi (a temporary Delhiite) had warned us about the cold a couple of days earlier. I had planned for layers of clothing including a thermal top and an old sweater; now i added a thin jacket as well to the pile of clothes stuffed in my backpack. I rued the fact that i didn’t have jeans since that is perfect for cold.

With the rise of Uber and Ola, we’ve lost good old taxi companies where you could make advance bookings (Uber/Ola also have scheduled bookings but I’ve never had success with them). I used to rely on FastTrack for such situations but off late they’d become erratic. I still made a booking with them for a 4am pickup; backup plan was to try Uber. And secondary backup to that was to take my car to the airport and leave it there.

It’s been a while since I went on a non-official trip; you end up having to pack things that you never used to bother about – towels, toothpaste, brush, soap, converters for chargers and what not. And with me it’s always been a case of packing more items than what I end up using.

Why air hostess?

FastTrack surprised me – the driver came on time. The 5 of us who were starting by the 6am flights (Jet and Air India) met at the airport. Vijay hadn’t slept – he reached home around midnight and then stayed up till 3am when he took the cab to the airport. He was going to have a super long day thanks to our crazy travel plan.

We saw the usual quirks at the airport: people trying to get ahead of others in the security screening area to drop their bags on the conveyor belt but then getting held up in the queue for physical security screening; people rushing to form a lengthy queue at the boarding counter as if they’d get a better seat. The boarding of the Jet flight was delayed but they still managed to get everyone in the flight well within time. We were surprised by our seat locations because for none of us it matched what we had selected online – i had picked an aisle but got a middle seat and that too in a different row! The flight had an in-flight entertainment system (hook into the flight wi-fi and watch movies/serials on your own mobile); but the system would be turned on only after departure.

Flight delays are a pain; it’s worse if you are at the airport when you learn of the delay but it’s even more worse when it happens while sitting inside the flight. And we sat on the tarmac for a good 30 minutes; thankfully after 30 minutes the captain made an announcement – the weather had impacted some other flights which were carrying the crew who had to be on our flight! Before takeoff Vijay told about a video he saw recently regarding stress levels of pilots during a flight; not a topic to discuss before take-off! And then he discussed about how much savings the airline has by having female flight attendants instead of men – it’s all about the weight which translates to fuel savings!

Vijay was flipping through the flight menu.
“Just 2 weeks ago they gave sandwiches on the Bangalore Chennai flight – that’s just 1 hour duration. But this one is 3 hours and they give nothing!”
In the menu I noticed a picture of the same sandwich for Rs.200.
“And that same sandwich is the free sandwich they gave on the other flight! Earlier they used to give a really good brownie with the sandwich; then they changed it to a Kitkat; and then made it a small 5-star bar and now it’s just the sandwich. And this flight doesn’t even have the sandwich!”
Thankfully water is not charged though it’s probably a matter of time before that also changes.
“Let’s eat in Delhi.”

Vijay caught a 30 minute nap during the flight when he dozed off watching the movie ‘Hidden Figures’ on the in-flight entertainment system (a nice movie based on a true story that also shows early mainframe programming at NASA).